This week's album releases

GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! | <i>Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven</i> PLACEBO | <i>Black Market Music</i> REGULAR FRIES | <i>War on Plastic Plants </i> RONI SIZE/REPRAZENT | <i>In the Mode</i> THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH | <i>Painting It Red</i>
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GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! | Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven (Kranky)

GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! | Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven (Kranky)

Roughly translating as "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" (in what language, who knows?), the Montreal group's third creation must surely see them at the height of the their powers. Godspeed, a band comprising violinists, drummers, cellists and all manner of percussionists, certainly have a novel approach to recording: there are four tracks stretched over 88 minutes, and though there are 20 songs listed on the sleeve, it is up to you to decide where they begin and where they end.

Within this confusing framework they create a continually shifting collage of sound replete with haunting strings, edgy percussion and eerie, often apocalyptic-sounding samples. It's known as post-rock (that's prog rock with a millennial twist), though such a term grossly understates the capabilities of this enigmatic 10-piece. Their methodology doesn't look good on paper, their basic formula being that they play loud, then soft, then very loud again, but, believe me, it is much more interesting than that.

There is initial tautness at the start of Levez..., a sense of compressed energy that slowly slackens as the music unfolds. The subdued moments can be frustrating. You know where they are heading but you don't know how or when they will get there. They can be deeply unsettling, too - "The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now" is made up of the kind of spooky, quasi-minimalist sounds that usually accompany art installations. But then even their periods of relative normality catch you unawares - at the end of "Broken Windows, Locks of Love Pt III", they suddenly turn into Sonic Youth.

You can only guess at what it all means. Much has been made of Godspeed's lack of singer. In the eyes of their acolytes, of which there is an ever-increasing number, their wordlessness embodies a greater political statement than all the proselytising of Gillespie or Bono. Certainly, their sound has an emphatic ring to it. "Murray Ostril (They Don't Sleep Anymore on the Beach)" opens with an old man's fond recollections of life on Coney Island and continues into an impossibly beautiful violin solo before swelling into a crescendo of drums, strings and thermion and crashing into a wall of feedback. A fleeting sample in "Terrible Canyons of Static" catalogues a man's journey to spiritual enlightenment with terrifying intensity, while behind the mournful piano of "Cancer Towers on the Holy Road Hi-Way", you can hear a man yelling frantically in the background. It's impossible to make out his words, and the overall feeling is one of futility.

Words just aren't enough for this band.

PLACEBO | Black Market Music (Hut)

Following on from Placebo's last album, Without You I'm Nothing, it seems that singer Brian Molko is still in the midst of a confidence crisis. Black Market Music is filled with the same neurosis and self-loathing as its predecessor, though it contains neither the acerbic sensibilities nor the tunes. "Black Eyed" refers not to the band's predilection for make-up but to Molko's deeply troubled childhood, a factor that he limply blames for his current demons. And the whining doesn't stop there - "Spite & Malice" sees the singer railing ineffectually against political apathy, with Justin Warfield's rapping failing to lend the proceedings any conviction or musical credibility. Naturally, sex and drugs still feature highly on Molko's list of preoccupations, though as usual they are handled with a spectacular lack of imagination. "Special K", a profoundly irritating song that draws comparisons between sex and ketamine ("No hesitation, no delay/ You come on just like Special K"), sounds like a band scraping the barrel of ideas and is guaranteed to keep would-be lovers at arm's length. At least Molko seems to have arrived at some conclusions of his own, among them: "Haemoglobin is the key to a healthy heartbeat," and, "There's no escaping gravity." Don't they teach them anything at school any more?

REGULAR FRIES | War on Plastic Plants (Junior Boys Own)

If the murky vocals and muddy grooves don't tell you what is going on here, songs such as "Coke'n'Smoke" may offer a hint at what these boys have been up to in the past year. Listening to people banging on about drugs can be on a par with watching paint dry, though fortunately this is not the case with the Fries. A sense of dizzy intoxication pervades War on Plastic Plants, from the fuzzed-up indie-dance of "Brainticket" to the dense experimentalism of "Eclipse". Kool Keith's brisk rapping transforms "Coke'n'Smoke" into a killer rap-dance track that could happily give the Prodigy a run for their money. There is a tendency to lapse back into old territory - tracks such as "High as the Music" and "Blown a Fuse" see the band continuing their bid for a baggy revival, their funk-inflected grooves echoing Happy Mondays at their messy best - though elsewhere, the producer Dave Fridmann (formerly of Mercury Rev) manages to fight his way through the fog and extract some fully fledged songs, most notably in "The Drowned World" and "Africa Take Me Back". The band find themselves hard pushed to stretch their stoned imaginations to a whole album's worth of material. Nevertheless, it's a step forward from their debut and shows a capacity for diversity that bodes well for the future.

RONI SIZE/REPRAZENT | In the Mode (Talkin Loud)

In 1997 Roni Size was stripped of all street-cred when his drum'n'bass album New Forms bagged the Mercury prize, thus smoothing the thitherto underground genre's passage to middle-class suburban households. Clearly, Size and his posse now want to bury their jungle-lite past and rejoin the ranks of the cutting-edge. The tone is set from the outset, with harsh, scatter-gun breakbeats and Size's lengthy declaration of intent. As is generally the case with drum'n'bass albums, In The Mode clatters on at a relentless pace without any regard for the average listener's attention-span. But Reprazent have at least weeded out the "jazz" element of New Forms in favour of edgier rhythms. Tracks such as "In Tune with the Sound" and "Idi Banashapan" reveal a playful experimentalism, while "System Check" seethes with urban angst. Wu Tang's Methodman has never sounded so good as when, in "Ghetto Celebrity", he arrogantly drawls: "Now, who the man again?" Sadly, Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha doesn't fare so well, his trademark invective sounding as abusive and pointless as ever. Overall, In The Mode is an improvement, though it's doubtful that this album will afford Reprazent the kudos that they crave. Coming to a coffee table near you.

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH | Painting It Red (Go! Discs/Mercury)

You know where you are with The Beautiful South. Forgers of dependably solid songs, they are the musical equivalent of the Volvo estate. All is present and correct in Painting It Red: the usual caustic observations buried in sweet, singalong melodies. The themes are the same, too - doomed love ("Final Spark"), the onset of age ("Till You Can't Tuck It In"), suburban living ("Tupperware Queen") - glumly delivered by Paul Heaton and Jacqueline Abbot and set against a whiter-than-white backdrop of piano and acoustic guitar. So, there's not much to distinguish this from their previous six albums, which leads you to wonder whether Heaton and friends can still operate with any conviction. Perhaps the biggest flaw, though, is the album's length - 17 songs is surely enough to break the spirit of the most diehard fan. Aside from a ghost of a breakbeat on "If We Crawl", it is difficult to pinpoint the contribution of their former co-conspirator Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, dubiously credited as "rhythm consultant". Maybe he popped into the studio for a cup of tea and a natter. In short, this band remain defiantly unadventurous, though perhaps it would be mean-spirited to hold it against them. Why change the formula when there are so many people to whom The Beautiful South represent a slice of heaven?

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