2016 was a strange year for me musically. I kind of stopped listening to music and then restarted in the autumn only to almost drown myself in a range of delights. 2017 – by contrast – felt much more planned and controlled in terms of music. Strangely the consequence is that I seem to have less music to be excited about now, and keep liking the more obvious tracks. But hey ho, maybe it’ll make for more relatable content…
Lots of layered synths and a cold sounding voice? Well, obviously this is the kind of thing I’m going to go for. I loved the album it comes from (Modern Kosmology) and if I was to pick out a less obvious track it’s probably I Wish where Weaver’s voice is paired with some acoustic guitar for a really haunting track.
The Space Lesbians! Well, that was how one conversation on text referred to them anyway. Eurovision interval acts are quite often a bit rubbish and sometimes as bad as the full Riverdance. So kudos to ONUKA and Estonia for putting on an act with a pretty political outlook, and an interesting take on electronica. I was so taken with this that I pretty rapidly found myself heading for Google to try some more and dissect the medley. Of the medley, the best track is definitely VIDLIK which comes from an EP of the same name themed around the Chernobyl meltdown.
I’d been pondering two things in my head for a while – firstly, if I’d ever go to a music festival of any decent size and secondly if I’d ever see Pet Shop Boys live. So when I idly browsed the Oxfam volunteers page in May and realised I could do both late in the summer at a pretty minimal cost I was pretty keen. The festival was – delightfully – a mud bath but with an added wind which destroyed several tents. The gig was a tad late and perhaps re-rigged due to high winds but was everything I’d wanted. And then I got to sit in a marquee on an exposed hill in case anyone needed a hand. (They didn’t, thankfully)
It was the day of my second shift and I was stationed on the main gate into Bestival from the campsite trying to get drunken/hungover/tired/wet/scared/etc people to show me their wristbands in the course of a series of huge downpours. So it was nice to move on to a marquee and watch a band from Norfolk overcome some pretty irritating sound problems to play an interesting set. I don’t think their current recordings actually capture their full quality, but I made a note to go to a proper gig sometime.
Since Shapwick I’ve had a real delight in Jon Brooks more conceptual works, so even from just the cover of Autres Directions, I knew I would be keen. This and Shapwick are based on drives in enchanting lands so to me they’re about nostalgia for 80s holidays. I would tell you that Lanverec and Autres Directions are highlights but frankly, it’s the complete work from the opening hiss and bongs of Se Reveiller to the ferry grind of Sortie that really makes it shine.
In 2015 I delighted in Jens Lekman’s song a week project Postcards and now after some reworking, sample clearance and a hearty cull he landed with an album of just ten new songs including just two from that project. But the flurry of creativity has worked wonders on his songs, which are now that little bit more honed. Postcard #17 on the absurdity of anxiety.
I’m trying not to go full hipster and say that I liked St Vincent more in her early work, but I definitely felt that after the David Byrne collaboration it just never quite worked for me. But the new album was much more in the space in my head that worked. And it convinced me that if I want to make better music all I need to do is date Cara Delvigne.
Look, I just really like Pye Corner Audio. You should. You must. Honest. Chillwave, synthwave, whatever it might or might not be it is good. I want a show based on Pye Corner Audio rather than some music based on how allegedly awesome Stranger Things is.
It’s a song with a dot matrix printer sampled in it. Of course, I like it. And it’s on Ghost Box so I get plenty of other chin-stroking joyous moments elsewhere on the album. But you can listen to it because it’s The Printer Song.
Been a while, but as in previous blogs it seemed time I actually wrote a bit about the music I listen to, for posterity at least. It’s been a funny old year but bothering to try and listen to new music hasn’t half helped.
My self imposed rules this year are:
No order of importance, but make it vaguely listenable as a mixtape end to end
No more than one track per artist, unless they use a cunning disguise
Try and pick a less obvious track, or not the one that originally grabbed me
The net result is that the list is long, so feel free to skim and make snap judgements with at best incidental relevance to the music at hand. You can also avoid reading me doing the old “dancing about architecture” below by using the playlist at Spotify or on YouTube.
Metronomy – Night Owl
Metronomy does Chillwave? Summer 08 is that usual pleasing retro and Joseph Mount may have lost his band and run off to Paris, but seemingly the sound remains.
Islands – The Joke
A crowdfunded album, well, pair of albums indeed from Islands this year. The Joke is from the better of the two, Taste (despite the art work above!). Yes, that is a Morricone-esque flourish in there but it’s the lyric “While the world burns, we just warm our feet” that makes this a 2016 song to linger in the mind.
Haley Bonar – Skynz
I got tired of all of my music and tuned back into 6music around about September and at that time Stupid Face burrowed deep into me. It was the drums first, which are also a bit odd here in a damn pleasing fashion. Bonar’s album Impossible Dream is I think rather brilliant, and the regretful tone and (it must be said) utterly amazing drumming snared me. In a time of Brexit and Trump a song bemoaning complacency from a millennial is right on the money, isn’t it?
The Avalanches – Subways
There was no way the second album from The Avalanches would be anything but a disappointment. But to be able to get even one track that approaches the effort they put into the first album was enough for me, in retrospect. Album never quite grabbed me, but I’m minded to give it a listen free of any expectation.
The Moulettes – Pufferfish Love
The Moulettes’ Preternatural pitched up as a concept album and shows a lot of effort going into their sound as well. The science all checks out here, as it’s based on how the puffer fish mates. I will have to snag them for a pint and see if I can get them to make an album about cycling research. Make that two pints.
Cavern of Anti-Matter – I’m the Unknown
Gane and Dilworth of Stereolab here along with Holger Zapf on synth, but I am just in love with the experimentation here. Which reminds me of Sterolab a lot. There’s even a whole album but I somehow got enough from the mini-EP this was on that I never reached it.
A firm favourite of mine for many years </hipster credential seeking> Pye Corner Audio seems to have started becoming a fixture on the soundtrack of Adam Curtis documentaries. Not a bad home for him. His two albums on Ghost Box have I think been the best that label has been able to release and also the most cohesive in his discography.
Sounding suspiciously similar to Pye Corner Audio, as if he was another name for the same artist Head Technician made a lurid vinyl version of his Zones cassette and managed to improve on perfection. There’s definitely something in the art of fictional creators that helps define some of the Ghost Box / Hauntology kind of scene (that desperately needs a name as simple as chillwave, still). Utterly pretentious twaddle, so of course I love it.
John Carpenter – Utopian Facade
Well, maybe the whole Ghost Box etc. thing should be known as Carpenterism? I’d missed John Carpenter’s first album of Lost Themes in 2015, but found both it and the sequel this year (Vortex was really good on the first). It is astonishing he’d never managed to release music in his own form until now.
The Pattern Forms – Black Rain
Ghost Box does Chillwave. Sort of. Or maybe they’re just going more John Foxx. Or is it Italo Disco? I don’t know, I haven’t scratched my chin enough but it’s good stuff with a surprising number of shifts through the song especially when the beat comes in the first time. But maybe it’s more Friendly Fires does The Advisory Circle as that’s the actual collaboration. Maybe we need a whole indie roster to pair up with the Ghost Box artists for a special album? Alright, maybe I need that.
I really have fallen into a hole of retro sounding music haven’t I? Oh well. This should be the soundtrack to some kind of continuation in the Lotus series of driving games for the Amiga perhaps. Or some kind of really amazing scrolling shoot-em-up.
Concretism – Normal Service Will Be Resumed
In a rare event, a friend suggested I should be listening to Concretism and I actually hadn’t come across him yet. I love the relaxed approach to a retro electronic sound here. The title is perfect and you can feel this being the moment of a slightly classier intermission in some regularly programming. At first I feared this artist was being too contrived in doing the retro aesthetic but I actually think they’ve just mastered it in a subtly different way.
SHXCXCHCXSH – SsSs
The album cover looked pleasing so I gave this a try. It’s incredible – crunchy loops a bit like Boards of Canada (sampling them even?) but with a really hard edge. The guys behind it are beautifully obtuse but I fear for the day when I discover there’s a Pete Waterman style svengali behind all of this stuff I seem to like so much.
Steve Hauschildt – Strands
Oh, this was about the album cover as well. Someone should really tell all the vinyl heads that little thumbnails on websites do in fact sell albums (after a quick preview listen). What got me about this is that now even 90s targeting retro is doing that analogue distortion thing – which is weird. I guess we just want it to sound like fading memories rather than fading cassettes.
DJ Shadow – Bergschrund (feat Nils Frahm)
I would take a whole album of Nils Frahm and DJ Shadow. This just works obscenely well – beats underneath, distorted spacey electronic over the top and a nifty breakdown.
Clarke:Hartnoll – The Echoes
Vince Clarke and Phil Hartnoll produce what you’d sort of expect though some have said it sounds more Orbital than Erasure. It is bloody good, but they do need to get a bit better at sharing their work online. All I can do is embed the lead single, but it is quite good as well:
Teleman – Superglue
Yes, don’t worry I am still weak and feeble when it comes to resisting indie when it involves lost and confused lovelorn men and a bit of fragile guitar and a synth. And especially when it’s Thomas Sanders late of Tap Tap and Pete and the Pirates. Pity he’ll never top Codeine, though.
David Thomas Broughton – Plunge of the Dagger
David Thomas Broughton is as the documentary about him made plain, a rather ambiguous and prolific character. But screw that, it’s his experimental nature I love and Crippling Lack was a lot of interesting experimentation and collaboration. Luke Drozd’s spoken contributions here crack me up every time, especially the mid-way “When I am dead, I will sleep forever. It will be amazing! I won’t have to get up or anything. I can’t. fucking. wait.”. It’s an indulgent nine and a half minutes, but I bloody love it.
Meursault – The Fix Is In
Meursault are back. That’s about all that matters, really. Annoyingly I can’t make you skip to The Fix Is In which stuck in my head most, but the Simple is Good EP works better end to end anyway.
The Strokes – OBLIVIUS
I tried arguing myself out of including this on the grounds that it’s The Strokes and it’s a bit derivative and something like that, but screw it. I actually like this more than anything else they’ve done. Is it good enough to click through from the embed due to daft restrictions in playback? Probably, at least for the first 30 seconds. The daft lyric video style suits this rather well.
Justice – Safe and Sound
Lyric videos are clearly the in thing. Maybe it’s a karaoke thing. Anyway, it’s a video with a cross in it, and more frenchy electro fun.
Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids
“Remember those days, the early 90s” this starts and we’re off into a strange half-imagined half-true (or is it alternative fact?) based story of a pair of boys meeting and sharing a love of music. Delightful stuff.
Barry Hyde – Monster Again
Remember those days, the early 00s? Well, The Futureheads are over, but Barry Hyde has recorded a solo album. Part of the Malody Suite and illustrated above with a rather cute little animation this is Barry working through material that could once have been a Futureheads vampire musical (that and more in this Guardian interview) into a heartfelt use of his (still!) stunning voice to let out the demons within. It’s stripped back, it’s simple and it bloody works. Monster Again is only part of a wider whole, but it reminds me a lot of what I loved in The Futureheads – sparse lyrics delivered strongly working far better than any endless series of verses and choruses.
Field Music – How Should I Know If You’ve Changed?
Also in Sunderland, Field Music keep going. and Commontime was a really bright sounding selection of songs that made this XTC fan quite happy for relatively obvious reasons.
Clark – Omni Vignette
Actually a Clark soundtrack album, but it all works remarkably well. Omni Vignette is at about 2:30 in this, and it’s just Clark mixing a very simple piano line, but it’s cracking.
Aphex Twin – 2X202-ST5
New Aphex Twin, hurrah. At least he’s not naming the songs after computer viruses this time or taking the piss and just releasing a song based on a picture of himself. On the other hand, I have to share the video for a different song from the Cheetah EP because it’s all that’s online. Oh well.
Poly Styrene was a bloody wonder. Helen Love are a bloody wonder. Mike Read is a bloody wonder. My love of this song is inevitable and I have nothing more to say.
Let’s Eat Grandma – Eat Shiitake Mushrooms
If it was still the late 00s and I was still going to something like the Brainlove all-dayers this is the kind of thing I’d have seen then wondered what happened to it (come in Octagon Court, your time is up!). However, it’s 2016 and I’m an old man so I heard about a strange pair of young women from Norfolk by listening to NPR’s best of 2016. It’s purposely young and experimental, probably tries to do too much and tries too hard, but that’s what I like. So, never mind. The YouTube video has complaints it was overhyped but reading that six months later when you just got hooked by one odd song seems a bit off. I hope they at least get enough pop stardom to afford mudguards for their bikes.
Mathew Bourne – Alex
Using a specially altered Moog, this is remarkably lovely and it is in no way a coincidence that I wound up picking a track from the album that matched my name.
If you made it to the end well done. Too many men in there, alas. But 2017 appears to be starting with me listening to female helmed electronica so maybe I’ll adjust course.
One. Two. Three. Four. Four people cycling on main roads in London. Four deaths. The first two in a single day last week, and two more in the past two days makes four cycling deaths in just over a week in London. Five in the UK as a whole. I’d written this post as a draft before the first, and each time another died I wasn’t sure what to write. These aren’t just numbers, these are people with families and friends touched by immeasurable shock and sorrow. The fact that four deaths should happen in so short a space of time is to an extent a random outcome of the dangers on our roads. That said, our roads should not be this random, chaotic and dangerous.
There were near misses in the past week as well, with combinations of luck and bystanders intervening saving lives not once, not twice, but three times. And then there are the incidents that don’t make the news including one close to home on King Street in Hammersmith. I’d expect all of these to likely be classed as KSIs, as they involved either a death or a serious injury. I suspect my merely being run over on Hammersmith Gyratory and receiving road rash on my face was a ‘slight injury’, for at least my life wasn’t in danger (the measure of a KSI) -- or was it? Had I landed a lane either side I would have been swiftly run over, but I digress.
My face after a slight accident.
Each of the collisions I’ve linked from the last week have taken place on a main road. Many in the centre of a city where by far the majority of people are not using motor vehicles for transport. Three of them have take place along the Cycle Superhighways. On those and many others we have roads where space has been reallocated since the 90s as part of providing bus priority and tram schemes.
We have spent decades trying to use paint, training and advertising to encourage more people to cycle. However there is no comprehensive programme, plan or standard with which roads are to be designed which cycle campaigners can say delivers safety. London, and the rest of the UK needs to urgently reassess the way in which space upon main roads is allocated.
Why should we alter our main roads for cyclists? Even this morning as LBC (London’s Biggest Conversation, a radio station) tried to discuss cycle and pedestrian safety they and their callers showed again that whilst the idea of segregation or “going dutch” is reaching beyond the cycling community the wider ideas have not been understood. It is hard not to get angry that whilst they talked up the danger, their presenter confessed he hadn’t researched how bus drivers are trained. This meant he relied on the view of a single recently trained driver who phoned in. Though by far the most bizarre moment came as in a discussion of bus safety with Leon Daniels where a figure was quoted for KSIs per kilometre and he took him to task for using the metric system. Thankfully then the hour of LBC my radio alarm had inadvertently given me was up and the radio switched off.
What are we seeking? Well, the idea behind “Love London, Go Dutch” and now Space4Cycling is relatively straightforward. It is to remind ourselves that the layout and structure of our roads, our cities and communities is not fixed. We have seen many changes in London but in most cities over the years. Some have favoured buses, some the private motor car, and in places like Edinburgh we see the issues already from trams (as yet not in passenger service) being added to a city with a modest cycling level. We have no problem as a country, or cities in changing our roads but what we haven’t done is any comprehensive programme to handle that for cycling.
As a campaigner it’s always hard to know where to begin, but let’s take the main roads, and look at the history of superhighways to understand where we are, and where we could be. Superhighway -- what do we mean? Looking at the diversity of treatments in London it is easy to conclude that the ‘Superhighway’ is only branding beneath which modest changes have been made. That said, no interventions on main roads for cycling in London have had a higher budget than the superhighways.
At that time Ken spoke of “dedicated routes for cyclists, where they won’t be in competition with Heavy Goods Vehicles” i.e. segregation in some form “linking up suburban town centres” which is rather like the mini-holland programme underway now and that “for every person who cycles in London there’s another seven who’ve got a bike at home they don’t use” a statistic probably still fairly similar now five years on. I can’t embed it, but there’s a longer version of the launch here, in it the presenter questions Ken Livingstone and asks if the routes will be consistent for long journeys though dangerous junctions. Ken was very clear that you needed funding of £500m to do exactly that. He noted that boroughs would have to be brought on board. The explicit problem there being that responsibility for the roads is split between local authorities and TfL. The implicit problem being that London isn’t a city state and must work within the Department for Transport rules.
Ken then lost the election to Boris Johnson, in May 2008. Amusingly, as so often in British politics the colour of the hire bikes changed and went from “a distinctive London bright red bike” under Ken Livingstone to blue under Boris Johnson. TfL say the colour used on superhighways was chosen primarly for wayfinding reasons, as in this FOI request states. Through Boris’s first term the hire bikes were a pretty rapid and clear change in cycling in the centre of London, the superhighways meanwhile terminated before they reached the centre of town. Ken’s view of this approach was not particularly favourable.
He wondered about the cycle hire scheme and said of it that they “don’t know where that went wrong”, and that the cost was excessive. Boris would insist that due to his inability to get advertising around the bike hire as in other cities.
Regardless, this meant a lot of cycling money was spent on proving hire bikes rather than providing safe routes.
Speaking of safe routes, the superhighways saw slow progress. The rough plan as it emerged in Boris’s first term was to have a ‘clock face’ of routes with numbering roughly in clock style. You can see the borough boundaries on the map here, on the ground some of the lengths of road used by TfL for the superhighways were under their control, and some weren’t. The first pair of pilot routes (CS3 and CS7) were delivered in 2011, and at the time that it was being delivered Jenny Jones AM reviewed the in progress Cycle Superhighway 7 near Oval.
These are not issues that can be overcome I feel by training, hi-viz or lights. The issue is the design of the road. TfL under Boris was changing the design of roads, but it was too timid in the changes it made. Some of that was the wider framework they operated under within the UK, but they didn’t do much to challenge it.
Now, the latest plans build on proposals made in the Mayor’s Cycling Vision which did represent the start of a step forward. Since the launch of the vision there have been extensive trials at the Transport Research Laboratory, a large scale project to rework the London Cycle Design Standards and discussions with boroughs on various plans. The problem is that as much as there has been progress, many boroughs are still being resistant especially at the political level. Standards are still being reworked and action is needed now. Whilst TfL must try to balance competing demands it continues to appear that cycling is not yet being designed into their plans, and plans risk being watered down. At some point in the near future the Department for Transport must decide upon the way forward after the trials TfL has funded, and which interventions will be approved. We risk further compromises and the while we are paying dearly for the time wasted in Boris Johnson’s first term. It’s a terrible situation, but I have no sympathy for Boris Johnson as he is currently in a situation he was repeatedly warned of. That said, we must not overlook the veto that the Department for Transport effectively has and has had on tackling safety in London.
City Hall admits the Department for Transport has not yet signed up to the new cycle junctions. @itvlondon — Simon Harris (@simonharrisitv) November 6, 2013
Compromises in London and elsewhere feel to me to have had two effects:
Placing those cycling on main roads at a higher risk than otherwise.
Depressing the cycling rate by making it less attractive.
Now, we shouldn’t either overlook the block that local councils represent to making change happen on London streets. Regular cyclists know the borough boundaries well, they’re where provision often ceases or suddenly declines in quality at present. This is still set to continue. A great example of this local to me is the Cycle Superhighway 9. This was/is set to run from Hyde Park to Hounslow. It has run into remarkable resistance in Kensington and Chelsea. Rather like with the Bow Roundabout there are few conceivable alternate routes.
The map shows Kensington High Street and surrounds with local cycle facilities (mostly on street lanes) in blue. Note where they stop. The yellow cycle symbols are bike shops, other than those and bike parking bikes simply aren’t welcome. No cycling is permitted in Holland Park, and at its western edge it runs all the way from Holland Park Avenue to Kensington High Street. There isn’t a sensible alternative nearby to avoid Kensington High Street. Even if there were, the streets in the area are aligned in ways that mean even a prioritised route would inevitably be much slower than using the main roads for East-West journeys. The only conceivable solution to cycle safety is to deal with the main roads. The likely main flow is always going to be on the main roads here. Kensington High Street is inevitably where many people who cycle are, but cycling along Kensington High Street is a heightened and terrifying experience. It doesn’t need to be.
Last week’s preview from TfL of a future North-South Superhighway
Like Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea objected to the use of blue paint in what they considered to be historic streets. Today’s mock-ups of the north-south superhighway give a rough idea of the kind of thing that TfL has proposed to Kensington and Chelsea in response, and sadly they have also objected to. It would involve a segregated track on one side of the road, with bus stops over that in lay-bys along with cycle parking and then a narrowed road on the far side. This removes a huge number of potential conflicts for cyclists and those that remain are clearer. For example, drivers turning off this road would enter a highlighted section for leaving the high street. It’s impossible to comment further without specific plans to review but that’s an idea of what concerted changes could achieve on Kensington High Street alone, and this is a route which would also need to address issues along miles of route from Hyde Park to Hounslow.
So how would I round up? I’ve been run over on London’s roads -- twice. It has only deterred me but I know of few who regularly and happily cycle in my city. Fewer still by proportion in my country. I have seen for myself what a comprehensive network of cycle facilities looks like by visiting the Netherlands. It isn’t segregated lanes door to door, but it also isn’t just whacking down paint in the edge of the road or adding cyclists in conflicting directions to pedestrians at traffic lights. It is a network rather than a series of disjointed routes. It is about having a comprehensive plan and objective to make cycling as safe as possible, and then reaping rewards ranging from health to a more pleasant atmosphere whilst more directly controlling the more dangerous traffic. It doesn’t mean taking away anyone’s car, nor should it mean destroying the bus route you depend upon but it does mean finding a safe space in our roads where cycling is a genuine option, for all. But to explain that in detail is another post entirely and -- I fear -- quite a lot of video.
The London Cycling Campaign are organising a protest tonight at Bow Roundabout. They’re calling for changes to the roundabout there for both cyclists and pedestrians. The Bow Roundabout has seen inadequate and compromised changes before. It has now seen three deaths in two years, both before and with those changes. We need to get changes right, and avoid compromise.