Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.”


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


8. Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


I met English author Maria Savva a couple of years ago.  Since then I’ve read two of her books: Fusion, a collection of short stories, and The Dream, a novel.  Maria’s new book, titled Delusion and Dreams, is a collection of twelve short stories.  She decided to hijack my blog for a day in order to promote her new collection.  Who am I to argue?

So without any further ado, not that there’s been much ado thus far, some might say no ado at all (I don’t do ado well, or do I?), here’s a wee excerpt from Happy New Year, one of the book’s tales.

‘Did you kill Mary Bentley?’

There was an echo in the room so that the “ley” at the end of “Bentley” resounded and joined with the reverberation of Jonathan’s cough, which followed almost immediately after the policeman asked the question. Jonathan’s cheeks coloured a deep red. Would they assume he was guilty now?

‘No,’ he said, almost too loudly, trying to make up for what could have been wrongly inferred from his cough.

His answer repeated as an echo. Mocking him.

This was the third time DC Briggs had asked him that particular question: Did you kill Mary Bentley? The answer remained the same.

‘Mr. Graves, we have three witnesses who saw you leave the Great Gull pub on the night of Mary Bentley’s disappearance. We have CCTV evidence of you walking along the high street with her, towards the forest where her body was discovered. It would save a lot of time if you confess now.’

‘But I didn’t kill her,’ said Jonathan, eyes wet with unshed tears. Would this detective continue to hound him until he broke down and confessed simply because he couldn’t breathe anymore under the weight of the persistent questioning? Was this a tried and tested torture method that had worked before on innocent men?

He glanced at the police officer who sat next to DC Briggs. That man had not asked any questions, but took notes throughout the interrogation.

How much longer would they keep him here? Looking down at his hands he saw they were pale, almost taking on the greyness of the cold stone walls, as if he were slowly disappearing, fading into the surroundings. It had been hours since they’d brought him in for questioning. He dearly wished he had asked to have a solicitor present, but he hadn’t thought he would need one; thought there would only be a few questions. How much longer were they allowed to keep him here without charging him? Surely there must be a time limit.

His throat felt dry and hunger pangs assailed him, yet with the ever-present nausea he felt sure he would vomit if any food passed his lips.

He began to feel paranoid, lightheaded, and worried he would end up confessing because that was expected of him. As he faced the continual barrage of questions, he wondered if he might be losing his mind.

‘How long had you known Mary?’

‘I’ve already told you.’ He sighed. ‘Two years. We met at a New Year’s party two years ago.’

The detective asked the same questions over and over, seemingly on a loop. Would this continue for ever? Perhaps he was stuck in a kind of time warp or a lucid dream.

Jonathan became aware of a closed-in sensation, bordering on claustrophobia. The air felt almost unbreathable—devoid of oxygen. Inhaling deeply, he felt a panic like he could choke on his attempt to breathe. The strip lighting strained his eyes. He wanted to close them, but if he did, he feared he would drift away into a deep sleep; the sleep of the weary and dejected, one in which he would only face nightmares of a different kind. 


Blurb: Twelve stories of betrayal, greed, revenge, deception, dreams, and courage. We all struggle to find our way. What you see isn’t necessarily all there is. This collection takes you into the grey area, because the world is never just black and white. Life is all about perspective. One person’s delusion is another person’s dream. Includes five bonus stories.


Author Bio:

Maria Savva lives and works in London. She studied Law at Middlesex University and The College of Law. She is a lawyer, although not currently practising law. She writes novels and short stories in different genres, including drama, psychological thriller, and family saga. Many of her books and stories are inspired by her years working as a lawyer, although she has not written a courtroom drama to date. Her most recent novel is Haunted, a crime fiction/psychological thriller.

Author links:



Facebook Page:


Buy links for Delusion and Dreams:

Amazon UK: