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Noon Garden
Beulah Spa Ed Power , May 5th, 2022 08:13

Flamingods' Charles Prest balances psychedelic wimsy with a hint of the dark stuff, finds Ed Power

As anyone exposed to repeat viewings of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory through childhood will testify, the line dividing whimsical and terrifying can be tissue-thin. And while he has neither top hat nor a Wonka bar protruding from his pocket, the aura of an unnerving ring-master hangs about Charles Prest, the British-born, Bahrain-raised one-person orchestra behind psychedelic project Noon Garden.

Prest, also a member of veteran tie-dye rockers Flamingods, has a gift for irascible hooks and melodies that twinkle like unicorns cavorting under a waterfall. Those talents are effervescently on display on the the title track from his debut album, Beulah Spa (named for a historical spa around the corner from his home in South London and name-checked by Charles Dickens in his writings). An infectious friskiness ripples through the song, as if Prest has been seized by a joyousness too overwhelming for one human to contain. You picture the ebullience shooting from his eyeballs like fluffy laser beams.

Yet amid that exuberance are hints of the ominous. And it is that darkness twitching in the margins that gives Noon Garden its unmooring power. Consider recent single ‘Villa’ and its creepy video in which a couple dance in a menacing and disembodied fashion, with Prest in the middle like a crooning gooseberry. The tone is gently nightmarish – a sensibility reflected in lyrics that read like Lewis Carroll by way of Roald Dahl “Your milky eye is all runny,” coos Prest. “Gather ‘round when the phantom talks”.

There is a phantom here alright. And it has brought its friends. Against retro rave beats, ‘Decca Divine’ weaves a narrative of snarling abandonment (“I’m letting it go”) as it gallops forwardly at a panicked pace. The sense is that Prest isn’t running towards the horizon so much as fleeing something awful at his back. It isn’t all scares and surprises, however: a delicious cheesiness attends ‘Budaiya’ which suggests Kula Shaker possessed by the uneasy spirit of Piper At the Gates of Dawn-vintage Pink Floyd.

The whiff of menace is back on ‘Dud Day’, where a grinding guitar blossoms into a wigged-out dirge suggestive of a TikTok ‘Season of the Witch’. As with the rest of Beulah Spa, it is radiant but streaked with uncanniness. Glazed in sunshine, this is a record brimming with blinding beauty. And yet it’s those shadows that truly get under your skin.