Category Archives: Music Reviews

The Curiouser Top Ten Albums of 2018

Clearly, The Doors’ Live at the Isle of Wight Festival is the best album released in 2018, but in the spirit of giving new artists (such as The Damned and Superchunk) a chance to shine, I’m going to stick to albums actually recorded within the last year, or failing that, at least within my lifetime! I’ve also just noticed it appears to have been quite the year for black metal…

1 Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

As soon as this as announced last year, I did have an inkling that this, the first release I picked up in the first week of 2018, might become my favourite album of the year, but I wasn’t expecting what it turned out to be. From being heirs-apparent to Satyricon’s “mainstream” black metal throne with their last release, they’ve gone right back to their underground roots with something more comparable to Marduk’s decades old masterwork Panzer Division Marduk. It’s a twisted journey through many intertwining layers of ferocity, and it’s an incredible one.

2 Violet Cold – Sommermorgen, Pt. I: Innocence, Pt. II: Joy, Pt. III: Nostalgia

Without doubt the best triple album of the year, as well as being the most uplifting and emotional rock album(s) of most years! Completely instrumental; part shoegaze, in no small part thanks to consistently wonderful soaring guitar lines that might even make Slowdive look on in awe, and part post-metal, though in a distinctly un-metal way. Absolutely fantastic set of albums that I’d have taken any one of in any given year, that have been in non-stop rotation since they all appeared. Just wonderful.

3 Marduk – Viktoria

The opening track, Werwolf, confirms this as a classic Marduk black metal blitz. It just blows your socks off every listen, and whilst the band do offer the odd melodic respite throughout the album, this is pretty much what you get for the duration. Great musicianship, true to form subject matter that will offend all who deserve to be offended, and just a wonderfully cold, cold record.

4 Immortal- Northern Chaos Gods

Masterful mix of raw aggression and more ambient moments, and a masterwork in black metal songwriting throughout, none more so than in 10-minute album closer, Mighty Ravendark. Special mention to some fantastic use of clean guitars that somehow add even more grimness to the mix. Exquisite.

5 Ghost – Prequelle

When Abba met Kiss… or as the recently outed mastermind behind Ghost, Tobias Forge said, sounds like the band from the seventies you never heard. Another slice of bonkers dark glam rock that is more stadium than occult now, but is still sinister (loosely themed as a concept album about the Black Death), is often strangely hypnotic and is as catchy as hell.

6 Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest

This is some complex, heavy satanic black metal! There’s choirs, chanting, operatics, orchestras and ambience, but those are all just finishing touches to a vision of hell that it’s hard to tear your ears away from. They’re not really pushing any boundaries, but their evil excellence makes that totally irrelevant.

7 Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins

Always a band I look forward to hearing something new from – progressive (as in progressive, not prog) as ever, often epic, doom-laden, Celtic folk-tinged black-ish metal! As always, the bleak lyrics come across as a call to war, complementing a highly atmospheric, crushing and elemental album from these masters of their art.

8 The Damned – Evil Spirits

Despite being a band I’ve been into since a very early age, and one that created my favourite album ever in Phantasmagoria, I’ve always maintained that you could probably make one decent album out of everything The Damned has produced since Anything in 1985. Then along comes Evil Spirits, and it’s not only a decent album, but a very good one indeed! It does hark back to Anything, with a very 80’s multi-layered production style, and the band once again tapping into their more psychedelic influences. It might not be very punk anymore, but they still know how to write a catchy, angry tune!

9 Ihsahn – Amr

Incredibly polished, atmospheric and almost cinematic, just like every release since Ihsahn emerged from Emperor. And with every release, he’s moving the boundaries further from what started as black metal with some clever embellishments, to some mind-boggling songwriting that touches all kinds of genres, metal and otherwise. There are so many layers, so many things going on and so many contrasts that on first listen you have no idea where he’ll go next, or even where the sound will come from next if you’re listening to this in headphones! Bonafide genius.

10 Venom – Storm the Gates

There’s nothing more heartwarming than a new Venom album dropping out of nowhere, just in time for Christmas when I thought this top ten was complete (sorry Superchunk). Cronos still sounds great, as does the trademark blackened, dirty thrash. The rawness is still there despite production they could only have dreamed of when the classic records were made. And despite the classic lineup being long since gone, it still sounds like classic Venom.

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Albums of 2017

Obviously The Doors’ Strange Days remaster is the best release of 2017, but anything touched by the hand of Morrison transcends mere lists and is therefore not eligible for inclusion at number one, though my favourite living band are definitely worthy alternatives…

1. The Afghan Whigs – In Spades

I love this band. I listen to their entire, almost thirty year long, back catalog incessantly. There’s simply nothing else out there like them, and nothing this year like this. Soulful, sleazy, multidimensional alt-rock with the most talented vocalist of several generations serving up all the grizzled drama and heartache you’ll need until the next time.

2. Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep

These guys continue to transcend Norwegian black metal with this. Every track is just of such high quality, both in musicianship and sound. And big choruses. Each offers its own variety of polished darkness, with the band never afraid to experiment, whether it’s just dropping the heavy chugging and ferocious blast beats for some (admittedly equally heavy and ferocious) finger picking, going orchestral, operatic or even throwing in some kind of Arabian sax. Just genius.

3. Black Anvil – As Was

Exquisitely produced, sophisticated black-prog metal that came early in the year but from first listen was clear to make this list at the end of it. Very atmospheric, very complex, very heavy, and a real hypnotic joy to listen to, especially through an expensive pair of cans! What Venom might have been if they’d had the money.

4. Moon Duo – Occult Architecture, Vol. 1

The best new romantic psychedelic garage I’ve heard in ages! Given I only grabbed this from Apple Music on the basis of the word “occult” in the title, what a find! And there was a Vol. 2 this year too! Definitely look both of them up for a mesmerising, entirely legal high.

5. Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down

I didn’t realise how much I missed the old Manson until I listened to this for the fist time. Back in his black glittery box full of bombastic, stadium industrial obscenity. Exactly where I like him. The Halloween party that keeps on giving all year long.

6. The Black Angels – Death Song

A wonderful slab of dark, threatening, noisy garage psychedelia from Texas. Or 1968. Which I’ve just noticed spells out where they got their name from! More 13th Floor Elevators than Velvet Underground though. Anyway, it’s their best album to date and a great listen.

7. Gary Numan – Savage (Songs From a Broken World)

This album could be rubbish and would still have to be on here to mark yet another milestone from the man that invented music in 1978. Fortunately it’s anything but rubbish. He’s ditched the silver jumpsuits of old for a messianic take on Mad Max in a post-apocalyptic Middle East; there’s really no stopping him! Mixing synth-industrial with exotic trinkets, The Numanoid continues to bring electronic theatre to the miserable like no one else.

8. White Ward – Futility Report

Black metal infused with lounge sax. It really works! These Ukrainians know their Norwegian heritage, they know their instruments, and they know how to craft an incredible, haunting, depressive journey.

9. Myrkur – Mareridt

Black metal infused with folk – not quite up there with a sax, but it also really works! This album is absolutely stunning. A one-woman odyssey from synth-tinged folk-doom to guttural modern black metal and back again over and over. She’s got serious potential to climb high on my self-indulgent lists in the future!

10. Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay

Much like their last album, this isn’t the best Cradle of Filth album but it’s a very good one. Actually, it’s very much like their last album, but that’s no bad thing. All the elements are there – melodic black metal padded out with orchestral gothic drama; the musical equivalent of a generic Hammer film. Meaning there’s more than enough to love here no matter how many times you care to listen.

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Albums of 2016

I’m regularly lambasted for being old and out of touch, but I’m quite proud to prove that at least one of those accusations wrong with at least 90% of this list! Not a Metallica or Rolling Stones in sight, though I’m still fond of this year’s output. And I still don’t like Bowie. 
  1. Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – Jesu & Sun Kil Moon. When you’ve got a name that catchy, I think it makes sense to use it on your album too!  Amazing how adding one element can make everything so different. It’s never been such a stretch to associate previous Jesu stuff to Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh past, but Kozelek’s ultra-slacker vocals unexpectedly shift this right into Red House Painters territory (more so than his Sun Kil Moon incarnation), rather than the post-rock shoegaze you’d expect, even though it’s often still there in the background textures. I love Jesu, I love Red House Painters, this is a very unlikely dream come true!
  2. Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow. More shoegaze, but this time I’d call it post-hardcore shoegaze! There’s some really incredible soaring and shimmering guitar at play here, but with an occasional hint of heaviness to it that sets it apart from the likes of my other favourites Klimt1918, Swervedriver or My Vitriol, veering towards early Smashing Pumpkins. That heaviness applies even more to the lyrics though, nodding to the band members’ hardcore past and echoing Ian Curtis with a bit of disease and decay sprinkled on top.
  3. Desert Mountain Tribe – Either That or the Moon. Driving, melodic psychedelic rock that can really suck you in and mesmerise you for it’s full length. Multi-layered and complex, great vocals and some really captivating instrumentals. One of my new finds of the year!
  4. Black Angel Drifter – Black Angel Drifter. I know I wasn’t actually there, but this takes me right back to my beloved early seventies Texarkana swampland; look up The Legend of Boggy Creek on YouTube! Feral, gothic, sparce Americana about murder and addiction and stuff, just like I plan to make one day!
  5. Dawn of Ashes – Theophany. I listened to this more than any other [new] album this year. Intense but accessible modern industrial black metal, only let down by an unnecessary Nine Inch Nails cover at the ends, but that’s very easy to avoid. 
  6. FEWS – Means. My annual breakthrough psychedelic post-punk act, and these Swedish-Americans definitely outshone anything else in this admittedly specialist genre in 2016! Literally 20 seconds of Apple Music preview was all it took me to know I’d found one of my albums of the year. Emotive guitar lines, a driving, almost hypnotic bass and a lovely air of playful gloom. Great album. 
  7. The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum. I think this was the first album I picked up this year and one I had high expectations for. I’ve been a fan since their first album, and always seen them as a bit of a throwback to something, but it’s hard to pin down what – the late 60’s and The Beach Boys; some proggy thing from the 70’s that I’d probably claim I’m not familiar with even if I was; early 90’s shoegaze… For anyone else that’s followed the band, it is a bit by numbers, albeit feeling slightly more “dense” than the more dreamy last couple of albums. That said, they live in their own grandiose, atmospheric world, and I was more than happy to visit it repeatedly through 2016 with this album.
  8. Dinosaur Jr. Pure comfort food for anyone that lived through grunge and was intelligent enough to peek below its surface. Perfect summertime forty-something nostalgia!
  9. Ihsahn – Arktis. Intensely atmospheric latest release by the man from Emperor. Moments of dark ambience, prog and electronica perfectly complement an emotional black metal masterclass.  
  10. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree. Beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Just put it on through some decent headphones and listen to every word. He deserves nothing less. 

My Top Ten of 2015 – Albums

As mentioned in my last couple of posts, not sure why I decided to do this, but throughout the year I’ve been keeping top ten lists of games, films and albums. Here’s the albums one to complete the set. 

 

1. Slayer – Repentless

You know exactly what you’re getting in the first few seconds of this album. It’s unmistakably Slayer, and there can be little more that any fan could demand of a new Slayer album in 2015. The first few tracks hint at the speed rush of Hell Awaits, then interludes emerge nodding more to the more oppressive tone of South of Heaven. Yes, that means more of the same, but that also means more of Slayer, and this year there’s been nothing else that can touch that.

 

2. Satyricon – Live at the Opera

Whether live or on record, no other progressive black metal band offers polish, accessibility or innovation like Satyricon. And all three are present by the bucket load when they team up with the Norwegian Choir here. On the surface an odd mash-up but just imagine the soundtrack to The Omen then you’re not that far away from the peerless intensity and devastation summoned up in Satyricon’s recent past. If you’re going to lie in the dark with a decent pair of headphones on with anything, do it with this. 

 

3. Swervedriver- I Wasn’t Born to Lose You

Swervedriver were a huge part of the soundtrack to my young adult years, and after all these years they returned to where they left off, somewhere between shoegaze, garage rock and early grunge. Maybe not enough for some, but I couldn’t ask for more. 

 

4. Violet Cold – Desperate Dreams

Post-black metal with synths by a one-man outfit from Azerbaijan doesn’t really do this justice. It is the earliest example of why I quickly converted to Apple Music though – served it up on a beautiful, expressive plate to me when I first started using it for music discovery. From the opening piano track to the immersive, bleak wall of shimmering guitar, keyboards and black metal vocals it develops into, this is a wonderful piece of work. 

 

5. Killing Joke – Pylon

A relentless, pounding industrial war cry from the outset. While the youth seem content with whining, lacklustre, easy listening that you used to hope you’d never grow into, the Youth and his cohort continue to do anger like it never went out of fashion 35 years ago. Middle aged is the new punk. 

 

6. The Black Ryder – The Door Behind the Door

Great piece of late 60’s / early 70’s inspired psychedelic progressive shoegaze… Did I just coin a new genre? This is ambitious and arrogant, just like rock bands used to be.

 

7. Froth – Bleak

A bit like the aforementioned Swervedriver, this is driving music for those with a mindo of their own – a bit of that Sub Pop style lo-fi, a bit Mary Chain, a bit garage. Very melodic, very West Coast US. Very good. 

 

8. Venom – From the Very Depths

Thankfully some things never change. If you are the type that’s going to buy a new Venom album, you want a Venom album, and that’s what this is. It was never going to capture the energy of the early releases that revolutionised metal all those years ago, but the passion is still there. 

 

9. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts

This is Depeche Mode with guitars instead of synths, which makes it a completely different prospect but a very appealing one. What a solo project should sound like. There’s a couple of really outstanding tracks on there too. 

 

10. Cradle of Filth – Hammer of the Witches

Vintage Filth – hugely produced, extremely polished orchestral black metal. From eerie soundscapes to pompous thrash, it’s all present and very correct. 

Robert Hallward – “9″ Review

Robert Hallward – “9” reviewed by Steve Norman

A wanderer above the mist, momentarily hesitating to contemplate, one more time, the nature of himself as absolute; being of himself and the world before him, and not yet before him, but about to be decided by his own hand…

Or maybe the cover of “9” is simply telling us that when the photographer pressed the button on her camera, Robert happened to be standing between some trees holding an egg.

Either is likely, or equally likely is another (although I’ll bet I’m not far off with my Nietzsche thinking!), and this is the undoubtedly intentional essence of the enigma presented to us in “9” and, as ever, in the artist himself.

Exploring further into the inlay, it immediately reveals that this album, the ninth in a series of nine, was “recorded roughly, but with love.” To my untrained ear, it doesn’t sound especially rough, but has clearly been recorded with love.

The glam-pomp and complexity of “Written on the Edge of the Moon” have evolved into something that is sometimes equally complex but always less tightly wound, both in terms of the artist as he comes across, clearly at ease with whatever conclusion it is hat “9” brings, and in terms of a much ‘looser’ listening experience, perhaps in preparation to be heard live this time around? We can but hope

From a slow-burn opening, hinting at the memory of what came before it, first track “Great Lone Figures” emerges into vintage Hallward; a soft-spoken, piano-led exploration into the dismantling of our need for belief in a higher purpose.

The disease of genius follows in “Chapter 25,” with piano gradually taking a backseat to a rich tambourine, building the tempo towards a Roxy-esque guitar introducing the concept of love over religion in “Whatever We Believe,” where Rob’s wonderful grip of using theatrics as an entity in its own right within a song come to the fore. Theatre established, the journey continues through themes of gnosticism, isolation, global politics, genius, love, genius, madness and love; I’ve skipped a few (simply to avoid this turning from review into War and Peace), but to this point “9” seems to be a summary of where Robert is today, sometimes via what brought him here.

As the album, and the closing chapters of something bigger that we’re never really party to, progress towards conclusion, “Share” tones down the ongoing theatrics, a sole piano accompanying a more understated vocal, telling us that “there’s enough for all the world” but still with a hint of self-doubt, until “Sweet, Sweet Revolution” picks up the pace once more as the void filled by the need for a god is filled by love instead.

And then we close with the title track, “9.” And where to begin? The wanderer above the mist? The world before him? A being absolute? “One” emerging (as love?), but part of everything else as it changes for better or worse? One things for sure, in under four minutes this track cohesively throws us from one end of Robert’s eclectic – and occasionally eccentric – musical repetoire to the other, virtually serving as a recap of everything that’s come before. “One” fading into nine as “9” fades into nature. The rebirth of man? Or the rebirth of Man? There’s certainly more to it than it simply being the ninth album in a series – the number of heaven; the number of wisdom; the number of the hermit in a tarot deck; the fact that when multiplied, nine always reproduces itself (try it – 2 x 9 = 18 and 1 + 8 = 9, 4 x 9 = 36 and 3 + 6 = 9… try it!); that Jesus died in the ninth hour; that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies; that Robert was born on the ninth day of the month – I still don’t know, but it being a mystery as much as an album made it a thrilling final ride all the same!

Mysteries aside, and lazy as it may be, there’s little to be gained in denying the influence of a certain Mr Jones’ to both the vocal style and the overall feel of “9” – if you like Bowie, you’ll probably like this! In terms of arrangement, there’s also something of Brian Wilson lurking, from the use simple yet often surprising effects, through to the use of diverse instrumentation to enhance the melody.

However, fleeting comparisons simply to provide pop references to the potential listener are to deny the effervescent uniqueness that Robert has always delivered in his work, whether as a solo artist or going all the way back to the first time I experienced it (and in turn, dare I say, was influenced by it) in Uncle Strange.

And it’s that uniqueness – blending theatre into song, almost as a separate instrument – being given centre stage once again that stands out above all on this album. Except maybe the aforementioned love that went into it, which makes a welcome return.

I’m no expert in the German gothic romantic painter that the cover makes an apology to, but as a self-proclaimed embodiment of gothic romance (in my 90’s heyday, if less so now), I certainly feel qualified to say that with “9” there is little to apologise for!

Strangest Band I’ve Seen Live in a While!

Last Saturday, The Psychedelic Monks and the Electric Church of Doom were supporting my good friends Pearl Handled Revolver at Bedford Esquires.

The name sums up the sound exactly, but all was overshadowed by their wonderful stage look! Check out the pic below, and a short video I took at http://www.youtube.com/stvnorman.

20110821-195804.jpg

Amy Leeder – Solitary Girl EP reviewed by Steve Norman

Posted at www.bedfordesquires.co.uk on 14th July 2010.

As many regular viewers will know, I’m not the biggest fan of the singer-songwriter genre – something about the lack of booze, pyros, swearing, spandex and so on that doesn’t really do it for me as a live music proposition.

So I was intrigued to be asked to review Amy Leeder’s debut solo EP, Solitary Girl, by someone who knew this perfectly well, wondering what they knew they had up their sleeve that was going to stop me from quickly entering into the inevitable scathing rant.

Well, one thing that seeing these songs played live can’t reasonably provide, unless Amy would care to provide a private session, is absolute intimacy, and above all else that’s what this EP cries out; the live recording really generates an immediacy, and also a fragility, that shoved my preconceptions to one side within seconds.

Something else I’d never really picked up from Amy’s live performances before, probably because I didn’t really want to, and was busy moaning about people being on stage with just an acoustic guitar anyway, was the quality of her song writing. There’s a real maturity to these three tracks, especially in terms of how the vocals weave around the unfussy guitar lines and vice versa, almost as though neither came first; I’m making the assumption that one did!

Amy’s vocal style on this EP, particularly on closer and possibly strongest track, ‘Apprehensive’, does remind me of The Cranberries quieter moments, with notes being thrown around with equally natural abandon, but without the vilely exaggerated Irish accent, and maybe even a bit more depth at times. There were moments when I was afraid that she was about to go all “cockney street girl” at any second, as is bizarrely the vogue at the moment, but thankfully that never really went beyond a threat, and on second listen (yes, you heard right!), I could enjoy the whole thing without fear!

And enjoy it I genuinely did! Whilst until the day that Amy is spitting into her audience off the stage I’ll probably never be considered a fan, but I can recognise what is an outstanding talent today that can only develop into one more outstanding over the next few years, and ÔSolitary Girl’ is the ideal showcase. Check it out!