Children Of The Stones: The Stars And The Silence
Spotlight Kid: Ten Thousand Hours
Saint Marie Records
Anyone who thinks of Saint Marie Records as a shoegaze label only will have that belief soundly challenged by three of its latest releases. Each presents a dramatically different side of the label, with Children of the Stones, Strata Florida, and Spotlight Kid serving up collections of classic electronic pop, grime-smothered shoegaze, and bold noise-pop, respectively.
Children of the Stones main man Mark Van Hoen (Black Hearted Brother, Locust, Scala, and Seefeel) set the scene for The Stars And The Silence by issuing an earlier EP featuring the album's title track as well as three non-album originals—a wise move in that it allowed the listener to become acclimatized to the new project's sound and be prepared for the full-length to come. It's not a solo outing by any stretch of the imagination, as the leader's joined on the project by guitarist Neil Halstead (Slowdive, Mojave 3, Black Hearted Brother), Martin Maeers, Rachel Davies (Esben & The Witch), Al Forrester, and Angus Finlayson. A couple of things about the forty-minute album stand out right away: how relatively restrained its sound is, first of all, and how strongly some songs evoke the UK electronic pop scene of the ‘70s, when bands such as ABC, OMD, and Thompson Twins became popular.
Van Hoen's appetite for pop experimentalism is well-accounted for in the dada-like collage “Love's Last Loss,” but that opener is rather uncharacteristic of the release as a whole. More representative of its tone and style is the second song, “Out of Reach,” a jaunty, light-footed swirl of engaging melodies and dreampop instrumental touches. But the most interesting thing of all is how strongly his slightly nasal-tinged lead begs comparison to the vocal sound of OMD's Andy McCluskey and Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey, and Van Hoen's apparent affection for the period with which they're associated is rendered all the more clear by the haunting title track. A near-perfect example of melancholy, vocal-based electronic pop, the tune mesmerizes with a gorgeous chorus that's clearly one of the album's high points. The songs that follow present appealing variations on the style, with all of them wrapping the leader's winsome voice in downtempo settings packed with guitars, keyboards, electronics, and drums. The ballads “Tethered” and “Save For Me” are at times so lovely, they're genuinely moving, while a druggy, slow-motion tempo deepens the hypnotic allure of “Just Like Coming Down.” The Stars And The Silence is no hell-raiser, for sure, but is no less endearing for being so.
Speaking of mesmerizing, I can still recall being thoroughly captivated by Blow, an early-‘90s release by a one-time 4AD outfit called Swallow that featured instrumentalist Mike Mason and vocalist Louise Trehy, when it first appeared. But whatever attention that release deservedly brought the duo eventually faded, and disillusionment after Swallow's collapse prompted Trehy to abandon music altogether. But she's back with a new project, her creative spark apparently having been re-ignited by the experience of singing in a local choir while living in rural Wales. Like Children of the Stones, Strata Florida isn't a solo affair, but instead one that sees Trehy making music with guitarist Pete Pavli and drummer Steve Kent. Interestingly, though, the group's debut album Made Of Stars has as much in common, sonically speaking, with Lush and My Bloody Valentine as it does Mott the Hoople and T. Rex.
More to the point, the album's ten songs aren't wispy and ethereal—even if Trehy's vocals are delivered in a hushed blur singlehandedly capable of resurrecting memories of Blow—but instead hard-edged and guitar-soaked. And while Trehy's singing is a central element throughout, the fifty-minute album's a showcase for Pavli, too, who fills each one with riffs that are raw, grungy, and even sometimes psychedelic. The collection avoids one-dimensionality by working in a slower and relatively softer number here and there (e.g., “Hang On”), but for the most part Strata Florida digs into its ragged, guitar-heavy shudder like a band newly hatched in some teenager's basement. Made Of Stars, only the second album from Trehy in twenty years, certainly challenges the truth of F. Scott Fitzgerald's old line “There are no second acts in American lives” (from his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon), even if some liberty must be taken with respect to nationality.
In the company of Children of the Stones and Strata Florida, Spotlight Kid might seem to be the new kids on the block, but Ten Thousand Hours is, in fact, the Nottingham-based quintet's third album release. One other clarification is in order regarding the music drummer Chris Davis, singer Katty Heath, guitarists Rob McCleary and James Taylor, and bassist Matt Holt present on the thirty-eight-minute release: though it's not off-the-mark to label it joyful noise-pop, it's also not the whole story either, as the album's nine tunes reference other stylistic universes, too. While most songs find Heath's appealing voice smothered in a pulsating shoegaze roar of buzzsaw guitars and hard-hitting drums (see the stabbing noise-funk throwdown “Disaster Tourist”), the album also shows off its for softer psych-folk side in “Hold On.”
After the title track sets the tone with a trippy, quasi-instrumental overture, the band's reverb-heavy dreampop sound receives its first formal presentation in “Sugar Pills,” a flute-sprinkled slice of amped-up psychedelia that melodically, trainspotters might note, bears no small resemblance to Kate Bush's “Running Up That Hill.” There's much to like about the release—the playing is tight and the material to-the-point—but melody is perhaps Spotlight Kid's strongest suit, as attested to by the swooning choruses roaring through “A Minor Character” and “Can't Let Go,” and in that regard Ten Thousand Hours is, more than the releases by Children of the Stones and Strata Florida, the one of the three most representative of Saint Marie Records' shoegaze-styled catalogue.