No-Man: Mixtaped

No-Man - MixtapedSynopsis: Mixtaped is a 2 disc set that captures No-Man’s complete concert at Bushhall, London in August 2008. it also includes a live photo gallery, including photos from all three of No-Man’s first live concerts in 15 years, with an exclusive soundtrack of the song “Housekeeping.” This set also features a 90 minute career-spanning documentary which includes previously unseen footage, photos and images, as well as in-depth interviews with every member of No-Man past and present (including Tim Bowness, Steven Wilson, Ben Coleman, Chris Maitland and Theo Travis). Extras include complete videos for several No-Man songs spanning 1990-2008.

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No-Man: Mixtaped 7.5

eyelights: the musical soundscapes. the atmosphere. the retrospective documentary.
eyesores: the static presentation. the insipid encores.

I first discovered No-Man through their album ‘Together We’re Stranger’. I found a second-hand copy of the remastered edition at a local store, and was curious because a DVD-Audio disc of the album was included with it. Being a fan of high fidelity audio, I thought it might be worth a try – there aren’t tons of albums on DVD (or blu-ray) so I frequently take a gamble when the price is right.

First, however, since I knew nothing about the band, I decided that I would read up on them, find out what they were about. When I discovered that Steven Wilson was one of the key members, I was immediately intrigued – he is renowned for his sound engineering skills, and his reputation is such that he is frequently enlisted to remaster high-profile classic progressive rock albums.

So, naturally, I bought ‘Together We’re Stranger’.

It turns out that I quite liked it. A lot, even. I played the damned thing more than expected, and still do: whenever I have people over, this makes for great ambiance music late at night, while we’re winding down, chatting in my living room. So when I stumbled upon this 2DVD set featuring a live show and a full-length documentary for a song, I figured that I should give it a chance.

Mixtaped
No-Man are comprised of Tim Bowness on vocals and Steven Wilson on guitar. This 2009 release showcases their August 29, 2008, concert at Bush Hall in London – one of three that were their first live performances in 15 years. Supported by a five-piece backing band consisting of guitar, bass, percussion, keyboards and violin, the group took to the stage for approximately 90 minutes.

The set-up was simple: with what appears to be 2-3 cameras, the concert was filmed in a near-static fashion, focusing on the band’s performance, sometimes showing us the sold-out crowd at this medium-sized hall. We got enough of a sense of the environment to see that, based on the architectural style and the chandeliers on the ceiling, the hall was likely built in the ’20s or ’30s.

There’s really not much to be said about this concert: No-Man is a pretty mellow band and I’m unable to talk about its subtleties. They basically stood around for the whole show, barely moving. Bowness, who sings in a soft, under-stated vocal, essentially waited around in between his bits, addressing the crowd only twice – the first time 40 minutes in, and the latter to introduce a guest.

Honestly, I didn’t recognize most of the songs. No-Man have five studio albums, and many non-album cuts, so the only familiar track was “All the Blue Changes”, which was pretty good. I got the impression that the songs may not have translated as well to the live setting and that, taken out of context (i.e. from their album sequence) they may have lost some of their flavour.

Obviously, this is just an impression, as I have yet to explore them further.

One thing I disliked was that they did two “requisite” one-song encores. Lame. I hate encores. You either deserve an encore because you gave the most awesome show ever, or you just play your heart out and leave. This farcical tradition of keeping the best tracks for an audience that’s eager to hear more is presumptuous. What if the crowd starts to leave before you finally deliver?

All this to say: this practice must end. No more encores, please! Some concertgoers feel cheated if they don’t get encores, as though it were part of the show. Um, it’s not supposed to be. In some ways, it has become part of it though: walk off the stage for 20 seconds, then walk back on, with a manufactured sparkle of victory in one’s eye, as though this was unexpected and richly deserved.

Le sigh…

In this case, the first encore was a standout. Bowness welcomed Ben Coleman, guest violinist, and the band rocked out (as much as No-Man could, in any case) to a much heavier and more raucous number than the rest of the show. Coleman was a member of the band until 1993, which explains why he was received with such warmth by the crowd. In fact, he got a larger applause than the rest of the band.

Honestly, it may not seem as though I liked it, but I generally enjoyed the show. It’s not exactly exciting to watch unless you’re into minutia, however. I suspect that I will be playing this as background ambiance in the future, more so than actually sitting down to watch it – not unless I know someone who would like to see, that is. No-Man are good, but they’re not exactly an exciting band to watch.

The concert is bundled with a healthy set of bonus features, including a photo gallery of pictures from their three concerts. Fans will be pleased to hear an exclusive live recording of “Housekeeping” overtop, taken from their Düsseldorf show. Personally, I didn’t think much of the photo gallery, given that I’m not a big enough fan (yet), but I tend not to like photo galleries in the first place. 7.5

Returning
On the second DVD, one finds a full-length documentary called ‘Returning’. This is an 87-minute retrospective of the band bolstered by mounds of archival footage from concerts, TV appearances, interviews, as well as pictures, promotional material, newspaper clippings, …etc. It’s surprisingly well-documented: even larger scale bands don’t always get this treatment.

With the help of some of their collaborators through the years, the film explores their back history, including their solo years. Seems that Wilson heard Bowness’ band and asked him to sing on one of his songs. Instead, they ended up writing new material together. Stuart Blagden and Ben Coleman were in the band for a short while. They talk about the splits, especially with Bowman who remained for over four years.

I was particularly impressed to hear about the collaborators that they landed throughout their career, including Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn (of Japan fame) to do rhythm for their early live shows and also their debut album – ironically, bleeding critical success for it. They also got Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Lisa Gerard (Dead Can Dance) for ‘Flowermouth’. Wow. That’s nuts.

Anyway, ‘Returning’ does a terrific job of documenting their progression as a band, discussing their approaches and philosophies and highlighting the impact of their outside work (Wilson, in particular, became extremely busy with other projects). I knew absolutely nothing about No-Man going in, and now I feel like I got an excellent crash course on the band. I highly recommend it. 8.0

Deleted Scenes
There are two very short deleted scenes for a total of 90 seconds’ worth of viewing time. The material is interesting but insubstantive, which may account for its deletion. 5.0

The Videos

There is also a presentation of the few videos that No-Man have released during their career. It’s fairly short, but hardly surprising given the type of band and label support that they’ve had.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Colours: This song consists mostly of breakbeats and vocals, along with a violin solo. ‘s alright. The video is mostly in black and white, and features Tim in shadows, singing and swaying. He has unbelievable cheekbones, this guy does. Steven shows up once in a while, playing guitar or cradling a doll. Ben shows up for his solo, but he’s in colour. There’s a dancing man, and it may be Ben, but I’m not sure – he’s also in colour. Aside for the ’80s hair and fashion sense, this is a pretty cool video: simple, elegant, very artsy. I love the deep blacks. 3.5/8.0

2. Sweetheart Raw: Backed by more breakbeats, Tim speaks/raps the verses and sings the chorus in his typically understated fashion. This one is powered by the Japan rhythm section, as evidenced by Mick Karn’s signature bass sound. It’s a more textured affair than the previous tracks, with sound effects and an excellent final passage, which is entirely instrumental and features wild guitar noise.

This video is a mixture of black and white and colour photography. It consists of lots of religious figures and artifacts, an angelic young woman, flowers, and shots of Tim and Steven from the shoulders up. It ends with the woman wandering out in the woods with a laundry basket, the contents of which she proceeds to rinse in a stream. There are all sorts of images overlapped throughout, so it’s hard to describe. 5.0/7.5

3. You Grow More Beautiful: This is a funky, hip-hoppy, distorted number. Not at all what I’d have expected from No-Man if not for the documentary. It’s okay, but only due to the chorus, and mostly because of the guitar solo. It’s an unusual mixture of sounds.

The video is in black and white for the verses and in colour for the chorus. Tim is wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, while Steven has super long hair and is playing the riff on his guitar. For the chorus, there’s a headshot of Tim lying in the grass surrounded by flowers. There are also shots of an Adam and Eve-type couple with an apple and inserts of coloured daffodils. 5.0/7.0

4. The Ballet Beast: This one is super short, at 90 seconds in length. It’s basically strumming, light vocals, and chimes. That’s it. The video is cheap hand-drawn animation featuring a couple of characters, birds and leaves. Meh. 5.0/4.0

5. Back When You Were Beautiful: This is one of the atmospheric numbers from “Together We’re Stranger’. It consists of soft keyboards and strumming. The chorus is distinctive for No-Man, a bit more melodic, higher-pitched. It’s kind of melancholy, but delicate, pretty, with sweeping atmospherics.

The video is CGI as claymation, showing an old man revisiting his past, through pictures, home movies, and then wandering about on the street, in a cemetery, thinking about his departed spouse. It would have been excellent in live action, but it looks like a cheap video game, which ruins the effect. 7.75/4.0

6. Back When You Were Beautiful (5.1 mix): This is a high resolution surround mix of the same video. It sounds richer, more dynamic. I’m glad I got the album on DVD, not just CD. Steven Wilson has come out against mp3s saying that it’s like putting a photocopy of a piece of art on a gallery wall: it’s really not the same and people are missing out on so much. I agree. I’m a fan of his just for the attention he devotes to making his releases sound fantastic. Kudos. 8.25/4.0

No-Man Chronology
This is basically a small text-based chronology of the band’s history, backed by archival pictures. Nothing major, but a good way to fill in the details. n/a

No-Man are an acquired taste. While I love ‘Together We’re Stranger’, I don’t like everything that they’ve done – the art-rock genre isn’t always that accessible, in my estimation. But they have die-hard fans all over the world, and I think that this reunion show and accompanying bonus material will fully satisfy them. I have no mixed feelings about the quality of ‘Mixtaped’ and recommend it without reservation.

Dates of viewings: August 10, 11 + 16, 2014

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