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.

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Peace, Love, Death Metal – How Live Music Can Live On

EODM - Jesse Hughes

Eagles Of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes @ The Ritz, Manchester, 7th November 2015

It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with what’s happened in Paris. And when I say ‘come to terms’ I don’t think it will ever be the case that I’ll feel in any way accepting of the tragedy that has unfolded.

I can’t help but think about the fact that I’d been at exactly the same gig only six days previously. Eagles Of Death Metal were playing the Ritz in Manchester, and it was sold out to the tune of 1500 fans in attendance. As similarities go, it all still feels a little bit too close to home.

The show itself was one of the most enjoyable I’d ever seen in over 20 years of gig-going. I’d never seen EODM live before and I really wasn’t prepared for how much pure fun they brought to the live arena. Frontman Jesse Hughes in particular was instantly likeable and endlessly funny, the embodiment of hip-swaying, tache-curling boogie for a good two hours of incredible rock and roll.

The show culminated in a light-hearted duel between Hughes and guitarist Dave Catching that saw the frontman emerge from the Ritz’s balconies to throw down riffs at his partner in crime. The crowd lapped it up too, kids, adults, skinheads and folk on the hairier side of the spectrum all cheering each comedic battle with grins as wide as the stage.

Then only six days later, the Bataclan in Paris sees the most awful tragedy that live music has ever had to witness. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things which band was involved, but there’s something about the fact that it was such a good-time group like EODM and their fans that were caught up in all this that makes it seem all the more awful. I haven’t been able to listen to any EODM songs since, quickly skipping tracks if anything’s been coming up on shuffle. I’m not trying to ignore what’s happened, it just doesn’t seem right at the moment to try to get enjoyment from their music.

But life does go on. On Saturday I was fortunate enough to go over to Huddersfield to see Eureka Machines and Tropical Contact play at The Parish. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while, despite having seen both bands loads of times before. I knew that in attendance would be all the like-minded folk I see at so many gigs across the country and that if any combination of bands and crowd were going to help each other get over what had happened the night before it was these.

What ensued was every bit the group therapy that was required. From staff at the venue through to the bands, punters, even other people milling around in the pub out front, there was a good time vibe in that leaky room that simply would not be quelled by recent world events. Even when an obviously emotional Chris Catalyst (the Eureka Machines frontman) took to his mic to pay tribute to his friend who had died at the Bataclan (EODM’s merch man Nick Alexander) it wasn’t with a sense of revenge or anger, it was to encourage and enlighten, ensuring that the show went on and that expression didn’t die along with all of those who lost their lives in the French capital. Needless to say, that outpouring provided some of the biggest bouncing of the night as we all joined together in thanks that we were able to enjoy live music, freely and without fear of judgement or censure.

I’m not going to get into the politics of it all, as far as I’m concerned, killing innocent people anywhere in the world is wrong, tragic and heartbreaking. What I will say is that I hope live music somehow comes out of this stronger. It’s always been a place where people from all different backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes can come and forget all of their troubles for a couple of hours, united in a shared joy and euphoria that’s difficult to match and without these little pockets of escapism, the world would be a far, far poorer place.

The Affs Awards 2014 – Gig of the Year

Black Moth @ The Roadhouse

Black Moth – unflappable.

 

Lists. Everyone likes a list. Whether it’s the top ten chores you’re not very likely to complete this year or a batch of unachievable New Year resolutions, you’ve probably scribbled down a few words on the back of a fag packet as Big Ben struck midnight. And as critics around the world compile their lists to summarise the year that’s just passed, it’s time for the definitive catch up on 2014’s finest in live music from none other than yours truly with the Affs Award 2014 for Gig of the Year.

Sepultura @ The Ritz

Sepultura – Chaos 2014

First off, it’s the honourable mentions section, this year going to 2013’s winners, Manic Street Preachers who belted out a storming rendition of classic LP The Holy Bible in December. Stalwarts Sepultura also proved there’s plenty of life left in them yet with a furiously heavy outing back in February, whilst Volbeat sold out Manchester Academy once again and proved they’re one of the best bands on the planet for creating a party at any size gig. Towards the end of 2014 Mastodon, Machine Head and Behemoth all showed what it takes to be a big modern metal band with sets full of dizzying invention and showmanship, all three of whom should count themselves unlucky to just miss out on the very top of my list.

A few individuals and bands also deserve shout-outs simply for working their arses off in 2014. Turbowolf played two outstanding headline shows in Manchester alongside a triumphant set at Camden Rocks that saw the whole Electric Ballroom jumping. I can guarantee right now that 2015 will be their year. Chris Catalyst also toured his gig trousers off with Eureka Machines shows at Camden as well as their own headline run, with the frontman somehow also finding time to help out Ginger Wildheart and Tony Wright on numerous dates throughout the year and belting out a brilliant acoustic set of his own in a cramped and sweaty Brewdog Camden basement.

Tony Wright @ Gulliver's

Tony Wright – rock and sausage roll

Speaking of the erstwhile Terrorvision frontman, Tony Wright provided us with a few shows of absolute comedy and songwriting gold as he embarked on début solo outings in 2014, whilst dynamic duo The Dowling Poole served up glittering acoustic pop rock ahead of full-on electric shows in 2015. Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns followed up last year’s solo shows with an excellent new set, giving us 20 years worth of classics in a stupidly intimate environment, also taking his band out earlier in the year to celebrate two decades since the release of the seminal Troublegum LP.

God Damn also saw their stock rise with a couple of headline jaunts and a destructive support slot with Turbowolf, whilst Beastmilk brought some beautifully melancholic noise to these shores on a couple of occasions. UK music continued to rule the roost with Black Moth covering us in a shroud of wondrous doom off the back of their brilliant second opus and Tropical Contact fortunately deciding not to call it a day, whilst our US cousins threatened to upset the balance by sending Butcher Babies over to blow us away with crunchy riffs and some insanely catchy yet heavy tunes.

It wasn’t a year solely of metal either, with two gigs in particular standing out for their sheer camp spectacle. I usually avoid arena gigs like the plague but there was no denying Lady Gaga put on a mammoth performance and was note perfect alongside the dancing and costume changes, whilst Erasure rolled back the years with a succession of perfect pop classics.

But now, onto the top five…

Rival Sons @ Gorilla

Rival Sons – unrivalled.

4= Black Stone Cherry @ The Ritz and Rival Sons @ Gorilla

I’m putting these two shows together for a couple of reasons. Firstly, both bands have played far bigger shows in Manchester since, and I feel truly privileged to have snagged tickets to such intimate occasions. Secondly, the first time I saw both of these bands was when Rival Sons supported BSC at the Academy, so for me they’ll always be intertwined. BSC’s gig at The Ritz in 2014 felt like a fan club show where we got to sit in the band’s front room as 20-odd tracks were interspersed with banter and Q&As that you wouldn’t normally get from such a huge group, all inside a cosy 1,500-capacity venue. Not only did we get a one-off experience, BSC were also on fire, blitzing out old and new tracks alike with power and emotion that you couldn’t help but be taken in by.

Fellow Southern rockers Rival Sons played across the road on a different night at the even cosier Gorilla. Essentially a back-room-of-a-pub gig, seeing these guys so up close was an absolute honour and proved why they’ve rocketed in popularity so successfully over the past couple of years. As far as 70s-influenced bluesy riffing goes, Rival Sons are going to be tough to beat for the foreseeable future.

Kerbdog @ The Ritz

Cormac Battle – crushing dummies.

3 Kerbdog @ The Ritz

No write-up of 2014 would be complete without mentioning certain comebacks. Baby Chaos nearly made this list just from the pure euphoria of seeing them get back on stage and bang out half an hour of perfect pop rock, but the most welcome return has to have been Kerbdog. Not content with just playing a couple of club gigs to test the waters, they brought a load of old muckers along for the ride which saw Hawk Eyes, Nine Black Alps and Amplifier get us giddy with anticipation. But it was the Kilkenny four-piece who provided the biggest roar, making it hard to believe we’ve only ever had two albums from them, the latter of which emerged 17 years ago. Treated like returning heroes, Kerbdog had not lost a beat in the intervening years, nailing a high-octane masterclass and leaving a gleeful crowd relishing more new material in 2015.

Frank Turner - reach for the stars.

Frank Turner – reach for the stars.

2 Möngöl Hörde @ Academy 3

In between larger shows, Mr Frank Turner likes to get back to basics with the odd small and sweaty gig, and by taking his hardcore outfit Möngöl Hörde out on the road it was easy to fulfil such ambitions.  A dirty, punky and most importantly, fun show, this was a brilliant showcase of not just Turner‘s songwriting prowess but also an opportunity to pay homage to his influences. Covers of Rage Against The Machine‘s ‘Bulls On Parade’, Faith No More‘s ‘Epic’ and Sepultura‘s ‘Refuse/Resist’ all sat comfortably side-by-side with tracks off the Hörde‘s début album, and Turner himself surfed and threw himself all over the place in an energetic display of rock and roll splendour. It’s tough to beat a show that sees everyone in the room let themselves go with sheer enjoyment, but there can be only one winner…

Ginger @ The Roadhouse

Ginger Wildheart – father and son.

1 Ginger Wildheart @ The Roadhouse

I saw Ginger five times in 2014, once with The Wildhearts, once for his Halloween Hootenanny, once for his annual Birthday knees up, and once standing outside the packed Baby Godzilla show at Camden Rocks, but it was his gig at the smallest venue I’d seen him at since an acoustic show at Ashton-under-Lyne’s Witchwood in 2011 that really resonated with me.

After the hangovers had subsided from the aforementioned Halloween shindig, the relentless mainman took his merry band of cohorts as well as The Scaramanga Six and Eureka Machines on a jaunt North, and their first stop was Manchester’s Roadhouse. I was lucky enough to attend a pre-show meet and greet where Ginger seemed on excellent, relaxed form alongside his family and this atmosphere definitely seeped into the gig itself. Ginger smiled away throughout, Random Jon Poole and Kelli Compulsive bounced around like lunatics, and Chris Catalyst enhanced his pitch for Man of the Year with another show of double-duty perfection. The setlist was pitched brilliantly between classics and new songs that were only a few months old and for once the Manchester crowd did themselves proud, belting out each and every line. A family affair in the truest of senses, Ginger’s Roadhouse show was everything you’d want from an intimate gig with music, crowd and artist all simply falling into place, leaving the lucky punters who’d managed to grab a ticket grinning from ear to ear. Live music at its most joyous.

The Wildhearts + Eureka Machines + Baby Godzilla @ Manchester Academy – 5th April 2013

The Wildhearts @ Manchester Academy

Greetings From Hitsville

In the past two years, I’ve seen Ginger Wildheart live six times. I’ve watched him perform everywhere, from a tiny acoustic show in Ashton-under-Lyne and a support slot with The Darkness all the way up to his celebratory London birthday show where he even supported himself (does that make it seven times?) and a raucous couple of nights in larger Manchester venues. But when it was announced that The Wildhearts would be hitting the road to perform the nailed-on classic Earth Vs The Wildhearts album in full to celebrate its 20th anniversary, I felt a) very, very old and b) so excited I could actually have a bit of a cry.

To make me even more giddy with joy, Ginger and co once again proved how in touch with the fans they were by delivering some amazing value for money, announcing that both Eureka Machines and Baby Godzilla would feature on the bill.

Baby Godzilla @ Manchester Academy

Cutting their Baby teeth in Manchester Academy

I’d seen Baby Godzilla playing with Ginger in the tiny Club Academy, on a night where they completely blew second support act The Guns off the stage. The Welsh crew didn’t stand a chance following the ‘Zillas, as both Matt and Jonny took the show into the crowd, literally, and threw themselves around like demented wildebeest. So, faced with the daunting prospect of the near 2,500 capacity Academy 1, what would the band do? Exactly what they do best. It takes about 15 seconds for the band to lob guitars and mic stands into the crowd and perform most of their punky hardcore psychoblues set WITH the people.

Many stand on, enthralled (if a little scared) as the band tear through a storming clutch of songs, and lets be honest here, these boys know how to write a tune. Tracks such as Powerboat Disaster and A Good Idea Realised are not just mental slabs of rock and roll, they’re quality tracks which can spur any size crowd into having a good time. One thing’s for sure, Baby Godzilla aren’t a gimmicky, comedy band, they’re a quality group laying down some awe-inspiring sounds and they’ve only got bigger and better things in their future. And to the 10 year old kid handed a ‘Zilla guitar mid-set; yes, this lot will be your favourite band for years to come.

Eureka Machines @ Manchester Academy

A Eureka moment.

Following Baby Godzilla is never an easy task, but if anyone’s up to it, it’s Ginger-collaborator Chris Catalyst and his Eureka Machines. Another band who put on a great show no matter the venue, EM gurn and dance their way through catchy tune after catchy tune, their hardcore and loyal fan base loving every minute of their hugely enjoyable set. It might be an all too brief appearance for many (full tour coming soon, kids) but EM still pick out the best tracks from their three albums, so there’s something for everyone. Champion The Underdog is a great pop rock opener whilst Pop Star is brilliantly written, funny, and an absolute joy live. This Is The Story Of My Life and Affluenza get the crowd bopping like they’ve been close personal friends with the band for years, and None Of The Above and Zero Hero close things off magnificently, setting the scene perfectly for what is to follow. EM are another band at the peak of their powers, having as they do three albums worth of ridiculously good songs up their black sleeves, and it’s a shame they can’t play the whole ruddy lot.

After a short wait, the sense of anticipation is absolutely crazy. The crowd ranges from eight year olds to octogenarians, fans new and old all in attendance with one common goal; dancing like absolute lunatics to an album seen more as a life-changing moment in time than a simple shiny disc purchase. As Ginger, CJ, Random and Ritch take to the stage, you can’t spot a miserable British mug for miles; this isn’t a gig, this is a lock in with all your mates in the best sound-systemed pub in the world.

I probably don’t need to run through every song here, as you can guess what the band play (hint: check the Earth Vs… tracklisting for details), but if there is a better live opening salvo than Greetings From Shitsville, TV Tan and Everlone, I’ll eat my not inconsideable collection of headwear. My Baby Is A Headfuck rocks the crowd from front to back, and even though I’ve heard Suckerpunch so many times live over the years, the two decade-old song sounds even better once again, losing none of its whirling punkish attitude.

As for the encores, there had been talk pre-gig of the fans being able to pick the songs, and this does ring true as long-standing roadies Dunc and Stevie wield giant boards plastered with various songs from the entire Wildhearts back catalogue, with the louder cheer signifying which would be played.

Trickier than it sounds, the crowd seem genuinely pained to pick between Caffeine Bomb and Sick Of Drugs, but one thing this scheme does lend itself to is the opportunity to hear some songs that haven’t been played that much over the years. TV EP track Dangerlust beats Naivety Play to the punch, whilst a close call sees Geordie In Wonderland edge out Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes and a similarly tight decision ensures 29 x The Pain gets heard over usual show-closer I Wanna Go Where The People Go.

As the band exit the stage for the final time, the shared joy in the venue is truly palpable. The Wildhearts seem just as proud as the audience in being part of such an astoundingly happy night, where songs that have meant so much to so many for so many years get the airing they deserve. Some might see anniversary tours as a faddy, cynical cash-in, but if anyone would begrudge us of this amazing night, they need to grow a new soul. Magical stuff.