The Christmas top-ten probably takes the number one slot in the top ten most predictable and pointless thing to blog about at Christmas – so I’m not going to provide one. In fact, I’d probably be hard-pressed to do so: since finally acquiring home broadband around 18 months ago – yeah, I know I’m a bit late to the party; hell, I only upgraded to a smartphone about three months back! – my once-gluttonous compact disc consumption has declined to the point of musical anorexia; in inverse proportion to my porn intake. That’s not to say I listen to music any less – quite the contrary if anything – I simply buy a lot less frequently. Youtube, BandCamp, Soundcloud, Spotify – you gotta love ’em! So what I’m giving you instead is a brief summary of my musical highlights – and low points – from the past year or so. You may observe the tone wavering on occasion from the serious, objective posture that I strive to maintain on my blog as a rule – but fuck it! If you can’t let your hair down at Christmas…
I and Thou – Speak. This is how Prog – and great music in general – should be done; album of the year for me: musicbugsandgender review
British Theatre – Dyed in the Wool Ghost. Good to see more inventive and original music arising from the ashes of the much-missed Oceansize, in the form of Mike Vennart and Gambler‘s BT project. With less emphasis on their former band’s metal trappings, and a rhythmic and atmospheric foundation in dark, glitchy electronica; this is nonetheless recognizably from the same creative stable as the ‘Size, and deserves to broaden the potential fanbase for the music of that band and its various ex-members. In other post-Oceansize news, former guitarist Steve Durose is now a full-time member of fellow Manc-based rockers Amplifier and their new album is due for imminent release. If the quality of their last effort, the double album The Octopus is anything to go by, we’re entitled to set our expectations high:
And for any Amp newbies, here’s taste of the immersive, space-rockin’ heavy psych for which the band are rightly revered
Tame Impala – Lonerism. Whilst stylistically-unlike Speak (above) this is likewise, a well-judged exercise in bang-up-to-date retro. Their pop-historical touchpoints are scarcely hard to discern: acid-washed Lennonesques and a Barrett-inspired sense of the absurd give the Antipodeans’ pop an otherness that makes it stand out from the crowd; opening up a wormhole into a Revolver-inspired future. If single Elephant might be dismissed as Astronomy Domine with added Aussie swagger for the ’00s then it’s no less entertaining for that; and the album has Dave Fridmann‘s fingerprints all over it, too; making it a doubleplusgood investment for fans of The Lips and MGMT; as well as Beatles and Floyd nostalgia hounds
DeeExpus – The King of Number 33. If I and Thou and Steven Wilson epitomise all that’s fine and worthy in today’s Prog scene, ‘King…’ is a 74 minute lesson in the pitfalls that lie in wait for the aspiring nu-progger; not to mention the foolhardiness of (me) relying on a handful of soundclips as a guide to where to dispose of one’s (my) hard-earned bucks. Much touted by prog-o-philic journos and fans alike, this vehicle for the writing of singer and multi-instumentalist, Andy Ditchfield is all mouth and trousers; superficially satisfying but revealing a disarming lack of emotional or intellectual substance on repeat listens . Like Poland’s Riverside, they purvey an awkward mish-mash of generic prog/hard rock tropes without really excelling in any of them: nary the nimble-fingered chops of a John Petrucci; the finely-tuned melodic ear of a Steven Wilson or the lyrical intuition of a Steve Hogarth in sight (or rather, hearing) here. Ditchfield personifies the stereotype of rock fan as emotional eunuch, grappling awkwardly with feelings thru clumsy and convoluted allegory: thus the potentially touching story of an autistic youngster growing up in a country town is rendered soulless and unaffecting; smothered under layers of sub-par shredding and second-hand riffs. After all else, though, what really has me reaching for the skip button is a dearth of memorable hooks. Three tracks save the album from being a complete write-off: opening number, Me and My Downfall bounces along at a good clip and draws the listener in; part 2 of the title song (and obligatory 20-odd minute opus) is lifted by characteristic keyboard solos from Marillion‘s Mark Kelly letting rip like he hasn’t since Assassing, and Memo has both pop appeal and a touch of real sentiment, thanks again to a guest spot (this time from Nik Kershaw on vocal lead, showing Ditchfield how it ought to be done). That leaves a lot of filler, though: Frost* (Milliontown and Experiments in Mass Appeal), Kino (Picture) and the last two Pendragon albums (if you can stomach Nick Barrett‘s hackneyed, sentimental apologies for lyrics) exemplify how this modern/nu prog (taking the ’90s rather than the ’60s as its musical springboard) can be executed so much better; and in a niche as saturated as this, only the best will do.
Celldweller – Wish Upon a Black Star. I’m a recent convert to the Klayton (a.k.a. Scott Albert) cause, having clicked on a YouTube recommendation whilst perusing the Pendulum catalogue online. Like sampling elements of Pendulum, Knife Party, Chase & Status, NIN, Slipknot and Devin Townsend‘s more pop-oriented stylings (check out Epicloud) into your Pro-Tools rig and pressing ‘mash-up’; this is a melange that succeeds as spectacularly as DeeExpus fail, mostly because Klayton‘s writing is almost consistently spot-on. With great melodies and jackhammer beats utilised to deadly effect, Skrillex-style digital warps and bends, chunky guitar riffs and cinematic string orchestrations are just the icing on an already more-ish cake. And like Fear Factory – another band known mostly for their spine-crushing heaviosity – he also writes a great ballad. This album is geared more towards the Metal audience than the EDM one, and like earlier exponents of ‘Rocktronica’ including the aforementioned Pendulum, The Prodigy and Apollo 440 it shows that it’s possible to rock out without an over-reliance on overfamiliar six-string rifferama. Nice tip of the hat to ’80s Rush on Seven Sisters, too.
Steven Wilson – Rock musician of this decade and the last, with only Radiohead offering any serious competition in the creativity stakes, Wilson still nudges ahead for me, thru dint of sheer prolific-ness. 2012 has arguably been his best year to date: having proved his resilience and single-mindedness in breaking thru to the fringes of the mainstream with Porcupine Tree, he’s now put that band on hiatus – along with the bulk of his production and remix work – to concentrate on his art-rock/darkwave/jazz-fusion-influenced solo material. Both Insurgentes (2008) and Grace for Drowning (2011) were up there with the cream of PT, and he’s spent the last two years touring an impressive stage production that showcases the best of those albums, juxtaposed with movies by long-time partner in multimedia crime, Lasse Hoile and ambient material from his Bass Communion project. Currently working on the follow-up album for early 2013 with his touring band, and Alan Parsons in the producer’s chair, it’s a given that I’ll be online first thing on the day the pre-order opens:
Special editions – too much already! As an admirer of musical economy and brevity – incongruous in a prog fan, I know, but can Scott Walker‘s peerless 1, 2, 3, 4 and Climate of Hunter recordings be bettered for mastery of the LP format? – I find something farcical in the ever-accelerating trend to bring out multiple-disc editions of ‘classic’ albums incorporating every fart and squeak that NEVER MADE IT to the final cut. Who are the nerds that buy this shit? The Wall was already too long without the 5 discs of dubious extras that accompany the Immersion edition; and if you read internet forums you’ll have caught on that Peter Gabriel fans are less than delighted with his choice of bonus material appended to the 25th Anniversary edition of So (which isn’t even being released in the right year – come on Peter, there was a bit more of a drug issue at Charterhouse than you’re letting on, right; those wardrobe, make-up and hairstyling tips had to have come from somewhere, or something). Why do artists believe rational human beings want to pay twice and more for the same material in Mono, Stereo, 5.1, Vinyl, DVD, Blu-Ray and MP3 all in the same package? So-called audiophiles will never listen to the LPs, anyway – just put them straight into cryogenic storage and wank to the fantasy of how great they might sound in an alternate universe. But then, Prog and rational in the same sentence – a Roxymoron, surely? I still feel stung over forking out for the limited edition of The Flaming Lips‘ ‘Embryonic‘ only to find the ‘bonus’ DVD contained but two extra copies of the EXACT SAME MATERIAL, albeit in 16 and 24 bit Stereo – neither of which I have the gubbins to even play – gah! Should have read the label, I guess. The exceptions to this rule are Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree whose 10″ hardbound books are truly things of beauty, both musically and visually, and likewise, Marillion‘s ‘Campaign Editions’ both of which support more than worthy musical causes, and demonstrate the kind of attention to detail in packaging that recalls the likes of Alice Cooper‘s School’s Out and Tull‘s Thick as a Brick. Their latest, Sounds That Can’t Be Made is, coincidentally, their best collection of songs in years, pipping even the wonderful Happiness is the Road at the post; and if it weren’t for I and Thou, would have been my album of the year. In fact, I nominate this September release as the exception to the rip-off Special Edition rule for 2012. Here’s a wee taster
Muse – The 2nd Law.Apocalypse – check; conspiracy – check; a myriad of pop influences butting up uneasily yet perfectly against each other – check; rock pyrotechnics and orchestral flourishes – check… must be the new Muse, then. To be honest it’s business as usual in camp Muse – this is very much of a piece with their last two releases, and if you didn’t get Black Holes… or The Resistance then this is unlikely to sway you. On average, I’d say the songs are stronger than the latter, though the album as a whole lags somewhat behind the former as a unified statement of musical intent. Well worth your money, though, and as by far the most commercially viable exponents of prog rock since Kayleigh nearly topped the charts back in ’85: they played at the Olympics for God’s sake – Muse deserve much of the credit for rehabilitating public interest in this once-vilified sub-genre. By incorporating a bit of Bro-step into their melodic, symphonic, stadium rock bombast, they arguably exemplify the ’60’s progressive rock model better than most: the roots of prog were fiercely contemporary, not regressive and copyist, and with the mighty Pure Reason Revolution gone, who else is left to drag prog into the 21st century?
Depeche Mode – announced a new album and tour: when perhaps they ought to have been announcing their retirement. Ultra was their last release that was, if not up to the stratospheric standards of their exceptional run of discs from Black Celebration thru Songs of Faith and Devotion, at least worthy of the band name. And if concert footage from the last tour is anything to go by, Dave Gahan is struggling to hit the notes these days, much as he struggles to write songs as appealing as Martin Gore‘s.
Scott Walker – Bish Bosch. Guaranteed to hover close to the top of any self-respecting art-rock aficiando’s must-buy list, the only reason I don’t have it yet is – bah, humbug! – the necessity to buy other people Xmas gifts and the resultant deficit in my disposable income. Grr. 😉 Seriously, though, lead ‘single’, Epizootics! shows, if nothing else, that the guardian Engel of avant-garde pop isn’t getting any less odd. Me? I love it! Roll on pay day:
Johnny Marr – like another much-admired Brit guitar supremo, John Squire, Marr demonstrates that his melodic ear, gift for imaginative arrangements and superlative production don’t necessarily translate into great rock music. Mrar‘s best work – two albums with The The, Electronic‘s first and third, Pet Shop Boys Release album, Modest Mouse‘s We Were Dead… and of course, The Smiths – has always been collaborative. Whilst the guitar work on Messenger (below) is audibly the work of the same six fingers that gave us Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out; the song, and Marr‘s voice in particular are disappointingly bland; generic. His previous ‘solo’ outing (with The Healers) Boomslang wasn’t much to write to write home to yer mam about either – so let’s cross our fingers for another Electronic album, or that he and Morrissey take a leaf out of their fellow Manc superstars’ book…
Rush made the Rock’n’Roll hall of fame. Couldn’t give a stuff, personally; nor about the Grammy’s, Brits, MOBOs or any other kind of industry love-in, with the possible exception of the Mercurys. When it comes to musical merit I trust my own ears. The Mayans may have overstated their psychic credentials when they predicted 2012 as the year the world ends; but wouldn’t it be a relief if it marked the demise of the facile award ceremony as we know it? Hell, in for a penny and all that – lets throw in the end of spurious TV talent shows for good measure. Having rudely dissed over-the-hill synth-rockers The Mode (above) hats off to Martin Gore for laying into Simon Cowell this month: bit of Essex Boy attitude- cowabunga! Like DM, Rush are well past their heyday – Moving Pictures thru Power Windows, Hold Your Fire at a pinch, imo – but Clockwork Angels is a pretty decent album, streets ahead of the execrable Snakes and Arrows for sure. So who knows, maybe The Mode can manage a similar turnaround?
And that’s your lot: musical apogee and nadir circa 2012 (imho). But just as a wee little bonus, and picking up the recurring theme of apocalypse; here’s a quick reminder of what great music sounded like in days of yore.
Here’s to 2013