Thursday, 13 January 2011

A rather tardy review of 2010

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

I've divided these into the Top 10 I submitted to Kerrang! for their Writers Poll and a non-K! 10. The rules are that you can only vote for albums which have been reviewed in Kerrang!, so some of the latter list are noisy buggers which slipped through the K! net...

KERRANG! TOP 10
Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
Electric Wizard, Black Masses
Grinderman, Grinderman 2
Ramesses, Take The Curse
The Dillinger Escape Plan, Option Paralysis
Deftones, Diamond Eyes
High On Fire, Snakes For The Divine
Trash Talk, Eyes & Knives
Kvelertak, Kvelertak
Cancer Bats, Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones

NON-KERRANG! TOP 10
The Fall, Your Future, Our Clutter
No Age, Everything In Between
Foals, Total Life Forever
Crystal Castles, II
Nails, Unsilent Death
Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma
Teeth Of The Sea, Your Mercury
Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Kano, Method To The Maadness
Arabrot, Brotherseed

SONGS OF THE YEAR

I have to admit it, I've been listening to a lot of music this year which some might brand, well, cheesy. Hell, I'd describe some of the below as cheesy, but for whatever reason they've all made me happy...

The Dillinger Escape Plan, Farewell, Mona Lisa
Foals, Spanish Sahara
Magnetic Man, I Need Air
Doctor P, Sweet Shop
Danny Byrd/Liquid, Sweet Harmony
Darwin Deez, Radar Detector
Donae'O, Riot Music
Rolo Tomassi, Kasia
Gorillaz, Stylo
Everything,Everything, My KZ, Yr BF

GIGS OF THE YEAR

It feels like I went to fewer gigs than usual this year, partly because Gorse were more active, partly because I didn't go to any festivals, partly because I didn't make it to enough DIY punk shows. Nevertheless, there were some right old nights out in 2010, I can tell you. Here they are in alphabetical order, RIP some of the venues listed...

Art Of Burning Water/Jovian/At A Crawl @ The Cowley Club
Beirut @ Eastbourne Winter Gardens
Comanechi/Divorce/Fat Bicth @ The Hydrant
Converge/Kylesa/Kvelertak @ The Concorde 2
Crippled Black Phoenix/Blackstorm @ The Free Butt
Dethscalator/You're Smiling Now...But We'll All Turn Into Demons/Gum Takes Tooth @ Hector's House
The Dillinger Escape Plan/Rolo Tomassi/The Ocean in Brighton and London
Electric Wizard/Moss @ The Electric Ballroom
Facel Vega/The Sceptres/Regimes @ The Cowley Club
Family Man/Bloddrunk @ The Cowley Club
Sage Francis @ Audio
Grand Magus @ The Forum
The Guillotines @ The Hydrant
Ihsahn/Shining @ The Electric Ballroom
Jovian, plenty of times in Brighton
Les Savy Fav @ The Komedia
Melt Banana/Drum Eyes @ Jam
Mudhoney @ The Concorde 2
No Age/Male Bonding @: Audio
Part Chimp/Lamp/Jovian @ Hector's House
Pulled Apart By Horses/Gay For Johnny Depp @ Audio
Resurrectionists/Battle Of Wolf 359/Attack! Vipers!/Plague Sermon @ The Hobgoblin
Rolo Tomassi/Trash Talk/Throats @ The Engine Room
Shearwater @ The Free Butt & Audio
Spectrum/Medicine & Duty @ The Free Butt
Swans @ The Concorde 2
Torche/Jovian/Dopefight @ The Prince Albert
Unkind/Gascoigne/Brutal Regime @ The Cowley Club
White Hills/Pontiak @ The Engine Room
Wolves In The Throne Room @ The Hobgoblin

1993: The Year Crusty Broke

It's hard to fathom now, but in the year before Definitely Maybe and Parklife were released, the pages of the music press were full of pictures of dreadlocked ladies and gentlemen wearing combat trousers and ratty jumpers. It's a moment in the history of '90s music which tends to get airbrushed from most overviews of the decade, which usually reduce ten years of alternative scenes to the familiar framework of grunge, britpop and nu-metal. So what the jiggins was going on?

Crusties, travellers, call them what you will, but clearly a bunch of likeminded folk had been dropping out of the mainstream to meander around the country and attend Glastonbury, Stonehenge and many smaller events since at least the mid-1980s, some inspired by the lingering hippy dreams of the '60s, others by the alternative lifestyle choices promoted by Crass and their anarcho-punk brothers and sisters. I'd argue that things stepped up once acid house started morphing into rave at the decade's end. At this point, the natural home of house and techno wasn't in a superclub, and Ibiza hadn't yet become the holiday destination of choice for half the country's ravers (the Club 18-30 hols satirized by Blur in Girls & Boys were the norm for many kids back then). Demonized by the tabloids on account of acid's none-too-subtle exhortations to chemical indulgence, rave went underground, with clandestine parties set up out in the countryside and communicated to potential attendees through secret channels. With plenty in common, not least self-sufficiency and a disdain for the moral hypocrisy of Tory Britain, the rave and crusty free festival scenes met in woods somewhere in the English countryside, and got on famously. Things weren't to remain on the down low for long, however...

In May 1992, techno collective Spiral Tribe organized a rave at Castlemorton in Worcestershire. The scale of the event, with tens of thousands in attendance, the fact that it literally went on for days and its proximity to the village of Castlemorton itself made the rave a lead item on TV news bulletins, perhaps the first time a musical event had achieved this since Live Aid - although, needless to say, this coverage was a little less positive, Ironically, the more the media frothed at its collective spout, the more publicity the seemingly endless rave received, and the more carloads of ravers descended on the site. Things were PRETTY CRAZY, as you can see here...

At the time, it seemed like the ravers had well and truly won; Castlemorton went on for nearly a week with no major police interference, but the forces of law and order were merely biding their time. A bunch of Spiral Tribe members were arrested immediately after the event and dragged through the courts, while part of the collective were effectively exiled to mainland Europe. More seriously for everyone, Castlemorton directly inspired a section of 1994's Criminal Justice Act which was pretty expicitly intended as a crackdown on the outdoor rave scene. Along with increased stop and search powers, the police were now able to turn people away from areas where a rave was suspected to be planned - and a gathering of a mere ten people was all the coppers needed to declare that a rave was about to take place. Resistance to the Act ranged from the sublime (Autechre wrote a track with totally random drum programming to take the piss out of Act's definition of dance music as featuring "repetitive beats") to the ridiculous (seriously, have you seen the artwork on the inside of The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation?).

When the then-bill was first drafted, this counter-backlash inevitably earnt the entire crusty scene a certain outlaw status, which meant in turn that it received plenty of attention in the now-sympathetic music press. By Autumn 1993, when I went to Uni, the word 'Crusty' was appearing on flyers for alternative club nights alongside the usual metal/indie/goth/punk/industrial signifiers. But what exactly was 'Crusty' music?


In truth, it ranged from the hippy prog instrumentals of Ozric Tentacles to Senser's rap/techno/metal fusion - and the fact that the scene was based on common ethos rather than musical similarities was underlined by the fact that the former band, who had a huge profile in underground circles, were enthusiastic patrons of the latter. Folk-aligned bands like The Oyster Band and The Sea followed The Levellers into the public eye, while outfits like Zion Train, Dreadzone and Revolutionary Dub Warriors favoured a souped-up-form of dub. Techno was more than adequately represented by clubs like Megadog and acts like Banco De Gaia and Ozrics offshoot Eat Static, while its influence was cross-pollinised with various strands of world music to create the international rave sounds of Transglobal Underground, Loop Guru and Astralasia; Orbital, while hardly crusties, were also a key influence on the techno end of the scene, while also making head torches a fashionable accessory. Hawkwind, Gong and The Magic Mushroom Band functioned as godfathers of the scene, inviting many of these bands to play at their shows, while plenty of punks found a common ideology with the free festival scene, meaning that the likes of Citizen Fish, Blaggers ITA and anarcho-popsters Chumbawamba were all sharing bills with crusty bands, while labels like Words Of Warning encouraged dialogue between the two scenes.


Perhaps the ultimate crusty band, for better or worse, were Back To The Planet. Their mixture of punk, dub, indie and dance was pretty ill-served by pisspoor commercial production on their first official album, Mind And Soul Collaborators, a release which is now all but disowned by the band. That said, production wasn't to blame for the genuinely awful lead single Teenage Turtles, a tune which took a surpisingly Daily Mail-style lyrical slant by literally blaming the problems faced by the nation's youth on, er, well...the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


At the time, however, this single was sufficient to lure Kieron Maguire, Bens Moores and Rowlett and myself to see Back To The Planet at Portsmouth's South Parade Pier at some unrecorded point in 1993. They were much more impressive live than on record, a fact that was underlined both by Kieron and at least one Ben mounting a stage invasion (almost certainly to that ruddy Turtles song) and by the live tape I bought after the show.

It seems quite appropriate that in the year of crusty's ascendance, I went to my first festival. That Back To The Planet crew was expanded to include Andy Bell and Kieron's brother, who was young enough (13 or something, I guess) to get into the festival for free. It's hard to write about Glastonbury without lapsing into cliche, but the point where you get to the brow of the hill and get your first view of the festival site is something everyone should experience at some point. The sight of a town-sized festival nestling in a Somerset valley, like a cross between a giant carnival and a Middle Ages battle encampment, is quite unlike anything else. And for a sheltered eighteen year old like myself, wandering around this huge site surrounded by like-minded folk and all the signifiers of an array of alternative lifestyles felt like returning to a home I'd never visited before.


As it was right in the middle of our A Levels, we didn't get there until Friday evening and at least two of us had to leave on Sunday night, but those 48 hours were still full of delights, both predictable and unexpected, and the occasional disappointment. Falling squarely into the latter camp were sets by The Velvet Underground and The Kinks. The idea of seeing these legendary outfits was sadly better than the reality, with Lou Reed sabotaging some of the best VU tunes by singing them in an inappropriately jaunty manner and The Kinks still stuck in their 80s soft rock phase. More reliable fun came from Belly and Teenage Fanclub, the latter band ending their set by kicking a load of footballs into the crowd with the assistance of John Peel. The set I came away enjoying the most was, believe it or not, the Stereo MCs, whose good times hip hop just worked perfectly in front of an up-for-it festival crowd. More baffling were The Orb; I went to watch them on my own and found myself in the middle of a field of people staring at a stage featuring a giant rotating sun and plenty of lights but very little visible human activity. I don't recall any dancing where I was stood, just a bunch of people drinking cans and smoking. It felt a little like being at the site of an alien spaceship landing. Obviously, the Ozrics also played. At the time they'd recently released the album Jurassic Shift, and from the point when they introduced one song as being about a dinosaur, Ben Moores repeatedly hollered requests for a cover of the Was (Not Was) tune Walk The Dinosaur.

Perhaps the funniest part of the festival occurred on the Saturday night, when Kieron's younger brother was the last man back to our tents. Left to wander the site on his own, he'd evidently had a great time and had way more stamina than us elderly 18-year olds.

A band so un-crusty they once suggested onstage at Glastonbury that somebody should build a bypass over the place, Manic Street Preachers should have no place in this blog, but the fact is that Simon Hildesley and I went to see them in July 1993. I'd first becone aware of The Manics when they appeared on the front cover of Sounds, probably in 1991 or so, when they looked and sounded like this:

That first Sounds interview kind of left me cold. Their sloganeering just seemed empty and I couldn't relate to their posturing. Anyway, I was more interested in the fact that I won a competition in that issue, bagging myself a selection of five horror videos (Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Basket Case, Brain Damage and Creepers). At this point, Sounds would give their competition results a little headline, so if somebody called Dave Roberts won some Del Amitri swag, it would be announced with the line "Dave Roberts is a Del Amitri fan." My taste of fame was communicated with the legend "Olly Thomas Is No Chicken", which became a minor catchphrase around the school. Some people would occasionally make chicken noises at me, indicating that they hadn't fully comprehended the meaning of the original statement.


But I digress... when I actually heard the Manics, I liked the fact that they were unashamedly influenced by cock rock and punk, and learnt to appreciate their attitude as something rather lacking in most of their indie contemporaries. By the time of their second album Gold Against The Soul, their sound had become somewhat slicker, but I shouldn't really have been surprised that they were still a rather rough and ready live band when we saw them at Portsmouth Guildhall. The support bands were trumpet-toting punkers Blaggers ITA and up-and-coming British rappers Credit To The Nation, and at the time we were probably more impressed with the latter than the slightly underwhelming Manics, even with Nicky Wire in his dress and headscarf-wearing pomp.

That summer, I took a job as an extra in a film called 'The Browning Version', which was being filmed in a couple of public schools in Dorset, a job which also employed a range of past and future friends including Finlay Stewart and James Tollow. The money I earnt helped fund my share in a fantastic holiday in Cornwall with Ben Moores, Simon Hildesley and his girlfreind Natalie Collinson, and my already-ex girlfriend Lucy Howard, a holiday woth mentioning in this blog if only for the memory of Ben Moores dancing to a tape of Astralasia's Sul-E Stomp on the beach. Shortly afterwards, the same crew went to the Reading festival for a day (which was pretty much all we could afford after Cornwall).
http://www.readingfestival.com/history/index.aspx?id=2568

The first band I remember seeing after we arrived was the Senseless Things, playing on the main stage. Ben and I wasted no time in making our way into the crowd. It's pretty hard to make out in this grainy video, but there is documentary evidence of us flailing about at the 2:02 mark... (N.B. This video is tagged as being 1994, when the Senseless Things also played, but I'm convinced that this is from the '93 set, not least because my hair would have been a sight longer in '94...)
 

Over on the smaller stage (this being the era when Reading had but two stages, along with a comedy tent), we enjoyed the double whammy of Credit To The Nation and Senser. The former were enjoying plenty of attention on the back of their single Call It What You Want, which prominently featured a sample of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. As the opening bars were identical, this would cause widespread confusion on indie dancefloors for a few years, with a tangible disappointment in the air whenever Credit's rinky-dink bassline kicked in - as it inevitably did, given that for a while there most clubs had unofficially banned Smells Like Teen Spirit, what with feverish youth attempting to outdo the tune's mosharama video. Anyway... Credit To The Nation was essentially MC Fusion, a black teenager from the Midlands. His youth provided both the good and bad things about Credit - it meant that he was fearless in (lyrically) attacking the BNP, police, sexist rappers, etc, but also that he did so with the skill of a Fifth Form debating society. Also, by explicitly seeking a crossover with both indie and pop, he alienated the British hip hop community, who at this point were more into harder (and superior) outfits like Gunshot or Katch 22. For all that, we enjoyed Credit's set, though it's telling that the comment that sticks in my head is Natalie saying that she'd picked up some new moves by watching Credit's dancers.

Although also fronted by a rapper, Senser were very much a different kettle of fish. Not only were they an actual band, but they featured a metal guitarist, hippy female co-vocalist, influences from the crusty end of techno... and a bloke called Haggis. Unlike Credit, their best tunes still hold up today, and it isn't an exaggeration to suggest that they were the closest the UK got to producing a Rage Against The Machine - as well as their fusions of sound, both bands gave voice to paranoid agit-prop, and tunes like Eject and Age Of Panic shared the dancefloor-destroying rush of Rage's hits. At Reading '93, their fiery rap/techno/metal inspired kids to climb the tent poles and dive into the crowd from a great height, forcing rapper Heitham to stop the set as violence flared.

Obviously, the Ozrics also played. Where Glastonbury was their heartland, a billing on the main stage at Reading was a sign of how far they'd come, from releasing homemade cassette albums to music press covers and a No.11 chart placing for Jurassic Shift. While a large proportion of the crowd used the Ozrics set as a perfect opportunity to have a sit down in the August bank holiday sun, set-closer Kick Muck proved as much fun as ever.

After the Ozrics, Therapy? took to the main stage. Another band very much on the rise, they'd spent 1993 releasing a trilogy of classic EPs which gifted the world with the tunes Screamager, Turn and Opal Mantra. In the process, they'd begun the crossover into the mainstream which the following year's Troublegum album would complete. Their Reading set showed them balancing their more commercial material with noisy tuneage from their earlier days, like this one...

 

To be honest, I think we headed home after that. We weren't interested in The The and Siouxsie & The Banshees on the main stage, and I have a feeling Radiohead cancelled on the second stage, so rather than stick around for Blur, we decided to leg it. This may have been the occasion when Simon ran out of petrol a few miles outside Portsmouth, forcing us to hitch home (this being the days before widespread mobile usage, we couldn't phone his folks or anything...).
You might have thought that Reading would have been our last festival for the summer, but you'd be wrong... I'm not sure whether the Pilton Village Fete still happens, but back in the day Michael Eavis used to finish the summer with a little party on Pilton's playing fields to thank locals for their support of Glastonbury. Simon and I went in '93 and, obviously, the Ozrics played. (I think Senser did too, although that might have been the following year).

So, the summer of 1993 was done and I was off to uni any day... just time to go and see Yeovil band Gutless at local pub the Quicksilver Mail, though! I'd caught them supporting PJ Harvey in Southampton earlier in the year, and as local gigs in my Somerset stomping ground were few and far between I didn't want to miss this.Combining the slightly dour indie which populated the local scene with a more thrilling and noisy experimental edge reminiscent of Sonic Youth, I didn't really know what to make of them then - and with only a 7" single and zero internet presence now, I'm still none the wiser. I did, however, buy a t-shirt, only realizing after I'd bought it that it was emblazoned with the phrase "Townie Scum Must Die"...

And with that, I was off to mingle with the townie scum in Southampton...