Friday, December 11, 2009

Stars Die - Review of the Year (part 1)

I'm sitting here listening to an old song by Porcupine Tree and wishing there was a band about at the moment who could replicate the sound and feel of PT circa 1994. But that's only because Porcupine Tree don't produce a sound comparable to then, despite having grown and, in some peoples eyes, progressed.

The thing is Steven Wilson and his projects have been my major discovery of the first decade of the 21st Century. Yes, the 'noughties' introduced me to such pleasures as The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Elbow, Mark Gardner, Hidria Space Folk, Taipuva Luotisuora, Mescalito, Serena Maneesh, Hybrid, Mew, the Secret Machines, Maxxess, Sigur Ros, Blow Up Hollywood and old stuff like Mazzy Star, Cradle, Lone Star, Propaganda, The Sundays, Traffic and my usual stock of old faves that regularly get wheeled out and played. This last ten years have been exciting for music in my life.

But the last 12 months have been quite remarkable, Amplifier, Pineapple Thief, Charlie Barnes, Fuck Buttons, Ladytron, Pure Reason Revolution, Riverside, Oceansize, School of Seven Bells, to name just a handful of artists that have found their way onto my radar and have stuck. There's much more, but I really can't be arsed to go trawling through my enormous record collection for obscurities that have already lost some of their sheen.

The Internet has improved my music collection and broadened my tastes. I really don't think there has been a better time for discovering diversity and real enthusiasm. I might not really understand the attraction of some of the current crop of shite, but if it's rated on drive, energy and ambition then you can't fault it.

My album of the year was not released in 2009, it came out in 2005, but I only discovered it in April. The band had such an effect on me that I broke a 24 year hoodoo and went to a festival, just to see them play live (as I discovered their music just a few weeks after they finished their small UK tour in Leicester...). The band is called Amplifier and I've been bigging them up continuously since I first heard them. They also, for me, took the best gig of the year award, because the sun came out on the worst July day imaginable and shone while they performed an almost perfect 55 minute set, before the heavens opened again and pissed all over Fightstar!

Amplifier pushed all the rock buttons on my console. Someone I discovered because of them pushed all the right buttons in another genre. The progressive torch song and intricate layered solo performances by Charlie Barnes meant that I saw him twice and the lad hasn't even got a record deal. I hope to put him on in Northampton next year, because, quite simply, he deserves to be fucking huge. To see him live is to see a future star in action. He also comes across as a thoroughly decent chap (and he's only 20!)

Pineapple Thief, who have been around for 10 years, but are barely even on the radar, are a band I discovered who seemed to fill the gap between Radiohead, Coldplay and Porcupine Tree. There's nothing anal or cheesy about them, they do good honest songs (of which some of them are 25 minutes long!). Live they are accomplished and should, if progressive pop rock was the in-thing, be bigger than they are.

Fuck Buttons came from nowhere and infiltrated my psyche almost completely. Best summed up by old gits as quite uncategorisable, the FB's produce dance music with a touch of metal nous. It's music but not like you've ever heard it, Jim. Probably can only get more commercial.

While The Secret Machines dropped down my faves chart, they were replaced by the completely different School of Seven Bells, which features an ex Machine as the driving musical force. They sound like Elizabeth Frazer on acid, or the Cocteau Twins put through a beat box - they should have been better received.

A special mention has to go to my friend Steve Messina, who's band Blow Up Hollywood have been quiet for a few years. I was really lucky to receive a 12 track 'sample' of what to expect from the new album(s) in the New Year and it was a most enjoyable way to end a year of music. The new tracks range from prog rock to Floydian stylings to simple piano and voice to Cage-esque soundscapes and modern jazz. It sounds like a mish-mash, but take it out of its 12 track context and you have some of the best music this guy and his band have ever produced. 2010 deserves to be the year they succeed and I'll do what I can to make sure us Brits hear them.

Other notable albums in the last 12 months have included the quite brilliant Porcupine Tree's The Incident; a return to form for a band who seemed to be losing their way in a miasma of heavy metal riffs. Head Porcupine Steven Wilson also released Insurgents, which was the best Porcupine Tree album for 9 years.

There have been more and I'm sure I'll mention them before the end of the month. But next time... TV.

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