Alan Emslie – Floating | Emotive Bay | Driven Heavy | Dark Matter

With news of a new studio album from Alan Emslie scheduled for late 2018 and with the new re-mastered editions of his first four releases appearing in April this year, it seems a timely opportunity to revisit the early years. Between 2001 and 2005 Alan Emslie released four albums, three under his own name and one, and my introduction to his work, as Soft Monster.

Alan Emslie? Re-mastered reissues? Composer, classically trained orchestral timpanist, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Alan Emslie, that’s who!

Primarily a drummer and percussionist, so the worry might be that his main instrument of choice may overtly dominate, but happy to report this is not the case and across these four albums, it is certainly an ace card, but not the full hand. With the help of some stellar guest performers and his crafty inclusion of electronica it makes for a varied and interesting deck.

Soft Monster – Floating

‘Sinking’ may be more appropriate in 2017, with a market awash with an endless stream of new music, it’s so easy to concentrate on the new and overlook the past. So these timely re-mastered re-releases from Alan Emslie come as a welcome opportunity to take stock and reflect on music that has sat in my burgeoning CD shelves for far too long – sadly without too much airplay.

Working chronologically we start with the calming keyboard wash that opens Soft Monster’s Floating album. As remarked upon, in the review I did of the album some fifteen years ago, this tranquillity is short lived as “…the drums just sort of explode after the delicate dreamy introduction and are reminiscent of perhaps Rush or Genesis.” Certainly Alan displays all the fire and gusto of Mr. Peart and Mr. Collins here.

A great opening statement and followed by the equally impressive Da Monstas which features guitarist and constant companion across Alan’s career, John Irvine. John adds some tasteful guitar, which we pick up for the first time here on track two. In fact John’s guitar is refreshingly thoughtful throughout the album, often restrained, but always harmonious to the surroundings.

Floating proves to be a very appropriate title, as much of the album does exactly that, mention here therefore of keys man Euan Drysdale who, along with Alan, lays down the fine canvas that the album rests upon. The title track is a prime example – superbly understated.

Mindful that there are another three albums to cover I’ll forego the somewhat tedious (to read) track by track look at Soft Monster’s album and simply move on to the summation.

Reading back through my review in 2002, I was perhaps a little misguided, or perhaps my tastes have changed? Either way, revisiting Floating has been an absolute pleasure and unlike 2001, when there was no audio to tempt, 2017 presents us with a golden opportunity to check out this album in it’s entirety via Bandcamp. I was impressed with Alan Emslie’s production values back in 2001, so the added clarity of the 2017 reissued re-masters is an added bonus.

01. Ooger (4:56)
02. Da Monstas (4:41)
03. Floating (6:25)
04. Pushing Free (7:24)
05. Doughnut Warden (4:20)
06. Approaching The Ice (8:21)
07. Behind The Dark Mirror Machine (4:46)
08. Three Rooms (4:43)

Total Time – 45:36

Alan Emslie – Drums & Percussion
Euan Drysdale – Keyboards
~ with
John Irvine – Guitar (tracks 2,4,6 & 8)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Scotland
Originally Releases: 2001
Date of Reissue: 13th April 2017

Alan Emslie – Emotive Bay

Released a year after Floating and under his own name this time around, but in many respects a sympathetic companion to that release. Alan is once again joined by guitarist John Irvine who adds some tasteful guitar to a couple of the tracks. Mention here of the John Irvine Band’s progressive jazz/rock albums – where Alan Emslie returns the favour and forms the formidable backbone for some stellar music. Taken from the Next Stop (2013) album – checkout the Means To An End drum recording video HERE.

BEWARE! – track by track review (albeit mercifully short ;).

The opening piece, Downforce, would have sat very comfortably on the Floating album, with percussive techno-synth, melodic synth hook-line and fiery drumming kicking the album off to a cracking start.

As might be implied, Emotive Bay takes a far mellower, tranquil course and during the next four pieces the emphasis is on mood and atmosphere. The title tune sets the mood, with Emotive Bay‘s rippling, early Genesis-like arpeggios and surrounded by swelling synth washes. In similar fashion this is followed by Watching The Waves, although this time bolstered by a solid, but unintrusive drum beat. Regardless of what the track’s title might conjure up, The Distortion That Drives Us is more in keeping with Vangelis and only John Irvine’s Gilmour-esque guitar takes us to other thoughts. Concluding this section of the album is the more up-beat Groovy Jelly, and as the title implies, it’s a groove driven piece.

Listening to both Floating and Emotive Bay it struck me how refreshing and valid both albums sounded. In this, dare I say, more diverse progressive climate, both albums might benefit from this broader spectrum of acceptance. Cue up the hypnotic, almost entirely percussive Quarqaba, barring the monastic chanting from Mr. Emslie to close. So a not entirely instrumental release and the tongue-in-cheek Something Wrong? gives our first real taster of AE’s vocals. Well he’s definitely no chanter – but with the lyric line…

“I hate singing so much… and my voice sounds like a loo brush”

… I gather he is aware of this fact. It’s refreshing to find a serious musician who is able to not take himself too seriously at times.

Okay, and mindful that once again I have drifted into a track by track scenario of the music I’ll swiftly take a quick look at the two concluding pieces. First up is the wonderful Beyond The 11th Dimension, with both Alan and John in fine fettle – BUT rather than waffle on I’ve linked the track:

And finally We Went To Bed Too Late, “…a gently constructed ballad but without the inclusion of any vocals”.

I’m really glad Alan Emslie decided to re-issue his back catalogue, if for no other reason than it prompted me to listen to the albums again. And what a pleasure it has been.

01. Downforce (4:49)
02. Emotive Bay (3:14)
03. Watching The Waves (5:42)
04. The Distortion That Drives Us (8:01)
05. Groovy Jelly (4:39)
06. Quarqaba (4:12)
07. Something Wrong? (6:24)
08. Beyond The 11th Dimension (13:14)
09. We Went To Bed Too Late (4:32)

Total Time – 54:47

Alan Emslie – Drums & Percussion
John Irvine – Guitar

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Scotland
Originally Releases: 2002
Date of Reissue: 13th April 2017

Alan Emslie – Driven Heavy

With album releases in the previous two years, Alan returned again in 2003 with Driven Heavy. Again guitarist John Irvine is in the fold and joining the flock this time around are Greg Lawson on violin, Jo Nicholson’s bass clarinet and Pat Jackson’s bass trombone, the latter two perhaps a token gesture towards the lack of a bass player on any of his releases.

As the album title indicates, Driven Heavy is a more robust album than it’s predecessor, Emotive Bay, although the now familiar signature sound is still present. Other changes on Driven Heavy are the inclusion of vocals and a movement towards a more aggressive sound, a precursor to the heavier material Alan would eventually head towards.

Mindful that I have covered the previous two release in some depth, and not wanting to completely lose your will to live before covering the following two releases, I will focus on some of the album’s highlights. We start with the stunning Help Me – a track that really should be heard. So here we go…

Greg Lawson’s electric violin is truly emotive and beautifully underpinned by Pat Jackson’s processed bass trombone. As mentioned above, an odd quirk of Alan Emslie is that he doesn’t use a bass player, curious, but in no way detrimental to the music. Greg also features in two of the album’s other stand out instrumental tunes, the alluring Meditation and the Floydian Through The Valley.

There is much in the way of hidden depths and the longer I’ve had to revisit this album, the more has been revealed. The outro section Something In Your Eyes, for instance, is wonderful.

Before leaving Driven Heavy, mention of the two final “bonus” tracks. Firstly Bitter Boy [Instrumental Mix] which stands up surprisingly well without the vocals. Secondly Downforce [Live Rehearsal] which appeared on the original release in the interactive section of the CD – memory serves, with Alan and John laying down the track live and an indication of how little of the release required overdubs.

01. Bitter Boy (3:39)
02. Help Me (4:26)
03. Big One (4:41)
04. Meditation (4:21)
05. Simple Groove (3:54)
06. Causeway (5:26)
07. Through The Valley (4:58)
08. Something In Your Eyes (6:49)
09. Bitter Boy [Instrumental Mix] (3:39)
10. Downforce [Live Rehearsal] (4:54)

Total Time – 46:47

Alan Emslie – Drums & Percussion
John Irvine – Guitar
Greg Lawson – Electric Violin (tracks 2,4 & 7)
Jo Nicholson – Bass Clarinet (tracks 5 & 7)
Pat Jackson – Bass Trombone (track 2)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Scotland
Originally Releases: 2003
Date of Reissue: 13th April 2017

Alan Emslie – Dark Matter

Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to re-visit Alan Emslie’s earlier work and in a relatively short period of time. What is evident, in hindsight, is that with each new album, Alan has progressed his sound and each release has shown a marked level of maturity, even if not all has suited this reviewer – and that is just a matter of personal taste. With the final album in this retrospective it’s also evident that Alan’s musical pathway was heading towards a heavier destination. This he has undertaken, since 2010 onward, with his Plastic Noose project, a much darker affair, releasing three albums, described as “Misanthropic Industrial Metal”. Despite this troubling title, the second album, Fractured Despondency revealed a rather absorbing listen.

Returning to Dark Matter, the opening two tracks echo previous releases, certainly within the dynamics and precision of the drums, and of course the fine guitar work of the ever present John Irvine. What Dark Matter does mark is a continuing transition to a distinctly less studio-like recording and a more “live” and organic sound, something Alan will embrace wholeheartedly in his later releases. Alan also seems to have passed his “loo brush” vocal phase and adopted a punkish guttural approach to his vocalisation, which not only works in the heavier material but sits comfortably with the lighter tracks, epitomised during Dark Matter and Charon.

The title track, an instrumental, whilst retaining the more aggressive tone of the album, does tie in the previous releases nicely. With Alan’s fiery drumming, John’s great guitar work and sweeping synths, we have a track that might well have emerged from the Rush camp.

Similarly with the following track Charon, and as remarked in the review I undertook of Dark Matter back in 2005, there is a strong correlation across all four albums. “…Charon, at times it has the feel of a late ’80s synth pop song, but one that is continually interrupted and savaged by choppy driving metallic chords and a precise drum rhythm.” Topping it all off is a atmospheric guitar solo from John Irvine.

For those who enjoy their prog gritty, then Dark Matter is well worth investigating. The fact that Alan has a keen sense of melody, as we can hear clearly in All The Time, will also appease those who may struggle with the heavier end of the spectrum.

01. Misanthropic Myopic Man (5:47)
02. Incomplete (5:09)
03. Dark Matter (5:32)
04. Charon (6:36)
05. Living Monster (7:03)
06. All The Time (6:27)
07. On Your Knees (4:47)
08. Two Threads (3:10)

Total Time – 44:34

Alan Emslie – Drums, Percussion & Keyboards
John Irvine – Guitar

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Scotland
Originally Releases: 2005
Date of Reissue: 13th April 2017

And there we have it, Alan Emslie revisited in 2017. By way of a taster I’ve added a YouTube link to one track for each albums featured in this retrospective review – certainly well worth the few minutes of your time to check out some of the fine music available.

As mentioned above there will be a new Alan Emslie album release in late 2018, but prior to this the new Plastic Noose album Enmity will be released on 21st December 2017.

Alan Emslie – Website