As with the previous post - 15 highlights of the year (assuming my maths is sound), in alphabetical order, with evidence where I can find it. If I've already written about a selection, I've included a helpful link. Here goes....
Although, as a Plain English chap, I find myself struggling with these 'quirky' band name spellings - "Apparently it's pronounced 'Always'--" AARGH! Of course it is! Spell it properly! And that goes for you too, so-called 'Chvrches' - where was I? Oh yes, well, name aside, this album has to be the dream-pop delight of the year. Brief, catchy and more importantly, keyboards set almost exclusively to 'squelch' and that lovely echo on the vocal. Glorious.
Bitter Ruin: 'Waves'
A supremely talented band capable of inspiring enough devotion in their fanbase to hit their Kickstarter album funding target in a day - Bitten Ruin's latest record is a near-perfect distillation of a unique blend. Georgia Train's seemingly limitless voice, careering through pop, jazz and even operatic tones, sometimes in a single song, dances around Ben Richards's rock solid, often acoustic, guitar. The album works so well because it adds enough flourishes to this template without going crazy or upsetting the central balance between the two protagonists. Or antagonists, given the turmoil and drama in their storytelling. A superb set - available here.
The Budos Band: 'Burnt Offering'
The Budos Band are a superb soul/funk collective who have so far released three albums of searing instrumental work-outs: a self-titled debut, 'II', and 'III'. Either 'Burnt Offering' is the worst spelling of 'IV' I have ever seen, or something a bit different is going on - and it turns out to be the latter. Finding inspiration and common ground in the grinding catchiness of doom/stoner metal, we get guitar riffs underpinning the horns and the results are spectacular.
Kate Bush's 'Before the Dawn'
After 35 years away from the stage, Kate Bush must have been aware that in fans' eyes this was always going to be more than 'just a gig'. So that's what she gave us. None of the old stuff - but an epic show, pointing up the gems in her later catalogue, sumptuously played by an immaculate band, against an extraordinary array of visual set pieces, sketches and bravura optical illusions. A truly beautiful performer - glorious voice, effortless grace.
Michael Chapman and James Blackshaw at Bishopsgate Institute
An astonishing double bill here of two people who can pick up a guitar (each, obviously) and make you feel like you could be hearing full bands, orchestras and choirs with it. James Blackshaw has the quiet confidence of the virtuoso - he simply suggests the audience have a chat between numbers so he can change the tuning on his 12-string every time - but once he starts playing, the immersive cycles and runs have us in a rapt silence. Michael Chapman - exploring the possibilities of his instrument since the sixties - is a hero to players like Blackshaw and, in turn, is now pushing towards further outer improvisational limits with mutual support and appreciation from and for the new generation. I spent the evening in a kind of blissed-out aural heaven.
Cut Hands: 'Festival of the Dead'
Raging sampled tribal percussion - probably the best Cut Hands album so far. William Bennett makes head-spinning, complex rhythms not just cohere but dovetail and weave so that you almost stop noticing that the beats are the entire sound. An incredibly bold project - with each record I wonder what he can do next, where he can take it - but he always surprises and enthralls.
The Handsome Family at Islington Assembly Hall, London
One of my all-time favourite bands, Brett & Rennie Sparks didn't release an album this year but played a London show that, for me, was one of those 'perfect' gigs. Not simply that they were on top form (HF live shows are always superb value, with the eerie, haunting power of the songs punctuated with Rennie's dry stories) - it was one of those evenings where it was as if they'd handed me the magic marker to write the set-list. So many personal picks were aired, one of them below - 'Tesla's Hotel Room'. I've rather indulgently added two videos here, though, to include 'Far From Any Road' - one thrilling twist in their career was when the show 'True Detective' used this song as its main theme, prompting the rediscovery/resurrection of the superb 'Singing Bones' album and introducing all corners of the globe to their spooked universe. The full version of the song highlights something else that's also apparent live - Rennie's emergence as a duet singer of real beauty and character.
Barb Jungr: 'Hard Rain' (both the disc and Purcell Room London gig)
One of the UK's best vocalists in any genre, Barb Jungr is perhaps best known for her interpretations of songs often written by men - especially Bob Dylan, who had a couple of her releases all to himself even before the 'Hard Rain' record, which brings together political songs from both Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As interested in cabaret and opera as her 'home' genre, jazz, she is a fearless live performer and really communicates these songs: her stunning voice gets under their skin with just the right combination of questioning tenderness and outraged steel. Simon Wallace's discreet arrangements give her all the room she needs.
Naevus: 'Appetite and Application'
Naevus have made one brilliant album after another, but I've often wondered if we would ever get a live record or DVD to capture their thunderous presence on-stage. This wish was fulfilled this year, with the 'Appetite and Application' CD bottling a terrific set from Leipzig in late 2013. There's something about the ever-present ring of the acoustic guitar and the pounding beat (drummer Hunter Barr plays standing up) that add a ritual element to the rock swirl. By the way, there are only 100 physical copies of this - so hurry to Bandcamp and buy one - or, there's a download there for you instead if you prefer, of course. (While you're there, feel free to dip further into the Naevus back catalogue because it's all great - you could start with the majestic 'Stations' compilation or most recent album 'The Division of Labour'...)
Raf & O: 'Time Machine'
This duo really have nailed a unique sound. While the term 'folktronica' has become a byword for bleepy meandering, to my mind this band have come far closer to realising the full potential of the idea. Raf's delicate guitar and breathy, intimate vocals lure you in, while O constructs the sonic background: live, I found this spellbinding to watch - O sits at a drum kit and plays with a hyperactive dexterity, triggering modified sounds along the way. The overall impression is that instead of trying to programme 'real'-sounding drums, O has reversed the process to almost mechanise himself, creating a 'ghost in the machine' vibe. The album, like their performances, suspends you between swoon and shudder: a fantastic release, available here.
Rasp: 'Radiate Power Words'
I wrote extensively about Rasp when it happened - here - but now the CD is out, it's great to be able to recommend it and enthuse about the enterprise all over again. In brief, the project is the work of songwriter/violinist Matt Howden and cellist/composer Jo Quail. The records they make individually are very different, and they've arguably released 'best ever' records in 2014: JQ's 'Caldera' is in my classical round-up, and the latest release from Sieben (MH's alter ego) is a paragraph or two below. Recognising their strong musical rapport, they came up with an ambitious and unusual plan - assemble a record from start to finish in two days. This involved a writing session (in public and on the web) on the afternoon of day one, a live performance that evening to road-test the material, then a follow-up session the next evening to record the songs live to tape. The result was raw (as you'd expect), heady and powerful - being there is likely to remain one of my most treasured musical experiences and the album captures the atmosphere of delicate abandon. The album is available from both MH's and JQ's websites.
Shadow Biosphere: 'Parallel Evolution'
A fascinating album of instrumental electronica inspired by the theory that other life has evolved separately on Earth and co-exist with those we know about. This idea could be coldly scientific, the stuff of weird horror, or both - depending on your imagination or point of view. The music runs with this brilliantly, combining forensic attention to detail with absorbing melodies and a real sense of 3D space/atmosphere. You'll be pleased to hear that I rave about it at greater length in a full review here. In summary, though, I'd suggest you take note of how fully-formed the project is at its arrival - the music and visuals work in tandem to bring the concept (and its lifeforms) alive in your ears and eyes. The hints of early electronic music only underline the suspicion there's something organic in the programming... Digital version available at Bandcamp, or message the band through their Facebook page to see if any physical copies are still available.
Sieben: 'Each Divine Spark'
Setting the benchmark for brilliant albums very early on in 2014, Matt Howden released possibly his greatest record so far (full review here). Still based around his voice, violin and loop pedal - and the endless ways he invents and re-invents to use them - 'Each Divine Spark' was a masterclass in varied, versatile songwriting and arranging. Tracks build from initial plucked notes before launching off in all kinds of directions: haunting laments, sinister distortion, addictive beats. It feels like everything has been ratcheted up - powerful, succinct lyrics (MH has long been a masterful word-wrangler) sung close to the mic, and a production job with some of the tracks and loops cut 'live' so you feel the music is wrapping itself around you. Let it. (Again, best way to do this is through the Sieben shop.)
Scott Walker & Sunn O))): 'Soused'
A collaboration that first provoked almost a delighted disbelief...(the appearance of the 'scott O)))' logo), then seemed to make perfect sense, and then didn't actually sound quite like what people expected. I suppose given Walker's unhinged solo releases and Sunn O)))'s anatomy-rearranging drone and volume, many people were expecting something that couldn't be safely listened to by humans. On the contrary, 'Soused' is a shatteringly heavy but accessible and fascinating metal record that preserves everyone's integrity but at the same time buffs them up and makes them face outwards. (Warning - the video is very much of the 'arthouse horror' variety - please view responsibly: it's NSFW and probably NSF anyone delicate. Not sure how many Scott Walker or Sunn O))) fans are likely to be 'delicate' but I'm a cautious chap.)
Wolf People at the Con Club, Lewes
Wolf People were a delight in 2013, releasing the remarkable 'Fain' album to the delight of people with large proggerific record collections, beards, or - like me - both. 2014 was quieter (hopefully they're making the next album) so imagine my delight when my friend Juliet, who has the mighty record collection but emphatically not the beard, invited me down to hear them play this low-key gig. One of my absolute gig highlights of the year: small room, superb sound, warm appreciative crowd - Olympian levels of synchronised nodding - and the band able to relax while still being completely on their mettle. And before I go - if you fancy another look back at 2014, please have a listen to Jules's superb radio show Indie Wonderland, which normally goes out on Barricade Radio on Wednesday evenings 9-11pm before it's uploaded on the Mixcloud and Rocking Vicar sites for posterity. The 'review of the year' show is here - it's a marvellous listen.