This article was originally written for Exetera.
Faith: not wanting to know what is true.- Friedrich Nietzsche in ‘The Gay Science’ (1882)
Most people remember the first Christmas that didn’t feel like magic. I’m not talking about finding out Santa wasn’t real, or at least in my case I still felt some heart flutters as I peeked over the sheets on Christmas Eve a couple of years after the big man was unmasked. I can tell you what happened at that threshold between resplendent golden ribbons on Lapland snow drifts, and a pile of sheathed boxes on a laminate floor thinly filmed with fake snow spray (for use in ventilated spaces only): you learned too much about the world. As a kid, I had neither the sufficient quantity of bookworming years under my belt nor the mental capacity to know and understand what I know and understand today. I did not experience any particularly upsetting revelations; I never saw the curtain ripped away to reveal a hideous monster. Instead the world around me gradually filled in, from vibrant watercolour to material reality.
It is in ambiguity and misinformation that magic can be found. As an atheist, when I hear those with religious convictions profess the warmth that their holy spirit brings them, I recall the innocent excitement at the seemingly magical mechanisms that made the world move the way it did. As I grew older, the mysterious operations of the world were explained. Your mother is a woman who got pregnant, it will happen to your friends, soon if not already. Money buys chocolate at the Post Office; it also pulls at the puppet-strings of your life, deciding where you live and what job you have, or don’t have. Like most of the people who made it to this university, I was a thirsty kid; I consumed volumes of information as part of my nature. That meant that I was painting in those details in my watercolour world as fast as I could, unwittingly painting over the magical ambiguity that came before them.
So back to faith, boy am I jealous. Like Nietzsche up there, I think that faith expresses a lack. In infancy, that lack is given by parents, teachers: ‘There are things about God’s grace that we, his creation, cannot hope to understand’. In adulthood, that lack must be maintained within oneself, especially in an environment as mixed as university: ‘I trust that any apparent glitches in God’s design serve a divine purpose; we need only wait for it to reveal itself’. Faith, to me, allows one to draw a box around certain areas of the watercolour and leave them in their divinely primordial state. They say that the simplest form is the purest, and so it is. The graceful mystery holds far more magic in it than does the sprawling truth, in almost all cases. It holds true for me too. I would rather believe that the swell-bellied Ethiopian living virtuously will go to eternal salvation and the greedy, selfish Nestlé executive will burn for eternity, than know that they will both lie in material graves until the earth consumes them, consciousness finito.
However, I can’t unlearn, nor would I like to unlearn, nor would I like to stop learning at this happy pace. To shut off from the phenomena of the world around me in some futile attempt to bring some magic into the ether would be akin to taking up alcoholism so I can’t see my feet, but so that I can see the fairies instead. It’s the pursuit of a depressed person whose nerves have become so raw that they can’t bear them to be exposed to the air - and that just isn’t me. I love my understanding of the world enough that I often forget what magic feels like, let alone feel wistful for it. To describe something as occult is to say that it is hidden from view, yet to be understood. These definitions are at the root of the lack that is magic, that is faith. So, I have made peace with the fact that my search for an understanding of the universe is going to cost me some magic, and that there is pure joy to be found in the way of the faithful, the deliberately unknowing. I don’t mind it; there is incredible beauty in the detail.
This article was originally written for Exetera.
Hello. My name is Jack…
[Group: Hello, Jack]
…and I’m a news addict.
In the earliest seconds of my waking day, as my brain begins to comprehend the external world and puts away the psychedelic nonsense of my dreams, I reach for the news. Around 9.30 every morning, or earlier if I’m awoken by whatever song I’ve decided to try and numb the pain of a 9am seminar with, I unplug my phone and open up the news.
Being a news junkie of the caliber that I have reached means that I’ve spent years trimming, optimising, and maximising the flow of information from the internet into my brain. I don’t go to individual news websites any more. I’ve collated the raw text and image feeds into a feed reader (I use Feedly, that’s the strongest shit) that constitutes my personally curated melée of current affairs. Sorted into categories like Lifestyle, Politics, and Web Design are the RSS feeds of websites of almost every ilk. If they put out timely articles and are the best in their field, I probably read their stuff. That sounds pretty conceited of me, right? Well, I’ve put a lot of time into my very own 24 hour news channel, and I’m allowed to be proud.
So, every morning I’m flicking through these streams of information, and every fifth or so story I’m reading voraciously. At this point I don’t know whether I prefer the process of learning news, or actually knowing it. It’s probably the former, because in the biggest twist of tragic irony, I’m pretty much unable to retain anything I read on a screen past a couple of days. I read a book and I’ll be able to quote it months, maybe years later (and yet can’t remember where I put the fucking pen down ten seconds ago) but I read the best article of my life on The New Yorker’s feed and it’ll be gone by the time I’ve flipped apps and checked my Twitter notifications. Maybe it’s like my friend says: enjoyment is all about the value that we assign to things. I probably bought the book (or at least put some effort in to get it from the library), and so my subconscious thinks well heck, I may as well make this worth my while. When it comes to the article on my phone’s 3.5 inch screen, the effort expended is negligible – the flick of a thumb, the touch of a fingertip – so why would my brain’s memory banks deign to commit the information? What reason do I have to give it any value?
Despite knowing all of that, I can’t help it. I just want my fix, man. I carry my laptop through with me to the kitchen as I get a bowl of cereal. I’ve added another ten inches to my screen real estate, allowing an even higher rate of information intake as I chew on my Shreddies, slack-jawed. By the time I’ve finished a bowl and I’m carrying my laptop in front of me through the hall back to my room I’ve learnt an unbelievable quantity of information. Ukraine’s parliament plan to impeach the President. The world’s most wanted drug kingpin has been arrested. Hostilities wage on in Fallujah. Apple and Samsung’s patent talks fail, another court case likely. All of these facts will affect nothing of the physical reality of my day, and yet I devour them like my life depends on it, like there’s a summative exam looming on ‘Current Affairs 2009 – 2014’. It’s a sickness. As an overly emotional teenager I used to fantasise about getting away to a solitary cabin in snowy woods and just hanging out, drawing, writing. Today, that fantasy, albeit infantile to begin with, has gone out the window; it’s pretty unlikely I’ll get a solid connection to the feeds in a silly cabin in the woods.
My sickness is brought on by environmental factors, I would say. Access to high-volume information is too readily available, and that availability is always going to leave me craving more, to the point of ridiculousness. I’d probably weld a fibre-optic cable to my brain stem if I could, and watch the infinite stream of Politico op-eds, Reuters alerts, and Al Jazeera pieces fly past the back of my retinas. Like I’ve said, none of it would stick, but the beauty lies in the intake, the weightless tonnes of data rushing over my skin like a high wind. The cost of my addiction isn’t opaque to me. The first and gravest casualty of my condition was my ability to deep dive. The deep dive is reading four different books on one ancient war because it intrigued you so much; it’s sitting and just thinking for twenty minutes about a conversation that you had with somebody that day. They say that the ability to fixate wholly upon one thing is what makes prodigies, those outliers in the bell curve of human ability. In my current state, the deep dive is a distant possibility.
I can’t get enough of current affairs, and perhaps when I write that on some personal statement or job application, it will be shrugged off as generic hyperbole. However, when I say that I can’t get enough of current affairs, it’s deeper than the spiel of an enthusiastic applicant. It’s the sound of somebody coming to terms with the first step toward recovery: maybe I have a problem.
London Grammar have been on our radar for a while now. We made our recommendation to look out for these guys earlier this year, and we stand by it. Having come a long way from performing in little bars in Nottingham, the band are now elbowing their way into the UK Top 40. Having met at university, London Grammar are very obviously very student-y. Hannah Reid especially wouldn’t look out of place at an Exeter University Varsity game, or bantering in a Timepiece queue.
Something that slapped me in the face about this album is how fully formed the band seem to be. There is an impeccable ‘finished-ness’ to London Grammar’s sound. It’s truly miraculous. Take into account, for example, that the opening track of the debut album, which seems so perfect and atmospheric as an opener, is the first track that the band ever released to the world. Imagine if Radiohead skipped Pablo Honey, threw out Street Spirit (Fade Out) to gauge the response to their sound, and then followed up with OK Computer the next year. I’m not calling London Grammar the next Radiohead, but that’s the kind of maturity we’re talking about.
Hannah’s voice shows no signs of derivation. Sure, she’s taking hints from balladeers like Lana del Ray (she’s a self-professed fan), and Florence Welch. I don’t want to focus too much on modern comparison though, because there’s certainly something about her performance that is not of this time. I hear serious streaks of 90s and turn-of-the-millenium singers in London Grammar. Something in the melancholy, jaded tones evokes Dido to me. Something in the fog that sometimes rolls over the production, coupled with Reid’s delivery strikes chords of Crowded House.
The maturity doesn’t start and end with Hannah Reid however. Dot Major, the multi-instrumentalist at the heart of the band’s production has managed to craft a consistent, intriguing sound that, despite being mostly invariable, is fascinating enough to sustain attention for a long play. With a beautifully minimal toolkit of voice, piano, guitar, strings and beats, London Grammar craft an incredible range of textures. This kind of mastery of one’s tools to many ends is a true sign of musical maturity.
Stay Awake is a perfect case study for London Grammar’s beautifully minimalist production and songwriting. The simplicity of powering the track forward with a crisp breakbeat that varies little from bar to bar is a fantastic choice to accompany the short verses. Unlike many acts who ply their sound with the electronic, London Grammar refuse to draw their songs out longer than they need be. The simple refrain of “Stay awake with me”, is used only as much as it is needed to be, climbing in intensity across the track. With a voice as dynamic as Hannah’s, all that’s needed to mark the chorus instrumentally are some soft strings and a shift in the intensity of piano and guitar playing. The whole journey is finished under the three minute mark.
The band seem to strip their songs down when they really want to punch you in the feelings. Take Interlude - predominantly a piano ballad, with a beautiful lyricism and sense of great space evoking intense loneliness.
The song is slow, sorrowful and empty for most of it’s length, but builds enough for the most emotive drum break (is that a thing?) I’ve heard for years, to punch underneath a gorgeous vocal crescendo. Then, the piano chords resolve and we’re done. Over. No fluff. No fade out, no outro.
I want to highlight the exceptions to the rule. Two tracks on the album defy the brutal minimalism that London Grammar apply to their arrangements, yet it works. The penultimate track, Flickers, adds new elements so late on in the album that they are a true surprise. The guitar riff seems to rock back and forth with the djembe, and the effects on Hannah’s voice are a little further forward in the mix. We are still talking about a very minimal track, but by the standard set by the album so far, the sound is positively tropical. The true shock of the song comes late on. In the anacrusis of the breakdown, the first note of the backing vocal is heard. Having only heard layers of Hannah’s voice up until now, the change is stark. The refrain, “the flickers, the flickers in my head” is driving, along with sharp upstrummed guitar. The song sounds slightly aggressive, spooky.
Finally, the last track of the album: the eponymous, If You Wait. The track is deeply heartfelt, often building to raw crescendos from Reid. That eponymous refrain still rattles around my head now, along with those rare ad-libs from the vocalist. Again, the surprising moreness comes late in the track. After the drums, the piano, and the vocal die away, we are given a string section that plays a kind of coda: a summation of all that we’ve just heard in lush smoothness. It’s wonderful.
A great addition to this album is a cover of Kavinsky’s Nightcall. Originally a french-touch electro tune, deeply rooted in a dark, retro sound, the track is wonderfully transformed. I never found myself wanting this cover before I knew of its existence, but I am so thankful for its inclusion here. There is a delicacy that the group add to the song. This is clearest just before the three minute mark when the piano melody comes back in an octave higher. The space around this tiny riff seems astronomical and terrifying, just before the power lands back in the track and builds to a more satisfying crescendo than even Kavinsky achieved.
Being the first single from the band, Metal & Dust was by no means new to me. However it really benefits from the context of the album. The tune is more overtly electronic than the others, and gives away some of the band’s influences. Those breakbeats, that at times are filtered right down to the kicks are simply straight from drum ‘n’ bass, and it’s incredible to hear them so well recontextualised here. The end of the track features the same technique of vocal sampling as CHRVCHES use in their track The Mother We Share, albeit with a muffling that blends beautifully.
This album is a gorgeous debut, and a perfect statement of exactly what London Grammar can do. Their superb self-control, songwriting ability, lyricism and emotional intelligence are all signs that this new band are already somehow miraculously mature. Their sound and everything around it seems like the tuned perfection of a group that have been honing their skills for decades - not the first efforts from a bunch of Nottingham students.
Pearshaped Exeter is a student run service that produces high quality music journalism and does everything it can to promote live music in Exeter. This is the story of how I went from having no idea, to building the website we have today.
In the courtyard of Timepiece at some point in January 2013, a few friends and I were rambling on about doing something musical in Exeter, something to connect people. The conversation was tied off with something like ‘We should totally do it!’, and then ‘I’m in. Drink?’ The idea floated around a little bit without coming to anything significant for a fortnight or so. Then, a meeting was convened in the Rusty Bike. ‘Let’s actually do this.’ I was assigned to do all things technological and graphical, and before I knew it I was registering the name we had agreed on five minutes before without even a logo, PearShaped Exeter, to Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, everything. I’d been using Photoshop for years and figured I’d come up with some sort of logo, somehow…
I sat down with a cup of tea and opened Photoshop, a blank canvas laughing at me. I tried a little square icon with the letters ‘P’ and ‘S’ in Helvetica. Everything looks good in Helvetica I told myself. It didn’t look good, it looked completely indistinct. At the same time, in our new Facebook group, we were asking each other what this thing was even going to be. We would provide the best listings around, we said, and make sure that nobody ever misses any good music in Exeter. We knew so many talented and passionate writers; we would get them all to contribute. At my computer screen, I was reading an article about how Wes Anderson always uses Futura in his films. I thought, I kind of like it too.
I had a logo. I had a colour (which has come to be known as ‘PearShaped Green’). Next, I registered a Tumblr. Tumblr has a reputation these days for being the perfect location for angst-y self-designated artists and hipsters to post their favourite pictures of triangles. However it’s also a free hosting service and content management system if you jump through some hoops. To design a Tumblr, you design a theme. There was no way I knew how to do that from scratch so I got the code from a theme that looked something like what I wanted. I opened it in a text editor and screamed internally. You know those scenes in CSI where they hack into somebody’s laptop and random letters scroll down the screen?
After a week of frantic googling and swearing, we had a passable website. The black background evoked nightlife, exclusivity, and fun. Navigation was simple, four sections for content and an About Us page. We were getting our first pieces of content through, all written between the four of us. An illustrator that we know had drawn us a page full of pears and I was scattering them across the images on the site. Things were coming together on the website, but I still wasn’t happy with it.
Summer came and the staff of PearShaped Exeter grew. My girlfriend came on board to become our Editor. I had been both designing the website and filling it with content, and things were moving too slowly with just me doing that alongside everything else. Lizzie had been watching me code for months by now, and could fairly confidently put an article together without any guidance. She told me that it was quite hard to read articles on the site; the column of text was too narrow and it’s hard to read white on black. I told her to get lost, that it looked really edgy. Then a few weeks later I showed my Mum the website; “it’s a bit hard to read”, she said. I flipped all the colours around and widened the column slightly, and to my great displeasure it was indeed far easier to read. I reluctantly took a series of pointers on the website, and it got better but it still wasn’t good enough. I wanted something like a magazine, something that would really make people want to read our content.
Lizzie and I were sketching wireframes in a square ruled notebook, and I decided to start the whole website again. I would use a framework to build the site up from the bottom. I had learned enough about the HTML structure of a Tumblr theme at that point to write one from scratch, and that way I wouldn’t keep finding things I didn’t know the purpose of in the code. I realised that I could break the content up into columns, we could have sidebars with videos and players, we could have fancy headers and headlines to break things up. We could have a homepage with a slideshow, to really show off what our contributors had been doing. Our new navigation would allow more sections on the website, and it looked pretty good too.
Freshers’ week rolled around. We were roping in people to write for us as quickly as we could and the content was coming in thick and fast. I was checking our analytics every day, waiting for a spike and getting far too excited when I saw the numbers move. I was designing flyers and posters to advertise our service to the people of Exeter. We had decided to hold a live music event, just like the ones we wanted to promote. I made the poster with love and care, and we ordered only twenty posters in luxuriously high quality. Though they were collectors’ items, we never did that again. I was taking time out of my web development time to hang around pubs and sell tickets. People were actually turning up and buying the things, and the staff all smiled at each other for our dumb luck. We’re pulling this off, we thought incredulously.
Our launch event was the perfect opportunity for me to fish for opinions from the general public about the website. The compliments were abundant and unexpected. Whenever you make something for the public to see, it’s only the problems yet to solve that you see (that spacing looks unnatural, you can break the navigation menu if you do this thing, etc.). It was a relief to see that people didn’t laugh at my attempts to appear adept at something so exposed. Words like ‘professional’ were thrown around. I went away with a sense of incredulity that I’m beginning to associate with whenever PearShaped Exeter doesn’t fail spectacularly.
We’re coming up to our Christmas event now, and I’ve been Photoshopping Santa hats onto drawings of pears and making heavy use of red and green. We’re quickly expanding: we have dozens of writers who produce incredible articles, and passionate staff members who agree with our message and want to spread it. When I walk around campus now, I see the logo that I made on posters and flyers, and I see the URL that I registered not that long ago. I am often recognised with the question, ‘Oh, you’re PearShaped right?’ A few short months ago, that would have been completely non-sensical or even insulting. Now, we have a visual identity and a presence in the city.
It’s been an absolutely astonishing ride so far, and it looks like the website has actually helped what we want to do, which is a great feeling. When I sat down with trepidation in front of a text editor back in January, I never thought I could make the product that we have now. I’ve learnt the pieces as I’ve gone; I read web design blogs now. I never considered that I could ever be a ‘productive’ or ‘busy’ person, and it just goes to show that all anybody needs is the right project, the right spark to get them going. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t just learn something because you have to, to do what you want to do.
Daughter, a folk triplet out of London, debut with their first full length album release If You Leave. Their themes and style, developed over three EPs, are consistently melancholy and contemplative. Daughter’s signature sound is the piercingly airy vocals of Elena Tonra and bleeding-heart guitar, punctuated by rustles of drums here and there. There is little deviation from that formula, and that is my problem with the album.
The opening song, ‘Winter’, has interesting touches such as the reversed guitar that slowly fades us into the familiar ‘snowy forest at night’ aesthetic. Then there are the rattlings of rimshots around the two minute mark, applied in a style not unlike Local Natives in their first album. The features add some interest to what would otherwise be a relatively same-y track.
By far the strongest track is ‘Youth’, which many will already know from their previous EP. The arrangement balances Elena’s emotionally controlled vocals with booming toms to create a trajectory of swelling bittersweet. Daughter seem to specialise in creating intense feelings of stillness and nostalgia, and this track is a prime example of that talent. The two singles ‘Smother’ and ‘Still’ do little for me; they exhibit the trademark of echoey instrumentation and frankly, practicable lyricism.
The danger with the format of an album is that over the thirty minute mark, you begin to notice the lack of variety in the lyrics altogether. There are of course themes in the album, but there is also the tendency to wear out concepts like children, limbs, skin and darkness. There are far too many invocations of ‘mother’ and the like for it to keep having any emotional impact. The album is certainly conceptually cohesive to the extreme, but it loses out in that nothing surprises. You could make a Daughter song generator that would spit out similarly formulaic angst anthems and notice little difference. I also noticed an increased resemblance of Elena’s vocals to those of the hallowed Florence Welch. As Daughter’s drum arrangement relies more and more on those big booms that slightly precede a great outpouring of emotion, their sound drifts closer and closer to that of Florence and the Machine. This effect simply adds to the feeling of there being nothing new here.
That is not to say that there is no enjoyment to be found in this album. If you don’t mind letting the music wash over you, there’s beauty in the layers of airy vocals and instrumentation. Shut yours eyes and before long you’re certain you’re in an environment not unlike that on the cover of the album. There are moments when the elements align and create something lovely, like the final breakdown of ‘Tomorrow’, which despite using those aforementioned drum patterns, builds a cathartic crescendo that can’t help but be enjoyed. Though I don’t care much for the lyrics, I appreciate the band’s venture into the upbeat side of folk with ‘Human’.
If You Leave is not a bad album. It is a continuation upon a theme that I had hoped would be expanded upon and broadened out. Daughter have certainly developed a sound, but that sound is so narrow that they verge on becoming completely formulaic, a problem much more pronounced over an entire album of sad forests and children’s outstretched limbs.