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.”

Print

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

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: