Monday, 31 December 2012

Year in review: 2012!

2011 was a great year for new music, but 2012 has trumped it in almost every respect. It goes without saying that top 10 lists are highly personal and unscientific, so I...erm, won’t say it (unless I have already, of course...). Anyway, there are obviously loads of potentially fabulous albums I haven’t heard at all, and others I haven’t heard enough to pass final judgement on, but the below all made an impact and, as with all great albums, continue to reveal more of themselves with each subsequent listen. If two or three (or more) are on your own personal lists you could do far worse than check out the rest (as you clearly have taste – well done!).

Top 10 Albums of 2012

10: Ten – Heresy and Creed: Long-time followers of Ten seem to agree that this doesn’t match the band’s first three albums for quality, but if that’s the case those albums must be pretty special indeed. Personally I rate this one slightly higher than last year’s Stormwarning, which I also enjoyed immensely. Choice cut: The Lights Go Down.

09: Martin Page – A Temper of Peace: The definite winner of the ‘under the radar’ award for the year, I only discovered that this album was out after randomly checking Page’s Wikipedia entry (strangely enough the same way I found out about 2008’s In the Temple of the Muse, the only difference being that this time I was two weeks, rather than two years, behind the times!).  Page pulls off the conceit of performing every instrument himself better than most (although I’d always rather have Jimmy Copley on drums than a machine, take note for the next one please Mr Page!!) and uses this as an excuse to take a few stylistic left-turns (notably on The Washing of the Heart and Soulprint) with great success. Fans of his previous albums will undoubtedly enjoy this just as much as, differences aside, it is another first-rate adult-contemporary album from a much overlooked artist. Choice cut: When the Harvest is in.

08: Ian Anderson – Thick as a Brick 2: What could have been the worst idea in the world – a belated follow-up to 1972’s classic original Brick -  turned out to be an inspired reflection on the various paths a single person could have followed to reach middle-age. A ‘mature’ work, but with plenty of style and wit to it. See my review of the album and tour for more on this one. Choice cut: Thick as a Brick 2. ;-)

07: The Reasoning – Adventures in Neverland: A band I’d foolishly ignored prior to their support set for Marillion in September (see the top 5 support acts list below), this was one of my pleasant surprises for the year. I have no idea how it stacks up against their earlier efforts, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Choice cut: No Friend of Mine.

06: Robert Lamm – Living Proof: Who needs a new Chicago album (okay, I still do...) when keyboardist/vocalist Lamm is creating solo works as immense as this? The only album that I’ve devoted a full review to this year – months later and I stand by every word. Choice cut: I Confess.

05: Asia – XXX: When the supergroup reconvened with its original line-up for their 25th anniversary in 2007 nobody believed they’d get past that tour, yet here they are, celebrating another anniversary with their third post-reformation studio album (one more than they managed on the first pass) and easily their best since their debut (well I still love Astra and several of the John Payne albums, but I’m talking the (full) original line-up here). It builds on the success of 2010’s Omega, but is trimmed of the filler that dominated the final third of that album. If you haven’t paid much attention to Asia since 1982, it’s high time you gave them another listen. Long term devotees will be well-pleased indeed. Choice cut: Bury Me in Willow.

04: Anathema – Weather Systems: I was first exposed to Anathema at last year’s High Voltage festival – and as you can tell from my review I came away from it with some curiousity intact, but no burning desire to investigate further. But this album generated such a buzz that it was impossible to ignore and I’m glad I ultimately gave in and bought it – it’s as powerful, emotional and beautiful as it’s many advocates proclaimed. So another band with a back-catalogue worth exploring (although not as far back as their death-metal days methinks!). Choice cut: The Beginning and the End.

03: Magnum – On the 13th Day: Having provided 2011’s album of the year with The Visitation my almost-favourite band struck gold yet again this year – and returned to the UK top 50 for the first time in 20 years to boot. This time around the songs are slightly more concise (some would say commercial) but all contain the hallmarks of classic Magnum at their best – and they’ve been back at their best now for four albums in a row. In any other year this would also have made it to the top spot on my list, but the two above it were just too good. Choice cut: Dance of the Black Tattoo.

02: Rush – Clockwork Angels: Rush are undeniably a great band, but I’ve never quite fully embraced them as I have with my other favourites, perhaps because they often appear slightly removed emotionally from their material. That isn’t the case with this, their first ‘proper’ concept album (with a concept so sprawling it’s needed a full novelisation to let the story be fully realised), which like the Ian Anderson album is striking for its maturity – the sentiment behind Wish Them Well being only one example of a song that (sadly) couldn’t be conceived by a younger band. Despite being set on a different world the album plays on universal themes of hope, disappointment and redemption and is immensely relatable as a result. Choice cut: The Garden.

01: Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made: Just because Marillion are my favourite band of all time does not make their appearance at #1 here a fait accompli by any means, but they’ve outdone themselves with this one. The title track is simply the best thing I’ve heard all year, and is definitely on the list of 50 Marillion songs that *might* be my very favourite – along with almost every other track on this album, from the tour de force opener that is Gaza to the elegiac, heartstring-tugging The Sky Above the Rain. They took their time with this one and the result is simply superb and not to be missed. The deluxe edition is also a thing of beauty and well worth owning whether you are a die-hard Marillion fan or not. Choice cut: Sounds That Can’t Be Made.

5 other great songs from 2012:

Europe – Bag of Bones
Flying Colors – Everything Changes
Steve Hogarth/Richard Barbieri – Only Love Will Make You Free
Tyketto – Faithless
Dante Fox – Who Stole the Innocence?

The top 10 gigs of 2012:

2012 wasn’t the greatest gig year for me, a combination of health issues for most of the year, and a lack of gigs in London due to the Olympics meant that things really only picked up in the last few months. Nevertheless I still managed to attend a healthy number of brilliant gigs, of which the below stood out:

10. Ian Anderson (Hammersmith Apollo, 27 April)
09. Darren Hayes (Brighton Dome, 29 September)
08. The Reasoning/Touchstone (The Garage, 12 October)
07. Flying Colors (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 21 September)
06. h Natural (Cargo, 18 December)
05. Europe (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 01 December)
04. Firefest Friday - Lionville, Dante Fox, Ten, Tyketto (Rock City, Nottingham, 19 October) REVIEW
03. Paul Simon (Hard Rock Calling, Hyde Park, 15 July)
02. Magnum (Bristol, 18 November) REVIEW
01: Marillion (Sheffield, 14 September) REVIEW

The top 5 support acts of 2012:
(headliners in brackets)

05. DeeExpus (Marillion, London)
04. Trillium (Magnum, London)
03. Mr. So & So (Marillion, Sheffield)
02. Chris Ryder (h Natural, London)
01. The Reasoning (Marillion, Cardiff)

5 albums from 2011 that I listened to more in 2012:

There are always albums that you don’t get around to listening to properly the moment they come out- or just come out too late in the year to be compared fairly with everything that’s come before (this year Jimi Jamison, Neal Morse and Lionville are such cases for me), so these are albums that gave me more pleasure this year than last -  only one of them featured in my 2011 round-up.

05.Alice Cooper – Welcome 2 My Nightmare
04.Work of Art – In Progress
03.Fergie Frederiksen – Happiness is the Road
02.Edison’s Children – In the Last Waking Moments...
01. Serpentine – Living and Dying in High Definition

Plenty of proof then for the doubters that good music is in as healthy a state as ever – you may need to work a little harder to discover it than the days when they simply played it on the radio – but it is there. 2013 is another year that has a very tough act to follow, but with new releases in the next few months from the likes of Steve Lukather, Heaven’s Basement and Steven Wilson I suspect it will do happy new year and ROCK ON!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Gig Review: Magnum in Bristol 18.11.12

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but it really is an amazing time to be a Magnum fan. In a period of just under two years (the time that Jet Records used to keep their albums sitting on the shelf before release!) we’ve had two brilliant full studio albums (last year’s The Visitation and the brand new On the 13th Day, for those who haven’t been paying attention) plus the Evolution best-of, not to mention the treats on 13th Day’s bonus disc...and, of course, plenty of touring.

On that front, it had been close to a full year since I last saw them live (in Carlisle, which you can read about HERE) and the thought of seeing them only once this year didn’t sit well with me, hence I made the trek over to Bristol last weekend for the first night of the UK leg of the 13th Day tour.

This made it the fourth different city in which I’ve seen them now, but it doesn’t matter where you go, a crowd at a Magnum gig is guaranteed to be special and the locals certainly didn’t disappoint. Despite, as frontman Bob Catley put it, ‘a bit of competition up the road’ (i.e. Motorhead playing at Colston Hall), the Assembly was packed with fans who’d all brought their best singing voices with them. For a band that never quite made it to the really big time they’ve maintained an impressive niche in the market over the years and the loyalty and devotion of the fans is something to behold. Some veteran bands struggle to muster more than polite applause for new material, but Magnum fans treat new songs like old favourites – and old favourites with something approaching religious fervour! The energy that flows from and to the stage is difficult to convey in mere words (so you’ll just have to find out for yourself some time, ‘cause I can’t be arsed trying, okay?)

Magnum: L-R: Tony Clarkin, Mark Stanway, Bob Catley, Harry James, Al Barrow

We’d been promised a bit of a shake-up of the set list, and the resulting set really only had two flaws. One: there weren’t enough old songs, and two: there weren’t enough new songs (admittedly these flaws could quite easily be distilled into one). But that’s the price you pay for being smack-bang in the middle of a second golden age that’s continually throwing up new songs every bit as classic as those they built their reputation on in the first place and there’s only room for so many songs in a night. As there’s (thankfully) no sign of them slowing down, this is only going to be exacerbated by each new album release. But there are certainly worse problems for a band to have. The only real solution is to introduce three hour setlists... 

In terms of what was played they got it about as right as it’s possible to get, playing four of the best from the new album (All the Dreamers, Blood Red Laughter, Dance of the Black Tattoo and See How They Fall) one song each from the previous four albums and a nice mix of the older material.  Les Mort Dansant and When We Were Younger are my favourite songs from the pre-split and post-reformation eras, respectively, and both survived the setlist shake-up, as did perennial favourites How Far Jerusalem, Vigilante and the obligatory Kingdom of Madness. But we were also treated to eight songs I’d never witnessed live before – the four new ones (obviously!) plus long-rested oldies The Spirit, Rockin’ Chair and Days of No Trust (the latter two providing a suitably ecstatic end to the evening during the encores). But the biggest surprise of the night – for me at least – was The Flood, another personal favourite, and one I never thought I’d ever see live. That they played this and Les Mort Dansant back to back suggests they were trying to pummel my emotions the way Marillion do – if this was their intention they certainly succeeded!  Personally I’d have probably rested Brand New Morning in favour of another 13th Day track or two, but this is a minor quibble. I had assiduously avoided spoilers (if you’ve been trying to do the same you should probably have stopped reading a little while ago...whoops) for maximum enjoyment – and when I see them again in London on Thursday I’ll know exactly what’s coming, which will be just as enjoyable in its own way.

I’ve never been disappointed in the past, but I think this was the very best I’ve seen them to date. Bob had seemingly been reigning in his tendencies to evoke greater emotion in the songs through the art of semaphore last year, but he was at his full-on arm-waving best and sounding as fantastic as ever (although he does seem to have shrunk – again! – in the past 12 months or so...). Equally the rest of the band seemed to have found an extra burst of energy, from the baby of the band (bassist Al Barrow) bouncing around like a kid in a sweet shop, to the Thundering (oh dear) dynamics of Harry James on drums. Tony Clarkin – the genius guitarist/songwriter without whom Magnum could not exist – also appears to be enjoying himself on stage now more than ever, as does keyboardist Mark StanWAYYYYYYYYY (well, that’s how Bob pronounces it!).

As for the competition down the road – well, with both camps emerging together around 11pm the Motorhead fans looked like they’d had a decent night, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that we Magnum fans got the better deal. A bloke I met afterwards in Bristol’s finest (ahem) late-night pizzeria summed things up for me by gazing longingly at my programme* and admitting he’d gone to the wrong gig.  I take this as definitive proof that if you have a chance to see Magnum live and you don’t take it you will regret it, so let this be a warning to you!. (10/10)

*Programmes are not usually something I go for, but it is very nice indeed, even if it is missing most of the paragraph about Chase the Dragon!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Gig review: Firefest (Friday) 2012

As with my inaugural visit last year to the 3-day melodic rock festival that is Firefest I again found myself in Nottingham’s Rock City for the opening Friday night only. This year the line-up for the remaining days didn’t excite me enough to book the whole weekend, which I suppose is an improvement on 2011 where other circumstances prevented me (needlessly, as it turned out, to my immense annoyance!) from catching the likes of Steve Augeri and Unruly Child (to name but two). This time around there were again four acts to take in on the Friday alone, the first two of whom I knew not the first thing about before entering the venue...

2011 opened with an astounding set from Serpentine, who instantly became my favourite ‘new’ band, so this year’s openers, Lionville, had the weight of expectation on their shoulders. While they only had a half-hour slot for a 5-song set, they made the most of every second and got proceedings off to a suitably stunning start.  One of the exciting things about Firefest is the black curtain that shrouds the stage at all times  – you never quite know what’s going to be revealed when it is dropped (especially if you’re unfamiliar with the bands!), and in this case what I saw shocked me into the realisation (expressed inwardly only, I hasten to add...), ‘Cor, that’s Lars (Säfsund) from Work of Art, that is!’. That was the first thing I noticed, the second was keyboardist Alessandro Del Vechio’s Kansas t-shirt - endearing to a Wheathead like myself - and the third (these were all in quick succession by the way!) was that they were brilliant. Lars is simply one of the great vocalists working in the genre today, and to see him was a joy, not least because Work of Art were the band I’d most wanted to see out of the rest of the weekend’s acts (but not enough to justify another day’s worth of ticket/hotel/etc!).  Not content with having one amazing vocalist in the group, band founder/guitarist Stefano Lionetti (who didn’t come up with the band’s name, believe it or not) also proved to be no slouch in the vocal department, and when the two harmonised it was especially magical. Suffice to say I was very impressed and would never have guessed that this was, in fact, the first time the group had ever played together in a live setting! Within hours of my return home the album was ordered (with a second to follow when their sophomore effort is released next month). (10/10)

Lars Säfsund

With Lionville having (almost) matched Serpentine, I was worried that 2011’s pattern would continue, which would mean second band Dante Fox would be the major disappointment of the night. My fears were quickly proven unfounded as they delivered further blasts of hook-laden melodic rock of the finest order one after the other. After seeing The Reasoning and Touchstone a week earlier, this set, featuring yet another excellent female lead vocalist in the form of Sue Wiletts, seems to confirm that I’ve been cured of my aversion to the female of the species in rock bands (though I may go into remission should I ever accidentally catch Curved Air live again!). Guitarist Tim Manford may not have the look of a rock God, but his playing was some of the best of the night (no mean feat). Their new mini-album Lost Man’s Ground was released at Firefest to tie in with their appearance, but while I didn’t get a chance to pick one up (more on this in a moment...) it will certainly be joining the collection sooner rather than later! (9/10)

Sue Willetts

Next up were Ten - a band I had heard of, but was unfamiliar with until the release of last year’s Stormwarning album, their first after a five-year hiatus. Sadly, it wasn’t represented in the setlist, although two tracks from the brand new Heresy and Creed album were showcased to keep the set up to date. With only 50 minutes stage time (and the largest discography of any band on the bill) it was inevitable that something had to be missed and the old favourites (well, old favourites for those who knew them, that is!) certainly went down a storm. The line-up underwent a fairly major overhaul late last year, but the end result is good for all, with the inclusion of new guitarist Dan Mitchell perhaps the best thing about it of all. Leader Gary Hughes’ reputation is built more on his songwriting and production skills than any virtuosity in the vocal department (in fact he has quickly become one of my favourite songwriters, and the news that he is to work with Serpentine on the writing of their third album is some of the best I’ve had all year) and while there were no significant sound issues at any point of the night, in Ten’s case I saw the keyboards being played a lot more than I actually heard them in the mix, which combined with the lack of a Stormwarning track or two, made this the disappointment of the evening for me. As ‘disappointments’ go  it was almost too mild to notice, and there was certainly nothing that would put me off seeing them again – quite the opposite in fact! (9/10)

Closing the show were Tyketto – a legendary group in melodic rock fan circles, but knowing that and actually being able to track down their pair of classic albums from the early 90s are two entirely different things, so it wasn’t until the release earlier in the year of the long-awaited new album Dig in Deep that I finally added the Tykes to my collection. Fortunately they played a few tracks from that album (three of the best in fact: Faithless, Here’s Hoping it Hurts and Let This One Slide) so I didn’t have to go the whole night without hearing a single familiar song! Again it was the old favourites that most were there for though, and based on a first hearing it was readily apparent that their reputation was well-deserved. As had also been the case with the unfamiliar (to me) Ten songs, most of Tyketto’s classics had instantly memorable choruses,and other suitable ‘sing along’ moments, so I wasn’t the lone silent voice in Rock City for too long. Everybody knows why this band never became huge (horrific timing), but it’s still a shame that more people aren’t familiar with them, especially as Danny Vaughn is one of the finest frontmen I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. He certainly seems more than content with his lot (the whole band were clearly having a blast – actually the same was true of every band on the bill), so maybe there’s something to be said for never breaking beyond ‘cult’ status anyway. With a reception as rapturous as they received on this occasion you’d be hard-pressed not to be chuffed – and that is a large part of the Firefest experience for fans and bands alike. (10/10)

Danny Vaughn

Now in its 8th year under the Firefest moniker this event is a well-oiled machine – turnaround times between acts is an ultra-tight twenty minutes and technical difficulties are remarkably rare. The only organisational point I’d query was the decision to close the merchandise stand early (and with no announcement until it had already happened) so those of us planning to spend up large on our exits who weren’t coming back for the rest of the weekend (and they must have known there’d be some as all three nights sold out at different times of the year!) were left without a chance to part with our cash.  A kind soul at my hotel provided me with a programme at least (be grateful dear reader, as without it I’d just be making up names for half of the musicians mentioned above!), but the inevitable stack of CDs eluded me. Ah well. Presumably this decision had something to do with the merch being downstairs instead of at the back of the main room, as it was last year. That seemed like a perfectly good idea to me at first, but if it really was the cause of the early closure I may have to revise that opinion! But this is a minor quibble – the night was all about the music and on that front it succeeded completely. Overall I’d rate it more highly than last year’s Friday night – while nobody quite reached the Serpentine and Jimi Jamison level of amazingness, the remarkable consistency of all the bands gave this year’s line-up the edge. Now, how will they try and top that this time next year...? (Overall guessed it - 10/10).