Piano Magic – Part-Monster

Piano Magic

Throughout the ten gloriously contrary years of Piano Magic’s existence, there have been two regular driving-impulses that have channelled Glen Johnson’s unfeasibly rich songwriting; one being a love/hate affair with England/Englishness, another being an innate inability to lie about himself in his lyrics. The former dichotomised compulsion has expanded even further in recent years; with the band increasingly untroubled by the continued indifference of the British music industry as the pull from Continental Europe grows even stronger (noticeably manifest in relatively large live sojourns in Spain, Italy and Russia), whilst the group’s eulogising of early-to-mid ‘80s English musical exotica has become even more blatant and unrepentant. In respect to the latter stimulus, Johnson’s lyricism has drifted even further into naked diarising; magnified intensively through the evocatively empathising tones of French chanteuse Angèle David-Guillou and his own increasingly strong vocal presence.

So forceful has the flow of these twining tributaries become, that one singular unsegregated outlet is not currently enough to contain Johnson’s hyperactive muse. Thus, the ostensibly ‘solo’ Textile Ranch alias has allowed Johnson to indulge in his penchant for brittle bedroom-based electronica (notably on a recent split-EP for Static Caravan) and his partnering with Piano Magic keyboardist Cedric Pin in the newly-formed Future Conditional (for the alluring We Don’t Just Disappear LP, even more recently) has celebrated the late-‘70s/early-‘80s synth-pop experimentation of OMD, New Order and Kraftwerk. Having siphoned-off his intoxicating overspill, for the newly-minted Part-Monster Johnson has trimmed-back Piano Magic to a raw and nervy essence. Whilst this doesn’t exactly mean Piano Magic unplugged, unproduced or unfinessed, Part-Monster is the closest the Johnson and co. have come to capturing the thrust of their live shows or – at the very least – revisiting the dark beatific menace of 2000’s Artists’ Rifles and 2003’s The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic. Put in cruder terms; Part-Monster is essentially Piano Magic’s “big-guitar, big-heart and big-autobiographic” record, albeit without the clichés that such a demarcation might entail.

Very much a record of two ‘sides’; the first-half holding a more wide-screen vision and the second constricted by claustrophobic introspection. The opening jerk of “The Last Engineer” is as raucous and soaring as Piano Magic get; all swirling reverb ‘n’ delay-heavy guitars, insistent driving drums, ethereal keyboard washes and a lyric referring to Johnson’s bittersweet dole-driven migration from Nottingham to London in the mid-‘90s (“I tried to follow my father/He was the last engineer/But they’d closed all the factories/And his steps disappeared”). In its wake, comes the majestic slow-motion centrepiece of “England’s Always Better (As You’re Pulling Away)”, an astute vocal/lyrical collaboration with Simon Rivers of The Bitter Springs, that both celebrates and denigrates notions of Englishness through Morrissey-like bleak wit; “Watch the sun going down on our rusty crown/All apologies and queues and bright red people with ludicrous views”. By track three, Johnson is back inside himself via a guitar-driven rebuild of “Incurable” (previously heard in more electronic form on 2006’s EP of the same name); finding Angèle’s bewitched pipes drawing-out Johnson’s self-deprecating dourness with effortless grace. Contrastingly, the solemn Dead Can Dance-indebted baroque of “Soldier Song” finds Angèle enunciating Johnson’s sarcastic satire on British military traditions; “You fought for your country, you fought for your queen/Now everyone’s happy, now everyone’s free.” The album mid-point of “The King Cannot Be Found” is more easy to decipher sonically than lyrically, as its swathes of Durutti Column guitars and its forthright Joy Division bass-line defiantly fly-in-the-face of the English fashionista-mafia Johnson so despises.

The instrumental “Great Escapes” goes even further into the realms of rampant 4AD/Factory Records retro, with wave-upon-wave of sublime proto-shoegaze shimmering leading the album into its more oblique second-half. On “Cities & Factories”, Johnson is back to a more sedate setting, musing upon on his tangled-heartstrings by way of epic and unashamed verbosity; “This heart, it is proud to have loved you/This heart is not cold to the touch/This heart never ran from your kindness/This heart never asked you for much”. On the equally mid-tempo and introspective “Halfway Through”, Johnson perhaps loses the long-player some of its momentum, but then the subsequent six-string churning of “Saints Preserve Us” helps to reignite the band, as well as throwing out a choice Piano Magic manifesto commitment; “Kick out this notion that anything goes/You’re better off sticking to what you know”. By the closing whisper of the titular track, the dust settles into philosophical reflection as Johnson and Angèle are locked-into a sparse acoustic duet. With his demure deadpan offset by Angèle’s serene harmonising, more of Johnson’s self-descriptive bone-dry humour drips into the ghostly ambience (“And I’m tired of easy music/And I’m tired of pretty girls/And I’m tired of being tired”) to end proceedings with the forewarning that Piano Magic’s convoluting character will, of course, be reborn once more.

It almost goes without saying that Part-Monster is not an easy entry-road in the shadowy dominion of Piano Magic, thanks to its jagged geography, its desolate climate and its remorseless ramparts. It is, however, a fearless and powerful piece of work that should – if there were any true cultural justice – remind British music-lovers of the importance of Piano Magic’s forever-potent ‘enemy-within’ status.