Piano Magic – Incurable EP

Piano Magic
Incurable EP

Over the course of six ‘official’ studio long-players, innumerable singles/EPs, countless compilation appearances, and miscellaneous collaborative projects, Glen Johnson has sustained Piano Magic as one of the most reliable and creative – yet stubbornly unpredictable and cruelly overlooked – operations to have been scooped out of London’s leftfield musical potage. Indeed, so consistently sublime has been Piano Magic’s regular output that if the band was to set-up a subscription-service – not unlike the one once run by the group’s former label 4AD – ticking a ‘lifetime supply’ option would seem like a safe bet. It’s the way that Johnson allows almost every release – either long- or short-form – to possess individuality and progression without succumbing to inconsistency and compromise, which marks out Piano Magic as a truly enlightened enterprise. Reassuringly, this latest four-track set continues to follow such a game plan.

The opening titular track is certainly the ace in the pack. Picking up where last year’s dark early-New Order-influenced Disaffected album left-off, the song glides along with a glorious gossamer groove. The song’s true life-force, though, comes via angelic part-time Piano Magic chanteuse, Angèle David-Guillou, liberally sprinkling Johnson’s romantically bleak words (“I have so much to tell you / But I can’t seem to speak”) with her desolate yet delicate vocal touch. The second cut, “I Have Moved into the Shadow,” also bequeathed with David-Guillou’s beatific tones, is more restrained – but no less affecting – as it tip-toes around in an eerie fog of icy electronics and programmed rhythms to convey another of Johnson’s bleakly humorous Morrisseyesque urban-life rues (“In letters from my sister she asks me how I’m feeling / I say that I am better / But I lie in every letter”).

Halfway in, the styles shift more dramatically, like a classic experimental 12” B-side to an alluringly accessible A-side. The instrumental “Giant Mirror to Light Up Village” – the progeny of recent recruit Cedric Pin – is a pure, if slightly smothering, homage to the band’s beloved early-4AD heroes, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. Shrouded in drone-like synths, found sounds, and an ecumenical ambience, it’s ripe for a gothic drama flick, even if it might jar a little on a ‘normal’ Piano Magic album. The closing “Lights Come on at 3” finds Johnson back on vocals for the least studio-processed section of this four-part suite. Its looser, rougher sound, with lethargic live drums, plaintive piano lines, and low-mixed guitar fuzz, gives Johnson room to let his ameliorating vocal chords roam. Yet despite the nakedness of the recording, Johnson steps back from the directness of the two David Guillou-voiced songs with a deeply opaque lyric, which ends on a line that near-perfectly sums up the cumulative Piano Magic experience; “Well, it may be beautiful but it’s a trap.”

Whilst this EP may not be the easiest entry point into the Piano Magic catalogue (albums like 1999’s Low Birth Weight and 2005’s aforementioned Disaffected are perhaps more welcoming to the uninitiated), it’s certainly another sure-footed step for a band confident with – but not conceited about – seemingly limitless quality craftsmanship and recurrent reinvention.