Dublin Photography

If there’s one thing that’s great about Dublin, it’s being surrounded by music; buskers and folk bands. Yes it’s all a bit tourist-y but it makes a change from the music scene that is currently dying elsewhere. The talent on display in the pubs of Temple Bar is incredible. It almost makes you want to pick up an acoustic guitar and dance in the sawdust… and sup a pint of Guinness.

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: Yes – ‘Fragile’

Fragile Album CoverI have in my hands an album that was produced in 1971.  I know because it says so inside the gate-fold sleeve.  This album has existed for forty two years.  I’ve touched upon the reasons why I own this album a number of times before. To cut a long story short it was rescued from a bin and given to me when I was a kid.  Therefore it is the first album I ever owned.  The sleeve is a little battered, and when opened, the cardboard is discoloured.  But it’s here, in all its glory.  The song lyrics set out on the left hand side.  A booklet in the middle.  The song titles and credits on the right hand side.  The image on the front cover is, for me, one of the most iconic pieces of album artwork ever.  The album is Fragile by Yes.  I sit here with a coffee.  This seems as appropriate a time as any to remove this well worn piece of vinyl from its sleeve and give it another listen.  I suggest you all make yourselves cups of coffee too!

I have probably lived with this album longer than any other.  It is kind of ingrained into my soul.  Let me make something completely clear from the outset.  I would not necessarily consider myself a Yes fan.  This is the only album I own by them.

Fragile Gatefold

This is a strange album.  You have two different things going on.  As you open the gate-fold sleeve you are presented, on the inside cover, with a list of song lyrics.  The songs:  Round-about, South Side of the Sky, Long Distance Run around and Heart of the Sunrise.  These songs are the core of the album.  They are the meat and potatoes.  Then you have the other tracks.  For some reason each member of the band basically recorded a solo song.  So you get a song to showcase the keyboards, a song to showcase the vocals… etc.  This is self-indulgence of the highest order.  But then this is Yes.  A band who went on to record albums where every song filled a side of vinyl.  Here, on Fragile, we catch them just before they lose themselves in their own sense of greatness.  I will say right now that the four solid songs on this album are so great as to make this album a classic on their own.  Anything else is a bonus.  There is more to the story, for although this is not a concept album it is tied together so delightfully that it almost becomes a concept album by default.

The album opens with a massive backwards piano chord.  I imagine Fragile would work well played immediately after Sgt Pepper‘s dying chord.  In fact, after that final chord on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band you get that weird piece of backwards nonsense in the run-out groove.  There are similarities in that nonsense to much of the music on Fragile.  Yes seem to have taken some of the essence of that flower-powered Beatles album and ramped up the complexity.  This is a frighteningly intricate album.  We have musicians at the very top of their game.  One of the all-time great guitar players in Steve Howe.  The phenomenal drumming of Bill Bruford.  The power and authority of Chris Squire’s bass.  Rick Wakeman… yes, the flamboyant and highly talented Rick Wakeman, on keyboards – has there ever been a better player?  All completed by Jon Anderson on vocals.  Anderson is certainly an acquired taste with his penchant for a permanent falsetto.  However, I think his voice is the best accompaniment to this music.  The perfect marriage.

If I could choose a few words to sum up this album, among them would have to be the word ‘dated’.  This album always sounded old fashioned to me, even when I was young.   I imagine it would have sounded dated even on its day of release.  Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely complex, adventurous and in many ways ground-breaking.  But it still sounds quaint and of another time.  I suppose you have to bear in mind that around this same era Led Zeppelin were singing about Gollum and Mordor.  It was a time of drugs and fantasy.

After that initial backwards piano chord you have a beautiful piece of acoustic guitar.  One of my favourite sections of guitar playing ever.  Very inspirational to me.  Then we are into the first song, Roundabout, or Round-about depending on the variety of ways it is written on the gate-fold sleeve.  I think this song is one of Yes‘ better known tracks.  It is certainly one of the only songs by Yes I hear played on the radio along with Owner of a Lonely Heart.  It is hard to reconcile the Yes on display on Fragile with the Yes that recorded Owner of a Lonely Heart.  Anyway, I do not have to try and do that.  I am here to review my one and only beloved Yes album.

Roundabout is supposed to be the big single on the album.   A single that is over eight minutes long and not particularly radio friendly.  But then nothing on this album is radio friendly.  This is prog rock.  It’s too ‘clever’ to appeal to the average man on the street.  This is music for Oxford and Cambridge students.  And me.

The lyrics throughout the album are often impenetrable.  But I love them.  They taught me that songs do not have to have simple lyrics about love.  To fully appreciate this album however you are going to have to get into a mindset that accepts mountains, eagles and snow storms.

So, the ‘single’ finishes.  We are then greeted by the first solo spot on the album.  The mighty Rick Wakeman guides us through his take on Brahms’ 4th Symphony in E minor (Third Movement).  This is Fragile‘s first wrong step.  The piece may well show off Wakeman’s skills, but it does not fit in with the overall theme and texture of the album.  If I could jump into a time machine and zip back to 1971 I would tell the young Wakeman to erase the bloody thing off the album.  It is not bad per se.  It is just unnecessary and spoils the flow of a side of vinyl that otherwise sounds completely together – completely as one – singing with one voice.

Bloody hell.   I need a Jack Daniels after that.  Screw the coffee.  Lots of ice, better make sure I don’t spill it over my computer!

In the wake of Wakeman’s solo spot we have Anderson’s.  A song built around the foibles of his unique voice.  A huge leap from Wakeman’s, this piece has a right to exist on this album.  We Have Heaven works perfectly in the context of the ‘strange’ atmosphere created by the main songs on the album.  Loop after loop of Anderson’s vocals.  Layers which become increasingly garbled to the point of noise.  Then…

A slammed door.  Footsteps between the speakers accentuating the S T E R E O.  Then a distant explosion.  The wind starts.  You begin to physically feel  cold.  The drums kick in.  A grindingly heavy riff churns and that unique vocal re-enters the scene of the crime to continue the unified sound of this great journey.  South Side of the Sky is a superb song.

“the moments seemed lost in all the noise

a snow storm a stimulating voice

of warmth of the sky of warmth when you die

were we ever warmer on that day a million miles away

we seemed from all of eternity”

After slating Mr Rick Wakeman I now have to applaud him.  Two minutes into South Side of the Sky Rick Wakeman comes into his own with some outstanding piano playing.  Piano and cold wind.  I defy anyone to listen to the middle section of South Side of the Sky and not want to grab Wakeman and give him a kiss.  Amazing melodies. Complex.  Then the drums enter.  Fabulous jazz drums.  And those silky smooth vocals.  The song becomes a tour de force of conceptual music and mathematical harmonies.  Moments on this album would fit perfectly with what Brian Wilson was doing around the time of Pet Sounds.  Then the song kicks back in with riffs so heavy they would have given Black Sabbath a run for their money.  South Side of the Sky is oh so good you just wonder how they will follow it.  And they don’t.  The side of vinyl ends.  I need to turn the record over.  Time for another swig of Jack Daniels.

Fragile Vinyl

Side 2 starts with another solo piece.  This time built around the whims of drummer Bill Bruford.  It’s okay.  I appreciate the skill.  But really, it’s thirty seven seconds of unnecessary sound.  It doesn’t help progress the album.  It stands out a bit and distracts.  However, having lived my whole life with that piece of music stuck there at the beginning of side 2 I suppose I might miss it if it were gone.  Or not…

Long Distance Runaround.  Another of the album’s proper songs.  More sensational lyrics.  Lyrics I didn’t really understand when I was younger.  I was used to ‘pop’ lyrics.  Fragile‘s lyrics sound ‘quaint’ in comparison.  A noticeable element of this album’s impact is just how powerful the ‘riffs’ are.  This is an album built on strong melody lines.  There are few thrashed chords.  Listen… especially to Long Distance Runaround, and you’ll hear what I mean.

I’m enjoying a JD with ice.  As we enter the realms of Fish, Chris Squire’s bass guitar song.  The song makes its entrance slowly – like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.  It works just fine in the context of the album and you would be hard pressed to notice that it is supposed to be a showcase of all the different sounds of the bass guitar.  That should never have been the purpose in the first place!  Talk about ways to spoil a classic album!

Fish is followed by the final solo spot, and the penultimate song, Mood for a Day.  This is an acoustic guitar piece played by Steve Howe.  It is stunning.  No more really needs to be said.  But I’ll say some anyway.  My favourite part is at 1:27 where Howe plays one of the most memorable guitar lines of all time.  Perfect.  Just perfect.  I love how I can hear Howe breathing as he plays.  The piece actually reminds me of Dee by Randy Rhoads, another fine guitar player.  There should always be room for a spot of acoustic guitar on an album.  Just lovely.

Then my fine people.  Then… oh my do we have a treat for you.  The final song.  The best song on the album.  Yes‘ best ever song?  I can’t really be the judge of that since I don’t have enough terms of reference.  But if they have written a better song it must be mind-blowing!!!

Heart of the Sunrise is one of my favourite songs of all time.  One of the most powerful intros you will ever hear.  It out ‘thrashes’ a thrash band.   It out ‘deaths’ Cannibal Corpse.  It out ‘metals’ Spinal Tap.  It just kills.  Then we fall off a cliff into another superb riff.  The time signatures mess with your brain.  Wakeman’s keyboards layer in heart-wrenching, cinematic agony.  Bruford plays some of the best drums I’ve ever heard.  He reminds me a little here of Bill Ward.  Solid and yet on a different planet.  The guitar lines weave back in.  We hit two minutes and our heads hurt!  That riff again!  Like a brick to your brain!  How the hell did they even play it?  Their fingers must have been on fire!  Yes, over the last forty years music has been progressed further.  Louder, stronger, faster, more difficult.  But this song still stands tall above all others.  I think a lot of bands have this song on their turntables… like an obelisk.  They pray.

Three and a half minutes in and the song takes a turn.  Anderson enters with his best vocals of the album.  Beautiful.  Windswept.  Epic.  How long did it take for me to say ‘epic’?!?  This song is the definition of EPIC.  I’ve mentioned it before.  I told you to listen to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to hear EPIC.  Well… scrub that.  Listen to Heart of the Sunrise.  This song is so good it alone makes Fragile an essential purchase.  I don’t know that I can listen to any more Yes – because I’m pretty sure it will seem insignificant after my years of listening to Heart of the Sunrise.  I keep hearing new things.  Just when I think the drums are the best thing, I hear a new bit of bass guitar.  Or I hear a bit of guitar that I’d previously missed.  Then Wakeman plays something and reminds me that he’s there!  These musicians are so at the top of their game that it makes you feel absolutely inferior if you too are a musician.  Every musician except me that is!  I know I could take them! 😉

Towards the end of the song Jon Anderson soars.  He sings so high and so true he sounds like an angel.  You almost feel you are lifting off your chair.  (Or that you’ve drunk too much Jack Daniels.)

Fragile Rear CoverThe door opens again.  You know, the door that slammed closed earlier.  We Have Heaven is back again.  Just to complete the ‘theme’.  The concept album.

The classic album cover by Roger Dean just adds more fruit to the pie.  This is an album you could listen to before you die.

If I could knock off Wakeman’s Cans and Brahms and Bruford’s Five Percent for Nothing then this would be a ten out of ten album.  Perhaps it still is?  Look, I admit that Fragile might be a step too far for some of you.  Although it is an elegant, intelligent, thoughtful, precise, exceptionally played album – it is also a difficult listen.  Perhaps you just need to give it a chance?  Go on.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Album Review: Suede – ‘Bloodsports’

I’m sitting here listening to the new Suede LP (yes, LP – I’m listening to it on vinyl).  Feels like cracking open an atmosphere of yesterday.  For all the want of ‘new’ – it’s oh so refreshing to hear ‘old’.  One man’s past is another man’s future.  I like the title, Bloodsports.  I like the artwork.  It’s one of those albums where you open the gatefold sleeve… and what have Suede chosen to fill that 12″x24″ with?  Nothing.  Just a mainly black photograph.  How much more black could it be?  The answer is none.  None more black.

Side one has a couple of immediately killer tracks.  I got into Suede relatively early on.  One of my mates lent me their debut album.  It was all a bit fey for me at the time – I was a rocker.  But there was something about that voice, and the melodies.  It just sounded new.  Suede were accused at the time of ripping off David Bowie.  Here we are in 2013 and Suede released the first single from this album on almost the same day as Bowie‘s comeback single.  Bowie‘s comeback single which I thought was great, contrary to everyone else I know.  But then their opinions generally count for nothing.  My opinion is the only one that matters! /because I’m always right.

So I listened to Suede when I was young and it sounded intricate and wobbly.  Brett Anderson always seemed to make too much effort to be ‘different’.  Perhaps it was necessary.  You can’t re-evaluate time, you can only live it.  Suede opened the doors to what eventually became Britpop.  But for a while there was no genre, just moments of excitement bobbing in a zesty sea.  These were times when even the music I rebelled against was actually pretty creative.  I can be as revisionist as the next person, but with the advent of sampling and the over-spill of acid house those really were exciting times for everyone.  I was caught up in the Seattle ‘grunge’ thing, but the likes of Suede helped to reel me back into British music.  Suede should have had a monument built in their honour.  Their second album Dog Man Star distilled everything they were good at. Suede ran, ran with that album clutched to their bosom, ran like the wind into the sun, all but melting.  Too grandiose?  Perhaps.  But these bands, these albums – were/are necessary.

In the end Suede were buried by the next wave of bands.  Unfairly.  But well and truly buried.

So I sit here and listen to their first album in ten years.  No Bernard Butler.  But then that was always a fractious, precarious relationship – Anderson & Butler.  Still, even without him I’m hearing moments here that almost reach those young, heady days.  I sit here and I am in the nineties.  I was a Suede fan.  But they were first and foremost a girl’s band.  Girlfriend’s always adored Suede.  They would borrow (and never return) albums.  Something about Brett appealed to them.  Or was it their keyboard player (who lived for months at a time on brown rice)?  There was just something about the band that pricked a girl’s ears (so to speak).  Suede couldn’t get on-board with the Britpop scene that followed.  Yes, they were part of it – but they seemed aloof.  In fact, as far as I remember they just dissolved away.  Pulp, Oasis, Blur and Radiohead ascended.  Yet perhaps if a history was written, Suede‘s part in it should be bulked out.  Even if only with dried flower petals.

The penultimate track is playing – very Pink Floyd-esque.  This album demands glitter balls, pomp and circumstance.  If I can hear Bowie then I can hear Suede.  This is an album for people who lived through times when people bought albums.  Bombastic drums.  Guitars.  High pitched strings.  I sit here and drink my coffee.  In the dark.  Listening to Bloodsports.  It almost brings a tear to the eye.  The only thing that halts the salty droplet from running down my cheek is the happiness that Suede are still out there making music like this.  And all the other bands.  Old and new.  It only takes a moment of listening to BBC 6 Music for the realisation that there are many others out there doing the same thing to dawn on you.  Music will always live on.  There will always be artists.  There will always be new artists.  Not everyone is in it for the money.  Perhaps no-one can be in it for the money anymore?

I am currently writing and recording the second TEHI album with Bill Ryan.  Anyone who’s listened to our debut, Escapism, will attest to the fact that we hold aloft the ‘idea’ of ‘the album’ as an important concept.  We are taking this ideal to the extreme.  Our next album will be a magnificent, twisted, tortuous affair.  I just hope people like me who have their lives affirmed by great musicians will join our gang.

And so I turn the record over again.  I really like this album.  It could probably fit in the timeline somewhere just after Dog Man Star.  These tracks could have played in a club after I danced to ‘Babies‘ or ‘Do You Remember the First Time?‘.  But this is not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.  I loved those days.  Skinny fit shirts and sweat dripping from dingy nightclub ceilings.  When I was recording music back then it was too easy for everyone to jump on the bandwagon.  That’s what Britpop became in the end.  That’s the reason it fell apart.  For every Oasis there was a Northern Uproar, for every Blur a Nilon Bombers and for every Pulp a Menswear.  Suede may have stood aloof, but they were dragged into the party.  It didn’t really suit them.  I like this album.  It starts and ends with you Suede.  It starts and ends with you.

the comedy is over

I’ve been asked to give a ‘background’ to “the comedy is over” for a podcast. Never had to do that before. Let’s have a think. The song used to be a gig-opener as a full on instrumental and was inspired by the 1970s War of the Worlds concept album. Later I put some lyrics to the music and was in part inspired by Beethoven’s alleged final words. It is now a classic album ‘closer’… so in a way it has come full circle. The song is really about taking a grip of your life and not letting other people drag you down.  The way the song starts is a nod to Fragile, the first album I ever owned.  This seminal album by Yes was rescued from a dustbin by my nextdoor neighbour (a dustbin man) whilst on his rounds.  I was only a kid, but for some reason he thought that I should have it.  I didn’t get into the content of the music until a lot later in life… but the gatefold sleeve artwork was something to behold.  Kind of links in with War of the Worlds.  A past era.  In this download age 😉