Grassroots Music Venues Are Fighting To Stay Alive – It’s Time To Help Save Them

It’s estimated that 35% of grassroots music venues have closed between 2007 and 2015 and after recent news of yet another live music locale under threat of being shut down, it’s time to take a look at how the UK’s gig scene is being endangered and to explore how new bands can get a break in 2017. Here are the stories of some legendary spots and their struggles to survive.

The Roadhouse

The Roiadhouse

This one still tugs at my heart strings to this day. Another iconic venue, another site of many a legendary gig, including Ginger Wildheart’s stunning show a couple of years back, now sits derelict.

The Roadhouse played host to a number of massive bands over the years and in a “before they were famous” roll-call, Elbow, Coldplay, The White Stripes and Muse have all trodden these particular boards. But in 2015, the 200-capacity basement venue closed its doors, allegedly to make way for a restaurant run by Aumbry’s Mary-Ellen McTague. This never materialised, and despite other bars such as Jimmy’s and Sugar Rays springing up along Newton Street and increasing footfall, the venue remains boarded up and padlocked. The Roadhouse’s closure differs from the others on this list as it’s not necessarily down to development (owner Kate Mountain simply wanted to pursue new ventures), but it’s an absolute travesty that this venue hasn’t been snapped up to help out Manchester’s up and coming talent, although that might have something to do with the £46,000 a year lease that the landlord has placed on it. Hopefully there’s life in this particular old dog yet.

 

Sound Control

Sound Control

Not yet down and out, but on its way, former music shop Sound Control is set to be flattened to make way for yet more student accommodation. The three floor venue feels like it’s been around forever but has only been hosting gigs and club nights for the past eight years. Even so, in this time The 1975, Rita Ora, Helmet, Wu-Tang Clan and Manc sweethearts du jour Blossoms have all played there, showing the variety of talent the place can attract. Located on New Wakefield Street, it’s a great place for a gig venue with plenty of pre- and post-show eating and drinking establishments nearby, and as you’d expect with its moniker, the sound in the place has always been spot on. With three different size rooms it can host all manner of events and all-day festivals and being slap bang next to Oxford Road train station and a short trot from St Peter’s Square tram stop, it’s handy too, especially compared to the Academy whose distance often creates a mad dash for the last public transport home.

Fortunately the owners of Sound Control are vowing to press on with plans to relocate to a bigger and better venue, but you can’t help feel it just won’t be quite the same.

 

The Star And Garter

Star And Garter

One of the more protracted of all of these tales is that of The Star And Garter. Nestled behind Piccadilly Station in Manchester, The S&G is a traditional boozer built in the early 1800s and moved brick by brick down the road to make way for the expansion of the train station a few years after opening. The Grade II listed building has been the venue for the iconic Smiths Disco for a quarter of a century but recent plans to expand the station even further have seen Network Rail bid for the pub in order to knock it down and make room for additional platforms and a new viaduct. The venue’s owner has pretty much described the offer as derisory, especially considering the pub has living quarters and its own parking. Even more importantly, the place is a very convenient venue and one stacked with history that really shouldn’t just be bulldozed.

The area that The Star And Garter sits in isn’t exactly salubrious but recent events have seen the nearby Mayfield Depot re-open and proves the area has potential. If redevelopment could happen around the pub, it’d certainly suit travellers, boozers, foodies and gig goers and make the district a lot more up-market than it is currently, which can only be a good thing for that part of the City Centre.

 

The Fleece

The Fleece

Proving that struggles to keep live music venues open aren’t just isolated to the North West, Bristol has seen similar issues in recent years. The Fleece (formerly The Fleece & Firkin when I was much, much younger) has been in operation for 35 years and has seen bands such as Nirvana, Radiohead, Ash, Erasure and even Oasis set foot on its stage over the years. It’s another decent-sized venue (capacity is around the 450 mark) that gives young bands a decent shot at playing to a sizable crowd, but in 2014 it was threatened with closure due to the submission of plans to build flats opposite which would no doubt bring noise abatement orders shortly thereafter. After gaining support from Bristol’s mayor, as well as 30,000 signatures through an online petition, a compromise was reached; the flats would still be built but permission was only granted subject to noise insulation being installed on the apartments to ensure any threats to The Fleece are minimised.

An important test case, it’s good to see that sanity can prevail in these situations. After all, what use is a massive surge in accommodation without a decent amount of amenities such as pubs, shops and venues nearby to encourage people to move there?

 

The Thekla

The Thekla

Most recently, HMS Thekla, again in Bristol has come under threat of extinction. As a kid growing up in the South West, there was little more exciting than going to a gig, but what was more exciting was going to a gig on a boat. Yes, that’s right, The Thekla is a floating funhouse originally brought to Bristol in 1983 to showcase music, comedy, plays and poetry.

The former cargo ship helped put Portishead, Roni Size and Massive Attack on the map and features artwork from Banksy over its bulkheads, but this month it’s seen its future threatened, again by property development with nearby Redcliffe Wharf set to be turned into “affordable housing, offices and leisure space”.

Hopefully Bristol City Council will take the same stance as with The Fleece and save this unique venue from closure, because if it doesn’t it would be a sad, sad day for the West Country’s music scene.

 

So, what can we do about this issue? I’m not naïve enough to think that progress doesn’t need to happen, otherwise we wouldn’t have moved from wooden clubs to fire to the wheel, to skyscrapers and back down again to Donald Trump. But progress should mean that there is something better for all of us as a result and quite simply that’s not the case with many of these venues that have now gone or are under threat. Instead, we’re left with more students in cities with less to entertain them, bands with nowhere to play and eyesore derelict buildings that encourage graffiti and public urination against their doors.

Night & Day Café in Manchester, no stranger to noise complaints previously could soon be challenged by its next door neighbour Dry Bar being converted to a hotel, and as much as the odd new venue does open to pick up some of the slack, they’re not large enough in number to offer a stage to everyone who needs a creative outlet. Time will tell, especially for The Thekla, but hopefully we won’t be left in a decade’s time with only a slew of faceless sports halls and bland world-renowned acts churning out the same old turgid nonsense.

Don’t Stop Loving The Music.

You can follow The Thekla on Twitter to hear the latest on their case, or search for the hashtag #savethekla

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Mutation / The Empty Page @ The Deaf Institute, Manchester – 29th October 2017

Mutation

It takes a brave soul to venture out on the first Sunday after the clocks go back. Every instinct tells you to stay indoors, safe from the dark, the cold and the explosion of pre-emptive fireworks. Some may say it takes an even braver soul to leave the house to go and get pummelled by a band promising to make your ears bleed with their racket, but when it’s a trio as intriguing as Mutation, it’s one of those journeys that simply has to be made.

The Empty PageThe calm before the storm at Manchester’s appropriately-named Deaf Institute comes tonight from The Empty Page. Recent winners of Indie Week UK, if you went solely off the band’s debut record, you’d maybe think they were a bit of a “lighter” choice to open up for the brutality of Mutation, but in the live arena the band are surprisingly heavy. Drummer Jim, for the first time front and centre, is an absolute beast behind the kit, keeping things tighter than Scrooge McDuck, while Kel and Giz seem even more animated than usual, putting extra effort into teasing out the power and emotion from songs like Deeply Unlovable and Wardrobe Malfunction. Always engaging and entertaining in equal measure, The Empty Page have been going from strength to strength in recent weeks and are hitting top form as their micro-tour of Canada approaches.

As Mutation prepare to unleash their cacophony, the crowd seem wary of getting too close to the stage for a few reasons: a) It’s pretty high b) the drumkit is precariously placed right at the very front of it and c) Mutation make so much noise they’d get a dead elephant bouncing. In three albums, Ginger Wildheart and his merry band of miscreants (live, this means Scott Lee Andrews of Exit_International on bass and longtime Ginger collaborator Denzel pounding the skins) have created a wall of discordance so dense and arrhythmic that it was certainly an eyebrow-raiser to see a tour announced. 

How on Earth would three people recreate such a sonic maelstrom? Almost effortlessly is the answer to that. Openers Authenticity and Toxins from latest album Dark Black marry a Ministry-sized amount of bile with a strangely cathartic dose of euphoria while Friday Night Drugs and Carrion Blue throw that little Endless Nameless hook at you repeatedly until you nibble.

Arguably the star of the show is Vennart/Young Legionnaire drummer Denzel. Acting as ringleader, his position front of stage makes perfect sense, nodding at both Ginger and Scott to ensure they’re ready for the next onslaught before each and every song. As soon as he brings the guitarists in he transforms into a furious animal, pounding his kit so ferociously that cymbals start to escape from him, only to be brought back under control as white noise washes over us in between each song. Closing on an absolutely punishing Deterioration, there is a suitable finality to proceedings – no encore, no banter, we’re left with just the darkness and our ringing ears.

It’s certainly a divisive sound (interestingly there are only single figures of women in tonight; quite unlike your average Wildhearts-related show), but Mutation really gives Ginger an outlet to experiment and try new things even after 30-odd years in the business. For fans new, old, or of something else entirely, this is an absolute beast of a show that really has to be seen to be believed.

JD Wetherspoon – Do They Get The Credit They Deserve?

The Berkeley, Bristol

The Berkeley – Another grand Wetherspoon establishment

Pubs are funny old places aren’t they? They come in all shapes and sizes and range from the pokey to the prodigious, with huge varieties of food, drink and punters to match. Recently though, this article in The Times reviewing a trip to the British institution that is JD Wetherspoon received a lot of criticism for a supposed pre-emptive snobbishness and for taking a stack of cheap shots at the chain. It does feel like there are two sides to this story though, so it’s only right to explore things a little deeper.

My relationship with ‘Spoons’ goes back to nights at The Full Moon in Bristol, when we’d go to The Berkeley at the top of Park Street for a warm-up bottle of Budweiser for 99p beforehand. Okay, so it was 1997 but that’s decent value in anyone’s book. The pub itself is, like many a Wetherspoon, an impressively ornate building, full of history (supposedly haunted by a ghostly highwayman) and gets a decent atmosphere at weekends, if on occasion it can get a little rough and ready. I’ve not been back for a long, long time, but with it being a Wetherspoon I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear it’s exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.

And that’s the thing with a Wetherspoon, you know exactly what you’re getting, whether that’s a ridiculously sized breakfast for about a fiver, or a quick and dirty burger when you need fuel before a big night or a gig. The ale choice is excellent, it’s an area the company have really focused on in recent years, and the lager is the cheapest you’re likely to find in any town centre so it’s no surprise these pubs tend to draw big crowds, encouraged in by a blind eye to big groups who take great delight in rearranging the furniture to suit their needs. They’ve even relaxed and adapted a few of their policies over the years and sometimes you’ll actually get (gasp) music in there, or maybe even a TV showing a bit of sport if you’re lucky.

The chain should also be praised for its innovation, producing an app which is almost too easy to use and seems to allow the lazy to jump the queue, leaving punters at the bar bemused. I hadn’t used it before this weekend, but ordering two pints, a chilli and scampi and chips from the comfort of my table was effortless, despite the sheer volume of menu options to choose from. Paying with Apple Pay, the drinks were brought swiftly and the food was piping, if basic. Yes, it’s no surprise to hear that the rice with the chilli was still bag-shaped, presumably having been micro-zapped and plopped onto my plate moments earlier, although the chilli itself was rich and served its purpose.

You pay for what you get is an old adage but never has it been truer than with regards Wetherspoon. The staff tend to be short in number, tables are left with piles of dirty plates and glasses on them as staff meander about, not really caring about the place’s general upkeep (I imagine they expect punters to clear things away as well as helping themselves to the refillable coffee). In fact I thought I was going to have to serve myself a pint in Wolverhampton where a solitary staff member attempted to make jugs of midday cocktails, then change up £40-worth of £1 coins (with her manager’s permission), as well as serving pints of sticky Strongbow and a couple of Sunday lunchtime Baileys. Yep, it was that sort of clientele she was having to deal with. In fact, it took so long to serve the three people before me, I gave up and left. I doubt they cared, it’s one less thing for them to have to do, and they can’t be making much money from me when I was drinking beer that cost me less than £2 a pint.

Wetherspoon is certainly a morning-after-the night-before kind of place. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve hit one of the two Spoons in Huddersfield after a messy night (and morning) at The Parish and just needed to get stodge down my neck as quickly as is humanly possible. They’re always busy, with stags and hens still tottering around after the previous night’s exploits, laden with suitcases as they contemplate their hungover trips home. This doesn’t stop them taking down a morning sharpener and as with airport departure lounges, Wetherspoon pubs seem to be one of the few places where it’s acceptable to imbibe before the clocks hit double figures. You might also stumble upon the band you saw the previous night taking down a cheap and cheerful breakfast before heading onto the next date of their tour. It’s convenient, you’ll always find one in a town centre, and when working to a budget it ticks more boxes than it crosses.

Was The Times review fair? If you’ve ever been to a Wetherspoon, you’ll recognise many of the traits outlined, but in a way that’s all part of the charm, if indeed you can call it that. Nobody has ever visited a Wetherspoon pub expecting Michelin Star food or Silver Service, you go in knowing that your meal will pretty much get thrown at you, but you’ll be the one smiling when you’ve still got ample change in your pocket when you leave the premises. If you don’t like it, don’t go. If you need a cheap quick fix, then go along and get one. One thing’s for sure, it’s always an experience.

El Taquero – Man-Mex Done Right

It’s getting on for about 10 years since I first started knocking about in the Northern Quarter, you know, back when it was five pubs and a few hipster indie shops. It’s now become a sprawling strip of drinking dens and scoffing spots, prompting our NQ Review expedition last year where we attempted to review all 80-odd bars.

As you can imagine then, originality is tough to come by. Burger and pizza wars rage on, more and more innovation appears in the cocktail scene whilst Liquor & Burn and El Capo have brought a small taste of Mexicana to the area. But now there’s a new player in town; El Taquero…so first, here’s the history lesson (cue wibbly flashback overlay).

When Montpellier’s first opened on Back Turner Street it was a great little hideout. Offering a cosy drinking den at night or a big screen to watch the footy on come Saturday lunchtime, you could usually get a good ale and some decent food (the steak sandwich was an old favourite) despite the relatively small area it occupied. Unfortunately, it always felt a little unfinished and when AV issues started to plague our sport watching, the food went downhill and two or three beers were unavailable on what are surely key nights (you know, weekends) it seemed like only a matter of time before it closed.

Cue Franco Sotgiu. The Solita owner, and all-round entrepreneur took the opportunity to snap up his neighbour with plans for a Solita waiting room-cum-pizza palace and although this didn’t come to fruition, The Bouncing Czech did, serving Kozel and currywurst like it was going out of fashion. Again though it all felt a bit temporary so it wasn’t too surprising when it closed for a major refit.

And so we arrive at El Taquero, and the place finally feels like it’s got a fully-formed identity. Gone are the tellies and screens, replaced with huge mirrors giving the illusion of vast space, while the lick of paint, neon signs and strong branding give it a warm yet much brighter vibe than before. The physical bar is pretty much gone too, with the previously tiny kitchen spreading out into an open affair that creates a buzz when you walk through the door.

Queso Frito

Queso Frito

On each of my visits to El Taquero thus far, the waiting staff have been more than welcoming, something you tend to find in Solita too; they’re only too happy to talk you through the menu, offer their own personal recommendations and match up all likes and dislikes with appropriate dishes. After ordering a couple of Estrellas (the only beer on tap, although bottles are also available) we decided on sharing the Queso Frito (£6) along with the house salsas that arrive gratis for all punters.

The starter in question is a disgracefully gooey deep fried block of gruyere with freshly made blue corn and regulation tortilla chips on a massive sharing plate. It’s a cracking starter and throws together all the spicy, rich flavours you’d expect from such fayre. It’s only after demolishing this though that you start to question what you’re in for with the mains but as it all tastes so good, you’re going to plough on through like a brave soldier.

Tacos

Tacos

The pièce de résistance at El Taquero is of course the taco selection. Rolling off a taco machine imported from Mexico itself, the 10 fillings on offer range from £2.75-£3.50 each (or £7-£9.50 for three, and let’s face it you’re going to go big aren’t you), and include meat, fish and vegetarian options. Opting on this occasion for the Pescado Frito (haddock), Pollo Asado (chicken) and Carne Asado (chargrilled rib-eye), all three arrived stacked to the brim with tasty, well-cooked fillings. The haddock is surprisingly meaty yet seasoned with just enough spice to warm the mouth while the steak really is the showpiece here, beautifully grilled, if maybe a little too salty. Combined with gigantic shrimp in the Mar y Tierra, you’ll easily find yourself wolfing through them – before realising you also ordered an overflowing Quesadilla too.

Yes that’s right, if you really want to go all out, there’s a selection of eight different toasted delights too. I’ve now sampled the Chorizo Mexicano and the Champinones Y Ajo and both are rich, generous offerings, if a little fragile in construction. Oh and did I mention the pork scratchings? The Chicharrón (£4-£5) as they’re also known are wonderfully fluffy yet crisp cracklers which you can order on their own or with Guac, Pico de Gallo or Refried Beans.

Churros

Churros

After such a feast, you may well struggle to force down a dessert, in which case I’ve got one word for you – Churros. Yep, for £4.50 you’ll get four delicious doughnuts with chocolate sauce or ice cream (or both for an extra quid) freshly made and satisfyingly crispy. A Mexican joint also wouldn’t be complete without a decent tequila and mezcal menu and El Taquero satisfies on this front too. Although I’ve only sampled the Cazcabel thus far, it’s a decent selection, if not as extensive as El Capo‘s mammoth offering.

Overall, what you’ve got with El Taquero is a great little casual dining experience that lets the flavours do the talking. Its price point is accessible, it’s unpretentious and gives plenty of choice for groups of all shapes and sizes. Mexican food may have been readily available in Manchester for a fair while now but competition is never a bad thing and El Taquero can certainly sit comfortably alongside the city’s other spice spots.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Franco made me the offer to try the new menu on the house. I’m not a food blogger by any stretch, there was never any obligation to write about the place and a free meal isn’t always going to lead to a positive review anyway (Red’s, I’m looking at you) but I honestly enjoyed El Taquero a lot and I’m writing this because I really hope it works out in the long term. Franco is nothing if not ambitious and you can feel the passion rub off on all the staff in a place that has finally found its niche in a crowded part of town.

Now for the restaurant half of the NQ Review challenge…guys? GUYS?!?!

El Taquero, 42 Back Turner St, Manchester M4 1FR.

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This Is Manchester – We Do Things Differently Here

I’ve just walked through Manchester Piccadilly Station and there’s a sombre mood hanging over us all this morning, armed police at each entrance and on every concourse reminding us of the seriousness of what’s happened.

Exactly two weeks ago, I was at Manchester Arena seeing Iron Maiden. After the gig I remember being herded down long concrete corridors for what seemed an age as everyone shuffled along with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life ringing out from the Arena speakers. I can only imagine how different a scene it was last night.

When the news came through last night we all thought, maybe hoped, that it was a false alarm. A blown speaker or some balloons popping alongside other social media reports of stampedes. It’s only upon waking this morning that the full horror is apparent.

After the Bataclan I raised a defiant middle finger in support of live music. I may have been horribly nervous going back into a crowded public event but I did what we all have to do again now, put our faith in those who protect us and in the vast majority of the human race. A lot will be asked again about how these acts can keep happening, how people’s minds work but there’s important things to remember, Live music will win. Manchester will win. Terror won’t.

At this truth we have arrived, God damn it’s great to be alive.

Greater Manchester Police has established an emergency telephone number in response to the attack. It is: 0161 856 9400.

Chris Cornell 1964 – 2017

You don’t expect your heroes to last forever. In fact you don’t expect them to last very long at all if they’re rock stars playing out their dreams in debauched fashion before your eyes, but Chris Cornell always seemed different.

Back in the days of tape trading, we’d procure copies of Screaming Life and Fopp, swap Ultramega OK like nobody’s business and mourn Andrew Wood’s loss with that solitary Temple Of The Dog album on repeat. It was a glorious, if dangerous period in rock music, a genre created in the blink of an eye by people often unable to cope with the pressures fame brought. Drugs were rampant, suicide was worryingly common, but that didn’t stop the emergence of classic album after classic album.

Soundgarden more than many of their contemporaries crossed so many genres they had a whole different appeal, paying homage to rock and roll originators as much as they did the punk godfathers and the psychedelia of the 70s, all wrapped up in a grungey malevolence. And with a singer like Chris Cornell they had a stunningly powerful weapon with which to destroy those barriers to the mainstream.

I wept as Cornell broke into Hunger Strike during a solo show in 2002. That voice of his sounded more honest with age, giving a personal song so much of a sense of history and importance it was quite simply jaw-dropping. The whole set was so emotional, it still ranks as one of the most captivating I’ve seen to this day.

Seeing Soundgarden live in recent years was an incredible experience too. A band with renewed vigour after so long away, it felt as if they’d finally become the group they’d always wanted to be. 

But here we are; no more Soundgarden. No more Audioslave. No more Temple Of The Dog. Most importantly, no more of that voice. That look. That songwriting ability. Or that beaming smile of a doting father and husband.

Black days indeed.

2016 – A Year In Review Part Two: Album Of The Year Runners Up

I’m making up the rules as I go again. Usually I pick out my Top 5 records to write a bit about, but this year I’ve had a problem; I honestly can’t choose between the ones just outside my Top 3.

So instead, here’s what you should have been listening to in 2016, and if you didn’t, Happy New Year, here’s your soundtrack to 2017!

The Hyena Kill: Atomised 

I’ve lived in Manchester for 15 years now but the last couple of those have seen a new vigour in the live scene and this is in no small part thanks to The Hyena Kill. Finally releasing their debut record in 2016, the two-piece had an unstoppable year, culminating with support slots for the Cavalera brothers and New Model Army.

The album itself is a great example of what The Hyena Kill are capable of, with Steve Dobb’s killer riffing backed brilliantly by Lorna Blundell’s drums to produce an absolute monster of a sound. One part grunge to two parts each of Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age, you’ll want to check out Crosses, Tongue Tied and the haunting if over way too soon The Waiting Room over and over again; this is just the beginning for this duo.

The Virginmarys: Divides 

Staying in the Northwest, 2016 was another great year for Macclesfield troupe The Virginmarys. Divides felt like the culmination of the band’s relentless efforts on the road, and you honestly start to wonder if Ally’s vocal chords are going to explode on tracks like For You My Love.

The rest of the record is emotive, catchy and brilliantly paced, really luring the listener in with great songwriting and a willingness to play hard.

God Damn: Everything Ever 

Speaking of playing hard, God Damn continued where they’d left off on Vultures, quickly releasing second LP, Everything Ever. A far ‘cleaner’ record if you will, the album still has that low-slung scuzz we’ve come to know and love and their live output became even more gut-rattlingly heavy. Another band really upping their game in 2016.

Read my full review of Everything Ever

Hey! Hello!: Hey! Hello! Too! 

A year wouldn’t be complete without at least one new record from Ginger Wildheart and we saw two versions of this troubled sophomore outing in 2016.

The first Hey! Hello! Record was a sickeningly outstanding slab of pop rock and this new LP ramped everything up to 11. With a myriad of guest vocalists onboard, H!H!2 has the kind of songs that will refuse to leave your head for months and This Ain’t Love induces goosebumps every time in a live environment.

Read my full review of Hey! Hello! Too!

Taylor & The Mason: Taylor & The Mason 

I stumbled across this duo by accident and although musically very different to everything else on this list, this debut is a stunning piece of work. The harmonies that play out and the imagery produced by such beautiful lyrics bring tears to the eyes, and I’m not sure I’ve been to many more emotional gigs than the T&M launch show.

Check out Gin In Berlin for T&M‘s playfully dark side or My Darling for possibly the most gorgeous song of 2016. Amazing stuff.

The Affs Awards 2016 – Album Of The Year

3) Massive WagonsWelcome To The World 

This one certainly came out of left field. Suffice to say I’d barely heard of Massive Wagons this time last year, yet now they’ve laid waste to loads of other strong contenders to smash into my Top 3 of 2016, and it’s fully deserved.

As introductions to a band go, the hook-laden Tokyo is a hell of a way to begin, yet MW reeled me in after a few bars. A more stadium rock Black Spiders, Massive Wagons‘ sound is BIG and it feels like they’ve been in your life for an eternity after just one listen of this record. Songs like Ratio and The Day We Fell are instant hits whilst the band also prove they can ramp up the heavy with Nails or ballad the hell out of things on Aeroplane.

A breath of fresh air, Welcome To The World will get stuck on your death deck for ages, and rightly so.

2) ServersEverything Is OK 

I was first put onto Servers by my Daily Dischord editor back in 2014 and was immediately hooked after snaffling a copy of Leave With Us. Fast forward to 2016 and we arrive at the band’s latest cultish offering, Everything Is OK.

Modern heavy music has been crying out for someone to do something interesting for ages and not only did Servers well and truly break out on their second record, the expansive nature of each and every song gives the listener plenty to go back for.

Spells is probably the strongest album opener of 2016 whilst Unconditional contains more powerful orchestration than the Royal Philharmonic on steroids. To Hell With You is full of hypnotic bile and Recklessly Extravagant‘s carnival waltz gets you entwined deeper and deeper in its web.

Telling tales of conspiracy, cults and creepy relationships, Everything Is OK is simply stunning in both scope and ambition.

Read my full review of Everything Is OK

1) Tropical ContactXS 

West Yorkshire mob Tropical Contact first came to my attention a few years back throwing out all manner of hip swaying grooves in support of Eureka Machines. It was a raucous closing cover of The Power Of Love that really drew me in and since then I’ve been fortunate enough to witness the UK’s Most Partiest Band (okay, I just made that up) more times than is safe without protection.

TC‘s Go Getters, Jet Setters, Heavy Petters mini-album showed the band were capable of writing the catchiest of musical bastards so the release of their debut long player was hotly anticipated by all of us who’d had the pleasure previously. And boy did TC not disappoint.

XS, complete with excellent booby artwork by Esme Sharples has barely been out of my ears all year, offering more sonic good times than any record of the past decade. From the opening monastic chant, to the brilliant fist-in-the-air rebellion of Hero Brigade and the 80s swagfest This Is Goodnight, there is absolutely no filler on XS. Even on the extended Pledge edition of the record, TC have casually thrown in a batch of additional songs that must’ve only just ended up on the cutting room floor in the first place. Take the epic Chemistry for example, a massive modern rock song that has absolutely everything; meandering, lilting verses and big, big singalong choruses wrapped up in that TC sense of humour.

An autobiographical record of sorts, XS plays like Son Of Rambow, relatable, funny, yet oddly endearing and chock full of clever lyrical puns the likes of which we haven’t seen since Terrorvision‘s heyday.

XS really is one of those albums you tell everyone about. Christ, everyone in my family nearly got a copy of this and nothing else for Christmas. If there’s any justice in this world, XS is the record that should take the world by storm, it’s that instant and grin-inducing. Okay, so maybe that’s not going to happen, but off the back of such consistent genius, TC certainly deserve the plaudits and of course my Album of the Year award.

2016 – A Year In Review Part One: Album Of The Year

empty-pageNo sooner have the Creme Eggs gone from the shelves it seems it’s year end and time for the writer’s favourite, the annual album of the year bonanza. You’ll remember (because of your loyalty to both myself and this very intermittent blog) that 2015 was a very close-run contest indeed, with the inimitable Ghost scooping the gong on countback.

2016 has been a different kind of year in music with a load of new kids on the block all fighting it out to be crowned King Dong of the rock and roll world. And oh there is a winner. But as is tradition, let’s first take a look at some of the records that came close but no cigar, and what a strong year it’s been.

Pledge Music has certainly become the record releasing channel du jour with great new independent outings from Wildhearts bassist Scott Sorry, Blacklist Saints and Role Models while erstwhile Terrorvision vocalist Tony Wright ramped things up with his first solo electric outing, the brilliant Walnut Dash.

Of course there were a few Ginger Wildheart collaborators knocking about and doing their own thing too and The Dowling Poole unleashed the viciously satirical One Hyde Park which sounds even better live than on record, whilst The Empty Page‘s grunge throwback Unfolding helped to produce a gig of the year candidate for its launch show.

Former Wildhearts drummer Stidi also banged out a great debut with new band Drama Club Rejects as did former bassist Danny with The Main Grains. A pair of throwback records, both showed enough punky vigour to warrant repeat listens rather than just being nostalgic novelties and proved that the spirit of The Wildhearts lives on in many shapes and forms.

metallicaAs an “Event” with a capital E, you can’t get much bigger than a new release from Metallica and 2016 saw just that. As the band have grown older, we’ve seen a bit more of a, shall we say, self-indulgent theme to their music but in 2016, to keep pace with the young ‘uns, Hetfield and co well and truly upped their game.

With Metallica‘s Hardwired…To Self Destruct spreading itself over two discs, it took patience to get to grips with, but the thrashy power of the band’s latest saw a return to form that no-one expected. Not to be outdone, Megadeth snuck out their best record for a decade with Dystopia, proving Dave Mustaine still has bite, but both bands must be glancing over their shoulders at the upstarts in Gojira who produced yet another modern classic in Magma.

A new Volbeat record is always a bit of a big deal too and although Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie didn’t set anything alight, it was still a solid outing as was the sophomore outing from Scot rockers The Amorettes, White Hot Heat.

A few eagerly awaited debuts also landed in 2016 with Love Zombies, Tax The Heat, Black Peaks, Vodun and the workaholic Heck finally all finding time from their mammoth touring schedules to unleash prime cuts of studio-based bliss. Heck in particular did something nobody expected with a 16 minute album-closer that proved the boys have the songs to back up what they do on (and mainly off) stage.

asylumsThe surprise debut success of 2016 however has to go to Asylums. Nobody expected such a gloriously passion-filled record to hit in 2016 but Killer Brain Waves proved that a 90s alt-rock influenced sound could be modernised to such an extent it would blow much of the more established competition out of the water. Keep an eye on this lot, they’re heading straight for the top.

 

Up next – the winners…

The Download Conundrum

  
Anyone who knows me, or who has seen my house knows I love STUFF. CDs. DVDs. Goblin bongo editions of video games. If it’s tactile, I love it.

However, in recent months something has changed. I now buy things that have no physical presence. No, not the long lost evaporated urine of JFK, more the latest recordings by some of my favourite artists.

So, what’s different I hear no-one ask. Nothing. Artists are still releasing records and I’m still buying them in all their cardboard glory. It’s just I now get the opportunity to share this stuff with people who wouldn’t normally have gone near it. Yes, it still pains me that some will just listen for free as music simply cannot survive like that. But at the same time, we, the community are creating new fans. And at some point they will go to gigs. They will buy merch. And then they’ll advocate onwards and upwards.

So yes, keep on downloading kids but hunt out the options that give the artists the most back. Do your bit and they’ll do theirs.

And if you need somewhere to get started try The Empty Page, VH-YES, The Dowling Poole, Servers, The Scaramanga Six, Eureka Machines, Baby Chaos, Tropical Contact, Love Zombies, Cleft, The Hyena Kill, God Damn, Heck, False Advertising and Vodun. These are some of the coolest bands you’ve never heard and if you’re not careful, never will.

Get on it.