The Affs Awards 2019 – Album Of The Year

It’s been a funny old time for music in 2019. Similarly to the country’s political landscape, music in this final year of the decade has often been baffling, sometimes vilified, or worse, met with a bit of a “meh” from many quarters (I’m looking at you, Tool).

A stop-gap year in many ways, it’s been tricky to find the true stand-outs, but fear not, your erstwhile purveyor of opinion is here to sort through the chaff and deliver the top five records of the year for your delectation.

 

Puppy - The Goat5 – Puppy: The Goat

London trio Puppy had been gaining momentum with a couple of highly-rated EPs since their formation back in 2014 and with their debut album the band got 2019 off to a cracking start.

Ripping up the rule-book by taking their influences from a massive variety of bands (there are nods to Deftones and Helmet in here as much as there are Ghost and Judas Priest), The Goat defies categorisation and is all the better for it. Tracks like Vengeance combine the urgent pummel of Metallica with a Wildhearts breakdown, whilst Black Hole segues from a riffy verse into a chorus that Weezer might’ve come up with whilst sat out on the Californian coast.

The sound of a band who have always threatened to make a record this good, The Goat was everything you get from a Puppy live show ramped up to 11.

 

Frank Turner - No Man's Land4 – Frank Turner: No Man’s Land

Well, this one got a bit awkward. Before No Man’s Land was even released, Frank Turner received an unwarranted backlash for daring to write an album about historical female figures. Enough of that though, what we should focus on here is Turner‘s undoubted strength as a a storyteller, a trait that shows true passion and intelligence to boot.

Taking the time to research and study each of the women in question, the stories that make up the 13 songs on No Man’s Land as well as the record’s accompanying podcast series, are hugely informative and with The Lioness especially, Turner has another live favourite on his hands already.

Far from a gimmick, this is a fascinating trip into a slightly different subject that enlightens as much as it entertains.

 

Dinosaur Pile-Up - Celebrity Mansions3 – Dinosaur Pile-Up: Celebrity Mansions

It’s good to have a guilty pleasure and Dinosaur Pile-Up delivered one right to our front doors this year with their third full-lengther, Celebrity Mansions. Full of clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and catchy riffs, the band’s latest outing saw them really hone their sound into a short, sharp, pop-rock classic. A self-deprecating tale about the trials and tribulations of their own career, it’s an eminently likeable outing that celebrates your inner geek whilst proving that hard work truly can pay off.

Combining some mid-90s US punk influences with a couple of grunge-y bangers along the way, the record takes you on a whirlwind tour of Americana, from the furious Thrash Metal Cassette all the way to the godzilla-stomp of Back Foot via a few Dwayne Johnson references for good measure.

A quirky, foot-tapping, grin-inducing record, Celebrity Mansions could take DP-U to the next level.

 

Servers - Ad Nauseam2 – Servers: Ad Nauseam

It’s tough to survive as an independent band, fiercely passionate about your music, yet constantly up against venue closures, the sheer volume of groups jockeying for position and the ‘power’ of streaming where you’re earning nothing from your music as a result.

Fortunately, bands such as Servers can channel this energy into a sound totally unique in today’s heavy scene and with their third record, Ad Nauseam, the band truly came of age. A well-rounded, sweepingly dark effort full of hypnotic riffs and razor-sharp vocals from frontman Lee Storrar, the record grabs the listener right into its dark heart and spits you out on its own terms.

Themes of lust, longing and control once again prevail throughout, yet this time, there’s an even greater urgency, with the goth-y Blind Faith hitting hard and the brooding doom of The Cellar drawing you in then smashing a soaring chorus right into your face.

A powerful and emotive record, Ad Nauseam is a modern metal masterpiece.

 

Ginger Wildheart - Headzapoppin1 – Ginger Wildheart: Headzapoppin

For an album that wasn’t even on the radar 12 months ago, Ginger Wildheart’s Headzapoppin certainly took many people by surprise; mainly because it’s downright brilliant.

In recent years, the erstwhile Wildhearts frontman has been focusing on battling demons and outing them in country-folk records such as Ghost In The Tanglewood and The Pessimist’s Companion. Both records were often heart-breaking with chinks of light shining through now and again, outlining the changes the singer/songwriter was going through in his life as well as his reflections on a cruel and dark society. As with The Wildhearts’ triumphant 2019 return Renaissance Men, Headzapoppin still features some thoughts on mental illness and isolation, but here Ginger has reverted to 555%-era pop-rock and the record is 40 minutes of catchy-as-hell hits as a result.

From the retro 80s waves of Saturday Matinee through to the classic rock riffs of Meet My Killer and Catch That Stranger, via the pounding As Theodos Spoke and the emotionally uplifting The Answer Is Yes, Ginger’s 10th solo studio outing is an utter triumph. Honest, accessible and quirky, Headzapoppin is a big-hearted and infectiously optimistic record that demands to be heard.

Even better, with a physical release to follow in 2020, this might just be album of the year next year too!

1994 – The Albums That REALLY Changed Music 25 Years Ago

With all this talk of certain albums allegedly changing music forever in 1994, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what a 15 year old Affs had on the old deathdeck 25 years ago. And oh boy was I impressed. In fact, I’m not sure how I managed to find time to get through the huge amount of classic records released in this year as well as knuckling down ahead of GCSEs, taking my bike out for a spin AND hitting my first ever live shows. The vitality of youth, eh?

Amongst the stone cold classics, arguably never to bettered by the rest of the band’s output since (see Dookie, Smash, and Sixteen Stone) there are also some cult smashers (Helmet’s Betty, Cannibal Corpse’s The Bleeding, KyussWelcome To Sky Valley) some chilled out classics (MTV Unplugged, Jar Of Flies, Dummy) and some that are still in my all-time favourites list to this day (Troublegum, The Holy Bible, How To Make Friends And Influence People).

It’s also interesting to see the debut efforts from Korn and Machine Head as well as Cradle Of Filth and Marilyn Manson who kick-started a whole new era of theatrics in rock and metal, as well as decent long-players from L7 and Sonic Youth, keeping the grunge flame alive after Kurt Cobain’s death. And let’s not forget Superunknown and Far Beyond Driven; following Badmotorfinger and Vulgar Display Of Power is no mean feat but Soundgarden and Pantera absolutely nailed it with both records. You might also ask whether some of the bands in this list were struggling to live up to previous records with their 1994 releases, but give Divine Intervention and Youthanasia a re-listen and you’ll find a few tracks on each that hold their own 25 years on.

Anyway here’s the full list of albums released in 1994 that were on my bedroom’s stereo system. A veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the great and the good:

Mark Lanegan – Whiskey For The Holy Ghost

Alice In Chains – Jar Of Flies

Prong – Cleansing

Green Day – Dookie

Therapy? – Troublegum

Emperor – In The Nightside Eclipse

Cradle of Filth – The Principle Of Evil Made Flesh

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Nailbomb – Pont Blank

Soundgarden – Superunknown

Pantera – Far Beyond Driven

The Offspring – Smash

Cannibal Corpse – The Bleeding

Hole – Live Through This

Terrorvision – How To Make Friends And Influence People

Live – Throwing Copper

Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

Weezer – Weezer

Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Bruce Dickinson – Balls To Picasso

Helmet – Betty

Kyuss – Welcome To Sky Valley

L7 – Hungry For Stink

Amorphis – Tales From The Thousand Lakes

At The Gates – Terminal Spirit Disease

Marilyn Manson – Portrait Of An American Family

Machine Head – Burn My Eyes

Portishead – Dummy

Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible

Body Count – Born Dead

Sugar – File Under: Easy Listening

Bad Religion – Stranger Than Fiction

Various Artists – The Crow Soundtrack

Slayer – Divine Intervention

Testament – Low

The Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot

Korn – Korn

Nirvana – MTV Unplugged

Megadeth – Youthanasia

Cryptopsy – Blasphemy Made Flesh

Dimmu Borgir – For All Tid

Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

Bush – Sixteen Stone

Napalm Death – Fear, Emptiness, Despair

Frank Turner’s ‘No Man’s Land’ – Misogyny Or Hero Worship?

This has vexed me somewhat and you know what happens when I’m vexed, the blog cogs start turning!

The NME (yes, they are apparently still a thing) have published a bit of a hatchet job on a record, Frank Turner’s ‘No Man’s Land’, that has yet to be released (bar one song), jumping on the story created by Milk Teeth’s Becky Blomfield over on Twitter who stated in a multi-tweet post that Frank Turner shouldn’t release an album about female historical figures as it’s just him profiteering over women and people of various races when he’s never been a woman or anything other than a white man himself. For context, Turner’s press release for the new record and accompanying podcast series states: “13 episodes and tracks about real historical women… including one about my mum! Exploring and celebrating their fascinating stories.” Is that really such a wrong thing to do?

Seemingly no stranger to controversy, Turner has also recently been held to account by fellow artist Koji who queried the name of Frank’s hardcore side-project Möngöl Hörde deeming it to have racist connotations. Frank replied that the name was taken from a Van Pelt song from two decades ago and that it wasn’t decided upon with any offence considered; and let’s face it, aren’t there other band names through the ages that could be deemed offensive due to their connotations (Joy Division and indeed New Order to name but two). Does that mean we should ignore or even worse re-write history, or is it a good thing that such terminology exists to act as a reminder of what has happened throughout human history whether good or bad?

I’ve never met Frank Turner, but whenever I’ve gone to see him at a gig or a spoken word-style occasion, he’s always been articulate, respectful and intelligent. He’s been a big supporter of the Safe Gigs For Women initiative and performs at a lot of charitable occasions. He has sometimes been a target for the far left-leaning crew who don’t think he’s ‘punk enough’ to pitch himself as a folk/punk artist, but I’ve never considered him to be one to try and latch on to a scene, he’d rather just produce good music and tour endlessly so that as many people as possible can experience his live shows. Again, is this such a bad thing?

I’m not saying that Turner’s music is to everyone’s tastes by any means, but the current criticism around how he shouldn’t write about things he hasn’t personally experienced is at best naïve and at worst massively hypocritical. With some critics citing Turner’s race, gender and class as reasons why he shouldn’t be partaking in this particular endeavour, the nay-sayers appear to be pigeonholing as much as those they so vehemently protest against. It’s 2019 guys, an age where gender is supposedly fluid and no-one should be picked out negatively due to their skin colour. Mental health is also massively stigmatised yet some of the comments directed at Turner are vile and hate-filled and in other circles would be considered bullying. Hmm…

So, what are the dos and don’ts for artists when considering album subject matter, and are we really the ones who should judge? If songs should only be written about experiences that have been personally lived, does this mean that no song should ever be about dragons or the war, or a different country, race or religion to that of the author? How do people think history has generally been passed down over the centuries? Spoiler alert, it’s through song, and the written word.

Having listened to Frank’s first podcast (about Sister Rosetta Tharpe), it’s fascinating to hear him go and explore her origins, her performances and her music in her homeland. He does it by bringing in local (and female) historian Nwaka Onwusa to discuss Sister Rosetta’s tale and his studio discussion is with singer-songwriter Emily Barker who has also written a song about the same subject. Funnily enough, Turner has also brought in a completely female group of musicians (and producer) for this record but people still assumed he had made it with usual backing band the (all male) Sleeping Souls and criticised him for it before looking up the facts. And again, does this really matter anyway? Surely we should always just employ the best people for any given job?

I certainly learned a thing or two from Turner’s initial podcast but the doubters continue. “He’s just cashing in” – what, by writing songs about women that people quite possibly haven’t heard of? Surely that’s not a profitable scheme? “He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman” – that’s fair enough, but should that really stop him from writing and performing songs about women’s lives? He’s not writing from the point of view of the women from what I’ve heard, so is it really that big a deal? To me, it smacks of people going out of their way to be offended, without figuring out what they’re actually offended about. I’ve attempted to engage in debate with some of the critics who are so keen to tag Turner in on their comments, yet none have responded.

The only saving grace about this NME piece is that the comments are nearly 100% in support of Frank. And of course I did point out to them that it’s rather hypocritical linking up with paid ad providers who post clickbait stories at the foot of your articles that state if you’re a woman over 50 you should cut your hair short. Ah well, only another 12 tracks of supposed controversy to go…

The Produce Hall – Stockport’s Controversial New Food & Drink Destination

Produce HallMuch has been said about the recent opening of The Produce Hall, Stockport’s answer to the ridiculously popular Altrincham Market and Manchester’s Mackie Mayor, and let’s face it, not all of it has been good. But has all the criticism been warranted or are people failing to appreciate a good thing when they see one?

Local businessman Steve Pilling’s deal with Stockport Council to take on both The Produce Hall and the neighbouring Blackshaws Café has certainly come under scrutiny, especially after he beat the bid of the hugely successful Foodie Friday operators who host the monthly street food extravaganza right outside both venues. Pilling’s plan to turn the old Grade II-listed Market Place hall into a casual dining hub seemed like a no-brainer following the popularity of the similar operations in the city centre and Altrincham, but should it have been a shoe-in for the Foodie Friday guys since they’ve put the area back on the map?

Manchego & Serrano ham croquettes at The Produce Hall

According to the council, all bids were fairly assessed and Pilling was deemed the most sustainable and transformational, but some locals have been up in arms at a perceived “outsider chain” cashing in. Pilling however, seems far from that; perhaps more in the mould of a traditional businessman, which is always going to jar, he is, nevertheless, local and barely a chain operator, promising to give slots to independent catering businesses within The Produce Hall and also looking to give employment opportunities to those who have recently concluded a career in the Armed Forces or are starting out in the hospitality trade through apprenticeships.

Similar operations elsewhere trade off of getting independent street food vendors in to fill their halls; Altrincham Market boats Honest Crust on pizza duty and Great North Pie Co. (well you can guess what they do) among their six kitchens with Blackjack Brewery running the bar, while at the Mackie Mayor other vendors such as Baohouse and Fin Fish Bar join the party. Although The Produce Hall has a similar set-up, with separate kitchens offering food from pizza to pies, burgers to tapas, each kitchen apart from Black Market Espresso Co. are operated and owned by Pilling. But wait – is all as it seems at Mackie Mayor? Well, Tender Cow and Fin Fish Bar both share two of the same Directors, while Rotisserie also falls under Matthew Walsh’s remit, making it three of the kitchens within the Mackie that he is responsible for, once again questioning what the word ‘independent’ really means…

img_3757
Stockport Market Place on Foodie Friday

Meanwhile, a week in, and The Produce Hall is buzzing. It’s seen a mix of regular drinkers from 18 to 80 enter its doors, with families and friends alike choosing their food from the wide variety available and sampling the locally-sourced beer is no chore either. It’s already proving a draw to the area, but let’s not forget that others had already begun to get the crowds in; Mobberley Brewhouse’s Project 53 next door to The Produce Hall opened in late 2018 and offers great pizzas and fantastic beer while another new kid on the block The Angel has had an extensive renovation after a 67-year closure to restore original features and a traditional pub experience. Let’s not forget either about longer-standing servants to the Old Town area such as Remedy Bar and Bakers Vaults. Even The Cocked Hat around the corner has re-opened, and it’s not just pubs and bars that are driving an Old Town resurgence; The Warren has opened up and given over 40 local artists a hugely popular outlet for their wares, while the delicious food from Hillgate Cakery on Underbank sells out frequently and Rare Mags run their famous shop nearby too. There are many, many more independents in the area as well, all proving that businesses of all sizes can thrive and co-exist successfully.

The Produce Hall (image credit CJS Drones)

You can’t deny either that competition is healthy. When Stockport Market Place gets busy on Foodie Friday, the choice of pubs encourages you to venture to somewhere you may not have sampled before; and as it’s not a city centre location, prices are reflective and excellent value for money. Pilling has certainly reflected that with The Produce Hall where you can get a pie for £3 and a pint for just over £4, fitting in perfectly with price-points in other pubs nearby. Other criticism of The Produce Hall has arrived through the naming of the food traders within. Deciding to give them ‘punny’ names without checking to see if they were used by other independents was certainly naïve and as the real Dough Boys over in Leeds admitted recently “”I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe it’s an innocent mistake. And it is just on a blackboard so it’d be easy enough to change it.” In fact they already have, with The Produce Hall pizza kitchen now monickered ‘Dome and Base’. It may well be that some of the stalls end up being so popular they become independents in their own right, and the door is still open for other established indy names to take spots in the hall to give the place the variety it will need in the long term. So has Pilling really done such a terrible thing?

Firecracker Chicken Pizza
Firecracker Chicken Pizza at The Produce Hall.

Having had the ‘privilege’ of working out at MediaCityUK during the BBC’s migration up North, it was a welcome relief to see Pilling’s The Dockyard take up a sizable unit as there wasn’t a normal “pub” anywhere in the vicinity. I’m guessing there were a couple of reasons for that, Peel Holdings and their pricing of units for one, but also the fact that the area wasn’t tried and tested. It didn’t have much infrastructure or any other facilities to encourage people out of town other than the half-closed Lowry Outlet and old-stager Lime Bar. But now, no doubt in part to The Dockyard leading the way, The Botanist and The Alchemist are proving successful alongside Wagamama and Prezzo, despite the latter’s failings elsewhere. This is exactly what happened in Altrincham; apart from its Belgian beer outlets and the odd half-decent boozer, the town had little to encourage people to shop local, but with the success of the indoor and now outdoor market, things have changed to the extent that you’ll struggle to get a seat, especially at weekends. The Mackie Mayor is also ragingly busy at weekends despite its independent food outlets coming under hefty criticism on price (£7.50 for a solitary bao seems excessive when the Arndale Market offers double in quantity for less than that price). Nevertheless, it continues to help the surrounding area, with the neighbouring Smithfield Tavern, getting its over-spill at busier times.

What I’m saying is, in a time when the country’s European future is so undecided and long-established business on the high street are dropping like flies, let’s give props to ALL the businesses who are taking it upon themselves to do something positive with a long-neglected area in order to turn it into a thriving hub for people of all shapes and sizes. After all, everything was ‘independent’ at some point.

Film Review: Bumblebee (2018)

Bumblebee

In an effort to watch more movies this year (no, this isn’t some resolution that will die off in six weeks, this is just a general quest to catch up on what’s hot at the local picturehouse), it’s time to reinvigorate the Barry Norman section of this blog with the first film write-up of 2019, Bumblebee.

First, let’s travel back to 1987. Aretha Franklin has just become the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Simpsons airs for the first time and Luis Suarez chews his way out of his mother’s womb. Meanwhile, an eight year-old me is playing with his figures of Optimus Prime, Beachcomber and Cosmos, fighting the ongoing battle against the evil Decepticons right here on Earth. As it turns out, also in 1987, a young mechanically-minded girl called Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), mourning the death of her father, encounters a rusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle at a junkyard and is swept into a similar robotic war.

After five live action films of increasing ridiculousness, the Transformers movie franchise is rebooting, and with Bumblebee, it’s taking us back to the very start in more ways than one. War is raging on the robots’ home planet of Cybertron and in a desperate attempt to regroup, a scout named B-127 is sent by Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced once more by the legendary Peter Cullen) to the planet Earth. Crash landing straight into a training exercise by specialist military unit Sector 7, B-127 is left dazed, confused and in hiding. After being taken in by Charlie, the newly-monikered Bumblebee finds himself battling to avoid detection by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick who are intent on destroying the Autobot resurgence before it even begins, all the while being hampered by the additional threat of Sector 7 led by former US Army Ranger Jack Burns (John Cena).

Making his live action directorial debut, former musician and animator Travis Knight has been given the green light to deliver a Transformers spin-off that works through a lightness of touch and a focus on what made the toy and cartoon franchise so popular in the first place; heart. In the main, the robots here are all distinguishable in look rather than just being different shades of steel (see anything that Michael Bay directed previously) and personalities also shine through. There’s a warming sense of humour here as well, with Charlie’s family offering some good comic relief and Jorge Lendeborg Jr’s Memo character full of charm rather than being another generic sidekick to act as a plot device. Even the use of incidental characters such as policemen, neighbours and college acquaintances seem to be plucked straight from other 80s classics like The Breakfast Club or Smokey & The Bandit, expertly helping to paint a rich period picture.

Special mention also has to go to Bumblebee’s soundtrack. With the film being set in the late 80s, Knight is given a vastly diverse array of music to work with from The Smiths to Bon Jovi to Duran Duran, and each time a song is used it enhances the story perfectly. It almost feels like repeat viewing of the movie is needed to pick out all the little flourishes and nods buried throughout, whether it’s the music, the minute detail in the Cybertron scenes (where even the weapons perfectly match those we placed in the hands of our favourite robots 30 years ago) or the links to the rest of the movies in the series; Bumblebee really is reboot, origin story and the missing link between toys, cartoons and films all in one.

Yes there are a few moments you can telegraph a mile off and some of the sentiment may veer towards the mawkish, but Bumblebee is still an exciting, action-packed love letter to a more innocent time. By bringing together what the fans have always wanted from a Transformers film, Knight has nailed what the original cartoon taught us; good can and will triumph over evil and it’ll have a crazy, yet fun time in doing so.

The Affs Awards 2018 – Album Of The Year

2018 has certainly been an odd year for music. We’ve seen the usual bunch of album anniversary tours, a raft of comebacks and a lot of big bands going even more stratospheric playing bigger and more bombastic shows, but there have also been a few let-downs with groups struggling to produce original work that really captures the imagination. Fortunately, your erstwhile blogger is here to lead you away from the chaff into the glorious wheat, as I countdown to my coveted Album Of The Year Award for 2018.

5 – TurbowolfThe Free Life

One of the finest moments of 2018 was discovering that Turbowolf are still as hard to pin down as ever with third record The Free Life being their most psychedelic and heaviest outing yet. Hitting festival season hard, the Bristol rockers had plenty of new material to batter audiences with, such as the riffy Domino (featuring Mike Kerr from Royal Blood), or the low-slung groove of Capital X (guest starring Joe Talbot from fellow West Country outfit IDLES).

Throughout the record, Chris Georgiadis nails his most impressive Turbowolf performance to date, veering between his recognisable rapid-fire delivery up to an insane squeal on the epic title track, while drummer Blake Davies thumps away at his kit with what sounds like a pair of granite slegehammers.

Live, songs from The Free Life have already come across like old friends, and even the sudden temporary departure of bassist Lianna Lee Davies to give birth in late 2018 hasn’t slowed the ‘Wolf down, running riot with support slots to Killing Joke across the UK. The Free Life is certainly an evolution of the band’s sound and you can see how it will garner more crossover appeal, but at the same time this is very much a record that only this four-piece could make. You can see the passion of Turbowolf fans at every show as they hurtle themselves into the pit and the band have delivered another set of oddly-danceable rock and roll tunes in return.

 

Eureka Machines - Victories4 – Eureka MachinesVictories

I keep banging on about being a recent convert to Eureka Machines but I should probably stop, having now been schlepping around the country to watch them for the best part of six years. The four piece produce some of the most joyous live shows out there but it’s with 2018’s Victories that they’ve knocked out their most rounded recorded work to date. Helped by frontman Chris Catalyst opening himself up a lot more with his 2017 solo album Life Is Often Brilliant, Victories has some of the most tender lyrics on any of the band’s albums yet. But fear not, the ingenious wordplay is still present and correct, in fact this record arguably features Catalyst’s finest wordsmithery, and coupled with some absolutely belting musicianship from the four piece, Victories is a record that’s impossible to tire of.

From the traditional EM bounce-a-thon of Misery to the Manics-inspired My Rock And Roll Is Dead to the epic, delicately 60s-tinged House Of Butterflies, there’s something for all era of fan here. It sounds wrong to call it a more mature performance all round; EM may always have had an impish nature but it would be ignorant to claim the band only made simple, juvenile music. The band have long made intelligent, intricate songs but with Victories there’s definitely a little extra crunch and intensity, making each track sound that little bit more fresh, and eager to jump out of the speakers at the listener. A truly genre-defying British rock record.

 

Pete Spiby - Failed Magician3 – Pete Spiby Failed Magician

The first time I saw Black Spiders, in a sweaty club in Bristol, I was instantly blown away. Part good time rock ‘n’ roll machine, part absolute riff lords, the Spiders were always infectiously inventive in pedaling hard rock anthems across their two albums and various EPs. When they called it a day a couple of years ago I was genuinely sad and felt like the live music scene was a poorer place because of it. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the guys started popping up in other outfits and lead singer/guitarist Pete Spiby revealed his next escapade; Failed Magician.

Re-invigorating the Pledge Music platform by offering not only an original album but also a reworked acoustic version and a covers record to boot, Spiby’s debut solo outing was pretty high up my wanted list and it hasn’t disappointed one bit. Offering a more bluesy take on modern rock than Black Spiders, Failed Magician is introspective, emotive, yet still all kinds of memorable. Take Friday Night Just Died (In Saturday Morning’s Arms) for example, a love song of sorts, it offers a taste of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern drawl but with the hooks of a Guns N’ Roses ballad, just with fewer hissy fits. And for a seven minute song, it doesn’t overstay its welcome one bit.

Elsewhere on the record, Bible Studies is a beautifully layered outing, whilst Guiding Light and Why Not Let Them Come are perhaps more akin to Spiby’s past, offering more up-tempo, classically riffy tracks which nestle nicely alongside the album’s starker songs. The acoustic version of the record is no less fascinating, frequently dropping Spiby’s vocals down to a husky bluegrass drawl over the top of some wailing guitar work especially on the stomping Lightning Bolt Blues that owes a debt or two to Black SpidersSt Peter.

As for the covers album, there are many very apparent influences here, with Soundgarden’s Hunted Down and a haunting take on L7’s Pretend We’re Dead, but it’s the surprise inclusions that really win, namely Alexander O’Neal’s Criticize and The CardigansMy Favourite Game both turned into creepy, downbeat little monsters. It’s a superb package by Spiby and one that really shows his passion for the business and refusal to walk away from it all following the Spiders’ split. We should all be grateful that the guy’s got more music in him.

 

Therapy? - Cleave2 – Therapy?Cleave

It’s not always easy to stick with a band through all they’ve ever released, as musicians have that tendency to wander into an impenetrable ego-driven diversity that doesn’t always translate well to even the most diehard of fan. With Therapy? though, they’ve always struggled to put a foot wrong; admittedly they’re not a band to everyone’s taste, and they’ve certainly changed their style on numerous occasions, but their brief dabble with the mainstream in the mid-90s has ensured they’ll always drag a few old school fans back into the fold with each record, and on album number 15 they’ve done just that.

Cleave may be a relatively short record but the 10 songs on offer are some of the most biting the band have ever released. From mental health to the environment and homelessness, no issue is too big for Andy Cairns to lyricise about, spitting venom at the UK government as much as he does at the rest of the world’s supposed ‘leaders’ who are dragging us further and further into oblivion.

The album’s first single, Callow, harks back to the band’s most successful period but does so with older, wiser eyes. It’s here where the returning Chris Sheldon’s production really shines through, encouraging the band to strip things back so they sound like a proper three-piece; no rhythm guitars taking the listener off on a tangent, just a supremely focused lead, bass and drum-driven assault on our senses that helps to get the message across perfectly.

Cairns’ familiar snarl lends itself more effectively than ever to tracks like Expelled and Success? Success Is Survival as his guitar screeches around Neil Cooper’s furious drumming and Michael McKeegan’s rumbling bass with the whole record becoming a strangely uplifting experience despite its content. No Sunshine brings things to an anti-euphoric close in a way that has to be heard to be fully understood and the first thing you’ll want to do is start all over again from track one. An oddly addictive experience, Cleave ekes its way into your psyche like no Therapy? record has done before and gives pretenders to their throne a severe kick up the backside too.

 

Ghost - Prequelle1- GhostPrequelle

It’s getting tricky to find superlatives for the phenomenon that Ghost have become. Not content with reinventing a dead 1970s genre, they’ve consistently upped their game with each release and capped off 2018 with a stunning show at the Royal Albert Hall. Next year’s support slots with Metallica aside, it’s tricky to figure out quite where Cardinal Copia and his Ghouls can go next but it was this year’s fourth full-lengther, Prequelle, that truly helped them cross into the mainstream.

Becoming more and more polished since their retro and stripped-bare debut, Prequelle is the culmination of Tobias Forge’s vision for the band. Equal parts grandiose, intricate, melodic, comedic, and dripping with Hammer Horror kitsch, Prequlle is divisively overblown and all the better for it. Lead single Rats split existing fans right down the middle, some erring on the side of “genius” versus the predictable cries of those who felt Forge had sold out with something so melodramatic (especially with the high-camp video). In reality, Rats set the stall out well; it’s supremely tongue-in-cheek, owes as much to Meatloaf as it does Blue Oyster Cult, and offers a hugely accessible route into a band whose image alone could still put people off taking a listen.

Elsewhere on Prequelle, the crunchy Faith gives Ghost another live headbanger, See The Light offers an Infestissumam-style storytelling vibe and if you’re yet to witness the majesty of Miasma’s closing sax solo, then you’re missing out on one of the most surprisingly offbeat, yet brilliantly executed musical moments of the year.

Disco-stomper Dance Macabre wins 2018’s award for ‘Song Most Likely To Get Stuck In Your Head For Months” whilst Pro Memoria ups the creepiness levels before the medieval boogie of Witch Image and the epic emotion of Life Eternal. There really isn’t any filler on Prequelle and it veers successfully from rock opera to 80s cop movie soundtrack to Satanic ode to desolation brilliantly. A regular on the death deck in 2018, and containing some of the greatest ear worms of this or indeed any year, Prequelle will see Ghost hit stratospheric heights over the next couple of years, and quite rightly so.

 

Manchester’s ‘Get Me There’ Continues To Get Nowhere Fast

I’m starting to hate my monthly Get Me There card renewal. Every 28 days I dutifully go online and log into my account the day before my expiry date (remember you can’t buy it for the day you want to travel) and every time I’m met with either a painful website or issues seeing or collecting my ticket.

This month though, was a whole new one. When trying to buy my new pass I received the on-screen error “You cannot buy any new tickets until you have collected outstanding purchases.” Firstly, this makes no sense anyway, why can’t you have a current and future pass on an electronic system/card? Secondly, I didn’t have any ruddy outstanding purchases anyway.

Fortunately, even on a Monday morning, the Get Me There Twitter squad are relatively quick to respond. A DM later and they advised my card was ‘full’ and that I needed to go to a tram stop card reader and hold it there for 10-20 seconds to delete some old tickets. Yes, dear reader, you read correctly, an electronic season ticket card is somehow full. As this was Get Me There, I actually wasn’t surprised so dutifully popped to Exchange Square and held it there for as long as possible despite the glare of an old lady waiting her turn and the reader’s own insistence that I should remove my card.

I checked my online account. I tried to buy a ticket. Unsurprisingly the same error appeared. DM’ing my new best friends once more, they came back shortly after to advise the issue should now be resolved following some cauldron-based spells at their end no doubt.

Success! I could buy my ticket!

Failure! Once purchased, both my current and new season tickets disappeared from my online account.

Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, but not with Get Me There. That’s because once you buy a ticket you have to wait a few hours and keep checking online to find out when it’s ready for collection. Another DM later and all I’ve got now is the suggestion to message again tomorrow so a human being can check to see if it’s ready for collection.

There we have it gang, the latest from Manchester’s “smart” ticketing system. The one which leaves you wanting to go back and visit Jeanie in the Travelshop who would stamp a paper ticket like a disinterested librarian back in the ‘olden days’. I’m now left wondering whether my current or new ticket will work, whether a driver or inspector will accept the above in lieu of a ‘dog ate my homework’ and also wondering how less-tech savvy people are coping with such a crumbling set-up.

At least Manchester’s buses have contactless machines on board now…oh hang on, they don’t work with Debit Cards yet.

THE SAGA CONTINUES.