10 June 2013

Exclusive - Java Heat Soundtrack review

Black Submarine – Selections from the Java Heat Soundtrack (2013)
By J. Adams

Space rock devotees recognize Britain’s Nick McCabe, late of the Verve, as one of the finest and most distinctive talents of the shoegaze/dream pop genre. His unique liquid sound, perhaps best realized on Verve’s early singles and first LP, A Storm in Heaven, places him in the elite rank of legendary sonic architects like Kevin Shields and Sonic Boom. Yet, because the Verve achieved breakthrough success through the britpop stylings of frontman Richard Ashcroft instead of their signature sound, McCabe remains a mostly unsung hero, still awaiting rediscovery.

After the band broke up in 1999, but were still near the height of their prestige, McCabe and Verve bassist Simon Jones reportedly discussed collaborating on film scores. It seemed a natural fit, as the Verve had always been about providing mind-expanding moody grooves for Ashcroft’s epic tales of dissolute revelations, but nothing came of it. In years that followed, as Jonny Greenwood won plaudits for his work on Bodysong and even Trent Reznor won an Oscar, McCabe released a few minor mood tracks but film scores seemed one more promising idea that the reclusive genius had left behind.

After the Verve’s short lived 2007-08 reunion, culminating with the indifferently received album Forth, McCabe and Jones came together for a project eventually known as Black Submarine, with violinist/Verve collaborator Davide Rossi and drummer Mig Schillace. Perhaps as frustratingly for the band as for longtime fans, they have released material only fitfully, with a long-promised LP repeatedly delayed by health problems, studio perfectionism, and the challenges of monetizing content in the era of online distribution. The release has been promised by the end of the year but that’s been said before, and only time will tell if it will materialize.

A few covers, a teaser video, and the free Kurofune EP suggest the outlines of Black Submarine’s sound – heavy, stomping Zeppelinesque grooves and sweeping goth rock with more melodrama than the Verve. After months of near silence, in 2012 Nick McCabe announced a surprising side project – as rumored over a decade before, he would contribute soundtrack music to a film, with his new band.

The project was Java Heat, a low-budget Mickey Rourke action flick that by all accounts is a loving tribute to the stark brutality of 80’s shoot-em-ups. As can be heard on the Voyager 1 bootleg and seen in some of the Verve’s first music videos, the druggy countercultural aesthetic of exploitation cinema was an important early influence on McCabe and Jones. The notion of them tackling music for modern trash cinema is an intriguing one.

Expectations among fans were high, with a vocal contingent looking to Black Submarine to outclass Richard Ashcroft’s own modest foray into film music, “Future’s Bright” from The Adjustment Bureau. Due to the dearth of released material, some took to declaring the four tracks Black Submarine contributed to the film as a de facto EP. But to consider it as such misses the nature and purpose of film music.

Scores and soundtracks are sometimes called “incidental music” because they are meant to support and enhance a film’s visuals and dialogue, rather than necessarily stand on their own as a discrete work. The best film music contributes to mood, atmosphere, and sense of space, while deferring to the larger film’s narrative. Completist fans of McCabe and Jones will always be happy to add a few tracks to their collections, but it isn’t entirely fair to assess this music outside of its context. That being said, less exhaustive fans may wonder if it’s worth their while to download stray tracks, essentially b-sides, from a movie they probably won’t see.

Overall, it’s a mixed eighteen and a half minutes. The first three tracks – “See Through You,” “Give Us Back,” and “Living In This City” – are somewhat forgettable big rock grooves that come off like outtakes from The Stone Roses’ Second Coming or Simon Jones’ former project, The Shining. McCabe has some good ideas but is curiously muted, contributing some big riffs but not many of his distinctive soundscapes. The closest analogue in McCabe and Jones’ previous work is “Chic Dub,” not one of the more distinguished b-sides from the Forth sessions, and even that was more beguilingly atmospheric than these songs. Vocalist Amelia Tucker contributes a serviceable Robert Plant homage, appropriately for the tracks’ slightly generic middle ground between channeling Led Zeppelin and Funkadelic, but doesn’t ultimately help make them very interesting.

That being said, any of these three tracks would be perfect for backing slow motion shots of heavily armed outlaw badasses headed for battle, and Simon Jones in particular contributes some nice flourishes. It’s big, accessible, heavy background music for an action spectacle, and the music mostly succeeds at its unambitious aims.

The last song, “Sunset Red Light,” is much more rewarding and the one track that sounds like the completed work of a fully-fledged band. Beginning with an exotic, very cinematic violin solo thick with eastern intrigue, it builds gradually into an ominous, apocalyptic jam. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “Noise Epic” from Forth or “Northern Rock” from Kurofune, but with a more mystical twist. With Jones firing on all cylinders behind him, McCabe unleashes his trademark guitar atmospheres with impressive force.

The mystery of Black Submarine’s catalog thus far is that Nick McCabe has so often avoided the spotlight. The core of his best work is a shimmering liquid sound, equal parts Eddie Hazel and John Martyn, and fans have long blamed Richard Ashcroft for mixing McCabe’s guitars too low on the last few Verve records. The band’s reunion tour featured spacey McCabe solos in standout performances of “Space & Time” and “The Drugs Don’t Work,” so many fans expected Black Submarine to showcase that style in spectacular fashion. They mostly haven’t, and a surprising number of the band’s tracks that have surfaced so far could have been recorded by many other guitarists of lesser stature.

Black Submarine’s work on Java Heat is not especially memorable, but it’s an enjoyable minor pleasure for what it is. If most fans would still probably prefer the organic and oceanic atmospheres of vintage Verve like “She’s A Superstar” or “Stormy Clouds/Reprise,” the best of the new material succeeds on its own terms. There’s just enough promise for true believers to remain hopeful that the album, if it ever comes out, will at last fulfill the band’s potential, or at least resolve some unfinished business from the last Verve reunion.

Grade: B-

J. Adams is a New York-based writer and critic. His previous review 'A Critique of RPA & The United Nations of Sound' can be read here