Today and next week a musical collective formed in the summer of 1996 by Glen Johnson, Dominic Chennell, and Dick Rance in London, England. Their sound has been described as ambient pop, post-rock, indietronica, coldwave, dark wave and ghostrock. While the most recent releases have seen them operating with a traditional band format, they originally started their career with the intention to base their recordings around their small nucleus and whoever else would like to contribute. ... N'Joy
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Due to a wide range of influences, restless/relentless creative energies, and a supporting cast that's too numerous to list in full, random peeks into the catalog of the Glen Johnson-helmed Piano Magic -- from super limited-edition singles on Spanish independents to full-length soundtracks -- rarely result in the same thing twice. Started in the mid-'90s by Johnson, Dominic Chennell, and Dick Rance with the intention to base their recordings around a small nucleus and whomever would like to contribute -- using 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell's This Mortal Coil as something of a template -- the material released by Piano Magic has ranged from arty baroque pop to childlike electronic knob-twiddling and whatever points you can and can't think of in between. The lone thread running through Piano Magic's records, aside from Johnson's presence, is a sense of wistfulness. Johnson has explained his desire to soundtrack memories, and with that, Piano Magic has found their niche.
One early hope of Piano Magic was to avoid the live element. However, when their first single, 1996's Wrong French, was awarded Single of the Week in Melody Maker, the initial trio felt obligated to play out in support of it. Along with Paul Tornbohm, the group played their first gig and opted not to play any of the material found on their records. They also made no attempt whatsoever to sound anything like their records, so odds were pretty good that a few curious concert-goers were perplexed after returning from the shops and hearing the studio incarnation of the outfit.
"Signed" to Che, the label that released Wrong French, the group kicked out two more singles (with one issued on Wurlitzer Jukebox) prior to releasing their first full record, Popular Mechanics, in November 1997. Including some of the additional personnel featured on the preceding singles, such as vocalists Raechel Leigh and Hazel Burfitt and instrumentalist Martin Cooper, the record threw together some previously released material along with a clutch of new songs. As uneven as the record is, its mysteriousness provokes replay after replay. The band left Che, having been frustrated with their lack of effort. Not surprisingly, the constant financial flux soon got the best of the label.
In 1999, a crazy slew of singles and EPs for labels like Staalplaat, Darla, and Bad Jazz -- including a split single with Matmos for Lissy's -- surrounded the release of the second album, Low Birth Weight (Rocket Girl). Thanks to just a little more focus and a higher level of quality from beginning to end, the record is often regarded by fans as their best work. In addition to most of the prior suspects, Caroline Potter, Alexander Perls, Matt Simpson, Jen Adam, Simon Rivers (Bitter Springs), David Sheppard (State River Widening), and Peter Astor (the Weather Prophets, the Wisdom of Harry) figured into the process of making it.
The following year was one of Piano Magic's least prolific, but it still spawned a remix EP for Germany's Morr Music and the rather conceptual full-length Artists' Rifles, which bases its subject matter in the first World War. It's the group's most consistent work in terms of sound. It features none of the electronics heard on prior releases, instead focusing on delicate interplay between drums, guitars, and the cello work of Adrienne Quartly. At some point prior to its recording, Miguel Marin was added to the group's lineup apparently as a permanent member.
In 2001, Piano Magic was commissioned to score Spanish director Bigas Luna's Son de Mar. The director had heard Low Birth Weight in a record shop and was impressed enough to ask them to provide music for the film. Peaceful, lulling, breezy, and completely instrumental, the score demonstrates Piano Magic's astonishing range. Released by 4AD, Son de Mar spawned a deal between the two, and the group began working on the proper follow-up to Low Birth Weight later in the year. To satiate fans and irritate hardcore vinyl collectors, Rocket Girl released Seasonally Affective, an exhaustive double-disc compilation of singles. Writers Without Homes was eventually completed and released in mid-2002. Piano Magic left 4AD soon after, releasing The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic in 2004 on Spain's Green UFOs label.
Cedric Pin joined Piano Magic in time for the 2005 album, Disaffected with a melodic, nearly "pop" sound, featuring more guest vocal contributions from John Grant of The Czars and Angèle David-Guillou of Klima. It appeared to confirm a return to their 'exile' status gaining significant attention abroad (including, for example, full feature in the French daily Liberation) but with no coverage at all in any UK broadsheet or music magazine. With the exception of a few brief stops in Russia, Portugal, and Belgium, the band spent the majority of the following year touring Italy. Another 12" vinyl record, Never It Will Be the Same Again (featuring contributions from conceptual artist Bojan Sarcevic), was released during this time. Piano Magic returned to the studio in late 2006, and their ninth full-length, Part Monster was released in 2007 produced by Guy Fixsen of Laika.
In 2008, Piano Magic moved to Make Mine Music, an artist-run, artist-owned label collective and released a new EP, Dark Horses, the last release to feature Cedric Pin. In 2009, Piano Magic released their 10th official album Ovations with contributions by Brendan Perry and Peter Ulrich of Dead Can Dance. In June 2012, the album Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet was released. Among the guests is Irons' Josh Hight - voice on The Animals, Judas and A Secret Never Told.
The band's last line-up was Franck Alba, Angèle David-Guillou, Glen Johnson, Alasdair Steer and Jerome Tcherneyan.
According to Glen Johnson, Piano Magic disbanded in Summer 2013 with a 2cd compilation "Heart Machinery - A Piano Magic Retrospective, 2001-2008".
Glen Johnson released a solo album, Details Not Recorded, under his own name in March 2009 on the Make Mine Music label. Cedric Pin and Glen Johnson have recorded as 'Future Conditional'. Glen Johnson has recorded as 'Textile Ranch'. Dominic Chennell has recorded as 'Dominic de Nebo' and with the group 'Carphology Collective'.
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With a formula that perks curiosity -- artless experimentation, revolving bandmembers, using old-tech toys in new-tech situations -- Popular Mechanics is less about what kind of music you really listened to as a kid and more about what you remember what you listened to. "Revolving Moth Cage" takes a painlessly childish keyboard melody and inserts it into a complex canvas of ambient trickery while the friendly Eraserhead interpretations on "Birth of an Object" are just on the right side of despondent, electronic reinvention. The self-proclaimed Kraftwerk and drum 'n' bass influences are disguised as well: to be sure, there's a certain antique thrust to the badly spoken word "Wrong French" or a Kid 606-like junkyard scream to the "Metal Coffee" red herring, but it's how mainman Glen Johnson strives to "aim for the heart" that really makes the album worthwhile. This is splayed-out Krautrock dub with a newly found sense of compassion. Piano Magic seem intent in rediscovering a childhood that never existed, reexamining those memories that never happened -- all with an innovative, electronic zeal.
Piano Magic - Popular Mechanics (238mb)
01 Metal Coffee 1:30
02 Wintersport / Cross-Country 8:34
03 Everything Works Beautifully 2:27
04 Untitled 0:54
05 Amongst Russian Lathes & Metal Curls 4:09
06 Birth Of An Object 2:16
07 Revolving Moth Cage 4:07
08 To Be Swished / Dream Of The UPS Driver 9:02
09 Freckled Robot 2:53
10 Soft Magnets 5:01
11 Wrong French 5:36
12 You've Lost Your Footing In This World 4:33
Piano Magic - Popular Mechanics (ogg 98mb)
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Glen Johnson is probably the most important figure to emerge from the British indie music scene since My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. His gift for haunting lyricism, arrangement, and production is unparalleled in any area of music today. With Low Birth Weight, Johnson's Piano Magic, an ever-changing collective of musicians performing bits and pieces of his decadent vision, has crafted a stunning work of orchestral rock with the littlest (and cheapest) of gear. The beauty of the record lies specifically in its simple songcraft and production. Like Shields, Johnson spends inordinate amounts of time in the studio eliminating the smallest flaws that might compromise his otherworldly creations. Johnson melds the heavenly vocals of collaborators Caroline Potter, Simon Rivers, and Raechel Leigh with sparse, echoed guitar, subtle drum machine clicks, electronic scribbles, and chirpy children's toys. Low Birth Weight seems oddly English in that it romanticizes working class life so as to make it beautifully painful; listeners may get the feeling that the record's title is deeply rooted in one of Johnson's intensely painful experiences. Johnson illustrates a great deal of understanding and an ability to create a touching picture from the most undesirable occurrences. Also interesting is the fact that Johnson never mouths a word on the record; his involvement is strictly instrumental and that, in itself, reveals a certain detachment from the music. He maintains a great emotional distance while still weaving beautiful and depressing tales, as the musicians become Johnson's playthings, bringing his damaged emotions to life.
Piano Magic - Low Birth Weight (270mb)
01 Snowfall Soon 5:02
02 Crown Estate 4:34
03 Bad Patient 5:00
04 The Fun Of The Century 5:02
05 Birdy Machine 1:26
06 Not Fair 4:12
07 Dark Secrets Look For Light 4:52
08 Snow Drums 4:59
09 Shepherds Are Needed 5:21
10 I Am The Sub-Librarian 4:26
11 Waking Up 5:49
Piano Magic - Low Birth Weight (ogg 106mb)
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The notion of making a concept record seems antithetic to the standard operating procedure of Glen Johnson's Piano Magic, a collective who relies on revolving-door collaborations to materialize oft-scatterbrained pop experimentalism. When you think about it, staunchly adhering to that loose-natured principle can be as limiting as painting yourself into a corner. So ha -- here it is, a concept record from Piano Magic based on the first World War that whittles the number of instrumentalists down to six, opposed to the This Mortal Coil- or P-Funk All-Stars-like tally involved on prior records. Musically taught, conceptually focused, and a lot more open to interpretation than the memorial-depicting artwork implies, Artists' Rifles is Piano Magic at their most solemn and lulling, splitting what seems to be communication between a soldier and his lover (vocals are shared between Johnson and Caroline Potter), with a handful of brief instrumentals. Everything glides by at a funereal pace -- played by guitars, bass, drums, and cello -- implying the same inner violence that Joy Division songs like "The Eternal" or "I Remember Nothing" carry, but with less weight and more emphasis on resigned melodies than haunting production nuances and a troubled voice. The most significant -- or only other -- pop record to base itself on a World War is Pink Floyd's The Final Cut, one of the most stifling what-you-hear-is-what-you-get deals on such a subject; where Pink Floyd and movie directors like Oliver Stone practically tell you what to make of it, Piano Magic is more on the Stanley Kubrick end, leaving each moment open to interpretation. The most audibly violent aspect of the LP is the martial drumming that bookends it. Indeed, the listener is just as important as the players. A thoroughly spooked record and equally lovely.
Piano Magic - Artists' Rifles (239mb)
01 Saint Marie 5:40
02 The Unwritten Law 3:21
03 Speed The Road, Rush The Lights 7:44
04 Help Me Warm This Frozen Heart 4:32
05 I Am The Teacher's Son 6:30
06 The End Of A Dark, Tired Year 5:01
07 The Tollbooth Martyrs 5:18
08 When I'm Done, This Night Will Fear Me 5:06
09 Luxembourg Gardens 7:28
10 Comets 3:46
Piano Magic - Artists' Rifles (ogg 92mb)
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