Born in Cambridge in 1966, English songwriter and musician Richard Youngs (now based in Glasgow, Scotland) has already lived several lives in music, from his teens and twenties deep in the UK industrial underground, as one half of Omming For Woks and head of the Jabberwocky imprint, through the 1990s, where his ongoing collaboration with Simon Wickham-Smith moved him across all kinds of wild terrain, to his more recent form, where an ongoing reconciliation with song has Youngs singing out somewhere between elemental folk forms and electrified, home-baked rock.
But this narrative doesn’t quite do him justice: after all, with a body of work that stretched to well over 100 records, including scorched earth a cappella, gridless house and techno re-ups, ballistic electronic concatenations, conceptual prankery, and much more besides, it can be hard to get a grip on exactly what Youngs does – or, far more importantly, what he’s about to do next.
That element of surprise functions just as well for the listener as it does the performer. There’s no antagonism in Youngs’ generic vaulting (at least not anymore); rather, you can hear in the music itself the joy in exploration and experimentation, in discovering what can and can’t be done within a set of parameters, and also within pushing at those strictures, and finding new ways to articulate timeless sentiments.
And while there is often a conceptual edge to what Youngs does, or a core “approach” or set of ideas he is exploring on each record, his music also has a rare ability to communicate lucidly from the heart.
The following list should be taken as an introductory flip-book, only: there are many, many more gems in Youngs’ catalogue which I haven’t been able to write about here. Furthermore, a number of Youngs’ more significant releases can be hard to find, either due to being currently out of print, or released in small editions via his own private press, No Fans – though VHF Records are currently readying a 7CD box set compiling some of the latter, entitled No Fans Compendium, for release in April of this year. However, each of the albums listed below signposts something significant in his music; some of them represent turning points in his creative arc, where others come closer to being an ideal summation of certain aspects of music that Youngs returns to (i.e. minimalism, folk song, hymnals). Good luck on your trip.
Richard Youngs - Advent
(No Fans, 1990; reissued Table Of The Elements, 1997; reissued Jagjaguwar, 2004)
Youngs’ first solo album, Advent, self-released in an edition of 300 copies, offers a microcosm of the many interests of his subsequent career: repetition and permutation of simple melodic cells; juxtaposition of light and dark; using systems against themselves to produce emotionally resonant material. Recorded in the halls of residence while Youngs was studying in London, Advent consists of three songs, each built around a five-note tattoo for piano, accompanied, in turn, by voice, oboe, and some particularly furious feedback guitar. Depending on how you approach it, Advent can feel like either a furthering of the key tenets of minimalism – as Alan Licht obviously reads it, given his inclusion of Advent in one of his Minimalism Top 10 lists – or a massive dare. In truth, it’s a bit of both. Nowadays, Youngs calls it an “angry young man’s record.”
R!!!S!!! - LAKE
(No Fans, 1990; reissued VHF, 2000)
The second release on Youngs’ private press, No Fans, is, if anything, more of a dare than Advent. Youngs had introduced himself to Simon Wickham-Smith after overhearing him talking about John Cage, and as Youngs told David Keenan back in 2005, “By the end of the week we’d been to a Stockhausen concert together.” Youngs has had many musical foils over the years, but his relationship with Wickham-Smith feels particularly significant, not just because LAKE launched both of them into underground consciousness, thanks to ‘zine and fledgling record distributor Forced Exposure picking up on its peculiar personality.
Mostly acoustic, LAKE explores experimentation from many different angles, taking in miniatures for dual-instrument improvisation, obsessive iterations of chords, wild percussive clatter, and the first hint at a continued interest in traditional hymnals as melodic structures that allow for plenty of breathing space. But LAKE crests with its final side, from the mysterious harmonies of “Bells,” to the mammoth drone-song that is “Goat,” the first Wickham-Smith and Youngs classic.
Simon Wickham-Smith & Richard Youngs - Ceacescu
(Forced Exposure, 1992)
It’s appropriate that the second R!!! S!!! album, Ceacescu, came about more through chance than planning – this kind of happenstance populates much of their career. Despite this, Ceacescu is also a focused album, one side of almost-pop songs – the opening “I Live in a Big City” simultaneously sounds tiny and home-made, thanks to its hissing drum machine, and epic, due to the ecstatic organ and guitar that encircles the chanted melody. From there, the album moves through the Youngs and Wickham-Smith aesthetic – rough electronics, chants that hover over songs like a Fontana Mix super-imposition, the definitive “Goat,” before you flip the album side for two short studies, and the sea-sick, woozy title song, one of their earliest drone dreams. When I first heard this record, after encounters with more becalmed albums like Youngs’ collaboration with Stephen Todd, Georgians, its rough, punk-ish edge startled, until the underlying elegance of the songs shone through.
Richard Youngs - Festival
(Table Of The Elements, 1994)
The Table Of The Elements aesthetic always felt 180 degrees at odds with the homemade brio of Richard Youngs’ music; he met their distanced poise head-on with extended compositions, suspended in wintry reverb. Like much of his music at the time, it was grounded in the psychogeography of the everyday – Youngs’ clock chimes play a big part – though the crackle of needling Wasp synthesis percolate, unsettling, underneath much of the record. Festival plays out best as a complete suite, but if you need to dip in, make sure you go for “Angel Petrina Bell,” the lake of drone that sits in the centre of the album.
Simon Wickham-Smith & Richard Youngs - Enedkeg
Enedkeg is one of the duo’s most beguiling propositions: it is assured and unhurried, but with underlying tension. The album’s seeming calm comes both from the way it was approached – a minimum of fuss, and the liner notes are signed off with the legend, “A normal Sunday, nothing to do” – and the way it cleaves to the duo’s fondness for classical minimalism. The album is all about the side-long “Duet,” where Youngs and Wickham-Smith pick up violin and Casio respectively and roll out their most considered take on minimalist music, as though Tony Conrad and Anthony Moore faced off in a Harpenden bedsit. It’s my pick for the single finest moment from across their prodigious collaboration.
Richard Youngs - Sapphie
(Oblique, 1998; reissued Jagjaguwar, 2000, 2006)
One of only two releases on the Oblique label, Sapphie initially slipped out relatively unnoticed. Over time, however, it has come to be considered one of Youngs’ signal recordings. There are a number of reasons for this: perhaps its relative emotional nakedness struck a raw chord with a number of listeners; certainly, it was where Youngs really started to explore an ongoing relationship with British folk forms. When Sapphie was released, Youngs was perhaps better known for his experimental work with Simon Wickham-Smith, and it’s fascinating to hear the shakiness in some of the performance, Youngs straining for notes he can’t quite reach. The concluding, sidelong “The Graze of Days” is Youngs at his most direct and moving.
Simon Wickham-Smith & Richard Youngs - Pulse of the Rooster
Pulse of the Rooster isn’t the only R!!! & S!!! album to be composed entirely of songs – they had previously recorded Songphase for a label David Keenan was planning to start (it was eventually released as part of the 20 Years set on VHF). But while Songphase was an unmistakably pop record, Pulse of the Rooster feels more of a piece with the duo’s earlier records, as though they’d narrowed down all that made those records so great – monolithic chords, clattering homemade percussion, shuttling rhythm boxes, wailing drones – and placed them into the service of melodies that gestured more clearly than ever toward a love of progressive rock. It reaches its apex on the final two songs, the sky-strafing “By the Sea,” and the closing, waterlogged “Learners,” which features one of Simon’s finest vocal performances.
Ilk - Zenith
(No Fans, 1998)
There’s no irony here, just genuine love for an oft-maligned genre.
If Pulse of the Rooster headed in the direction of progressive rock, here was Richard’s first full-blown attempt at mastering the form. Zenith got most everything right, from the opening proclamations about “gorse tapestries” from Youngs’ father, to the multi-part suites dotted throughout the album, the occasional dips into languid melancholy (the beautiful “When Falling” is one of Youngs’ finest melodies), and the dramatic, heart-winding conclusion to “Decrease,” where Youngs cries out, “last night, I dreamed of the ocean,” against huffing tone-float. Even the artwork, with its standing stones, worked. There’s no irony here, just genuine love for an oft-maligned genre. Andrew Paine, co-lyricist on Zenith, would join Youngs on four subsequent Ilk albums, but Zenith sets out the project’s store most potently.
Richard Youngs - River Through Howling Sky
Richard’s run of song-based albums for Jagjaguwar, paced throughout most of the 2000s, make for an index of possibility, with Youngs using each album to explore certain parameters, or tease out his approach to specific genres. It’s hard to select just one from this unofficial series, but River Through Howling Sky sits both as a personal favourite, and some of the most haunted, uncanny music Youngs has made.
If it was, as Richard has said, “an attempt to make a blues record,” it’s a success insofar as it takes both the free-breathing of blues playing, and the emotional heft of great blues, and drops them in a frozen climate. The tools Youngs uses are minimal – pulsing bass, wind chimes, the simplest of percussion, and guitar: both filigree acoustic, and some of Youngs’ nastiest electric guitar work in some time. “Blossom” is the ghosted pinnacle, a mythopoeic reverie.
Richard Youngs - Summer Wanderer
(No Fans, 2005; reissued Gipsy Sphinx, 2007)
It’s tempting to suggest that for Youngs, like Keiji Haino, the voice is the primary instrument.
One of the bleakest passes in Youngs’ canon, and also one of the strongest, Summer Wanderer is his a cappella album. Sit this one back-to-back with the hesitant vocal performances on Sapphie and you can really hear how far Youngs has come as a vocalist in the decade between – indeed, on the evidence of Summer Wanderer, it’s tempting to suggest that for Youngs, like Keiji Haino, the voice is the primary instrument. The centrepiece is “Summer’s Edge,” a twenty-three minute performance that resonates the seasons with breath and stately melody.
Richard Youngs - (untitled)
(No Fans, 2006)
Around this time, Youngs’ song albums moved in circular motion; it seemed as though he’d select instruments, an approach to playing each instrument, and then record strictly with those parameters in mind. It made albums like this untitled set feel as though they were floating across multiple time zones, the instruments intersecting and then drifting apart. But there are no “chance operations” here, or if there are, they’re concealed through the overarching integrity of the performances and song concepts.
The album starts unassumingly, with the minute-long “The Boredom of Poetry,” but by the time you’ve worked through the multiple permutations for instruments like acoustic guitar, cifteli, shakuhachi and kazoo (the latter two seem to be in constant duet/duel, in particular), and reached the closing “Cluster to a Star,” the cumulative effect is transporting.
Richard Youngs - Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits
(Sonic Oyster, 2009; reissued Jagjaguwar, 2010)
Given the story behind Beyond the Valley of the Ultrahits, and other such tales – 2013’s Summer Through My Mind was a dare, of sorts, from Ben Goldberg of Ba Da Bing to Youngs to make a country album – it seems Youngs appreciates being given puzzles to solve, or hurdles to overcome. (Last year I dared him to make a disco album, and he subsequently sent me two radically different versions within three weeks.)
Ultrahits has always been a strange beast – it proves that if Youngs wanted to eke out a career simply as an underground pop musician, he has the chops, but it also points backwards to some unexpected loves, such as the unescapable ’80s tenor of some of the material (in one interview, Youngs mentioned the Pet Shop Boys as a reference, of sorts). The beats come from tweaked drum machines, and the hooks land with grace and vigour, none more so than the opening, blissed-out raft of melody that is “The Valley in Flight.”
Richard Youngs - Core to the Brave
(Root Strata, 2012)
A shot in the arm for anyone who holds Youngs up as a folk singer, Core to the Brave is indeed a rock record, smelted from the crucible of distortion: the guitars are livid and furious, the riffs unrelenting, the drum machine often just about ready to veer into chaos. It’s a thrill to hear Youngs connecting with volume and ferocity here; it seems like there was something in the air around this time, as Inceptor, the album he recorded for the late, lamented Volcanic Tongue, is similarly overloaded. But in its scope, Core to the Brave sits as the best of Youngs’ recent, more rock-oriented form, particularly when you reach the wild kindness of the final song, “The Healing of Everyone,” which reels out into silence after one of Youngs’ giddiest guitar solos to date.
Richard Youngs - Stormcrash
(No Fans, 2012)
A significant record for reconnecting Youngs to the source – though he’d released cassettes and CD-Rs on No Fans, this was the first vinyl since the original trilogy of LAKE, Advent and New Angloid Sound. Each sidelong suite has songs folding into each other, the odd, unrelenting spine of the album – its long, album-length guitar solo – providing an unstable core for instruments to coalesce around, or more often, rub against in friction. Stormcrash is an essay in frustration of expectations, and of single-minded pursuit of something inexplicably other, from the whinnying electronic alarm that courses through the album’s opening moments, to the consumptive cries of Youngs’ vocals, distorted and breathless, much like Michael Morley of The Dead C.
Richard Youngs - Red Alphabet In The Snow
(Preserved Sound, 2014)
After a few years with a prodigious release schedule – he released six albums in 2013 alone – Youngs seemed to calm down a little last year. All the better to draw attention to Red Alphabet in the Snow, one of his most quietly powerful albums in some time. It’s built from see-sawing strings, tangling and winding together in unexpected ways, weaving around the simplest of chord shapes, with Youngs occasionally breaking into wordless vocal melodies that repeatedly shift the album into a different gear.
By the end of side two, things are oceanic, the listener peering out from the undergrowth as massed strings send phrases levitating across the carapace of night. There’s something redolent of the pastoralism of ’70s progressive rock in Red Alphabet in the Snow: perhaps, as an artist grows and the years pass, they move closer and closer to the true music of their heart. In this way, Red Alphabet… is Youngs at his most disarmed and disarming.
Thank you to Dylan Lardelli for his help with this article. For more on Richard Youngs and these albums, Jon Dale has provided an appendix at https://richardyoungsappendix.blogspot.com.