Musical Highlights of 2016

Below is my annual recollection of some music highlights of the year, for the good guys and gals at [sic] Magazine who introduce me to so much of it.

Although the twelve months of 2016 are likely to be remembered as much for who left us, as for what was left for us, (not to mention leave-ing) there were as always some great records, including Savages, Kiran Leonard, Ed Harcourt and Radiohead. Bowie‘s Blackstar – with the mystique surrounding the timing of its release – was a great record to start a year, and set the tone for tragedy-turn-triumph; the late Viola Beach were immortalised at Glastonbury, and also by achieving a number one album of their own (crucially, not a cash-in job), and there were countless events such as the ‘Glabstonbury’ all-day event I attended, which saw a host of bands and musicians generously coming together for a worthy cause. Here follow my ten highlights of the year. Continue reading

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Review: Hot Hot Heat – ‘Hot Hot Heat’

Review of the self-titled farewell album by Canadians Hot Hot Heat, written for (sic) Magazine.

“The final release from a band that has innovated the indie-rock scene since 2002 when they shook dancefloors with the release of their explosive debut album, Make Up The Breakdown, via legendary Seattle-based label Sub Pop Records,” reads the press release. The winning formula on Make Up The Breakdown for Vancouver’s Hot Hot Heat was to combine the North American punk-funk scene of that time with synth-driven, hook-filled pop music. Those dancefloors did indeed shake. Unfortunately for the band, standout track ‘Bandages’ was removed from BBC Radio 1′s UK playlist – apparently its title was too sensitive during the time of the allied forces invading Iraq – and with it the four-piece’s best chance of those dancefloors shaking in arenas as well as clubs.

The follow-up album, Elevator, was a long time in the making, which, coupled with sounding a watered-down version of its predecessor, meant that many had moved on and few took notice. Three further records on and still to reach the commercial or critical heights of Breakdown again, could the band’s epitaph be tinged with resignation and bitterness of what might have been, or is it determined to drag you in for some final shape-throwing before last orders?

It’s certainly reflective; ‘Some days were daydreams/Some days were sun beams… We were the sweet and the bitter’, sings vocalist and keyboard player Steve Bays on opening track ‘The Kid Who Stays In The Picture’. It won’t get you to your feet, although its mid-tempo stomp and signature melodies are pleasing enough. Such description could be applied throughout the album; there’s a shortage of spiky ‘No, Not Now’ rhythms to grab you but plenty of nice-enough pop hooks to pull you back in as you’re about to leave. ‘Modern Mind’ picks up the tempo, but its chorus is sadly forgotten by the time the lethargic ‘Pulling Levers’ rolls in, building to an equally weak vocal centrepiece. ‘Magnitude’ belies its title in length – at over five minutes an epic by Hot Hot Heat proportions – if not in musical adventure.

The second half of the album does mercifully burst into life with the jagged, punchy ‘Mayor of the City’ and the 129-second thrill of ‘Alaskan Midnight Sun’, the latter of which brings back memories of vintage Hot Hot Heat, complete with Bays’ unique syncopated, beating vocal delivery in amongst his instant melodies.

Prior to the album’s strange choice of a closing track – the unusually experimental ‘The Memory’s Here’, which moodily simmers with Maccabees-style sparseness – two more tracks keep the pace up, ‘Comeback of the Century’ and ‘Sad Sad Situation’. Neither of these song titles quite sum up this final Hot Hot Heat album; there is not enough here signifying a return to that early-noughties form, but for the band’s fans – to whom this album is dedicated – there are certainly reminders of what initially drew them to that dancefloor in the first place.

6/10

~Hot Hot Heat is released via Kaw-Liga Records on Friday, 24th June 2016.~

 

 

Top 10 Musical Highlights of 2015

My ten musical highlights of 2015, in alphabetical order, compiled for (sic) Magazine:

Antemasque – Antemasque‘ Antemasque

In January, I learned that Cedric and Omar, formerly of At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta, had patched up their differences and were back making music together, this time as Antemasque (with Flea, Travis Barker and Omar’s brother Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez also involved). Although the album was released late last year, I didn’t hear the collection of short, frantic, power-pop bursts until 2015, making it one of this year’s undoubted highlights.

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The Charlatans – Modern Nature‘ The Charlatans Modern Nature

25 years since their chart-topping debut Some Friendly, 2015 saw The Charlatans release their best album in over a decade. Despite the tragic circumstances around its creation (drummer Jon Brookes lost his battle with cancer), Modern Nature is an inspiring, joyous collection of organ-led soulful songs, sprinkled with fitting amounts of both melody and melancholy. The summer’s triumphant homecoming-of-sorts Castlefield show capped a great year for the band.

Continue reading

Review – Rose Windows ‘Rose Windows’

rosewindows

Self-titling an album is not uncommon for an artist’s début; a band announcing themselves to the world, or maybe unsure if they’ll make another record, or possibly unable to decide on a name. A self-titled second album, however, is unusual. From the outside it seems a bold statement – as if Rose Windowsare saying, ‘We know our sound, this is what this band is about.’ So does the record represent a band who has reached its creative peak?

Rose Windows’ début LP, 2013’s The Sun Dogs, was a psychedelic journey from its Seattle birthplace through guitar scales of the Indian Subcontinent, to calming flute interludes of a medieval United Kingdom. Such an array of sounds was combined surprisingly well, resulting in a unique and enchanting record. And all this whilst the real star of Rose Windows, singer Rabia Shaheen Qazi, only really came to the fore during their live shows, the sheer power of her voice somewhat held back on tape.

Rose Windows starts in much the same way, the album’s opening track (of nine, again like its predecessor) is a slow, atmospheric track of vocal harmonies, guitarist Chris Cheveyo taking lead to introduce the album and proclaiming, ‘There ain’t no note that don’t matter’. Continue reading

Album Review – The Earth: Keltic Voodoo Boogaloo

Review of ‘Keltic Voodoo Boogaloo’, the second album by The Earth, for (sic) Magazine. You can read the full review here. There is also a Soundcloud link to preview tracks online at the end of the review.

theearth

Cian Ciaran, the Super Furry Animals keyboard player, sent me a copy and invited me to review the album. Daffyd Ieuan, the SFA drummer who formed The Earth, also got in touch to provide some info on the album. Ciaran mixed record, and is credited with playing Keyboards too.

“When compiling an end-of-year list of 2013′s greatest albums, [sic] proclaimed that one positive of Super Furry Animals taking a hiatus is that ‘we get even more records from the various members.’ Since that article’s featured album, (They Are Nothing Without Us, the second solo work by keyboardist Cian Ciaran), 2014 has already seen worthy releases by singer Gruff Rhys (his fourth solo album, American Interior) and bassist Guto Pryce (the debut record with his Gulp band). And now, as if we have not been spoilt enough,The Earth, formed by SFA sticksman Dafydd Ieuan and former Catatoniasongwriter-and-guitarist Mark Roberts, release their second album, Keltic Voodoo Boogaloo…”

You can read the full review here.

OFF Festival 2014

2014 was my third OFF Festival. The location, people, size, weather and of course quality of the music are all so favourable that I will probably go to many more. Plus the atmosphere (friendly, welcoming, not trying to rip me off from the moment I get there), festival size, food quality and beer price (£1.50!) are just to my taste.

Here are some photos from the festival. Click the image to view the gallery. Below are a few thoughts and memories of the three days and some of the acts I saw, a link to the official OFF Festival site, plus a playlist of the artists.

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The OFF line-up is diverse, with almost every genre covered, but there always seems to be someone good to watch, all day each day. And plenty of things to discover. There is a playlist at the bottom of the page. Here are some of the acts I saw.
Continue reading

Album Review: Gruff Rhys – American Interior

gruff-rhysReview of the Gruff Rhys album ‘American Interior’, written for the (sic) magazine site.

“A decade ago, Argentinian footballer Gabriel Heinze transferred to join Manchester United, with two rumours following him to England; that he was a no-nonsense hardman, and that he was fluent in Welsh. Some 200 years previously, whispers of a native American, Welsh-speaking tribe had inspired farmhand John Evans to cross the Atlantic and investigate.

This legendary adventure prompted another Welshman, singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys, to repeat the journey in 2012 by way of an acoustic tour. American Interior is the result of Rhys’s travels, released on a groundbreaking four formats: an album of songs written on and inspired by his Latin American adventure, a book and film documenting the tour, and an interactive app.

Rhys, himself no stranger to pioneering release formats (his parent band Super Furry Animals released 2001′s Rings Around the World on simultaneous CD and DVD, and then were first to Continue reading

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No. 1

My top 10 Albums of 2013:

I was asked by (sic) Magazine to compile my favourite ten records released this year. 2013 saw some surprise comebacks (David BowieThe Strokes), a Psych revival (Hookworms, The Lucid Dream, The Dead Meadow) and the rise of female-fronted rock (Savages, HAIM, Pins), and picking highlights is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, here are the ten albums which stick out for me at this moment in time, for an array of different reasons, but with the one common factor being that I think they are all great records.

Light Up Gold.jpg1. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold

After initially restricting their releases to limited pressings, the first full album of the Brooklyn-based garage-punk band was released this year. With shades of The Strokes, The Fall, The Libertines and even a hint of At The Drive-In, and containing pop gems like ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘Careers In Combat’ from start to finish, we can all be thankful this album was finally made available to a wider, grateful audience, which will doubtless now swell in 2014 and beyond.

You can read other (sic) Magazine contributors’ Albums of 2013 here.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No. 2

Bloodsports2. Suede – Bloodsports

Suede have pulled off one of the most difficult of maneuvers, the comeback album that is actually better than before they went away. Bloodsports has an energy, freshness and vitality that echoes Dog Man Star -era Suede, despite being released 20 years later, and yet does so without ever sounding like it is trying to recreate past glories. A triumph.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No. 3

Back Into The Woods3. Ed Harcourt – Back into the Woods

Recorded in one, 6-hour Abbey Road session, Harcourt’s minimalist approach to his 7th studio album means the record relies on the strength of the songs. With Harcourt in reflective mood, the songs take on extra poignancy due to this recording process, and the album is all the better for it. Largely just a piano or guitar and Harcourt’s voice, along with a small string section, the likes of ‘Last Will and Testament’ and ‘Hey Little Bruiser’ cement Harcourt’s reputation as a fine songwriter.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No. 4

Specter at the Feast4. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Specter at the Feast

Six albums into their career, it is probably fair to say that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are unlikely to ever pull any major surprises with their sound, which could have made the prospect of following 2010’s career-best Beat The Devil’s Tattoo a difficult one. After opener ‘Firewalker’‘s hypnotic, slow-burning groove, the trademark BRMC Blues-Psych-Folk-Country sound is evident throughout, punctuated with moments of touching reflection (‘Lullaby’, ‘Sometimes The Light’), no doubt influenced by the sad loss of bass player Robert Been‘s late father (and band tour engineer), and making ‘Specter’ a fitting tribute.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No.5

If You Leave5. Daughter – If You Leave

The single ‘Smother’, taken from Daughter’s debut album, has already started down the ‘Teardrop’ route towards mass use for those emotional TV Drama trailers. And, like Mezzanine before it, the parent album, If You Leave is a delicate, well-crafted record, where any track could feasibly be soundtrack material. However, rather than the Trip-Hop of Massive Attack, Daughter complement delicate, sometimes tribal drums with atmospheric guitars and the gentle vocals of singer Elana Tonra creating an evocative, haunting sound all of their own.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No.6

…Like Clockwork6. Queens Of The Stoneage – …Like Clockwork

For the 6th QOTSA album, and first for 6 years, Josh Homme, featuring a whole host of Rock A-list guests, delivers a record of the energy and raw rock power we have come to expect of him. There are delightful stomps through ‘If I Had A Tail’, and ‘Smooth Sailing’, the latter adding a Disco flavour, but, it is the piano-led and falsetto-sprinkled gentler songs (such as ‘The Vampyre of Time and Memory’ and the title track) which really provoke and hint at a vulnerable side to Queens. Well worth the wait.

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 – No.7

Let It All In

7. I Am Kloot – Let It All In

Singer John Bramwell recently hinted that I Am Kloot may work on other musical projects (such as film scores) next, meaning Let It All In could be the last conventional record by the Manchester three-piece as we know them for some time. An orchestral sound and brass sections give a theatrical feel in parts, with acoustic, walking basslines and Bramwell’s ever-gripping storytelling fit for any stage.