Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

The Albums of 2015

More quality music emerged in 2015 than in any other year so far. As well as the usual flood of jaw-dropping melodic-death metal from its breeding ground of Finland, the old guard released new music thick and fast, with Motörhead, Saxon, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Toto, Jean Michel Jarre, Leslie West, David Gilmour, Keith Richards, Dave Brock, and Billy Gibbons – to name a few – releasing fresh albums. So instead of rounding up my favourite 11 albums of the year (as I usually do), I’ve expanded the list into a top 30 (which actually contains 42 albums). You may be wondering what kind of mathematical sorcery can magick 42 albums into a top-30 list. The answer: an unprecedented 12-way tie for #1 position, and a 2-way tie for #3. Music gained much in 2015, but there was also loss. At the end of the year, metal suffered the greatest loss imaginable: the death of Motörhead founder Lemmy just weeks after that of his pal Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, drummer on classic ‘head albums. A world without Lem and Phil makes little sense to me. I’ve never known such a place. Lemmy was more than just the godfather of heavy metal. He was the epitome of integrity. An original. A one-off. Whether singing or speaking, his gruff voice was instantly recognisable. Pure gravel-throated truth. I was lucky enough to meet Lem and experience his wisdom, humour and warmth. Some people walk into a room without making a significant change to its energy. Not Lemmy. He had presence. One didn’t have to see or hear him to be aware of that presence. It could be felt when he was near. I know. I felt it.

Rewind eleven years. My journalist friend Mike and I are backstage at Glasgow Barrowlands after a barnstorming Motörhead show. Smiling drummer/vortex of wild energy Mikkey Dee greets us with handshakes and bear hugs. Guitarist Phil Campbell is reclined on a sofa, quietly immersed in his thoughts. Behind him, stuck to a wall, a piece of A4 paper features the scrawled words ALL CIDER BELONGS TO PHIL CAMPBELL. A bulbous glass container like a crystal cauldron has been filled with miniature Cadbury’s confectionery. Lingerie-clad women relax with drinks. Lem is nowhere to be seen. The ebullient Dutchman Mikkey invites Mike and me to help ourselves to whatever we want. “Everything is fair game,” he tells us, gesticulating wildly around the room, “except the cider. Best not to touch the cider.” Glancing over at Phil Campbell, he explains, “Phil can be…unpredictable…if anyone touches the cider.” In addition to Phil’s supply of alcoholic apple juice, there are gallons of vodka, whisky and lager. I’ve brought the car, so no booze for me. Here in Glasgow, city of my birth – in Barrowlands Ballroom, where my maternal grandmother and grandfather used to dance on Saturday nights before World War 2 – I find myself in the surreal situation of being backstage with Motörhead and entourage, drinking Evian water and eating ‘fun-size’ Dairy Milks, Fudges and Twirls. A flurry of motion, the ever-smiling Mikkey regales Mike and me with stories. I’m enjoying the conversation with Mikkey, whose powerhouse drumming has impressed me since his days with King Diamond, long before he joined Motörhead. Despite feeling happy hanging out with Mikkey, I can’t help wondering where Lem is. A few minutes later I sense something behind me. I feel it. The energy in the room has changed and I know he is there. I turn round and that face is looking back at me. Lemmy has arrived. He looks every bit as iconic in the flesh as he always has on record covers and the pages of metal magazines. Words tumble out of my mouth. “Hello, Sir. That was a phenomenal gig tonight. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” growls Lem. “We do our best.” He extends his right hand. As I shake Lem’s hand he looks me straight in the eyes. I sense that I’m being weighed up. A couple of seconds pass, then he smiles and I know I’ve been accepted. Over the rest of the night we chat about life on and off the road. Mike – who is reviewing the gig for a national newspaper – hasn’t arranged an interview, but that doesn’t stop him from going into journalist mode. This is a chance for him to dig dirt on other musicians – exclusive insider information, straight from the Motörhorse’s mouth. Lem is no mudslinger, though. He has nothing bad to say about any of his peers. So Mike gravitates towards his drum hero Mikkey, to see if he has any juicy gossip to share. Over by the Cadbury’s confectionery cauldron, Mikey and Mikkey laugh and joke like the pair of nutters they are, pulling preposterous poses for photos. I stay with Lemmy. When I ask about the early Motörhead tours with Saxon, his face lights up. He speaks of Graham Oliver and Biff Byford with huge affection. I mention that a few weeks ago Blackmore’s Night cancelled their Edinburgh gig an hour before it was meant to start. Venue staff turned away ticketholders, claiming that Candice Night had last-minute concerns about her throat. This left Mike, me and thousands of other concertgoers (many of whom had turned up in medieval garb) disappointed and out of pocket. By means of comparison, I recount events at a recent Saxon show in Glasgow, where at the gig’s end Biff apologised for his singing, going on to explain that he was loaded with the flu. This apology surprised the audience, as Biff’s vocal delivery had been perfect.

“Most singers are delicate creatures,” says Lem, “but not Biff. He’s a big strong brute who’ll go onstage even when he’s so sick that anyone else in his position would cancel the show. He’s a professional. And he never has an off-night.”

I tell Lem that I started listening to Motörhead when I was little more than a baby, growing up on their music as well as being heavily influenced by their image and attitude. “Raised on Motörhead,” he muses. “What a horrible thought. That must make me your bastard godfather.”

“Aye,” I agree, “Ah suppose it does. Ah wouldnae change that for the world.” Lem smiles. I smile back. In that moment all is right with the Universe.

I tell Lem the story of when, at age ten, I approached my mother and asked her to buy me a denim jacket so I could rip off its arms then cover the remaining waistcoat in studs and band patches, to which she replied, “Forget it. You’d look like one o’ those degenerates in Motörhead. You can have a nice bodywarmer instead.”

Lem roars with laughter. When he has recovered enough to talk, he says, “She sounds like a good woman, your mum. You wouldn’t wanna look like those degenerates in Motörhead!”

That night was one of warmth, friendship, camaraderie, stories, laughter and a palpable sense of heavy-metal family. Mikkey and Lem were a joy to be around. Afterwards, Mike described them as thoroughly lovely chaps. Perhaps those aren’t the words you’d expect associated with the mighty Motörhead, purveyors of thunderous sounds laden with wartime imagery. But Mike’s words were bang on.

Not all Lem’s trips to Glasgow went as smoothly as that one. A few years earlier he and Fast Eddie Clarke, then-guitarist of Motörhead, arrived at Radio Clyde for an interview the station had requested. An hour after the interview was due to start, Lem and Ed were still waiting in the foyer. No one had offered them an explanation for the delay. This annoyed Lem, who was generous with his time but didn’t appreciate it being wasted. He grumbled to Ed that the DJ must think their time less valuable than his. Spotting a retractable fire hose in a wall cavity, Fast Eddie nodded towards it and said, “Let’s do ‘im!” So they did. The two ‘head stalwarts unrolled the fire hose, pointed its nozzle into the offending DJ’s booth, switched it on, then calmly walked out of the building. Had that DJ valued Motörhead’s time, he’d have explained that things were running behind schedule. That would have been the polite and considerate thing to do, rather than leaving Lem and Ed sitting stranded for an hour. As Lem often said, manners cost nothing. One Radio Clyde DJ learned that lesson when Motörhead turned his office into a swimming pool.

Lem, you were one of the good guys, walking life as you talked it, unflinching in your honesty. I learned a lot from you. Integrity is in short supply around the world, but you had it in spades. You had all the good stuff in spades, my beautiful bastard godfather. You were, are and always will be the Ace in the pack.

Lem and me backstage at Glasgow Barrowlands

Lem and me

Now to my albums of 2015. Among the many excellent records released were twelve that I consider flawless. They share pole position.

1= Moonspell – Extinct

A masterpiece of Gothic metal from Portugal’s finest export. Their most obvious musical influence is The Sisters of Mercy. There’s also a touch of Depeche Mode here, a flash of Type O Negative there, some hints of old Cult, a sprinkling of Front 242 and a frisson of Frontline Assembly. Moonspell is more than the sum of its influences, though. Their music is inventive and bursting with original ideas. The role models may be evident, but, taking the blueprints laid down by others, Moonspell fused them into a sound that’s unique, layered and all their own. String sections and eastern melodies provide a counterpoint to eviscerating riffs. The light/shade duality is prevalent throughout, with Fernando Ribeiro’s vocals alternating between a deep baritone croon (à la Dave Gahan) and a roar that would make most death-metal vocalists soil their pants and go running to their mothers. Back in the ‘90s Ribeiro was one of the first to alternate between clean vocals on a verse and a raw growled chorus (or vice versa), a technique that many bands have since adopted (Fear Factory’s Burton C. Bell does it beautifully, while in Finnish melodeath metal it has become the norm, with Insomnium, Amorphis, Omnium Gatherum and others using the technique to great effect). Lyrically, musically and atmospherically, Extinct is perfect. A gesamtkunstwerk.

Favourite track: Breathe (Until We Are No More).

Moonspell - Extinct

1= Wolfheart – Shadow World

When Tuomas Saukkonen announced in 2013 that he was disbanding his five musical projects Black Sun Aeon, Before the Dawn, The Final Harvest, RoutaSielu, and Dawn of Solace, in order to focus on one new project – Wolfheart – I was concerned. I wasn’t the only one. Losing five iconic Finnish bands and gaining one unproven one didn’t seem like a good deal. But if Tuomas could manage to distil the essence of his five previous outfits and channel it into one musical monster, the results would be immense. The 2013 debut Winterborn was a statement of intent but it wasn’t until 2015’s Shadow World that Wolfheart realised its potential.  The album is magnificent.  Turning it up loud feels like letting a storm into one’s soul. And just as thunderstorms clear the air, Shadow World cleanses the spirit, leaving the listener revitalised and happily shellshocked.

Favourite track: Abyss – only in the icy north could this be born.

Wolfheart

1= Tengger Cavalry – Blood Sacrifice Shaman

Mongolian Folk Metal, ya bass! When a band dedicates an album to wolf, eagle, horse, Genghis Khan and the blue sky Tengger, you know they’re not fannying about. This was my biggest musical surprise of 2015. It became my most played album during the first half of the year. Otherworldly Mongolian throat singing is layered over savage riffs, blast-beat drums and eastern folk melodies played on traditional instruments. These components aren’t flung together in a haphazard hope-for-the-best fashion. They’re expertly arranged to create passages of light and shade, poignance and bluster, sorrow and rage. Astounding.

Favourite track: Tengger Cavalry.

Tengger Cavalry

1= Ghost – Meliora

My most listened-to album of 2015. The CD went into my car stereo and remained there for months. On long drives I played it on repeat, never tiring of its sublime harmonies. Shilo the wolfboy loves it too. Ghost’s music puts him into a blissed-out reverie (which is strangely appropriate, as several times on wilderness wanders we’ve met folk who pointed excitedly at the wolfboy and said, “It’s Ghost from Game of Thrones!”). As on previous Ghost recordings, there’s a strong choral sound accompanied by gorgeously subversive lyrics. The melodies and harmonies are still reminiscent of Blue Öyster Cult, while the heavier riffs have hints of Mercyful Fate with an occasional soupçon of Slayer. Eminently listenable, deep, loaded with meaning. Instant classic.

Favourite track: He Is.

Ghost

1= Killing Joke – Pylon

Another surprise. For decades I’ve recognised the genius of Killing Joke. I hear their influence in myriad other bands, most notably The Cult, Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction, Frontline Assembly, and Fear Factory. Despite that, I wasn’t expecting KJ’s strongest album to date to appear in 2015. It did, though. Killing Joke are masters of their art who don’t do anything by accident. Every detail of their sound is meticulously planned and crafted. Listen to this album in a lossless format (not horrible lossy mp3), turn it up loud, and you’ll experience a whole new dimension opening up. That’s not me overselling the band: it’s truth. Pylon is astonishing.

Favourite track: Big Buzz – pure sonic bliss.

Killing Joke

1= Paradise Lost – The Plague Within

Paradise Lost’s elemental riffs build into dirges that are both gloomy and uplifting: a technique PL have mastered over the last couple of decades.  Their 2015 offering shows that, like Moonspell and Killing Joke, they’re absolutely at the top of their game.

Favourite track: No Hope in Sight.

Paradise Lost

1= Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud

Amorphis redefined metal with Silent Waters in 2007 (my album of that year by a country mile, and my equal-favourite album of all time). Since then they’ve continued to create epic music. Thematically, their songs are rooted in Finnish mythology. Each Amorphis album is like a musical chapter of The Kalevala. On Under the Red Cloud they continue that tradition in style. The textures are vast and sweeping, the melodies flit between subtle folkiness and crushing heaviness, and Tomi Joutsen’s soaring vocals are amazing.

Favourite track: The Four Wise Ones.

cover ok copie

1= Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos

I have enormous respect for Alexi Laiho. His guitar work is incendiary, his songwriting skills out of this world (when he writes a scorcher, he really writes a scorcher – listen to Everytime I Die from CoB’s Follow the Reaper album for evidence of this). A true guitar player’s guitar player, Laiho has the respect of his death-metal peers not just in his native Finland, but across the globe. Many of those peers would sell their families and/or their souls for Laiho’s musical chops: lightning-fast, super-accurate sweep picking; a unique shredding style; heavy neo-classical riffage that has become CoB’s main trademark. Vocally, Alexi is Mr Marmite. His I’ve-just-had-my-throat-cut-and-I’m-now-gargling-my-own-blood vocals aren’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but they are my cup o’ tea. They suit the music. Despite prodigious compositional skills, technical ability and no-holds-barred delivery, CoB had never (until now) created an album that was brilliant from start to finish. I Worship Chaos is the barnstormer that’s always been in them. The balance of heaviness and melody is skilful, the execution phenomenal. The standout tracks on the deluxe edition are Morrigan (with its awe-inspiring Everytime I Die-ish riff), Mistress of Taboo (a cover of The Plasmatics’ tune – the CoB version sounds like Scorpions’ Another Piece of Meat flung into a blender with Alice Cooper and turned up to high speed), My Bodom (I Am the Only One), and Prayer for the Afflicted. With every listen you’ll hear something new but it’ll never be a weak moment – there isn’t one.

Favourite track: Prayer for the Afflicted.

Children of Bodom

1= Finsterforst – Mach Dich Frei

In 2004 a rag-tag collection of heathens formed a band in southwest Germany’s Black Forest. Their goal was to create a sonic expression of the mystical landscape around them. Collectively known as Finsterforst, they’ve gone from strength to strength, fusing various styles of metal (black, thrash, classic, folk) into a seamless whole. Mach Dich Frei is by a country mile their finest album to date – an immaculate blend of ethereal instrumentals and anthemic metal. To Finsterforst’s credit, they’re the only metal band to successfully integrate the accordion in a way that’s unobtrusive and adds to their sound rather than wailing over the top of it. This says much about their classical sensibilities – they’re mindful composers rather than run-of-the-mill riff merchants who fling in the odd burst on traditional instruments in the hope that it might work. This band knows when an instrument should be heard and when it should be silent. They understand resonance and impact. I’ve listened to Mach Dich Frei throughout many long nights of writing. It never becomes repetitive. In fact, it improves with every listen. A masterpiece.

Favourite track: Mach Dich Frei – after a glorious twin-guitar opening (rhythm guitar riffs are reminiscent of Megadeth’s In My Darkest Hour, and the lead refrain has the tonality of Chris DeGarmo circa classic Queensrÿche), the song evolves into a darker, heavier, more complex composition driven by anthemic vocals and an inspired sense of majesty.

Finsterforst

1. Fear Factory – Genexus

Fear Factory’s Demanufacture redefined metal in 1995. Frontrunners of the industrial-metal movement, then inventors of cyber metal, they craft soundscapes imbued with a futuristic dreamlike quality. FF’s music is the soundtrack to a future world in which humans co-evolve with machines, to the point where the distinction between one and the other becomes blurred. Conceptually, it’s like Blade Runner and Terminator lobbed into a blender with Gary Numan and Judas Priest. Musically, the results are something original. Genexus is what fans have come to expect from the band: breathtaking metal that’s precise, heavy (yet beautifully melodic), powered by machinistic rhythms and Burton C. Bell’s distinctive clean vocals (like the chants of a robot monk at worship) and his angry growls (like a bear who’s been kicked in the balls). Burt switches between singing styles with ease, instinctively knowing what works best with the music. The adage you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to Genexus. One glance at the artwork tells the savvy metallist exactly what can be found inside: supreme cyber metal from the ones who do it best.

Favourite track: Regenerate – as a kid, I dreamed that one day metal would sound like this. A masterful blend of passion, power, precision, originality, melody, futuristic heaviness and total confidence. Utter perfection.

fear-factory

1= Jean Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine

I first heard Jarre’s music at the London Planetarium when I was a child. Holographic stars and planets floated past my face as a hypnotic melody filled the air. I was spellbound. After the show, as the titles rolled, I saw the words ‘Soundtrack – Oxygène by Jean Michel Jarre’. On my return to Scotland I raided my piggy bank, emptied its contents into the pockets of my jeans, then jingled my way to the local record shop (Impulse Records in East Kilbride – now long gone), where I bought Oxygène on vinyl. After returning home at a gallop, I placed the album on my father’s Linn record deck and lowered the stylus onto the record. Jarre’s futuristic soundscapes emerged crystal clear through Celestion speakers. Sonic Heaven. Since then, I’ve collected all JMJ’s recordings. Ever the visionary, Jarre decided to make his 2015 release different to its predecessors by composing and recording an album of collaborations. The result is an album of originality and diversity, all rooted in laser-precise electronica. The pairing of Pete Townshend and JMJ looks odd on paper but in practice it works, perhaps because of Pete’s longtime love of synths (most famously heard on The Who’s milestone Baba O’Riley). A more logical union is that of Tangerine Dream with Jarre. Musically and culturally, those two entities are mirrors of each other, with Jarre’s symphonies rich in French joie de vivre while TD’s compositions possess a colder, more Germanic feel. The collaboration between these two legends culminated in Zero Gravity, a masterful track. Tangerine Dream founder/main man Edgar Froese died soon afterwards, leaving Zero Gravity as his last recording. As a mark of respect, JMJ dedicated the album to Froese.

Favourite track: Immortals by JMJ with Fuck Buttons.

JMJ

1= Ghost Bath – Moonlover

You might imagine that a North Dakotan band pretending to be Chinese musicians living in China (as Ghost Bath did to secure a deal with Chinese label Pest Records) would be a major controversy. In the strange arena of black metal, however, such behaviour didn’t even make the top 50 most controversial moments. (In case you’re wondering what one would have to do to score high on the scale, current top place is held by Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, who – as the Second Wave of Black Metal was beginning in ’90s Norway – slaughtered his former friend Oystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous: founding member of the band Mayhem, founder of the mysterious Black Metal Inner Circle, and owner of influential Oslo record store Helvete) in between burning down several historic churches and penning legendary dark symphonies). So by black-metal standards – with suicide, murder, arson, assault, self-mutilation, sacrifice and blood-drinking all popular pastimes – Ghost Bath’s whole pretending-to-be-Chinese thing barely even qualified as controversial. They were more like the cat who pretends to be your pal because he thinks there might be food in it for him (Chinese food, on this occasion). Their prank was victimless: they were devious for their own gain, but Pest Records did well out of them, too. The debut album Funeral was released to critical acclaim. By the time Ghost Bath was rumbled as being non-Chinese the band had amassed a legion of fans who didn’t give a shit where the members were from, just as long as they continued making excellent music. Pest Records was less forgiving, though (a surreal mirror of the Seinfeld episode The Chinese Woman, in which George Costanza’s mother takes phone advice from Donna Chang, whom she assumes to be Chinese, then – upon meeting Donna and seeing that she’s not oriental – abandons all the advice, saying, “I thought I was getting advice from a Chinese woman. I’m not taking advice from some woman from Long Island!”). Ghost Bath’s ethics may be up their arse but their music is amazing. Second album Moonlover was released by German label Northern Silence Productions (to my knowledge, the band hasn’t yet claimed to be German, but it could happen – after all, they have previous form for playing Ethnic Musical Chairs, plus Germany is more metal than North Dakota). Moonlover is an accomplished piece of work. The vocals are inspired by Norway’s Second Wave of Black Metal (in other words, they’re the tortured howls of the damned), but the instrumentation – rather than being discordant – is sublimely melodic. Logically, this could cause a disconnect between vocals and music, but they achieve the opposite. Uplifting guitar melodies combine with wailed screams of pain to deliver a sensory experience that I find exhilarating. The band claims to be all about playing from the heart and creating something beautiful. Job done.

Favourite track: Golden Number.

ghost-bath

2. Swallow the Sun – S0ngs from the North I, II and III

An epic triple-CD (or quintuple-vinyl) album from the band who – along with fellow Finns Amorphis, Insomnium, Wintersun, and Omnium Gatherum (as well as Dark Tranquillity and At the Gates from Sweden) – have spearheaded the melodeath movement over the past two and a bit decades. Melodic death metal (melodeath for short) is the genre I listen to more than any other. The compositions are complex and diverse, the lyrical themes mythic, the production flawless, the musical execution breathtaking, the emotional impact profound. Songs from the North I, II and III is dedicated to StS founder/guitarist Juho’s late father. Each of the three discs has a mood of its own. Songs from the North I: giant walls of riffage, powerful vocals and a rhythm-section rumble that could crumble castles. Songs from the North II: delicate wintry melodies set against softly sung lyrics of pure melancholy. Songs from the North III: sonic-doom funereal dirges with only occasional glimpses of light in the form of quiet interludes and female vocal harmonies. As a tribute to a father, this is poignant. As a musical achievement, it is monumental.

Favourite track: The Heart of a Cold White Land.

swallow-the-sun

“These skies of the winter stars

Arise to the frozen night

And the light of summer that never dies

In these songs from the North.”

3= Joe Satriani – Shockwave Supernova

Another stunning collection of guitar wizardry from the man who does it best. Wonderfully diverse, as Satch’s albums always are, Shockwave Supernova showcases his unique talent. You don’t need vocals when your instrumentals are this well composed and this perfectly executed.

Favourite track: Goodbye Supernova.

joe-satriani

3= Myrkur – M

M is the first full-length album from one-woman black-metal project Myrkur, brainchild of Denmark’s Amalie Bruun. Having signed a deal with Relapse Records on the strength of her debut EP, Bruun was in a perfect position to further her vision of Myrkur. The result is impressive, exploring otherworldly melodies then returning to a sound more true to black metal’s roots. Despite Bruun’s insistence on referring to Myrkur as a black-metal project (the album cover couldn’t be more black metal if it tried: black-and-white photo; grim grey skies; title in Viking runes; dark trees silhouetted beside a spectral female figure on the edge of a lake by night), her music has as much in common with Enya as it does with Venom, Hellhammer or Burzum. That’s not a complaint – just an observation. There’s also an obvious Wardruna influence (always a good thing), with lighter ethereal soundscapes flowing naturally into heavier Darkthronesque swathes. Bruun had a clear vision for M. I reckon she’s achieved it. The musical components are blended with skill, precision and an ear for what works. I wonder what the second full-length album will bring. Will it be more black-metal-meets-Enya-for-a-jig-in-the-forest? Or will it be all-guns-blazing-take-no-prisoners-burn-down-all-churches blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack metaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggghhhhhhlllllll? I’d bet on the former, but either way I’ll be checking it out with interest.

Favourite track: Onde børn (which translates as Evil Children).

Myrkur

4. John Carpenter – Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s work revolves around film. He is a renowned producer, director, screenwriter, editor and composer best known for the 1978 horror classic Halloween (which he wrote and directed, as well as composing/performing its now-legendary musical score). Carpenter has a long string of films and musical scores behind him, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he released his first real solo album (as opposed to a movie soundtrack with his name attached to it, of which there are many). Lost Themes is a diverse array of dark electronica, all beautifully moody and rich with Carpenter’s trademark ominous sound.

Favourite track: Vortex.

John Carpenter

5. Michael Monroe – Blackout States

Like most of Mikey’s stuff with Hanoi Rocks and as a solo artist, his 2015 album Blackout States is a slice of no-frills, gung-ho rock ‘n’ roll.  Without this man paving the way, there would have been no Guns ‘n’ Roses or LA Guns (either that or those bands would have taken radically different forms to the ones we know). The glam-metal boom of the mid-to-late ‘80s would probably never have happened were it not for Hanoi Rocks setting the blueprint. Glam rock may have Marc Bolan, Bowie, and The Sweet to thank for its existence, but glam metal stemmed from Hanoi Rocks, both in sound and sleazy image. That influence is still observable today, especially in Monroe’s native Scandinavia, where modern metal glamsters like Hardcore Superstar, Reckless Love and CRASHDÏET proudly tread the path Michael Monroe and Andy McCoy paved. It feels reassuring to know that Monroe himself is still cranking out quality new material, still touring, still looking and sounding as good as ever. Hail to him.

Favourite track: This Ain’t No Love Song – a track so good it makes me want to overlook the shite grammar (and the double negative) in the title.

Michael Monroe

6. Dave Brock – Brockworld

Lemmy’s former Hawkwind bandmate, the founder of space rock – Dave Brock – has long been recognised as a visionary who plays by his own rules, creating sweeping soundscapes with the help of mind-expanding hallucinogens and psychedelic drugs. While Hawkwind’s material is hit or miss to me (I love much of it, yet some provokes no emotional response), Brockworld is a different proposition. Inspired cosmic melodies fuse with sublime vocal harmonies in a symphony of space-fuelled bliss. Play it loud on quality hi-fi equipment and prepare to experience a revelation. Space rock such as this needs to be heard in its full glory. Vinyl (or lossless digital FLAC files ripped from vinyl) preferably. Failing that, CD.

Favourite track: Life Without Passion.

Dave Brock

7. Ludovico Einaudi – Elements

Sheer musical genius. There’s nothing I can say about Einaudi’s inspired instrumental compositions that the music can’t say better. Piano and strings in perfect harmony. Buy everything he has ever recorded. Listen to it often. Life improved, just like that.

Favourite track: Night, performed by Ludovico Einaudi with Amsterdam Sinfionetta.

Ludovico Einaudi

8. Saxon – Battering Ram

The quality of a Saxon album is something metallists never have to worry about. Since their debut back in 1979, the band has released classic after classic, crafting timeless riffs and melodies with apparent ease. Battering Ram is no exception. Another welcome release from true pioneers of metal.

Favourite track: Kingdom of the Cross – the spiritual successor to Broken Heroes, with Biff delivering a spine-tingling spoken-word delivery over heart-wrenching Jeff Beckesque guitar work from maestros Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt.

Saxon

9. Motörhead – Bad Magic

I was tempted to stick this at number 1, all alone, for sentimental reasons more than musical ones (it is – although it breaks my heart to say it – the last Motörhead studio album the world will ever see). The songs are quintessential Motörhead – loud, heavy, distorted, raw, bass-heavy anthems. When the album first arrived I was discussing it with my German author/artist/musician friend Frank, a fellow ‘head fanatic. Lem was still alive at that point, but looking frail and cancelling concerts due to ill health. Frank said he was loving the album, but at the same time experiencing a bad feeling when he listened to it…the feeling that it would be the last album from the mighty Motörhead. He was right. A few months later Lem died. As swan songs go, Bad Magic is an impressive one, especially when one takes into account that Lemmy was seriously ill while composing and recording it. He was surely in pain throughout the process, yet he didn’t complain. That makes this album all the more profound and Lem’s performance all the more brave. For me, this will always be the most difficult Motörhead album to listen to. Not for musical reasons, but for personal ones. But listen to it I will, often, even though it hurts. Thank you, Lem, for everything.

Favourite track: Till the End.

“Don’t tell me what to do, my friend.

You’ll break more hearts than you can mend.

I know myself like no one else – nothing to defend.

My life is full of good advice

And you don’t have to tell me twice.

Living here in paradise,

No rules that I should bend.

In my years my life has changed.

I can’t turn back the time.

I can’t tell you just what made me change.

All I know is who I am – I’ll never let you down.

The last one you can trust until the end.”

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10. Toto – XIV

This album is more than a return to form for Toto. It is a regenesis. They have long been an iconic and influential band, especially in AOR circles. Africa was one of the first singles I ever bought on vinyl, and to this day that chorus still gives me chills of bliss. So for decades I’ve known how good Toto can be, when the chemistry’s right and they’re feeling inspired. Also, I know how accomplished the band members are as musicians in their own right (especially Steve Lukather – a phenomenal composer, guitarist, and, when he chooses, singer). Despite all that, I wasn’t expecting Toto to fire out an album this good in 2015, seemingly out of the blue. The quality is high throughout, but the obvious standout tracks are Burn and Orphan. If every song was as ridiculously good as those two, XIV would be sharing the #1 spot with Moonspell and co. All the tracks are well crafted. There are no fillers here. Burn and Orphan, however, are astonishing. My gig of 2015 was Toto at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Great music can cause the hair on my arms and neck to stand up. Toto achieved that and more: they also (to my surprise) summoned tears through the emotion in their performance. The ‘new boy’ in the band is singer Joseph Williams (son of John Williams – composer of the soundtracks to Star WarsSupermanRaiders of the Lost Ark and many more). Joseph’s vocals on XIV (and live) are breathtaking.

Favourite track: Burn.

Toto

11. Hearts of Black Science – Signal

I was late to the party with this band, hearing their music for the first time in 2015, by which time they’d been going for ten years. The name caught my attention: a black-metal band, I reckoned. I was way off.  The duo’s sound has elements of electronica, darkwave, shoegaze, goth, ambient, and occasionally rock (the opening of Faces – first song on Signals – is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell). Daniel Änghede’s vocals sometimes resemble those of fellow Swede Morten Harket (singer in A-Ha). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might say. If you like dark and brooding electronica, give this a whirl.

Favourite track: Faces.

Hearts of Black Science

 12. The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

This was my most listened-to album during training sessions in 2015. The walls of my Muay Thai gym shook to the rhythms of The Prodigy’s newest batch of adrenaline-fuelled anthems. I first got into The Prodigy when they did Music for the Jilted Generation. I’d heard their earlier stuff but it did nothing for me – a bit too druggy/ravey/off its tits on E for my liking. Like only a couple of Prodigy albums before it (The Fat of the Land and Invaders Must Die), The Day Is My Enemy is consistently brilliant throughout. A wall-shaker.

Favourite track: Wild Frontier.

The Prodigy 2

13. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source

About feckin’ time! Welcome back to one of the only bands who take longer than Guns ‘n’ Roses in between albums (there were 16 years between Leftfield’s second studio album – Rhythm and Stealth – and this, their third, in 2015, while the Gunners took a mere 15 years to create Chinese Democracy, which came out in 2008 as successor to The Spaghetti Incident in 1993). Was Alternative Light Source worth the wait? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s a strong chunk of electronica with some inspired moments. No, because any album that takes 16 years to create ought to be a work of immaculate genius from start to finish. I’m happy to have another Leftfield album to listen to, though. Seeing them perform it live on tour was a joy.

Favourite track: Universal Everything.

Leftfield

14. Soilwork – The Ride Majestic

Close friends of In Flames (who along with Dark Tranquillity defined Sweden’s ‘Gothenburg sound’ – the blueprint for melodic death metal), Soilwork play it like they mean it. To my ears, The Ride Majestic isn’t quite as astonishing as its predecessor, The Living Infinite (a monster of an album), but it’s no slouch either. The neo-classical riffage is still jaw-droppingly perfect, Dirk Verbeuren’s drumming is still outrageously fast and precise, vocalist Björn ‘Speed’ Strid still nails every note, and the melodies are still – no pun intended – to die for.

Favourite track: Death in General.

Soilwork

15. Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock – Spirit on a Mission

I can’t get enough of Schenker’s guitar work. Whenever I walk into a music shop and pick up a guitar, it isn’t Stairway to Heaven or (Don’t Fear) The Reaper I play to put the instrument through its paces: it’s Doctor Doctor (from Metal Mickey’s time in UFO), or Coast to Coast (from his time in The Scorpions), or The Zoo (ditto), or Attack of the Mad Axeman (by The Michael Schenker Group). This MSToR lineup sees Schenker joined by two of his former Scorpions bandmates – Francis Buchholz on bass, and Herman ‘Ze German’ Rarebell on drums. Journeyman vocalist Doogie White (a Scotsman!) handles full-time singing duties for the second time on a Temple of Rock release (the first being Bridge the Gap, although he also co-wrote and sang one song, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, on the first Temple of Rock album, Temple of Rock). I witnessed Doogie out Spinal Tapping Spinal Tap at MSToR’s Edinburgh show in 2015, at which he spoke the immortal words, “This is a song about good times. It’s called Good Times.” I fell apart laughing – out-of-control, thigh-slapping laughter. Thanks, Doog. Spirit on a Mission is exactly what you’d hope for from three Scorpions, a Scottish powerhouse vocalist, and child-musical-prodigy-all-grown-up Wayne Findlay.

Favourite track: Let the Devil Scream.

MSToR

16. Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

The ‘rÿche ranks have been infused with new energy and purpose since Todd La Torre replaced Geoff Tate on vocals. The two singers sound alike, but the infighting that had long dragged the band down and curbed their creativity is now gone. As a result, the band’s two albums with La Torre have seen a return to the urgency and inspired songwriting of ‘rÿche classics Rage for Order and Operation: Mindcrime.

Favourite track: Toxic Remedy.

Queensrÿche - Condition Hüman

17. Lucifer – Lucifer I

I bought this, Lucifer’s debut album, on a whim because it was released on Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label. So I figured it would be dark, doomy, heavy and – like everything Dorrian touches – Sabbathesque. I was right. In every respect except the vocals. Female singer Johanna Sadonis gives the doomy metal a haunting edge. Also, she has the look and gravitas of a siren from a 1970s Hammer horror film – a definite bonus for a woman fronting a doom band. And with ex-members of Cathedral and Angel Witch in the ranks, this is doom metal with a pedigree.

Favourite track: Izrael.

Lucifer

18. Trivium – Silence in the Snow

In April 2016 I witnessed Trivium frontman Matt Heafy letting loose the Spinal Tapworthy line, “It’s great to be here in Kilmarnock, the most metal city in the world!” Unlike Doogie White when he made his top Tap statement a few months earlier in Edinburgh, Heafy seemed to have tongue firmly in cheek. He had a mischievous expression on his face, like he knew Kilmarnock was neither a city nor a hub of heavy-metal debauchery but said the line anyway, because that, when faced with a metal crowd, is always the thing to do. As long as you shout the right location, you can’t really go wrong (unlike David Lee Roth: “It’s so naaaaaaahce to be bayyyyyyyck in…where are we?”) Anyway, back to Trivium. They released their first album when they were in their teens, starting out as wannabe Metallica clones (as musical role models go, there are worse ones to choose), but I’m happy to say they’ve grown up, found their own sound and refined it into something majestic. They still thrash with a vengeance on occasion, but it’s when they slow things down and keep them heavy that their music sounds really impressive (a prime example is the intro to Down from the Sky, from the excellent Shogun album – THAT is a riff). There are several such tunes on Silence in the Snow (the title track itself, as well as Dead and GoneThe Ghost That’s Haunting YouPull Me from the Void, and Beneath the Sun).

Favourite track: The Ghost That’s Haunting You.

Trivium

19. Venom – From the Very Depths

An angry bastard of an album from the inventors of black metal. Every time it seems that Cronos has quit music, he bounces back with another surprise. The tracks on this album lack the frenetic pace of much of Venom’s early material, but they’re better off for it. In fact, some of these songs are tuneful! Who’d have thought it? Venom, tuneful? Yet there you have it. Venom in 2015=tuneful. You heard it here. The standout track – Smoke – should be played to aspiring metal musicians over and over again, so they can mentally file it under How It’s Done.

Favourite track: Smoke – a gargantuan riff, glorious heavy groove and gorgeously guttural vocals. Instant classic.

Venom

20. Hardcore Superstar – HCSS

Hardcore Superstar’s 2009 release Beg for It is one of my all-time favourite albums, so I can’t help comparing the band’s subsequent releases to it. I want everything they record to be that good. They have a gift for crafting catchy hooks and chantalong choruses. Over the last couple of albums, however, the band has moved increasingly back to its sleaze-metal roots: slower tempo, muddier production and altogether looser songs. They are still eminently listenable, but I wish they’d return to the sonics of Beg for It: fast precision metal with massive hooks and soaring vocals. HCSS isn’t a tight album. It doesn’t try to be. Rather, it ambles along with a raw, easy swagger. Still a great band on record. Still one of the greatest live bands on the planet. I just wish they’d ditch the loose sound and get back to writing precision metal that’s tighter than the proverbial nun’s fanny.

Favourite track: Touch the Sky – rocky psychedelia with a vibe reminiscent of fellow Swedes The Electric Boys, coupled with a vocal that sounds like Police-era Sting.

Hardcore Superstar

21. Steve Hackett – Wolflight

I’ve never been a Genesis fan, yet I love much of the music released by ex-members (among my favourite tunes are some by Steve Hackett, others by Peter Gabriel, and a couple by Mike Rutherford with his Mike and the Mechanics project). While Gabriel and Rutherford veered into commercial territory with their post-Genesis projects, Hackett’s solo material remained rooted in rock. His guitar work is consistently sublime and always tasteful. He doesn’t show off by trying to play as many notes as possible per second. His goal is to play exactly the right note in exactly the right tone at exactly the right time. And he’s a master of it. Wolflight sees our Steve exploring a diversity of musical styles, including medieval, rock, eastern, choral, classical and more, all done with a deft touch that at times is staggering. The cover – featuring a dark and moody Steve surrounded by his wolf pack in front of a crumbling castle wall under a Full Moon – is an instant classic. Perhaps the album will come to be regarded as a classic, too. Time will tell.

Favourite track: Corycian Fire.

Steve Hackett

22. Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Polish prog in the vein of Marillion, especially the Rotheryesque guitar refrains, which stir up emotion all the way through this excellent album. Subtle, heart-tugging and deep, the Riverside sound is undeniably proggy, yet it never veers off into self-indulgent musical wankland. How many other prog bands can say that? (It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is none.) Beautiful songs, gorgeous vocals – another impressive album from the Poles.

Favourite track: Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire.

riverside

23. Europe – War of Kings

Every Europe release is steeped in quality. These Swedes are seasoned professionals with a masterful command of melody, hooks, riffs and solos. Also, they have the dubious honour of being the only iconic metal band whose definitive riff was not cranked out on a guitar, but parped out on a keyboard! They’ve come a long way since those days of The Final Countdown. Joey Tempest’s vocals are velvet-smooth as ever, but the band is less ballady these days, having morphed into a heavier monster over the years, particularly in a live setting. Seeing Europe on the Start from the Dark tour a few years ago, I was astonished by the heaviness of their performance. The melody was still present, but the guitar riffage and rhythm-section artillery would have drowned out most so-called extreme metal acts. Even the parptastic The Final Countdown was heavied up and tuned down, and it just about blew the roof off the venue. So to 2015 and War of Kings. It’s quintessential Europe – a perfect blend of heaviness, melody, bluesy Deep Purplesque refrains, effortless soaring vocals, big hooks and anthemic choruses. They never disappoint.

Favourite track: The Second Day.

europe

24. The Darkness – Last of Our Kind

The Darkness started out straddling the line between performance and parody. That garnered them much attention in the beginning but then put them in a strange position. They enjoyed their work and had fun with it, composing some classic tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and infusing promo videos and live gigs with their infectious brand of nonsense. This confused a lot of people. Was this a comedy act like Bad News, or was it the real deal like Thin Lizzy? I was never in any doubt. When I saw them live in Glasgow just after the release of their debut album, it was clear that this was like a British version of early Van Halen – a band with a flair for exhibitionism, humour, fun and fabulousness. Last of Our Kind is a serious album by Darkness standards. The effervescent energy is still present, as is the enthusiasm and the knack for crafting timeless hooks. It’s bouncy, crunchy, punchy and, in parts, perfect. It’s good to have them back.

Favourite track: Last of Our Kind, with its sublime Who/Queen/Ace Frehley vibe.

the-darkness

25. Helloween – My G0d-Given Right

I’ve corrected the shoddy grammar in the album title (God-given is a compound adjective that needs to be hyphenated). English is Helloween’s second language, though, so I’ll let them off. Now, to the music. My favourite incarnation of Helloween was the early one with Michael Kiske on vocals, and the twin-guitar attack of Michael Weikath and Kai Hansen (who went on to form the excellent Gamma Ray): the lineup that recorded Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One – a seminal album that raised the bar for thrash excellence. Despite that lineup splitting decades ago, I’ve kept up with Helloween releases ever since. When vocalist Andi Deris joined Helloween from Pink Cream 69 in the ’90s, the band adapted to suit his sound, abandoning thrashiness in favour of a more mainstream metal sound. They’re consummate musicians, energetic live performers, talented composers, and still flying the flag for Teutonic metal. And they’re as crazy as Basil Brush on magic mushrooms.

Favourite track: Stay Crazy, a metal classic bursting with powerful riffs, excited vocals and lunatic lyrics such as “We wanna stay crazy, as fresh as a daisy.”

helloween

26. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

I never thought I’d see the day when an Iron Maiden album with Bruce Dickinson didn’t make it into my top 3 albums of the year, never mind missing out on the top 25. The Book of Souls is by no means a bad album, but it sounds like Maiden by numbers: it lacks the vital spark of inspiration. I bought the limited Book Edition. The artwork (by longtime Maiden collaborator Derek Riggs) inside and out is spectacular, as usual. The musical execution on the album is beyond criticism, but missing are the iconic riffs, big hooks and passion on which this band built its reputation. The songs are good but there are no classics. With astonishing albums by Moonspell, Wolfheart, Tengger Cavalry, Ghost, Killing Joke, Amorphis, Paradise Lost, Children of Bodom, Finsterforst, Ghost Bath, Jarre and others released in the same year as this merely decent Maiden newie, The Book of Souls received little airplay in Horned Helmet Headquarters.

Favourite track: The Red and the Black.

Iron Maiden

27. Sorcerer – In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross

This sounds like Dio mixed with Black Sabbath circa Headless Cross. There are Tarot similarities at points, too. If that sounds like your cup o’ tea, give it a whirl. Sorcerer’s musical pedigree is audible throughout, but some tracks suffer from the same symptoms as Maiden’s 2015 effort: a theatrical metal-by-numbers sound which gives those songs a generic feel. The more inspired songs, however, are doomy metal worthy of repeated listens.

Favourite track: The Gates of Hell.sorcerer

28. Def Leppard – Def Leppard

Sheffield’s favourite musical sons, having reinvented themselves several times over their mega-platinum career, return to the formula that brought their biggest commercial success: the Hysteria blueprint. (Hysteria has sold over 20 million copies…and counting.) I’m not going to judge them for that, as I love the bouncy energy of Hysteria’s hook-laden tunes – a perfect blend of power ballads, pop-rockers and polished metal anthems. In 1986 Hysteria broke new ground in terms of multi-layered songs and astonishing production (courtesy of Mutt Lange), whereas in 2015 the same techniques sound retro rather than futuristic. Also, the tracks on Def Leppard aren’t as strong as those on Hysteria, but they’re still hugely listenable (the Lepps can’t write anything that isn’t catchy). I’d have preferred them to recycle the heavier Pyromania blueprint (epic metal rather than pop-rock-metal-lite)  but I’m not complaining, as a new album from the Def ones is always welcome.

Favourite track: Let’s Go – a quintessential Leppard track that shamelessly recycles the Pour Some Sugar on Me riff. (If you had come up with a riff that iconic, wouldn’t you want to experiment with variations of it? Some other bands – I’m not naming names – make careers out of recycling the same few chords over and over. At least the Lepps use the full sonic spectrum.)def-leppard

29. UFO – A Conspiracy of Stars

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen UFO live. Money well spent, every penny. Throughout five decades and many lineup changes, they’ve remained one of Britain’s most influential rock bands. Although Glenn Hughes refers to himself as the voice of rock, I’d argue that UFO’s Phil Mogg has a stronger claim to that title. (No disrespect to Glenn Hughes – he’s a legend.) A wealth of guitar talent has passed through UFO, my favourite of whom is Michael Schenker. During the first Schenker era, UFO created many timeless classics that still sound fresh and totally original. Metal Mickey returned to the UFO fold two decades later, but that went tits up when he collapsed drunk onstage during the Walk on Water tour and was kicked out of the band as a result – luckily, I’d seen them perform a stellar show at Glasgow Barrowlands a few days earlier, with Schenker on fine form. So what about the band’s current incarnation and its 2015 album? With a different vocalist this collection of tunes might sound average, but Moggy makes them better than that. My main criticism of A Conspiracy of Stars is that UFO has a real guitar wizard in Vinnie Moore, but on this album he’s plodding along in second gear most of the time, rarely allowed to flourish. The guy is capable of remarkable fretboard acrobatics and awe-inspiring solos. If he were in my band I’d use those abilities to the full. To fail to do so makes no sense. I’m not suggesting that UFO should go all Yngwie Malmsteen and rattle out widdly-diddly histrionic albums with ten million notes squeezed into each song. That would be preposterous. Vinnie would never do that anyway, as he’s a tasteful player as well as being technically exceptional. He knows what works and what sounds like pointless showing off. But he could have been allowed to shine much brighter on A Conspiracy of Stars. It’s an enjoyable album nevertheless – easy to listen to (as is anything with Moggy’s voice on it), but not quintessential UFO.

Favourite track: Sugar Cane – a beautiful Paul Raymond keyboard intro leads into some bluestastic riffs from the Moore man (and easily his best solo on the album), while Moggy’s unmistakable voice puts the UFO stamp on the whole thing.

Hong Kong

30. Scorpions – Return to Forever

Another solid album from one of metal’s longest-running (51 years!) bands. Scorpions can always be relied upon to produce quality music. They can also be relied on to fling a great big poofy ballad or three onto every album (not, once again, that there’s anything wrong with that). In terms of influence, Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine are to German metal what Mick and Keith are to British rock ‘n’ roll. For good reason.

Favourite track: Rock ‘n’ Roll Band (even though it steals its main riff from Deep Purple’s Burn).

Scorpions

That concludes my roundup of 2015’s finest albums. 2016 has been less prolific in terms of music, but some scorching new albums have emerged, among them recordings from Anthrax, Omnium Gatherum, Rotting Christ, The Cult, Witchcraft, and Spiritual Beggars. In parallel to metal music, my writing has also been less prolific than in previous years, but the Metallic Dreams sequel continues to grow into something special. Also, a collection of my short works (entitled Heathen Howff) was released. With zero promotion, it reached #4 on Amazon’s world literature sales rankings within 48 hours of release, then plummeted thousands of places over the following week. The Icarus of unpromoted literature! (The zero-promotion idea was an experiment to see if/in what quantities/for what duration HH would sell without any advertising whatsoever.) In the few months since the book’s release, the sum total of my promotional activity has been one tweet. So now, even though promoting feels unnatural to me, it’s time to plug the book. If you enjoyed Metallic Dreams, there’s a fair chance Heathen Howff will be just your cup o’ tea. It’s the literary equivalent of a concept album. The premise: a grown-up Scottish answer to Aesop’s Fables (which I loved as a child and still love just as much) containing non-fiction, fiction, poetry and philosophy, all held together by one common factor – each piece has a moral. It’s up to the reader to figure out what those morals are. Heathen Howff can be bought for Kindle here or in paperback here.

front-cover

Until next time, keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.

Slàinte mhath,

Mark

Man, Mountain

Mountains clear my mind. They provide solace and solitude, asking nothing in return. I give them offerings, though: blood and sweat. My respect for wilderness is infinite, as is my love for the beasts who inhabit it.

Big Tony and I have scaled Scotland’s highest peaks together. His son Cal first accompanied us on a climb when he was eight. Cal summited two snow-topped Munros that day, in sub-zero conditions, without a single complaint. The wind was relentless but so was Cal’s resolve. On a knife-edge ridge between two peaks he learned something important about himself: rather than feeling afraid of the exposure or the height, he felt purified by them. They brought him to a state of clarity. He found Home in high places. In the twelve years since then, mountains have played their part in transforming Cal from eager boychild into a man of Zen nature. A mountain man. Like me. Like his father.

Coffee Break on the Loch

Tony missed our first climb of 2015. Cal and I set off early to beat the traffic. We stopped beside Loch Lomond for coffee, as has become tradition on our trips north. As we sat in silence watching puffs of cloud blow across the cobalt sky, a heavily muscled dog with orange and black tiger stripes padded across to us. I offered him my hand. He sniffed it and showed his approval with a lick. I scratched his head. He rolled onto his back. I rubbed his belly. Back legs twitched as he let out grunts of enjoyment. Cal took over the dog-pampering while I spoke to the dog’s keeper – an Essex man called Rob – about the creature’s unusual markings. He explained that a mixture of Bullmastiff and Staffordshire bull terrier were responsible for the muscular physique. The markings and colouring were an enigma. When Rob strolled back to his Winnebago motorhome, the dog made no attempt to follow. Happy with his two new pals, he had decided to stay put. Rob shouted on the dog, who steadfastly ignored him. Irritated, the Essex man walked over to our table, grabbed the animal by his collar, and pulled him back to the Winnebago. The dog growled all the way there. Cal and I were sad to see the tigerdog go. He was a magnificent beast and our time together had been too short.

We continued north on the A82, skirting Loch Lomond’s shoreline as familiar mountains came into view, their contours as familiar to us as those of our own faces. It was a quintessential Scottish spring morning – endless blue sky and blazing sunshine: the sort of day that looks warm in pictures but in reality chills the flesh. I find those days invigorating. Many Scots don’t agree. They’re highly suspicious that the yellow sphere in the sky is taunting them, like a celestial exhibitionist saying, “Behold my naked splendour. Every day I will reveal myself to you, making you long to feel the warmth of my touch. But I will leave you waiting in frozen yearning until summer. Then, when at last my rays warm your skin, they will feel like long-lost friends.”

Cal and I stopped in Crianlarich for the customary cup of tea that should always precede a climb. The locals were dressed for the weather, with thermal layers covering all but their faces. I was in shorts, T-shirt, hiking socks and climbing boots. A long day of exertion lay ahead, so I had dressed for ease of movement and maximum cooling. As I walked into a shop, the woman behind the counter looked me up and down, then up and down again – more slowly – as if sure her eyes had deceived her the first time. Pointing at my bare arms, she said, “Is someone feelin’ the cold?” Her sarcasm stirred up the appropriate response from me. (“Shut it. Is someone makin’ me a cup o’ tea?”) Giggling, she led me to the back of the shop, where she invited me to make my own tea while she located a waterproof climber’s map of the area. As I prepared tea, the woman said, “OS maps don’t have enough detail for these mountains. And they fall apart in the rain. My waterproof climbin’ maps have much more detail and they’ll stand up to the wildest storm. Come back here after your climb. Maybe I’ll make you a cup o’ tea then.”

Cal and I drank our tea outside. The sky was a deep unbroken blue. A good sign. With any luck we would scale Cruach Ardrain – our chosen mountain for the day – then descend in clear weather conditions. The forecast was good on all climbing websites and the sky seemed to be in agreement.

On the edge of a forest near Crianlarich, we pulled on rucksacks loaded with maps, compasses, camera equipment, water, fruit juice, coffee and nuts. No sooner had we embarked than a grisly sight met us: a mountain sheep had been ripped apart by some predator. Her picked-clean bones were scattered like jigsaw pieces that would never fit together again.

Bones

A cold sensation shot through me. I said to Cal, “Ah hope this isnae an omen for the day.” He nodded. Shaking off the jitters, I said, “Superstition’s for the weak. We make oor own luck. Let’s climb.” Again, Cal nodded.

The walk-in to the base of Cruach Ardrain was long and muddy. We kept to stony ground, as that allowed quicker progress than wading through marsh. The stream to our right was a mass of frogspawn, which spilled over onto the banks. We stopped upstream for a spell, to watch frogs swim in a crystal-clear pool. An hour later, as we neared the base of Cruach Ardrain, a sky-spanning stormcloud blew in and engulfed the mountaintop. It settled there as if held by magnetic attraction. Looking up into the storm, I willed it to blow over. The stubborn bastard stayed put.

Cal crossed the River Falloch by leaping onto stones that jutted above the water’s surface. We began parallel climbs, one on each side of the river. My ascent brought me to a young ewe who had fallen down the mountain and bashed her head on a rock. She was dead, freshly so. Bloodtrails from her mouth and eyes hadn’t yet congealed. Cal looked on helplessly from the far side of the water while I stood equally helpless next to the beautiful animal. Her fleece was thick and brilliant white, her face black with delicate features: one of the Scottish Blackface breed, also known as the Mountain Sheep. These surefooted beasts are excellent climbers, yet one lay dead at my feet – a reminder that in the high places one wrong step can have severe consequences. With an aching heart I spoke to the ewe. “Sorry Ah wasnae here tae catch you when you fell, little one.” Tears pricked my eyes. The bad-omen jitters returned. I pushed onwards.

As Cal and I continued our parallel ascent, we saw a mountain sheep in the river. Drowned. Powerful currents had swept her downstream, bouncing her off rocks until she became trapped between two stones. Fast-flowing water surged over the ewe, causing her head to bob as if nodding in time to nature’s symphony. But there was no life left in her. Body broken, head caved in, she gazed unseeingly through dead eyes. Three dead mountain sheep in as many hours. In hundreds of climbs, I had never experienced that. It felt wrong. With each dead animal I encountered, my unease grew. I carried on, though.

An hour later both Cal and I were on the right of the river. The temperature dropped, so we covered our top halves with additional layers. Just beneath the storm shelf that concealed Cruach Ardrain’s summit, we spotted another ewe in the river. This one was alive. Exhausted, terrified, in shock, and up to her neck in numbingly cold water, but alive. Cal reckoned she’d injured her front legs, which repeatedly buckled under her as she struggled to stand upright. She was near the opposite bank, with a steep slope to her left and thundering waters to her right. Too exhausted or injured to scramble back onto dry land, and aware of the danger just a few inches away, she was in a state of panic. She’d had a lucky landing in a sheep-sized pool of relatively still water. Had she fallen higher or lower, she’d have been dashed on rocks. If the fall had taken her farther horizontally, she’d have been swept away by fast-moving torrents. The coming of spring, longer days and increasing temperatures had resulted in vast snowmelt on Cruach Ardrain’s higher slopes, turning the river into a falling flood of ice-cold water. The ewe could have been in the water for hours already – scared, freezing, circulation dwindling, shock setting in, exhaustion taking over, muscles failing. I’d encountered three dead ewes that day and had felt the bite of helplessness each time. I was too late to save those fallen animals but I’d arrived in time to help this one. And nothing in this Universe could have stopped me from doing exactly that.

Cal and I exchanged looks that conveyed the urgency of the situation. We spoke the same words at the same moment: “We cannae leave her.” (Like me, Cal is an animal lover whom wild things instinctively trust. During our last climb of 2014, we crested a lowland mountain peak and found ourselves face to face with feral mountain goats. These solitary beasts usually keep their distance from humans, and wisely so, but they were different with us. When we saw the goats, Cal and I stood completely still, barely even breathing, our body language a silent acknowledgement that this was their domain. The goats dipped their heads, long horns pointed skywards, and spent a minute gazing at us: getting the measure of us. Then, satisfied with what they had perceived, they went back to their grazing. Cal and I walked among those amazing beasts, our horned kindred spirits, and they didn’t flinch. They’d seen into our souls and were happy with what they’d found there. This is the way of it with wild things. They know only truth.)

We needed to help the ewe immediately. This presented a quandary. By drawing closer we might startle her, causing her to move into the torrent and be swept downriver, but if we didn’t act quickly she would die from exhaustion, shock, hypothermia or drowning – a situation that was becoming more likely with each subsequent collapse of her legs. My brain went into emergency mode. In my mind’s eye I saw the only way of making a sure save. There was no room for error. I would go into the river below the ewe. That way I could catch her if the torrent took her. Cal would go up the right bank then close in from above, staying on dry land, while I approached from the water below. If I didn’t counterbalance the river’s movement I’d be swept away. An image flashed into my mind: rushing waters toppling the sheep, me catching her and the momentum bowling me over, sending both of us hurtling downriver, pinballing off rocks until the waters ran red. I let go of that image, refusing to accept it as a possibility. No harm could come to this ewe. I wouldn’t let it. Couldn’t let it.

On entering the water I barely noticed its chill, thanks to the adrenaline that my body was pumping out. I achieved a state of equilibrium by leaning against the river’s flow. Equilibrium was a start, but to reach the ewe I’d have to move upriver, pushing against the water’s elemental force then finding a new state of balance after every step. Each upwards step was accomplished through brute force and will. As soon as I was within reach of the ewe, I grabbed her horns and did a handstand of sorts, flinging my feet out of the river and landing upside down with toes dug into the mountainside as anchors. Cal sprinted towards the river’s right bank and launched himself into the air. He landed with immaculate balance on a rock behind the sheep. An exquisite jump. A perfect landing. As I lifted the ewe by her horns, Cal pushed her hindquarters. An instant later she was on dry land beside me. I lay there, heart pounding, relief infinite, maintaining eye contact with the sheep as I stroked her fleece and spoke words of comfort to her. The way she looked at me is something words can’t adequately describe. Her gaze transmitted waves of trust, gratitude, friendship, love and more. It transcended words. Cal climbed up to join us. He spoke his own words of comfort to the sheep. He, too, received that look.

I checked the ewe’s legs and determined that she had no injuries. The unsteadiness we’d witnessed must have been caused by exhaustion and numbness from the icy water. We couldn’t leave her on that river bank. The gradient was dangerously steep and she had already fallen once. Cal asked what I was going to do. I told him there was only one thing to do. Eyes wide, he said, “You cannae carry her up the slope!”

“Ah have tae. It’s too dangerous for her here.” Wrapping my arms around the ewe’s body, I picked her up and ascended the mountainside. (Sheep are heavier than they look, especially when they have a full fleece which has just been submerged in a river. Waterlogged climbing boots and sodden clothes didn’t make my load any lighter.) I lost my footing a few times but made sure my knees – not the sheep in my arms – took each impact against the mountain. Upon reaching a flattish clearing of bracken, I laid the ewe down and collapsed beside her. Cal sat on her other side. As he stroked her head and spoke more words of comfort into her ear, I dried her fleece. Her pulse was weak and her temperature worryingly low, so I used a technique I’d learned from a Reiki master to channel energy through my palms and into the ewe. I kept this up until her pulse was booming and her body temperature toasty.

Transferring Energy

Cal and I rose to head up the mountain. Panicking, the ewe scrambled to her feet and tried to follow us. “We cannae go yet,” I said. “She isnae ready.”

Cal looked up at the dark stormcloud. A frown appeared on his brow. “If we don’t go noo we might no’ make the summit and back before dark.”

“The mountain isnae goin’ anywhere, Cal. It’ll be here another day. This gorgeous creature might not be if we leave too early. We have tae stay wi’ her.”

Cal looked at the ewe. She gazed back at him. “Aye,” he said. “We stay wi’ her until she lets us go. When she’s ready.”

Happy Mountain Beasts

And so it was that in the first days of April 2015, on the icy slopes of Cruach Ardrain, two climbers flanked a mountain sheep who had melted their hearts. The ewe gazed at her new friends with such pure affection – such love – that they felt no desire to ever leave that place. They gazed back with admiration for her hardiness, and also, yes, with love.

Cal and I did leave that place. Eventually. But only when the ewe let us go.

Storm over Cruach Ardrain

Under the Stormcloud

Above us the storm shelf loomed, turning the ground below into a land of shadow. We ascended into the storm. From that moment on, our climb became a semi-blind journey through a realm of ice, snow and biting wind. On reaching the upper peaks, we didn’t hang about as we usually do at summits. No drinking coffee from flasks or munching high-calorie snacks to replace spent energy. No sitting at the cairn to enjoy the view. There was no view – just a whiteout. Wind chill dragged the temperature far below zero. Soaked from the river, my clothes began to freeze. Boots became blocks of ice. My beard froze solid, bringing on a bastard of a headache. Extremities turned numb. Due to lack of visibility, our usual rapid descent wasn’t possible. We knew what could happen if a foot is put wrong in the mountains. We’d seen brutal reminders of it just hours earlier. So our movements remained measured and meticulous.

Despite unbroken focus, we found out first hand how easy it is to fall when conditions take a turn for the worse. Traversing a vertical snowbank, Cal lost his grip and dropped like a stone. Heart in mouth, I watched as he vanished into the mist. He could have been shattered on rock, but he landed on a bed of bouncy heather. Lucky.

My ice-encased feet became numb. When they could no longer feel the ground beneath them, I plummeted off a ledge and fell head first through cloud. A rock column shot up towards me. I reached out to break my fall. My left palm took most of the impact, splitting open and spraying nearby snow crimson. The palm had what looked like a flesh catflap on it. Pulling open the skin, I plunged my hands into snow to clean the wound and stem the bleeding. My hands-first landing could have been a head-on collision. Lucky.

When Cal and I emerged from the base of the storm, a welcome vista opened up. On the horizon sunbeams streamed through a hole in the clouds and flickered over the countryside below like celestial fingers massaging the land. Keeping our eyes fixed on the jostling columns of light, we breezed down the mountain.

The Way Back

Soon we were back on the lower slopes where thousands of frogs were fornicating, frolicking, jumping, swimming and croaking with the pure joy of being alive. We knew how they felt.

The day’s last shafts of sunlight danced over lush green land. With those golden beacons lighting our way, Cal and I lit cigars for the walk-out. Relaxing more with every step, we agreed that our experiences in the storm had been some of the least enjoyable ever. We also agreed that the real reason we were there – unknown at the outset but obvious with hindsight – was to save one spectacular sheep. That lucky ewe had passed on some of her luck to us. Luck be a lady, some say. I disagree. Luck is a brave mountain ewe who inhabits the wild landscape of Cruach Ardrain. I love her.

My Albums of 2014

It was a year of extremes.  I experienced pure bliss as well as soul-shattering loss.  So I spent the end of 2014 and the first chunk of 2015 on my ancestral isles, mourning, feeling, being, surrounded by beauty and purity, far from the wickedness in the world.  There, strange forces held me together when my whole being was falling apart.  Perhaps it was the Fae magick of my clan.  Maybe it was my own inner strength, heightened by connection to Viking roots.  It might have been a combination of both.  I know better than to question those things.  I accept them with gratitude.

To borrow a phrase from Judas Priest (more about them later), 2014 delivered the goods, musically speaking.  At the start of 2014 I predicted the year’s top four albums (although I didn’t attempt to forecast my order of preference).  I predicted correctly.  The great Hillhouse Seer Tam the Bammus would be impressed (if that reference went over your head, read my short(ish) story Revelation Was Wrong and you’ll be illuminated). For the first time, there’s a tie for my album of the year.  In each previous year one release stood head and shoulders above the others.  This year there were two.

1= Nimbatus – Realm of Darkness Nimbatus instrumentals transcend metal’s usual formulaic blueprint.  These compositions are more than mere tracks: they’re vast swathes of sound – crunching heavy riffs juxtaposed with sublime lead-guitar refrains, sweeping keyboard melodies and laser-precise drum beats.  Flourishes of strings and piano add poignance to melodies that are already loaded with emotion.  Unlike most metal instrumentalists, Nimbatus never veers into musical widdling/wanking/noodling territory.  Nothing is superfluous.  Each note carries emotion.  Not a moment is wasted.  Every detail of Realm of Darkness – composition, musical execution, guitar tones, track titles, production quality – is flawless.  Nimbatus’s mission statement is to create instrumental songs that translate darkness and sadness into music.  Job done.  And the results sound beautiful. Don’t go looking for Nimbatus music on Amazon or at your local high-street record shop.  You won’t find it there.  Go to bandcamp or reverbnation websites and you’ll find all the Nimbatus releases.  And do yourself a favour – download the tunes in FLAC format for listening to in the house, either streamed or burned onto disc.  That way you’ll hear the music in all its brilliance.  Mp3 files are handy for listening to on the move, but they’re low quality and a third of the overall sound is missing.  This music deserves to be heard properly.  Play loud.

Favourite track: it’s almost impossible to pick one, as they’re all ridiculously good.  At a push, I choose Nocturnal Ride.  Like my favourite Nimbatus track of all (Tales of the Ageless, from debut album Cyclus One), Nocturnal Ride delivers what I’ve come to know as the Nimbatus surprise: just when it seems that the track is about to finish, a new melody soars from out of nowhere, taking the tune to heights so awe-inspiring that my body hair stands up in salute.

Nimbatus

1= Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun

For most of 2014 this was my album of the year.  (Insomnium released Shadows of the Dying Sun when the year had just begun, while Nimbatus sneaked out Realm of Darkness as 2014 drew to a close.)  Insomnium albums have twice before topped my annual chart (Above the Weeping World in 2006 and One for Sorrow in 2011), so I had high hopes for Shadows of the Dying Sun.  It didn’t disappoint.  Building on the Finnish melodic-death-metal sound that Insomnium created and honed, the album explores new territory.  Ville Friman makes more use of clean vocals than on previous albums, and to great effect (the clean vocals are often sung simultaneously with Niilo Sevänen’s trademark growled words – an effect that adds a new dimension to Insomnium’s sound).  Some tracks remind the listener that Insomnium can still be – when they choose – the heaviest band on the planet (check out The Gale – intro to the Above the Weeping World album – for historical evidence of this…and turn it up loud).  As on other Insomnium recordings, the band never sacrifices melody for bluster.  Even when Markus Hirvonen’s blast-beat drumming borders on inhuman, Niilo’s bass rumbles like the bowels of Satan after a dodgy curry, and the twin guitars of Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala rip holes in the egos of many other axemen, the overall sound is always richly melodic.  Delicacy is as prevalent as crushing heaviness.  This is the soundtrack to ice, cold, solitude, fortitude and inner strength: breathtaking compositions by innovators who have forged a sound truly their own.

Favourite track: opener The Primeval Dark, both an intro and a song in its own right, delivers a slow-building melody – eerie and ominous – that builds into a wave of astonishingly resonant riffage.  Huge.

Insomnium

3. Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere

One of the most underrated acts around, Agalloch is also one of the few non-Scandinavian bands to dabble in black metal without being discounted by their European counterparts, who invented and pioneered the genre.  Agalloch doesn’t restrict its music to any one style, though.  Nowhere (with the exception of 2008’s The White EP, inspired by classic 1973 Scottish horror film The Wicker Man, and incorporating much piano, acoustic guitar and movie snippets) is this more evident than on The Serpent and the Sphere.  I love the multi-layered depth of this album.  It’s the evolution that was hinted at on all the band’s previous full-length recordings.  John Haughm and his cohorts have matured into a musical force to be reckoned with.

Favourite track: Dark Matter Gods.

Agalloch

4. Anathema – Distant Satellites I’ve loved Anathema’s music since their first EP, back when the band was a doom-metal outfit.  Most bands find a style that works for them, then stick with it.  Not so Anathema.  More than any other band that started as an extreme-metal outfit, they have matured.  As testament to this, their last three albums have more in common musically with Pink Floyd than with their doom-metal roots.  Most bands would be afraid to change so radically, for fear of losing fans as a result.  Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh write from the heart, though, not for sales figures.  They express their vision so effectively – through music from the heart and lyrics deep in meaning – that its honesty resonates as much as its musical beauty.  The Cavanagh brothers have grown as human beings.  This is reflected in their music.  Distant Satellites is my second-favourite Anathema album (after 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here – my top album of that year).  The lyrical themes are profound (awakening, recognition, love, separation, loss), the music rich in heartfelt melody.

Favourite track: Ariel – one of the most beautiful compositions ever recorded.

Anathema

5. Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Forget the pish written about this album by broadsheet journalists who don’t know their arses from their elbows when it comes to music.  Most of them jumped straight onto the ‘this is a bunch of outtakes rather than a proper album’ bandwagon.  I wish so-called writers would listen to music with open ears and minds, ignoring the opinions of others, in order to form their own unbiased opinions.  That’s how folk with integrity operate.  So here’s my opinion as a longtime Floyd aficionado with integrity and an open mind.  I don’t care if the recordings on The Endless River weren’t originally intended to be put together onto one release.  Most albums – with the exception of concept albums – are a jumbled assortment of tracks that don’t have any relevance to each other but often work well as a collection of individual pieces.  The Endless River works well as such a collection, yet it has been arranged to flow together beautifully.  The album is a tribute to Floyd’s fallen band member Richard Wright, whose keyboards are high in the mix throughout.  This is fitting.  It reminds the listener that while Wright may not be walking the world anymore, his sounds are left behind, eternally resonating.  It’s difficult to listen to The Endless River without becoming acutely aware of this.  The songs are subtle, thematic, richly layered and gorgeously melodic, close to The Division Bell’s compositions in terms of structure.  Seasoned Floyd listeners will recognise tips o’ the hat to several older PF songs.  The album is a wall (pun intended) of ambient melodies and perfectly executed instrumentation.

Favourite track: Louder Than Words: the only track to feature a David Gilmour vocal.  Lyrics explore the much-publicised animosity within the group, concluding that the end result of their arguments – the music they create – is worth suffering for.  “We bitch and we fight, diss each other on sight, but this thing we do…These times together, rain or shine or stormy weather, this thing we do…it’s louder than words, this thing that we do, louder than words, the way it unfurls.  It’s louder than words, the sum of our parts.  The beat of our hearts is louder than words.”  Truth.  From somewhere, Richard Wright is looking down and smiling.  Thank you for the music, sir.  I miss you.

Pink Floyd

6. Within Temptation – Hydra

I’ve recognised Within Temptation’s talent since their earliest incarnation but until Hydra their albums were patchy affairs that contained moments of brilliance alongside uninspired music-by-numbers compositions.  There was never a problem with the band’s musical or vocal ability.  They are all accomplished musicians and Sharon den Adel’s voice has always been phenomenal.  She even achieved what I’d thought impossible (covering a Kate Bush song and improving it).  Hydra is the first Within Temptation album to live up to the band’s immense potential.  About time.  It was worth the wait.  A masterpiece.

Favourite track: Let Us Burn – symphonic metal at its most anthemic.

Within Temptation

7. Arch Enemy – War Eternal

Michael Amott rarely makes mistakes in music.  A consummate musician with immaculate taste, his various bands ooze quality and originality.  I worried when Angela Gossow left Arch Enemy, as her growled vocals – which put most male death-metal vocalists to shame – were an integral part of the band’s sound.  Amott followed Nightwish’s example (when operatically trained vocalist Tarja Turunen left Nightwish, they replaced her with a female whose vocal style was considerably different, surprising those who expected the band to employ another opera diva as a Turunen clone).  In the case of Arch Enemy, the new female vocalist was Alissa White-Gluz, formerly of The Agonist.  She has neon-blue hair.  That’s a good start.  What about her vocals, though?  Alissa’s voice is less demonic than that of predecessor Angela Gossow, but her rasp gels perfectly with Arch Enemy’s music.  Alissa is more girly than Angela (although in the arena of melodic death metal, girliness is a subjective term).  Angela Gossow looks like she’d ride you all night long, tearing your flesh open with her nails before throwing your bleeding body out the window in the morning.  Alissa White-Gluz looks like she’d beg you to ride her all night long, then she’d make you toast and a cup o’ tea in the morning.  Different styles, both good.  Anyway, back to the music.  War Eternal is a heck of an album.  Amott’s compositions are, as usual, inspired.  At several points Amott’s more sedate playing is reminiscent of The Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker.  Instrumental Not Long for This World is even crafted around the tune of Scorps ballad Still Loving You.  Amott’s speedier shredding could be mistaken for Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho.  This is very much a guitar-driven album, but the other musicians leave their mark on these tunes too.  Like Nightwish, Arch Enemy lost an iconic figurehead and replaced her with someone stylistically different.  Also like Nightwish, Arch Enemy has evolved into a new – yet equally impressive – animal.

Favourite track: War Eternal – a perfect mix of tasteful riffage and fierce vocals.

Arch Enemy

8. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata Tom G. Warrior’s influence in metal is enormous.  The seminal Hellhammer was – along with England’s Venom and Sweden’s Bathory – responsible for spawning black metal and later ushering in the Second Wave of Black Metal in Norway.  Second wave bands’ extracurricular activities – violence, murder and church-burning – brought black metal to the attention of the world’s media, but while Warrior may have inadvertently co-created a genre, his violence was limited to lyrics: he was all about the music.  Warrior’s next band, Celtic Frost, influenced the thrash movement in immeasurable ways.  The early Celtic Frost albums (along with those of Germany’s Kreator) are the most original recordings of that ilk.  Triptykon is the logical progression of Celtic Frost, containing some of the same members.  Their second album, Melana Chasmata, eschews the restraints of genre in favour of communicating Warrior’s musical vision in the purest way possible.  It’s a dark album which, like Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, balances brutally heavy passages with ambient sections that feature ethereal female vocals.  Cover art is the 1975 piece Mordor VII by H.R. Giger (the third time Giger has collaborated with Warrior: he provided cover art for Triptykon’s debut album Eparistera Daimones and Celtic Frost’s classic To Mega Therion).

Favourite track: Boleskine House.  (Situated on the shores of Loch Ness, Boleskine House was home to Aleister Crowley, ‘the wickedest man in the world’, who carried out countless esoteric magickal rituals there.  Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, lured in by the house’s dark past, bought it after Crowley’s death.)

Triptykon

9. In Flames – Siren Charms

In Flames pioneered the much-copied ‘Gothenburg sound’.  On Siren Charms the Swedes stay true to the musical blueprint they created – immense energy levels, eviscerating riffs, wall-crumbling bass, precision drumming, and Anders Fridén’s superb vocals, which alternate between low growls and soaring clean tones.  Siren Charms blends heaviness and melody, delicacy and blunt-force attack.

Favourite track: Rusted Nail.

In Flames

10. Accept – Blind Rage

Many longtime metal fans have written off Accept time after time, first when Udo Dirkschneider left the band, then when he returned, then when he left again, and so on.  I’ve never done so.  I always recognised the musical excellence of the others in the band, particularly Wolf Hoffman, whose ability to compose metal anthems is rivalled by his talent for dishing them out on guitar.  Having delivered one of metal’s greatest comeback albums in 2010 (Blood of the Nations, the first Accept recording to feature vocalist Mark Tornillo) and another barnstorming release in 2012 (Stalingrad), Accept continued their upsurge with Blind Rage in 2014.  Classic metal from start to finish – anthemic, catchy and loaded with hooks.

Favourite track: From the Ashes We Rise – quintessential Accept.

Accept

11. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls Judas Priest is one of the bands that delivered the metal goods to me back when I was barely out of nappies.  They changed my life for the better.  To many, Judas Priest is the definitive metal band.  Certainly, and inarguably, they are responsible for the studs-and-leather image that came to be metal’s hallmark.  (Little do most folk know that this came about because JP’s vocalist, Rob Halford, bought clothes and accoutrements from gay boutiques…but that’s another story.)  Redeemer of Souls had the same impact on me as its two immediate predecessors, Angel of Retribution and Nostradamus: some tracks came across as timeless and inspired, while others sounded (and I hate to use this term to describe anything by a band as special as JP, but it’s my honest opinion) a bit generic.  Because JP recorded iconic albums such as Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith and British Steel, which are perfect from start to finish, I expect a lot of this band.  I expect perfection.  I know they’re capable of it.  I’ve been hearing them deliver musical perfection (and watching them do so live) since I was a wayward child.  So while Redeemer of Souls is an excellent album, it’s not a classic Priest album.  This band has a monumental legacy to live up to with any new recording.  The album’s high points, and there are several, make it an essential possession for any JP fan.  Halford’s voice is astonishing, as always.  Not for nothing is he known as The Metal God.  Richie Faulkner took on the enormous task of filling KK Downing’s shoes as Glen Tipton’s fellow Priest axeman.  He has done so with confidence and excellence, both on this recording and in the live arena.

Favourite track: Cold Blooded.

Judas Priest

Life Imitating Art

Life and art borrow from each other. I’ve written some characters whose personalities and idiosyncrasies were based on real people. Art often imitates life but recently I experienced the converse in a way that was nothing short of spooky.

While working on a story that revolves around witchcraft in Scotland and the horrific fates once dealt to alleged witches here, I created a character in the image of one of my primary-school teachers. I’ll abbreviate his name to Mr C. He was an excellent educator: a perfect combination of wisdom, savvy, knowledge, compassion and inspiration, all rounded off by a temper that could, when necessary, explode with enough ferocity to bring transgressions under control. Also, he had a ridiculous amount of coolness for a teacher. Aged ten, when I became immersed in rock and metal music, I scrawled intricate band logos on the covers of my school jotters. Rather than making a fuss about this, Mr C gave me leads to follow, such as, “I see you have an ELP logo on there. If you don’t have their Tarkus album, save up your pocket money and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.” My respect for Mr C grew as he nodded his approval of my rock artwork and I gave him my feedback on the music he had recommended. The only time he ever seemed worried by my direction was when, for one art project, I created a bust of Motörhead’s Lemmy with cigarette hanging from his mouth and Ace-of-Spades-shaped badge (featuring the words With Dope You Hope, With Booze You Lose) on his jacket. Mr C took me aside and said, “You haven’t started smoking dope, have you?” I explained that I’d seen the slogan graffitied on a wall and thought it possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, adding that I’d never dabbled in dope. Happy with my explanation, Mr C nodded.

A few years later Mr C left his job without warning, apparently under a cloud. He left town and wasn’t heard from again. There were rumours, but I never paid attention to the Chinese-whispered gossip. I looked for definitive evidence of his whereabouts. Nothing. Not so much as a whiff. Like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, Mr C seemed to have disappeared into thin air. With the advent of the Internet, I looked for details of the disappearing man. Nada. Not a phone-book entry, employment history or link of any kind.

The mystery of Mr C had long troubled me, which explains how his alter ego found his way into my fiction. I created that character to highlight the fragility of the human psyche. In the story a teacher is fired from his job. Devastated by the loss of the career he found so rewarding, the man shuts himself off from the outside world and drinks himself into oblivion, pissing away self-worth and lifeforce. In real life Mr C had enjoyed a drink but hadn’t been an alcoholic (unless he was a functional alky whose daytime activities didn’t suffer as a result). In my story of Scottish witchcraft, his character’s self-destructive arc was something I felt. So I wrote it. This proved to be a double-edged sword: my intuition had sensed the answer to a nagging question, but this made me all the more determined to find out what had really happened to Mr C. He was impulsive and had been known to wade into dangerous situations with questionable people, but he was also streetwise enough to have extricated himself from those scenarios before things went south. Although the mystery remained officially unsolved, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had tapped into some universal consciousness and that Mr C was, somewhere, drinking himself senseless.

Then, after an archery session in 2012, I went to a pub called The Crooked Lum with my coach and a fellow archer. As I stepped into the interior’s warmth I saw him. Mr C. He was seated alone, back to the wall, eyes glazed, staring over his pint of Guinness. If this had been a cartoon I’d have balled my fists and rubbed my eyes in astonishment, sure they were deceiving me. I stood rooted to the spot. My coach said, “What’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

Unable to tear my gaze away from Mr C, I replied, “Ah did. Ah still am. You two go and get your drinks. There’s somethin’ Ah have tae do.”

I approached Mr C’s table. He appeared not to have aged. Pickled, perhaps. Preserved by alcohol? His chestnut hair was brushed in the same wavy side shed I remembered from childhood. The granite jaw looked as resolute as ever, his expression drunken but determined. He looked up at me through dark eyes which – despite being coated with the glassy sheen of inebriation – sparkled with intelligence. My presence seemed to make him uneasy. I addressed him by his full name. That put him even more on edge. I didn’t understand why. Then I realised that I’d changed substantially since the last time he’d seen me: bigger, hairier, some would say scarier. He asked, “Who are you?” His body language told that he was ready to dash for the door.

When I replied, “Mark Rice,” the tension left Mr C’s body. Eyes like polished onyx gazed at me, seeing beyond my unshaven face and unkempt hair. I saw recognition in those eyes as they identified the boy within the man.

What Mr C said next was light years away from what I’d have predicted. “Mark Rice – you used to live on beans.” It seemed as though I’d wandered into a Douglas Adams novel, such was the preposterous nature of the proclamation. Then memories came flooding back. My father used to buy certain foods in bulk. Baked beans were one such commodity. I had developed a bean fetish (not a sexual one, I should stress), devouring them tirelessly, sometimes even running home to make beans on toast straight after eating lunch in school. Mr C had once paired off the children in his class and set us the task of making clay sculptures. I convinced my art partner Iain that we should create a sculpture of beans on toast. We threw ourselves into the task. Sculpting toast out of clay was easy but rolling individual beans was a fiddly job. Nevertheless, we hurtled onwards with our intricate project as if possessed, pouring thick orange paint over the finished article. It was a masterpiece. We thought so. Mr C thought so. The headmaster thought so too, so much so that he put our sculpture in a glass cabinet just inside the school’s main entrance. When visitors came to the school, the headmaster’s sweeping hand gestures would draw their attention to the cabinets full of gleaming sports trophies and…beans on toast. There was a wonderful eccentricity about my primary school. I loved the way teachers there encouraged creativity and free thinking, even wildly lateral thinking. Meanwhile in The Crooked Lum I experienced a chain reaction of memories, taking me back to a time when every day felt profound. As if sensing my temporal trip, Mr C said, “You were a great kid – a joy to teach.”

“You were an excellent teacher.”

“Really?”

“Aye, really. Surely you know that? You had the perfect blend o’ characteristics for someone whose job was tae teach a bunch o’ savages like me and ma classmates. You were intelligent enough tae gain oor admiration, compassionate enough tae earn oor trust, and terrifyin’ enough tae stop us from runnin’ riot in the classroom.”

“I’ve often wondered if I made any difference at all,” he said. “It’s good to hear that I did. I’m happy to see you wearing a Rush T-shirt. Do you remember who introduced you to Rush?”

“Of course. You did. Ah listened tae Rush more than any other band while Ah was writin’ ma first novel. How’s that for you makin’ a difference?”

Mr C tilted his head, weighing up what he’d just heard. “I knew you’d write a book. That was always going to happen. Let me guess – it’s full of otherworldly fantasy, heavy metal, women and beans?”

“Pretty close. Beans don’t feature in it, though.”

“Oh? Are you saving them for the sequel?”

I chuckled at Mr C’s quick wit. My archery coach brought over a mug of coffee then left me and my erstwhile teacher to our conversation.

Then things turned eerie. Mr C told me he was back in East Kilbride to visit his father, who was at death’s door. In between sups of Guinness, he revealed that his own health was in almost as bad a state as his dad’s. He had drunk his way to severe liver cirrhosis. Sitting across the table from this man I so admired, and looking into his mirror-reflective eyes, I felt the hair rise on my arms and neck. Pressure built in my eyes until tears pooled. I wondered what I had tapped into while writing my story about the witches. The infinite energy latticework known as the Zero Point Field? Jung’s Collective Unconscious? Or had I picked up a psychic distress call from this man who had been ever supportive of my childhood endeavours? A few months earlier I’d created a character based on Mr C and written about how he drank himself into oblivion. Now the real man sat before me, one step away from the oblivion I’d described. He didn’t seem sad or worried. In fact, his attitude was upbeat. He asked more questions about the years when he’d taught me. Do you think I made a difference to other children too? Have you carried any of my lessons with you into the world? What are your favourite memories of those years? Then more questions. Which is your favourite Rush album? What gigs have you attended since your first (Iron Maiden, Glasgow Apollo, the same year I was in Mr C’s primary-six class)? That one took a long time to answer. What’s the summarised plot of your novel? I guzzled coffee after coffee, answering every question Mr C threw at me, feeling that somehow my presence was providing him with a temporary lifeline to a time when he was an unshakable force of nature. Yet that momentary silver lining seemed destined to be engulfed by dark clouds. So I stayed longer, hoping to reinforce in Mr C that he had every reason to feel a sense of self-worth. I had to let him know he wasn’t just admired and respected as a teacher…he was loved.

His right hand began fiddling with a mobile phone while his left gripped a pint of Guinness as if it were a lifebuoy keeping him afloat at sea. “May I take your photo?” he asked. “I forget things sometimes. If I take your picture I’ll know this wasn’t a dream.”

Pondering the idea, I saw a hole in its logic and so suggested a better alternative. “You didnae recognise me at first tonight. If you wake up tomorrow and this whole night’s a blank, you might see a photo o’ me on your phone and wonder, ‘Who’s that hairy basturt and what’s he doin’ on ma phone?’ Tell me your number. Ah’ll send you a text that leaves no room for confusion.” The text I sent said that Mr C was a great teacher and an inspiration. It went on to say how happy I was to once again meet the man who had played such a pivotal role in my early development: the teacher whose belief in me had been unflinching. I put my name at the end of the message.

At closing time, as pub patrons filtered out into the darkness, a feeling of helplessness flooded into me. I wanted to take this man – who would have faced Hell for me all those years ago – under a protective wing to heal his hurt. The demon on my left shoulder growled, “You fuckin’ did this. You wrote it and it’s unfoldin’ as you described. Happy?” Perched on my opposite shoulder, a kilted Faerie chieftain said, “Don’t listen tae that infernal fuckwit’s far-fetched fiction. This has been happenin’ for decades. Your mind simply tuned in tae your teacher’s frequency and sensed what he was goin’ through.” I believed the Faerie warrior, as I always do, yet I couldn’t help feeling unnerved on a monumental scale.

Mr C and I shook hands under the night’s blue-black blanket of weeping clouds. My last words to him: “You were an amazin’ teacher. You still are a great man. Remember that.” As we parted, my heart boomed a collision of past, present and future. I felt in my soul the ripples that every action sends out into the world and wider Universe. An epiphany? That’d be an understatement. It was what Zen monks call a moment of satori. Even in his drunken state and on a seemingly inexorable journey of self-destruction, Mr C was still leading me to greater understanding. For that, and for every moment I was blessed to spend with this man, I feel gratitude.

Mr C, you were loved. You still are. You always will be. The difference you made will ripple forever.

Albums of 2013

With 2014 underway and much exciting new music in the pipeline, let’s look at the iconic albums of 2013.  It was a year that saw predictably brilliant albums released, but there were some huge surprises too.  Read on, fellow rocker, for an overview of the sounds that made my 2013 a scorcher.  In true metal style, here are my eleven favourite albums of the year, starting with number one.

1. Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum

A true virtuoso, Joe Satriani invents new sounds, new dimensions of guitar music, new ways to push the envelope.  Unstoppable Momentum contains eleven astonishing instrumentals.  Don’t be put off by the absence of vocals; Joe’s guitar melodies are so beautiful that words would only get in the way.  Personal favourite track: for pure distilled emotion, I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn.

JS

2. Ghost – Infestissumam

A natural successor to debut album Opus Eponymous, this is a perfect blend of Mercyful Fate/King Diamond lyrical themes, Blue Öyster Cult melodies and enough originality to transcend accusations of plagiarism.  Sweet vocal harmonies and church-organ backing are balanced by clean riffing and deliciously evil lyrics.  Personal favourite track: Monstrance Clock.

Ghost - Infestissumam 2013 - front

3. Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche

A huge return to form for the Seattle pioneers.  New vocalist Todd La Torre infuses the quintessential ‘rÿche sound with fresh energy on eleven songs that ooze quality.  Soaring vocals, sublime guitars and that wonderful rhythm section combine to create the year’s most unexpected musical surprise.  Don’t confuse this incarnation of Queensrÿche (which contains three founder members) with the other Queensrÿche (which contains only one founder member: estranged vocalist Geoff Tate).  Legal battles – over who has the right to record and tour using the Queensrÿche name – won’t be settled until at least spring 2014.  In the meantime, both versions of Queensrÿche are recording and touring.  Confused?  So are they!  Geoff Tate is an excellent vocalist, but it’s the lineup featuring founder members Scott Rockenfield, Eddie Jackson and Michael Wilton – with Parker Lundgren on guitar #2 and Todd La Torre on vocals – that has remained true to the iconic Queensrÿche sound.  Personal favourite track: the staggeringly brilliant In This Light.

Q

4. Amorphis – Circle

Amorphis albums are vast pastiches of epic lyrics and musical complexity.  From their melodic-death-metal roots, this band has blossomed into a genre-defying beast with absolute mastery over its craft.  Personal favourite track: Mission.

A

5. Blood Ceremony – The Eldritch Dark

This album arrived from out of the blue, a gift from my brother-in-metal Jimmy McCarthy.  Before playing the CD, I was drawn in by the ornate cover artwork and Wicker Man themes.  It’s said that one can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this instance the artwork is an indicator of the sonic brilliance inside.  The songs are doomy and retro, fusing elements of Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Rush, Rainbow and other classic bands, yet managing to sound fresh and vital.  Driving back to Scotland after Wintersun’s 2013 gig in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I played this album on repeat for the entire journey.  It improved with each listen.  Even after five or six successive plays, I never felt any desire to change the CD.  Personal favourite track: Drawing Down the Moon.

BC

6. Wardruna – Yggdrasil

When Kvitrafn and Gaahl (infamous for their other bands, Emperor and Gorgoroth respectively) formed Wardruna to create music inspired by their Scandinavian ancestral roots – specifically the runes – they piqued my interest.  Wardruna’s first album, Runaljod – Gap Var Ginunga, was unlike anything created before.  Recorded primarily in a Norse forest, it incorporated the sounds of wind, rain and nature alongside rhythms of ancient instruments and chanted vocals.  The result was a collage of profound, transcendental tunes that are part of nature, not the product of digital technology.  Breathtaking.  On this, Wardruna’s second album, they introduce a scintilla of electronic instrumentation – mainly keyboards – but in a way that remains true to the original blueprint.  The vocals of Lindy-Fay Hella, third member of the band, alternate between angelic caresses and fierce norn’s growls.  Truly original and absolutely magical.  Personal favourite track: Sowelu.

W

7. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

During the five-year NIN silence after The Slip, I hoped that Trent Reznor’s seclusion was a creative one and that he was once again pouring his soul into cathartic Nails soundscapes.  He didn’t disappoint.  Hesitation Marks is a swathe of gorgeously delicate melodies interspersed with Reznor’s inimitable pained vocals.  Personal favourite track: the raw and vulnerable Find My Way.

NIN

8. Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods

Viking metal at its best.  Personal favourite track: Deceiver of the Gods.

AA

9. Saxon – Sacrifice

While other NWOBHM bands have slowed down, retired or split up, Saxon – the band that got me into metal in the first place – keep writing, composing, recording and touring at a rate which would exhaust regular mortals.  To my ears, there hasn’t been a weak Saxon album.  Even during the band’s dalliance with a lighter, more US-friendly sound (Innocence Is No Excuse, Destiny), the quality of songwriting and musical execution was unquestionable.  Today’s Saxon is a heavier beast, more power metallists than radio-friendly rockers.  Sacrifice is a natural successor to Lionheart and The Inner Sanctum.  As always, Biff Byford’s vocals sound like they come from a larynx of polished chrome.  The clean-toned twin-guitar attack of Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, now well established in the band, is razor-sharp.  Nibbs Carter and Nigel Glockler provide a rhythm section as solid as any in metal.  The songs are masterfully crafted examples of anthemic metal.  Personal favourite track: the epic masterpiece Guardians of the Tomb.

S

10. Metal Church – Generation Nothing

Despite being one of the most underrated outfits of all time, Metal Church influenced many other bands, most notably ‘80s Metallica.  MC’s definitive recording – The Dark – is one of metal’s milestones: a perfect album in every way.  The band has survived tough times, including the tragic death of singer David Wayne, to produce consistently strong material.  Generation Nothing is the sound of innovators who have nothing to prove; they’re doing things their way, flying in the face of fashion and fad alike, to create metal that’s timeless.  Personal favourite track: Generation Nothing – a masterclass in precision thrash.

MC

11. Hardcore Superstar – C’mon Take on Me

Hardcore Superstar’s Beg for It was my album of 2009 by a substantial margin.  Its combination of super-tight musicianship, huge singalong hooks, phenomenal drumming, raw vocals and perfect production made it one of the most iconic albums ever recorded.  HS’s immaculate melodic sensibilities make them incapable of creating music that’s less than great.  C’mon Take on Me is a different animal from Beg for It – looser, rawer, less fierce and less polished – yet it’s a strong album in its own right: anthemic metal with swagger and sleaze in spades.  They make it sound easy.  Personal favourite track: C’mon Take on Me.

HS

So there you have it – my albums of 2013.  Not an easy selection, as myriad other albums made my longlist, among them recordings by Darkthrone, Motörhead, Soilwork, Fish, Blackmore’s Night, Ihsahn, Children of Bodom, Burzum, AFI, Sarah Brightman, Ulver, Dream Theater, Megadeth, Front Line Assembly, The Ocean, and Tom Keifer.  My friends Thunderfuck and the Deadly Romantics finally got around to releasing an album (and a fine chunk of Mindwarpesque metal it is too) and touring.  I saw them a few times (no mean feat, considering that they’re banned from every venue in Glasgow) and enjoyed the performances (as well as betting on what point frontman Bruce would keel over drunk at).  Special mention  must go to Nimbatus, the one-man project that never fails to astonish me with music that’s poignant, beautifully melodic and crushingly heavy.  Sounds like a paradox, I know, but Nimbatus pulls it off with aplomb.  There was no Nimbatus album in 2013, but there were several singles and an EP, all of which showcased gorgeous compositions.  Had those tracks been compiled into an album, it’d have been right up there battling for the top spot with Satch.  If you enjoy the dark sounds of Paradise Lost, early Anathema, My Dying Bride, and appreciate the instrumental wizardry of Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert, do yourself a favour and check out Nimbatus on bandcamp.  If you don’t like it, I’ll eat my hat (and my kilt).  This musical genius deserves to be huge.  Let’s make it happen.

So what’ll be the album of 2014?  Favourite has to be Insomnium, whose Above the Weeping World and One for Sorrow were my albums of 2006 and 2011 respectively.  They’ve completed work on their new album, which is at the mixing/mastering stage now.  I’ve been lucky enough to hear previews of some tracks…and they’re out of this world.  Other possibilities for the top spot are Agalloch, if they release something in 2014, or the fourth Nimbatus album, if it emerges from deepest, darkest Germany to bless our ears with its incomparable melodies.  There will be surprises, too.  One thing’s for sure – music’s alive and well.  So tonight I’ll light a Peruvian cigar to 2013’s great recordings while raising a glass to the sonic wonders to come in 2014.

A near-impossible task: narrowing down the list of ‘album covers that changed my life’ to only eleven.  I love covers, especially covers of vinyl albums.  To choose eleven, I had to omit thousands, among them the homoerotic Teutonic covers of Accept and Rammstein, the loincloth-and-oil spectacle of Manowar, the nonchalant symbolism of Scorpions, the eerie imagery of Venom, Mercyful Fate, King Diamond and Blue Öyster Cult, the relentless metallic robot iconography of Judas Priest, the masking-tape-tittied, cameltoe-pantied, oiled-up, chainsaw-wielding anarchifeminism of Wendy O. Williams, the two-steps-from-transexuality preening poseurishness of LA glam metallists, the otherworldly wonder of early Magnum covers…you get the idea.  These eleven are not necessarily my favourite album covers, but they are the ones that, for various reasons (which will be explained), had a huge impact on me.

1. AC/DC – If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)

My equal-favourite album of all time (the other being Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction’s Tattooed Beat Messiah), this features a cover that hit the 10-year-old me in a visceral way.  I picked up the LP on a winter’s day in an East Kilbride record shop.  After a few minutes of staring at both sides, I walked to the counter shaking with excitement, plucked a pile of saved-up pocket money from my jeans, and bought this chunk of high-voltage riffage.  Walking the mile and a half home through the snow, I held the album in my hands, gazing at it in amazement: the front with Angus impaled by his own guitar while Bon looks over his shoulder like a demon; the back with Angus lying face down and dead, Gibson SG headstock jutting from a bloody exit wound, Bon nowhere to be seen (gut-wrenchingly prophetic, as Bon was to check out of this world soon afterwards).  And the sound?  Immaculate!  From the roar of Glasgow Apollo’s crowd (the greatest gig venue I’ve ever set foot in) to Bon’s banshee-pitched screams on High Voltage to the never-bettered guitar tone of Angus and Malcolm Young, the energy levels on this album are higher than any ever captured on record before or since.

Acdc_if_you_want_blood_youve_got_it_remastered_1994_retail_cd-front

2. Motörhead – Ace of Spades

This one shouldn’t need explanation.  The band image – equal parts biker, bandito and shoot-you-in-the-back baddie – was perfect.  This cover didn’t just make me want the album: it made me run out to buy a bullet belt, too.  Little Filthy Phil Taylor was the scuzziest-looking thing I’d ever seen, so naturally I loved him!

Ace of Spades

3. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

This cover scared the bejeesus out of the childhood me.  I was afraid of only one thing back then: witches.  I’d fight any boy, man or beast.  I’d boot a vampire in the balls if he crossed my path.  I’d set a werewolf on fire.  Witches, though…they were a different story.  They terrified me.  And the spectral female figure on the front cover of this album looked like a definite witch, the scariest I’d ever seen, a pant-browningly terrifying wyrd woman who would – if I dared to play the album – haunt my dreams and try to rip out my soul.  So I played the album over and over, understanding that facing my fears was the only way to deal with them.  If you want to visit the building on this cover, you can.  It’s Mapledurham Watermill and I’m happy to report that it hasn’t changed much.  With a bit of jiggery-pokery, some slap and tickle, and a shamanic forest dance (or, alternatively, a short walk from the car park), you can look upon the watermill from the same angle as the photographer of this cover did back in 1970.  And if you’re lucky, a pale figure in black might appear on the water’s edge…

Black_sabbath_black_sabbath_2004_retail_cd-front

4. Rush – Permanent Waves

Symbolism run amok.  Multiple waves: an approaching tidal wave, a human hand waving, one fabric-flapping wave and a woman with demi-wave hair.  And a glimpse of white cotton panties.  Genius.

Rush_permanent_waves_1980_retail_cd-front

5. Candlemass – Nightfall

The most numinous of these eleven, Nightfall‘s cover features the Thomas Cole painting Old Age.  If you fancy a look at the original, pop over to the Smithsonian Institute and have your knackers blown off by this spectacular piece of art.  Metaphorically, that is.  And if you have knackers.  For me, it provokes memories of early childhood filled with Sunday School, biblical parables and figuring out the existential mysteries of the Universe.

Candlemass_nightfall_1988_retail_cd-front

6. Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock

This cover features the big legendary heid of Ian Gillan…carved into rock!  And Ritchie Blackmore’s there too!  And the others in the classic Mark II lineup of Deep Purple.  Based on Mount Rushmore (where the heads of American presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt are hewn into the rock), this cover goes one louder in proper metal style by having five heids.  When, as a child, I picked up this vinyl album in a Menorcan record shop during a summer holiday, I nearly shat my pants in excitement.  Inspired.

Deep_purple_in_rock_1989_retail_cd-front

7. Diamond Head – Living on…Borrowed Time

Like AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It), this cover uses back and front to deliver its message.  To receive the full effect, take the gatefold vinyl album, open it up and – Alakazoomer! – you have the whole widescreen image including glorious burnt-amber sky.  The amazing artwork is by Rodney Matthews, whose scenes grace album covers by luminaries such as Magnum.  Of all Rodney’s work, this is the one that captivated me.

Diamond_head_borrowed_time_1992_retail_cd-front

8. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden

Derek Riggs created Eddie ‘the Head’, Iron Maiden’s mascot and album-cover star.  Derek’s body of work is now legendary, his main character Eddie the universally recognised figurehead of the Iron Maiden juggernaut.  I love all the Maiden album covers.  Each has breathtaking attention to detail, little flashes of self-referencing humour, and a unique mood.  The cover of this, the first Iron Maiden album, has a hypnotic quality, the scene communicating an eerie and palpable sense of nocturnal danger.  I can’t get enough of it.

Iron_maiden_iron_maiden_1982_retail_cd-front

9. Testament – Souls of Black

Take the cover of this vinyl album and look at it.  See it.  There are over 20 tortured faces in the clouds and sea.  Every time you look, you’ll see more.  I still find new ones and I’ve had the album since its release in 1990.  Perfect logo in blood-red font, hooded dark wraiths, stolen heart wrapped in black thorns: a beautiful inversion of Christian iconography.

Testament_souls_of_black_1990_retail_cd-front

10. Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygène

It’s difficult to look at this cover without contemplating the destruction mankind has wreaked on Mother Earth.  Job done, Monsieur Jarre.

Jean_michel_jarre_oxygene_1997_retail_cd-front

11. Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

One of my favourite albums and a cover to match, courtesy of longtime Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson (RIP, you transcendent genius).  Division and union in one scene: an eternal paradox.  A metaphor for the whole Universe.  The building in the background is Ely Cathedral, the lights car headlights.  If you fancy seeing the giant heads, you can…at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.  Find them above the entrance to the museum’s third floor.

Pink_floyd_the_division_bell_1994_retail_cd-front

Before I poke fun at any song titles, I should stress that I have vast respect for the artists in question.  They, and thousands of other metallists like them, have enriched my existence immeasurably and continue to do so.  Below is a list of metal songs with titles so unmetallic that they beggar belief.  In true metal form, the list goes up to 11…

1. Saxon – Standing in a Queue

No one likes standing in a queue.  If the folk in front have juicy-looking arses it lifts the dullness somewhat, but there are always more productive things one could be doing.  My guess is that Biff Byford, he of the vocal chords that must surely be polished silver, was stuck in a particularly slow-moving queue one day, probably behind a bunch of folk with skinny backsides.  With a long wait looming and the usual arsegazing pastime out of the question, Biff snapped.  Raging at the time lost standing in line, Saxon’s helmsman thought, Eh oop, I’m goin’ t’ put a stop t’ queues…by writin’ a song about t’ futility of queuing.  Whether he did so with tongue in cheek is anyone’s guess.

I’m standing in a queue.

I don’t know what to do.

I haven’t got a clue

Why I’m standing in a queue.

2. The Darkness – English Country Garden

A metal variation of a traditional folk song I learned in primary one (and soon bastardised in the playground).  Here’s the first verse of the original song.

How many kinds of sweet flowers grow

In an English country garden?

We’ll tell you now of some that we know.

Those that we miss you’ll surely pardon.

Daffodils, heart’s ease and phlox,

Meadowsweet and lady smocks,

Gentian, lupin and tall hollyhocks,

Roses, foxgloves, snowdrops, forget-me-nots

In an English country garden.

In the school playground, my friends and I were soon singing an adapted version with rather different lyrics.

What do ye do when ye cannae find the loo in an English country garden?

Pull doon yer pants and fertilise the plants in an English country garden.

Then ye take a leaf and wipe it underneath in an English country garden.

Keeching is fun underneath a blazing sun in an English country garden.

We added countless rhyming lines to that song: some crude, some awful, some genius.

Now to The Darkness’s adaptation.  The title has no metal credibility whatsoever.  The Darkness don’t care about that, though.  They balance humour, poignance and excellent delivery, ever playful but never quite parody.  Their lyrics in this track are – at points – classic.  Check out this for an example.

When I saw her pushing that wheelbarrow,

She said, “Have you got a match?”

And I said, “Yes – my cock and Farmer Giles’s prize marrow!”

Full of fun and frolics.  To be a true metal version, however, it’d need to tweak the title to something like Carpathian Ruin at Dusk.

3. AC/DC – House of Jazz

Jazz has no place in metal (with the possible exception of Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey, but that’s another story).  AC/DC would have been better to call a spade a spade: House of Whores.  Or, if they wanted to put a Scottish slant on that and boost its metallic quotient, Hoose of Hoochies (They’ll Suck You Dry for the Price of a Pie).

4. Rainbow – The Shed

I like my sheds, both of them.  The larger one contains an ever-present supply of Polyfilla and other invaluable substances, all of which are guarded by a large ginger cat who sprawls on the roof during daylight hours.  Although I might write a track called Guardian of the Polyfilla or Orange Hairy Gargoyle about this situation, I wouldn’t consider titling a metal song The Shed.  No matter how impressive Ritchie Blackmore’s shed was circa 1980, he must have been having one of his wired-to-the-Moon days (does he have any other type?) when he named a song after it.  And if his shed really was that special, why isn’t it mentioned in the song?  Doubly puzzling, but – as with all things Blackmore – earthly logic needn’t apply.

5. Hardcore Superstar – Why Don’t You Love Me like Before

Do I need to explain?  Really?  It isn’t the missing question mark that offends me most (although I’m not happy about it).  Why Don’t You Love Me like Before is a synonym for I’m a Self-pitying Whiner Who’s Feeling Sorry for Himself – an unacceptable attitude for a metallist.  If she doesn’t love you like before, instead of moaning about it in a ballad, ditch the bitch.  Then find a better, filthier woman and write a song about her prowess as a fellatress.  That’d be the metal thing to do.

6. Motörhead – Joy of Labour

The song’s lyrics are dark and devilish, its title ironic.  Nonetheless, the title makes me think of Mother Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus in a manger, smile on her face, halo glowing around her head, while a baffled Joseph looks on wondering, ‘How did he get in there?’

7. Eternal Tears of Sorrow – Tar of Chaos

Conjures up images of demons dressed in high-visibility yellow jackets and hardhats drinking tea from flasks by a roadside while a steamroller flattens glutinous tar next to a sign that reads Chaos 1 Mile.  Not a bad vision, just not a metal one.

8. Bigelf – Counting Sheep

Shagging Sheep would be a metallic title, as would Throwing Sheep at Satan.  ‘Nuff said.

9. Halford – The Mower

The Metal God has created some enduring characters: The Metallion; The Painkiller; The Ripper; The Sentinel; The Hellion.  Those visceral beasts are mythic and magical to metallists.  The Mower, on the other hand, makes me think of an orange Flymo trimming my wee ma’s lawn on a summer’s dayA quaint image but not a metal one.

10. Ozzy Osbourne – Civilize the Universe

As if the world needed any more evidence that Oz has become Americanised, he removes all doubt by using the ‘z’ spelling (civilize) rather than the English ‘s’ one (civilise).  That’s his prerogative, but stop a moment to reflect on the song title and its intention.  Keep in mind that this is the same Ozzy who bit the head off live doves (a stunt for which I’d have snapped him in two); he was supposed to set the doves free from their cage after signing a solo record deal with Jet Records: a symbolic celebration of his freedom from Black Sabbath.  This is the same man who bit the head off a bat thrown onstage by a fan (although, admittedly, Oz thought that one was a rubber toy).  It’s also the same man whose drunken, drug-fuelled debauchery has become legend.  I have immense admiration for Oz as a musical artist, even though he’s a compassionless mentaloid where animals are involved.  Were I to list the least civilised folk who spring to mind, he’d be near the top.  There’s unintentional irony in the lyrics of Civilize the Universe, which plead for peace (an admirable sentiment) but also lambast hypocrisy and implore us to be civilised (this from the man who, in his recent autobiography, claimed that he enjoyed his job at a slaughterhouse).  So an individual who gained pleasure from killing beautiful sentient beings then wrote a song begging folk to be more civilised.  That’s like a porn actress writing an anti-fucking anthem.  Put the hypocrisy to one side, though, and consider the title; heavy metal was never meant to be civilised.  Desecrate the Universe would be a good death-metal title.  Defecate a Universe would make an excellent black-metal title.  Diary of a Madman – that was a perfect metal title from Oz, and one without a glimmer of hypocrisy.

11. UFO – Dance Your Life Away

Strange left-field subject matter for a UFO song: a man and woman who take part in foxtrot competitions.  I put the whole thing down to the gargantuan amounts of drugs Moggy and co were doing at the time.  The idea probably felt like an epiphany.  I’d love to have witnessed the conversation that led to this track’s creation.  It must have been more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap.

That’s it for now.  Watch this space for my next all-the-way-to-eleven list: Album Covers That Changed My Life (complete with lovely full-colour pictures).

Don’t say I’m not good to you.

Until then, keep your heads in the clouds and your feet on the ground.

MD Front Jacket

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