THE UNSUNG HEROS: Underscore Part 3’s top 5 EP’s of the year.


The EP is often the starting place, the first place you hear more than a single from a new band and it’s the time you start to think “damn, I might have actually found my new favourite band”. Despite this, and despite the fact EP’s are often released by bands who don’t yet have enough songs for an album, they’re overlooked and don’t generally get their own end of year list. 4 of our 5 acts haven’t released a full-lengther, but they will and when they do you better check them out because with this as a starting piece they’re on to something great (and although Sean McGowan has already released one album, don’t dare skip his next album as his EP included on this list is his finest work). So here it is, it’s just 5 of the many, many great EP’s that caught our attention but we felt we wanted to give these ones there own little fanfare.  (JW)

5. Dead Nature- Taking My Shadow

“[Taking My Shadow dares] you to listen to it without smiling. A dare that you will ultimately lose over and over.”

Tarek Musa’s first solo venture post-Spring King is exciting has been as energetic as his previous band. The four-track strong EP is riveting; each song is intrinsically unique and enjoyable in its own way, almost daring you to listen to it without smiling. A dare you will ultimately lose over and over. The EP is laden with electric funk, ever-so-slightly distorted vocals and quiet, understated drums that add a sense of urgency throughout, it’s a powerful debut offering from Dead Nature. 

“[Fire In Your Soul] is the perfect recipe for an anthemic banger.”

Opening with the fast-paced, upbeat and catchy Fire In Your Soul: the perfect recipe for an anthemic banger that can traverse the airwaves and infect everyone who listens; euphoric tendrils ensnaring everyone in its jubilant sound. ‘It’s the fire in your soul’, is as relatable a hook as ever there has been, a metaphor for whatever drives you. Judging by the EP, Musa’s drive is his own creative flame and enjoyment of everything he produces, a tangible, ineffable presence in each track. None more so than In My Heart, the single released to hype up the EP. A little more melancholy perhaps than Fire In Your Soul (it’d would have been impossible to keep up that energy on every track), though who can blame him in the terrifying, technological-dependant zeitgeist in which he’s writing. It’s an auditory journey into his past, present and future: his anxieties, his ambitions and his flaws. The vocals are a little more desperate and angry, the drums a little more urgent and prominent, the guitar a little louder and a little less lethargic. The track ends up simply as more than it would appear, given its the debut single as Dead Nature.

Unfortunately track three, Pride (Wake Them Up) is slightly underwhelming which could possibly be partly our listeners reaction after hearing what can only be described as two ‘bangers’. Pride… opens as something tense, full of potential conflicts and discord, and resolves into something out of a 70s revival album. It has harmonies, horns, and could probably be played at least partially on a ukulele. It’s an enjoyable song, but a little forgettable in a EP so strong; should music ever just be ‘enjoyable’? It would be wrong to suggest that Musa was channelling his inner critic when he implored ‘let me leave’ in the track. Nothing so dramatic.

Rockwood is the stand-out of on a confident debut EP.”

The most important track on the EP is the final track Rockwood. Unlike the preceding three, it’s slow, with an almost War On Drugs esque build-up, and wouldn’t sound out of place over movie credits. The simple, understated piano chords over haunting, atmospheric drums and almost ethereal electronic harmonies creates the image of hopelessness; ‘the only way out is through the valley of pain’ a rather stark reflection of the psyche of a man at the end of it all but pushing through it. As a song, it’s soothing, more than anything. Calming. And it’s the perfect way to finish the EP. The ending of the track, featuring the slow death of a held horn note, adds a nice touch of finality, as well as furthering the joyously bizarre nature of it all. Rockwood is the stand-out of on a confident debut EP.

“[Spring King have disbanded] but Dead Nature proves that just because one moniker might have ended, good music will find a way.”

Tarek Musa was previously known as the singing songwriter in well-known act Spring King which disbanded late last year but Dead Nature proves that just because one moniker might have ended, good music will find a way. (JOS)

4. Sean McGowan- Curate Calm, Create Chaos

“Sean McGowan is back and has found his ‘voice’ on this interconnected concept album (although it’s an EP) discussing mental health.”

Sean McGowan came back with strength this autumn and has found his ‘voice’ on this interconnected concept album (although it’s an EP) discussing mental health. The beauty of the work is it’s ability to avoid seeming cliché- well maybe when he called the opening track I’m Ok is was a bit naff but Sean’s integrity speaks above everything. The term concept album has a wide scoping meaning which could be discussed at length but often relates to group of tracks which musically or lyrically follow a similar theme, to Sean’s credit he takes things a step further with the EP’s title Curate Calm, Create Chaos (not a track name) and the photographic artwork of the EP cover and singles; the cynical could comment that the photography is simple black and white, but we see internal storm within Sean extending to the weather within the photos.

“Thankfully the EP isn’t a meme filled whimper but Curate Calm, Create Chaos is the triumphant progression Sean has been building his expertise to allow him to write.”

At only 5 tracks in length with 2 being dropped as single ahead of the EP’s release it this felt similar to Fontaines DC’s Dogrel earlier this year- we knew what we were in for but we had to wait for the whole release to appreciate the full subtleties Curate Calm, Create Chaos would offer. Aside from the bland title I’m Ok Sean’s lyrics on the track shows he’s become more than a Jamie T rip off. We learn in opener I’m Ok that this is where the EP’s title was born in the lyric “If I can’t curate calm, I create chaos, If it anint bolted down it’s going out the window.” These lines are closely followed by Sean stating “I can be insecure”; as a man who still frequents the other side of the bar at Southampton’s Joiners music venue pouring pints for the myriad of upcoming touring acts coming through the venue and local music aficionados this is a bold approach to be so honest with his listeners. Thankfully the EP wasn’t a meme filled whimper but Curate Calm, Create Chaos wasthe triumphant progression Sean has been building his expertise to allow him to write.

Final single Heartbreaker has all the markings of Sean’s close friend Frank Turner’s early work, which is said as no insult- Frank is one of the UK’s best songwriters and with the pair having polar opposite vocal styles it feels like a nod to Frank and not a rip-off. Frank Turner, Johnny Lloyd and Sean Mcgowan are all Xtra Mile Recordings artists which you can feel particularly in Heartbreaker and again in 4th track Money, they both have the indescribable hallmarks of the Xtra Mile roster. Finishing Heartbreaker Sean has to stamp his Cuppa Tea jack-the-lad mark on it “whatever Trevor, I’m off to get wiser and older” whereas on Money Sean displays a diaphragm full vocal performance which circumvents its ability to be a mundane track.

“it’s natural that Sean wanted to reveal to the world [Silk,] his perfect lyrical social commentary as soon as possibly could- Sean you must have felt like a kid with a brilliant secret to share with friends.”

Silk still now stands as Sean’s best work to date and is not close to being matched on the rest of the EP. With Silk Sean managed to channel all his best qualities- the mockney esque vocal rhythm, brutal honest lyricism whilst avoiding being corny and backed by well measured simplistic guitar to allow the lyrics to shine. Certain listeners will hear this track and feel that Sean is writing about them when in reality the faultless words reflect the lives of swathes of societies youth.

“[On Queen Of The West] Sean [proves] he is not ‘a one trick pony’, this is epic and leaves us wanting more.”

Closing the EP with Queen Of The West Sean presents his ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Silk is Sean’s most accessible work with its lyrically important content but Queen Of The West is the track that Sean shows his biggest growth as a writer. With 2 minutes almost solely featuring acoustic guitar and Sean’s vocal we begun to know that the Queen… is building to something when strings (a common feature of this EP) join Sean’s solo performance, after a tiny pause the acoustic guitar line thrashes backed by cascading military style drums, a multitude of string drizzled with a topping of Sean’s vocal line- this is Sean proving he is not a one trick pony, this is epic and leaves us wanting more both to its credit and failing. (JW)

3. Munky – Un, Deux, Trois, Cat E.P

The emerging Dublin has brimmed full of talent this year which has included independent dance-punk outfit Munky who followed up on singles You’ve Got Male and One in Five with the cheekily titled Un, Deux, Trois, Cat EP. Resplendent in psych-feline artwork, the outing consolidated Munky’s early promise and post-millennial lyrical oration. Fontaines DC and The Murder Capital may be stealing most of the headlines when it comes to the current Irish invasion, but the stylistic versatility which Munky bolt on to the tracks, alongside their no-nonsense wordsmithery, suggests a band confident of delivering no less than their much-heralded Dublin contemporaries.

“Zordon [is] a compelling four-to-the-floor shard of psychedelic disco-punk, described by its creators as ‘our attempt at a sort of trashy soul/funk tune’.”

Opening with Zordon; a compelling four-to-the-floor shard of psychedelic disco-punk, described by its creators as “our attempt at a sort of trashy soul/funk tune”. Pulsing bass and low-register picked distorted guitar build the tension briefly, before the song opens out into a loose groove dominated by slick riffing and Zac Stephenson’s intense treated vocal, as he alternates between bluesy howl and falsetto. “We crawl to the top, never knowing when to stop,” declares Stephenson without the barest hint of apology.

“[Zordon has] the kind of neat finish that leaves you quietly punching the air at just how well it is nailed.”

In the midst of the freak-out, Munky treat us to a lulled baggy breakdown which shuffles with rolling bass, picked riffs and wah-wah reminiscent of The Stone Roses’ Fools’ Gold, before irresistibly building back up to a heavier finale, lead and bass guitars wrestling above the repeated crashes of cymbal before a tight multi-instrumental denouement seals the deal at the end; the kind of neat finish that leaves you quietly punching the air at just how well it is nailed.

Following, Cuck Rock splits the middle of the target just as effectively. Two-and-a-half minutes of punk-funk hybrid during which Stephenson unleashes a pinpoint-accurate stream of consciousness, laden with ironic humour and well-chosen expletives; in themselves containing more ideas, excitement and poetic turns-of-phrase than most acts will muster in an entire career. There is too much to even comprehend in one attempt and repeated listens are needed to fully appreciate the breadth of the barbs and precision-observations of sexual politics. This is territory that was already explored by Munky on single One In Five, also featured on the EP. “An inferior race, or a fleshlight with a face?” asks Stephenson in Cuck Rock, with devil’s-advocate inquiry.

“The insistent riffing recalls the best of Jane’s Addiction, before launching into a heads-down hyped garage-rock coda.”

The first single from the EP was You’ve Got Male which froths with resentment at the attitudes and hypocrisy of the elite patriarchy; “I know you never take drugs but then you fucking take drugs/I know you’ll hide those wired eyes, white collars are your best disguise”. Stephenson delivered the polemic with sass and purpose, lampooning the perceived enemy and suggesting that even if the bad guys are on top for now, he’s got their fucking number. The song careers along apace, driven by more wah-heavy lead guitar motifs and a propulsive rhythm section; “the sacrificial lamb, it tastes the best,” assured the frontman.

Closing the EP, Ms Communication is a mutating six-minute epic, moulded around the mantra, “we don’t wanna talk about it, we just wanna get fucked.” The song starts out with clean guitar chords and quietly percolating bass while Stephenson unfurls a plaintive vocal. Guitar then begins to agitate as themes of paranoia, doubt and suspicion infuse the song and bring a darker and more desperate connotation to the chorus; “push me to my limits or are you afraid I’ll touch the sky?” invites Stephenson. The gentle passages of instrumentation trade well with the increasingly frantic choruses.

Un, Deux, Trois, Cat brimmed with knowing swagger and intelligence which we still feel many months on. Munky well and truly joined the party this year with this stellar release, with buzz around anything from Dublin right now we hope the boys have a promising 2020. (ID)

2. Dry Cleaning- Sweet Princess

“[Dry Cleaning are an] honest and poetic post-punk quartet using observations of society to build intrigue and wit for their audience.”

You haven’t missed the memo; Dry Cleaning really are as fresh as your sordid linen you collected from your local establishment rid of the scars of the weekends antics. Dry Cleaning formed in 2017 as a trio after inspiration was found at a karaoke houseparty, and then to make matters even more unusual 6 months later Florence Shaw (who has a rock n roll day job as a university lecturer) joined the group on vocals having had no prior musical experience. Fast forward to late 2018 the band played their first gig and by 2019 we now one of our top EP’s of the year by one of the industry’s hotly tipped bands.

“Dry Cleaning’s Sweet Princess is sprechesang to perfection, painting careful musical imagery for Florence to layer her part spoken part sung lyrics on.”

Sweet Princess opens with the groups last single from the EP- Goodnight which features the lyrics “Goodnight sweet princess” in reference to Florence’s now deceased cat who in Goodnight has human tendencies having had a conversation with Florence about having “spat cum on the carpet of a Travelodge”. With every listen your ears zone in on different areas of peculiar imagery painted through the EP. Dry Cleaning’s Sweet Princess is sprechesang to perfection, painting careful musical imagery for Florence to layer her part spoken part sung lyrics on.

“[New Job is] the musical gem held back for the full release; the best bit of a roast dinner you leave till last to savour the taste.”

New Job was the musical gem held back for the full release (although it has single ‘quality’); the best bit of a roast dinner you leave till last to savour the taste. New Job is the least abstract of the EP keeping the listeners attention and focus as Florence recounts her experience of a party in monologue form.

Magic Of Meghan’s lyrics like so much of the album gradually ingrain themselves in your mind upon multiple listens.”

When seen on paper the title of third track Magic Of Meghan (or more likely the Spotify app on your phone) you are led to correctly question whether ‘Meghan’ has anything to do with Meghan Markle, and yes you’re right it does. Florence has used Meghan Markle as a muse to discuss in lyrics the scrutiny of people in the public eye and the escapism we can get from following them. Magic Of Meghan’s lyrics like so much of the album gradually ingrain themselves in your mind upon multiple listens. Ironically as Florence delivers the line “Never has one outfit been designed, to send so many messages” the listener both immediately understands Florence’s reference but is also left questioning, how many messages the EP has been designed to send.

“[Sweet Princess’s first three tracks are] post-punk for pogoing [whilst the latter three are] post-punk for fans of musical expression, both with their own brilliance but with clear differences.”

Sweet Princess plays like a vinyl record of two halves, despite it never getting a vinyl release. The metrophorical side B features 3 lower tempo numbers showcasing the avant garde musicianship of the band; side A is post-punk for pogoing, side B is post-punk for fans of musical expression, both with their own brilliance but with clear differences.

“[Phone Scam’s guitar lick is] the kind of lick that confirms to the listener that Dry Cleaning are a band that are more than just Florence’s lyrics.”

Side B’s highlight is Phone Scam continuing to demonstrate diverse guitar work with its repetitive but memorable lick, the kind of lick that confirms to the listener that Dry Cleaning are a band that are more than just Florence’s lyrics. Regardless, Florence is never a lyricist to take the obvious route painting Phone Scam with fictitious ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Content’ stickers due to her unruly delivery of words “cunt” and “dickhead”, no word is off limits for Florence Shaw.

“Sweet Princess proves that no matter how much music is released there is always going to be innovation.”

Traditional Fish and Conversation are sonically Marmite, the type of tracks that for some may be too forward thinking for everyone. Both featuring drone like post-punk chords and sprechesang will be a step too far for some, but the minds that test boundaries are the minds that push the world forward. Sweet Princess proves that no matter how much music is released there is always going to be innovation, Dry Cleaning are a refreshing take on post-punk when Brixton has started becoming a boring faux guitar jazz, drug infused hot bed of talent gone awry.

With a quickly followed by second EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks Dry Cleaning cemented their place on the UK post-punk scene in 2019. With heavy coverage from DIY magazine, Line of Best Fit, Guardian and others so far as well as a spring UK tour, 2020 will be a busy year for the art-school punkers. (JW)

1. China Bears – I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You.

Singles Stay For Good, Sunday and Cold Shivers ahead of the EP saw a gradual demisting of a conceptual work, visually and musically. Surprisingly, the release re-jigged the running order from the single releases, leading off with the emotional Cold Shivers and bookended with the title track, another spacious waltz that tugs equally at the heart-strings.

Stay For Good presented more questions than answers with its counter-intuitive title lulling us into a false sense of security, then ripping out the tablecloth from underneath our best crockery, dismantling a relationship’s death throes: “the morning we woke up and both just knew, I came down and kissed your wounds”. The stuttering ending is pulled right out of the post-rock textbook, Ivan’s acappella denouement hit head-on with a final burst of guitar; a postponement of the inevitable that falls perfectly into place alongside the faltering protagonists of the song.

“[Sunday] captures perfectly the literal and metaphorical tip-toeing around the things that really need to be said, but from which it is easier to shy away.”

Sunday is still perhaps the band’s career high point to date and is a worthy centrepiece for this extended player. The track’s exploration of the communication difficulties in every day relationships are thematically recurrent throughout this suite of songs (Cold Shivers’ oxymoronic “screaming in silence” is another nail-on-the-emotional-head moment), but it’s never more poignantly stated than within the lyrics here. “Is that you coming up the stairs? I can tell by the creaks in the floorboards,” captures perfectly the literal and metaphorical tip-toeing around the things that really need to be said, but from which it is easier to shy away; a greater pain that can only be confronted by being discomforted, one way or another.

It is credit to the conceptual effort that China Bears put into these five recordings that the two new releases here, Trick Myself and the title track itself, almost came as no surprise. Trick Myself is an exercise in living in denial, a cousin to Stay For Good, “I started watching you walk out the door for the last time” laments the plaintive delivery of frontman Ivan, “I don’t need your love if I trick myself enough”.

“This is the altruistic love we all crave, the love of poets, the one powerful and pure enough to let the butterfly go free from the net rather than keep it all to itself.”

The final track on our EP of the year is  the eponymous I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You- a stunning song that packs another huge foundation-rocking punch of intensity. A fragile vocal tells a tale of separation, of a lover left behind while his greatest treasure sets off to chase her dreams. This is the altruistic love we all crave, the love of poets, the one powerful and pure enough to let the butterfly go free from the net rather than keep it all to itself. “I’ve never met anyone like you, not a single one,” pleads Ivan, his voice cracking with the weight of feeling. It’s a love that you want to rejoice in, but one that makes you afraid. It’s devastating to hear a man put all his cards on the table in such a way, with such a risk of having them swept away. You can’t help but feel a sense of disillusionment among the rites of passage documented within the songs, like a veil of innocent youth being slowly lifted to reveal the realities and harshness of adult life. “Looks like we’re getting old” observes Ivan with something approaching a wry half-smile at the sense of trepidation.

“The songs, lyrical concept, detailed arrangements, artwork and quality production all suggest that this should be a big-league arrival for the band.”

I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You unfolded this year as everything it might have been and more, the only wonder is where China Bears can go from here, with such a well-executed piece of work being delivered this soon. When this review was originally written we had no view into the next room but on the winter tour we were given live glimpses of some pretty special new work- 2020 looks promising for China Bears fans. The songs, lyrical concept, detailed arrangements, artwork and quality production all suggest that this should be a big-league arrival for the band. China Bears have fired an arrow through the heart, with a rare emotional precision. I’ve Never Met Anyone Like Youis a gift from the heavens; an absolute masterpiece. (ID)

Contributors: James Wadsworth @jamespart31, Iain Dalgleish @idalgleishmusic and James O’Sullivan @jsully2510.