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.
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.
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.
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 Spiders’ St 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 Cardigans’ My 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.
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.
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.