2012 Music – My Top Ten Albums

I set myself a few ground rules for this list; no live albums, no EPs, no re-releases… It’s just as well I did as the choice (apart from 3) was extremely difficult to make. (And made all the more difficult by my noticing some people were including EPs in their lists!)

So, without further ado, here’s my top ten albums of 2012:

10 – Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth. Despite all the rumours and the aborted previous attempts at reformation I held out little hope that Van Halen would get back together with their original vocalist, Dave Lee Roth. After reading Sammy Hagar’s autobiography even my little glimmer of hope was diminished and yet, despite all the odds, here it is: the first new VH album in many a year. What I like about it most is that it picks up almost exactly where the last DLR VH album left off. There’s no attempt to modernise their sound, there’s no attempt to reinvent their style. It is, quite simply, a testament to those first 5 albums and the sound they created. Despite the terrible (but fun nevertheless) attempt to recreate Ice Cream Man I find the whole album enjoyable to the extreme. It’s just a shame the mess with Mark Anthony couldn’t be resolved and the tour fell apart… But I suppose it’s to be expected with DLR and EVH back in the same room?

9 – Flying Colors – Flying Colors. Neil Morse, Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy, Dave LaRue and the relatively unknown (to me at least) Casey McPherson, seemed like a recipe for another bloated, self-indulgent prog supergroup and, for that reason, I almost avoided it completely. Oh, how wrong I was! Despite the pedigree of those involved there is very little showboating here, most notable to my ears is the positive reserve of Mike Portnoy and the only occasional flamboyance of Steve Morse. The songs are solid, and varied, with the fault only being perhaps too much of a balladic feel as the album progresses. Stand out tracks for me are the opener Blue Ocean, All Falls Down and the 12 minute closer Infinite Fire.

8 – Rush – Clockwork Angels. And here we come to the disappointment of the top ten. So why is it here at all? Well, the fact that this is perhaps the best Rush album in at least 20 years, perhaps even over 25, is reason enough. The music is classic rush, the concept classic Peart, and it all works extremely well. The title track, The Anarchist and The Garden should be enough to convince any non-believer to visit Rush’ back catalogue, they’re sublime! So, why so far down the list? Quite simply the album suffers from terrible use of some kind of maximiser in its production. There’s no dynamic. A friend described it as ‘the sausage factory’ effect, and he’s right. It’s a shame as, if this hadn’t been the case, then Clockwork Angels would have been top 3 material. As it is, I struggle to listen to the album as a whole because my ears hurt after a while.

7 – Stolen Earth – A Far Cry From Home. Despite their pedigree Stolen Earth have managed in this, their debut album, to avoid becoming a tribute to their previous endeavours. The songs are strong, the music excellently written, and performed, and Heidi Widdop has managed to produce a performance across the whole disc which I find beguiling. I likened her voice to that of Chrissie Hynde‘s on the album release and yet I now feel that does her performance an injustice. While there are hints of that tonality the overall result is far stronger than anything I’ve heard by Ms Hynde. I’m looking forward to hearing the next chapter from this band. The fact that they’re the only band from the stable of other related acts should not go un-noticed, of all the MA related bands releases over the last 18 months this is, to my ears, by far the strongest.

6 – Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials. What can I say? When I first heard Flo I wasn’t sure, I saw her live and wasn’t sure, then I heard Drumming Song and fell in love with her quirky style. Ceremonials is a different beast to her debut, Lungs, and yet, while it follows a different vein it remains true to the overall style of her music. It’s an immensely uplifting album drawing on church music as its inspiration (apparently) and definitely cements her as the top of the pile of quirky, indie, female acts. The opener, Only If For A Night, Breaking Down and Spectrum are my personal favourites but the album is strong from start to finish.

District 97 – Trouble With Machines

5 – District 97 – Trouble With Machines. Another find from TNIMN (with thanks to Dave Cooper for this one) what we have here is hard to categorise; Rock? Yes. Prog? Yes. Jazz? Yes. Fusion? Could it be anything else? D97 were an instrumental group originally and approached American Idol finalist Lesley Hunt… If I’d known this prior to hearing the music I may well have responded exactly as I guess you just have; disgust. Never fear, Miss Hunt has proven Simon Cowell wrong (I understand he was the one who cast the deciding vote on her elimination) quite emphatically. Even without the vocals the music really is quite amazing with a mix of all genres mentioned above and musicianship which is of the highest order throughout. The Perfect Young Man and The Thief are the stand out tracks on an outstanding album.

4 – Headspace – I Am Anonymous. Another album I almost missed, saved again by TNIMN. I heard murmurings of Headspace a few years back but dismissed them when I heard that it was Rick Wakeman’s son on keyboards. Then, perhaps only a month or so ago (if that?), someone posted about the album so I checked them out on Spotify. There are many reasons I rate what I heard so highly. The first is the theme itself (I’ll let you listen to find out for yourself), there’s the musicianship, the production, the writing, in fact the only piece of the puzzle which doesn’t sit perfectly for me is the vocals. They seem, at times, to be at odds with the music which is modern while the vocals have an almost eighties feel to their production? When all is said and done though, it works, and works very well. This is the album Queensryche have been trying to write for the last 10-15 years.

Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made

3 – Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made. I’ve been waiting for this album for years, literally. Now it’s here I’m relieved, very much so. I’ve stuck with Marillion since Marbles was released despite growing increasingly disenfranchised with their output. From the opening riff of the politically charged Gaza to the closing refrains of the emotionally charged The Sky Above The Rain this really is their best release in a very long time indeed. What I like most of all is the fact that there are no two songs alike and yet they all work together, seamlessly. I’ll admit I struggled with Montreal, a travelogue about H’s experiences on the journey to the last Marillion convention in that city. Then I received the deluxe preorder edition and saw the artwork, and I understood. It is also one of the best produced albums I’ve heard in a very long time. This album could teach the Clockwork Angels production team more than a few things about dynamics and the artful use of a maximiser.

2 – Anathema – Weather Systems. I used the word ‘uplifting’ earlier in this blog, and I’ve used it before when describing this, but I heard a better description of it from Kim Seviour a few days ago… Spiritual. And now I struggle to think of it as anything else. I’m a latecomer to Anathema having first heard their We’re Here Because We’re Here album and then Falling Deeper before delving in to their, much heavier, back catalogue and I’d struggle to put the two together if it weren’t for the latter, a reworking of earlier material in their new style. This album is my current ‘self help’ treatment, it really is that good, it makes me feel good about myself and there’s no higher praise for a piece of music than to say it affects you emotionally, is there?

Album Cover for my Top Album of 2012

Mystery – The World Is A Game

1 – Mystery – The World Is A Game. This one may raise some eyebrows and, to be honest, it was a bolt from the blue to me as well! Having ‘gone off’ Yes a good few years ago I was unaware of Benoit David until they released Fly From Here last year. While I liked that album I firmly believe that this is where he belongs. Like most, I assume, who were unaware of Benoit’s work with Yes, I was also unaware of his previous work with Mystery. I discovered this again through TNIMN and I will be ever grateful for this. It surpasses Fly From Here by a country mile and I can’t hear a weak point on it, anywhere. The instrument sounds are fantastic, I love the chorused, distorted guitar sound, it’s one I want to reproduce myself, I love the instrumentation, the lyrics, the writing and the production. Strangely it’s the ballad Dear Someone which I feel is the strongest track on the album, closely followed by Pride and Another Day. To say that this has been firmly at the top of this list since a week or so after I heard it can only demonstrate how highly I regard it.

So, there you have it. My favourite albums of 2012. It was another great year and I’m already looking forward to 2013 (with a couple of pre-orders already in place!). I’ve enjoyed reading everyone else’s lists and am constantly intrigued by the vast differences in those despite so many of us being fans of similar bands, it’s what makes music so interesting to me.

As a final note I’m going to tell you my top 3 EPs (in no particular order) of the year and my biggest disappointment…

The EPs

The Fierce and the Dead – On VHS. I have all of Matt Stevens’ releases and, despite being a huge fan of these, feel he has made a wise choice concentrating on his band this year. Rather than lose his solo attraction by joining a band I feel that this new format has enhanced the experience and taken it further than he could perhaps have gone on his own… We’ll have to wait and see as I’m sure there will be releases from both over the coming year.

Trojan Horse – Fire EP. I always forget how good these guys are, and then I revisit one of their releases and am blown away all over again. Their eclectic style keeps me ever interested and their interaction with their fanbase* is superb, as is their attention to detail when packaging their albums.

Craig Hughes – Hard Times, Vol. 1. This one’s the odd one out of the whole shebang. It’s dirty, low down blues with a Glaswegian bent (Sorry Craig, I know you’re not from Glasgow, but I think you’ve been there long enough to be considered such!) and it’s great! There’s everything on this, banjo, alt-blues, what I can only describe as ‘slit yer wrist’ blues, and I love it. With track titles like He Loved Her and She Sent Him To Hell and Cave Full of Woman Blues you’ll get the gist ;o)

And the disappointment…

In the 80s I liked a band who seemed to come and go in a flash. Three great albums and then very little for decades. Fast forward to the mid noughties and a band called Kino evolved which released one of my favourite albums since the turn of the century. With the exception of Pete Trewavas, who returned to the fold of Marillion, the members of Kino decided to continue as a reformed It Bites for that, in essence was what Kino were. Then there came The Tall Ships… What would IB be like without Francis Dunnery? Surely it couldn’t work? Oh yes it bloody could! The Tall Ships was utterly, utterly, brilliant. Four years later, after what seemed like an interminable tour promoting the comeback album (great shows by the way), we were told that the new album would be a concept album called Map of the Past. After Kino’s Picture and It Bites’ The Tall Ships I had extremely high hopes for this one… Unfortunately, despite trying on several occasions, I just can’t get in to it. It comes across as a flat, lacklustre and emotionless performance to me and I’m bitterly disappointed to have to admit it.

So. On to 2013…

2012 Music – Cast Adrift

It’s been another great year for music; my kind of music at least. Several bands in the 3rd and even 4th decade of their careers have released albums which, for younger bands, may have been considered as watershed albums. In addition quite a few of those bands I follow who are still, for all intents and purposes, independent artists have also released albums which have raised the bar on their previous releases. It’s made it extremely difficult to whittle the list down to a mere 10, I could easily have extended it to 20 or even 30, but where would be the fun in that?

I’ve had to depend on recorded material for my entertainment these last 12 months as not many artists make the journey to East Africa on their tours, not even the ‘big’ ones! Normally I’d be able to comment on the live experience of the material for many of the albums in my list however this year it’s based purely on the recorded material. Not such a bad thing I suppose, it allows me to concentrate on the production as well as the songwriting in its purest form, but it also means that at least one album in the final list has suffered as a result of this ‘clinical’ review.

As a result of my time spent on the Facebook group Thursday Night Is Music Night over the last few months the shortlist grew longer as the year drew to a close and several albums I had firmly in my top ten for the year at their time of release found themselves adrift as I started making my list…

Before I get into what finally made my list, here’s what I’ve chosen to drop:

Panic Room – Skin. An overall impressive album with some great songs but, in my opinion, it lacks the vision and grandeur of its predecessor, Satellite.

Mostly Autumn – The Ghost Moon Orchestra. An excellent showcase for Olivia Sparnenn with some great tracks but too much ‘colour by numbers’ to crack into the top albums.

The Producers – Made in Basing Street. Excellent writing, excellent production but overall it struggles for any one track which is ear worm material.

Soundgarden – King Animal. A welcome return for one of my favourite bands of the 90s, but too… clinical(?) in execution, I’d hoped for a return to BadMotorFinger and the halcyon days.

Muse – The 2nd Law. I love this, it’s there most consistent release in years but just not quite good enough when compared to the top ten.

Shadow of the Sun – Monument. An excellent collection of songs which I’ve watched grow from Dylan’s Soundcloud demos to a polished release. There are some belters, notably Halo and Who Cares? but as a whole the album needs something ‘more’?

Threshold – March of Progress. I haven’t given this enough listens to fully appreciate it, but I keep coming back to it which, in itself, justifies a mention in this list.

Kompendium – Beneath the Waves. A brave and bold project from Magenta’s Rob Reed this is, as intended, reminiscent of those concept albums of the 70s and 80s. Not only with the music; the packaging is something to behold. Unfortunately, despite astounding tracks like The Storm and superb performances from all involved, there are elements of this which grate and cause me to want to skip ‘bits’.

Kamelot – Silverthorn. I’ve never paid Kamelot their due despite having most if their back catalogue. I love this album when I listen to it, but struggle to remember any hooks when I’m not. Perhaps it will grow on me over the coming months and rise above the noise of everything else I’ve listened to this year?

The Reasoning – Adventures in Neverland. Written and completed during a difficult period for the band this album bodes well for the pared back version of the band we now see. My impression is that there’s a disconnect between the musical style and the vocal stylings of Rachel Cohen at the moment. I can’t define it, but the two don’t sit well for me on this release.

Each of these have songs, and in some cases the entire album, which are very strong, but when it came down to it they didn’t hold my attention to the same extent as those which follow…

Panic, at the disco… And friends in high places.

It’s been a strange few weeks. As far as work is concerned, while I’ve made a decision regards my future. I’m still ramping up to the tour in August. With that in mind the hours are getting longer and the work is (meant to be) getting harder, more frequent, more frantic… The strange thing is, it isn’t!

Yes, last week was a long week, the hours were bearable, just, the working environment was bearable, just, and the training was bearable, just! (And I was the one running it!) But the company throughout was great, all involved remained positive, there was a tangible level of optimism in the air and, all in all, the opportunity to get to know those who will be following my lead over the next year or so was a very welcome one and I have come away with a more positive feeling than I had prior to the exercise.

I wasn’t aware quite how tired I was by the end of it all until I tried watching the Heavy Metal Britannia shows on the Friday night, waking up at 01:45 on the Saturday morning on the couch wondering where the last 4 hours had gone!

All that lethargy was dispelled on the Saturday night when I ventured out with Pete and Gibbo to The Duchess to catch a gig. This was no ordinary gig though, it was a date I’d been bigging up with everyone I could over the last 3 months trying to ensure a decent crowd for what is fast becoming one of my favourite bands.

As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier entries I saw Panic Room towards the end of last year and immediately made a note of their next night in York. This was it. Since the last gig I have purchased the limited edition version of their new CD Satellite which includes Little Satellite, a 4 track bonus EP if you will, and I’m so glad I did! At least 3 of these tracks featured in what was a very similar set to the last gig as well as the full band version of Blood Red Sky (again) and a mixture of tracks from Visionary Position and Satellite. There seemed to be a little tension at the start of the set with the sound not quite hitting the mark but as the night progressed everything settled down and the band seemed to ooze confidence. There were a couple of ‘interesting’ moments, not least the dead battery in Anne’s acoustic and the Marmite introduction to I Am A Cat (you either love it or hate it!).

The band were great and everyone enjoyed the performance. It was nice to catch up with some friends at the gig and the comments from all were positive. Once such person was John Merrick who had missed the gig before Christmas for some reason and saw the band for the first time tonight.. He commented on the fact that the band sounded so much ‘more’ live than on their CDs, something I hadn’t really thought of until he pointed it out, but when you consider the sheer power of tracks like Dark Star on the CDs then that’s definitely saying something.

Once the show was over we continued the night’s revelry at The Duchess for a while (including a fair amount of air guitar and rock god posing) before heading off with the members of Panic Room to another local establishment for a few drinks. It was nice to be able to catch up with Andy at this point as he’d been lighting the gig! Before this I managed to nip back stage and chat with both Anne-Marie and also Chris Johnson who had been the first support of the evening, it was odd to be sneaking in back stage, especially to see Anne-Marie as the last time we’d been there it had been a complete role reversal at our gig in December! (And Anne, I’m still waiting on the photos from that show!).

The last part of the night seemed a little surreal to me. You must understand that, before I became an acquaintance/friend of any of these people, I was a fan and that’s an attitude which is hard to shake off. So imagine how I felt when we ended up at the birthday celebrations of Heather Findlay with Anne-Marie, Chris Johnson, Bryan Josh, Liv Sparnnen etc along with the rest of the guys from Panic Room!

It was a great night, everyone had great things to say, both about the gig and the aftershow, the following day and I’m now waiting patiently for Anne to get on with recording some of her solo material… With all the other projects she’s involved in I may be waiting quite some time. Not to worry, I’m a patient man, and if it means more nights like Saturday I’m all for it!

Right, I’m off to start my homework!

All the best,

Grae

Loosely woven, but intricate nevertheless…

It would be so easy, with the pedigree of those involved, to label this album as a progressive rock collaboration, to pass it off as another throwaway from the MA stable which has, over the last 2-3 years produced a seemingly endless stream of projects and offshoots.

To do so would, in this case, be a travesty. Parade’s debut is all that, and so much more.

The Fabric is an album which draws threads from genres spanning decades and weaves them into something which is almost greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Come Alive has all the jangly sparkle that current chart breakers seem to need, a quirky track which would be as at home on Radio 1 on a Sunday night as it would being introduced by Whispering Bob. Start Again is reminiscent of a late 80s style of guitar based pop a la Stone Roses crossed with Transvision Vamp, a strangely alluring mix. The album continues to surprise, at one time airing psychedelic rock with the panache of Jim Morrison’s The End (High Life) before bursting forth with an almost perfect Brit pop anthem (Feedline) of which both Gallaghers and Mr Brown would be proud, hurling headlong into Gothic grandiose the likes of which Wayne Hussey can now only dream. And then finally leaving you with a haunting melody (Ending) which seems to pull all those loose ends into a delicate yet cohesive whole.

At other times there’s an introspective feel to the songs (Facing Down) which almost seems out of place.

There are definite nods to the time Chris Johnson has spent touring with Fish in both the construction of some of the songs and the use of ‘grooves’ to guide some of the tracks. And it’s also apparent that some of the material was perhaps meant for an alternative vehicle. What is not so apparent is where Parade will go from here?

High points on the album are The Diamond, a hypnotic track which draws you in with the rhythmic acoustic guitar and almost cardiac drum beat, and The Dogs which can only be described as ‘prog meets 28 Days Later’ and showcases the vocal talents of both Chris Johnson and Anne-Marie Helder to great effect.

It’s not all roses. The eclectic mix of styles and the ‘loose’ production make The Fabric a hard album to listen to. It seems that the edges of this material may be somewhat frayed, there’s an incoherence to the overall album which may turn some listeners off (I missed the excellence of Ending for this very reason on my first listen!), all I can recommend is perseverence and eventually the disparate threads will create a whole.

On first listen The Fabric may confuse, on the second it will amaze and on each listen thereafter new emotions and experiences will abound.

It’s like Dali in sound.

Regression – Part 1 – Held’ in Awe!

I promised a kind of retrospective of the last 19 months or so of my musical landscape, so here’s the first course… Be warned! Despite my love of all things ‘metal’ I have developed a predilection for progressive rock again over the last 12-18 months, and it shows!

I’ve decided to start with a couple of artist/band/performer specific blogs and not the usual Live/Recorded review of the year type and first up is the ‘Little Red Rock Chick’ herself, well, actually,  not much of it’s just her, but she’s definitely a uniting thread and major influence on it all.

I first came across Anne-Marie Helder in Karnataka some time ago but didn’t really pay much attention. It wasn’t until I saw her support Fish on the Return to Childhood tour, in Barnsley I do believe, that I began to sit up and take notice.

Fast forward to 2009 and, thanks to links with members of MR, I was now an acquaintance of Anne’s (she took MR’s first two promo shoots) and definitely keen to see her on stage again.

My first opportunity came at the Nick Harper gig at the Duchess in York shortly after I’d missed the Marillion convention where she’d performed to an exceptionally responsive crowd. I missed the first act that night and made it just in time to see Anne coming on stage. There was no guitar on the first track, unless you can call the rhythmic beating of its body playing a guitar? If I’d been in any doubt of her vocal abilities beforehand this one track cemented my opinion. To come on stage and open with an a cappella track like this was risky at best, to do it as well as this was pure talent. The set continued with one or two of the tracks from her The Contact EP from 2004 alongside some new material which has yet to see the inside of a recording studio. The set was a perfect mix of old and new material culminating in a track which I think may have been called ‘Wheels within Wheels’ that blew me away [think of a combination of Apocalypstick and Dark Star as a solo piece and you may be somewhere near it].

I bought The Contact that night. I’d heard it before but only once and had forgotten how much I liked the songs both in style and substance.  It now has a firmly regular place in my sound system, on my PC and my iPhone. I can’t fault any of the tracks and they are easily better live than on this accomplished solo début.

Next up was the Breathing Space appearance at A Night for Heroes.  For those of you not from York this was a charity event at The Duchess in memory of Howard Sparnenn a well-known drummer, musician and character from York whose daughter is now not only the vocal talent of Breathing Space but also of Mostly Autumn (who headed up the night)!  On this occasion Anne was performing in a supporting role only. I believe there were backing vocals and flute involved, but my memory may be failing me on this occasion. Despite several opportunities I had never seen Breathing Space and, despite the pedigree of the cast, I must honestly admit that I do  not believe it lives up to the sum of its parts. Brave words indeed!  I’m not sure what it is?  The music is well crafted and expertly performed, there is some (although perhaps not enough?) on stage presence and on paper this should be somewhat of a ‘supergroup’.  Live, it just doesn’t live up to expectations. (Please read on before you reach an opinion of this… there’s more to come!)

Following on from the Breathing Space appearance, the next time I saw Anne was with Panic Room.  This is, for all intents, one of the Karnataka successors and it more than lives up to it’s name. In fact I may even be as bold as to say that it surpasses that band on all levels.  Most, if not all, of the writing in Panic Room is undertaken by Jon and Anne and if this is a sign of what’s to come I will definitely keep up the harrassment of her until a solo album appears! Again I was sufficiently tardy to miss the first, and part of the second support acts but I care not a jot.  The night was all about Panic Room for me and it was, quite simply, stunning! Tracks such as Apocalypstick, Dark Star and Yasuni were perfectly executed while Anne lost herself in the tales being told and acted out her visions of the imagery inspired by the lyrics. I love this aspect of her performances, you can see her getting lost in her own worlds and it’s something to behold. [On a personal note, it’s something I envy and have begun to aspire to in my performances; the ability to lose myself under a spotlight in a crowded room…]

Next up should have been an absolute marathon of a weekend… with Mostly Autumn, Breathing Space and Parade performing on separate nights of the same weekend. For reasons which escape me now I completely missed the Friday night show which included a performance by Parade a band including Fish’s erstwhile guitarist Chris Johnson and Anne-Marie on vocals, guitar and keys. I then refused to fork out the money needed to see Mostly Autumn in York’s Grand Opera House and so it was to The Duchess again on the sunday night to see Breathing Space. Or so I thought.

As we arrived we bumped into Andy (Smith of Mostly Autumn/Morpheus Rising) who advised us that Anne and Chris had hurriedly put together an acoustic support set for the night.  This was a boon for me as I was more than a little hacked off at having missed the Friday night’s Parade performance and this turned out to be an acoustic set of primarily the Parade material.  Considering it had been put together in an afternoon’s warm up/sound check the resulting performance was proof that both these two are consummate musicians, there was even enough space for a little humour.  I didn’t know the material sufficiently to recognise them at the time, but I was sufficiently impressed enough to head off and buy The Fabric from the band’s site.

And then for Breathing Space… Perhaps it’s the venue (I know from experience that it’s a bitch to get the sound right on stage), perhaps not. But I still can’t get to grips with this band. Strange as this may seem there is just something lacking.  Don’t get me wrong, the music is beautiful, the performance impeccable. But that’s about it. There’s very little presence, in fact (in fear of being taken the wrong way!) if it weren’t for Livvy there’d be nothing to watch on stage at all, and after a couple of tracks it all seems much of a muchness. I will of course persevere and revisit both the albums and the live shows as I am determined to at lease realise what I think is missing if not bring myself round to liking them!

All in all I think I’ve seen Anne-Marie Helder live about half a dozen times in 2009 alone and I’d quite happily have seen her half a dozen more, under any one of her guises.  I cannot recommend either here solo EP (The Contact), the Parade album (The Fabric) or the two Panic Room albums (Visionary Position & Satellite) enough. Those people I have managed to ‘come see her’ or ‘give it a listen’ will agree wholeheartedly that she is a talent worthy of far greater things than she has achieved to date. And I’ll be there listening and watching when it happens.

Having read this back I’ll admit I considered apologising now for the apparent worshipping at the altar of AMH. But I’ve decided against it, she really is that good!

All the best,

Grae