Thursday, 24 November 2016

Death Disco

VICTORIES AT SEA - Birmingham Sunflower Lounge

When you go to a gig, what do you expect from it? Do you just want the band to replicate the sound of the record note for note? Many fans would be perplexed if they saw a band live for the first time and got something different from what they're used to. But to a regular gig-goer it can seem pointless if the live show is totally predictable. However, I admit that I sometimes find myself in the reverse situation - coming away from a gig with a record only to discover that it doesn't capture the live sound. This was the case with Birmingham band Victories At Sea and their album "Everything Forever", released on Static Caravan in 2015. I bought the album after seeing them support Moon Duo back in July and on first listen it seemed to be dominated by synths, its polished production a million miles from the intensity of the live shows I'd seen from them up to that point.

Closer inspection revealed that live and on record, the same influences prevail - most notably early Factory Records bands and other electronic post-punk acts. It's just that Victories Of Sea use different aspects of those influences depending on the situation. Most reviews I've seen of the record make reference to New Order and if asked which album in particular springs to mind when I hear "Everything Forever", it would have to be the disco hedonism of "Technique". But there is nothing about Victories At Sea's live set that comes anywhere close to disco. Occasional nods to New Order can still be spotted but it's to their earlier, more introverted work. There are also hints at Section 25's debut LP and even abrasive textures reminiscent of early Cabaret Voltaire.

I've recently written about how the style in which a song is delivered can change the listener's interpretation. Although the lyrics could relate to a recent heartbreak, the overall feel of the album is one of optimism. Many of the songs suggest picking yourself up, making the most of the good things in life to help you move on. The lead track "Bloom", with its refrain of "So hold on..." and advice to "bury yourself in good times", could be played while getting ready for a night out with a group of friends who have convinced you that a spot of clubbing is what you need to lift your spirits. But when heard live, secondary lyrics such as "Keeping up appearances but falling down" dominate, highlighting the distinctions between expectation and reality - in relationships or life in general.

This theme crops up again on the Depeche Mode-like "Up". Opening line "Just give me air, the rush, the beat, the sound" suggests the joys of clubbing, but live there is something more menacing about it. I suddenly notice the "cruelty, despair, with no one else around", a reminder of how claustrophobic the nightclub experience can actually be. Everyone seems to be having a good time except you, it's too loud to have a meaningful conversation and you wish you'd stayed at home to work on your blog instead. This outsider feeling, the reluctance to conform with what is considered a "good night out" radiates from the band's onstage demeanour. It's clear that a lot of planning went into the record to get all the components to fit together neatly but free of the confines of the studio, the band members all seem keen to do their own thing. They barely acknowledge each other during the set and it seems that just by sheer chance the three elements coalesce to form a glorious chaotic whole. It's difficult for the audience to decide which of the musicians to focus on but at first, all attention is on frontman John-Paul White. For the majority of the set he is thrashing all flavours of hell out of his guitar, a guitar that barely gets a look-in under the slick production of the record. It also becomes clear what a powerful voice he has, sometimes hitting high notes that suggest traumas a man of his youthful age should not have experienced. His melodious delivery on the album reminds me of Stockholm Monsters' early singles on Factory but on stage there is more than a hint of Mark Burgess of The Chameleons.

The credits on the album don't make it clear who plays what and you could be forgiven for thinking that the beats are from a drum machine, or whatever the equivalent technology is called these days. But extra intensity is generated by having live percussion alongside programmed rhythms. With their regular drummer on holiday, Martin Cleveley has been drafted in from a band called Repeat Of Last Week, another act I clearly need to check out. Martin's energy reminds me of a young Stephen Morris and his performance in the classic "Transmission" video in particular.

Steven Edgehill's simultaneous handling of bass and synths has a feel of other current post-punk/disco hybrids such as Factory Floor, but also recalls much earlier innovators. This is most apparent in the pulsing krautrock rhythms of "Swim", the song on the album that has always struck me as coming closest to the live sound. Up to this point the lyrical themes could be linked to personal relationships, but there is now a realisation that much worse things are happening to the world as a whole. Although written two years ago, "We are the people lost at sea, we are the people who have lost our way" seems to have foretold the current state of both the UK and US. With society itself falling apart, attempts at either repairing or moving on from a failed relationship seem trivial and I suspect Victories At Sea may soon move into this darker territory on record as well as live.

After seven songs from "Everything Forever" and two from the EP "In Memory Of..." JP announces that this will be the band's last show for a while as they are heading back to the studio. They close the set with a new number, shown as "Aldous" on the set list. This is, I'm sure, a reference to "Brave New World" - a book I imagine to have a very bleak outlook but I must confess to never having read it. It's always a bold move to end on a new song, doubly so in this case when it's different from everything that has preceded it. "Aldous" sounds as desolate as anything on Joy Division's final album but with another 36 years of suffering thrown in.

Having seen the band live several times then listened closely to the lyrics on the album, the live set makes more sense this time around. When I mention this to JP after the show, he thanks me for reading the words as many people don't bother to do this. I know this should not come as a surprise and I realise that everyone appreciates music in their own way but with a band such as Victories At Sea, it's vital to become familiar with their many facets to get the full effect of the songs. With downloads and streaming making music so disposable, many consumers don't take the time to find the full story and I feel they are missing out. Things come full circle when I get home and play the album again, and notice that some of the anger witnessed tonight is actually present within its grooves and the guitars are actually there if you listen out for them. I only see this now the optimistic bubble has been burst. With 2016 having been such a terrible year for us all, I'm eager to see how this will inspire Victories At Sea's next set of recordings. Based on tonight's performance and the tone of the new song, I'm not expecting their second album to be a cheery affair but I'm sure it will be stunning nevertheless.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

In My Motorcycle Mirror I Think About The Life I've Led


I've been a little slow off the mark writing about this album. I've had it for a month and by now, those of you with any interest in the Pixies will have played it to death and formed your own opinions. Then there are those who have made a conscious decision to avoid it. I understand your reasons for doing that and I doubt that anything I say will persuade you otherwise.

For a lot of music fans, once they hit their mid-30s their listening will be based around nostalgia to a greater or lesser extent. Even for those such as myself who still consume a huge amount of new music, we often claim that the most important bands are those we listened to in our formative years. We all have songs that are tied in with key moments in our past and as we get older we experience fewer life changes, making it harder to find something in our minds to attach the music to. So if a favourite band reforms, we approach with trepidation, especially if there is new material that's likely to trample all over their legacy. But if we're honest, maybe we also want to leave the classic songs in the past. If we hear them played live now, we might have to admit that we're in a different place in our lives and the music will lose the meaning it once held.

There are also acts who have what is considered a classic line-up and if a reformation is lacking just one original member then fans will not think of it as the same band. The 21st century version of the Pixies has fallen foul of all the issues described here, with many listeners turned off by the awkward mess found on the three EPs that made up 2014's "Indie Cindy". Add to that the departure of iconic bassist Kim Deal and the result is apathy from much of their original fan base. "No Kim, no deal" as one friend put it when I asked if he would be going to any of the forthcoming live shows.

It will take a lot to win back my faith after "Indie Cindy" but as this is the Pixies, I'm willing to give them a chance. It's clear from the outset that they've learnt from recent mistakes. Black Francis opens the album with his trademark barked vocals, reminiscent of 1989's "Tame", and new bassist Paz Lenchantin proves that she's a more than adequate replacement for Kim Deal. This might lose me a few friends but I don't agree with those who say that the bass is an integral part of the Pixies' style. Although Deal undoubtedly provided a solid backbone for the songs, I've always felt that their classic sound was built around a contrast of melody and ferocity, with the savage vocals set against Joey Santiago's surf guitar. That balance was lacking on "Indie Cindy" and it took its cues from "Trompe Le Monde", their last and weakest album of the '90s. But with the guitar back at the forefront, this album has the feel of summer that I always associated with the band. Something else that the last album lacked was memorable songs, but here we see a return to the accessible yet still edgy style of "Doolittle" and after just one play, "Oona", "Classic Masher" and "Might As Well Be Gone" are already stuck in my head. Although the overall vibe picks up where "Doolittle" left off, there are also hints at the first mini-LP "Come On Pilgrim". The standout track is ‘Um Chagga Lagga’, effortlessly tearing the last 20-odd years to shreds and coming across like the bastard son of "Nimrod's Son". (Which I guess makes it "Nimrod's Grandson".)

When listening to a record for the first time, I pay great attention to the lyrics. Those who have read my album reviews might say that I put too much effort into finding meanings that were not intended by the artist or twisting the lyrical themes to fit whichever personal trauma I'm having on the day of writing. But with the Pixies' songs, I've never been able to do this. In my mind, the band have always been inextricably linked with David Lynch although as far as I'm aware the only connection is that they once covered the song "In Heaven" from "Eraserhead". I like to think that their albums have several stories going on beneath the surface, interlocked in a way that we can never hope to understand. The back cover artwork of "Head Carrier" includes a list of characters and places, most of which feature in the lyrics although some are only referred to obliquely. This could easily be the cast list of a Lynch movie. Be honest, can anyone really explain the plot of "Mulholland Drive"? This record is equally unfathomable and much of the enjoyment is based around convincing yourself that there is something happening just out of sight. I imagine the "head carrier" or "cephalaphore" of the title to be something like the otherworldly Bob in "Twin Peaks" and with a new series of that show imminent, the timing couldn't have been better for this release.

Despite the Lynchian mystery, there are some moments of personal reflection and self-analysis, more so than on any previous Pixies release. I see these as being like the romantic relationships that attempt to add some semblance of normality to a Lynch film. I can't be alone in thinking that Francis is referring to the whole of the previous album when he sings the line "What a waste of talent", and this is emphasised by Santiago letting rip immediately afterwards with possibly his greatest solo ever, just to highlight what was missing. Not surprisingly, there is some reminiscing about the original incarnation of the band. "Might As Well Be Gone" seems to lament a failed attempt to recreate past glories, while the most unsettling moment comes in the form of "All I Think About Now", a song which seems somehow out of place with the rest of the album. I can't quite get to grips with Paz Lenchantin singing words that were apparently written by Black Francis as a thank you/apology to Kim Deal. Up to this point everything has seemed natural but suddenly they seem to be trying too hard to sound like the "old" Pixies, and the result is a bit too close to "Where Is My Mind?" for comfort. The song, particularly the line "I try to think about tomorrow but I always think about the past", leaves a feeling of intense sadness. I can't decide whether this is simply disappointment at the song's blatant attempt to ape past triumphs, or because it reminds me of my own past - leaving school and the life decisions I had to make at the time "Doolittle" came out. Despite being in two minds over whether the album would be better without it, I find myself going back to this song more than the others, in the same way that I churn over past events in my head. "If I could go to the beginning, then for sure I would be another way."
I imagine that at some point in the near future there will be more new material but I actually feel that "Head Carrier" would be the ideal point to put the Pixies into retirement and leave their legacy intact. Apart from the minor misgivings over one or two songs, on the whole I feel they have produced a worthy follow-up to "Doolittle", finally paid off the 25-year debt. In early December I will keep my side of the bargain and finally see them live for the first time. Then maybe we can all move on with our lives.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Some Dumb Rock Star Truly Loves You

AMANDA PALMER - Liverpool Central Library
After the previous evening's psych extravaganza, our weekend in the Northwest continues and I realise that staying up drinking until 3am might not have been the wisest of moves. I discover that we need to leave our hotel (seemingly staffed entirely by robots) by 10am and there are a few local attractions to take in before heading over to Liverpool for the day's main event.

If you'll allow me a digression from the primary topic of this review, I must say a few words about the iconic Salford Lads' Club. With an hour or two to kill, we decide to take a brief detour with the aim of simply seeing the outside of the building and recreating the classic promo photo from "The Queen Is Dead" - something that has probably been done by every music fan visiting Greater Manchester. I wasn't expecting the building to be open on a Sunday morning, I wasn't expecting to see an impressive array of Smiths memorabilia and above all, I wasn't expecting to be given a tour and detailed history of the club from a gentleman whose knowledge and enthusiasm was startling. If you're in the area then a visit is essential.

Having said goodbye to the rest of our group, we finally reach Liverpool with a bit of time to see robots and William Blake at the Tate before taking in a beautiful sunset over the Mersey. On a whim, we tweet Amanda Palmer to ask if she wants to meet for a drink before the gig, but sadly she doesn't respond. It's been said that I'm rather obsessed with Amanda and I don't suppose there's any point in me denying that. She was one of the first artists I wrote about when I started this blog and my love for her has in no way diminished in the intervening years. But she inspires this passion in all who meet her, fans of Amanda do not do anything in half measures. These great photos from Andrew AB Photography show how Amanda is happy to spend time with each of us after her set, comforting those who need it. The emotion on some of those faces is striking.

When this intimate event, part of the Get It Loud In Libraries scheme, was announced, it sold out immediately and I still can't believe I managed to score two tickets. We arrive shortly before the show begins and find that most of the audience are already seated on the floor so I'm doubtful of finding a spot with a clear view. However, despite the show being in such demand the library seem to have put a limit on numbers so we can all spread out comfortably. We choose the best spot available although it's not that close to the stage. But it turns out we couldn't have chosen better as completely unannounced, Amanda strolls through the room and walks right past us before being helped onto a bookcase right in front of us. She begins to strum her ukulele and opens the show with "In My Mind". If I had to compile a "Top 5 AFP songs that move me to tears" then this would definitely be in there and as I'm already quite emotional from lack of sleep and the day's hectic activities, I wonder if I'll be able to keep it together throughout the set.

Still perched atop the bookcase, Amanda asks an audience member to pick out a children's book. It feels like we're back at school as we sit cross-legged on the floor while she reads us a story about vegetables, although I have a suspicion that the expletives she uses are not in the original text. Once the story is over, she moves to the piano at the front of the room but everyone remains seated on the floor so we still have a perfect view. In a recent email, Amanda asked fans to suggest songs for this tour so she can rehearse them beforehand - "sharpen the songs and have them in the quiver", as she puts it. Once in front of the piano she confesses that she's not had time to add as many songs to the quiver as she would have liked. Nevertheless she is happy to build a set spontaneously and the classroom atmosphere is maintained as we're asked to raise our hands if we have requests. She launches straight into the first request, "Astronaut", without delay although she does seem slightly hesitant about some of the songs that we suggest. She can't remember which key one song should be played in and when a fan offers the answer, she light-heartedly calls them a nerd. We're treated to "Trout Heart Replica", "Delilah", "The Jeep Song" and also more upbeat moments in the form of "Leeds United" and "Coin-Operated Boy".
(Photo - Kaytee)

Amanda is known for her cover versions and is often criticised for not showing due respect to the original artists. Many claimed that her tributes to Bowie and Prince, for example, came too soon after the artists' deaths. But as we're in Liverpool, no one is going to begrudge her a Beatles number. As we're in a library, it seems fitting to choose one with a literary theme. Although everyone who has ever picked up a musical instrument must at some point have played a Beatles tune, "Paperback Writer" is not one that I've often heard covered. It's amazing how the manner in which a song is played can totally alter its meaning. The original, with its distinctive guitar riff, has always struck me as a cheery song with McCartney talking optimistically about his creative aspirations. But with the guitar replaced by piano, it becomes poignant, as if a would-be writer is lamenting their lack of inspiration. It strikes me that this is how I feel in the presence of one such as Amanda, but also that my musician friends must tire of me saying how I envy their skills. I'm constantly told to stop undermining my own abilities, to stop making excuses for not pursuing my writing. This new interpretation of "Paperback Writer" makes me determined to get several articles written this week.

The show seems to fly by and I lose track of exactly long we have been sitting captivated; I would estimate that it's the best part of two hours. The beauty of Amanda's lyrics is that she is open about her own failings and makes it clear she is just like each of us. Each audience member will have their own favourite moments of the night, their personal reasons for relating to specific songs. But we are suddenly drawn together by the bare-bones sorrow of "Bigger On The Inside", delivered with just ukulele and no amplification. After just two lines, I can no longer hold it in and I gently rest my head on my companion's shoulder, letting the tears flow. By now everyone in the room is in the same state, and Amanda herself needs to be handed a tissue at the end.

This is one of her most personal songs, with its reference to friends dying of cancer, so it's clear why she struggles to get through it. On the long journey home I ponder why I've been moved by it more than usual on this occasion. 2016 has not been a good year for personal and collective loss, but being in Liverpool has also reminded me of my own musical upbringing. Many of you will know that my interest in music was triggered by my dad playing me his copy of "Sgt. Pepper", and I'm sure he would have loved to visit here and the Beatles museum in particular. I'm sure he would also have enjoyed Amanda's music, as honest songwriting was very important to his musical tastes. As I finally climb into bed at 2am on Sunday night/Monday morning, I'm grateful for such a diverse weekend. I make a note that we should return to Liverpool soon to take the full Beatles tour, and I also vow to do my dad and Amanda proud by taking my writing more seriously. Let's hope that I can keep at least one, if not both of those promises.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Gathering Of Ancient Tribes

GOAT - Manchester Albert Hall

Psychedelia has seen a huge resurgence of late, to the extent that I've struggled to keep track of all the new bands. I've seen a fair few small gigs in Birmingham but the full extent of the psych revival only becomes clear to me when we decide to spend what will turn out to be a very emotional weekend in the Northwest. I'm here primarily to see Goat and Hookworms, and it's only when we arrive in Manchester and I check the running order that I realise what we're attending is effectively a psych mini-festival, with five acts for the bargain price of £22. You would typically pay more than that for just two bands in a venue of this size.

This is the first time I've visited the Albert Hall and it turns out to be just as grand as its London namesake. The venue is an old Methodist church built in the early 20th century, and its Baroque architecture and stained glass windows remain intact. There are very few people in the main hall when we arrive so we have a bit of time to marvel at the surroundings. Even to the most hardened atheist, the room has an air of spirituality and this gives an indication of how the evening is going to pan out.

(Photo - Kaytee)

Weekend gigs seem to be starting earlier than ever these days and I usually find myself missing the opening act. With so many bands on the bill, a 6.30pm start is justifiable on this occasion and I'm glad we've made the effort to get here in time for Swedish act Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, who kick off the proceedings in style. I've not come across this artist before and a bit of post-gig research suggests that latest album "Mirage" is quite atmospheric but tonight's show is built around driving guitars that set the tone for what is going to be a very full-on night. Josefin herself has a very commanding stage presence, bringing to mind Patti Smith in both appearance and demeanour. She is my new discovery of the weekend and I make a mental note to add both of her albums to my Christmas list.

Mugstar are up next and I'm surprised I haven't encountered them before as they have apparently been around for the best part of 10 years and have released several LPs and a crazy number of 7"s, including a split with Mudhoney. They're the kind of band who would play our own Supersonic festival but I can find no evidence of them in my diary. They are without doubt the heaviest band of the evening and their obvious Krautrock influences are interspersed with some classic hard rock riffs, at times reminiscent of Black Sabbath. Their visuals are also the most unnerving, particularly the bizarre mutant horse, and the display reaches a climax with explosions that could be either the beginning or end of the universe.

Jane Weaver is the first act tonight that I'm in any way familiar with and my initial thought is that her style will be at odds with the rest of the bill. Her early releases were deeply rooted in folk but I believe she has incorporated more psych influences into her output of late, although I can't say this with any conviction as she is another artist whose work I've failed to keep up with. Her set tonight consists mainly of hypnotic electronica and at times the sound, and her voice in particular, bring to mind Broadcast. It's a nice reminder of home during this weekend away and provides a refreshing breather between the louder acts.

I've wanted to see Hookworms for a long time, and I am perhaps more excited about them tonight than I am about the headliners. Of the new breed of psych acts, they are the one whose work I have followed most avidly and their most recent album "The Hum" was one of my favourites of 2014. As it's only 9pm, the venue is just beginning to fill up and we're still standing very near the front. A friend who has seen the band before warns me that it's going to be loud, which doesn't faze me as I've also seen Swans on a recent trip to Manchester so I'm accustomed to volume. But he also implies that even those who know the band's recorded work inside out usually have trouble recognising what's being played live. This turns out to be true for a large proportion of the set and I'm pretty sure there are at least three new numbers in there. Those that I do recognise are from "The Hum", in particular album closer "Retreat". The relentless sonic onslaught reminds me of my first experience of a loud gig, Loop in 1990 - a tale which many of you will have heard before. This time I manage to watch the entire set without retiring to the safety of the bar and my stamina is rewarded. With the addition of overpowering strobes, I can't help but think of that classic period of pre-shoegaze psych drone bands. It's how I imagine Spacemen 3 would have been at their most intense although there are more electronic elements than I had expected and the overall effect calls to mind the kind of Suicide gig that would have ended in a riot. My only criticism is that the Robert Plant-esque vocals, one of the aspects that first drew me to the band, are not as prominent beneath the wall of noise as they are on record. That's a minor quibble however, as I'm left intoxicated by the overall sonic and visual assault. If I'm correct about there being new songs, I can't wait for them to be committed to vinyl.

(Photo - Kaytee)

The night ends, as it began, with another Swedish act - suggesting that Scandinavia is the place to be right now if you want the full psych experience. Although Goat were my main reason for buying a ticket when the gig was first announced, I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive since hearing the new album "Requiem".  I've said many times that it's unreasonable to expect a band to stick to the same style indefinitely and after two albums full of tribal rhythms, it's understandable that Goat wanted to diversify. However, the more folky style and in particular the inclusion of panpipes on the first half of the album has been too much of a change for some fans to take in during the two weeks the record has been available. I'm told that I need to persevere with "Requiem" and I would have appreciated a bit more time to get to grips with it before tonight's gig. However, my concerns prove unwarranted as tonight's performance is compelling from start to finish and even the pipes (restricted to just two songs) fit the atmosphere much better than when listening at home. Goat are the only act of the night who don't use a projected backdrop, and they don't need one as their outlandish costumes speak for themselves. I've previously stated that I would love their back story to be true - that they have been making music for 30 years as part of the traditional rituals of their tiny village in the remotest part of Sweden. The mythology that has sprung up around them is much like that of the Residents and I suspect that, as with the eyeball-headed weirdos, Goat's line-up is somewhat fluid and it's never the same people behind the masks. It seems unlikely that their identities will ever be revealed and everyone in the crowd tonight would prefer them to keep the mystique intact.

It's slightly disconcerting to experience their entrancing grooves in an enclosed space as the vibe is more one of an outdoor festival. In fact at times it's not so much a music festival as the pagan festivities depicted in "The Wicker Man". I start to fear that someone is going to be sacrificed so I hide myself amongst the dancing revellers to reduce the risk of the two masked priestesses singling me out for the climax of the celebrations. The dancing has already reached epic levels, more so than any of the other acts managed to inspire, but set closer "Talk To God" and encore "Goatman" bring on an eruption in the crowd that forces us towards the back of the room. From this position of safety I actually get a better view of the band and now that I can take in the full glory of their outfits I feel that my terror was truly justified. When the encore finally comes to an end, some 30 minutes later, I sense an air of relief in the room. In reality it's simply that we're all exhausted but part of me wants to believe that it's because none of us have been offered up to the gods.

(Photo - Kaytee)

I swear I read somewhere that "Requiem" is intended as their final album but when researching for this article I could find no evidence to back this up so I'm wondering if it came to me in a post-gig dream. Perhaps tonight's hypnotic visuals and voodoo mysticism had conspired to convince my subconscious that after this it would be possible to go no further. In the sober light of day it seems hard to believe that they would want to end it now, but at the same time it seems unlikely that such a gig would have happened at all. Like all good psychedelic music, it's left me questioning what is real. I'm intrigued to see which direction Goat will take in the future, but if it really is the end then I'm grateful to have had what was essentially a religious experience in such an ideal setting.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

A White Dove Among The Vultures

MISHKIN FITZGERALD - Birmingham Tower Of Song

I regularly mention Brighton orchestral dark cabaret weirdos Birdeatsbaby on other social media platforms so it's surprising that apart from a brief mention in my round-up of 2014, I haven't written about them in detail here. They are a prime example of a band who use social media to its full potential and they give regular webcasts to preview new songs. An offhand online comment I made during one of these sessions has somehow resulted in frontwoman Mishkin Fitzgerald being booked by my friend Lobelia Lawson to play at one of her intimate Sunday night events. I've not seen the band or any of its members live before and despite feeling that I know her well, I've never met Mishkin face to face until the night before the gig when I find her at my front door, laden with bottles of gin. This sets the tone for the rest of the weekend.

I've written before about making a distinction between an artist's work and the artist as a person. In some cases you even need to distance yourself from the individual in order to enjoy the music; this is the case for me with Morrissey in particular. It's much easier to draw that dividing line when you get to know an artist personally. Mishkin's easy-going day-to-day persona is very different from the gloomy character portrayed in her lyrics, although I should add that I have no reason to distance myself from either as they each appeal to a different side of my own nature. She can be self-effacing and alternately refers to herself as an "orange-haired vegan piano warrior" and a "dweeb". I get to know the latter during an afternoon's drinking and forget that this dweeb will later transform into the piano warrior with a quick change of outfit.

Mishkin is known on social media for her vegan lifestyle and animal rights campaigning but it's interesting how subtle she is about this. She is not at all preachy about her beliefs and there is little direct reference to them in her lyrics, although there are general themes of compassion and suffering. That aforementioned bequiffed individual could learn a lot here; if he were to be a little less bombastic then perhaps more people would be prepared to listen to his opinions.

I often pick up a setlist as a souvenir of a gig but rarely think about how the sets are planned; for example, are the same songs played every night of the tour? With an hour to go before show time, Mishkin pulls out a list of around 30 possible songs and, with a bit of help/interference from me, selects 11 to be played tonight. The songs are then shuffled into a satisfactory sequence, reminding me of the effort that goes into compiling a mix CD. First of all you need to select a suitable opening and closing number, then finding a stylistic flow between the intervening songs is the hard part. But making a mix CD is nothing compared with this. What's impressive is that any of those 30 songs could have been played spontaneously even though the day has been spent drinking rather than rehearsing.

The mark of good songwriting is that the work can be played in a number of different styles and remain meaningful; the mark of a good performer is that they can play any songs (their own or those of another writer) and make them fit the mood. Although there are differences in style between Mishkin's solo work and the more expansive sound of Birdeatsbaby on record, tonight I genuinely can't remember which songs come from which project as what we get is a consistent flow of beauty from start to finish. When I get home I check the setlist against the CDs to confirm the origins of each song. The set contains five songs from the new EP "Seraphim", two from the previous solo release "Present Company" and three Birdeatsbaby numbers, including one from an album to be released later this year. There is also a song by a band called The Devil Makes Three, labelled simply as "DM3" on the setlist so I'm not sure of its title. Although the fact is no doubt mentioned during the show, I fail to notice that it's a cover as it fits seamlessly into the set. I'm always intrigued when an artist has favourites or influences I've never heard of so I make a mental note to investigate The Devil Makes Three further.

I'm far from being a musician so find it fascinating to watch performers' movements closely and marvel at the technical skill, particularly when I have no real understanding of how the sounds are produced. When she's not performing, Mishkin works as a piano teacher, with the parents of Brighton queuing up to book lessons for their offspring and it's clear why she's in such hot demand. As someone who struggles to co-ordinate different parts of my body simultaneously, it's frightening to see how flexible her hands are. Dear lord, surely the thumb and index finger were never designed to be stretched that far apart?! The fact that she can do all this and sing at the same time is astounding enough but this is more than just singing, she has a truly amazing voice. The short a cappella piece "Deep In The Water" leaves the crowd with jaws on the floor but before we have time to take in what has just happened, she's back at the piano for the EP's title track, subtitled "Leaving Me Out". This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching song I've heard this year and it's possible I might have shed a tear but we put that down to the gin.

The only way to end the set is with "Rosary", with some of Birdeatsbaby's most disturbing lyrics promising that "you'll be so sorry when they find my body" - another example of the distinction between her on- and offstage characters. Knowing of her happy home life, I can't imagine the "real" Mishkin having thoughts of that kind although she mentioned earlier that someone was worried about her state of mind after seeing the gruesome cover of the new EP.

After the show, several people thank me for allowing them to see such an amazing performance but I don't feel I should take the credit here. All I did was suggest that I would like to see one of my favourite performers and then hand it over to Lobelia and tour promoter Simon to do all the hard work. However this does show that many artists welcome suggestions from their audience and any input, however small, can lead to great things happening. Even if, like me, you mostly feel like a bystander in your local music scene, you should still do whatever you can to get involved.

A tour with the full Birdeatsbaby line-up is on the cards for the end of the year and I look forward to another gin-fuelled weekend although we agree that bassist Garry Mitchell will be consigned to sleeping in the shed. The EP "Seraphim" is available in a five-track format now, with an expanded ten-track version coming at some point in the future. I already have the subscribers' download copy with all ten tracks so I'm not actually sure which of tonight's songs are on the current version. If you want all the songs now your best bet is to subscribe to Birdeatsbaby's Patreon programme. This will give you early access to all new material, at whatever price you can afford to pay, and also regular opportunities to interact with the band.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Antmusic For Sexpeople

ADAM ANT - Birmingham Symphony Hall

It's interesting how many people of my age and slightly older list "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" as the first record they bought. It's therefore not surprising that when Adam Ant announced a tour playing the album in full, tickets sold out instantly. I was lucky enough to get seats just three rows from the front and it's clear that we're in for something special as soon as Adam hits the stage wearing that classic brocade jacket. At the age of 61, he proves that you are never too old to look stylish, and with his longer hair and beard he now fits the pirate look more than ever. Right from the opening song he takes command of the stage, with spectacular animation that puts to shame most young frontmen and even some of those from established acts. He rarely stands still, ensuring that he interacts with the audience on all sides of the room.

Although Adam is the focus of attention, credit should also go to his band. I'm not sure what to call them; they haven't officially been "The Ants" for 35 years although they are playing songs from that era. Obviously tonight's cast doesn't include anyone from either the early line-up that went on to become Bow Wow Wow or the classic line-up from the album we are about to hear. In fact I don't catch the names of any of the musicians and even a spot of internet research leaves me none the wiser - some journalist I'd make! I'm informed that one of the drummers is named Yola and older members of the crowd remember her from a few local bands of the past. I later discover that a friend actually went to primary school with her. That's right, I did say one of the drummers. You might consider two drummers to be excessive but the twin tribal drumming was always part of the Ant sound and live with two full kits it gives the show the drive required to bring these classic songs to life. With Adam playing additional guitar at times, the music has a much fuller sound than I could ever get from playing the record at home.

I didn't read the music press at the time, not even "Smash Hits", so I can only speculate on the media excitement over "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" on its release. Here was an artist seeming at first glance to be moving away from the stark, minimalist punk of debut album "Dirk Wears White Sox" with the clear intention of becoming a star. Perhaps there were even accusations of "selling out" but that was not the case at all. Despite being considered a "commercial crossover" this was an innovative album for its time, when very few artists could have a string of number one singles while carving out a unique image. As I said, innovative for its time but it might still be considered that way if it were released now. This is not the sort of thing that would top the charts or be deemed "commercial" today. The album no doubt caused a rift in the Ant fan base. Sure, Adam would have lost some of the punk fans of old but an equal number of those punk rockers embraced the new style and discovered their first pop idol. This is apparent from those here tonight who have not abandoned him after all this time. Even to a regular gig-goer the effect he has on members of the audience is startling. I imagine this might happen at a show by whoever this week's teen craze might be, but you may be asking yourself whether grown adults should behave like this. Well I say WHY THE HELL NOT? Adam has shown that whatever your age it's not too late to be passionate about music or do whatever you please without fear of judgement. Tonight the venue staff have a hard time stopping the audience from dancing in the aisles or rushing to the front. One man spends at least one entire song negotiating with security, trying to persuade them that he should be exempt from returning to his seat simply because Adam has been his hero since childhood. The bizarre spectacle of two adults arguing over a scarf that Adam drops from the stage calls to mind the way Morrissey fans scramble for scraps of his shirt. I admit I will often take a setlist if it's easily accessible but I've never come to blows with other fans. Perhaps I need to up my game.

This is obviously an evening of nostalgia. Adam has judged the age of the crowd and what they want, the most recent song in the set being 1985's "Vive Le Rock". Although there have been rumours of a new album called "Bravest Of The Brave" for more than a year, things have gone quiet on that front of late and there are certainly no new songs tonight; everything played is instantly recognisable. Most tellingly there is nothing from the last album "Adam Ant Is The Blueblack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner's Daughter". While it received favourable reviews in some quarters, with 17 tracks sprawled across double vinyl it stretched the patience of many fans who found that as a listening experience it was as cumbersome as its title. I had a few reservations about it myself, despite the presence of Boz Boorer on guitar and co-writing duties. If all the filler had been cut out it could have made a great single album. But I digress...

Although this had been billed as a "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" tour, that album takes up less than half of the show and Adam gives us value for money by playing another hour or so worth of favourites and surprises. The rest of the set, beautifully modelled here by Porl "The Count" McHale, includes the early singles "Zerox" and "Car Trouble", the hits from the "Prince Charming" album of course, and the later 45s "Goody Two Shoes" and "Desperate But Not Serious". Amazingly, we are also treated to pretty much all of the B-sides from the "KOTWF"/"Prince Charming" era.

Some might say that this wasn't the case with the last album, but it's clear that when he was at his peak Adam considered all songs to be of equal importance, be they singles, B-sides or album tracks. At a time when many acts would lazily put an instrumental version on the flipside, Adam was always consistent in his songwriting. Knowing that they were unlikely to be played on the radio, B-sides gave him a chance to explore the weirder lyrical themes. For someone considered a "pop star" a surprising number of his songs are about nudity and fetishes, especially S&M. We get several of those numbers tonight, with my highlight of the show being "Beat My Guest". Purely for the energy of the guitars, you understand, I have no personal connection with the lyrics...

It's sad that in recent years the press has concentrated more on Adam's battle with bipolar disorder than his music, but he has always been open about his problems. When I saw him touring "Dirk Wears White Sox" two years ago, he tried to give his side of the story to a sympathetic audience although this turned into a long diatribe about the press, and he clearly struggled to keep his temper. Some seemed amused by this but while we think it's all part of the fun when the likes of Mark E. Smith are out of control, it feels wrong to take someone's mental health issues as a source of entertainment. So it's a relief that tonight he manages to keep himself in check, perhaps he is now fully in control of his life again. He is still very talkative but he mainly regales us with stories about how songs were written and I discover that "Never Trust A Man (With Egg On His Face)" was based on an actual sci-fi film with an alien that resembled an omelette. But in many cases the songs themselves tell the stories with no need for explanation. The views on the media covered in "Press Darlings" were directed at the music press when it was written, with Garry Bushell even getting a namecheck, but could now be applied to the tabloids in general. "Zerox", written in 1978, deals with musical plagiarism and I can't help thinking how so many bands of the 1990s mercilessly stole from Adam and his contemporaries. How can anyone listen to the line "I'm never bored, I steal your chords" without thinking of Elastica?

Sadly the show must come to an end, with three extra songs not shown on the setlist above. "Red Scab" is one of the biggest surprises, I'd even forgotten about this song myself. When Adam sings "I got a heart on my arm, it says pure sex" he could easily be describing how many here still think of him. After a cover of Marc Bolan's "Get It On", the final encore of "Physical" is probably the one remaining song that everyone is expecting. We're left in no doubt about why "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" was an important album. This was not someone succumbing to the commercial whims of the day or turning his back on the rebellious spirit of punk. The aim was to subvert the system from within.  On the title track and "Antmusic" in particular, Adam was setting out his manifesto for overthrowing the music business as we knew it. The opening line of the album, "You may not like the things we do" was a statement of intent to convert you and this was further emphasised with the "music for a future age" of the Talking Heads-esque "Don't Be Square (Be There)". "You may not like it now but you will," we were promised, because "the future will not stand still." Three decades later we have to concede that he was speaking the truth.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Is There Anyone Out There?


In most of my blog posts my intention is to introduce some of you to new music, hopefully get you to check out a record I've recently bought or see an artist if they're playing nearby. This time I'm writing about an exhibition that has now finished but whether you caught it or not, it will hopefully get you thinking about past events buried in the murky depths of your memory.

The Click Club was a regular event started by local promoters Dave Travis and Steve Coxon, running from 1986 to 1990, with many bands from the Midlands and beyond playing on a frequent basis. I recently attended the exhibition curated by music historians from the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research with assistance from Dave Travis, who loaned many items from his archive including tickets and a huge array of gig posters.

The Click Club was located at Burberries, a venue halfway up Broad Street next to where the Lee Longlands furniture store stands. The site of the club itself is now just an empty space, a pile of rubble fenced off in a very noticeable contrast to the tacky bars that overrun that part of town. As many of you know, I keep a diary of gigs I attend but I didn't start keeping regular notes until around 2004 so the entries before then are patchy, filled in from ticket stubs and memory. I'm always grateful for an opportunity to fill in the gaps. There's only one entry for Burberries in my diary and it's possible that I went to one other show there, but I think that was all.

The first thing that greets visitors to the Parkside Gallery is an enormous wall of posters for gigs from one of my favourite periods of music. The Click Club coincided with my late teens. I had just begun listening to John Peel and was introduced to bands such as The Wedding Present, McCarthy, The Mighty Lemon Drops, all of whom are featured here. Unfortunately I hadn't started going to gigs at this point so I'm overwhelmed by this view of the flipside of my teenage memories. One poster that catches my eye is right at the top of the wall - Throwing Muses and Pixies for the bargain price of £3.50. You'll be surprised to learn that despite being a massive fan of both, I've never seen the Pixies and it wasn't until 10 years ago that I first saw Throwing Muses. The date on the poster is 26th April 1988 - one year before I moved to Birmingham. How I wish I'd been born just a little bit earlier.

One of the key aspects of any archive is reminiscing with others and it's good to have Jez Collins of BCMCR on hand to discuss gig recollections. He manages to fill in a few gaps in my memory by discussing gigs not just at the Click Club but at other local venues around the same period. It's encouraging to see that someone who was around at the time is still enthusiastic about the music of that era and keen to share his experiences with other music lovers.

As well as a promoter, Dave Travis was also a photographer with his pictures often appearing in the national music press. On display we see his photos of many bands who played at the Click Club. The curators are actually offering one of the prints as a prize for those who give feedback on the exhibition - but please don't think that's the reason I'm writing this article! It would be difficult to choose just one of these to put on my wall. Alongside the aforementioned Throwing Muses gig, we have That Petrol Emotion's Steve Mack (I've explained before how he was something of an icon for me) plus a great shot of Edwyn Collins holding a newspaper article about himself. Sharing wall space with Primal Scream, Killing Joke, Frank Sidebottom, we have of course all the obvious Midlands heroes - Mighty Lemon Drops, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wonder Stuff.

I often feel it's something of a liberty to take photos of gallery exhibits but in this case it's encouraged and Jez actually offered to take a picture of me standing with some of the posters. I do feel guilty about the number of snaps that I came away with and won't include too many of the artist photos here as it would be effectively exploiting someone else's work. Having said that, I do feel the need to share this one of The Wonder Stuff as it captures the late Rob "Bass Thing" Jones at his best. This photo was taken around the time of the debut LP "The Eight Legged Groove Machine", one of the records that epitomises that era for me so maybe this is the picture I would be most likely to hang on my wall.

The Wonder Stuff

Some of the lesser known but no less worthy Midlands acts are also on display - The Sea Urchins, Mighty Mighty, and most interestingly The Lilac Time featuring Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy. I know I saw them in the early '90s but the date and venue are missing from my diary so perhaps it was this gig. The most surprising aspect is the number of international bands, notably Suicide and The Sugarcubes. Many touring artists now skip the Midlands entirely so it's amazing to think that bands of that stature regularly played in a venue of this size. It's hard to comprehend that despite our thriving local scene we now miss out on so many established acts. I wonder if anyone, perhaps even the exhibition curators, can shed some light on why artists seem determined to avoid us. More importantly, what can we do to persuade bands and national promoters that we are just as deserving of a visit as we were back in 1990?

Alongside the photos and memorabilia there are also video screens on a four-hour loop showing clips of some of the bands who played at the Click Club, including one gig that I definitely attended: The Blue Aeroplanes, Sunday 25th February 1990. This was a very important evening for me, only the second proper gig that I'd been to. (We don't talk about the first!)  Despite all that has happened since, this gig remains one of my all-time favourites half a lifetime later so it was fascinating to be able to watch it again. I tried to spot myself in the crowd but I can't remember where I was standing or even exactly what I would have looked like at the time. It also reminded me that the support act was Elizabeth Jane so I'm able to fill in a few more details in my diary.

The Blue Aeroplanes, 1990

This collection of photos and posters has given me a great sense of nostalgia mixed with a tiny bit of regret that I missed so many of these events, sadness that I didn't make the most of my younger years and take advantage of the wealth of music going on around me. This was partly down to lack of funds but mainly due to having few friends with similar tastes. In the days before the internet it was hard to find out about events if you didn't have the right contacts. Nevertheless, I'm proud of the homegrown talents on display. Many of them, such as Mighty Mighty and Fuzzbox, have seen a resurgence of late and I run into their members on a regular basis. Although I often bemoan my own lack of musical talent, I'm glad of the minor role I have in our local music scene and hope that my writing persuades others to get involved.

If, like me, you're trying to fill gaps in your gig diary or are wondering if your collection would be of interest to anyone, check out Jez's Birmingham Music Archive project. This is a steadily growing record of our local history so please consider sharing your memories, ticket stubs etc. either via the Facebook group or Twitter: @brummusicpics

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Prettiest Star


This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. I'm not sure if I'll be able to put into words the huge loss that we've suffered this week, to do justice to one of the greatest innovators of my lifetime without just rehashing what has been said a million times before. This is, without doubt, the biggest celebrity death that I've experienced. I was nine when Lennon died. I had only just started listening to the Beatles, I was too young to understand his significance. But Bowie is something else entirely. He is, I believe, the only musician in my collection who has been active for the whole of my life and whose music I've continued to buy throughout that time. (I'm now expecting a flood of comments suggesting others who fall into that category…)

Bowie was one of the first artists I discovered for myself. My introduction to music was through my dad's record collection. This mainly consisted of the Beatles, ELO and Johnny Cash. I'm not saying that my dad didn't like Bowie but surprisingly there were none of his records in our house. I first noticed him on "Top Of The Pops" around the time of "Scary Monsters" and began taping his songs from the radio. It wasn't until 1985 that I owned one of his albums.  On the strength of "Life On Mars?" - a radio staple at the time - I bought "Hunky Dory". I remember saving up the change from my dinner money and sneaking out of school one lunchtime to a newsagent that had a small selection of records - the only place you could get music without making an epic bus journey into Bath or Bristol. 30 years later, it remains one of my favourite albums.

It seems pointless for me to say that Bowie was "an icon" or "a chameleon", that he made it OK to be different, to be yourself. Anyone who hasn't heard all of that before is unlikely to be reading this blog. I've never subscribed to the cult of celebrity but Bowie is one of the few people that I think of as a star and yet still feel a connection to. Having said that, although I've never worried about "fitting in", I always felt that I could never be David Bowie. Writing this now, I feel a sense of regret that I never took him literally when he said that "we can be heroes", that I didn't take more inspiration from him. Perhaps I could have done something creative with my life.

I got hold of  (or "Blackstar" if you prefer) on its release day. I immediately started to notice recurrent images running through the songs and began to plan a review. Of course, my plans changed once I became aware that this was a farewell album in the most final sense of the word. The theme of stars has cropped up time and again throughout his recorded work - from the "Ziggy Stardust" period of course, through "New Killer Star" at the start of this century, up to "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" more recently. To Ziggy, stardom was all that mattered but here we see a man assessing his own career and questioning what it means to be a star. The stars do indeed look very different today. When he sings "I'm not a pop star... I'm not a film star" on the title track, is he just belittling commercial aspirations and defending the right to follow whichever creative path you choose? I hoped that was the case despite a nagging suspicion that there was something else going on. I started to wonder if he was about to announce his retirement. If only I'd known how close I was to the truth.

I'm grateful for the three days I had when I was able to listen to these songs with no prior knowledge, to develop my own meanings. There are listeners who will never get that experience. I obviously won't see the album the same way again and it will be a while before I'm fully comfortable listening to it in its entirety. However, I hope that in years to come I will look back on  as an album that has many memories, some happy, some sad, attached to it.

Bowie has always surrounded himself with other great talents - Eno, Visconti, Ronson. The mark of a true genius is knowing your own limits and seeking assistance rather than trying to take all the credit. Here he is joined by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several others whom I believe to be experts in their field but I have to admit that jazz is an area where I am totally ignorant. Although the screeching saxes could be off-putting to many listeners, the way Bowie's voice seems to battle against them is fitting in the circumstances. In fact, his voice is stronger than ever. This is not the sound of a man suffering from a terminal illness.

Bowie is never predictable and the avant-garde jazz approach comes as something of a surprise, but elsewhere we see elements of familiarity. Once the dissonance on side 1 subsides, the much mellower sax on side 2 is reminiscent of David Sanborn's contributions to 1975's "Young Americans" album. Other songs hint at "Low"/"Heroes" but for me the overall feel is of something that could have been recorded around the time of "Scary Monsters". This could almost be considered a career retrospective, with the only missing style being the stomping guitar riffs of the glam era. But no one would expect a return of those guitars; even those who associate him most with that sound will be aware that it makes up a tiny fragment of his universe and those rock star dreams were abandoned long ago.

Much has been made of Tony Visconti's revelation that the album was planned from the start as a "parting gift". The die-hard fans could have asked for nothing better than to go out on such a high note, but this is also a gift to those who have only dipped their toes into the waters of Bowie. Death inevitably leads to a renewed interest in an artist's work, and those "greatest hits" fans familiar with just "Ziggy", "Space Oddity", "Let's Dance" etc. will no doubt be intrigued by the mythology that already surrounds this final work. This in turn could be a stepping stone to both the "Berlin trilogy" and what I think of as the "recent" works - basically everything from the mid-90s onwards. If  leads just one person to 1995's "Outside" then I consider it a success.

When the recipient means something special to you, a great deal of love and care goes into wrapping a gift. I pity those who only got the download as the packaging is an important part of this release. It's the only Bowie album where he does not feature on the cover. (I'm aware that on "The Next Day" his face is obscured by a huge white square but he's still there.)  In contrast to the detailed pictures on pretty much every one of his releases, the stark, minimal design of  is possibly the blackest record packaging I've ever seen. And there is an awful lot of black in my collection. The glossy black text on matt black background makes it difficult to read the sleeve notes and lyrics, unless held at a very precise angle. This represents the nature of a lot of Bowie's later music. You need to persevere to get the most out of it. Most noticeable is the die-cut star in the sleeve of the vinyl version. Through the star-shaped hole, the record is visible. We can take some comfort in this - although the star is no longer there, we still have access to the music.

As I attempt to face the album again for the first time since hearing the news, one thing I realise is that Bowie has never been one to show bitterness or anger, although in this case it would have been understandable. The only hint of rage is on "Tis A Pity She Was A Whore", where he sings "Man, she punched me like a dude" - perhaps a reference to the disease eating away at him. Even his well-documented use of a profanity (although it's not the first time - see also "Time" and "Quicksand") is not done in anger. On "Girl Loves Me", the question "Where the fuck did Monday go?" suggests the last 40-odd years condensed into a single day, a reminder that we should make the most of the limited time available to us. He has managed to turn his illness into something creative and for that he should be admired as much as for everything else he's done. When future generations are taught the legend of Bowie this is one of the first things they should be made aware of, even if they don't listen to this album first.

So this is not a display of resentment, it is a record full of reflection, acceptance and perhaps even apology. The album comes to a close with "I Can't Give Everything Away", partly an explanation for why he kept his suffering secret for the past 18 months but also sorrow that after this, he will have no more music to give us. No need to feel bad about that, David. You've already given us more than any other artist in living memory. Wherever you are, I hope you're smiling now. Smiling through this darkness. All I have to give is guilt for dreaming.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Best Of 2015

It's that time of year again when we reflect on the past 12 months, and in my case that means trying to remember all the music I listened to. I've tried to compile a list of my favourite releases of 2015 although there are no doubt a few missing. I've attempted to rank them but to be honest the ordering is rather arbitrary - all of the top five albums are equally deserving of first place. I've noticed that each year my list seems to contain an increasing number of long-established artists - do I no longer have my finger on the pulse?

20. H. HAWKLINE - In The Pink Of Condition
Cate Le Bon collaborator Huw Evans proves he can create something equally kooky in his own right with this album of what he calls "strange pop". This is how I imagine Beck would sound if he'd grown up in Wales.

19. THE MANHATTAN LOVE SUICIDES - More Heat! More Panic!
One of the highlights of May's Birmingham Popfest. It's a tried and tested formula - girl group melodies hidden under fuzzy guitars played by guys in leather jackets and Ray-Bans. But if the formula works, why mess with it?

18. FEVER DREAM - Moyamoya
Another band I discovered at Popfest, trading in the kind of shoegazing I would expect from their name. Their performance drew me in enough to check out the album, which I was pleased to find was more fully formed and varied than their live set.

17. THE THE - Hyena
Far removed from his songwriting of the 1980s, Matt Johnson has now moved into film soundtracks. This spooky effort brings to mind Coil, particularly their compositions for Derek Jarman.

16. WIRE - Wire
They got regular mentions in this blog when it first started but Wire went off the boil slightly after the departure of Bruce Gilbert. This album sees them return to the jagged sound of their early work, albeit updated for the 21st century. To the uninitiated, the mix of melody and punchy rhythms along with the cunning use of an eponymous album title could suggest that this is the debut release by a younger band.

I discovered Parks supporting The Jesus And Mary Chain and was impressed by her solo LP but this duet with the Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman is the best starting point. Her voice suggests a huskier Hope Sandoval and Newcombe adds a layer of fuzz, slightly more subdued than that which his own band are known for, to create something utterly blissful.

When Depeche Mode are mentioned, for many people the first thing that comes to mind is Dave Gahan singing anthems full of religious imagery. But strip away the vocals and you'll find that DM have always been one of the most innovative bands on Mute Records, despite that label's eclectic roster. Gore's instrumental solo effort is the second album this year to make me think of Coil, and there are also hints of Eno and Cluster.

13. VIET CONG - Viet Cong
With advances in technology and recording techniques, it's good to know that people are exploiting these to make records that intentionally sound like they were recorded in 1980. An unholy alliance of Chrome, the Bunnymen and This Heat, with Martin Rev banging at the door demanding his synths back.

12. THE TELESCOPES - Hidden Fields
We were promised something more "song-based" than the terrifying previous album "Harm", by which they mean five long tracks rather than two very long ones and Stephen Lawrie using actual words rather than screaming. But you still need to refer to the lyric sheet to decipher the tales of claustrophobia, agoraphobia and various other phobias. Best played in the dark. Or not, depending on your nervous state.

11. THE FALL - Sub-Lingual Tablet
If you've never heard The Fall then it would be impossible to describe them to you. If you have then you know what to expect, but there are still some surprises. This picks up where classics such as "This Nation's Saving Grace" and "The Wonderful And Frightening World" left off.

10. SLEATER-KINNEY - No Cities To Love
Former riot grrrls return after a ten-year break, showing how it's possible to mature and still remain relevant. They cram more emotion into 32 minutes than their previous seven albums combined, with many of the lyrics exploring just why they've been away for so long.

9. POP WILL EAT ITSELF - Anti-Nasty League
With only Graham remaining from the original line-up, this has a much harder sound and tackles more serious topics than the comic book themes of their late-1980s work. Admirably released as a physical product only, as the band believe that downloads allow the listener to pick and choose tracks rather than hearing the entire album as intended.

8. DESPERATE JOURNALIST - Desperate Journalist
There are no great surprises here - the first three singles (favourites in 2014's end of year review) are included and some of the other songs are familiar from the band's constant gigging. But there are also no disappointments. The energy and sly references to classic indie bands remain, with hints that Desperate Journalist could develop their sound further, something that already seems to be happening with the recent non-album single.

7. JENNY HVAL - Apocalypse, Girl
The Norwegian's voice inevitably draws comparisons with Björk, but even Björk was never this weird. A quick scan of the lyric sheet suggests elements of erotica but if you played this as an attempt at seduction, your date would be cowering under the bed as soon as the needle hit the groove. Completely impossible to categorise.

6. PUBLIC IMAGE LTD - What The World Needs Now
I've seen mixed reviews of this but it engages the listener more than 2012's charming but forgettable comeback album. Lydon sounds genuinely angry for the first time in years - the lyrics contain more expletives than the legendary Bill Grundy interview and the album ends with a resounding "Fuck off!"

5. SUFJAN STEVENS - Carrie & Lowell
The Michigan artist returns to simple songwriting after his experimental period. This story of his childhood and family reminds me of my own father - see the full review here.

4. STEVEN WILSON - Hand. Cannot. Erase.
The hardest-working man in prog (I have music by him in ten different guises) creates something both complex and accessible with this concept album of sorts about a woman who died and lay undiscovered in her home for three years. At times the melodies remind me of Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" so I can't help imagining that the songs could be about Syd.

3. NEW ORDER - Music Complete
The public bitching has become tiresome and I was dubious about an album without Hooky, but with Gillian back in the fold we see a return to the disco sound not heard since "Technique". Some of the rockier elements from the previous album remain and there is an intriguing spoken piece from Iggy Pop, but overall it's full of tracks that would have filled the Haçienda dancefloor in its heyday.

2. THE NIGHTINGALES - Mind Over Matter
I'd come to regard them as a bunch of regulars at my local pub, and then they hit me with something like this. Read the full review to see why I'll never take The Nightingales for granted again.

1. SWERVEDRIVER - I Wasn't Born To Lose You
It was a close-run thing for the number one spot but Swervedriver, back after a 17-year break, narrowly beat the 'Gales simply because of the nostalgia factor on this album. Not just sonically, it also takes past lyrical themes and reflects on them with the wisdom brought by age. Read the review of the gig where many of these songs were played and you'll understand why looking back doesn't necessarily mean a refusal to move on.

I stopped once I got to 20 but if I had more time I could probably have extended it to 30, 40... who knows? There are many other albums that I've listened to over the past year: a powerful live recording from Swans plus new efforts from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Pop Group, Moon Duo, The Wave Pictures, She Makes War (which I haven't reviewed as I don't believe it's widely available yet), Ultimate Painting, Houndstooth to name a few. Also worth a mention, although strictly speaking not released in 2015, solo bass/nail varnish wizard Steve Lawson made his entire back catalogue available on a single USB stick shaped like a vinyl record - thereby overcoming my reluctance to buy MP3s, which I normally shun as there is no physical product to hold and cherish.

As always, many of my evenings were spent watching live music. I attended 74 gigs/all-dayers/festivals, here are ten of the best - not including those already referred to in the list of albums. Two trips to the capital but the rest were in Brum, showing that we have a thriving live scene despite my complaints that touring bands tend to skip the Midlands.
It's difficult to rank these events so they're in chronological order.

1. JULIAN COPE - Glee Club, 25th January
Read the full review to see why the arch-drude of Tamworth is more interesting when he suppresses his experimental leanings.

2. MORRISSEY - NIA (or whatever it's called these days), 27th March
I've had doubts about Morrissey of late and was unsure whether it was worth getting a ticket but despite recent health scares, he gave the most energetic performance I've seen from him for about 20 years.

3. LOUIS BARABBAS - Tower Of Song, 26th April  
Utter genius. Impossible to sum him up in one sentence so read the full review.

4. SUPER FURRY ANIMALS - Brixton Academy, 8th May
Known for their catchy tunes but they can out-psych the best of them. A two-hour set, with the last 30 minutes turning into an epic freak-out. The lightshow sparked some strange dreams when I got back to my hotel.

5. THE POP GROUP - Supersonic Festival, 12th June
There is always a diverse range of innovative music at Supersonic but Mark Stewart and his crew outshone everyone else that weekend, and possibly every other gig of 2015. Writing a review wouldn't do it justice so instead check out these photos to get some idea of the energy and also the classics included in the setlist.

A free gig from a songwriter who merges elements from all corners of my record collection. I was going to include the album "The Fates" in my top 20 but then noticed that it actually came out in 2014.

7. THOMAS TRUAX - Tower Of Song, 20th September
Like being trapped in a David Lynch film with a crazed inventor. By all means check out his records  but he really needs to be seen live with his homemade instruments to get the full effect.

8. INDIE DAZE - Kentish Town Forum, 3rd October
An afternoon of classic (and not-so-classic) bands from my late teens. Always good to see PWEI and The Wonder Stuff but the undoubted highlight was The Wedding Present, playing "Bizarro" in full and also the closest you'll ever get to an encore from them.

9. RIDE - Institute, 22nd October
Possibly my favourite band from the shoegaze era, playing their first album in full plus another hour of classics. Even the songs from their badly-received later albums came across well.

10. THE PRETTY THINGS - Sensateria, 12th December.
Five minutes in and I realise I'm completely unfamiliar with the 1960s/70s legends' back catalogue. But with founder members Dick Taylor and Phil May giving it all they've got, this doesn't make any difference. I've clearly got some catching up to do.

So all in all, a busy year. Let's hope 2016 is equally exciting and I have plenty to write about over the course of the coming months.