Baltic Fleet ‘Towers’ – album review – Album of the week
Baltic Fleet ‘Towers’ (Blow Up Records)
Released 2nd July 2012
Second album from Baltic Fleet aka Warrington based Paul Fleming; Fleming is perhaps best known as the onetime keyboard player for Echo & The Bunnymen. It was during a Bunnymen World tour and the associated interminable travel that Fleming wrote the first Baltic Fleet release, the universally acclaimed eponymous album utilising the Bunnymen’s equipment.
‘Towers’ signifies a departure from this environment; Fleming recorded the entire piece in his Widnes based home studio overlooking both Spike Island, and the enormous Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.
I have been living with this album for the last couple of weeks, it has accompanied my work, and my travelling; so compelling are the rhythms that you just keep returning to it again and again. I took the time to speak to Fleming about his own musical influences, the recording process and the themes he deals with during the album.
‘Towers’ is a wonderfully well rounded and complete album, entirely instrumental in its composition that on first play saw myself drawing references with Neu and Kraftwerk, and whilst these artists are clearly an influence Baltic Fleet has taken the motorik beat and progressed it, has moulded it in to something so much more engaging and something much bigger, the album has a cinematic feel about it; as Fleming states “I make instrumental music using analogue synths and guitars influenced by the likes of Bowie, DJ Shadow, Eno, Neu, Daft Punk and Joy Division”Â before continuing “I started most songs on the piano and I think there’s a stronger emphasis on melody and arrangement as a result”Â
The title track opens the album and the importance of melody is immediately apparent, layers of subtle keys build before a solid machine beat kicks in as the track progresses, pulsing chords racing towards a euphoric peak, from there the motorik rhythms take you on a journey of altering tempo, that lifts and soars over the landscapes you imagine as the album progresses. ‘Towers’ would effortlessly augment a train journey, yet this is so much more than mere accompaniment, the lead single ‘Engage’ is built around warm analogue Teutonic sounds that reference Flemings’ musical education and at the same time are instantly current. ‘The Wilds’ harks back to early Fad Gadget, a robotic body popping beat, deep rumbling bass – The entire album ebbs and flows effortlessly; upbeat drum patterns overlaid with strident keyboard, but occasionally subtle piano, there’s all manner of sweeping layered effects all of which add up to a perfectly positioned collection, a soundtrack to a film yet to be pieced together.
Fleming has been greatly influenced by the backdrop of his surroundings, and has perhaps crafted a distinctly ‘northern’ record, as he explains “It was Fiddlers Ferry Power station that I could see from my back bedroom window, where I was recording. It’s always been there growing up, that sort of industrial landscape is part of life where I come from. We used to pass ICI Rock Savage when we came back from holidays in Wales as kids. It was a stark reminder you were home and the hols were over when you passed this huge factory, it looked like an alien space station, especially at night. It’s an evocative sight though, stunning and depressing in equal measure. Just coming from the area influences the sound of this album, you can’t escape it around here and you have to embrace it”
‘Towers’ is the story of life between two cities; Liverpool and Manchester, as Flemming states “The weird thing coming from Widnes – there was no scene, so I was a bit of a loner and a drifter culturally and I probably picked up elements from both cities in my musical makeup”
We asked Fleming to tell us about the album and the inspiration behind the material.
Firstly for those unaware of you, introduce yourself , most people will be aware of you from the Bunnymen – Is that still continuing?
I’m a musician and DIY producer from the North West, originally from Widnes. I make instrumental music using analogue synths and guitars influenced by the likes of Bowie, DJ Shadow, Eno, Neu, Daft Punk and Joy Division. I still do some stuff with the singer, Ian McCulloch, playing live keyboards and a bit of writing but I left Echo & The Bunnymen to put my time into my own music around 2010, I’d been with them since 2003.
The first album was written and recorded whilst on tour with the Bunnymen; this one was all done at home which apparently looks out on Spike Island. Did the fixed location, the more comfortable surroundings alter your approach to the album?
Yes, the approach on the road was really about getting an idea recorded quickly and then producing and manipulating it on the long journeys, this time around I’ve spent a lot more time working on parts and sounds, before laying them down. I started most songs on the piano and I think there’s a stronger emphasis on melody and arrangement as a result. I also had the time to experiment more, so I’d feed drum machines and synths into each other to come up with more interesting sounds. Its how I’ve been working since I was a teenager, with keyboards, drum machines and sequencers, so I was definitely more comfortable in my own surroundings.
Some interesting song titles ‘March Of The Saxons’ Headless Heroes’ etc; the sort of titles often linked to film scores; the album does have a cinematic feel to it, the sounds and textures created evoke images of open expanse – what sort of themes if any have you been responding to.
It was more about what I was feeling rather than conceiving themes before writing. ‘Winds Of The 84 Winter’ is about bereavement; it was my way of grieving a loss and coming out the other end. I linked that to one of the Towers coming down in 1984. But yeah, I just let the sounds come out really, the surroundings and life was the theme because it was all around me. ‘Headless Heroes’ is a spin on a Black Power protest LP I have from the 70’s called Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and I turned it onto the Greek/Euro issue because I was seeing the news with all of these ordinary people fighting for their livelihoods and families.
I can see tracks, or certainly snippets easily fitting into any number of TV programs – Top Gear, nature shows; the progressive machine beats and the soaring melodies would easily compliment – is that something you consider when writing and recording the tracks?
No, not at that stage, when they’re finished and I play them to my friends they do say it would work in films. I think instrumental music lends itself to images and film easily though. When I’m writing and recording I just go into another place, pretty introspective so I couldn’t consider if it will end up on TV or film. It’s my escape; it’s never that logical or planned. I have to say though that when I was recording ”ËEngage’ I originally called it Francois (after Truffaut). I’d studied him in college and was thinking of ‘the man who loved women’, but to be honest it was just being introspective looking back at my college days and the song just took on a life of its own anyway.
The lack of vocals whilst not in any way detracting from the album – do you find that more rewarding or frustrating; I guess you have to work harder, to craft melodies to act as alternatives to vocals…
As a musician/producer yes I definitely have to work harder without a vocal, making the sounds and the parts interesting. I thought about vocals this time and had some lyrics, but it didn’t feel right when I tried it with other singers. I can definitely see me having some vocals on the next record but Baltic Fleet is always going to be driven primarily by sounds and instruments. I’ve found this record quite liberating because there’s not a word on it, not even vocoded or lo fi words like the first record, so yeah that’s rewarding because there’s no compromise at all.
There are obvious reference points, Neu, Kraftwerk; that said I think the album has a much more rounded feel it engages with its audience as opposed to being challenging. Who do see as your audience – where do they come from, whose T-shirts do they wear?
From what I can tell it seems to be a mix of kids discovering new music on blog sites and sort of under the radar mags and also people who like more established acts like Joy Division, post punk bands and some of the other influences. One of the nice things to see is that its’ international, the first record was selling in the States, Australia, Japan. What sort of T shirts they’d wear, I’d like to think they had a diverse mix in their wardrobes like mine when I was a kid, because my records I think are fairly eclectic. When I was a kid I’d go and watch a dance band one week, then metal the next then say Paul McCartney (we’re distant relatives too, my uncles cousin)
Are there any plans for live dates, if so what’s the set up? You hunkered down behind a bank of keyboards and the obligatory Apple Mac or would you indulge in a live drummer?
Yes, all of the above. I’ve got some dates planned for August and September. There’ll be a rack of synths and some other electronics, but there’s also a drummer and a live guitarist/bass player. We’re in rehearsals now as a 4 piece and we’re just finalising how it will all piece together. We warmed up with a couple of festival dates last year in that format and we’re building on that, now that the record is finally here. We rehearse in an old lighting factory in Manchester.
I can envisage there being ‘dance’ mixes of say ‘The Wilds’ ”â a real brooding number, would fit well into a festival dance tent, huge beats, swirling lasers – or are you restricting yourself to amore rock audience?
I’d love to play these songs to different audiences, when I’ve been to festivals I always divide my time between the different tents and I’d like to think my stuff is quite wide ranging like that.