By: Charlie Gardner
Photos: Charlie Gardner
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Support: Ham Legion | website
I don’t know if Cardiacs ever played the Prince Albert in their heyday, but with its eclectic crowd and Banksy graffiti (now somewhat upstaged by the rock legends mural surrounding it) it seems a wonderfully appropriate venue for tonight’s Tim Smith benefit, the second one to be hosted here by Brighton’s Real Music Club.
We are promised an evening voyage of uncertainty, but with the certainty that three of the four acts beside the sea tonight have a Cardiacs connection – most obviously headliners Knifeworld, for whom this is the penultimate gig of a whistle-stop week supporting the release of Home of the Newly Departed, their (nearly) new album.
It’s an early start, but on a beautiful spring evening Trafalgar Street is already humming, the pavement outside the Albert mostly occupied, but with an easy vibe. Knifeworld are in their ascendency: Kavus Torabi, pint in hand, compares notes with Ham Legion’s drummer, Mikey Parsons; at a table, Charlie Cawood, Emmett Elvin and Josh Perl are in earnest, but informal conversation with a couple of fans.
Inside, the pub heaves to a 4-3-2-1 time signature, an enthusiastic crowd are glued to the last movement of a lop-sided FA Cup Final, but one with sufficient fascination, you feel, to upstage tonight’s low-key opener, former Cardiacs drummer Stephen Gilchrist.
In the event, my fears are groundless, with a last-minute swell of fans and friends (bolstered commendably by most of the headliners) coming out to bat for Stephen EvEns, as he now bills himself. In truth he is more odds than evens: on first impression, the pudgier younger brother of Alan Davies, perhaps, with whom he shares the same lovable laconic style, but set to a Casio played in a barebones approximation of Ray Manzarek.
Tonight, however, his programme is guitar led, peaking with considerable technical prowess in the blackly funny ‘Go To Sleep’, a madrigal-like appreciation of his dead grandmother. His repertoire is perhaps too full of songs that are punchline-less, but the confessional quality of his lyrics ensure that he is as much Frank Turner as Frank Sidebottom.
Still biro-y after all these years, Bic Hayes is one half of the typographically spaced-out M U M M Y, an ambient post-rock duo formed with his partner, Jo Spratley. All in black, their semi-goth stage presence is as seductive as their gently curved compositions: Spratley’s vocals looping and spiralling over the sensitive, shape-throwing of Hayes’ guitars, in a ‘sidegaze’ style that is both endearing and alienating – the perfect counterpoint to their soundscape.
Jo Sprately is a siren, an enchantress with a vocal ability that can ran through innocence, passion and rage in one phrase, her many voices showing the mature influence of almost every edgy chanteuse you can name: from Lotte Lenya to Marianne Faithfull; from Nico to Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith. And while her lyrics may be minimal, and often obscure, they are deeply felt – none more so than the sentiments of the set-closing ‘Modern Alcoholic’, underscored by Spratley’s simple, tom-tom beat.
A mesmerising performance, then; and though M U M M Y may only be in its sound-sketch infancy, tonight feels like the vital first step of the twelve towards its completion…
A lo-fi trio causing a bit of buzz in Sussex, Ham Legion may not cite The Jam as one of their many influences, but the chiming opening chords of ‘The New Wave of Love’ suggest otherwise. It’s an auspicious opener, resonant with the angular muscularity of the raw Weller and Foxton, which time-jumps you from Brighton 2015 to Guildford 1979.
After that, the programme is more mixed, combining established crowd pleasers like ‘Floppsie’ and ‘Pinch Punch’ with many Works In Progress – so in progress they have only working titles – which gives the set a somewhat random dynamic, and the occasional flat spot.
Still, there is much to enjoy from the bass-led, Proggy popsters who skilfully work in metal-edged breakdowns and change-ups, without disturbing the sheer danceability of their radio-length compositions. And their inspired cover of Cardiacs’ ‘Sleep. All Eyes Open’, with a treatment that is both Mod and Motörhead, proves to be one of the highlights of the evening.
The audience is bulging now, with rather more young faces than you’d normally expect for a Knifeworld gig pushing to the front in appreciation of Nick Howiantz on bass and vocals. Howiantz makes an attractive frontman, his asymmetrical hair contra-rotating with his beguiling bass swings. Sadly, though, guitarist Sam Clarke and drummer Mikey Parsons eschew such extrovertism, adopting a shoegazey approach that is at odds with their frontman’s flamboyance.
And that’s a shame. Howiantz’s charisma can only carry the band so far, you feel, and it’s disappointing that Clarke and Parsons don’t let their hair down a little more – figuratively and literally. At one point Howiantz jokes that the most rebellious thing Clarke has ever done is to play an F Sharp instead of an F; to which I’m gagging to respond, ‘Play that F Sharp, Sam. Play it in every F’ing set!’
If they can use their forthcoming album to become more expansive, there’s a bright future ahead for Ham Legion. But for all their prog pretensions, it’s surely a future that’s closer to Marmozets than Marillion.
My brief conversation with Kavus before the start confirms that despite the occasion, Knifeworld will not be playing their astonishing cover of ‘The Stench of Honey’, tonight. ‘We just haven’t had the time to rehearse it and get it to a level that’s fitting for Tim,’ Kavus explains with his usual frankness. And though I barely hide my disappointment, it’s easy to be sympathetic. After all, any track from The Unravelling is a tribute to his Cardiacs’ comrade. And in the time the band have had available recently, they’ve been busy working on new material.
Unsurprisingly, then, they cast off briskly with two new pieces: ‘High /Aflame’ a tribute to another of Torabi’s mentors, the late Daevid Allen, and ‘I Am Lost’; both up-tempo compositions that are clearly stamped with the collaborative character of the whole band.
And having left the harbour so delightfully, HMS Knifeworld steams ahead with ‘Don’t Land On Me’, one of the wondrous semi-symphonies from The Unravelling, and a shining example of their eclectic semi-orchestral soundscape: perky staccato woodwind follows psychedelic electronica before a smooth, fusion passage that links to a heavy guitar riff and Melanie Woods’ plaintive backing vocals.
The heavy overdriven guitar continues in ‘The Wretched Fathoms’ before we jump forwards again to the first of the ‘missing link’ tracks, ‘Pilot Her’ from Home of the Newly Departed. After a few plays, this has already become a personal favourite: a poetic reflection on heartbreak that is perfectly counterpointed by a spiky, post-punk arrangement. That it sounds more strident than I am used to is confirmation that the PA, already taking on a little water during ‘The Wretched Fathoms’, has now slipped its anchor entirely leaving the band a little cut adrift, with a sound that’s caught in the doldrums of a giant, medium wave radio. It’s rockier, for sure, but in a raucous kind of way and somewhat lacking in the detail and nuance that is their signature.
But despite the choppy waters, there are moments of real joy: Torabi’s sublime guitar line in ‘Send Him Seaworthy’; Emmett Elvin’s keyboards cutting through the noise of the spray; some ageing hipsters in pork-pie hats, forcing their way to the front so they can throw shadow shapes in the intensity of the Barbarella-style, psychedelic lighting.
Yet the greatest joy of all comes from observing how the ship’s crew rise to the challenge of a rough sea… And tonight, it is Chlöe Herington who comes to the fore, magnificently. Standing more centrally because of the confines of the small stage, she is the Knifeworld figurehead; her raven hair flowing as she brandishes her bassoon like a pikestaff – ready to repel all boarders, or die trying.
To her left, Lieutenant Hornblower and multi-instrumentalist Josh Perl, on a double-watch for the on-shore-leave Oliver Sellwood, follows the compass, works the wheel and pumps the bilges with fury; while below decks the engineers, Charlie Cawood and Ben Woollacott, make a stout backline that keeps a steady rate of knots
In the radio room, Emmett Elvin’s synths fix the ship’s position with sonar-like bursts of clarity; while up in the crow’s nest, Melanie Woods’ lookout braves the elements, her wistful treble riding the crosswinds.
And at the helm, Captain Kavus Torabi, RN: bestriding the decks like a colossus, his trusty Gretsch his sabre, he makes a charismatic commander who simply keeps calm… and carries on. He has ‘time’ on his mind this evening, he tells us, and is fascinated by a recent philosophical proposition that that time is nothing more than illusion: all that matters is the present moment.
There is a certain irony in a musician who plays in 15/8 suggesting there is no such thing as time, of course. Added to which we are in danger of overrunning and missing out on the inspirational ‘Me To The Future Of You’, though Kavus manages to skilfully smuggle it through the harbour entrance as semi-encore.
This song is always a resurrection for me, and if tonight, plucked from the tempest, it is a more painful one than usual the consequence is that the coda is more uplifting and liberating than ever. The PA is fried now: Chlöe and Melanie can barely hear the foldback, but they cling on for dear life and pilot the extraordinary, angelic climax that leaves me reeling and speechless.
All are safely gathered in, and HMS Knifeworld is home and seaworthy. Tonight they have shown they are not just a band of characters, but a band of resolute, unshakeable character – all glorious, then, if in an unexpected way.
Kavus is right. All that matters is the here and now: the night has been an energising and entertaining excursion and helped to pay the passage of a very worthy cause. In the end it all comes back to Cardiacs, for none of us gathered here and now would be playing or listening to music in this way were it not for the unique talent that is Tim Smith.
Back in 2005, after two years with the band, Kavus reflected that Cardiacs made ‘proper far out music’ that inspired incredible loyalty from their members and their fans, alike. “I’m surprised that more bands don’t make stuff like this, although it takes a fairly dogged and stubborn approach,” he mused.
Ten years on, and Knifeworld, to their credit, are keeping that faith high and aflame…
So should we all.