My self-imposed rules for album of the year restricts the list to full-length albums of new material. That means it excludes live albums, unplugged records with new versions of existing songs, or EPs. So to keep you all waiting a bit longer for my Album of the Year, some mentions of records that my rules disqualify, but are too good to be ignored altogether.
Panic Room – Essence
The Kickstarter-funded unplugged album reworks favourites from the band’s first three albums into radically different forms, resulting in a beautiful record than emphasises Anne-Marie Helder’s remarkable vocal talent. Though it crosses the streams with the acoustic side-project Luna Rossa to some extent it’s still got more of a Panic Room vibe. It’s not entirely acoustic, since new guitarist Dave Foster cuts loose on electric a few times. There are a couple of new songs too, the classic Anne-Marie Helder ballad “Rain & Tears & Burgundy”, and “Denial”, the first time Panic Room have ever recorded a blues number.
Mostly Autumn – Box of Tears
A live recording of last year’s “Dressed in Voices”, an album regarded by many as their career defining masterpiece. Unlike their other recent live albums this one’s a single disk of the Dressed in Voices set rather than the whole show (Do we really need yet another live version of “Evergreen” or “Heroes”? I don’t think so). But like those other live albums it does capture the power and intensity of the Mostly Autumn’s live performances, the big sound of the seven-piece band at full tilt.
The Fierce and The Dead – Magnet
Matt Stevens’ four-piece instrumental noise merchants could be described as a sort of punk version of King Crimson. Their latest EP sees a move away from the garage-rock feel of their last record. “Spooky Action”. Magnet is darker and denser, with more of a focus on the post-rock and electronica side of their music. Like all of their records, it has feet in many camps, defies simple categorisation, and makes a rewarding listen for anyone who wants to get out of their musical comfort zones.
Mantra Vega – Island
A taster from the forthcoming album “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, three songs with a strong 70s classic rock vibe with echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. The lead song in particular is lovely, with Heather Findlay playing to her strengths as a vocalist, and features a short but very effective guitar break from Dave Kilminster.
Zero She Flies – The River
The band formerly know as Mermaid Kiss return with a new singer in the shape of Maria Milewska and a new name. The four-track suite “The River” was originally slated to be part of a full-length album, but has mow been spun off as a separate EP on its own. It’s largely acoustic, piano and acoustic guitar based songs with woodwind and strings for colour, plus some touches of electronica, and Maria Milewska proves to be excellent singer. Highlights are the woodwinds meet trip-hop instrumental “The Undertow” and the gorgeously atmospheric closing number “Rivergirl”, but the whole EP is excellent.
Big Big Train – Wassail
This intermediate release filling the gap before their next full-length album eschews ambitious multi-part epics in favour of more straightforward songwriting. But most of the things we’ve come to expect from Big Big Train are present; big soaring melodies and rich layered arrangements that evoke the spirit of 70s pastoral progressive rock with lyrics steeped in English landscapes and history. The largely instrumental keyboard-heavy “Mudlarks” ticks a lot of classic prog-rock boxes, but with the woodwinds, violins and 12-string guitars there’s also an element of 70s electric folk-rock. It’s all delightfully retro in its use of vintage guitars and keyboard sounds, but that’s always been a major part of their appeal.