Shift-Static


Some people call me The Prophet. Or at least they should do, because I’m always prophesying one thing or another*. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m always right, however – you’re reading the words of a man who championed The Bravery for a time – although in this case I feel vindicated. I was recommending Shift-Static a couple of years ago and, given recent outpourings of love for their latest EP, In Italics (meta-titling is the coolest new meta-nomenon on the streets, by the way) it seems I was right to do so. But let’s not focus on my spectacular eye for talent too much more, shall we?

In Italics continues the Newcastle five-piece’s journey into almost irritatingly unclassifiable generic territory. Stuttering between gentle ambient work and crunching electronics, this could quite easily descend into the sort of detached, inorganic noise that has never appealed to me. At least it would if not for Laura Smith’s constant presence at the epicentre of the band’s tracks. Her drifting, airy vocals pull every other element towards them, a softly swirling dust bowl of noise, menacing and beautiful in equal measure, surrounding the calm core of everything Shift-Static attempt. This is their trick – the eponymous flickering static of their instrumentation is employed not in and of itself, but towards a further goal, a far more traditional set of melodies lie at the heart of the occasionally spasmodic jumble of sounds they employ. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to feeling smug.

*It’s going to rain later.

Given that I’ve lived in Newcastle for nearly three years, I feel a little ashamed at complete lack of engagement, both on this blog and in general, with the local music scene. I’ve gone to plenty of gigs, but most have been out of town bands on tour and, in the usual way, now that I’ll be most probably leaving for pastures soon in future, my apathy is bugging me. This post won’t do much to allay that, but I can at least point you towards a couple of completely brilliant Newcastle acts, just for the sake of their excellence if nothing else.

First up is a band I’ve mentioned before, but who continue to amaze me, Shift-Static. They bear the questionable title of the Newcastle band I’ve seen live most (twice), and that dubious honour does not come lightly – their technical wizardry and mercurial genre-mashing comes across even better live than on record, simply because you can’t quite believe it’s happening. This five-piece specialise in oscillating between quiet, contemplative guitar work, Laura Smith’s swoonsome vocals and skittering, beat-driven electronic sections which, as a whole, is only anchored by a clear (and clearly well thought-out) sense of purpose in every song. On stage, this translates into a sort of wonderful dance, with band members constantly switching insturments and changing positions around Laura, an oddly apt physical manifestation of their sound. I was recently sent their latest recording, ‘The Furrow’, which extends the already excellent work of their debut EP (still, I believe, available for free on their Myspace page) into more ambient territory, shot through with a relaxed swirl of synth noise and the kind of claustrophobic build up Thom Yorke would be proud of. The final minute, a slow descent into silence is nothing short of beautiful.

Shift Static – The Furrow (YSI)

Our second act, Songs For Dead Sailors, is an artist I originally reviewed last year for For Folk’s Sake’s New Bands Panel. Chris Anderson’s one-man uke ‘n’ kick drum ditties avoid any problems caused by the sheer tweeness of his main instrument, instead becoming wonderful stories in a minor key. With so much attention drawn to the voice, it’s fortuitous that Anderson has the kind of buttery, engaging vocals that make it a positive treat to listen to whatever he has to say, and, usually, that’s something personally poetic (my personal favourite being, “She rubs a naked palm across my sunburned neck and I feel gorgeous”) It’s a mastery of minimalism that makes his songs what they are; quiet, dreamy and surprisingly deep for such sparse compositions. Plus, he employs the mouth trumpet to brilliant effect on ‘Dance of the Midnight Rats’, and what could be better than that? It’s unclear whether what he’s classed as demos will be reworked, or even if there will be any more material at all (his last update was in April), but this tiny cluster of songs are a wonderful beginning or end to a musical project. Now I just have to find out where he plays…

Songs For Dead Sailors – Springtide (YSI)

Here’s the second chunk of tuneful wonderment, and if you want the whole list in one easy-to-download package of delight, here’s the whole damn heap.

Manic Street Preachers – Me and Stephen Hawking (YSI)

I’ve heard the whole album in different sittings, and it really should be on my list, but I never actually bought it in the end, so here’s my favourite song so far – the perfect connection of Richey Edwards’ incredible lyrics and James Dean Bradfield’s rockstar guitar tendencies. The Manics recaptured their greatest form here, I just hope they’ve got more of the much-missed Mr. Edwards’ notebooks hidden away somewhere.

Meursault – William Henry Miller Pt. 1 (YSI)

Meursault have firmly rooted themselves on my ‘favourite new bands’ list, with their debut album and latest EP releases each blowing me away for different reasons. This song has an oh-so-catchy handclap chorus and lyrics about a hermaphrodite politician who had strange burial requests. What more could you want?

Meursault – William Henry Miller Pt. 2 (YSI)

I just couldn’t decide ok? The second half of this story sees a far slower, wail-filled affair, bringing the whole mood done somewhat, but for an entirely good reason. By the way, the band have just released new, more electronic, versions of both of these songs as new singles – get ahold of them from Song By Toad, it’s bloody worth it.

Phoenix – Lisztomania (YSI)

What list this year would be complete without Phoenix? This and ‘1901’ are just incredible singles, sure to become classic pop hits, and whilst I like both, there’s something about ‘Lisztomania’ that oozes cool, seeming to explode with noise at points, and yet never losing its feeling of easy-going charm.

Radiohead – These Are My Twisted Words (YSI)

Ah, Radiohead. How they can make me like what’s essentially a five and a half minute sinister freak out (not my favourite style I have to say) is a marvel. There’s something so beautiful about the directions and left turns they take, letting it wash over you before switching up again, never quite allowing one idea to go on for too long. It felt perfectly at home in their live set too, bridging the gap between their more abstract songs and the hits.

The Second Hand Marching Band – We Walk In The Room (YSI)

Making beautifully constructed songs must be difficult if you have a shifting set of over 20 musicians, but this song proves it can be done. Adapting a Beirut sound into a far more expansive and ever-growing proposition, the mass chants sound like a rallying call for fey indie kids everywhere, and it doesn’t succumb to the crescendoed heights it seems to suggest it will at points, a nice exercise in restraint that shows how such a large band can make understated music.

Shift-Static – Father’s Footsteps Pt. 2 (YSI)

Shift-Static describe their genre as shoe-step, embracing the disparate influences of shoegaze’s wall of sound techniques and dubstep’s shuffling, occasionally mournful beats. It doesn’t get much clearer that this is a perfect description when you listen to this. All Kate Bush swirling vocals to begin with before suddenly mutating into some quietly throbbing, beat-laden beast, it’s bloody weird, and bloody brilliant.

Thom Yorke – All For The Best (YSI)

This cover of a Mark Mulcahy song takes the best of Thom Yorke’s solo work and marries it to louder sound, allowing guitars and real drums to seep in somewhere along the way, perfectly complementing the sad yet ultimately redemptive tone of the lyrics.

Tom Williams & The Boat – Bonkers (YSI)

Tom Williams may be adept at creating folk-pop tunes that I love, but this hoedown version of Dizzee Rascal’s horrible, horrible song made me love the band for a whole new reason – their sense of humour. This just sounds like friends making music because they love it, with no ulterior motive.

Two Door Cinema Club – Something Good Can It Work (YSI)

This song can cheer me up in mere moments. There’s something so bloody wonderful about listening to a band just say, ‘yeah, things can be good’ and back it up with the most upbeat music you’ve ever hear. At the time that I heard it, they were unsigned and still playing little gigs; now they’re signed to cooler-than-thou Kitsuné and I saw them play Glastonbury. They’re going to be big, they’re going to make a lot more amazing songs, but this will always be the one I cherish most, because it feels like a band just believing in themselves, even when they haven’t achieved anything just yet.

Vampire Weekend – Horchata (YSI)

I simply cannot wait for the second album from these guys, and by the sound of this track they might have some new tricks up their sleeve. This takes all the African influences they love so much, cranks them up higher than they’ve ever gone before and puts it all on an avant-garde dance track. Freakin’ awesome.

The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig) (YSI)

Just after I talk about Ezra Koenig making an African-themed dance track, we have this, an… African dance track, featuring Ezra Koenig. It somehow sounds completely different though, using actual African samples as a base and building up from there. It’s an unadulterated slice of sunny pop, and a sure-fire dancefloor hit.

Withered Hand – Religious Songs (YSI)

Technically, it’s a song from 2008, but I’ve only heard this year’s Good News album version so I feel no shame in including it here. The lyrics are what makes this so brilliant, at times a twisted love song, at others a meditation on happiness and all the time wonderful. Lines like ‘How does he really expect to be happy/when he listens to death metal bands’ and ‘I knew you so long I ran out of cool things to say’ make me smile instinctively, and turn this into an instantly relatable song, totally human and never pretentious.

Having written this, I realise I’ve definitely missed some out, so if you want to tell me what you think I’ve omitted, comment me up!

What with the spirit of goodwill that’s being bandied around at the moment, I thought it only proper to recognise the achievements of those bands whose albums weren’t quite good enough (or didn’t exist enough) to be included on my end of year album list. So here we go, the unrecognised gems of this fair year of music.

This post has to be prefaced with that dreaded sentence: I know someone in the band. But fear not, despite any problems with objectivity I may have had, Shift-Static have made it very easy for me by being pretty bloody fantastic. A five-piece formed at Newcastle Uni, they played their debut gig last night in the lovely Head of Steam bar’s basement to a small but rapturous audience. It was also the first time I’d heard their work.

The music itself is hard to pin down, swapping from airy, sampled-beat soundscapes to more forceful, guitar-led sections. It meanders all over the place, resulting in lovely, sprawling songs that constantly take left turns, my personal favourite being the abrupt, and brilliantly fashioned change halfway through ‘Father’s Footsteps Pt. 2’, where the echo-laden first half is forced into the skittering Kid A beats of the second. The band seemingly want to shake the listener into not just drifting off and letting it all sweep over them. Laura Smith’s honeyed vocals worm themselves around each song, and (in the same fashion as Meursault lead singer Neil Pennycook’s voice) refuse to remain the focus, but drift in and out like some ethereal instrument. Every song seems to have been studied for its ability to seamlessly allow for interplay between Will Tasker’s lead guitar hooks, Gordon Bruce’s plaintive strumming and Laura Smith’s gentle piano chords. I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional, but for the live show Joe Barton’s bass was pumped up far higher than on the recordings I’ve heard, which resulted in a more melodic, punchy role for the deeper notes too.  As you can tell from this rather scattershot summing up of their style, this band won’t let one sound dominate their music, preferring to explore every avenue available to them as they progress through the songs.

As a live show too, it was brilliant to see how the band is constantly on the move, occupying different roles. It was essentially a choreographed dance around the stage as every member, and particularly drummer Charlie Bayler, rushed to fulfill their duties for each song. With each song lasting over four minutes at least, the set was only made up of five songs, but every one was received with an appreciation of just how much work has gone into each one. This is not a group who have just formed and forced out their earliest attempts at music, the music has clearly been toiled over and researched, fine-tuning it into the brilliant show it became. The fact that the band were bookended by two godawful cod-punk bands just made them stand out even more, and with the speed the CDs were being sold right after the set, it looks as though we have a lot more to look forward to from Shift-Static.

You can catch them play again, supporting Foot Village, at the Head of Steam in Newcastle on the 11th November, and if that’s a little too far for you to come, then you can listen to and download all five songs that have been released so far from their Myspace.

Shift-Static – Haystacks (YSI)
Shift-Static – Father’s Footsteps Pt. 2 (YSI)