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.

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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.

The Affs Awards 2015 – Album Of The Year

The votes have been counted and verified. So with no further ado, here are my top albums of 2015.

Turbowolf - Two Hands5) TurbowolfTwo Hands

It’s easy to forget that the second outing from Bristol psychadelio-bruisers Turbowolf is less than a year old as a fair few of the songs have been part of their live show for longer, but here it is in all its glory, 11 slices of pure bonkers for your listening pleasure.

In all honesty, Turbowolf’s recorded output often takes a bit of a back seat to their incendiary live shows, but it’s on disc that the band really create a vivid soundscape and it’s great to hear live favourites plugged in together from the comfort of your own home. Tracks that had been teased out up to a year before like ‘American Mirrors’, ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘Rabbits Foot’ sound even better when in the context of the full record which barrels along quicker than Road Runner with Wile E Coyote and a stick of Acme dynamite on his tail.

The band’s first record was so well received it would have been easy for some laurel-resting to have occurred with round two, but when Turbowolf are involved that was never going to be the case. Employing guest vocalists throughout (including the crazily powerful Vodun singer Chantal Brown on the swirling ‘Rich Gift’), Two Hands is heavier than before and weirder than ever with the electronica piping out like a demented Commodore 64. It seems only fair that ‘Rabbits Foot’ in particular got so much airplay in 2015 after it became the summer bounce-along of choice for the discerning gig-goer, and far from being a sign of the band selling out, it’s simply a track that showcases what Turbowolf have always done so well; write catchy as hell groove-rock anthems that anyone with feet can move to.

It’ll be interesting to see where the ‘Wolf go next, but on this kind of form, the sooner they get album number three out, the better.

Eureka Machines - Brain Waves4) Eureka MachinesBrain Waves

Another band noted for their incredible live shows and for touring their backsides off, Eureka Machines also proved in 2015 how to concoct a record that epitomises the very spirit of their group. Already three albums in and armed with an arsenal of pop rock glory, it was going to take something special to top what had come before, but Brain Waves really took the band to the next level.

Many of the songs on this record seem more personal than usual, and the music mirrors the frantic frustration of ‘Paranoia’ and the noisy insanity of ‘Sleep Deprivation’ whilst remaining beautifully structured, allowing the listener to be absorbed into the melody.

Chris Catalyst’s lyrics are still intricately witty, and his guitar hooks even more polished than usual, whilst the rest of the band crash along with creativity and flair, particularly on the punky “Welcome To My Shangri-la” and the blistering ‘Neuro Bolero’.

Brain Waves has already proven itself in the live arena too, sounding just as brilliant on stage, and it’s left the band with the glorious conundrum of how much of their old stuff they should drop from their set to make room for this new bunch.

Baby Chaos - Skulls Skulls Skulls Show Me The Glory3) Baby ChaosSkulls Skulls Skulls Show Me The Glory

If you’d told a 17 year old me in 1996 that Baby Chaos wouldn’t make another record until 2015, but it would be damn well worth the wait, I probably would have laughed in your face and gone and hit another shot of Aftershock. Fast forward to now and I’m feeling proud as punch with the success of a record that I’m sure even the band themselves would admit was looking unlikely up until a couple of years ago.

Always master songwriters, Baby Chaos epitomised everything that was great about music for me when I first heard them supporting Terrorvision in 1994. They were punky and snarly but also full of melody and catchy hooks, leading to my copy of Safe Sex… being transferred onto C-90 cassettes for friends left, right and centre. In 2015 they released another marvellously titled record, Skulls Skulls Skulls Show Me The Glory, and almost wrapped up Album Of The Year there and then. Although not quite as raucous as previous outings, Skulls still shows the mischievous side of Babbers C, especially in the aptly named ‘You Can’t Shut Us Up’ and the stomping ‘Have Faith In Yourself’.

Baby Chaos were always masters of their genre but dear lord has 20 years of experience taught them a thing or two. Skulls has a bit of everything, from Muse-esque stadium rock in ‘The Whispering Of Giants’ through to the snapping bite of ‘P P P Peaches’ and the pureness of ‘Poison Ivy Girls’. In any other year, this record would have topped my list, and even though they’ve just missed out, this is proof if ever it was needed that your favourite band may not be as done and dusted as you once thought. A stunning return.

Therapy? - Disquiet2) Therapy?Disquiet

Regular readers will know that Therapy? are kept somewhere very, very close to my heart, with their albums and live shows featuring regularly amongst my favourites almost every year. Even so, last album A Brief Crack Of Light, despite being brilliant, was heading into dark, dark territory and a small part of me was left wanting that three and a half minute short sharp shock of Therapy? from years past.

For a time Therapy? seemed to go down the same route as Star Trek films where every other album was a crowd-pleasing hit monster and in between we’d get angular, jarring, often harrowing slabs of twisted genius that took time to seep into our souls. Following this formula and having heard first single ‘Still Hurts’ from their latest opus Disquiet early in 2015, I can honestly say that “excited” was one of the understatements of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, Disquiet is still a pretty bleak album both musically and lyrically but cutting through the whole piece is a level of musicianship and skill that you rarely find with other bands these days. ‘Still Hurts’ is a furious three minute blast of buzzsaw riffs, pounding drums and Andy Cairns’ trademark howl, before the band switch down a gear with ‘Tides’ which sees the frontman’s vocals and guitar switch to a more sombre, enveloping sound.

‘Good News Is No News’ has comparisons to ‘Dopamine, Seratonin, Adrenaline’ (from 2006’s One Cure Fits All), but forges its own path into oblivion whilst the funereal dirge of ‘Deathstimate’ is a brontosaurus-sized slab of riffage.

Touted in some quarters as a sequel of sorts to Troublegum, Disquiet isn’t quite that, more the sound of a band taking 25 years of experience and influence to create a beautifully rounded piece of modern rock. And I for one will raise a glass to that.

Ghost - Meliora1) GhostMeliora

To be brutally honest this decision hasn’t been taken lightly. I almost feel bad knocking my boys from Therapy? down a position or two but Ghost‘s Meliora is as stunningly complete a record you were likely to encounter in 2015. Somewhat unfairly criticised for their second record, 2013’s Infestissumam, Ghost, took the ghoulish blueprint they’d created and turned it way up to 11 in 2015, producing something so accessible and instant it was hard to ignore.

Admittedly there is a commercial sheen on Meliora, with the band themselves admitting they veered away from referring directly to Satan in order to gain more airplay, but this hasn’t stopped them producing a set of darkly melodic mantras. On Meliora, Ghost combine the more simplistic 70s fuzz of first record Opus Eponymous with the experimental leanings of their sophomore to bang out a platter chock full of riffs and the hypnotic catchiness we’ve all come to expect.

More importantly, Ghost finally feel like a proper band on Meliora rather than just being a spooky circus led by the enigmatic Papa Emeritus. The sound is bigger than ever and the Nameless Ghouls aren’t there just to make up the numbers, they all pitch in to make the band’s sound more complete than ever. From the 70s weirdy beardy synths of ‘Spirit’ to the rumbling bass of ‘From ‘The Pinnacle To The Pit’, and track of the year candidate ‘Cirice’, Meliora simply goes from peak to peak. The record isn’t afraid to try something a little new either, most notably with the acoustically-charged emotional package of ‘He Is’ or the pop canter of ‘Absolution’, but nothing on Meliora feels out of place, even when sat alongside creepy little sinister belters like ‘Mummy Dust’.

It’s been an amazing year for heavy music, but with Meliora, Ghost really have shown the contenders what it to takes to pull together a total package.

2015 – A Year In Review Part One: Album Of The Year

There’s definitely been something in the musical water in 2015. Not only have we seen astounding comebacks and long awaited débuts, there have been more surprises and leftfield brilliance this year than in any in recent memory.

As the media churns out list after list of 2015 retrospectives and 2016 Mystic Meg predictions, it’s time, dear reader, for your definitive guide to the best the past year has given us, with this, the build up to the Affs Award For Album Of The Year 2015.

God Damn - VulturesFirst up, as tradition dictates, are the honourable mentions and as far as débuts are concerned, 2015 was a hell of a year. God Damn have been touring constantly for the past few years and released a couple of EPs along the way, but their long-awaited first record proper, Vultures, finally materialised in 2015. A monstrously riffy animal, the album summed up everything that God Damn give so well to the live arena, namely incredible, distortion-fuelled filth with drums so loud you’d be forgiven for thinking the cast of Stomp were camped out in your brains.

A surprising success for such a new and young (they made me feel old anyway) band was False Advertising. I’d heard a bit about them on the Manchester scene (which itself is full of top quality up-and-comers who could well make 2016 a bit special) but I wasn’t quite prepared for their record which I was honoured to review for Daily Dischord. Grunge had been having a bit of a renaissance with bands like Kagoule also churning out 90s influenced slabs in 2015, but False Advertising took the basic dynamics of the genre and flipped them around as much as they do their instruments over 11 tracks of ear-wormingly good quality.

Biters were also making waves in 2015, signing with Earache and touring their backsides off to get their fun-time rock and roll out there to the masses. Filled with singalong insta-classics, Electric Blood treated the 21st Century with the contempt it deserves, taking us back to a 70s and 80s vibe full of party tunes and songwriting swagger.

Faith No More - Sol InvictusOf course the older hands in the business wouldn’t let these young upstarts take all the glory and second only to a new Tool record in the “Stuff we thought we’d never see” section of HMV came a new album by alt-rock godfathers Faith No More. Sol Invictus was typically eccentric and full of the staccato Mike Patton bile of yore, but somehow still came packaged with enough in the way of brilliant tunes to warrant its inclusion in many a “Best Of” list. Initially teasing the world with the oddball sounds of ‘Motherfucker’, FNM eventually let us have a listen to ‘Superhero’ and suddenly everything was right with the world once more. No mere nostalgia trip, Sol Invictus is Faith No More bang up to date and on utterly top form.

Eagles Of Death Metal also re-appeared to remind us just how to rock with a hip-wigglingly good batch of songs in the shape of latest opus Zipper Down. Jesse and Josh can write decent tunes with ease but their latest really showed the band at the peak of their powers, tightly structured yet loosely textured and chock full of bluesy dynamism.

More old stagers, Cradle Of Filth, saw a renaissance of sorts with Hammer Of The Witches. Filling out their sound once more after a couple of records of punky speed metal, Hammer… saw dark and light orchestration combining as well as it had on earlier outings such as Cruelty And The Beast, painting in the process a majestic canvas of devilish debauchery and addictive Maiden-esque guitar duels. Glorious modern metal from a band showing no signs of slowing down despite being on album number 11.

Ash - Kablammo!Old hands yet always young at heart, Ash also returned to former glory with their 2015 outing Kablammo! Initially launched as a Pledge Music campaign, it wasn’t long before the album was backed up by some impressive live shows where each pop punk anthem sounded full of sparky attitude. Opening gambit ‘Cocoon’ is a short blast of Tim Wheeler at his best whilst the lilting ‘Free’ is beautifully structured and fragile in a way Richey James used to make his forte. Admittedly Kablammo! is just pure unadulterated Ash but in what way is that ever a bad thing? Easily their best record since 1977 and a welcome addition to a great year for music.

The Scaramanga Six - The Terrifying DreamUnlucky not to make my Top 5 this year were The Scaramanga Six. This gang are consistently brilliant both live and on record and with 2015’s The Terrifying Dream they reached their absolute peak, writing Bond songs that will never be and sinister odes to just about everything under the sun whilst having their tongues firmly implanted in their cheeks. More people need to find out about this wonderful bunch of Machiavellian scamps and as soon as they do, things will take off in a big, big way. Until that time, check out their back catalogue and punch yourself repeatedly in the face for missing out for so long.

Ginger Wildhear - The Year Of The FanclubNo end of year round up is ever complete without him and it’s been a busy year once more for the workaholic Ginger Wildheart. Not only did he conclude his G-A-S-S fan club set, he also launched his Songs & Words book/DVD/tour, trotting round the country telling us all some classic rock and roll tales. Somehow he also found time to give us a Wildhearts PHUQ celebration tour, pull together a new Hey! Hello! record for release in 2016 AND produce tracks for other bands. Oh and then there was the small matter of picking out his preferred G-A-S-S tracks for the Year Of The Fanclub record. This was never going to be an easy task when there were 36 amazing songs to choose from, and the only reason this one didn’t quite make my Top 5 of the year is because a couple of my own favourites are missing. You’ve got to be ruthless doing this lark I’m afraid.

Nevertheless, what’s present  aboard this disc is a great summation of what Ginger is all about. There’s the folky ‘Pendine Incident’, the Courtney Love collaboration ‘Honour’ and the brassy ‘El Mundo (Slow Fatigue)’ not to mention a couple of personal ditties from his attempt to get in touch with Henry Rollins to some emotional thoughts about his relationship with his son. This is heart on sleeve stuff, as is always the case with Ginger, all wrapped up in a basket of absolute songwriting gold.

But there can be only, er, five…and for that, you’ve got to wait a little while longer…