Complete 2015 End-of-Year List

2015 Albums of the Year – Part One

It’s that time of year again, when us music bloggers write our end-of-year lists of the albums that have impressed us over the past twelve months.

Usual caveats apply, of course, there are no doubt plenty of superb albums from 2015 I have yet to hear, and won’t be on my radar screen until I see them on other people’s end-of-year lists. Which, in a nutshell, is really the whole point of these things. I still think lists compiled by committees for general music publications are largely a waste of time. But this is not one of those lists.

There are 25 in my list this year, and here’s part one, going from 25 down to 18. They’re not in any particular order, consider them all 18-equal.

Caligula’s Horse – Bloom

Caligulas Horse - BloomState of the art twin-guitar prog-metal from Australia, filled with serpentine riffs, memorable vocal melodies and some spectacular soloing. It combines the dynamics of mid-period Opeth with the modern jazz-metal experimentation of Haken and Maschine with the atmospherics of Riverside, while managing to avoid sounding remotely derivaive.

Kamchatka – A Long Road Made of Gold

Long Road Made Of GoldThe Swedish power-trio deliver some classy blues-based hard rock. There’s an emphasis on tight arrangements, with punchy songs and short but effective blasts of shredding lead guitar, with a superb production that makes it sound as though the band are playing in your living room.
 

Muse – Drones

Muse DronesTeignmouth’s finest take a step back from the Queen-with-kitchen-sinks approach of their last couple of albums in favour of something of stripped-down guitar-driven power trio approach of their early albums. But when you’ve got Mutt Lange of AC/DC fame as producer, “stripped-down” is still a relative thing. There’s still a big expansive sounds that goes from hard rock boogie to a nod to spaghetti western soundtracks. This is still a Muse album, after all.

Pope Francis – Wake Up

Pope Fancis Wake UoNot many people would have put “The Pope releases bonkers prog-rock album” in their musical predictions for 2015. One of the years strangest releases mixes excepts from sermons with a blend of traditional church music and progressive rock with a nod to world music. The combination of spoken word with big minor-key choral crescendos and the occasional blast of full-on rock guitar is worth a listen for anyone who appreciates things like Mostly Autumn’s “The Gap Is Too Wide”. It certainly makes evangelical protestant worship music look tame by comparison.

Praying Mantis – Legacy

Praying Mantis - LegacyThe tenth album by one-time NWOBHM heroes is polished twin-guitar hard rock, more AOR than metal, with echoes of Uriah Heep and Journey. Remarkable in its consistency, there is no filler and every track has something to like about it. Just occasionally it skirts on the edge of cheese, but most of the time this is a classy piece of work.

Queensrÿche – Condition: Hüman

Queensryche Condition HumanWith new vocalist Todd Le Torre the prog-metal pioneers recover some of their mojo, with a record that evokes the spirit of the 1980s heyday, with soaring vocals and razor-sharp riffs. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of their peerless 80s masterpieces, but it’s still the best thing they’ve done for many years, and certainly blows Geoff Tate’s lacklustre album “The Key” clean out of the water.

Secrets of the Sky – Pathway

Secrets of the Sky - PathwayThis Californian band brew up a monstrous wall of sound. With no choruses or solos the songs take the form of dense soundscapes of layered guitars, doom-laden drums and washes of keys. With evil-sounding growls for the heavy parts and clean vocals for the reflective, atmospheric moments, the end result is an intense and in places very heavy record where even the lighter parts can sound truly menacing.

Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocks Beard The Oblivion ParticleTheir twelfth album has verything we’ve come to expect from a Spock’s Beard record; swirling Mellotron and Hammond organ, blasts of hard rock guitar, rich layered vocal harmonies, and a strong sense of melody. Spock’s Beard again succeed by having one foot in the past and one in the present; creating a delightfully retro sound with a modern sensibility.

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2015 Albums of the Year – Part Two

We continue the album rundown with the countdown down to Eleven, setting things up for the Top Ten.

Eleven is a very metal number….

Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic

Beyond the Buried and Me Coma EclipticA quite remarkable record that sounds like all the best bits of contemporary metal and progressive rock from the last decade put into a blender. It’s hugely varied with musical references all over the place, yet it still hangs together as a coherent whole. There is an awful lot happening on this record, and it does take a few listens to take it all in. Songs take off in unpredictable directions, and there is more than one number that feels as though it contains a whole concept album’s worth of music in seven or eight minutes.

Dave Gilmour – Rattle That Lock

Rattle That LockThis highly polished singer-songwriter album is perhaps more satisfying that Pink Floyd’s coda “The Endless River”. Though it does tend towards the middle of the road in places, Gilmour’s immediately recognisable lead guitar lights up every song and sets this record apart. While it doesn’t reach the epic grandeur of Pink Floyd’s heyday. it’s still as much about the gorgeous orchestrated arrangements as it is about the songs.

Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards

Rise of the Chaos WizardsDundee’s finest power-metallers return with the follow-up to “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife” in which the hero Angus McFife takes the battle with the evil sorcerer Zargothrax to outer space, where he encounters The Goblin King of the Darkthrone Galaxy, and with the aid of the legendary Astral Hammer and The Hollywood Hootsman defeats the sorcerer in epic battle. Unfortunately Earth and all its inhabitants were destroyed in the process, but nobody noticed because Chaos Magic. But that’s power metal for you…

Iron Maiden – Book of Souls

Iron Maiden Book of SoulsThe metal veterans and British institution continue a strong recent run of albums with one of the most ambitious things they’ve ever done, a double album that might just be their best record they’ve made since their 1980s heyday. They’ve managed a double album without filler, covering all bases from galloping rockers to ambitious epics. It culminates with “Empire of the Clouds”, an eighteen-minute tour-de-force which combines Bruce Dickenson’s loves of history and aviation, telling the story of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the R101 airship.

Motörhead – Bad Magic

Motorhead Bad MagicLemmy’s increasingly frail health means Motörhead aren’t the live force they once were, but in the studio it’s another matter. Lemmy has still got it, and accompanied by Mikky Dee and the underrated Phil Campbell, they rock like a bastard, with songs that barrel along like a runaway train. On record at least, with what might prove to be their final album, Motorhead are still the epitome of the primal spirit of Rock’n'Roll, Britain’s equivalent to The Ramones.

Napalm Death – Apex Predator: Easy Meat

Apex Predator - Easy MeatNapalm Death are very angry. It’s hard to make out the words, so it’s not always obvious exactly what they’re angry about, but they’re very, very angry. They combine the visceral fury of punk with the precision of metal, to produce an album that tears out of the speakers and nails you to the wall. Napalm Death show absolutely no signs of mellowing in their old age, and they’ve made a record that’s utterly uncompromising.

Steve Hackett – Wolflight

Steve Hackett - WolflightThe former Genesis guitarist has gained a high profile with his Genesis revival show of late, but he’s also hit a late career purple patch with a string of excellent albums, of which this might be one of the finest. It’s a huge symphonic-sounding work, dominated by his distinctive liquid guitar playing and gorgeous harmony vocals. Just ignore the cover art with the embarrassed wolves and focus on the music.

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2015 Albums of the Year – Part Three

We’re into the top ten now, with the top five to go. It says a lot about how good this year has been that many of these would have been in the top five in other years.

Gazpacho – Molok

Gazpacho - MolokThe Norwegian six-piece pick up where they left off with last year’s “Demon”. The vibe resembles late period Talk Talk crossed with Storm Corrosion, sinister atmospheric soundscapes making prominent use of violin and the occasional irruptions of central European folk motifs. But be careful when you play it. The sound resembling modem noises at the very end of “Molok Rising” is a code which may destroy the universe.

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home

John Mitchell - Lonely RobotLonely Robot is the project from John Mitchell of It Bites, Arena and Frost* fame, with a all-star supporting cast including Nick Beggs, Go West’s Peter Cox, Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, Heather Findlay and Kim Seviour. The end result is a varied but hugely impressive album. It goes from dense guitar-heavy industrial prog-metal to gorgeous ballads to uptempo 80s-style pop-rock, with imaginative arrangements that frequently veer off in unexpected directions.

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Nightwish Endless FormsThe latest release by the Finnish masters of symphonic metal marks the studio début of lead singer Floor Jansen, and is also the first to feature celtic folk multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley as a full member of the band. It’s rather heavier than their previous “Imaginaerum“, thought the straight-up metal numbers end up less interesting than the soaring ballads and folk-rock workouts. It might have done without the spoken word parts from the odious Richard Dawkins, though at least he’s talking about evolutionary biology here.

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – Layers of Ages

Gigspanner - Layers of AgesGigspanner are an acoustic trio led by former Steeleye Span fiddle player Peter Knight, and Layers of Ages sees imaginative arrangements of traditional folk numbers. Though not an instrumental record, Knight’s evocative and lyrical violin playing is the heart of the sound, full of melody and emotion. Much like contemporary jazz, some modern folk has a lot of appeal for fans of progressive rock wanting to venture out of their comfort zone, and this record is a very good place to start.

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase

Hand Cannot EraseSteven Wilson’s third release following the dissolution of Porcupine Tree is an ambitious concept album about isolation that’s drawn comparisons with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Marillion’s “Brave”. He reins in the wind-driven jazz-rock elements in favour of more guitar-centred sound that’s closer to the spirit of Porcupine Tree than earlier solo releases, going from stripped-back minimalism that evokes XTC to dense layered prog-metal workouts. It’s perhaps not quite as consistently strong as “The Raven That Refused to Sing”, but nevertheless contains many powerful moments.

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2015 Albums of the Year – Part Four

Into the top five, with only the Album of the Year to go. Two or three of these albums could easily been the album of the year themselves. Again, they’re not in any order, consider them all equal 2nd.

Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud

Amorphis Under the Red CloudWhat is it about Scandinavia and metal? A disproportionate number of the most imaginative and innovative metal of recent years has come from Sweden, Norway and especially Finland. Amorphis hail from the last of those nations, and have delivered a quite remarkable record which cannot be pigeonholed in any of metal’s narrow subgenres. There are moments of death metal, folk metal and gothic rock, and the occasional nod to 70s classic rock. It can be piledrivingly heavy at times, but always hugely melodic, with melodies that owe as much to the twin guitars as the vocals. Like the best metal bands they demonstrates superb use of dynamics. Many songs combine clear vocals with death growls, often using one style on the verse and the other on the chorus. As a contemporary metal album this record is absolutely state of the art.

Karnataka – Secrets of Angels

Karnataka - Secrets of AngelsKarnataka’s fifth studio album is a very different beast from 2007′s “The Gathering Light”, as much so as that album was from “Delicate Flame of Desire”. But the three were the products of three very different bands. The newest incarnation of Karnataka with Hayley Griffiths on vocals and Cagri Tozluoglu on keys have come up with a huge-sounding record with more than a hint of European symphonic metal about it, with recurring lyrical themes of adultery and betrayal. The early part of the album is filled with hook-laden potential singles. Then it closes with the twenty-minute title track which combines evocative celtic soundscapes with massive symphonic rock crescendos and features a guest appearance from Troy Donockley. With this record Karnataka managed to take on the likes of Nightwish and beat them at their own game, which is no mean achievement.

Chantel McGregor – Lose Control

Chantel McGregor - Lose ControlIt been four years since the Yorkshire guitarist and singer-songwriter released her début album, but the follow-up not only proved to be well worth the wait, but is a very different sort of record. With a “Southern Gothic” theme it’s heavier, darker and far more song-focussed, with elements of grunge and progressive rock. There’s more emphasis on memorable riffs than on extended guitar wig-outs; she takes a less-is-more approach to soloing. Hard rockers alternate with delicate acoustic numbers, and the album closes with the ambitious kaleidoscopic epic “Walk on Land”.

Bruce Soord

Bruce Soord Solo AlbumThe self-titled solo album by the Pineapple Thief mainman is a thing of beauty, with echoes of Guy Garvey, recent Anathema and Steven Wilson at his less bombastic. It’s an album of soaring atmospheric soundscapes, often semi-acoustic but always hugely melodic, with arrangements varying from acoustic minimalism to richly layered. It takes one unexpected sharp left turn early on with the disco-funk of “The Odds”, but the gorgeously dreamy “Born in Delusion” and “Familiar Patterns” are far more representative of the album. Quite different in mood to The Pineapple Thief, but a very enjoyable record.

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2015 Records of the Year – Not only but also…

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

Panic Room EssenceThe 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

Mostly Autumn Box of TearsA 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

TFATD - MagnetMatt 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

Zero She Flies - The RiverThe 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

Big Big Train WassailThis 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.

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2015 Album of the Year

Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time MachineIt was extremely hard to choose just one single record as album of the year. Even after I had begun publishing the first few instalments of this rundown I hadn’t been able to make the final decision of which record out of at least three was the best of them all. Karnataka and Amorphis in particular have both made astonishingly good records this year.

But in the end, there can only be one, and it’s from Poland’s finest band.

Riverside – Love. Fear and The Time Machine

Riverside get compared to Porcupine Tree a lot. That’s both a fair comparison and an unfair one. They are the ideal band for anyone still missing Porcupine Tree, it’s true. But they are far more than a derivative copy. Imagine, if you can, a Porcupine Tree with Jon Lord on keyboards, Alex Lifeson on guitar, and a rhythm section with a sense of groove that few bands under the progressive rock banner can match.

Love, Fear and The Time Machine might just be their best album to date. They’ve taken a step back from the dense hard rock sound of the preceding “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, taking a pared-back less-is-more approach that gives everything more space to breathe. There are a host of 80s rock references; a guitar figure evoking early Marillion here, a post-punk bass riff or a bridge recalling The Stone Roses there. But it’s all anchored in Mariusz Duda’s distinctive understated approach to melody, Piotr Grudzińsk economical guitar work and and Michał Łapaj’s evocative keyboard playing. One highlight is the shortest and most minimalist song on the record, “Afloat”, which sees Mariusz melancholy vocal accompanied by a simple guitar figure and some atmospheric organ chords. But the whole album is superb, with restrained instrumental virtuosity and masterful use of dynamics.

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2015 in Live Music – Ten of the Best

Touchstone Farewell Gig

It’s harder to rank gigs in any kind of order than it is for records, since you can’t relive a one-off experience. These ten are those which have particularly stuck in the mind, and there is probably a bias towards the end of the year since those are freshest in the memory.

The Marillion Convention

There is nothing else quite like the fan conventions Marillion hold every other year. They see the band perform seven hours of music over three nights including a lot of rarely-played material, all before an audience of fanatical hardcore fans. This year’s was no exception, the highlight of which was the double album “Marbles” played in full on the Saturday night.

The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

One cannot live on prog alone, so The Swansea Jazz festival is always a good opportunity to explore something outside of the usual comfort zone. Some sets had far too many bass solos, but this New Orleans-based quintet were the undoubted highlight, with a frontline of sax and trumpet. The first solo from trumpeter Steven Lande was like hearing a really good blues or metal guitarist cutting loose.

Ramblin Man Fair

My first open air festival since High Voltage in London a few years back took place in leafy Maidstone. Saturday saw great sets in the sunshine from Touchstone, Blue Öyster Cult and the legendary Camel, the only disappointment being the lacklustre phoned-in set from Dream Theater. But the musical highlight was much of Sunday, with a bill beginning in the rain with Anna Phoebe, Knifeworld (“Excuse me while I towel down my guitar”), The Pineapple Thief and Riverside, and ending in a mesmerising set from headliners Marillion after the clouds cleared and the moon came out.

King Crimson at Hackney Empire

The unexpected emergence of a new incarnation of King Crimson didn’t disappoint in the slightest, and the seven-piece lineup with three drummers went from intense improvised jazz-metal workouts to fresh interpretations of the stately magnificence of their 70s classics. Some too-cool-for-school mainstream critics just didn’t get it at all, but it was their loss; the set included superb performances of some of the greatest music of the 20th Century, and that’s not something you say lightly.

Steven Wilson at The Royal Albert Hall

In terms of profile, Steven Wilson stands head and shoulders above any other contemporary progressive rock act, able to sell out venues that are otherwise the preserve of the 70s legends of the genre. I made the mistake of booking for just one of the two nights rather than both, for the sets were completely different. So I didn’t get to see the bulk of “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” played live, but did see Porcupine Tree classics and an intense “Raider II”. It was still an amazing experience.

Gazpacho & Iamthemorning at Islington Academy

I got wind of this gig via a fan of Iamthemorning who was wondering aloud if headliners Gazpacho were worth seeing live. Both bands turned out to be mesmerising; the way you could have heard a pin drop during the acoustic support act really says it all, and the headliner’s absolute mastery of atmospherics managed to outdo even Marillion. Progressive rock needs more violins.

Gloryhammer at Islington Academy

One support band of 2015 deserve a mention. Scotland’s heroes were special guests to Finnish power-metallers Stratovarious, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a support act so completely outclass the headliners. They has better songs, better stagecraft, and a level of fire & passion that the headliners completely lacked.

Public Image Limited at Reading Sub89

The artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten has still got it, and his singing style is totally unique. The other three quarters of PiL are tremendous musicians; a tight rhythm section and always inventive guitarist in Lu Edmonds meant that you spent as much time listening to the bass grooves or the guitar lines as the vocals. It’s a long way from classic rock, but it’s got more in common with the avant-garde end of progressive rock than you might think.

Touchstone & Magenta at Leamington Assembly

The farewell show for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham pulled a packed crowd to the magnificent central England venue. Because Kim had suffered a throat infection days before they gig, they added former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay to the band as cover, and the band turned into a kind of heavy metal ABBA. It certainly brought a triumphal close to one chapter in the Touchstone story. And that’s before any mention of special guests Magenta, with a performance strong enough have been in this list in its own right.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

Rather than their customary multi-date Christmas tour, Mostly Autumn decided to end 2015 with a single showcase gig in a central venue, what an event it turned out to be. Five hours of music included remarkably varied acoustic set that featured Angela Gordon singing lead at one point, a mesmerising but all-too-short set from violinist Anna Phoebe, what was probably the last full performance of “Dressed in Voices”, a Mostly Floyd set that was far, far better than any sceptics expected, and those traditional Christmas covers. And stunning versions of the rarely-played “The Night Sky” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”.

Those were just some of the many highlights of a great year of live music. Honourable mentions to Panic Room, Karnataka, Chantel McGregor and Luna Rossa, which have featured in this blog a lot, and to New Model Army and Lazuli, both “new” to me in terms of seeing live.

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