hough the term “artist” is tossed around pretty freely when discussing bands of every range of aptitude, London’s mercurial Piano Magic earn that title more than most. An ever shifting cast centered around Glen Johnson, the band’s sonic alchemist and an exceptional lyricist to boot, Piano Magic flit between moody, haunted pop and deeply evocative soundscapes embracing electronica, post-punk, folk, soundtracks, and spoken word. Yet in nearly a decade of activity, they’ve managed to maintain the lowest of profiles, appearing rarely and usually only where they’re most wanted which often turns out to be in the surprisingly receptive and sunny climes of Spain. But judging from the musics’ seductive insularity, one gets the sense that Glen Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having said that, Disaffected may be the bands’ most commercial effort yet. Or maybe it’s just the most familiar. The stormy, minor-key drama of “You Can Hear the Room” and “Your Ghost” sound like territory already covered on 2000’s Artists’ Rifles, their career highpoint. For a band that prizes reinvention so much, that may be a red flag. Both tunes, however, are deliciously dark, simultaneously austere, and lush with the latter featuring a hypnotic and sultry guest vocal by the Czars’ John Grant. The most original offering is the title track, an especially sparkling tune where the electronic and baroque elements of Piano Magic’s sound come together with an immediacy that’s not always a priority of this collective. Here again, an inspired guest vocal, by chanteuse Angele David-Guillou, is a highlight.
Do yourself a favor, hit their website, and pour over some of Johnson’s ruminations; you’ll get the feeling a particularly saturnine ghost has just passed through you. In fact, the word “ghost” pops up regularly in the Piano Magic oeuvre, in two song titles here, back to the memorable Melody Maker review of their first single “Wrong French” which ended with two sentences: "Post rock. Ghost rock." At the time, Post Rock wasn't new. Neither was Ghost Rock. But Ghost Rock was a new genre name for pop music refined from The Durutti Column and Disco Inferno, both which Piano Magic unabashedly claim as influences. Since that 1996 review, Piano Magic have retained rights to the movement, producing songs that are often fundamentally electronic, but have been painstakingly programmed to sound organic and nostalgic as if played on a dusty, 19th-century toy piano.
The electronica is more pronounced in the track “Deleted Scenes” where the Eighties synths and Glen Johnson’s Bernard Sumner-clone voice can’t help but evoke vintage New Order. The Darla version of Disaffected features an extended mix of this tune as a bonus which is fine but I would’ve preferred to hear the European bonus track “Jackknifed.” It’s typical of Piano Magic to scatter their tracks, as they often release singles and EPs for various tiny labels making a thorough absorption of their catalogue daunting, not to mention pricey. But Disaffected gives the listener a taste of each facet of this beguiling band including the bittersweet folk of “I Must Leave London” and the propulsive “Night of the Hunter” which contains the sage advice “Matador, bear baiter / Butcher, hare courser / Value your life while you can”. Great lyrics everywhere.
Glen Johnson is an aesthete of a high order, restless and challenging, frustrating and rewarding. Not only as a musician and lyricist but also as a producer, and you would do well to don the headphones for this or any of Piano Magic’s numerous, generous releases. Disaffected may cause some grumbles amongst hardcore fans who might feel it isn’t enough of a step forward. It remains, however, a fantastic album and a great place to begin for any Piano Magic newcomers.
Reviewed by: Chuck Zak
Reviewed on: 2005-06-14