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.

The Eurovision Song Contest

I’m at a gig this Saturday, so I’ll be missing the Eurovision Song Contest. But here’s Lithuania’s entry for 2006, the same year as Lordi won for Finland.

The brief instrumental break with the dancing William Hague look-a-like is the best bit.

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Black Sabbath: 10 of the best

Black SabbathThe Guardian have just published a piece I’ve written in their “Ten of the Best” series, about Black Sabbath.

The task of choosing ten songs to tell the story of the most influential metal band on the planet wasn’t an easy one. Listening to all their albums, especially the early ones, showed Black Sabbath’s remarkable consistency. For every song I eventually chose there were two or three others that would have been equally valid. At one point my draft list said “Something from Master of Reality”, and I could easily have chosen almost anything from that album. That my final list didn’t have space for “NIB”, “Paranoid”,”Iron Man”, “Children of the Grave”, “Spiral Architect”, “Neon Knights” or indeed anything at all from “Volume 4″ says it all.

One dilemma was whether to base the list around the obvious standards that everyone knows, or highlight some of the lesser-known gems. In the end, I went for a bit of both, including defining classics like “Black Sabbath”, “War Pigs”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Heaven and Hell” while leaving room for atypical songs such as “Air Dance” or a representative of the often-overlooked Tony Martin era.

Speaking of the Tony Martin era, one of the constraints I had to work to was that all the chosen songs had to be available on Spotify, and unfortunately neither “Headless Cross” nor “Tyr” were there; the only album available was “Eternal Idol”. Hence the last-minute substitution of “Glory Ride” in place of Tyr’s “Anno Mundi”. Which makes the comment that it was a great list except then “Anno Mundi” should have been there instead of Glory Ride spot-on. Little did he know.

Some of the other comments are amusing; there are clearly a few people who don’t like anything beyond the first four albums and lost it with “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. As as for “Too much Dio”, there is no such thing as too much Dio. But that’s Guardian commenters for you…

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Farewell, The Top Rank

The former Top Rank Suite in Reading.  Venue for my first ever gig, Hawkwind in 1980.

The sad sight of the long-closed Top Rank Suite in Reading being demolished.

It was the venue for my very first gig, Hawkwind on their Levitation tour, with Ginger Baker on drums, and NWOBHM power trio Vardis as the support.

Another memorable gig was Gillan and Budgie a few months later. Gillan are one of those bands music history seems to have forgotten; though their albums were often patchy and always sounded rushed, they really came in to their own live. And at that gig Budgie’s performance was closer to that of a co-headliner than a support.

Those were the days.

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Farewell to Childhood?

So, Fish has announced that he will follow his festival appearances celebrating 30 years of “Misplaced Childhood” with a UK tour in December, in which the album will be played in full.

Much as I’m a big fan of Marillion and of Fish, I think I’m going to give this one a miss, unless the support act is a must-see.

Fish has been a great live act in the past couple of years promoting his excellent and moving “Feast of Consequences” album. It’s no secret that nowadays his voice today is not the voice he had a generation ago. His upper register is gone, and older numbers need to be played in a much lower key and be rearranged to avoid the high notes. He’s fine on the more recent material, which is written for his current vocal range, and he can get away with a few reworked older numbers thrown in for old times’ sake.

When he last toured Misplaced Childhood in the 20th anniversary in the mid-noughies, the first half of the show consisting of more recent solo material was the better half. The re-tuned Misplaced became dirge-like in places and actually dragged towards the end.

Hearing both the Steve Rothery Band and Marillion themselves tackle pre-1988 material towards the end of last year was an eye-opener, or rather an ear-opener; Steve Rothery’s emotive and lyrical guitar playing is as central to the music as Fish’s vocals, and more significantly Steve Hogarth, as a technically better singer proved capable of taking the songs and making them his own.

If I was to hear the whole of Misplaced Childhood live, I’d rather hear the current incarnation of Marillion play it. But maybe Fish will prove me completely wrong and the whole thing will be a triumph.

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Deeply Symbolic of Man’s Struggle Against His Socio-Political Environment

It didn’t take very long after someone pointed out that The Teletubbles looks deeply scary in black-and-white that somebody would create video mashing up monochromatic Teletubbies with Joy Division. It had to be done, really. This is the sort of thing that makes me love the internet.

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The trouble with music journalism is there are still too many writers who lack the self-awareness to realise that what they think is a universally-acknowledged truth is actually far closer to the linguistic equivalent of a dog urinating to mark its territory.

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Farewell to The Reasoning

The Reasoning at Trinity Live in Leamington Spa

So Cardiff’s The Reasoning join Breathing Space, Stolen Earth and Crimson Sky in the roll-call of bands that I’ve travelled considerable distances to see who are now no more. I have often likened being a fan of bands at this level to being an away supporter of a lower-division football club; there’s a camaraderie with fellow-fans, and you end up staying in unfashionable places like Crewe, Swansea or Mansfield.

The Reasoning were one of three bands that emerged following the implosion of the original incarnation of Karnataka, a band I had loved on record but never had the chance to see live, and featured their original lead singer Rachel Jones (as she was then). I travelled down from Cheshire to South Wales by train the day after a hurricane to see their very first gig at The Uplands Tavern in Swansea back in January 2007.

They were still finding their feet at the time, but they still made a strong impression with a melodic twin guitar hard rock sound and three lead vocalists, enabling them to do interesting things with harmonies. I later saw them play a couple of stunning gigs at The Limelight Club in Crewe,and at The Point in Cardiff, when they gave the impression that they were hungry and going places. Not only were they tight but there was also a passionate intensity to their music. At one point, when they managed to get support spots for artists like Fish in sizeable venues, they looked as though they had a chance of breaking through to the next level.

They went through a lot of changes over the following years, which might have cost them some of that early momentum. They had started out as a six-piece band with Rachel sharing lead vocals with guitarist Dylan Thompson and keyboard player Gareth Jones. There was a short-lived seven-piece lineup featuring former Fish keyboard player Tony Turrell and additional backing singer Maria Owen-Midlane. Then they took the form of a slimmed-down five-piece band with Rachel as the main vocalist and Tony Turrell handling the male vocals on the older material live.

Although all the different incarnations had their strengths and their supporters, for me nothing quite equalled the magic of the early days when Dylan, Gareth and original drummer Vinden Wylde were in the band, and the first two albums “Awakening” and “Dark Angel” remain favourites.

Owain Roberts of The Reasoning at Bury MetI find it impossible as an outsider to imagine just how hard the still-unsolved disappearance of guitarist Owain Roberts in 2012 hit the band. For a while there was considerable doubt as to whether they would continue. They eventually regrouped with new guitarist Keith Hawkins to record what would be their final album, “Adventures in Neverland”. Although they’d announced they were working on a follow-up, provisionally titled “Horrorscopic”, the only live activity in the past two years bar a couple of warm-up gigs were their appearance at the HRH Prog in 2013, and what turned out to be their final live appearance at last year’s Trinity charity event in Leamington Spa. The cancellation of a proposed tour last Autumn and the indefinite postponement of the album meant today’s announcement that the band were finally calling it a day shouldn’t really be a surprise.

While it can be disappointing as a fan to see a band you’ve followed call it a day, sometimes you do have to recognise when something has run its course. Nothing can take away their legacy or their recordings. Sometimes the spirit of a much-loved band lives on in new bands formed by former members. And sometimes the creative forces behind a band take off in exciting new directions.

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This is what I like to see

Noel Gallagher's iHigh Flying Birds: Chasing Yesterday - Unft for Takeof. Steven Wilson's Hand Cannot Erase - Sonic and Spiritiual Modernity

A screencap from The Guardian showing Dom Lawson’s five-star review of Steven Wilson’s “Hand Cannot Erase” alongside Alexis Petridis’ detailed review of one-time media darling Noel Gallagher’s allegedly ‘seismic’ new album that could be summed up with the word ‘meh’.

It’s difficult to imagine this a couple of years ago, when it would have been very unlikely for The Guardian to acknowledge artists like Steven Wilson.

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Anoraknophobia

AnoraknophoboaIt’s only a couple of months until the UK Marillion Conventional in Wolverhampton. As has become the established format for these events, two of the three nights will centre on an album played in full. One will be the near-universally loved “Marbles”. The other will be 2001′s “Anoraknophobia”, an album that still divides opinion more than a decade after its release. As with “Holidays in Eden” at the 2011 event and “Radiation” in 2013, it gives an opportunity to reassess an often overlooked album from their back catalogue.

It’s no “Brave” or “Season’s End”, but Anoraknophobia is still a personal favourite for me. It was the album that bought me back on board and made me a Marillion fan again. I’d been slowly drifting away as a fan for several years. I hadn’t actually seen them live since the Holidays in Eden tour, where I witnessed a rather lacklustre gig at Hammersmith Odeon that seemed to lack the old magic. I’d kept on buying the albums, and loved “Brave”, but a few albums later they were losing their magic for me on record too. “Dotcom”, the album before Anorak was and still is my least favourite Marillion album.

In retrospect Anoraknophobia feels part of a trilogy along with Radiation and Dotcom; those three records represented the period where the band were looking for a new direction and trying to adopt a more contemporary sound. DotCom didn’t work for me; much of the album sounded too much like generic rock/pop which diluted Marillion’s strengths.

Anoraknophobia too was as much a departure from the classic sound with its elements of trip-hop, dub and indie-rock, but somehow the album seemed much more in the spirit of Marillion. Songs like “Separated Out” and “Between You And Me” rocked out. The ambitious “Quartz” merged a dub bass riff with some archetypal Steve Rothery guitar textures. The sprawling album highlight “This is the 21st Century” with it’s hypnotic rhythms and extended dreamy solo is miles away from the neo-prog of their 1980s heyday, but is still one of the finest songs.

The tour was also the first time I’d seen them live in a decade. I’d just moved to Manchester, and saw them on the tour at Manchester Academy. What I experienced seemed a completely different band from the one I’d seen a dozen years earlier; the same self-confident and coherent band that we’re familiar with today.

Anorak isn’t flawless by any means, and was eclipsed by “Marbles” when the band finally found the magic formula, but Anoraknophobia remains a personal favourite, and still seems to represent the moment when the band turned the corner.

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CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl?

Vinyl may be making a comeback in a big way, but this long and technically informative piece in LA Weekly suggests CDs may actually sound better after all. The digital nature of CDs means it’s possible to capture an amount of dynamic range that simple wasn’t mechanically possible with vinyl.

It is a fact that vinyl sounds different from CDs. And many people prefer vinyl’s sound. But it’s not clean reproduction of a recording that makes vinyl a preferred format; it’s the affect the vinyl adds to a recording that people find pleasing.

“I think some people interpret the lack of top end [on vinyl] and interpret an analog type of distortion as warmth,” says Jim Anderson, a Grammy-winning recording engineer and professor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. “It’s a misinterpretation of it. But if they like it, they like it. That’s fine.”

It’s also clear that the vinyl experience is about more than just sound. Pete Lyman, co-owner and chief mastering technician at Infrasonic Sound, an audio and vinyl mastering studio in Echo Park, says he believes listeners are gravitating toward vinyl for the physical experience of owning, holding and flipping an LP.

“I don’t think that [sound is] really the appeal for people right now,” Lyman says. “They like the collectability factor. They like the whole ritual and process of listening to it. They’re more engaged with the music that way.”

So, is the vinyl revival purely down to middle-aged men trying to recapture their long-lost youth? (I know of no female vinyl enthusiasts!). One reason may well be that many contemporary CDs are intended to be listened to in cars or to be ripped to iPods for listening to on public transport. So they’re given a loud compressed mastering intended to punch through background noise, making little use of the CD format’s dynamic range. In contrast, vinyl recording are sold to be played on Big Expensive Stereos.

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