Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

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My Albums of 2016

1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3

I first experienced these tunes in a live setting a couple of months before the album’s release.  I’ve seen hundreds of gigs but watching the master on stage performing these compositions was the most impressive live-music delivery I’ve witnessed.  A masterpiece of electronica.

Favourite track: Oxygène Part 17.

 

2. Rotting Christ – Rituals

I’ve liked Rotting Christ for decades but this album is a monumental leap forward for them.  Every detail – album title, cover artwork, song composition, track flow, lyrics, sonics, production quality – has been meticulously crafted by a band in total control of its art.  Rituals is the perfect title for this album.  The leitmotifs in tracks like Devadevadem and The Four Horsemen have a hypnotic quality that makes listening to them feel like participating in a ritual.  Perhaps that was the band’s intention all along: ritual through music, on a grand scale.

Favourite track: Devadevadem – a glorious blend of eastern melodies and dark chants.

 

3. Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens

Another immaculate album from one of Finland’s finest metal bands (and what fierce competition they have in the world’s most metallic country).  Few bands deliver this level of heaviness.  Even fewer do so with melodies that are breathtakingly beautiful.  Not only can Omnium Gatherum achieve this, they make it sound easy.  That takes a special type of talent.

Favourite track: Skyline – a contender for greatest riff of all time.

 

4. Saor – Guardians

At long last, Scottish metal inspired by Scotland.  Not the Walter Scottised contrived Scotty-dogs-and-tartan-shortbread-tin touristy bollocks, but the real Scotland.  Guardians transports the mind on a journey over sweeping glens, monolithic mountains, waterfalls, heather-clad valleys, golden beaches, clear blue seas, bloody battles and clan allegiances.  This isn’t jaunty and twee like folk metal.  It’s heavy, poignant and beautiful like Scandinavian melodeath.  That’s probably Saor’s closest parallel: while Amorphis’s epics are inspired by their Finnish mythology, Saor’s masterpieces are inspired by real, bloody Scots history.  Musically, too, Saor has much in common with its Scandinavian peers, but frequent Celtic flourishes leave the listener in no doubt where these melodies hail from.  This is Scotland in musical form and it’s magnificent.

Favourite track: Hearth.

 

5. Jean-Michel Jarre Electronica 2: The Art of Noise

JMJ was a busy man in 2015 and 2016.  In addition to his first Electronica collaboration album (my top album of 2015) and Oxygène 3 (my top album of 2016), he found time to create a second Electronica.  It follows the same blueprint as the first: Jarre at the helm as composer, creator and performer while selected guests perform alongside him.  This time around the collaborators include Rone, Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys, The Orb, and Hans Zimmer (among others).  Solo Jarre performances are musical bookends at the start and finish of the album.

Favourite track: Here for You (with Gary Numan).

 

6. Ihsahn – Arktis.

The frontman of one of Norway’s most influential black-metal bands (Emperor) continues to forge ahead with his solo career.  Arktis. has more in common with British traditional metal (especially Judas Priest and Holocaust) than with Scandinavia’s black-metal hordes.  Ihsahn favours clean singing and guitar tones these days, with only occasional growls harking back to his vocals of old.  I enjoy Emperor when the mood takes me but I can listen to Ihsahn’s solo material anytime.  It follows no fashion and there’s no evidence of artifice.  Arktis. is just over an hour of pure metal.  You can’t go wrong with it.

Favourite track: Until I Too Dissolve.

 

7. Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik – Skuggsjà

It speaks volumes about a nation when its elected leaders commission two local metal musicians (who happen to be influential on a global scale) to compose music to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their country’s constitution.  This happened in Norway, where Bjørnson (best known for fronting Enslaved) and Selvik (formerly known as Kvitrafn in black-metal titans Gorgoroth, then switching to his given name to front the genre-defying Wardruna project).  Skuggsjà sounds almost identical to Wardruna (the absence of Lindy-Fay Hella’s vocals is the main difference).  This is indigenous Scandinavian music rooted in lore and magic, incorporating ancient instruments alongside electrified modern ones.  A classic album with exquisite layered depths.

Favourite track: Skuggeslåtten.

 

8. Wardruna – Ragnarok

This Warduna recording lacks one vital element its predecessors contained, namely one Kristian Espedal, better known as Gaahl.  It’s a phenomenal album on its own merits, with Selvik and Hella on fantastic form, but I miss Gaahl’s menacing growl.  He was the darkness to Selvik’s light, with Lindy-Fay flitting between demonic and angelic depending on the music’s demands.  Ragnarok – the third Warduna album – will apparently be their last.  The project was envisioned as a trilogy of recordings dedicated to the runes and Norway’s musical roots.  Job done.  Wardruna is uniquely moving music that resonates in the soul.

Favourite track: Raido.

 

9. Alcest – Kodama

One of my favourite French bands goes all Japanese on this, their fifth release.  Inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke, the album Kodama explores the confrontation between the natural world and the human realm.  As with previous Alcest recordings, the music defies categorisation.  There are depths, textures and moods galore in these swathes of sound.  Dive in.  You’ll be all the better for it.

Favourite track: Kodama – a captivating wave of sonic bliss.  Utter perfection.

 

10. Dance with the Dead – The Shape

A high-energy fusion of electro synths and wailing guitars that manages to be both retro (à la 1980s) and futuristic, The Shape could be the soundtrack to an iconic sci-fi film that was never made.

Favourite track: That House – pure perfection.

 

11. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Three Insomnium albums (Above the Weeping World, One for Sorrow, and Shadows of the Dying Sun) have placed #1 in my album-of-the-year lists.  Why is Winter’s Gate at #11?  Several reasons.  Firstly, it faced serious competition.  Secondly, it consists of one track.  It’s a long track, but not nearly long enough to qualify as an album proper (by Insomnium standards).  Perhaps this would have been better marketed as a concept EP rather than an album.  The lyrics tell a moving story and the musicianship is, as always, astonishing.  Winter’s Gate has peaks and troughs and light and shade, but it is still – whichever way you look at it – just one big feck-off song.

Favourite track: oh, the suspense…Winter’s Gate.

 

12. Gojira – Magma

It’s vive la France for the fourth time in this list.  Magma is Gojira’s sixth album and, I reckon, their best yet.  Like fellow French peers Blut Aus Nord, The Young Gods, and Alcest, Gojira creates metal that is deeply personal and cerebral.  It is often described as avant-garde.  To my ears their biggest inspiration seems to be legendary Canadian outfit Voivod (also described as avant-garde), so perhaps that’s as good a way as any of summing up their music.  It is fearlessly experimental, with influences from death metal, speed metal, prog, doom and more, all seamlessly flowing together to create a unique sound that pushes the Gojira envelope that little bit further.  The bulk of this album features cleaner vocals than in the past, even going a bit shoegazy at times, which is a beautiful counterpoint to the transcendent riffage and rhythmic mountain of sound.  It has much in common with space rock, too.  They share a cosmic, psychedelic quality.  If Hawkwind had formed 30 years later and been French with a penchant for really heavy metal, they’d sound a lot like this.  That’s high praise indeed.

Favourite track: The Shooting Star.

Gojira

 

13. Anti-Nowhere League – The Cage

I got into Anti-Nowhere League when I was ten.  I loved that their music was bouncy and angry and catchy and singalong and also a vehicle for righteous rebellion.  I didn’t have much to rebel against back then.  Life as a ten-year-old was good.  Perhaps if the dinner ladies at my primary school hadn’t been so generous with second helpings (and thirds, and fourths), I’d have railed against them with punk attitude.  But they were lovely, so there was no need.  Even my teachers were supportive of my Anti-Nowhere League leanings.  My primary-six teacher Mr C (whom you may have read about in my blog post Life Imitating Art) used to suggest bands he thought I might like.  Soon after I’d discovered ANL of my own accord, I decorated a portrait I’d drawn in art class (like many of my portraits at the time, it looked suspiciously like Lemmy) with a forehead tattoo that read ‘I Hate People…Let’s Break the Law’.  Noticing this, Mr C took me aside to ask if everything was OK at home.  I explained that the tattoo was simply two Anti-Nowhere League track titles.  Deadpan, he replied, “Very good.  Keep your lawbreaking activities outside my classroom, though, eh?”  A great man.  Anyway, I’ve veered off on a tangent.  Back to 2016.  ANL’s new album is the strongest they’ve ever recorded.  It’s still instantly identifiable as them and has their boundless punk energy, but the riffage and production have a decidedly metal quality.  The result is a bigger, bouncier sound that’s utterly addictive.  As usual, the lyrics are socially aware and pissed off without being whiney.  A jolt of sonic adrenaline.

Favourite track: Bad Storm.

 

14. Mortiis – The Great Deceiver

Ol’ goblin nose is back!  Well, he was never really away.  He’s back on form, though.  I once argued with an idiot who made the ridiculous statement, “Mortiis was better when he was in Emperor.”  I replied, “In Emperor he was just a hired-hand drummer.  He had no say in what direction the band took.  On Mortiis albums he’s expressing his own vision.  Saying you liked Mortiis better when he was in Emperor is like saying you liked African-Americans better when they were enslaved.  It’s just stupid.”  My favourite Mortiis album by far is The Smell of Rain: a collection of captivating soundscapes with an escapist mood all their own.  Since then, Goblin Features has veered into industrial metal, usually to the detriment of his tunes.  The sonic territory on The Smell of Rain seemed so perfect and so uniquely his that I hoped he would stay there on successive musical outings.  This was not to happen.  Until The Great Deceiver, that is.  It’s an industrial-based album, but one with hints of the atmosphere that made TSoR so special.

Favourite track: Doppelganger.

 

15. Metal Church – XI

Another scorching album from a band whose quality hasn’t faltered since they emerged at the dawn of the thrash movement.  Metal Church may not have achieved the enormous sales of peers such as Metallica and Megadeth, but their influence is vast and can be heard in thousands of bands that followed.  Also, while the aforementioned titans Metallica and Megadeth watered down their sound and skipped into musical fields of pansies, Metal Church stuck to their guns and remained true to their metal souls.  More credit to them for that.  XI sees them on top form yet again.

Favourite track: Signal Path.

 

16. Anthrax – For All Kings

Speaking of thrash pioneers, I bring you Anthrax – stronger now than they were back in the glory days of thrash.  You can hear traces of their roots in some of the new tracks, but present-day Anthrax is a barnstorming balls-to-the-wall traditional metal band with bigger hooks, polished production, grown-up lyrics and gravitas in spades.  They’ve evolved without losing their heaviness.  That’s the key to Anthrax’s enduring popularity among longtime fans: they remain metal to the core.  Riffmasters.  Innovators.  Legends.

Favourite track: Breathing Lightning.

 

17. Abbath – Abbath

Ol’ Doomface is back!  He was never away either, of course.  Always busy with Immortal or one of his side projects, he is one of metal’s hardest-working souls.  I love the music Abbath created with Immortal.  More than that, I love his one-off side project I’s concept album Between Two Worlds (the definitive Viking-metal recording).  So I had high hopes for this, his first album under his own moniker.  When I heard that Abbath’s solo band would be a trio, my first thought was, ‘I really hope his bandmates are called Assink and Attoilet.’  It saddens me to report that they are not.  They missed a golden opportunity there.  Musically, this is in the same vein as Immortal.  Slower and more melodic (that’s a relative term!) for the most part, but with those same cataclysmic riffs.

Favourite track: Root of the Mountain – a rumble to crumble castle walls.

 

18. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts

They’ve impressed me over the years and continue to do so.  The genius of Katatonia lies in their ability to create music of deceptive heaviness.  This is largely down to the sublime vocals of Jonas Renske, which bring light to even the darkest Katatonia dirge.  The Fall of Hearts continues in the same vein as its post-2000 predecessors (pre-millennium the band was a death-metal outfit).  Katatonia is a complex beast, with prog leanings, labyrinthine song structures and introspective lyrics delivered with passion and vulnerability.  The music is intricate, delicate and, even though your ears are sometimes tricked into believing otherwise, gloriously heavy.

Favourite track: Old Heart Falls – a masterclass.

 

19. Marillion – F.E.A.R.

This one took a while to have an impact on me.  Sometimes that’s the way of it with Marillion albums.  Clutching at Straws, my favourite Marillion release, was underwhelming on the first listen, but after 20 or 30 spins I got it – really got it.  To this day, I enjoy CaS more with each listen.  And so it is with F.E.A.R. (Fuck Everyone and Run), an album so rich in nuance that it took many plays for me to soak up all the melodic details, the lyrical cleverness, the seamless segues and the emotion.  The key emotion here is anger.  F.E.A.R. is an angry album.  It’s angry at a broken financial system and the greedy bankers who bled it dry, angry at warmongers and the politicians who enable them, angry at the shallow direction in which western culture is headed, angry at the loss of community and the rise of every-man-for-himselfdom.  Never before have you heard anger expressed like this, though.  Anger usually sounds angry.  When punk bands are angry at capitalist greed, you hear it in their music.  When Scandinavian black-metal bands are angry at Christianity for displacing their old religion, that rage roars through their music (and in the fires they light to burn down churches).  Marillion’s anger is channelled differently.  If you paid no attention to Hogarth’s lyrics and instead concentrated on the music, anger would be the farthest emotion from your mind.  When you listen to the words, though, when you really hear them and feel their intention, the effect is visceral.  F.E.A.R. improves with every listen.  Anger never sounded so beautiful before.

Favourite track: The Leavers: v. One Tonight.

 

20. Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia – Ghostlights

The Avantasia project has allowed Tobias Sammet to work with some of rock’s biggest names.  The one constant by Sammet’s side is co-conspirator/guitar wizard/composer Sascha Paeth.  Ghostlights, the seventh Avantasia album, is another ensemble performance including contributions from the likes of Bob Catley, Michael Kiske, Dee Snider, Geoff Tate, Marco Hietala, Sharon den Adel, and Jørn Lande.  With that sort of pedigree it’d be difficult to go wrong.  Sammet’s flair for the theatrical is present throughout, sometimes to an overblown extent (think Meat Loaf), but for the most part he stays out of wince-inducing territory.  If you don’t like rock melodrama à la Magnum, give this album a wide berth.  If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a bit of cheese with your metal, this might be just your cup o’ tea.

Favourite track: Unchain the Light (featuring vocals from Tobias Sammet, Ronnie Atkins and, to my delight, Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween) on spectacular form).

 

21. In Extremo – Quid Pro Quo

No one else does medieval metal quite like this motley bunch of German rascals.  Their combination of ancient instruments and modern metal is seamless.  The older instruments don’t sound out of place, nor do they sound crowbarred in (metaphorically speaking) to add some sort of historical credibility.  This is the real thing: a group of anachronisms who look and sound like they belong to some bygone time, eschewing all modernity except heavy metal, which, filtered through their medieval sensibilities, comes out sounding like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  A unique band in an increasingly generic world.

Favourite track: Quid Pro Quo (Acoustic Version) – a bonus track on the deluxe version of the album, this version of the title song is stripped down to just vocal and piano.  I prefer this variation.  It’s loaded with poignance and the vocal delivery is immaculate.

 

22. Karg – Weltenasche

Another German band, this one a long way ideologically from In Extremo.  Karg’s music has been described as dark, depressive, black metal, post-black metal (one of the most preposterous terms knocking around; there can be no post-black metal when black metal’s thriving more than ever – the idiots who come up with these ‘post’ terms should be rounded up and punished by having actual posts, big spiky fenceposts, shoved up their arses), sombre, gloomy, pessimistic, and even suicidal.  I’m not a fan of labels.  They seek to pigeonhole that which can’t be pigeonholed.  They’re at best inaccurate and at worst limiting to artists who accept them.  Karg’s music isn’t shiny and happy, that’s for sure.  Dark, gloomy and sombre are adjectives that spring to mind when listening to Weltenasche.  As with much dark art, however, it exerts a strange effect over the listener, bringing about a lightening of the spirit.  To some this may seem like a paradox but it isn’t.  The darkest, angriest storms are the ones that clear the air the most.

Favourite track: Le Couloir des Ombres.  For those of you who don’t speak French and can’t be arsed using Google translate, that means ‘the colour of the shadows’.

 

23. The Depressick – 1962

Rather than try to sum up Mexican outfit The Depressick’s music in blanket terms (as many have done using idiotic ‘post’ labels and a host of other silly categorisations), I’ll let the artists describe their musical vision in their own words.  ‘The Depressick was founded in winter of 2012-2013 by Old Skull and Detestas with the aim to express inner struggles, deep self-hate and melancholic feelings powered by oppressive, hopeless and miserable landscapes from daily life in Mexico City, our bleak and dear home.’  When I stumbled upon Mexican record label Self-Mutilation Services a couple of years ago I was amazed by the size and strength of their roster.  I knew that metal, particularly extreme metal, was popular in Central America, but it was still a surprise to come across such a wealth of excellent metal that was new to me.  I should have shares in that label now, as I’ve bought pretty much its entire stock.  Money well spent.  1962 is catharsis through music.  This was the case for the creators, but it also works on the listener.  The band favours a raw, lo-fi sound which suits their music perfectly.  There’s the familiar discordant riffage of black metal, and the blast-beat drums to match, but the vocals and overall energy have their roots in punk as much as in metal.

Favourite track: Gray Ocean.

 

24. Dark Tranquillity  Atoma

A few years ago I had a debate with a dude who’s as heavily into Scandinavian metal as I am.  One thing we couldn’t agree on was whether ‘the Gothenburg sound’ – that distinctive sound pioneered by Swedish bands Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, At the Gates, and Soilwork in the early ’90s – was a good thing.  He thought it sounded too clean, polished and produced, and therefore generic.  I pointed out that Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Saxon had been cranking out clean riffage and ultra-clean vocals for decades, but their metal is generally considered ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’, not ‘generic’.  After all, I continued, surely you can’t be called generic for inventing something new.  (The aforementioned Swedes didn’t invent metal, but they did take the existing blueprint and hone it into something fresh with a sound all its own.)  With hindsight I think what that dude meant was formulaic, rather than generic.  If he’d used the word ‘formulaic’ I’d have agreed with him.  It is formulaic, but it’s a formula those four bands from Sweden put blood, sweat and tears into honing, refining and perfecting.  It’s a formula that works.  Since that debate I’ve discovered that the Gothenburg sound divides metal fans like nothing else.  I’ve yet to meet someone who’s on the fence with regards to the topic.  Folk seem to either love the sound or hate it.  I love it.  I’ve loved it since I first heard At the Gates back in the ’90s.  A couple of years after that, when I saw In Flames live for the first time, I found out that to hear the Gothenburg sound live is to really experience it.  On record it’s impressive but a bit restrained, as if always holding back.  Live, though, it’s like a wild beast let loose. Awe-inspiring. Atoma does an impressive job of capturing that live energy in the studio.  The vocals alternate between clean singing and growls (a technique now used to great effect by many heavier bands, especially in Finnish melodic death metal).  Song structures vary widely, giving the album diversity and keeping the listener coming back for more.

Favourite track: Our Proof of Life.

 

25. In Flames – Battles

More Swedes and there’s that Gothenburg sound again.  In Flames has lightened its sound considerably over the years, yet the band’s new material is instantly recognisable thanks to their trademark hooks, dense riffs, anthemic choruses and soaring vocals, all built on a bombastic rhythm-section foundation.  Battles is the band’s most commercial album to date.  It doesn’t have the death-metal credibility of earlier material like, for example, Whoracle, but it isn’t trying to.  The band has evolved and this is the sound of their evolution.  The songwriting’s as skilful as ever, as is the delivery.  I hope, though, that they heavy it up a bit for the next album.

Favourite track: Before I Fall.

 

That’s it.  That’s my top 25 of the year.  Many excellent albums didn’t quite make the list but brought me lots of listening pleasure nonetheless.  Honourable mentions to Artillery, Whispered, Witherscape, Ulver, Glenn Hughes, Darkthrone, Neil Young & Promise of the Real, Suicidal Tendencies, UK Subs, Tygers of Pan Tang, Spiritual Beggars, Magnum, Tyketto, Sunstorm, Spell, Forndom, Blood Ceremony, Evergrey, Testament, The Cult, The Mission, Mourning Sun, Crimson Moon, Dare, and Killswitch Engage, all of whom released quality albums in 2016.  Hail to you all.

 

 

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Man, Mountain

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

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

Coffee Break on the Loch

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

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

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

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

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

Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transferring Energy

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

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

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

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

Happy Mountain Beasts

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

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

Storm over Cruach Ardrain

Under the Stormcloud

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

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

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

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

The Way Back

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

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

Life Imitating Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were an excellent teacher.”

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albums of 2013

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

1. Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum

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

JS

2. Ghost – Infestissumam

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

Ghost - Infestissumam 2013 - front

3. Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche

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

Q

4. Amorphis – Circle

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

A

5. Blood Ceremony – The Eldritch Dark

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

BC

6. Wardruna – Yggdrasil

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

W

7. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

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

NIN

8. Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods

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

AA

9. Saxon – Sacrifice

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

S

10. Metal Church – Generation Nothing

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

MC

11. Hardcore Superstar – C’mon Take on Me

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

HS

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

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

Album Covers That Changed My Life

I love album covers, especially on vinyl LPs.  Narrowing my list down to eleven wasn’t easy.  To do so I had to omit thousands of my favourites, among them the homoerotic Teutonic imagery of Accept and Rammstein, the loincloth-clad would-be warriors Manowar, the nonchalant symbolism of Scorpions, the eerie imagery of Venom, Mercyful Fate, King Diamond and Blue Öyster Cult, the razor blades and metallic robot creatures of Judas Priest, the masking-tape-nippled, cameltoe-pantied, oiled-up, chainsaw-wielding anarchisexuality of Wendy O. Williams, the two-steps-from-transexuality preening poseurishness of LA glam metallists, the otherworldly wonder of Magnum’s Rodney Matthews artworks…you get the idea.  These eleven are not necessarily my favourite album covers, but they are the ones that, for reasons which will be explained, had the biggest 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).  Its cover affected the 10-year-old me in a visceral way when I saw it for the first time (on a snowy winter’s day in an East Kilbride record shop called Impulse).  I picked up the vinyl LP and – after a few minutes of staring at both sides of the cover – walked to the counter shaking with excitement and bought this chunk of high-voltage riffage.  Walking the mile and a half home through the snow, I gazed at the cover in amazement: on the front Angus is impaled by his own guitar while Bon looks over his shoulder like a demon; on the back Angus is face down and dead, a Gibson SG headstock jutting from a bloody exit wound, and Bon nowhere to be seen (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 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.

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2. Motörhead – Ace of Spades

This one shouldn’t need explanation.  The band image – equal parts biker, bandito and shoot-you-in-the-back bastard – was perfect.  This cover didn’t just convince me to buy the album: it inspired me 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 me as a child.  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 if he bared his teeth at me.  Witches, though, were a different story.  They terrified me.  The spectral female figure on the front of this album looked like a definite witch – the scariest I’d ever seen: a pant-shittingly frightening wyrd woman who would haunt my dreams and rip out my soul if I so much as dared to play the album.  So I played it over and over, staring at the cover for hours, certain that facing my fears was the only way to banish them.  The building on the cover is Mapledurham Watermill.  I’m happy to report that it hasn’t changed much.  With a bit of Crowleyesque jiggery-pokery, some Satanic slap and tickle, and a shamanic forest dance (or, if you prefer, a short walk from the car park), you can look upon the watermill from the same angle as the cover photographer did back in 1970. And if you’re lucky, a pale figure in black might appear on the water’s edge…

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4. Rush – Permanent Waves

Symbolism run amok.  In the background a man waves, unaware of the approaching tidal wave that’s about to wash him away.  In the foreground a woman with a demi-wave hairstyle smiles as her skirt flutters in waves, offering the viewer a cheeky glimpse of panties.  Genius.

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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 mind blown by this spectacular piece of art.  For me, it provokes memories of early childhood with its Sunday School, biblical parables, and pondering the existential mysteries of the Universe.

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6. Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock

The cover features the giant heid of Ian Gillan…carved into rock!  Ritchie Blackmore’s there too, as are the other three legends from the Mark II lineup of Deep Purple (Roger Glover, Ian Paice, Jon Lord).  Based on the larger-than-life sculptures on Mount Rushmore (where the heads of American presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt are hewn into the rock), this cover goes one better by having five heids.  And even an idiot knows that five heids are better than four.  As a child, I found this vinyl LP in a Menorcan record shop during a summer holiday.  Nearly pissed myself with excitement.  Bought it on the spot.  Iconic.

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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.  For the full effect, take the gatefold vinyl album, open it and enjoy the wide landscape art (by Rodney Matthews, who also created legendary covers for rock legends Nazareth and Magnum, among others).  Of all Rodney’s work, this is the piece I find most captivating.

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8. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden

When artist Derek Riggs created Eddie ‘the Head’ (Iron Maiden’s now-famous mascot, who has graced all the band’s covers – albums and singles – evolving through many incarnations along the way) he couldn’t have foreseen the enormity of the impact his monster would have on heavy-metal culture and identity. Derek’s body of work is now legendary, his character Eddie the universally recognised figurehead of the Iron Maiden juggernaut.  Each Maiden cover has breathtaking attention to detail, little flashes of self-referencing humour, and a unique mood.  I find the cover of this, their debut album, hypnotic.  The scene communicates an eerie and palpable sense of nocturnal danger.  As for Eddie, is he a punk or a metalhead?  Is he alive or is he dead?  Is he friend or foe, or sexual pest?  Or all of the above, like some Schrödinger’s zombie?  These are the things I’ve wondered as I’ve gazed into his eclipse-in-the-abyss eyes.  An utterly inspired cover with unparalleled atmosphere.  I can’t get enough of it.

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9. Testament – Souls of Black

Pick up a copy of this on vinyl and look at the cover.  See it.  There are over 20 tortured faces in the clouds and sea.  The more you look, the more you’ll see.  I’m still finding new ones and I’ve had the album since its release in 1990.  Beautifully symmetrical logo in blood-red font.  Hooded dark wraiths.  Stolen heart wrapped in black thorns.  A beautiful inversion of Christian iconography.

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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.

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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 Universe.  The building in the background is Ely Cathedral.  If you fancy seeing the giant heads, go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.  They’re above the entrance to the museum’s third floor.

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Metal’s Least Metallic Song Titles

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

Maria Savva Hijacks My Blog

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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. 

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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.

Maria

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:

Website: www.mariasavva.com

Blog: www.goodreads.com/author/show/1418272.Maria_Savva/blog

Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/pages/Author-Maria-Savva/171466979781

Twitter: Twitter.com/Maria_Savva

Buy links for Delusion and Dreams:

Amazon.com: www.amazon.com/Delusion-and-Dreams-ebook/dp/B00D0EHJHA/

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/Delusion-and-Dreams-ebook/dp/B00D0EHJHA/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1369585340&sr=8-6&keywords=delusion+and+dreams

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