The Scotsman’s music critics review the latest album releases
Wild Beasts: Boy King | Rating: **** | Domino
Batteries: The Finishing Line | Rating: *** | Do Yourself In Records
The Royal Mail: Plastic Throne | Rating: **** | Olive Grove Records
Cumbria’s Wild Beasts have been stalking the fringes of British pop music for the past decade to wide acclaim and moderate success. Since opening their account with the brazenly theatrical Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants in 2006, they have retreated somewhat into studio navel-gazing with a succession of increasingly manicured albums. But frontman Hayden Thorpe has spoken of “letting out my inner Byron” on Boy King, an unapologetic exploration of masculinity and sensuality inspired by The Weeknd and Nine Inch Nails – but also Kate Bush and Marvin Gaye – and delivered in his fiercesome yet foppish tenor, with a note of danger in his tone.
His foil is fellow frontman and songwriter Tom Fleming. Thorpe has said he thought he was making a soul record until Fleming came along with a whole different sound palette, a spiky blend of industrial funk and sleek early Eighties synth pop references which provides the suitably stealthy electro backdrop for opening track Big Cat, over which Thorpe positively purrs the words “big cat top of the food chain”.
From this sultry starting point, it is easy to fall under the spell of Alpha Female, on which the New Romantic rumble of Visage is roughed up with a blast of Berlin Bowie. Get My Bang takes guilty pleasure in Black Friday’s vulgar consumer warfare, while Celestial Creatures is a focused, intense, grinding celebration of the release to be found on the dancefloor.
The predatory charm offensive continues with 2BU, a rather too timely portrait of “the type of man who wants to watch the world burn…best hope I don’t find you first” which is wreathed in intoxicating synths. And there is even a mythological pissing contest of sorts. Sandwiched between the songs He The Colossus and Eat Your Heart Out Adonis, it is all too tempting to view Ponytail as a Samson allegory.
But having flexed those pecs and paraded their colourful feathers, they eventually fold back in on themselves on Dreamliner, a closing meditation with the delicacy and vulnerability of Antony and the Johnsons.
Batteries is the latest outlet for Bis frontman Steven Clark, aka Sci-Fi Steven, whose electro punk jabbering here is more future dystopia than colourful cartoon Forbidden Planet. The Finishing Line is propelled by a similar urgency to Bis, and retains those fidgety Devo and Cardiacs influences, but is overall a more bruising, heavy duty affair. Business As A Euphemism has some of the frenetic swagger of early Adam & the Ants but the constant onslaught becomes a bit wearing over the course of the album, only letting up slightly with the closing title track.
On the subject of solo ventures, The Royal Mail is the alternative guise of Ali Downer, frontman of eclectic Glasgow indie outfit Woodenbox, who has pared back his band’s infectious kitchen sink approach on this cohesive, atmospheric album. Plastic Throne is a collection of sonorous, sweeping piano ballads, recorded in under a week yet intuitively arranged, with members of the Woodenbox family popping in to the studio to supply embellishing strings and mournful brass. With its short, insistent piano arpeggios and the clamour of klezmer horns, 95 Percent could be the soundtrack to some doleful 70s melodrama, all trenchcoats and mournful glances in the rain; in contrast, Fleein Hard could almost be a Coldplay number, divested of their usual cuddly cotton wool production to deliver something emotionally starker. FIONA SHEPHERD
Nicola Benedetti: Shostakovich & Glazunov Violin Concertos | Rating: ***** | Decca
When Nicola Benedetti performed Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra a couple of years ago, it was a moment, I felt, that signalled a new level of maturity and exploration in her playing. This latest disc, on which she performs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, confirms that impression.
Benedetti delves deep into the raw expressiveness of what was, under Stalin, effectively forbidden music, laying bare the aching irresolution of the opening Nocturne, eking out the vicious satire of the Scherzo. The Passacaglia is judiciously weighted, yet beautifully evocative, the cadenza exquisitely crafted and the final Burlesque brilliantly vivacious and victoriously unrelenting. Glazunov’s more popular concerto sweetens the air. A glorious pairing of concertos, and truly engaging performances to match. KEN WALTON
Kaela Rowan: The Fruited Thorn | Rating: **** | Shoogle Records
Kaela Rowan, known for her work with such contemporary outfits as Mouth Music, Shooglenifty and the Bevvy Sisters, returns to her roots with this selection of traditional songs, four of them in Gaelic. The core grouping of herself, drummer James Mackintosh and guitarist Ewan MacPherson are augmented by Irish piper Jarlath Henderson, pianist Dave Milligan and fiddlers John McCusker and Patsy Reid. Rowan’s tremulously ornamented vocals reprise such old favourites as Burns’s Westlin Winds, here drifting over a gently rolling, fiddle-led backdrop, and the lovely As I Roved Out, with Henderson’s uilleann pipes giving a nod to the old Planxty version.
There are also aural surprises such as the waspish “reverse tapes” effect in Nighean na Geug. In a gesture to the song tradition of Rajasthan, they are joined by Dayam Khan Manganiyar, whose Marwari response twines sinuously through the Gaelic in the ancient lament, Groigal Chridhe. JIM GILCHRIST