Complete 2014 End-of-Year List

2014 Albums of the Year – Part One

Every music blog must have an end-of-year list. 2014 has been such a great year that I could not whittle the list down to fewer than 25 albums without excluding something that deserved to be honoured.

One obvious caveat; this is the best-of list from the albums I’ve actually heard, taken from those I’ve either shelled out money for or heard as review promos. There are naturally going to me many great records excludes from this list simply because I’ve not had the chance to hear them.

The top ten records will be covered in later posts, but we’ll start with No 25 up to 11. Except it’s next to impossible to rank them all in order, so I’ll list them alphabetically instead. The first batch are A to E.

AlestormSunset on the Golden Age

Alestorm - Sunset on the Golden Age“Scottish Pirate Metal” doesn’t seem like an idea strong enough to last for four albums without the concept wearing thin, but Alestorm seem far from reaching the point of diminishing returns. Like their previous albums, it’s filled with tales of nautical adventure and booze set to music with a strong folk-metal flavour, though “Wooden Leg” is close to punk. It’s all entertaining stuff that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, which is precisely what metal should be.

AnathemaDistant Satellites

Anathema - Distant SatellitesAside from the occasional dance/electronica touches Anathema continue in a similar vein to last year’s “Weather Systems”. Their emotional widescreen music combines a big sound with a minimalist approach to songwriting, using the power of repetition to create something that’s often more than the sum or it’s parts. The great mystery is why mainstream crossover recognition continues to elude them and they’re still relatively unknown outside of the prog scene.

AsiaGravitas

Asia GravitasNot many people would have expected a 1980s supergroup made up from 70s prog musicians to still be making albums in 2014. They’re now down to a trio of original members plus young guitarist Sam Coulson, not even born when the band first started. This is really John Wetton’s album; he’s on superb form vocally, with big soaring melodies throughout. It’s a far better album than Yes’ lacklustre effort.

BehemothThe Satanist

Behemoth - The SatanistThe Polish black metal band recorded this album just after mainman Nergal was given the all-clear in his battle against cancer. The resulting record is a heavy, intense and deeply spiritual work, which makes Satanism sound like an actual religion. A vastly better album than anything Venom could have imagined, let alone made.

Bigelf Into The Maelstrom

BigElf Into the MaelstromAn album where the title is a perfect description of how the music sounds. Bigelf combine the melodic ear of The Beatles, the hand of doom of early Black Sabbath, the theatricality of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the musical ambition of 70s King Crimson, and the lack of inhibitions of Queen. This record captures the intensity of their live experience in a way their previous albums never quite managed.

Curved AirNorth Star

Curved Air - North StarCurved Air reformed a few years back and have been playing the festival circuit for a while, but North Star is their first studio recording since the 1970s. With their quirky but fluid jazz-rock they’ve picked up exactly where they left off decades before, and Sonja Kristina is still on superb form vocally. The only thing that lets it down are some unnecessary covers, though they do demonstrate that they’re better songwriters than Snow Patrol.

ElbowThe Takeoff and Landing of Everything

Elbow - The Takeoff and Landing of EverythingElbow are one of those mainstream rock bands that owe a huge debt to 70s progressive rock, which is obvious if you listen beyond their hits. Peter Gabriel is clearly an influence on Guy Garvey’s vocals and composition, and Elbow sound like the band Genesis might have become if Hackett had left but Gabriel had stayed. Even though it might have benefited from a solo or two in the right places, it’s still a rich and ambitious record with a great amount of emotional depth.

Empty Yard ExperimentKallisti

Empty Yard Experiment - KallistiEYE are a multinational prog-metal band based in Dubai, with members from the Middle East, India and Eastern Europe, and this impressive work with shades of Anathema, Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Godspeed You Black Emperor is quite remarkable for a début with its mature composition and strong use of dynamics.

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2014 Albums of the Year – Part Two

Part two of the end-of-year album rundown, here’s the other half of the alphabetically-sorted albums ranked between 11 and 25, going from H to Z.

Halo BlindOccupying Forces

Halo Blind Occupying Forces smHalo Blind is the project that used to be called Parade, led by York-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Johnson, currently part of Mostly Autumn. The long-awaited follow-up to 2009′s The Fabric is a little less eclectically-varied than it’s predecessor, but hangs together far more strongly as a coherent album. The blend of indie-rock guitars and progressive rock textures combined with strong songwriting ought to have a wide crossover appeal.

IQThe Road of Bones

IQ: The Road of BonesThe neo-prog veterans have never been prolific, but never disappoint. This double album sees them not afraid to experiment, with an abrasive industrial-metal edge alongside the more traditional neo-prog sounds. There is still plenty of what ought to be expected from any IQ album; lengthy kaleidoscopic songs, dark and melodramatic vocals and climactic guitar and keyboard solos.

Morpheus RisingEximus Humanus

Eximus HumanusThe York twin-guitar rockers raise their game significantly with their second album. It’s an old-school hard rock album recalling the early days of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, with a focus on songwriting and melody. Si Wright comes into his own as a lead singer with material written to take full advantage of his vocal range.

Robert PlantLullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar

Robert Plant Lullaby and the Ceaseless RoarThe veteran former Led Zeppelin frontman returns with his strongest record for many years. It’s a mix of English rock and folk with African and Middle Eastern sounds, and even the occasional blast of hard rock guitar, but there’s a fire to it that’s been missing from his last few records. It’s still a long way from the swaggering blues-rock of his early career, but like much of his recent output it’s music that suits an artist in his 60s rather than his 20s.

Polar BearIn Each and Every One

Polar Bear In Each and Every OneIt’s jazz, Jim, but not as we know it. Twin saxophones meet electronic soundscapes, with shades of Miles Davis meets Pink Floyd. One moment it’s melodic and atmospheric, the next it’s squawking cacophony. It can be a challenging listen at times; this is a record than imports elements of rock into jazz, but takes things in an altogether different direction from jazz-fusion.

Matt StevensLucid

Matt Stevens - LucidHaving taken his acoustic looping guitar thing as far as could go, Matt has made something far more eclectic, combining his loves of post-punk, progressive rock and extreme metal. While there are some delicate acoustic numbers, much of the album is electric, with a full band and and interesting array of guest performers. Proof that you can make an all-instrumental guitar album without it becoming a vehicle for endless soloing.

When Empires Fall

When Empires FallThe new project from former Breathing Space and Stolen Earth bassist Paul Teasdale is a very interesting blend of progressive rock atmospherics and Britpop-style songwriting. There are strong guest vocal performances by Aleksandra Koziol and Joanne Wallis, but Paul handles the majority of the lead vocals himself, and the soaring melodies prove him to be a fine vocalist as well as a songwriter.

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2014 Albums of the Year – Part Three

Part three of the end-of-year album countdown, and we’re into the top ten. These are from 10 to 6, again sorted alphabetically because I can’t sort these into any sort of order. They’re all equally good.

Cloud AtlasBeyond the Vale

Cloud Atlas - Beyond The Vale newYet another York-based band (Is there something in the water?), Cloud Atlas is the band put together by Heidi Widdop following the dissolution of Stolen Earth. Their impressive début album is big widescreen rock with an epic scope, with Heidi’s distinctive bluesy vocals setting them apart from many of their obvious peers. But this album’s sound is as much about Martin Ledger’s soaring melodic lead guitar, with strong echoes of Marillion’s Steve Rothery.

Gazpacho Demon

Gazpacho - DemonNorway’s Gazpacho have come up with one of the darkest and most sinister-sounding records of 2014. It’s what Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden might have sounded like if Mark Hollis had spent a lot of time listening to Black Sabbath. Sinister violin-led pastoral soundscapes with are intercut with bursts of hard rock, motifs recur across the album, and there’s even an irruption of accordion-led central European folk at one point. An ambitious album which is by no means an easy listen, but one where you can keep finding new layers after many listens.

Knifeworld The Unravelling

The UnravellingA major step forward for Kavus Torabi’s eight-piece band, and reflects their current live sound far more than any of their previous recordings. It’s a record that takes psychedelia, jazz, hard rock and all kinds of other things, and puts them in a blender to produce something that sounds quite unlike anyone else. Fans of the late, great Frank Zappa should find a lot to like about this record, as should anyone who thinks there should be more bassoons in rock.

Luna RossaSecrets and Lies

Luna Rossa Secrets & LiesLuna Rossa started out as a side-project from Panic Room emphasising the acoustic side of Anne-Marie Helder’s and Jon Edwards’ music, but seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. Their second album is a logical progression from the first; perhaps not quite as eclectic, but with a slightly clearer musical identity. Luna Rossa still defy easy genre pigeonholing, though the album does show occasional hints of artists as varied as Goldfrapp and Renaissance. There’s some very raw heart-on-sleeve emotion, with the music revolving around and complementing Anne-Marie’s always remarkable vocals.

Steve RotheryThe Ghosts of Pripyat

Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of PripyatThis Kickstarter-funded project is Steve Rothery’s first proper solo album in more than three decades as lead guitarist of Marillion. It’s an instrumental album with a band including Panic Room’s Yatim Halimi and Mr So and So’s Dave Foster, Rothery’s lyrical and emotional playing both soars and rocks, the numbers building in intensity from slow-burning beginnings. The whole thing shows just why Rothery is one of the best guitarists of his generation, one of the few players good enough to pull this sort of thing off without descending into self-indulgence.

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2014 Albums of the Year, Part Four

And so we approach the end of the albums-of-the-year list. There are numbers 2 to 5, which means there is just the Album of the Year itself to go.

Again they’re listed alphabetically, because it’s too hard to rank them. In truth, any of these records would be worthy albums of the year, as would several others just outside the top five. It really has been that sort of the year.

Crippled Black PhoenixWhite Light Generator

Crippled Black Phoenix  - White Light Generator

A remarkable combination of progressive and alternative rock that sometimes sounds like Swans collaborating with Pink Floyd, with diversions via the pastoral folk-prog of The Decemberists and the high-octane space-rock of prime-time Hawkwind. Loud and dirty guitar riffs alternate with atmospheric soundscapes and spoken word pieces, such that you never quite know what’s coming next. It all makes for an intense and exhilarating listen, thought its depth and scope mean it’s a record that takes many listens to fully appreciate. It’s precisely the sort of record that proves post-70s progressive rock has evolved far beyond the template of 80s neo-prog.

OpethPale Communion

Opeth Pale CommunionMikhael Akerfeld and his men will disappoint anyone still hoping 2011′s “Heritage” might have been a one-off, for Pale Communion is not a return to their death-metal roots. Instead it develops its predecessor’s contemporary take on classic and more obscure 70s sounds, and if anything it’s “Meddle” to Heritage’s “Atom Heart Mother”. There are no cookie monsters, but the record does retain all of Opeth’s mastery of dynamics, and its dark intensity shows there can be other forms of heaviness than bludgeoning riffs. The dense and atmospheric record has a similar mood to Gazpacho’s “Demon”; while the execution is quite different both have a mood that suggests shadowy things in Scandinavian forests.

Panic RoomIncarnate

IncarnateWith a new guitarist in Adam O’Sullivan Panic Room’s fourth album feels like the start of a new chapter for the band, and shows that sometimes a change of lead guitarist can be as big a change as a new lead singer. It’s a step away from the rich wall of sound that characterised their last couple of albums in favour of a lighter, more pared-back feel, with a stronger emphasis on Anne-Marie Helder’s songwriting. O’Sullivan has quite a different style as a guitarist, with jazz and blues flourishes, though he demonstrates that he can still rock out when it’s needed. But it’s still unmistakably Panic Room, with that combination of rock, pop, jazz, folk and prog focussed on strong songwriting and Anne-Marie’s award-winning vocals.

The Pineapple ThiefMagnolia

Pineapple Thief - MagnoliaThe Pineapple Thief are one of those bands generally considered part of the progressive rock scene, but take a modern, streamlined approach to their music. Magnolia sees them combine many of the best elements of their previous three records to result in their most accessible album to date. There are touches of dance/electronica rhythms and of hard rock riffing, but the emphasis is on big soaring melodies. They’re another band who are worthy of mainstream crossover success.

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2014 Album of the Year

Most regular readers of this blog will probably have guessed by now that this would be the album of the year. In a year with so many great records one has to try to be objective and put personal favouritism aside. But in the end, there can only be one album of the year, and this record does deserve it.  What exactly is it about York that spawns so many great bands?

Mostly Autumn Dressed in Voices

Dressed in VoicesThe last few Mostly Autumn albums have had their moments, and have been enjoyable works, but all of them fell frustratingly short of the records the band seemed capable of making. With “Dressed in Voices” the band have finally created the career-defining masterpiece they’ve always had in them. Lyrically it’s a dark concept album about life, death and the consequences of violence, and musically it’s a distillation of the best elements of their past three or four albums, with the band’s three songwriters all on the same page.

There’s a similar heavy progressive vibe to 2005′s “Storms Over Still Waters”, with the occasional nod to the celtic-folk of their early days. It’s got that big, rich, and many-layered sound that needs a seven-piece band to reproduce live. There are emotive performances from Olivia Sparnenn, who’s grown tremendously as a vocalist over the past few years, plenty of classic Bryan Josh lead guitar, Iain Jennings’ all-enveloping keys providing the perfect instrumental foil, and some appearances of Anne-Marie Helder’s flute. This is the best record they’ve made for many years, and may even be the best of their career.

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Best Gigs of 2014

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

Unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t get to see Kate Bush’s already legendary shows at Hammersmith in the summer. But I did get to see plenty of other bands, from festivals to free-entry pub gigs, so many in fact that I lost eventually lost count. I do remember nine in thirteen days in December, after which I collapsed in a heap.

These are ten of the best of the year, listed in chronological order save for the gig of the year. Several of them are from festivals, where I’ve highlighted individual sets rather than the festival as a whole.

The Pineapple Thief, HRH Prog, March

The first day of HRH Prog was somewhat patchy, with rather too many rather one-dimensional acts. The Pineapple Thief were the exception, with a magnificently intense set that stood head and shoulders above anyone else on Friday’s bill, including headliners The Flower Kings.

Riverside, O2 Academy, April

Poland’s finest proved they’re every bit as good live as they are on record, the perfect band for anyone still missing Porcupine Tree, but with enough of an identity of their own to sound like any kind of pastiche.

Panic Room, Gloucester Guildhall, April

2014 saw Panic Room back firing on all cylinders again after a somewhat shaky 2013, with the new lineup with then-new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan fully bedded it. They kicked off with an impressive performance at HRH Prog in March, and were on consistently good live form thereafter. It’s hard to single out any one show, but this early one in Gloucester was as good as any.

Magenta, Trinity Live, May

Magenta were only added to the bill of the all-day charity gig very late in the day when Christina’s cancer treatment was progressing well enough to allow her to perform. It’s always remarkable how good Magenta are live considering how infrequently they perform; but this time they completely stole the show. And they deserved it.

Jeff Lorber, Swansea Jazz Festival, June

Most of this years gigs have been prog and metal, so the Swansea Jazz Festival was a change of pace. Among others it featured the veteran trumpeter Dick Pierce, the violin-driven gypsy jazz of Sarah Smith, and the jazz-rock of Protect the Beat. But the highlight of the weekend was Friday night’s set of jazz-fusion from pianist Jeff Lorber. The world of prog contains plenty of virtuoso musicians, but jazz can be on another level.

Mostly Autumn, The Box in Crewe, July

Mostly Autumn have bounced back very strongly after a hit-and-miss 2013, touring to promote the best album they’ve made in years and for the first time playing the new album in full on tour. Despite a fluctuating lineup in the early part of the year due some members’ prior commitments, which saw former flautist Angela Gordon standing in for a couple of gigs, they were back to the sort of live form they displayed in 2011 and 2012. An early highlight was their long-overdue return to Crewe in July.

Mr So and So, Resonance, August

Resonance was a strange festival, with an eclectic mix of bands playing across multiple stages, including a small room tucked away at up at the top of the building. One of the bands in that small room, Mr So and So, were an unexpected highlight, a band who have improved immensely over the past couple of years, with Charlotte Evans coming into her own as a singer.

Chantel McGregor, Cambridge Rock Festival, August

The Cambridge Rock Festival was another highlight of the year, with strong sets from Mostly Autumn, Mr So and So, The Windmill, Cloud Atlas and others. One of the highlights was the guitar-shredding set on Friday from Chantel McGregor, who simply owns the main stage at that festival.

Fish, Reading Sub89, December

Fish had planned to tour the UK in May but was forced to cancel due to Guitarist Robin Boult’s injury. The rescheduled shows in December looked in doubt at one point when the man himself went down with viral laryngitis on the continental leg. But in the end all was fine, and the band were on fire, with a completely new setlist compared to last year, with old favourites like “Big Wedge” and “Incubus” as well as the powerful High Wood suite from his newest album played in full.

It’s hard to narrow things down to just ten, so honourable mentions to Touchstone and IOEarth’s Christmas show in Bilston, The Tangent’s mesmerising performance at Celebr8.3 in Islington, Tarja rocking out the O2 Academy, Steve Rothery at Bush Hall, Opeth’s oldies-heavy set at The Roundhouse, and Alestorm’s booze and piracy in Reading.

It’s even harder to pick the best of the lot, but there can only be one, and this came towards the end of the year.

Marillion, The Forum, December

Even after more than 30 years in the business, Marillion never disappoint live, and their sell-out December Christmas shows were no exception. What was surprising was the number of real oldies they haven’t played for years; “Slàinte Mhath”, “Warm Wet Circles/This Time of the Night” and even “Garden Party” from the Fish era, and several song from “Seasons End” including the magnificent title track. It gave the impression of a band comfortable in their own skins and reconciled with their own past in a way they weren’t a few years back.

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