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.

Therapy? @ Manchester Academy 2 – 18th April 2015

Therapy? @ Manchester Academy

Therapy? – Hopefully going nowhere.

To get it out of the way up front, Therapy? are my favourite band. I’ve been listening to them on record and bouncing around to them in various states of inebriation live for over 20 years now, whether at Donington, at home in Bristol, at Uni in Sheffield or most recently in Manchester, but as with any band or review, I’ll always call a spade a spade and be brutally honest about any live performance or record.

Many bands that have been around as long as Therapy? will have a hardcore of fans who blindly go along with all that it is put before them but with this particular bunch you’re always challenged. After being at the forefront of the mid-90s rock resurgence, the band made albums that were raw, catchy, bleak and drug-addled with one simple consistency; fight. Therapy? wouldn’t lie down. They wouldn’t compromise. And they’ve certainly never been in the business of bowing to commercial pressures.

So here we are in 2015. Therapy? have recently released album number 12, Disquiet and they’re all set to lay waste to Manchester’s Academy 2 on a sunny Spring evening. Before tonight’s gig, I’m asked in the pub who I’m off to see and my reply is met with the usual “Christ, are they still going?” The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’ and by not realising that, you’ve been missing out on some of the most brilliant music and consistently enjoyable live shows in modern rock.

The venue isn’t sold out tonight as it was for last year’s 20th anniversary Troublegum show, but the crowd is healthy and ready for the first live outing of tracks from T?‘s latest opus. Meeting that need with a snarling ‘Still Hurts’, Therapy? hit the ground running; frontman Andy Cairns is as wide-eyed and psychotically brilliant as ever whilst Michael McKeegan pogoes around, showing no less enthusiasm than the very first time he set foot on stage. The Manc-pleasing ‘Isolation’ is up next followed by Troublegum partner in crime ‘Die Laughing’ and despite many in attendance having heard these songs countless times, every word is still belted back joyously at a grinning Cairns. Even tracks like ‘Vulgar Display Of Powder’ and ‘Idiot Cousin’ are surprisingly well-known despite only being a month or so old, proving that T? can still drive a hook into your long-term memory after only a couple of listens.

With so many tracks to choose between from their long career, there were always going to be some major omissions (namely everything from 1998 to 2012), but Therapy? can’t get away with ignoring their classics and they simply have too many of them these days. ‘A Moment Of Clarity’ gets more harrowingly beautiful with every listen, raising goosebumps throughout a captivating six minutes, whilst ‘Turn’, ‘Stories’ and ‘Nausea’ are anthemic to the ears of the adoring pit.

Therapy? @ Manchester Academy

Andy Cairns – Evil Elvis on top.

If Therapy? were to have a theme tune it’d be a toss-up between ‘Screamager’ and ‘Teethgrinder’ as both songs encapsulate what the band have always stood for; the former being the catchiest thing since a particularly hook-loving sea bass whilst the latter will forever stand as a proclamation of the dawning of a new era of heavy music, both danceable yet angular and twisted. So by pairing the two together in the live setting, Therapy? nail a euphoric high you’d struggle to get from sticking a skag jabber directly into your eyeball.

After such a crescendo you’d be disappointed to see on paper the set closing with ‘Deathstimate’ and ‘Diane’ but this comedown simply doesn’t materialise. ‘Deathstimate’ is monolithic in riff whilst allowing a chance for us to cool down and ‘Diane’ is given such a powerfully upbeat reworking compared to the version on Infernal Love that you’d almost be forgiven for glossing over the subject matter.

It only takes a short break for T? to re-emerge and hammer into a violent ‘Knives’, a rare outing for ‘Skinning Pit’ and the familiar ‘Potato Junkie’ and ‘Nowhere’. All four sound as fresh as they did two decades earlier and screaming about Irish novelists having carnal relations with your siblings has never been more fun.

What we’ve had tonight are 22 songs of brilliance, variety, passion and integrity. I’ve yet to find a band who can equal such consistency and I challenge you to find a show packed with more quality than tonight. Quite simply, Therapy? ooze excellence and long may it continue.

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 Affs Awards 2013 – Gig of the Year

As is now customary, as well as my reviews that I post here and the missives I’ve been filing this year to Daily Dischord, I like to do what every other magazine/blog/back of a fag packet writer likes to do and tie up the previous year in some sort of ‘Top 5’ style bonanza. Fortunately for you, you’ve stumbled across the latest one, as I embark on the 2013 Affs Award for Gig Of The Year.

Andy Cairns

Acoustic therapy.

4=
I’m going to cheat a bit with number four and combine two gigs into one. They’re my awards, I can do that, and the tenuous link is that they were both acoustic and saw frontmen more renowned for their band’s work than their solo stuff putting on remarkable intimate shows.

First up, Andy Cairns. If you know me or read this blog with any amount of regularity (my full review of the show is here), you’ll know that on balance, Therapy? are my favourite band of all time and I’ve been following their adventures since I was just a youngling. One thing I hadn’t seen though was this amount of T? songs in an acoustic format. Yes, there were a selection of stripped down Therapy? hits on the b-sides of the ‘Diane’ singles and the title track was given a suitably raw treatment when I saw them at Sheffield’s Leadmill in around 1998, but this was the first time that frontman Cairns had gone out on the road by himself. Perched on the stage in the small Ruby Lounge, Cairns combined well-known classics, hilarious banter and alternative versions of more familiar songs and gave us a night we really didn’t want to end.

The crowd was completely on point and although some of the singalongs may have wavered the more beer was drunk, the love of Therapy?‘s entire canon was more than evident.

Tony Wright

Tone alone.

The other acoustic show that deserves a place here came courtesy of Terrorvision frontman Tony Wright and Almighty/Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders leader Ricky Warwick. Putting on a tour in-between other assignments, the opportunity to see the two play in such a way, in a small venue was again a delight. Tony showed some guitar playing skills as he banged out numerous Terrorvision classics, whilst Warwick delivered a blisteringly heartfelt but joyous set of everything he’s ever been involved with. Two great guys having as much fun as the crowd led to one of the definitive live experiences of the year.

3
Top three time and this one should be no surprise, it’s the 5th annual Ginger Wildheart Birthday Show. Last year, the equivalent show made it to number one in my list, and although once again proving to be an amazing experience, the gig was pipped to the post this time around.

Hey! Hello!

Well Hello there.

But before we move on, let’s look at just how it all went down at the mainman’s celebratory shindig. First and foremost this was a whole different set up to 2012’s show. The change of venue to London’s Koko made the night more intimate and the elaborate decor was fitting, but whereas last year was focused around the reformation of The Wildhearts, this year was all about Ginger’s many influences, friends and contemporaries. Around 30 guests appeared alongside Ginger, from members of Snow Patrol to The Damned, through to faces new to many, the ever-rotating line up brought some incredible moments. Frank Turner nailing ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go’ and a cover of ‘Baby Blue’ featuring Yolanda from Phantom Limb which left even co-vocalist Victoria Liedtke in awe, this night was full of variety and pure unadulterated joy. Maybe not as much of a crowd pleaser as 2012 but personally I found the surprises hugely refreshing.

2
Number two in my list is an interesting one as I’d seen this person previously with mixed results. On one occasion I’d witnessed a mute but haunting show in a cathedral which was ended prematurely by tramps with a toaster. The second time was one of the most intense dirges I’ve seen live. The third time though was different. The artist in question was Mark Lanegan and this time he meant business.

Mark Lanegan

Red and alert.

For such a seemingly reluctant frontman, Lanegan is hugely prolific whether he’s churning out records with his own band or with long-term collaborator Isobel Campbell. You’ll find a new record of his in the shops every year, but what made 2013 a bit different was that Lanegan had chosen to release a covers album featuring stripped down, bleak versions of 60s and 70s songs that he grew up listening to. Touring the record, Lanegan chose the Royal Northern College of Music for the Manchester date, and the best acoustics in townTM, didn’t let him down. Seemingly at home in the all-seater venue, Lanegan mixed up old hits with the aforementioned new covers and backed by a hugely talented band, he was utterly mesmerising for the whole set, almost bringing you to tears with his covers of ‘Solitaire’ and (in tribute to the recently deceased Lou Reed) ‘Satellite of Love’. Another one of those nights where everything simply fell into place, this was utterly brilliant stuff.

Manic Street Preachers @ Manchester Ritz

James Dean Bradfield – Everlasting

1
And so to the best gig of 2013, and this was a complete surprise to me; it’s the return of the Manic Street Preachers. When I bought the tickets for this one I was expecting a bit of a nostalgia hit and some time to get the beers in when the band played their newer stuff. But just how wrong was I? Wrong diddly wrong wrong, that’s how wrong. What I got that night was a reminder of why I got into rock and roll in the first place. Not only did the Manics tear a new one into a sold out Ritz, everyone in there sang every word and suddenly I found myself enjoying their previously more alien latter-day material. As incendiary as when I first saw them nearly two decades previously, this was a special, special night that is unlikely to be repeated.

So there we have it, a new name etched onto the trophy and a few surprises courtesy of the year that was 2013. Bring on 2014!

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 Affs Awards 2012 – Album Of The Year

Following the difficult job of picking my live highlights of the past 12 months, choosing my top long players of 2012 was even more tricky. Nevertheless, I’ve struggled on like the brave soldier that I am, and here, for your delectation, are the top four (who said three or five were the best way to do these things?) including the winner of The Affs Award 2012 for Album Of The Year.

Therapy? 'A Brief Crack Of Light'4) Therapy? ‘A Brief Crack Of Light’

Therapy? Have been my favourite band for a hell of a long time, going all the way back to ’91/’92’s one-two punch of the seminal Babyteeth and Pleasure Death mini albums. But being someone’s favourite band arguably makes a band’s job harder with each new release. Therapy? have never really been a band to churn out the same old shtick time and time again, refusing to bow to current trends or producing obvious sequels to previous output, so buying a new T? record is always an exciting time.

Returning after a three-year touring spree off the back of the brilliant ‘Crooked Timber’, Therapy? posted a video for the track ‘Living In The Shadow of The Terrible Thing’ online in early 2012. Their trademark sound cut through the song with the underlying groove of bassist Michael McKeegan setting up an urgent, almost mechanical chorus. Definitely a good sign of what was to come, and when ‘A Brief Crack of Light’ was released in full the next month it completely lived up to expectations.

I still remember way back in 1995 when picking up my copy of ‘Infernal Love’ what a shock it was as the band moved into more epic, morose territory after the instant pop-punk hooks of their breakthrough ‘Troublegum’ CD. With ‘A Brief Crack of Light’, Therapy?’s sound is even more rounded and mature, but this isn’t a boring album by any stretch of the imagination. There are some really jarring, challenging tracks among the 10 on offer, with ‘Plague Bell’ and ‘The Buzzing’ offering staccato nails to the back of the neck whilst ‘Get Your Dead Hand Off My Shoulder’ mixes a bleak soundscape with forward-thinking lyrics about the need to break free from the norm. Something which Therapy? have consistently delivered upon over an impressive two decades.

‘A Brief Crack of Light’ is a hugely diverse album, mixing themes of bleak desolation and mental illness with the positivity of revolution to incredible effect. This isn’t a concept album by any stretch of the imagination, but the angular songs feel like brothers, birthed by a twin-headed mother of creation and death. Brilliant stuff from a band that show no signs of letting up from their trademark fiery spirit.

Fighting With Wire 'Colonel Blood'3) Fighting With Wire ‘Colonel Blood’

The mid-90s saw numerous brilliant bands emerge from nowhere, get decent record deals and then promptly become lost in the shuffle due to the insta-hit nature of the MTV generation’s musical swing-o-meter.

Bands such as Kerbdog and Baby Chaos struggled on for a couple of albums despite the flavour of the month attitudes of the record industry at the time, and luckily they left us with some classic songs and incendiary gigs to remember them by.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and we’re seeing another boom. Fan power has taken over and any band can get such a push through social media that they could see themselves playing to thousands within a few short months as word spreads across the country. Twin Atlantic have done just this, jumping from 500 capacity venues to nigh on 3000 person sell-outs in just over a year. But we’re not here to talk about Twin Atlantic, as good as they are. No, we’re here to talk about the next band who threaten to hit it big, Fighting With Wire.

If you’d asked me who the band were at the start of 2012, I probably would have responded with “who? Writing With Fire?” and laughed in your insistent face. But on one night, as I waited for the headliners at Sound Control in Manchester, I realised what the fuss was about.

Fighting With Wire have been around for ten years now, but despite getting decent slots at Download and Sonisphere and the backing of Zane Lowe, the band had been fighting for two years to get their second album, ‘Colonel Blood’ released. Finally, in 2012 they were ready, and to promote it, they toured the UK with hardcore godfathers Helmet. A decent enough crowd had assembled that night in Manchester by the time FWW took to the stage and as they kicked off with ‘Into The Ground’ I was taken straight back to the days of surprise package support acts.

The three piece are raw, energetic, passionate and catchy as hell, so I had no hesitation in getting my hands on said sophomore album after that one gig.

Tracks such as ‘Waiting On a Way To Believe’ show an instant pop rock hook, comparable to the much-missed Joyrider, whilst the title track pilfers the Kerbdog crown by doing what the Kilkenny three-piece did so well; writing crunchy, melodic hits, full of sing-along live potential.

Fighting With Wire aren’t content with just paying homage to such great acts though, and as ‘Erase You’, ‘Dead Memory’ and ‘Didn’t Wanna Come Back Home’ get your foot tapping with their soaring melodies you soon discover the band’s own sound.

The album contains brilliantly crafted, modern rock anthems throughout, and you can bet that with a few more high-profile live support slots, these guys are going to be huge.

Black Moth 'The Killing Jar'2) Black Moth ‘The Killing Jar’

The beauty of the modern-day musical landscape is that you can stumble upon bands like Fighting With Wire by pure accident and suddenly they become your band of the year. But 2012 didn’t just throw up one surprise package, oh no. Another bunch of young upstarts threw me a bunch of dirty riffs and I was only too happy to respond with a trip to the merch stand to get that music into my ears permanently, and that band were Black Moth.

Before my trip to Nottingham to see Turbowolf, a friend had mentioned the ‘Moth were worth checking out after hearing them on 6 Music, so I made sure I got down there early to see what the fuss was about.

Black Moth are a multi-limbed beast of a groove machine and this is brilliantly personified in live opener ‘Blackbirds Fall’. The opening riff strikes you square in the mouth, embedding itself there like a fuzzy facehugger before Harriet Bevan’s vocals arrive to kiss you better with their seductive tone.

This is a band once again not taking themselves too seriously but playing for the fun of it. Yes, they’re a serious band but they get up on stages of all shapes and sizes to throw down some riffs and make sure everyone has a damn good time, an ethic that is reflected throughout the whole of ‘The Killing Jar’.

The doomy, stoner tone of the album references so many varied influences from QOTSA to Kyuss, mixing in the rock and roll swagger of Black Spiders, the hypnotic sludge of Sabbath, an almost occult 60s/70s tone akin to Blood Ceremony and plenty more all the way through to the modern metal of recent tourmates Turbowolf.

The Leeds five-piece show some serious songwriting chops too, particularly with ‘Land of the Sky”s buzzy, head-thumping groove, ‘Chicken Shit’ throwing its bile all over the carpet and ‘Spit Out Your Teeth”s runaway locomotive crescendo.

What you have here is a band who sound just as good in your bedroom as they do live, and by throwing in five decades worth of inspiration, Black Moth have emerged from their chrysalis with wings full of doomy glory.

Ginger Wildheart '555%'1) Ginger Wildheart ‘555%’

There can be only one.

Over the past couple of years one man has gently been reminding us that he never really went away and that for over 20 years he’s been working his backside off for the love of music with true empathy for the people who make it all happen, the fans. That man is Ginger.

Yes I’ve been a fan of the guy’s various musical output since the early 90s, but these are not the views of a sycophantic fanboy, what Ginger is doing these days is entirely on another level.

Back in August 2011, Ginger announced that he was to make a fan-funded 30 track album based on years of unfinished, unrecorded work. Going via the route of Pledge Music, a fledgling concept in independent music production, the project hit 100% of its target within six hours and it was from there that the album took on a whole new meaning.

With a range of vinyl and CD versions available to pledgers, Ginger eventually announced that once the campaign hit ‘555%’ the physical copies of the album would be withdrawn from sale. Achieving this feat within the next three days, an expectant 5,000 or so pledgers sat with bated breath and when the downloadable versions of the tracks were released, those who had already paid up were awarded the privilege of being able to choose which 12 tracks should make up ‘100%’, the commercially available version of the record.

But what about the music itself? One worry could have been that these off-cuts were unreleased for a reason. Others may have been concerned that without the focus of nailing a lower number of tracks, Ginger’s usually spot-on quality control might waver and that standards may suffer.

All I can say is, don’t be so bloody silly. My beautifully packaged physical copy of ‘555%’ landed on my doormat one Saturday morning in May 2012, and I have not stopped listening to it since.

‘555%’ truly has something for everyone ensconced within its poppy/rocky/punky/trashy/groovy/ballady (note: some of these may not be real words) interior. Kicking off with the trademark, swaggering ‘Forget About It’ which wouldn’t be out-of-place on the greatest of Wildhearts records, the record throws instant classics at you like a particularly angry Donkey Kong. ‘I-N-T-E-R-N-A-L Radio’ is a catchy little oik, fusing together some soaring pop-rock melodies, whilst ‘Incidental Noises’ takes a little more of a psychedelic route into your inner ear.

‘Deep In The Arms Of Morpheus’ has been knocking around in unrecorded form for years, with Ginger previously mentioning he wrote it when he was only 19, and on ‘555%’ the track becomes an absolutely epic slab of modern rock balladry. The similarly monumental ‘Time’ rounds off the first CD with a perfect seven and a half minutes of clock chimes, Beatles-tinged melody and furious riffy idiosyncrasy.

The second disc begins with possibly the finest moment of the whole package, ‘Another Spinning Fucking Rainbow’. This megaphone screeching, bleep-a-thon of a funker throws in some truly bonkers noise before veering towards country and western territory. Not to be outdone, following track ‘Westward Ho! (A New Reputation)’ does little to quell the nerves of traditionalists with its calypso metal mash-up.

The challengingly-titled ‘Do The Lonely Suffer More, Or Less, Or Just The Same At The Point Of Death?’ brings an 80s New Order/Depeche Mode feel to begin with, before dropping some Beach Boys crooning and trad-Ginger riffs along a rollercoaster four minutes. ‘The Other Side’ is a beautiful little number showing just why Ginger decided to do a whole album featuring just himself and vocalist Victoria Liedtke (on the upcoming Hey! Hello! Pledge Music album), whilst ‘Lover, It’ll All Work Out’ is a brilliantly catchy love song, possibly even one of Ginger’s all-time best.

‘Taste Aversion’, already a live favourite, is pure, twisted musical genius. No doubt thanks to some Random Jon Poole-influenced eccentricity, the song’s seemingly drug-referencing lyrics spiral into a mellow false sense of security before a furious dive into a death metal blast followed by a calming lift muzak escape.

The third CD is no way the lesser of the whole package as the electronic stomper ‘Confusion’ and the riffy ‘Beautifully, Blissfully Unsettled’ attest. Oddball track ‘Very, Very Slow’ proves that all the punk ferocity is still alive and well in Ginger’s merry band of hugely talented musical allies, whilst ‘Just Another Song About Someone’ is a swaying piece of beautiful melody, composed perfectly for some brilliant future acoustic performances.

Campfire singalong “We’ve Been Expecting You My Dear’ coupled with the no-brainer album closer ‘The End’ keep the sky-high levels of quality going right up until the lead-out groove, and despite the whole package being so massive an undertaking, your first urge is to go right back to the start immediately for round two. There’s no question whatsoever that this is an absolutely enthralling, phenomenal, must-buy musical journey that blows pretty much every other release of the past year, possibly the decade, so clean out of the water there’s not even a skidmark remaining.

It isn’t too bold a statement to suggest that what Ginger has done with ‘555%’ is game-changing. It’s a whole new musical model fit just as much for old school values as it is for modern buying habits. He may not have invented the concept, but by packing the album with so much value and incredible music, Ginger has put a marker down for others to either follow or find themselves coming up very short indeed.