Saturday, 27 December 2014

Music of 2014

Another year-end, another year-end list. 2014 has been a busy year for me, music-wise, and producing a 'best-of' selection has once again proved to be a challenge, due mainly to the quality of the music out there.

According to my iTunes library I've got around 160 albums with a 2014 release date, and sorting out the cream from the crowd has been quite the head-scratcher, as there have been so many offerings that deserve a mention. I could've managed to whittle things down to at least 60 stand-out albums, but in the end I decided to be ruthless, and draw up a Top 30. Over the course of writing this post the order and content has changed, and I'm sure I will leave some excellent material 'on the cutting room floor'.

Before I get to the main list, though, here's my thoughts in my 'other' categories, as I look back on this magical musical year.

Gigs of the Year
3= Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Sheffield City Hall
3= Peter Gabriel: Back to Front - Sheffield Motorpoint Arena
2   Yes: 3 Album Tour - Sheffield City Hall
1   Lazuli/ Moon Safari - Sound Control, Manchester

Live Album of the Year
After much deliberation, a tie between
  Sanguine Hum - Live in America
  Moon Safari - Live in Mexico

Discoveries of the Year
Charlotte Church's EP 'Four' (and the previous 3) - the one-time choirgirl and enfante terrible can do Prog!
A Formal Horse - eponymous debut EP is a revelation. Ones to watch in the coming years
Cheeto's Magazine - Boiling Fowls is just brilliant, bonkers prog: and they're giving it away!

Non-Prog Albums of the Year
Black Vines - The Return of the Splendid B*stards. Earthy, bluesy, mucky rock from Barnsley, and great live!
And a trio of jazz albums that have really entertained:
  Go Go Penguin - v2.0 (Mercury Prize nominee)
  Bill Laurance - Flint A beautifully atmospheric offering from the Snarky Puppy keyboardist
  Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here Energetic, inventive, live-recorded fusion that simply leaves me gob-smacked! (See below!)

Disappointments of the Year
Three albums that I was expecting more of and which failed to impress:
Anathema - Distant Satellites: seems to lack the spark of Weather Systems and We're Here Because We're Here
Asia - Gravitas: the departure of Steve Howe seems to have lost what little progressive edge they had left
Yes - Heaven & Earth: enough has been said on this album. The live shows of old material seemed to work, but not this. Perhaps it's time to stop?

So, to my Top 30:
30. Elbow - The Take Off and Landing of Everything
29. Fractal Mirror - A Garden of Ghosts 
28. A Secret River - Colours of Solitude 
27. John Bassett - Unearth
26. Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope
25. Knifeworld - The Unravelling
24. Decameron - Decameron: Ten Days in Ten Novellas - volume 2
23. Druckfarben - Second Sound
22. Rosenkreutz - Back to the Stars
21. Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of Pripyat

20. Heliopolis - City of the Sun
19. Resistor - To The Stars
18. Simon Godfrey - Homeland
17. Pink Floyd - The Endless River
16. Opeth - Pale Communion
15. Kaipa - Sattyg
14. Howard Sinclair - The Light Broke In
13. Jeff Green - Elder Creek
12. Tony Patterson & Brendan Eyre - Northlands
11. Cosmograf - Capacitor

10. Bjorn Riis - Lullabies in a Car Crash. The Airbag guitarist gave us a great guitar-driven collection, again demonstrating his strong Gilmour influences.
 9. Tin Spirits - Scorch. Carrying on from the wonderful 'Wired to Earth', this longer collection of pop-tinged prog is a delight.
 8. The Enid - First Light. A couple of new songs, and some fantastic reworkings of some of the band's classic repertoire showcasing the wonderful voice of Joe Payne.
 7. IQ - The Road of Bones. A return to form for the neo-prog stalwarts, full of the songmanship and musicianship one expects from this band.
 6. The Gift - Land of Shadows. 2014 was an excellent year for all the artists on the outstanding Bad Elephant Music label, but this collection stands out for its breadth, sweep and lyricism.
 5. Dave Kerzner - New World. A December release, but already a classic. This debut solo release from the former Sound of Contact keyboardist channels the classic sounds of Genesis and Pink Floyd to wonderful effect.
 4. Lazuli - Tant Que L'herbe Est Grasse. A band with a unique sound, boundless energy and a great stage presence, they have produced another stunning set of songs. Not being able to understand them doesn't stop me loving these guys!
 3. Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here. A jaw-dropping collection of big-band jazz fusion, showcasing world-class musicianship with a love for life and total abandonment to the moment. All the songs performed and recorded live, and available on DVD to fully expand the experience!
 2. Abel Ganz - Abel Ganz.This Scottish four-piece don't produce albums very often, but when they do: WOW! The 'Obsolescence' suite and 'Unconditional' stand out, but there's nothing weak in this collection at all!

 1. Andy Tillison Multiplex - Electric Sinfonia No. 2. Noted for his work with The Tangent and Parallel or 90 Degrees, Andy has returned to solo working and has produced a simply awe-inspiring masterpiece of proggy jazz fusion. Listening to this work it is difficult sometimes to recognise and appreciate that this is the work of only one musician, and that every note and sound is created on keyboards. A stand-out piece in a stand-out year!

Thus we wrap up 2014. 2015 promises, among others, new material from The Tangent, Steven Wilson & Big Big Train, and the long-awaited live shows from BBT. Should be another great one!

Monday, 1 December 2014

What a weekend!

Over the last few years I've managed to get to a lot more gigs than I have in the past 20, due in equal measure to having a little more disposable income due to children growing up and becoming independent, and the resurgence of my preferred genre of Progressive music. So far this year I've managed to catch Clive Nolan; Camel; various bands including Focus, The Enid, The Flower Kings, Panic Room & Fish at HRH Prog; Genesis tribute band Mama; Yes; Rick Wakeman; Andy Tillison; Jeff Green & The Watch. Some good, some excellent, some outstanding.

But this last weekend was an overdose of awesome! It began with a trip over the Pennines (something which, as a Yorkshireman, I try to avoid if possible) for my first visit to Manchester for the double-header of Sweden's Moon Safari & Lazuli, from France. Both were bands with whom I was somewhat familiar, but that familiarity didn't fully prepare me for the delight of their live show.

Moon Safari opened in the somewhat cramped surroundings of 'Sound Control' - so cramped in fact that neither of the bands could fit all their equipment & personnel on the stage. Their music is generally a joyous celebration of life, full of lyrical beauty, musical dexterity and stunning 3-, 4-, 5- and even 6-part harmonies. The set included live standards such as 'A Kid Called Panic', 'Heartland' and the epic 'Lover's End Part 3 - Skellefteå Serenade', a 25-minute paean to their hometown in northern Sweden, alongside the a capella charm of 'Constant Bloom'. A beautiful, energetic and emotionally-charged performance, which thrilled the 70-odd of us who had made the show.

Moon Safari
They were followed by Lazuli, a band I find difficult to describe other than as unique and mind-blowing. Led by the charismatic Dominique Leonetti (guitars & vocals) with his brother Claude on Léode, a purpose-built one-handed kind-of guitar/ synthesiser which gives the band their unique sound, and the powerhouse of Gédéric Byar (guitar), Romain Thorel (keys & french horn) & Vincent Barnavol (drums & marimba), they produced a wall of thumping, North African inspired, francophone rock that left the room breathless yet wanting more. For their encore they gave us their '9 hands round a marimba', a wonderful piece of timing and musical dexterity, which for a time morphed into 'Solsbury Hill'.

Which links in to the final part of the weekend, which was Peter Gabriel's 'Back to the Front' concert at the Sheffield Arena. A 2½ hour aural and visual treat, with material from his early works (including a storming rendition of the aforementioned 'Solsbury Hill', and an absolutely stunning version of 'Family Snapshot', probably my all-time favourite of his), some newer material, including what he described as a 'work in progress', and as a climax to the show a full reworking of his 1986 album 'So'. Ably supported by the original 'So' touring band, Tony Levin (bass), David Rhodes (guitars), David Sancious (keys) & Manu Katche (drums) and vocals backed up by Jennie Abrahamson & Linnea Olsson, who also acted as support act, this was a musical tour-de-force which left the crowd longing for more, yet ready to go following a heart-rending finale of 'Biko'.

An amazing weekend, demonstrating that inventive, entertaining music is still alive. Long may it continue!

The light show for 'Red Rain'