No-Man are (currently) Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson, a UK duo who have an occasional recording partnership that spans over 20 years. I only came to listen to them fairly recently, about three years ago I think, when a friend gave me a couple of their CDs to listen to as I had at that time become a fan of one of Steven Wilson's other projects, Porcupine Tree. Since then they have been elevated to be one of my favourite bands ever, for their creativity, their ability to make absolutely stunningly beautiful music, and yet retain a sense of humour, and in Tim Bowness' lyrics a social observation that at times is on a par with Alan Bennett. Sadly one of the things that seems to put people off listening to them is Tim's voice, and I have to admit that when I fist heard him I thought "eyup, it's a crooner, what IS this??" But I've since come to really love his singing - he certainly has a distinct sound!
This is a 2-disc set, disc one is a recording of a rare live performance by the band at Bush Hall, London, 29.8.08, and disc 2 is an 85 minute documentary, Returning, by Richard Smith charting the history of the band with contributions by all present and former band members, and various other collaborators. The documentary disc also contains a number of promotional videos, a couple of deleted scenes, and a detailed chronology of the band. It is packaged in a super-jewel DVD case, with photography and graphic design by Carl Glover, who has worked with the band over many releases and is also featured in the documentary.
The documentary itself is in the 'talking heads' style often used by BBC4 for similar films, but this is a far more intimate and affectionate assessment of a band's career, with it's emphasis on colleagues' contributions rather than the usual journalists and critics trying to score kudos points over one another. We go right back to the start, with photographs and film from the very beginnings of the band back in the late 80s (some of these doubtless came as a result of appeals for archive material made online on the band's mailing list). One notable piece of film records their entry into a Battle of the Bands contest , which they won, the prize being time in a professional studio recording an EP.
Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson are mostly interviewed together, which provides some entertaining banter as they talk about early days, going from early experimentation through trying too hard to make their music popular, to getting back to their original aims of making the music that they wanted to make, which would go on to attract a small, but faithful and still gradually increasing fanbase. We get to see pre-tour rehearsals, and there is also pre-concert film and interviews of the queuing crowd, many of whom have travelled a great distance to be there (Japan and the USA to name two countries) and a joke is made that it's like a meeting of the UN!
The live DVD has one main extra feature, which is a compilation of photographs from the brief European tour, but this disc is really all about the concert. If you're after rock posturing and great banter, this is not the music DVD for you - this is 7 blokes on stage crafting music, and if you think that sounds boring, the crowd there appear absolutely absorbed and very, very happy to be there, and personally speaking I could sit and watch this all night. I was gutted that this was the only UK concert that they played and that thee was no way that I could get there, and very relieved when I heard that it was being filmed.
Here we have a broad selection of tracks from across the band's back-catalogue that gives a great idea of the variety of their material over the years! It begins with one of my favourite no-man songs, "Only Rain", from the 2001 album Returning Jesus. Classical violinist Steve Bingham layers loops of violin harmonising with each other, perfectly complementing Tim Bowness' sung verses. Things soon take a noisy and sinister turn as the music transforms into "Time Travel in Texas", originally on the Wild Opera album from 1996, and here given a radical reworking into a stomping rock-out, where it was a moody, almost unremarkable album track. Bang up to date with the next track, "All Sweet Things", from the 2008 album Schoolyard Ghosts, then back to Wild Opera again for "Pretty Genius", both songs staying pretty true to their originals, but Pretty Genius possibly working better live. The next song, "All The Blue Changes", from their 2003 album Together We're Stranger, is a belter - it starts with a very minimal cymbal, guitar and voice, gradually building up to a blistering climax - I've heard the album version in surround sound (this disc also has a 5.1 option), and if you give it the time and let it really envelop you it can be quite an overwhelming sonic experience. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to have been in the room when they performed it. Phew.
Calming down a bit, next is "Truenorth", a slightly shortened version of the 12 minute centrepiece of Schoolyard Ghosts, but it sounds good despite the pruning! From the same album comes "Wherever There is Light", as gorgeous live as it is on record. Going way back next, "Days in the Trees", a minor hit when it came out in 1991, and one of the few songs from their 'blatant pop' era that can still hold its head up high with its great melody and summery feel.
The next three tracks are all from the Returning Jesus album, generally quite chilled out and atmospheric, but always with a bit of the sinister lurking somewhere in the background. "Lighthouse" is another song which starts quietly and builds up, this time to a terrific middle section that arrives out of the blue - syncopated guitar, violin and keyboard that you may well label as a bit of prog and is fascinating to hear and watch. Then "Carolina Skeletons" comes along, with the tale of Cowboy Kate, a washed up character who's seen better days. A slow, atmospheric track which develops into a bit of a jam towards the end, a great play-out for the song. The last of the three is the album's title track, an almost meditative track played almost without percussion, allowing the sound textures from the guitars to shine through. The last song of the set is "Mixtaped", the song which also ends Schoolyard Ghosts, and is the source of the DVD's title. It's a track redolent of hot sticky summer nights (which was fitting for the gig as it was just that, from fans' reports!).
Off go the band, but after years of waiting for a concert, the fans are not going to let them go that easily, and of course they come back onstage for an encore. "Things Change" is from their 1994 album Flowermouth, and with them this time as a special guest is former band-member and experimental violinist Ben Coleman, and they play the song with great gusto, true to its album counterpart it goes nuts halfway through, and more so live as they're obviously having a whale of a time! They leave again, only to return for a well-deserved second (and final) encore of "Watching Over Me", another of my favourites, and another beautiful song, a lovely gig closer, like a love song for the 'last dance' :-) At this point, press play again, and enjoy ;)
Here is a link to a clip of "Wherever There Is Light" from the DVD (posted by the record company, don't worry!)