Barry Adamson – I Will Set You Free (Central Control International album, 2012)

album // I Will Set You Free
central control international | lp+cd/cd/dl cci019 | 30/01/2012

Barry Adamson released the confidently-titled I Will Set You Free, his ninth solo album, on his own Central Control International label at the tail end of January 2012. The release followed an intense three years of shifting directions for Adamson, including writing his first piece of fiction (Maida Hell, included in the London Noir collection, for which he won the Best Short Story prize at Italy’s Piemonte Noir festival), releasing the highly lauded Back To The Cat album, returning to the stage with his first band, Howard Devoto‘s Magazine and releasing his first short film, the disturbing Therapist. During the interview accompanying Therapist, Adamson described feeling like he was treading water in the studio ahead of shifting his attention to the film project, creating music that was more or less Barry Adamson-by-numbers, inadvertently leading to a sense of nervousness about his latest album.

While it would actually be quite nice to hear a cinematic Adamson on record again, it’s evident from I Will Set You Free that recreating the dark mood of his earlier solo self is just not where his head is right now. The album only contains one piece that remotely evokes that forgotten vibe in the clever sound design of ‘The Trigger City Blues’, which includes sampled rainfall and gunshots interspersed with electronic pulses and squirming synth tones. Those poignant, dark alley whispered vocals of yesteryear Adamson usher in bluesy guitar riffs and opening-credit-sequence industrial hip hop beats. ‘The Trigger City Blues’ makes you think of the music to the scene in a heist movie where the bad guys and getting prepped for the big bank job, donning masks and sticking the guns in the unmarked van.

I Will Set You Free was crafted by Adamson (bass, vocals, programming) with Ian Ross (drums), long-standing collaborator Nick Plytas (organ) and Bobby Williams (guitar). Horns come from Sid George (trumpet), Steve Hamilton (tenor sax) and Harry Brown (trombone), a trio capable of turning out pretty much any jazz mood required by their band leader. In the main, I Will Set You Free continues the mood of albums such as Stranger On The Sofa, where Adamson as a front man and vocalist really came to fruition, here striking a balance between the outright acid rock of tracks like ‘Destination’ (released ahead of the album as a free download) with more emotionally sentimental pieces like ‘If You Love Her’. The contrast between the stately croon of the latter with the motorik-meets-white-hot punk of ‘Destination’ provides a neat overview of an album that finds Adamson operating at both extremes, between the loverman and the serpentine voodoo priest perched atop the dangerous, nihilistic bloodymindedness that characterises ‘Destination’.

Further explorations into dark rock come with the opener, ‘Get Your Mind Right’, which finds Adamson pitching in with a vocal somewhere between David Bowie’s archness and the stream-of-consciousness lurching of Shaun Ryder, augmented by typically frazzled organ from Plytas and glam drumming from Ross. In a nice stylistic shift, ‘Stand In’ is a wide-eyed Eighties-referencing towering pop track, replete with a nice elongated synth section that feels like Yazoo covering Kraftwerk; okay, so it feels nearly twenty years too late for a John Hughes movie, but it has a big sound and a catchy chorus that will stick in your head long after the track has finished its emotional motions.

Of the ballads, ‘Turnaround’ is probably the highlight, being an ephemeral, lysergic ballad shimmering with emotional outpourings. Adamson as a crooner is one of the most surprisingly confident aspects to his still comparatively recent development as a singer, finding his honey vocal enveloped with serene acoustic guitar and washes of dreamy synth strings.

Some of I Will Set You Free‘s best moments come in the form of two downright fonky tracks, ‘Black Holes In My Brain’ and ‘The Power Of Suggestion’. The former is delivered in a relaxed, jazzy vibe that for some reason reminds me of George Michael (don’t ask why, but for once it’s not a bad association) and a stretched-out bassline which could have been lifted wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues’. ‘Black Holes In My Brain’ feels like a more organic Soul II Soul or another of those eclectic soul-jazz-hip-hop collectives from around the same time, all lumpy beats and soulful breeziness. ‘The Power Of Suggestion’, meanwhile, is sexy and upbeat, imbued with a summery warmth and sublime jazz piano lines. The track shuffles out over thick, chunky beats and and contains a theatrical swing that feels like it would suit a remake of Bugsy Malone.

I Will Set You Free has an embedded self-assuredness that suggests Adamson can turn out a leftfield rock album pretty much in his sleep these days. Whilst irritating reviewers like this one may well pine for those noir days of cinematic classics like Moss Side Story, there’s no denying that the path that Barry Adamson is singularly marking out for himself right now will continue to be littered with obfuscations, contradictions and further questing within his future projects, whatever they may prove to be. The press release talks of Adamson being released from shackles, and that is exactly how this album sounds; free, effortless and typically idiosyncratic.

First published 2012; edited 2016

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Barry Adamson – Dreams Of A Life (Central Control International album, 2012)

central control international | dl unknown cat ref | 10/12/2012

Perhaps it was intentional that Barry Adamson‘s music for Carol Morley’s film Dreams Of A Life went relatively unnoticed. After all, Morley’s film is a drama-documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a beautiful woman with a successful career in finance and early aspirations toward a pop career; someone who was well networked with lots of friends and a surprising number of interactions with celebrities like Ben E. King, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron, even shaking hands with Nelson Mandela backstage at his tribute concert at Wembley in 1990.

The tragic conclusion to Vincent’s life is, sadly, what she will be remembered for – found in 2006 not just dead, but decomposed, on a sofa in her bedsit in Wood Green, TV still playing BBC1 and rotten food in the fridge dating her death back to 2003. Unpaid utility bills were stacked behind her door; neighbours complained about a smell, but attributed it to the bins from the shops below. That someone could have slipped completely off radar and totally out of the system – effectively disappearing – in today’s hyper-networked times seems all the more shocking, the sense that someone with a wide circle of friends like Vincent could vanish without trace improbable somehow. The cause of Vincent’s death was never ascertained; never a huge drinker and not known to take drugs, the only link to any form of foul play was that she had stayed in a women’s refuge for domestic violence in Haringay in 2001, something that friends suggested was possible given how intense some of her City boyfriends could be.

Adamson’s soundtrack appeared on iTunes in December 2012 but I only found out about it in February when I received an email from Adamson’s mailing list advising that the film would be shown on TV that evening, with a separate link to his soundtrack. Those familiar with Adamson’s work will find few surprises here. There’s the usual rich gumbo of funky basslines, glitches, dub, ice-cold electronica, gospel outpourings (‘Tell Me’), jazzy riffing (‘Profile Of Martin’), organ grooves and noir themes that sound like something from a Seventies blaxploitation flick. Opener ‘The Investigation’ has all the grim urgency of a police drama while simultaneously evoking the mournful, pained observations of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ from What’s Going On; that track’s main motifs crop up elsewhere on the soundtrack in various different arrangements, giving the whole album a strong sense of coherence, the guitar plucking in particular giving things a folksy, introverted quality. The grandiose ‘Mystery’, complete with ghostly tones and ominous strings, perfectly matches its title’s promise, even if the counterpart ‘Mystery Atmos’ – with far-off rhythms and atmospheric textures – has the greater air of mystique, despite only dealing in semi-audible subtleties.

‘Noir (ish)’, with a chunky, phasing beat, melancholy synths and dirty funk guitars, is the closest Adamson has probably ever got to the sound of early Portishead, a band who claimed to be influenced heavily by the noirmeister, even though there was very little similarity between his music and theirs aside from a whiff of sullen mystery; ‘Noir (ish)’ squares that circle in many ways, and is one of Adamson’s most quietly assured works to date. The moving ‘Joyce Alone’, composed for piano, has a stirring poignancy, the absence of any other accompaniment other than the instrument’s natural reverb prompting you to reflect on Vincent’s three year wait to be discovered; it’s a beautiful, but deeply saddening piece. In contrast, ‘Electro Dreams’ manages to sound like a perfect distillation of Kraftwerk’s every move, albeit covered in a murky sheen of darkness, its inclusion having an urgent car-chase quality which doesn’t necessary fit with the other pieces here, even if it does highlight Adamson’s alarming musical dexterity.

While there are some really excellent pieces of soundtrack composition here, part of me thinks that it occasionally lacks a sense of seriousness and sympathy toward the subject matter. I admit freely that this might be because I’m looking at this solely as a musical response to what I’ve read of Vincent’s life; I haven’t seen the film and so it is often hard to imagine some of these pieces in context, but they just feel a little too playful at times; Adamson has a very prominent sense of humour and I sort of hoped that the challenging subject matter of the film might have curtailed that, but it’s still there, albeit in a relatively muted fashion. There’s also something about some of the pieces here, a dry quality perhaps, that reminds me of a low-budget TV movie.

A detailed piece written by Carol Morley for The Observer on her quest to find out more about Joyce Carol Vincent’s life and death can be found here. A video trailer for Morley’s movie can be found below; Part 10 of Morley’s video diary about the film, an interview with Adamson, can be seen below that.

First published 2013; re-posted 2016

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence