Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Gigging Forever Awards 2014: Part 6 (The 'Funny Music' edition)

Okay, this is really it, I promise. I've held you captive here so long at this fictional awards ceremony that Earl's Court itself has become fictional (Yes, it saw its last ever gig this year and the demolition men moved in shortly after...) Go, read, and then fly and be free, my pretties...

(but don't forget to check out all the previous parts before you go.)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3 (The moany edition)
Part 4
Part 5

This time around, we are dedicating our attention to 'Funny Music' - music that is never going to get played on mainstream radio, music that your mates have never heard of, music that strives to go where nobody has gone before, music which last year I would probably have called 'Prog' but I'm so sick of the bloody word that I've nicked an alternative expression from 'Funny Music' Pioneer Matt Stevens which says it far better, especially since none of the albums below really fall into that increasingly narrow bracket, yes, what's that, you'd like me to shut up and get on with it? Oh, alright then.

The "How to Run a Record Label" Award (part 1)

So last year I had something to say about how a couple of my mates had started up a record label and released a couple of albums largely played on my more of my mates (don't worry about going to read it cause that's pretty much exactly what I said), and I cunningly separated those albums out from the rest of the countdown so that I didn't have to rate them and upset anyone.

This year, I actually got involved (in the smallest possible way) in helping out with said record label, so I feel even less like I ought to rave about them this time around but, dammit, they've only gone and released some of the finest and most interesting music of the year.

For that reason, I can't possibly award them Record Label of the Year, however, I could direct you to "Prog" magazine's critics end of year lists, of which no fewer than 7 contained one or more BEM albums (even though 3 out of 4 of them aren't really Prog.)

I could direct you to the times raw and noisy rock band Trojan Horse got airplay on BBC6 music, to the time celebrity Waterloo Road acting Mark Benton gave The Fierce and The Dead a namecheck on Twitter, or to the many, many times that snooker legend Steve Davis has bigged up BEM acts on his Radio show or in the press. I could even direct you to Norman Wisdom impersonator Simon Godfrey and his 'Letters from America' magazine column, his beautifully personal 'Motherland' acoustic album, or his legendary Facebook statuses, each eagerly awaited by his army of followers, but your lives would probably never be the same again.

I suppose I could even mention that instrumental masterpiece album 'Bloody Marvels' by Emmett Elvin (which, frankly, sounds like Michael Nyman, Anthony Phillips, Stephane Grappelli and King Crimson decided to take some 'shrooms and have a jam) beat out competition from Pink Floyd, Steve Hackett, The Enid and Yes in a public poll in which over 500 fans of interesting music voted.

I could do all that, but I'd better not.

The "How to Run a Record Label" award (Part 2)

I'm fairly convinced that if Kscope didn't already exist, I would have tried to set them up by now. The type of label that's a mark of quality, that makes you sit up and think "Well, it's on Kscope, it must be good." (Even if you don't get it - sorry Gazpacho.) A label where even the artwork looks reassuringly expensive (and I'm not just saying that because senior artwork designer Scott Robinson was in my class at school.)

The kind of label that doesn't just release the same old safe-sounding stuff over and over again, but encourages acts who want to take a risk with their music and create weird mixes of genres that shouldn't work, like Shoegaze and Prog, Metal and Indie, Celtic and Doom, ok you get the idea. Perhaps Kscope has a reputation as a Prog label, but if you examine its output, certainly in 2014, you won't be finding any 'Supper's Ready' rip-offs, and hobbits remain distinctly unbothered.

In fact, a sense of musical adventure and willingness to push the boundaries is really all the above-displayed albums have in common, which is probably why Kscope released more albums that were serious contenders for my 'Best of the Year' list this year than any other label.

From 'Distant Satellites' , the latest in a trilogy of epic, widescreen, emotionally draining albums from Anathema, which saw them experimenting with a few different sounds this time around to an admittedly mixed reception, to 'Magnolia', The Pineapple Thief's most recent collection of catchy but edgy alternative rock tunes with strings, quality album after quality album tumbled out of their stable this year, encouraging me to check out all kinds of things based largely on the Kscope reputation of quality.

There was even a collection of cover versions from some guy called Steven Wilson, which showed promise (I reckon he might go places in 2015), and an album from a new duo called Se Delan which someone else on the internet (Femme Metal Webzine, to be exact) described as not being "out of place in a David Lynch movie", so I won't bother trying to come up with anything more descriptive than that.

But there were two Kscope albums this year which really got me going in all the right places, and we shall call them (for these are their names)...

North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day

Last year, Sam Healy's 'SAND' side-project raced up the rankings even as I was writing my list, so it's hardly surprising that I was eagerly awaiting what the band had in store next. And from the first few notes of opener 'Great Plains II', off I went on yet another voyage of discovery; from the drum'n'bass meets Porcupine Tree sound of 'Elsewhere' to the horror movie 'tron of 'A Nice Little Place' , all the way through to the wonderfully uplifting penultimate track 'Dust' and closer 'When To Stop', which is accompanied by what sounds like someone bouncing Christmas Tree baubles on a glockenspiel.

Along the way, there's the mighty instrumental 'Penrose' which (if you'll allow me a little Genesis ultra-geekery here) sounds much like Tony Banks' 'Charm' would have sounded if he'd invited Phil Collins along to play Duke-era toms all over it and got Steve Hackett back in to do some of his patented scratchy guitar in the background.

Plus, the cover looks a lot like one of the bizarre objects you're expected to decipher and open in iPad game 'The Room', which is never a bad thing.

Engineers - Always Returning

I once picked up Engineers' first album in a charity shop for a quid, brought it home, listened to it, and thought "Yeah, that's alright," and promptly forgot all about it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my mate Tim brought their new album round for a double date and I ended up asking it to move in with me. Everything about this album is exactly what I wanted to hear in 2014, the warmth and cosiness of the sound (analogue loveliness FTW), the dream-state it invokes from start to finish, the echo-ey, reverby, space-y wonder that is 'Fight or Flight', the mix of sequenced bass parts and real drums, the close harmony vocal wonder of 'Drive Your Car', the fact that it sounds bloody marvellous reverberating around in my new kitchen, you name it. There are even a couple of instrumentals, one of which ('Smoke and Mirrors') accidentally sounds a bit like 'Poor Leno' by Royksopp, which is a mighty fine thing.

I *think* I might even love it more than NAO, but it's ok, there are no winners and losers this time around, everyone on Kscope gets a gold star this year. It's just that a couple of albums are a fair bit more equal than others...

The 'Best Funny Music album that isn't on BEM or Kscope', yes I really am running out of inspiration now award

Ok, let's not pretend that my two favourite labels have the monopoly on all the interesting music this year... Here's a few others:

Matt Stevens: Lucid

I reviewed this before it was even out, you know.

Tim Bowness: Abandoned Dancehall Dreams

Good on Tim for deciding he didn't want to be 'The Warm-up Man Forever', sticking two fingers up to old Chuckletrousers and putting out this material which could have been a No-Man album all by himself. Well worth a listen. And then another one.

Knifeworld: The Unravelling

I'm still not sure whether I love Knifeworld or am just terrified by them, but this year's album put me the closest to the former camp that I've ever been, so they must be doing something right.

Lazuli: Tant que l'Herbe est Grasse

French world-rock music made by Medieval biker blacksmiths - it's all in French, which you might think would be an issue if you can't speak it, but to be honest, I can and I'm none the wiser really, so I wouldn't sweat it. Just sit back and groove to the Gabriel-esque rock, and try not to crap your pants when Fish suddenly pops in and starts singing in Scottish. And GO SEE THIS BAND LIVE, because they are in the top 5 live acts I have ever seen, and I don't say that kind of thing lightly unless I've just had 5 bottles of Big Big Train Chocolate Porter.

And the winner is... Matt Stevens. Obviously. 

The "Completely Sodding Bonkers" Award

Ashley Reaks - Compassion Fatigue

An album where the first song is in the key of A and is one minute long, the second is in B, and is two minutes long, and so on. It's probably lucky that an octave only contains 8 notes otherwise I'd still be listening to it now...

Actually, that sounds ridiculous but it works surprisingly well, with the first couple of short tracks being punchy and fierce and the later ones being allowed to stretch out in a groovy sort of way. Some of the lyrics are off-the-scale weird and frankly slightly scary, but who cares about such things when the music rocks?

Just don't look at that album cover too close to bedtime and give yourself nightmares, will you?

Most "Better Than It Had Any Right To Be" Album

A hotly contested category this year...

And the nominees are...

Manic Street Preachers: Futurology

I lost track of the Manics several albums ago, as they seemed to be releasing one every few hours - so much so that I had this album on my Spotify 'To Check out' list for about 4 months before I could be bothered to even listen to it for free. More fool me - this is a fine return to form with nice short, punchy songs, a bit of Kraftwerk influence and some guest vocalists.

Pain of Salvation: Falling Home

An acoustic album with some reworkings of their old songs in jazz/rockabilly/country stylee, a Circus-music sounding version of 'Stress' and a comedy cover version of Dio's 'Holy Diver'. Sounds rubbish, doesn't it?

NO. NO IT DOESN'T. It's amazing. Bad luck in Eurovision this year, though, Daniel... :(

Pink Floyd: The Endless River

Yeah, the cover is a bit self-help book / inspirational Facebook meme, isn't it? And the idea of a bunch of leftover fragments from The Division Bell sessions cobbled together isn't exactly inspiring. And no 68-year-old man should use the word 'Diss' in any kind of song lyric.

But, bugger me, this is lovely. Mostly soothing, chilled and gentle, recalling 'Shine On' and other more ambient moments of the Floyd's history, it rocks gently when required, and showcases the beautiful sound of Rick Wright's organ and piano in one last fitting tribute, which, let's be honest, was the whole point here.

And the winner is.... Pink Floyd. It's their last chance, so it'd be churlish not to.

My Actual Top 16 Albums of the Year

Oh come on, it had to happen in the end, didn't it? We've had all the messing about and silly categories, trying to shoehorn in as much music as I can possibly claim to have liked in one year... but here's the real deal - the best of the best of the best. (Sir)

In no special order:

That is to say...

Emmett Elvin, Jimi Goodwin, Snarky Puppy, I Break Horses
Engineers, Owen Pallett, iamamiwhoami, St Lucia
Todd Terje, Royksopp & Robyn, SOHN, Temples
First Aid Kit, Sia, North Atlantic Oscillation, Matt Stevens

Cheers to all of the above, and indeed everyone I've mentioned during this 6 part epic, for making my 2014 so pleasurable. Apart from the people I was slagging off, obviously. You can all sod off.

And another thing,,,

If you want to get an idea of why I'm a bit fed up with the whole Prog scene, you could do worse than click this link and have a gander at this well-intentioned but unfortunately unintentionally hilarious Wikihow article about "How to Enjoy Progressive Rock". It seems to start from the premise that most normal people will find Prog far too complicated for their tiny little minds, which pisses me off right from the start, and then moves on to assuming that the best way to get into Prog is to listen to ALL OF THE GENESIS and then stick your head out of the cave and see what else is going on.

Here's a sample picture:

Quite why 'Duke' makes this woman pull a face like Kryten's spare head in the Red Dwarf IV episode 'DNA', I'm not entirely sure.

Sample text: "Pay no attention to the people who say you need drugs to enjoy and create progressive rock."