STEVE TOWSON & THE CONSCRIPTS – Shah Mat CD
Steve Towson & The Conscripts
Shah Mat CD
(Criminall Records / Redneck Records)
Australian troubadour Steve Towson is a man driven. Right from the point where his first CD-single (When The Revolution Comes / It’s Breaking) was released in 2001, Steve has been keeping on keeping on.
He put out at least one recording each year and never stopped playing, travelling, gigging around half of the world. At one point he was “supporting” Billy Bragg’s Australian tour, that is by busking outside of the venues where Billy Bragg and his entourage were performing!
And as you may have known, the man is no stranger to these shores, especially the DIY punk scene in general. He has been visiting Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and playing with local punk/HC bands at small clubs and jam studios all over.
Steve’s first album, In A Shattered State CD (2002), 2nd single The Madness Of King George CD and second album, 1 Shot At Freedom (both released in 2003) all feature him alone; a punk rock folk singer with his lonesome raw electric guitar giving the world a piece of his mind.
When I first met him in KL many years ago, he was still in that period of being the lonesome man and his electrified custom-made semi-acoustic guitar. I like him immediately because he sounded like a rather pissed-off Talkin’ With The Taxman-era Billy Bragg meeting a Joe Strummer stranded without The Clash. Abrasive, raw, passionate and intense.
I helped getting him two shows to play, first at the old Blue Planet, along with some hardcore bands and later the same night at No Black Tie with some indie-rock bands. I don’t think both crowds at the shows could make head or tail of the man and his music but Steve didn’t care. At both shows he played and sung like a man possessed.
When Steve asked me what did I think of his music then, I told him that I admire his spirit but I didn’t like his songs much. There was nothing wrong with his delivery and lyrics, but the songs didn’t grab me. I thought that there was something lacking, something more than raw passion and intensity which he already had by the trailer loads.
We didn’t meet each other for a long while after that but in that period he played Singapore, Indonesia and then put out The Straits of Gibraltar and things are changing for the better, at least for my appreciation of his craft.
That 4-song CDEP, released 2004, is his first recording with a backing band. The combo is called The Conscripts, a clever name which reflects the fact that it will be band made-up of whoever Steve would invite to play with him. In that sense, he may go to Cambodia and elect a few musicians to back him up and they will be The Conscripts.
In June last year, Steve Towson appeared here in KL again and for the first time he had The Conscripts along with him. When I saw them at Paul’s Place (the Domestik Doktrin tour benefit gig), The Conscripts was made up of drummer James (borrowed from Singapore’s Ila Mitra) and Steve’s partner Ness Glenn on cello. There was no bassist, but you won’t noticed it. You also can see that James was still learning the songs but it was an excellently intense show anyway, one which I will cherish for a long time to come.
The gig also featured Singapore’s excellent post-hardcore band My Precious, playing as guests of honour right at the end of the show. They were hawking a new release, a split-CD called The Venom in My Veins featuring three songs by Steve Towson & The Conscripts and three songs by My Precious.
This CD floored me. Suddenly there’s much more breadth and dimension in the material recorded by Steve and I finally found that out what was missing with his old recordings. It was the dynamics. His solo recordings were “samey”, no drama. They were rather flat and dry. Either that or its just that I’m an old rockist who just need to hear the usual traditional set-up of guitars, bass and drums.
Read my review of that here.
About two months ago, Steve put out a bulletin on MySpace about his new release, I immediately wrote to the guy, asking him where can I buy the CD. He wrote back that he has already sent one in the post! Days later, I was walking out to have my lunch at Jalan Nagasari and something was sticking out of my post box. Yup! It’s the CD and so there I was reading the sleeve-notes and poring over the lyrics while munching sotong kari and sayur taugeh.
Shah Mat again features The Conscripts, and to my delight it is as if the songs on the the split-CD have matured, grown and multiplied. Besides the three songs previously featured on the split-CD (all nicely remastered here) there are also two songs from The Straits of Gibraltar CDEP, both rerecorded and greatly beefed-up.
The rest are seven brand spanking new tunes, the first of which is If This is What It Means, a song about a battered wife questioning what love is when the husband is prone to “only solves problems with a hit from his hands”. Sounding like a not-so-distant cousin of I Fought The Law (written by Sonny Curtis & The Crickets, made popular by The Bobby Fuller Four, The Clash, and ultimately The Dead Kennedys), it’s almost a jolly rockabilly tune with clackity drumsticks and reckless barnstorming speed. Steve sounds like a young Joe Strummer here and i believe if The Clash ever wanna get back together, we have here a candidate fitting the bill.
The next new tune Billy Hughes’ Army is a beast of darkening skies with chugging staccato marching beat while Steve barks like an army sergeant indignantly asking us why we didn’t we go join Suharto’s army and get “sent overseas to kill for family companies”. 6 AM is a lonesome, despairing noir-ish love song with gradual build up from minimal piano and drums to full-blown guitar wrangle. A bit out of the usual but still excellent. I could also see this tacked upon the soundtrack for the next David Lynch movie!
One other new song with another fresh perspective to Steve’s musicality is All The Lords and Their Ladies, a lazy white punky reggae skank complete with horns! The Remain of Us brought back the rockabilly guitars and pounding beat to the fore, a huge chugging tune careening out of control. I love it. Again it reminded me of a much more literate version of British psychobilly mainstays The Meteors. Another new tune here, Your Tears Means Nothing Me, features the same speed and frantic beat but lacking in dynamics; a straight-ahead staccato rhythmic run without much verve.
If there’s a dud in here it must be Noone WIll Do You Any Harm, a short acoustic song which ends to abruptly for it to gain much sympathy from me. Other than that, Shah Mat is an amazing album. The best from the man so far. Shit, now I can’t wait for Steve to come back here with a full blown band!
The Remains of Us by Steve Towson & The Conscripts