Mercury Prize Blog

Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2012 Albums of the Year

posted 13/09/2012


This week the shortlist was revealed for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2012 Albums of the Year. The running reflects an incredibly exciting time for British music with an incredible eight debut albums featured. Perhaps even more excitingly, all 12 of the albums are characterised by a refreshing sense of innovation that puts the art of music making to the fore.

The diminishing divide between electronic exploration and traditional guitar led Indie is a concurrent theme. The ebullient amalgam of cerebral Dance music and left field Pop sensibility that Django Django have conjured up on their eponymous debut is a perfect example, as is the melting pot of styles and brave sonic adventures of Cambridge four piece Alt J and their set An Awesome Wave.

Similarly, Jessie Ware and Lianne La Havas both fearlessly fuse traditional and contemporary approaches to incredible effect on their respective debuts. Is Your Love Big Enough? the striking first effort from Lianne La Havas spans a broad spectrum of styles, all anchored around the young singer’s wonderful vocal. Jessie Ware’s Devotion is equally adventurous, opening up a brave new chapter for the UK’s enduring love of sophisticated Soul and underground Dance music.

Two singer songwriters who’ve been heavily involved with the Communion collective, Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka, are represented for their first albums. Both are hugely gifted songwriters who breath new life into their craft, Ben with his hauntingly harmonic set Every Kingdom, and Michael with the sumptuous Soul of Home Again.

The brave innovation isn’t restricted to the newcomers though. Richard Hawley, a musician who’s output has been a consistent inspiration to many younger artists, turns in an ambitious opus with the psychedelically tinged Standing At The Sky’s Edge, whilst Field Music, a band who first came to the attention of many nearly a decade ago, have perfected their intellectually informed brand of grandiose Pop with their fourth album Plumb.

Plan B and The Maccabees may come from two very different start points, but they’ve both earned the love and respect of a loyal fan base with their honest and unaffected take on the modern world. The Maccabees highly poetic and emotionally charged Indie has found its sharpest form on third album Given To The Wild, whilst Ill Manors, Ben Drew’s unforgiving appraisal of inner city life, perfectly captures the mood of modern London.

From the further flung reaches of the musical landscape, Roller Trio and Sam Lee have reinvigorated age old art forms in startling fashion. Roller Trio’s self titled first offering reconfigures the heady world of Jazz Fusion, imbuing their music with an impulsive and instinctive charge that’s indicative of the vibrant Leeds scene that’s nurtured them. Sam Lee, a singer in the most traditional sense, has collected centuries old songs from the indigenous travelling community and revamped them using contemporary recording techniques and intelligent arrangements.

The next few months promise to be hugely exciting, as Barclaycard Albums of the Year Live brings a series of of exclusive intimate live performances from many of the bands and artists involved. It’s a couple of months until the Awards Show in November, which will be held for the first time in Camden Town’s iconic Roundhouse, but that means there’s plenty of time to experience all this incredible new music.

 

DIY, Bristol Style.

posted 30/08/2012

Statistically speaking, Bristol is the eighth largest city in the UK. It’s impact on British music, however, ranks it much, much higher. During the Nineties bands like Massive Attack and Portishead catapulted the city on the Avon into the national and international conscience, and the simultaneous Drum & Bass explosion further aided its reckoning, with Mercury Prize winning album New Forms by Roni Size and Reprezent perfectly capturing the cornucopia of cultures that’s been so integral in Bristol’s enduring identity.

This week’s Recommends features two articles which elude to a smaller scene that, whilst it’s been core to Bristol’s immediately apparent musical identity, may never see the kind of widespread recognition and association afforded to the likes of those mentioned above. Like many cities across Europe, Bristol boasts a vibrant and fiercely underground DIY scene that’s immersed itself in the many various sounds and styles that have resounded around the hilly streets for over 50 years.

Mark Stewart, who makes a rare live appearance in London alongside Factory Floor next month, was a founding member and front man of The Pop Group. As the original explosion of Punk quickly dissipated, a new generation of bands took the movement’s can-do ethos and applied it to a much broader musical approach. The band brought together elements of Funk, Free Jazz and Dub and added the angular edge that became so characteristic of Post Punk. With UK Reggae pioneer Dennis Bovel at the mixing desk, the band unleashed a short volley of politically charged singles and albums that would set the tone for the rest of the Eighties.

Other bands to emerge at the time included Pigbag, the brass heavy octet who – for good or for bad – will forever be immortalised by their infectious Pappa’s Got A Brand New Pig Bag, and Rip, Rig + Panic who took the fusion of Free Jazz and Post Punk even further, and were the first band to feature vocals from Neneh Cherry.

Also appearing in Recommends are Francois & The Atlas Mountains, a group that for a long time was a fluid movement of musicians based around ex-pat Frenchman Francois Marry. Francois had moved to Bristol already seduced by the city’s musical heritage, and soon found himself heavily involved in a vibrant community of musicians. Stalking the Sunday markets he soon built an armoury of second hand keyboards with which he started writing, recording and self-releasing.

The two acts in support at the Corn Market show are both notable for their involvement with the DIY scene: SJ Esau, a mercurial talent who started out as an adolescent MC amongst the booming sound system scene of the late Eighties and gradually morphed into an electrically enhance one-man band using lo-fi loops and synths to create sonic sketches that range from the beautifully whimsical to the purposefully challenging; and The Moonflowers, a band who emerged during the free party scene of the mid-Nineties and offered a real alternative to the politically bereft Baggy and Indie scenes that held the national imagination. Perhaps their most lasting contribution to their native city were the parties they ran in an old disused barge. The Thekla is still, two decades on, plays a vital part in Bristol’s unrivalled night life.

These days there’s an even greater wealth of music to be heard, not least amongst the rich and varied styles that have emerged in the wake of Dubstep: Black Acre, a label helmed by El Eye, formerly lead MC with erstwhile Bristol Hip Hop heads Aspects, is helping lead the charge, as is Appleblim, who alongside Shackleton founded Skull Disco, perhaps the first label to explore the exciting fringes of Dubstep.

The city has continually offered up labels, collectives and communities at every cobbled turn, and whilst stylistically they may differ wildly, the trait that holds them together is the urge to exist in their own right and with little deference to London, Manchester or anywhere else. This outright individuality certainly puts Bristol more in line with Berlin than any where in the UK, though it’s the UK at large that benefits from Bristol’s inherent urge to do things a little differently.

Notting Hill Carnival 2012

posted 17/08/2012

2012 has already seen some massive events taking place in the UK, and this coming Bank Holiday heralds another: The Notting Hill Carnival. Now in its 47th year, Carnival stands for the diversity and energy that makes London one of the world’s most distinctive Capital cities, and with around a million revellers is second only to Brazil’s Rio Carnival in size.

Ahead of Carnival we look at the history and heritage of some of those sound systems which have played such a huge part in giving the party it’s unmistakable flavour.

 

 

Aba Shanti

One of the most respected Sound Systems amongst London’s Dub fraternity, Aba Shanti has held his own from a shady corner on East Row since the Seventies. Expect heavy bass lines and an endearing message of love and unity.

 

Saxon Sound

The UK has long links with traditionally Jamaican and Caribbean Music, but it was during the mid to early Eighties that a distinctly British sound started emerging. One crew who’ll always be associated with the UK Bubblers sound are Saxon, the first British sound system to tour Europe and to win an international clash in Jamaica

 

Gaz’s Rocking Blues

Undoubtably one of Carnival’s most colourful spots, Gaz Mayall holds court from a huge pirate ship built at the top of Powis Square. Live bands from the UK and Jamaica play throughout the weekend, filling the air with the vintage Ska and R&B sounds Gaz has championed since 1976

 

King Tubby’s Sound System

Cited as being the longest serving sound at Notting Hill, King Tubby’s contribution to Carnival cannot be understated. After leaving Jamaica as a teenager, Cecil Rennie took the name of the well known producer who had nurtured and mentored him. Forty two years later and he’s still going strong.

 

Rampage

Perhaps the biggest and best known proponents of contemporary music at Carnival, Rampage are one of the few sounds to have whole street devoted to them. They’ve been pivotal in every wave of urban music since their formation in 1990 and make a big return after taking last year off.

 

Sancho Panza

Although most people will immediately associate Carnival with Soca and Reggae, Sancho Panza have been bringing their own inimitable blend of Deep House to the party for a good long while. They’ve also earned an unbeaten reputation for their legendary after parties.

 

Good Times

As any good soundman will admit, sound system culture wouldn’t have evolved the way it has if it wasn’t for a sense of competition. Many lay claim to being the loudest or boast the most followers, but few have been knighted like Norman Jay MBE, born and bred in Notting Hill.

 

Major Lazer

Despite only being a five years deep – relative striplings compared to many of the sounds present each year – Diplo’s Major Lazer Sound System have fast become one of Carnival’s most talked about parties. Aided and abetted by Red Bull they bring some heavyweight names to their spot beneath the Westway, this year its none other than Sean Paul

 

This list barely scratches the surface on Europe’s biggest and best loved street party. For a more in-depth account of the many sounds present visit the carnival’s own website or the British Association Sound Systems (B.A.S.S for short).

 

 

Newport Folk Festival 2012

posted 31/07/2012

New York Times photographer Erik Jacobs was on hand to document this weekend’s Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The event, which sold out in advance for the first time in it’s 53 year history, a history that includes debut performances by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, legendary crossover performances from Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, the classic music documentary Festival which was filmed at Newport in 1967 and, more recently, appearances by The Pixies, My Morning Jacket, Damian Marley and more besides.

This collection of photos includes shots of tUnE-yArDs, The Head & The Heart, Alabama Shakes and Charles Bradley. For more pictures visit the New York Times website

Acid Jazz’s Siver Jubilee

posted 23/07/2012

 

The UK has continually brought the world wave after wave of exciting and original music, powered by the energies and ambitions of successive generations of bands, artists, impresarios and fans. Whilst individually each new genre or movement may seem a million miles removed from that which has gone previously, when taken as a whole there is a very visible thread that ties everything together, from the original Mods of the early Sixties to Suedes and Soulboys, Punks and Goths, Ravers and Casuals, right up to today’s farrago of sounds, styles and cultures.

With many of these movements there have been key players, people and platforms who have helped facilitate and shape the music. Of the many imprints that will forever remain intrinsically linked with British culture in the late 20th Century, Acid Jazz will always find a special place in the heart of those fans who were a part of the rich and vibrant scene that built up around it.

Late Eighties Britain was home to a number of similar Soul scenes, from the Rare Groove movement that played out in weekenders in Prestatyn, Southport and Camber Sands, to London’s Mod scene and the second wave of Northern Soul that, despite its geographical moniker was a national pastime. Concurrent with these, Rave and Hip Hop were both in their nascent stages and capturing the imagination of the youth of the day.

Gilles Peterson and Eddie Piller were both actively involved in the Capital’s Soul scenes, Petersen with his Sunday afternoon session at Dingwalls and Piller as manager of Jazz Funk favourites James Taylor Quartet. Together they formed the Acid Jazz label, the name arising from a bad joke cracked by one of the MCs at Peterson’s afternoon club. “If that’s Acid House,” he exclaimed, referencing the Rave explosion that was taking the country by storm, “This is Acid Jazz!”.

The label became synonymous with a certain sound that, like so many musical movements to have been born on British streets, took it’s influences from around the world and repurposed them to create something original, indigenous and extremely exciting. Borrowing from the groovier depths of Jazz and Soul and adding the looped and sampled beats so prevalent in Hip Hop and House, the Acid Jazz sound was a dominant throughout the 90′s, and its influence on subsequent generations of DJs, producers and artists is clear to see and hear.

Now in 2012, the label celebrates it’s 25th Birthday. There are numerous events taking place throughout the year, with a Rare Mod boat party scheduled in September and reissues of some of the many classic albums that played such an important role in the Acid Jazz story. For more information, visit the label’s website and Facebook. For anyone wanting a greater insight into Acid Jazz in its early days, or the chance to reminisce, this documentary from 1990 is indispensable.

The Marquee

posted 13/07/2012

“The reason I liked The Marquee the most was because it was scruffy and it had no air-conditioning whatsoever and it was a hellhole and your feet stuck to the carpet and that’s exactly what a Rock’n'Roll club should be like.”    Lemmy

 

The Rolling Stones regrouped recently for the opening of an exhibition of photographs at Somerset House, an occasion that happily coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of their first ever gig. The concert took place on 12th July, 1962 at The Marquee Club, a venue that many still vaunt as one of the most important in modern popular culture, even though its doors have long since closed.

Originally opened beneath a cinema on London’s Oxford Street in the late Fifties, The Marquee Club originally catered for Jazz fans, with Chris Barber and John Dankworth amongst the many musicians converging on the underground club. As the Sixties loomed, so did a new generation of bands, all addicted to the raw and raucous sound of Chicago Blues. The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds (the luminary group which counted Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Robert Plant amongst its constantly shifting roll call of musicians) and The Who all played residencies at the club, which in 1964 moved to its classic home of 90 Wardour Street.

As the Sixties blossomed The Marquee became a mecca for the music that seemed to be changing the world. Jimi Hendrix played what experts and archivists consider to be his best ever gigs at the club, and Cream, the supergroup formed by Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, played some of their earliest shows there. Fleetwood Mac, who’d played firstly at the Oxford Street site, were regulars on stag, as were Manfred Mann, who broke the record with 102 shows at The Marquee Club between ’62 and ’76. Perhaps the only two bands notable for not playing the club were The Beatles and The Kinks.

The Seventies brought with them a new breed of musicians, and the club became an important testbed for new musical movements. Yes and Pink Floyd took Rock in a progressive direction, whilst Elton John and James Taylor crafted a new role for singer songwriters. Towards the end of the decade the mood became became decidedly darker, and successive waves of Punk, New Wave and New Romantic bands played at the club. During the Eighties the club was home to the new wave of British Heavy Metal, whilst conversely playing host to artists such as U2, Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins.

Throughout the Nineties and early 2000s the club moved around the capital, first to Charing Cross before its ill-fated move to Covent Garden. It finally closed its doors in 2008, leaving behind a legacy that remains unmatched in London, and arguably the world.

For a much more detailed history of this hugely important club, visit www.themarqueeclub.net

Ondatropica

posted 04/07/2012

The British Council is a constant source of exciting and innovative cultural exchanges, even more so in 2012 with the Olympic Games coming to London. As part of their winning bid, the Olympic committee promised that should the games come to London, the cultural olympiad would be as integral as the sports, and true to their word there’s no shortage of incredible events coinciding with the games – many powered and promoted by The British Council.

One such event brings Colombia to the capital. Ondatropica, which was featured in the recent edition of Recommends, is a project dreamt up by two of Columbia’s proudest musical proponents: Mario Galeano, the driving force behind Frente Cumbiero, and WIll Holland aka Quantic, the prolific British born producer who relocated to Colombia to immerse himself in the tropically charged world of Cumbia.

The project is ambitious in its scale, and formed of three distinct phases. The first chapter found Galeano and Holland assembling a group of Colombia’s greatest living musicians, with three generations meeting at the legendary Discos Fuentes studio, Cumbia’s equivalent to Hitsville or Sun Studios. With a group of over 40 musicians assembled, they then wrote, arranged and recorded an album pretty much on the spot.

The second part of the project took the recordings (which will be released on an album via Soundway Records soon) as a starting point. A concentrated troupe of ten musicians then reworked the composition to work in a live setting, harnessing the raw energy and equatorial swing of the music.

Part three is perhaps the most exciting instalment, as the band cross the Atlantic and bring a taste of Bogota to London and Brighton. The band will perform the music they wrote some six months ago, forging a link between the UK and Colombia that’s all thanks to the imagination and energy of The British Council.

For more information visit the Ondatropica website.

“Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar!”

posted 15/06/2012

I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird
Frank Zappa

News has emerged that around 60 of Frank Zappa’s albums have been remastered and will be re-released over the next few years. The move has been fully endorsed by the Zappa Family Trust (headed up by the musician’s widow Gail), who have always fought to protect the integrity of one of America’s most singular recording artists.

Born in Baltimore in 1940, Zappa epitomised the free thinking spirit of the Sixties and adventurous – and at times indulgent – approach of the Seventies. Growing up, Zappa fell in love with the soulful simplicity early R&B and Doo Wop, but also developed a profound interest in little known Electronic music pioneer Edgard Varese, an Italian emigre who studied under Debussy before experimenting with much more challenging and Avant Garde music. These two separate strains would be life-long influences on Zappa, his prolific output generally sitting in one of the two camps.

His earliest albums, which will be the first see release, were recorded with his band The Mothers of Invention. Their debut, ‘Freak Out!’ is still regarded as a landmark recording, the scope and scale of the set so unprecedented amongst the music of the time that it counts as the first ever double album. What followed can only be described as relentless, with anything up to three or four albums emerging a year and Zappa, a confessed self-archivist recording pretty much every concert the band ever played.

His interests continued to diversify throughout his career. 1969′s ‘Hot Rats’ album ushered in a new phase of improvised Jazz, whilst two years later he further extended his creative remit by writing and directing his first film, 200 Motels. A highly stylised portrayal of life on the road, the film starred Ringo Starr (as a dwarf) and Keith Moon (as a licentious nun). The early Seventies saw Zappa lead The Mothers through one of their most accessible periods, with sets like ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ and ‘Apostrophe(‘)’ reaching mainstream audiences, though never compromising the band’s musical complexity.

The group’s line-up changed to suit Zappa’s musical ambition, and over the years gave early breaks to musicians such as George Duke, Steve Vai and Alice Cooper. It proved to be to constrictive for Zappa though, and by 1976 he had become a solo recording artist. Unbound from his major label contract and free from having to co-ordinate and account for an entire band, Zappa’s work throughout the rest of the Seventies and Eighties was astounding in its range and volume; solo guitar albums and orchestral works were released alongside three disc live albums and electronic interpretations of Eighteenth Century chamber music, whilst on rare occasions concessions were even made for the Top 40 audience (see ‘Valley Girl’, a satirical take on the Californian youth of the late Seventies, featuring Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit on lead vocal).

The pending re-releases are sure to win over a new audience for this maverick of American music, not least because it will be the first time the majority of his output has been made available in the digital format. For more information on the campaign visit the website maintained by the Zappa Family Trust.

The Resurrection

posted 11/06/2012

 

For many years it seemed The Stone Roses were consigned to the pages of Rock history, as Ian Brown and John Squire both repeatedly dismissed any notions of reforming the iconic band. In 2009 Squire, who had spent the previous five years concentrating his energies into art, even went as far superimposing a message over one of his own works in response to rumours of a comeback tour. It read “I Have No Desire Whatsoever To Desecrate The Grave Of Seminal Manchester Band The Stone Roses”.

Late last year the band delighted fans with a momentous u-turn, calling a press conference to announce two huge comeback shows at Manchester’s Heaton Park. Those present saw straight away that the quartet’s chemistry was fully intact, with jokes being cracked before they’d even sat down. When asked about what had changed since the aforementioned artwork, Squire replied “Everything changed when me and Ian started seeing each other again. We went from laughing about the old days to writing songs in a heartbeat. In a way, it’s a friendship that defines us both… and it needed fixing. Two phone calls later and the band was no longer dead.”

Last month, with three Heaton Park shows sold out and looming large on the horizon, excitement levels rose even further when a free concert at Warrington’s Parr Hall was hastily arranged. Fans were asked to bring an item of Roses memorabilia, the first thousand receiving a wristband for what many considered a life affirming event – the first Stone Roses concert in 16 years. The set list was aimed squarely at the hardcore, the emphasis placed firmly on their classic debut album. Subsequent singles ‘Fools Gold’ and ‘I Am The Resurrection’ were notable in their absence, but presumably they’ll reappear at the end of June when the band return to Manchester.

Director Shane Meadows has been on hand throughout the reformation, the band charging him with documentary duties. A life-long fan, Meadows first met Ian Brown at a Banksy exhibition in Bristol and has kept in touch since, even inviting the singer to appear as a policeman in his award winning series ‘This Is England ’86′. He jumped at the chance to make the documentary every Stone Roses fan wants to see, and has set about the task with trademark rigour. His commitment to the cause is mirrored by that of the band, as Meadows himself pointed out in an interview in December. “I saw them rehearsing one verse of Bye Bye Badman for an hour yesterday,” he told one journalist “I looked at that and thought ‘They are taking this ******* seriously!”

Steve Reich

posted 01/06/2012

Steve Reich is widely regarded as one of the World’s greatest living composers, his tireless approach to cutting edge composition and arrangement unlike that of almost any other musician. His five-decade long career has seen him ascend from  New York’s vibrant and now much vaunted underground scene of the early Seventies to become cherished the world over, with European audiences particularly in awe of his vast and varied canon.

Though his background would be generally considered Modern Classical, Reich has applied his ear to an incredible range of music, from the most experimental Avant-Garde to the instinctive drumming of indigenous tribes people. Along the way he’s also inadvertently laid seeds for sub-genres as divergent as Hip Hop, Techno and Dubstep, with many artists and producers taking from his enduring principle of repurposing and renewing existing sounds and sources and create something completely new and original

This summer he will return to London for a much anticipated show. He is now stranger to the Capital; in 2006 the Barbican held a massive retrospective of his work, and as recently as last summer his piece Drumming was performed on the Southbank. This month the setting is a little different, as Reich is one of the headliners of Bloc. The weekend long celebration of electronic music moves into the inner city for the first time and establishes London’s newest and perhaps most striking event space – London Pleasure Gardens in the Royal Victoria Docks. The once derelict space in the heart of Olympic London will provide a thrilling back drop for this most individual of events.

Reich will perform with the Bang On A Can All Stars, a fluid group of NY instrumentalists all drawn form the festival of the same name. Together they will revisit some of the highlights of Reich’s unparalleled career, though a full running order is yet to be released. Looking further into the future, Reich is already booked  for a return visit to the Capital in March 2013. He will perform with London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall, and premiere a brand new work with its roots based very much in the UK: Radio Rewrite will be inspired by the work of Radiohead, with Reich taking on the Oxford band’s celebrated music and creating something completely unique.

For more information on Bloc, visit the festival’s website.
For a more detailed overview on Steve Reich and his work, visit his website.