Switched On – The Black Dog: The Grey Album (Dust Science Recordings)


by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

For The Grey Album, The Black Dog have gone back to basics. Inspired by electronic bands such as Depeche Mode and The Human League in their early years, they went back to much older ways of working, with one keyboard per person and a strict limit imposed on the use of the computers.

These were the confines for an album that continues a rich stream of creativity for the Sheffield trio. Proud of their heritage, they are continuing to explore music and architecture simultaneously – and this latest opus taps into both art forms for its inspiration.

What’s the music like?

As its title implied, this is often an album of sombre colour – but there is also an impressive grandeur to the soundscapes The Black Dog conjure up.

That much is immediately evident from the stark outlines and imposing structure of Ghosts Of Decay, with steely synthesizer sounds reminiscent of the band’s city mates Cabaret Voltaire. As the beats arrive so too does an extra urgency, and the bumpy terrain of Let’s All Make Brutalism draws parallels with the trio’s love of 1980s architecture.

The faster tracks on this album are very impressive. Harder Times puts its pedal to the metal with an excellent, low slung groove, while the cleverly named (We Never Needed This) Fascist Groove Thang is excellent. Thee Difference Ov Girls drives forward with great purpose, as does the superb This Is Phil Talking and I Dare You. The last two are peppered with excellent riffs and generate great momentum – before the album subsides into the attractive coda, Borstal Communications sounding like the throb of steelpans.

Does it all work?

It does. The Black Dog are past masters at gauging the structure of an album and do so again here, moving effortlessly between mood and tempo and peaking with a couple of certified bangers.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enthusiastically – The Grey Album is a fine addition to The Black Dog discography, and confirmation that they are very much at the top of their game.



When time slows down – Holst’s ‘Betelgeuse’

by Ben Hogwood Picture courtesy ALMA – ESO/NAOJ/NRAO, E/O’Gorman/P.Kervella

A report on the Guardian website today asks why the great red giant star Betelgeuse is glowing so brightly and behaving so strangely. It is a fascinating read, and its remarkable conclusion is a reminder that the light we see from the star is actually 600 years old.

It brought to mind a setting by Gustav Holst of a great poem about the star by Humbert Wolfe. This is a highly unusual song, proceeding such a slow speed that the age of the star is never in doubt. Here it is, sung by tenor Philip Langridge with pianist Steuart Bedford:

In concert – Britten Sinfonia / Thomas Gould & Agata Zając @ Milton Court: Musical Everests – The Year 1953

Thomas Gould (violin/director), Miranda Dale (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Britten Sinfonia / Agata Zając (Maconchy)

Corelli Concerto Grosso in F major Op.6/2 (publ. 1714)
Tippett Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli (1953)
Maconchy Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953)
Phibbs Flame and Shadow (2023)
Walton Finale from Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (1953)

Milton Court, London
Wednesday 24 May 2023

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Pictures (c) Ben Hogwood

This typically imaginative concert devised by the Britten Sinfonia took as its starting point the events of 1953, where the United Kingdom shifted on its axis. It was of course the year in which Britain witnessed a Coronation, and in which Everest was scaled, but other than Walton’s jubilant finale to the collaborative composer project Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, no explicit musical links were made.

Instead, the Britten Sinfonia concentrated on two major works written for string orchestra in that year – one now well-known and one barely performed. The underdog, Elizabeth Maconchy’s Symphony for Double String Orchestra, made a very strong impression in this performance, brilliantly played by string players using a handwritten manuscript from 1953. The difficulty of this task necessitated a conductor, with Agata Zając joining at short notice. Hers was a dynamic presence, helping emphasise the rhythmic flair and dramatic impetus of the piece.

Maconchy’s music has often been critically coveted but is rarely heard in the concert hall – sadly an all-too familiar plight for a female composer innovating in the 20th century. Where many British composers wrote to include the countryside around them she wrote in a continental style, her music powered by fertile melodic imagination and rhythmic vitality. At times there are elements of Stravinsky and Bartók in her music but the closest parallel is Frank Bridge, with whom she shared an ability to explore the outer reaches of tonality without selling listeners short on melody.

The first movement of the Symphony grips the listener immediately, its powerful forward momentum complemented by soaring violin solos, which Thomas Gould played to perfection here. The febrile main motif bore close resemblance to Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, and Maconchy’s treatment of it was economical and engaging. Emotionally, however, the heart of the piece lay in the second movement Lento, where an eerie figure crept slowly upwards from cellos and basses, refusing to give way to the sweeter intimate melodies above. A rustic Scherzo, laden with syncopation, was followed by an equally captivating finale, initially pensive but with gathering intensity and drive. Just before the end the music broke out into a joyous country dance before returning to its more angular outlines.

The Britten Sinfonia were at the top of their game, subtly and superbly drilled by leader Gould. Each player was fully engaged, with smiles and nods of encouragement frequently passing between the team. When these qualities are natural, as they were here, a performance is elevated for the audience – and that was certainly the case for Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in F major, second in his set of twelve published as Op.6 in 1714. This opened the concert, dovetailing neatly into the work of Sir Michael Tippett, which it inspired.

Elegance and style were to the fore in the Corelli, with clean melodic lines given just a hint of vibrato for expression, and the interplay and balance between the three soloists and orchestra ideally judged. The work’s sunny countenance spilled over into the Tippett, though here the sun’s rays took on a more ecstatic quality.

The Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli, also dating from 1953, is a compelling study in time travel. Tippett presents the original 18th century material unadorned, but adds his own unique musical language incrementally, so the piece becomes awash with bright colour and reaches a feverish intensity. Gould led a performance to savour, with fulsome support from fellow soloists Miranda Dale (violin) and Caroline Dearnley (cello). Together with the enhanced Sinfonia they rendered the golden textures beautifully, enhancing the elegance of the original material.

With the Tippett and Maconchy works a formidable pair either side of the interval, it says much for the London premiere of Joseph Phibbs’ new work that it was not in any way overshadowed. Though Flame and Shadow looked beyond events of 1953 for its stimulus it nonetheless bore a resemblance to the new coronation, its fresh take on music for strings revealing a busy contemporary approach.

Phibbs has an original and imaginative way with writing for strings, using audience-friendly melodic figurations but allowing them to roam harmonically, changing their perspective. The punchy rhythms of the Dance section here were a thrill, as were the combination of rapid fire and sustained open string pizzicato heard throughout the Interlude. Flame and Shadow, taking its title from a collection of verse by Sara Teasdale, was an edge of the seat piece, even to its closing Vocalise section, where a melody closely related to that found at the opening of Sibelius Symphony no.4 had a sobering effect. The contrasts of darkness and light were vivid and left a lasting impression – as indeed did the whole concert.

In twenty years of covering Britten Sinfonia concerts, and marvelling at their programming and technical prowess, this Milton Court evening confirmed their musical health to be stronger than ever. If only the same could be said for their long-term financial prospects, thrown into doubt by the withdrawal of funding in the latest Arts Council England cuts. Without the immediate publicity of similar actions levelled at English National Opera and the BBC Singers, the Britten Sinfonia have just launched their Play On fundraising campaign. The initial response has been encouraging, but it needs to raise more to secure the organisation’s future. Please do consider giving – I certainly will. This is the only way their imaginative concerts and a wealth of community-based outreach across East Anglia – where they are the only full time orchestra – can continue.

You can read all about future concerts from the ensemble at the Britten Sinfonia website. Click on the composer names to read more about Joseph Phibbs, Elizabeth Maconchy and Sir Michael Tippett – and for more details on concerts at the venue, visit the Milton Court website

On Record: The Tippett Quartet – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Volume Two: String Quartets

Steve Elcock
String Quartets – The Girl from Marseille, Op. 17 (2010); The Cage of Opprobrium, Op. 22 (2014); Night after Night, Op. 27 (2017); The Aftermath of Longing, Op. 36 (2021)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Božidar Vukotić (cello)]

Toccata Classics TOCC0688 [80’31”]

Producer Michael Ponder Engineer Adaq Khan

Recorded 6-8 October 2022, Studio TQHQ, Ruislip, London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its survey of Steve Elcock (b1957) – arguably its most important ongoing project – with this collection of his four (to date) string quartets, performed by the enterprising Tippett Quartet and reaffirming his stature among composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Elcock is not the first composer to eschew numbering his quartets (Daniel Jones, for instance, differentiated his eight by date), with The Girl from Marseille preceded by at least four such works (one of these refashioned into his Eighth Symphony). Coming after weighty pieces as the Second and Third Symphonies (the latter on TOCC0400), these eight diverse variations in search of a theme – its identity in the title – find his music at its most playful and entertaining, though the fractious final variation pointedly invokes the brutal origins of its source material.

It was the location of this work’s first performance that provided ‘inspiration’ for The Cage of Opprobrium, namely a 16th-century metal pillory used to incarcerate women found walking unaccompanied after dark. Its five continuous sections graphically evoke the imagined victim through alternate slow and fast sections – building towards a violent culmination (its alluding to a famous quartet less striking than the way in which this music is transformed into Elcock’s own), before subsiding into a postlude where mourning is informed by emotional exhaustion.

Emerging in a relatively long gap between Elcock’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (TOCC0445 and TOCC0616), Night after Night takes its cue from the poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. The first of its six continuous sections, entitled ‘Somniloquy’, evokes those unbidden thoughts of a chronic insomniac then returns between episodes of a more volatile nature. Its climax comes in the aggressive final ‘Incubus’ (later extended into an autonomous orchestral piece), which elides between sleep and wakefulness without hope of reconciliation.

Elcock’s most recent quartet, The Aftermath of Longing is likewise in six continuous sections but is very different in mood. It is also the most inherently abstract of these works, moving fitfully between varying degrees of emotional ambivalence to a penultimate episode whose releasing of the pent-up intensity results only in a desolate recollection of the initial music. Something of its character can be sensed in the composer’s subsequent symphonies, notably the Ninth that is his largest such work to date and may well prove to be his most impressive.

Does it all work?

Indeed, it does and not least because Elcock has put his formative years of playing the violin to profitable use with his idiomatic and resourceful writing for strings. For all their technical demands, nothing is left to chance in these quartets which are evidently building into a cycle scarcely less involving than that of the symphonies. Suffice to add the Tippett Quartet, which premiered the latter two works, proves an assured and persuasive exponent while the running order, of 2-1-4-3, makes for a programme well worth experiencing as a continuous sequence.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Sound is vivid and detailed, if a little confined in more tumultuous passages, while the composer’s notes are informative without prejudicing the response of each listener. Hopefully these quartets will be taken up by other suitably equipped and inquiring ensembles.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the Toccata Classics website. Click on the names for more on composer Steve Elcock and the Tippett Quartet

Switched On – Craven Faults: Standers (The Leaf Label)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is a big year for the elusive minds behind Craven Faults. On the horizon is a debut live show in September, where their modular synthesisers, cables and organs will be extracted from the old textile mill where they work, and presented to the public.

Part of that presentation will surely include Standers, the outfit’s second album. A large scale piece, it moves towards a large scale approach that sees four of the six tracks clocking in at more than ten minutes each. Their approach is self-described as ‘a self-contained analogue electronic journey across northern Britain, viewed through the lens of a century in popular music.’ This time around the perspective around the landscapes they create in music is shifting, looking at how their outlines have been shaped by the elements and by human settlers. The interaction between the two provides plenty of raw material for composition.

What’s the music like?

Rather like the artwork. Craven Faults make music of the exquisitely shaded black and white variety, with a combination of panoramic drones and detailed foreground work that makes a lasting impression and keeps the listener coming back for more.

The longer form of composition definitely suits Craven Faults’ music, as it allows each scene to be set, subtly shaded and crafted.

First track Hurrocstanes – which appears to be a historical name for Haddock Stones, in North Yorkshire – makes a striking start. Over the course of a quarter of an hour it emits a regular, tolling chime that is equal parts foreboding and comforting, as the musical landscape beneath pulses with activity, subtly shifting from the root note and back again.

Even more impressive is Sun Vein Strings, a blast of light from its massed banks of keyboards but also with plenty going on elsewhere. The 18-minute epic becomes a series of twisted electronic moves, the lines expanding and contracting with hypnotic regularity, and with the syncopation throwing the listener off the beat.

The shorter tracks are equally concentrated. Severals rises impressively from the depths, its synthesizer lines gaining in stature, while Odda Delf gains a probing piano line.

Descriptive writing is at the heart of Craven Faults work, and the outdoors certainly beckons on a track like Meers & Hushes, describing nature’s efforts to cover the trails of human industry. Its regular pulse suggests past activity, while the drones are highly descriptive. The music rises to a higher pitch, slow riffs playing off each other.

Does it all work?

Yes. Craven Faults have the ability to make music indoors that very clearly portrays the landscapes around them, and the blend of natural and mechanical elements feels just right.

Is it recommended?

Yes. On this evidence the live material will be fascinating to chart – but taken as a standalone work, Standers represents a very fine achievement and a cornerstone of this year’s British electronica.