Piano Magic - Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet
It's hard to believe that this is Piano Magic's 11th album. With Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet they have managed to return to the unique eeriness of their earlier records, yet they have enriched their sound with more intricate arrangements, creating a kind of cross between pastoral folk and post-punk in the process.
This time around their simple skeletal melodies are accompanied by different instrumentation and sounds – fretless bass, theremin, dulcimer, digital howl-round and unnerving effects. For me, this still sounds unmistakably like Piano Magic, although there are definite hints towards the influence of acts like Dead Can Dance, David Sylvian and the Durutti Column.
The brief opening track 'Matin' immediately sets the tone, a single viola introducing the melody, then accompanied by the gentle female vocal of Angèle David-Guillou and some subtle percussion. It's a short musical sketch that both introduces and summarises the sound of the whole album. 'Judas' references the old story of betrayal against a contrasting soundclash of pulsing minimal new wave versus dulcimer and clarinet. Glen Johnson delivers the lyric "The weight of the power, corruption and lies" as if in a subtle way admitting to the obvious New Order influence, yet nowadays Piano Magic are confident to take those influences and blend them with many others to create something very much their own.
'The Slightest of Threads' is one of the real highlights here. It's a classic Piano Magic tune, with familiar brooding guitar and bass line accompanied by strings and a creaking, eerie underscore. It's a genuinely spooky piece of music and the words paint a vivid picture of the small hours of the morning. Johnson whispers the lines "Still life, abstract/ Worthless, glass cracked" just before the band break into a startling barrage of noise, and remind us of their potential to unleash overdriven guitar bursts – a side which has taken a back seat on this album, as the band explore different sounds.
'Sing Something' is lovely electronic eeriness, with the spacious reverb laden vocal of Angèle David-Guillou set against a steady keyboard drone, with occasional theremin, subtle beats and train track effects adding to the mood. 'Chemical' follows this with an interesting slab of electronic pop, the sort of song that may have dented the lower reaches of the top 40 in the early '80s, coming across as a distant cousin of the early Human League. 'Lost Antiphony' is a total contrast to this as it is an instrumental track steeped in pastoral folk, with flute and acoustic guitar to the fore.
The bleak title track recalls their excellent 1999 album 'Artists Rifles' and tells a tale of multiple suicide attempts. It builds from a bleak single programmed drum track into a lusher, choral refrain, which does little to lift the sense of dread. '(The Way We Treat) The Animals' revisits the political concerns of older songs like 'Night of the Hunter', and sets out a poetic argument for ethical treatment of animals. They spell out succinctly, "If you slay the animals, your soul it will be dust."
'Jar of Echoes' returns to electronica, with deep reverbed beats and another superbly sinister melody. There is always at least one song on each Piano Magic album that makes me want to savour the lyrics and 'Jar of Echoes' takes that honour here. It looks back on life and loss of memories with such a skilful turn of phrase that I would have to quote the whole song to do it justice.
Although I think this album will be considered one of Piano Magic's finest, I should say that the subject matter is deliberately bleak. Lyrically it is set towards the end of life, and a lot of it is imagined around half-remembered memories. 'You Don't Need Me To Tell You' continues the depressive lyrical tone but the contrast between Glen's half-spoken delivery and Angèle's pretty melodic vocal is quite beautiful.
Angèle also sings the closing track 'A Secret Never Told' accompanied by dulcimer, keyboards and a steady funereal beat, although after all the desolation of the songs that preceded this, the final words are "Do not suppose there is no hope, do not forget you're not alone."
Overall this is a desolate but beautiful record. Piano Magic have successfully introduced new elements into their sound and have made them gel. After eleven albums and sixteen years, this latest effort can comfortably sit amongst their best work.