1. Pyjamageddon 4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough 4:21
3. Yockenthwaite 3:59
4. Metal Trees 4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave 5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain 3:55
9. Long Shore Drift 3:33
10. Rubber Road 3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered 3:34
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone – guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)
In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.
Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.
Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.
Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.
All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.
After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.
From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.