Not included in Best Records of 2012

Alt-J — An Awesome Wave

It’s rare for me to give up on an album half way. If something truly remarkable happens in the second half, I am very sorry. What was wrong with this record? Well, I was put onto it by the rave reviews and awards it received from numerous journalists and industry groups, praising it as some remarkable breakthrough in artistic pop music. One particularly hyperbolic reviewer described it as:

… a stunning and encompassing affair of both innovative and electrifying musicianship and exemplary song writing. Comparing Alt-J to contemporary artists or listing their influences is almost pointless. Each song blurs, stutters, and explodes across a tide of instruments and ideas, fresh and addictive.

To suggest that this is true of An Awesome Wave is frankly offensive to countless other musicians. To draw a few obvious examples, Everything Everything are touring right now. This record won the Mercury Prize over Plan B (see my earlier review) and Field Music. Kid A was released over ten years ago. It’s not that An Awesome Wave is a terrible record, but there is nothing about it to suggest that it deserves a place alongside music which is better crafted, less contrived and more moving. If you are a music reviewer and you gave this record 8/10 or more, please go to Camden Lock with a placard and find someone who will trade you their spare copy of Amnesiac for your job. It would be better for everyone.

 

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The absolute best records of 2012 (based on a very limited sample (Part II))

Katatonia — Dead End Kings (Deluxe Edition)

Dead End Kings (artwork)

Melodic doom metal. Maybe there’s something intimidating about the name? I really don’t understand why this band and genre don’t enjoy a much wider popularity. You get the power and darkness of metal in something much more accessible and more overtly ‘human’. Instead, people looking for this crossover seem to fall into Post-Hardcore and Emotional Hardcore, the brash punky cousins. I suspect a lot of people don’t know that they like Katatonia. In a word, Dead End Kings is “mature”; the lyrics still touch on cliches but are generally more sophisticated than their earlier work, and there is an air of subtlety and delicacy running over the whole record. It’s not very exciting, but it is quite nourishing; the folkish melodies and vocal ornaments really come through and supported by well-written vocal harmonies and strings. Dead End Kings is not too repetitive, not too exhausting; there is no attention-seeking virtuosity yet it never feels lazy. While not especially pioneering, this is a well-crafted piece of rich, accessible music. Recommended, with one caveat: you will need the deluxe edition. It includes a final acoustic track, The Act of Darkening, which winds down the album and sets a suitable mood for leaving the music behind. This track is essential — if you didn’t get it, you were ripped off. We are used to “bonus tracks” which ruin the structure of a record by running the ending into some lame demos and remixes. This is the opposite; it appears that the official main release was deliberately crippled. Not cool.

Behold The Arctopus — Horrorscension

horrorscension

There are really two reviews here: one for those who don’t know about Behold The Arctopus and one for those who do.

Behold The Arctopus play instrumental avant-garde metal, chanelling the best of 20th-century art music into distorted guitars and furious drumming. If you hate any of those things, this is probably not a band you will get along with. My recommendation is that you get into 20th-century art music because it is awesome. They have a wonderful balance between taking themselves very lightly (preposterous track names, playing games with the listeners expectations, playing music that has absolutely no chance of mainstream success) and taking their music very seriously (making the vast majority of “progressive” musicians look like clueless amateurs). There’s a lot of nonsense said about this band: to clear up any misconceptions, they are not jazz, their music is not “random” and they do know what they are doing. Frankly, if you think it sounds like pointless rubbish, you are the one at fault. Now, that is not to say that we can’t attempt a little criticism!

Compared to Skullgrid, their previous record, the production style has shifted slightly in favour of guitars; I’m not entirely happy about this as the bass end of the Warr Guitar (look it up) has a satisfying meaty quality that has largely been dropped and the drums also feel a little less full. Still, the mixing is excellent in that all the parts are crisply separated and exposed, making it fairly easy to track what is going on in these absurdly complex arrangements. We can also be grateful that they have not gone to the “bees in a tin can” aesthetic preferred by many of their influences.

A number of minor innovations and tweaks to the band’s sound and writing are on this record — I could spell them out but honestly it’s more fun to discover them for yourself. In general, the songwriting is more repetitive — this is not really a weakness when found in such erratic music, but it is noticeable especially in the drumming. The snare in particular is used repetitively for extended periods, which combined with a relatively low tom mix makes the drums feel less varied and, well, fun. One could link this to new drummer Weasel Walter but blaming personal drumming style doesn’t really fit the data — this is a band that composes on paper, and Walter has said in interviews that he has found the music challenging and had to adapt his technique. At the same time, he’s made a major contribution to the songwriting and seems to largely run the band’s online presence. An easy criticism to level would be that the album is very short at 28 mins, but actually I think this is a great strength; such exhausting music is best enjoyed in moderation. I suppose one might claim that the record represents poor value because of this, but I don’t think $10 is very much for a top-tier record in a niche genre. I actually pre-ordered the $25 cd + t-shirt bundle (and paid as much again in shipping and tax from the USA; a UK distributer would be nice!) The T-shirt is great, featuring a huge and vivid rendition of the album’s fearsome artwork, and as a reward for pre-ordering I received an audio download well before the release rate. In general, mail-ordering a CD and receiving a download ASAP is my favourite distribution method, truly the best of both worlds, and I’ve happily paid over the odds for it on multiple occasions…

To sum up; perhaps this was a little underwhelming, but only because my expectations were so high. Better than Skullgrid? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, this is easily some of the best composition going on in “popular music”, and the band really have a way of making everyone else look like ignorant slackers.

Between The Buried And Me — The Parallax II: Future Sequence

The Parallax II: Future Sequence (Artwork)

Some facts about this record:

  • The majority of the lyrics are unintelligible
  • The remaining lyrics are vague
  • There is little by way of obvious structure
  • The record is 72 mins long
  • The instruments are well-arranged and the melodies and rhythms are inspired
  • The level of technical playing and musicianship is outstanding

There is actually a very equivalent musical genre out there: Italian opera

It’s difficult to process the contrasting sections, cheeky interludes and furious chugging. WHY ARE YOU SO ANGRY. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE ANGRY. STOP SHOUTING. I really don’t have a problem with aggressive music and metal; the transitions are exhilarating and the resulting work feels more sincere and less contrived than, for example, Dream Theater’s work (which manages to be both more emotionally shallow and technically excessive). In principle, the scope is very similar: from the album name, artwork and rambling clean vocals about astral projection, they are clearly trying to communicate something deep. But they take 72 minutes of somewhat challenging music to explore… what? It’s difficult to enjoy the tracks simply as technical compositions – given the length, there are few rewards in the form of references and reprises. If you turn to the lyric booklet, things work a lot better as the music really does follow the story and there is some thought-provoking stuff there. But if you HAVE to use the booklet to enjoy this record then the booklet should have been printed on A4 with a clear font, durable binding and the words READ ME on the front. If you go to the opera these days you are provided with a plot summary, surtitles and live acting. I appreciate that an hour-long music video may be a bit over-budget, but this is essentially good music with incoherent presentation.

The absolute best records of 2012 (based on a very limited sample (Part 1))

Muse — The 2nd Law

Short version: this is a crazy dance remix of a Muse/Queen mash-up. You know you’d buy it!

Returning briefly to their previous record The Resistance, Muse seem to have recently dabbled with recapturing the spirit of earlier songs: Uprising feels like a very cynical attempt to re-make Knights of Cydonia, while Unnatural Selection has a good stab at Citizen Erased but falls short, partly in its crisp, plain production. Well, it’s third time lucky, as new track Animals combines the best of Micro Cuts and Ruled by Secrecy, with a 5/4 time signature thrown in for good measure.

External inflences are much more important to this record however; between the James Bond quotation in Supremacy, miscellaneous Brian May guitar squeals, Queen-esque vocal harmony and the infamous “bro-step” wub-wub intrusion into Madness and The 2nd Law: Unsustainable, a 2nd Law drinking game based on identifiable references is inevitable. Still, it would be utterly wrong to describe any of this as “derivative” (except in a very narrow sense) — this is important work being done to bring together diverse influences and show people what can be done. Panic Station makes 70’s disco cool for heaven’s sake.  The 2nd Law: Unsustainable shows how the Skrillex formula of “lame sequenced music:epic wub-wub drop:repeat” can easily be improved by replacing the “lame sequenced music” with something that is inspiring in its own right. There have been about 600 years of work done on how to build musical tension without just boring your audience into wanting something else to happen. Muse aren’t ashamed to draw on it. Follow Me is also pretty brave as it essentially changes production style between verses and choruses, giving the might of pumping compression without killing the track’s structure. I really hope that hundreds of dull pop producers were smashing their heads against expensive mixing desks when Madness was released — they’ve been trying to make exactly this track for Cheryl Cole et al for years now, and simply lack the musicianship and creativity to do it. This album is a real gift to song-writers and producers.

How does it stand up as a record in its own right? Well, Survival didn’t exactly bode well, with it’s preposterously serious arrangement set against outright terrible lyrics and cheesy riffs. In context, following Panic Station, it is a lot more acceptable as your inhibitions have already been knocked away. Much as I like the arrangement in the chorus of Save Me, I think a lot of people will find it a dull ballad. The overall concept is great: I’m pleased to see mainstream bands endorsing environmentalist concepts, and the closing pair of title tracks are very powerful (although as a thermodynamicist I must object to the insinuation that the Earth is an “isolated system”.) And so we come to the elephant in the corner:

“save me”, “free me”, “follow me”… this album should be renamed “The Imperative Tense”
— Jonathan Archer, MPhys

Muse’s lyrics have never been that great. On the earlier records it simply doesn’t matter, as the vocals are largely buried in distortion. When they really are the centre of attention, they are good enough and Unintended is a very moving song for example. But as they’ve moved towards a more pop-music aesthetic, it’s becoming more of a problem. You can string cliches together for an album or two, but you can’t get to this level of stardom and 7 albums without being criticised for lines like “Embedded spies, brainwashing our children to be mean.” Explorers is probably the first canonical Muse song that is actively boring. It’s embarrassing, guys. Sort it out.

Coheed and Cambria — The Afterman: Ascension

Coheed and Cambria’s opening tracks are always great; creepy instrumentals which are usually interrupted by loud guitars for Track 2. The Afterman: Ascension doesn’t disappoint, yet brings some variation — what is this? Dialogue?! Then a beautiful variation on the opening theme for In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (which has already been reprised on Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness), and no rude interruptions. For those who’ve read this far without being familiar with Coheed and Cambria’s material, you are correct in surmising their love for ridiculous titles. There’s always a logic to them but it can be a little… remote… Coheed are basically a modern progressive rock band (or “nu prog” as it is called by the truly desperate), but their sound palette is largely drawn from metal. (It would be a disservice to call them a progressive metal band.) Synthesisers and electronics are usually present, but take a back seat to deceptively simple riffs and deceptively complex arrangements.

I don’t generally have any idea of what is going on in these records. While it’s often possible to get some semblance of a story or a moment from individual songs, the overall events are beyond me. I understand that there is a (graphic) novel/comic project running in parallel, but to quote the inimitable Plinkett on Star Wars Episode I:

“… don’t any of you ****** tell me that it was explained more in the novelisation or some Star Wars books — what matters is the movie. I ain’t never read one of them Star Wars book, or any books in general for that matter, and I ain’t about to start .”

It’s refreshing that with The Afterman: Ascension one can at least get a decent sense of story-like things; characters are explicitly named in lyrics or song titles, and you might even learn something about them. The rhythms and melodies are as inventive as ever – a significant part of the difficulty in understanding the lyrics comes from the atypical phrasing. I’m not sure I’d change this; we come to Coheed for crazy melodies that nobody else would write, set to tasteful and engaging rock/metal arrangements. This album really delivers, while containing enough new sounds and experiments to overcome the slight stagnation of their last two records. I would recommend it to established Coheed fans and laymen alike.

Plan B — Ill Manors

What? A hip-hop/urban/what-have you record? Not my usual scene I’ll grant you, but this is the kind of work with so much attention to detail it makes everyone else look lazy. It’s accessible for all the right reasons, and never boring. The title track easily takes the title for “Song of the Year”; the chorus is just a great piece of writing. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the first line:

"ill manors" chorus

Over four bars, the first note of the bar is progressively brought closer to the bar line. This builds up the tension and lets it move easily from slow and epic to tricky and syncopated.

Unashamedly topical, I’d accuse the song of being crude and over-the-top if it didn’t seem so sincere. This holds for the whole record – “Pity the Plight” has minor descending piano motifs, eerie synth pads, bleak poetry, actors crying and screaming. Heavy-handed? Maybe. Traumatic? Hell yes. Justified? A lot more so than if it were on a Dream Theater record.

The last album which make me this uncomfortable was The Inevitable Rise And Liberation of Niggy Tardust — and this is much closer to home. I can’t really join in with the chorus when I am a “little rich boy”. Yet as with the Saul Williams/Trent Reznor collaboration, I’m riveted by the combination of passion and sophistication. The conflict is that culturally the music isn’t openly aimed at me, but good music will of course reach through regardless. A suspiciously wide range of bands and are quoted and even name-checked, and there’s a fantastic rant about newspapers, suggesting that this is actually intended to reach the middle class and we’re meant to feel this bad. Great.

As a film soundtrack, this falls into the depressingly small group of concept albums that have an easily intelligible story. The songs follow different characters through connected events. Essentially it’s about being poor on a London estate. As a key theme of the album is that people misunderstand and misrepresent this culture, I can’t possibly comment on how authentic or appropriate it is. Everyone is criticised; parents, schools, police, government, media – while a sympathetic portrayal, it is clear that on some level the characters themselves are also to blame, and circumstances are given as explanation, not excuses. It’s not the most positive or constructive message, but it captures some of the ideas and problems of our time very effectively. I’m left upset and angry, but with no real outlet other than making my own angry music.

Music video of the year

Gangam Style. Because pelvic thrusts are still funny.

2012 gigs retrospective

I would like to offer a list of my top albums of 2012, but I’ve only just acquired some of the top candidates, so in the meantime here are the gigs I went to:

27/01/12 Explosions In The Sky

Touring in support of their 2011 album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, this was a strong performance from the Texans. The set was well-balanced between their albums and it was a pleasure to hear some of my favourite tracks. A particular highlight was the powerful new track Let Me Back In, complete with eerie samples and elegant guitars penetrated by deafening, dissonant clangs. Explosions are a band I recommend to almost anyone as their work is very musical, quite accessible and refreshing to those unfamiliar with post-rock; a good gateway. While generally associated with the more beautiful, clean side of the genre, on this night they gave a pyrotechnic performance of Greet Death in which the melody was almost buried in noise. If you knew what you were listening for, it was glorious;  I can’t speak for first-time listeners.

Black Mass and Lanterns on the Lake gave memorable supporting performances of contrasting but fitting electronica and folk rock, respectively. Black Mass operated his pile of equipment from behind a zip-up hoodie, the uniform of the solo electronic musician. Low-frequency rumbles and ingenious samples made good use of the system, but didn’t really animate the crowd. Lanterns on the Lake were charming and I intend to keep an eye out for them in future.

25/02/12 Rammstein

I first saw Rammstein aged 17 on the Reise, Reise tour, and it was great to catch up with them again. Apart from a few new songs and a couple of new toys, they haven’t changed. Quite possibly the greatest rock stage show on earth with multiple performance areas, pyrotechnics, robotic wings, a giant cooking pot, simulated buggery, more pyrotechnics, a foam cannon, and a special different kind of pyrotechnics with more fire. Probably the only band in history to ejaculate into their joyous audience twice in one show. (Then again, there’s some pretty weird performance art out there…) I happen to quite enjoy the music too. Deathstars opened and set the tone nicely with some rather silly songs in a related style, and with an adequate level of showmanship and presence. There’s really no point in trying to outdo a band that arrive in a procession with flaming torches and giant braziers, into an arena ready to sing along with them in German.

12/06/12 Sunn O)))

Possibly one of the most life-changing gigs I’ve attended. First, some facts about Sunn O))):

  1. Only half of the characters in Sunn O)))’s name are pronounced
  2. They are named after their amplifiers
  3. Their stage set is made out of amplifiers
  4. Most of their songs are at around 5-10 beats per minute (for reference, trance music is around 125)
  5. They have collaborated with a ridiculous chunk of the global avante-garde noise/metal scene

So you have a bunch of guys playing a note for 10 seconds and listening to feedback. What’s the big deal? Firstly, those notes sound incredible. The amps were arranged in a semicircle and interact with the guitar, each other, the PA and the shape of the venue. The low-frequency vibrations are so powerful that I spent probably the first 10-20 minutes of their set discovering the resonant frequencies of different parts of my body. Secondly, the atmosphere was effective. The venue was flooded with so much smoke that it was impossible to clearly see much of the stage. The musicians, cowled in huge robes, drifted in and out of view, of existence, while a few rays of light poked between those massive speaker stacks. Essentially, they played a very extended version of one track, Aghartha. I think it lasted around 90 minutes, but it became difficult to keep track of time. At the end, the sound was gone. There was silence, then applause, then it was quiet again. An encore was not even a relevant concept to what we had experienced.

7/09/12 Between The Buried And Me

BTBAM made a great sound, but I found it difficult to really engage with the songs. I couldn’t feel strong structures or themes to jump onto. I suspect this is largely due to lack of familiarity with the music, and I’m trying to rectify that. Progressive music does generally reward repeated listening. The show was simple but accomplished and the audience received it pretty well. Opening act the Safety Fire won some early enthusiasm from a thin crowd with good use of time signatures and samples. They deserve credit for also having an attractive stage layout and easily the best T-shirt designs. It did seem however that most of us were there for Periphery, the main support act. Periphery showed great chemistry with each other and with their audience, and rattled through a good mix of songs from their debut and follow-up. However, there were several issues: their drummer had been injured and a stand-in was playing (very ably I might add). The set was relatively short and they were unable to play an encore despite united and extended crowd demands. The vocalist was not on top form, possibly due to illness, and struggled a little on their signature high clean vocals. It’s a shame that on an occasion where so many people had come to see Periphery, we didn’t really get them.

9/11/12 Funeral for a Friend

Funeral for a Friend are easily the biggest band to play in Bath in some time, and I felt somewhat obliged to support this. The gig was intended as a warm-up for their tour, and unfortunately it showed. The young audience was refreshing if a little alarming (“I’m too young to feel old at a gig!”) and I was taking care not to flatten small teenage girls when the moshing broke out. They seemed taken with the band but were probably a less-than-critical audience – these songs of teenage romance in a hardcore style always appeared a little insincere, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief as the age gap widens. The band need to act like moody teenagers to pull this off; as it is I’m not really sure what they were going for. The music isn’t sophisticated enough to speak for itself, and we need a show. Enter Crossfaith, the main support act. Fusing metal with electronic dance music isn’t exactly a new thing, but it certainly is a crowd-pleaser, and their dubstep screeches were suitably topical. More important was the band’s energy – they sprinted onto the stage and simply demanded that the crowd come forwards and start jumping with enough conviction that we were easily engaged. The best mosh pit of the night broke out spontaneously in their cover of Prodigy’s Omen. They even had the charisma to get away with a drum solo. I wouldn’t buy the record (ultimately the songs were nothing special) but I’d happily see them again.

Afterthoughts

The best overall gig was Explosions in the Sky, in terms of sustained interest and quality. It’s a close call with Rammstein, though. I like it when I leave a gig with a different perspective on the music; Sunn O))) left me with a different perspective on all music! I would like to catch Periphery at their own show, they’re clearly a great band and can definitely sustain a longer set. If I could command a performance from any band this year it would be Behold The Arctopus; sadly, the prospects aren’t great for a European tour. To a bold new year of loud music!