Islet's Illumiminated People is awash with the self-indulgence of a band who have little to fear from the ignominy of failure.
That's the official line at any rate. Famous now for not being famous, or at least for their avowal to eschew the hoop-jumping social media obligations expected of any act hoping to garner a fanbase on a limited budget. Islet have grasped a fact that appears to elude their peers: that a FaceBook 'like' is not worth the paper it's (not even) written on. And so, rather than follow the path taken by others that have gone before them – continual social media presence, constant touring,; they have kept their day jobs and taken the (long) time to record their debut album in the interstices between remunerated work commitments.
eschew the hoop-jumping social media obligations
So the story goes. The accepted paradigm of the maverick band bucking the system, as well as the definition of the system itself. Unfortunately, things don't fit. Note the ease with which the phrase 'constant touring' rolled by in the last paragraph. Posited as the accepted way in which small-time bands build a following, bolstered by a witty and well-populated presence on FaceBook, Twitter and the laughable MySpace. A buzz-building strategy gulped down and regurgitated by a story-hungry media, and equally by a 'fanbase' who grasp at the conscience-salving aspect of a series of actions by which they can bask in the glow of hardcore fandom, despite never having to attend a concert, buy a single or wear a t-shirt. Hey, they hit the 'like' button, didn't they?
the maverick band bucking the system
Record labels are considered evil now, that we know. Any intervention on their part in the development of an act carries with it a taint, and like birds' eggs, forsaken for the smell of a human hand upon them, an online buzz of fandom disappears as soon as the big players behind it are revealed. Arctic Monkeys, Sandi Thom, Nizlopi – it started there. Adele is lauded as a bona fide indie breakthrough act, despite the heavyweight backing of a publishing deal with Universal (punters don't tend to understand music publishing, so that's safe), Ed Sheeran is swallowed whole by a deliberately gullible public as the hard-working byproduct of an underground buzz fuelled by his 300+ gigs in a single year.
Yeah right. Does anyone actually stop to consider how heavyweight your management, booking agent, promo crew and tour support has to be to be able to play 300+ gigs in a year? Accomodation alone can't have cost less than ten grand.
Things go on as they always did, and the only losers in the new game are those bands and acts who swallow the myth that music 2.0 makes it possible to live and work as a musician without any intervention by the big music.
no social network profiles for this band, we are told, but they do have a ribbon-tied fanzine
Hence a certain skepticism when an album arrives with a nicely established myth of home-madeness surrounding it – no social network profiles for this band, we are told, but they do have a ribbon-tied fanzine (available only to those who request it), they do have a sheaf of scream-quotes from the most inpenetrable bastions of the music hype machine ('a sonic boom in the face to anyone who might have thought they had something to hide' – NME), and they do have a CV of recent festival performances including Leeds, Reading and Bestival.
There are obviously different interpretations of creating a strict, industry-eschewing artistic autonomy. This would be the interpretation involving industry-leading PR and management.
Fair dues to them though. In any other sector it would be called delegation, and considered a necessary part of a functioning enterprise. No-one ever came up with a killer riff whilst updating their FaceBook status. And at least the music is good, albeit leaning a bit heavily on Can (an aspect that would have passed unheeded if it weren't the fortieth anniversary of Tago Mago's release, and hence the Brothers in Arms of kraut-rock is currently being passed along the tweetfeeds of every music hipster this side of Shoreditch).
a historical precedent in UK prog
Pity the poor fool music writer who has the naivite to notice that echoey drum fills and haunting female vocals trilling through the octaves on 15-minute rock epics has as much of a historical precedent in UK prog as it does in the more palatable name-drops such as Gang Gang Dance and Deerhoof that are being buzzed around Islet.
All this caustic cynicism is obviously a stalling-tactic. At some point an album review has to attempt a description of the music. Especially so in such a case as this – where an established fanbase has been waiting years to hear the album in question, and will most likely (barring leaks) be waiting until release date next January. It sounds fantastic.
no cohesive pattern to the album that allows a description of the whole
There, that's an illuminating adjective for you. Fantastic. You want more than that? Well then, add varied. The second explains the first. There is no cohesive pattern to the album that allows a description of the whole. 'Libra Man' owes more to Sabbath's 'War Pigs' than it should, although the guitar sound is crisper and more heavily laden with 2011 effects. Mark Thomas pitches his vocal at a key lower than his voice is comfortable with, and the whole thing coalesces and explodes repeatedly around a central slow guitar riff wich is only slightly modified to form the core hook of the subsequent track 'This Fortune'.
contrived buzz-mongering at the expense of the audience?
Percussion though, is the unitary theme which is a constant. Vocals drift in and out of focus (playing live, the band has been known to wander off-mic and instigate entire vocal sections of songs inaudible to all but the front rows of the audience. Spontanaity, or contrived buzz-mongering at the expense of the audience? Who could possibly say?), guitars disappear under a smothering of Pro Logic emulation tools or clang brightly in Bunnymen-easque passages of jangle. Throughout, the beats are constant.
To say they are dance music beats would be off the mark – this is not Weatherall let loose on Primal Scream with a DAT full of cheesy house loops. More accurate would be to say that there is the same emphasis on getting the percussion right on Illuminated People as a listener might expect from a piece of Detroit minimal, even if the surrounding melodies and vocal lines are alien to that genre.
Dutch Uncles' Cadenza is something of an apt comparison, not in that it sounds similar, it doesnt, but in that it shares the same indulgent toolbox of high-end production technique. Actually, no, drop the cynical voice here. It shares the same high-end production aplomb. For whatever reason Islet have no fear of failure – whether it be that they have kept their day jobs (as their press release informs us), or that they have some hefty industry folk covering their back (as their press release doesn't inform us, but denotes by its very existence). Either way, there is a confidence to this album's sound which is intoxicating.
unwillingness to make an album more palatable to mainstream tastes
Artistically, it is painted in heavy strokes. Guitar figures drone in and drown out vocal lines, cymbal-heavy rhythms pile in and utterly demolish all that is in the rest of the sound-picture, discordant keyboard notes end tracks ('A Warrior Who Longs to grow Herbs') with premature foreboding and loss. It doesn't really matter what the instrument is – it's the unbending singularity of the band's unwillingness to make an album more palatable to mainstream tastes that will make it so alluring to a good chunk of that very mainstream. Flaccid it ain't.
pull out a ukulele and go all winsome and kooky
One percussion signature that seems to crop up a lot is The Cure's 'Hanging Gardens', and there is a good measure of that band's early work which comes to mind on some of the cut-glass guitars and thumping toms percussion on tracks such as 'Filia' and 'Entwined Pines'. Elsewhere Emma Daman's wispy vocals work better on the tracks where she hovers in the background doing witch-house incantations and howls than when she takes a prominent vocal line. On the opening vocal melody of 'Funicular', for example, she sounds dangerously likely to pull out a ukulele and go all winsome and kooky on us. Happily, things get dark again quickly, and Thomas's distortion-box vocals take over to sing the track out.
a bit-hop Casiokids keyboard line seques into a Balkan operetta
By the final track – 'A Bear on his Own' the listener is attuned to a certain periphery of constants – heavily filtered vocals, prominent percussion and no dominance given to any of the roles in the mix. Applied in this case to an Inspiral Carpets-ish Madchester extended intro, it's not especially surprising (by song ten) when the tempo changes and a bit-hop Casiokids keyboard line seques into a Balkan operetta, then plays out with a Sabbath-lite doom riff.
By this stage the novelty of the freeform eclectic approach has been blown. And therein lies the central question – that once that element of surprise has played out, does the album have much to offer? On balance, yes. There is confidence, boldness and bravado to the music on Illuminated People that is worthy of attention and adulation. No hedging their bets there. Fame, fortune, world domination? Depends on how keen they are to quit their day jobs.
Out on January 23rd via Shape Records
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses.
Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers.