'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Music

David Holmes – God’s Waiting Room

These mixes for NTS by Belfast’s finest, David Holmes, are sublime. I have them on loop these days.
Cinematic, eclectic, discrete but always engaging – great music to write to, create etc
The Italian soundtrack selection is a mother of all bombs mix. I’ve spun it three times in a row.
Che figata!

It’s a rare thing to find a mix with the voices of Jonathan Meades and Ian Nairn too…


Muhammad Ali’s idea of heaven

Reviews: Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 and Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall



Muhammad Ali captured at his training camp by Peter Angelo Simon.

Since Muhammad Ali’s passing in June, the image that springs to my mind when thinking about him is no longer the iconic Neil Leifer shot from 1965 of Ali towering over a vanquished Sonny Liston on the canvas, admonishing the recumbent fighter “Git up sucka; git up and fight!” Nor is it the photo generally considered the greatest in sports photography, again taken by Leifer, a year later. The picture is from above the ring, and shows Cleveland Williams (who was still carrying a bullet in his body going into the fight after a police shooting the year before) floored in the third, flat on his back on the square canvas. Ali is walking back to his corner, his arms raised in a victory many aficionados say was perfection personified (he sent Williams to the canvas four times). The perfect shot for the perfect fight. But it’s not that one, nor is it Flip Schulke’s famous underwater photograph of Ali eternally poised with his dukes ready for launch.

Instead, my mind’s eye conjures an image taken by Peter Angelo Simon in 1974. It shows Ali from behind, in black and white, doing his early-morning roadwork; pounding the Pennsylvania gravel in a grey tracksuit and heavy black boots. We see his breath cutting through the stillness of the new morning air, while a shaft of sunlight cuts across the middle of the frame. It’s a photograph that will never run out of road for me anyhow.

Now Ali is no longer of this earth, I can only think of this picture in a cosmological context, where he is being called back to where he started from; a cosmic ray bouncing back to that great ball of energy at the centre of our universe. Indulging the celestial metaphor once more, I always feel that if you had labelled Ali a meteorite, he would have slapped you down saying a meteorite was too small-time – he was the asteroid! Either way, aren’t we fortunate he shot through our universe?

But Ali was just a man (even if the distinction of super- is unconditionally prefixed to him). Just like the rest of us, he would bleed, hurt, cry, laugh and eventually die. We get a welcome new glimpse of his human side in Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press), the cover of which is Simon’s astral image. The book is the fruits of two days shooting for Simon at Ali’s remote training camp, as the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay prepared to take on George Foreman in Zaire in a month’s time. Simon recalls that he and Ali had an unspoken agreement: “he’d do his thing and I’d do mine”.

What’s striking in most photographs of Muhammad Ali where he is surrounded by all sorts of people is that they are always smiling, even if he is not. It’s as if Ali swallowed life whole and transmitted only its joy through himself to anyone within his orbit.

“If there’s a secret to my fights,” Ali once said, “it’s how I prepare.” This collection of photographs gives us a privileged window into both the brutality and humanity that this preparation entailed.


Jim Marshall’s portrait of Miles Davis and Steve McQueen at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

If boxing is taking something of a standing count from mainstream consciousness nowadays, then jazz has showered and shaved, checked out of the hotel, and slunk off into defeated obscurity. It might be hard to fathom, but there was a time when jazz was the absolute symbol of hep, as we can see in Jazz Festival, which is based on Jim Marshall’s photography at Monterey and Newport in the 1960s. The greats are here: Coltrane, Miles, Satch, Nina and some unexpected figures too: Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez. This large book is an eye-catching testament to an age of effortless cool – sharp suits, smoked edges, sounds rising to the stratosphere – and features a foreword from famous sax player (and sometime president of the United States) Bill Clinton. The historian Nat Hentoff places jazz of that era in its proper cultural context – an integrated scene that maintained its dignity in the maelstrom of the civil rights struggle.

Hentoff references Cambridge University’s Tim Blanning who laid out in his book The Triumph of Music the idea that black musicians readied America for the civil rights movement. He’s right: straight-no-chaser. Just like Muhammad Ali, jazz changed white American attitudes and America changed for the better, eventually.

Someone we think of as the embodiment of American values is Bruce Springsteen and – unlike jazz and boxing – it feels like he has never had anything but praise and approbation during his career. However, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band 1975 (also by Reel Art Press) documents a time when “The Boss” was struggling to break into the mainstream of American culture; at one point back then it seemed touch and go. Following two critically acclaimed albums, a lo-fi Boss is captured in these gritty portraits trying to piece together what would become his breakout album Born To Run.


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band photographed by Barbara Pyle in 1975.

With his trusted band in tow, we see a stripped-back Bruce: unadorned, living out of a bag, and from meal to meal probably. It’s also touching to see “The Big Man”, the late Clarence Clemons so full of life in these early photos, as well as a very lithe Steven Van Zandt, who is as well known for his role in The Sopranos these days as for cutting licks with Springsteen. The book is a snapshot in time of Bruce and his band living the life that he so painstakingly crafted into his music, and we are lucky to have this perspective. One suspects that “The Boss” has carried these pictures around in his head in the 40 years since they were taken; it’s probably why he’s “Mr Integrity” for so many of us.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times


Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press, £29.95)

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 (Reel Art Press, £40)

Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall (Reel Art Press, £45)

The end of music – Valentin Silvestrov



Malcolm McDonald, one of the doyens of classical music criticism, summed up Valentin Silvestrov best when he wrote: ‘(the) Russian sense of lamentation… reaches in Silvestrov a new expressive stage: he seems to compose, not the lament itself, but the lingering memory of it, the mood of sadness that it leaves behind.’

Silvestrov’s music uses tonal and modal techniques and is considered post-modern, or neo-classical in style. As he says himself ‘I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.’  Often compared to Mahler, his quiet style was thought of as meta or supra music, although the composer prefers the term kitsch, ‘elegiac… it isn’t ironic.’

The Ukrainian pianist and composer was born in Kiev on 30 September 1937. He came to music relatively late, starting private tuition when he was fifteen, and going on to study at Kiev Evening School, and Kiev Conservatory.

He soon established himself as part of the city’s avant-garde, his performances considered as ‘melodies of instances’, which did not sit well with the socialist realist strictures of Soviet Union classical music. Disillusioned by criticism from the establishment , Silvestrov withdrew from public performance and began composing pieces of more intimate nature for piano and violin, such as Quiet Music in 1977. These were, he said, ‘on the boundary between their appearance and disappearance.’

When Silvestrov’s music was performed in the West, he was unable to attend due to the travel restrictions of the Soviet regime. However, his work was championed by aficionados of contemporary Ukrainian music, such as American pianist and composer Virko Barley in particular. As the Cold War ended and Silvestrov’s music began to be performed more widely, something he said of his work took on a new prescience. ‘It is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, in which it may yet remain for a long time.’

Silvestrov continues to write aged 78, much of his work can be found on ECM records, and he supposedly visited the Maidan regularly during the upheaval in his native country and has reportedly composed music in response. Critics consider his Symphony No5 to be his masterwork. His string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies certainly continue to softly resonate with the slow, deep, and monumental spinning of Earth itself, and our inevitable decline upon it.









Andwella – Americana on an Ulster byway


The southern United States provide such a hold on the imagination of so many musicians for its sense of place and mythology, that references to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis or New Orleans are sprinkled across any songwriter’s vocabulary, whether they have visited these places or not. The ghost of Robert Johnson or the singular sounds of Stax Records have seeped into our collective subconscious to become as familiar as any folk tale or brand. The same applies to the West Coast sound of the 1960s, the psychedelic scene of ‘Swinging London’ of the same decade, or Americana: place will pin music to its true essence.

I’ve often wondered, tongue-in-cheek, to friends if we might ever have the equivalent of Americana in Irish rock music – with shout outs to the Lagan River for example, or small villages such as Cullybackey (which means ‘wood of the river bend’ from the Irish Coill na Baice. How Americana is that for a song title?).

Perhaps some day in the future we could have tunes ‘Born on the Blackwater’ or ‘The Streets of Lurgan’ as part of a new music movement in the north of Ireland… Ulsteriana anyone?

Andwella came from Belfast but they encapsulated many of the influences already mentioned, with the three albums they made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original trio was initially known as Andwellas Dream, made up of multi-instrumentalist Dave Lewis, Nigel Smith (bass/vocals) and Gordon Barton (drums), which recorded their heavy psychedelic debut record ‘Love and Poetry’ for CBS in London in 1968. The album is stuffed with song writing that symbolises the slowly dispersing smoke clouds from the ‘Summer of Love’; influences from Cream, The Who and Traffic can be easily found in their sound.

Befitting the time it was produced, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a purposeful album: a smorgasbord of sound, with killer riffs sitting next to flute-laden instrumentals (such as ‘Sunday’ featuring jazz musician Bob Downes) and is regarded as a rough diamond by psychedelic music lovers. It’s an infectious LP well worth burrowing for and can now be found on vinyl courtesy of Sunbeam Records. Despite having instantly catchy tracks such as ‘Man Without A Name’, ‘Felix’ and the bluesy ‘Cocaine’, the album didn’t shift many units when it was released a year later in ‘69.

In one way, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a useful marking post for where psychedelic rock was at the time: stood at a fork in the road, one path leading to prog rock (Pink Floyd, King Crimson et al) and the other, folk rock (Pentangle, Fairport Convention etc).

The young Belfast group had to choose which way to go: Dave McDougall joined on guitar and vocals, they shortened their name to Andwella and they went a completely different road – one that may as well have been sign posted Woodstock.

‘Music from Big Pink’ released by The Band in 1968 was a tectonic shift in the rock world: musicians influenced by psychedelica were adding more and more layers to their sound, while ratcheting up the volume.

Through ‘Big Pink’ and their eponymous follow-up album a year later, The Band pulled the plug and stripped everything back.

Critics called it Americana, even though it was four Canadians with an Arkansan singing drummer inspiring the rudimentary ideas. But that did not lessen its impact. Consequently, Andwella’s sound jumped completely for their next albums ‘World’s End’ (1970) and ‘People’s People’ (1971), as they discarded their psychedelic attire.

Sophomore effort ‘World’s End’ has some excellent tracks such as the horn-drenched ‘Lady Love’, the elegiac ‘Back On the Road’ and plenty of ambition and invention with the grand, soaring instrumentation of ‘World’s End’ (parts 1 & 2) and ‘Shadow of the Night’. It’s a fine rock record.

Andwella’s next album ‘People’s People’ has a cover photo of the group that is pure homage to The Band’s eponymous 1970 album and songs such as ‘Mississippi Water’ and ‘Saint Bartholomew’ could easily sit beside ‘Look Out Cleveland’ and ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’.

However it still stands on its own merits and has plenty of fine moments from Andwella’s creative force and main songwriter Dave Lewis. One example is the poignant ‘Behind The Painted Screen’ – a song referencing the purifying qualities and nostalgia created from a trip to Lough Erne (Someone should send Rod Stewart a copy, if he’s looking for new cover material). Despite moving inroads again to a more mainstream sound, yet again Andwella didn’t see much of a return on album sales and called it a day in 1972.

They deserved better back then. In the setting of Irish rock music, Andwella’s sun should not have gone down so easily or quickly. It’s time to put them in their rightful place. Go buy their albums.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.


Belfast’s forgotten troubadour – Ernie Graham

In the 1960s he befriended Jimi Hendrix and worked with him in the studio, toured with Pink Floyd, and played Glastonbury Festival in 1971. That same year he produced a sublime debut solo album, which remains something of a hidden gem, even in the easily-accessible treasure chest of today’s digital music.

You might think this sounds like a charmed CV for a lad born in Belfast, but for Ernie Graham, the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ was probably a bittersweet one during his lifetime – he always seemed an outstretched, despairing arm away from catching the bus to fame.

Ernie passed away in London on April 27 2001, aged only 54. Having spent the latter years of his life working for British Rail and on the Orient Express, he had long left the music scene behind him after the frustration of never seeing his train come in. However, his sole eponymous LP should ensure his legacy as one of Ulster’s finest rock ‘n’ roll sons; his fleeting moment in the sun offers us a glimpse of his brilliant musical instinct.

Luckily, a friend tipped me off about the album a couple of years ago. Knowing how much I loved Little Feat and The Band, he said I should check out Ernie Graham, a guy who was in ’60s Belfast psychedelic-blues group Eire Apparent. I duly went digging but found original copies of the album hard to find – and if you did manage to track one down, they were in the region of £100. Frustrated, I checked that great liberator of music, YouTube, and found a playlist of the entire LP. The album’s easy going spirit and laid-back grooves struck a note with me right away; Ernie was from Belfast but he wore his folk and Americana influences happily on his sleeve; delivering vocals with a lazy grace and reminding me that great music can sometimes be the simplest.

What’s more important is that this fine album is now available on CD from Hux records in London (with a couple of bonus tracks, including the Phil Lynott-penned ‘Romeo and the Lonely Girl’ and detailed liner notes). The price is soft on the wallet too.

The opening track ‘Sebastian’ sounds like it could have come from some lost Dylan bootleg, whereas ‘For A Little While’ could easily be the kid brother of ‘The Man In Me’ from the Minnesota song-smith’s 1970 LP ‘New Morning’. Right across ‘Ernie Graham’ there are influences from The Band (check the sloping vibes of ‘So Lonely’ and ‘Don’t Want Me Around’) to Grateful Dead (the harmonies on ‘The Girl That Turned The Lever’ could have come from their ‘American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead’ era). On one track Ernie even adopts a kind of Captain Beefheart-lite vocal on the R&B shuffler ‘Blues to Snowy’.

The entire LP has such a relaxed, low-slung loveliness to it, which may have had plenty to do with Ernie’s way of working in the studio.

He liked a drink, as Stiff Records producer Larry Wallis remembered: “A wonderful chap… (His attitude was) ‘Hey, we’re recording! Right what do we need? Guitar, plectrum, two bottles of whiskey, some Coca-Cola!’ Ernie had his bar; there he was out by the vocal mic, loosening up. One time, when the level had dropped in the bottle, he decided to sit down to record the vocal and unfortunately he chose a high stool. Well he went off that twice! It’s pretty disconcerting to be sat at a mixing desk and to look up and see hovering in mid-air a glass of whiskey and Coke and no Ernie!”

Ernie found potency in this album: listening to it does conjure up ideas of sipping glasses of chilled rum and Coke with good friends on a lazy summer evening: the music is tinged with a warm haze. One track that sits slightly incongruously on the album is the one penned for his hometown, ‘Belfast’. With its fiddle, Celtic-tinged rock and angry lyrics, it juts out from the overall spirit of the LP. On first listen the tune makes one cringe slightly from its earnestness, but it grows on you. After a visit home for Christmas in 1970, Ernie probably felt the need to reference what was happening to the place. The Troubles gripping it by the throat; it’s a lament for a torn town.

The standout tracks are ‘For A Little While’, the feelgood ‘The Girl That Turned the Lever’ with its flourish of accordion melody throughout, and the haunting, otherworldly melancholy of ‘Sea Fever’. Ernie wrote the latter song while suffering from depression: ‘I was going through a very low period to be honest. I read somewhere that drowning was a pleasant way to die. It’s something to do with the water shutting off the air to the brain and as a result the brain gets incredibly high.’

But the album doesn’t sink the heart, it lifts it: open-road rhythms, sing-along choruses, and the joy of the ‘la la las’ sprinkled throughout.

What will make the album stand up for years to come, I think, is it’s beautiful paradox of free spirited music matched with introverted and, in true Belfast style, straight-talking lyrics. For Ernie sings about lost and unrequited love, getting burned, regrets, rejection, looking back down the road, separation, emotional detachment and so on. Yet the music never strays into Leonard Cohen lugubriousness and a lot of credit for this must go to the players (Brinsley Schwarz) that backed him when they cut the album rather quickly in ‘71.

Anyone with music in their heart will find joy and comfort in this album. Because here is a guy who is playing his soul out just for you – and if you are up or down, Ernie has a tune to sort you out.

The LP is like meeting up with an old friend in one of the finer Belfast pubs: you’re sure to feel better after the company. Music journalist Phil McMullen has an interesting take on the album: ‘I never met Ernie Graham, yet I felt I knew him. His music wove itself into the tapestry of my life; I’d fall in love, lose a friend or encounter some life-changing experience. And each time, the Ernie Graham LP would be found at the front of the record pile beside the stereo. I even came to believe the way the album faced guided my providence, the front cover (Ernie smoking) suggesting a period of reflection and the smiling face on the back encouraging me to shake off the demons and have a good time. It wasn’t as mysterious as that though; the record popped up so much because it is such a fine one.’

When I went back to the LP recently, I could not stop playing ‘For A Little While’ over and over again: a song about the crazy possibilities of romance: encountering a fleeting love, which disappears in front of your eyes before it has even started. I had a similar experience recently and was a bit annoyed and disappointed by it. But when those ‘la la las’ came in, all I could do was sing along, for I knew exactly what Ernie was saying. Life can sometimes frustrate, women will come and go, but the music will always remain. Just like Ernie Graham.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.


All that’s beautiful drifts away… [The music of Syd Barrett]





The Gloaming in Triskel Christchurch: ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’ (Live)

Filmed by Philip King in Cork city.

We saw them perform in Vicar Street, Dublin and, for me, there are no words to justify or explain the beauty and essence of their music. Just listen. Buy the new album. Go see them, now they are touring. Mighty men, mighty music; it may melt the stars.

Weighing the Tarnished Gold (Beachwood Sparks)

Beachwood Sparks

In my mid-teens, after Kurt Cobain depressingly abdicated his throne as the king of alternative music, I steered down the musical road of the Byrds and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd somewhat gratefully.

I willingly dropped out of the grunge scene after the melancholic martyr brigade hijacked Nirvana and the supremely talented, but ultimately tragic and unwilling leader of a generation, Cobain. These people, in their ‘Kurt RIP’ T-shirts and MTV Unplugged CDs, looked at me with puzzlement when I maintained that Bleach was Nirvana’s best album. For me it is (still) the purest expression of the band’s punk-infused spirit. The Unplugged album is a great one for sure, but it was never what Nirvana was about. So I backed off and sought new musical directions.

I embraced the brave new worlds of electronica, hip-hop and jazz wholeheartedly. I also heard Eight Miles High by the Byrds for the first time and it blew my mind. Digging deeper with the Byrds led me to Love, Moby Grape, early Grateful Dead, and the Floyd’s first two albums: I loved Interstellar Overdrive in particular (was this the first post-rock record, as dreadful as that genre tag may be?).

The Byrds went country and I chose to follow happily with Gram, Gene, CSN&Y et al but I also wanted to find a contemporary band making this psychedelic country rock too, so that maybe I could see this type of music performed live. I scouted around the some times fruitless terrain of music magazines but eventually found an outpost where it looked like I hang up my saddle: Beachwood Sparks. Arriving here was like seeing the old country, Americana, whatever you choose to call it, through a kaleidoscope.

Beachwood Sparks’ music, if not the natural heir to the Byrds, at least channelled a continuation of the 60s band’s spirit, especially the Notorious Byrds Brothers album. Spark’s excellent debut LP Desert Skies (2000) sounded fabulous; it still does. It’s the essence of sunshine, open roads, sunglasses and sun cream, and trips to the beach with friends.

That West Coast sound pours from your speakers: gorgeous harmonies, jangly guitars, sweet lyrics about the sea, trees, stars and love and enough slide guitar for you to wear your alt. country Stetson with pride. (Each time I listen to the record, I also hear a post-Beatles George Harrison influence too, although I’ve not seen any of the band mention him in interviews.) Desert Skies is happiness captured on 12” of vinyl and an impressive debut for any band to make.

One year later Sparks released their polished sophomore effort Once We Were Trees, produced by Thom Monahan, and had the added treat of J Mascis playing on a couple of tunes. The LP saw the band expanding their sound further and cutting loose a little too. Once We Were Trees is one of my all-time favourite albums: a lovely, heady cocktail, with a little kick of everything thrown in for good measure: reverb, drones, echoes and languid phrasing.

There is diversity and ambition throughout the album: for example you could imagine Willie Nelson covering Hearts Mend, while the playing on rocking You Take the Gold sounds like the band just picked it up and kicked it out first time, punk style; then there are slow, spacey jams like Let It Roll and The Goodnight Whistle to contrast the more traditional alt. country sounds of Banjo Press Conference and Old Manatee.  One of my standout tracks is The Hustler, which could well be Beachwood Sparks playing their own song, as a cover version of a song by another of my favourite groups, The Band.  The music is the sound of connection: the album is soaked in Bourbon that has been spiked with LSD.

An EP followed, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, and although it has some moments, it sounded like a band wanting to go in four different directions at the same time.

Consequently, the trip stopped. Sparks went on hiatus and took time to work on various other projects – The Tyde, Nobody and the Mystic Chords of Memory, All Night Radio, Dntel to name just a few. These were admirable adventures in hi-fi and lo-fi. They showcased the idiosyncratic talents that made up Beachwood Sparks, but – just like when Levon, Rick, Garth, Richard and Robbie went their own ways – the magic that made them stand out from the crowd was no longer there.

I regretted never getting to see them play live either and as each year passed with no news about a reunion I tried somewhat to forget about them, filing Beachwood Sparks in my music collection with Skip Spence and Syd Barrett, with the knowledge that there would be no more treasure to be found, and appreciate what they had left behind.

Cosmic Cowboys

Then the Tarnished Gold surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, bubbling up like an old shipwreck on the shore, packed with glittering gems of songs.

Beachwood Sparks were back and the world seemed a little lighter again.

I started out intending to write a review of the album, but it doesn’t need one, the more I think about it; just go buy it. From the fifth or sixth spin you will have the Tarnished Gold on repeat. The beautiful simplicity of the songs and shimmering melodies will have you hooked. The music has an elegiac, more mature quality now too – which is natural the guys being ten years older – yet it hasn’t lost any its original innocence and is still rooted in joy and the wonder of the natural world surrounding us (Monahan is back in the producer’s chair too).

Each time I listen to the LP, I have a new favourite song, but I think the Tarnished Gold’s crowning jewel is Alone Together: Chris Gunst’s vocal performance is one of his best ever, fragile and tender, while the repetitive refrain and song structure lifts it into a thing of beauty.

It is a triumphant return after a decade long hiatus. To borrow one of their track titles: Sparks fly again. Long may it continue.

The fruits of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’


Perhaps the clue is in the title.

If I had a pound for every Boards of Canada fan bemoaning how their new album is a let down after only a few listens, then I would have £3.50 exactly (the fifty pence comes from someone who told me they “half like them”).

Here are the main complaints I have heard:

  • BOC have not moved on/progressed; they sound the same as they did in 1998.
  • Other musicians have now copied their sounds so much that they no longer have the same impact or freshness they once did.
  • The album was an anti-climax after taking eight years to make.

I first listened to the album when BOC streamed it live on the Internet for its world premier. Treating the occasion with just cause, I turned off my phone, plugged in the long lead of my Sennheisers into the laptop, lay back in bed and closed my eyes.

On the first run through I thought it was a very good album – and that it got better as it went along with each track. I knew I would buy it, but not for a few weeks, just to give myself that little bit of space between myself and one of my favourite bands.

Fortunately, I have great friends who love music as much as I do. More fortunately, my birthday fell a couple of weeks within the release date of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. And there it was. My mate Mark presented the shiny new vinyl as we sipped a cold beer on his roof garden, the evening sun warming our backs. It was a fantastic present and I studied the LP’s entrancing artwork: an invisible city; some sort of ghost town. Sipping our beers, we wondered where the skyline was on the front cover. My other friend, Simone – worldly, smart, and who has travelled more miles of this globe than I can even conceive in my mind – nailed it: San Francisco. I held San Francisco in my hands.

We did not play ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. Mark – who had been listening to it incessantly since its release – cued up some Louis Armstrong instead. His musical instinct made him realise I would want to go away and listen to it down some rabbit hole, with only my headphones and perhaps a glass of malt. Yet I don’t sketch this scene to be precious or prissy about BOC – which, sadly, seems to be the default position of a lot of fans. (Someone remarked to me recently that they thought BOC fans would be fairly clued in people, until they started reading the forums and comments sections on the Internet. Alas, web warriors will never change – they will always need to be outraged over something).

It is easy for me to say that I was happy to hold ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ in my hands; BOC’s back catalogue being relatively skimpy, and it also meant they had not withdrawn into some self-imposed exile, like that former high king of electronica Richard D. James. The thought of new BOC music put a smile on my face.

In the intervening weeks, I have listened to ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ a lot, but not every day (and it does not feel like an album that you will spin back-to-back, such is its density and length). That first time I listened to it on the web I thought it a very good album – now I believe it to be an excellent album.

At times it is plain, intense, vigorous and splendid. There are moments in the album where BOC seem to empty the space of the music, to let the listener inhabit it. And this is where we, the listeners, come in. When someone does something to a high standard consistently for years, for some reason we either take it for granted or worse, become suspicious of it. We no longer see the peaks, never mind any troughs. Examples that spring readily to mind would be the Spanish national soccer team, the writing of John Updike or Wes Anderson’s films. For some reason we begin to question the very thing we love, distrust it even.

This same critical perspective is now being applied to BOC.  Brothers Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison have made us love them so much that we almost feel betrayed if they make a bad record. But surely art is about the creative process and the artist will not get it right all the time. In my case, this means ‘Geogaddi’, which is a BOC album that still will not strike home with me after all these years, no matter how many times I listen to it, despite it containing moments of brilliance.

Aural Ripples: Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison

Perversely, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ feels like a close cousin of ‘Geogaddi’ – it has that same dark spirit, its concept more cinematic to usual BOC material. From beginning to end it feels filmic; a soundtrack to a screenplay that will never get financed. Yet ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ still has classic BOC running through it: ‘Telepath’, ‘Cold Earth’, ‘Nothing is Real’ – soft analogue synth waves, distorted vocal samples and great beats. Oh, the beats. How we sometimes forget the BOC beats!

Which leads me nicely to the crux of this essay: no one (even now) makes music like BOC. Many imitate, some wear open references on their sleeves (Kelpe, Bibio) but they still cannot come near them. They don’t have that little bit of moon dust the two brothers sprinkle on their records. Consider how ‘New Seeds’ segues into ‘Come To Dust’ (which is a reprise of the ‘single’ ‘Reach For the Dead’) in a fitting denouement to the album, before it departs with the final piece ‘Semena Mertvyhkh’, which feels like some dark spectre arriving to cover the tracks made by the brothers in the previous 16 tunes.

‘Jacquard Causeway’ is probably the standout track. But the album has great balance too and it is welcome to see the duo give a little more legs to tracks, which before, they would have sketched in and out quickly (‘White Cyclosa’, ‘Transmisiones Ferox’).

BOC’s starting point, ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ and where they stand now are my favourite works – which is quite an achievement for any musician if you think about it.

As for those complaints that I have heard and which I referred to at the start of the piece, well I have heard the same accusations being made to one of my other favourite bands, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

But to say BOC or GYBE! have not progressed their sound or have less impact nowadays is akin to saying the same about the Beatles after 1962, because everyone else began using guitars, or that the Beach Boys did not evolve from their first album to their last because they were still using harmonies.

Why should musicians give up sounds they helped create just because everyone else is trying to do the same? Why would BOC give up the ground they have broken to allow others claim the spoils?

BOC have progressed – they have got better with every record and the “eight years in the making” tag is a weight unfairly placed on the album’s shoulders – it is too easy a stick with which to knock ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. What does it matter? Boards of Canada are two brothers who make fantastic music, no more and no less – and ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ is another great album to add to their canon.

Sense of Sounds

‘For us living more and more surrounded by intellectual schemas and masks and suffocating in the prison they erect around us, the poet’s eyes are the battering ram that knocks down these walls and gives back to us, if only for an instant, the real; and with the real, a possibility of life.’


It has taken me a long time to get ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, but I have finally fallen under its spell.

Until now, somewhere in my subconscious it had always been too beautiful a butterfly to clasp between my hands; I’d always shied away from its sweeping majesty.

Of course, I had plenty of exposure to the album: my old housemate played it on the first day of spring every year, bringing it out of its winter slumber to softly tickle an expectant summer’s belly, and spun it regularly until the season shifted again. It’s a lovely ritual – he has grown up with the album, just as it has grown within him.

For he is a devotee of the wee man from Belfast and he savours ‘Astral Weeks’ like some redolent, complex wine, in that it gets better with every measured taste, and in it he finds truth.

But Van Morrison’s masterpiece was too rich for me initially, too deep, I think.  The music went straight to my head, rather than slowly pulsing through the bloodstream, which is what it should do, and left my senses staggering. For many years I steered clear of its heady potency, but then, thankfully, aforesaid friend bought me the album on vinyl as a birthday present. This meant absorbing it as one long draught and in one sitting: from the invigorating bouquet of the eponymous opening track, right down to the lingering, dark perfume of ‘Madame George’.

Now, I have made it a rule to get drunk on ‘Astral Weeks’ at least once a month. Albert Camus said that at four in the morning, everyone in the world is exactly where they are supposed to be – and in my mind’s eye, everyone is listening to ‘Astral Weeks’, furtively sipping claret.

Van Morrison

Thinking about the essence of the music reminds me of TS Eliot’s phrase of “those other echoes that inhabit the garden”. Each time I listen to ‘Astral Weeks’, I imagine being in a high-walled garden maze, unsure of the way out, seeing flashes of light and then darkness. It creates a claustrophobia that grips one with just the right amount of sensual pressure; some times I realise I am holding my breath while listening to it. Yet these reactions only emphasise the genius of the album, and how great art should provoke a physiological reaction, as well as cerebral caresses.

But let’s go back to the beginning. I think a large part of my initial struggle with ‘Astral Weeks’ was down to the fact that I was brought up on the other Van Morrison. Hearing my Mum’s stereo as I was growing up, I walked the bright side of Van the Man’s road, listening to songs such as ‘Crazy Love’, ‘Days Like This’ and the any-family-occasion-theme tune ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Here was the guy who didn’t disdain or snarl at his audience: here was Van Morrison the entertainer.

So hearing ‘Astral Weeks’ in its entirety for the first time as a 17-year-old was akin to taking a wrong turn on some pleasant, tree-lined walkway and ending up lost in Morrison’s pathless woods.

In relation to dark journeys, critics often wonder why Van Morrison never addressed the Troubles in his music more often, considering it was going on in his own back yard (when he did, it was through the fulminating falsetto of ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ from ‘Veedon Fleece’).  But Van Morrison wasn’t looking for statements; he was looking to create art – what Saul Bellow described as “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos”.

Despite its shuffling, free-spirited rhythms and muggy, layered vision of sound, stillness is the word I attach most closely to ‘Astral Weeks’; when you get to the heart of the record, it is like a cool, clear pond, reflecting whatever you wish to see.  The tousle-haired young man from Northern Ireland allowed no tainted waters to pass through – ‘Astral Weeks’ is a work with its own essential force.

For many who know the album well, it will have that lovely old dressing-gown feel, while for others, discovering its joy for the first time, as I have now done, the moment feels close to like standing under an ice-cold waterfall: it leaves one breathless, gasping for air from its soft power. It leaves you feeling renewed – and then you put the needle to the groove again.

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