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No-Man are one of the music industry's enigmas. They have been around since the late '80s, producing albums that are extremely hard to pigeonhole. Starting out as a predominantly experimental band, they went through a more commercial pop phase which failed to bring them a wider recognition, and thankfully returned to making more original and inspiring music. No-Man is Tim Bowness, singer and lyricist, who is originally from Lancashire, and Steven Wilson, now becoming more widely known as the brains behind British neo-progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, who is still based in his home of Hemel Hempstead. Their albums together now are rare and awaited with great eagerness by their loyal (and slowly increasing) fanbase!
Their 6th official studio album Schoolyard Ghosts was released in May 2008, and took a week to leave the player. It's an infectious, beautiful work from an occasional collaboration that has consistently brought us a skilful combination of chill and chill-out for almost two decades.
As with any band, there are echoes from previous releases here, I can hear some references from Carolina Skeletons and All That You Are (both from the Returning Jesus album), for instance. However, whatever past echoes there may be this album is definitely moving forwards. There's a depth of self-assurance coming out of these songs that I haven't heard in the previous releases, but that doesn't mean that they've rested on their laurels. Listening to the surround version on the accompanying DVDA, the layering of sounds envelops you, it's absolutely absorbing to shut your eyes and try to hear everything that's going on around you. Lyrically, life gets picked over with Tim Bowness' customary fine-toothed comb, and he produces yet another fantastic set of probing observations.
This album, lyrically, from the title onwards is full of memories, longing and dreams. Musically, somehow they manage to evoke exactly the same emotions, a sound for hot summer evenings full of tensions and expectations between friends and lovers. Beautiful Songs You Should Know is a definitive gorgeous summer groove that ends far too soon! Pigeon Drummer by contrast is a brooding track broken by violent interludes, a commentary on night culture. The almost 13-minute Truenorth speaks of early life and regrets, but ends with optimism, while final track Mixtaped simmers along with suppressed power and heat.
There are several guest artists, such as Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson, and woodwind virtuoso Theo Travis. Strings are mostly provided courtesy of real instruments as usual, giving everything that much appreciated extra depth of sound and emotion. The cello on Beautiful Songs, for instance, exquisitely complements the main theme. But as always the musical composition, instrumentation, arrangement and production skills of Steven Wilson are the overriding complement to Bowness, and this collaboration once again has brought us another emotional rollercoaster, perfect for hot summer evenings with a bit of a nervous edge to them.
If you are new to No-Man (and the majority of people are!) I would thoroughly recommend this as your first foray into their world. If you love to listen to complex, intelligent music then you will be rewarded by this album without being worn out in the process. It is in my opinion a thing of beauty :-))
Just to clarify the discs in the release - there is a normal CD plus a DVD which contains a surround version of the album and some videos.
(the majority of this review is also published in my LastFM Journals http://www.last.fm/user/IM7070/journal, and also on Ciao)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 All Sweet Things
2 Beautiful Songs You Should Know
3 Pigeon Drummer
5 Wherever There Is Light
6 Song Of The Surf
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 All Sweet Things
3 Wherever There is Light