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Meanwhile Gardens Wyndham Wallace , October 19th, 2015 19:10

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It's 22 years since Levitation's frontman, Terry Bickers – who'd been removed from a House Of Love tour bus after setting light to bank notes in the midst of a nervous breakdown – evicted himself equally unceremoniously from his next band, towards the end of a London gig, with the words "We've completely lost it, haven't we?" They were just a short way off releasing their second album, and to those who loved the group - a tightly knit coterie rocket-fuelled by weed and psychedelics – the time it's taken to release Meanwhile Gardens has been interminable. Though their reach by 1993 was still limited, the band Bickers declared that night were "a lost cause" were always anything but. The album has subsequently earned mythical status amongst a small group of loyal admirers, less on the basis of the muddy bootlegs that have since done the rounds, but instead the sheer velocity with which they had been ascending.

It's hard not to approach the record's long overdue release – remastered from the original, unreleased tapes – with a sense of both over-eagerness and apprehension. Need For Not, which preceded their split by a year, was a fiery whorl of saucer-eyed psychedelic rock that sounded as though Bickers had formed Levitation with the express purpose of rebuilding 'Christine', the House Of Love's breakthrough third single, under the misapprehension that it was about Stephen King's possessed Plymouth Fury. Media stories that called Bickers 'bonkers', enhanced by rumours Meanwhile Gardens was a double album that eclipsed its forbearer, raised the stakes still further. But the wonderful thing is that, the way it begins – as though they've walked straight back into the studio and simply picked up their instruments to continue playing – is the way that it sounds throughout: like a band spinning out of control, but who hadn't, despite Bickers' protestations, lost it at all.

The one track that's been available all this time, 'Even When Your Eyes Are Open', is arguably the weakest here, an attempt to rein in their wilder tendencies to lure in the more cautious. Not that it disappoints: it's quietly radiant verses erupt into major key, crowd-pleasing choruses before a final, rousing refrain of the song's title crumbles beneath a wall of guitars and keyboards. Presumably, by the time their label needed that first single, they'd not finished 'Gardens Overflowing': it roars past in just three minutes, with its vocals blurred - not unlike Ride's on their earliest releases – and its dynamics fast and furious, a vital stab right into the heart of anyone who dared call them shoegazers. Similarly, 'King Of Mice' flexes its muscles right from the start, Dave Francolini's drums thundering beneath a darkly illuminated shimmer of guitars for a good two minutes before the song's tension is released, only for the pattern to repeat itself again until they unbuckle themselves once and for all.

In fact, Meanwhile Gardens is full of such moments, where twin guitar lines intertwine in unusual patterns, where songs fire off in unexpected directions, where they teeter on the brink of stoned self-indulgence and instead find a third way, unfamiliar, perilous, but spectacular. It's most evident on eight minute long 'I Believe', which begins with pastoral acoustic guitars and a folksy melody before slipping gently into the kind of realms that Radiohead relished on In Rainbows, and then, after a brief interlude of strings, shifting into an edgy, zoned out jam for which Richard Ashcroft would have sold his sandals. It's also there on 'Burrows', another lengthy track – one that in fact follows 'I Believe' towards the album's end – in which Bickers' vocals initially seem to be circling rather than following the rhythm, while Bic Hayes' picked guitar lines needle the mist around them. When Bickers lands, it's like he's cleared a space in the midst of an iridescent haze: he's the very the eye of the storm. If such descriptions sound a little overreaching, it's only because few can navigate these grandiose territories with the precision that Levitation managed.

Meanwhile Gardens isn't, however, a purely psychotropic experience. Its inherent 'togetherness' – the sense that these five musicians were utterly in tune with one another, able to anticipate their colleagues' every note – is beguiling, enabling the twists, turns and tangents that make the album so invigorating. 'Food For Powder' (a substitution that one suspects, had they made it, might have kept the band together) seems simultaneously sluggish and accelerated, its echoing vocal and churning guitars like Mogwai, or even a supremely confident Jane's Addiction, giving in to a Pink Floyd fetish. 'Magnifying Glass', meanwhile, expands their horizons – just as lyrics like "God told me to do it/Said music was fluid" do – with bursts of saxophone that dissolve into a coda of swirling guitars, the song's dynamics drastic, its structure complex but never meandering. 'Evergreen' then goes on to prove that music is indeed fluid, its segues from one theme into another effortless.

Meanwhile Gardens will, as the band always did, split the critics: not so long ago, one veteran journalist advised me they were "the worst band ever". But this less experienced writer begs to differ: Meanwhile Gardens is a sprawling mass of ambition, fury and beauty, and Levitation were better than most. It isn't perfect: no band that partied this hard, that battled rifts in the ranks as bad as theirs, and that was so determined to explore uncharted territory, could hope to convince those who prefer more earthy, earthly delights. But it serves as an opportunity to celebrate a band forgotten for so long that no one even acknowledges their legacy. Levitation never lost it. 22 years later, we can finally find that out for ourselves. Why, you'll wonder, did we have to wait so long?

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Charles Hodgson
Oct 20, 2015 5:12am

I saw them play Edinburgh just days before the split, and they had most definitely not "lost it". For a while back then they were one of the most incredible live spectacles you coulx hope to witness. Francolini's drumming in particular was stunning, but they were all firing on maximum power. The only thing better at the time was probably "Yerself Is Steam" > "Boces" era Mercury Rev. I loved the records too - "World Around" and "Smile" in particular spring to mind. I do winder if it may all sound to prog and grandiose for my tastes today. But maybe it's time to reopen that door and take another peak.
[BTW, I thought I read somewhere that some of Bickers contributions to MG had been removed following his departure. Can anyone confirm or deny? Also, any opinions on Bickers subsequent project Cradle. I mussed that one.].

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Princess Stomper
Oct 20, 2015 8:20am

The kind of beautiful, thoughtful and witty review that this masterpiece (and I don't use that word lightly) deserves.

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Mushroom madgik maker
Oct 20, 2015 9:52am

Managed to pick the first three 12 inch singles by the band in a 50p bargain box in Newcastle recently. Excellent band. Saw them support the Sugarcubes in brixton i think, way way back. This looks an essential purchase.

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Oct 20, 2015 6:09pm

In reply to Charles Hodgson:

There was an Australian only release of Meanwhile Gardens with another singer, who was perhaps too much of the time (early 90s). Still an amazing album in spite of the raspiness. Can't wait to hear the proper version. I have the Cradle album on LP. Listened once. Unmoved.

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Terry Bickers' Love Child
Oct 23, 2015 11:52am

In reply to Charles Hodgson:

Bickers' vocal contributions were removed prior to the original Australian release of 'Meanwhile Gardens' as the band had brought in Steve Ludwin to replace him. The original 1993 release of 'Meanwhile Gardens' was released only in Australia (but followed by a couple of singles - 'Chain By Day' in Australia and 'King Of Mice' in Germany). That line-up was short-lived.

Cradle released one album and one single. It was essentially a joint project shared with his then-girlfriend, Caroline Tree. Strangely enough, he was also involved in several other short-lived ventures around that same time - notably Monkey 7, who released just one 7" single, and Paradise Estate (formed less than a week after leaving Levitation).

Bickers is currently releasing music with Pete Fij (ex-Adorable) and also plays with a country & western band called Montana Rain.

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Oct 23, 2015 1:57pm

I always found it a bit strange that Bickers was always the media focus because of The House of Love when the overall sound was largely down to the other members. Listen to Bic Hayes, Dave Francollini and Lawrence O'keefe as Dark Star and Robert White with The Milk and Honey Band. In fact at times you wonder if had they continued without him, they could have moved away from the Indie element that Bickers brought to the party and be seen by now as a pretty impressive prog band. I never thought of them as indie but then the mainstream press like NME would always slate anything even remotely prog as it wasn't trendy, as they did with Cardiacs. Too much invention for their tiny brains to cope with. Ironically, now prog is now the alternative.

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Oct 24, 2015 3:16pm

In reply to Martin:

Totally loved Levitation, saw them on tour with the Cardiacs, amazing.
Please make time to give Cradle another listen or several, it rewards patience.

Having the bootleg version of Meanwhile Gardens for quite a while I'm really looking forward to hearing the finished article

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Dr Volume
Oct 27, 2015 8:03pm

Really like this, and highly recommend to Cardiacs fans (Bic being a sometime Cardiac of course) and the sleeve notes credit one Tim Smith on production duties...I presume it's *the* Tim Smith?

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Oct 30, 2015 10:47pm

I never saw the band live, living in Australia but picked up the Coterie and Need For Not CDs and loved them both. I have the Australian Meanwhile Gardens CD and at the time was so disappointed on first listen that I haven't listened since. Never got rid of it though and might try rehabilitation. It's clear that this version has Bickers' contributions restored and that alone piques my interest. I doubt that it will exceed NFN in my estimation but simultaneously hope it does.

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