Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Ashok - Plans

Florence reclines
Florence + The Machine’s rise to the top has been has been unexpected, not due to their quality but their unusual style.  With the exception of their karaoke cover of The Source’s You Got The Love, it was not a particularly commercial album.  Featuring luscious and dense instrumentation, with songs like Hurricane Drunk (a tribute to getting drunk in the presence of a former loved one), Drumming Song (a tribute to the unspoken electricity between a girl and a boy;  “When they're standing in front of you and you can't breathe, can't think, can't do anything properly”) and Bird Song (a song about an altercation with a crime witnessing bird, presumably a metaphor) it was a fairly left field collection of indie-soul tunes, dense with gothic imagery and songs about mortality.    

It topped the charts on 30th January 2010, having spent weeks hovering around the number two slot.   To many, it marked one of the finest albums recorded by a female vocalist in years.  After having had to choose between either the manufactured bubblegum of Girls Aloud, Sugababes, the manufactured agression of 'agaitators' like P!nk or Avril Lavigne, or the forced sexuality of someone like Rihanna, it was refreshing to hear a woman stripped of saccharine, to sing about Love rather than sex.  Florence was riding high, but unbeknownst to many, this was not the first commercially released album she’d been a part of, and in some respects, it wasn’t even her best.

Ashok's logo
There’s very little known about Florence’s first proper band, Ashok.  The internet is supposed to have bought us all closer together, removed barriers and destroyed life’s sense of mystery.  But about the band Ashok, there is a haze of ignorance.  Tumbleweed drifts slowly across their Myspace; it contains a couple of gushing reviews (naturally), a couple of tracks from the album, an influences list that ranges from Dave Brubeck to Rage Against The Machine and some photos of their instruments.  No-one on the internet seems to talk about them.  
Chris' favourite guitar

I was first introduced to Ashok whilst idly browsing the web for Florence rarities.  There are several absolute gems that were not included on the album, and one that caught my ear was a song called Sunday.  The first thing that caught my attention was the unusual style and instrumentation of the song.  Instead of harps and orchestras (Florence’s musical staples) it instead features funky blues guitar and glockenspiel solo-ing.  The second thing was the sound quality.  Being in a band and an avid music listener, I’ve established over the years that most demo’s seem to demonstrate a large amount of unnaturally poor sound quality – presumably to keep people interested enough to buy the album when it’s finally released, whilst not replacing the paid for product with a free version.   Whilst Sunday featured a bit of hiss, it was otherwise crystal clear. 

Ears pricked, I set about investigating a bit more into the background of this particular demo, and discovered that it was in fact no demo; it was the third track off an album called Plans.  Entranced by Sunday, I set out to obtain a copy of the album, and was astonished at what I found. 

Ashok - Plans

There exists only one concrete piece of information in the world about Ashok; their album, Plans.  And what a unique and fabulous statement it is.  The first thing that hits you about the album is the melding of funk, soul, blues and hip hop that defines this record.  Ashok is fortunate enough to feature not one, but two lead vocalists/lyricists – Leo Nathan rapping, and Florence Welch singing, as well as a stellar guitar player by the name of Christopher Lane.  It sounds as though Florence and Chris were the first to meet.  Florence used to sit around at Chris’ house at the age of 16, making up lyrics.  Using this, it is possible to establish a time frame for the band. 

A younger Florence

Florence was born in 1986 on August 28th, and so at the age of 16, the year must have been 2002.  This must be when Ashok started.  Their album Plans was released on the 9th of April, 2007 to an indifferent audience.  Around this time, Florence started playing gigs with her friend Isabella Summer under the name Florence Robot and Isabella Machine.  In December of 2006, Florence sang Etta James songs to Mairead Nash (of Queens of Noize) in a toilet, inspiring her to manage her.  Mairead is now F + TM’s manager, and Isabella the keyboard player, so it’s fair to assume that at this point in time, the seeds of The Machine had been strongly sown.  It sounds as though contracts had been signed for Ashok at this point, because her father has this to say in an article for the Daily Mail;

Florence and her bandmates were 'spotted' by an old-school music manager and there was talk of a contract. 'Don't sign anything until we've had a chance to have a look at it,' we implored. 'Yeah, yeah,' said Florence - and went ahead and signed it.
That's where it all could have gone off the rails. She was 19 and miserable, in the wrong band, life signed away, career over before it had begun. Despite my misgivings, I became a bit of a rock dad, and phoned a friend who was a music lawyer.
It turned out the contract was only binding on Florence as part of the band, so all she had to do was resign. After that we paid a bit more attention.”

So obviously, in 2006 Florence quit the band Ashok, to bring about her own machine.  It's hard to say what could have made her unhappy; her differences were unlikely to be musical, as Florence is known to be a big fan of hip hop and blues.
It seems as though Ashok tried to carry on for a while; they released a music video for Lean From The Middle, filmed with a Florence replacement by the name of Sorana Santos.  It’s worth a watch if only to be shocked at Leo’s appearance (I must confess that from his voice, I’d assumed him to be black – how wrong I was) but it doesn’t seem as though much occurred following this.  Their last update on Myspace was on the 25th January 2008, and a live performance of Franky Boy that was uploaded on Youtube on the 21st of the same month seems tired, uninspired and crucially, devoid of Florence.  Tragically, there appears to be only one video on Youtube of Ashok featuring Florence – a gig at Brixton Jamm where Ashok had two songs recorded – Franky Boy and Always Ashok.  These are definitely worth a listen, as the whole band seems to be on great form.  
According to Massimo Alessio Zeppetelli (who has evidently had contact with the band), Leo decided to split the band once Florence had left, resigning Ashok to a small, untouched corner of the past. 

Florence walks away

Regardless of all the turmoil, it appears that Ashok had managed to put aside their differences long enough to find the time to record an album.  

The first track, A New Year’s Anxiety begins with a looped fiddle, a funky guitar riff and a boy and a girl singing in upbeat harmony.  The dynamics between Florence and Leo are downright jaw dropping.  Individually their voices are confident, with Florence exhibiting none of her trademark (and somewhat tiresome) howling.  The interplay is exhilarating, with the pair sharing lines, trading lines and finishing each other’s sentences before leading into a fiddle solo.  The only other contemporary band I can think of to feature a fiddle solo are Mumford & Sons, a dreary nu-folk band whose sound can only be likened to how I imagine it would feel to be too stoned in a wheat field being chased by zombie scarecrows.  Ashok, somehow, pull it off and still look cool.  

Eight people in view on stage - and a ninth off camera

The standout tracks on this album are numerous.  Lean From The Middle starts off with one of the catchiest riffs ever heard in an intro, and features the intermittent percussive qualities of a cowbell!  Leo sings the verse, while the two of them duet on the chorus, and once again the sound they create is sparkling.  Florence’s vocals are silky smooth while the band maintains an energetic back beat.  Funky is a word that comes up a lot in relation to this album, and the first half is most definitely funky.  Sunday is definitely a highlight, as is Under The Thumb.  Up to Gerry Gigolo, this album makes you want to bounce around.  With jumpy guitar lines and stripped down drumming, it is hard to sit still.  After the half way line though, it takes a surprising turn; Gerry Gigolo is the creepy tale of a male prostitute who hangs around old people’s homes, trying to peddle his wares and exposing himself.  With jazzy piano, it comes across as the soundtrack to a twisted film noir.  Florence imitates a pervy granny to great effect.  “You can call me any time, I’ll be waiting by the phone.  At the old folks home”. 
Slo Tune sees Florence singing of “winning the losing race”, summoning an air redolent of Miss Havisham.
The final track on this album is truly unexpected.  All Florence fans are familiar with Kiss With A Fist, the 3 chord indie rock track that gave many of us our first taste.  Imagine if it had been recorded by Dexy's Midnight Runners.  A rousing barn dance, complete with a horn/honky tonk piano duel at the end, is how Kiss With A Fist (amusingly, originally titled Happy Slap) was first imagined.   

Ashok perform to a pond + some people

 Overall, it is fascinating insight into the origins of Lungs, as well as being a fantastically strong piece of individual work.  As with her later album, all the songs have a dark air about them, with talk of death and love the two most common theme’s running through the lyrical sphere.  With a lighter, more upbeat feel than Lungs, Plans has become a popular album at social gatherings.  The mix of rapping and singing is a strange one, but fortunately the pair recognise the game as a team one, and complement each other well.  Florence’s impressive soaring range and Leo’s deep, rough delivery work well, never treading on each other’s sonic toes. 

The album can be purchased from Amazon here, and it’s a purchase I thoroughly recommend you make.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Glitz, Glamour & Formula One

Lately, I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate regarding the nature of Formula One.  My friend put forth the opinion that Formula One was a sport that attracted fans purely based on its glamour. 24 of the world’s highest paid sportsmen, racing multi-million pound automobiles through Monaco’s streets of gold, a battle of wallets.  Naturally, I opposed this, insisting that it was 24 of the world’s greatest athlete’s racing the most finely tuned engineering contraptions risking life and limb to beat each other around Monaco’s tight and twisty streets.  My friend’s only concession was that “the pit stops are quite exciting”.   

Nicole first, Lewis second at the Monaco Grand Prix

Glamour is undoubtedly a large part of the attraction for many people.  I’m sure there are few people who would not trade in their lifestyle for Jenson Button’s Monaco pad, Japanese underwear model girlfriend and enviable job of driving the fastest cars in the world around gorgeous tracks at the weekend.  Thus, taking Jenson as a reasonably typical F1 driver, let’s examine him closer.  

Jenson Button was born to a working class family in Frome, Somerset in 1981.  He was raised in a three bedroom semi-detached house, as the fourth child of Simone Lyons and John Button.  He attended local state schools.  He was bought his first go-kart at the age of 9, and thanks to demonstrations of extraordinary racing aptitude (at the age of 10, he won 34 out of 34 races in the 1991 British Cadet Kart Championship).  By gaining lucrative sponsorship, he worked his way through the ranks to a Williams F1 seat.  He’s now a world champion, but even that required a degree of self sacrifice.  In 2008 Honda announced they were pulling out, and the only way Jenson could retain his seat was to take a significant pay cut.  At this stage, he had no idea what a rocket his team had built him (Honda’s successors Brawn GP took both that season’s titles at a canter).  This is not an uncommon story.  Rumours abound about Lewis Hamilton’s father working three jobs to support his sons’ early career.  

The Hamilton's on the night of their greatest victory

Very few drivers on today’s grid were born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  Working back through a few of the previous world champions, Sebastian Vettel had a carpenter for a father, Alonso a mechanic in an explosives factory, Schumacher’s was a bricklayer.  Clearly, these are not glamorous jobs.  

Undoubtedly a lot of hard work has gone into making the careers of these drivers, but rarely are they born into a life of glamour.  Most drivers probably don’t do it for the glamour either.  While it’s true that a lot of drivers live in Monaco, most probably live there primarily for tax reasons rather than a desire to be constantly surrounded by glamour.  With some European governments claiming more than 50% income tax, it’s easy to see why they do it.  So with the drivers not doing it for the glamour, what about the fans?

I was recently watching an old race (Turkey 2007) and during the pre-race build up, I caught a fantastic interview with someone called Bo Derek.  After initially searching for Beau Derrick, I was soon corrected. Wikipedia tells me she is an American film actress and model who started modelling to fund a new surfboard, an admirable show of entrepreneurship.  I must confess to never having seen any of the films listed in her Filmography but hearing that she’s well known as a sex symbol, has won three “Golden Raspberry Worst Actress Awards” and was nominated for “Worst Actress Of The Century”, I assume her fame is related largely to her blonde locks, generous cleavage and girl next door smile.  The interview went thusly;

A knowing smile
Ted Kravitz: How are you enjoying your Istanbul Grand Prix experience?

Bo Derek: I just feel like the luckiest girl in the world right now, no place I’d rather be.  This is fabulous.

TK: Have you been to many of these events before?  I saw you on the big boat last night

BD: Yes, and I just love F1.  It’s the ultimate. (crowd cheers at something else).  Listen, it’s fantastic. 

TK:  It’s a good crowd.  So who are your favourite drivers?

BD: Fast cars and fast horses

TK: Which drivers do you like the look of?

BD: Oh, I like them all.  I love the sport, honestly. 

TK: (chuckles) Ok.  Well good to see you.

Steve Rider then wryly comments “Bo Derek not going into too much detail of her knowledge of Formula One.  

At a time when the world championship was in the middle of a closely fought four way battle between Räikkönen, Alonso, Hamilton and Massa, one of the most exciting seasons for a while, with some of the most entertaining personalities showing their colours, Bo was unable (or unwilling) to share her favourite driver.

Bo Derek's favourite driver.  All of them.

It’s hard to know what to make of an interview like this.  Is Bo Derek a highly secretive person?  Sometimes, I don’t like sharing my opinions with the world, for whatever reason.  But from a former Playboy model this seems unlikely.  A stronger interpretation would be that Bo Derek was merely hanging around at the Turkish GP simply for the glamour, and the atmosphere of it all.  And to many racing fans, a person like this is the anathema of the racing world.  Hanging around the paddock without a clue what's going on, or any real enthusiasm to find out. 

Bleak, barren and beautiful.  Turn 8 at Istanbul is a sight to behold

A disinterested soft porn star having unrivalled access to the crème de la crème of the racing world, watching the drivers tackle Turn 8 with unparalleled courage.   At first, one can only scream; “where is the justice in this world?”

But then, maybe we have cause to thank fans like Bo.  Formula One at the moment is going through a period of unparalleled health.  Ignore people who have claimed the sport is becoming boring, with no on track action or overtaking occurring.  These are the same people who claim that today, music is staid and unoriginal, food is tasteless and humanity is irreversibly lost in a sea of corruption.  Beyond entertaining thoughts of Kim Jong-Il’s spinning of North Korea’s thrashing, no-one particularly enjoyed North Korea’s 7 – 0 thrashing in the world cup.  And just like football is about more than just scoring goals, Formula One is about more than just overtakes.  

Button leads the field in Australia '09

Think back to Australia ’09, where Jenson Button in the Brawn shocked all but the most owl-eyed observer of winter testing by taking an unprecedented victory.  Belgium ’09 saw Giancarlo Fisichella driving the back of the grid Force India take a shock pole position and second place.  Turkey ’10 where Vettel attempted to overtake Webber and took himself out of the race and relegated Webber to 3rd.   Abu Dhabi ‘10, where Ferrari broke a thousand Tifosi hearts by failing to see the forest for the trees, covering Webber only to see Vettel take a shock WDC.  In 2010 Australia, China, Turkey, Canada, Silverstone, Spa, Korea and Brazil were all vintage races.  I had the pleasure of being present at Silverstone during the Grand Prix, and the atmosphere throughout was electric.   

Vettel regrets his agression at the start - as things go from bad to worse

These are all elements which it’s likely not all the viewers appreciate, and yet thanks to the allure and glamour lent to the sport by people like Bo, millions tune in every race.  It’s a complicated matter, but essentially, most of the wealth in Formula One world has been bought about thanks to the television licensing deals struck by Bernie in the 80’s.  More viewers leads to more income from sponsorship, more income leads to more money for all involved, and inevitably, some of this is put back into improving the show.  And while most people seem to believe that most of this money has been paid into Bernie’s pockets, it seems evident that some of this money has been pumped back into the sport.  Team budgets have increased to unbelievable levels (although they’re currently being reined in) and we’re now granted unparalleled access to the show.  HD, live timing, driver tracker, every minute of the car on track broadcast.  The fans of today are spoilt rotten.  And it’s all thanks to people tuning in to watch it, no doubt attracted as much by the glamour as the action.  

And as I sit there on the 26th at five in the morning, with my live timing screen tracking the drivers every move, as we see which team has brought together the quickest combination of driver and car and place it on pole position, I’ll thank Bo and her ilk. 

Thursday, 3 March 2011


2:54 - Hannah (left) & Colette (right)
2:54 are the latest band to join the short, but intriguing line of female fronted shoe-gaze/post rock bands that happily appear to be proliferating.  I was alerted to them while browsing the incredibly promising Great Escape festival line up.  Their Myspace is almost totally devoid of any useful information; a set of demo's, the members names (Hannah and Colette Thurlow) and how to book them are all that really stand out.  I believe Colette plays guitar, while Hannah is on drums.  They also appear to have a prediliction for black, brown and gray.  They’re being produced by a fellow called Charlie Huggall, who worked with Florence + The Machine, Razorlight and The Kaiser Chiefs.  So far, so mysterious.

Listening to the music, things start to get interesting.  The first track they uploaded was a slow burning percussion heavy number called Creeping, which was reportedly recorded on Garageband.  It shows, with the sort of shockingly ratty production only that unique piece of software can allow.  Regardless of their lo-fi sound, the tracks are excellent, with a sound that recalls Joy Division, QOTSA, Warpaint and The Dead Weather.  Their guitars are grungy, the drums propelling, the bass distorted and thundering while the vocals are sweetly menacing.  Dark riffs are accompanied by reverb-y vocals.  They have two demo’s, "Creeping" and "Sugar" which are both worth listening to, but upcoming single "On A Wire" is a noticeable improvement. Opening with a spiky guitar, it soon launches into it’s menacing refrain, “out of time, and I will find you”.  Backed by the B-side "Cold Front (a more melodic number)", it’s due to be released on March 28th, and that day can’t come quickly enough.

One last interesting fact, their name comes from their mutual favourite moment on The Melvins "A History of Bad Men". 

Download: Creeping (Demo), On A Wire (Demo)       

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Welcome to my corner of the internet. First, a little about me.  My name is Marcus, I'm studying Engineering, and I'm in my early 20's. 
Already, I hear you asking: "why are you contributing yet another doubtless self indulgent and irrelevant page of text to the already crowded blogosphere?"  A fair question, and one I often ask of others, so I'm going to try and set out my reasons.

Firstly, I'm not a naturally motivated person, and I've noticed myself becoming somewhat stagnant in my interests of late.  Therefore, it seemed to me that one of the best ways of re-lighting my fire would be to write about things that interest me, and hopefully it will be so enjoyable that I'll want to take interest in more things.  Always being wary of doing things simply for the sake of telling the world about it, of course.

Secondly, I've always considered myself to be a reasonable writer, however I recently had an encounter which caused me to question my abilities.  I'm studying a course which doesn't encourage extended writing, and so taking to heart the mantra that 'practice makes perfect' this seems like a perfect antidote.

Thirdly, I've considered it, but never kept a diary of any sort.  Now seems like as good a time as any to start keeping some records.  Since a blog is essentially just a diary in the cloud, I see this as keeping with the times, while performing a timeless practice.  

So, I'll be writing about things that interest me.  It seems very pointless to list my particular interests.  For example, just saying Music is hopelessly vague whilst listing "Avant Garde, Psychadelic, Shoe Gaze, Math Rock, Art Rock, Indie Rock" is ridiculously specific.  Therefore, hopefully by the time people start reading this there will be enough articles to have a theme established.   

So, enough introduction.  Hopefully people will find something of interest on this blog to read about.  Enjoy!