Album reviews: The Pop Group | Cat’s Eyes | Ant Law

The Pop Group. Picture: Contributed
The Pop Group. Picture: Contributed
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OUR writers review the latest album releases


The Pop Group: Citizen Zombie

Freaks R Us

Star rating: ****

Is this a thrown gauntlet I see before me? Four grown men from the Bristol area outgunning bands less than half their age for rage, intensity and a desire to upset? Paul Epworth, longtime Pop Group fan and producer of their first new studio album in 35 years, certainly reckons so, claiming that the band’s visceral mongrel sound “still fizzes with a life that most young bands just don’t have”.

The Pop Group first formed in 1977, as punk was already embracing a three-chord orthodoxy. Like their post-punk peers Magazine and Public Image Ltd, this West Country outfit were keen to push the musical script forward by tossing funk, electro and free jazz influences into their febrile mix, creating a thrilling canvas over which hulking teenage frontman Mark Stewart would roar agit-prop lyrics inspired by left-wing political philosophies.

His wild declamation influenced Nick Cave in his Birthday Party days, while the band’s audacious collision of punk, funk, dub and industrial rock inspired Massive Attack and the trip-hop scene which sprang up in their native Bristol a decade later.

The Pop Group fell apart in 1981 but the more or less original line-up have returned to take care of unfinished business, picking up where they left off and sounding like they haven’t aged a day. That’s what being ahead of the curve does for you.

Citizen Zombie exists to be played loud and liberating. Stewart spits his impressionistic imagery over the title track with a strangulated ire, while his bandmates Gareth Sager, Dan Catsis and Bruce Smith splatter wah-wah guitar, woozy loops and what sounds like nails being scratched down a violin onto an off-kilter dubby canvas. He has cutting spoken words for western society on the polemical Nations, riffing on Renton’s “choose life” monologue from Trainspotting over a tinny drum machine and spiky guitar improv, and battles electro funk paranoia on Box 9.

But it’s not all bug-eyed discourse and dread incantation – these middle-aged blokes like to shake a leg on occasion. The catchy twisted disco of Mad Truth and s.o.p.h.i.a. – the latter with a brief, sinewy funk bass solo – and the funk lurch of St Outrageous, punctuated with lean, squealing guitar and quaking analogue synths, recall the early chaotic yet controlled utterances of The Happy Mondays.

The Pop Group are generally a tightly coiled spring but they loosen their grip towards the end of the album with the relatively mellifluous Afrobeat/dub/house concoction of Age Of Miracles, before bowing out on Echelon, their idea of a torch song, with creepy, sonorous piano, pizzicato strings, martial drums and ominous keyboards which will have you nervously looking over your shoulder as it fades into the horizon.


Public Service Broadcasting: The Race for Space

Test Card Recordings


London duo Public Service Broadcasting stick with the programme on this themed follow-up to their successful debut album Inform - Educate - Entertain, composing atmospheric ambient soundtracks around vocal samples from archive news and film footage. The Race For Space charts the progress (and setbacks) of the competing American and Soviet space programmes through the 1960s, setting the original commentaries from astronauts, mission control and plummy-voiced broadcasters against a mostly proggy electronica backdrop. By way of contrast, Gagarin is a brassy funk tribute to the first man to orbit Earth, while guest vocalists Smoke Fairies make their breathy response to the first woman in space on the track Valentina.

Cat’s Eyes: The Duke of Burgundy

Caroline International

Star rating: ****

This seductive score to Peter Strickland’s film about a sado-masochistic role-playing relationship couldn’t be further from Fifty Shades of Grey’s vanilla-flavoured various artists soundtrack. London duo Cat’s Eyes, comprising Horrors frontman Faris Badwan and composer/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, have created an ethereal, eerie and mysterious backdrop of haunting woodwind passages, resonating harpsichord, baroque strings and Zeffira’s alluring cooing which recalls Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks and the more glacial moments from the Italian giallo horror soundtracks of the 1970s. FIONA SHEPHERD


Ailie Robertson: Little Lights

Lorimer Records

Star rating: ****

Ailie Robertson consolidates her status as a well-travelled harpist of considerable virtuosity and sensitivity with this album of traditional and contemporary material from Scotland, Ireland and French Canada, her crystalline playing complemented sparingly by Tim Edey on accordion and guitar.

She employs a nicely unhurried approach, demonstrated right from the start as her solo harp meanderings coalesce gently into the Québécois Valse a Huit Ans, Edey’s accordian sighing grainily behind. She makes subtle use of effects pedals, sometimes creating a faint background shimmer or sustaining percussive slapping on the harp.

While the up-tempo sets are fine and sprightly, it’s the more measured tunes that stand out: the venerable Irish air The Wild Geese is sounded with poise and feeling and another tune of pedigree, Turlough O’Carolan’s The Fairy Queen, becomes an amiable stroll in duet with accordion. Natalie Haas’s cello joins unobtrusively in the stately waltz La Gueussinette, while a short but magical closing air, Glimmer, does just that, and gently. JIM GILCHRIST


Iestyn Davies: Flow My Tears

Wigmore Live: WHLive0074

Star rating: ****

One of the hot tickets at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival will be countertenor Iestyn Davies’ Queen’s Hall recital. Here he is recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, in a varied programme of mainly late Tudor/early Stuart lute songs by such luminaries as John Dowland, John Johnson and Thomas Campion, and the lesser known John Danyel. Davies’ effortless range and natural expressiveness give a rich, easeful glow to these performances.

There is one new work, Nico Muhly’s Old Bones – an evocative, narrative setting for voice and lute (played by Thomas Dunford) of texts on the recent discovery of Richard III’s burial site in Leicester. Instrumental pieces by 17th century Scots-born eccentric Tobias Hume feature Jonathan Manson on viol. KEN WALTON


Ant Law: Zero Sum World

Whirlwind Recordings

Star rating: ****

Guitarist Ant Law builds on the approach laid down in his debut album Entanglement, including dipping once again into the complex concepts of physics (which he studied at Edinburgh University) both for his title and some thematic compositional ideas. Law is also a proselytiser for an alternate guitar tuning in perfect fourths, and has written a book on the system. It gives his melodic and harmonic explorations a subtly different edge, especially when allied to his liking for intricate rhythmic patterns and shifts, exemplified here in Leafcutter and Symbiosis 14:21:34 (not as forbiddingly mathematical as it sounds). Mishra Jathi extends his exploration of Indian rhythm, Monument is a nod to guitarist Ben Monder, while Waltz and Blues are original takes on canonic forms. Saxophonist Michael Chillingworth, pianist Ivo Neame, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer James Maddren are responsive and inventive collaborators. KENNY MATHIESON


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