Sunday 22 December 2019

2019, the insanity grows...

Odd title for an annual music review, but them's the times. With these words I aim to provide you with an escape from the creeping madness, which by the time you read this will have crystallised still further, or maybe it's still chasing itself round the kitchen garden wearing nowt but outsized bloomers on its head, who knows? Thank fuck for the music, is all I can say.

Expanding on last year's more informal layout, I will hopefully tempt you to dip your toes into the multi-coloured waters of my strange musical pond, as I witter on a bit about those albums that made me sit up and take notice, mostly in a good way.

Here's a handy playlist that includes a track from most of the albums mentioned below, which saves you having to read it all, I suppose!

In roughly chronological order of release, here goes...

We start the year with an album I missed from 2018, namely Marianne Faithful - Negative Capability, which oozes the class and dignity of one of life's survivors. 2019 was prodded into action by Free Human Zoo - No Wind Tonight, a new take on jazz rock, and Stephan Thelen, he of tri-tone monsters Sonar, whose solo album Fractal Guitar sounded much as you might expect, but still did the trick.

In September we went to see an intriguing idea called The Utopia Strong (more of that band further down... ), who were supporting Teeth Of The Sea, a punishingly loud live act that bludgeoned their fine album Wraith into the mostly willing audience with untrammeled glee. This band and those of similar outlook are naturals to be soundtracking the end of days, should the apocalyptic scenarios of soon come ecological and/or economic disaster prove correct. Not for Teeth Of The Sea a cosy nostalgic worldview through rose-tinted spectacles, oh no. This music tells tales from the beyond, and as a bonus is beyond classification. Brutal and beautiful at one and the same time.
A different prospect live, where they seem to be a "rock band for clubbers" who like their music to deploy insane bowel-loosening levels of low-end volume. The only gig I left before the end this year! I must be getting old.

A slight return for Talk Talk luminary Paul Webb, as Rustin Man, on his first outing in a mere 16 years with Drift Code, a very English record, from a slightly altered space. Robert Wyatt would approve.

And now we come to one of the year's highlights with Lost Crowns - Every Night Something Happens. I have already written plenty about this band and their album (see HERE and HERE if interested), and some of it made a kind of sense, much like the album in question. "Let Loving Her Be Everything... is leaping around in the kitchen in a peculiar collection of wrong time signatures while I’m attempting to prepare tea, headbanging furiously to THAT riff. I’ve seen this played live, I know what it can do where yoga takes twice the time." You have been warned.

A duo from Belgium now, both helmed by a guitarist of some note by the name of Michel Delville. First up is The Godel Codex - Oak, which is 21st century artrock carved from a rapidly receding glacier. Well, it would be if Belgium had mountains. Exploratory cosmic surfing from Brussels, via Canterbury, through an industrial electronic filter, with love. Then we have The Wrong Object - Into The Herd, wherein Michel Delville's psychedelic fusion band get down right deep into the groove and turn the lightshow on.

The new era of Gong goes from strength to strength, and The Universe Also Collapses took the pothead pixies along to the Knifeworld party to produce a very trippy hybrid. Where does Knifeworld end and Gong start is the question no-one is asking?! Motorpsycho followed up last year's triumphal The Tower with The Crucible, which is a tad looser, and definitely heavier, and it does the business in classic Motorpsycho style.

Long-running altered state Americana exponents Mercury Rev came up with a cover of Bobby Gentry's The Delta Sweete, which introduces a whole new audience to a classic outsider's album, especially this side of the Pond where I'm guessing 90% and upwards of the buyers of Mercury Rev's latest had never heard nor even heard of the original record, me included. The Rev filter the countryfied Americana of the original through their familiar psychedelic gauze, using a succession of guest female vocalists, but making it very much their own record in the process. A fine return to form.

A 14-headed beast by the name of Fire! Orchestra fell upon Earth from the drinking halls of Valhalla, gifting us mere mortals music by the longship-load. Arrival is breathtaking in its scope, and for good measure includes a sublime cover of Chic's At Last I Am Free, which I primarily associate with Robert Wyatt as I heard his version from 1978's Rock Bottom before I was aware of the original.

Three vastly different albums now: Daniel O'Sullivan - Folly gave us twelve sumptuous and magickal songs from the multi-talented musician with Ulver connections that will caress your weary soul. The Hedvig Mollestad Trio - Smells Funny is the loudest record in this list, and Hedvig's monster guitar rock from the jazz clubs of Valhalla will loosen yer fillings. Luvvly. Lastly, and in complete contrast, we have Michael Chapman - True North. Maybe doesn't quite hit the heights 2017's celebratory 50, but the veteran folk growler still makes the art of engaging and relevant songwriting sound effortless, creating a very listenable album in the process.

A couple from the Prog Pond now, starting with Tim Bowness - Flowers At The Scene. Full-on but cliché-free modern prog rock from the diminutive but forceful "David Cassidy of prog". To clarify, I mean for his breathy crooning, not that he gets knickers thrown at him by obssessive female fans. That's still to come, but judging by his ever-growing profile it won't be long.  The other is Isildur's Bane & Peter Hammill - In Amazonia. Having made an album with Steve Hogarth, the unashamedly prog Swedes now team up with one of the heavyweights, and the greatest lyricist of the originals, one Peter Hammill. It's far too tempting to say that this is what a new incarnation of VdGG might sound like, so I just did.

Meanwhile, back in Belgium, a strange but beautiful beast from the never less than interesting Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame, by the name of The Eclectic Maybe Band gave the world their Reflection In A Mœbius Ring Mirror. Here, Segers surrounds himself with a cast of seasoned players and makes an album that is as out there and as genuinely progressive as you'd expect, while being entirely listenable. A contender!

Two albums as different from one another and from the previous album in this scattergun list that effortlessly reflects my obviously superb Catholic tastes, are Ebony Steel Band - Pan Machine, and Spellcasters - Music From The Anacostia Delta. The former injects Krafwerk's glacial classic with a large helping of Caribbean soul food for the ears, covering Man Machine on steel drums, and it works! The latter finds three American dudes on Telecasters rocking out, probably sporting acres of denim. These two tie for Fun Album of The Year.

Hip thang of the year was black midi and their album Schlagenheim had the Shoreditch beard gel consumers bobbing their man buns about in a studied cool approximation of orgasmic frenzy. Proof that BRIT School graduates don't just make pretty pop. They are indeed VERY hip, but that's probably not their fault. Angular, spiky, reminds me of early Wire, but it has a wily presence all its own. Might be too clever for its own good, and unlike the other deliberately clever album in this list (Lost Crowns) shows little evidence of a sense of humour, and takes itself a tad too seriously. The interesting question is how they follow this up!

WARNING (and general rant... ) - don't buy the CD version, it's probably the worst "designed" cover I have ever come across, if Amazon reviews are to be believed. The lyric sheet is apparently stuck under the shrink wrapping on the outside of CD-single case, and won't fit inside the case! Rough Trade are obviously run by kids who don't understand that the CD is a perfectly acceptable format being deliberately killed off by the major labels - no manufacturing costs in streaming, it's all about profit. This is not a good thing.

Another trio of releases that cover an awful lot of stylistic ground is headed up by North Sea Radio Orchestra - Folly Bololey. A joyous reworking of Robert Wyatt's classic solo album  Rock Bottom, plus some gorgeous extras, with John Greaves and Annie Barbazza. If it doesn't make you smile inside, your soul has had too much of life's botox.

Flying Lotus came up with a sprawling follow up to 2014's psychedelic extravaganza You're Dead, entitled Flamagra. Unlike that album, which wore its early Soft Machine influence quite openly, and put it through all sorts of modern production trickery to produce a dense trip hop stew, this time Stephen Ellison flings open the stable doors and the horses stampede their new-found freedom across lysergic plains of dayglo cinematic vistas. Or summat. In a word, epic! The last panel of this ill-matched triptych is Elephant9 - Psychedelic Backfire I & II. Keyboard wizard Ståle Storløkken, best known for his many collaborations with countrymen Terje Rypdal and Motorpsycho, and for leading his own jazz-improv group Supersilent, has another project named Elephant9 who are a trio consisting of his keyboards, plus bass and drums. They groove like muvvas on this double live release where they lock in to some tremendous ass-kicking grooves. On II they are joined by Reine Fiske, the guitarist from psych rockers Dungen, and things get very hot in the kitchen, oh yes! Live album of the year, no question!

Ståle Storløkken also makes a guest appearance on the weighty jazz-prog-improv collision Q by Krokofant, an album guaranteed to rattle yer ornaments. It is probably time to declare those flawless purveyors of sonic goodness, Norway's Rune Grammofon as my label of the year, given their many entries in this collection. Staying out on a limb with a sublime suite of chamber-rock music is the welcome return of Spanish band October Equus with Presagios, their first release in some six years, and a fabulous album it is!

Individualism, that's what attracts me where music is concerned, and four fellas with little regard for convention are up next. First we have the latest album from that insane NZ dwelling ex-pat Scouser chilli muncher (retired) Matt "It's Our Year" (probably, curses) Deacon and his also ex-pat Scouser LA-based drummer friend and colleague Chris Jago, who under the moniker The Bob Lazar Story inflicted Vanquisher upon us unsuspecting fools. Vanquisher is a triumph over a likely disaster involving fried guitar, smoochy electric piano, jazz fusion, weird electronica, and a hilarious interlude of frenzied shouting entitled "Tony". As Eno once said "Burning Arseholes Give You So Much More".

Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Our Man In Moscow, Emmett Elvin described to us heathen The End Of Music, which plays out as a headlong rush into the unknown, and is Emmett's most complete work to date, charging along with an almost manic intent. LOOK OUT!! CLIFF!!!...
After that, what better way to reflect on the crazy times we live in than to lose yourself in Charlie Cawood's understated but epic Blurring Into Motion? Probably the most cerebral offering in this list, Charlie's beautiful and introspective opus takes on a voyage into our deepest thought processes. The ego is left behind.

Incidentally, all those last three are on Bad Elephant Music, home for the genre-war refugees.

Long running jazzists Led Bib annoyed a critic or two, who really should know better, by taking a left turn to incorporate the distinctive tones of Sharron Fortnam on the highly engaging It's Morning. The album launch show, held in a cinema, was an otherworldly experience.

Prog metal - y'all know how I love it, right? Well, these next three pitched their hats into the ring...  Tool returned after 13 years with a rather strange and flat affair entitled Fear Inoculum that never really gets out of second gear, and lasts waay too long. No doubt it topped all sorts of lists, because, well I dunno... Less well known but taking the kinds of risks with this often hidebound genre that Tool have long forgotten about are Leprous with Pitfalls. They appear to be mining the same dark pop seam recently uncovered by Ulver, who are the most unpredictable band (this is a good thing btw) ever to have been associated with the genre that for the most part I find about as inspiring as a Michael Gove speech. Ulver are of course, genius writ large, and on this showing Leprous are not far behind. The third act in this threeway (no chickens were harmed) is Opeth with In Cauda Venenum, in which Mikael Åkerfeldt out-Wilsons his old mate in the non-generic application of vintage instrumentation department. It seems that after dropping the stale growly prog metal style a few years and albums back, that they have finally found the pantaloons large enough to fit comfortably.

That's enuff "prog" and "metal". Back in the land of the odd we came across the self-titled debut from The Utopia Strong, where 80s housewives' favourite Steve Davis (for it is he) messes around with a modular synth and puts his and his bandmates' reps on the line and comes up smelling of Kosmische cologne. This is far better than you might think, and live it was quite entrancing.

Bent Knee - You Know What They Mean is art-rock and then some, and a band at the height of their powers. The British equivalent are the rapidly maturing A Formal Horse, whose A Man From The Council With A Flamethrower, as well as being Album Title of The Year, shows a band who have progressed (eek!) in leaps and bounds from their previous EP releases. Keep an eye on that equine!

Sheffield jazz/avant luminary Martin Archer got the conceptual shakes with his Anthropology Band's fine double blast of Miles-inspired tuneage, and Sonar made an album as a quintet with David Torn called Tranceportation Volume One, which took us on a near-familiar journey. I also dabbled in the folk world, with Irish Gothic-folk practitioners Lankum and their Livelong Day, whose darkly impressionistic world is in stark contrast with the more direct and literal style of Richard Dawson's 2020, a record that pulls no punches, reflecting these stark times back at us.

Stick Men - PANAMERICA is a mahoosive five-album document of the Sticky beast's journey through cocaine bandit country, with violinist David Cross. A total headfuck, in a good way! no-man - Love You To Bits ends a busy year for Tim Bowness with the long awaited return of his and Steven Wilson's long-dormant musical project. I didn't expect EDM though! I reckon the Tunesome Twosome are another pair of musical artists who have been listening to Ulver's latest incarnation. This is not a bad thing. It also might be what Mr Wilson wants to do under his own name but is worried might lose him his burgeoning crossover audience. Possibly.

Back in the mainstream, modern urban soul giant Michael Kiwanuka's third album, entitled simply Kiwanuka takes the pulse of modern urban living, and has a gritty relevance combined with deep tunes, in a manner unseen since What's Going On. Yes, it's that good. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Ghosteen is an album of love and hope after loss and grief, and Cave's songwriting gets better with every release. If ever proof be needed of the power of lyrics as poetry, this is it. Underworld - Drift Series was a project to release something new every week for a year, which perhaps inevitably took on a life of its own. The hour long sampler available gives you a miniscule peek into the year's finest conceptual shenanigans. There is a sprawling 7 CD box set version, including all the related films, and you can find all of it online, including the psychedelically mesmerising 47-minute collaboration with Australian tri-tone improv legends The Necks. Stunning!

2019 - a year of many decent albums, but nothing head and shoulders above the rest. Tying in a three-way (the chicken took charge) for my Album of The Year are Lost Crowns - Every Night Something Happens, North Sea Radio Orchestra with Annie Barbazza & John Greaves - Folly Bololey, and Michael Kiwanuka - Kiwanuka. Oh, and Emmett Elvin's End Of Music has to be mentioned as it made my 10 best of the decade! I had a different hat on then. This is all bollocks obviously.

Other stuff...

Reissue of the year - Van der Graaf Generator - Aerosol Grey Machine
Thanks to Vicky at Esoteric for sending me a physical copy of this lavishly tooled box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic prog explorers' first album. If ever the overused review word "sumptuous" applies, then this is the baby!

One fails to appreciate from the pdfs of the artwork and the book that came with the review download what a work of art this is. Anyone who doubts the rightful place of the vinyl LP as the pinnacle of music product expressed as an artform needs to see the LP contained herein, housed as it is in a gatefold sleeve adorned with the never used original artwork, and their curmudgeonly opinion should be shifted. If not, then frankly, there's no hope for them, the Philistines!

The rest of the package, especially the 12 x 12 book crammed with photos and a new essay by Sid Smith, ain't too shabby either. Well done Peter Hammill and all at Esoteric Recordings involved in making this lovely objet d'art.

Gig of The Year
Koenji Hyakkei - The Lexington, London 12th May 2019
Soul, humanity, staggering complexity, and dancing, all at once! Fabulous UK debut for long-running Japanese Zeuhl exponents saw many mouths left agape in wonder!

Worst Album Cover of The Year
A new category, because I couldn't let Big Big Train's Grand Tour album cover pass without comment! But wait, what's this? I'm afraid BBT's cheesy veneer is trumped (heheh... ) by the album cover for Tom Slatter's Demon, which looked like it had all of a minute's thought, and a budget of 5p. Knowing this Slatter fellow's arch ways (rather than his archways, which I'm sure are probably Gothic), it was probably deliberate. Still, KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!!

If you've read this far, you've probably read other examples of my torturous sentences in 2019 and not lost the will to live. For that, I admire your perseverance, and thank you most humbly. Now, go and do summat useful with your time, and try not to let the prospect of endless Johnson put you off.

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2019, the insanity grows...

Odd title for an annual music review, but them's the times. With these words I aim to provide you with an escape from the creeping madne...