The Best Albums of 2013

I thought I’d write a little piece about some of my favourite music of the year… but I gotta say, this post:

Kent Green’s Albums of 2013

pretty much encapsulates everything I wanted to say, bar some of his music choices (which I haven’t heard!).

I spent 2012 listening to CDs and vinyl… but even then, only a limited amount.  2013 was my year of Napster.  I still listen to my vinyl but this has definitely been my year of streaming.  My year of 100101100101s (that’s ones and zeros – music as data).  I have speakers all over the house wirelessly sucking on those binary jewels.  I haven’t listened to so much music in years.  Yes, I don’t own any of it – I’m just ‘renting’ – but listening to anything is better than listening to nothing.  Isn’t it?  Hmmmm.  So, in a much less professional manner than Kent Green, I’ll list some of the music that made my 2013. (In no particular order… although I’ll label them 1-10 anyway)

10) Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds  I think my most listened to album of 2013 was Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’.  The original ’70s version.  Fantastic album.  Should be required listening by everyone.  All of the time.  It’s like a lesson in music.  And relax.  What?  Doesn’t count as a 2013 album?  No shit Sherlock.

9) Babyshambles – Sequel to the Prequel Look, I’m not the biggest fan of Pete Doherty.  I’m really not.  But credit where credit’s due.  Great album.

8) Paul McCartney – New Yeah, he’s old.  Yeah, he should just stop.  His voice is shot yadda yadda.  How about we give our greatest living songwriter some respect?

7) Arctic Monkeys – AM I liked this album.  It was pretty good.  Not sure about the quiff and the accent – you’re from bloody Sheffield!!!  But a good album is a good album.

6) Katy Perry – PRISM Gave it a listen.  Loved it.  Not rock?  Who cares.  Class stuff.  End of.

5) Haim – Days Are Gone This band caught me by surprise.  It appears the rest of the world were already aware of them due to their previous existence as some kind of children’s TV band.  Anyway, I saw them on Jools Holland and thought ‘They’re okay – perhaps the bass player could tone down the facial stuff?’ …. but even that’s grown on me.  Great album in the old school tradition.  Outstanding, pumping production.  Thumbs up.

4) Peal Jam – Lightning Bolt I loved ‘Ten’.  I liked ‘Vs’.  I tolerated ‘Vitalogy’.  Then Peal Jam became completely irrelevant to me.  So it was with a damp, shaking hand that I clicked play on ‘Lightning Bolt’.  I shouldn’t have worried.  Rather than being confronted by Father Stone (Father Ted reference there) I was presented with a really kicking rock album.  I absolutely was not expecting that.  I’ll always big up the older generation.  The kids could learn something!!!

3) Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus A great heaving album.  A looping, shape-shifting monster of an album.  Say no more.

2) Suede – Bloodsports I reviewed this album earlier in the year.  As comeback albums go, this is majestic.  Love it.

1) Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) Simply the best album of the year.  If you haven’t heard it yet then put it at the top of your list of things to do in 2014.  The most eclectic, intricate, heartfelt album in yonks.

0) Black Sabbath – 13 Can I have a zero? This album ruled the world… and rightly so.  13 blasted from the speakers around my house and filled the air with doom.  What more can any of us ask for?  Another one for the old guys!  Youth of today… you’ve got to up your act!!!

And there you go.  A pretty mainstream collection of albums it may be.  But that’s how the cookie crumbles.  If I’d listened to more albums the list may have been different.  There are some more obscure albums that could have made the top ten (eleven), but, hey, they didn’t.  That’s life!  And a shout out to 30 Seconds to Mars for a fantastic gig and some great albums that I am now catching up on.  Perhaps LOVE LUST FAITH + DREAMS should be in my chart? Hmmm.  Yep.  Why not?  Make it twelve.  In any case, I think music had a good 2013.

Album Review: Iron Maiden – ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

A Matter of Life and Death.  Great film.  Seen it?  I expect not.  It’s not the sort of film that would be made anymore.  When it comes to Iron Maiden I’ve got to admit that I gave up on them after Bruce Dickinson abandoned ship in the ‘90s.  I was going in a different direction in my life so it would be unfair to blame Maiden entirely for my disloyalty.  However, the band did not make it easy for people like me – the fans who didn’t have the ‘Killers’ album cover tattooed on their backs.  Maiden stuck, AC/DC/Status Quo-like, steadfastly to their blueprint.  It was as if the onward progression of music could not be heard from the lofty, ivory towers of millionaire rock stars.  I like the sound people make when they take risks.  For better or for worse, at least the music an artist creates when he tries to break the mould is interesting.  I didn’t hear that from Maiden after ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, and yet, for a while I still enjoyed their music.  Iron Maiden did themselves no favours.  They painted themselves into a corner.  Dickinson’s decision to quit was probably the right thing for him to do at the time.  Maiden’s decision to replace him with Blaze Bayley destroyed one of my favourite bands – Wolfsbane.  I had a ticket to the Wolfsbane gig that was cancelled due to the Iron Maiden announcement and I remember being in two minds about it.  I loved Blaze Bayley and thought he’d be a pretty good fit for Iron Maiden.  In Wolsbane’s early days Bayley looked like an evil, demented Bruce Dickinson.  He did.  Seriously!  He had a similar quality to his voice too, albeit eight octaves lower.  I completely understand why he jumped at the Maiden gig.  Who wouldn’t?  To be lifted from obscurity and get to play with the big boys on the world stage.  Yes please!  Except it didn’t quite work out like that.  Did Bayley make the right life choice?  Who knows?  Hindsight is always 20/20.

For great Iron Maiden albums you have to look to the period beginning with ‘Iron Maiden’ and ending with ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’.  Yes, for a little while longer they still chucked out a few useful songs, but, as the cover art began to fall apart so did their music.  Perhaps, when Dickinson was killed in an ‘Iron Maiden’ (a modern invention masquerading as a real medieval torture device) during a weird live/magic performance on TV, that might have been the ideal moment to call it a day.  I remember that gig, as friends who weren’t Maiden fans watched it with me.  It did nothing to convert them to the cause, and my abiding memory is of Dickinson’s grown-out fringe.  I never owned the Bayley-era Maiden albums and I only listened to them for the first time very recently.  I may write about them in a future post.  Maybe.  During my time away from Maiden I released my own albums and gigged around the country.  Importantly, my music never strayed close to the Maiden formula.  You’d have thought that I would have been influenced at least a little by one of my favourite childhood bands.  But no.  Maiden had become something of a joke and I steered well clear.  I’m being unfair in singling out Iron Maiden here as I pulled myself away from the whole scene.  The faithful stuck with their band and for that reason the tattooed-album-art-adorned ‘true fans’ would never really count me as one of their own.  I would however take issue with that assessment.  I am a fan.  I am just a discerning fan.  As a fan you are allowed to take issue with the actions of your heroes.  Life isn’t perfect – and it’s too short to simply follow blindly.

I was watching Football Focus one day in the early noughties and a goal was being scored to a soundtrack suspiciously like Iron Maiden.  With Dickinson singing?  Yes.  Maiden were back.  But I didn’t buy the comeback album, ‘Brave New World’ – at least not until much later. And I didn’t buy ‘Dance of Death’.  I did however buy ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.

I couldn’t resist ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.  Great name.  Great art.  I loved the idea of songs written and played with no concern as to their length.  Okay, it’s a lack of concern that can be afforded when you have a million pounds in the bank, but nevertheless, it was liberating.  Look, let’s not beat about the bush here.  I went to Maiden’s complete run through of the album at Earls Court.  I like this album.  A lot.  This is the closest Maiden have come to hitting the highs of that earlier period I was talking about.  The bloated follow-up, ‘The Final Frontier’, was the sound of a band getting carried away.  For me, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was just the right level of self-indulgence.

The first single pricked my ears.  Iron Maiden using viral advertising methods?  Bloody Hell!  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button… no, wait, /checks the title, ‘The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg’.  A few monstrous riffs welded together like only Maiden can do.  A ponderous, beating heart of a song.  Not flawless, not even necessarily great.  But good enough.  So, what would the rest of the album be like?

The album opens with ‘A Different World’ and a song with a pre-chorus featuring backing vocals.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  Dickinson’s vocals sound back on point.  For a long while I thought he’d lost it.  Even going back as far as the ‘90s he sounded burned out.  For me, and I walk sacrilegious paving slabs here, even during the seminal ‘Live After Death’ album he was struggling.  He’s one of those singers that soars on a studio album, but can falter on the high notes live.  A song like ‘Run to the Hills’ was sung with a different chorus during the majority of Maiden’s shows.  You wonder why bands do that.  But they all do.  Including me!  I hit notes on earlier songs that I can’t even be in the same room as now.  There are workarounds, as Dickinson found (and Blaze Bayley didn’t!).  But you know what?  Watching the documentary bundled with the ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ album reminded me of what a phenomenal singer Bruce Dickinson is.  He is a total power house, and, in many ways his voice has matured for the greater good.  His voice is not ‘better’ than it was.  Nothing beats ‘The Number of the Beast’.  It is different.  It’s in a different world.  Thinner, slightly strained, but absolutely gargantuan.  Dickinson should be included in any discussion of the best singer of all time.  He would never win, ‘cause he’s ‘heavy metal’, but he should be talked of in the same breath as the greats.

‘These Colours Don’t Run’.  A punch in the face of a song.  The seeds of the song’s creation were probably sown after something Dickinson said in retaliation during the Ozzfest concert when Maiden’s set was allegedly sabotaged by Sharon Osbourne.  The song is actually more fully formed than a simple two-fingered salute and likely has nothing to do with the Osbourne incident.  It’s a good, solid song.  Marching drum beats and intricate guitar workouts.  I have read ‘clever’ critiques that say Maiden now march where once they galloped.  There is nothing wrong with marching.  What’s the point in galloping when your horse has died of old age?  You might as well just clap a couple of coconut halves together.

Next is ‘Brighter Than a Thousand Suns’, the album’s highlight.  This song is a superb, complex and heavy piece of work.  The main riff is a lumbering beast – the sound of a dinosaur being awoken after consuming a particularly violent curry.  Dickinson sounds out of control, barking over a 7/4 time signature that he seems unable to get quite right in his head.  The chorus, another of Maiden’s ‘let’s repeat the title ad infinitum’ really works, and is one of the best I can recall.  The result is a song that sounds modern – or dated, depending on your stance on prog rock.  It was the bright point of the Earls Court gig and the fact that Maiden can still pull off such a song is one of the reasons for their continued success.  In a business built on the shallow foundations of youth it is life affirming that a bunch of ‘old’ men can still produce music with at least of a modicum of relevance.  That this is one of Maiden’s heaviest songs is testament to what can be achieved by men considered ‘past it’ by the X-Factor generation.  It’s ironic now that Maiden once released an album called ‘the X-Factor’.

‘The Pilgrim’ opens with the kind of riff Maiden used to dine upon in the years following ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’.  I’ve heard rumour that ‘The Pilgrim’ was considered as a title for the album.  I’m glad they changed their minds!  Terrible, terrible idea!  The song is okay.  Nothing special.  The first trough on the album, but not a deep trough… and filled with wine, not dirty water.  ‘The Pilgrim’ would have benefitted from being lowered a semitone or two in pitch.  Dickinson’s efforts to hit the high notes here sound forced.  This criticism could probably be levelled at the whole album.

The quality is shunted back up to eleven again with ‘The Longest Day’.  Dickinson hits great earthy tones on the verse and the chorus is memorable – although it makes for exhausting listening.  Given the title of the song I think we can forgive it its meandering nature.  There are a few rhythms and melodies which border on Maiden-by-numbers, but overall it’s a worthy track.

The album continues with overlong, sometimes simplistic, sometimes demanding, music.  While it is true that the album could probably benefit from a thorough edit, I think it might also lose its soul.  What we have here is an album that, due to its very construction, will split an audience down the middle.  Some will love it and some will hate it, often with venom.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the fans’ favourite Iron Maiden album.  The lengths of the songs have been heavily criticised as have their pace.  But we have what we have.  This is a weighty, thoughtful album.  It is an album that celebrates the whole concept of what it is to be an album.  This is a collection of songs that feel ‘right’ together.  This is a collection of songs showcasing great musicianship.  Most of all, this is an unrestricted, primal scream of emotion.  Yes, it would be more commercial to edit the songs down to nice three and a half minute portions that would fit in a radio-friendly box.  But that would be to miss the point.  This is not an album full of catchy songs.  This is not an album to put on at a party.  For the world to rotate, life needs light and shade.  For every ‘Thriller’ or ‘Rumours’ you need an album that provides the battleship-grey paint.  If everyone else is listening to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on their iPhones, don’t fret.  Iron Maiden are still writing ‘War and Peace’.

Have You Ever Noticed?

I love comedy.  I’ve never hidden the fact that comedy is extremely important to me.  I believe a laugh is good for the soul.  And I’ve also made it quite clear that I believe comedy and music are intrinsically linked.  Rhythms and repetition.  Whether it be Hancock or The Office, good comedy is timed to perfection and is difficult to make look easy.  In fact I’d go so far as to say that great comedy is an art, and should be considered just as worthy of praise as Sgt Pepper or OK Computer.  A comedy series I hold aloft as one of the greats is Seinfeld.  Bar the final episode, I often use Seinfeld as an example of a near perfect comedy.  You’ll hear ‘experts’ telling you that it didn’t really warm up until season 4.  Well, I’ll have none of it.  Some of the finest episodes were very early on, and in my opinion, they were necessary to enable the show to progress.  For the show to be labelled the ‘show about nothing’ it at least had to have once been the ‘show about nothing’.  Parking in a multi-story car park.  Waiting for a seat at a restaurant. Classic episodes.  I could watch Seinfeld on a never ending loop – indeed at times I feel like I have!  It’s that good.  Yet… very few people in the UK have even heard of it.  Such a shame.

So… it was with great delight that I went to see Jerry Seinfeld’s stand up show at Manchester Arena.  To see the legend himself in action – excited was an understatement.  He has stated that this gig will be his last ‘arena gig’.  Hmmm… maybe… maybe not.  Seinfeld certainly doesn’t need the money.  He’s one of, if not the, richest comedian in the world.  He’s got to be up there… with Larry David.  Seinfeld and David… one of the greatest comedy writing teams ever!  It’s weird… when I watch Seinfeld (the TV show) I usually ascribe the best jokes to Larry David.  I assume he must have written them.  Perhaps it’s because ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm‘ has continued in the same vein without Jerry Seinfeld’s participation.  Whatever… it’s easy to dismiss Jerry Seinfeld in his own show.  When you’ve got characters of the calibre of George and Kramer and a writer like Larry David along for the ride it’s possible to wonder what Jerry Seinfeld himself actually did?  It was with all these thoughts that I settled down to watch Seinfeld in action.   No bass slapping music for the entrance…

Seinfeld is a class act.  The majority of the material seemed fresh – at least, it’s not on any DVDs that I own.  Seinfeld is now doing this for fun and he says he’s riffing on topics that he really wants to talk about.  So marriage gets a fair bash.  Lots of genuinely funny moments.  Relationships in general get a good outing.  Seinfeld is obviously at ease with this whole thing.  He’s been a stand up since the beginning of time.  He comes across as a little more hectic than the Seinfeld from the TV show… but he still seems like a friend, (or as he says to the crowd “I’m your little, strange TV friend”).  Funnily enough, the TV show does not get a single mention.  Not one word.  Nor does Larry David or any of his previous colleagues.  This is just a straight stand up show.  Very similar to the skits at the beginning of most of the Seinfeld episodes… but a little quicker, and a little more ‘shouty’.  Some good punch lines and some moments that receive applause.  But all in all I think people were just happy to be watching their idol. I can only guess at everyone else’s motivation for being there… but I would hope the Seinfeld show was higher up the list of reasons than, say, Bee Movie.

Jerry Seinfeld could have been in the Rat Pack.  He has that ‘ease’ about him.  Like he’s swinging through the moves… riffing on comedy like Sinatra would riff on a melody.  And no swearing.  This was basically a PG gig.  Smooth. Yes I think smooth is the word.  The typical subjects get an outing… mobile phones, energy drinks, things that suck and yet are also great.  But, as I said before, he seems to get a kick out of the ‘relationship issue’ gags.  One thing that dawned on me during the night was how much Seinfeld likely contributed to that great sitcom.  A lot of  ‘issues’ that I would have assigned to Larry are, on the evidence of tonight, likely to have originated from Jerry.  This just makes me hold him in even higher regard.

A few negatives…  He can occasionally come across as an old hand going through the motions.  There’s no real sense of danger.  There’s a slightly jaded sheen to the guy.  Perhaps this is ‘Jerry in the UK’.  ‘Jerry get on a plane to another country and switch on the joke-telling-auto-pilot-system’.  And a shame he had to end on a ‘toilet gag’ already referenced in old episodes of Seinfeld and Curb. Most damning of all though… he was only on for about an hour.  That is pretty inexcusable given the price of the tickets.  But… hey… I think we can probably make allowances for one of the all time kings of comedy.  Well… I certainly can.  I’ve seen one of my heroes!!!  And my face hurt from laughing!

Here’s a song written in the midst of my Seinfeld marathons! It’s called ’50s Teen Flick.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all

So, I was dressing up to go to a heavy metal gig.  I thought… you know, what should I wear?  So I went with a t-shirt with a skull on it and my favourite leather jacket.  A leather jacket that is extremely rock!  It has a skull with a snake slithering through it on the back, and snakes down the arms.  (on a side note… the only problem with this jacket is that the skull and snakes are actually made up of a series of holes.  Which means that when it rains the skull and snakes perform the function of making you (…me) get wet… not an entirely useful ‘app’ for a jacket!  But… in any case, it looks good… and in today’s society what else could be as important as ‘looking good’???).

I come down the stairs wearing the t-shirt and the jacket.  The girls are clustered in the hallway around the mirror getting ready.  You can picture the scene – all glasses of champagne and hair straighteners.  One of the ladies says “What’s with the pirate get-up?”… and this flummoxes me for a moment.  But then I realise it’s the whole ‘skull and crossbones’ thing.  “Hmmm” I say…  “I see what you mean”.  And that sets me thinking.  Is heavy metal particularly ‘pirate-y’?  “Why do you have to dress as a pirate to go to a heavy metal gig?” she asks.  “Hmmmm…” /again.  I just say that I don’t think metal is particularly pirate-y and that it’s more to do with the ‘death’ and the ‘danger’.  But it was certainly food for thought.

So… I go to the gig. It was at a kind of underground basement place – the kind of venue where the sweat drips from the ceiling.  Funnily enough the place is called “The Underground”… spooky that!  I walk down the stairs into the darkness to be met by my friend.  Fine.  Good stuff.  So I turn to go to the bar and what do I see?  A life-size pirate.  A life-size model pirate.  Not only that… but this is a life-size model skeleton pirate.  “Hmmmm…” I think /again/again.  Hmmm… you know what… perhaps metal is actually a little too pirate-y?

The band plays.  A band called Meansteed.  They play a pretty good approximation of ACDC.  In fact… the whole evening had a feel of NWOBHM.  The singer has something of the Bruce Dickinson about him and the guitarist a little of the Joan Jett.  I bought the CD and they all signed it.  I have now placed the CD in a secure vault just in case any one of them goes on to be the next Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran (unlikely).  But a good night was had by all.  Jolly good in fact.  Jolly Roger.  Hmmmm… /again/again/again.

Album Review: Maybeshewill – ‘I was here for a moment, then I was gone’

I am devouring new music.  I have spent a few years avoiding too many new sounds so that my own albums exist in their own bubble, unaffected by outside interests.  But now, I unwrap new music.  CDs!  I still buy a few CDs!  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

I have mentioned in past reviews how I prefer to critique from afar.   From across the span of a decade.  To eat and drink an album to the point where you know it intimately.. to be able to truly see its value and place in history.  Well… going against all that, I review this album from a position of no prior knowledge. I know nothing about this band. Nothing at all.  I don’t know how this differs or betters anything else they’ve done.  I don’t know what else they’ve done!  This is therefore a blind test.  This is my reasoning and justification for ignoring my previous sentiments.  I like the idea of either reviewing with ALL knowledge… or reviewing with NO knowledge.  For a little bit of knowledge can be a bad thing!  So…  Maybeshewill.  Hmmm.

From the very opening seconds of “I was here for a moment, then I was gone” I knew I was going to like this album.  It’s as if I’ve never been away from music.  I’m picking up right from where I left off.  The album opens with an immediate punch of epicness, and you know how much I adore epicness!!!  Tinkling pianos, swelling strings and a choir of “ahhhhs”.  I can indeed imagine filling the punch bowl for this creation.  A healthy dash of Explosions in the Sky and a half bottle of Hope of the States.  This is music that sits well in my frame of reference.  The beautiful opening segues into first track proper “Take This to Heart”.  A really cool stomping song that could be the theme for a Zombie film – I suggest 28 Days Later… or has that already been done? 😉 .  It has that post rock feel.  The sound of physical oxygen and carbon dioxide around the instruments.  Air being moved.  This is another quietLOUDquiet band and to a certain extent I’ve heard it all before.  But that doesn’t stop the individual tracks pricking my ears and “Take This to Heart” for instance is smooth.  It’s hard to put some of these sounds into words… but Maybeshewill‘s sound would make a good ‘spread’ for a sandwich.  I don’t know how much of this album is sequenced and how much is played live but it sounds very, very real.  This is an album after my heart… tugging at my hamstrings.  Fragments of the album sound like the theme to Dexter, which I love.  “Words For Arabella” has hand-claps and “Red Paper Lanterns” even has chimes!  Yay! This is exquisitely crafted sound.  However, like Three Trapped Tigers before it, this is well trodden ground. The post rock landscape is a dirty, desolate, solitary place with countless square miles of ground sodden with oil and the carcasses of all the ‘noise’ bands who came before.  So… do Maybeshewill do enough to get my blood flowing?

This is a different beast to the feline antics of Three Trapped Tigers.  Maybeshewill are not so heavily reliant on the extreme skills of one member of the band (Tiger‘s drummer).  This band has an all round pretty sheen.  For a post rock noise album “I was here for a moment, then I was gone” is actually quite gentle.  And my does it flow.  Like Chateauneuf du Pape down a greased, angled piece of glass.  I suppose that’s the ‘smoothness’ coming in to play again!  We are not going to escape the fast downward strummed electric guitar here.  This is no place for alternate picking!  Ha ha!  Saying that, “Red Paper Lanterns” features a beautiful guitar melody which reminds me of some of the techniques of Joe Satriani.  Strange that I’ve mentioned Satriani two reviews in a row now, for I bet he isn’t an influence on this band.  They will probably deny his existence!  Ha ha!

This album fizzes in places.  Literally fizzes… like a can of freshly opened Coke (not Pepsi).  Hmmmm… is that chugging power chords I hear on “Relative Minors”?  Ha ha!  Yes!  More!  Another very important point: the songs are short, most being around the 4 minute mark.  This means the band are compressing ideas… getting straight to the point.  There is no meandering here.  If anything, this is as close to ‘pop singles’ as you’re going to get in the world of post rock!  I appreciate it.  Although I love long songs too it is nice for a band in this genre to be making a concerted effort to be concise.

Negatives… well, I hate to harp on and I realise I’m like a broken record… but it is a little clichéd to have no vocals.  Yes, I know, I know… this is supposed to be instrumental music.  I know that post rock doesn’t have vocals.  I know it’s the antithesis of commercial rock.  I know it is an attempt to bring to rock what electronic brought to pop.  I know that Aphex Twin is a closer comparison to this music than the Rolling Stones.  However, I would like these bands to keep pushing forward.  And for me, well, I would love to hear what Maybeshewill could do with another weapon in their repertoire.  The human voice is the most versatile of all instruments… come on someone on the scene… bring it into play!!!

An exquisite album.  Well played, well thought out, well-intentioned.  I’m not sure it truthfully offers much above and beyond what we’ve already been given by the likes of Explosions in the Sky.  However, there is an increased sense of urgency on display here.  This band has the ability to rock out balls-to-the-wall and still maintain the melody.  This isn’t ‘clever’ music… this sound-scape retains emotion.  And for that reason I give Maybeshewill an awful lot of credit.  It’s hard to give a score to an album like this.  I feel I have to fit it into the huge swathe of post rock bands in some way…  like its achievement can’t make up for the fact that there are a thousand similar sounding bands at the moment.  However… I shall give it a score based on how I feel.  Take it or leave it.  Great album.  Fantastic album.  I just don’t know whether it’s game changing.  Simple as that.

Maybeshewill – I was here for a moment, then I was gone: 7/10

Album Review: Three Trapped Tigers – ‘Route One or Die’

Context… context is important to a review.  To set the scene.  I am ironing.  Not just any ironing.  This is ironing on the scale of the conquest of Everest.  If and when I finish I will be honoured to the highest level.  I expect a telegram from the Queen!!!

I choose to listen to an album by Three Trapped Tigers called “Route One or Die”.  First things first.  These guys can play their instruments.  They are serious cats dude!  Trapped cats!  Ha ha!  But do these cats emit the sound of a trapped cat?  Or, more importantly, three trapped cats?  For that would be a bad, bad sound!!!

There are times during this album when it sounds like the band are just about to fall off the stage.  A cacophonous riot of avant-garde destruction almost on par with Explosions in the Sky at their noisiest.  I expect the aforementioned band is an influence, for this is fundamentally a ‘post-rock project’.  Post rock as a tag often puts fear into my heart.  It is a style of music which appears to have no boundaries… and yet has given itself a very tightly fenced garden in the process.  Crashing drums – check.  ’70s prog rock keyboards – check.  Manic guitar strums – check.  No vocals – check.  “Route One or Die” dwells within this garden… very safely in this garden.  The three tigers are caged in this garden.

So… as I iron another t-shirt (how may t-shirts should a man have?)… I listen intently.  I am not au fait with post rock really.  I have tinkered on its outskirts… I have driven the car by, wound down the window and breathed in the stale post-apocalyptic air.  But I have only stayed momentarily.  I enjoy the extreme drumming, almost thrash drumming in fact.  This album is at times as heavy as Metallica, sometimes even hitting Napalm Death levels of explosive noise.  The final track, Reset, is one of these moments… after it is done emulating the melody of Spinal Tap‘s Stonehenge it spanks us hard with absolutely astonishing drumming.  Adam Betts (I believe) hits those drums as if his pants depend on it.  Incredible.

Throughout the album I am reminded of other bands.  Sometimes hints… sometimes slaps in the face.  I hear Yes in the arpeggios of the keyboards.  I hear Joe Satriani in the melodies.  I hear Explosions in the Sky in the quietLOUDquietness of it all.  I hear War of the WorldsTubular Bells, DJ Shadow … I hear the 80’s TV programme Tripods.  I hear fantastic musicianship.  The drums are indeed the standout.  Sheer power.  This album is bringing my walls down.  Manic, threatening, belligerent racket!

The album opens with a ‘song’ called Cramm.  This track sums the band up perfectly adequately.  If you like it then sit back and enjoy the rest.  If you think it sounds like a noisy baby, trapped in a metal dustbin being rolled down the steps of a lighthouse then feel free to chuck the album straight in the nearest canal!  Ha ha!

I like the scope… I like the interest brought about by the timing changes.  This band has finesse, coupled with the ability to switch gears in an instant.  When this band hits the ‘heavy’ switch you honestly feel like Chicken Licken waiting for the sky to fall on your head.  Again… I think the drums are incredible.  This is noise rock… but it could almost be categorised as a new era heavy metal rather than the electronic tag it’s usually filed under.  These are real people playing real instruments and they absolutely slay!  Massive. I would like vocals, more than just a few ahhs on the final track.  I appreciate this style of music exists only without a vocalist, but I think it would be interesting to break a section of that garden fence.  Or at least let one of the three tigers dig a small tunnel beneath it.

This is heavy, demanding, intelligent music that drives home a good ironing session.  I am ironing faster than ever before!  Music for ironing?  Yes.

A score.  Hmmm.  This is a post rock noise album.  And it does what it says on the tin.  So… probably a straight 5/10.  But I like the drums.  I like the stutters.  And most importantly… my kitten is loving it!!!  Extra point!  If the tigers had given me a couple of lyrical themes they might have got another point.  But hey… 6 is bloody good! As I keep saying ad nauseum, I’m fed up with the 7-10 point scale.  Use all ten bloody numbers people!

Three Trapped Tigers – Route One or Die: 6/10

The Conversation – A Study of Ambiguity

A Tuesday morning… I sit here again with the kitten in my lap.  The flow of films which I have been casting my net over continues with, perhaps, an obvious choice. The Conversation.  This is a mid ’70s film starring Gene Hackman and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  Actually, just saying “directed by” is doing Coppola a disservice.  He actually wrote, produced and directed this film.  For that reason this is a very personal film.  Now… you could google the film title and find out all you need to know about the workings and the worth of this film.  So I’ll just issue swathes of my own colour on the subject.

I’m taking a break from music at the moment.  I completed a couple of albums recently and I feel the need to recharge my batteries.  What better than to just discuss art that has influenced, or is influencing, my life?  You’ll get a vibe of where I’m coming from… and I may just find a nuance for my next mojo-period.

The Conversation is a very interesting film.  It has a pace that only ’70’s cinema seemed to allow.  A slow, dripping, rhythmical time frame.  The film’s plot concerns the intricacies of sound.  Therefore… this film could be viewed as a piece of music that happens to have been filmed.  Music as visual.  Sound as sight.  For me, this is the most important aspect of The Conversation.

Harry Caul is a professional eavesdropper. He uses the most modern methods of the time to record people’s conversations.  He inhabits the background of life.  He is a shadowy figure who is dedicated to his work at the expense of everything else.  Gene Hackman pulls off the performance of his career here, and you can again draw a line through the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.  The ‘actor’ portraying reality rather than ‘acting’.

Harry Caul is given an assignment to record a conversation between two people in a busy city centre.  He does so, and then listens to the tape.  He believes he’s stumbled upon a murder plot and goes about trying to save the people concerned.  A very simple premise… made very complicated by the layers of impenetrable sound.  This film is the audio equivalent of the ’60s film, Blow-Up (which is a classic film in its own right!).

This film has rhythm… almost pulsating.  Not pulsating with ‘excitement’!  This is a film that washes over you like ambient music.  It’s not until the ending that the true ‘thriller’ nature becomes apparent.  For the most part this film is a character study.  In fact it seems I’ve been basking in ‘character study’ films recently.

The nature of the sound recording is fascinating to me.  Remember that I am a music producer.  The nostalgia, the clunkiness of the analogue tape reels.  The wires, the buttons, the dust… Harry Caul lives the life that I hanker for – but a life that no longer exists.  For we live in a different age.  Honestly, any of you could download software from the internet right now that would put all the equipment in The Conversation to shame.  But nevertheless… it still takes talent and dedication to derive meaningful sound from sub-par field recordings… and it is this time-consuming slog upon which The Conversation concentrates.  I love this film.  I remember seeing it when I was a teenager.  I was hooked by it. Hooked in a way that the general public wouldn’t be.  For, like the films I have reviewed before… this is no blockbuster.  This is a heartfelt, personal trip.  Coppola had just made The Godfather.  When asked by the studio if he would make The Godfather Part II, Coppola replied “Only if I can make The Conversation“.  He realised his personal flight of fancy on the back of a blockbuster.  For this I tip my hat in his direction.  This is a man who has made some of the greatest films of all time.  And The Conversation might just be the best of them.  I’m probably alone in that opinion… but as I say… this film has particular relevance to anyone who is interested in sound design.

A mention must be made to Harrison Ford’s performance.  He plays the ‘baddie’ to a very sophisticated level considering how little he is actually required to do.  A mesmerising performance and you can see how he rose through the ranks to be an international superstar.

So… I don’t necessarily feel I need to go any further.  I just wanted to give you a flavour of a film that has resonance with me and my life.  Only watch it if you enjoy slow, smouldering film.  Otherwise you will cry “BORING!”.  Ha ha!

Positives then?  Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford.  The study of personal freedom and loneliness.  The camera work which feels like surveillance.  At times you feel like you are a peeping tom looking into a man’s life where you have no place being.  The technology is fantastic.  The grime, the dedication, the obsession.  The drip, drip of plot.  The layering of detail.  Detail upon detail until a picture begins to emerge.  The sublime piano soundtrack (referenced years later in Zodiac – see the links? 🙂 ).  This film is a study in ambiguity.  There is a key line which Harry coaxes from his taped conversation, and depending on the way you hear the words – the inflections – depends on how you understand the plot.

The Negatives?  Harry plays Saxophone to relax.  I’m not a fan of the sax… reminds me of people at school who didn’t really like or understand music.  When asked what their favourite instrument was they would always say “saxophone”.  I wish Harry had played a bit of blues/jazz guitar.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Harry brings a load of ‘friends’ back to his ‘secret’ sound studio.  They hang out and party.  This does not seem fitting for a character who has been established so strongly as a man dedicated to personal secrecy… to being unnoticed, to being a person with no ID.  The scene is necessary for plot development… so I understand its inclusion… and I don’t feel it is a huge negative.  I can kind of understand that Harry has been out for the evening with people who also work in surveillance and therefore people who he considers ‘friends’.. or at least ‘acquaintances’.  Perhaps it’s a reveal that Harry is perhaps a little human after all.

So… a beautiful, intriguing personal film made by a great director at the very top of his game.

The Conversation – 9/10