If Iskra have anything to demonstrate today it’s that they really do give a fuck what people think, but they’re still going to do what they want to do anyway, so be happy for them. Iskra are Floyd fans to the point of obsession and are so blatantly unashamedly inspired by Floyd that they almost want to be Floyd. As they begin with what could almost be an “Echoes” outtake, gentle minimalism gives way to bass-driven bubbling prog decadence and it’s almost comical in it’s boldly wild execution. Iskra make no excuses for what they are because they don’t require justification.
The name means “The Spark” in Russian and it’s fitting because Iskra frequently demonstrate that they have a spark, an obvious chemistry that is exquisitely exciting, due in the main to their singularly deep respect for each other and the music they create.
What seems to be solidly enforced tonight though, is a sense of actual identity, and I know that sounds crap because we’re seemingly dealing with a Floyd tribute band in all but material, but Iskra are a multi-faceted gem that have a lot more to offer if you allow them the opportunity. They demonstrate in a civilised manner that they can be anything they want to be, so if they perform in an acoustic setting, the Moody Blues tinged niceness that you expect is nothing of the sort because it’s mellow, tranquil, gently soothing, classically-tinted, ambient magnificence executed with perspicacity and care. Iskra linger lovingly over their music so if they want to rock out they’ll do it with expertise and panache, and likewise, if they want to lose themselves in Pink Floyd, then they’ll do it full pelt and do it well.
“Mantragora” though still feels like a square peg in a round hole. Prog clichés abound and it’s nudging naffness, but the song’s got power and drama aplenty. All it’s missing is some words that sound less, well, shite.
But as they progress, it’s clear that Iskra’s versatility is beyond that of just a good young prog band. There are no compromises here, but few surprises either because Iskra don’t hesitate to show quite flagrantly that they are so much more than what they seem. Georgey’s truly gorgeous Rick Wright meets Chris Martin vocals are so dreamily delicate and drifting that with a touch of a key or a note from a guitar the band can turn sideways into whichever direction they choose and comfortably spread themselves in it. Iskra seem to find this almost expected of them and don’t disappoint because they’re enjoying the ride. Although not flawless these crazy diamonds shine seductively nonetheless.
Iskra are one of the most necessary bands in The Stable at the moment because there’s nobody else except Veldt with the bollocks to go so against the current grain. We may have our mutant proggies elsewhere in The Stable table, but Iskra can carry it off more convincingly than anyone else because they’re outside the clique and basically just exceptionally bloody good. Whether they have the audacity to take it further remains to be seen, but until then Iskra are worth braving the cold for.
The Fingerprints also have a retro vibe going on but are refreshingly cool nonetheless. Currently touting their debut album ‘Miranda’, the Sevenoaks 4-piece have a beatifically uplifting vibe and a very obvious Americana influence from the likes of Counting Crows. It’s upbeat early 90’s, very smooth coffee-table AOR, but there are random sprinklings and seasonings of The Alarm, Big Country, The Call, even The Bluetones, that leave a satisfyingly British aftertaste. What this equates to is a collection of ambitiously expressive songs coming from what appears to be teenage geeks fronted by a blonde Harry Potter, revealing chewy melodies and hooks that don’t always hit the spot but are frequently memorable enough to resist scrutiny.
It would be easy to dismiss The Fingerprints as a band that are safe and sensible as a pair of old boots, which of course they are because they’re doing nothing more than rehashing something that was safe and sensible ten years ago. But, in a world where musical innovation and revolution is expected and at times demanded, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a band that play decent Dad-rock containing no commercial or underground pretensions. They just make easily digestible hokum that’s neither demanding nor querulous, and sometimes that’s exactly what needs to be on the menu.
Dan Cluwes (sorry if it’s misspelled) takes things to a simpler level. Armed with a blond floppy fringe, an acoustic guitar and a bunch of gently melancholy pop songs, Cluwes braves the cold to present us with a brief but mildly entertaining set. It begins very Del Amitri meeting 80’s protest pop, but very immaturely, as if he’s only just starting to find his feet, but he’s got the right idea nonetheless.
Although unconfident and unimaginative with his guitar work, he at least performs with delicacy and care, at times echoing a vague Tim Buckley-esque sense of purpose and direction, but his lack of conviction does him no favours at all, giving him a contradictory air of clumsy awkwardness.
He’s broken a nail, poor lad. Whether this is the reason that he suddenly drops the upbeat and evocative “You’re Too Close” after about 30 seconds and flounders desperately, trying to find something else to do under pressure, can only be guessed, but Cluwes manages to escape relatively undamaged. Drifting into inoffensive and slightly dreary country-rock for a while gives him an opportunity to collect himself a bit, but he remains unsteady throughout and only a flurry of shake-yourself-awake caffeine-buzz riffery enables Cluwes to claw himself back to life properly.
Vocally, Cluwes is seriously limited in terms of range and power, but he does have a strangely seductive burr that soothes and pleases. It compliments the otherwise rigid and inflexible songsmithery to great effect and although tonight to call him mediocre would be kind, he does seem to have the necessary drive to ensure that the songs will get better with time, so it’d be interesting to see what he can achieve in the future.
It seems to be “Next stop – America” for Clearlake. If rumours are to be believed, they’ve generated a very healthy amount of Stateside interest with their excellent “Cedars” album, given the Yanks’ unquenchable thirst for degree-touting rock with a British accent, and ironically, it may well be that our US cousins might be onto something before we are. One of the finest unsung bands to come out of Brighton for many a moon, Clearlake positively ooze class and professionalism in a manner that many of their contemporary cronies can only dream of. They’re really quite magnificent.
It’s morphing, morphine-addled indie grunge with a Britpop bite. Take the unnerving bitterness of Radiohead, the blistering beauty of The Verve, the angry snarl of The Fall, the darkly anguished drama of Pearl Jam, the commercially exploitable pop of The Dandy Warhols, then add randomly carved chunks from XFM’s playlist and you might have something that sounds like Clearlake, but there’s so much more going on than that. It’s obtusely grim pop with a sarcastically arthouse pose, and Clearlake are uncompromisingly majestic and huge in their approach, producing horn-inducing anthemia that satisfies like a post-coital cigarette.
Jason Pegg is the type of intellectual rebel that makes you proud to be English. With a raw yet silky voice, his whimsical but insightful lyrics are worthy of Morrissey or Ray Davies in their witty and enigmatic manner, but it’s his effortless command of the stage that’s most inspiring. The man performs as if he’s just woken up, with slick and indifferent aplomb, giving the impression that whether playing to 30 people or 30,000, he’d still be cool and laconic, treating the undemanding audience as if they were understanding and forgiving friends.
With a set based predominantly around ‘Cedars’, Clearlake have honed their craft to sleek perfection, but in their peculiarly English way, they still find time to be quirky and toothsome. Odd moments of drama, humour and warmth creep in unexpectedly, as does the occasional fuck up, and some of their polish is chipped away, but in a mode that strengthens their reserve and makes them more unique and endearing.
Technical difficulties suddenly become rife, preventing “Something To Look Forward To” from getting off the ground, though the joyful balladry of “Keep Smiling” twists and sinks into mocking, heavy-breathing greatness and more than makes up for the fact that Clearlake fumble at the end, but they treat minor disasters with the same degree of easy confidence that they’d treat unbridled success and that’s an attitude that’ll take them far.
The future looks bright for Clearlake. Songs, style, oodles of scintillating presence and British to boot, things can only get better for them.