Thursday 31 July 2014

The Bilinda Butchers - Heaven

Album review by

Life loves nothing more than being a contrary tease, one that drops obstacles on the road to our aspirations and offers diversions with routes contradictory to the desired destination. So it is for those of a creative bent, who all too often find that their initial passion-fuelled wish to capture a little slice of their vision of heaven, can steadily become mired in an intricate and prolonged journey that begins to weigh heavy like a hellish torment.

One suspects this could be a feeling The Bilinda Butchers are able to relate to. Though the creation of their debut album didn't exactly see them cast into the depths of Tarturus, it certainly appears, from digesting a series of the bands' blog entries, that the recording process at very least began to resemble an indefinite spell in purgatory, where ideas and expectation tangled with the practicalities of, you know, actually getting the thing done! With no St Michael the Archangel swooping down to fight the good fight, the role of protecting this particular stretch of 'Heaven' fell on another Michal, who, along with band mates Adam and Ryan, had no choice but to battle on through the dark days determined and compelled to bring their lofty ambitions to fruition.

That the maturation of the record proved such a struggle is perhaps testament to two factors. Firstly the passion and precise desires the San Franciscan trio hold for their art, and secondly, that 'Heaven' is a concept album, one whose themes (forbidden love and entangled emotions) are universal but whose narrative and framework (a recounting of a young woman's entries in a fictitious 19th Century Japanese diary) are complex and creatively demanding. Let's be honest here though readers, concept records can at times be a lesson in pretentiousness can't they? All too often an artist labours on in ever decreasing circles of quality, while losing sight of what we the listener most care about, namely hearing some great tunes!

Delivering heart melting melodies has never been a problem for The Bilinda Butchers before though, and it's a pleasure to report that there's no sign they plan to stop now, because thankfully, putting the interesting back story to one side, what 'Heaven' ultimately holds at its core are a series of wonderfully crafted, effortlessly impressive, and most importantly, properly formed songs. In doing so it also showcases what is arguably the young group's most diverse collection of material to date.

Not that opener ‘Ume’ would necessarily lead you to believe this to be the case. While the band themselves may have recently been vocal in their desire to distance themselves from the dreampop and chillwave tags attached to their previous work, this introductory ode to romantic thought, is firmly fixed in the familiar woozy and sweeping synths that characterised 2011's 'Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams' EP. Indeed, long term fans should worry not, because while the trio's repertoire may have expanded for the better, they certainly haven't discarded dreampop altogether - The Radio Dept. styled spoken word segments that litter the record bear witness to that. Nope, rather than ripping up the roots of whence they came, they've instead spread outwards and in doing so blossomed into something ever more beautiful.

Evidence of this growth is readily apparent as early as second track 'Less Than', a breezy pair of minutes which channel the spirit of paisley underground and college rock, to topple 'Teen Dream' as arguably the bands purest pop dalliance to date. The lovely lush, warm synths and garden chatter of 'Old Style Amami' woo next up, before one of the LP's real high points, 'Shadow Beat', appears on the horizon. A grinding rock chorus marks the band heaviest blast to date, but it's the warped atmospherics and oriental melodies of the verses and middle eight that provide this composition with its hypnotic beauty, while, intriguingly, the drum rhythms bring a touch of hip-hop to the table, akin to that prospered by 9th Wonder or 'Low End Theory' era A Tribe Called Quest.

Not prepared to let that standard tail off, Sarah Psalti is drafted in to provide vocals on subsequent number 'Golden House', her Carol Decker-esque delivery casting a breathy, impassioned air over the type of big sounding 1980s electronic pop that Sarah's previous collaborators Keep Shelly In Athens will surely approve of. With the excellent DJ Shadow reminiscent 'New Style Akashi' marking the midpoint of proceedings, the interlude of a rainstorm outro supplies the platform into which the fleet fingered, solid gold guitar riff of last year's single 'The Lovers' Suicide' is able to launch in marauding fashion; familiarity has not dulled its impact in the slightest and it's this tune that bestows upon the record its zenith, amongst what are unravelling to be numerous towering moments.

For break-beat backed 'Tanka', Josh Davis is again at the forefront of the mind, though the band's original source of inspiration, My Bloody Valentine, are also deserving of due acknowledgment. Significantly the latter's influence is further carried forth into the chunky electro rock of'‘Edo Method' which is likely to sit well with fans of The Big Pink, before, set to the sound of water lapping and children at play, 'The River Sumida' softly assembles a reflective and peaceful prelude to the LP's final knockings and the diary's denouement. Dazzling with the funky freshness of jangle-pop inspired Prince and the rhythmic fluency of The Stone Roses' 'How Do You Sleep', 'Heaven Holds A Place' is an impossibly upbeat acceptance of impending suicide. Layers of angelic harmony and soaring falsetto propelling the track, and the record as a whole, into the coveted realms of its celestial title; it is in short, a gem.

One final uttering of explanation from our heroine as to her new found emotional equilibrium and the chronicle comes to its close; a tale that evolves from discovering and chasing a dream, onwards through weary struggle and pain, finally resolved in the tranquillity of a glorious conclusion – you know, perhaps the recording process was simply a embodiment of the story. Thanks Bilinda Butchers, this right here is 'Heaven'.

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