FOR MY money, Edinburgh is the most beautiful first-division city in these isles. Its architecture, its hills, its views north and east over silvered cold seas. And, god, the culture.
But it’s also the city of Ian Rankin’s crime noir; of the graffitoed walls and burnt-out cars of Royal Academician Jock McFadyen; of some Irvine fella, wrote a novel once. Trains or the like.
It’s both these Edinburghs that have given birth to the Check Masses project, a collective comprising singer ‘Philly’ Angelo Collins, multi-instrumentalist Vic Galloway and producer Saleem Andrew McGroarty. The three met and bonded as teenagers, united on the sidelines in absolute rejection of what they call the “crassness of the mainstream disco pop culture”.
Take in the cover art, with its cheeky, knowing nod to Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um in the typography; and the surrealist cover image, part Edward Burra, part Francis Bacon.
Before they met, instrumental polymath Vic served time in garage-punk bands and nurtured interests in rock’n’roll, soul, ska and reggae; while elsewhere in the city old pals Philly and Andy moved in a “more cultivated music scene that revolved around black music”. Philly remembers that they were “the freaks … and them in their Burton suits and stilettos, dancing round handbags.”
You can hear of all of this: the culture, the outsiderdom, the various musics, in their debut set. On the opener, “DRIPN ANGEL”, Philly catches his dripping angel by the wings: a high-maintenance lover, like the femme fatale of The Auteurs’ “Show Girl”. His lived-in throatiness is lurched forward on a cinematic hop-hop break, as slide guitars yaw. It’s the kind of song you’d walk down the catwalk to on a sinking liner; or that soundtracks the nightclub scene in a David Lynch production.
On “Moroccan Skies”, our narrator wakes up … “It was long overdue / Got my window with a view …”. But you can feel the ennui, the disenchantment. Philly recounts that it was inspired by his experience of the Gnawa festival there, “ … when everybody started to go home, the dogs started to come out and the grittiness of the streets and the darkness of the night came down”. Unadorned guitars fall like drapes over a sparse hiphop break and sequencer chatter. It’s Camus territory.
Producer and Edinburgensian hiphop scene veteran Andy recalls: “‘Moroccan Skies’ was an instrumental that had been sitting around for years. I had given it to a few rappers but none of them ever came back to me… it was one of the tunes we were really stoked with straight away”.
“Lost in the City” has an addled European hot jazz feel, dubby sirens; there’s a little of Matt Johnson in the contained resentment. There’s a David Axelrod sample deep in the weave. Title track “Nightlife” swaggers into your lounge, hoovering up the attention. It breaks in on a root, fifth and octave funk bass and cool, cool electric piano, and gets up in your grille with the arrogance of the Thin White Duke.
“Lonesome Paradise” masquerades as some deep Caribbean calypso cut, dug out of a West London crate on an almost unplayable 45, before it pulls just a little bit towards a very Hibernian soulful indie.
Nightlife is a music that comes to you as wake. It’s not out there partying hard; it’s thinking hard, feeling hard.
There’s an awful lot here, so many marled threads in this strand. I think I might have a complete different experience of this album three months down the line. It’s one of those you really need to get your teeth and soul into, to spend time among.
I’m sure Check Masses wouldn’t want it any other way. They’re not looking for you to plonk your clutch down to make shapes around.
Check Masses’ Nightlife is out today, July 1st, on Triassic Tusk Records. Stream and buy it at https://checkmasses.bandcamp.com/album/night-life