Tuesday, 22 January 2013

2012: The Year in Albums (Part Two)

Oh, I've really done a number on myself now, haven't I? Even worse than that time I started a new blog about travel, wrote a cracking first post, promised tales of mystery and intrigue in India for the next installment, and then... yeah.

Anyway, I do believe last week I promised a Part Two of my 2012 album round-up, in which I'd rate and review all my favourite prog albums of the year. The problem with this is...

- There are only a limited number of people who would be caught dead listening to a prog album.
- There are only a limited number of prog albums released every year
- There are only a limited number of prog albums released every year which aren't totally wretched.
- Most of the people who would be caught dead listening to prog buy all the prog albums which aren't totally wretched.
- You could probably write my top 10 list yourself based on all of the above.

So I'm not convinced I've got anything new or different to say. Like most prog bands - HA!

Ahem. Anyway, here's my list of prog albums with a few words about each, where useful. And if you scroll down past all the pictures of wizards, you will find some other albums I enjoyed this year (live albums, old albums, boybands...). And some I didn't.

9. Ian Anderson - Thick as a Brick 2

Confession #1: I'd never heard TAAB before I bought this album, I just picked it up because it has a Steven Wilson 5.1 mix on the DVD.

Confession #2: Now I've heard TAAB, I actually think I like this belated sequel better. It's a bit more accessible to the newbie, and I appreciate that that's on a par with saying you prefer 'Tubular Bells II' to the original, but so be it. Plus this one's got a "well clever" cover - you see, these days newspapers are online - get it?

Confession #3 - Although I'm impressed by the fact that 'Shunt and Shuffle' uses the phrase 'Fray Bentos Pies' in its chorus, I can't help but wish Ian hadn't ripped off the main riff from the theme song to  'Super Duper Sumos'.

Key Track: Banker Bets, Banker Wins

8. Stick Men - Deep

Oooh, I don't know if this should be here, since mere mortals aren't going to get to hear this album until later in 2013. I'm just special, you see, and got a pre-release set of MP3's for being part of the Kickstarter campaign to get this album made. Kneel before my Prog philanthropy.

Anyway, I saw Stick Men live earlier this year and explained then why they are pretty much the continuation of the 2000's era King Crimson, since old Bobby is too busy suing people, retiring from music, making an album with Theo Travis and not being invited to play on the new Bowie album.

This album is easily the best they've made so far, and is an absolute must for any Crimson fan, featuring as it does Tony Levin's driving and funky bass stick, as well as his growly vocals on 'Crack in the Sky'. Pat Mastelotto pounds the drums and anything else he can get his hands on, and Markus Reuter makes all kinds of noises with his touch guitar and plenty else besides. There are even more electronic moments than previously- utter bliss for the hipster secret Prog fan.

Key Track: Nude Ascending Staircase (this time I will make no apologies for picking track 1 because it contains everything I love about this album.)

7. Marillion - Sounds That Can't Be Made

Post-Marbles Marillion albums get a bit of a rough-ride in my house - Marbles was the first new album they released after I properly got into them, and coincidentally also managed to be the finest album they'd ever made (certainly in the 'H era'.) Hence everything else was going to have quite something to live up to in my eyes - and sure enough, 'Somewhere Else' really didn't do it for me, and although apparently I have played 'Happiness is the Road' 10 times right through, according to iTunes, I could not hum you a single note from it right now. Well, I could, here's "G" for you. (I'm assuming they used G somewhere.)

Happily, 'Hounds that Can't be Spayed', as I like to call it, is the best album they've made since 'Marbles', although in consistency it's still some distance short of that masterwork. Hence Track 1, 'Gaza', is by far one of the best things they've created in 10 years, despite, or perhaps because of the controversial subject matter, and 'Power' has a hook to die for. Even the title track makes up for a rather plodding start by building to a suitably grandiose ending with a nice Rothery guitar solo, and Mark Kelly adds some mellotron flute-y goodness to 'Pour My Love'.

However, then there's 'Montreal', which whilst being a nice love letter to the city and its people and all, seems to be someone's blog account of their holiday set to music. 

So I Skyped home and said "It's me. How are you babe? 
I can't be with you but I can see you on the screen..."

"Going down to breakfast ..What time is it now there? 
I'll go shopping for shoes ..or whatever ensues..."

"Got to my room and found there's no tea
I said to the band, you just can't get a decent cuppa here..."

I made one of those up, but I bet if you haven't heard the song you can't tell which.

Key Track: Gaza

6. Anathema- Weather Systems

You know, I'd ignored Anathema for ages, for some reason. I checked out some old stuff when they supported Porcupine Tree in '07, and wasn't all that fussed. Probably my default Home Counties mistrust of anything Scouse. (Beatles excepted, naturally.) Or maybe it was the fact that they were basically a different band with the same name- a sort of depressing metal band without the metal sounds.

But since people have been going on about them for the last couple of years, I thought I'd give them another try - and I'm rather glad I did.

Are Anathema Prog Rock? Well, no, not really. I'm not even sure they shouldn't have been in Part 1 of this list. Not for them the keyboard solo or the cape, theirs is a more wistful, melancholic take on intelligent music, with gradually building layers of indie guitars, stumbling drum patterns, wonderful male/female vocal harmonies, and spine chilling melodies like "Untouchable", pts 1&2.

And in case we were already missing Pure Reason Revolution (which I certainly am), they even thoughtfully wrote a PRR song for us and included it in the shape of part 1 of "The Storm Before the Calm".

Key Tracks: Untouchable, part 2 / The Storm Before The Calm

5. Kompendium- Beneath the Waves

There was a competition going around on Facebook before this album, the brainchild of Magenta main man Rob Reed, was released- encouraging you to send in a picture of yourself having your first listen. This was part of the whole pre-release campaign which aimed to take you back to the time where we sat down and listened to albums in full whilst poring over gatefold sleeves. I don't know what you could win, a pipe and slippers to wear whilst enjoying the album, presumably.

Anyway, it's a good job I didn't send in a photo of myself having my first listen to this album because (quite apart from the fact that I always look like the Thumb Man when taking my own photo), my face was probably all over the place. "Narration, ok, that's quite prog...Hmmm, now this sounds like Enya, Oh, yep, that could be a Magenta song... EWWWW, Irish Pipes... Oh, that sounds like something from ChimpanA... OPERA SINGING! OH SWEET JESUS..."

Still, once you get past some of the sounds you might not normally listen to, there's a really good album here - sort of like a cross between Mike Oldfield, Riverdance and Phantom of the Opera. Which is not necessarily a bad thing by any means. Prog legends such as Steve Hackett, John Mitchell, Gavin Harrison, Jakko Jakszyk and Chris Fry add to the flavour of Rob Reed's slightly more Celtic-theatrical take on his usual retro-prog Magenta recipe, and ChimpanA's Steve Balsamo is soulful as ever on vocals. Nice.

I should also say that, although I took the piss earlier out of the whole "wasn't everything better in the 70's" thing - this whole package oozes class, from the oversized gatefold CD packaging with lyrics inside, to the DVD disc containing the whole album in genuinely audiophile Advanced Resolution 5.1 Surround sound, which is as surefire a way as I know of checking that your system sounds good.

Key Tracks:  The Storm (one for Magenta fans)  /  Beneath the Waves (one for ChimpanA fans - you may wish to steer clear of the cheesy video, though...) / Lilly (one for fans of Steve Hackett playing acoustic guitar whilst wistful female vocals mourn lost love before turning into a Mike Oldfield track)

4. Rush - Clockwork Angels

Oh dear, I've done it now - I'm expecting a strongly worded text message any day now for not putting this at number 1. Truth be told, it's only in the last 18 months that I've become a fan of Rush at all, after seeing them live in 2011, and finally starting to 'get it' and stop paying attention to the fact that Geddy Lee frequently yelps like a dog when you step on its tail.

Anyway, this being the first new Rush album since I 'discovered' them, I was pretty excited, and it's fair to say I wasn't disappointed at all - in fact I've now played it more than any other Rush album and it's therefore my favourite Rush album other than 'Moving Pictures'. (Here comes another text...)

What does it sound like? Well, it sounds like Rush, obviously. Duhhh. And most importantly, there's not a duff track on it - which I certainly can't say for any other Rush album in the last 20 years. (Oh, is that my phone again?)

Key Tracks: Caravan / The Wreckers

3. Flying Colors - Flying Colors

Oh, Hi, Neal Morse. What's that -  you've joined a supergroup, and you're making an album? Gee, that is a shocker. It's got Mike Portnoy on drums? You don't say... It's an album full of prog epics, designed to take us back to the old days of the 70's when everything was wonderful, with lyrics composed entirely of thinly veiled religious claptrap?

What? It isn't? Oh alright then, maybe I'll check it out...

I think if you'd told me back in January that my number 3 album of the year would be a Neal Morse supergroup project, I would have looked at you like a cat trying to comprehend Lego. Don't get me wrong, I've really liked pretty much everything that Neal's been involved in over the years and especially Transatlantic, but I couldn't help but feel last year that it was time to change the record a little.

And apparently so did he - right from the off, this album sets its stall out pretty clearly. Firstly- it's not really a prog album, or if it is it's more of a prog-pop album like It Bites or Kino. Secondly, Neal doesn't actually sing all that much and certainly not about Jesus. Neal is basically the band's keyboard player (something which is even more apparent when you see them live, which I heartily recommend) and does backing vocals and the odd spot of lead alongside new boy Casey McPherson and legends Dave LaRue from Dixie Dregs and his bandmate Steve Morse (also in Deep Purple since 1994.)

Along the way, they have a couple of songs which sound a bit like Muse in that metal-baroque-riffery kind of way (see 'Shoulda Woulda Coulda'), and some pretty nice power ballads like 'Everything Changes'. And then, finally, at the end, there's a 12-minute epic ('Infinite Fire') which is by far the Morse (N)-iest thing on the album. And do you know what, for being alongside so much other good, straightforward rock music, it's all the more effective when it finally comes.

Key Tracks: Blue Ocean / Shoulda Woulda Coulda / Infinite Fire

2. It Bites - Map of the Past

It's another concept album - huzzah! What's that? What's it about? No idea. We established last week that I'm rubbish at this kind of thing. There's something about a man in a wartime photograph, although to be fair that's nothing you can't tell from the cover. Then there's a wallflower and some clocks, and a meadow and a stream... and then some cartoons, and a boy who draws his Daddy and cruelly scribbles out his eyes (ouch.) Actually, are we sure it's a concept album? I might be making it up, like the time I was convinced there was a story in 'The Incident' by Porcupine Tree and spent hours working it out, only for me to explain it to Karin and have her look at me as if she thought I might need taking into care.

Anyway, none of that is important right now. Or indeed, at all. This album is absolutely cracking - quite possibly the best It Bites have ever served up. No longer do they sound like they're trying to justify the use of the band name (no dumbree-umbree-yay-yo this time around), instead Messrs Mitchell and Beck have concentrated on giving us some of the best tunes they've ever concocted, from the rocking 'Wallflower' and the bouncy title track, to the genuinely haunting 'The Last Escape'. And in the middle, there's a bona fide radio hit in the shape of 'Cartoon Graveyard', and the mostly overtly proggy thing they've done for years, in 7/8 and everything ('Meadow and the Stream').

Key Tracks: The Big Machine / Meadow and the Stream / The Last Escape

Any other year, this would have been a shoo-in for number one... except...

1. Big Big Train- English Electric, Part 1

Okay, hands up who saw that one coming. Yeah, all of you. There's one album this year which has got everyone excited about being a Prog fan again, and it's this one.

*BORING STORY ALERT* I first heard Big Big Train back in the early 2000's, when I was something of a bigshot in the Genesis bootleg trading community, and naturally thus fending off the ladies left, right and centre.

I traded a couple of times with a chap called Greg, who eventually ran out of things I wanted and offered to send me a couple of albums from his band instead. Those albums were, I think, Bard and English Boy Wonders- and I listened to and liked them at the time but didn't really get heavily into them. I was therefore watching proudly from the sidelines as my boy Spawton went from strength to strength and started gaining critical acclaim from the Prog elite for albums such as 'The Difference Machine' and 'The Underfall Yard', at which point I jumped back on the bandwagon to discover that he'd absolutely nailed it.

Yes, in recent years, BBT has found both a stable line-up including, critically, ex-XTC man Dave Gregory, should-have-been Genesis vocalist David Longdon and drumming legend Nick D'Virgilio - together with a marvellous sound which is all their own, despite the obvious nods to days gone by. My friend Tim completely hit the nail on the head with his summation here, where he correctly worked out that BBT had managed to capture the spirit of early Genesis (or 'visit the giftshop' as he so eloquently put it), without actually sounding like Genesis.

Indeed, if there's anything more English than this album (other than 'Selling England by the Pound'), I'll eat my bowler hat. From the cover art suggesting decaying industry, to stories of English heroes, rogues and engineers and travels through West Country landscapes, English Electric takes us on a proper journey around our fair land and its characters. It also skilfully manages to avoid using every prog cliche in the book - something helped in large part by the influence from Dave Gregory's other projects and Nick D'Virgilio's innovative drumming which puts one in mind of Phil Collins only in innovative approach rather than sound.

And what's my most-played song of all in 2012? Was it a massive prog behemoth, or some kind of pounding electro dancefloor smash? No, it's a whimsical little banjo-driven tale of hedgerows, honeysuckles and yellowhammers called 'Uncle Jack', in which the band manage to encapsulate everything that's so wonderful about our green and pleasant land without making you want to join UKIP.

Key Tracks: Uncle Jack / Summoned By Bells / Hedgerow

Oh hang on, what's this...?

Echolyn - Echolyn

I know a few people will have been shaking their heads when I appeared to have missed this out, saying "whaaaaa?" or something more erudite - but the truth is this just came to my attention too late in the year for me to get to know it properly. And I'd hate to pass proper judgement on a couple of plays, but I can tell already that there are going to be many more in 2013. And the cover looks a bit like 'Misunderstanding'.

Live Albums of the Year

Say, what? People are still making live albums? Well, yes, it appears that they are... or one man is, at least - with no fewer than 4 live albums from the Steven Wilson stable of artists. 'Catalog / Preserve / Amass' served as a little taster for the main course which was...

Steven Wilson - Get All You Deserve

...which wins Live Album of the Year purely by virtue of being the only one which was a full concert which you didn't have to buy a reissue of something you already owned to get hold of. And the Blu-ray portion of the release, showing off the cool visuals I saw live back in November last year didn't hurt, either.

Other notable SW-related live albums came from No-Man, whose superlative 'Love and Endings' album was taken from another concert I attended (get me), and Porcupine Tree, whose 'Octane Twisted' live album was nice but not earth-shattering.

If your name was not Steven Wilson, it seemed that it was ok to release live shows as long as you packaged them up with a reissued studio album. Peter Gabriel served us up an excellent live concert from Athens in 1987 along with the crazy box set version of 'So', and Mike Oldfield finally opened up the vaults to bring us two wonderful vintage shows from the 70's and 80's on his reissues of 'Platinum' and 'QE2'.

New-Old albums of the Year

Here's part 2 of my 6-word review series of old albums I discovered in 2012 (snappy title, I know.)

Kate Bush - Live at Hammersmith Odeon (1981/1994)

Bonkers chanteuse's only live tour. Wowooowowoowow...

Richard Wright - Broken China (1996)

The best album Floyd never made.

Kevin Gilbert - The Shaming of the True (2000)

Tortured genius' bitter concept masterpiece. Shame.

Tears For Fears - Raoul & The Kings of Spain (1994)

80s Popsters turn serious, exit charts.

Talk Talk - The Colour of Spring (1986)

Band confuses public. Gains permanent fanbase.

Tin Spirits - Wired to Earth (2011)

Dave Gregory's other band. More chipper.

Anyway, clearly I can't have enjoyed everything that came my way this year, can I? I do have some critical faculties. Here I present for you...

The Gigging Forever "Nahhhh" awards 2012

Most pointless album, 2012:

Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited II

Beautiful cover, isn't it?

My relationship with this album went a little along these lines:

Play 1: Ahhh, cracking song. Ooh, haven't heard that one for ages. Oh, he changed that guitar solo a bit, that's interesting. And the different vocalists are a cool idea. It's like everything sounds fresh and new - but with all the same sounds I already love - brilliant!

Plays 2-3: Hmm, ok, some of these vocals are a bit ropey. Why is that man shouting 'Blood on the Rooftops'? And who let Nad Sylvan anywhere near the studio, and why didn't they give him the lyrics to read instead of letting him make up his own?

Plays 4-5: Yeah, that guitar solo's not as good as the original. Skip. Skip again. 'The Lamia' is pretty nice. And so's 'Entangled'. Where are my Genesis CDs? Ahh, that's better.

Plays 6+: N/A

'Much Ado About Nothing' Award, 2012:

Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion

Well, if ever an album was musical Marmite, I guess this is it. It's not that I expected it to sound like Opeth or Porcupine Tree, I just expected it to sound like something. This is just a whole load of 'blah'. I don't think I've ever made it to the end without giving up.

Still, 'Drag Ropes', with the video, was actually pretty cool. Perhaps there's a really strong EP here, struggling to get out.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

2012: The Year In Albums (Part One)

About a year ago, I had this really cool idea. What if I wrote about all the albums I'd bought over the previous 12 months with the intent of informing people about music they might have missed - perhaps I could even place them into some kind of order, like a run down of increasing quality. Then I'd say a few words about each one and make some sarcastic jokes, you know, my usual kind of thing. I'd make it mostly albums that I really, genuinely loved, and then I'd chuck in a couple near the beginning of the list which I didn't necessarily get, but which made me sound much cooler than I really was (am? Tying myself up in tenses here.)

It turned out to be so popular, I was actually thinking of doing the same thing every January. So imagine my surprise and extreme disappointment to find that this year, not only has every other bastard with a laptop decided to rip off my idea, but they've even tried to steal a march on me by doing it before 2012 was even finished. Not cool, people. Not cool at all.

Ahhhhh, I'll be honest with you. Last year I was really scratching around to find 10 new albums that I wanted to nail my colours to. How else can I explain the appearance of Yes on the list? This year, by contrast, has been one of the best for new music in living memory. So much so that my initial shortlist for albums of the year was 34 albums - that's the same number of new releases as I bought in the entire of 2011.

This year I bought an impressive 66 new release albums, and rating them is a fairly impossible task, ranging as they do from shoegazey, reverb-drenched electronica to Celtic prog, and everything in between. I can't even fall back on last year's "stats" approach thanks to a catastrophic hard-drive crash early in the year losing 3 months of playcounts in my iTunes library. Yep, these are the things which keep me awake at night.

So, in the interests of fairness, I've divided the shortlist up into 'Prog' and 'Non-Prog'. And because I know that most of the people reading this will be prog fans, I'm going to deliberately make you wait until Part 2 for the prog albums otherwise you won't bother reading the rest of it, will you? I know what you hobbit-botherers are like.

Here we go, then. It's Gigging Forever's countdown of "every album I bought this year, shoehorned into some lame category to prevent me having to make too many decisions"...

11. (Who says I can't have 11? Do you want to take it outside?) Porcelain Raft - Strange Weekend

I've just realised that this looks a bit like... 
well, I'll let you use your imagination.

If you read my review of M83 live in Brighton back in January (which, let's face it, hardly anyone did), you'll have heard all about the spacey, echoey, dreamy sounds of Porcelain Raft, and how they caused me to nearly cack my pants. The CD is a slightly less disturbing event, and got heavy rotation during stressful periods of work this year, being the kind of aural equivalent of a hot bath with lots of bubbles.

Key Track - Oooh, let's say 'Drifting In And Out' (of the suds) -  choosing track 1 of every album again...

10. Marina & The Diamonds - Electra Heart

Right at the beginning of the year, I picked up 'The Family Jewels', Marina Diamandis' first album as Marina and the Diamonds, for the princely sum of £1.99, and it turned out to be a cracking investment, featuring very cleverly written, quirky pop songs which put me in mind of a young Kate Bush.

Now, you may come to learn this about me over time but I'm not very good at paying attention to, remembering or understanding lyrics, which therefore renders me not quite clever enough to get just how ironic this second album supposedly is - but apparently it's a satire on young pop starlets, their superficial lives and their vacuous pop outpourings. Well, I don't know about that, but it sounds like a great, fun, slightly vicious album of intelligent, dance-y pop music, which is all fine and dandy in my book.

Key Track - 'Radioactive' (No, ok, it's not on the standard edition of the album but it's a fantastic song.)

9. Keane - Strangeland

I'm not quite sure why I've decided to put this on the list. I actually really liked 'Perfect Symmetry' (their previous album, which saw them doing away with all their cliches in favour of a gaudy, brash, 80's influenced layer on top of some excellent songs, aided by super-producer Stuart Price) - and this album feels a lot like "Sorry, we went a bit too far, please come back and play us on Radio 2 again".

But there's a warm familiarity which creeps over as soon as you hear that CP-70 electric piano sound on opener 'You Are Young', there are soaring, singalong choruses, and the front cover looks like the seaside and therefore reminds me of my childhood. And it's my blog and I can do what I like.

Key track - 'Neon River' is pretty anthemic, whilst steering just on the right side of mawkish.

8. Beach House - Bloom

You know that Porcelain Raft album I chose above? Yeah, this is nearly the same album -  dreamy, spacey, wistful sounds which make you nostalgic for people and places you may or may not have ever known. Someone should probably sue someone. This album rates slightly higher on my list because:

a) Beach House have male and female vocals (Porcelain Raft are basically a one man band)
b) Their tunes are 14% more catchy
c) Cool people like this album and have put it on their end of year lists too
d) Their album cover doesn't look like lady parts - but it does make your eyes go funny if you stare at it too long
e) They haven't made me crap my pants (yet.)

Key Track - 'Wild' (ignore the video which seems to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about heroin addiction.)

7. Field Music - Plumb / Play

Hold on a minute, that's two albums! Well, yes, it is, but 'Play' is a short album of cover versions - the kind of thing which unscrupulous record labels try to sell you as a bonus disc when you buy the same album for the second time - so it counts as part of 'Plumb'. Honest. Also the covers are nearly the same (and look suspiciously like the station I can see from my living room window.)

Anyway, 'Plumb' made it to Prog magazine's best of 2012 list, which could make it a candidate for my 'other' list, but to be honest I think sometimes people are so desperate to only like music in one genre that they try to drag anything else they like into it so they don't lose cred.

I can almost see their point, with it being an incredibly inventive guitar-based rock album, where completely unrelated and stylistically quite different songs flow into each other in a way which seems totally natural. (It might even prove to be a concept album if I pay attention to the lyrics.) And I guess opening track 'Start the Day Right' has grinding 'I am the Walrus' strings, bringing to mind very early ELO, and there are complex rhythms and shifting moods, all in 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Ah, yes, here's why it's not prog. None of the songs are longer than 3 and a half minutes, in fact they get through 5 songs in the first 12 minutes. Most prog bands can't keep a keyboard solo as short as that.

'Play' is a more traditional affair, with 8 inventive cover versions ranging from Syd Barrett to the Pet Shop Boys - and deserves to be on this list solely for the remarkable feat of making Ringo's 'Don't Pass Me By' from the White Album sound like an actual song instead of something a toddler made up on the spot.

Key Tracks: 'A New Town' (Plumb) / 'Rent' (Play)

6. Pet Shop Boys - Elysium

Oh, look at that. My pick from the last album above was a Pet Shop Boys cover, and now here's the real thing.

Have the Pet Shop Boys ever made a bad album? Assuming you think they ever made a good one, I think you'd have to agree that they've had a pretty good run of things, especially of late, with 2009's 'Yes' being a revival of the more outgoing side of PSB. Here they're back in the introspective and subdued mode that served them well on 'Behaviour' and 'Bilingual', with 'Invisible' and 'Breathing Space' being some of the most personal and touching songs they've ever recorded.

There's still plenty of room for fun, though, as the Diva-bashing 'Ego Music' and the typically self-referential 'Your Early Stuff' prove - the lyrics of the latter being composed entirely of cretinous things said to Neil Tennant by taxi drivers. "You've been around, but you don't look too rough / And I still quite like some of your early stuff..." And I think we can forgive the rather OTT Olympic Anthem 'Winner' in the context of this summer's excitement.

Key Track: Leaving (look, I can't help it if bands keep putting their best tracks first on their albums, can I?)

5. iamamiwhoami - Kin

Sometimes I'm glad I'm not right on the pulse of what's hip and cool, otherwise I think I'd get frightfully annoyed with some of the absolute bullshit that happens in the name of 'art' (or is it 'promotion'?) - this album being a case in point, with all kinds of teasers and trailers and odd videos and massive, massive hype being posted online for a year or so in the lead-up to this album.

No, I'm very happy just to get a text from my friend Mark saying 'I've been listening to this song on repeat for hours', click onto Youtube and hear 'Goods', and thence directly to Amazon to hear what else Jonna Lee and Claes Björklund have to offer.

And what do they have to offer? Well, if Beach House and Porcelain Raft are a comfy soak in a hot tub, iamamiwhoami is more like lying shivering and naked in the foetal position on the floor of a room in a Scandinavian ice hotel while Lykke Li sings in the corridor outside.

Glacial, minor chords, chiming synths and off-kilter beats assault the senses whilst Jonna moans and shrieks by turns. Oh, and some catchy tunes too, the gits. The videos are downright bonkers, though -you have been warned.

Key Track: Drops (no, I don't know what the hairy creatures are all about, either)

4. Lindstrøm - Six Cups of Rebel / Smalhans

Oh, I'm cheating again... Yeah, ok, again this is two albums. Although the second one clocks in at less than 30 minutes - but to tell the truth I couldn't separate these. Following last year's obsession with Hans-Peter and his epic 'Space Disco' masterpiece 'Where You Go, I Go Too', both these albums were always going to be an instant buy.

'Six Cups of Rebel' is Lindstrøm's more indulgent side, where he seems to have gone all out with whatever he felt like doing, whether it was a good idea or not. Hence 'No Release' is basically 5 minutes of cycling church organ, and 'Call Me Anytime' breaks down in the middle into what sounds like a small child bashing on a Casio keyboard. But then there's the funky-as-anything 'De Javu' with stabbing brass and disco beats, the drum-solo freakout of the title track, and the fantastic closing 'Hina', which is easily the closest we come to the cosmic dancefloor of 'Where You Go', albeit with a quirky edge befitting its place on this quite unusual album.

On 'Smalhans' (upon which every track is named after some kind of Norwegian traditional dish for some reason), he's back to what he does best: 6 more straightforward tracks for the dancefloor (also ace for running). But his twisted, minor-chord, Scandinavian take on things takes you on a crazy journey far deeper than any of his more popular contemporaries. Probably a journey in the snow. With elks.

I'll leave the last word to electro-pop princess Little Boots, on twitter, as I can't think of any higher praise than this, about closing track Vā-Flę-R (Waffles):

"The last track on the new @Lindstrom album is like the greatest Mario level ever. Definitely involving Yoshi."

Key Tracks: De Javu (Six Cups of Rebel) / Vā-Flę-R (Smalhans)

3. Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind

I think I made my feelings on Ben Folds Five fairly clear a few weeks ago after their London gig, during which they played 8 of this album's 12 songs- all of which were greeted like old favourites, and with good reason. I'm therefore not going to waste my time (or yours, for that matter) writing tons about this.

With their trademark rollicking piano, thundering rock 'n roll drum fills, rock solid bass, and clever-clever lyrics ("I was puzzled, when it was feet on gravel / To have come apart, I must once have been ravelled..."), this album delivered exactly what was expected, and somehow without sounding like a tired retread.

Key Track: Hold That Thought is one of the less obvious tracks from the album, but really does it for me, for some reason. Not in that way. Or, Erase Me is a more standard BFF song - nice and angry. Let the hate flow through you, young Ben...

2. Muse - The Second Law

You know, if you want to be Queen, there comes a point where you have to make 'Hot Space'. And I don't mean what you think I mean by that. No, I do know what you think I mean. You think I mean you have to make a rubbish disco album, don't you? Told you.

No, what I mean is that you have to:

- Wonder how far you can go down the same old well-trodden path before people get bored
- Record some songs which are exactly what you want to record, perhaps including influences from some modern acts you enjoy yourselves
- Put them on your album along with some other songs which are still in your classic sound
- Sit back and let people get all het up about how rubbish your new album is, and how you're trying too hard to be cool, based solely on a few 3 tracks with some more modern sounds in them.
- Watch the entire of the internet slate your album (Currently rated at 2.4 out of 5 on Rate Your Music)

So what did they actually do here? Opener 'Supremacy' is exactly what it would sound like if Muse wrote a James Bond theme, and is perfectly in their grand album opener tradition. 'Survival' is gloriously OTT Queen-inspired pomposity, perfect for its status as official Olympic anthem, 'Animals' is your typical "angry, sneering Muse" song, and 'Explorers' is as wonderful a ballad as they've ever recorded, in the tradition that goes all the way back to 'Unintended' from their debut.

What does that leave us with? Well, it leaves us with two sets of songs which seem to have divided people - Firstly the 'Muse-step' songs, a "hilarious" misnomer for what are essentially Muse songs with a few modern production sounds added to them: 'Madness' with its 'wub wub wub' bassline, and 'Follow Me' which builds up from gentle pulsating synths to a wonderful climax with some of Matt's best vocals underpinned by what I assume are dub-step style whooshing / pounding noises (yeah, I'm so down with teh dubstep...) And then there's 'Panic Stations', which seems to be the one that's got most people annoyed but is essentially 'Another One Bites the Dust' for the 2010's, with some wonderfully funky brass-synth stabs and rhythm guitar. Ok, so the two-part closer 'The Second Law' is pretty out there in its symphonic-electro stylings and apocalyptic hysteria but since when we were holding it against Muse for being mental?

The second group of songs causing them problems are the two songs near the end of the album written by bassist Chris Wolstenholme. We all know what happens when you let the bass player/drummer write a couple of songs, don't we? Well no, actually, we don't (just look at our old favourite reference point Queen for a fantastic example of why it's good to diversify.) 'Save Me' is perhaps the most surprising song on the whole album, far more than any of those I mentioned above, in that it sounds nothing like Muse at all - helped partially by the fact that it's Chris singing it, but also in that it sounds much more like something belonging on an Anathema album, with its gently pounding drums, jangly guitars and understated vocal harmonies. In many ways it's the best thing here, although it's starkly at odds with the rest of the album. Perhaps it's time for Chris to make a solo album, I'd buy it.

Key Tracks - 'Madness' / 'Save Me'

1. Saint Etienne - Words and Music By Saint Etienne

"When I was ten, I wanted to explore the world.
There were these older kids at school who'd gone all the way to Somerset,
just to see Peter Gabriel's house.
Peter Gabriel from Genesis.
The way they dressed, the way their hair fell over their coat collars,
It all happened because of music - I wanted to know why.
I couldn't go to Somerset on my own,
So I used Top of the Pops as my world atlas..."

If there's one album this year whose lyrics and concept I did very much pay attention to, it's this one. It's almost as if they knew exactly how to get my interest within 10 seconds- the breathily intoned spoken word intro from Sarah Cracknell using words like "Peter Gabriel" which are always guaranteed to awake me from dozing, or pretending to work, or whatever I'm doing.

The entire album is a love letter to pop music itself- from the extremely clever cover with its faux A-Z map of London using street names and locations from the band's favourite pop songs, to the themes of the lyrics.

Opener 'Over the Border' recalls the teenage thrill of discovering and being obsessed by new bands, artists, record labels, and growing up wondering whether all this would still seem so important when school was done with (spoiler: yes). 'I've Got Your Music' is all about the delights of having your favourite song on headphones as the world passes by all around you, and 'DJ' is, well, you know. And then there's 'Tonight', which recalls the thrill of getting ready to go and see a favourite band, wondering what they're going to play, cramming on the new album before you leave- an experience eerily recreated by me when seeing Saint Etienne themselves at the Palladium earlier this year.

In fact, the album could only have been more self-referential if they'd included a song called 'You know when you buy an album and you really like it and then you realise there's a special edition with bonus tracks so you buy that too, and then you realise there was a very limited deluxe boxset which is going for £100 on eBay which has 3 extra songs on it and a poster of the artwork and then you find a Spanish website selling that for £30, so you order it and sell the other editions but it takes ages to arrive and in fact you don't even think it will, so you buy the special edition again and order an even bigger version of the poster from somewhere else, and then the ruddy box turns up in the post - and THEN they release a new version only in the US, with ten entirely new songs on the second disc'.

One for the remastered edition, perhaps.

Oh, what does the music sound like? Well, it's like most Saint Etienne: shimmery, summery, slightly melancholy dance-indie-pop, that somehow manages to sound rooted in the 60s despite a thoroughly modern sound. I've definitely got their music.

Key Tracks: 'Over The Border' / 'I've Got Your Music' (wonderful video with fans showing off their favourite albums) / Haunted Jukebox

Oh yeah, she's still cute, too.
Picture: MusicOMH.com

You still there? Ah, good. I'm nearly done, but firstly here are 10 of my favourite 'new-old' albums of the year with a six-word review of each (this should be interesting.)

Bombay Bicycle Club - A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

Indie pop band support Blur. Impress.

The Postal Service - Give Up (2003)

Should sue Owl City. Top tunes.

Dragonette - Galore (2007)

Electro pop wonder. Hot vocalist. Yeah!

Depeche Mode - 101 (1989)

Everything you need know about Depeche.

Moloko - Statues (2003)

Quirky prog dance. Awesome in surround.

Pugwash - The Olympus Sound (2011)

Beatles and ELO go Irish. Sublime.

Phoenix - Live! Thirty Days Ago (2004)

French indie band better on stage.

Orbital - Middle of Nowhere (1999)

Wish I'd heard this in field.

Robyn - Body Talk (2010)

Kickarse Swedish popstress goes gangsta. Fierce.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)

New favourite band. Best old album.

Everything Everything - Man Alive (2010)

Jerky indie rock. Inventive stuff. Txtspk.

Holy Ghost - Holy Ghost! (2011)

American indie dance channels Cut Copy.

Wait, you're STILL there? Okay, here's a little easter egg for you...

The Gigging Forever "Silly Artwork" award 2012 goes to:

The Sabres of Paradise - Sabresonic II (2001)

Anyone like to have a guess as to what the music on this album sounds like? Hands up if you said 'Chilled, Balearic dance, perfect for summer evenings'. Now hands down if you are Andrew Weatherall, aka The Sabres of Paradise. Thought so.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

21st December 2012: The Invisible / Public Service Broadcasting /Hejira- Tooting Tram & Social

There was a reason I said that the Frost*Bites gig was "probably" my last of the year. I'd had this December evening blocked out in my calendar for a couple of weeks but wasn't really sure whether I was going to go or not. Firstly, it was in Tooting, secondly it was nearly Christmas, and thirdly, I'd never heard of two of the bands playing this free gig. Everyone knows no good bands play for free, don't they? Especially not in Tooting.

Luckily, I was talked out of this stupidity by my gig buddy for the evening- Tinyfish frontman and local boy Simon Godfrey, who was as keen to check out Public Service Broadcasting's live multimedia set as me, following this excellent review of their Hull gig by our mutual friend and not-postman Tim.

Either Simon's a little late or I'm a bit early, but either way I find myself killing time for 15 minutes outside Tooting Broadway Tube station, which isn't exactly the easiest task I've ever set myself. After I've taken a couple of pictures of the classic Northern Line architecture and the slightly random statue of Edward VII in front of it, I'm pretty much left with jumping up and down on the spot to keep warm, and accidentally greeting every man with the slightest bit of facial hair I see in the mistaken apprehension that it's Simon.

Still, eventually he arrives and whisks me off to the first location for our evening together- KFC. Never let it be said that I am an expensive date. Here we have a good old catch up, and he tells me how he's getting on with his solo album, as well as some top secret news which makes me pull this face:

Eventually we exhaust the amount of fun that can be had in a fried chicken shop, so we decide to head over to the venue, which is a marvelous place - a converted Victorian tram shed, done out like a swanky gastro pub but with the original huge vaulted ceiling and a raised gallery around the top. That and somewhat random musical artifacts here and there, most notably this classic of 20th Century culture in the gents:

If only, Cliff. If only.

On the way in, Simon catches sight of the poster advertising tonight's gig and goes into full-on teenage girl mode. "The Invisible? THE INVISIBLE are playing here tonight?" Er, yeah, that's what it says on the poster. "But, but The Invisible are bloody brilliant - they're one of my favourite bands! This is amazing!"

I later learn that Simon claims pretty much everyone is one of his favourite bands, but the fact that he rates them so highly does do something to counteract the impression I've formed of all of tonight's acts from the fact that they're playing a free show in a disused hanger in the arse end of South London. In fact, no sooner have we grabbed our drinks than Simon spots the frontman of today's favourite band and heads over for a chat and a bit of a girly gush (um... that sounds a bit wrong, but you know what I mean.)

With no sign of anything happening on stage yet, we decide to go and check out the upstairs balcony, where there are comfy seats and a decent volume of background music over which to have an extremely in depth chat about where our respective lives went wrong, and then so very right again. We're engrossed in chat about hearing loss, or divorce, or Kraftwerk, or something equally fun, when it appears that tonight's first band has started up.

With the music being a little bit loud now for sensible chat, we sit and have a listen, and within a few seconds I see that excitable glint in Simon's eye again, as he says "Wow, it's a Joni Mitchell song..." That makes sense, I say, as the first band are called Hejira (as is one of Joni's albums), so perhaps they do Joni covers. "They're really good", says Simon, in amazement. "Absolutely spot on. I think I'm going to have to go down and watch." So we make our way downstairs in a hurry so as not to miss too much - and we find...

... the band are still very much setting up, and we're listening to Joni Mitchell on a playlist. Still, it is a very good playlist, and it's presumably been chosen by tonight's host, XFM DJ John Kennedy, who curates a regular gig series called 'Remedy' at this venue, introducing the acts, playing quality tunes between and afterwards and generally hanging around and enjoying himself. Anyway, now we're downstairs, I grab another Blue Moon and we find a spot to the right of the stage (which later turns out to be exactly where all the bands want to sell their merch from - how were we to know?), and hang about a bit with our new mate Dave from The Invisible whilst waiting for...


... who, as it happens, don't play Joni Mitchell covers, but something far more interesting. I've written here 'dark, brooding, alternative-ish', which is I suppose true, but after the set's over, I turn to Simon and say 'I have no idea how to describe that...', which perhaps is the biggest compliment you can pay to any music. Hejira don't sound like Radiohead, or Sigur Ros, or Doves, or anyone else who would fit the description I've written above.

Coupled with that, they're pretty (deliberately?) hard to find much about online - I can't even be sure which of the band members is which, without industrial levels of research/stalking. I will refrain from making any incorrect assumptions about which of the guys onstage tonight is Sam Beste, Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne, Alex Reeve and Alexis Nunez - but right from the off, they're an interesting prospect, with dual frontman/woman sharing vocal and guitar duties, and providing some wonderful harmonies thoughout. They also have the only 'standing up drummer' I've ever seen, which is a big plus point in my book.

Check out the awesome red bobble hat on the frontwoman.
 I bet she's too young to have heard of Benny from Crossroads.

But it's when they hit their stride that I become mesmerised, with some quite hypnotic and melodic tracks which in a few cases build up gradually to urgent, powerful climaxes almost without you noticing. The penultimate song they play rolls along on a beautiful, brooding bed of toms and piano and is the cause of a severe disturbance in the spine department. And they finish up with their one and only piece of available recorded output (that I can find) - current single "Gypsy of The Soul' which luckily I don't even have to try to describe, because you can hear it right here on their Bandcamp page.

In fact, if you're interested in getting a better idea of the live experience, you can check out this wonderful and very arty video of them performing 'Gypsy of The Soul' live in the studio, which tells you way more than any of the words I've slowly dribbled out over the last half an hour whilst listening to 'Gypsy' on repeat. I will definitely be watching with interest for the debut album and future gigs.

After the band finish, Simon and I go back to our chat whilst Hejira unpack all around us. I sort of want to say something to one of them, but pleasingly they look far too cool and hip to approach - something which I find sorely lacking in musicians I see live these days. I can't help but feel that something of the magical "gig experience" I treasured as a teenager is lost when the guys on stage look like people from your office and they hang about in the bar when they're done, making friendly chit chat. Although, that is a good way to make friends, as evidenced by my companion for the evening. 

Anyway, the best thing about Hejira unpacking their gear is that I'm mid sentence talking to Simon when I turn round and clock the stand that "member of Hejira in the shadows, stage left" has been using for his keyboard. Seems Jem from Frost* isn't the only one who thinks playing keyboards is as exciting as doing the ironing.

It takes a while, during which time we retreat back to the palatial surroundings of the balcony, but eventually the stage is set and we are ready for...

Public Service Broadcasting

... or, rather, half of Public Service Broadcasting. Apparently J. Willgoose, Esq. is a local boy too, so he's playing this solo show as a Christmas treat for the Tooting Massive. 

Now, I've just made the mistake of re-reading Tim's excellent review of their Hull gig from a few weeks previously, and he's pretty much said everything I would have wanted to say about the band and their music. So perhaps you should go and read that. And I will now try to say a few words without stealing too many quality phrases from Tim's blog.

Any worries we had that tonight's solo show might be lacking the multimedia aspect of the band's regular gigs are soon put to rest, as an old-fashioned TV set on stage left kicks into life with the BBC Test Card. This is duplicated on the screen at the back of the stage in front of Mr Willgoose, who has been standing fiddling for a good 5 minutes, waiting patiently for what appear to be Work Experience kids on the mixing desk to sort out the sound enough for him to start.

A quick introduction from John Kennedy and we're off, with wartime footage and sound effects triggered by JW's keyboard pads introducing 'If War Should Come' - the first of three tracks from this year's superb 'War Room' EP which, you may be surprised to learn, are all based around war time spoken word samples - the dance-ish, electronic-ish tracks syncing up nicely with the video footage on the screens.

The audio-visual aspect of the gig is probably even more important tonight than other nights, distracting one's attention from the fact that, being a member down, more of the music than usual is necessarily being played/triggered by the laptop in front of him. But that's not to say there's no musicianship on display, far from it - Willgoose demonstrates his guitar and banjo skills admirably, all whilst triggering samples and spoken word nuggets from pads, playing keyboards every so often and seemingly looping various bits of what he's playing to enable him to move onto the next thing. 

One-man bands sure have come a long way since Mary Poppins' time, haven't they?

Dave from The Invisible and various members of Hejira watch JW banging his banjo.

Just when it looks like the Wartime shtick might wear a bit thin, J (can I call you J, J?) welcomes us to his gig in the only way he knows how - by means of ancient-sounding and deliberately mis-matched samples which he triggers from his pads. "It's Lovely to be at... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL" says one. "How are you doing... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL?" Giggles abound as he moves into slightly more cheery territory with the bouncy 'ROYGBIV' which is not a cover of the Boards of Canada track, but is equally good and invites favourable comparisons with Lemon Jelly, as he bangs out random colour names on the sample pads (which may or may not match the somewhat psychedelic projections behind him), and gives us a banjo masterclass along to the jaunty beats. 

Tonight's last track proper is 'Everest', an electronic hymn to the world's highest peak, accompanied by scratchy old footage of mountains and climbers, and it's a fittingly climactic end to the set. However, PSB choose to leave us tonight with an utterly bonkers duet for one on banjo and sample pads, which accompanies footage of snow and Christmas trees, and eventually morphs into Jingle Bells played on the theremin.

If there's an exact, polar opposite of Hejira's inscrutable, brooding sounds, it's fair to say that J. Willgoose, Esq. has found it. Full marks, sir. As if to prove the point, his bow tie falls off as he waves to the crowd, makes his laptop wish us "Happy Christmas... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL", and heads off backstage.

With two amazing acts already having played tonight, things are starting to look a bit dodgy for "Simon's favourite band today" who surely can't be as good as he's been making out, and also have two tough (and very different) acts to follow. But it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes of...

The Invisible

 ... before Simon turns to look at me to see what I think and finds me staring at the stage with a ridiculous shit-eating grin that says "This is possibly the best night of live music I've witnessed since the last night of live music I witnessed that I claimed was possibly the best night of live music I'd witnessed..."

It's an odd thing - The Invisible are actually a proper band, with a Wikipedia page, and a Mercury Music Prize nomination and everything. And yet I've somehow managed not to hear a single note until our new BFF Dave Okumo (Vocals, guitar), and his bandmates Tom Herbert (Bass, Synth) and Leo Taylor (drums) take the stage to respectful applause befitting their status.

Tonight's set, as far as I can tell, is comprised largely of songs from this year's 'Rispah' album, and the first song ('Lifeline', perhaps?) begins with Leo Taylor whacking the heck out of some electronic pads in a pattern which has me absolutely spellbound from my position over his left shoulder, before incorporating them seamlessly into his regular acoustic drum set-up in a way I've not seen done before, or at least not at close range like this - hitting each different tiny pad just above the toms with precision as if it were a whole drum in his kit. 

I'm a bit of a sucker for watching drummers play at close range, and especially when they play electronic patterns mixed with traditional rock sounds - so it's fair to say that The Invisible were always going to float my boat, but Dave's dreamy vocals and strummed guitar elevate the introductory drum pattern into something truly magnificent. 

Now, I earlier managed to compliment Hejira by saying they didn't sound like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, or Doves, but here I'm going to have to backpedal a little because I think it's fair to say that The Invisible do, in various parts sound a little like some of these bands, especially Radiohead and especially current Radiohead (circa 'In Rainbows')-  if not in actual sound then most definitely in terms of approach, with a healthy disregard for traditional song structures, a penchant for mixing stuttering electronica and beats with more post-rock type sounds, and a pleasing love of odd time signatures and interesting chords. Almost sounds like prog rock, doesn't it?

And then there are other sounds throughout the set which make me prick my ears up and take notice - the funky bassline and syncopated rhythms of 'London Girl' (the one song whose name I catch for sure) bringing to mind everything from Everything Everything to Level 42, the members of Hejira becoming even more hip as they dance, hip-ly at the front of the stage.

There are also moments in the next track ('Protection', I think) which put me in mind of Pink Floyd (gasp!), or early Porcupine Tree as Dave Okumo strums guitar in a "Run Like Hell" / "Voyage 34" type riff as Leo bangs out a hypnotic beat in 5/4. "Who says there isn't a market for prog?", says Simon, as he points out the front row of young hipster types, dancing their little hipster pants off, lost in the wonderful sounds.

What else? Well, there's also a lovely song where Dave is accompanied only by his own guitar and Tom's dreamy synth (which I suspect was 'What Happened'), then another where Dave ends up in a drum battle with Leo, using some extra drums that seem to have appeared on stage left, and then there's the encore track, which is most intriguing - being the longest thing we hear all night and ending up in a very early-Floyd-ish instrumental freakout.

I'm only sorry not to have got to know the material before, to be able to tell you all what they played and describe it in a more erudite fashion, but I can tell you that both the albums are well worth picking up, and have been played solidly ever since. (Well, once I got home and ripped them onto my iPod, that is. I don't have a CD walkman. I'm not that old.) 

Update- I'm playing 'Rispah' right now and Karin just asked what it was. "Is it also known as the project where Massive Attack and Steven Wilson got together and had a baby?" - I think we can all agree that's praise indeed.

Unfortunately, buying the CDs from the nice lady at the band's Merch stand is quite literally all I have time to do before running off to catch my bus, so I'm not able to tell Dave how much I enjoyed his set. But who knows, now we're so well acquainted, maybe he'll read this. 

In the event, I actually do miss my bus, thereby missing my train, and end up in a 2-hour plus nightmare maze of tubes, buses and nightbuses before finally arriving home at nearly 3:00. And despite all that, it's been one of the best nights out I've had in ages - three very different and equally excellent bands, all curated by an actual genius with obviously excellent taste in music, and what's more it didn't cost me a penny. Well, apart from the KFC. And the Blue Moon. And the nightbuses. And I narrowly avoid spending £50 for a taxi in a fit of desperation. But still.

If future 'Remedy' nights prove to be a good as this, I have a feeling I'm going to become intimately acquainted with... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL.