ALBUM REVIEW: MJ Guider – Sour Cherry Bell

Sour Cherry Bell (Kranky) is the second full-length release from New Orleans-based artist Melissa Guion, who releases music under the moniker MJ Guider. It primarily deals in atmosphere. Guion uses heavily processed electronic textures, often drenched in thick treacle-like reverb, to create moody and evocative soundscapes. There are synthetic drum sounds, but this is certainly not dance music. The emotion-laden washy chord sequences recall the 1980s “Gothic” music and perhaps the “shoegaze” that followed in its footsteps, but this is music that doesn’t fit neatly into any category. Many of the sound-worlds have a lush warmth which lends them a meditative quality, but there is also an unsettling element of tension, as though dissonance and harmony are in competition with each other. Guion’s voice is tender and graceful and with it, she weaves flowing melodies. But the voice is often intentionally distant – buried in the mix and concealed by long reverb tails. It feels as though Guion has intentionally engineered a situation where opposing elements battle it out for dominance. These songs could have been presented in a radio-friendly indie package, but instead, the melodies and words only just lift their heads above the walls of noise that encase them. It takes audacity and boldness to attempt this sort of approach which flouts so many of the accepted rules of composition and music production. It seems that Guion was pushing the boundaries of her creativity and her tools: “I was curious to see how far I could go with them, even if that meant reaching the ends of their capacity to do what I wanted.” Continue reading

Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog

Even if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “There are no second acts in American lives” has anything approaching a ring of truth, then, clearly, no-one told Seattle’s Alice in Chains. It is now sixteen years since the untimely death of the band’s original lead singer Layne Staley, a troubled soul whose battles with drugs and depression were a significant element in their art, most notably on the widely praised and equally widely loved album Dirt. Continue reading

Katatonia – Sanctitude

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Initially pulled together as a tour to promote Dethroned & Uncrowned (KScope), which reworked the bands 2012 album Dead End Kings (Peaceville), the Katatonia acoustic tour of 2014 took on more significance with the decisions to expand the set to a full career-retrospective, booked in cathedrals, churches and chapels, and documented via Sanctitude (KScope)a live DVD (plus audio CD version) filmed at London’s Union Chapel.

With the reverent gothic backdrop of the inside of the chapel, and accompanied on the stage only by candle light and music stands, it is not only in the re-arrangements of the music that this is a different Katatonia, with vocalist Jonas Renske and guitarist Anders “Blakkheim” Nystrom the only remaining members from the band’s “classic” line ups. Even the group for Dead End Kings has been torn apart, with Per Eriksson replaced by Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief) and Daniel Moilanen filling in on percussion, for the tour.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of the film is Renske and his world-weary croons and Nystrom’s and his reworked guitar lines. The addition of Soord is beneficial, as his supporting strums, softened backing vocals and supplementary keyboard work swell and embellish the Swedes delicate framing of a selection of their back catalogue.

With the bonus features of the DVD extending to an overlong and, sadly, boring interview only (which is a shame, as Nystrom in particular has a passion for the band that glimpses out of some of his answers that is untapped by the lack of interaction with a presenter), the focus of Sanctitude is the live performance. Unobtrusively filmed so as to feel as though the watcher was front row of the show, the band are sat throughout with Renske displaying dry self-deprecating wit during his low key exchanges with the audience.

While the minimal staging and direction match the stripped down songs, there is a nagging feeling that a shorter set would have made a more striking impact as several of the songs, shorn of their apparel and original guitar lines, sound too similar and at 80 minutes, attention does wander, particularly early on, and it is interesting that the set draws you in as it unfurls rather than impressing from the outset. Indeed, the opening five songs pass by pleasantly and prettily enough, nice renditions that blur together, until ‘One Year From Now’, the first real standout moment, is unveiled, showing just how well an acoustic Katatonia track can be done.

Other notable moments include ‘Sleeper’ and a dark, melancholic ‘Undo You’, while ‘Lethean’ spreads out into an introspective chorus as Renske’s Maynard-esque harmonies lilt and drift with the song. ‘Omerta’ carries a folky edge and ‘The One You Are Looking For’, complete with guest performance from Silje Wergeland (The Gathering), is an understated and sparse ending to the performance. However, the true show-stopping moment is a bare version of the rarely visited ‘Day’ from Brave Murder Day (Avantgarde), the track that first showcased the real template for the Katatonia sound.

Where Renske and Nystrom take the band next will be interesting to see, but one can’t help feeling Katatonia are better with some oomph to their songs. Not one for the casual observer, this is a release for the dedicated as Sanctitude draws a beautiful, if not fully encapsulating, end to another chapter of the bands career.

 

7.5/10

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STEVE TOVEY