In 2020, the eponymously titled Billy Nomates album, the first by Bristol-based songwriter Tor Maries, oozed post-punk minimalism with very healthy slices of anger and confrontation served in a DIY bun. However, if you tried to eat it, you’d have likely got a smack in the mouth. Maries latest offering, CACTI, takes a different approach. Instead of fending you off, Maries is now letting you in.
Maries has not forgone her DIY approach with CACTI. However, there’s a little more substance and polish on display. Sonically, there is a greater heft to this album. Emotionally, there is a rawness and a vulnerability not seen previously.
This is clear in the first track ‘balance is gone’. A guitar greets you in the first few seconds followed by Maries singing, “My inner peace is broken into five/I meditate but I am not alive”. Already we are seeing her lay herself bare, a theme that runs throughout this album. A pulsing bass and drum pound throughout the song. Maries singing on this track is that of a person in pain. “Everything is happening without me” she cries. Quite the opposite of the spiky Billy Nomates of the first album.
‘black curtains in the bag’ has a Yazoo-Esque synth throughout as we hear how “John’s really good in his heart/He’s really bad in his mind”. Maries’ vocal has an Americana feel to it, possibly influenced by her father’s musical interests. This recording sees her showcase a greater vocal ability than was shown on her first album. It is certainly better for it.
Next up, we are taken into a dark space emitting a ray of light with ‘blue bones (deathwish)’. Tackling her mental health, Maries explains how “Death don’t turn me on like it used to”. Jangly guitar leads you on a path of self-realisation, leaving dark thoughts behind – written after Maries got back home to Bristol after spending the third covid lockdown, being holed up at her Dad’s home in the Isle of Wight.
The album title track ‘CACTI’ sees a descent into loneliness and confusion. There is a feeling of being lost, never to return. “Off again to dance in hostile sands/Me and the desert holding hands/The thorn in my side, the sun in my eyes”, croons Maries as musical layers build throughout the track. Cacti usually survive in very challenging terrains, sometimes against all odds. Perhaps it is this aspect that draws parallels for Ms Nomates.
The subject of self-sabotage is served up next with the track ‘saboteur forcefield’. Musically, it reminds me of a Soft Cell track with a David Ball signature synth playing throughout. Again, we see Maries exposing her innermost self in hope of learning how to stop some of the destructive patterns of her behaviour. This is a complete turnaround in comparison to her first album. This introspective nature is refreshing and shows us a very different side to Tor Maries. Whilst it may have been difficult for her to do, it allows a deeper connection with the songwriter. You feel part of her life as opposed to part of her gang. You want to walk by her side as she strides into her personal battles.
An eerie layered vocal combined with old-fashioned fairground organ music creates the ballad ‘roundabout sadness’. You certainly get the overriding feeling of spinning around, living the same repeated experience, disoriented and unable to get off the ride.
‘spite’ sees Maries back to her bullish best in this antithesis of a love song. The Americana-flavoured vocal reappears here but with more venom. A prominent drumbeat punctuates as Maries rants, “Little boy, don’t think you quite understand/Don’t you act like I ain’t the fu**ing man”. Piss her off at your peril, it seems.
Stripping it back again, we have ‘fawner’ – a song dealing with vulnerability. It has a slight Beautiful South feel to it with the vocals feeling a little like Jacqui Abbott singing “Rotterdam” but with a smattering of Roseanne Reid applied. “From the outside in, there’s no point even playing/From the outside in, yeah the game is rigged for the ladies in waiting”, is sung in a breathy voice by Maries. It’s hard to imagine a song like this coming into being after listening to her debut album.
‘same gun’ is a strange one. Whenever I played it, I wanted to start singing ‘Maneater’ by Hall & Oates. Once that got stuck in my mind, I found it challenging to get past it. I think it was the bass line and piano combo. As a result, it lessened the song for me. This is no fault of the songwriter, more to do with my dislike of Hall & Oates.
Now we come to possibly my favourite track of the album, ‘vertigo’. Here, Maries utilizes Sprechgesang. In other words, spoken singing. Every day is a school day. Never let it be said that music isn’t educational. The combination of the vocals against the different key changes throws you off balance. You feel uneasy. It feels like vertigo. “What on earth is this?/Is this what I’ve waited for?/Step out of my front door and the ground caves in”, sounds like getting back to normal after covid lockdown only to find out that normal isn’t all that great.
The construction of soundscapes throughout ‘apathy is wild’ makes for an interesting sonic experience. Musically, it is far from apathetic, lyrically it is a one-way street to nihilism. This is an interesting juxtaposition – as if the world is the music and the voice of the songwriter is lost within that world, almost irrelevant.
Finally, ‘blackout signal’ makes for a fitting finale. Once more, we are treated to interesting layers of sound throughout the track. The song has a futuristic/sci-fi feel. “I can’t wait for the blackout signal/I dream of shutdowns now”, Maries warbles repeatedly in a style similar to Sinéad O’Connor. Covid-19 and the changes it brought echo throughout this album. For some, national covid lockdowns were a blessing. No more excuses as to why you can’t possibly go out. Nobody coming to your door uninvited. Some of those issues that have been harassing you for months suddenly go away. There are aspects of lockdown I genuinely miss, as it seems is the case for Maries. The track ends abruptly as if to say, ‘what next?’. This is a very good question.
What is next for Billy Nomates? She has produced a very confident and polished album that has shown her to be much more than her first album ever alluded to. Whilst her post-punk minimalism worked well it would have been limiting to stick to that style. In CACTI, Maries shows she is much more. Opening herself up, showing her humanity and vulnerabilities, expanding her musical styles and instrumentation, and demonstrating her singing abilities has led to an excellent album you will want to go back to in its entirety or select tracks depending on your own mood.
The pony that is Billy Nomates has far more than one trick. In fact, it might get into the Magic Circle if this trajectory is maintained.