Original Machines: Conrad Keely Album Review

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Conrad Keely: Introduction to The
Artist

Conrad Keely, 2010, photographed by Ofer Wolberger for Spin Magazine .
pic via Tumblr
user yourcatwasdelicious

When Conrad Keely
was asked by Music Radar to
name 10
albums that changed my f**king life forever
,
he first looked at the lists of albums submitted by previous
respondents. A succession of his musical contemporaries and music
industry legends had each cited ten works that had had a profound
influence on their lives and careers. The titles chosen were,
largely, the critically-acclaimed, gazillion-selling seminal works
that invariably make up ‘100 greatest albums of all time’ lists in
music magazines: ‘Axis Bold as Love’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
or ‘Revolver’ by the Beatles. Kind-of obvious, right? Someone had
even selected Bob Dylan’s ‘Greatest Hits’.
Conrad came up with his
own personal list of ten albums that have had a profound influence on
his life. It just so happens that most of his choices were completely
out-there, obscure works such as Mike Oldfield’s ‘Incantations’ or
Unwound’s ‘Fake Train’. He also included ‘Tao of the Dead’ – the
2011 album by Conrad’s band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail
of Dead
(“It
was the album we made that I didn’t really care if anyone else
liked
”). Conrad’s
article
is an interesting read and sheds light on his
passionately non-conformist artistic personality. Like
the header of the piece says: He means it!
The special edition art-book for Original Machines is 100% original work by Keely
Visiting
Conrad in his Phnom Penh home, one is as likely to find him working
with watercolours as writing
a chapter of his novel, or rehearsing a set of music for an upcoming
show. A pianist, guitarist,
cellist, drummer… (the list goes on), Conrad
is about as interested in sticking to one musical
instrument
as he is interested in
staying within one artistic discipline. The
special
edition
of his first solo record, Original Machines
is accompanied by a 56-page book containing original art-work,
photography, lyrics and writings.
Keely was born in
Nuneaton, England, in 1972 to an Irish mother and Thai father. He
grew up in locations as far-flung as Thailand, Hawaii and Bedworth,
England. Conrad later lived in Olympia, Washington before forming
…Trail of Dead with his long-time musical collaborator Jason Reece
in Austin, Texas. (http://conradkeelyart.bigcartel.com/about; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Keely).
On the bus: pic via KEXP blog
A person’s
biography does not necessarily define them, it only offers a map of
how they arrived at where they are in the present. Their cumulative
experiences are nothing more than a trail of memories to draw from –
literally – but the future they point towards is forever
unpredictable. I’ve learned this every year of my life, when new
circumstances that arise find me in another part of the world, on a
new stage in my development. There has never been anything
predictable, and I have a suspicion there never will be.
Perhaps for that
reason my art has never evolved in one direction, but in many, in a
fashion some might accuse of being stylistically irresponsible. I’m
happy to take responsibility for that.”
The
Making of Original Machines
When
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
toured Europe with Canadian
alternative rock band Your
Favourite Enemies
in the
Autumn of 2014, Conrad was extremely interested to hear about the
band’s highly unconventional set-up. The
Drummondville rockers had, in
2009, bought a former
catholic church and its presbytery in Centre-du-Québec, Canada.
The building was transformed into Your
Favourite Enemies’ headquarters – comprising of ‘two professional
recording studios, installations
for web broadcast and live recording,
a TV set, offices
for their label ‘Hopeful
Tragedy Records’
as well as the non-profit human rights organisation
‘Rock N Rights’
(http://yourfavoriteenemies.com/main/biography/).
Near the section of the church where a huge pipe organ had once been
situated (the pipe organ
had unfortunately already been
removed by the time the band
moved in) was a dormitory with space for around thirty people.
The extended Your Favourite
Enemies family, jokingly referred to by bassist and producer Ben
Lemelin
as a ‘kind-of
a cult’, all live together
in the former church building.
Conrad recognised that
the Your Favourite Enemies complex could be the ideal place for him
to finish recording his solo record:
Quite a live-room! the Your Favourite Enemies Studio
When
[Your Favourite Enemies] were touring with us, and described to me
the church, I kind-of jokingly said it would be great to come and
record there. I knew, just from the description of it, that it would
be a great place to record. …I told them I confirmed my ticket the
week before I flew to Canada
.“
The
vast majority of the tracks for the album had already been recorded
by Keely, at his home in
Phnom Penh or out on the
road:
in the back of the …Trail of Dead tourbus

I
used all the stuff that I recorded on the road. While I was in the
back of the bus I added guitars, keyboards and samples and stuff and
then I sang vocals. …A few people that have heard [Original
Machines] said it doesn’t sound like my voice… when the tour was
done I had really bad bronchitis. …Two to three weeks before going
to Canada I needed to lay down vocals for the album, I wanted
everything recorded before I went in to [the Your Favourite Enemies
studio]

 

Your
Favourite Enemies
were more than happy to accommodate Conrad,
being huge fans of …Trail of Dead. Over a period of weeks, producer
Ben Lemelin helped Conrad shape the record (Conrad is credited as
co-producer). The album was also mastered in-house on specialised
software. Ben was both excited and apprehensive about the Original
Machines
project, as it was the
first time that he had used the studio complex to work on a project
outside of Your Favourite Enemies. ‘…He was really
pleased with the results
‘.
Ben
Lemelin –  pic: Youtube

The Album
Conrad Keely is not one
to go for the obvious choice. In keeping with his highly varied
background and diverse modes of artistic expression, his first solo
album is a tightly-packed mix of sounds and styles. There are not
many anthemic, sing-a-long choruses to be found here. Indeed, the
listener often has to listen hard to hear the hooks and the lyrics,
sometimes buried deep in the musical matrix. Keely does not make it
easy. Further, some of the tracks – such as the title song and
album opener ‘Original Machines’ – are restricted to such a short
length as to seem almost self-sabotaging. However, the course of the
24-track set of songs only once veers into the realm of the
throw-away (‘Marcel was Here’). If, at first listen, the personality
of the album could be described as somewhat neurotic, repeated
playings reveal an extremely original and well-constructed collection
of songs.
Watching the video for
the track ‘Warm Insurrection’ may help uncover the Conrad Keely
experience. Here, a fantastic collection of original artwork is
animated together with the inspiring and personally revealing lyrics
of the song (‘I killed my dreams one failure at a time/I resembled the mask
inside I had created in my mind’
). The effect is powerful:
Another album highlight, ‘Row Away’, shows Keely’s prodigious talent as a composer and arranger. Lush, deep layers of vocal harmony are meshed with
trademark spiky, short rhythmical guitar figures and busy,
almost-out-of-place-but-not synth sequences. The track is an
intriguing and compelling production.
Conrad’s songwriting shines during the more plaintive, downbeat
moments on the album when the layers of electric guitars, beats and
synths are absent. The piano-led ‘All That’s Left is Land’ is perhaps
the most conventional track on the record in terms of song structure
and arrangement, and is – along with ‘Looking for Anchors’ – a
beautifully delicate high point.
Cambodian
Connection
The album is rife with references to Conrad’s (current) adopted home,
Cambodia. ‘Engines of The Dark’ is inspired
by a heady night out in Phnom Penh with drinking partner Anthony
Mrugacz (former manager of seminal Phnom Penh expat music venue,
Equinox). The song captures the post-dawn, pre-hangover moment
of exhausted excitement when the bars have finally shut their doors:
‘Can we afford
one more distraction before the threat of this coming new day?
Where we could
sample life and wealth and words, and what had happened and what it
means to stay…
…Engines of
the dark unfold between the places we banished along the way
At least a
thousand faces staring out unlit windows like a Halloween parade’
Elsewhere, Kampot is a recurring subject. The provincial city is
something of an artistic muse and a retreat for Keely – somewhere
to catch one’s breath, reflect, recover. Much of this album was
written in, or travelling to or from, Kampot.
‘I’m on a ride
today
I’m on a cloud
today
I’m on a train
to the south
I’m all alone
today
But I’m alive
today
I’m on a drive
through the dark’
– ‘Drive to Kampot’
My current
plan is to stay in Cambod
ia”
Conrad performs with Sok Chiet and The Kampot Playboys, pic: Steve Porte
Conrad
has enlisted his sometime band-mate Mark Chattaway to
help him perform the album live at two shows in Phnom Penh. Mark is
the bassist and band leader of Cambodian rock-fusion outfit The Kampot
Playboys
. Conrad
will be playing guitar and piano, with Mark on bass and guitar. Keely also promises
special local guests on fiddle (Julius) and drums (Henrik).
It
is pleasing to note that the singer has decided to remain in Phnom Penh
for the release party of Original Machines
many hope that he will continue to live here and contribute his
formidable artistic creativity to a country and an arts scene that
needs all the help it can get. When not painting, writing or
performing, Conrad can also be found producing recordings by local
bands, jamming at open mic sessions or giving art lessons.
His
record label (Superball Music)
is based in Düsseldorf, his band (…Trail of Dead) is based in
Austin, Texas and Los Angeles. But the multi-talented author of
Original Machines is, for now at least, at home
in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
  • ‘Original Machines’ is released on
    Friday the 22nd January 2016, on Superball
    Music
  • Conrad Keely plays an
    early evening show at Farm to Table on
    Friday 22nd
    January, and a later show at Meta House
    on the same evening.
  • Conrad
    Keely
    talked to Joe Wrigley for
    Leng Pleng
    at
    his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 17th
    January 2016.
Keely with Leng Pleng at his home in Phnom Penh city.

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