Piano Magic came together in 1996, although they seem to have been around a lot longer. There have been countless shifts in personnel over the years, with guitarist, singer and songwriter Glen Johnson the only constant. In the UK they have remained a cult concern. The nearest they came to the ‘big time’ was during 2001/2 when they were briefly signed with 4AD. Since This Mortal Coil had been a major inspiration, it ought to have been a union of like minds. Instead, the excellent instrumental soundtrack to the film Son De Mar was followed by Writers Without Homes, by far the weakest record in the group’s canon, and a parting of ways.
In the last five years, the band has been with the Spanish label Green UFOs, and has kept a low profile in Britain whilst cultivating a healthy fanbase across much of the rest of Europe. Piano Magic’s ninth album Part Monster sneaked out with little fanfare this month. But for those of us in on the secret of this remarkable group, there was a fair degree of excitement.
Piano Magic have never been afraid to explore new avenues, and their back catalogue is eclectic. They fuse guitar based rock with electronic elements. They are often wistful and downbeat, but can soar when the mood takes them. Glen Johnson’s lyrical concerns have always had a vein of nostalgia running through them. But not in a jolly “cor, them were the days” sense. These are lamentations for lost hopes, lost values and lost innocence. But this is no simple yearning for a mythical golden age – anger at the monstrous ways that this country has dealt with its people in the past is never far from the surface. In a sense, like British Sea Power, Piano Magic could only be an English group. Which is ironic considering that three fifths of the current line-up are French.
Part Monster sees Piano Magic dipping into that well of anger. Fittingly, it is probably their loudest and most ‘rock’ album yet. Opener “The Last Engineer” sets the tone. It is as raw as an open wound, reflecting on the way modern life has cast people adrift, destroying the old certainties, and leaving them lost and alone. The brooding epic that follows is one of the greatest songs the band has ever written. It’s a slow lament called “England’s Always Better (As You’re Pulling Away)”, and features a guest vocal by Simon Rivers who also wrote the cynical, disgusted tract on middle England, “all apologies and queues and bright red people with ludicrous views“. “Incurable” is epic pop, redolent of the lamented Kitchens Of Distinction, with chiming guitars and a sunny, catchy vocal by Angèle David-Guillou.
“Soldier Song” could be about Iraq, but it could equally be applied to many ill-conceived military adventures down the years. “You fought for your country, you fought for your Queen / Now everyone’s happy, now everyone’s free/ And God help the bastard who says it’s not so / And God help the bastard, for what does he know?“. It’s as understated as a lullaby, but seethes underneath. The spirit of Brotherhood-era New Order is evoked by “The King Cannot Be Found”, a song that pounds along darkly and leads into the instrumental “Great Escapes”, a tune that brings to mind early eighties 4AD band Dif Juz.
The ballad “Cities and Factories” is fairly typical Piano Magic fare, enlivened by a beautful guitar coda. The album’s only misfire is “Halfway Through”, which seems like a Smiths parody. Johnson even adopts some Morrissey-isms in his vocal, and the lyrics are just as self-involved. A fantastic trumpet solo (couldn’t imagine Mozzer having one of those) just about rescues the track. The record comes to a glorious climax with “Saints Preserve Us”, a genuinely exciting, soaring, epic monster of a track, drenched in feedback, foreboding and dripping disgust. Something to blow the roof off with when they play it live. The album’s title track is a quiet acoustic vignette that brings proceedings to a close in a more than satisfying manner. Apart from a wee wobble in the middle, Part Monster is almost flawless. It may be the group’s least experimental album to date, but it is extremely strong in composition and arrangement. I would claim that it could be the album to open up a whole new audience for Piano Magic, but they’ve been around the block a few times and aren’t a shiny new thing, and so won’t even get considered for airplay or press coverage. It’s a shame, but this is a fickle nation. It’s one that needs groups like this to prick its bloated conceits, though.