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Unlabel NightCove
Matra
Songs Of My Lap
31/01/2004
Rating: n/a

Youíve gotta admire Unlabel for the sheer bloody-mindedness they show by putting on this sort of gig. The belief they have in their roster of artistes has no commercial ulterior motive, they just want to provide an outlet for voices to be heard and it doesnít matter if it appeals to 1000 people, 100, 10 or just the one person recording it, because if itís got something, Unlabel will capture the work in progress and assist in itís development. So, when they put on gigs, they donít just book the venue, book the bands and hope that people turn up, they try to turn each gig into a specific event, as if every punter coming through the door is essential and involved in the success of the night.
The extraordinary photography of Mark Roe and Katie Carnie has been utilised to create Ďobjectsí. These Ďobjectsí are random images in a collage that we all have to take a piece from and bring back the next day, so that when they go back on the wall, a totally new piece of artwork will be formed from the newly constructed series of images. Clever huh? So, anyone that took one and didnít return it shall burn in Hell for all eternity for their thoughtless crime. Or something.
John from Awkward Silenceís DJ set is a frustratingly brief but suitably leftfield and mellow start to the evening, giving The Forum well needed warmth to take the chill from the air on this windswept winter night. Trippy electronica, samples, beats and pleasantly weird musical paraphernalia that doesnít get radical but skirts around the edge of involvement nonetheless, itís an effective mood-setter and hits just the right tone to reverberate thereafter without having to make a statement. Casual, like.
Heralded in with a horribly loud and intense slice of Norma Jeanís heavenly hardcore as a wry wake-up call, Songs Of My Lap are now a proper duo and about bloody time. Previous performances with Joeyfatís new guitarist, the almost impossibly camp Luke Pritchard, have suffered somewhat from lack of confidence and paranoia. Although lack of confidence and paranoia are two of the things that make SOML wonderful, thereís a limit to how far they can go, because in previous gigs, Luke had kept his back not only to the audience, but more importantly Alex, leaving him even more isolated and self conscious rather than supported. This time though, as they play in front of the Unshop, theyíre doing something right. They face each other, but both turn slightly away from the expectant gazes of their public. It gives them equal footing, makes them more reliant on each other and a lot less likely to stumble.
Heís an unusual guy, that Alex Hancock. Quite possibly one of the most genuinely nice guys anyone could care to meet, but also the creator of music that makes you sit up and listen because itís starkly, conspicuously and uncomfortably original. The guyís a terrible guitarist, even his best friends would probably say so, and as a musician generally, his laptop effects and ambient keyboard work are totally undemanding. Vocally, heís high-pitched, murmuring and almost tuneless, but all these factors are inconsequential, because when he puts it all together itís an honest expression of a fascinating mind at play. The atmospheric music that he creates is calm but with an underlying uneasy tension that shows us a tortured soul teetering on the brink of collapse. Making this agreeably eerie music seems like essential therapy and it exercises the numerous demons that torment him, so when he gets into it, like he does tonight, he demonstrates a deep and unbridled passion for what he does because itís as if his sanity is at stake.
A monologue about childhood reminiscences precedes the guitar dual of ďPollynaiseĒ. Playing to each other and off each other, itís just fingerpicking, string-bending simplicity, with drifting chord structures echoing each other as they flow along. Such a basic and easy thing to do, but clearly indicative that SOML are now working as a true team rather than two guys who just happen to be playing on stage at the same time.
His selection from UN23 ďDevil By The SeaĒ, a hymn to lost love flavoured with citric bitterness, is now something far more workable in a live context with a more confident Hancock behind the wheel. In fact, this new and more assertive SOML is far more malleable as a whole, far more together and focussed on the work they can produce as a duo and meeting their challenges head-on together. As Alex plays the wine glass to a chugging electronic guitar-fuzz phased riff, his wailing voice takes over and holds it all together with only the most delicate grip, but thatís all it needs to make it work. Luke on the other hand, knows that this is Alexís baby, so wonít stick his oar in any further than he has to, but theyíre that much more balanced now so he can give their sound a mild seasoning without tainting the overall recipe. Luke adds a distinct potency to the music, an almost steadying influence, and it just feels very, very, right and proper.
The gentle and innocent drool of melancholic honesty, ďOne Summer I Was SpidermanĒ is a masterpiece of minimalist sadness. Gentle keys drip like morning dew as the guitar blends in subtly, while the sighing, broken vocal is wept from the pit of his guts, though quietly, like a child trying to contain a sob. Itís reflective and gratifying, cheered and clapped genuinely, but SOML have one more surprise up their odd little sleeves. A cover of Joeyfatís ďDrake Breaks RankĒ is a brave hug-me-this-might-not-work moment. Such a damn cheeky thing to do in itself, but SOML style, itís like a bizarre moment of madness as they reinvent it for fun. Appalling technically, but intrinsically, a twisted fucking masterstroke, particularly if they never do it again.
SOML have a new lease of life. Surreal as always, but with enough fire and strength to pull themselves together and stand up to their Unpeers, theyíve lost none of the sublime fragility that identifies them as something edgy and different. Maybe Latvian radio is only the beginning, and if you donít know what I mean by that, itís probably for the best.
And SOML arenít the only Unlabel act to have organically grown. Matra have seemingly become a 3 piece and the difference in how theyíve developed over the past few months is boldly surprising. The gentle soothing and light ambient dub of old has become more of a beats-based blend of bendy bass and understated effects, but itís still balmy and sensuously adaptable nonetheless. Their rhythms have a slightly more funky groove, though they have clearly not sacrificed their ability to express deep pleasure within the soundscapes they create.
When Matra build their music, they make sculptures of mischievous mood, allowing a melody to ebb and flow as the beat pulses and perverts itself. Thereís nothing the slightest bit wanky about Matraís groove, because they donít show off. Indeed, they actually struggle on occasions, although more due to their reliance on technology and itís subsequent limitations rather than lack of empathy. Matra just feel it. With gentle, effervescent but controlled passion, theyíve got all those electronic atmospheric bits that Orbital, The Orb, Aphex Twin, even Underworld and Chemical Brothers do so well, but more chilled, more floaty and less hummable. You have to listen carefully to Matra because their music is multi-layered and fluidly intelligent in itís execution, and in return they overwhelm their listeners in a big fluffy blanket of wholesome niceness that offends nobody and delights anybody thatís looking for a bit of serenity.
Matra have evolved into something considerably more mature and perhaps more commercially viable than the younger version they showcased last year, but itís still an acquired taste. You canít dance to Matra. You canít drive to Matra. You probably canít shag to Matra either. The only thing you can do comfortably to Matra is sit on a comfy sofa with a cup of tea, spark up a Ďherbalí ciggie and just let Ďem take you away for a bit because they have that magic ingredient that makes them impossibly moreish and satisfying, like chocolate when you have the munchies. Dull as old pants to watch, for sure, but fucking bliss to chill to.
Local trio Cove are math-rock (a fucking vile expression, but it fits nonetheless) with enough heaviness and bile to make them satisfyingly intense, but also a hefty dose of fascination for the twisted and unusual. Itís a pulsing noise, full of odd time signatures, lots and lots of tight angular riffs that oscillate and twist with controlled precision and an angry ambience that suggests the occasional meal of Slint, but only as junk food, because thereís a great deal of originality present within their compositions, making such comparisons worthless. Charlottefield meeting Headquarters may perhaps be a worthier likening, but itís cleaner, less disturbing, with a more easily accessible vibe than either.
Coveís music is gaunt and jagged alternative post-rock that burns with a choking, fume-laden heat. The musical equivalent of putting plastic containers on a festival campfire, they do the job, but itís toxic and acrid, turning the experience into something that makes you feel nauseous and uncomfortable although itís hypnotic and demanding nonetheless. Thereís such bitterness and passion coming from Cove that theyíre mesmerisingly and perversely satisfying; possibly because their savagery draws their listeners in, but more likely due to the simple fact that their music just works.
Their material seems to have its greatest level of potency when in an instrumental format. They demonstrate a stylishly cool and scientifically intelligent use of drama and melodic tension that enables them to build steadily on their compositions, creating bleak and gritty paranoid soundscapes, so when the (frankly, quite dreadful) vocals eventually kick in, itís almost unwelcome. Not disappointing, but slightly discouraging because it forces them to confine themselves to more established and rigid structures, subsequently making them temporarily appear slightly more ordinary than they actually are.
That being said though, when Cove let rip, they do it with sheer naked power. Swampy, free-form, vitriolic, tooth-pulling noise comes as easily to them as their more clinically technical efforts and the overall impression is of a band with quite remarkable versatility and strength of character. Itís not easy to make predominantly instrumental industrial arthouse rock without sliding into self-indulgence or allowing a particular facet to dominate, so the fact that Cove manage to create music that doesnít over-reach and is always balanced, even when insanely intense, has to mean that theyíre doing something right. Letís hope it stays that way.


Paul Mills
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