2016 - what a great big Fuck Off of a year that was! Someone once said that sometimes when a door slams closed it is best to nail it shut, and that boys'n'girls is exactly the fate that 2016 deserves. If in the middle of June 2015 had you assembled Armando Iannucci, Charlie Booker, Jonathan Pie, and Ian Hislop (...insert non-UK satirists here) in a room to script the political year then yet to come, the results would have been but a tame impersonation of what actually went down. Added to the frightening sight of the great unwashed of the Western world lurching ever rightwards knowing damned well what they were voting against but with little clue or care as to what they were voting for was the unedifying sight of an over-employed Grim Reaper taking far too much pride in his work, stealing away from us many fine musicians, and a few bone fide icons to boot, the bastard. Oh...and terrible wars fought second hand by the real powers in hot and dusty places, ultimately about oil...no change there, then.
The upside to all this carnage is that, as is always the case, fractious times produce the best art, and my quantum corner of the music world has proved no exception. No excuses then, the sprawling thing that follows might be my longest end of year list ever, so bring a packed lunch, your poison of choice, and possibly a sleeping bag, and read on...
David Bowie - Blackstar
Released on 8th January, I thought at the time that this brave and strange album would take some beating...was I right?
I wrote the sentence above on the afternoon of Saturday 9th January in almost undue haste, but also as I prefer to write this list in real time as it were, so hopefully avoiding omitting some album or other along the way. The line was written having played the Amazon autorip of Blackstar a couple of times. We all know what happened less than 48 hours later. The actual CD was waiting for me when I got home from work on the evening of that fateful flat, grey Monday. Knowing by then what Blackstar was obviously really all about, it took me until the following Saturday to pluck up the courage to remove the CD from its shrinkwrap and play it. That first spin was a rewarding if highly emotional experience. There is not another musician I can think of who has left us with such a parting gift. "Icon" and "Genius" are words rendered trite by overuse, but they apply in David Bowie's case. RIP Mr Jones, keep those atomic particles on their toes! Oh...and can we have some reality back, please? It seems to have all gone with you...
So, in answer to the question posed in that first sentence...yes, I was. However, there is a caveat: Blackstar is really above such things, and while certainly good enough musically to get involved in an unseemly scrap for Album of the Year, the peculiar circumstances of its release make it one step removed from the fray and in a category of its own, not that music is a competitive sport anyway. For that reason, while Blackstar may well be my Album of the Year, it also renders the accolade superfluous.
Right...let's get on with this thang or we'll be here for the rest of the year...Here's a Spotify playlist featuring most of those listed, and I have included links to other audio sources for those in the list that have no truck with that streaming spawn of Beelzebub:
Those marked * are, in my 'umble opinings, riding atop the teeming waters, like the toughest piranhas in the river. As ever, the list is in very rough chronological order of release, earliest first.
Finally, one more thing - in the interests of fair play I should point out that this thing is obviously just my opinion, and that other lists are available. And yes there are omissions you may consider "glaring". One man's fillet steak is another man's barium enema, and all that. Oh, and no-one bribed or cajoled me to include their album in this list, and "glaring omissions" aside, obviously there will be dozens of fabulous albums omitted that as yet I am not aware of. As for comfort zones, mine is as wide as a six-seater sofa. You may wonder why I wrote all that, but there are some sensitive souls out there...it's only a list!
The Anchoress - Confessions of a Romance Novelist
A beguiling mash up of Gothic tinged atmospheric alt-rock, PJ Harvey angst and a winning pop sensibility. Not the most obvious of choices for post-prog label Kscope, which may have led a few folk up the garden path on the way to the virtual checkout. By the way, there's a big break-up ballad on here called PS Fuck You. Go, girl!
The Ed Palermo Big Band - One Child Left Behind
The Best Frank Zappa Jazz Big Band You've Never Heard Before
*Ulver - ATGCLVLSSCAP
This band do not know the meaning of the word complacent. Everything they do is borne of a genuine progressive spirit and this superb augmented live album is no exception. This is the sound of galaxies being born.
Farmhouse Odyssey - Rise of the Waterfowl
Although I try to assemble this in real time, one or two just slip through, this being one...I can't find a review of it, and I have no idea where I picked up on it. Suffice to say it is a highly musical and enjoyable trip, listening back to it.
Nik Bärtsch's Mobile - Continuum
Prisitine modal minimalism to calm agitated synapses.
Gary Lucas & Jann Klose - Stereopticon
A charming and satisfying helping of Americana, flies a buzzin in the lazy sun.
Finnegan Shanahan - The Two Halves
Celtic-infused songwriting and organic soundscaping from an alternate universe. Strange and lovely in equal measure.
The Winstons - The Winstons
Utterly derivative, drawing largely on very early (The) Soft Machine, but fun nonetheless. Got a probably needless slagging in my review. Bitch! :)
Tindersticks - The Waiting Room
This band don't have to try. Unhurried elegance at work.
Janel Leppin - Mellow Diamond
Captivating solo album from talented Washington-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Alt-everything, it neatly dodges all pigeonholing. Check out the Song for Voice and Mellotron EP too.
Dennis Rea Tanabata Ensemble - Black River Transect
Bookending an album of typically single-minded experimentation merged with two tunes featuring more conventional composition, Dennis Rea has made a musical sandwich with a highly unusual filling that is neither "jazz" nor "avant" nor indeed any convenient post-hole, but stands on its own, just like the rest of his singularly individualistic canon. Most definitely one for the adventurous!
Karda Estra - Future Sounds EP
More music for imaginary films...
Rez Abassi & Junction - Behind The Vibration
Intelligent nu-fusion for the discerning palette.
Brian Eno - The Ship
Mr Eno determined “to make a record of songs that didn’t rely on the normal underpinnings of rhythmic structure and chord progressions but which allowed voices to exist in their own space and time, like events in a landscape.” It works.
The Mercury Tree - Permutations
If I have to make a comparison, this band are the American equivalent of The Fierce And The Dead, as both bands do noisy things with guitars in ways you wouldn't always expect.
Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
A secret tryst in the desert with Josh Homme, fellow QOTSA member Dean Fertita and an Arctic Monkey on drums results in the Igster's best album in many a moon, returning to a mood last created on the career high that was The Idiot and the couple of LPs that followed it. This album is also rumoured to be his last. If that's the case, then it's a damn fine way to doff the titfer.
Ampledeed - BYOB
Raid the larder and cram everything you can find between two burger buns, eat until fit to burst, and worry about indigestion later.
*Fire! Orchestra - Ritual
Similar to the earliest stirrings of Amon Duul II, Fire! Orchestra transmit a joyously organic spirit via collective music making, fronted in this case by two female voices. This Swedish, Danish and French amorphous collective defy categorisation (like many others in this list, you'll have noticed) and just are. It sounds like they had a great time making this record, which includes fiery guitar, jazz ensemble playing, and a distinctive tribal air. Quite wonderful!
Mark Pritchard - Under The Sun
Australian electronic musician and producer Mark Pritchard has recorded under a bewildering number of aliases and also as part of countless collaborations over the years. Which is part of the reason I'd never heard of him until a chance recommendation on a Facebook thread. The other part is that he is known for dance music of varying kinds...not my cup of larks' vomit, as I'm sure you know.
Occasionally he records under his own name, and Under The Sun, sharing a label with Brian Eno's The Ship seems to me to take some influence from the celebrated pioneer. This is all good, as Under The Sun acts as a restorative for the troubled soul in these dark times. Quite lovely.
*Body English - Stories Of Earth
Is there a sub-genre called "prog-pop"? If not, this is it. A truly joyous record shining a light in this dark Year of the Rise of the Stupid.
Simon McKechnie - From My Head To My Feet
Simon says “the title track is the funkiest song in 15/8 time that you’re likely to hear this year”. He's not wrong...
Matthew Parmenter - All Our Yesterdays
Some good Hammill-influenced left-field pop from the Discipline court jester. I'll bet he doesn't go to the corner shop for a pint of milk looking like that. :)
Motorpsycho - Here Be Monsters
They're not wrong. Dangerous-looking Scandi's make a righteous noise. Do not stare at their pints.
N.y.X - The News
Fabulously wilful heavy prog kicks over the traces on this Italian band's second album, now signed to Bad Elephant Music for their sins.
Mamma non Piangere - N.3
Italian RIO with a strong Stormy Six influence, a dash of native folk music, and it sounds like they had a lot of fun making this record.
King Crimson - Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto, Canada, 20th November 2015
The mighty Crim remake, remodel like no-one else. The version of Epitaph will make you shiver, unless you have no soul. Superb!
*Knifeworld - Bottled Out Of Eden
A chronicle of loss leavened by hope, Knifeworld get better with each release. Criminally underrated.
Hawkwind - The Machine Stops
Dave Brock, he's bin stoned before. It was probably why he lost his mojo at some long forgotten woebegotten free festival in the mid 80s. Luckily some kindly soul has reunited the veteran of the psychic wars with his inspiration and the result is this fine ass-kickin' beastie.
*Yugen - Death By Water
Wilful is a word that I could easily apply to an album whose opening track is the most difficult piece of music I have heard this year. Get past that and the rest of this foxily intricate journey is a walk in the park over broken glass and fire pits. Nah...you'll love it.
Johanna Elina - Belonging
This lovely album is actually deserving of the overused description "fragile beauty".
Panzerpappa - Pestrottedans
Plague rats find their dancin' shoes...
Macroscream - Macroscream
"One of the most exciting and ingenious releases of exuberant ensemble music making I’ve heard in ages" says the redoubtable Mr Rowden, in a thick Welsh accent, natch.
Factor Burzaco - 3.76+++
Argentinian RIO chamber rock. Very complex, probably best not listened to after a hard day's brain-bustin'. Just to prove I do not only list things I received from labels or bands, this is another AltrOck Productions album that didn't find it's way to my door gratis!
Ligro - Dictionary 3
A blast of solid alt-rock action from possibly the heaviest of MoonJune's tranche of Indonesian power trios.
*Mothertongue - Unsongs
"It is ironic but true that good new pop is often far more progressive than the music produced under the self-imposed limitations of the “prog” label nowadays" contended moi about this fun bunch of bananas.
David Cross & Sean Quinn - Cold Sky Blue
Violinist David Cross is having something of an artistic resurgence just lately, and this lovely album with Irish studio wizard Sean Quinn is a thing of rare beauty.
*Messenger - Threnodies
Sadly, there will be no more from this fine band who split up at the end of October after only two albums.
Kevin Heard - Cydonia
A fun space opera by a multi-talented musician and graphic designer.
Salvoldelli Casarano Bardoscia - The Great Jazz Gig In The Sky
Brave alt-jazz take on the record that started AOR. It mostly works.
Deus Ex Machina - Devoto
Classy Italian prog with more than a hint of jazz-rock.
*Bent Knee - Say So
*Hedvig Mollestad Trio - Black Stabat Mater/EVIL in Oslo
A double release, one studio, one live from the Norwegian ur-rock goddess. Sheer noise, sheer class!
Old Fire - Songs From The Haunted South
This Mortal Coil for the 21st century.
7Shades - Bursting
As catchy as feck, with pronk and earworms aplenty. You don't have to like Cardiacs to dig this, but it probably helps.
The Pineapple Thief - Your Wilderness
Seemingly emboldened and refreshed by his artistically successful if deliberately understated solo album, band leader and main writer Bruce Soord returns reinvigorated to the mothership. Your Wilderness is a definite return to form after the somewhat pressured and formulaic Magnolia, and sees the band joined by a few illustrious guest players, an indication of their rising status in the prog pond.
*North Sea Radio Orchestra - Dronne
A beautiful and fragile thing that belies its inner strength of purpose. Vishnu Schist is probably the loveliest song of the year.
no sound - Scintilla
Along with Gazpacho, no-one conjures moods quite like Giancarlo Erla and his mates. While the Norwegians keep it dark, no sound are as gorgeous as heartbreak on a morning mist on Lake Garda.
French TV - Ambassadors Of Good Health And Clean Living
A tie between this and the Yugen album for Brain-Melting Complexity of the Year Award! Marvellous stuff.
*Seven Impale - Contrapasso
Seven Impale are a band I have been reviewing and generally bigging up on this blog since the tentative beginnings of their Beginning/Relieve EP back in 2013, through to a review of their debut long player City Of The Sun, and concluding with an interview with the Viking prog warriors the same year. I am happy to hand over the flaming torch of publicity to others, who delight in discovering this band, now all grown up, but still snotty, and definitely beligerent. These Norwegian heavy proggers have now escaped the chrysalis of their rather obvious influences and now hammer the anvil with their own gloriously fine racket. Some folk call this "mad"...they really have no idea! My mate Shawn D says "When this band sounds like amplified earth-moving equipment they've hit the sweet spot", and I couldn't put it better myself.
Griot - Gerald
Stylistically many-hued duo from Portugal craft a thoroughly modern take on prog, and damn good it is too. The story of "Gerald" as he faces up to some and dodges a few more of life's big questions, for me the English lyrics are secondary to the music that picks its sundry classic prog influences without discrimination, throws them up in the air, and the end result is a "prog" album I actually like! How often does that happen?
Gong - Rejoice, I'm Dead
Is Gong without Daevid Allen "Gong"? Answer - yes it is, as it is with his blessing. Kavus and the boys pick up the mantle with aplomb, encouraged by the ghost of the Pothead Pixie blowing wisps of pungent smoke through the zeros and ones. They are fab live too. Highly recommended.
*Emmett Elvin - Assault on the Tyranny of Reason
Emmett Elvin is a very erudite chap, way too clever for me! He also made one of the best sounding albums of the year, not to mention one of the most adventurous. It ain't Prog, needless to say. Hardly any of this list is, come to think of it.
*Sand - A Sleeper, Just Awake
Sam Healy takes a few turns away from the route laid out by the "dense but light" synth dream-pop-prog doobries of his first solo album as Sand, and delivers this wonderfully uncategorisable melodically crammed lemon drizzle cake of an album, with a subtle nuance of menace lacing the icing. Nom nom...
King Crimson - Radical Action to Unseat the Monkey Mind
This version of King Crimson may not be about to push the envelope anywhere new, heck, they've earned the right to take it home and give it pride of place on the mantelpiece, but they sure know how to reinvent old classics in a new way, which I suppose fits the progressive bill and the music certainly still has plenty of bite. Radical Action... is essentially an expanded version of the Live in Toronto album further up this list, with 5.1 surround sound knobs on. Well, I am a bit of a fan, did you expect me to leave it out?!
Stian Westerhus - Amputation
"Pop music for the diseased" sez I. I was not wrong. This thing is a fearsome beastie.
Martin Archer - Story Tellers
What? An improvisational modern jazz album? Yes, indeedy, and damn good it is too! Comfort zones...who needs 'em?
*Dwiki Dharmawan - Pasar Klewer
A sprawling 100 minute collision of jazz fusion and Indonesian culture makes for a listening experience like no other this year. Marvellous stuff!
*Van der Graaf Generator - Do Not Disturb
Another supposed swangsong, and the best to date from the latest incarnation of the prog veterans. After losing yourself in the wistful melancholy of this record there will not be not a dry eye between your headphones.
Holon - The Time Is Always Now+++
Anything involving Rhys Marsh must be quality in my book, and this most certainly is.
*Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
It was inevitable that Nick Cave would eventually use his music - not to mention the album documentary One More Time With Feeling - as catharsis and lay bare his soul for all to see after the tragic death of his son Arthur in 2015. Although most of album was already recorded when the terrible event occurred, several songs were altered to include themes of loss and grief. Not an easy listen, the album continues Cave's development as a songwriter of extraordinary poignancy and resonance, and Skeleton Tree is on a par with Blackstar for emotional impact. Simply stunning.
Sphelm - These Roots Know No Boundaries
If you liked the Sand album, this could be it's slightly folkier cousin...
Opeth - Sorceress
I was inclined to leave this out, as much like their sonic blood brother Steven Wilson, this band make perfectly crafted but oddly clinical and cold rock music. However, despite wearing its influences so prominently in places it is sometimes hard not to laugh, the more one listens the more it seeps in. As if by magic...probably.
Syd Arthur - Apricity
An improvement soundwise on the murky sonic swamp of previous releases was much needed, and thankfully Apricity goes part of the way to redressing the balance, although they still have an inexplicable penchant for levels bouncing in the red which sadly means that this is another harsh listening experience. Three albums in, one can only conclude that the Syd's aural hippo loves to wallow in his sludge, and it is actually a deliberate choice, odd as it seems to these ears. After all that I must praise the enormous bass sound present on Into Eternity that had the ornaments rattling chez moi. This time around the marginally more sympathetic production process at least manages to separate the instrumentation and reveals the Syds at their poppiest yet, but with enough odd meters and key changes to satisfy the proghead. However, this may be the last album of theirs I buy until they have all had their shell-likes thoroughly syringed.
A caveat...I have it on good authority that the vinyl version sounds just fine. I remain to be convinced.
Jack O'The Clock - Repetitions of the Old City - I
The American relations of North Sea Radio Orchestra, Knifeworld, et al. These bands are forging a new sound. I have yet to fully absorb this album but it grows on each listen.
David Crosby - Lighthouse
For a 75-year old man who has for a large part of his life been a lover and liver of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, David Crosby is thankfully in remarkably good shape, and this naturally reflective album shows he still retains his lifelong knack for evocative song writing.
The Sea Nymphs - On The Dry Land
If Syd had written sea shanties they may have sounded like some of this album. The rest of it is "like Mantovani on drugs", and that's only the start of it. Tim Smith's return to any kind of work has been much anticipated and this fine aquatically obsessed Cardiacs offshoot's unearthed and hitherto unissued and now tweaked second album from almost 25 years ago does not disappoint. Apparently there may be enough unused material for a third outing...bring it on!
Gösta Berlings Saga - Sersophane
And last but never least is this intensely heavy and hypnotic Swedish instrumental band with their new album. One more that needs more listening to before putting virtual pen to virtual paper, but it's made a good first impression.
Best re-releases/archival releases:
The Bevis Frond - New River Head
This Bevis Frond double album originally released in 1991 is a career highlight of a great acid-fried guitar player and songwriter, covering as it does many stlyes with aplomb, and it is my re-release of the year.
Uriah Heep - Salisbury
Claiming inspiration from the yawn inducing Deep Purple failure Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Ken Hensley takes the lumpen Londoners on a trip to early prog Valhalla with the sprawling title track to this barnstorming album from the very dawn of my lifelong music obssession. Unlike the Purps plodding pudding, Salisbury the track works wonders and then some. Occupying over 16 minutes of side two, Salisbury contains a long and blistering Mick Box solo, a dazzling display only later bettered by his scorched Earth fretwork on The Magician's Birthday. The songs on side one are none too shabby either.
Other archival stuff:
I didn't buy that many re-releases this year, and the ones I got sent for review while mostly very good could hardly be called essential. The two most obvious contenders in the re-release category, namely Jethro Tull's Stand Up and Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans have never rated high enough on my must-have-o-meter to merit buying again. I have the Tull album on pristine original vinyl, and I bought the Yes album-and-a-bit and a lot of filler the last time it was remastered, thank you very much.
Nostalgia is the only thing that pays in music industry these days, and I don't know who's more worthy of ire - the bands, the labels or the punters. I suppose pension plans in the conventional sense are about as rare in the rock world as a Steve Hackett guest appearance on a new prog album is commonplace, so we'll leave the bands out of it. Apart from Pink Floyd that is, who can't actually need the money. The well trousered Cambridge boys continue to be the unsurpassed masters of parting the 50-60 somethings from their obviously overstuffed wallets with that overgrown shoebox aka The Early Years. Apart from anything else, where the feck do you store such an ugly monstrosity? The trimmed down double CD of highlights may well be worth a punt though, he says grudgingly.
2015 Albums That Got Away:
Homunculus Res - Come si deventa cix che si era, Big Hogg - Big Hogg, GRICE - Alexandrine, Slivovitz - All You Can Eat...and
John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
This man knows how to bear a grudge...three albums in and he's still making a "Voodoo Doll" of the unfortunate ex-lover! Encompassing forlorn ballads, torch songs, moody introspection countered by plenty of full-on pop-funk electronica, Grant lays his acerbic wit on with a switchblade. Underneath the unremarkable exterior of the CD cover lies the most gruesome inner album shots I've seen this year, which much like the man himself, reveals a green-eyed monster with bloodlust lurking not far beneath the Mr Everyman surface. Sharp as a slice of lime.
Dawn of Midi - Dysnomia
Electronic dance/trance music played on acoustic instruments...no, really! The discipline in the playing has to heard to be believed!
Gig of the Year:
Circumstances conspired with the result that my gig attendance seemed to take half the year to get out of first gear, but Magma at the Cafe OTO in Dalston, London on September 27th was a superb night out, as was Billy Bottle & The Multiple, again in That London, on November 20th.
Hype Of The Year:
Dream Theater - The Astonishing
You heard it was on its way far too early on, you heard about nothing else for weeks when it arrived, and it hung around forever afterwards like an unpleasant fart the morning after a particularly debilitating curry. A "steaming pile of faux thespian nonsense" sez moi at the time...yep, that'll do.
If you're reading this bit, then I congratulate you on your stamina...unless you've skim-read it all, ye lazy fecker!
Whatever the arbitrary temporal delineation otherwise known as 2017 dumps on us all, may your world be fluffy and lovely. Happy Holidays! :)
The Best of Years Gone By: