The Moving Fontier
'Space rock' is a very loaded term, conjuring as it does an image of hairy middle-aged (or older) men playing interminable prog epics to an equally hairy and largely chemically befuddled crowd. Let's hear it, then, for 'astro-pop'. Now, to be honest, I don't care whether that's a recognised genre or not, but it'll do just fine to describe the opening track of Pram's new album 'The Moving Frontier'. Fading in with a hint of spaghetti Western, 'The Empty Quarter' suddenly comes over all Pink Floyd (before Barrett left and they went rubbish), with an uncomplicated period-sounding organ and a distorted guitar with a tremelo pedal on overtime rates. As instrumental as the day is long, it's a fine introduction to the LP. The instrumentation's varied and the arrangement's beautifully thought out (there's even a muted trombone in there that actually sounds dead good - and I'm writing this as a founder member of the League Against Trombones, so praise indeed).
'Salt & Sand' has the very pure vocal of Rosie Cuckston set against a very sparse, mainly percussive, backing. A wave of white noise threatens to engulf things, then recedes as the sinuous bass reasserts itself. The backing sounds vaguely Japanese, fighting for attention against a further wave of hiss. The effect is ruminative, subdued, almost aloof. 'Iske' again sounds like early Pink Floyd (it's the organ sound that does it), but with some backwards sounding percussion, more muted brass, reverbed guitar and electric piano. There's a Latin-sounding trumpet in there as well. It sounds like jazz gone odd and a bit spooky, which is partly due to the almost indecipherable time signature. 'The City Surveyor' almost defies description: a keyboard plays backwards, Cuckston sings about being taken on a 'trauma picnic' and 'a dog that barks at its own shadow' while high-pitched Dr Who noises swoop about in the background. But that really doesn't do it justice.
'Sundew' begins with a lurching rhythm and a cheeky synth sound tootling over the top of it. A flute (alto flute?) plays a simple, haunting melody. It sounds a bit like The Orb being played by robots with delightfully limited artificial intelligence. It sounds gauche, naive, almost childlike. 'Salva' has the keyboard sound from start of The Doors' 'Riders On The Storm' and a mellow saxophone and a haunting vocal line. 'Are you afraid of sugar, scared of salt?'. Erm ... to be honest, I'd not really thought about it. This track could easily slip into the soundtrack of The Wicker Man - it has that rain-swept, claustrophobic feel, brought home by the persistent bass, which throbs away menacingly, and the strange mechanical wheezing noise in the background. It's hypnotic, seductive, and just a little sinister. 'Moonminer' has a fabulous keyboard sound, like a distorted mellotron, and further strange, almost impenetrable lyrics. Entirely percussion-free, it also features little bits of accordion. Words tumble out like some bizarre, obsessive confession, sucking the listener into a world of dark shadows and shifting shapes. Spooky. 'Hums Around Us' begins in similar vein before mutating into the product of a genetic splicing experiment involving the DNA of Young Marble Giants and Stereolab, with the added bonus of an understated flute. 'Metaluna' is an experimental soundtrack to The Clangers; chilly, remote, and tasting of as yet undiscovered metal alloys.
'Beluga' picks up the pace, but again feels like a soundtrack, this time to some dystopian vision of the future where everybody is dressed the same, the streets are almost deserted and the few survivors of the disaster that's never talked about pass each other wordlessly in the featureless streets without ever making eye contact. It makes full use of the clarinet's criminally under-used spook value, and smells of isolation, alienation and soundless screams. By comparison, 'Blind Tiger' is a riot. It's the tune played by a demented New Orleans funeral band, snaking sinuously at the head of the cortege and blaring away in a sexy seven to the bar. All swampy bass, persistent organ and parping brass, it's gloriously deranged all the way to the crematorium. 'Mariana Deep', on the other hand, is a dreamy, haunting thing, with lush strings playing a call-and-response game over a backing of vaguely African percussion and assorted woodwind. Again the time signature is undecipherable to my poor ears, but by this time they've given up trying to make sense of of it all and are just enjoying the sensory deprivation tank atmosphere. 'Compass Rose' begins with a simple glockenspiel figure backed by clarinet and flute, and continues in the same vein for all of its brief duration. The LP ends with 'The Silk Road', a drum-heavy instrumental with a repeated guitar figure and Arabic-sounding strings. The beat seems to jump now and again (which had me checking the CD for blemishes: there weren't any). Later, a piano joins in, along with a glockenspiel, a trombone, a clarinet and so many other instruments that I'm beginning to wonder whether that clanging in the background is in fact a kitchen sink.
This record is a very absorbing and hugely rewarding listen. I'm not sure whether all of it works, but when it does it's rather wonderful. The bits that don't seem to work on first listen are interesting enough to go back to and have another crack at (and another, and another, and another). Pram have learned a lot over their seventeen-year career, and there's a lot in this record to admire. It's not the most immediate thing you'll ever hear, but that, I think, is part of its charm. Repeated listens offer up more to savour, and things jump out that you haven't heard before. I'd give it a miss if you're into the more obvious end of the pop spectrum - there's very little on here that you could sing along to, nothing that you could dance to, and it can seem a little aloof and remote at times - but for the more adventurous (if that's the right word) among you, it's well worth a listen.