At the end of 2006 Piano Magic celebrated its ten year anniversary of playing live shows, having formed as an instrumental ‘bedroom electronica’ project in the summer of 1996. In those (almost) eleven years since inception, the band has veered from the self-styled ‘Kraftwerkian Meccano Pop’ electronica of the debut album “Popular Mechanics” to full-out rock, by way of shoegaze, baroque pop, ‘ethereal’ 4AD-style feyness and gothic romanticism, with lyrical concerns being a melancholic blend of wistful nostalgia and musings on death & inadequacy. Despite sometimes coming off as the aural equivalent of a 60s French art film (and having had many foreign contributors), Piano Magic are a quintessentially English band, evoking images of prim librarians, adolescent diaries, rain, spectacles & cups of tea, birds, rain, sickly constitutions, council estates and rain. They are however criminally underrated in this country, instead finding a much more welcoming and receptive audience in continental Europe, so it’s no wonder that Piano Magic mainman (and only constant) Glen Johnson has increasingly been venting on what a shithole London (and England) can be:

  • “And London is fucked – a busted bike with rusted gears / It makes me dark, dead in the eyes, a shark” (“The End Of A Dark, Tired Year”)
  • “I must leave London / It is bad for my soul / It’s making a hole that will erode me” (“I Must Leave London”)
  • and “England’s Always Better (As You’re Pulling Away)” from new album “Part Monster”

This love/hate relationship with dear old Blighty (and a worrying call to fans in early 2006 to submit their favourite three songs for possible inclusion in the setlist of Piano Magic’s last ever show), means that the band seems in perpetual danger of calling it quits (or at the very least packing up and leaving England permanently to go and enjoy the adulation of our continental cousins) – making any London show feel like a rarity and potentially their last.

The Museum Of Garden History

The Museum Of Garden History is located within the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth and it is a beautiful setting, which will hopefully host further modern music shows from now on (although they will have to think hard about the ‘facilities’ – just two toilets is knee-crossingly insufficient for us weak-bladdered gig-goers). Sticking with the subject of weak bladders, Piano Magic unfortunately draws a fair amount of ‘indie bedwetters’ among its fans, and these unlikable lifeforms insist on sitting in front of the stage (it’s a rock show fer chrissakes!), creating a dead space in front of the band and successfully sucking out much of the atmosphere. It’s a real shame because the live incarnation of Piano Magic is a fully-fledged rock band, maintaining a consistent line-up since late 2004 (Johnson having previously encouraged a revolving-door policy with regards band members) and benefiting from the cohesion that a settled group of players brings.

Piano Magic @ the Museum of Garden History (15-06-2007)

Piano Magic kick off with the gothic “No Closure” (the oldest song played tonight), normally one of their highlights but here spoiled with the incongruous addition of flute, making it more Jethro Tull than Joy Division. It’s the only misstep though – the next song “Saint Marie” (we are after all in the church of St Mary) allows them to blow away the cobwebs, the sparse shimmering strums of the intro building up into a propulsive instrumental, with its jittering processed percussion and delay-effected guitar.
The rest of the set mixes up older (2004) songs, like “The End Of A Dark, Tired Year” whose stark tribal beat references the post-punk gothic bleakness of Echo & the Bunnymen‘s “All My Colours” and the Cure‘s “The Hanging Garden”, with songs from just-released album “Part Monster”. “Love & Music” segues seamlessly into the upbeat instrumental “Great Escapes”, which seems written primarily for the band to have fun on stage, smiles on all their faces as they build up to the noisy climax.

Piano Magic @ the Museum of Garden History (15-6-2007)

“Incurable”, with vocals from French chanteuse Angèle David-Guillou (whose own band Klima played in support earlier in the evening), is Piano Magic’s most overt pop song – despite its dark lyrics (“The doctors shake their heads / they chain around the bed / they’re looking for a reason to why I’m still not dead”) it should be blaring out from radios and storming the charts. The next song “Part Monster” is the only one of the set that can be described as delicate – just Johnson and David-Guillou remaining on stage for another reference to a baffling medical condition: “I produce too much of something / not enough of something else / but the doctors cannot help me with the puzzle of my health.”

Penultimate song “(Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence” is a powerful (post)rocker, with another great tribal drumming turn by Jerome Tcherneyan. In years past the mid-section break in the song allowed for a dual drum solo between Tcherneyan and erstwhile bandmate Miguel Marin, but tonight it provides the opportunity for audience participation in the form of group rhythmic clapping. Johnson then announces his disinterest in the stage-leaving-then-returning (after a few lines of coke) ritual of the encore – the next song is the last. The part-autobiographical “The Last Engineer” is incidentally a cover of a song by Johnson’s electro-pop duo “Future Conditional” (with Piano Magic’s keyboard player Cédric Pin), and the broad 80s-style synth washes still feature but in the hands of Piano Magic the song morphs into a compellingly energetic piece of indierock. On the strength of this, and the other more pop-oriented material on recent albums, Piano Magic really should be conquering the alternative airwaves of the land of its birth.

Setlist: Piano Magic @ Museum Of Garden History, London
(15 June 2007)

No Closure
Saint Marie
Cities & Factories
The End Of A Dark, Tired Year
I Am The Teacher’s Son
Love & Music
Great Escapes
(Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence
The Last Engineer

Piano Magic @ the Museum of Garden History (setlist)

Here is “Already Ghosts”, recorded live at @ La Guinguette Pirate, Paris on 22 May 2002, courtesy of Planet Claire on Aligre FM.

Piano Magic – Already Ghosts (live in Paris)