host Rock” is a term which crops up a lot in relation to Piano Magic. Possibly haunting them somewhat, if you’ll excuse that lazy metaphor. It even had a cameo role in the group’s last outing on Stylus, materializing inside our review of their 2005 full-length Disaffected. There, the phrase was defined as “... a new genre name for pop music refined from the Durutti Column and Disco Inferno.” Which was a handy summary, because when I tried to do a spot of research the only other thing I found was a dreadful looking film. (“The old West.....with a new attitude!”)
In truth, it seems rather strange that a band who so regularly morph in style would acquire an attempted catch-all tag in the first place—to date they’ve enticed us with enveloping swirls, Black Box Recorder-esque electro-mope, baroque music-box chimes, and First World War concept albums, to name but a few. But it’s fitting that they’ve at least gained a pigeonhole which is somewhat unique, as Glen Johnson and his rotating squad of cohorts can usually be relied upon to deliver something out of the ordinary. To the extent that they’ll merrily hop between record labels until they find one which leaves them alone long enough to do precisely what they want. It’s this uncompromising attitude which gives the majority of their assorted albums and EPs a sense of timelessness, or historical displacement; and, as far as I can tell, Ghost Rock provides a tangible phrase to apply to this intangible nature.
At this point, a cheeky fellow might say that the one thing Piano Magic haven’t tackled thus far is the comforting embrace of consistency—and then nod towards Part-Monster with an unspoken suggestion that it’s not hugely different in scope or feel from Disaffected. That would be broadly accurate, at least insofar as Johnson’s fascination with chopped and processed electronic samples has been scaled back even further (perhaps because he now has an alternative solo outlet for these adventures). There’s also a repeated sense of accessibility, at least as far as holding back on experimental song structures and instrumentals comprised purely of birdsong are concerned. To interpret any of this as a stumble in the ideas department, though, would be unreasonably harsh—and only a deeply troubled soul would be upset by the return of Angèle David-Guillou’s wonderful guest vocals (even if she is using them to describe terminal diseases and military duplicity).
Guy Fixen’s appearance as producer has affected Part-Monster in the way one might reasonably expect from his CV, which includes work with My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies. The coarser guitar sounds stemming from Fixen’s fixin’ are at odds with the ennui and quiet despair that ran throughout Disaffected, but contribute handsomely to the prickling anger that spills from “The Last Engineer”; a song indirectly lamenting the death of traditional working class industries in Britain. Similar squalls propel “Saints Preserve Us” with a flurry of noise, offering the faintest of echoes back to the drifts of “Snowfall Soon” from Low Birth Weight—and billow beneath the prominent bass and enigmatic narrative of “The King Cannot Be Found.” The mysterious subject matter offered by the latter track—which could be alluding to monarchs past, taking its cue from literature, or simply weaving an extended metaphor about something else entirely—is precisely the sort of otherworldly Piano Magic resonance that meshes so effortlessly with the echo and delay of their current incarnation. Through this maze of shrouded references, harrowing personal experience and national unease, the group generate a hazy, illusionary world of gentlemen and steel—evoking imaginary steam-punk Victoriana, recognizable to anyone familiar with The Chaos Engine.
During their quieter spells (which become more regular as the record progresses, as if it were gradually folding inwards upon itself), the group tend to dwell upon matters that are rather mournful; be they concerns about the rapidly passing years and approaching shadow of death, or a softly-spoken rumination which could be a tribute to Joseph Merrick—but may just as easily be about the issues of disfigurement in general. All of which serves to demonstrate that, even if the aural direction has begun to settle in recent times, Johnson’s emotional state is restless as ever—ensuring that creativity continues to flow from his vexed mind. Ditching the glitches for guitars hasn’t chased away the spectres, but it has energized the very same phantoms in interesting ways; so hide the fine china and bid a chilly welcome to the unpredictable moods and occasional violent outbursts of the new Poltergeist Groove.