Tim Bowness / Peter Chilvers Modern Ruins track-by-track album review

5 04 2020

18 years after the duo’s debut California, Norfolk Tim Bowness (no-man) and Peter Chilvers (Brian Eno/Karl Hyde) return with their second studio album, Modern Ruins, mixed by Peter Hammill.

Opening with the direct and movingly simple Sleeping Face, the duo pick up from California, Norfolk before the album swerves off in a more electronic direction. Sleeping Face really “hits you like a fist”. One of the saddest songs in a huge canon of sad and moving Bowness songs.

The aching strings and plaintive piano, with hints of Americana, effective mood enhancing found sounds and a slight flavour of country music, means that the song sounds like a lost standard from the 1950’s.

Prepare to have something in your eye when experiencing Sleeping Face for the first time.

From this point onward, Modern Ruins deviates from its predecessor. The Boy From Yesterday is underpinned with bubbling and slowly decaying electronica. I love the way the arrangement builds, as Bjork-like pulses and colourful synth patterns scatter around Tim’s vocals.

You, making your move is a real surprise. Without giving too much away, think of the ending to the final Sopranos episode. How does this story end, did our protagonist walk away or did something more sinister occur?

The production on Modern Ruins is so strong throughout the album, and the audio treatment on tracks such as You, making your move are subtle but often sharply effective.

Blog Remember Me wins best song title of 2020 hands down for me, before the year is even done. Luckily, the song lives up to the great title. The album’s strongest ear-worm by far, it delivers an emotive study of how we communicate and hope to be remembered, ringing even more true with the added poignancy in our current climate of reliance on social distancing and digital communication to keep us as intertwined humans.

Blog Remember Me is remarkably uplifting and features a rare Bowness / Chilvers sing-along section at the end. I dare you to resist joining in.

“The things that seemed important, no longer seem important. 
The things that seemed important, no longer seen.”

Put simply, Blog Remember Me is one of my favourite Bowness / Chilvers songs.

The Love Is Always There reminds me a little of Among Angels by Kate Bush, and is one of the few tracks that could have been included on the duo’s debut release. A short and simple piece, it is well sequenced next to Cowboys In Leather, a song that would not sound out of place in a David Lynch film. A nice production touch is the rhythmic effect on the heavily processed backing vocals, making them work as an additional instrument in their own right.

Slow Life To Fade is my favourite piece on the album. I love the Arabic sounding distorted vocal phrases employed by Tim at key points in the song.

And when the electronics from Mr Chilvers really kick in, with hard sequenced synths battling against brutal, scary distorted horror-movie vocal effects, well I’m simply in musical heaven. And as Slow Life To Fade is the album’s longest track, I’m in a happy place for so much longer.

Modern Ruins ends with its second long piece, Ghost In The City. Another track that, production wise, reminds me a little of Kate Bush, particularly side 2 of Hounds of Love. The reverb hanging on for dear life to the coat-tails of Chilver’s piano notes is beautiful.

Ghost In The City is Bowness at his most lyrically bleak and raw. The strings and the deep piano lines give a feel of The Blue Nile at their most heart-wrenching, and like The Blue Nile, this song is a perfect soundtrack for late night headphone listening. More than anything, Ghost In The City evokes the calm beauty of a sleepy city at 4am, before the population springs back into action and pours out of their homes.

Modern Ruins is a step up from California, Norfolk. There was a feeling of a somewhat lo-fi, early 80s singer-songwriter release about the debut Bowness / Chilvers album. This new album feels more confident and assured, displaying more varied and expansive arrangements and an increased use of electronic textures.

Modern Ruins delivers a set of the duo’s strongest songs, with no weak points or overstayed welcomes. Every single note, vocal line and lyric, held together with all the ingenious production twists, make this one of my album’s of 2020.

Sleeping Face (4.08)
The Boy From Yesterday (6.23)
You, Making Your Move (1.58)
Blog Remember Me (5.40)
The Love Is Always There (3.38)
Cowboys In Leather (3.43)
Slow Life To Fade (7.32)
Ghost In The City (7.18)

Buy Modern Ruins from Burning Shed





Tim Bowness / Peter Chilvers – California, Norfolk

3 11 2013

california, norfolk was the debut album from Tim Bowness (no-man/Henry Fool) and Peter Chilvers (Brian Eno/Karl Hyde). Originally released online, with no promotion and in very limited quantities in 2002, california, norfolk has been given a well-deserved deluxe-edition treatment by the Burning Shed label in 2013, and will now hopefully reach a wider audience.

disc one

california, norfolk cover

Disc one contains the original album, which is improved by the sympathetic Michael Bearpark remaster. This is not a brickwall, pump-up-the-volume remaster, but one which breathes space and separation into the original recordings.

So the bass sounds fatter, the strings cut through the mix and you hear sounds that were somewhat hidden before (such as what sounds like a clock in album opener hostage).

If you haven’t heard california, norfolk before, it’s a perfect late-night album. Echoes of The Blue Nile’s debut album filter through on hostage.

“the girl you never forgot,
went underground, defences shot”

Lyrically, hostage can be filed under the same heading of unrequited as Everything But The Girl’s sublime Missing. Both touch on memories of people who have moved on, whereas in hostage, I get the impression that the subject did not find “some better place”.

The title track has a real feel of a decaying seaside town, and reflects on the characters who remain behind when the glamour has faded.

post-its is one of my favourite songs, period. The perfect torch-song.

It’s the track I’ve played most from this album, since it’s original release 11 long years ago.  A processed old drum machine, yearning strings, and slightly off-kilter guitar serve as a perfect backdrop to some of Bowness’s most direct and emotive lyrics.

“We spent a lifetime devising plans, to waste our lives.”

post-its is a song I never tire of hearing, and it’s wonderful to hear this song again with the added clarity of the remaster.

“In this town not meant for kissing, we sat and kissed”

also out of air wasn’t one of my favourites when the album first came out, but has grown on me over the years. Some lovely Frippesque guitar on this track.

days turn into years is the bleakest song on the album. Set against a backdrop of textured synths and relentless rain bouncing off rooftops, this tale of being trapped in a situation where little changes is not for the faint-hearted.

“Photos of cats, in northern landscapes
lie on the bed, all wet with tears.”

rocks on the green is the album’s proggiest moment, with marimba, bass and guitar slowly building in intensity throughout the song. Some lovely synth lines creep into the mix towards the end.

winter with you is a track that divided listeners when the album was originally released, mainly due to the footsteps in the snow effect that runs through three quarters of the track. Personally I think this effect adds to the mood of the song, and offers an alternative rhythm that makes more sense than taking the easy option of just dropping a drum loop into a song thats so obviously rooted in the winter months.

Maybe it’s my love of snow, but around November of every year winter with you appears on my playlists. I love the sound and feel of walking through deep, fresh snow and I love sad, melancholic songs, so that’s all the boxes ticked right there.

“It never felt the way you wanted, she never came the night you cried.”

Its the longest track on the album by far, but one of those rare album epics where it doesn’t seem to last that long. Marimbas make another appearance to usher in the second part of winter with you.

“Don’t want to be a part of this.”

This track is a great companion piece to the winter-themed Iceland by All About Eve and Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow from 2011.

dreamer’s song end the album, and lifts the mood, like the arrival of spring. Musically uplifting, a pastoral sounding piece originally written for Henry Fool, lyrically it’s as miserable as ever, thank goodness!

Picture copyright Carl Glover

disc two

The second disc of california, norfolk is made up of a remaster of the overstrand alternate / outtakes collection, with some previously unreleased studio cuts and live recordings.

winter with you (alternate) is a snow-free zone, with fender rhodes piano and a much more chaotic string arrangement.

post-it’s (alternate) has a wonderful piano line after the first chorus, and is a good alternative take on the song, but cannot surpass the original version.

One of the highlights of the second disc is the version of sorry looking soldier (alternate), a song from the long out-of-print World of Bright Futures album, and this is one of my favourite versions of the song.

The alternate version of rocks on the green has a Mike Oldfield feel to the arrangement. world of bright futures (alternate), is a wonderful wurlitzer-like version of the Samuel Smiles song, and another great version.

criminal caught in the crime is a track that was re-recorded for the Slow Electric album from 2011, and gives a hint of what the second Tim Bowness / Peter Chilvers album might have sounded like. It’s a much more electronic piece than anything on the main california, norfolk album, and has some lovely textures and organ sounds.

Four live songs bring the second disc to a close. Hearing the songs performed with just piano and voice in a live environment shows how they have evolved over the years, and the short version of post-its is my favourite of the four live songs.

Deluxe-edition packaging

The 2013 version of california, norfolk comes in a deluxe dvd-sized digi-book, which includes sleeve notes by Tim Bowness and Peter Chilvers, plus previously unseen artwork from Carl Glover.

Buy california, norfolk from Burning Shed

Visit the Tim Bowness website





no-man live at the Assembly, Leamington Spa

5 11 2011

no-man played live for the first time since 2008 as part of the online record label Burning Shed’s 10th anniversary event on 14th October 2011. This was the same line-up of musicians that the band used for the three European mixtaped shows, the only change was the use of acoustic, instead of electronic, drums.

Whilst the show was noticeably shorter than the Bush Hall show I attended in 2008 (the 2011 gig weighing in at around 45 minutes), it was a much more cohesive, powerful and assured performance.

no-man have been my favourite band since stumbling upon their Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession album in 1993 (not having heard a note of the band’s music but being hypnotised by the sleeve-notes and album art-work).  With each album, I’ve grown to love the band’s music more – which is unusual, as a lot of band’s peak with early releases and go downhill, desperately trying to recapture past glories. Not so for no-man, whose recordings have shifted away from it’s electronic roots and constantly evolved over the years, though the live appearances slowed to a trickle. Whilst I caught an early Porcupine Tree show (in a tiny local pub in Kent, with about 30 people in the audience), I did not get to see no-man live until Tim & Steven performed at another Burning Shed event, this time in Norwich in 2006, then finally seeing a full no-man show when the band performed at Bush Hall in 2008.

The 2008 Bush Hall show was certainly a memorable and emotional evening, captured perfectly by Richard Smith’s excellent mixtaped dvd.  But for me, the real no-man experience was this magical 45 minutes at Leamington Spa.  I’ve seen hundreds of different live shows across many genres, committing many individual live performances to memory, and of all these performances I have seen since my first live show back in 1979 (Thin Lizzy at Hammersmith Odeon, in case you are wondering),  I have compiled a list of  my favourite gigs (Thin Lizzy never made it into the top 10, though it was a great first gig). Vivid memories of performances by the likes of The Stranglers at The Rainbow, The Police at Lewisham Odeon, Kate Bush at the London Palladium, The Who at Wembley Stadium, Prince & the Revolution on the Parade tour, Nine Inch Nails a couple of years ago and more, have now been joined by this no-man show.

The performance was more confident than the last no-man gig, and was helped by the addition of acoustic drums, which gave the band so much more power and percussive depth. Opening with a track the band had not performed live before, the sweet pop of wild opera‘s my revenge on seattle, with it’s slow build-up, was a wise choice of opener. By the time the bass drum kicked in during the latter stages of the song, you could feel the excitement in the audience.

The bass heavy, lyrically disturbing time travel in texas ratcheted up the noise, and was a perfect example of where this line-up of no-man could go if transferred to a studio environment (which I hope happens one day).  The 2011 version was so much more powerful, and added a real sense of menace to the song.

all the blue changes was the personal highlight of the gig for me.  together we’re stranger is the album that took a long while to finally hit home, at one point it was my least favourite no-man release but it’s now one of my most cherished albums, what the hell do I know? This edgy live version displayed some wonderful interplay between the musicians and transported the band to a different level on the night. A real shiver down the spine moment.

pretty genius (the third wild opera song of the evening, and no-man’s least popular album according to Tim) felt more like the album version, mainly due to the more powerful drum sound, and then there was lighthouse. A key track on the returning jesus album (and the band’s most “progressive” song) lighthouse retains its power and beauty in a live format, and the instrumental coda after the organ break always sends me somewhere. If they had played just this one track, I would have still left the venue a happy and content man.

The surprise of the evening was the performance of beaten by love, an (unreleased by no-man) song from 1987.  A very dark song, that would not have sounded out-of-place on wild opera or a recent NiN album even, which sort of threw a curveball into the set. Though it went down well with the crowd, the inclusion of an unfamiliar song maybe interrupted the flow a little, but no-man like to challenge and stimulate their audience, so I’m not complaining.

wherever there is light received the warmest response of the evening, and was closer to the schoolyard ghosts studio version than the 2008 live incarnation.  Sad songs are definitely the most uplifting.

The set ended with another track from the last no-man album, the slow-burning mixtaped, a song so much more powerful live than in its recorded form.

The audience summoned the band back for an encore, flowermouth‘s things change, the perfect no-man show-stopper. Tim jumped down from the stage when his vocal duties were over, watching the end of the song, including the wonderful violin solo from Steve Bingham, with the rest of the audience.

And that was it. Hopefully it won’t take another three years to get no-man back together again, and when it does happen, it’s clear the current no-man live band deserves to remain unchanged, as this line-up has got a unique chemistry and a real empathy for the material.

“You’d kill for that feeling again…”

my revenge on seattle
time travel in texas
all the blue changes
pretty genius
lighthouse
beaten by love
wherever there is light
mixtaped
encore: things change

Somewhere in the Midlands, no-man happened to be: Tim Bowness (vocals), Steven Wilson (guitar), Michael Bearpark (guitar), Pete Morgan (bass), Andy Booker (drums), Stephen Bennett (keyboards) &  Steve Bingham (violin).

***Update December 20th 2011: the concert is being released on CD as Love and Endings by Burning Shed in February 2012 – listen to lighthouse (live) from Love and Endings below***

Listen to lighthouse (live) on iPhone or iPad

no-man store on the Burning Shed
mixtaped / returning DVD at the Burning Shed

no-man website

no-man Twitter

no-man on Facebook

listen to no-man on Soundcloud

all photos on this page by Charlotte Kinson

Blog post from no-man live band member Steve Bingham








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