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Original Machines: Conrad Keely Album Review

Conrad Keely: Introduction to The Artist

Conrad Keely, 2010, photographed by Ofer Wolberger for Spin Magazine .
pic via Tumblr user yourcatwasdelicious

When Conrad Keely was asked by Music Radar to name '10 albums that changed my f**king life forever', he first looked at the lists of albums submitted by previous respondents. A succession of his musical contemporaries and music industry legends had each cited ten works that had had a profound influence on their lives and careers. The titles chosen were, largely, the critically-acclaimed, gazillion-selling seminal works that invariably make up '100 greatest albums of all time' lists in music magazines: 'Axis Bold as Love' by The Jimi Hendrix Experience or 'Revolver' by the Beatles. Kind-of obvious, right? Someone had even selected Bob Dylan's 'Greatest Hits'.

Conrad came up with his own personal list of ten albums that have had a profound influence on his life. It just so happens that most of his choices were completely out-there, obscure works such as Mike Oldfield's 'Incantations' or Unwound's 'Fake Train'. He also included 'Tao of the Dead' – the 2011 album by Conrad's band ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (“It was the album we made that I didn't really care if anyone else liked”). Conrad's article is an interesting read and sheds light on his passionately non-conformist artistic personality. Like the header of the piece says: He means it!

The special edition art-book for Original Machines is 100% original work by Keely
Visiting Conrad in his Phnom Penh home, one is as likely to find him working with watercolours as writing a chapter of his novel, or rehearsing a set of music for an upcoming show. A pianist, guitarist, cellist, drummer... (the list goes on), Conrad is about as interested in sticking to one musical instrument as he is interested in staying within one artistic discipline. The special edition of his first solo record, Original Machines is accompanied by a 56-page book containing original art-work, photography, lyrics and writings.

Keely was born in Nuneaton, England, in 1972 to an Irish mother and Thai father. He grew up in locations as far-flung as Thailand, Hawaii and Bedworth, England. Conrad later lived in Olympia, Washington before forming ...Trail of Dead with his long-time musical collaborator Jason Reece in Austin, Texas. (http://conradkeelyart.bigcartel.com/about; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Keely).

On the bus: pic via KEXP blog
A person's biography does not necessarily define them, it only offers a map of how they arrived at where they are in the present. Their cumulative experiences are nothing more than a trail of memories to draw from - literally - but the future they point towards is forever unpredictable. I've learned this every year of my life, when new circumstances that arise find me in another part of the world, on a new stage in my development. There has never been anything predictable, and I have a suspicion there never will be.

Perhaps for that reason my art has never evolved in one direction, but in many, in a fashion some might accuse of being stylistically irresponsible. I'm happy to take responsibility for that.”

The Making of Original Machines

When ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead toured Europe with Canadian alternative rock band Your Favourite Enemies in the Autumn of 2014, Conrad was extremely interested to hear about the band's highly unconventional set-up. The Drummondville rockers had, in 2009, bought a former catholic church and its presbytery in Centre-du-Québec, Canada. The building was transformed into Your Favourite Enemies' headquarters – comprising of 'two professional recording studios, installations for web broadcast and live recording, a TV set, offices for their label 'Hopeful Tragedy Records' as well as the non-profit human rights organisation 'Rock N Rights' (http://yourfavoriteenemies.com/main/biography/). Near the section of the church where a huge pipe organ had once been situated (the pipe organ had unfortunately already been removed by the time the band moved in) was a dormitory with space for around thirty people. The extended Your Favourite Enemies family, jokingly referred to by bassist and producer Ben Lemelin as a 'kind-of a cult', all live together in the former church building.

Conrad recognised that the Your Favourite Enemies complex could be the ideal place for him to finish recording his solo record:

Quite a live-room! the Your Favourite Enemies Studio
When [Your Favourite Enemies] were touring with us, and described to me the church, I kind-of jokingly said it would be great to come and record there. I knew, just from the description of it, that it would be a great place to record. ...I told them I confirmed my ticket the week before I flew to Canada.“

The vast majority of the tracks for the album had already been recorded by Keely, at his home in Phnom Penh or out on the road:

in the back of the ...Trail of Dead tourbus

I used all the stuff that I recorded on the road. While I was in the back of the bus I added guitars, keyboards and samples and stuff and then I sang vocals. ...A few people that have heard [Original Machines] said it doesn't sound like my voice... when the tour was done I had really bad bronchitis. ...Two to three weeks before going to Canada I needed to lay down vocals for the album, I wanted everything recorded before I went in to [the Your Favourite Enemies studio]
Your Favourite Enemies were more than happy to accommodate Conrad, being huge fans of ...Trail of Dead. Over a period of weeks, producer Ben Lemelin helped Conrad shape the record (Conrad is credited as co-producer). The album was also mastered in-house on specialised software. Ben was both excited and apprehensive about the Original Machines project, as it was the first time that he had used the studio complex to work on a project outside of Your Favourite Enemies. '...He was really pleased with the results'.
Ben Lemelin -  pic: Youtube

The Album

Conrad Keely is not one to go for the obvious choice. In keeping with his highly varied background and diverse modes of artistic expression, his first solo album is a tightly-packed mix of sounds and styles. There are not many anthemic, sing-a-long choruses to be found here. Indeed, the listener often has to listen hard to hear the hooks and the lyrics, sometimes buried deep in the musical matrix. Keely does not make it easy. Further, some of the tracks – such as the title song and album opener 'Original Machines' – are restricted to such a short length as to seem almost self-sabotaging. However, the course of the 24-track set of songs only once veers into the realm of the throw-away ('Marcel was Here'). If, at first listen, the personality of the album could be described as somewhat neurotic, repeated playings reveal an extremely original and well-constructed collection of songs.

Watching the video for the track 'Warm Insurrection' may help uncover the Conrad Keely experience. Here, a fantastic collection of original artwork is animated together with the inspiring and personally revealing lyrics of the song ('I killed my dreams one failure at a time/I resembled the mask inside I had created in my mind'). The effect is powerful:

Another album highlight, 'Row Away', shows Keely's prodigious talent as a composer and arranger. Lush, deep layers of vocal harmony are meshed with trademark spiky, short rhythmical guitar figures and busy, almost-out-of-place-but-not synth sequences. The track is an intriguing and compelling production.

Conrad's songwriting shines during the more plaintive, downbeat moments on the album when the layers of electric guitars, beats and synths are absent. The piano-led 'All That's Left is Land' is perhaps the most conventional track on the record in terms of song structure and arrangement, and is - along with 'Looking for Anchors' - a beautifully delicate high point.

Cambodian Connection

The album is rife with references to Conrad's (current) adopted home, Cambodia. 'Engines of The Dark' is inspired by a heady night out in Phnom Penh with drinking partner Anthony Mrugacz (former manager of seminal Phnom Penh expat music venue, Equinox). The song captures the post-dawn, pre-hangover moment of exhausted excitement when the bars have finally shut their doors:

'Can we afford one more distraction before the threat of this coming new day?
Where we could sample life and wealth and words, and what had happened and what it means to stay...
...Engines of the dark unfold between the places we banished along the way
At least a thousand faces staring out unlit windows like a Halloween parade'

Elsewhere, Kampot is a recurring subject. The provincial city is something of an artistic muse and a retreat for Keely – somewhere to catch one's breath, reflect, recover. Much of this album was written in, or travelling to or from, Kampot.

'I'm on a ride today
I'm on a cloud today
I'm on a train to the south
I'm all alone today
But I'm alive today
I'm on a drive through the dark'

- 'Drive to Kampot'

My current plan is to stay in Cambodia”

Conrad performs with Sok Chiet and The Kampot Playboys, pic: Steve Porte
Conrad has enlisted his sometime band-mate Mark Chattaway to help him perform the album live at two shows in Phnom Penh. Mark is the bassist and band leader of Cambodian rock-fusion outfit The Kampot Playboys. Conrad will be playing guitar and piano, with Mark on bass and guitar. Keely also promises special local guests on fiddle (Julius) and drums (Henrik).

It is pleasing to note that the singer has decided to remain in Phnom Penh for the release party of Original Machines - many hope that he will continue to live here and contribute his formidable artistic creativity to a country and an arts scene that needs all the help it can get. When not painting, writing or performing, Conrad can also be found producing recordings by local bands, jamming at open mic sessions or giving art lessons.

His record label (Superball Music) is based in Düsseldorf, his band (...Trail of Dead) is based in Austin, Texas and Los Angeles. But the multi-talented author of Original Machines is, for now at least, at home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

  • 'Original Machines' is released on Friday the 22nd January 2016, on Superball Music
  • Conrad Keely plays an early evening show at Farm to Table on Friday 22nd January, and a later show at Meta House on the same evening.
  • Conrad Keely talked to Joe Wrigley for Leng Pleng at his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 17th January 2016.
Keely with Leng Pleng at his home in Phnom Penh city.

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