Piano Magic – Heart Machinery: A Piano Magic Retrospective 2001 – 2008

Heart Machinery – A Piano Magic Retrospective 2001–2008

Heart Machinery – A Piano Magic Retrospective 2001–2008

The unveiling of this second volume of Piano Magic singles, EP cuts and sundry extra-curricular pieces comes with the news that the band – which began way back in 1996 – may have amicably called it a day, for at least an extended indefinite hiatus.  Whilst many long-time devotees of Glen Johnson’s forever-evolving London-based but internationalist enterprise may be a tad distraught at such a development, many will also be contentedly reminded of the fact that the ensemble has bequeathed such a remarkable and expansive body of work over the last 17 or so years that it may take just as many years for it to be fully absorbed and more widely appreciated.  This carefully curated collection will certainly make such a slow osmosis-like process less onerous.

A sequel to 2001’s Seasonally Affective 1996-2000 compendium of early-Piano Magic short-form releases, Heart Machinery: A Piano Magic Retrospective 2001–2008 acts as both a selective sampler from and an archival adjunct to the band’s albums during the last decade.  Whilst there is a modicum of overlap with tracks on Piano Magic LPs – with a clutch of direct repetitions and alternate versions – most of the songs and instrumentals gathered within have previously only been available on a slew of standalone limited singles/EPs or hidden inside multi-artist compilations. The only noticeable exclusions are a handful of remixes.  More than just a rarities-led round-up, this set also helps us to understand Piano Magic’s most self-assured and prolific phase.  So whereas Seasonally Affective largely charted the chronological progression of Piano Magic from being Johnson’s bedroom-built prose and electronica project, with a rotating cast of vocalists and other collaborators, to becoming a more live-centric unit with a penchant for Durutti Column guitar shimmering, Heart Machinery documents a journey with more confident stylistic zigzags enabled by greater line-up stability and continuity; notably with Klima’s Angèle David-Guillou becoming the main vocalist after Johnson.

Piano Magic - Heart-Machinery- 2cdsjpgAs a fan-engorging smorgasbord then, Heart Machinery has pretty much everything that has made Piano Magic so special spread across its two discs, alongside a range of low-key but no less engrossing experiments that might not have fitted so well on the more tightly-wound albums.  As Johnson explained more in an email to this writer recently; “The albums were engineered to sound as cohesive as possible but the EPs were our playground in many ways…”

The highlights of this more playful yet still distinctively dark-hued approach are therefore suitably abundant across Heart Machinery.  Hence there’s a scattering of mesmeric minimalist whirr and click electronic platforms for Johnson’s murmur or David-Guillou’s crystalline tones – like “This Heart Machinery” and “I Came To Your Party Dressed As A Shadow” – that the band moved away from on album recordings after the ill-fated sojourn on 4AD with 2002’s Writers Without Homes long-player.  Elsewhere in contrast, more epic stage-friendly noire-rock shapes are pulled convincingly with shadowy yet soaring Joy Division meets Disco Inferno dynamics; as “Speed The Road, Rush The Lights” and “Dark Horses” most alluringly attest.

Amidst the murkier atmospheres however, there are also aesthetically lighter and more exotic settings to be found.  In the former respect there is an often overlooked flair for electro-pop grown from a deep-rooted love of early-New Order, which yields the indispensable single version of “Incurable” and the giddy bass-propelled “Vacancies,” that both capture David-Guillou gliding her gorgeous vocals over grooves that have would slotted neatly into Power, Corruption & Lies.  In the latter realms, Piano Magic’s pan-European membership found space to expand the core palette with a more globalist non-rock reach.  Thus, there is a string of evocative instrumentals inside this compilation; with the sublime string-led “Fantasia On Old English Airs,” the pastoral acoustic guitar meditation of “Lalo” and the elegiac harp-driven “Kind Theme” being the most inviting.

Although those who have been previously attracted to Piano Magic though the lure of special guest appearances, might find the more closed-circled configurations that constructed the bulk of Heart Machinery less of a draw, there are a still some choice cameos. Thus, Low’s Alan Sparhawk steely vocals lead an alternate take on “Saint Marie” as well as the highly-wrought “Wrong Turn” and rediscovered folk enigma Vashti Bunyan voices the spectral “Dark Ages” with the same beatific otherworldliness she deployed on “Crown Of The Lost,” a standout moment on the guest-heavy Writers Without Homes.

Piano Magic - Never It Will Be The Same Again

Piano Magic – Never It Will Be The Same Again

Taken as a whole, Heart Machinery is an embarrassingly rich repository of material that deserves to be explored and engaged with as deeply as the official Piano Magic long-players.  It could arguably be the band’s answer to Low’s treasurable A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief  boxset – which is high praise indeed.  Making an early purchase even more worthwhile is the bonus CD accompanying initial direct orders from Second Language, which rescues the once very rare vinyl-only 2006 Never It Will Be The Same Again mini-album from purgatory.  Featuring a majestic multi-part suite of mainly wordless and improvised pieces – with an expansive and uplifting European feel – it could be the best Piano Magic record you’ve never heard.

If these two retrospective affairs are to be Piano Magic’s epilogue then collectively they provide an honourable ending to a riveting and highly creative story we may never know the likes of again.

Second Language