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Pop, Disco, Krautrock And The Doom: ILL's Alternative Guide To Manchester Music
Patrick Clarke , March 6th, 2019 10:11

With an unmissable show at The Royal Albert Hall later this month, Manchester's finest ILL give us an essential guide to the best of the city's network of astounding underground musicians

Photo by Mirko Lazzarin

Musicians in Manchester must operate in a city saddled by musical heritage, by tourists flocking to The Salford Lads Club or the block of flats where The Hacienda once stood. Mention Manchester music to almost anyone and their first thought will almost certainly be Factory Records, Oasis at Maine Road, Madchester or Morrissey. This is not without reason, of course, but it belies the fact that the city today is home to a glorious new racket that is every ounce the equal of their predecessors.

Take ILL, for example, whose tremendous blend of feminist punk, cosmic cabaret, darkly surrealist flights of fancy and frantic improvisations will be performed live at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 17 March (more on that later). It’s not like they’re unaware of the region’s heritage – it’s one of the things that drew some of its members to the city from their respective homes of Latvia, Huddersfield and Cardiff. “However,” points out the bands Harri Shanahan, “when you’ve got the actual Mayor of Manchester saying ‘we’ve got to restore Manchester’s music scene because it’s no good any more’, then you look at the amazing scene we have in Manchester, the sense of community and the amount of great bands around. It was great in the past, but it can be great now as well!”

To rectify the situation, tQ asked the band, currently made up of Shanahan, Fiona Ledgard, Whitney Bluzma and new addition Ben Nield, to curate a playlist of their 20 favourite tracks from their hometown. You’ll find Joy Division and The Fall, but that’s about it for the ‘legacy’ acts; the rest is made up entirely of the underground. “I suppose the immediate reaction was ‘Oh no, not again do we have to go over Factory Records and The Hacienda!’,” says Bluzma, “but then we thought ‘fuck this, we could present a more interesting list, a much better representation of Manchester right now’. There’s probably more greats from Manchester than any other city in the UK, but so much of the music scene now is underground, and there’s so many bands that aren’t recognised on a national level. We thought we should fly the flag!”

Though only Nield, their Macclesfield-born guitarist has family roots in the area, all have a longstanding passion for its culture. “My halls were right by Retro Bar,” says Ledgard. “It’s now a coffee shop, but then it had a basement club that was all black with mirrors down one side. I went to punk and psychobilly gigs there, a goth night called Sin City... There was a really cool riot grrrl and alternative indie night called Killing Fantasy. I was spoilt for choice and my eyes were opened beyond belief. I went to dub nights and techno nights at Zoo, then I got introduced to Islington Mill and found out about noise art, krautrock, math rock, doom metal and much more... My mind is still continually being blown in Manchester, and the live music scene is more alive and kicking than I’ve ever seen - in the 14 years I’ve been here!”

“My first impression of Manchester music was when I came for my interview at Manchester College,” adds Bluzma. “I had tickets to see Crystal Castles play at Night And Day, supported by a queer club team from a night called Bollox. They were in their underpants with masks on and ‘Bollox’ painted on their bodies, dancing around to karaoke. I thought, ‘I’ve come to the right place!’ I joined a big women’s jamming band called Womb together with Harri and Fiona, that’s how we met each other, and we’ve carried on ever since.”

They’re eager to sing the praises of the network of interlocking underground scenes to which they belong, from the experimental noise artists to the poets to the orchestras, and they speak as fondly of their friends and contemporaries like The Yossarians, or undisputed modern Manc greats like Gnod as they do of brand new groups; MOLD, Swedish Magazines, The Starlight Magic Hour and Bleach Body are their picks from the latest wave.

They’re eager too about their certain-to-be-unmissable show at the Albert Hall, a part of the famous venue’s ongoing ‘Unstoppable Voices’ season. “You can expect witchy and glittery queer cabaret, we’re pulling out all the stops for this one,” says Bluzma. "We’re gonna be playing pop hits, disco hits, krautrock and the doom!" Ledgard laughs.

“We’ll be playing Harri’s video work, a collage of found footage dealing with the representation of female identity the little boxes women get put in," Bluzma continues. "Although we have been warned that there will be no beer drinking on stage, because that would damage the 100-year-old wood…”

ILL's Top 20 Songs From Manchester

Joy Division - 'Interzone'

Joy Division, as a band they confronted the grim Northern reality of Salford/Macclesfield and with that they created something which had never been done quite like it before. Then after a few years the surviving members went on to make spineless dance music... Cool.

The Future Sound of London - 'Vit

The Future Sound of Manchester... I mean, London - they were once upon a time responsible for some of the most important electronic experimental techno to come out from these parts. Nowadays though they tend towards hippie-jam music. Great!

Muslimgauze - 'Deceiver'

An enormous and timeless creative output. I think the music will always stand up despite the slightly dubious 'on the nail' format of his anti-Israel politics.

Under - 'Slump'

Still weirdly heavier than any other band from Manchester (they're technically from Stockport but meh, close enough).

Locean - 'Object'

A rare example of an improvised rock-band format with spoken word poetry who can make that combination interesting. Surrealistic, impressionistic, always powerful.

Irma Vep - 'Tell People I’m Dying'

Now in a non-Manchester based band Yerba Mansa, who are definitely worth a listen and are insane live. As Irma Vep, Ed writes these great songs, usually dark and depressive lyrics softened by really strong melodies and beautiful instrumentation, I like to listen to Irma Vep on rainy days.

Yossarians - 'Rolling Thunder'

Long-standing stalwarts of the Manchester scene, a large ensemble of very talented musicians including some of the most excellent violin you will hear ever. Tim Schiazza is a hell of a songwriter, the songs veer between intensely emotional and acerbically sarcastic, delivered with great feeling. They seem to stay underground as a deliberate choice. Seeing them live is like being drunk on a pirate ship.

The Happy Soul - 'Like Newly Born Stars'

The Happy Soul make '60s inspired pop music with gorgeous vocal harmonies and lush musical arrangements. I was lucky enough to be present at some of the recording sessions for the latest album, Big Wow, which was produced by their frontman Mark Simpson and [We Are ILL producer] John Tatlock, who was clearly having a great time with the musical extravagance of the whole thing. Sally Mason's other projects include Aughra who everyone should go and see. Sally is one of those people who really lives for music.

Rose And The Diamond Hand - 'Universe Is Woman'

Rose and The Diamond Hand is headed up by Rose Niland, who for my money has one of the best voices in Manchester, clear, pure and haunting, she's also a fantastic composer. Universe Is Woman for me exemplifies Rose's art, with its exploration of the mystical feminine.

Nummo Twin- 'Reflection'

Nummo Twin is a literal bedroom producer, who hand-makes many of her instruments and makes a virtue of super lo-fi production. This track is from the self-released album 'Deep Sleep' which is about descending into a dream like state and eventually sleep. 'Reflection' is a song that sort of teeters on the edge of collapse. It really captures the frustration of being an introvert in an extrovert's world which I find very relatable!

Trianglecuts- 'I Rupture'

Trianglecuts are a duo who make stomping, goth-like electronica. They've been going for a little while but are just now starting to play bigger shows. This track is a banger.

The Fall - 'Tempo House'

Partly for its excellent use of the word 'Grouse' to mean 'grumble'. The Fall are one iconic Manchester band who are an obvious and direct influence on ILL.

Warm Widow - 'Childless'

Ah, those shimmering harmonies are bringing back many a great gig memories... Sadly the band is now defunct, but this is a lovely piece of of melodic post-rock that sounds very 'Manchester' to me.

Ten Mouth Electron- 'Since My House Burnt Down'

Now sadly out of action, they were onto a good thing there while it lasted. This song twists and turns and keeps you at the edge of your seat like a soundtrack to a paranoid mind. What a ride!

Hotpants Romance - 'It's A Heatwave'

Hi-energy sugar pop punk at its best, and the three-part off-key harmonies get ILL’s big seal of approval. One of the most lovingly remembered underground bands, still performing live once a year on Valentine’s Day, even if it has to be over Skype.

Four Candles – 'Strange Things (Are Happening)'

A slow burning rocker from art punks and scene veterans Four Candles, fronted by the electrifying singer and poet Ian ‘Moet’ Moss, who is one of those endlessly inspired artists who has new releases out every month. Always a thrill to catch them live. And that main guitar hook? The stuff of dreams.

Factory Acts – 'Fantasy'

A big warm serotonin blanket for the soul, gives me shivers down the spine every time it comes up in their live set. Feels like nostalgia for a past that never was, beautifully melancholic.

Paddy Steer – 'Lumpy Pro (Live)'

All hail the wizard of synths, the sage of percussion, Paddy Steer. Watching his live performances takes you straight back to the heart of childhood, to pure unadulterated wonder. Clear winner of MCR best costume awards, too!

tAngerinecAt – 'Street Voices'

Like Irma Vep, once resident Mancunians but now honorary ones, the UK/Ukrainian dark electro duo are one of the most incredible live acts we have seen over the years. Not many shows you come away from feeling like you’ve had an out of body experience, but tAngerinecAt transcend all reservations and speak directly to your heart.

Gnod – 'The Mirror'

Ah, of course! This list would not be complete without Gnod, Always pushing boundaries, always evolving, bravely stepping forward where no-one has ventured before. This song shows what excellent masters of sonic suspense they are.

ILL play The Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room as part of 'Unstoppable Voices' on 17 March. For tickets and more info, click here.