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2016 Album of the Year

marillion-fear

And my album of the year, as one of two people have already correctly guessed, is Marillion’s majestic F. E. A, R. Or to give its full title, “F*** Everyone And Run”. It’s an album that sums up the despair of 2016

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what The Guardian had to say

F. E. A. R. continues a late-career renaissance that began with 2004’s Marbles. It’s a totally uncompromising record; 68 minutes made up of just five lengthy songs with no obvious radio-friendly singles. Politically charged lyrics alternate between sadness and anger, and rich, layered instrumentation references common Marillion touchstones such as Pink Floyd and late-period Talk Talk, with the occasional hints of Van der Graaf Generator at their most grandiose and menacing. Keyboardist Mark Kelly is all over this record, going from electric piano runs to doom-laden organ, while Steve Rothery is also on top form with his evocative and lyrical guitar, exemplified by a wonderful solo on El Dorado. Things come to a climax with the The New Kings, which has singer Steve Hogarth railing at the state of the world and its corrupt, self-serving elites, all set to dark, intense music that’s as good as anything they have done. Quite possibly their best album in two decades.

Although in this case The Guardian’s reviewer was actually me.

The comments against the review make interesting reading. The vast majority are overwhelmingly positive, although you’ve got to laugh at the numpty who declared that five-star reviews “should be reserved for all time classic albums, not bands that slipped into musical irrelevance over 20 years ago” along with “And it’s not even a proper Guardian reviewer anyway” before compounding his idiocy by insisting that he didn’t need to listen to an album to know it can’t possibly be worth five stars. Sadly this is the sort of closed-minded prejudice bands like Marillion have fighting for decades.

Meanwhile I’m now getting blamed for their Royal Albert Hall gig selling out in minutes.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Not only but also

Under my own self-imposed rules, only full-length albums made up wholly or largely of new material quality for the album rundown. But amongst the live albums, EPs and records comprising largely of reworkings of older material can be found some gems that deserve better than being overlooked. It’s not in any way a definitive list, since there’s a whole slew of live albums released in the run-up to Christmas that I have yet to hear.

The Heather Findlay Band – I Am Snow

i-am-snowThe former Mostly Autumn lead singer’s second album of 2016 celebrates the semi-acoustic folk-rock side of her music, combining new songs with reworkings of older numbers, with arrangements emphasising flute and harp. There’s a beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”, and the two new songs, especially the seasonal title track, are gorgeous.

King Crimson – Live in Toronto

king-crimson-live-on-torontoA live snapshot of the latest incarnation of the legendary progressive rock band from their 2015 tour with a setlist combining brand new material alongside classics from the 60s, 70s and beyond. The seven-piece band including Tony Levin, saxophonist Mel Collins and no fewer than three drummers creatively re-imagine the older material while remaining faithful to the spirit, and the largely instrumental new numbers are impressive too. A great document from a tour that was memorable for all the right reasons.

Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

riverside-eye-of-the-soundscapePoland’s finest band released this ambient and largely electronic album to commemorate guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who died suddenly and unexpectedly early in the year. It’s a compilation of remixes and previously-released bonus material complemented by four completely new tracks, At times the shimmering electronic arpeggios and electronic pulsings are to Tangerine Dream what Riverside’s more guitar-based music was to Porcupine Tree, but as always they’ve far more than copyists.

Touchstone – Lights in the Sky

touchstone-lights-from-the-skyThis four track EP is first release by the new-look Touchstone with Aggie on vocals and Liam Holmes on keys. It’s a move away from the pared-back approach of “Oceans of Time”, with big guitars and soaring vocal lines, but the sound is still clearly identifiable as Touchstone, and they’re sounding like a coherent band in what is clearly a new beginning for the band.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part Three

Into the top five now, as we count down from five to two. It’s a reminder of just how how much great music has been released this year that’s not on the mainstream radar.

5: Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze

crippled-black-phoenix-bronseAfter some rather turbulent times within the band, Crippled Black Phoenix bounce back very strongly with a powerful follow-up to 2014′s “White Light Generator”. Beginning with a track called “Dead Imperial Bastard”, Bronze is a dark, angry and very intense record that in places sounds like Swans jamming with Pink Floyd, filled with dense, boiling guitars and ominous electronic soundscapes. It’s the sort of record that leaves you exhausted by the time you reach the end.

4: The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

the-pineapple-thief-your-wildernessThe Pineapple Thief have always represented the streamlined modern face of progressive rock, and this album is a distillation of the best elements of their sound. There are moments of fragile beauty, times when they rock out, and the whole thing flows seamlessly. The band have always drawn comparisons with Radiohead. But while “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a good album, “Your Wilderness” is a better one. But you have to wonder how many mainstream critics who put Radiohead high in their end-of-year lists have even heard “Your Wilderness”.

3: Opeth – Sorceress

Opeth SorceressMikael Åkerfeldt and his band continue to draw deep from the well of 70s underground rock and reinvents the sounds for the 21st century with his legendary mastery of rock dynamics. The result is a record that invokes the spirit of that decade while sounding like something that could only have been made today. It goes from thunderous heaviness to the sort of sinister and cinematic atmospherics that recalls his Storm Corrosion collaboration with Steven Wilson. This is their best album since “Watershed” and despite the lack of death-metal growls, their heaviest since “Ghost Reveries”.

2: Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

iamthemorning-lighthouseThe third studio album from the Russian duo comprising singer Marjana Semkina and classical pianist Gleb Kolyadin is one of those records that’s near-impossible to classify. Sometimes accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, sometimes with a rock rhythm section including Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin, the result is a kaleidoscopic record of ever changing moods taking in rock, classical and even instrumental jazz. Comparisons between Marjana Semkina vocals and those of Kate Bush are entirely appropriate. This is a record that takes a few listens to fully appreciate since there’s so much to take in; you can keep hearing new things even after many listens.

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Lazuli at The Borderline

French rockers Lazuli, described by one fan as resembling “medieval blacksmiths from the future”, came to London’s Borderline for the final date of their UK tour, and drew an appreciably-sized crowd for a Monday night in December. A well received tour supporting Fish has swelled their fanbase, and a lot of Fish t-shirts as well as one of two of Fish’s band were present in the audience.

Lazuli are the sort of band who put the progressive into progressive rock; they have a distinct sound that’s all their own, with few if any nods to obvious influences. Alongside guitars and keyboards they include French horn, marimba and the unique Léode, which looks like a cross between a keytar and a Chapman stick, and sounds like a cello from outer space, invented by Claude Leonetti as an instrument he could play one-handed after he injured one arm in a motorcycle accident.

And they sing entirely in French, but the English-speaking prog audience doesn’t seem to care.

They began with the slow-burning “Le temps est à la rage” from their most recent album “Nos Âmes Saoules”, building from simple piano chords to a full band rocker. From then on they had the audience mesmerised for the next two hours with intense, hypnotic music.

At times they locked into powerful rhythmic grooves, amazing for a band lacking a bassist, some percussion-heavy moments having a strong middle-eastern feel. Sometimes Romain Thorel played a bass riff on keys, but often drummer Vincent Barnoval carried the rhythm alone. There was some swapping of instruments; at one point the Romain Thorel took over on drums while Vincent Barnoval played marimba, and on another song both singer Dominque Leonetti and lead guitarist Gédéric Byar joined forces on additional percussion. By the time “And this is out last song” came around, two hours had passed like magic.

The first encore ended with the crowd continuing to sing the hypnotic instrumental refrain of “Les courants ascendants” long after the band had stopped playing, around which Romain Thorel and Vincent Barnoval then played an improvised jam on piano and drums. After that came their end-of-show piece “nine hands and an marimba” which this time morphed into an instrumental version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. A fitting way to end an amazing show.

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The Heather Findlay Band – I Am Snow

i-am-snowHeather Findlay albums are a bit like buses. You wait for ages, then two come along in quick succession. Following on from Mantra Vega’s “The Illusions Reckoning”, the excellent collaboration with Dave Kerzner early in the year comes “I Am Snow”, recorded with Heather’s current road band including former Cloud Atlas guitarist Martin Ledger, Touchstone drummer Henry Rogers and harpist Sarah Dean.

The album showcases the folkier side of her music, and combines new material with reworkings from her back catalogue, in a similar vein to 2012′s “Songs from the Old Kitchen”. It’s largely though not entirely acoustic, with Sarah Dean’s harp and Angela Gordon’s flute given prominence in the arrangements, though Martin Ledger does cut loose with some electric lead guitar in a couple of places.

It’s the new songs that will naturally attract the most interest. The title track, co-written with Martin Ledger and Henry Rogers, opens the album with the sound of Sarah Dean’s harp before Heather’s Kate Bush-like vocal comes in. It’s a beautiful slow-burning ballad with a beguiling melody, building from a delicate opening to a big wall of sound with ebowed guitar and flute. The other new composition, “Dark Eyes/The Dreamer’s Wake” has something of the feel of Odin Dragonfly’s “Magnolia Half-Moon” about it, especially with Angela Gordon’s lengthy flute solo towards the end. Flute and harp again feature heavily in the beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”.

The older songs come largely from the acoustic side of Heather’s contributions to the Mostly Autumn songbook, with numbers like the dreamy “Eyes of the Forest” and the flute-heavy “Winter is King”. Aside from a generous sprinkling of harp, the arrangements stay closer to the originals than the more radical reworkings by some of Heather’s earlier bands either on record or live. Sometimes extra layers add richness to songs that were quite minimalist in the first place; for example, harp and flute enhance the delicate piano ballad “Above the Blue”. One interesting choice from outside the Mostly Autumn canon is the first part of “Day Thirteen: Sign” from Ayreon’s prog-opera “The Human Equation”. The album closes with a Mostly Autumn standard and one of Heather’s signature songs, “Shrinking Violet”, which despite some soaring lead guitar from Martin Ledger, as a full electric number feels slightly out of place.

Taken as a whole, the atmospheric folky vibe is clearly a place where Heather is comfortable, the songs old and new play to her strengths as a singer, and despite the wintry themes the music emphasises the natural warmth of her voice. Even though much of the album is reworkings of previously recorded material, the two new songs are golden, and for many fans they will be worth the price on their own.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part Two

We’re into the top ten now, and this time I’ve managed to rank the albums in order rather that just list them alphabetically. So with no further ado…

10: Rebecca Downes – Believe

Bebecca Downes BelieveDeserved winner of Best Female Vocalist and Best Breakthrough Artist at the British Blues Awards, Rebecca Downes has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers. When combined with her talented backing band result is a hugely varied record, combining blues with hard rock, funk and soul.

9: Tilt – Hinterland

Tilt HinterlandThe band including Fish alumni Steve Vantis, Robin Boult and Dave Stewart deliver a hard-rocking album. The layered sound and powerful bass grooves recall Porcupine Tree and Steve Vantsis’ work with Fish.

But Paul Dourley is a very different sort of singer; his soulful vocals have the occasional hints of Peter Gabriel and Lou Gramm, and if anything it’s his performance that lifts this record from a good one to a great one.

8: Ihsahn – Arktis

ihsahn-arktisThe fiendishly inventive Norwegian black metallers reign in the avant-garde experimentalism of 2013′s Das Seelenbrechen in favour of an album of more straightforward metal songs. But “straightforward” is a relative thing for a band like Ihsahn; there’s a lot of varied creativity on display here, balancing face-melting guitars with occasional moments of atmospheric beauty,

7: Mantra Vega – The Illusion’s Reckoning

Mantra Vega The Illusions ReckoningThe collaboration between former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay and Sound of Contact’s Dave Kerzner results in a record with a strong 70s vibe.

There are nods to Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac and the rootsier side of Led Zeppelin, as well as the folky feel of Heather Findlay’s work with Odin Dragonfly and early Mostly Autumn. It’s an impressive work that’s as good as anything either of them have done.

6: Big Big Train – Folklore

Big Big Train - FolkloreBig Big Train continue to be better than anyone else at invoking the spirit of 1970s English pastoral progressive rock. Again the lyrics are steeped in English landscapes and socio-economic history.

The songs cover subjects from London’s lost rivers to World War 2 RAF pigeons, with music that sometimes evokes the mood of albums like Genesis’ “Trespass”, and at other times is closer to the electric folk-rock of bands like Steeleye Span.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part One

It’s that time of year again, when music bloggers go through the year’s releases and highlight the best of the year. The usual caveats apply; these are the best records of 2016 I’ve actually had the chance to hear. I only have a finite CD budget, and even though I’m a part-time music writer, not every record company sends me free promos.

We’ll start with 25 to 11. Except that they’re not ranked in any order, because that would be next to impossible.

Update Because I missed out one record by mistake, this year’s list now goes up to 26. You will have to guess which one it was yourselves.

Continue reading

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Cairo and Luna Rossa

Cairo

To promote the launch of the album “Say”, former Touchstone mainman Rob Cottingham’s new band Cairo embarked on a short three-date tour taking in London, Rotherham and Leicester over the course of a long weekend.

The support for all three shows was Luna Rossa, playing as a duo rather than the expanded four-piece that performed a few headline shows last year. Playing a set drawing heavily from their second album “Secrets and Lies”, their stripped-down less-is-more sound was as beautiful as ever. “Fly Away” was still a highlight even with Jon playing the harp parts on piano, as was the cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” with Jon teasing the audience with a couple of bars of “No Quarter” on the intro. They ended with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, commemorating the legend who’s passed away just days before.

Luna Rossa

Cairo’s set began with an announcement from Rob Cottingham that there was bad and good news. The bad news was that vocalist Rachel Hill, who’d sung on the album, had stepped down from the band for health reasons. The good news was that a new singer, Lisa, had joined and had learned the set at very short notice.

You’d never have known. The whole band delivered a tight performance both on Friday in London and on Sunday in Leicester, a mix of melodic rock and metal with the odd touch of electronica. Lisa impressed as a vocalist given how recently she’s joined the band, sharing twin female/male lead vocals with Rob himself. Paul Stocker’s propulsive bass riffs drove many of the heavier songs, with the fluid guitar work of the youthful James Hards adding colour and textures.

The five-piece band played the album “Say” in full, though not in the album running order, rounding out the set with “Chasing Storms” from Rob Cottingham’s earlier solo album “Captain Blue”, and another song from his much older solo album from pre-Touchstone days. The older material fitted seamlessly into the set, which confirms the feeling that “Say” is closer to a heavier version of Captain Blue than to Touchstone’s sound. They saved the best till last, rocking out with the dramatic and dynamic “Nothing to Prove” and ending with their nearest thing to a single, the title track of “Say”.

Cairo

Cairo started their live career with a bang. For a brand new band theu have gelled extremely well, especially give the last-minute change in lineup. They were good even at their very first gig together in London, and even more powerful two nights later in Leicester, pulling appreciable crowds on both occasions. They have more plans for 2017, so watch this space.

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Rebecca Downes: Be:Live

rebecca-downs-be-liveBlues-rock singer-songwriter Rebecca Downes has been making waves in 2016. She won both “Best Female Vocalist” and “Best Emerging Artist” at the British Blues Awards, and released the excellent album “Believe” early in the year. To bring a successful year to close comes a live album recorded during the tour promoting “Believe”.

If anything, this record is an even more powerful statement on intent than “Believe”. It captures the energy of her electrifying live shows, with a setlist drawing heavily from that album, along with highlights from her début “Back to the Start”, the EP “Real Life” and a couple of well-chosen covers.

It’s a fabulously tight performance from her band, playing high energy blues-rock with a touch of funk and soul. Guitarist Steve Birkett delivers some impressive blues licks, and there’s some great piano and organ flourishes from Rick Benton. But none of them steal the spotlight from Rebecca herself, who is on superb form vocally; at times soulful, at times belting out rockier material. The variety of material is a strength here, there are twelve bar blues stompers alongside hard rockers and soulful ballads. And it’s all recorded and mixed with clear but powerful sound; this is no bootleg-quality filler release.

Highlights are many; there’s the funky “Fever in the Night” and “Night Train”, an excellent cover of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”, the piano-driven rocker “Back to the Start”, the back to basics rock’n'roll of “Basement of My Heart” and the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears”. It ends with a cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that owes more than a little to Joe Cocker’s version. Even though Rebecca Downes only has a limited back catalogue it still has the feel of a greatest hits set. As an introduction to her music, this is as good a place as any to start.

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Touchstone – Lights from the Sky

touchstone-lights-from-the-skyAfter a spectacular farewell gig at Leamington Spa last November, the previous incarnation of Touchstone split three ways. Keyboard player and original founder launched a new project, Cairo, who released their début album “Say” in September. Meanwhile frontwoman Kim Seviour embarked on a solo career, releasing a cover of Astralasia’s “Fantasise to Realise” as a single, with an album projected for release in some time in 2017.

The three remaining members, bassist Paul “Moo Bass” Moorghen, guitarist Adam Hodgson and drummer Henry Rogers regrouped to put together a new Touchstone, as was always the intention. They recruited first Polish-born singer Aggie then keyboardist Liam Holmes to complete the lineup. The four track EP “Lights from the Sky” is the first release for the new-look band.

The resulting sound is a move away from the pared-back approach of “Oceans of Time”, with big guitars and soaring vocal lines. Aggie’s vocal approach doesn’t have the distinctive fragility Kim Seviour displayed at times, but the three new songs here do make full use of her range and power. Adam Hodgson’s guitar dominates the sound with an emphasis on riffs and melodic fills rather than extended solo wig-outs; “Tangled Lines” in particular opens with a monstrous metal riff. Liam’s Holmes keys, in contrast, play more of a supporting role, adding additional colours.

After the three new songs, the final track on the EP is an alternative version of the title track sung in Aggie’s native Polish, something which in itself could be thought of as a political statement in these times.

The final album by the previous incarnation had a lot of great and interestingly new musical ideas, but there were times where it didn’t quite feel like the whole band were on the same page musically. With this EP, even with just three new songs they’re sounding like a coherent band again. Taken as a whole, it’s got the right balance of old and new; the sounds is still recognisable as Touchstone, but it’s a fresh take on that sound, and clearly a new beginning for the band. It will be interesting to see where they go next.

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