Friday, February 8, 2008

Long Fin Killie - Amelia

Long Fin Killie - Amelia
by Nick Southall



You probably haven’t noticed because you probably don’t pay attention to bylines, and I have no idea who’s reading this blog anyway [please tell us! –ed.], but I’ve pretty much retired from music journalism since Stylus closed its doors last Halloween. There are a few reasons – mortgage, kitten, increasingly demanding day job – but primarily I have no desire to write for anywhere else about anything new. Maybe I’m getting old.

Perhaps because of this I feel ever so slightly… emancipated, in terms of my music listening. Free from the pressure to keep up with what’s current or exciting, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time over the last three months or so listening to old music – be it Ethiopiques, ‘60s British jazz, Tropicalia, or ‘90s post-rock – no longer feeling any impetus to stay abreast of new releases, and instead listening to things I generally already know, as and when the whim takes me.

Guilt and panic are occasional bedfellows; sometimes I’ve felt culpable for listening to the same thing over and over again like I used to a dozen years ago. Other times the endless shelves of CDs have over-faced me, left me totally befuddled as to what to listen to or how to even choose.

All I’ve listened to lately has been Caribou and Long Fin Killie. A year ago I’d have been distraught by this. Today… I luxuriate in it. So when Mr. Weiss asked me if I’d like to throw something his way for these pages, it was an easy choice; I always meant to write something substantial about Long Fin Killie for Stylus, but ran out of time and heart. So here goes.

A (very) quick history: Too Pure courted Luke Sutherland, Long Fin Killie’s black, gay, Scottish bandleader, for two years during his tenure fronting orthodox guitar-shakers Fenn, but were never quite convinced enough to sign them. Eventually Sutherland told them Fenn was over, that he’d been working on another band in secret, that they were the real deal, and finally ready to be heard. And so Long Fin Killie emerged, precocious and practically fully formed, with a tune called “The Lamberton Lamplighter,” an extraordinarily weird, homoerotic pop song. An album followed, its aesthetic composed of ancient woodcuts, poetry, guest appearances by Mark E. Smith, elongated and indulgent musicianship, dulcimers, violins, thumb pianos, mandolins, bouzoukis; pastoral postrock meets shoegazing prog. 1995; 1996; 1997; three albums in three years, lots of touring. That’ll do.

Amelia, like Long Fin Killie’s previous two albums, was named after a tragic hero – Ms. Earhart followed Harry Houdini and Rudolph Valentino – and is clearly still the work of Long Fin Killie. Intricate, intelligent, intuitive, indulgent and intense, but also very different from what the band had done before, the album was the result of a conscious attempt to produce something more concise, more industrial, more muscular, less pastoral. Gone from the sleeves are the lithographs of earlier releases, for instance, instead replaced my ultra-modernist impressions of architectural shapes, the monochrome sweep of something that might be a drawing of a space station or an abstracted photograph of an improbably engineered suspension bridge swooping across the cover. This modernisation is reflected in the music.

Amelia features none of the extended, minimalist grooves that had LFK lumped in with the postrock crowd at times; barely anything stretches past four minutes, and the multi-layered, pointillist tapestries of instrumentation are subsumed into something different. Guitars chug and grind in aggressively repetitive patterns, bass is deep, deep and deeper still, informed more by techno’s slickened textures than rock’s organic pastures – many of the electronic elements that would inform Bows, Sutherland’s post-LFK group, were introduced here.

After Valentino, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Long Fin Killie acquired a new drummer: the merely amazing David Turner replaced by Kenny McEwan, who was, improbably, even better. As a result Amelia is characterised by the relentlessly skittish, drum ‘n’ bass-esque rolls and tumbles of his breakneck time-keeping, the sonic positioning of tom-tom strikes and rattling snare rolls a superior precursor of the kinds of rhythms that would make Bloc Party’s debut seem so out of the ordinary eight years later.

But beyond the tightening of arrangements and quickening of already-quick tempos, the bones of Long Fin Killie’s songwriting – intelligence, irreverence, an unpredictability that manifests as surprising catchiness – remain almost intact, if made more sophisticated by the increased brevity. Let’s take “Kismet” – there’s something suspiciously like a cowbell being hit on an extraordinarily kinetic offbeat beneath the inspirational scree and metronomic tumble, the tune starting with a foreshadowing guitar riff and double-note bass pulse that could start hearts in a coroner’s lab – drums flying everywhere, towers of noise emanating from brass, the most insistent rhythm driving everything while oceans of sucking, squalling, wild guitar and Sutherland, the beautiful, passionate centre of it all, spit inspiration and bile back at the haters – “Jungle rhythm in the DNA / Disco in the gene pool but I’ll put my dancing shoes away.” Complex sentiments and more complex arrangements that would previously have unfurled over six or eight minutes are here rammed into barely four.

“Kismet” is followed by “Resin”, a beautiful repeating build that finds itself subsumed by resonant violin timbres, the riff moving upwards in beatific contrast to its predecessor. It’s moving, emotive, gorgeous – and finished in a little over three minutes. Horns gather and grow throughout “Chrysler” as Sutherland speaks out a list of something, an indictment or diatribe – the lyrics aren’t included in the sleeve and the musicianship and arrangements are so staggeringly attention-grabbing that it takes a superhuman feat of concentration to decipher his poetics at any given point.

What else is there? So much to mention – “Lipstick” is something akin to live drum n bass as performed by too-precocious Scottish kids – the rasping, sexy refrain of “ah yes”, the “ah” strung out, the “yes” swift, sibilant. The album version features programmed drums courtesy of remixer Grant Macnamara, but the original (included on the single), was no less percussively impressive. Gasped whoops make up the infectiously wordless second half of the exploding, desirous chorus of the staggering “Headlines”; get a load of those amazing, accelerant guitars as the tune climaxes. Wow! And the breathy vocals, distantly groaning guitar bows and off-beat tom hits of “Ringer”…

Perhaps the key thing about Long Fin Killie, and in particular their extraordinary musicianship, is the fact that nowhere in their entire career is their consummate skill manifested in the kind of “look at me, ma” soloing that tips so much music beyond acceptability; sure, Sutherland, Colin Greig (bass), Phillip Cameron (guitar) and Kenny McEwan (like David Turner before him) play like virtuosos, but it’s all about teamwork, about balance and subtlety, about being a group. Sutherland may have ostensibly been the bandleader and frontman, but his vocals are often blurred and hidden behind chiming and roaring guitars and rumbling bass – even when they suddenly take centre stage in “Yawning at Comets”, it’s to further the reason of the tune rather than become the reason.

Have I tempted you into either revisiting or newly investigating this yet? Aside from the brain-boggling musicianship, awesome arrangements, and intriguing lyrics, maybe I should mention the outstanding engineering, mixing and mastering on display? Long Fin Killie’s records were always exquisite on the ear in terms of detail, space, drive and timbre, but on Amelia that exquisiteness is blasted into the future in a way that very few boys with guitars were even comprehending in 1997. One might mention Radiohead and that ornery albatross, but their records were always polished off with an impersonal, mass-production sheen. In fact, more than a decade later, barely anyone even now is managing to sound like the future without that future being the one with the boot stamping on a face forevermore. Ah, fuck it; Long Fin Killie are the best band to ever come from Scotland.


Nick Southall has written for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian, LA Weekly, East Bay Express, Grooves Magazine, among others. His article “Imperfect Sound Forever” was selected by Da Capo for the 2007 edition of their Best Music Writing anthology.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jesse said...

Rock on. LFK stayed at a friend of mine's when they were here touring with Kenny either right before or after Amelia. I didn't get to see them live, but that connection is how I heard about the band. Everything Sutherland has ever done (his books, his music) is brilliant. He's an inspiration in all respects.

October 14, 2008 at 9:30 PM  
Blogger matthew said...

I never got to see LFK live either, buggers! I check youtube from time to time to see if anyone ever caught footage of a live show/song of theirs. So far: nope. They were my favorite band for 8-10 years, ('favorite' is a rather involved computation.)Somebody please step up and post that shxt! I can't say that I think everything Sutherland's done since is brilliant. It's often good and occasionally brilliant. But the LFK joke of drum-and-bass influencing real instrumentation went out the window as soon as Bows regressed to samples and/or drum machines. Music A.M. continues along the same path. That's not to say some of the songs aren't amazing: King Deluxe -Bows and Blackflash- Music A.M. are both incredible. But on the whole the balance, (and real instrumentation,)LFK had is sorely lacking. Venus As A Boy is an amazing book though. LFK get back together!

July 15, 2009 at 1:26 PM  
Blogger matthew said...

p.s. What ever happened to guitarist Phil Cameron? Anybody?

July 15, 2009 at 1:29 PM  

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