Album review: Mark Edgar Stuart, ‘Mad at Love’

Artist: Mark Edgar Stuart
Album: Mad at Love
Our Verdict: 9/10
Release date: Out now
Find it at: Spotify
Review by: Graeme Blackwell

Soulful, tender new album sees Mark Edgar Stuart grow into his own skin as a solo performer

Love, confusion, illness, existential crisis, friendships, break-ups, anger, reflection; they’re all here on Mark Edgar Stuart’s tender new album, Mad at Love, out now via Madjack Records.

Couched in the arms of Stuart’s warm, wry croon, and despite the album’s title, Mad At Love finds the Memphis-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist worn and battered but still very much hopeful and determined in the face of the all-too-real challenges of human life here on planet earth.

Addressing themes of growing into the responsibility of human relationships in insightful and poetic ways, Stuart’s sharp observations are lifted up by the free and soulful playing of the superb team of musicians he has gathered around him. Bolstering Stuart’s own nimble picking, Al Gamble’s organ is a highlight of the collection as it swirls around the arrangements, leaving space where needed and soaring at just the right moments.

Likewise, the sturdy bedrock of Landon Moore (Bass) and John Argroves (Drums) gives an expert foundation on which John Whittemore lays down the ache of his steel guitar, lending proceedings just the right air of quiet resolve and introspection.

At the time of the release of Mark Edgar Stuart’s previous album, Trinity My Dear, after years as a musician in several highly regarded bands, he observed of his own artistic development: “The most uncomfortable part becoming a singer songwriter was the singing part.” On the evidence of Mad At Love, Stuart has grown into not just his own voice, but his writing, guitar playing and maybe, just maybe, his very own skin.

Mad At Love is out now via Madjack Records.

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Album review: Tanya Gallagher, ‘Virginia’

tanya-gallagher-virginia-album-coverArtist: Tanya Gallagher
Album: Virginia
Our Verdict: 9/10
Release date: Out now
Find it at: iTunes
Review by: Graeme Blackwell

2 years in the making, Tanya Gallagher’s new album is a paean to travel, love and life’s journey

Themes of journeying, time and place loom large over singer and songwriter Tanya Gallagher’s new album, Virginia. The title track, “Monterey”, “The Ship”, “3002 Miles”; these intimate explorations of psychogeography are all perfectly fitting when you consider the gestation of this poignant collection of songs.

Born and raised near the Florida-Alabama state line, Gallagher spent her formative years studying environmental science, working odd jobs along the Gulf Coast and developing her vocal and songwriting skills in the local scene to help pay for school. A stint as a summer intern for NASA in 2009 gave her an introduction to Virginia, a place that she visited numerous times in the following years.

In 2013 Gallagher released her album Oh My Love, before up-rooting and driving across the continent to Vancouver to study for a PHD in forestry. She recalls of that time: “I know few folks in Canada, so most nights I sit in my room writing songs about heartache and home. My first friend in this new country is Brandon Hoffman, the musical wizard who mastered my last album. We spend nights in those early months recording the songs for the album in his living room.”

During a visit to her parents’ house that Christmas, Gallagher wrote and recorded Virginia’s title track using a Martin guitar that belonged to her late friend, Dave Schlender. “I swear he whispered the tune into my ear,” she says. But as research for her PHD ramped up, Gallagher found herself writing and recording less and less, and the songs went unreleased for more than two years. Until now.


Tanya Gallagher

A touching, country-inflected collection of melodic folk, the spare instrumentation and arrangements across Virginia beautifully showcase Gallagher’s strong and supple voice, an elegant and graceful instrument in itself. Often accompanied only by acoustic guitar, Gallagher sings in deep, warm and intimate tones, invoking the spirit of Joni Mitchell and, periodically, the insistent rhythms of Ryan Adams’ more uptempo solo work. Occasionally breaking into a conversational style and augmented by brushed drums and intermittent electric guitar licks, Gallagher’s vocals serve her insightful and poetic lyrics extraordinarily well.

And what poetry. Consider “A Farewell To Arms”, a song that holds up a mirror to a relationship between two lovers, and in doing so traverses the tensions between not just personalities, but world views, faiths and philosophies. “Like Moses down the river // I wanted nothing more than to be found by the King // But you with your antics // String theories and romantics // Have other philosophies”, sings Gallagher, seemingly skewering the binary rift that all too often characterises debates around science and religion. “He said it’s him or me and me not him // Now don’t you see it’s all pretend // It’s time that you laid down your arms // But I refuse to give in // Forgive me Father for these sins // And darling, don’t act so alarmed.” Sublime.

As a song, “Virginia” reinforces notions of the passing of time, how a place can influence a person, and how the past can be brought to life even when parsed through a contemporary filter. Beginning with the sound of crackling vinyl, Gallagher’s voice initially sounds decayed and distant, as if broadcasting from an earlier time and place (and in many ways it is). The early-folk style is soon underpinned, however, by lush, contemporaneous vocal harmonies, and the combination is enthralling. The juxtaposition of the modern and the vintage creates the perfect backdrop for Gallagher to illustrate parts of her personal journey and her strong sense of place: “And Raleigh, we were lovers // Richmond, we were friends // By the time we came down from that Blue Ridge town // Florida, we were lovers again… Virginia, my friend // I have fallen again // Oh, Virginia you’ve stolen my heart.”

If things are beginning to sound a little saccharine for you, fear not. These songs don’t shy away from the stinging realities of life as it is lived. The warmth of home is often tempered with the ache of heartbreak, and even acerbic epistles from a wry and angry place. If it isn’t the unfaithful lover at the heart of “The Ship” who “…will take any old port in a storm”, it’s the biting message for the departed paramour of “3002 Miles”: “Are you happy now? // You are happy now // I hope your happiness is true // Now that you’ve gotten all you wanted // I just wanna’ say, fuck you.”

Emotionally authentic snapshots of a thoughtful earthly life; a paean to family, friends and lovers and to a ‘southern’ way of life; Tanya Gallagher’s Virginia is, at its core, a collection of soulful hymns written by – and for – a questing heart; contemporary psalms rendered in Laurel Canyon-esque Americana.

“Virginia taught me love, it taught me heartache, but most importantly it taught me that a home away from home can exist,” says Gallagher reflecting on the album now. “I’m grateful to the friends who encouraged me along the way – and of course, to Virginia. These songs are just as much for those people and that place, as they are for me.”

Connect with Tanya Gallagher at:


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Album review: Hands Off Gretel, ‘Burn The Beauty Queen’

hands-off-gretel-burn-the-beauty-queenArtist: Hands Off Gretel
Album: Burn The Beauty Queen
Our Verdict: 8/10
Release date: 16th September
Find it at:
Review by: Graeme Blackwell

The raging fire of 90’s Riot Grrrl alt-rock returns with a vengeance

Hands Off Gretel’s “World Against She” points directly to the febrile tension at the heart of the band’s explosive debut album, Burn The Beauty Queen. It perfectly illustrates the meticulous and intricate nature of this ferocious set of songs and the way in which it navigates its way through a complex web of human emotion, juxtaposing self-aware strength and total confidence with the weight of the opinion and expectation of others.

“According to these people // That are spying through my pupil // I am never gonna get shit right! // But I know I’m right!… // According to these people // I am worse than every evil // And just maybe I believe they’re right! // But I know I’m right!”

In that tension is an insightful mix of self-knowledge and self-doubt that runs not only through Burn The Beauty Queen’s music and lyrics, but every aspect of Hands Off Gretel’s hugely compelling aesthetic. Drawing heavily upon the influence of the grunge and Riot Grrrl scenes of the 80’s and 90’s, every part of the band’s art takes established and limiting perceptions of the self – often imposed and reinforced by outside influences – and turns them squarely on their head.

The album title that challenges contemporary notions of beauty; the fierce DIY way Hands Off Gretel conduct their business; the painstakingly hand-drawn album and poster art; the stage-wear adopted by frontwoman and creative powerhouse Lauren Tate that points to the tilted darkness at the heart of the fairy-tale dream; Burn The Beauty Queen wants to overturn and upend every lazy and accepted stereotype you’ve ever been boxed in by, and every lie you’ve ever had forced upon you as the truth.

Hands Off Gretel’s journey began in earnest with the songs featured on their EP My Size. Having discovered the likes of L7, Bikini Kill, The Distillers and Hole, and developed her commanding, gravel-toned singing voice through cover versions of her favourite songs, Tate ultimately recorded a solo collection of original material, Reflections, building a band around it in the process. That band developed into Hands Off Gretel and 4 tracks of self-penned, grunge-inflected punk rock that dealt with themes of personal identity, confusion, desire and the letting go of fear.

Photo: Kimberly Bayliss

Months of touring, rehearsing, writing and a line-up change later, Burn The Beauty Queen picks up these threads and develops them into something bewitching and substantial. It is an album that has a brash and energetic immediacy about it, but reveals its careful craft and detail over time and with repeated listens. For every snarling, mid-tempo rager such as the blunt but magnificent “Oh Shit”, there is an equally impressive “Under The Bed”, its rising and falling chord progression bonded to arresting guitar lines that snake their way through the arrangement and take you by stealth and surprise.

Indeed sonically, Burn The Beauty Queen hits that sweet spot that saw grunge dominate the mainstream for much of the 90s. Angry enough to please the punk crowd; heavy enough to catch the ear of the metal cognoscenti; melodic enough that discerning pop fans will sit up and take note. The album never once tries to be all things to all people, but nevertheless has a real cross-over appeal.

It’s a notion borne out by the likes of “Teethin'”, its insistent guitar motif a memorable hook that drives the song to an explosive finale, crowned by an exemplary vocal performance from Tate. And there’s that thrilling underlying juxtaposition again, this time presenting a singular and knowing drive to get what you want in the context of the imagery of a teething child: “I don’t get what I want // And I will not let go // I’ll scream and I’ll scream till it’s mine // And I’m a teethin’ girl // I control my world // I don’t get what I want and I’ll cry.”

“Awfully Miserable” tackles self-sabotaging malaise head-on in visceral terms: “I have this voice under the bed // That says I’m meant for more // Although I do believe // I breakdown to the floor // And bash my brains out // I’m so bored.” The song plays out like the nihilistic cousin of the aforementioned “Under The Bed”, a track which sees its narrator tantalisingly close to something resembling emotional release: “My hands are held // My eyes they roll // And standing right beside the door // The light, the light, the light.”

Those of a cynical disposition might point to the similarities between Hands Off Gretel’s material and that of Tate’s musical heroes such as Courtney Love or Brody Dalle and cry foul. But that would be to miss the point. Hands Off Gretel wear their influences proudly on their sleeve and make no bones about the tradition in which they work. The themes and complexities in their music speak to an audience in the way that the best art always does, allowing for authentic connection, identification and a sense of not being alone, hopefully acting as an agent of change through the empowerment of that same audience. The fact that Hands Off Gretel’s music works so well speaks volumes about their hard work, talent, passion and will to succeed.

If you thought that the kind of grunge-laden alt-rock that drove the 90’s Riot Grrrl scene was long since dead, think again. It transpires that it was only dormant, awaiting a worthy successor to the crown.

Connect with Hands Off Gretel at:

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Album review: The Decoy, ‘Avalon’

Decoy-avalonArtist: The Decoy
Album: Avalon
Our Verdict: 8/10
Release date: Out now
Find it at: Amazon
Review by: Graeme Blackwell

The Welsh alt-rock trio unleash an inspired debut, elevated by a touch of myth and legend

Welsh alt-rock trio The Decoy’s 2015 EP, Parasites, was a remarkable beast. The band managed to pack more ideas into its 20-odd minutes of music than many bands do into their entire discography. Incorporating elements of tech and math-rock, metalcore, punk and reggae into its mongrel body, it was the aural equivalent of a well-intentioned slap to the face: refreshing and focusing with an ultimately life-affirming sting.

On the face of it then, debut full-length Avalon picks up roughly where Parasites left off. Gaming culture, punch-ups in mid-sized Welsh new towns, the state of the modern world, the problems of being young and lanky and an outlet for personal frustrations, the album has it all.

The title Avalon lends the collection a mythic status and suggests a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. The Isle of Avalon is of course the place where the legendary sword of King Arthur, Excalibur, is said to have been forged, and where the King supposedly went to die. It is also a place the location of which – or even existence of – cannot be agreed upon by most. Nevertheless, its legend endures and retains its power to inspire, move and thrill in equal measure, qualities which The Decoy’s Avalon shares in abundance.

Indeed, across its running time Avalon succeeds in elevating its vignettes of Welsh small town life to the level of myth and legend. Opening track “Black Mountain Radio” – a reference to the radio station of the same name that features in video game favourite Fall Out: New Vegas – begins by sounding distant and full of static, fighting its way across the airwaves of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, before galloping through several changes of rhythm and pace. It would be all-too-easy to assume that the song’s choppy, changing nature was a mark of a lack of coherent vision, but taken in context it feels more like distinct musical movements, perhaps representing the different tracks broadcast across the broken radio signals of that same post-fall out world.

The Decoy 2016

If that all sounds a little bombastic however, the fact that this particular wasteland happens to be Cwmbran adds a personal, poetic focus for the material, with no small amount of humour in the mix. For all the proselytising above about myth and legend, tracks such as “Cold” – on the face of it the story of a can of Coke speaking in Shakespearean terms to whoever is about to crack the fridge door and drink it – bring ingenuity and wacky imagination to proceedings, sample lyric: “Can’t sleep? // Crack my head and drink me dry // I’m cold aluminium // And I hope I taste of Pure Avalon.” But then isn’t rendering the plight of a can of Coke in Macbeth-like language mythic in itself?

Elsewhere it’s the small details that shine through. “Habit” tells the tale of a lover (stalker?) obsessing over the minutiae of his object of affection: “I love the way your lip gloss tastes from your coffee mug.” Set against a backdrop of monstrous alt-rock guitars, it does what The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” did for compulsive infatuation, but with a tech-rock twist.

“Lion” delivers a nuanced, lyrical state-of-the-world address: “Freedom by definition has no fee // And if you cannot be charged // You will not receive.” The air of linguistic subtlety is juxtaposed brilliantly against a gigantic squall of thrashy, up-tempo guitar and – be aware, those of a sensitive disposition! – liberal use of the word “cunt.” Mythical Kings and their magical weapons aside, The Decoy’s way with a profane quip should establish their legend in itself.

Ultimately The Decoy may orbit the same sonic world as the likes of Reuben, Biffy Clyro or Press To Meco, and they are all reasonable reference points if you need them. But it is the band’s expert navigation and representation of everyday life, writ heroically large by a backdrop of complex and inventive musical adventure, that sets them apart. Much like the figures rendered on Avalon’s cover art, standing on the shoulders of a stone giant seemingly cleaved from the bedrock of Avalon itself, The Decoy have mined the world around them, internalised it, and cut gems of real beauty from what they have processed within. May their legend abound.

Connect with The Decoy at:

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Album review: Servers, ‘Everything Is OK’

Servers Everything Is OK coverArtist: Servers
Album: Everything Is OK
Our Verdict: 9/10
Release date: 19th August
Find it at: Amazon
Review by: Graeme Blackwell

The UK’s Servers deliver their outstanding second album

In 2014 Servers delivered their stunning debut album Leave With Us, a rough-hewn thing of dark beauty that seemed as though it had been cleaved from the bowels of the earth itself. It was at once both a damning vision of the future and a commentary on a shared shadowy, feudal past.

At the time of its birth, it might not have been clear to anyone except Servers themselves quite how prophetic Leave With Us would turn out to be. In the 2 years since its release it is perfectly possible to argue that the world has spiralled down into ever more confusion and unrest. The continued rise of the political far right; ever widening gaps between the super-rich and the poverty stricken; terrorist atrocities driven by inward looking governments, war, ideological disparity and religious fundamentalism; everything about Leave With Us and its examination of cults, control, chaos and a lack of reasoned, critical thought now seems like it was a highly prescient and insightful harbinger of what was yet to come.

It’s the perfect time for Servers to return with their follow up then, the aptly – and deeply ironically – titled Everything Is OK, unleashed on the 19th of August via Undergroove Records.

The next chapter in the band’s assault on the world of heavy music is heavy indeed. It is immediately apparent from opening track “Spells” that the songs presented here are more dense, layered and crushing than the band’s previous efforts. The rhythmic thrum of Ant Nettleship’s drumming coupled with Lee Wilde’s quake-inducing bass are gripping in their intensity.

That weightiness carries through into the album’s themes. Obsession, social conformity, civil and political upheaval, the tools by which we create and accept our own oppression, the means by which we might finally break free from all of the above: they might not be new concerns for Servers, but the nuance with which they are explored and the real-world context into which they are presented makes them all the more urgent and vital.

The increased might hasn’t come at the expense of Servers’ sonic identity, though. Everything Is OK marks out this group of South Yorkshire’s finest as being remarkable for the way in which their songs are immediately recognisable as their own. Be it a particular descending chord progression, THAT guitar tone or Lee Storrar’s momentous vocal delivery, Servers have unparalleled auricular distinctiveness.

Servers 2016 - Mark Latham Photography
Photo: Mark Latham

With the new material comes progression, too. Tracks such as the hugely impressive and excoriating examination of one man’s paranoia-induced existential crisis that is “My Friends Are Enemies”, or album closer “Into The Grave”, foreground new electronic tones and textures that work brilliantly as part of the wider musical tapestry. Whether they are providing ominous choral overtones, introducing a particular melody or adding a glitch-ridden and gnarly air of dreadful menace, they exist only to serve the songs and illustrate Servers’ untouchable songwriting craftsmanship.

And Everything Is OK really does demonstrate how finely honed the band’s writing skills are. Rather than gimmicks or quick and easy payoffs that lose their fascination in double-quick time, the album is one that reveals many of its details gradually. As immediately pulse-quickening as much of the music here is, the collection is an expert lesson in the thrill of slowly building tension followed by epic release, and a testimony to how paying attention to the smallest of details provides some of the greatest and most rewarding results. Be it the lead guitar break that comes just shy of four minutes into “I Will Make You”, the slow-burn beginning and towering coda of the Charles Manson referencing “Unconditional”, or the unexpected but perfectly judged harpsichord intro to album centrepiece “Codes”, Everything Is OK proves Servers to be one of our nation’s greatest and most under-sung heavy songwriting units.

Peers? There’s something of Swedish heavy metal titans Ghost’s stately metal elegance about Everything Is OK, and yet it’s not without a sense of fun or humour. The synth-led opening bars of “Into The Grave” recall Tool’s calliope intermissions on their landmark 1996 album, Aenima, for example. And whilst Servers never venture into their extended progressive explorations, there’s also something of Tool’s rhythmic dynamism to Storrar and Co’s new material. Queens Of The Stone Age and Killing Joke are surely influences, too.

But it would seem perverse to spend any more time making comparisons in relation to a band that stand squarely on no-one’s feet but their own. Servers are one-of-a-kind; a unique prospect in British metal, and in Everything Is OK they have created a more than worthy successor to their already impressive debut; an album of subtle progression, devastating thematic heft and breathtaking heavy music.

The track listing for Everything Is OK is:

Servers Everything Is OK cover01. “Spells”
02. “My Friends Are Enemies”
03. “To Hell With You”
04. “Unconditional”
05. “Our Lady of Bad Counsel”
06. “Codes”
07. “I Will Make You”
08. “Recklessly Extravagant”
09. “Bodies in the Ground”
10. “Into the Grave”

Servers will launch ‘Everything Is OK’ on Friday the 19th of August at Barnsley Rock & Blues. Support on the night comes from Hands Off Gretel, Awooga and Fear Lies. Tickets are available on the door priced at £5. Doors open at 7:30pm.

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