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ROC

ROC is Fred Browning (vocals, music), Karen Sheridan (vocals, music), Patrick Nicholson (music).

Over three albums and fourteen singles/EPs, from “God Willing” (1993) and “Girl With A Crooked Eye” (1994), to 2006’s “Night Fold Around Me”, ROC have delighted and confounded fans and critics, ignoring musical boundaries to create what has been variously called ‘the sound of paranoia’, ‘toxic euphoria’, as well as ‘startling, beautiful and addictive’.

“You never know what you’re gonna get next from this lot…I’m all in favour of that.” (John Peel, airing ROC’s BBC Radio 1 session)

ROC have been labelled ‘perverse’ and ‘uncategorisable’. Rather than rehearse the cliches of a selected genre (like some of their contemporaries), they view the whole of pop (and beyond) as theirs to play with. They started out making tapes from lined-up cassette-players, dictaphones, drum-machines, guitars, keyboards… dance beats flowed into rock ‘n’ roll, through spoken word, pop melodies and into electronic/industrial noise. With sampling technology emerging as they made their first releases, ROC were unlikely to restrict themselves.

But this was not some intellectual exercise. ROC use all available tools in the service of musical, emotional impact. “ROC’s intention is to disturb and disorientate, and while your brow furrows in uncertain indignation, they hit you right in the gut with great tunes. Timeless tunes, even.” (Melody Maker)

And while some assumed ROC were just mischievous, others felt they were reflecting something more complex:

“be young, be British, parade some sickly indie variant of pop around the shop, watch your so-called career rise in times of chest-beating patriotism and then dip sharply when people come to their senses; alternatively take the ROC route and visit a Britain that is a more paranoid place that the Albion of their peers. ROC examine the true youth stories of our time: the long-term effects of hedonism, atomised, uncertain urban lives, boredom.” (NME 1996)

“their references are as broad as the Severn Bridge, from Velvet Underground to Phil Spector, DJ Shadow to Kraftwerk, kitsch rock to Europop, but that doesn’t matter because ROC still make it sound like they’re treading through virgin territory.” (Melody Maker 1996).

ROC began in the late 80s as a loose collective revolving around Fred and Patrick (who had met at school), recording on various floors around London, swapping available instruments and gadgets. An early version of the group played a festival in Warsaw (in communist Poland) in 1987. By their debut single ‘Dead Step’ (1993) ROC was Fred and Patrick plus Karen Sheridan (a Glasgow native whose family emigrated to Colorado when she was a child), Russell Warby, and Peter Burgess who recorded ROC’s first five singles/EPs in his Brixton studio.

From their first tapes ROC had often used speech fragments for a track’s vocal part, and “Dead Step” is built around a voice (Russell) on an answerphone, floating in the ether. French magazine Les Inrockuptibles said: “Can here, ambient hip-hop there, everything frosted and flowing, perfect for summer”. However as recording/writing continued, Fred and Karen’s voices became the group’s focal points and as ROC recorded their debut album the group was a trio of Fred, Karen and Patrick, plus collaborators including bassist/producer Gareth Huw Davies.

Early singles displayed a tendency to black humour. “Girl With A Crooked Eye” is a story of domestic violence on the Costa Del Sol, and “X-ine” (1994) contains the line “I hope you both get Aids”. But the debut album “ROC” (Setanta Records 1996) revealed more personal, exposed material: forlorn breakup songs, screaming rants and self-loathing. But they weren’t above upbeat pop (“Hey You Chick!”), dreamy instrumentals and spoken word. Plus all manner of sound effects, phone messages, taped conversations, fragments of tv and radio; “Excised” starts with a secret recording of a friend’s wedding. “ROC” was co-produced with Danton Supple (Coldplay, Morrissey), who continued to work with ROC on their subsequent albums.

“ROC” was met with widespread praise. Music Week said “A storming debut album by this outfit who are impossible to categorise. The extraordinarily diverse set veers from electronic ambience to slick pop tunes. An early candidate for album of the year.”

NME: “Welcome to the new faces in hell, here to take over the mantle of Satanic Beasts Of Weird Eclecticism last handled by Tricky and Martina. A diabolical vocal duo christened Karen Sheridan and Fred Browning who, (along with their musical lodger Patrick Nicholson) go by the name of ROC…There are moments of outstanding abstract beauty (‘Balloon’ , its jazzy sister ‘Real Time’ and the Orb-friendly monologue of Thirteen Summers’), blind fury (‘Excised’), fine off-kilter pop (‘l Want You I Need You I Miss You’), and much, much strangeness {everything).”

Melody Maker: “Between love and madness lies the ROC album, stretching out to touch both at once. I think I’m in love with them, whoever they are, because they know me so well. And you. They understand you, too. You’ve never met but they have read your mind.”

Branded pranksters by some music professionals, ROC’s story is one of committed perseverance. They gained a ‘difficult’ reputation when their label wrote an open letter to the London music industry warning people against working with them. Despite (or because) of this and the critical response to “ROC”, the group signed to Virgin/EMI in 1996 and released a second album, “Virgin” in 1997. The album was so-titled after the label agreed that the artwork would simply be the famous Virgin logo printed full size across the front, an undertaking broken at the last minute on grounds that ‘retailers would think they were advertising Virgin shops’.

David Stubbs wrote (In Uncut magazine): “Virgin, their label, would like to see them as a commercially viable pop band. ROC see themselves as sometime revolutionary sonic kamikazes who make night raids on your preconceptions – and a commercially viable pop band. What are ROC? “Virgin” delights in posing more questions than answers. lf you heard their single, ‘Cheryl”, last spring, a prim and presentable piece of backtracking electro-pop, you’ll be all the more astonished by “Dada”, the opener here. Sampling heavily from Barbet Schroeder’s famous 1974 documentary about Ugandan dictator ldi Amin, including his chilling, stentorian chuckle when he is reminded by the interviewer of remarks he made in praise of Hitler, it’s a screaming, rhythmic firestorm. lf you heard their recent single, “(Dis)count Us In”, with its intoxicating, loping Hawaiian guitar loop shot through with a stream-of-consciousness narrative, you’ll be pleasingly puzzled by “Mountain”, Karen Sheridan’s beautiful balladic lament, as shattered as Big Star’s “Kangaroo”. ROC are capable of anything, and demonstrate as much – sadly, this sort of approach is considered commercially unviable; it screws up the corporate sales pitch when the artist won’t sit still. Still, if the prospect of a decentred, pillar-to-post ride through the postmodern gamut doesn’t give you a nosebleed, then you and ROC deserve each other.”

Much as “Virgin” built on ROC’s ‘perverse’ reputation with its Idi Amin samples (and on ‘Sedwotised’ a mass of cutups from Jerry Springer-type US TV), the album is interspersed with raw heartfelt moments. NME said: “‘Ocean and England’ will melt you into a shimmering puddle”. Q magazine said: “it ends with a love song – now that is unsettling.”

“Virgin” built on its predecessor with more positive reviews. Single releases “Cheryl”, “(Dis)Count Us In”, and also “Hey You Chick” (licensed from the first album) each scored Single of the Week in UK music papers NME or Melody Maker. Plaudits also came from such diverse quarters as Radiohead, Orbital, and Dannii Minogue, guest-reviewing “(Dis)Count Us In” for Melody Maker: “this is very relaxed. It’s really chilled out. I like things which are kind of hypnotic and this has got the groove, hasn’t it? And it’s immediate too. Fantastic.”

But while ROC were enjoying the recognition, Virgin’s executives were at war. ROC’s A&R man left the company, and the group lasted another year on the label before being dropped while recording a third album in 1999.

Career-wisdom suggested ROC were finished. But not being careerists, ROC continued, belatedly touring the UK (with Sneaker Pimps) and self-releasing the single “Soviva” (1999), first demoed for Virgin. NME said: “We like this because of its politely restrained sense of anger and bitterness.” Time Out magazine said: “(ROC) return with a slow-building, twisted treasure that pumps a New-Order bassline, lush strings and a disturbingly cracked vocal into The Clash’s “Lost In The Supermarket” and comes up trumps. Again.”

In 2000 former NME dance-editor Ben Willmott issued “2000Mann” on his Spiky label. London’s Metro newspaper said: “ROC’s abrasive surfaces and gutter basslines seem deliberately to aim to repel audiences. 2000MANN takes this even further, sharing the same skin-crawling quality as the sound of fingernails being scratched down a blackboard and as twisted and fractured in mood as any of Tricky’s worst hallucinations. Needless to say, it’s about as uncommercial as you can get, and all the more bloodcurdlingly brilliant for it.”

In 2002 ROC issued a 12″ of “I Want You I Need You I Miss You” (from the first album) as remixed by long-time collaborator and dj Nicky Holt (aka Solah). The single drew warm responses from club djs, among them Richard Norris (The Grid), Chris Carter, and Headrillaz, and became a summer favourite at Cream in Ibiza.

In 2004 ROC they were back in the studio (completing the album begun at Virgin) with long-standing collaborators Danton Supple and Gareth Huw Davies at the desk. “Night Fold Around Me” was completed in Spring 2005.

A single, “Princess”, was BBC 6music’s Evening Single of the Week in July 2005. Gigwise.com said: “Fred sings: “So let the bombs drop and all the guns shoot and the children all burn while the population loots – because that’s all happening a million miles away and nothing’s going to spoil our perfect day.” Half light, half dark; it makes you feel relaxed and uncomfortable, reassured and disturbed all at the same time.”

In 2005 ROC joined forces with new electronic label 12 Apostles to release a follow-up single “Journey to the Centre of Brixton” made Playlouder.com’s readers poll best singles of 2005, with radio play on BBC Radio 1 and 6music. A limited 12″ was issued with hand-assembled artwork and remixes by Ollo, Oh Astro and Bullet Proof Sounds.

In 2006 ROC’s third album “Night Fold Around Me” was released by 12 Apostles. Q magazine said: “In the mid-’90s, ROC, like Underworld, tapped into an interesting dance/guitar hybrid. Urban paranoia and moody melody is what they do best…artistically the trio remained an intriguing fringe concern, and this belated third album sees that continuing.”

The Scotsman said: “Ironically the trio have now made their most accessible album. This is a terrific collection of lush, intelligent electro pop full of beauty, tempered optimism (the quietly anthemic Sink a Bite into Life) and gallows wit. Princess is a hoot – a love song that proclaims “everything’s gonna be fine” despite “all the torture and the maiming and the horror and the raping and the slaughter and the pain”. Not for everyone, but oddly life-affirming.”

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