Label Spotlight: Front and Follow, Part 1

Front and Follow’s knack for tapping into the subterranean level work of artists who have more prominent work either with other artists, under other names or what have you, is a streak of brilliance which will propel them into prominence in their own right. The Manchester, UK-based label’s virgin release, Elite Barbarian, “It’s Only When You Get To The End That It All Makes Sense”, is the work of Benjamin Page and Michael Donnelly who are a part of the well-loved Rothko. Yonokiero have their lineage in the famous Hirameka Hi-Fi, while Andy Nice has been everywhere and done everything, but lately has a seat playing cello with Tindersticks. And the list goes on. Remixes, collaborative projects and other recordings have attracted the best of the best. We will be examining Front and Follow in two parts. First, some reviews and tracks of the label’s first four releases. Then a special report on their recently released interactive project, Long Division With Remainders. Oh, and don’t forget to visit the label’s website.

The label’s visual identity and design sensibility is flawless, with design and illustration by brilliant UK designer Damian O’Hara. The label has learned from so many who have come before that having someone recognize your release on the shelf is part of the battle. For their four initial releases, Front and Follow have packaged their CDs between two slightly oversized slabs of Davey Board, the rear embossd with the label’s logo, while the front sports a custom embroidered patch suitable for stitching to your motorcycle jacket. But don’t. In limited pressings each of 250 or less, these are instantly collectible, and soon will be lusted after with no less fervor than the Instinct Ambient series CDs rendered by Designers Republic in the mid-1990s.

F&F001: Elite Barbarian – “It’s Only When You Get To The End That It All Makes Sense”
Track 6, “Tropic” 7:16

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The label’s meteoric debut from Elite Barbarian immediately sets an intimidating bar. But this is to be expected, for the bravery and confidence with which one must proceed these days to attempt to release something that may very well receive the dreaded “IDM” tag, and therefore fall into an incomprehensibly vast abyss, is something that can only be coupled with the intution the label has shown for the excellence presented throughout its catalog. Hence, there is no band with a more appropriate name to fit such an occasion.

Elite Barbarian is the work of Benjamin Page and Michael Donnelly, who are also members of legendary London band Rothko. Elite Barbarian uses a vast array of sonic weapons to create a range of ambient abstractions and pounding rhythms. Their sound, both on-stage and off, is comprised of hard syntesizers, samplers, percussion and other toys. Benjamin is one half of Rocketnumbernine, with his brother Thomas, and their innovative improvised sets have been making an impact on the London scene since they formed in March 2006. Ben previously released a solo album “Drawn to Light”, recorded as Maps of the Heart, on Unlabel in 2006.

In this case, the band’s proven chops aren’t necessarily a shoe-in, for as dedicated as most Rothko fans may be, we can also be a snooty bunch, and one false move can manifest destiny in the cutout bin. Tropic, the track selected here, is particularly evident of the band’s dexterity. Whereas many bands exploit their inspirations, Elite Barbarian almost mocks them. You might expect the band to venture into deeper explorations of the glitch, and while the glitch and the subsequent rhythm patterns that have evolved around it is certainly a reference point, it is completely abandoned. The gradually evolving and gelling rhythm structures slowly build into recognizable loops and vaguely call to mind Electric Birds and that more eccentric end of the Mille Plateaux roster while avoiding cliche throughout.

F&F002: Yonokiero – “Blue Apples”
Track 8, “Rewound” 3:51

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It’s said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But lately, my notoriously staunch and dismissive reaction to anything even remotely singer/songwriterish has begun to soften. Frankly, I’m worried. I mean, first Mike Dixon (of People in a Position To Know) introduces me to The Graves who are quickly becoming a favorite band and now, Front and Follow hand me this, also zooming up the Jukebox Heart playlist.

So…Yonokiero, a two-piece made up of Chris Baldwin and Tom Coogan, formed after leaving their previous band Hirameka Hi-Fi. They have abandoned the delerious distortion of their past efforts (well, not entirely) and concentrate more on dreamy guitar harmony and vocals here. I’m not used to thinking that is a good thing, but they have a way of coaxing just the right mix out of their well worn acoustic acoutrements. Honestly, that’s not an entirely fair statement, because their are moments throughout Blue Apples that are peppered with the subtleties of feedback and overdrive, they are just not the emphasis. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into this set of songs as they gloriously unfold in a particularly narrative way. The influences of traditional folk pair well with a more modern sensitibilty of a loose, gritty sonica-verite, and the moderately lo-fi basement ambience provides a very focused baseline for all the songs to perch upon in order to tell their varied stories.

There are some obvious reference points here, like Red House Painters, for instance. This isn’t bad (or I wouldn’t have mentioned it), but I’d like to suggest a looser association with bands like Mahogany or perhaps even Movietone, because there are some very common elements there in the minimalism of sound and the economy of lyric. Where other music of this genre can be cloying and syrupy (think Wilco…) this is understated and elegant.

F&F003: Andy Nice – “The Secrets of Me”
Track 7, “Somebody Take Me Home” 4:05

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You may think it’s an odd choice to select the one vocal track from the album to include here, but I am just a sucker for F-Vox in this particular genre of music, especially in the detached melancholy nonchalance of Maple Bee. It is certainly not meant to detract from the wonderful music of Andy Nice’s cello; rather, his cello is a wonderful counterpoint. But enough of this back-pedaling. This is just a wonderful album. As I’ve mentioned, Andy Nice is currently part of Tindersticks, but has played with a wildly diverse array of artists, ranging from Baader Meinhof to Cradle Of Filth to Sade.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of “The Secrets of Me” is that the cello unapologetically takes the spotlight. There are countless examples of the cello being included in modern recordings that seem to include it only for its hip factor only to bury it in the mix behind more traditional pop arrangements. Not even remotely so here. The cello is showcased as the diverse instrument it is, providing melody as well as rhythmic structure throughout.

If your breath has ever been stolen by the likes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, perhaps as in “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away Amd It Doesn’t Matter”, or by the themes in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio 1610, or perhaps even by the more accessible side of HNAS, and then if you take that and filter it through a more current sensibility, you will understand exactly what is going on here.

Front and Follow have released a Free remix EP that is download-only, available here. It includes remixes by Sone Institute and Elite Barbarian, and also from Yellow 6. You didn’t miss that I said it was free, right? Go get it!

F&F004: Sone Institute – “Curious Memories”
Track 12, “Tea For Four” 1:54

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Track 14, “Sleep Has Its Embers” 1:10

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One thing about Sone Institute is that people either get it or they don’t. There seems to be no middle ground, and nothing is going to change that. But I’m fairly certain Roman Bedzyk, Sole Proprietor of Sone Institute, knew that going in. To simply say his music is sample and loop based electronics is to say something equally vapid as “the air is clear”, when in fact, it is bristling with unstable static and thick with the smell of ozone. Samples and loops are his basic tools, certainly, but so what? He creates music that is vital and full of motion and emotion and dense with dreams and desire. The tools are only important when it is obvious they are the most important aspect of the music and that’s the best there is to say about it. What I am finding so refreshing in his music is the *lack* of irony. It’s easy to raid a thrift shop and snicker at the selection of albums, and use samples to poke fun at the source material. It’s a far, far braver thing to use the samples in a way that respects and augments such source material – and a far more brilliant thing to pull *that* off with a contemporary sounding result. And Sone Institute has done just that, finding himself among the ranks of Ulrich Schnauss and Weschel Garland in the modern world, and the likes of Werner Mueller, Martin Bottcher and Santo & Johnny from a bygone era. Sone Institute is a very welcome addition in the Jukebox Heart archive.

The current complete discography of the label is presented below, with F&F 10 and 11 only at the announcement stage.

F&F001: Elite Barbarian – It’s Only When You Get To The End That It All Makes Sense
F&F002: Yonokiero – Blue Apples
F&F003: Andy Nice – The Secrets of Me
F&F004: Sone Institute – Curious Memories
F&F005: Andy Nice – The Remixes
F&F006: Long Division with Remainders – 14 Versions of the Same EP
F&F007: Doomed Bird of Providence EP
F&F008: Long Division with Remainders – Remainders (free download for those who buy the LDWR box set)
F&F009: Dollboy meets Sone Institute – The Sum and The Difference
F&F010: Yonokiero: Remixes (title, format, release date TBC)
F&F011: The Doomed Bird of Providence – Will Ever Pray (full album, out April 2011)
F&F012: LDWR Wrapping paper (currently exclusively available at Grotto Shop, Manchester)

“Long Division with Remainders” (LDWR) is the label’s Big Buzz, and for most of us has been the introductory release. Jukebox Heart will be presenting a more in-depth review of this release as Part 2 of this label spotlight, but for now a brief overview is in order. LDWR began as a periodic web-based remix project, with individual installments appearing on the LDWR website for free download. Artists were given source material for use in remixing, rebuilding and re-creating new music. Available now is the 4CD box set which includes remixes from Leyland Kirby, TagCloud, Spool Ensemble, The Truth About Frank, Susan Hawkins, Volume = Colour, The Abominable Mr Tinkler, Ken Peel, Barnaby Oliver, Isnaj Dui, Cats Against the Bomb, BLK w/BEAR, Sone Institute and Helen Watson. As a bonus, those who purchase the hard-copy receive a free full-length download of supplemental material. Stay tuned to this space for a much closer look at Long Division with Remainders.