Who is Napoleon?

In January 2014, Simon Mills (AKA Napoleon) decided to take on a gargantuan task. He boldly announced to his followers on social media that he would be releasing a 4-track EP each month for the entire year. I tend to get really annoyed when certain musical endeavours don’t receive the attention or acclaim they deserve – especially when you consider some of the rubbish that gets rammed down our throats by the big labels. So, with that in mind, I decided to give my humble thoughts on what I consider to be an enormous musical achievement. Better late than never!

I first discovered Simon’s music when he was busy making up one half of Nottingham duo Bent (the other half being Nail Tolliday). Bent’s first album, ‘Programmed To Love’, is still one of my favourite records. Full of memorable tracks including ‘Swollen’ (possibly their best-known), I went through the entire summer of 2003 without listening to much else. There was a really cool online-only follow-up also, appropriately titled ‘Downloaded For Love’.

Their next couple of albums, ‘The Everlasting Blink’ and ‘Ariels’, were great in different ways. There were also a few mix albums dotted in-between (one of which got me into Brooklyn duo Metro Area incidentally!) I particularly liked Ariels because it was a massive change in musical direction for the guys, focusing on a more traditional approach to songwriting and featuring loads of live instruments – even harp. Next came the ‘Flavour Country’ EP, which featured the amazing ‘Exercise 5’ among others.

After their last studio album ‘Intercept’ (which I know Simon doesn’t look back on with huge fondness), the guys seemed to go their separate ways. Apart from a ‘best of’, a superb track called ‘The Park’ which appeared on a Café del Mar album, and ‘From The Vaults’ (a collection of previously unreleased rarities), that was it. Somewhere along the way, there was also a short-lived collaboration project called Simon and Eliza. But the next chapter was to be a solo journey as Napoleon.

Two LPs were released – the first was eponymously titled ‘Napoleon’ and featured ‘Lament’, which brings me back to one of Bent’s very early white label tracks called ‘Good Bloke‘ (what a tune). Next came ‘Magpies’. I particularly like the production values on this one – tracks like ‘The Same World’ sound great when listening through decent headphones.

But what am I waiting for? Below I’ll go through the Napoleon EPs themselves and give a micro-review of each.


Nice album art for ‘Magpies’


1. A Castle Above The Sky

From the opening few seconds of ‘Nightfall’, you know that this music is composed by Simon Mills. Then the vocal sample kicks off. Wistful, nostalgic, melodic. Where does he find these?! The standout track here is surely ‘Drift Away’. It’s a great, clangy, chime-y number, again with a really memorable vocal sample. The chorus isn’t dissimilar to yodelling, but it’s perfect – especially when it doubles up in harmony. ‘Woodland Friends’ is a little darker and makes nice use of repetition as it builds. It finishes off nicely with the sci-fi madness of ‘Beyond’. The year has begun for Napoleon.


2. A Domed Forest Orbiting The Sun

This one is probably my favourite. When I put on music to fall asleep to, it’s normally a choice between this and the amazing ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country‘ by Boards of Canada. The melancholia continues with ‘Is There A Place?’. Another thing I really like about Simon’s music is the timing on the introduction of basslines. Next comes ‘Ecstasy’. Lots of vocal repetition here – so much so that you briefly wonder where it’s going. Then you’re hit with a really nice chorus-y bit again which is followed by a refrain which sounds like some kind of children’s poem. I’d love to know what it is! More sci-fi ambience follows with ‘Approaching The Gas Giant’ and then we’re into ‘Does Anybody Really Care’ – a nocturnal-sounding piece with another cool vocal sample and some wah guitar (kinda reminds me of Rae & Christian a little). It finishes up on undoubtedly the standout track, possibly of all 12 releases, ‘Dewey, Huey N’ Louie’ (named after the characters in the movie ‘Silent Running’ I assume). It starts off with a great ukulele loop and then the saxophone kicks in. Seriously, I normally detest saxophone but it really works here. I know – ukulele and saxophone. Doesn’t sound very appealing, but trust me it’s the opposite.


3. A Treasured Family Visit

Straight in with ‘I Will Still Be Here’. Textbook Mills vocal sample. “Who knows where the time goes?” indeed. The pace slows right down with the sleepy, reflective ‘Fairy Bluebell’, before my old Sega Mega Drive starts talking to me at the start of ‘Sherwood Zone’. Anyone who grew up gaming will recognise the iconic “Sega!” which got sung at you in 16-bit as this old console powered up. It even includes the sound effect used when Sonic The Hedgehog loses all his gold rings. Talk about a nostalgia trip! EP 3 finishes up with another nicely reflective piece called ‘Jill’. Perhaps in memory of someone? Quite appropriate if it is.


4. A Tale From ’84

‘Sunshine Sensation’ brings us back with a bang. I’m assuming that the seasons were kept in mind with these releases because it definitely sounds like the sun is starting to come out. ‘The Way U Move’ is the stand-out track for me here. Brooding and with a nice, plodding tempo. I know I must sound like a broken record, but another great vocal sample. At the first “oh-oh…” I thought it was ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ for a split second! ‘Everything’s Changed’ follows with a real epic 90’s feel. More nocturnal ambience from ‘Heart Of Night’ brings it to a close.


5. A City Called Chimos

I could be way off, but the artwork for this one really reminds me of the ‘Cities Of Gold‘ cartoon I was fascinated by as a kid. ‘Chimos’ is up first, with another nicely simple bassline that seems to kick in at the perfect time like on so many other tracks. ‘Cure (I Don’t Want It)’ is a little more frenetic in tempo, which mixes things up nicely. ‘The Flower, The Song’ reminds me of being on holidays, partly because I don’t understand the language that’s being sung! Another really brooding bassline that builds nicely. ‘Dawn’ really brings those chimes to life – one pattern I’ve noticed here is that each release tends to finish on a more instrumental, downtempo piece.


6. A Night Voyage

This is another one of my favourites of the 12. ‘Yacht Rock’ brings us to a more optimistic, uplifting place. ‘Onwards And Upwards’ evens it out nicely with its lush “oohs” and “aahs” throughout. ‘Step Off’ is great. Its energy is really infectious, as exemplified by the amazing Napoleon Dynamite dance sequence video made using it. Great job! ‘Goin’ Home’ is my kind of tune. I have no idea why, but I love music that reminds me of night time. I also love simple, nicely produced music. Less is always more. And AGAIN, a great, bizarre, cerebral, almost mumbled vocal sample.


7. A Tape Of Beginnings

‘Marimba Mimosa’ starts off with its nicely pronounced but minimal synth line. I love the “release-ah!” sample – very 90’s! ‘Yoshi’s Holiday/1991 Nugget A’ appeals to me through its name alone, being the child of Nintendo that I am. Not sure if it’s been directly sampled here, but the keys from the very beginning remind me of Yoshi himself. This gets really lush later on, with some really nice layered pads. ‘Protect And Survive’ is a curious title – I wonder if it’s anything to do with the British public information series on nuclear fallout… the track is suitably dark if so. The trend of finishing on a more introspective note continues with ‘Space Hopper’. The keys here remind me of that bizarrely titled ‘Expert Knob Twiddlers‘ album by Mike (AKA µ-ziq) & Rich (AKA Aphex Twin).


8. A Spanish Horizon

‘Happy Finish’ follows in a long line of tongue-in-cheek track names in Simon’s career (as both Bent and Napoleon). The summer holiday vibe really shines through here (‘scuse the pun). ‘Analog Paradise/1991 Nugget B’ comes next, the second of the ‘Nugget’ tracks from the series. I’m reminded of the earlier ‘Exercise’ series of tracks by Bent. This one starts out minimally enough and gradually fills out to something really epic. The next track title is ‘5,778 K’. Of course, the nerd in me had to Google this – apparently it’s the temperature of the sun (in Kelvin)! I know that Bent toured with Orbital in the past and you can definitely hear the influence here. The Hartnoll brothers would be proud of this one. Perfect for the EP title too. True to form, ‘Buenas Noches’ closes with another jolt of nostalgia-drenched strings and melodic vocal snippets. The pattern continues and it really works for that 20-odd minute listen.


9. A Golden Road Trip

This is another personal favourite. For a start, I love the artwork which is clearly an ode to the movie ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’. One of my best mates and I have a long-standing agreement that one of us will some day own a car like that! ‘Autumn’ starts off with some colossal-sounding beats to complement the soaring vocal. I especially love the little acoustic guitar solo in this one. ‘In The 1970s’ is great because it’s so different. I of course had to Google the lyrics and it turns out it’s a Neil Young song called ‘After The Goldrush‘. I also read that it’s been covered by a number of female singers including Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt – whose version could this be? Anyway, the harmonised vocals here sound superb. ‘Be As Quiet As You Can’ is so infectious (much like ‘The Way U Move’ from EP number 4). I love the bass synth, which gets increasingly distorted as we are repeatedly told “hush, hush, shush, shush” from somewhere in the darkness. And finally, ‘Station Wagon’ – I can just picture Clark Griswold setting out in that remarkable car with all the ill-deserved optimism in the world. This is what it sounds like to set out on a road trip!


Gotta love that car!


10. Hope

‘River, Forest, Mountain’ opens. So cinematic. I initially thought the vocals were sampled from one of the Zelda games, but apparently not. An incredibly random hunch you may think, but by way of explanation, Zelda screenshots feature in the artwork of Bent’s ‘Flavour Country’ EP. The tempo lowers for ‘My Heart Tells Me’ which features heavily layered string and woodwind samples – a signature Bent/Napoleon technique. Another one of my favourite tracks from the series comes next – ‘To Hold Your Hand’. A great opening with that synth delay going on, then the whistling accompaniment kicks in. Try and listen to this without whistling away afterwards. And we’re back to that end-of-EP introspection with ‘English Daydream’. A really good track for a quiet moment.


11. A Little Prince

Judging from the artwork and EP title, I suspect this one is an ode to a beloved pet. If so, the opener of ‘Forever Moving’ is quite apt with its epic bassline broken up by yet more delicately sentimental vocals. ”Til The Day’ picks up the pace with its disjointed sequencing, along with nicely intricate drums and percussion. ‘1 + 1 – 1 = 1’ is a laid-back trip with a bizarre Sesame Street-type vocal sample repeatedly reminding us of the equation featured in the track title. I can’t help but suspect that an experience of personal loss is at play here – the “Little Prince”, perhaps. ‘All Good Children’ is vast, minimal, hypnotic. It is a Napoleon track 4 after all!


12. A Wonderland

We’re nearly there. Definitely a Christmas theme going on here as it kicks off with ‘Rudolph’ – basically a very modern take on the song ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’. Bizarre, but it works! The theme continues with ‘Toy Time’. Upbeat and optimistic, just like toy time should be I guess. ‘Home’ takes things firmly away from the whimsical and back towards the poignant. Then, finally, the mesmerising ‘Landing In Lapland’. This is an outstanding track. If I was a movie director, this is the kind of music I’d love to use. A perfect close to a very wintery EP, which nicely demonstrates one of the things I like most about Simon’s music. Bucketloads of reverb!



So that’s it. 12 EPs in an incredible 12 months. Take a bow, Mr. Napoleon! What a year it must have been. There’s already been a soundtrack release since, and I can’t wait to hear what’s coming next. If you’re interested in listening for yourself, all 12 EPs and more are available at Bandcamp. If you get even half as much enjoyment out of them as I continue to, you’re in for a treat.

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