Lapis Lazuli – Brain

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It’s practically incomprehensible that Lapis Lazuli have only been in my consciousness for a year, given that the first time I became aware of them was at the Canterbury Sound event last October, where, with due respect to the various academics, writers and contributing musicians, they rather stole the show. Scarcely believable because having gorged on their entire back catalogue within the months that followed, they’ve become such a familiar sound to me that the anticipation surrounding the impending release of their fifth album ‘Brain’ was for me, very real. That Canterbury gig was one of the first to showcase a band shorn of the integral sax sound of Phil Holmes – and whilst it focused on two tracks from the then current album ‘Wrong Meeting’ it also featured a band member (bass player Luke Mennis) who had not recorded on that album. So, unbeknownst to me, the band I saw was in transition, not that you would have guessed from a performance that was both compositionally complex, sonically innovative and unbelievably polished.

In retrospect, it is now clear that the band’s sound was becoming more uncompromising, understandably dominated by two guitars and their effects, set against a rhythm section including the extraordinarily versatile drummer Adam Brodigan, who rarely settles into a groove for long. Whilst the first couple of albums flipped between any number of styles, be they Latino, reggae, Balkan or jazz, softening their impact through extended lineups which incorporated brass, flute, accordion, extra percussion, didgeridoo and even occasional vocals, there is a real sense that Lapis Lazuli have arrived at a definitive sound and style, discarding all fripperies (if not necessarily all Frippisms) en route.

So what does ‘Brain’ sound like? The 5 pieces, clocking in at 10 minutes or so each (mere snippets in the band’s history of extended compositions), are guitar heavy, funky and intricate. There’s no jamming here (for that you need to listen to the band’s alternate ego, which I’ll link to at the bottom of this review), just a continuation of the most tightly composed music I’ve heard since National Health, delivered alternately in joyful or tortured fashion. Yet beyond that it’s so difficult to pin the band’s sound down: in an attempt to try and describe it I’ve played it to various people in the rash hope of pigeonholing the music – but when the responses vary from Sonic Youth to Gentle Giant, the Ruts to Rush, you know you’ve got a job on…

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What is indisputable is that the centrepiece of the album is ‘Hired Soul’ – which provides the memorable whistle-along themes for this album in the same way that ‘School’ did for ‘Wrong Meeting’. The style smacks of the Eighties, is Foalsesque even, with its anthemic, almost pompous melodies and the fulsome keyboard chords produced by guitar, before one of many forays back into Seventies funk. Any doubts that this is the effect that the band was aiming for are dispelled by the ‘Hired Soul’ official video, the latest in a series by Brodigan, this one clearly a take on aspirational fitness videos from that era with its own ‘Green Goddess’ in the lead screen role. Whilst you’ll find elements of this track impossible to get out of your head, you wouldn’t be able to reproduce more than half a minute if asked to recall it unplugged – as with most Lapis tracks it’s gloriously twisted.


‘And Stay Out’ and ‘Low Key’ are more dominated by recognisable guitar sounds, but no less complex, the latter paradoxically introduced by a Spaghetti Western guitar line which suggests briefly that the band might be straying into Tortoise territory, and the former by that Ruts-like riff.  In fact ‘Low Key’ morphs into the wildest guitar thrash-out on the album, memorably captured in brief on the youtube clip ‘Neil Ascends’ here.

But before this, the band have already worked their way through a reggae passage, a stark guitar duet in some indecipherable time signature, brutally punctuated by crashing chords and followed by some ‘La Villa Strangiato’-like noodling. ‘And Stay Out’, is dare I say it, a more conventional series of rock riffs, whilst ‘The Slug’ is the stop start piece that had me laughing out loud during its performance at Kozfest. At the other end of the scale is ‘Falling Line’ , dominated by Luke Mennis’ bass, a Seventies jazz-fusion ballad cheesed out by some Alan Gowen-esque effects, bass meandering and a drum solo augmented by samba hand percussion which Mennis and Lander memorably add to when this piece is performed live. Whilst at times this track veers, quite deliberately, towards muzak territory, the edge is maintained by several ‘wrong’ chord progressions – clever stuff indeed.

For me the prevailing feature of  ‘Brain’ is the almost telepathic interplay between the guitarists: Neil Sullivan’s lead is evocative and Phil Milleresque in the way it ekes out a melody; Lander’s rhythm work, amongst the finest I’ve heard, alternates between funk licks and math rock structures.  This twin assault on the senses reminds on more than one track of Frederic L’Epee’s multi-guitarist bands Philharmonie and Yang, the latter of whom, like Lapis Lazuli retain a desire to rock through the intricacy. The pair contribute so many memorable passages, weaving in and out of sections which alternately pulverise and gently cajole, a case in point being the ‘Shower Scene’ section of ‘Hired Soul’ an alternative clip of which is here.

Ultimately though, it’s ALL wonderful stuff, a joyous nightmare to review. As one friend put it, Lapis Lazuli set out to confound, and they’ve certainly achieved that..

Postscript: this album is available direct from the band, and a vinyl version includes extra tracks not reviewed here.

‘Shall We?’ – a 30 minute improvisation by the band is viewable on Youtube here:


PHIL MILLER – A LIFE IN MUSIC – memorial concerts, 6 January 2019

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Phil Miller (1949-2017) would have turned 70 next January. In a double tribute concert (separate afternoon and evening performances) on 6th January 2019 at London’s Vortex Jazz Club (near Dalston Kingsland station), his music will once more be brought to life by an extensive line-up of those associated with Phil throughout his nearly 50-year career.

In various combinations, the 20+ musicians will perform a set of Miller compositions from his early bands Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and National Health, and then a second set focusing on the In Cahoots repertoire, the band he led from 1982 to 2011 which often performed at the Vortex.

The two concerts (at 4pm and 8pm) will feature variations in both repertoire and line-ups, to ensure enough variety for those who choose to attend both, but rest assured that Miller’s best-known compositions, including “Calyx”, “God Song”, “Underdub” and “Nan True’s Hole”, will be fixtures of both.

The bands will feature: Roy Babbington, Fred Thelonious Baker, Paul Booth, Doug Boyle, Sarah Gail Brand, Paul Dufour, Jim Dvorak, John Etheridge, Simon Finch, Mark Fletcher, John Greaves, Carol Grimes, Marc Hadley, Mark Hewins, Jakko M Jakszyk, Peter Lemer, Alex Maguire, Didier Malherbe, Patrice Meyer, Jack Adam John Monck, Michael O’Brien, Simon Picard, Trevor Tomkins and Nick Twyman.


Further news and updates (plus many previously unheard recordings by Phil’s various bands) can be found at:

Soft Machine: Hidden Details album review; Soft Machine Live at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge 9 November 2018

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The idea of strolling to your local venue to see the Soft Machine is something I would have considered preposterous when I first heard the ‘Third’ album back in 1985. Yet here I was seeing the band for the third time in 18 months, promoting their new album ‘Hidden Details’ to a sell-out audience at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.

‘Hidden Details’ has been in my possession since September and rarely far from my CD player since. Yet I’ve been waiting for the time, space and context to include a review of it on the Facelift blog. The impetus has finally come from this rousing gig, epitomising a surprisingly fresh direction for the band.  Whilst albums from the Soft Machine Legacy, the name under which this outfit toured and recorded as part of an evolving dynasty from previous line-ups involving Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper , were worthy enough, recent tours had given a sense that this band was tightening up its identity with careful selection of archive tracks from ‘Third’ through to ‘Bundles’ to suit its melodic motifs and rocky grooves. ‘Hidden Details’ adds the final pieces of the jigsaw through the authoring of a cohesive set of new tunes. My own feeling on hearing ‘Hidden Details’ for the first time, was that the band almost felt a sense of responsibility to live up to their newly shorn name. Chatting to saxophonist Theo Travis at the gig, the only member of the band who doesn’t hail from band line-ups in the early to mid Seventies, he echoed similar sentiments.

The opening bars of the eponymous title track which opens both the album and live sets are quite startling: the dissonant angular guitar theme with which John Etheridge launches affairs is untypical of the Soft Machine from any of its eras and as such is an almost a statement in itself – this rumbustious track, powered by Roy Babbington’s growling fuzz bass and John Marshall’s omnipresent drumming makes it clear that this is not a band to rest on safe ground. If Travis sets his stall out for the album with a rousing tenor solo, it is if anything surpassed by the Frippian high notes at the end of Etheridge’s finishing shot.


But this is just for starters.  With a set list which includes at least half a dozen tracks played from ‘Hidden Details’, the majority of which add rather than detract from the overall impact, it’s clear that certain elements from the previous repertoire had to give, and the chief casualty appears to be some of Etheridge’s stately guitar themes from ‘Softs’. And so convention is swiftly discarded, with even ‘Life on Bridges’ with its memorable anthemic melody played in triplicate in unison by guitar, sax and bass, dissolving into a ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’-like mess. Whilst not played live, there are further sonically uncompromising tracks on the album such as ‘Ground Lift’ and ‘Flight of the Jett’ which confirms that the band are not content to hide behind an undoubted gift to craft beautifully accessible melodies.

That said, there remain instantly identifiable Etheridge tunes, ‘Heart Off Guard’, with wonderful Travis soprano soloing over acoustic guitar; whilst the more electric ‘Broken Hill’, aired memorably live, contains perhaps the most evocative Etheridge guitar theme of the album. Elsewhere, ‘One Glove’ sits somewhere between the heavy rock grooves of ‘Seven’ and various post-Softs compositions from Hugh Hopper, with strutting guitar and sax to add. This one went down a storm live with Roy Babbington in his element.

Three tracks which the band were already playing in their repertoire prior to ‘Hidden Details’ are included on the album and are now staple parts of the set list– all are distant nods to the past, with ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ one of many tracks to benefit from Travis’ dexterous flute, plus two parts of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’, the latter introduced through an innovative triggering of samples and effects from the keyboard of Theo Travis;  followed by the track’s main theme duetted by guitar and sax – Travis’ solo is a joyous romp through a much loved Softs ‘standard’.

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The live set is completed by other notable pieces carefully picked from the discography – the funky ‘Gesolreut’, a highlight from their gig in Manchester a year ago, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, which started a much-deserved encore, Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’, beautifully crafted, and a medley including ‘Tarabos’ and the inevitable set ender ‘Hazard Profile’. The latter two were separated by a quite unexpected, lengthy and almost angry drum solo from John Marshall, quite remarkable in its dexterity, almost a raging against the years.

It was interesting seeing the band in a small provincial environment, subtly different from the more metropolitan audience I saw the band last play to where the audience was consistently appreciative throughout, but never quite lost their cool. The Trades Club audience are a fickle lot, took a while to warm up and then seemed to be colossally won over by the end with a noisy primal adulation which I think took the band a bit by surprise. John Etheridge is a charming, self-effacing, slightly mischievous front man, taking time between each tracks to ingratiate himself gently with the audience – with lovely references to both how tonight contrasted with the band’s seamless, non-verbal interactions in the Seventies, (Mike Ratledge was outed as only ever having spoken to an audience once, when an entire rig went down!); or somewhat closer to home relating the story of the band’s extended trip that day from Scotland to the night’s accommodation, including an only too familiar stakeout close to the venue on a single track road where two vehicles (one belonging to the band) refused to budge for the other. It seems almost patronising to mention the band’s vintage (Marshall and Babbington are in their late Seventies) but to produce musicianship of this demanding nature on a regular basis with set lists lasting up to 2 hours cannot pass without mention – it was an admirably high class performance.

Final word must go to ‘Hidden Details’ – a hugely impressive album whichever way you look at it. After you’ve worked your way through many of the tracks described above, you’re left with a final couple of pieces, not contained within the live set but well worth waiting for. ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is a weaving piece which jams lightly around a fine Babbington groove with superb flute from author Theo Travis. There are hints here of Seventies band Catapilla or perhaps more pertinently, the Forgas Band, and strange to say that Etheridge’s subtle, understated guitar licks are amongst my favourite moments from him on the album. The vibe is continued in more meditational mode on the lovely dronish ‘Breathe’, and one could not find a greater contrast with the album’s opening salvos. Perhaps the only evidence on view that the band are considering winding things down – let’s hope not just yet…