Of the myriad of reasons why the North East’s music scene is so exciting, yet somehow vastly underrated these days, there are two in particular that stick out as reasons to pay attention.
The first is the region’s defiance against the norm. Perhaps it’s the isolation from the rest of the music industry - with Maximo Park’s Paul Smith saying as much in a talk during the recent 6 Music Festival - but there always seems to be an emphasis on trying new things among North East bands.
This spirit led to what many consider the birth of black metal by Newcastle-based Venom as well as Roxy Music’s experimental take on glam rock. Even their pop is a little off-kilter, with Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys and, more recently, Lulu James hailing from the region.
The second is the collaborative spirit that is ripe throughout the region. It’s one very much encapsulated by the creation of Sunderland record store Pop Recs Ltd, started by Frankie And The Heartstrings but with plenty of other North East bands pitching in. It’s a very supportive music scene; despite the variety of genres present, everyone’s willing to lend a hand.
Peter and David Brewis of Field Music are renowned for their combination of these traits, both together as part of Field Music and separately on their many other projects, creating excitingly different, often beautiful, pop music through odd time signatures and vocal harmonies. You can instantly tell a Brewis project from a mile away and SLUG, led by former Field Music bassist Ian Black, has their seal of approval stamped all over, though they are just here for support, allowing Black to take the spotlight.
Having said that, Black’s time in Field Music has clearly rubbed off on him; SLUG’s debut album, Ripe, is full of the same genre blending madness that made the likes of Field Music (Measure) so charming. Ripe is much less coherently pieced together than a Field Music record - as much as one can be, finding something special in the loose construction around a common idea – but therein lies the magic. It feels like a jumble sale filled with treasures; you’re not quite sure why any of these items are together but boy is there a lot of good stuff there.
Lead single “Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped In Plastic” is the perfect example of this charming madness. It’s a snappy little tune yet they’ve managed to throw in everything from a bassline that squelches like footsteps on a muddy trail to a prog rock guitar breakdown that would have David Gilmour grinning.
In fact, Ripe is packed full of great guitar solos; the brilliant “Greasy Mind”, which spends much of its time opting for a more percussion and synth led funk rhythm, suddenly lets the guitars out of the cage for a blistering, albeit too short, solo that brings to mind the crazy, fun art pop of St. Vincent or Prince.
“Weight of Violence” is a real highlight, taking a break from the absurd little pop tunes that surround it (“Running To Get Past Your Heart”, which follows, features a downright infectious bongo solo and plenty of kazoo action) by utilising steel drums and gently, airy synths to concoct the image of a picturesque, but almost lonely, tropical beach.
The influence of Field Music is also still ever present, particularly on “Peng Peng”, a piano ballad full of chilled-out ELO style slide guitars that, like “Weight of Violence” provides a beautiful escape from the madness for a few minutes.
A weird, almost Dadaist deconstruction of pop music, Ripe is an album packed with tunes that’ll most likely leave you baffled but, at the same time, unable to stop yourself from dancing. Lyrically, it all feels a bit Dr Seuss but, when everything else is so endlessly captivating, it's easy to overlook. It’s an album that manages to engage every part of your music-listening brain at once, wholly unafraid to try something different and to throw something new in your face.
It really is an odd beast; one that, in theory, really shouldn’t work but, thanks to the magic hands of Black and the Brewis brothers on production, somehow manages to slot together to create a beautifully surreal album full of wailing guitar solos next to bongos and squelchy basslines next to steel drums. Ripe, and SLUG as a whole, are proof that you need to keep your eyes and ears to the North East - there’s something magic in the musical waters there.