2017 – A Year In Review: Album Of The Year Part One

Album Of The Year2017 was a bit of an odd year for me and music. There were the usual bands sticking to their standard release cycles, a couple of uninspiring efforts by established artists and some surprisingly excellent records by new kids on the block, but it’s taken the full 365 days (plus a couple more) for me to figure out which were my favourites, with no real runaway winners like last year.

All Them Witches
All Them Witches – Sleeping Through The War

Old stagers Marilyn Manson and Sepultura produced their finest efforts of the past decade in Heaven Upside Down and Machine Messiah respectively, both proving they’ve not lost the fury so prevalent in their earlier careers. Someone who seems to have never stopped meanwhile, Mr Mike Patton produced another raucous cacophony with new band Dead Cross, whilst the softer side of Americana saw Mark Lanegan produce another effortlessly amazing record in Gargoyle and All Them Witches fuzz us all up with the delirious Sleeping Through The War. Queens Of The Stone Age, Trivium and Mastodon all struggled a little this year with each of their new releases just failing to capture what went before; victims of their own success perhaps?

Blood Command
Blood Command – Cult Drugs

Cranking up the heaviness, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary both gave the new death metal generation a run for their money with a pair of crushing albums, whilst Behemoth frontman Nergal took a slightly different route, exploring country music alongside John Porter on the fascinating Me And That Man. Another new take on extreme music saw Blood Command turn many heads, their third album of deathpop, Cult Drugs, finally pushing them into the mainstream, something that Vukovi will be hoping to replicate as they grow their alt-rock sound off the back of their excellent self-titled debut.

Back over in Blighty, the UK scene continued to go from strength to strength with a reborn Pulled Apart By Horses leading the charge on the excellent The Haze. Frank Carter banged out his second, slightly tamer solo effort whilst much-touted Bristol punks Idles turned numerous heads with their vitriolic debut, Brutalism. There was still room for a few old hands to get in on the act though with Cradle Of Filth launching another grandiose platter in Cryptoriana, and Black Star Riders taking their sound another step further on Heavy Fire.

Iron Monkey
Iron Monkey – 9-13

If you’d told me five years ago that we’d see new records from Akercocke and Iron Monkey in 2017, I’d not only have looked at you like you were a mentalist but also been as giddy as the proverbial kipper. Although the Monkey were never likely to hit Johnny Morrow-era levels of brutality, 9-13 was still a solid outing and Akercocke proved they’ve still got that wicked Satanic glint on Renaissance In Extremis.

Paradise Lost also went back to their darker routes on modern doom classic Medusa with guitarist Gregor Mackintosh pulling double duty by banging out another crushing Vallenfyre opus, Fear Those Who Fear Him. In fact doom started to rediscover some real form with bands like Spaceslug, Pallbearer and Elder bringing the genre bang up to date with a trio of modern classics.

Of course there’s always a section on here for Ginger Wildheart-related releases and 2017 was no different with friends and former collaborators releasing a ton of new material this past 12 months. Chris McCormack and Tom Spencer helped bring a modern punk ethos to the latest outing from stalwarts The Professionals, 20 years after their last record. Role Models showed no signs of slowing down with the high-energy rock and roll explosion Dance Moves, whilst Hellbound Hearts pulled out all the stops on a modern metal classic in Film Noir. Ginger himself explored a more country vibe with Ghost In The Tanglewood, inspired perhaps by recent collaborations with Ryan Hamilton who himself launched his catchy-as-anything The Devil’s In The Detail. CJ Wildheart meanwhile went the other way, blasting out the heavy Blood with a new-found fervor after a difficult 12 months.

But none of these records quite managed to make my top picks of 2017. To find out what did, stay tuned pop pickers…

Andy Cairns @ The Ruby Lounge, Manchester – 31st May 2013

Andy Cairns @ The Ruby Lounge
Andy Cairns – Going nowhere anytime soon.

When I talk to people about Therapy?, the reactions vary wildly. Those of a similar age to me remember their bigger hits and maybe the odd Top Of The Pops performance, whilst others seem genuinely surprised they’ve released any records in the past 10 years. Fortunately, the band have had a loyal, hardcore set of fans throughout their career and it’s these people who make sure they keep plugging away and churning out quality records and astonishing live shows.

Following last year’s tour in support of the magnificent ‘A Brief Crack Of Light’, the Therapy? apparently had a large enough window in their schedule to try something a bit different, sending frontman Andy Cairns out around the country by himself to play Therapy? classics both new and old as well as trialing some new material for the first time in public.

This wasn’t the first time the members of Therapy? have dabbled in acoustic songs; back in 1995, the B-Sides to the ‘Diane’ single featured some great arrangements of both ‘Troublegum’ and ‘Infernal Love’-era tracks. Even so, it’s not often that Andy performs live by himself, so the announcement of a solo acoustic tour during this mid-album period was exciting if a little rare.

Catching the tour on a sunny Friday evening in Manchester probably helps to set an enthusiastic mood, but the like-minded souls in attendance at The Ruby Lounge would still be grinning ear to ear if it was snowing outside and all the beer had been stolen by booze weasels.

On entering the venue a fluffy-sideburned wingman/long time guitar tech for both Therapy? and The Wildhearts, Stevie Firth, is manning the merch stand, flogging signed Cairns CDs recorded specifically as tour mementos. There aren’t many bands out there who would go to such an effort, and it’s these little things that lend the night a great relaxed vibe.

Support on the tour is being handled by local outfits in each town and it’s pleasing to see decent crowds for both Greg Larkin‘s incredible dexterity and Exit Ten‘s enjoyable, catchy set.

Andy Cairns @ The Ruby Lounge
Andy Cairns hears there’s a party at Lake Cove.

After a short break, a happy and chatty Andy Cairns takes to the stage and launches into an incredible ‘Die Laughing’. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times on record and at probably every Therapy? show I’ve attended, but acoustically it takes on a whole new dimension.

Cairns rattles through numerous singles, each being met with utter joy by an appreciative mob. ‘Lonely Crying Only’, ‘Nowhere’, the oft-forgotten ‘Opal Mantra’ ( I may have optimistically requested ‘Auto Surgery’ at this point), ‘Loose’ and of course the band’s biggest hit to date ‘Screamager’ all put smiles on faces and springs in steps and it’s a wonder that a mini mosh doesn’t break out instantaneously.

Even sinister short sharp shocks such as ‘Knives’ work brilliantly either solo or with Stevie as he takes to the stage later on, whilst a frantic ‘Our Love Must Die’, live favourite ‘Stop It You’re Killing Me’ and old school classics ‘Meat Abstract’ and ‘Potato Junkie’ get a more enthusiastic response than I’ve seen at some fully plugged-in shows by other bands.

Both Cairns and Firth help set the tone with between-song anecdotes and banter, whether it’s Stevie professing his undying love for Taco Bell or Cairns giving small insights into how certain songs came about, both are brilliantly natural and genuine entertainers, taking the time to respond to the crowd as well as keeping the momentum going.

Perhaps the main beauty of this show is the way the audience participation works. Most in attendance are singing along to each and every classic, but Cairns is loud enough to cover a couple of over-enthusiastic duff notes from the crowd, whilst also encouraging maximum volume for ‘Church of NOISE’ and the chorus of ‘Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing’. The favour is dutifully returned when, during a stunning ‘Diane’ (Therapy?‘s outstanding Hüsker Dü cover) the crowd watch on respectfully to ensure full impact.

You probably wouldn’t be able to get a better crowd in such a notoriously tough-to-please city, and it’s testament to Cairns and his songwriting ability that a good couple of hundred have turned out tonight to witness this one-off event.

The highlight of the night oddly comes during the kind-of-new-song ‘Lost In Care’. A recognisable track (since parts of it were extracted to create ‘The Buzzing’ from Therapy?‘s last record), this stripped down, haunting take on mental illness is hugely powerful and you can’t help but feel privileged to have experienced it at such an intimate venue.

As the show ends, this acoustic jaunt through the Therapy? back catalogue has proven to be a triumphantly special and unique event that immediately makes me want to do it all over again. Here’s hoping…

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.

Bush @ Manchester Academy 2 – 29th August 2012

Bush Live
Bush – Timeless

If there’s one thing that Bush were always renowned for, it was for being massively popular during the late grunge era in America, whilst remaining relatively unknown in their homeland. This always made me wonder whether they felt it was a comedown (if you’ll excuse the pun) to play smaller shows over on these shores, or if they found it refreshing. Either way, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see them up close and personal at the, shall we say ‘modestly-sized’ Manchester Academy 2.

From memory, the last time I saw the band was in November 1995 at another rather intimate show. Playing off the back of their debut (and in my view, still finest) record, Bush destroyed Bristol Bierkeller with an energetic, riffy set, filled with hooks alongside some mellow moments, despite only having 12 songs to play with.

Back then, I believe Placebo may have supported Bush, but 17 years later it was the turn of a new, interesting band (well, duo), Bluebell. I’d got wind of them being the support act and had checked out what limited information there was about them on the Internet beforehand. The main points of note appeared to be that a) they’ve just released a single accompanied by a NSFW video montage of random people’s intimate photos, and b) that their vocalist, Annabell Jones, is the daughter of the late Monkee Davy Jones. Pitched as a synth-pop combo, the band in place for the live set were surprisingly heavy and crunchy with some great grooves and impressive vocals. A short 20 minute set (featuring the aforementioned single, Normal Heights) seemed to swing a fair proportion of the crowd by the end, and I’d love to see these guys again in a more intimate venue on their own tour.

As 9pm drew near, there was a surprisingly low amount of palpable excitement for the imminent arrival of the main act. Manchester audiences can be notoriously difficult to get going, and this probably wasn’t helped by Bush having only reformed two years ago after an eight-year hiatus. Nevertheless, Sixteen Stone remains one of my favourite albums of all time, so I was ready to hear those classic songs live again after so long. When Gavin Rossdale and Robin Goodridge (plus new recruits Chris Traynor and Corey Britz) made their way on stage, the response was a tad muted but as the opening bars of Machinehead kicked in, it really felt like they’d never been away. Rossdale in particular threw his all into the performance from the off, gleaming with sweat after only a few minutes and whirling around the stage like a dervish; if one thing was for sure, Bush were going to get the crowd going one way or another.

Gavin Rossdale of Bush
Gavin Rossdale – ripped and ready

Next up in the set was All My Life from the band’s most recent opus The Sea of Memories and again the response was mild with only a few guys in the middle of the room bopping around, but then it became clear what the audience was there for. As Bush launched into The Chemicals Between Us it appeared that much of the crowd were mid-era fans who had been swept up by the group’s The Science of Things album. Veering back towards the new with The Sound of Winter, the crowd continued to get warmed up, so when Everything Zen hit, the good times truly had begun to roll. Still a classic tune to this day, Rossdale seemed particularly pleased that so many still appreciated the track, remarking that he was glad they’d made it so far North this time around. Swallowed was belted out with similar heart and soul, and after Prizefighter, Stand Up and Greedy Fly, a stunningly beautiful rendition of Alien got the entire crowd singing their hearts out. Closing the main set with an electric Little Things, Bush finally had the entire room eating out of the palm of their hands.

Encoring with Pink Floyd’s Breathe, The Beatles’ Come Together and a majestic Glycerine and Comedown, Bush showed that despite the line-up changes they could still play a tight, fast-paced, enthralling set. If 1995 saw Bush as ‘the new Nirvana’ then 2012 has well and truly shown them as a band at the peak of their very own amazing sound.