Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

Record Store Day

Today is Record Store Day. You could of course spend the day buying the albums you loved on vinyl but never owned on CD, or fill in the gaps in the 70s Jethro Tull back catalogue. Or even waste your money on cynical cash-in box sets.

Or instead you could buy some exciting new music released in 2014. At least some of these albums have been seen on the shelves of my local HMV.

  • Panic Room, Incarnate – A little more stripped-back, intimate and confessional than the wide-screen rock of its predecessor, their fourth album is a beautiful work which may take a few listens to fully appreciate its subtleties.
  • Gazpatcho, Demon – Dark and sinister folk-prog from Norway. At times it sounds like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis fronting The Decemberists, at times there are strong echoes of Marillion. This is another of those records that will reward after many listens.
  • Matt Stevens, Lucid – An ambitious and varied instrumental album that defies easy pigeonholing. The London-based guitarist has been one of the more interesting, innovative and genre-busting artists in the contemporary progressive scene for a while now, and this album sees him raise his game to a new level.
  • Halo Blind, Occupying Forces – Combines indie-rock guitars with progressive rock atmospherics. Shimmering summery pop numbers with a hint of darkness and melancholy flow into one another to build into something more than the sum of the parts.
  • Bigelf, Into the Maelstrom – Imagine the melodic ear of The Beatles, the sense of doom of Black Sabbath, the theatricality of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the musical ambition of King Crimson, and the lack of restraint of early Queen. That’s what this album sounds like.
  • Morpheus Rising, Exmimus Humanus – Classic old-school twin-guitar hard rock given a modern makeover.
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It’s a shame you can’t even have a strongly positive article about metal in the mainstream press without ignorami in the comments dismissing the entire genre as misogynist. It’s as if some people’s knowledge of metal doesn’t extend beyond thirty year old Mötley Crüe videos. And this is a world where Robin Thicke exists…

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Polar Bear

Polar Bear at XOYO

A couple of photos of Polar Bear at XOYO in London on Wednesday April 2nd. This gig was a real challenge to photpgraph with the atmospheric and moody lighting, so in contrast to the hundreds of good photos from HRH Prog a few days earlier I only managed to get a handful of usable images.

As a jazz act they’re well outside my usual comfort zone, but I still found them a very entertaining if challenging live band. There will be a review in due course.

Polar Bear at XOYO Polar Bear at XOYO

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I have written about the need for better music criticism. This piece by Everitt True about Kurt Cobain is the sort of thing we need less of. It’s the epitome of everything I loathe about the hipster-punk school of music writing. True is a talented writer, but he is not actually a music critic. That’s because he doesn’t write about the actual music. Whatever the nominal subject, the piece is ultimately all about himself. And it’s an school of writing that’s ultimately responsible for bigging up more terrible music than 70s prog-rock could ever dream of.

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HRH Prog in Pictures – Saturday

September Code at HRH Prog

The consequence of having a photo pass for a three-day rock festival is you end up taking an awful lot of photos; indeed I took over 900 on the Saturday. I’ve used a few to illustrate my review, and here are a few more, all from Saturday. Here’s Dim Koskinas of September Code, the opening band of the day.

Continue reading

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Why We Need Better Music Criticism

Great post in The Daily Beast claiming that music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting, and our culture is all the poorer for it. The whole thing is well worth reading.

Yet there’s an even larger issue at stake here. The biggest problem with lifestyle-driven music criticism is that it poisons our aural culture. Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears should be the bedrock of the music business, but many of them have given up on new artists because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them. Record labels, for their part, need frank, knowledgeable feedback from critics—both to keep them honest and hold them accountable—but such input is in short supply and veering towards extinction. Above all, artists deserve a milieu in which musical talent is celebrated and given some acknowledgement in the media.

In other words, criticism is a tiny part of the ecology of the music business, but an essential part. Without smart, independent critics who know their stuff, everything collapses into hype, public relations, and the almighty dollar. We have already seen where that leads us—take a look at the trendline of recording sales, if you have any doubts. It’s not too late to fix the mess, but that won’t happen until critics stop acting like gossip columnists, and start taking the music seriously again.

That does seem an accurate picture of how things have gone downhill. If critics has focused on the music rather than offstage tabloid behaviour, would Oasis ever have been so huge? Would Pete Doherty even have had a career?

It’s become painfully obvious that mainstream success has far more to do with the money spent in promotion than it does with actual quality. Not only that, the lowest common demoninator has become far lower as those who care about music check out of the mainstream and devote their time and energy into niche scenes. Does anyone think, for example, that a band like The Foo Fighters, despite their obvious strengths, are in the same league as any of the top-level hard rock acts of a generation before?

Serdar Yedalulp has also blogged about this same subject, saying it’s not just about music but other media as well, and calls for more honest criticism rather than mutual backscratching.

I don’t believe this is fair or honest to anyone on either side of the equation. If I write a review of something, and someone wants to chomp out a phrase from that and use it somewhere, fine. They misquote me at their own risk. But this business of supplying what amounts to a premanufactured bit of ad copy, out of some misguided sense that mutual backscratching is okay even when it comes at the cost of debasing and vulgarizing the very standards of the craft — sorry, no.

Indeed. That is a place where I’m not going to go. It may be one reason why an act I won’t name told an editor I work for that they didn’t want me to review their album.

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Critics, Set Lengths and That Cure Review

Oh dear.

Reviewer goes to gig and is very obviously not on the same page as either band or audience. Review generates all-too-predictable fan backlash. Reviewer writes self-justifying blog post in an attempt to have the last word. Hilarity ensues.

One is left with the impression that Caroline Sullivan believes that the only acceptable format for any veteran band is an end-of-the-pier-show style greatest hits set. When a band is playing a three-hour show filled with deep cuts and obscure b-sides aimed at devoted hardcore fans, you do wonder why The Guardian sent a reviewer who’s on record for saying that nobody other than Madonna should play for more than 45 minutes. I’m reminded of that awful Steve Hackett review from last year.

As anyone that genuinely loves live music ought to know, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits all length for a band’s set. 45 minutes is all anyone should want or need from a band like The Ramones, and there is a reason few metal bands go beyond 90 minutes, with 75 being common. On the other hand two and a half hours is common for prog bands, especially long-established ones, and many audiences would feel short-changed if they get anything less.

Three hour shows are really only for veteran acts who have created a substantial body of work with depth as well as breadth. While I’m not that familiar with The Cure’s back catalogue, their longevity does suggest they fall into that category.

I just hope The Guardian never sent Caroline Sullivan to review a Marillion convention with seven and a half hours music spread over three nights…

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Anyone else think “The Flour Kings” would be an excellent name for a Fields of the Nephilim tribute band?

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HippyDave on Kate Bush

Good blog post by HippyDave about Kate Bush

Kate re-invented – possibly even invented – the possibilities for a female singer-songwriter ….  it also impressed on me early on that female vocalists could be more than eye-candy (a mindset that sadly all too many people – males and females alike! – can’t get past), and that songs could address weightier concerns than, say, how wonderful one’s partner was, or how important it was to get down tonight.

Regular readers of this blog will know that female artists feature heavily, and I would be very surprised if Kate Bush is not a significant influence on every single one of them.

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The Physics House Band

This lot were on of the highlights of Friday of HRH Prog, some incredible musicianship although they’re all ridiculously young. This starts slowly, but goes completely bonkers about two minutes in.

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