Art, Science, Exploitation (Cryonica)
~reviewed by Uncle Nemesis
Well, I never thought I'd see the day.
Swarf’s album has been such a long time coming it makes the gestation period of the blue whale look positively hasty. It’s taken four years and three record labels to get this album out, a crazily extended saga which I’m sure has left the band chewing their fingernails with frustration.
Briefly, here's the story. Swarf's debut release, the Fall EP, came out on the Wasp Factory label in 2000, and the band's combination of lilting tunes, seriously groovin' beats, genuinely meaningful lyrics, and a glorious female vocal immediately pushed them to the top of the contender-tree. But the superstardom which many people - myself included - predicted for Swarf didn't quite happen. The band left Wasp Factory to team up with Cubanate's Marc Heal, who not only came on board as Swarf's producer, but also planned to set up a record label of his own with Swarf as the flagship act. Alas, after the expenditure of much time and effort by all parties these arrangements fell through, leaving Swarf with four tracks in the can and nowhere to call home. Fortunately, the Cryonica label was on hand to provide a safety net, on a 'you finish the album, we'll put it out' basis. Swarf shut themselves away in their home studio for what seemed like forever, and - at last! - we get to hear the results of their efforts. And you know what? It was worth the wait.
Against the odds, Swarf have created an album as smooth and cool as ice cream, a collection of genuinely moving songs, wrapped up in effortlessly assured, silky, slinky, electronica. I’m sure this album would have the critics salivating if someone like, say, Faithless had come up with it - and I make that particular comparison quite deliberately, because while Swarf might have emerged from the electronic end of the UK goth scene, their music illustrates that they’re creatively in a very different place now. Curiously, Swarf still seem to regard themselves as a goth band, and personally I reckon that if anything is likely to hold them back now, it’ll be their instinctive tendency to think in terms of the narrow horizons and small ambitions of dear old Brit-goth. But this album puts Swarf in no-shit contender territory. It’s confident, characterful, even, dare I say it, commercial. It’s shot through with real songwriting talent, real musical ideas. There’s detail and minutiae in the Swarf sound, but also a sense of space, an overarching feeling of breadth and headroom, as if Swarf have plugged their synths and their sequencers into something much bigger than themselves. The sheer range of ideas at work in the music is impressive: the nifty little cross-rhythms, the fills and spills, the nips and tucks, fitting themselves so neatly around the band’s trademark plaintive melodies. Despite Swarf’s endearing, if rather misplaced these days, faith in the small world of goth, this is in no way a goth album. It is, however, unequivocally a good album.
But wait. Let’s cork the geyser of praise for one moment, and utter a word of caution. There are, it must be said, a couple of moments on the album which betray the less-than-ideal circumstances which surrounded its production. Not that these get in the way too much, but they’re there. For example, it sounds to me like the album starts off with a glitch. The opening track, ‘Vision’, simply erupts into the listener’s ears without the slightest build-up or intro. The song just crash-starts in a way that makes me think someone’s done a rather over enthusiastic editing job on it. This is one of Marc Heal’s productions, and overall the sound has a lush depth to it that works extremely well. But maybe the track was cut down to size at the mastering stage, to fit a pre-determined running time? Or maybe it’s *supposed* to start like that? In any case, I wish Swarf had eased us in, rather than immediately dumping the full weight of the track on us, like a bucket of water balanced on top of a door to suddenly drop upon the unwary. But once you’re over the ‘Ouch!’ moment of the unceremonious start, ‘Vision’ settles down to a cool groove, with Liz putting that characteristic lilt on the vocal line which in itself is a great deal of Swarf’s appeal. The lyrics mine a somewhat mystical seam, with references to ‘A solar pathway leading straight to the sun’, and I’m reminded of the Swarf-fact that the three members of the band - Liz, Andrew, and Chris - first grouped together at the Glastonbury festival. But even if you didn’t know, you could guess!
Track two itself is ‘Supine’, a familiar song, inasmuch as it’s cropped up on assorted compilations and promo singles over the last few months in various mixes. Here, it unfurls lazily, with, ironically, exactly the kind of slow-build intro that would’ve made it an ideal contender for the opening track on the album. This is a slice of cool, classic trance, a genre which seems to be Swarf’s natural territory - at any rate, I experience a sudden desire to dig out my Trance Europe Express compilations as ‘Supine’ unleashes its layers of shimmering synths, precision engineered to get the entire Ministry Of Sound experiencing an epiphany on the dancefloor. But if you’re assuming that Swarf intend to spend the entire album down the disco, think again. The next track is ‘Shadows’, a gorgeous mood piece akin to vintage Cocteau Twins. It’s built around deep, murky, drifting tones, and given structure by a relaxed, natural, almost jazzy drum beat over which synths slither and play, as Liz gives us a yearning, wistful vocal. A small but perfectly formed tour de force.
‘Grey’ sees Swarf tipping their hats to 80s electronica, even to the point of using a little synth-chatter that recalls The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’, and a lyric which picks up on the musical theme with lines like ‘Nostalgia crowds your mind...’ Incidentally, techie-trainspotters might like to note that if you listen on headphones and a decent hi-fi (not your computer with its crummy soundcard and weedy speakers!) you can hear the ambience of the room as the mic channel is opened, just before the vocal comes in - an endearing little touch of real life on what is in other respects a song built on synthetics.
We stay with the vintage theme for the next track, but in this case it’s Swarf’s own past that is hauled into the light, as the band give us a refreshed version of ‘Fall’. This all-new recording has the polished sheen which characterises everything here, and yet it still seems oddly old-skool, perhaps the closest thing on this album to ye olde electrogoth as the glowsticks brigade up at the Slimelight would understand it. It’s still a very fine song, mind, with its classic build-ups and breakdowns, and that neat little skipping snare sound cropping up like a mischievous child as the rhythm swaggers along. ‘Fall’ also has one of Swarf’s finest lyrics, pieced together with the band’s trademark combination of rhyme and alliteration: ‘We fall/For the fools that lead us/We fall/For the lies they feed us/We fall, we fall/We fail to see it all’ - now, could I just take a moment to point out the brilliance of that? Note, please, the way the ‘F’ sound comes in again and again, building up a rhythm of its own. Note the deliberate, yet effortless, way it’s done. After all, an inferior line like ‘We just don’t see it all’ would scan and rhyme, and keep the same meaning - and a lesser band might employ just such a form of words. But not Swarf. They throw in that essential word ‘fail’ and score the double. Alliteration and rhyme in one line - and I’m sitting here grinning like a fool at the band’s adroitness.
‘Sorrow’ finds the band in torch song noir mood, on a slo-mo, piano-driven number with a loping, jazzy, drum-rattle prodding it along. There’s an exquisite melancholy here, as there is in many Swarf songs. ‘Can you kiss an empty shell?/Find water in a barren well?’ sings Liz, as if she’s staring into the eternal void of nothingness. This is a quite disturbingly bleak song, if you’re brave enough to figure out the lyrics, and even though it ends on a note of optimism (‘Open your eyes...’) it does illustrate the fact that we’re dealing with a band of some creative depth here. If it’s happy-happy-joy-joy music you want, something harmless and gormless to fuel your pilled-up gyrations on the dance floor, you might wish to approach Swarf with caution. There’s much more to this band than merely that.
All of a sudden, we stumble over another production-glitch. The track listing on the CD inlay assures me that the next track is ‘Subtext’. Oops. It’s not. It’s ‘Drown’. Somehow, the order of tracks on the CD itself doesn’t fit the order given on the cover. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, is going to get their arse kicked for that balls-up, but it’s a bit late now. It’s ironic that here we have an album that’s taken the best part of four years to make, and in all that time nobody could spare a couple of minutes to proof-read the small print. Still, once we’ve figured out exactly what we’re listening to, ‘Drown’ is a delight. It’s an incongruously jaunty number about alcoholism, and further proof, if proof were needed, that just because Swarf make a groovin’ dancefloor sound doesn’t mean that their lyrics need be trite party-party banalities. The lyric incorporates more of those fiendishly clever alliterations - ‘It’s been so long since you saw straight’ sings Liz, lining up her sibilants like sitting ducks. This, in a way, is the quintessential Swarf song: an insistent groove, a meticulously detailed arrangement, and a soaring, swooping vocal delivering clever, pithy lyrics that are a whole lot darker than you might at first expect.
Then ‘Subtext’ turns up, a little later than advertised, but it’s still a welcome guest at the party. This is an unashamed, full-on club anthem, but it’s eclipsed by its neighbour, ‘Motion’, which is, perhaps, Swarf’s ultimate fire-on-the-dancefloor tune. It’s a rolling, thundering floor-packer, with, unusually for Swarf, a lyric which seems untypically upbeat and optimistc: ‘There’s always tomorrow/The future’s a golden haze’. But then they qualify the optimism with a note of caution: ‘I can hear something/Sounds like a warning’. That’s Swarf all over. Every silver lining has a cloud!
And so, we approach the final curtain. The last track here is ‘Reflect’, and it’s a wistful, introspective thing, bookended by what sound like heavily treated guitar sounds, as if Swarf stole the souls of The Jesus And Mary Chain and imprisoned them in their effects units. A rising tide of string sounds floods in, as some bongos and beats take the rhythm for a little dance, and Liz sings of the past, the path from there to here. It’s genuinely moving, to the point where I find myself prodded into thinking back over my own life and times, and getting all misty-eyed about people and places I haven’t thought about for ten or twenty years. Now *that*, ladies and gentlemen, is effective songwriting - and this, as if you haven’t got the message yet, is an outstandingly good album.
It’s just a pity that the odd little glitches prevent Art Science, Exploitation from being the faultless tower of competence that it really should be. There’s simply no excuse for mixing up the track listing on the inlay, and while we’re in that area I have to say I’m not over-impressed by the cover artwork as a whole. It seems to me that Swarf are simply doing the standard goth-band thing of hiding behind a piece of blandly anonymous ‘design’ - in this case, three puffs of smoke. It’s as if Swarf are trying to tell us that they’re flimsy and insubstantial and will soon get blown away - which hints at a strange lack of confidence, as if the band can’t quite bring themselves to be assertive enough to create a genuinely eye-catching cover. All it would take, surely, is a photo of the band. Swarf have a strong visual image, and they have some supercool promo photos already in the can, a legacy of their time with Marc Heal's label.Why not use one of those shots for the cover, which surely would tempt record store browsers in a way that those little fluffy clouds will never do? As it is, the only band-photos are inside the inlay, and are nothing more than three small, separate snapshots which don’t even show the members of the band *together*. It’s ironic: a band which wrote a song called ‘Vision’ seem reluctant to give potential fans a sight of their true visual identity.
So, what are we to make of Swarf? A brilliant band, tripped up by production problems, and let down by their packaging? Well, maybe. But, leaving the hitches and glitches aside, Swarf are something special, and I hope that the next year or so will see them breaking out of their incongruous orbit around the UK goth scene, and setting a course for stardom. They’re easily good enough to achieve it, but it is going to require a deliberate steer away from the goth zone, and that’s something Swarf have never been quite ready to do thus far. Meanwhile, the rest of us can simply revel in this album - the sound of potential bubbling up to the breakthrough point.
see LIVE photos of Swarf in our Photo Gallery
The (corrected!) tunestack:
The website: http://www.swarf.info
The community: http://continuum.swarf.info
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to
When it comes to electronic music I prefer ethereal, experimental or ambient, because no limitations produces distinct individual composition. When it comes to electro pushing towards dance, or industrial, you’re into serious hit and miss territory, where the singer must have character or the whole process is identikit. Swarf’s Liz can flit through tracks with confidence - which is why they cross over into Goth, as they have personality, the human touch - but it doesn’t happen consistently here to create a lasting impression, even if the album grows in strength as it goes along.
The ten tracks all have one word titles, which is iffy, and that semblance of order spreads across this record as an even-tempered balance, reducing many tracks in status, and we’re usually talking racks, not songs. And if I get the titles wrong that’s because the sleeve is wrong. ‘Vision’ isn’t a good opener; light electro with dull and drippy lyrics, followed by ‘Supine’ which is club dance of conviction, and the rhythm is sleek, but the beats don’t cut it sharply enough to add anything emphatic to the sound. Vocals swirl airily to the point where you forget them and then when it picks up in the second half, evolving a post-techno touch of steel, the vocals come back in with no evident change so it all falls away!
‘Shadows’ is great, and shows why there was compatibility worthy of supporting the Eves, being a gloomy/dreamy hybrid. Staying slow gives the Julianne impersonation real purpose. ‘Grey’ is a little livelier, but keeps on settling behind the sedate vocal stroll and by the time Liz hits some sharper moments the synths have gone onto aimless autopilot. ‘Fall’ has more atmosphere early on, which creates an interesting feel, but it’s on a even downward incline, towards mildness. You could stick a violin on this and it’d be a Corrs remix! What, assuming they have one, is their overall view? Track 6, (mistitled ‘Sorrow’) has more unusual percussion and rhythm, so they’re switching from the seriously anonymous to having natural depth, which implies they’re in a confused state. More Julianne vocals, a lightly spray of venom, but a song, not a track, which is excellent.
Then back to dancey ambition with the genuine ‘Sorrow’, where the rhythm is steady and it has a good chorus, except that the pleasant vocals don’t rise up and go with the intensity. ‘Subtext’ is a wonderful song, and the best one here with streamlined vocals which fit the flow, and the heavy ending indicates what they’re capable of. ‘Motion’ is starker. The vocals do start worryingly slight but keeps up with the required urgency, and for once they let the pulse do its work. All the more effective for it. Then they with a little epic, ‘Reflect’, which is woozily artistic, with vocal dominance, the music idling submissively, and if it doesn’t take you out with a big bang, it’s got a lovely mood.
So, plenty of good bits, yes, but there’s an equal amount of anodyne offerings. You’ll even need to turn your volume up more than normal because the whole record seems quiet, and the question I ask is, why the timidity, in all quarters? Surely no-one ever formed a band saying, ‘I’d just love to create some songs which are fairly conservative, with little pace’?
They can play well and Liz can sing well, so I hope this reveals they’re at some stylistical crossroads, and the next album will be a cohesive work, because this certainly isn’t.