Friday, 31 January 2014

2013: The Year in "Normal" Music - Tracks

Um, I've just realised it's nearly February, and everyone knows you can't do "Best of Last Year" lists in February. I might as well still have my Christmas tree festering in the corner.

For that reason, and also because I feel like I am writing this list for the sole interest of about 5 people on my Twitter feed (hello Jake, Richey, Moray, Tim, um... others) - here is my somewhat abridged "Best of 2013 in Normal music" roundup. By "Abridged", I mean I'm just going to give you a list, a load of album art and a few comments, because, let's face it, most times that's all anyone looks at on these things. And by "normal" I mean, relatively mainstream - things that people outside my tiny world of gig friends might have heard of, things with samples and distorted guitars and enough electronic percussion to give the hardened progger an aneurysm on the spot.

But before we actually get to the top 20 albums - here's a randomly ordered list of odd tracks from albums which didn't make the main list, either because I didn't necessarily like all of the songs, I didn't really get to know them well enough, or they just plain don't exist yet (which makes things slightly tricky.) And at the end there's a handy Spotify playlist of them all.

Gigging Forever's "Top Tracks of 2013 which weren't on my top 20 albums for some reason"

Chrome Hoof: Knopheria (from the album Chrome Black Gold) - Massive disco-Knifeworld smash, like the Cardiacs meet the Scissor Sisters. I've not heard any more of this album and suspect the rest may be a bit less mental than this, but hope not, for the sake of all that is wonderful in this world.

I Break Horses: Faith (single) - Icy, deliberately obtuse, menacing, hypnotic electro track with a killer tune. The album is already one to watch in 2014.

Jennie Abrahamson: Phoenix (single) - Lovely Swedish electronica/singer-songwriter stuff from Peter Gabriel's latest backing singer - and what a voice. Some wonderfully squelchy keyboard bass too, and someone in a polar bear costume on the cover. What more could you want?

Haim: Forever (from the album 'Days are Gone') - This was probably better live on Jools Holland where I first heard it, trading the slightly overproduced sheen of the album for a healthy dose of New York punk attitude but still a fun tune from a good album nonetheless.

Bastille: Pompeii (from the album 'Bad Blood'). A song. That was quite good. Sung by a man. With some nice close harmony vocals and chanting choral effects. Will that do?

Jon Hopkins and Natasha Khan: Garden's Heart (from the OST 'How I Live Now') - Way less bizarre than you'd expect from the Mercury Prize-nominated sound pioneer and the bonkers frontlady of Bat For Lashes, but just as beautiful.

Delphic: Baiya (from the album 'Collections') - Yeah, the album was a bit dodgy, or at least misunderstood because it no longer sounded like New Order, but at least this was a superb single.

Depeche Mode: Angel (from the album 'Delta Machine') - Menacing and dark. Cracking live. Not entirely convinced about the rest of the tracks, though...

Teagan & Sara: Closer (from the album Heartthrob)- In which the indie duo get a makeover from Greg Kurstin and turn into a fun pop band with kick-arse attitude. If you like this, you'll probably like the whole album. Which I did. And do.

Jagwar Ma: Let Her Go (from the album Howling) - Summery, cheery, shimmery, jangly, spangly, chimmery, jummery, okay that'll do now. This year's only tip from my friend Mark - who went and got himself a girlfriend, the fool. Possibly the most guitarry and least electronic sounding song I've chosen in my entire list.

Moby: Saints (from the album 'The Innocents') - Say, Moby, can you make us a song that sounds exactly like 'Unfinished Sympathy' by Massive Attack? You can? Great! Do you have anything original, or even just better, to fill up the rest of the album? You don't? Oh dear.

Röyksopp featuring Susanne Sundfør: Ice Machine (from the mix album 'Late Night Tales') - A wonderful Depeche Mode cover with just the right amount of Nordic melancholy and analog synth wonder. I've actually never heard the original and not convinced I want to now...

Röyksopp (again) featuring Susanne Sundfør (again): Running to the Sea (single) - One of only 2 original tracks the R-men released this year - but there should be music AND a tour in 2014 and I'm staking my entire happiness on it. No pressure, guys. (Oh, and if you feel like bringing Susanne along on the road, I wouldn't complain.)

Rob & Chloe Alper - Juno (from the OST 'Maniac'). Chloe (ex of the much-missed Pure Reason Revolution) released a lovely song on Soundcloud about a year ago, and then promptly took it down. I miss that song. This isn't it, but it's still good. Not sure who this Rob guy is, but apparently he can write a decent song.

Austra: Home (from the album 'Home') - Austra's Katie Stelmanis has rather a strange, deep, almost bleating voice - and I'm not sure yet whether I like it - however this album is full of very interesting, even peculiar music. I picked the most electronic, upbeat number of course. I'm so predictable.

Porcelain Raft: It Ain't Over (from the album 'Permanent Signal') - Ooh, they've woken up a bit. If last year's album was like a soak in a hot bath, this is perhaps more like gently jogging through a field on a summer's day, tossing dandelions around your head in soft focus.

M83 featuring Susanne Sundfør (again): Oblivion (from the OST 'Oblivion') - Ok, Susanne, stop hanging out with the boys and get on with your new album, will you? Come to that, M83, you're quite possibly my favourite current band so can you pull your finger out on the proper follow-up to 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming' so that I can rightfully award it the 'Album of the Year' spot it was so cruelly robbed of in 2011?

This soundtrack nonsense is all very well when you can make songs this downright life-affirming, with majestic strings and thumping percussion underpinning the vocal performance of Susanne's life, but it's a bit of a shame to find the rest of the album just filled up with variations on the theme... Merci and Tak!

The Feeling: Blue Murder (from the album 'Boy Cried Wolf') - A more mature sound on this whole album has attracted some rave reviews in respected quarters, but it's still growing on me at the moment. Still, this opener is a pretty good statement of intent.

Emiliana Torrini : Speed of Dark (from the album 'Tookah') - A most intriguing album of soft, largely acoustic, breathy songs underpinned by gentle beats and chilled electronica. And then there's this banging mama of a tune which wakes you up in the middle. My second favourite Icelandic album of the year, and would have made the main list if there weren't already so much on it.

Foals: Prelude... Inhaler (from the album 'Holy Fire') - More bands should put an instrumental piece as track 1 before their first song, it's a largely dying art. Anyway, I lied, perhaps this little pair of tracks is the most guitarry thing here, albeit underwritten by some Stone-Roses ish drum patterns and odd distorted keyboards. A very promising start which isn't quite matched by the entire album (not yet, anyway. Maybe there's still time.)

Empire of the Sun: Lux...DNA (from the album 'Ice on the Dune') - Oh look, an instrumental piece leading into the first track proper. I told you more bands should do that. This second album didn't quite hit the highs of their legendarily good first effort (a modern classic of electro-pop) from a few years back, but in any other year it would have been on the main list for sure. It's not my fault there were so many who did better. Please don't stab me with your pointy hat.

MGMT: Mystery Disease (from the album 'MGMT') - Having pretty much abandoned the kind of breezy indie-synth-pop that made their name, MGMT have settled into a more minor key, obtuse prospect which doesn't always hit the mark, but when it works, such as with this menacing number where what sound like tiny Casio keyboards doodle over a hypnotic drum beat, it works.

SOHN: Bloodflows (single)- An extremely late entry thanks to whoever was picking the music before last week's I Break Horses gig, this sounded absolutely immense over the PA and is similarly engaging at home - a sort of gentle R&B number to start with, the track soon builds up with skittering beats and synths to become something totally different by the end. An exciting discovery.

Next time: The big one. 20 cracking albums from 2013. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

2013: The Year in Prog Albums - iii) As Sure as Eggs Is Numbers 4-1

(Continued from Part One and Part Two)

Ok, it's time to get down to business with my favourite 4 "prog" albums of 2013.

But before we do...

There's one album that hasn't quite made the cut- here's what and why and where.

Regal Worm: Use and Ornament

My crikey, this is mental. A mix of Canterbury-esque sounds, seriously obscure Swedish prog and, well, just noise and bonkers stuff, Regal Worm churned out its muddy little cast right at the end of the year and is frankly still in the processing queue whilst I decide whether it's the best thing in the world or utterly terrifying. Why not go and make up your own mind, with some free samples on Bandcamp, or Spotify? There's everything from 'Apple Witch', which is almost a song, to '6.17pm - The Aunt Turns into an Ant', which is 26 minutes to horrify every Genesis fan in the land expecting another 'Supper's Ready' rip-off. One thing's for sure - you may never be the same again.

Current favourite track: Apple Witch

4. Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused to Sing

Ok, here we go… “BURN THE HERETIC! How can he possibly claim that any of the remaining three albums are better than this? What does he know, he likes the Pet Shop Boys..”

Actually, I’m not claiming that anything is better than anything – I believe I carefully covered my arse with a flameproof tarpaulin on that one right back at the start. There’s no denying that this is the most technically accomplished album of the year, with musicianship beyond reproach, extremely complex and challenging material which always comes off perfectly, and audiophile recording standards (no great surprise since Alan Parsons produced it.)

So, why isn't this higher up? Well, it's mostly because, although there's a very impressive technical display of Crimson/jazzy prog-fusion that drives along big numbers 'Luminol' and 'Holy Drinker', they don't bring joy to my heart or, to be honest, make any kind of emotional impact at all. In fact, the main enjoyment I get from ‘Luminol’ is singing “Yeeees, Yeeeees” along to various sections in reverence to its ‘Drama’-worship.

But wait - in amongst all the jazz-prog wankery there's an extremely moving core - Drive Home is simply the most gorgeous tune Wilson's ever committed to ones and zeros, and that guitar solo is either nails on a chalkboard or a lovely shoulder massage from a lady in a Bangalore hotel spa, depending on your point of view. (Just as a really non-specific example of something good, you understand.)

Title track 'The Raven That Refused to Sing' is an absolute highlight of his career; grand, majestic and touching - and don't expect to stand near me at a gig during this song without getting cried on. And then there’s 'The Watchmaker', which is easily the best homage to Genesis' "Trespass" album that anyone's ever written -  a fine thing in my book.

Key Tracks: Drive Home / The Watchmaker / The Raven That Refused to Sing

3. Moon Safari: Himlabacken Vol. 1

If ‘The Raven’ can be criticised for a lack of joy, I could almost believe that Moon Safari created this album as the antidote- in fact Moon Safari are in many ways the anti-Steven Wilson, with their cheery Beach Boys and Queen-esque vocal harmonies, major-key hard-rocking instrumental freakouts, and red stage attire (ok, that’s just one of them.)

On closer inspection, though, something is rotten in the state of Skellefteå, as underneath those tunes lies a dark heart of melancholy, exemplified by ‘Too Young To Say Goodbye’, whose music alone catches your breath, making you laugh out loud at how wonderful the world is, whilst having you jauntily singing “You don’t have a heart but you could easily break mine…

In fact, they even poke fun at their perhaps undeserved sickly-sweet reputation on ‘Sugar Band’:

“Come to Candyland, meet the Sugar Band, sweet and saccharine are we / Ride our unicorns, blow our summer horns, in our cotton candy dreams…”

Having said that, ‘Mega Moon’ seems to be a song about stealing the moon to give to a loved one, and ‘My Little Man’ is most definitely a funny little song about Pontus Åkesson’s son, so perhaps the “too cheerful” brigade have a point. Still, Moon Safari have been my discovery of the year since their Peel gig in the summer – if we were awarding album of the year based on how much I enjoyed someone’s live show, this would walk it. As it stands, it’s an extremely fine album and has single-handedly reminded me why I love traditional Progressive Rock so much, although I would be far more into it as a genre if everyone could write music as joyous and downright life-affirming as the hard-drinking Swedes from the land where the sun never rises. (except for when it does, and doesn’t go down again. Until winter. Ahh, you know what I mean.)

Key Tracks: Too Young to Say Goodbye / Mega Moon / Sugar Band

2. Sand : Sand

Earlier this year, I came across a band called North Atlantic Oscillation, who I subsequently found to be one of the most exciting new acts around at the moment – echoey vocals, distorted guitars, dance sensibilities but with a rock core. Unfortunately they didn’t release an album this year so I thought this list was destined to be NAO-less, until the band’s Sam Healy thoughtfully slipped out this side project under the name of SAND in the dying months of 2013.

The longer it takes me to write this list, the more I end up listening to all the entries and the more their ranking changes – and nowhere is this more apparent than here, with this quite unassuming little album having started out somewhere around the number 8 or 9 position, and gradually worming its way up to here – the second best prog album of 2013. Actually, let’s be honest, this isn’t a prog album at all, is it? It’s on Kscope and that’s the only prog thing about it. It’s more what I’d call a ‘mood album’ – at first it’s hard to pinpoint specific songs or moments that are drawing you in, but over the course of the album, it locks you into a particular mood which makes you rather pleased with the state of the universe and keeps you coming back for more. Like a drug, but with nice side effects like being pleasant to people and wanting to hug everyone.

In truth, it’s not that far removed from North Atlantic Oscillation, albeit with much less guitar – it’s kind of like NAO crossed with M83, minus the beats. Which is alright by me. The first couple of tracks are bombastic and exhilarating in a somehow quite low-key way, and track 3, ' Destroyer' seems slightly less exciting on first glimpse but gradually reveals itself to be a slow burning epic as the album gets more plays – a simple ballad building up to a swirling fairgroundish ending. Elsewhere, ‘Astray’ moves from a sombre, quiet start with gentle throbbing piano underpinned by cello, to an explosive, joyous middle section with frenetic beats, before an ambient spacey section with beeps and bloops, which subsequently bludgeons you over the head with fragmented, unexpected drum and guitar stabs – and all of this within 5 minutes. Plus, 'On a Spent Sea' is a pretty good instrumental cover version of ‘No Surprises’.

If most of the albums in this list are fine examples of artists who are still making ‘Prog Rock’, then this (along with Shineback) is probably my favourite example of where real progressive music is heading – and I’m most definitely along for the ride. As my friend Tim is fond of asking, where would we be without Sand, indeed?

Key Tracks: Life's Too Easy/ Destroyer / Astray/ A Pill to Keep the Plane from Crashing

1. Big Big Train: English Electric: Full Power

Oooooooh, this is kind of a cheat, isn’t it? They’ve pulled a sly one here. Yes, readers of last year’s list will know how I felt about ‘English Electric, Part 1’, so you’ll probably imagine the anticipation round my way when Greg’s next package landed on my doorstep.

And you’ll also probably understand that my expectations were impossible to fulfill, and that whilst ‘English Electric, Part 2’ is a fine, fine album, it was perhaps less immediate by itself than EE1, having for whatever reason the slight feel of an add-on or bonus disc - which would probably have left it languishing around my bottom end. I mean, the bottom end of my list.

And I can only imagine that crisis talks were held at Big Big Towers about what they were going to do about this sorry state of affairs, although… although… did they know what they were doing all along? Yes, there’s always been an intention to release Parts 1&2 as a glorious whole, with reorganized tracks and cherry sprinkles and bluebirds singing over the white cliffs of Winchester- but how much difference would that make? It’s still largely the same collection of songs, isn’t it?

But they’ve only gone and bloody done it. Yes, if ever there was a case for continuing to listen to full albums, and album sequencing not being as much of a lost art as winding up slack cassette tapes with an HB pencil, this is it.

The songs from EE1 are the stuff of legend, so no more need be said about them here, save for the fact that playing musical chairs with them thankfully hasn’t dimmed their impact. And perhaps the most exciting thing about this lovingly manufactured breezeblock of a double-CD is Disc 1, Track 1- ‘Make Some Noise’, subject of BBT’s first promo video and also of the first mini-backlash from bellends who say things like “not enough going on in the music for me…”. There are notes, there are drum beats, and there are words – what more do you want? A joyous celebration of what it means to be in a band and to want to entertain people, it’s the perfect mission statement for the next 2 hours of unremittingly top-quality music.

In fact, I completely failed to identify this last year, but David Longdon (whose song this is, along with many of the other favourites of mine here) has to be by far the most important addition to BBT in recent years, not only in terms of finally giving the band a vocalist that doesn’t make me want to gouge my ears out with a rusty spoon, but especially by providing a more traditionally song-based foil for the full-on prog that Greg does so well. In fact this balance is exactly what makes EE:FP so successful – sort of like when you eat a whole bag of Cadbury’s Buttons and feel a bit sick, so you have to eat some Monster Munch to soak them up. Yes, exactly like that.

Hence, for every ‘Seen Better Days’, with its 7/8 clattering piano patterns and massed choral vocals (a great big melting fistful of Buttons), there’s a ‘Leopards’, which quite apart from being basically this year’s ‘Uncle Jack’ only with fewer yellowhammers and more dangerous felines, is a motorway-services sized bag of Monster Munch. And then there’s ‘The Lovers’, which is is all beautiful flute passages and threatens to out-Trespass ‘The Watchmaker’ before adding some Gabriel-esque percussion into the mix and then heading off into a fusion instrumental workout, finally ending up with some triumphant mellotron choir, proving that even the worst prog clichés can still be effective when used sparingly. (Monster Munch. With a confusing hint of Buttons.)

Every new song of this year’s batch sits comfortably amongst its older siblings, but ‘East Coast Racer’ was the immediate standout of ‘EE2’, with its absolutely spine-chilling, glacial piano opening from Danny Manners (who’s much more prominent in general this year), before the eponymous locomotive takes flight with chugging strings and triumphant brass pushing her off down the mainline, and Messrs D’Virgilio, Spawton, Manners, Poole and Gregory stoking the rhythmic fires.  And then there’s ‘The Permanent Way’ which proves that all the best albums need to have a reprise of the main themes at the end (‘Duke’, ‘Band on the Run’, ‘Jazz’, okay maybe not Jazz…)

In summary, English Electric: Full Power is quite probably the most important Progressive Rock album of the 21st century. Reverential of the past when necessary, innovative when desired, and reclaiming a place in modern music for brass bands and banjos, it’s the perfect argument for filling a double CD to bursting point. I wouldn’t want to give up a second.

I will have to take your first answer next time though, chaps.

Key tracks (that aren't recycled from last year, tut tut): East Coast Racer / Leopards / The Lovers / Seen Better Days / Make Some Noise

Spotify User? Why not play all my top tracks except the ones which aren't on Spotify (and a few bonus ones which didn't quite make the cut...)

Next time: Some albums that wouldn't be seen dead within 20 feet of a Mellotron.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

2013: The Year in Prog Albums - Phase 2: Numbers 7-5

Continued from Part One (due to getting a bit overexcited and typing an entire thesis on why prog is still, like, awesome...)

7. Mr. So & So: Truth, Lies and Half Lies 

Rock, rock, rock. RAWWWWK. There are times when you just want your music to get down and dirty, and not to sound like either Yes or Porcupine Tree – and it’s at such times that you need to catch Mr. So & So live, like I did, and rejoice in their straight ahead, no-nonsense approach to creating great, enjoyable music. Built around obvious frontpeople Dave Foster and Charlotte Evans, they’re almost a less metal version of Touchstone, with (dare I say it?) better tunes. Throughout, there are gigantic riffs, proper choruses and great male/female harmony vocals which is always a plus in my book – plus there are proper, old-fashioned rock and roll guitar solos out the wazoo.

And just when you’re thinking this all sounds incredibly dumb and heartless, there’s the touching ‘Looking Glass’, in which Charlotte shows a rather raw and vulnerable side, and the gut-wrenching ‘You’re Coming Home’ which caused even hardened proggers  at the gig to come over a little unnecessary and “have something in their eye”.

Also, ‘Apophis’ sounds absolutely brilliant when you’re taking off in a plane (thanks BA for enabling me to find that out.)

Key tracks: Paperchase / Apophis / You’re Coming Home

6. Riverside: Shine of New Generation Slaves

Poland is a pretty grim and depressing place, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve never been there, but I have all the Riverside albums, so I’m just assuming, given how unremittingly minor key and bleak of outlook their songs are. Still, sometimes you’re just in the mood to wallow in self-pity like an emo teenager, even when you’re on the wrong side of 34, so for that reason it’s always nice to have Riverside back.

Again, I’ve not really studied the lyrics in any great depth, but there’s a picture of what looks like Canary Wharf tube station on the front, with hollow-eyed people going down an escalator  (or perhaps up, backwards), so I’m going to assume it’s a concept album about mean old city people, the evils of money, and the drudgery of being a corporate drone (popular theme this year…).

If The Tangent’s soundtrack to corporate drudgery is a cacophony of Stravinsky-esque mind-buggery, Riverside’s sticks with the tried and tested formula of being a bit like Porcupine Tree, with acoustic guitar dark-strummy ballads like ‘The Depth of Self Delusion’ which is this year’s ‘Conceiving You’ (and nearly as good), and catchy metal riffs like ‘Celebrity Touch’, which is hopefully about Moby’s favourite party game, and confirms the old adage that what makes a riff 73% more awesome is to play it on an additional guitar the second time around. They also go for the old “Pink Floyd Rulez” tack on ‘Escalator Shine’, something which is taken to extremes on the bonus disc of spacey instrumentals which is well worth an extra few quid of anyone’s money.

But, just when you think they’ve got nothing new to say, along comes ‘Feel Like Falling’, which is basically a really excellent pop song. And it’s in a major key. And Mariusz yalls “C’mon!” before the guitar solo. Maybe there’s a chink of light in that Polish sky after all…

Key tracks: Celebrity Touch / Feel Like Falling / Escalator Shrine

5. Big Big Train - English Electric Part 2 

GF: Greg, David, is that your final answer?
BBT: Erm, hang on…

Oh, alright then... 5. Sound of Contact: Dimensionaut

Oh lord, another concept album for me to not understand. Now, I have to admit that I was somewhat unfair to Sound of Contact when I saw them live earlier this year – my main impression being that Simon Collins was trying a bit too hard to be his dad, and that they weren’t as much fun to watch as Beardfish. But then again, Cirque de Soleil aren’t as much fun to watch as Beardfish.

Anyway, I picked up this album with trepidation, and blow me, if it doesn’t turn out to be one of the finest things released in a long time. So, just how much does it sound like a Genesis album, then? Well, there’s no getting away from the fact that Simon’s voice is exceptionally similar to his dad’s - which is hopefully natural and not an affectation - and Sound of Contact / Cosmic Distance, with its rolling toms, is probably the track I accused of ripping off Duke’s Travels at the gig, but it’s a stonkingly good album opening when it kicks into the first real song ‘Pale Blue Dot’, just the first of many “proper” songs with tunes and choruses, but definite prog sensibilities, like ‘Remote View’ and ‘Omega Point’. Admittedly, it does drag a little in the latter stages with some less interesting ballads like ‘Closer to You’, but it’s rescued at the end by closer ‘Mobius Slip’ which is probably the darkest, heaviest thing on the album and factually the longest.

So, yeah, pretty much exactly like a post-Duke Genesis album then – in fact I sometimes like to try to imagine that it is their new album, as I sit, friendless and alone at home with my copy of Armando Gallo’s ‘I Know What I Like’. Some of the songs are easier to do this with than others; Phil-led Genesis were never as heavy as some of the sections of ‘Mobius Slip’, for instance, but just imagine if they could get back together and produce something of this quality. It’d easily be their best for, ooh, 17 years.

Key Tracks:  Cosmic Distance…Pale Blue Dot / Omega Point / Mobius Slip

Next time: Some more albums. In some sort of order. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

2013: The Year in Prog Albums - Part One (Overture / BEM / Numbers 10-8)

If you've met up with me at all over the last 3 years, the chances are one of the following things happened:

a) I babbled incoherently like a teenage girl, and wouldn't shut up for hours because I was so happy so see another human being

b) I was moody and monosyllabic, then eventually started moaning at you about how miserable I am without an office to go to, before weeping into the first of many pints and then making a tit of myself at a gig, or insulting a snooker player.

Yes, working from home is a weird old experience, after the initial thrill of doing spreadsheets in your jogging bottoms, and emptying the dishwasher whilst pretending to listen to conference calls wears off. But if there's one thing it's good for, it's listening to music, so thank goodness that's something that I can just about tolerate.

I'm fairly sure that this is not an Occupational Health approved workstation.

Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I bought a lot of new albums this year - and by that I mean 70. 70 brand new albums - and that's not even counting the old crap I bought for a quid in a charity shop.

It also means that, as last year, I need to divide my list in two along the vague lines of "music which is considered ok to listen to by people who only listen to prog oh no wait they're really eclectic because they also listen to prog metal", and "other stuff." And because Santa told me you've been good this year, you can have your "prog-ish" list first - but if I get a quarter of the hits on the "definitely not prog stop trying to claim that everything good is prog for the love of god" list, I will come round your house and personally read every word of it through your letterbox, so be warned. Actually, that sounds like a good way to get myself out of the house doesn't it?

But before we even get that far...

Naughty Elephants Squirt Water

This year, a few of my mates got together and set up a record label, then released two albums which were written, recorded, produced and played on largely by more of my mates. Despite the reputation they seem to have somehow acquired for being a "prog" label, neither of the albums they've released so far actually fit neatly into my "prog" / "not prog" list, so perhaps they're just more of a "good" / "interesting" record label.

Both of these albums are excellent examples of pushing the boundaries of music - one puts me through the emotional wringer whilst making me want to jump up around at a 90's rave, and the other taxes the grey matter, demands some serious headbanging and makes me feel much hipper to post-rock music than I really am.
Guitars and rock and stuff.

My problem is that I am too close to these albums to stack them up against your Stevie McChuckletrousers and yer Snoopy Biggie Trainy Trains - I think they are both superb and that everybody should buy them, but I genuinely can't think about them objectively.

For that reason, and assuming that you are't allergic to intelligent pop-dance type music with progressive sensibilities and some killer hooks, I will tell you to go and read my sort-of-review of the Shineback album here, if you dare. It's destined to become a classic of electro-prog, mark my words.

Not so much with the guitars and rock and stuff.

And I will end this completely unbiased section with the suggestion that if you like the sound of an album firmly rooted in the challenging, instrumental rock category, whose title track starts with a kind of thrash-metal riff accompanied by cheesy handclaps, which is interrupted when you least expect it by some chiming guitars and the world's most cheerful tune played on a Glockenspiel, and then gives way to a disco drum and bass section before eventually coming to an abrupt, mind-blowing ending, then you ought to get yourself over to Bandcamp now and have a listen to some of The Fierce and the Dead's 'Spooky Action' album. It really does contain all this and everything else you can imagine besides - including a track which sounds like a Gamelan orchestra recorded in the Wookey Hole Caves ('Intermission 3') - no, I'm really not making this up.

Gigging Forever's Top 10 Prog albums of 2013

Right, now we've got that out of the way so that I don't have to offend any of my mates by judging them against each other, let's take a look at what we have left. 10 albums - yes, these are all I actually feel like endorsing in the Prog category this year. But what albums they are, no sympathy votes or barrel-scraping this year - these are all certified great buys, guaranteed or your money back*.

In some ways it seems silly to try to rank them at all, but non-existent rules are still rules. I fully expect some sternly raised eyebrows at the order here, but you know what, whilst I can appreciate that some things may be better produced, or more expensively recorded than others, if they don't make me feel quite as happy to be alive as others then all that's not worth a Squonk's tear in a Siberian Khatru. Or something.

*Money may not actually be refunded

10. Maschine - Rubidium

Yeah, I know that's an, um, interesting cover, isn't it? What you can't see is that there's a sticker on the front of my copy which proclaims Maschine (under their old name of Concrete Lake) to have been voted the best new band of 2011, which perhaps sums up why this, their first available recording, didn't quite make the splash I'd expected after that year’s triumphant Summer's End performance.

It may also be because it's an incredibly complex and inventive album, with more crazy ideas per song than an entire episode of Sherlock - taking several cues from the Pain of Salvation album after which they used to be named, but also reminding me of ‘Six’ by Mansun, aka the bonkers and brilliant album that killed their Britpop career.

At times, it doesn’t quite work – as with ‘Cubixstro’ which starts out in astounding fashion with some fine playing from everyone, but especially Dan ‘Funky Fingers’ Mash on the bass. But then by the time you’ve reached the last 3 minutes, with its repeated refrain petering out gradually like someone falling down a comedy well, you’ve basically forgotten what you liked so much about the first 5.

‘Invincible’ gets it right, though, with soft, breathy vocals from frontman and guitar genius Luke Machin recalling Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon (this is A Good Thing), some lovely flute, and proper tunes with gorgeous harmonies from keyboard player Georgia Lewis. And then it goes a bit mental for 3 minutes as everyone indulges their inner Dream Theater or Jaco Pastorius  – but you know what? It’s absolutely perfect. More like this please.

Key tracks: Cubixstro / Invincible / Venga

9. The Tangent: Le Sacre du Travail (The Rite of Work)

I’ve got to be honest with you, I had a bit of a struggle with this album to start with – in fact I’m not sure we aren’t still slugging it out with pistols at dawn to determine the ultimate victor. Still, being a tribute to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, it’s only fitting that people should be confused, challenged and downright terrified on first listening, and Andy Tillison, aka The Tangent, manages to achieve this quite successfully with the first couple of ‘movements’ (cos it’s a proper symphony thing innit?) such as when a somewhat depressing monologue recalling the ridiculousness and futility of the daily ritual interrupts what initially promises to be quite a standard Tangent instrumental piece in the shape of ‘1st Movement: Coming Up on the Hour (Overture)’ (Andy - quick tip, you’ll never get on Radio 2 unless you make your song titles a bit more catchy…)

‘2nd Movement: Morning Journey & The Arrival’ doesn’t exactly encourage toe tapping or an easy listen either, being the most obviously recognizable example of Andy’s original intention to remake Stravinsky’s original – with some orchestral and sometimes slightly dissonant sections rubbing quavers with much more upbeat, catchy motifs including the “It all just looks like birdshit” section, as I like to call it (featuring the vocal stylings of the superlative David Longdon from Big Big Train – I wonder if they’ll make an appearance here in a bit?). Still, no refrain here outstays its welcome, in fact you’re hard pushed to find one that so much as takes its shoes off and asks for a cuppa, which is another reason for the lack of immediacy – hang on a minute, perhaps the Maschine influence has rubbed off on Mr Tillison…

Things get easier as we go, though, with the positively hit-single like ‘Evening TV’ rounding things up, but ‘3rd Movement: Afternoon Malaise’ is probably the most successful long piece for me, or at least the first to welcome me in and show me the secrets under its mattress, anyway – with the decently-proportioned 'Steve Wright' section being a lovely, warm and fuzzy post-lunch aural blanket in keeping with its subject matter and one of the few hooks to keep you humming away as you head home from your dreary toil like the corporate drone that you are, go on, hum away on the train to forget the pointlessness of your existence… Oh, looks like the album’s finally won.

Key Tracks: 4th Movement: Afternoon Malaise / 5th Movement : Evening TV

8. Cosmograf: The Man Left in Space

I have to admit that I wasn’t going to buy this album; for the simple reason that I had this idea that it was going to be a terribly amateurish one-man-and-a-laptop affair. So imagine my surprise to be coerced into giving it a shot by the lovely Nellie at The Merch Desk (quarterly plug over) only to find various members of Big Big Train and Spock's Beard adding their not inconsiderable talents to the mix, not to mention Luke Ma(s)chin(e), Lee Abraham, Matt Stevens (oh, you don't say) and Robert "I'm not scary, honest" Ramsay.

As you might imagine, the whole thing sounds great, but it would be nothing if the material was pants - and thank goodness, Robin (he who is Cosmograf) knows how to write a tune or two - with killer riffs and choruses all over, and that's to say nothing of the more ambient, spacey tracks such as the gorgeous 'The Vacuum That I Fly Through'. Key achievement is perhaps track 2-  ‘Aspire, Achieve’, which sets its stall out right from the start with brooding acoustic guitar and soulful vocals, which are suddenly obliterated by a monster electric guitar riff and furious drumming, reminding you of Steven Wilson and that band of his before he went all serious. Oh, alright then, before he went even more serious.

It’s the second concept album on our list this year, being the story of, um, a man left in space… accompanied by a lobotomised female version of Kryten from Red Dwarf, or something. Sorry, regular readers will remember that I am hopeless at paying attention to stories and lyrics when there are tunes as good as ‘The Man Left in Space’ on offer – but even for the verbally challenged like me, the mood of isolation and desperation is intrinsic to the music itself and makes this an emotionally affecting listen throughout.

Key tracks: Aspire, Achieve / The Vacuum That I Fly Through / The Man Left in Space

Next time: Numbers 7-5. Or maybe I'll do numbers 6, 3 and 4, just to confuse you. Bet you can't wait.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

11th January 2014: The Fierce and the Dead / Thumpermonkey - New Cross Inn, London

Ladies and gentlemen, I have failed you. I've just checked and it has been at least a year since I wrote anything about Matt Stevens, which is both sad and slightly worrying. What if I've fallen out of man-crush with the Giant Cuddly One?

Fear not- the love which has far too often spoken its name is still as strong as ever, on tonight's showing; as I bring you my first gushing tribute to The Fierce and the Dead, the band Matt plays in when he's not doing things to an acoustic guitar which are probably illegal in 37 states.

"These are small, and those are far away..."

Tonight's gig in New Cross is a bit of a bastard to get to - hardly surprising since it is in the London area on a weekend (gee, thanks, TFL.) It's therefore heartening to see the place rammed when I arrive, with people who've come all the way from Catford and Stroud- rock on.

Unfortunately my travel woes cause me to miss all but the last song of the Mayors of Miyazaki's set - but what I do hear reminds me a bit of Everything Everything. And the Cardiacs, surprisingly enough for a band playing a gig with bands from the sort of Knifeworld scene. Oh look, there's Kavus. Mind you, Kavus is everywhere, as he should be for the good of our planet, a bit like Nitrogen.

The New Cross Inn is a pretty cool venue - it's basically a pub with a largely empty floor space and no regular tables and chairs, although there are a few outdoor picnic tables at the back, in case anyone's brought a hamper and fancies a scotch egg or two. Actually the need for a sit down is much less necessary than usual as tonight's crowd is definitely younger than the usual prog rabble, although two guys near me as I wait are having a conversation about Stonehenge so perhaps it's not so different. A couple play pool in the corner all through the night, and over the other side there is a lady in a little black dress, wearing a long blonde wig with bits of tinsel in it. I like this place.

The Fierce and the Dead finish setting up and start off a pretty funky jam which may or may not be the start of the set; but apparently not, as they soon give up on this and kick off with opening track 'Part 4' from the new album 'Spooky Action'.

Buy. Buy album. Buy album NOW!

Ah yes, standard Stevens loopy, jangling guitar riff... Except- hang on a beard-wearing minute- it's electric. And Matt's not even playing it. Yes, without hearing them it would be easy to imagine that the Fierce and Dead might be a kind of full-band version of Matt's solo acoustic looping albums. Perhaps the opening deliberately plays on this for as long as it takes to lull the unsuspecting listener into a false sense of security, before smashing them over the head with a grungey riff which gives way to spacey sounds and feedbacky, distorted guitar.

In truth, it's fair to say that TFATD (as all the hip kids call them) bear little relation to Matt's solo stuff - his contribution here being largely more "soundscapes" and "what the bloody hell was that noise?" than "rhythm and loops", leaving Steve Cleaton to play a lot of the recognisable chiming guitar patterns.  In fact, anyone from the little prog community that's taken Matt's solo looping work to its heart so warmly might be forgiven for assuming that it's very much Matt's band and all the others in it merely players- but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Mr. Stevens is quite some way from the loopy-dancing, pedal stomping, guitar trashing dervish of his solo sets, taking a side stage role and never hogging the limelight, which means there's plenty of eye-capacity to enjoy everyone else on stage.

Or, indeed, off-stage, as bassist and geographical frontman Kev Feazey abandons his microphone and jumps down the few centimetres off the platform at a few points to rock out down the front and watch what the rest of the band are up to. Pretty cool idea - especially since he's not actually using the microphone. Yep, The Fierce and the Dead are an instrumental rock band - get over it. Rather an instrumental band than one with a shit vocalist.

I insert this picture here for no reason at all.

Anyway, who needs a singer at all? Certainly not me: all I demand is a tight and entertaining rhythm section, and this band deliver in spades - Kev being a mesmerising bass player, who sets up some fearsome grooves in amongst all the distorted, noisy bits everyone else is bashing out. He even manages to sound like a squelchy bassoon on 'Let's Start a Cult', the surprisingly chirpy little number which starts with the kind of "wah waaaaah" riff that ought to accompany someone falling down some stairs, goes through a deceptively catchy and rocking dual guitar solo, and ends up in a kind of stoppy-starty Knifeworld-ish exploration before coming to a close in a blaze of feedback and distortion which recalls My Bloody Valentine.

The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Stuart Marshall, is no less essential to the set - in fact he's possibly the closest thing I've found to Tinyfish's Leon Camfield out in the wild - an extremely visual drummer, commanding your attention and making you marvel at just how hard he can hit everything in sight in such a short space of time. And he doesn't just deal splendidly with the stop-start, time-sig shifting nature of much of tonight's music, no, he drives it forwards, making it possible for the songs to turn on a dime, and for Tinsel-wig woman to dance her little dress off like a gogo dancer for the entire set.

And she's actually not the only one - there's also long hair rock guy in front of me who sways from side to side in time to the music, meaning that his head is only in my way 50% of the time, which is actually a perfect solution which should probably be adopted by all gig goers henceforth. Yes, I made some comment on Facebook before this gig about the probable lack of toe-tapping and chorus humming, and yet by the time they arrive at 'Chief', I am indeed grooving along to the beat - not as musically as Kavus, mind you, who finds some kind of impossible syncopated off-beat to clap along to.

It's all over far too quickly, which is probably because they've written the setlist on a dolls-house sized post-it-note, but the set finishes up with an absolutely blistering 666...6, by which time my digiti pedis are most assuredly moving about in a way that could be described in some alliterative fashion which slips my mind right now. Well, until the rollicking 6/8 pattern that drives the song along breaks down into an echoey, comtemplative section anyway. Tinsel lady is a tad confused - but never mind, they're soon back with a giant riff which wraps things up rather nicely, thank you very much, and then they're on their way.

As must I be, before too long, but there's just time to berate Matt for not playing longer (something which will be rectified at their Camden Barfly gig on Feb 2nd - stick it in your diaries), catch up with frequent gig buddy Alison, who's been hiding in a corner, and visit the gents to find out what the Mr Men look like when you've taken LSD.

I also stick about to see my second helping of Thumpermonkey, who are great and supremely engaging to watch again, if only for the sight of their back-to-back guitar duelling stance at the end of the first number, which is wonderfully at odds with their seemingly deliberately low key appearance. Yes, some of the band look like a little like maths teachers, but then that's perhaps fitting, since it seems that some of the music was possibly worked out using quadratic equations.

There are heavy riffs and time signature changes, alternating with catchy, funky sections, some vocals which are almost like rapping, and choruses which go  "Put it right back where you found it". Whatever you say, guys. Then there's a song about body modification ("YEAH!" shouts someone) - "Seven seconds of Firth of Fifth"  from Rael on the keyboards, (whose name is apparently not Graham), and just as I have to get going, the singer launches into a remarkably Sherlock-esque spoken word narrative containing the immortal words "When we were introduced to each other it became quite clear that we were at the institute of incendiary morphology for quite different reasons."

Bonkers, brilliant, bloody difficult to get your head around, that's Thumpermonkey.

But I will leave you with my favourite image of the evening, which is the sight of our friend in the dress coming to the end of her rapturous dancing to TFATD, looking about, not quite knowing what to do, heading over to the nearest table, taking off her wig, giving his thinning scalp a good old scratch, sighing and picking up his pint of bitter for a gigantic swig.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Happy New Friday

Well, good golly gosh and crikey.

One minute I'm in the middle of telling you about my fun and not at all boozy weekend at the Summer's End Festival, and the next, Christmas and New Year have been and gone and we're all flopping about in the post-festive period, shoveling in the last of the leftover food we don't actually want, and idly playing with our new toys like those guys from Wall-E.

I'm a bit crap, really, aren't I? It's even taken me 5 days just to write this much, which explains why the previous paragraph doesn't make much sense - I have to keep changing the days in it. Fear not, though... plans are afoot to bring you as much wordy goodness as your eyeballs can consume. (Probably more, if we're honest.)

Firstly, I've just bought a dedicated blogging laptop so that I don't feel I'm depriving Karin of her Spider Solitaire every time I want to write something - although I'm not using it yet because it has Windows 8 on it and I'm extremely scared.

And secondly, I've quit my job so that I can spend more time writing. No, don't worry, I'm not that deluded - I have actually accepted another, hopefully less demanding one, no need to send the intervention people round.

"Darling, we are only telling you this because we will always love and support you,
but that top really doesn't go with the jeans... "

There are various gigs booked in already for 2014, and a couple of trips, so I shouldn't be short of things to write too much about. But before all of that...

I've Got a Little List

Me and 2013 have some distinctly unfinished business to take care of - yes, it'll soon be time for the annual Gigging Forever page of album covers and associated waffle with accompanying meaningless ranking. This year I've been putting a lot more thought into it (i.e. some) and making sure I play every new album I bought this year once through, making some notes.

Unfortunately, I bought 65 new albums this year so it's taking a while. I'm just about at 'T' though, so hopefully the first part will be ready soon. As with last year, the "Prog" list pretty much writes itself, but aside from that, there are 50-odd albums of assorted other interesting music to go through, making a list that makes me sound just the right combination of young and cool, whilst not being blatant lies. Not as easy as you'd think.

Obviously this won't be on it. Or will it?
Is it post-retro-ironic to like this now? Help...

I've also got notes to write up from some of the best gigs I've ever been to, so there'll be a bit of a gig-round-up of the year type thing. Featuring this...

And this...

And, er, probably not this.

Radio GaGa

Just before Christmas, I popped over to deepest darkest Stratford (as much as one can pop anywhere for TWELVE SODDING HOURS), to visit my good friend David and provide witty repartee as special guest for his end of year review podcasts. In-between all the music, we talked about why Robert Ramsay should join Daft Punk, why David should probably have invited Karin instead of me, and what is my "pooing album of the year." You'd be criminally insane to miss it.

Now, I don't like to break the magic of radio, but although we pretend they're recorded on various days over the festive period, we actually sat there all day recording all 3 epic shows back to back, which you can probably tell by the fact that my input is pretty much reduced to snarky comments by the end of the last one. My point is, anyway, that if I can sit there on David's landing doing that all day, the least you can do is go and take a listen - and there is clearly no finer collection of progressive music anywhere on the web (that's progressive and not just Prog, since I insisted on putting some of my electro-bollocks on the playlist, too.)

The European Perspective End of Year Review - click here or look for it on iTunes...

Been Around the World and I, I, I...

For some inexplicable reason (or possibly because I paid my sister to bump my Facebook post), my travel blog got quite a lot of attention over the holiday period, and became something of a viral hit. As in a hit with people who were stuck in with the flu and had nothing better to do.

Anyway, literally 6 people liked my comment that I should carry on with it, and as everyone knows, that's basically a binding contract, so I'll be putting some time into that at some point as well. There'll be stuff like this:

And this....

And, er, this...

In the meantime, if you've not seen it yet, why not go and have a quick look. And then continue having a look for as long as it takes to read it all.

Run, Forrest, Run

Last but not least, I know how much everyone enjoyed it when I used to write about training for a 10k race - so much so that I've signed up for the London Marathon. So I'll be sure to:

a) bore you with that, and
b) beg for more money for the Cure Parkinson's Trust

Happy new Year!