Friday, 2 March 2018

Escape from Middle England with The Wind-Up Birds!

One of my favourite bands has a new album out. The Wind-Up Birds have been going for 15 years and are the best kept musical secret in West Yorkshire. Their new album, Desire Paths, is a short but concise document and quite possibly the best thing they've done. Read my other reviews about the band over at Soundblab too. 

Live photo by me. Band photo by someone else. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Drama, disaster and triumph: A few words about Mark E Smith 1957 - 2018

I was lucky enough to see The Fall a few times but my abiding memory is probably their set at Skipton’s Beacons Festival in 2014. The weather had been, to put it mildly, absolutely horrendous. Less dancing in the rain and more hoping your tent could withstand the gale force winds sweeping, unrelentingly, across the North Yorkshire countryside (my £10 tent, unsurprisingly, didn’t).

It was Sunday evening and the terrible weather had hit some kind of peak just in time for The Falls set. The band were on fire from the start but the weather had other ideas, water started to leak through the marque’s roof and on to the stage. Now, even a cursory knowledge of science will tell you that water and electricity are uncomfortable bedfellows at best.

A member of the Beacons team appeared and tried, in vain, to get the band off stage. Every time Mark shrugged off the increasingly concerned staff member the crowd cheered. The Fall weren’t going anywhere. I felt pretty bad for the woman trying to convince Smith, quite rightly really, that he should stop the set. Eventually, and to the relief of the entire health and safety team, the band left the stage.

When they returned an hour later, Smith seemed invigorated as they threw themselves into a sublime rendition of ‘Mr Pharmacist’. A mere glimpse into the drama, disaster and unlikely triumph that helped define what it meant to be The Fall. Storm-like conditions could only ever hope to temporarily halt the band. Like their leader and only constant member, Mark  E Smith, The Fall often seemed unstoppable.

It’s with this in mind that last night’s news seemed like such a shock. Yes, there had been various reports of Smith’s ailing health. And yes, his passing had already been falsely reported only last year. But this was Mark E Smith we were talking about. A man who, like Shane Macgowan, could weather any storm. Was a world with no prospect of a new Fall album even possible?

For the fans, he leaves us with an impossibly huge and endlessly impressive amount of music. Releasing Live at the Witch Trials way back in 1979, The Fall would go on to produce an absolutely staggering 32 studio albums. That’s without mentioning the live albums and various compilations. A band in a constant state of evolution, thanks to Smith’s unsentimental approach to hiring-and-firing band members, The Fall would outlive many of their contemporaries.

Despite a brief mid-nineties dalliance with advertising, The Fall never became a household name. Yet their influence on any number of artists is undeniable. Some of my favourite things simply wouldn’t have existed in quite the same way without the influence of The Fall. Pavements Slanted and Enchanted LP, the witty lyricism of Jeffrey Lewis and Stewart Lee’s deliberate use of repetition spring to mind. And it wouldn’t seem right not to mention the bands inexorable ties to the late, great, John Peel. It sounds silly but I think I assumed The Fall would always be there. Sometimes drifting into the background but always, always appreciated.
The Fall refused to rest on their laurels and simply ‘play the hits’, more of an ongoing experiment than your typical band. Everyone has a favourite song or album but ultimately you knew that their next release had the potential to be your new number one Fall record. Many who worked with Mark have said he could be a little awkward, a little uncompromising at times yet The Fall was, by their ever-changing nature, an extremely positive and forward thinking proposition. And, after all is said and done, who was The Fall? The hip priest himself, Mark E Smith.

Across the country there’s an odd silence filling up the local record shops, a nod of respect and an acknowledgment that we’ve lost a true original. Thanks for the tunes Mark. RIP.

Here's a snap I took when they played The Brudenell Social Club in 2014

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best Albums and Gigs of 2017

Fix yourself a cup of eggnog, throw another log on the fire and crack open one last box of chocolates because it’s time for my Top Ten Albums of 2017. As usual it’s been genuinely difficult to whittle the contenders down to a mere ten. There’s a lot of albums I’ve heard this year that, on a different day, could have ended up in the final list.

So besides the one’s I’m about to go on about, I’d also thoroughly recommend albums by The Bug vs Earth, Laura Marling, Bjork, Alvarius B, Mogwai, Boris, Run the Jewels (OK, technically this one was Christmas 2016 but close), Flogging Molly, Earthen Sea, James Murray, Six Organs of Admittance, Grails, Jessica Moss, øjeRum , Melvins, Euros Childs, Action Beat and Tunabunny.
2017 really has been a great year for new music.

Anyway, here’s my top ten!

1.       Pissed Jeans- Why Love Now
One of my favourite bands of the last ten years, Pissed Jeans can always be relied on to provide an intelligent, fun and scuzzy take on punk rock. Why Love Now is one of their strongest records to date. Matt Korvette’s lyrics still go places others don’t while the band has never sounded better. Riffs, humour and 21st Century anxiety. 

2.       Piano Magic- Closure
It’s somewhat frustrating to finally discover a band only to find out that they’re calling it a day. Closure is one hell of a closing statement though. Sprawling, melancholic indie with some of the finest songwriting I’ve heard in recent years. The title track is nothing short of breath taking.

3.       The Fall – New Facts Emerge
It’s very sad to hear that our beloved Mark E Smith hasn’t been too well recently. He is, however, sounding on fine curmudgeonly form on this cracker of an album. Hard to say if it would win round any doubters but New Facts Emerge is a fresh, muscular and noisy highlight in a discography littered with great LP’s.

4.       Nadah El Shazly- Ahwar
Nadah El Shazly provided one of the year’s most unique and startling musical statements. Ahwar may require patience and a few listens before it starts to really make sense but persevere and you’ll be rewarded. It’s an album rich with invention, experimentation and inspiration. Here’s my review.

5.       Sophie Cooper & Julian Bradley- The Blow Volume 3
Vibracathedral Orchestra’s Julian Bradley teamed up with fellow sonic adventurer Sophie Cooper to create one of the year’s finest experimental releases. 40 minutes of avant-garde soundscapes comprised of ambient drones, ethereal voices and hypnotic sounds. Undeniably strange and unquestionably beautiful.

6.       The Cribs- 24/7 Rock Star Shit
For a while there I think I lost touch with The Cribs. 24/7 Rock Star Shit pulled me right back in though. Ticking all the boxes my inner teenager would demand; engineered by Steve Albini? Check. A raw, catchy and uncompromising return to their roots? Check. A really enjoyable album of fuzzy indie-punk? Check. Here's my review.

7.       Colossloth- Heathen Needles
On one of my trips to The Golden Cabinet night in Shipley I was lucky enough to catch a set by Leicester’s Colossloth. Heathen Needles replicates all the intensity while taking us on an intriguing, densely layered sonic journey of twisted electronica, drone and noise. An album that balances the ambient with the unforgiving; expect the unexpected. 

8.       Crystal Fairy- Crystal Fairy
I was lucky enough to see the Melvins again this year yet despite releasing a rather brilliant album of their own I have to go for this collaborative effort. Recorded with Omar Alfredo Rodríguez-López of Mars Volta fame and the irrepressible Teri Gender Bender from Le Butcherette’s, Crystal Fairy is a non-stop riff ride. Bender’s performance is magnetic throughout.

9.       Sleaford Mods- English Tapas
Everyone’s favourite sweary East Midlanders Sleaford Mods have continued to plough their own furrow. Williamson’s lyrics mix social commentary with a healthy dose of surrealism while Fearn’s beats take us into hypnotic and strange places with the likes of ‘Time Sands’. English Tapas couldn’t have been made by anyone else. Here’s my review.

10.   Gnod- Just Say No to the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine
The album title alone could secure its place in many a top ten list. Thankfully, Manchester’s Gnod back up the bold statements and iconic album artwork with something genuinely powerful. With a host of bludgeoning riffs and an axe to grind, Gnod have never sounded so vital.

OK, so if you’ve made it this far you may be interested to hear a little about my….drum roll please...

Top Ten Gigs of 2017

I’ve spent most of my year hanging out in my favourite venue, The Brudenell Social Club but have still found time to venture elsewhere. Including a couple of arenas. So many great shows to choose from but this is what I’ve decided on. Click to get the review. See what you think:

3.       Iron Maiden- Leeds Arena

I also managed to see Swans, Hookworms, Goat Girl, Sunn0))), The Mountain Goats, Julian Cope, Cherry Glazerr, Nadia Reid, Jeffrey Lewis, Wolves in the Throne Room, JK Flesh, Part Chimp, Demdike Stare, Hawkwind, Girl Band, Six Organs of Admittance, Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers, Blood Sport, Bong and…well, all the others too. Thanks to Soundblab I really do get to go to a lot of gigs. Here’s to going to more in 2018!

  And if all that still isn’t enough. Here’s a YouTube playlist I’ve made for 2017.

Have a Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Best Albums and Gigs of 2016

So 2016 has been an eventful year. I hardly need to go over the shocking, saddening and downright terrifying events that have been splashed over our TV screens these last 12 months but if there’s been one constant it’s been the steady supply of great music. Whether providing commentary or pure escapism these are 10 albums that helped soundtrack my year. As well as a healthy dose of The Cure and The Go-Betweens.

As always it’s a personal list, I’m not trying to claim anything as ‘important’ but I do think that the albums here are more than worthy of your time. It’s also worth mentioning that there were a lot of albums I couldn’t include (really wanted to stick to the traditional tyranny of 10 records) so please go listen to albums released this year by Johnny Dowd, Micky P Kerr, You're a Face, Clara Engel, Carla Del Forno, Living Body, Swans, Rangda, The Wave Pictures, Black Mountain, Nick Cave, Tindersticks, Årabrot, The Wedding Present and Labirinto. Thanks and Happy Christmas.

Best albums of 2016

1.       Future of the Left- The Peace & Truce of Future of the Left
Providing 2016 with a well-needed kick up the arse, FOTL have been consistently delivering the goods since 2007’s Curses LP. This latest offering finds Falco’s wit sharper and more surreal than ever while the band sounds tight, raw and satisfyingly fierce.

2.       Jenny Hval- Blood Bitch
Who else could deliver an album centred on lyrical themes of vampires, femininity and capitalism? Blood Bitch finds Norway’s Jenny Hval on fine form, simultaneously pushing boundaries while producing some of her most gorgeous pop songs to date.

3.       David Bowie- Blackstar
Blackstar will no doubt feature in many end-of-year lists and rightly so. It’s impossible to listen to the album without context yet the music here is clearly worthy of praise and adoration. The title track in particular reveals an artist still very much enamoured with the process of creating new, adventurous and heartfelt music. RIP Mr Bowie.

4.       The Dwarfs of East Agouza- Bes
Alan Bishop had been off my radar for some time before resurfacing with The Dwarfs of East Agouza; they don’t disappoint. Teaming up with fellow open-minded musicians in Cairo, Bishop has created a hypnotic, propulsive and experimental gem of an album. If you’re not sure who Alan Bishop is, you need to check out Sun City Girls. That’s an order.

5.       Anna Homler and Steve Moshier- Breadwoman & Other Tales
I’m breaking one of my own rules with this entry but it’s too good to leave out. The music here was originally released on cassette in 1985 (what, that’s not a new release I hear you cry!?) but has remained incredibly obscure until now. Homler’s shaman-like chanting and the accompanying drones, electronica and folky experimentalism make this a truly unique and very contemporary sounding release.  Something to get lost in.

6.       Unstable Journey- Beast Market
Immersive psychedelic explorations and Sonic Youth influenced fuzz-rock make up this formidable record from one of West Yorkshire’s finest bands. While previous releases had showed considerable potential, Beast Market delivers a consistently mind-blowing psych-rock experience. A hidden treasure and one that’s very much worth seeking out.

7.       Hypnopazuzu- Create Christ, Sailor Boy
Hypnopazuzu is a collaborative project between David Tibet of Current 93 and Youth from Killing Joke. It’s a record with an impressive sense of scale; the organs, theatrical vocals and celestial drones creating an otherworldly orchestral swell.  Create Christ, Sailor Boy is a powerful and strange listening experience. Thoroughly worthy of your time.

8.       Radiohead- Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead are one of those bands we’ve grown up with, from the angst-ridden rush of Pablo Honey to the adventurous and frankly stunning In Rainbows the band has taken us on one hell of a trip. A Moon Shaped Pool takes a few listens before its magic really starts to take hold and perhaps that’s what makes it so special. A subtle, heartfelt and beautiful album full of love, loss and melancholy.

9.       Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Bitchin’ Bajas – Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties
Like some kind of trippy self-help tape that you’ve inadvertently stumbled across in the ‘other’ section of the record shop, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties is an ambient and zen-like journey. Will Oldham’s now familiar tones guiding you through and the repetition is blissfully hypnotic.

10.       Molars – Hypnic Jerk
A little over 30 minutes long and containing some of the finest psychedelic indie-pop I’ve heard in some time, Hypnic Jerk is a real treat from beginning to end. The thrillingly emotive ‘Love’ hijacks the Joy Division formula for something altogether more hopeful while ‘Normal’ offers an anthem for the shy and perpetually nervous. Plus, who wouldn’t love an album that had a giddy tribute to Kathleen Hanna containing the immortal chant, “I don’t care about Henry Rollins/ I don’t care about Ian MacKaye/ I don’t care about your hurt feelings/ boys are so boring anyway”. A fantastic debut!

As usual I've been to a lot of gigs this year but these are definitely 10 of the best...

Best Gigs of 2016 

(Melvins, Boris, Future of the Left, Plaid, The Pop-Up People and The Wind-Up Birds all played great shows too!)

And as an extra special bonus (because I'm nice like that) here's a 2016 playlist I made: Andy Brown's 2016 Playlist Extravaganza