Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Scene Worth Celebrating Again

The Early Years - Like a Suicide

As documented many times on TWNR, I was a teenage shoegazer. Ride posters on my wall, Ride T-shirt on my back, sporting the duffel coat/Converse combo, silly girls hair and a winsome, fey expression permanently etched on my fizzog. Now I consider myself to be a massive fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the scene, but everything pales into insignificance when compared to the shoegazer extraordinaire, Nathaniel Cramp of Sonic Cathedral. Nat has single-handedly resurrected the shoegazing genre, breathing new life into the much-maligned scene (Richey Manic famously said he hated it "more than Hitler") with club nights and a record label. If you want some more background info, we wrote a piece about Nat and Sonic Cathedral back in 2007 - you can find it here.

Nat's mission statement, as told to Jude Rogers in the Guardian, was to "contextualise shoegazing in terms of its influences and inspirations". But as well as looking back, Sonic Cathedral is also moving forwards, so the music he releases on the label is not a tired, hackneyed tribute to the original shoegazing scene. Instead, Sonic Cathedral represents everything that is great about music TODAY. Nat's eclectic A&R policy and fine ear has led to him releasing a series of phenomenal singles. All hits. No misses. That is quite an achievement in this day and age. If I were a major label I'd be getting Mr Cramp on my payroll quick smart...

Just how consistently great the Sonic Cathedral label output has been becomes evident when you listen to 'Cathedral Classics Volume One' - a compilation of the first eleven 7" singles released on the label since 2006, out on CD on April 20, 2009. It is, without a doubt, the best compilation I have heard for eons - a real throwback to the classic Creation compilations that were a testament to Alan McGee's A&R talents during the 1990s.

Kicking things off, The Tambourines' 'Sally O'Gannon' is a heady burst of fuzzy guitar pop - like Jesus and Mary Chain crossed with the Dandy Warhols. Courtney Taylor-Taylor (one surname not enough?) of the aforementioned Dandys would cut off his cock and flog it to Satan to still be writing songs this good.

For the label's second single, Nat rolled out the big guns - the union of Mark Gardener and Ulrich Schnauss was one made in heaven. The latter's remix skills transforms the former Ride man's heartbreaking country song, 'The Story of the Eye', into a lush slice of celestial folk - not so much shoegazing as stargazing. They should make an album together and then I can die happy.

Another shoegaze luminary to feature in the Sonic Cathedral oeuvre is the former Slowdive mainman Neil Halstead. He rocked up on the seventh single, remixing the San Francisco folk rocker Miranda Lee Richard's tender country ballad 'Lifeboat' and transforming it into a feedback-drenched slo-mo trip hop wonder, more reminiscent of Portishead than Halstead's former band (for whom the phrase 'sonic cathedrals of sound" was originally coined).

Things get really post-modern with the re-interpretations of tracks from Japancakes instrumental treatment of My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless'. James Rutledge (aka the mighty Pedro) turns 'Soon' into a bleepy microhouse marvel, the swoons and groans of the original just about audible amid the bonkers skittering electronics, while Ricardo Tobar's reworking of 'Touched' is six-minutes of blissed-out, technoid brilliance - a Balearic classic in the making.

But the stand-out single for me is The Early Years (Brian Eno's favourite band) dark epic 'Like a Suicide'. A distorted, pulsing drum machine holds everything down, steady as a metronome, while a melody reminiscent of Joy Division's 'Isolation' hovers into earshot. It all shifts up a sonic gear when the vocal drops - a Gary Numan-esque baritone intones, "I'm not falling apart, just into pieces", before a guitar is mangled to death. Fuck Editors - this is how a 21st-Century Joy Division would have sounded.

Having said there are no misses, I am not the biggest Kyte fan. Under their own steam the Leicester band are unremarkable; their overwrought, piano-heavy torchsong 'Planet' is just a little too close to Keane for my liking. But when James "Maps" Chapman gets involved it's a different story - his remix of 'Secular Ventures' transforms the band into a credible proposition - imagine early-OMD with spikey Aphex rhythms. They should ask him to join full-time.

Elsewhere, Maps and M83 swap remixes, the Contino remix of Sarabeth Tucek's 'Something For You' is a comedown classic, and Sonic Boom goes all Radiophonic Workshop on Dean & Britta's (of Galaxie 500 and Luna fame) 'White Horses', a cover of a 1960s kids cartoon theme tune. And finally, with SCR011, the label released something resembling old school shoegaze - the bloody marvellous 'Within the Boundaries' by Daniel Land and the Modern Painters, an epic soundscape reminiscent of prime-Cocteaus.

Nice sleeve too - a gloriously yellow pastiche of 'Loveless'. Hopefully this is just the start for Sonic Cathedral. The label is preparing to release its first artist album later on this year - from Sweden's Sad Day for Puppets, who sound a bit like the Concretes crossed with Dinosaur Jr.

Forget the scene, it's the label that is worth celebrating...

Buy 'Cathedral Classics Volume One' from Norman Records
Visit the Sonic Cathedral shop
Sonic Cathedral MySpace