Piano Magic - Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet

by Steve Rhodes Rating:9 Release Date:2012-06-11

Piano Magic have lived as eternal outsiders for the duration of their 16 year existence. With initial strong support from John Peel, a fluid line-up behind main-man Glen Johnson and recording for a plethora of record labels, they have produced a large discography with a chameleonic variation between album, touching on a number of styles including post rock, avant-folk, and electronica, while maintaining their unique identity, without troubling the mainstream.

After a number of recent understated LPs they returned to form in 2009 with the excellent Ovations, relying more on guitar effects and strong production to back up Glen's wistful odes. With their 11th LP, Life's Not Finished With Me Yet, they have slowed the pace right down to produce a more organic LP, using far less of the swirling guitar dynamics which drove their excellent predecessor, but without losing focus and impact.

Brief opener 'Matin' gives little away. A mournful, strings-led tune, with a hint of an echoed female vocal, it points firmly towards the Middle East in style and direction. 'Judas' is perhaps more representative, with Glen's mantric vocal joined by an electronic bass loop, simple percussion and a glacial, Arabic guitar. Adding a sample to what it seems like a basic casio and a spoken-word ending, it is an intriguing, hypnotic song, with possible quasi-religious overtones, channelling inspiration from Talk Talk and sometime collaborators, Dead Can Dance.

Glen's mantric vocal continues on 'The Slightest Of Threads', a double-bass driven song with Spanish guitar over the top, again spacious and uncomplicated. The lyric "She looks back at the lover, but he dreams of another, the violence of his breath, betrays his gentleness" is sinister and ominous and a jittery listener isn't helped by the nerve shredding guitar appearing near the end.

This stripped-down production mirrors the album's key theme of foreboding nature. 'Chemical (20mgs)' has minimal electronic percussion and bass backing Glen's strong vocal and a sparse, slide guitar interjecting. Lines such as "I stood on the ledge, peered over the edge, life has not finished with me yet", from 'Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet', have an almost theatrical prose while the instrumentation closely follows the dark lyrics. Meanwhile, 'You Don't Need Me To Tell You', with its funereal pace, bare electronics, acoustic guitar, organ, the distant sound of wind and Glen's vocal being backed by a distant female vocal, perfectly sums up the new direction of the album.

Though darkness and claustrophobia seem to lead the way, some of the stronger numbers forge a different path, often where vocalist Angèle David-Guillou takes the lead. 'Sing Something' maintains the snail-like pace but Angèle's haunting vocal dominates, adding the first chink of light in the album. 'Lost Antiphony' is more upbeat, pointing towards English folk and a mythical sound in the mould of Still Corners, and closer 'A Secret Never Told' combines Oriental instrumentation and Spanish guitar to Angele's vocal, ending with church chimes, creating a lullaby to send you nicely and peacefully to sleep.

The exceptional 'The Way We Treat the Animals' again takes a minor key, but possesses a more pronounced and yearning male vocal. Driven along by a simple bassline, with keys, strings, spacious drumming and an echoed guitar, it is a moody but optimistic song, again hinting at Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis. It's an arguable ode to vegetarianism and animal rights which Morrissey could be proud of.

However, the album's highlight is 'Jar of Echoes', where hushed electronica propels Glen's expressive and desolate vocal: "I am the jar of echoes, I am the silent death". Almost a funeral march which does not dwell on its morbidity, It benefits further from the entrance of Angele's deeply echoed vocal and withdrawn percussion, closing with a delightful underplayed descending synth line, building to and touching crescendo, then pulling back at the last. A beautiful and haunting number that shows restraint and is far better for it.

While Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet may not reach far beyond Piano Magic's core audience, they have produced an excellent album, stripped to the core, where strong vocals are allowed to breathe. Like some of their immediate peers, once again Piano Magic appear to have reinvented themselves and moved their songwriting into a new and exciting phase.

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