Starting out as a humble blog in 2011, we have gone from news and reviews to acoustic sessions and more, interviewing the likes of Everything Everything, TTNG, Enemies, Mike Vennart, Piglet, CHON and Delta Sleep. From seminal bands to the DIY scene, we cover a wide variety of math and post-rock oriented music, feature regular reviews, host giveaways and produce acoustic sessions.
An Ode to Math Rock Ancestry and an Indie Pop Hereafter
For many a young person drifting hopelessly through those
angst-stricken teenage years, music is the greatest comfort. Guiding lyrics
sang in heartfelt tones can sooth in times of trouble, elevating an unassuming
frontman into a sage of the stage. Reminiscing to oneself about having
witnessed passionate performances from gigs past can bring about a warm nostalgia.
In music scenes underground and with bands underloved, this is often
accompanied by a feeling of privilege for having been one of the 30 or
something strong audience, marooned inside a dingy venue taking shared solace
in the evening’s escape. The pure release in the intimacy of these moments sets
aside any lingering awkwardness of being in a room that everyone wishes was
less empty. Nervous bands feel all-the-more appreciated, deservedly, as those
hearty singalongs and well-timed nods prove the audience’s attentiveness and
familiarity with the music.
Having seen them a dozen or so times in the past 8 years, Tall Ships embody
these experiences like no other band. Ric Phethean intonates profound mantras
with a sheepish innocence, an uncertainty that belies his impact in the room.
Lyrics explore both the introspective and the exultant whilst instruments march
along in tandem; the pensive plods along the keyboard in Vessels or Ode to
Ancestors flow flawlessly into the pent-up energy of Hit the Floor or Plate
I remember with limpid clarity the moment I heard ‘Oscar’ for the first time.
On a tour preceding the release of Everything Touching, new tunes were working
their way into the set. Out of an enchanting glut of songs filled with familiar
sing-along anthems came a riff I had not heard before, from a band that – on
recollection, I realise - were primed to air new material but also nervous
about the abreaction they knew they were about to undergo. As the song rose
to its crescendo (in that typically-tall-ships manner) I heard for the first
time the line ‘I love you more than you know’; a heartfelt refrain pouring from
exhausted lungs. Then bassist Matt Parker, crouched and cowering in the ache of
the moment, paused and took respite, summoning enough energy to longingly and
heart-wrenchingly reach for a lightly crumpled photograph of a loved one,
sellotaped to the cabinet of his bass amp. ‘Oscar’ is about familial bonds,
friends, ancestry and the joy of the unspoken contracts we assume with the
people we love and care for. I’ve no compulsion to know who it was that Matt
was paying tribute to so touchingly, to know that they ‘share more than blood’ and that their ‘heartbeat is the most important thing’ to him served to consecrate
that moment as one of the most moving I have experienced from live music.
Approaching Tall Ships’ long-awaited second album with this
rich personal history behind me was difficult. Having waited an extra month due
to pressing problems, the time that had elapsed between the release of Will to Life - first aired back at
ArcTanGent in 2015 - and the first full playthrough was nearing two years. How
would this new album land, mixing upbeat festival songs by now so familiar with
newer, mellower and more mournful offers. Long time collaborator and producer
James Field had become a fully-fledged member, reducing the live performance
workload of Ric to the benefit of his
already engaging performance style. But how might a fourth man wholly focused
on the keys in the studio play out on the album?
Any nervous anticipation I had was shattered and reconciled about a minute into
the album. The opener Road Not Taken
is a perfect harbinger of the contrasting styles to come, the split
sections encapsulating the yin and yang
of the album in one bifurcated song. Once the stripped-down opening has settled
in, and whispered vocals and synths have passed, the band punch in with full
percussion and guitar, giving a satisfying glimpse into the indie rock anthems
to come. Amongst the most radio friendly of these anthems are the two tracks
released as music video singles, Will to
Life and Mediations on Loss,
featuring thumping rhythms and nods to old influences like Biffy Clyro, with
massive hook-filled choruses and a crunchy guitar-driven tone. On the softer
end of the pop spectrum, Lucille
darts in with an interlocked rhythm section reminiscent of early Bombay Bicycle
Club, though Tall Ships make their own mark with a chorus of vocal lines -
taken from all parts of the song and interwoven - that works so surprisingly
well as an ending cacophony. Testament to the true accessibility of this album,
Lost & Found features a short
guitar riff that sounds like the Arctic Monkeys track ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’,
showcasing the indie band making ballads with a nostalgic 80’s tone.
Ending on a note of relative optimism, Day by Day is a bittersweet anthem for repair and renewal, a chance
‘to redefine why it is you live your
life’. These sentiments define this charming track as it fights its way
towards being optimistic but ultimately remains grounded in the futile mire of
reality: ‘we need to do something before
we get too old.’ The tone is at
times upbeat, the lyrics never too saccharine, the sad reflections thus far end
with a glimmer of hope, like watching a split of daylight radiate between two
A word for the two tracks hidden away on the C side of the
vinyl could not go amiss. Something of a concealed title track, Impressions createsa purposeful backdrop of layered synths as Ric roars out with a
lyrical drive-by of the albums themes. A wallop of uplifting guitar slowly
builds in a cinematic moment of anticipation reminiscent of their debut album
closer, Murmurations; this fiery post-rock instrumental as engrossing as Rock
Action era Mogwai. Meanwhile, Purge
finishes the offerings of this album with a little guitar groove, jumping and
darting, whilst the vision of Impressions is brought to a close with a plangent
As ever, Tall Ships’ drum work is understated, a highlight
from Everything Touching being the simple fx-laden beat that starts and
underlines Idolatry. Once again – and more ear-catching than ever - Jamie shows
how best to serve the song by writing simple, crunchy motifs with the odd beat
chopped off, reverb slapped on or percussive tone changed, as to excite the ear
on the first listen but to let it settle in hypnotically upon repeat.
Meanwhile, Matt’s complimentary bass riffs range from the pulsing grooves in Lucille to the thumping persistence of
Meditations on Loss to the warm and
wide undercurrents of Home.
Along this well-trodden path from largely instrumental,
intricately looped and angular math-rock towards a more careful pop sound sit
bands like Enemies and, more recently, Waking Aida. Similarly, Tall Ships’ turn
from dense loops of interwoven riffs to an indie pop tone traces a clear path.
From the spoken word samples on their first EP, to the big swooning vocal lines
on ‘Chemistry’, to the more vocally driven parts of Everything Touching, now we
have the complete package; nine tracks where vocal hooks don’t just adorn great
riffs as an afterthought, but provide the foundation for the song. The stories
and sentiments told feel as if they are influencing the style of the
instruments for the first time in the band’s work.
Resultantly, the song structures are built around the
lyrical drive too. And so, although the band have adopted a more indie alt-pop
tone, outside of the radio-friendly singles they still have a penchant for
longer songs with unusual musical throughflows. This pushes them to rewarding
places. Ric’s unwinding narratives compel the band to forego the traditional
verse-chorus set up in favour of one long, building and unfolding track that
slowly envelopes those brave enough to listen attentively. In doing so, the
band avoid a feeling of disjointedness; no longer treading back along old paths
with a chorus repeated wholesale, but forging a new one on which Ric’s
evocative message can develop. This allows songs like Home and Petrichor to
germinate organically, to be as immersive sonically as the lyrics are in their
Since the release of the B-side Send News from 2011’s single Hit
the Floor, I have been enamoured with Tall Ships at their most delicate.
When the bombast of pulsing drums and angular riffs subsides, you are left – in
Idolatry, Ode to Ancestors and another B-side, Life Goes On - with layers of
vocal, ripples of piano and delicate refrains to sing along to. For this reason,
the lilting Lost & Found is
without a doubt my personal highlight of this release, and arguably the best
showcase of Ric’s unique ability never to waste a good lyric on a half-hearted
melody, but to propel each line into significance with a memorable one.
Lyrically, Ric writes the textbook for demonstrating how profound it can be to
never worry about profundity, but to know the first words that come to mind
often capture the idea at its most transparent and honest. On this theme, it is surprising that after the many
years the band have had to self-produce the album, achingly crafting every
single note and tone of each overdub, the album still sounds the result of an
effortless, unstudied process.
A common criticism from those that have been following the band since their
guitar loop-driven early days is that they’ve lost their exciting mathyness.
This was perfectly crystallised to me at ATG in 2014 when (in a drunkenly
slurred Scottish accent) a young man confided in me his belief that ‘Tall Ships
are wee bit too poppy.’ Well, I’d obviously argue after having written this
ludicrously long review, I think they’re exactly poppy enough: utterly
hypnotic, effortless, memorable, but still showcasing intricate, complex and
thoughtful songs with stunning musicianship and a ‘less is more but 5 sets of
backing vocals and 3 synth tones still aren’t quite enough’ sort of feeling. A
masterful album and their best release to date. Another minute would be too
intense to bear.