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Life on the Ground
You may find, following meticulous scrutiny of my life’s work (to this date and for the rest of what time I am granted) that this review is the only evidence of my being prepared to listen to the whole of an album from the field of music known as Hip-Hop – at least, I think that’s what this is. It might be Garange or Junglie or Drum ‘n’ B (?check this).
My ability to compare this with other similar products is not overwhelming, and yet I feel drawn to have a shot at it, simply because one of the elders at my church (Phil Biggs) couldn’t bring himself to recommend it, which is a kind of advert in itself.
Barrowclough seems to be a fearsomely hairy evangelist with political views, unafraid to mix magic realism with folk tale and aggressive commentary with some of the most crafted rapping I’ve ever encountered. It’s the half rhymes ('oh, vowels will do') paraded by other performers in this field as freestylin’ – perhaps the term FirstDraftin’ would be a lot more appropriate – that depress me.
The whole package seems to emphasise making communication less clear. The mix, the speed of delivery, the distracting beats and even the tiny, smudged font on the artwork all make this product harder work than I feel it perhaps deserves to be. I know I seem a bit undecided (at least, I think I might be), but I really have no plumbline against which to measure this material. The CD inlay is deliberately understated, with a bird sihouetted against a beige background, and taking flight Coronation-Street-mallard-style across the back cover.
Okay, enough throat clearance. Let’s get to what are called (inexplicably) choones.
Embouchure, or not too sure
Reverence, the first track, is one of those hamburger shop moments (I don’t have them so often these days) when the gentle guitar arpeggio and swelling pads lulls you for 19 seconds into a false sense of genre before the biscuit-tin snare sets a new tone. Great first line of shouty, close miked Rex Harrison talking blues ‘The less said about my past the better/Never been a trend setter/Was enslaved/From my letters in Nepal’ or something, and that’s the way it carries on. So nearly entertaining, but my tired old ears can’t pick out all the syllables on account of the mix and the electrifying speed of delivery. The problem is me, not this musician. But here I sit, 25 seconds into the album, lost (yes, 6 seconds of lyric and I’m bewildered). Snakes alive! Upon what have I embarked?
H’mm. Maybe I should see the vocals as an instrument, adding texture and punctuation to the track, rather than trying to pick out all the meaning? Is it like Opera? You know, where the nutritionally overenthusiastic lady sings with such an affected accent that no-one but the writer of the libretto and the singer herself knows what she’s trying to say, because saying it isn’t the goal. The point is the ensemble sound… Don’t know. All I can say is that this track made me feel good about the grace of God (don’t know why, exactly), and was over 4 minutes on one chord, but not in a good Shine on You Crazy Diamond shimmering orange curtain of C minor kind of a way. Oh, lummocks, this might be a difficult hour ahead of me.
A clip of movie dialogue introduces Climb, which, by contrast is a mellow, jazz-style relaxed chill-out (perhaps). I get the impression this song is about the Glass Ceiling.
The lyric ‘I’m not an island/I’m not Paul Simon/Or Garfunkel for that matter’ in Ensemble Piece catches the flavour of Jonny Mellor’s (for it is he) exuberant shower of sparks approach to philosophy and friendship. Rather than a thoughtful treatise around John Donne’s poem, he lurches via intertextuality of the S&G’s denial and ends up referencing Masked Men with Native American sidekicks, fantasy football, Rambo... It’s been considered and written properly, even if it’s a bit drenched in modern culture.
Photophobia is another tone-poem, possibly about fear of the light. Maybe it’s a thoughtful examination of John 3:19,20. ‘I can’t believe how dark it is’ is a double-edged refrain.
The next track is credited as produced by The Terminator (the one that looks like a limping policeman who does that expensive morphing thing), but I may have misunderstood what was meant by the expression NS5000 (mimetic polyalloy). I feel I have lost touch with a lot of this, to be honest. Anyway, Centre of the Universe begins with big, crashing, harshly edited chords, and continues with rapid-fire delivery of stuff about super-heroes, worthlessness, games, insignificance – all delivered with affected glottal stops and endearing Jonathan Woss pwonounciation. The relentless music has a chord structure, however, and that makes the effect somewhat less aggressive. As it fades, the drummer (or drum machine programmer) signs off rather oddly.
Can you tell if I’m enjoying it yet?
Confusing as well as hirsuite
Inspiration is an angry outcry against REM or Andy Kaufman himself or Stock Aitken Waterman or something. Or judgement. Or salvation. Or a visit from the muse. I like the multi-layered lyrics towards the end, as inspiration seems to have fallen upon the central character.
In defence of the war on terror (and facial hair) is a comedy/anger speech about ‘the kind of beard that makes women join the circus’ and how ‘terrorists give beards a bad name’. It’s self-conscious and (probably) deliberately rather controversial. ‘If it’s good enough for the Son of God, then it’s good enough for me.’ Thank goodness I’m not supposed to feel worshipful in response to this album. And hallelujah that Jesus didn’t look like Mellor! Jesus looked like Luke Fellingham. We all know that.
The sideways look at sin and repentance in Blue Lights is potent stuff. ‘Could it be it’s time for you to turn yourself in? Could it be that running away’s not helping?’ There’s a film noir, smokey atmosphere to this track. Reminds me thematically of Larry Norman’s seminal I wish we’d all been ready.
SuperBarrowclough features the slightly annoying high-pitched decks-technique called scratching (might be a subliminal reference to his beard again?). It’s another self-conscious personal story of clothes left on the floor, a doting wife and an imaginary superhero. It’s another chord. It’s got a nice sax riff, which goes nowhere. It’s got a let’s go home, I’m fed up with this, abandon ship! finish.
And just when I think I might get it, it makes me cross
Closest thing to a love song I guess this style allows is First Person Plural; celebrating marriage (and I’ve seen Gemma Mellor so I can understand his point of view) and no longer any need to get a taxi home. There a tiny bit of I’m sorted, so be pleased for me about it. ‘It’s not me, me, me/It’s just we, we, we/All the way home/With a new identity.’ Happy for you, Jonny. But I doubt you’ll be booked for a singles seminar any time now.
Suddenly we’re in the middle of a war zone in The Road away from Home. We have a chord structure, singers, a film soundtrack style (apart from the clattering drums, although they sound a bit like gunfire). It’s like a poem with a sound-montage added, which is avant guard, fair enough, adventurous. Possible my favourite track, despite the downbeat mood.
Not Tame is about a cat. Therefore, I thought, nil points. But it turns out to be a sort of Alsan-reflective stream of consciousness. ‘He’s putting ticks in my answer book/And of course a few crosses/But the only question here is: tell me who the boss is.’ Jonny’s roaring leaves a few special effects to be desired.
H'mm (strokes chin pensively, emphasising beard)
The closer is called The Resurrector and samples the ‘This is the Sound’ quote from Two Tribes. It’s possibly the most worshipful track (not musically, you couldn’t really do the Nigel Ring bunny hop to this…) but also contains the most samples and the greatest amount of coughing, too. Best just to proceed to the quote. ‘My master’s voice always fresh in my ears/I’m wearing his own cloak so I guess it appears (from some angles)/I look a little like him – that’s what I’m told/And that thought alone’s worth more than any pot of gold.’ The track (and indeed the album) stops following a sample from a Dr Who episode in which a Charles Dickens character played by a scenery-chewing Simon Callow doubts aloud the value of his efforts on earth ‘Have I wasted my brief span here?’
I have to say that I have enjoyed listening carefully to this album. But will I listen casually for enjoyment’s sake? Perhaps I shall. Perhaps one day I shall be faced with something equally inaccessible and ungodly with it, and I shall choose Barrowclough every time. His heart beats louder than even the biscuit-tin snare drum.