Favourite albums 2021
Album of 2021: Paul Research, Skate the Royal Mile
Although the punk scene that ignited in the UK in the mid-to-late 1970s was London-centric, the shockwaves spread far and wide. Edinburgh’s emerging scene covered the more frenetic punk of The Exploited, Twisted Nerve, The Axidents, Sceptix, Bad Weeks, Belsen Horrors, and many more, and the artier end of the spectrum typified by Visitors (changing their name from The Deleted,) The Freeze (actually, from Linlithgow) and The Scars (later, shortened to Scars).
There might have been a ‘Year Zero’ element to punk, with most pre-1976 music routinely dismissed as dull and self-indulgent. But David Bowie’s majestic glam albums and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band still loomed large in Scars’ influences. They were also fortunate to have in Paul Mackie (aka Research) a lead guitarist and songwriter with a dazzlingly original fretwork style. Just as John McKay then John McGeoch’s originality propelled Siouxsie and the Banshees and Magazine way beyond three-chord punk, and Stuart Adamson’s idiosyncratic style added thrilling new dimensions to The Skids’ street anthems, so Research’s chiming chords and deft solos drove the Scars into uncharted territory, leading to support slots for everyone from the aforementioned Banshees to U2.
Released in March 1979, just as the original wave of punk was splintering into a thousand interesting new ‘post-punk’ directions, their debut single, ‘Adult/ery’ backed up by ‘Horrorshow’ exemplifies the spirit and dynamism of punk becoming a lightning rod of new musical possibilities. Scars lasted until the early 1980s, hitting the buffers despite the promise of well-crafted singles, and a debut album, Author! Author! that still sounds remarkably fresh decades after several contemporaries evolved into predictable stadium rockers.
Just over 11 years ago, 29 December 2010, Scars were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd at their hometown venue, the Picture House, including longtime fans Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, and myself! It was thrilling for me to see a band I’d last seen supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees in March 1980 at Tiffany’s (now New Town apartments). But this was to be a one-off.
Research gigged intermittently, performing solo compositions, his ever-exploratory guitar lines aided and abetted by samples, backing tracks, and film projections. He also joined Edinburgh post-punk band Desperation A.M. for a few months, switching to violin and keyboards.
SKATE THE ROYAL MILE
After playing guitar and writing songs for glam-infused post-punk outfit Voicex, one particular demo was to inspire a ‘lightbulb moment.’ (This was to evolve into the 8th track on his new album, entitled ‘Brandenburg Gate.’) Realising he was coming up with many intriguing ideas, he decided to begin developing these into fuller compositions. Crucially, he also decided to defer vocal duties and draft in talented guest singers. What emerged was light years beyond any attempt to use 'Horrorshow' or even Author! Author! as a template or a bridge into something similar (like Magazine or Gang of Four reviving in the 2000s and releasing new material one step ahead of where they left off decades before). Research took the bold decision to defy expectations and produce something far more experimental and multi-layered.
A punchy guitar line erupts into the first of Leeanne (LooLoo) Greenman’s collaborations, delivered at breakneck speed: “Milestones, deadlines, got me on the breadline, high praise, Oh God, should I quit my day job.” An overview of hopes/aspirations, not solely where careers in the music industry are concerned, coming up for air in the mellower choruses: “Always waking in the big gold dream … same old dream”. (Referencing Grant McPhee's 2015 documentary about the Scottish post-punk scene).
A full-blooded Bowie riff along the lines of ‘Rebel Rebel’ from Diamond Dogs pays homage to the Starman who inspired so many mid-70s teenagers to aspire to be play loud rock n' roll. The crunching guitar intro contrasting with wistful choruses as Research scales up and down. “Take the risk and see it through, the night is young with all to play for … Skate the Royal Mile!"
3 Deal With This
A subtle counterpoint to the opening tracks, with Carrie Furniss taking over on lead vocals. Synths instead of guitars lead this track, over a sophisticated Europop dance beat.
4 Time Stops
LeeLoo returns, while the fractured guitar's discordant touches are reminiscent of John McGeoch.
5 Chained To A Radiator
The ambitious centrepiece … wonderfully subtle guitar slices and jerks, as the lyrics contemplate the downside of the movies. Darker and more lyrical than Suede’s ‘Filmstar’ (another influence). "We’re all locked into propaganda, manipulated to a high degree, why do you need me to feel these emotions?”
'James,' the male vocalist from the guest trio, may be known by an enigmatic single syllable, but his vocal delivery is soaring and operatic. This makes for a thoroughly intriguing track about confession and death.
Carrie Furniss again. A jaunty rhythm and angular guitars are reminiscent of The Stranglers' slickly European pop phase, circa Feline. Again, the lyrics convey tension, this time focusing on moving into different locations. "I know it looks relaxing but I’m on the run."
8 Brandenburg Gate
LeeLoo sings one one of the catchiest tracks on an album awash with melodies and harmonies, against a backdrop of lush strings.
9 Ein Letztes Lied
A bass woodwind, cool synths, and James' stridently theatrical voice combine to create an affecting tribute to Paul’s late mother. His album’s closing track is also one of its most captivating.
On the cusp of 2022, this ambitious album leaves a potent question hanging in the air ... what next for Paul Research?