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Glenn Donaldson and Jem Fanvu’s divine duo are back

Enter the shimmering, Vacant Gardens

Back in the mists of lockdown time, Vacant Gardens emerged like heartworn souls… Vacant Gardens is an interstellar recording project that combines celestial, shimmering guitar courtesy of Reds Pinks and Purples’ Glenn Donaldson, on the verge of breaking like a massive, emotive wave and an ethereal vocal style from Jem Fanvu recalling Hope Sandoval or Liz Fraser that sails in its wake. Simply put, this is some of biggest, heart-tugging guitar music you’ll hear in recent times.

 

Sold out and now on a limited repress, Under The Bloom is the duo’s debut album. Donaldson of course is already familiar with us here in Monorail after his Uncommon Weather album made our April album of the month slot. Vacant Gardens bristles with a more fragile Galaxie 500 energy, about half the BPM of most Reds tracks, and in Jem Fanvu there’s an angellic vocal at the helm. It’s waves upon waves of guitar swelling on the twilit side of the shoegaze street, but with a straight forward emotive quality that dews the eyes. Under The Bloom, the band’s debut album, also has little flashes of Yo La Tengo simplicity and a Bardo Pondian tendency to crest the music upwards and upwards to some promised crescendo rendered either with distortion or a whirling vocal harmony.

Fanvu’s reverb and echo-smeared vocal is just obscured enough to blur into the haze of Donaldson’s guitar walls, not unlike the Fraser / Raymonde dynamic of Cocteau Twins but when her vocal is pushed up in the mix it’s To. Die. For. On Sunlight By The Grass it’s almost too much, her voice nestling in the upper register to utterly gorgeous effect. Whenever the tidal string manipulations are in full throw there’s definitley a Slowdive ecstasy that glistens through the chords, which is never a bad thing. A real treat and a real top tip.

Following the rapid sell out of their debut, Under The Bloom, Obscene is a continuation and development of the group’s sound: a frayed tapestry of Slowdiving, Flying Saucer Attack guitar noise wall married with an angelic vocal from Fanvu that glitters in counterpoint to the stringed distortion like Hope Sandoval or, in the way it shines bright in the fog, like Jonsi’s surfing the surging waves of emotion in early Sigur Ros. Originally released in February on digital formats, Obscene gets a vinyl press and is sounding massive. Vacant Gardens’ music suggests oceanic feelings, a hazy intergalactic consicousness that burbles beneath the surface of everything while also touching the visceral points in the human heart that makes groups like Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo so timeless.

On Obscene you can even hear little flickers of Sandy Denny if she was backing Bardo Pond but at the same time there’s a clarity to the recording that moves on slightly from Under The Bloom. Some of the tracks here are just majestic, regal in the way they unfurl like billowing clouds of crimson across a new sunrise. As Horses stamps on the Big Muffs to ever-escalating breaking point, with the lagging, echoing vocal threatened to be crushed by the sheer emotional heft.

This is truly special music.

 

SOPHIE – Nothing More To Say

SOPHIE's legendary debut, repressed at last

Repress of SOPHIE‘s mercurial Debut on original label, Glasgow’s Huntleys & Palmers. Photo was taken by the label’s Andrew Thompson at the Huntleys & Palmers finale event in 2017.
While Oil of Every Pearls Un-Insides seems like a fully realised idea of SOPHIE’s World, listening to her early tracks like Nothing More To Say and Eeehhh seem like smaller particle collisions in her universe. Her first official release through Huntleys + Palmers, gives us the essence of SOPHIE’s Worldmaking, three tracks that feel like retro-electro futurism, as if you gave an AI an Elektron Monomachine and asked it to make a hyper house track from 1984.

The first song of the EP, Nothing More To Say (Dub) begins with a call to the dancefloor, beginning with an infectious kick that leads us into a synthy melody, SOPHIE said that she likes to, “make music which is fun to dance to – that should be the loudest voice talking,’ in these tracks we hear the voice she’s talking about. In the (vox) version of the track, the song begins with an extended vocal, ‘you left me dry and I’ve got nothing more to say’ backed by a jittery synth, the harsh lyrics are quickly erased by the cheerful melody that just draws you in. The song is pure joy, it’s the last day of school for summer, the final track of the night as the sun comes up.

I was first introduced to these tracks when SOPHIE headlined the BBC Radio 1 stage at Leeds Fest in 2016, playing directly after PC Music alumni Danny L Harle there was a tingle in the air that felt we’d finally be undrawing the curtain in Oz and see who was behind the magic. When SOPHIE appeared, she was backdropped by an LED screen with flashes of words such as ‘Propylene’ and ‘Polyvinyl Chloride’ which just further added to her mystery, and the crowd’s confusion. It’s interesting looking back on these moments with the elusive producer, especially knowing what we know now. SOPHIE’s performance at Leeds was so exciting because up until now her identity was really a mystery, interviews on Radio 1 and Beats Radio, she had used a voice changer, and live performances such as her Boiler Room show in 2014 in which she had an actress on stage pretending to DJ and she stood at the side dressed as a bouncer, ushering loose dancers off stage and occasionally fixing some mixing mistakes. These live moments with SOPHIE feel so special now as they exist through shaky iPhone videos and stories from friends, (a few favourites being when she played in London to an empty crowd and left until it got busy again, and in Berghain when she would play a song and simply walk away to chat to friends.) When SOPHIE arrived on stage, she had her staple orange hair and puffy PVC jacket, and started off with her ever polarising track L.O.V.E, which began with what felt like a never-ending buzzing that, literally, made the floor shake. The rest of her set was a blur, I briefly remembered glimpses of her Charli XCX tracks, early Vince Staples demos, and a loud fan shouting ‘Play Vyzee!’ for the entirety of the set. (She didn’t play Vyzee.)

What felt like an hour of organised chaos, was only calmed by two tracks, Just Like We Never Said Goodbye and Nothing More To Say, throughout the set there was a wide felt confusion of ‘How do we dance to this?’ but when she played the latter track you had no choice but to. Amongst her freestyling on the Monomachine, that felt more like performance art, this track stood out as pure joy, it felt more bouncy than fizzy, a plucky synth melody that made you want to smile and dance with strangers in the crowd. During this moment of harmony amidst the mayhem, you caught a glimpse of what SOPHIE was really trying to do; She was soundtracking the world in which she was creating, there was no look of approval from the crowd because she knew exactly what she was doing.

It’s always fun to look back on these moments, as someone who followed SOPHIE’s career closely, you could see how these ideas manifested and grew with her career. SOPHIE was a pioneer and everything she touched was magic, every show encompassed pure queer joy, and when SOPHIE came out as trans there was a whole new depth to her music. My favourite memory of SOPHIE is of her show in the Art School, SOPHIE and Friends, (the friends being TAAHLIAHLyzza, Evita Manji and Sega Bodega.) when she turned the Art School into a literal Sweatbox. The excitement of seeing SOPHIE play alongside friends was enough to make you giddy all night, but the most exciting part of the night was the after party, there were whispers that SOPHIE would show up, that she had a flight to catch to Milan, and that she was at another party and we’d all been bamboozled into a party in the city’s industrial estate. Then around 3am there was a shift in the air, when SOPHIE arrived and the party really began…

– Spit Turner

Hungry Beat: The Scottish Pop Underground Movement

Limited to 1000, with bonus 7"

The immense cultural contribution made by two maverick Scottish independent music labels, Fast Product and Postcard, cannot be underestimated. Bob Last and Hilary Morrison in Edinburgh, followed by Alan Horne and Edwyn Collins in Glasgow helped to create a confidence in being Scottish that hitherto had not existed in pop music (or the arts in general in Scotland). Their fierce independent spirit stamped a mark of quality and intelligence on everything they achieved, as did their role in the emergence of regional independent labels and cultural agitators, such as Rough Trade, Factory and Zoo.

Hungry Beat is a definitive oral history of these labels and the Scottish post-punk period. Covering the period 1977-1984, the book begins with the Subway Sect and the Slits performance on the White Riot tour in Edinburgh and takes us through to Bob Last shepherding the Human League from experimental electronic artists on Fast Product to their triumphant number one single in the UK and USA, Don’t You Want Me. Built on interviews with Last, Hilary Morrison, Paul Morley and members of The Human League, Scars, The Mekons, Fire Engines, Josef K, Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens and The Bluebells, Hungry Beat offers a comprehensive overview of one of the most important periods of Scottish cultural output and the two labels that changed the landscape of British music.

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