Welcome to Bliss/Aquamarine - alternative, underground and indie music.


ACUARELA

Madrid-based label Acuarela has been putting out a wide selection of music since the early 90s, the emphasis tending towards experimental music (usually, but not always, the more melodic variety) and the more adventurous side of indiepop/noisepop/indierock. Their artwork shows a keen eye for detail, many of the CDs being packaged in very smart cardboard wallets that stand out from the crowd. I have a selection of their releases; none of these are brand new as I was sent them at a time when I was still working through a considerable backlog of things to review. They are however still available, so I figured this article was still worth writing.

Rivulets' 5 track EP You've Got Your Own combines melancholic, minimalistic indiepop with atmospheric effects more typical of dreampop, post-rock or experimental dronescapes. This post-rock influence puts in an even bigger appearance on the instrumental Slight Return, and there's maybe even a slight tinge of folk to be heard in tracks like Shadow of a Ghost. Travelling beyong the usual indiepop boundaries, Rivulets' take on the genre has rather more depth and sophistication than is often the case with this style.

Bizarrely named duo The Berg Sans Nipple have a 4 track EP, Play the Immutable Truth. With a name like theirs, you know the music is not going to be easily pigeonholed. Lo-fi indierock, psych-rock, atmospheric soundscaping, jazz, electronica, and harsher experimental noise are all mixed up to create something highly innovative and uncategorizable. The experimental genre is often used as an excuse to make a lot of poor quality noise, and more often than not, supposedly 'experimental' music conforms to its own set of cliches, but this offering from The Berg Sans Nipple is a rare example of experimental music that is both genuinely experimental and genuinely musical.

Manyfingers is multi-instrumentalist Chris Cole, also known for his work with Movietone and Soeza. Manyfingers' album Our Worn Shadow is an intelligent, artistic blend of neo-classical, jazz, experimental, folk and electronica, with particular emphasis on the first of these styles. Despite its incorporation of genres that in other hands are often non-melodic, the album manages to be tuneful as well as atmospheric. There is an overall emphasis on real instruments (as opposed to synths and samples), often ones with classical associations, such as piano, cello, brass and Spanish guitar, adding to the sophisticated effect. A very engaging listen.

Parenthetical Girls, led by Zac Pennington and also including members of The Dead Science, have an album on Acuarela entitled Safe as Houses. It is effectively a concept album, weaving a vivid narrative about a family, each song told from a different perspective. This is not some sort of nicey-nicey, happy families story but an intense depiction of real life. Zac Pennington's lyrics are an effort to see inside the minds of women, dealing with such topics as virginity loss and childbirth from the perspective of female characters. He has a dramatic vocal style, often loaded with exaggerated vibrato. He delivers songs that bridge the wide gap between old-school indiepop and something more sophisticated and theatrical, over a quirky DIY backdrop of glockenspiel, vintage synth, jangly guitar, thumping drums, glitchy electronics, piano and searing noise, the overall result being a very inventive form of avant-garde music that is both melodic and bizarre.

The two long tracks that make up Yellow Swans' Descension contain subtle melodies buried amidst sombre ambient drones. In addition, Descent 1 features harsh scraping improvisational noise. It's brutal stuff, and rather too much so for my taste. Descent 2 is a more hypnotic, atmospheric piece that is, on the whole, more pleasing to these ears, though it does get harsher towards the end. Musically minded people would probably appreciate this release more if approaching it as abstract aural art rather than music in any traditional sense.

Fantasy Bar comprises former members of Migala. Their debut album on Acuarela, Friday Afternoon Car, also features guest guitar from Chris Bathgate (of Sans Trauma and formerly of Ganger and Arab Strap) on a couple of tracks. Spiders combines lo-fi indierock and DIY indiepop with the ethereal nature of dreampop. Much Drinking, Little Thinking ironically sets maudlin, booze-inspired lyrics to a cheery, upbeat indiepop melody and arrangement. Any Given Night of the Week harks back to early 90s indiepop, but its incorporation of accordion puts it outside the norm of this genre. Dog Days is one of those fine examples of old-school indiepop that reminds me that I still have a soft spot for this type of music. My Northern Light adds extra depth to the usual jangle of indiepop by introducing slide guitar and psychedelic atmospheric effects. The way Kieran Stephen sings 'down, down, down' in The Cut of Your Jib sounds almost medieval. A Simple Fact incorporates bell-like glockenspiel into a song that sounds influenced by American folk music. In many ways this album is a revival - or continuation - of the indiepop and atmospheric noisepop of around 20 years ago, but Fantasy Bar are no mere copyists or nostalgia-peddlers. Their choice of instruments like accordion, xylophone, clarinet and violin, and their use of shoegazer-type effects in tracks that would otherwise be regular jangly indiepop shows a willingness to think outside the box. I don't tend to listen to indiepop anywhere near as much as I once did, but found myself enjoying this album quite a bit.

Well established band His Name Is Alive, formerly signed to 4AD, have a 4 track EP on Acuarela, Firefly Dragonfly. I Can See A Lot of Light in You is a version of Sufjan Stevens' The Dress Looks Nice On You, set to an engaging arrangement based on harp, acoustic guitar and constant one-note drone. Come Out of the Wilderness is acoustic American folk-rock, combining chugging double bass and guitar with delicate harp. There's Something Between Us and He's Changing My Words is a melancholic song with a lush atmospheric arrangement; basically an acoustic version of dreampop. Send Me A Dragonfly is an evocative neoclassical instrumental in which piano and harp are accompanied by drones from a bowed double bass, and the tinkling/shaking sounds of assorted percussion. I've been aware of HNIA since the early 90s but never investigated their music at the time. If this EP is anything to go by, it looks like I've been missing out.

Portastatic was started by Mac McCaughan of Superchunk in 1993, originally as a side project, but soon became his main musical venture. Portastatic's album Be Still Please is out on Acuarela with three bonus tracks not on the US version, namely two demo versions of album tracks and a cover of Hot Chip's And I Was a Boy From School. The album consists of material that can be broadly categorised as powerpop and indierock, alongside more laid-back acoustic balladry. Sophisticated instruments like violin, oboe and piano appear throughout the album, even on the noisier tracks - a combination that works surprisingly well. A variety of moods are explored on here, from the catchy, upbeat powerpop of I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove) to the alt-country-rock of Cheers and Applause to the inventive blend of neoclassical, bossanova and laid-back late 60s rock that is Sweetness and Light. Fans of Laura Cantrell will be interested to know that she provides backing vocals on one of the tracks on this album. Portastatic are another band I've heard of for a long time but never actually heard until now. Based on the strength of Be Still Please, it again appears that I've been missing out.

Destroyer sounds like the name of a death metal band, but the reality of this band is somewhat different. Destroyer is the other band of Daniel Bejar of the New Pornographers, whose album Destroyer's Rubies is out on Acuarela with a long three-part bonus track not present on the US version on Merge. Destroyer set off-kilter songwriting performed in a dramatic, half sung, half spoken manner to a musical mixture of old-school jangly indiepop, rock, sophisticated retro pop and jazz. Initially I found some of this stuff hard to get into, whether due to the somewhat exaggerated theatrical atmosphere, or the taking on board elements of music that is rather too smooth for my taste. I did however find myself warming to these tracks with the second listen. The rest of the album did in fact grab me straight away and is very much recommended. Painter in Your Pocket blends atmospheric soundscaping with retro janglepop. 3000 Flowers features recited/ranted vocals over a piercing indierock instrumental. Watercolours into the Ocean is an old-school janglepop number in which Daniel sings the decidedly appropriate lyric "It's 1987 all the time". Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever is a riotous blues/psych/rock track with a touch of improvisational jazz piano. The extended bonus track Loscil's Rubies sounds like an entirely different band with its mixture of ambient drones and pulsing electronics.

The misty, dark winter landscape on the cover of Apse's album Spirit sets the scene for the brooding, atmospheric music found within. Combining the ambient sound explorations of post-rock and the more innovative side of dreampop, the darkness and heaviness of post-punk, and the angular nature of progressive rock with eerie falsetto and whispered vocals, distinctive rhythmic drumming and an occasional touch of piano, this is a highly impressive and engaging example of underground rock from a band with its own ideas.

Num9 is the latest project of Coque Yturriaga (Emak Bakia, Migala), whose album The Glow-Worm's Resistance is out on Acuarela. Old-style indiepop is given a newer, more experimental makeover with the addition of swelling and bleeping synths, glitchy electronic noises, atmospheric drones, samples, and all manner of computerised effects. The introspective, melancholic songs are offset by the more upbeat nature of the DIY dance music backing, preventing an excessively gloomy atmosphere from forming, as well as breathing new life into the indiepop genre.

More information at www.acuareladiscos.com

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Text Kim Harten, 2010.