Barry Adamson – The King Of Nothing Hill (Mute Records album, 2002)

Barry Adamson 'The King Of Nothing Hill' artwork

mute records | stumm176 | 02/09/2002

The King Of Nothing Hill comes with a title bearing Barry Adamson‘s hallmark sense of humour, and was his most accomplished and complete work by this point. Draped regally in a red, black and gold digipack robe, Adamson is here cast as the king of an absent kingdom, although the photo on the inside of the sleeve seems to be more Isaac Hayes than anything else.

In fact, Isaac Hayes is not a bad initial reference point for this album, which finds Adamson more soulful than before while still drawing together the beloved subjects of his soundworld kingdom – jazz, spooky soundtrack melodrama and electronic textures, and overall the sound is more dense and deep than on previous albums.

The King Of Nothing Hill is an impressive ten-track album that perfectly complements its creator’s earlier works, but somehow takes things further. If an artist working with electronic composition tools can have their influences identified by the samples he chooses, the Adamson’s preferences are crystal clear – a sample of jazz legends John Coltrane and Archie Shepp appears on ‘Le Matin Des Noire’, while a clever Cypress Hill section is to be found on ‘Whispering Streets’.

Tracks like the opener, ‘Cinematic Soul’ are good examples of how Adamson is able to draw together disparate musical strands without appearing crass or creating some sort of kitsch, disposable fusion; ‘Cinematic Soul’ begins with a developing bed of electronic sounds, bleeps, beats and wah-wah guitar before launching into a loud, Stax-inspired funk soul anthem that reinforces the Hayes comparison. ‘Can I sing along to ‘Cinematic Soul’?‘ his young heir Theo asks. ‘Of course you can, son…What is a song if you can’t sing along?‘ the King replies, and the two duet humorously on the final chorus. ‘This is the stone groove I’ve been dying to rock with all my life,‘ sings the King, and his decree may well be right – it really does sound like the work of a musical monarch at the height of his supremacy.

Skipping past the singles ‘Whispering Streets’ and ‘Black Amour’, the divinely-appointed Ruler of Moss-side, that most impossible of kingdoms, leads us to ‘When Darkness Calls’, which begins with some heavy dub beats and double-tracked vocals; sludgy guitar riffs and intense atmospheres create a dark sub-rock take on Nitzer Ebb‘s final utterances. ‘Down, down, down…‘ our leader intones, taking us to whichever black hinterland he chooses. ‘The Second Stain’ is a carefully-honed and programmed avant-jazz epic, built upon subtle layers of electronic percussion, droning basstones, piano and organ. Constantly-shifting atmospheres move this instrumental work into desolate sonic wastelands, evoking the dream sequences of Brad Pitt in Tom di Cillo’s Johnny Suede.

The Pimp King’s vocal abilities are most prevalent on ‘Twisted Smile’, with a sixties-style chorus nearly whispered over an incredibly-detailed musical accompaniment that is almost not there at all, coming as it does from the distance. Woeful regret and longing themes show our ruler to be weary, deposed, forgotten; his empire shrinking like the departing echoes of the final chorus; becoming transparent, making his way to the top of Nothing Hill.

‘Le Matin Des Noire’ finds Adamson wandering the sodden streets of Paris at three in the morning, the memories of vibes and brushed cymbals playing around his head. At over ten minutes, the track is the most soundtrack-esque of this collection, and if you think hard enough you can almost see the rain, the raincoats and the trilby hats of a Len Deighton novel as conceived by Alfred Hitchcock.

Euphoric horns and lazy beats herald ‘That Fool Was Me’, for all intents and purposes a classic love song dealing with regret and loss. The strolling brass section sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, while Adamson reveals a hidden, treacly warmth to his vocals. ‘The Crime Scene’ lifts the pace, throwing together spiralling Bernard Herrmann-esque discordant improvised strings and a rolling drum and bass rhythm, to which Adamson’s brand of sub-bass is surprisingly well-suited; some John Barry guitar and a palette of sirens, gunshots and a general clamorous sonic bed gives this an air of criminal menace. An instrumental, our King – now less than a figurehead – rides around the streets of his shrinking kingdom and watches the disarray the democracy that deposed him has created.

The album closes with ‘Cold Comfort’, an acoustic ballad over tinkly keys and subtle metronomic percussion, that shows Adamson’s tender side, returning once again to themes of loss and longing. Memories of earlier glories, the mistakes that contributed to his downfall, the track closes with some horn lines that are truly uplifting.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

First published 2003; re-edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s