Thursday 12 August 2021

The Discovery of Comet Nerdlinger

Twenty years ago, during the last days of spring in 2001, Dayglo Fishermen released 'Comet Nerdlinger', the final album in what is sometimes referred to as the band's science fiction trilogy.

Comet Nerdlinger - CD cover: front - design and artwork by David Fothergill

The first two albums in the trilogy, 'Space Dog' and 'Painting Aliens', are hard acts to follow. 'Space Dog' defined a new era for the band with its depth and polished orchestration, and 'Painting Aliens' showcased the band's commercial talent with a flawless collection of what have become classic pop tracks.

How does 'Comet Nerdlinger' compare?

Production of the album started in early 1999, just a few months after the release of 'Painting Aliens'. Envigorated by the response to that album, and even though they were still in the middle of the 'Painting Aliens' promotional tour, the band started writing and recording.

In contrast to the rapid production of the previous album, which was recorded and released in less than a year, this time the band wanted to take their time. Over the next two and a half years, a rather eclectic set of tracks was recorded, initially at the band's Aqua-Lisa studio, and then later, following a couple of months of construction disruption, at a brand new custom-build facility, Cozmic Studios.

The official band photo for the Comet Nerdlinger album

The album kicks off with 'Penthouse Perfection', a fast, relentless song, simple in arrangement and instrumentation. The drum track, consisting of bass drum and snare and nothing else, is ever-present from the start as a distorted guitar and keyboard bassline accompany the almost detached tone of Ginny's vocal. There's heavy use of reverb on the sustained synth that fills out the choruses, and also on the synth that pops up to provide much of the melody in the second verse. The guitar mellows in the short midsection, losing the distortion to provide a momentary interlude before the final chorus erupts. It's a fun, but quite ordinary start to the album.

The next track, 'Smokey Joe's', was one of the first written for the album, which is probably why it could sit just as easily amongst the tracks of the previous album. This up-tempo song has a strong narrative, telling the story of a wealthy man lead astray by a woman he meets at Smokey Joe's bar. Over the course of the night, he's unwittingly involved in a drunken robbery, trashes a sports car, and engages in drug-enhanced salsa dancing. They end up fleeing the city by getting the subway out to where it snows.

Right at the start, as the music builds, a brief radio sample gives us a clue as to the city where the debauchery takes place. From then on a catchy bassline drives the song along, accompanied by electronic drums and staccato distorted guitar that injects some essential menace. Richard's vocal tells the story in the verses, with Ginny taking over in the choruses. All the while, soft and often dreamy keyboard sounds, especially in the improvised midsection, accentuate the almost disembodied experience of the intoxicated pair. It's a solid and enjoyable toe-tapping track.

'Paint Me Blue' calms things down, and shows us the album's gentle side for the first time. Mellow piano and guitar chords introduce the song, along with soft acoustic-sounding drums bathed in a very subtle gated reverb. Ginny is given plenty of space for her vocals, which she uses well, deepening her voice on the verses and jumping an octave or more on the choruses. For the most part, the guitars and synths stay in the background, adding atmosphere and depth, and following the vocal melody on the choruses. 

Like 'Smokey Joe's', 'Paint Me Blue' would have been at home on 'Painting Aliens', settling right in with the lighter pop elements of that album. It's a thoroughly pleasant track, providing a relaxing breathing space for what comes next.

The only known photos of the band working in Cozmic Studios during the production of Comet Nerdlinger. The photos were taken in October 2000 while recording the song 'Hang the DJ'. Seen in the top photo (from the left) are Sean Wills, Peter Fothergill and Richard Burton.

The next track is often considered to be the album's true beginning, where new sounds and more unusual arrangements finally emerge. 'Hang the DJ' starts with a sense of dread, as a brooding synth and the distant wail of a guitar are joined by a rough pulsing bass and drumline, and then the feared Jamaican voodoo posse, first featured in 1993 on the song 'Voodoo', make themselves heard in a bone-chilling manner. Things progress hypnotically and ceaselessly, and soon we hear the very rare and deep vocal of former band member Sean Wills - the first time he'd recorded with the band since leaving in 1992. Ginny takes over the vocals for the next sections, with a break in between for something a little unexpected. And as if that wasn't enough, the classic Dayglo Fishermen trumpet sample is heard regularly, appearing behind and around the vocals.

This is essentially a dance track, an almost macabre one, well-suited to some of the darker nightclubs in the undesirable parts of town. It's one of the highlights of the album.

'Touching the Untouchable' eases into existence with what sounds like a giant ship edging into port. Two mournful cellos play, and then a slow but powerful drum rhythm kicks in, followed by unusual and threatening synth sounds that lead into a sparse verse. Peter's excellent choice of sounds creates an effective cold-war ambience, especially with the metallic machine-like background pulse that tries to enslave us. It succeeds. There is no escape.

What stands out the most on this mesmeric track is Richard's vocal, which is arguably one of his finest, drawing us in with an emotional performance that oozes melancholy and pain, and that sits perfectly with the backing music. This is Dayglo Fishermen doing what they do best.

The mood is lightened considerably with the next song, 'Soncabaret'. A jaunty bassline introduces us to this high-tempo and highly melodic song. Simple drums and soft and delicate keyboards soon join the mix, and then the verse begins. Ginny's light and airy vocal speeds the song along, floating through the choruses as the guitar harmonises behind. The mood shifts slightly in the midsection, with additional drums and distorted guitar seeing us all the way to the final chorus and the long and indulgent half-tempo outro.

'Soncabaret' is probably the most popular song on the album, but despite that, it's only been performed live on two occasions; it was previewed to a very select audience during The Garage gig in 1999, and nine years later at the Limelight Theatre, Aylesbury in 2008. It deserves more, much more. Let's hope it's back on the setlist soon.

A rare photo of the exclusive gig at The Garage, Buckinghamshire, in October 1999. It was a phenomenal treat for the select few invited, who got to hear 'Soncabaret' and 'Your Favourite Love' more than 18 months before their official release. Seen above (from the left) are Richard Burton, Peter Fothergill and Ginny Owens.

Next comes 'Junk Culture', a trio of linked tracks that together total well over twelve minutes of music. 

Junk Culture part one is called 'Coffee Table Ice Cream' and begins with the eerie backward sound of children's toys. Drums and bass appear, followed by a short guitar line played in reverse, which sets up the atmosphere perfectly for what is a song largely about disappointment. A more hopeful high piano melody appears later in the verses, contrasting nicely with the rest of the music that for the most part lingers in the lower registers. That lingering is especially evident during the expansive midsection that showcases the band's expertise at building tension and foreboding using only the very subtlest changes in tone and instrumentation.

As the final chorus ends, and the closing jangle of sound fades, we realise just how embedded 'Coffee Table Ice Cream' has become within our minds, creating an almost irresistible urge to play it again. A standout track.

Junk Culture part two, titled 'Your Favourite Slave', boosts the energy levels immediately with harsh, heavy drums from start to finish. Strong guitar riffs dominate this track, filling out the background as the vocals evoke feelings of danger and submission. Ginny handles the main vocal, but Richard is heard in short electrifying sections that help lift the song out of the ordinary. It's an intense experience.

The final part, 'Your Favourite Love', is quite the opposite of its predecessor. The gentle and heavily delayed guitar and heavenly canvas of keyboards give Ginny the perfect backdrop for what is a beautifully restrained vocal performance. At the halfway point a slow pulsing synth joins the mix, eventually becoming the only sound as the song reaches its poignant conclusion.

'Your Favourite Love' became an unexpected hit at the band's concerts. It was first performed at The Garage in 1999 as part of an exclusive preview of two of the album's early songs. Later, in 2008, 2011 and 2016, it was performed at the Limelight Theatre. Ginny's remarkably emotional and often fragile performance of the song on those occasions far exceeded what she achieved in the studio. 

Comet Nerdlinger - CD cover: inside

The song 'Drink Dance Kiss' is up next. It starts lazily, gradually building keyboards over a simple percussive sound. We hear the crowd of a lively bar, and then the drums and bass guitar finally lock the foundations of the music in place. Following an unusual three-bar loop, the verses tell us about the comings and goings of those in the bar.  The midsection, with its baleful guitar and almost spooky synths, works well, bringing us down a little, reminding us that the worries of the world are still there, despite the dulling effects of a few drinks. Tomorrow will come.

The loose feel of the bass guitar lifts this track beyond the ordinary, giving the impression of a generally relaxed evening.

Despite the album being described as having a science fiction theme, 'Nerdlinger One' is the only track that fits that description. It's a pulsing, hypnotic track that begins with the voice of a boy offering sweets to a sinister-sounding creature. As that scene plays out, a fast heartbeat-like drum track builds, which is then joined by a deep bass synth that blends seamlessly with the rich pad sound playing minor seventh chords in the background. Guitars join in and the heart-beat drums intensify as Ginny's breathy repeating vocal lifts the first third of the track. The middle third is filled with guitar, heightening the drama with a long layered solo, before dropping back to a simplified heartbeat drumline.

It's at this point that the story of Comet Nerdlinger One is finally told. In a very rare vocal performance, Peter tells us about a mysterious dark comet that's approaching from deep space. As its dusty tail sweeps like a veil across Earth, the microscopic lifeforms within it descend and infect everyone on the planet.  Humanity is dissolved and rises out of the atmosphere to merge with the comet, becoming part of the infection that will one day dissolve the beings of another world. It's an unusual and captivating piece, one that at the very least inspired the amazing album cover artwork.

A slow jazz drum pattern draws us into 'Constant Running', captivating us from the very start. The drums are brushed, not hit, and that, along with the mellow bass and gentle, other-worldly arpeggiated synths, creates a softness of feeling that has rarely been achieved.

Despite having what is probably the lowest tempo of any Dayglo Fishermen track, we remain spellbound as we are guided to the song's peaceful conclusion, enlivened right before the end by the unexpected piano chords. It all feels effortless, which is its greatest accomplishment of all.

Comet Nerdlinger - CD cover: back

'Down Down Down' is a rock song, plain and simple. It wastes no time in getting up to speed as the guitars power us through the verses and choruses with accomplished ease. Keyboards add to the background ambience, coming to the fore only in the choruses to enhance the vocal line. An expected but expertly-played guitar solo dominates the midsection, building as it progresses, thrusting us into the song's final short verse and chorus.

The penultimate track, 'The Valley', slows things right down again. Filled with dreamy and magical synth sounds, melodies and amiable guitars, the song treads easily on its path, like a journey through the pleasant parts of Middle-earth. Ginny's vocal is given plenty of room to shine and she makes the most of it, her tone and emotion perfectly pitched and full of hope and promise. This song could easily take you away if you let it.

The album's finale is an instrumental piece named 'Picasso in Bed'. It begins with an almost proto-human chant. As swelling strings fade in and the chanting ceases, birdsong materialises, and a guitar starts to pick its way into the mix. Soon new synth sounds wax and wane, along with an ever-changing guitar, and then a high piano melody plays lazily while alien clicks clatter at the very limits of perception. A repeating keyboard melody plays for the final minute, and the guitar chugs gently along with it until everything else fades and we are left with nothing but the whispering remains of reverberation. Masterful.

Dayglo Fishermen have composed many instrumental tracks, but with 'Picasso in Bed' the band has created one of the very best. The structure and layers of the piece are beautifully put together, with each sound perfectly placed, and nothing overdone. It's a truly sublime way to bring the album to a close.

Comet Nerdlinger - cassette inlay

'Comet Nerdlinger' is a transitionary album, with some songs that would be more at home on the previous album, and others that could well have been held back for the following one. But it also has many tracks, such as 'Touching the Untouchable', 'Coffee Table Ice Cream' and 'Constant Running', that carve their own unique path and belong firmly on this album and no other.

Fortunately, the occasional feeling that a song does not quite fit in here does not detract from our enjoyment. The album is a complex and entertaining collection of music, demanding at times, but littered with delightful surprises. It's a worthy addition to Dayglo Fishermen's vast back catalogue.

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