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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. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. 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. 

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!