Prog-influenced Nottingham quintet The Chemistry Experiment are set to release their second album, the intriguingly titled “Gongs Played By Voice”, through Fortuna POP! in January, some ten years after the release of their debut album “The Melancholy Death Of…”. Housed in beautiful artwork by the Bulgarian artist Gyukov, a set designer in communist Bulgaria, the new album sees the band conclude the transition from their indie roots with nine beautifully arranged and recorded songs that encompass such influences as Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy, Tindersticks, King Crimson and Soft Machine.
Formed by songwriter Steven J. Kirk (vocals, guitar) and Paul Stone (bass) and completed by Emily Kawasaki (keyboards), Lee Tombs (flute, vocals) and Martin Craig (drums), two of the band have long since departed from their Nottingham origins with Kirk now resident in Bologna, Italy and Kawasaki living in Brighton where she plays in krautrock grrrlgruppe Slum Of Legs. The release of “The Melancholy Death Of…” in 2005 saw critical if not financial success with the NME awarding the record 8/10 and describing it as “Strange, gargantuan rhythms, weird instrumentation and a singer who sounds like Kurt Wagner under ten feet of snow”.
If the geographic dispersion of the band wasn’t challenging enough, in 2009 drummer Craig was diagnosed with MS. “It has made drumming somewhat tricky”, he says. “I still gnash my teeth to the rhythm of the music though, and I feel honoured to join the company of Ronnie Lane, Clive Burr, and Don van Vliet.” All of which may go some way to explaining the My Bloody Valentine-like gestation of their second album, although Tombs posits a more positive explanation, saying, “ ‘Difficult second albums’ are difficult because people spend 5-10 years gathering up what they need for the first, and then have to knock out the next one in a matter of months. We overcame that problem by taking ten years.”
Loosely based around the theme of seasons, elements and the sea, the album opens with the wondrous “Hung Lam”, followed by the track “Rainy Day”, on which Stone employed the little known technique of water percussion. “Martin and I started swirling water in saucepans and tapping the edge of the pan to make the woooo noise. I’d heard something similar on an Edith Piaf record”.
The fantastically catchy “Leo & Magician” has an even more fantastical plot. “It’s about a scarecrow who runs away from his farm, leaving the farmer (Leo) without a way to protect his crops from the birds,” says Kirk. “Luckily Leo’s friend Magician comes along, and although he can’t help him with the scarecrow due to union rules, he turns Leo into a cat to scare away the birds, and that is why birds to this day are scared of cats. The scarecrow also abducts Leo’s wife but I didn’t want to go into that in the song.”
Other songs include the beautiful “We Have Seasons”, “Jandek Bakery”, “The Event and the Experiment” (“It’s kinda the same story as Valis by Phillip K Dick”) and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac”, but perhaps the standout track on the album is “Channel Light Vessel” which Kirk describes as the best song he ever wrote and says, “This is about the sea, and sailors, and a boy I read about on BBC news who impaled himself on a fence trying to pick conkers.”
The album concludes with the nine minute long “A Good Wind”, describing a windy day on the coast of Australia and the classic battle between good and evil, nature and synthetic, human and vocoder. Like many things about The Chemistry Experiment it’s unique, slightly odd, and shouldn’t really work but somehow does. In the ten years since their last record a thousand faceless indie bands have made a thousand dreary records, while The Chemistry Experiment have ploughed their idiosyncratic furrow to produce “Gongs Played By Voices”, the perfect distillation of their strange and distinct vision.
"Nottingham quintet whose flute-edged songs are as tuned-in to the prog sorcery of king Crimson as the reflective rootsiness of Will Oldham"
(Mojo, 4 stars)
"A mere 10 years after their debut album, the Nottingham five-piece return with a record every bit as odd, absorbing and idiosyncratic as The Melancholy Death of...As that long hiatus suggests, the band go about things their own way, and thank God for that: this is the polar opposite of homogenised pop, swimming to the wilder shores and from there issuing pastoral psych-prog missives as absorbing as Leo & Magician, on which tribal incantations, motorik beats and lashings of Hammond underpin Steven J Kirk's basso profundo tale of a scarecrow that flees its job, and the magician who turns the bereft farmer into a cat. Bonkers, yes, but pretty brilliant, too."
(The Sunday Times)
"In the ten years since their debut, ‘The Melancholy Death of The Chemistry Experiment’, Stephen J Kirk has relocated from Nottingham to Bologna and Emily Kawasaki to Brighton, and generally they’ve moved from indie to psych-prog. But be not afeared; the mind-kaleidoscope of a cover by Bulgarian artist Gyukov reveals that this is a creative trip, rather than the muso-indulgent of pure prog. The top tune is ‘Leo & Magician’, which motors with a krautrock rhythm and a seriously catchy chorus, telling the story of a scarecrow that runs away from a farm, and a magician that turns the farmer into a cat.
The influences are many and varied, including King Crimson, Soft Machine and Tindersticks. Kirk is a storyteller and his voice has an authoritative roughness so it’s no surprise that they should cover ‘Story of Isaac’ by Leonard Cohen, albeit with an acid-psych backing. This is a fertile imagination at work: ‘Rainy Day’ is inspired by Edith Piaf and uses water percussion to create an unworldly “woo” sound, while the pop-prog ‘The Event and the Experiment’ owes something to Philip K Dick (though it has a more natural inspiration than science fiction). ‘Channel Light Vessel’ sounds like a whimsical Soft Machine pastoral-prog, telling a story of the sea but also a boy impaled while picking conkers. Ending the record, ‘A Good Wind’ is a multi-faceted 9 minute epic that describes a windy day on an Australian beach. This moves from eerie and ecstatic, via a prog-rock vocoder-led section, to a overstimulated choral ending. It shouldn’t work yet it does, and each time you hear it, it seems to sound more powerfully right.
They’ve been gone for a decade, working, learning, absorbing, and the resulting record is a triumph of strangeness, one that will keep on delivering all its charms and weirdness the more that you listen to it. “Idiosyncratic” is one word for it; “stunning” another."
"Vaulting in from the 1970s comes Nottingham-based The Chemistry Experiment with a refreshing blast of prog-rock neo-folk indie, if that isn’t too oxymoronic. I wish that, instead of downloading a digital folder of Gongs Played By Voice; crudely compressed and hitherto anonymous bits and bytes, I had been presented with some shiny vinyl, a beautiful gate-fold sleeve of specially toughened cardboard, a ribbon of Japanese advertorial, and a pictorial melange of mischievous goblins and strange beams of light. All this to place myself in approximate time context with Gongs Played By Voice. I would have preferred something more sensorial than MP3s, but alas, all romance and wonder will be consigned to my imagination.
I once took to prog-rock with uncritical zeal. The literary pretensions, the portentous compositions demanding concentration, long and ornery monologues with fellow prog nerds about the inner meaning of such conceptual tropes as Rael’s character from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Truth is, as Stephen Malkmus of Pavement once admitted, lyrics are sometimes no more than preposterous streams of consciousnes, and anyway, as soon as I discovered the altogether more alpha sexuality of punk rock, the illusions of fantasy were as lost as my virginity.
So, you ask, is this a preamble to a dismissive review of Gongs Played By Voice? I cannot recall anyone in 2014 having the balls to borrow from early prog luminaries such as Gabriel-led Genesis, Jethro Tull, Camel etc, and extrapolating their more pastoral sounds by route of modern-day folk stylings (think Trembling Bells) into indie compositions. Little indie gems, more succinct and locked into a tune than early prog.
Gongs Played By Voice is a lot jauntier than any prog music I’ve ever heard, as if the band borrowed the more desirable classical elements of prog (such as the fruity woodwind, the ‘churchy’ organ), and expunged the excessive flourishes, vainglorious literary discursion and prosaic dirges. With all the fat trimmed, and a tighter and less amorphous song structure in place, the newly harvested sound is less obviously the modern-day descendant of concept rock.
The Chemistry Experiment have successfully made prog-rock groovy again, and I for one don’t mind championing Gongs Played By Voice as one of 2015’s keepers. Maybe something that Prog magazine can justifiably get excited about next issue."
"Sophomore albums are always a difficult feat for independent artists, and a sophomore album slated to be released almost 10 years after the first is indeed a rare thing to accomplish. The Chemistry Experiment (which, by the way, is comprised of four members who are outspread between the U.K and Italy) has apparently taken on these challenges with remarkable aptitude evidenced by the creation of mysteriously titled album, Gongs Played by Voice. This album’s sound is roughly “indie” with an odd tinge of the liturgical. Initially the songs may be described by a listener as “dreamy”, however upon closer inspection one may note the tones to be much more suited for an idyllic vision of the afterlife: choral and hymn-like with a perpetual organ groaning in the cloudy distance. Most of the time, their musical approach is fresh and does much to extend beyond certain overworked aspects of the current “indie pop” scene, or at least The Chemistry Experiment does these tropes (I’m thinking of their moments of whimsical synth-laser sound, or overt attempts at “weird”) stylistically well .
I was first impressed by the vocal breadth of this album, the tracks are peppered with everything from femme-whisperers (fans of Warpaint will enjoy these moments), deeply bizarre baritone (a vocal style which is confirmed to be heavily influenced by Leonard Cohen by their cover of “Story of Isaac”), to the use of Laurie Anderson-esq robotic distortions crescendoing through the closing track “A Good Wind”. Though the melodically slavering baritone is especially prevalent throughout the album, every other voice slips through tracks with a significance that should not be ignored (at least until you are distracted by one of several laser-blast sound cameos which frequently aparate through the songs ). Lyrically, Gongs Played by Voices creates ample opportunity for vocals to explore their scope. “Leo the Magician” makes good use of The Chemistry Experiment’s vocal strength by carving uniquely recognizable characters for its strange narrative, spinning the track into a scene stamped with the wax and wane of spinning psychedelic guitar.
After researching this group a bit more, I wasn’t surprised to discover their “Prog” rock background. The traces of this past can be felt in their guitar: it’s unhinged at the wires and the guitarist seems a meek officiant to its whims. This album is unafraid of the electronic organ, and while it is amply employed to flesh out the more “experimental” or adventuresome songs, sometimes the organ colors a track or two with a few corny, old-time-religion-ish shadows. Rhythmically this album stays simple, harbouring deftly concise beats that yield respectfully to the psychedelic undertow and vocal importance of the songs. Electronically the album wavers, like certain sci-fi movies, it seems like they could have been a bit more choosy with the special effects. However, where the album remains recognizably instrumental, it commands a well-woven strength of craftsmanship that is especially alluring."
"Ten years is a rather long time by anyone’s standards but when that ten years becomes the gap between your debut album and the follow up then you have to wonder exactly how that band are going to regain any momentum they may have acquired. Music history is littered with such gaps and usually the end product is something of a let down and sounds the death knell for the band.
The Chemistry Experiment may not face the same struggle as, say, The Stone Roses did with Second Coming and although their debut album The Melancholy Death Of The Chemistry Experiment may have garnered critical acclaim this didn’t really equate into world wide fame. In some respects then, they have the weight of expectation thrown off them. On the reverse side, the fans they did gain may well have moved on to pastures new.
There shouldn’t be any need to worry too much though as Gongs Played By Voice has more than enough about it to see those wayward fans come running back and if anything is fair in this world, see them gaining a hell of a lot more. It may have been ten years in the making but a cursory listen is enough to tell you that those years haven’t been wasted.
Less orchestral than their debut, this album does require repeated listens and the more you put in, the more you get out. It is an album full of layers and beneath the at times jaunty, flute filled experience there is innovation, contradiction and beauty. There are red herrings too and as ‘Hung Lam’ guides you in with its simple pop lyrics and soft rock chords, this is soon thrown to the wind with the odd ‘Rainy Day’ whose vocals alternate between speakers as the strange story comes to life.
‘Leo & Magician’ is this album’s upbeat stomper and behind its faux Flaming Lips exterior, there is an almost science fiction feel to it. Indeed, this whole album is a hybrid of love, loss and sci-fi set to pastoral music that at brings to mind the great prog albums from Genesis and Camel.
Beauty is everywhere too and nowhere more so than in the lovely ‘We Have Seasons’. Enjoy this slight excursion into simple territory though as ‘Jandek Bakery’ serves to show the more deep prog side of the band. Set to a woozy melody, electronic flourishes break through the soft haze created by the song to forever keep you on edge. Behind this is a story which outshines Wayne Coyne at his most hallucinogenic and acts as the centre piece of the album.
What is wonderful about Gongs Played By Voice is that every song is deceptively simple and you find yourself singing along, even if you haven’t got a clue as to what. The glam stomp of ‘The Event And The Experiment’ is a prime example as you giddily sing about the boy with beams coming out of his face. He’s from outer space you see.
Not a moment goes by where something new grabs you and as the album reaches its climax with ‘Story Of Isaac’ which rides along on a great Mellotron sound before dumping you into a the lysergic ‘Channel Light Vessel’, you wonder just how this album will end.
End it does though with what is nine minutes of some of the best music you will ever hear. If you thought all that had gone before was enjoyable, ‘The Good Wind’ will simple make your jaw drop. Tying up all the themes of the album, it’s a song that just keeps building and as the final minutes reach its rapture you just feel the need to throw your arms in the air and pray everlasting devotion to this most remarkable of bands. It’s simply extraordinary, but then the whole album is."
(Echoes And Dust)