Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

Posts tagged ‘Revelation Was Wrong’

My Albums of 2014

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

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

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

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

Nimbatus

1= Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun

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

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

Insomnium

3. Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere

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

Favourite track: Dark Matter Gods.

Agalloch

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

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

Anathema

5. Pink Floyd – The Endless River

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

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

Pink Floyd

6. Within Temptation – Hydra

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

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

Within Temptation

7. Arch Enemy – War Eternal

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

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

Arch Enemy

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

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

Triptykon

9. In Flames – Siren Charms

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

Favourite track: Rusted Nail.

In Flames

10. Accept – Blind Rage

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

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

Accept

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

Favourite track: Cold Blooded.

Judas Priest

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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.

Acdc_if_you_want_blood_youve_got_it_remastered_1994_retail_cd-front

2. Motörhead – Ace of Spades

This one shouldn’t need explanation.  The band image – equal parts biker, bandito and shoot-you-in-the-back 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…

Black_sabbath_black_sabbath_2004_retail_cd-front

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.

Rush_permanent_waves_1980_retail_cd-front

5. Candlemass – Nightfall

The most numinous of these eleven, Nightfall‘s cover features the Thomas Cole painting Old Age.  If you fancy a look at the original, pop over to the Smithsonian Institute and have your 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.

Candlemass_nightfall_1988_retail_cd-front

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.

Deep_purple_in_rock_1989_retail_cd-front

7. Diamond Head – Living on…Borrowed Time

Like AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It), this cover uses back and front to deliver its message.  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.

Diamond_head_borrowed_time_1992_retail_cd-front

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.

Iron_maiden_iron_maiden_1982_retail_cd-front

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.

Testament_souls_of_black_1990_retail_cd-front

10. Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygène

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

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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.

Pink_floyd_the_division_bell_1994_retail_cd-front

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

A New Heid for a Deid Legend

Forensic experts at the University of Dundee created an accurate 3D depiction of Robert Burns’s head by using casts of his skull and contemporary portraits. I was lucky enough to look into his eyes, which seemed to look back with sentience. It was a profound experience.

A week before Burns night in 2013 I watched a documentary that told the head’s story, from the forensic team’s painstaking reconstruction through to the unveiling ceremony in Alloway, where Burns had set his supernatural Magnum Opus Tam O’ Shanter. Scottish actor David Hayman narrated the documentary, excitement audible in his voice as he waited for the head to be revealed. Something else was present in his speech too: awe. Would Burns look like the burly ploughman history tells us he was or would his appearance have an effeminate quality, as per some of the painted portraits? Would his face convey the Scottishness of his written work? Hayman was relieved upon seeing the results. Burns’s countenance – fleshed out using facial-reconstruction technology – had the characteristic look of a man o’ the land. More farmer than fop, he was beautiful in a hardy way.

MR and RB

Photo by Sammy Psittacosaurus

As I gazed into the eyes of Burns, recognition bubbled to the surface: I know you. Perhaps the ubiquitous nature of Robert Burns in Scotland results in many Scots feeling that way. The Bard’s poems and their imagery became part of me as a child when I first experienced their magic. Standing face to face with the source of that magic, I recognised it as surely as I would my own reflection. Since my earliest memories, Burns’s words had been shaping my perception for the better. He and I share some characteristics: ancestry, culture and history; love of animals and countryside; refusal to accept hypocrisy; disdain for cruelty; an appreciation of short tartan skirts (“Weel done, Cutty-sark!”); a love of wild hochmagandy. Is it an accident that I grew up to embody many of the qualities that burned so passionately in Burns? Or did his ideas filter into the childhood me and find solace there, distilling until my soul – ever the stickler for truth – had weighed them up and invited the worthy ones to become part of my being? If I were a betting man I’d put my money on the latter.

The Bard

Photo by Mark Rice

Three days after sharing space with the head of Burns and spending time in the bedroom where he and Jean Armour conceived and birthed their ill-fated twins, I dreamed that I met the Bard walking across a meadow. We sat in the shade of a leafless oak tree. Burns pulled a silver hip flask from his pocket. After taking a few gulps, he offered me the container. I shook my head. The Bard shrugged then guzzled the remainder of the usquabae. His ponytail flapped in a rogue gust of wind. Gazing at the umber sunset, he said, “What do you think o’ humans?”

“The most destructive, despicable species on the planet,” I replied. “Ah’ve always known where Ah stand wi’ beasts. Not so wi’ folk. Horses relax in ma company and I in theirs. The same is true o’ camels, dogs, goats, wolves, pigs, cats, rabbits, coos, guinea pigs, hamsters…the list goes on. And for some reason moths come tae me as if Ah were a flame. A few years ago a friend’s eight-year-old daughter looked intae ma eyes and said, ‘You’re an animal soul in a human body.’ There was nae uncertainty in her voice. Maybe she was right. That would explain a lot. Ah love the company o’ wild things.”

“Aye,” said Burns, nodding. “Many a Clydesdale horse an’ moose an’ louse Ah looked in the eyes, an’ there Ah saw nowt but truth. In humans Ah e’er saw agendas.”

“Dear Bard, Ah learned much aboot honesty, integrity and compassion from you. Ah wish everyone had, but far too many folk are vessels o’ chaos, causin’ sufferin’ wherever they go. They’re strangers tae integrity.”

“Sounds like no’ much has changed,” mused the Bard.

“You’re right. Cowardice, cruelty and hypocrisy are as prevalent noo as when you were pennin’ poems that changed the literary landscape forever.”

“Are people treatin’ creatures better?”

“Some are, but idiotic humans still hunt and kill animals in the name o’ so-called sport. That’s murder, not sport. Something’s only a sport if both sides take part voluntarily and agree on the rules. Pullin’ a trigger and blowin’ a deer’s heid apart isnae sport – it’s deliberate murder of a gorgeous wild beast. Fishing’s no better. A human dunks a lure intae water as a Trojan-horse gift intended tae coax a poor fish tae its death. The one who’s unlucky enough tae bite has its mooth pierced by barbed metal, then the pain worsens as the creature’s yanked oot o’ water intae air, where the wee beauty begins tae asphyxiate. Overcome by panic and excruciatin’ agony, the beautiful bein’ flops aroon’ in a desperate attempt tae find its way back home tae the water. Then the creature’s gills collapse and it dies. Tae me, treatin’ any creature that way is unthinkable, compassionless, murderous, psychopathic. Fish are sentient beings wi’ feelings, instincts, families, social groups, intelligence, and a drive tae survive. Yet commercial trawlers net them in tens o’ thoosands, haulin’ them oot o’ the water tae an agonisin’ death.”

A tear trickled from the Bard’s left eye, catching the day’s last light. “Ah never thought much aboot the sufferin’ o’ sea creatures when Ah was tuckin’ intae them wi’ tatties and salt,” he said, his voice a breeze loaded with regret.

“Imagine other animals started treatin’ humans that way,” I said. “You’re walkin’ doon the street and a delicious-lookin’ scone wi’ jam and clotted cream materialises in front o’ your face. You take a bite, only tae find your cheek impaled by a hook. You’re pulled towards a river where a grizzly bear stands waist deep in water, reelin’ you in wi’ a fishin’ rod. When you’re within reach the beast grabs your heid and dunks it intae the river. You try tae free yoursel’ but it’s in vain – the grizzly’s strength is too much for you. Panickin’, you inhale. Water floods your lungs. Your body is starved of oxygen. Lactic acid burns intae your muscles. Above your heid the river explodes in a froth o’ bubbles then is still. You’re deid. If that were tae occur, you and I know that newspapers would run headlines like Bastard Bear Kills Bard. The media would shout, ‘Get a Gun, Gut a Grizzly.’ Oor ursine brothers and sisters would be hunted tae extinction. That has almost happened across the globe anyway. Back when you were writin’, bears, wolves and lynx roamed Scotland, but they were wiped oot by sociopathic numbskulls who disrupted the natural order. Too many humans are blind tae their own cruelty and tae that o’ their fellow man. Unawakened. Unenlightened. Unsentient. Unconscious. Not for all the money in the world would Ah cause sufferin’ tae a sentient creature. That’s ma way. Fuck it – that’s the way! You know it and Ah know it. What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world and forfeiteth his soul?

“Ah never could thole the hypocrisy o’ religious folk,” said Burns, “but that wee chunk o’ Bible text is unco wise. If Ah’m no’ mistaken, your biblical namesake penned it.”

“Aye, he did. Marks make the best prophets. That’s scientifically proven.” As a tip o’ the hat to my favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, I affected my best Irish (Oirish) accent and made fanny-tickling motions with my fingers. “Oi have the gift!”

“The jury’s oot on that one,” mumbled the Bard. “We’ll see.”

“We will, as you say, see.” A nod to Douglas Adams from me.

“You’ve soaked up ma compassion for creatures and filtered it through your cultural sieve,” observed Burns. “If Ah were aroon’ today Ah’d be a lot like you. Less quimthirsty, though.”

“What? Your shaggin’ exploits are legendary. And you didnae exactly dae it discreetly. You wrote poems and sonnets tae your lustiest lovethings then published them. At ma last count, you’d written odes tae eighty maidens! Ah figured if vagina-related recreation was the prime pastime o’ Scotland’s Bard, it must be worthy of exploration. In your words Ah found lucidity and on the Hochmagandy Highway Ah found carnal bliss. From Bard’s lips tae boy’s ears – joy can be found between the thighs of a warm, welcomin’ woman.”

“This is ma legacy?” moaned Burns. “Mount a lusty maiden and be happy?”

“Aye, but no’ just that. Your messages o’ brotherhood, compassion, wisdom and integrity are still resonatin’ across the land. You taught us it’s good tae feel, tae think, tae question, tae express. You also showed that fuckin’ can be fun.”

The Bard frowned. “You won’t find any mention o’ fuckin’ in ma written work. Ah wasnae uncouth in poetry or prose. Honest, raw and straight tae the point, but never coarse. Ah didnae just describe the mechanical aspects o’ fornication – Ah discovered that when carnality and love collide, the experience is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Ah discovered the same thing, Rab. Pure, intimate love is the ultimate truth. Did you have a favourite lover? Jean, presumably? Was she your one?”

“Are folk still bletherin’ aboot the one? For me, there was always one. Then came another, followed by the one after that. And so on, ad infinitum, in gloria vaginis. Every woman Ah had true intimacy wi’ – and that’s a function o’ soul more than body – was ma one in that moment. Moments are ephemeral, though. Jean was one lover. Ah had many. Ah loved each o’ them wi’ unbridled passion. Tae declare any woman ma one would lessen the importance o’ the others. Most history tells lies. Mine cannae. Ah loved fiercely and widely. Each lover brought me revelations.”

My Oirish accent returns. “Are you sayin’ you’re a lover, not a foighter?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

Still Oirish. “Oi’m a lover, a foighter and a wroiter.”

“You’re an eejit.”

“You t’ink Oi’m not roight in the head?”

“Definitely no’ right in the heid.”

“That’s pretty much the consensus.”

Burns smiled. “An honest eejit wi’ a hertful o’ love and a soulful o’ compassion is worth more than all the gemstones and gold in the world.”

“Thank you, Rab. This eejit will e’er the truth speak, ne’er bowin’ tae fear or folly.”

“Good man,” said Burns. “Go forth and write, ma big hairy eejit friend. The world is your fertile furrow. Call on me if e’er you need advice.”

“Thanks but no thanks. As some rogue Scottish writer said in Revelation Was Wrong, ‘Those who ride through life on the coattails of others are not worthy of admiration.’ Forever Ah’ll admire your literary coattails, and the rest o’ your coat…and your troosers…and, och, you get my metaphor. Ah have tae plough ma own literary fields, though. Fresh ones.”

“Plough awa’, compatriot,” said the Bard. He stood up and offered me his right hand. I gripped it in mine. As Burns pulled me to my feet, I felt the strength of ages flow in an ancestral circuit. In that moment my roots felt deeper than those of the oak which sheltered us.

Burns's Head and Portrait

Photo by Mark Rice

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