A music blog from Ireland.
A major influence upon this blog, the Belfast band Tracer AMC have re-released two albums through Bandcamp almost five years after calling it a day. Now available to stream and purchase for as little as £5 (€6.31 to us down south), Flux and Form (2003) and Islands (2005) bear the hallmark of Belfast’s sterling rock scene as I’ve come to recognise, but there’s something about all post-rock that suggests it’s city music at odds with its environment. The Tracer name still crops up in discussions so I wouldn’t call the band a well-kept secret but they were underrated, formed in 1999 by guitarist Johnny Ashe and bassist Alex Donald, soon joined by Keith Winter on drums and the line-up was completed in 2001 with second guitarist Michael Kinloch.
There are a small number of bands who can play by ear what they find appealing, with the other ear listening to what the world likes, and not fall into any stylistic rut of imitation. As ‘serious’ music, post-rock is held to bland repute in many cases (let’s talk about that some other time!) but rightfully placed, Tracer AMC stand alongside 65 Days of Static, The Redneck Manifesto and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, bands I love because they excel at veering far off the mark. And if not for Tracer AMC, appreciation of the punkier refrains of We Are Knives and ASIWYFA may well have passed me by.
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Funny how things work, isn’t it? ASIWYFA went on to become the band I wrote about more extensively than any other on Harmless Noise but, late to the 2005 release when I first heard it in 2007, I never got the chance to cover Tracer’s Islands. Now the music’s easy to come buy, it’s a pleasure to take this opportunity to revisit one of my favourite albums.
Two large songs bracket Islands, the 11-minute Paper Machete at the start and You Follow The Snow And Are Wasted to finish the final 14 minutes, a pair of spoiler tags which inform the listener of what to expect while protecting the sensitive material within. Everything about this band can be taken from the exactitude of You Follow The Snow… which acts as a single measure of Tracer AMC style; rough builds, soft rushes of noise, sudden drops and high-end dins that frame the band’s love of poignant looping melodies. If that track leaves the listener cold, it’s safe to say the twists and thrills of In Rivers and Indiscopia will be lost.
Clear themes run through Islands and make it easy to hear the bright ideas that were explored by the band to mine an album’s worth of songs. Basslines of subtle questioning keep proceedings grounded with a pensive, ponderous air, the drumming seems light as a skiff and yet leads without the slightest trepidation, and the beauty of twin curling tendrils of the two guitars harmonising leaves a gulf when they then tear off on seperate trajectories. Their reprise is spread sparingly across the course of the album as Tracer turn heads in all other directions, so that key guitar movements in Concorde, In Rivers and Rainboat sound at times like seperate suites of some super-song.
The dual nature of post-rock allows musicians to experiment and flout conventional song structure so in response, Islands retain some use of riffs and hooks as a memory aid, allowing a song to roam far, or morph rapidly, and immediately spring back into shape. For this, In Rivers (also released as a 12″ EP with three other tracks) is an incredible example of the band’s ability to condense four immensely powerful instruments into streamlined order.
There are tender, formless saunters in Song For V, Willow Drive, Hoboken and Bird which hold up the instrumental agreement and contrast against the screens of white noise that are thrown up around them. Indiscopia is by far the most jaunty number, a yowling tom prowling for the pure purpose of climax amongst the fretful black doves that Islands holds and as a fast-paced ‘dancy’ post-rock number, we hear the best example of early interplay between Winters’ drumming and Kinloch’s guitar that would later be fully realised in the form of Not Squares.
Though the debut Flux and Form is of an equally high calibre, I covered Islands here because it’s the one I’ve listened to most consistently over the years, and if I go too long without playing it, feel the pull of those twin tendrils of guitars drawing me back. It’s sparse at times as the band allow pause for reflection but never drags, and considering its ten tracks span almost an hour, that time elapses all too soon. Definitely high up in my favourite Irish rock and the world’s best instrumental albums, every record collection will be greater for the addition of Tracer AMC and it’s wonderful to see this music back in circulation.