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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Schoolyard Ghosts No-Man

A perfect post-rock manifestation…

Schoolyard Ghosts

Whilst huge swathes of the prog-metal world has fallen at the feet of Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, it’s always seemed that his most interesting work from a textural and melodic viewpoint has taken place within the more sepulchral confines of No-Man.

Alongside vocalist Tim Bowness, he’s been crafting delicately beguiling records since the late 80s. Their last album, aptly titled Together We’re Stranger (2003) showed their capacity for getting beyond obvious shoe-gazing introspection in favour of some really unsettling journeys into the interior.

Wilson’s impeccably marshalled arrangements glide through moments of down-strumming folk-like affirmation (“Beautiful Songs You Should Know”) to devastating blasts of prog-pomp ceremony (“Pigeon Drummer”) though after the blissful introductory track, “All Sweet Things,” the spiritual centre of the record is found on “Truenorth.” 12 epic minutes of cinematic proportions with an orchestra arranged and conducted by Canterbury Scene supremo, Dave Stewart (ex Hatfield And The North), a skittering flute solo by cult wind player, Theo Travis and kaleidoscopic guitar patterns make this an outstanding achievement on an album already brimming with ideas.

Bowness’ lyrics have a detached, documentary-like quality to them. Be it the most intimate flickers of emotion or a tangential, seemingly irrelevant detail, all are caught in his gaze and given equal weight in these stark accounts of heartbreak, abandonment and self-doubt. Yet there’s nothing removed or remote about his singing. His trademark existentialist croon smoulders with emotion and empathy for the hapless retinue of lost souls inhabiting No-Man’s carefully crafted world of late-night heartache, rain-swept affairs and bitter-sweet long-lost summer days

Yet darkness lurks below the glacial beauty of the surface. Perhaps the best example of this is found on the pensive and disconcerting closer, “Mixtaped” which offers an eerily absorbing glimpse into lives trying to cope with a lover’s rejection. Half-way between The Blue Nile’s soul-searching melancholy and the edgy menace of Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk, it’s an utterly compelling tour through the abyss of loss, loneliness and regret.

The sustained air of woebegone reverie with its masterful blend of voice, surges of orchestral strings and icy ripples of retro-sounding guitar suggests that Schoolyard Ghosts is not only No-Man’s finest album to date but is arguably the post-rock equivalent of Sinatra’s Only The Lonely. It really is that good.


joesh said...

Hi Sid

Nice to look back over your reviews every now and then. This time I bumped into this in your best of list (2008?) and was curious to see why you like this band. I've noticed that many people share your view and I expect that the phrase 'everyone to their own' certainly comes to the fore when thinking about No-Man.

Of course everyone to their own etc, but I'm completely amazed at the success of this band and of the music. It's very obvious that Steve Wilson and Tim Bowness can make music but the rather over produced sentimentalism and wedding cake production on all their material is .... beyond belief.

What made me chuckle out aloud is that No-Man was just above the Mike Osborne Trio's All Night Long review in the best of list, and you couldn't get more diametrically opposed than that. Intense burning music straight from the soul with no pretensions, just painfully honest.

Thanks for the reviews, always interesting.

Sid Smith said...

Hi there Joe,
I know quite a few folk who find No-Man hard to take - especially the vocals. Another criticism of the band I've heard is that they are less than the sum of their album collections.

I kind of get that one in a way as they definitely wear their influences very much on their sleeves.

For me, I can find myself drawn into the world they create and spin - sometimes glossy, sometimes pretty, sometimes dark and drawn.

I was very moved by some of the lyrics on this album particularly because they described in very specific details something I'd experienced directly myself. So, when writing about this album, I couldn't help but be taken with it.

There's also a track called Mixtaped which, a couple of years after its release, remains an absolutely stellar piece.

That's the weird thing about music; it can touch us deeply or not at all. The fact that I can get worked up about Mike Osborne and No-Man with almost equal vigour speaks to that.

All of which, leaves us with the point that I totally understand why someone might not like No-Man or find them over-rated.

Don't get me started on U2!

joesh said...

Hi Sid

I love the U2 comment, had to laugh out loud on that one.

Of course you're right on the personal aspect of the music, often the most important part when relating to something. This accounts for the success of MOR hits such as 'Still Crazy After All Those Years' or a James Taylor tune.

I must wonder what (and I love them) people related to in the early Genesis lyrics? I can see the 'Fly on the Windshield' being a particularly good reference to life in general (LOL)!

Anyhow, to make you laugh a little I must say I regularly try to re-listen to a No-Man album hoping to find out what the point is, but no luck as yet.

As for don't get me started - should be a blog post for people to add on their personal remarks .... what about 'Sweet Billy Pilgrim'? ...... just kidding.

All the best.

Sid Smith said...

In respect of early Genesis lyrics (ie for me Trespass - Lamb)what appealed to me mostly was the sense of fantasy - vaguely sci-fi(ish) in nature, or Tolkieneque (I was an avid Tolkien reader at the time).

A lot of these things were just picked up intuitively without necessarily needing to understand anything in detail. How else do you get your lugs around whatever Jon Anderson was singing about, or for that matter, King Crimson.

"Night:her sable dome scattered with diamonds fused my dust from a light year, squeezed me to her breast sowed me with carbon, strung my warp across time" for example.

No idea what any of it means but, somehow at a deeply visual manner, it kind of all made sense.

As for listening back to an artist to see if works, all I'd say is it took me nearly 30 years before I put A Passion Play by Tull on before I "got it".

I never assume that just because I don't like an album now doesn't mean that in ten minutes or ten years time the penny won't drop.

joesh said...

Indeed, indeed. I think that the great covers of these records also gave you plenty of fantasy space to dream in. I also have fond memories of the 'Magician's Birthday' cover, or was that 'Demons and Wizards'?

Yes you're right about what do they mean. I seem to remember Jon Anderson saying exactly the same thing, and he wrote the lyrics!

As for 'Passion Play' I have to confess it's probably the only Tull album I've never heard - I don't know how that happened. I will definitely dig it out after this mini discussion.

As an added extra I should say that I have (somewhere) photos of my mum drinking tea with Ian Anderson. He used to come round to our next door neighbours sometimes, although I'm not sure of the connection. My mum used to often be around there and being a musician I think (imagine) she used to chat about music with him. Just imagine this 40 year old primary school teacher chatting away with Aqualung himself!

Looks as though we should definately get together one of these years to drink a pint and discuss music and beyond.

All the best.


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