Cities of Foam, Risen
from the Ashes
By Christine Moritz
You know those moments
when you're going through your record collection and discover a
gem you'd forgotten about, or one you never realized you had?
I had one of those moments
a few years ago with Blueflame's "From Kings Cross to Walhalla"
EP, a release on the Bolshi label. I'd bought it in London that
spring, but couldn't remember what it sounded like. When I put it
on and sampled the upbeat, techy "Last Man Standing" and
the exquisite, Eastern-tinged "Liquid Remedy," I thought
excitedly, "That's why I bought this record!"
"Last Man Standing"
made it into my DJ set that night, and "Liquid Remedy"
made numerous subsequent appearances. Sadly, I couldn't find much
information about Blueflame. Earlier this year I learned that Bolshi
was no more, but Blueflame had changed its name to Cities of Foam
and was about to release a new single and album on Dorado. With
the release of "Last Man Standing" in March and A Great
Day for the Race in April, the project became the link between these
two highly esteemed and much-beloved British labels.
Sarah Francis, a.k.a.
Sarah Bolshi, launched her namesake label in 1996 in the scene surrounding
the legendary (and legendarily hedonistic) Heavenly Sunday Social,
where resident DJs the Chemical Brothers played an extraordinary
mix of tunes. Over 7 years, the Bolshi label released some 49 releases
by artists such as Laidback, Rasmus, and LHB.
In 2001, the label split
into sublabels Bolshi Red, for breaks-oriented material, and Bolshi
Blue, for melodic downtempo grooves. Blueflame's EP "Sunday
at the Rollerdisco" appeared on the latter in 2001, followed
by "From Kings Cross to Walhalla" in 2002. (The Cities
of Foam full-length includes the gently soulful "Safe Inside"
from the first Blueflame EP, as well as "Last Man Standing"
and "Liquid Remedy" from the second.) Unfortunately, Bolshi
went under in 2003 after its funding was withdrawn. Sarah Bolshi
now runs Sunday Best, the label founded in 1997 by Rob da Bank,
currently a DJ on BBC's Radio One.
Dorado debuted in 1992;
founder Ollie Buckwell's vision was "to create a label that
mixed soul with hip-hop, jazz with beatsdance music you could
listen to at home." Notable artists on the roster included
Jhelisa and Outside. The sublabel Filter came into being in 1995
to focus on more dance-oriented music by artists such as the Amalgamation
of Soundz and Kid Loops.
Buckwell and Dorado were
pioneers with regard to the Web and digital music. Ironically, this
almost led to the label's undoing; following 79 releases on Dorado
and 47 on Filter, Universal persuaded Buckwell to become its Head
of New Media in 2001. This demanding position obliged to him to
put his own labels on hold, except for digital sales and distribution.
A few years later, those aspects were sufficiently established for
Dorado to resume new releases, starting this spring with the Cities
of Foam material. Buckwell describes Cities of Foam's work as carrying
on the Dorado tradition by being "sophisticated, jazzy, soulful,
[and] well-produced with great musicians." Currently, Dorado
is working on compilations from its catalogue and considering new
Bridging Bolshi and Dorado
is Cities of Foam, the project of Sam Menter and Todd Wills. Now
based in London, the pair are originally from Bristol, where both
grew up in musically-inclined families. Sam Menter's father (who
played "ersatzophone"bathroom pipe plugged into
a mouthpieceon the Blueflame/Cities of Foam track "Liquid
Remedy") is the jazz musician and sound artist Will Menter,
while Todd Wills' father is a guitarist. Sam's brother Ben is also
a music producer; his 12-inch "Take It Back," released
this year on Leisure under the name Mr. Benn, has been praised by
the likes of Quantic.
Both Menter and Wills
describe themselves as having been influenced by the Bristol sound;
Menter cites Massive Attack and Portishead, whereas Wills recalls
being into Bristol indie bands like the Blue Aeroplanes during his
formative years. Cities of Foam draw from a number of influences;
the variety of sounds on A Great Day for the Race is more diverse
than one might expect from the typical "downtempo" project.
In particular, in addition to organic-sounding elements like guitar,
bass, saxophone, and strings, there are also synthetic-flavored
ones, such as the effects-processed vocals on "Last Man Standing"
and "Half Empty," or the gritty synth of "Girls in
Bars" and "Oleambi." Wills notes that minimalist
composer Steve Reich influenced his guitar sound. Both members write
songs; Menter does production and programming and plays keyboards,
while Wills plays bass and guitars. Menter says, "I love electronic
sounds. We didn't try to make a genre-specific album; it was more
about building on various musical ideas."
Currently the pair are
working on an EP with two tracks featuring Nia Lynn, whose vocals
on the album track "Out of Reach" are reminiscent of Air
collaborator Beth Hirsch and frequent Boomclick vocalist Rosa Fernandez.
One is Latin-flavored with "a big hip-hop beat," says
Menter, and the other is "minimal acoustic guitar." The
third is an uptempo instrumental.
Marking the rebirth of
Dorado, a label significant in the development of the downtempo
sound, A Great Day for the Race also realizes the promise
of Blueflame's EPs on Bolshi and continues that label's tradition
of eclecticism. The label is dead; long live the label!
of Cities of Foam
Cities of Foam Releases
A Great Day for the Race (Dorado, 2005)
Last Man Standing (Dorado, 2005)
From Kings Cross to Walhalla (Bolshi Blue, 2002)
Sunday at the Rollerdisco (Bolshi Blue, 2001)
Barrel Jumping (split single with Bantam) (Oakgroove, 2001)
Primary Incision (split EP with Bantam) (Oakgroove, 1999)