Reviews in this issue:
- No-Man - Schoolyard Ghosts (Duo Review)
- No-Man - Together We're Stranger
- No-Man - All That You Are [EP]
- No-Man - Returning Jesus
- No Man - Wild Opera
- No-Man - Heaven Taste
- No-Man - Flowermouth
- No-Man - Speak
No-Man - Schoolyard Ghosts
Tracklist: All Sweet Things (6:47), Beautiful Songs You Should Know (4:26), Pigeon Drummer (6:18), Truenorth (12:48), Wherever There Is Light (4:21), Song Of The Surf (6:12), Streaming (3:32), Mixtaped (8:36)
Ed Sander's Review
A new No-Man album makes the blood flow faster. The band that consist of Tim Bowness and Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, etc) plus various session musicians has changed their styles with almost every album in their 21 year spanning career. From the trip-hop and techno of their debut Loveblows & Lovecries to the groove and upbeat of the Flowermouth period and the jazz and experimentation of the less popular Wild Opera. No-Man seemed to have found their own sound with Returning Jesus, only for it to be exchanged again for the beautiful minimalist approach of Together We're Stranger. So, where would this new album take is? New territory? Well, it sure does, although Schoolyard Ghosts probably lies on the crossroads of the ways to Jesus and Stranger.
All Sweet Things is an instant No-Man classic from the first vocal and piano note. It's one of those beautiful tunes in the vein of Carolina Skeletons, Things Change and All That You Are. The first half of the song consists of the vocals accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar. Later on we're treated to a melancholic ascending and descending scale on piano and glockenspiel and orchestration on keyboards, giving the song that typical haunting No-Man quality. The lack of drums and use of harmony vocals at the end of this songs brings back memories of the Together We're Stranger album. It's a shame the song ends so abruptly with random echoing piano notes.
Beautiful Songs You Should Know takes us back to the Returning Jesus or maybe even Flowermouth album with fretless bass by Porcupine Tree's Colin Edwin and groovy percussion by Rick Edwards. Marianne de Chastelaine adds extra atmosphere on cello. A very accessible song for No-Man standards. The same cannot be said of Pigeon Drummer, which is probably one of my least favourite songs on the album. The reason for this is the use of the very intrusive, industrial sounding drum segments by Pat Mastello (King Crimson, The Flower Kings) that seems completely out of place and destroy an otherwise wonderful spooky tune. Don't let the Arena-like intro with mellotron and the nursery melodies fool you; this is as aggressive as No-Man can get. I could learn to get used to the first time they come in but the second time is such a distorted, noisy cacophony that this is just too much for me. This more experimental side of No-Man is still a matter of taste, and it's not mine.
Initially I had to get used to Truenorth. With the drawn out ambient approach of No-Man a 13 minute track does not always seem all that compelling, not even for a prog rocker. Fortunately there's a lot going on in the song and it constantly builds, changes and shifts. As a matter of fact, it can be broken up in three sections of roughly 4, 5 and 4 minutes. After a haunting repeated piano line is joined by Bowness' typical singing, percussion is added and the lushly arranged string section of the London Session Orchestra (that could also be heard on Fear Of A Blank Planet) joins in, creating a majestic atmosphere. Through a cross-over with Yang T'chin (a sort of Chinese dulcimer) played by Fabrice Lefebvre and harmonium by Steve Wilson we move into the second section. Here veteran Theo Travis joins in on flute while the song builds up again with acoustic guitar and Tim's vocals. The grandeur grows with more string sections, keyboards and Travis' soprano sax in the background. Just when you think the song is reaching a climax it breaks down to a glockenspiel-like instrument, only to be replaced by the very present electronic beat of part 3, played by Andy Broker. Through vocal harmonies and effects we arrive at a more uplifting atmosphere with two sentences of lyrics repeated. Ethereal is perhaps a better word. The orchestra returns for a grand finale until the echoing electronic beat dies out. A wonderful song and one of the highlights of No-Man's long career. Dissecting it's inner mysteries for this review has been a real pleasure.
Wherever There Is Light is one of those beautifully heart wrenching songs that No-Man seem to have taken out a patent on, and has added atmosphere through Bruce Kaphan wonderful pedal steel guitar, giving you the impression of a sad tragedy on some Hawaiian beach. Theo Travis is also present with more lovely flute melodies, while strings are this time simulated by Wilson's mellotron. All of this adds up to a very full sound. After the arrangements of the previous 17 minutes the more minimalist opening of Song Of The Surf with just vocals and electric guitar is a nice breather. Keyboards are adding extra flavour and during the verses Wilson treats us to the high pitched guitar we've heard him play in Porcupine Tree's Halflight. Very subtle percussion is building the song even further and before we know it we have a lushly arranged song again, complete with Christmas bells! After the minimalist Together We're Stranger the duo has clearly taken a different approach with this album, while not returning to the groove of their earlier albums.
Streaming is a strange track. Mainly because of the weird drum loops and programming by Wilson and Andy Brooker. At times it sounds like static, which had me check my computer and CD player several times. The rhythmic pattern of all of this is perhaps a smart experiment, as are the other weird beeps and blips, but for me they are too distracting from the main song. Even more steel guitar with e-bow by Kaphan can not make up for this. Mixtaped sounds just like its name indicates, like a band rehearsal or demo. It has a weird, distracting hiss and echoing guitar in the background that sometimes seem to do its own things, and sounds as if it were playing in an empty parking garage. Porcupine Tree's Gavin Harrison is doing all kind of jazzy drum things across this but all in all it's got me bored out of my skull. Even Theo Travis' flute in this one sounds random and uninspired.
Best tracks: All Sweet Things, Truenorth, Wherever There Is Light. These tracks are more than worth the price of the album alone. You'll get some more fine songs in the form of Beautiful Songs That You Know and Song Of The Surf. It's a shame that their experimental approach has destroyed the potential of Pigeon Drummer, Streaming and Mixtaped, but this is probably also a matter of taste. Even with these letdowns No-Man have delivered another fine album. Maybe not their best, but certainly with some of their best material on it.
Christos Ampatzis' Review
For fans of No-Man, it has been a long, patient wait. Five years after the release of the haunting Together We're Stranger, I have been balancing between two feelings: fear that Wilson's inspiration will run dry, and hope that this delay will be indicative of something special in preparation. Anyhow, the wait is over and here it is, an album that is pushing things forward in terms of experimentation, an album that is not simply relying on capitalizing on earlier successful recipes, but also an album that cannot fully live up to the great expectations created by its two predecessors (Returning Jesus and Together We're Stranger).
The fist two tracks lie somewhere in between the sweetness and the minimalism of the two previous albums. I would say they are musically closer to Together... but the themes and mood resemble more the Jesus era. All Sweet Things should probably be taught in schools as an example of how a song should build up and be constructed: starts acoustically, builds up with piano and glockenspiel, to climax with Steven singing in the background: "when the heartbeat slows... when the silence grows". Simply a masterpiece. Acoustic guitars are prominent as well in the simpler but equally beautiful Beautiful Songs You Should Know, where Wilson is cleverly assisted by Marianne de Chastelaine on cello. For the non-connoisseurs, the warm trademark singing of Tim Bowness is immaculate; for the ones who know what I'm talking about, vocals are up to the usual standards - excellent.
The middle part of Truenorth was the first taste I had of the album (via the band's MySpace), and it slightly reminded me of Wild Opera's Pretty Genius due to the strings/flute interplay. I was at the same time pleased but also a bit worried that strings would take over the whole album, as a kind of old and tried way to create atmosphere. Fortunately, this is not the case. The London Session Orchestra beautifully adorns all three parts of the song together with Theo Travis' flute. All parts are genially connected; even the difficulty in the transition from the second, dreamy and melancholic part to the dreamy again but optimistic (and totally different in mood/atmosphere/instrumentation) third part is overcome by a cinematic feel. Even if the integration of the song's closing part to the whole thing seems a bit artificial or even far-stretched, I can only surrender to how well this is done.
Song Of The Surf is proudly carrying the scars of the Talk Talk heritage. April 5
The most similar material to the band's past work is Whenever There Is Light, which bears a significant resemblance to All That You Are (and Carolina Skeletons), but as is often the rule, the "original" is always more impressive; Streaming is mostly dominated by the drum loops of Andy Booker and brings to mind works of Steve Jansen (an ex-collaborator of No-Man), but could benefit from some more experimentation and mood swings, as they way it stands now, it does sound a bit powerless. And after all, its inclusion between a complete and mature song such as Song Of The Surf and an experimental endeavour such as Mixtaped doesn't make much sense. I left the controversial Pigeon Drummer for last. I tried, I really tried to understand what the guys tried to do here, but I am still failing. I totally agree with Ed about Pat Mastello's hard and edgy drum part, and I think there's a misplaced experimentation here that simply doesn't come through. Basically, what's really out of place is the sentiment: this is a really cold track, technical when drums are concerned, and desperately dark when the guitar is concerned. (Actually I prefer much more the shorter trip-hop version in the alternates/edit bonus CD that Burning Shed gives away, which by the way does not offer much.)
So let's be clear: were this the debut of a band I didn't know, it would get a higher rating that the 8 I'm giving now. This may be unfair, but given that I'm dealing with No-Man, I will exhaust my strictness and austerity. Schoolyard Ghosts is a very good album with many excellent moments and few wick ones; it gave me and will give me great moments and immense pleasure, as every single No-Man album has had and keeps on doing. But it is not a classic. I would identify it's Achilles heel in the failing to make a healthy use of exploration and exploitation; at times the band overdoes it by revisiting old recipes and at times experimentation goes beyond my personal taste (and tolerance). As a result, things are a bit heterogeneous. Anyhow, I recommend it to all as there are many "beautiful songs you should know" here. Bear in mind as well that it may serve as backbone to the unique tour coming up.
One last point: I take my hat off to the super duo for not selling out and not compromising now that Blackfield and Porcupine Tree are well-known and famous. No-Man will still be the hidden gem even if Tim sings: "I want to play you all the beautiful songs you should know..."
No-Man - Together We're Stranger
Tracklist: Together We're Stranger (8:31), All The Blue Changes (7:48), The City In A Hundred Ways (2:23), Things I Want To Tell You (9:04), Photographs In Black And White (10:03), Back When You Were Beautiful (5:07), The Break-Up For Real (4:11)
After the excellent, rich and pretty accessible Returning Jesus what? Something totally unexpected to me: a boat that will take the listener on a sentimental cruise through heartbreak and loss. Together We're Stranger is No-Man's 5
It would be unfair to split the trance into songs, since the flow across the tracks is remarkable; I have never played a single track of this album; instead I prefer to dedicate an hour and give the complete thing a spin, which explains why I don't honour it that often. In fact the first four tracks are inseparable while introducing a story of separation. We start with the title track featuring ambient soundscapes (an adaptation of Bass Communion's - Drugged), haunted singing and lyrics by Tim Bowness, and a weeping guitar solo bringing Pink Floyd to mind by Steven Wilson; after feeling shivers down our spine with the breathtaking song construction and escalation of All The Blue Changes, we have a breath with the Talk Talk flavoured interlude The City In A Hundred Ways, to arrive to the peak of the drama: the experimental minimalism of Things I Want To Tell You. What makes this track so painful is its inherent simplicity, deprived of complex arrangements and instrumentation. This song has been revisited by No-Man during the Burning Shed event in 2006 and has undergone a complete metamorphosis; I love the new version (brings to mind Marillion's Afraid Of Sunlight title track) - I have no words for the original. Here No-Man portray the broken hearted naked, whispering these lines to a partner no longer there: "Roll me over on my right side...".
An LP version would demand that you change side in order to listen to Photographs In Black And White: this signals a slight mood change. A warm acoustic guitar, brass by Ben Castle and harmonium by Roger Eno create a beautiful and calmer ambiance meant to relax the listener a bit and to gradually discharge the atmosphere. Surprise - just when you think things are repetitive and static everything takes a wicked twist led by the guitar going totally solemn and introducing one of the darkest tunes of the album. Tim will sing from a distance and a bass clarinet will end it all. Then comes an equally sad but less dark and more explicit song about nostalgia, Back When You Were Beautiful. Tim sings both in a narrative low voice but also in a higher one as Wilson does wonders with all his instruments. And thus we arrive to the end where Steve achieves with a piano 5 seconds touch in the end what Marillion did with the switch from Blind Curve's despair to Childhood's End?'s and White Feather's final victory. He takes us from loss and despair to the realisation, to realism, to hope. Catharsis.
This album is not easy - it demands concentration, lights out, total solitude and a glass of alcohol. It doesn't matter if you are in a vulnerable condition or not, because you will be moved listening to it anyway. In other words, it will recreate "the right circumstances" for you automatically. These two guys are something else together...
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
PS The album outtake (Bluecoda) available in the CD/DVD-A re-release is a very beautiful song as well. I understand though that it was left out of the original release because it would damage the flow but also because it does sound like a résumé of the whole album.
No-Man - All That You Are [EP]
Tracklist: All That You Are  (4:03), Until Tomorrow (3:00), Chelsea Cap (5:23), Darkroom (3:52), Until Tomorrow [lo-fi] (3:16)
All That You Are is a very single-worthy song from the Returning Jesus album, although it still escapes me why a band like this still releases singles in the new millennium. But fortunately they do since it gives us access to rarities and outtakes of album sessions like these. The timing of this EP, more than 2 years after the release of the album from which the title track was taken and only shortly before the release of Together We're Stranger, might indicate that the band wanted to make some noise to let their fans know they were still around. The remarkable thing about this EP is that - unlike some of No-Man's other singles - it comes with all new tracks (not counting the title track), all of high quality.
Well, come to think of it, it's actually three new tracks and the last track is not that high quality either. Let me explain. The song Until Tomorrow is present twice on this EP, once in a normal version and once in a low-fi version. The low-fi version is exactly the same as the other version but it's been processed in such a way to make it sound like it is played on a very old record player, complete with static, pops and crackles. Together with the banjo that plays a melody very similar to Pink Floyd's Pigs On The Wing, this creates a bit of a wild west atmosphere. The song remains a vocal-banjo ballad until a processed guitar solo comes in for a short while after the second chorus. The original version is a lovely little gem, but the second version funny but hardly essential.
Many No-Man fans will agree that the song Chelsea Cap is one of their best songs and will be amazed why it was left of the album. Rightfully so it was given a place on the band's compilation album All The Blue Changes. The track features Porcupine Tree's Colin Edwin on bass, Steve Jansen on drums and Theo Travis on flute. The most remarkable thing about the song is the wonderfully catchy vocal melody and harmonies in the chorus.
Darkroom sounds like its title. A spooky echoing piano in an empty room accompanied by a cymbal rhythm, Tim's singing and creepy noises. Later on a chunky bass comes in but the mood stays mysterious, moody and menacing. Not as accessible as the other tracks on the CD, but still interesting.
All in all this EP is an interesting item for people with an insatiable thirst for more No-Man. Since Chelsea Cap, the only real must-have on this EP is also available on the mentioned compilation album you might opt for that double CD instead. Either way you probably will not be disappointed.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
No-Man - Returning Jesus
Tracklist: Only Rain (7:24), No Defence (5:20), Close Your Eyes (8:25), Carolina Skeletons (5:08), Outside The Machine (5:46), Returning Jesus (5:19), Slow It All Down (3:42), Lighthouse (8:12), All That You Are (4:44)
No-Man, for those who are unaware is in actual fact a duo consisting of Tim Bowness on vocals together with multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson. Wilson is rather more well-known than Bowness both for his work with prog-rockers Porcupine Tree as well as his work as a producer with various musicians such as Marillion and Fish, to name but a few. Though the fourth album for the duo, Returning Jesus is the first studio album released since 1996's Wild Opera. The band seemed to have left the more experimental touches that they were developing and on this album have gone for a relatively simpler style which, however, is much more effective.
The opening track No Rain immediately sets the pace and setting for the whole of the album. The whole album seems to be set in an ambient capsule which seems to give the whole sound a rich texture no matter how many instruments are playing, a feeling conveyed by very few producers such as Daniel Lanois. Bowness contributes to the melancholic feel that pervades the track with his dramatic soulful vocals accompanied by richly textured strings. The entry of the godfather of British Jazz-Rock, Ian Carr, and his trumpet heralds in a somewhat more experimental touch to the whole of the track, though everything remains atmospheric and placid.
No Defence has the group progressing what is an almost slow blues, but once again it is the ambient structure that really stands out. The multi-layering is sublime while the guitar licks sound very much like David Gilmour. A name that also springs to mind is David Sylvian and this might come as no surprise as collaborating on the album is drummer Steve Jansen who also played with Sylvian in Japan. Furthermore, Richard Barbieri another ex-Japan member plays with Wilson in Porcupine Tree! The laid back trumpet outro, courtesy of Ian Dixon, contributes to the overall picture of the track.
Close Your Eyes is the first track to feature a percussive backdrop and creates a hypnotic rhythm that is broken by the entry of keyboards and a dream-scaped guitar sound which makes the track sound like a cross between Simple Minds and Marillion. Carolina Skeletons is one of two tracks that are not entirely new to the No-Man repertoire (Both Carolina Skeletons and Close Your Eyes originally appeared on the Carolina Skeletons 1998 EP). This longer and more elaborate working is one of the highlights of the album. Once again things move at a very slow pace though the inclusion of the piano gives the track that dramatic touch which commands the attention of the listener. One can see that some of the main inspirations to both Bowness and Wilson are the great melancholic singer/songwriters from the early seventies such as Nick Drake and possible even Tim Buckley. I have read that the track is about Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters) and the more I read into the lyrics, the more probable it seems.
Outside The Machine features a more jazzy drum beat with a pleaful repetitive chorus that weaves its way in and out of the main theme. Bowness' vocals really stand out on this particular track making it one of the more moving pieces on the album. The title track Returning Jesus starts off with an uncharacteristic percussive tone and with its sparse repetitive lyrics allows Wilson to fully expand on the soundscape he has achieved so far on the album.
The album has only one instrumental track, the flugelhorn swamped Slow It All Down with its Mercy Street (Peter Gabriel) styled rhythm though each track has its fair share of instrumental sections. The original title for the album was meant to be Lighthouse, and the track possessing the same name on the album is one of the stand out tracks. The track possess a raw power to it with its lush organ sound and laid back double bass sound. One could describe it as a modern day Nights In White Satin, another powerful yet slow paced and dramatic piece of music. Halfway through the track there is a break in the vocals which give way to a delicate crescendo that reminded me of Say It With Flowers, originally a Fish track on Sunsets On Empire that had the help of Steve Wilson.
All That You Are brings the album to a close, a track whose organ sound gives it a slightly dated feel, almost late sixties. The floating high-pitched voice that accompanied Bowness creates a heavenly sound that embodies the whole of the album. Long have I waited to hear such a complete album that manages to convey such emotions with such minimal effort. The album most definitely goes into my top 10 albums of 2001.
Describing No-Man as a progressive rock band could actually stretch the definition of progressive, but the album does have its moments with hints of Pink Floyd, latter-day Talk Talk, David Sylvian and Portishead. However this music is too good to be missed with the arrangements and subtleties a must for all those who care about good music, and this should definitely apply to most progressive rock fans.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
No-Man - Wild Opera
Tracklist: Radiant City (3:31), Pretty Genius (3:51), Infant Phenomenon (3:21), Sinister Jazz (4:18), Housewives Hooked On Heroin (4:39), Libertine Libretto (4:20), Taste My Dream (6:09), Dry Cleaning Ray (3:26), Sheeploop (4:01), My Rival Trevor (4:20), Time Travel In Texas (4:24), My Revenge On Seattle (4:47)
Wild Opera, the fourth album from the collaborative affair between duo Tim Bowness and Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree) is the very epitome of how eclectic these musicians are. Progressive rock can be firmly divided into two separate camps, those who rely on rehearsing material from the seventies and those who are forever exploring the boundaries of rock without actually leaving their roots far behind. No-Man definitely fall into this latter category.
The album itself is a reflection of the musical scene in the mid-nineties when it seemed that anything pertaining to the rock world, from U2 to James, would be dominated by drum beats and loops. The same could be said about Wild Opera which has the added value of featuring contributions from sample material provided by Robert Fripp, Mel Collins and Richard Barbieri (Japan, Porcupine Tree). What is definite is that the whole music seems to reflect a very dark and sombre mood over what the band play, especially when compared to what they had released on the One Little Indian label. In fact one of the most interesting points of this album is the fact that there is such diversity between one track and another that one does not know what to expect.
Those who had heard Flowermouth must have been surprised by the first few notes of Radiant City that blasts out in a hip-hop beat with distorted guitars as Tim Bowness wails "Can You Hear Me?". However closer attention shows the prog/art-rock influences that the duo possess as Mel Collins' jazzy solo as well as the closing synth-orchestral notes imply. This is further exemplified on tracks like Infant Phenomenon (which sounds more like Tin Machine than anything else that No-Man have done before), Housewives Hooked On Heroin (which is the album's most catchy track) and Time Travel In Texas which manages to convey an impressive sense of desolation and melancholy amidst a myriad of effects, Frippertronics and a looped drum beat, the likes of which could be compared to Radiohead at their desolate best.
At times (Libertine Libretto) the band seem to wander in a rather aimless direction though this is rectified with the inclusion of pieces like Dry Cleaning Ray (Massive Attack meets Egg), which has a haunting mellotron loop, or the uncannily Fish-like My Rival Trevor.
Tracks like Pretty Genius, Sheeploop and Taste My Dream sees the duo move into a style more akin to groups like Portishead or even Sade as they blend soul and jazz within an ambient atmosphere. This is definitely the style that seems to have been taken on by fans of the band as the optimal trademark sound of No-Man and it is no coincidence that the beautiful closing ballad My Revenge On Seattle should be based on such a style.
Some fans of the band may have been dismayed with the release of Wild Opera which marked a departure from the usual style the duo of Bowness and Wilson were accustomed to producing. On the other hand this album mirrors an incredible variety of styles that are sure to be enjoyed by all who appreciate good music.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
No-Man - Heaven Taste
Heaven Taste is a rather remarkable album that is often overlooked. The CD consists of a collection of B-sides including the epic 22 minute Heaven Taste, together creating a full length album. As you'll often see with No-Man, the B-side status of a song doesn't say anything about the quality of a track. Songs often got directed to singles because they didn't suit the flow of the current studio album. Chelsea Cap, which we discussed in the All That You Are EP review is a good example of how a classic No-Man track can end up in a weird spot. The same goes for the other short tracks on this album.
Long Day Fall originally appeared on the 1993 single Only Baby. It features wonderful violin playing by Ben Coleman, former No-Man band member, in the intro, only accompanied by synths. After a full two minutes the other instruments come in, quickly followed by Tim Bowness' characteristic vocals. The violin remains prominent until the end of the song, which never features any kind of percussion. A great example of how dreamy No-Man's songs could already be in a time when most of their work was still dance oriented.
An instrumental version of Babyship Blue already appeared on the 1995 cassette edition of the Flowermix remix album. This outtake from Flowermouth is therefore more groove oriented than the other tracks found on that album. At the same time it's also more bass driven and experimental and has a more aggressive drum and guitar arrangement in the second half.
Different versions of Bleed originally appeared on the 1989 Swagger EP and 1993 Sweetheart Raw single. This version starts in a rather menacing way, driven by drum loops and synth effects, always hinting of a sudden danger that might lurk ahead. This finally appears after 4.5 minutes in the form of an aggressive pumping end section that reminds me of rave music and some of the stuff you'll find on some of the band's released between Flowermouth and Returning Jesus. Certainly not a favourite track of mine and a bit out of place among the other more dreamy material.
Road is a version of a Nick Drake song originally included on the compilation Brittle Days, a Nick Drake tribute album. This songs is more melodic and dreamy and a great relief after the noisy ending of Bleed. The fragile interplay between piano and electric guitar works wonderfully here. A gentle breather before the 'big one'.
Opinions on the fully instrumental title track Heaven Taste differ. Lots of people think it is far too long and would prefer the shorter version on the All The Blue Changes compilation album. Personally the track never bores me and I consider it to be one of my favourite No-Man pieces. It all depends on how you perceive this piece. I myself see it as one of the most adventurous and groovy attempts at lounge music I know. The whole track flows with such a relaxed mood that it's uplifting and soothing at the same time. You simply need to let the song come over you and go with the flow.
This track is probably also the closest No-Man ever came to the Porcupine Tree sound. You can hear traces of the same influences as can be found on Up The Downstairs and the more atmospheric parts of The Sky Moves Sideways in this composition. Think Buddha Bar meets The Sky Moves Sideways.
The track, which originally appeared on the Painting Paradise single, is clearly a diversion from the more dance/techno approach on Flowermouth and also very different from what they would do on the Wild Opera and Returning Jesus albums. As such, this is it's own little era in No-Man history, with it's own style, like almost every album was a No-Man era in itself. The track doesn't only feature violin by Coleman but also finds Steve Wilson teaming up with almost the full Japan band: Richard Barbieri on keyboards, Steve Janssen on percussion and drum programming and Mick Karn on fretless bass, saxophone and dida (whatever that may be). The choice of musicians and instruments already promises something special, and it is! After a three minute intro that echoes the opening section of The Sky Moves Sideways the groovy drums and bass kick in, accompanied by Coleman's processed wah-wah violin sound and sequencers. After five minutes there's a first break, including many effects and samples. The sequencers in this bit remind me of parts of Voyage 34.
After 8.5 minutes breaks down to just India-like percussion, slowly the sequencers, bass and percussion come back in and after some 4.5 minutes of gentle grooving and lounging the songs seems to come to an end. But then suddenly Karn's weird 'talking' bass lines kick in and before long there's a whole lot of wild percussion. This more experimental section than makes way for the a combination of arrangements we've heard before (the Indian percussion, the dreamy intro and Coleman's violin). At 17 minutes the drums return and we're back in the groove. The groove does down at 19.5 minutes after which gentle synth sounds help us to chill out and the song fades out.
All in all a highly recommended addition to your No-Man collection, especially if the description I tried to give of Heaven Taste appeals to you.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
No-Man - Flowermouth
Tracklist: Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap (10:34), You Grow More Beautiful (5:27), Animal Ghost (6:11), Soft Shoulders (3:58), Shell Of A fighter (7:50), Teardrop Fall (4:38), Watching Over Me (4:47), Simple (7:02), Things Change (7:35) Bonus tracks: Angeldust (9:11), Born Simple (12:09)
Working backwards, this special brings us all the way back to the band's second studio album, and the oldest studio album still available (1993's Loveblows & Lovecries has been deleted). If you would listen to an album like Together We're Stranger and Flowermouth back-to-back you would never believe this was the same band. The only thing giving it away are Tim's characteristic gasping vocals. Where Together is the most ambient the band ever got, Flowermouth is the most commercial and danceable. Where Together is sheer heart wrenching melancholica, Flowermouth's music is very uplifting, although the lyrics are as interspersed with pain and sorrow as on any other No-Man album. Only No-Man can make dance tunes with lyrics like "you grow more beautiful, as I fade away" or "feel the way the teardrops fall". Fish once admitted that he was an even bigger fan of No-Man than of Porcupine Tree when he asked Steve Wilson to co-write and produce Sunsets vn Empire. And listening to Flowermouth you can immediately recognise what the origin of the grooviness of that cooperation was.
Flowermouth is also an album with an impressive collection of guest musicians. Ben Coleman, by now no longer an official band member, plays violin on most songs and Robert Fripp adds guitar and soundscapes to six songs. Mel Collins adds soprano saxophone to one track and flute to two others. Ian Carr of Nucleus adds trumpet and Silas Maitland fretless bass to the album's opening track. Porcupine Tree's former drummer Chris Maitland adds drums and percussion to two tracks, while the Tree's synth master Richard Barbieri adds his electronic weirdness to another track.
You Grow More Beautiful is one of the most accessible tracks on the album, featuring funky wah-wah guitar play, bongo percussion loops and a groovy bass line. Synths create a more spacious atmosphere during the chorus. The experimental side of the track can be found in a short berserk guitar solo. The song ends with synths, vocals and acoustic guitars, quite a change from the way the song opened.
Even more uplifting and danceable is Teardrop Fall. A techno drum loop sets the up-tempo pace and sequencers add to the nineties feel of the song. Again, certain elements prove that you're not dealing with an average band here, including a weird guitar bit by Robert Fripp while Ben Coleman is present with violin in the background and Mel Collins plays a flute solo at the end of the song.
You might come to think that this album is one big bumping and bouncing affair, but nothing is further from the truth. Flowermouth is a lot more diverse than it normally is described to be. Watching Over Me is a very gentle ballad with a bluesy style of guitar playing that we haven't heard often from Steve Wilson. It's like we suddenly shifted from the dance club to the smokey bar next door. Steve Jansen provides percussion on this track and Ben Coleman plays a violin part that is extremely similar to what later became the opening of the Together We're Stranger album.
Another remarkable moment is Things Change, another beautiful ballad where all the loops, samples and sequencers are dropped and replaced by real drums (Chris Maitland), organ and acoustic guitar. The song builds towards a powerful climax with another crazy wah-wah guitar solo by Steve. This song is one of the highlights in the band's catalogue and was rightfully one of the choices to represent this album on the All The Blues Changes compilation album.
Another song that should have been chosen for that collection is the album's opener Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap, another highlight in the band's career. In it's 10,5 minutes it takes you on an amazing journey starting with sequencers, piano and synths before Tim starts singing a beautiful set of lyrics. The instrumentation is enriched with drums, percussion, acoustic guitar and violin. And let's not forget the wonderful brass sequence with trumpet and saxophone. This track is more like the band's later material than the dance tracks on the rest of the album. It takes it's time to slowly develop and build on it's beauty.
Two songs that continue the groove approach but take it at a much slower, lounge-like pace are Animal Ghost and Soft Shoulders. The violin and especially the flute add another dimension to Animal Ghost, as does the combination of piano and Fripp's guitar. A nice track in which an incredible number of musical things are happening. Soft Shoulders is the album's shortest track but has a wonderful contrast between the groovy verses and ethereal vocals in the chorus.
I have to admit that not everything on the album is exactly my cup of tea. Simple's industrial rave-like middle part, its noisy samples and Fripp's pointless soundscapes in the last two minutes spoil the otherwise spooky and interesting song for me. The only good thing about it is that it makes the next track, Things Change all the more better and an enormous relief. Shell Of A Fighter is another song that doesn't quite do it for me. The dance rhythm is nice but the annoying soprano sax melody played by Mel Collins feels so out of place and intrusive that it gets on my nerves, the same goes for the noisy cacophony at the end. A real shame because otherwise it's not a bad track. These two songs are good examples of how No-Man take their need for experimentation a step too far sometimes.
The remastered version of the album comes with two bonus tracks that originally appeared on the Flowermix remix album. Angeldust is a very nice remix of Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap, giving it a much more trance-like arrangement. Born Simple on the other hand is a tedious 12 minute drone piece that's torture to sit through and an absolute waste of disc space that has very little to do with the original song. A shame they didn't pick one or two of the better remixes.
Regardless of these to letdowns, this No-Man album is one of the must-haves milestones in their long and diverse career. If you're not put off by the thought of a bit of groove and dance influences, go and check this out.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
No-Man - Speak
Tracklist: Speak (1:24), Pink Moon (3:03), Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down (4:33), Curtain Dream (3:01), Heaven's Break (3:22), French Tree Terror Suspect (2:59), River Song (2:01), Riverrun (4:44), The Ballet Beast (1:27), Night Sky Sweet Earth (6:37), Life With Picasso (3:26), Death And Dodgson's Dreamchild (2:19), The Hidden Art Of Man Ray (11:42)
Speak has a long story. The tracks date from the early years of the band (1988-89) but were cleaned up and remixed in 1999; new vocals were recorded and two songs (Curtain Dream and Night Sky Sweet Earth) were replaced by new versions. What I have in my hands is the 2005 Snapper version of the Speak album; the previous 1999 edition (by Italian label Materiali Sonori) can still be found but it comes without the 11+ minute ambient track The Hidden Art Of Man Ray. This last track might not be essential for the release but it closes rather finely an anyway "ambient" album. Think David Sylvian's ambient works and a bit of the Heaven Taste (a compilation of b-sides and rarities released in 1995) atmosphere to get an idea of what you should expect from this bonus track.
This album is naked, stripped down to the bone. Minimal instrumentation but carefully adapted to match the needs of ambitious song-writing, lack of grandiose orchestration, lack of pop moments to allure the ear of a potential listener. It is really a singer/song-writer album: I really hate this term because it makes me think of untalented idiots picking up a guitar and playing neo-folk, however, in this case it's perfectly applicable. To support this argument: there are two covers in here, Nick Drake's Pink Moon and Donovan Leitch's Riverrun. Both excellent - and indicative of the kind of stuff these guys would listen at the time... Even if I cannot exclude more experimental or dark influences, as the Cocteau Twins in their softer times.
Fragments of the legacy of Speak have haunted the band's career and they live on till the present day: Curtain Dream sounds like a primitive or Platonic idea of Song Of The Surf (out of Schoolyard Ghosts); Heaven's Break with minimal Brian Eno-like keyboards and sweet guitar riffs brings to mind My Revenge On Seattle out of Wild Opera; Ben Coleman's violin in French Tree Terror Suspect and The Hidden Art Of Man Ray bring to mind Heaven Taste's Long Day Fall... and so on. Prototypes of ideas first presented here made it in more lengthy or rich tracks recorded in later years. Yet, there is something in these primordial prototypes that attracts even more than the more evolved material that followed...
Speak is not just a pre-No-Man release: it's the very soul of No-Man and I guess it is the reason why Returning Jesus became the masterpiece it turned out to be. Leaving behind trip-hop, minimal techno, groove and upbeat, pop and experimental jazz, the band while re-recording Speak seemed to have rediscovered its naked soul. This album features some of the best material the band ever wrote, as Night Sky Sweet Earth, which sounds like an incredible mix of Marillion's Living With The Big Lie lyricism (beware - it's older!) with Gone To Earth era David Sylvian guitar dressings. Or Life With Picasso, whose unique solitary ambiance and (almost) estranged feel has never been reconsidered by the band. Also, Heaven's Break, Curtain Dream, The Ballet Beast: all filled with imagination and inspiration. Death And Dodgson's Dreamchild should not stay uncommented either: the sax and flute game in the end could easily dress a David Lynch film.
Speak is one of No-Man's finest moments for me, and the band seems to agree on this as they really value these songs. I can understand why people might disagree, as it lacks elements integral to the success of a good progressive album, like a very good production (even if the sound is very good), pompous moments, lengthy tracks and a huge compositional variety. In fact, it is far from being a pure prog album: still, it is magnificent, elegantly and secretly ambitious. It is the soundtrack to a warm summer night - you are standing on the porch and looking at the sea. Not much overtly expressed emotion here; just the heat and a strange feeling of pleasant alienation. Let Tim's warm and hypnotic singing, Steve's delicate experimentation and the album's detached, unconscious feel lull you back to the womb...
Conclusion: 9 out of 10