Monday, 3 March 2014

The Australian Pink Floyd Set the Controls Tour

The Australian Pink Floyd Show

Tour: Set The Controls

Date: February 18, 2014

Location: G Live

Support: n/a

Last year, in honour of the 40th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon, the world’s best tribute band The Australian Pink Floyd Show performed the album in full and it was quite spectacular. Of course, this year they’re not doing any such thing. Although they are playing a significant number of songs from Dark Side, they’re not in order, which is all wrong. Also, since the first time, I’ve seen Roger waters (that’s 20% of the real Pink Floyd) so seeing these guys again could never match up, right?
Well, the big surprise of the night was that they were actually even better than before. Without constraining themselves to one particular album, they were able to play a bigger variety of songs from more period of the band’s career, and there weren’t as many repeats from the first time as I’d worried. And there was an additional element where the audience could vote, a couple of months prior to the show, for songs they wanted played (from a selection) which I thought was a really great idea that more bands should try.
In fact, they opened with one of the songs I’d voted for: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, the song Pink Floyd used to open their concerts with years ago. The song is basically made for that purpose, beginning so quietly and building to a crescendo as the title line is sung, and assuming that was my only chance to see it played live, it was good enough that I can handle that. Later on, both ‘Welcome To The Machine’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ were played from the same album, the latter being a repeat but a highly enjoyable one, although the video of the members of the real Pink Floyd that was played in the background was recycled exactly. Plus, this time around the opening guitar part didn’t get fumbled.
Other repeats came from Dark Side of the Moon, including my two favourites ‘Time’ and ‘Us & Them’, and the surprising choice of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, which is very difficult to pull off but I was impressed with the performances of the backing singers. (One of them used to be a backing singer for Floyd when they toured in the 90s, which has to help.)
But the best songs of the night were the more unexpected ones. The undisputed highlight was ‘Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun’, an all time favourite of mine in the studio but one that doesn’t always work live, since it’s harder to get the creepy, atmospheric feel of the song – but here they stayed true to the studio version rather than any of the published live ones, and the overall effect was great. That and the music played over the PA before the concert began (clips of songs from ‘Piper’) were the closest we got to Syd Barrett numbers all night, the one major disappointment and flaw in the concert for the second year running.
I was also lucky enough to hear a song from Animals – it wasn’t ‘Sheep’, as I’d been hoping, but it was the funky, danceable ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’, played in full. Coming at the beginning of the second set, the band’s rocking out came as a nice contrast to the quiet concentration they’d been in for most of the first half. We saw this again in some of the heavier Wall cuts, like ‘Young Lust’, and a version of ‘Happiest Days/Brick 2’ that didn’t live up to Waters’ own venomous voice but was nevertheless enjoyable.
This was less of a surprise as I knew it was coming, but it was also good to hear three songs from ‘The Division Bell’ – the post-Waters era gets a lot of hate, but I really like the bluesy call-and-response ‘Keep Talking’, although I was less convinced by the guitar-solo-heavy ‘Coming Back to Life’. I feel like the group should stick to the full band compositions rather than trying to play songs that specifically relate to one particular member, where the style is harder to imitate.
I’ve already mentioned that the Wall songs had the hardest challenge, and none more so than ‘Comfortably Numb’, which has been performed wonderfully so many times that it can’t possibly be beaten. The band played a note-for-note copy of the original, and the guitar solo felt elegant and natural, although the vocals possibly could have been improved.
I managed to find myself a place to stand right near the front, and so the atmosphere in the audience was great, with other people who were clearly huge fans too. After the band left the stage following ‘Comfortably Numb’, everyone was cheering for ‘Run Like Hell’, except for a select few near me who decided to yell for ‘Brain Damage’. I considered shouting out ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast!’ but then worried they would actually play it, which would be a waste of an encore. Not to worry, though. They finished the night with a rousingly energetic ‘Run Like Hell’ that was so intense I managed to forget that Roger’s emotion wasn’t quite there.
Overall, a tribute band to one of the world’s most famous bands is always going to have a difficult task, but there’s a reason the Australian Pink Floyd have such a great reputation. Their love and respect for the music, the most important feature a tribute band can have, is obvious, and they have genuine talent of their own too, as well as a great sense of humour about the whole thing. With that in mind, I’ll end with an anecdote I heard once that I’m 98% sure is not true.

David Gilmour went to see the Australian Pink Floyd years ago and was so impressed that he said they were the best tribute band he’d ever seen. Flattered and wanting to return the compliment, a member of the Aussie Floyd found some tapes of the original Floyd playing, and told them that they were the best Australian Pink Floyd tribute band he’d ever seen.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Dream Theater: Along for the Ride Tour

‘An Evening With Dream Theater’
Along for the Ride Tour

Date: Friday 14th February 2014

Location: London Wembley Arena

Support: n/a

When I first saw the announcement of a new Dream Theater tour, I was instantly excited. Their new album wasn't out yet, and although their more recent work hadn't lived up to classics such as 'Scenes from a Memory', I imagined them to be a great live act. As time moved on and the date drew nearer, the band's twelfth, self titled album was released, and it ended up being their best since Train of Thought, I became even more excited.
But then I started to have doubts. A few stories found their way back to me, isolated events of the band having bad sound quality on stage, being seemingly not that interested in performing, not playing any of their well known songs. Now, I knew these were probably very rare events, considering their ongoing popularity as a live act, but it still made me slightly apprehensive as the day drew closer.
I was incredibly pleased to discover that, at the event I attended, such accusations were entirely wrong. The band stuck to a given setlist, I could hear everything perfectly, and the band (or at least frontman James LaBrie) seemed genuinely excited to be there. Furthermore, they played up their best qualities - theatricality, intensity and massive technical skill - and played down their tendency to jam unnecessarily and their cheesiness.
The setlist, instead of being taken from a broad range of albums, was almos entirely taken from four works in their catalogue, three of which were chosen for good reasons. The most obvious of these is Dream Theater, the recent release, which five songs were played from. From here, highlights were set opener and first single The Enemy Inside, which, as predicted, proved to be an excellent live track that plays up the band's metal tendencies but also proves that, when they want to, they can write a good hook (something they forgot for a couple of years) - as well as a condensed version of Illumination Theory. I don't think it's coincidence that they began their set focusing more on the metal aspect of their music, and ended it focusing on the prog aspect, in order to appeal to both of their main sets of fans. Although I'd have liked to hear the full version of this song, it wouldn’t have been plausible to bring a string orchestra in for just that one song, so I’ll take what I can get.
'Enigma Machine' featured a drum solo from Mike Mangini, notable since he's by far the newest band member. Mike Portnoy's shoes are difficult ones to fill, being one of the best modern drummers and all (although I may give the prize to Danny Carey) and indeed, the solo wasn't one of the greatest I've ever heard, but it was kept short and was enjoyable enough.
Also from the same album, before the concert started, we got to hear 'False Awakening Suite' played over a short video, notable for incorporating every DT album cover within it, which was a fun game to play. That aside, the band were incredibly prompt onstage and spent almost every second of their time playing, giving us well over two hours of music. Even during the interval, those who didn't leave the room were treated to videos of outtakes and band interviews from the most recent album.
Although James LaBrie was mostly excellent as a host and frontman, he had his moment of trying too hard - his efforts to get the crowd standing and singing along during early songs went mostly unrewarded. This disrupted some of the show slightly, where the pauses during songs stopped me from enjoying them as much as I might otherwise, but once he gave up on this and began focusing on his own singing, I couldn't fault him - he has a fascinating voice. It's not that he puts huge amounts of emotion in his own words; it seems more that he's using his singing as a way of putting emotion into the audience.
The band were also celebrating anniversaries this year - it's been 20 years since Awake, so we got a selection of five songs from there. I'm a massive fan of 'Scarred' with its stunning piano opening, and although it's short, 'Space-Dye Vest' has always been a lot of fun in its likeness to early Porcupine Tree. It’s not one of their albums that I listen to most often, and I’d forgotten quite how much quality material it had.
Lastly - and they really did keep us waiting until the end for this - it's been fifteen years since Scenes from a Memory, and the encore comprised a full four songs from this. We were given the beginning with the bombastic 'Overture 1928' and its polar opposite in mood, 'Strange Deja Vu', before skipping to 'The Dance of Eternity' which was energetic but has never been an album string point, and ending with 'Finally Free', the obvious closer that everyone in the audience sang along to without being asked.
These three albums aside, the song choices weren’t necessarily bad, but I could have thought of songs I’d have much preferred. The exclusion of ‘Metropolis Part 1’ was a complete shock – I’ve never heard of a tour before where it wasn’t played. I’d also have liked ‘A Change of Seasons’, which I don’t hear a lot because it’s from an EP but which is one of their best longer tracks, and missing out the entirety of ‘6 Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ seems like a huge omission.
Something else I liked was the song titles appearing on the screen at the beginning of songs – from my seat the screen was slightly obscured so I wasn’t able to appreciate their videos as much as I’d have liked, though they looked to be good, and I knew all the songs anyway – but it was a nice touch for people who might be less well acquainted with the band.

All in all, I understand that a band with a huge catalogue can never please the entire fanbase, and I appreciate them making the effort to play for as much of their time on stage as was physically possible. I also appreciate the fact that the band didn't try to give their tour a clever name. They've had some successes with these puns in the past (I appreciated 'A Dramatic Tour of Events') but also come up with some quite laughable ones (Where Dream and Tour Unite?) and were probably safer just sticking with the title of a recent song. They lived up to their potential of being an amazing, intense live band and I’d without a doubt go again.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Who: Live At Leeds

Live At Leeds

Best song: My Generation

Worst song: A Quick One While He’s Away (introduction too long, and while it’s a career landmark it didn’t need to be played live)

Overall grade: 5 / 6 / low 6 (original LP / 1995 reissue / 2001 deluxe)

It’s impossible to write about Live At Leeds without acknowledging its status of being generally considered “the best live album of all time”, a reputation I was well aware of before I even heard it for the first time. And after I had actually heard it, my first reaction was ‘Wow, that’s a bit short, isn’t it?’ And with regards to the original LP (I’ll discuss other versions too, though) that’s certainly stuck with me. Live albums are great for two reasons: they show a side of a band that’s not present on their studio recordings, and they recreate the experience of going to a concert. The original Live At Leeds scores excellently on the first point: this is The Who as you’ve never seen them before, fuelled purely by adrenaline, climbing higher and higher and attempting to embody the very definition of rock’n’roll. But as far as the second point goes, concerts are generally longer than 36 minutes, and so this version kind of seems like a teaser trailer for something much bigger. Although unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, it doesn’t even include the best bits.
Also unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, the definitive version wasn’t released until a full 25 years later. And the extended edition/director’s cut wasn’t released for another six years after that. Consequently, there are three different versions of Live At Leeds (there’s actually more, but they include Live At Hull and I’m not even going to go there) – so which one of these, if any, deserves this honour of being the world’s greatest live album?
Point one: ‘My Generation’.  This song appears on every version and is also the best song on every version – in the 1970 LP it takes up over a third of the record, so that’s a point in its favour. It’d be easy to love the original studio version of this song and hate this one, or vice versa, but I see the appeal in both: the original was a triumph of proto-punk that succeeded in its brevity, while here the band stretch out a little more and engage in a customary-for-the-time jam session that’s cool because it’s not at all random, it includes excerpts from a bunch of other songs.
Point two: covers. The Who used to play a lot of cover songs live, and three are included on the original version, with a fourth on the extended. They’re mostly R’n’B songs from the 50s and early 60s that the band have sped up and given a harder edge to, and in actual fact, my favourite is ‘Fortune Teller’, and I can’t understand why it was left off the original. It may have been covered by a huge number of bands, but this is by far and away my favourite version. One point to the reissue.
Point four: ‘Tommy’. 2001’s deluxe edition is the only one to include a live performance of almost the entire rock opera, shortened only slightly, and although I’m hardly the biggest fan of the original, but performed on stage it comes into its own, giving life to the most aimless songs. Townshend, who at times in his career has tried to be too calculating and mathematical in his songwriting, is thinking less here about the story of a pinball-obsessed deaf, dumb and blind boy and more about his own exciting and ferocious guitar work. One point to the 2001 expanded edition for creating something great out of something very patchy (although the live version lacks diversity compared to the studio.)
Point four: all other songs. ‘Substitute’ and ‘Magic Bus’ are the only two to appear on all versions – both non-album singles, they’re both very obvious choices which are obviously awesome but don’t leave room for any more underappreciated choices. One of my favourite moments from the 1995 reissue is the opener, Entwhistle’s B-side ‘Heaven And Hell’, featuring a great bassline that really gets the crowd excited for the coming set. ‘Tattoo’, from Sell Out, is another hidden gem in this version, sandwiched between two covers, and shows Keith Moon’s drums basically taking on a life of their own. This extended version allows for a greater variety of songs, and I like the varied lengths and styles they cover, so one point for the reissue.
Point five: timing. The concert was recorded in 1970, after the Who’s first four albums, but before the great trio that were still to come. All songs on all versions come from this concert, meaning they don’t capture the spread of a whole career. No additional points for any version.
Of the three options here, I think it’s safe to say that the LP version is the weakest; its only selling point being that it’s available on vinyl, which to my knowledge the later ones are not. I think the 1995 edition is plenty long enough to satisfy most fans and give the full concert experience, and it’s also more structured than the 2001 version, where some songs are re-ordered so that Tommy can have its own disc. Whether they like Tommy particularly or not, every fan of the band should hear the live version to compare and contrast, but in my mind the single greatest version of Live At Leeds is the 1995 reissue, with the 2001 version playing more like two entirely separate concerts rather than the single entity that a great live album should be.

As to whether it’s the greatest live album of all time, it’s certainly a contender for its raw power (you honestly get the feeling that the band physically couldn’t have stopped playing, even in the face of an explosion or something) and encapsulation of the concertgoing experience, but it fails to capture some other sides of the band, released as it was at a time when their intelligence played less of a part in songwriting. That said, the first two elements were probably lost as the band progressed further. In short, it captures the band at their live peak but not at their musical peak, and so it’s a great album, but I can think of a few better examples from where bands’ peaks in both areas overlapped.

Monday, 27 January 2014

[REQUEST] Linkin Park: A Thousand Suns

A Thousand Suns

Best song: The Catalyst

Worst song: The Messenger

Overall grade: 4

Linkin Park are one of those bands from the 2000s that seems to get pretty much universal hatred from ‘serious’ music fans (other most famous example: Nickelback.) This seems to stem from their being pigeonholed into one of two genres.
1)      Rap metal. To me, dislike of this is justified. I’ve yet to find a rap or hip-hop song I enjoy (although if you want to try…) and the addition of these elements to metal music seems to, more often than not, bring out the worst in both of them.
2)      Nu metal. This is the part I have something of a problem with. According to Wikipedia, nu metal is “a fusion genre which combines sounds, influences and characteristics of heavy metal and its subgenres”. Now, I fail to understand how this is (necessarily) a bad thing, but to many people, as soon as they hear the term ‘nu metal’ they immediately dismiss the band.
With this in mind, I see Linkin Park as a band who started off uninspired, due to their imitation of a handful of late 90s alternative metal bands that never really had anything going for them themselves – but developed, somewhere between 2003 and 2007, into an interesting band with their own styles and ideas who were still hit and miss, but certainly worth listening to for the hits.
Their 2010 album, A Thousand Suns, is fifteen tracks long, but it’s also possible to find a version (“The Full Experience”) that is a single, forty-eight-minute track long. That’s probably the best way to listen to the album, but for ease of reviewing I’ll refer to the actual track names. As a whole, the album is more mature than their previous work, in many (good) ways simpler, less heavy, which allows the music to breathe and speak for itself. Oh, and it’s a concept album about ‘human fears’, which is quite vague but also believable.
The opener, ‘Requiem’, is very interesting. The wordless vocals carry the funeral mood implied by the title, yet the music is very cold-hearted and futuristic, and it all brings to mind the idea of a robotic funeral without any real emotion, which is a chilling thought. This is further explored by the extremely processed, emotionless vocals that come in around the 1.15 mark.
If that sets the electronic-based tone of the music, then ‘The Radiance’, which includes a recording of a speech by J. Robert Oppenheimer, certainly sets the political tone of the lyrics.
‘Burning in the Skies’ is the kind of catchy song that you’ll be singing along to before you’ve even finished listening to it once, and it pairs a smooth, sliding vocal with a lurching, jolting drumbeat, but it does give the impression of a song that hasn’t had that much work invested in it, with nothing to really make it stand out. Then, ‘Empty Spaces’ is a track that jumps out at you to yell ‘Look at me, I’m a serious concept album!’ because it’s far too short to exist as anything more than a bridge between two songs.
‘When They Come For Me’ is never going to be a favourite of mine due to its strong hip-hop influence, however, objectively I can see that the way the rapping of the verses blends with the soaring choruses is very natural, and I love the part at the end where these choruses descend into a kind of riot.
‘Robot Boy’ uses a lot of the same tricks as ‘Burning in the Skies’ but feels a lot more genuine, with better lyrics and more emotional weight. The catharsis of the end part that builds steadily and suddenly becomes quiet gives the impression of an album coming to a close, but no, it segues straight on into the ultimately forgettable ‘Jornada Del Muerto’ which doesn’t do anything not repeated elsewhere, and my attention is briefly lost.
Up until this point, the album has been very cohesive to the point of sounding a bit samey. ‘Waiting for the End’ presents a welcome change, with some much rougher vocals, a brief flirtation with a cappella, a backing that’s in a constant state of change and is impossible to predict, and a chorus that reminds me of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Moving past the halfway mark, the first part of ‘Blackout’ brings uncontrolled anger and nothing else of note, and seems to be a bit of a failed experiment with a kind of electronic hardcore. But partway through it suddenly stops (the blackout referenced by the title?) and starts up again as an entirely different, yet related song, and a very pretty one at that. It’s a cool trick but I’d much prefer it if the first part of the song was at all listenable.
On one level, ‘Wretches and Kings’ is a pretty awesome political rallying cry, and the crazy snarls of the chorus are shocking and effective. I feel like this song could have been really great if it weren’t for the obnoxious rap sections that obscure the idiosyncratic electronic squeals in large parts of it.
‘Wisdom, Justice and Love’ is another song that replaces vocals with an extract from a famous speech, and I love the contrast between the two speakers – first, a man who worked in the development of nuclear weapons, and then Martin Luther King, who always promoted nonviolence. It marks a sort of shift in themes to more positive, hopeful subject matter.
‘Iridescent’ is the most human moment on the album, an evocative piano ballad  which speaks directly to the listener by using ‘you’ throughout, and tries to turn itself into an anthem as It builds, but falls short on account of being a little repetitive. ‘Fallout’ brings a return to electronics and darkness, and has the suffocating, claustrophobic feel of being recorded far underground, but this effect is spoilt somewhat by its being one of the weaker songs for lyrics.
The true anthem on this album for me is second-to-last track ‘The Catalyst’, a confident, self-assured cry that echoes the lyrics of ‘The Requiem’ with a hundred times as much conviction and emotion. It’s serious and important but not too serious, shown by the almost dance-like that characterises part of it. It’s the kind of set-closing song that brings a crowd of people together.
After this huge finale, ‘The Messenger’ was bound to be a quiet affair, and it’s a bit disappointing, with the kind of cliché lyrics like ‘Listen to your heart’ and ‘Love keeps us kind’ that just seem insincere, vocals that don’t suit the music, and an over-simplified acoustic guitar part. I’m partial to a perfectly crafted release of a song ending, and there are certainly a few of them on this album, which makes it all the more disappointing that the actual final song doesn’t bring anything new.

Overall, I like this album, because some of the songs are very well-crafted and because it’s really great to see a band like this stretch themselves and attempt to make the sort of ‘abstract concept album’ that great bands like Pink Floyd did. Linkin Park have succeeded in places. They didn’t make a masterpiece, but they definitely grew musically and it was a worthwhile effort.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Disclaimer: The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss

The Airbag’s Lipstick Kiss

Best song: Most of them; today I’ll say Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo, tomorrow it’ll be different.

Worst song: Vending Machine

Overall grade: 6

The Airbag’s Lipstick Kiss is the first album by one-man band Disclaimer, also known as Chris Willie Williams, who I originally knew of only as the guy behind the only-technically-still-active Disclaimer Music Review Archive, and then as the guy who made that great song ‘Hell’ in the WRC compilation album, and now as a bona fide musician who, according to this website, is better than One Direction and Gorgoroth put together. (And now I’d really like to see them put together.)
This could almost be described as a concept album, since it’s all based on one true story: a break up story. Because of this, it’s a painfully realistic and cathartic journey through every negative emotion you could care to name, all stitched together with sarcasm. At times it’ll definitely make you think of someone specific, at other times it’ll just make you angry at the narrative’s unnamed ‘you’, but it would be impossible to listen to without becoming involved in the story.
So, why is it better than One Direction and Gorgoroth put together? Well, it’s unique and clever, two qualities which come across very well in opener ‘Fixing A Hole’, which begins with a robotic voice emotionlessly repeating criticisms such as ‘I’ve got to be more playful… I’ve got to be more assertive…’ As the song continues with the singer promising to change himself, melody begins to play more of a part, the voice becomes more human and more emotional; showing the possibility of an emotional journey in the music as well as the lyrics.
Connections like this continue throughout the albums, such as the electronic-based, idiosyncratic ‘God Said ‘Plastics!’’ that uses retro video game noises to complement its video game metaphors, however, ‘Like The Backside Of A Bulimic’s Teeth’ presents a juxtaposition: a light, dreamy, unaffected melody that floats gracefully over the rhythm in the background, counterpointing the sometimes violent and sometimes nauseating lyrics, bringing to mind the feeling of pretense and having to give across the impression of happiness.
The rhythmically catchy, no-nonsense ‘You Ruined Everything’ could definitely have been a single (the first one ever to include the word ‘coldcock’) which is both a good and bad thing – good in that it’s an energetic, angry punk song with more life in it than an entire Phil Collins album, but bad in that it doesn’t entirely fit in with the rest of the songs here, being a bit too straightforward and sticking conventionally to one genre.
The following ‘Generic Shoulder Blade Tattoo’ could not be more different, sounding more like a hopeless, melancholy lullaby. It’s another more normal tune, but the melody is beautiful and heart-wrenching. ‘De Sitter Horizons’, appearing two songs later, is the colder, more mechanical equivalent: I see them as counterparts, the first containing good memories of a relationship and being sad that those things are over, the second containing bad memories and not entirely knowing how to feel about those. And the ending of ‘I can’t, I just can’t’, has a worrying and ominous feel, like the singer might be about to do something crazy.
I’ve talked about ‘Hell’ before, but it definitely deserves a mention here. It’s an expertly crafted dark pop song that fits well with the moods on the rest of the album, and I still can’t get over the geeky Beatles subversion that is: ‘In the end, the love you take is inversely proportional to the love you make’. Not with that hook I can’t, anyway.
Williams certainly has a knack for a good melody, but he’s not afraid to experiment, such as on the fuzz- and effect-laden ‘Vending Machine’, which seems to have a lot of interesting ideas but is obscured by a wall of impenetrable noise that works better on a metaphorical level than a musical one and is probably the album’s only real weak link. Much more successful is the instrumental ‘Mufasa Kisses’, appearing just over halfway through the album, that features Williams playing a wide range of instruments and layering them around one another, showcasing his production talents just as much as his instrumental ones.
Of course, no matter how good that track is, the greatest thing about this album is its lyrics. Sometimes they’re unpretentious and down to earth like ‘I fell for you like an old man falling for a credit card scam’ using gritty, modern metaphors to surprise the listener; while other times they give a new take on tired clichés, such as ‘I’ll offer up my withered olive branch and hope it looks like a Christmas tree to you’. I could probably still enjoy this album a lot if the lyrics booklet was all I had, which isn’t something I could say for many records.
Probably the most lighthearted track here is ‘Wrong For The Right Reasons Is Still Wrong’, which sort of reminds me of that Neutral Milk Hotel instrumental, ‘The Penny Arcade In California’, with lyrics. Incredibly infectious and enjoyable in its own right, it’s also a welcome break from darkness giving the listener time to prepare for the final track. This is ‘Please Pardon Our Progress!!!’, a track which took a while to grow on me but I now like a lot. Joe Hinchcliffe’s contributions (synth bass and vocals) mean it sticks out a little, but it’s a great riff he provides, giving structure to the dense and intense mess of a song, and although this final descent into a black hole isn’t an easy listen, it’s a fitting and memorable conclusion to the album.
Or is it? Following this final song, there’s twenty seconds of silence and then a hidden track begins, a quiet, distorted acoustic song pairing intimate vocals and electronic bleeps, that offers some kind of hope for the future. These two possible endings are a good decision, leaving it up to the listener which they choose to accept as the true ending. Personally, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and it doesn’t hurt that the song itself is so interesting.

So overall, there are many great things I could say about the music on this record, which is an excellent blend of traditional concepts of melody and weird experimentalism, but the most successful thing about it is the believability of every single emotion and the way Williams is clearly holding nothing back, putting everything he has into the songwriting, which really comes across. He’s the self-proclaimed ‘Unreliable Narrator’, but I’d trust him. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

20 Christmas Songs, Ranked Worst To Best

20 Christmas Songs, Ranked Worst To Best

So, now is the time of year when everyone starts writing their lists of best albums of the year, and inexplicably puts ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ at #1 when it should just be a safe sort of medium to high and when Steven Wilson is far more deserving of the top spot. But I just got a bunch of new CDs for Christmas and I’m more interested in listening to them than going over everything that’s been released in 2013, and besides, over the past two weeks or so, a lot of what I’ve been listening to has had titles like ‘The Greatest Christmas Album In The World Ever’, and since they’re songs that everybody knows and everybody hears without fail in December, I thought I’d say a few things about them.

#20: Santa Baby: The version of this everybody knows is Kylie’s from 2000, although it was originally released in 1953, and it’s pretty much my pet hate when it comes to Christmas songs. The breathy, girly vocals are incredibly annoying and the lyrics are frankly creepy – the idea of flirting with Father Christmas is too weird for me to even think about. The melody is strange and awkward and never really goes anywhere, and all in all, I can’t understand why this ever became a hit.

#19: All I Want For Christmas Is You: Mariah Carey’s 2003 single became massive and many regard it as a definitive Christmas song… when in actual fact, it’s not even about Christmas – it’s just using Christmas as an excuse for her to talk about a guy she’s in love with. I could probably cope with this if it was otherwise a good song, but I find it uninspired, following the same ‘sparse, tender opening followed by danceable, upbeat second verse’ that pop songs have been following since their invention.

#18: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree: Again, the original version of this isn’t the one everyone knows; the popular version is by Mel Smith and Kim Wilde from 1987, and again, it’s one of those songs that is everywhere and I can’t understand why. It’s just incredibly grating in how it’s constantly upbeat and very repetitive, and it doesn’t exactly seem to be about anything – it just exists. Mostly, the people I know who like it want to seem like they’re into retro music when they’re actually not.

#17: Proper Crimbo: I discovered this 2003 song for the first time this year and instantly hated it. It’s performed by a range of celebrities who were popular at the time but unremembered now, and is clearly meant to be a novelty song. I often tire of novelty songs after the tenth listen; this one I tired of before the first was out. Some people like it because it’s down to earth and captures what Christmas really is like rather than the ideal – I dislike it for the exact same reason; I love the magic of Christmas.

#16: Wonderful Christmastime: Paul McCartney’s contribution to Christmas music came in 1979, which incidentally was the same year that ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ became Christmas Number One (I didn’t feel like I could include that, though.) This is a good song that I’d actually choose to listen to, but its problem is that it’s too safe. Sure, it’s warm and feel-good, and it works excellently as background music in a Christmas party, but it doesn’t do anything particularly exciting.

#15: Merry Christmas Everyone: Released by Shakin’ Stevens in 1985, my complaint about this one is basically exactly the same as the last one. I decided this one slightly edged McCartney out because I’ve always thought he sounded a bit self conscious and unwilling to let go, and Shakin’ Stevens doesn’t have this problem, putting everything he has into the song over a fun swingy rhythm that won’t change your world but will get you tapping your feet.

#14: His Favourite Christmas Story: One that less people will be familiar with, this was released in 2008 by obscure American power pop band Capital Lights. As the title suggests, it tells a story, and the story is excellent – incredibly sad and beautiful and can still make me cry a little if it catches me in the right mood, so I have to listen to this a few times every year. There’s nothing special about the music, though, and if you’re not concentrating on the story it’ll slip right by you.

#13: Baby It’s Cold Outside: Another song that’s older than anybody realises, this 1949 classic has been covered by more people than I care to count, and if I’m honest, the version I downloaded is actually by the Glee Cast. I’m not embarrassed by that, though: Darren Criss and Chris Colfer both have excellent voices which work with each other really well in this playful duet which is more seasonal than Christmassy but is incredibly catchy and always enjoyable to hear or sing along to.

#12: Ring Out, Solstice Bells: Again not technically a Christmas song but certainly a holiday song, this is one of many such songs by Jethro Tull but the only one ever to achieve any fame, and for good reason. The vocals in the verses are a rough, acquired taste and contrast nicely with the gradually building, bombastic chorus creating something that really shouldn’t be uplifting but actually is. It’s very different and creates a great diversion when a Christmas playlist starts to get a bit monotonous.

#11: 2000 Miles: This 1983 single by the Pretenders is a stripped-down acoustic vocal showcase for Chrissie Hynde; and she’s honestly a joy to listen to here, full of emotion and passion – not surprising considering it’s dedicated to ex-band member James Honeymann-Scott following his death. It’s a sad and longing ballad that builds to a stunning climax and it’s perfect if you can’t deal with the constant cheeriness of some of the hugely famous Christmas songs.

#10: Stop The Cavalry: This one makes it into the top ten because its holiday connotations aside, it still manages to be a great New Wave song, which can’t be said for most songs on this list. Jona Lewie (who I know nothing about besides this song) creates a rhythmic and unique song with vague influences from worldbeat and traditional English music, and an anti-war protest message. It’s also very musically clever, including themes used by famous classical composers woven between the modern parts.

#9: Christmas Lights: The most recent song on the list, Coldplay didn’t release their Christmas tune until 2010, but it’s excellent. It’s stopped from being any higher on the list by the fact that it’s pretty similar to every other excellent Coldplay song ever, but nevertheless it’s one of my most played. It manages to be simultaneously happy and sad, acknowledging the magic of Christmas and its power over people despite the singer’s situation, and unsurprisingly the melody is gorgeous and the lyrics honest.

#8: Merry  Xmas Everybody: So there are songs that are great because they’re fun and Christmassy, and there are songs that are great for other reasons, and then there’s Slade’s 1973 single. It’s the most consistently big-selling Christmas song in the UK, possibly because it’s timelessly relatable. The lyrics are clever, funny without trying too hard, and the guitars perfectly suit it: it’s lighthearted but still manages a serious message. Also, I read a statistic that up to 42% of the world might have heard the song. Awesome.

#7: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday: Roy Wood’s eccentric glam rock outfit Wizzard aren’t the obvious choice for a massive commercial song but they’re definitely weird enough to pull out all the stops for this camped-up hit. Brimming with energy and impossibly full of hooks, it perfectly captures the childhood view of Christmas, which is appropriate since a choir of children actually sing on part of it. For four minutes it takes you back to a simpler time and it’s just impossible to get tired of.

#6: Happy Christmas (War Is Over): This 1971 single was released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and is another one which combines the idea of an anti-war song with a Christmas song, and does it just slightly better. It cleverly utilises the conventions of a Christmas song including a children’s choir and the use of instruments such as chimes and sleigh bells, juxtaposing them against the idea that although it’s Christmas there are still a lot of problems in the world. Plus, I love the range of textures and contrast between solo and group vocals.

#5: Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy: The third of four duets on this list (ooh, tension) this is one I’ve always liked but only started to love this year. Rulebreaking, genre-bending David Bowie and Christmas song veteran Bing Crosby don’t sound like the most likely partnership but the two together create something that’s unlike any other song, including the best of both of their musical styles. The contrast between the classic ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and the newly written song ‘Peace On Earth’ is effective and often beautiful. The video’s great too.

#4: Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Bob Geldof’s Band Aid single has been released three times, in 1984, 1989 and 2004, and the original’s definitely the best. A lot of people can’t stand the song; it’s very divisive, but clearly I’m in favour. Firstly, I think it was a good idea with honestly good intentions, and the singers do all sound genuine, and secondly I think it’s a very well-written song, giving parts to lots of musicians but still sounding cohesive overall as it gradually builds, with a couple of fake-out climaxes that lead into a united and hopeful ending.

#3: I Believe In Father Christmas: I don’t only like this one because I love Greg Lake’s voice (though I do) or so I can laugh at the irony of huge chain stores playing a song that was written to protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (though I do.) I like it because of the subtle, shimmering riff, because the song has what are possibly Lake’s greatest set of lyrics ever, because of the stripped-down acoustic arrangement that really lets the conviction in his voice show through, and because I genuinely do believe in Father Christmas.

#2: A Spaceman Came Travelling: My second favourite Christmas song is all about the atmosphere. Chris de Burgh’s 1975 song is quietly full of wonder and beauty for something just out of reach, and this ethereal song captures it perfectly, from the quietly whispered verses to the explosive release of the choruses, it’s pretty much a masterpiece of emotional buildup in a song. It’s also an interesting new take on the traditional Christmas story and my enjoyment is in no way influenced by my fascination with space.

#1: A Fairytale Of New York: There are a lot of great Christmas songs, including many that I didn’t even mention, but it’s really not hard for me to pick my all time favourite. The Pogues and Kirtsy MacColl’s collaboration has so far eclipsed all other Christmas songs that I can’t imagine how Christmas ever existed without it. Told over three Christmases, this duet is the story of a relationship, from the exciting honeymoon period at the beginning to the constant fighting phase near the end to the crushing realisation that both parties have given up their dreams for the other person, and it hasn’t even worked out. It’s outstanding in every way, from the lyrics to the melodies that perfectly convey the relevant emotions to the performances, with Shane McGowan’s vocals a particular standout, as well as the evocative fadeout instrumental section at the end. The song is timeless, in that it’s just Christmassy enough to be perfect for the time of year but can still be enjoyed year round, and it appeals to a wide range of musical tastes too. In short, I can’t imagine finding a Christmas song better than this, and I’m not sure I’d want to.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Yes: 90125


Best song: Changes

Worst song: Leave It

Overall grade: 2

Remember how Yes managed to make Drama a success, despite lacking Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, by stunningly and effortlessly creating the kind of prog pop that Styx and Kansas could only dream about? Well, three years later they actually have Anderson back, and yet they come nowhere near close to repeating the feat.
Truth is, this was actually the first Yes album I heard, and it nearly put me off listening to the band for life. I’d been advised on the albums by a non-prog fan and so was led to believe that it was some of their best work, yet at the same time I’d heard that they were similar to bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis who I already liked… I listened, and I had no idea how this was similar in any way to those other bands, and I couldn’t get any enjoyment out of it. I shelved the band, and it was a good few months before I was guided towards ‘Close To The Edge’. Later, after being acquainted with the whole of the band’s Seventies catalogue, I returned to this with fresh eyes. I knew I was getting an Eighties pop album rather than a prog album and with that in mind, I thought I might be able to appreciate it. But I couldn’t hear anything that differentiated it from anything else being made at the time. In my opinion, Yes lost their magical songwriting talent somewhere around 1981 and have been trying to get it back ever since, resulting in some near misses like ‘Keys To Ascension’ and ‘Fly From Here’, and some complete flops, like ‘Big Generator’ and this one.
One possible reason for the drop in quality on this album is the departure of Steve Howe; who after over ten years as a permanent fixture of the band was suddenly not invited to join it. That’s right, this was actually an entirely new band, that started off as Chris Squire, Alan White and then-unknown guitarist Trevor Rabin, and just happened to end up including Jon Anderson and pre-Wakeman Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. As much as I respect Squire as a bassist, I’ve never seen him as the strongest songwriter, and White’s never contributed significantly either, which basically left Anderson alone to carry the group and make them sound vaguely Yes-like, which, after they decided to adopt the name, should have been pretty important.
If I said ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ was my least favourite song here, I’d be being controversial for the sake of it, because there are worse songs. I still can’t stand it, though. I can’t get over the simplicity of it all and the way there aren’t any new layers to uncover with subsequent listens; what you hear is what you get. The band try to add in solos, possibly to appease longtime fans, but they’re uninspired, possibly restricted by the commercial nature of the song.
Its followup ‘Hold On’ is equally uninspired, and it feels like the band don’t realise that it’s possible to be creative and concise, and they have to pick one or the other, because seriously, on paper this song ticks all the boxes of what elements a song should have but it doesn’t do anything more than that and it doesn’t make you feel anything. ‘It Can Happen’ is a slight improvement, made memorable with the addition of the sitar and the less cheesy melody, but still doesn’t exactly break new ground.
‘Changes’ is… well, it’s certainly listenable, even while it never approaches greatness. It brushes aside the shiny, over-polished pop in favour of a rockier sound, and Anderson manages to breathe plenty of emotion into this one: he hasn’t lost any talent, he just doesn’t have as much material to work with here.
Moving into the second side, ‘Cinema’ seems to be an attempt at a prog instrumental, but two minutes doesn’t really give it a chance to develop, and none of the band members are playing their best at this point (Squire hasn’t given us a great bass line this entire album while the others were overloaded with them.) Then ‘Leave It’ was designed as Anderson’s showcase, full of vocal harmonies, but they’re harsh and abrasive to my ears; and I know he’s capable of such beauty. There’s nothing in the background to raise it up, either, and so it becomes my least favourite song on the album because I actually can’t see any merit in it whatsoever: not as a Yes song nor as a pop song.
‘Our Song’ is just so… so eighties, with its keyboards and synths, that seem like something out of a terrible washing powder advert and just manage to overpower the entire song. Then comes ‘City of Love’, and have I mentioned that the lyrics are also terrible here? I’m not saying Yes have ever been well known for great lyrics, but at least they used to be original. Here, they dispense with all originality and go for cringe-inducing: I think the title of this song just about says enough.
‘Hearts’, as a closer, is one of those songs where you spend the whole time waiting for the good bit, as the last thirty seconds are actually pretty cool where the first seven have no focus and nothing special about them. It’s not really enough of a payoff to wait for, in truth. It’s an extended ballad in the grand tradition of ‘And You And I’, but has about as much resemblance to that song as ‘Close To The Edge’ does to ‘Surfin’ Bird’.

Of course, this album is no worse than everything else that was becoming mainstream in 1983; that’s just not my style of music at all, but to an Eighties pop fan this is probably perfectly worthwhile. It’s just not superior to anything else from the time, as it no longer has the unique power of classic Yes albums from the seventies. Perhaps I’m always going to judge it harshly in the shadow of its great predecessors, but I can’t imagine ever listening to this for pleasure.