Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 : 40-31

40. Rotting Christ - Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy

When you’re saddled with a name implying that quick-fix sensationalism was the only card you have to play it’s unlikely fans will still be tuning in over twenty years into your career but Greece’s Rotting Christ are no ordinary metal band. ‘Kata…’ was the result of many a late night spent in the library, serving up a deafening archaeological dig through ancient cultures with a different civilisation used as inspiration for each savage morsel. The band weave between rip snorting aggression and oppressive sinister ambience over ten slabs of eclectic extremity mixing ancient language and legend with the laser-sharp delivery of a well-drilled metal band for a brutal cocktail of devastating force.

39. The Field - Cupid's Head

Four long players in and it's beginning to feel like Axel Willner is not a human being but rather an ever present electronic frequency that can only be tuned into when the moon is in the right quadrant - us mere mortals are only offered that possibility once every other year at present but it's always worth the wait. 'Cupid's Head' is a more lucid offering that 2011's planet-shaggingly fantastic 'Looping State Of Mind' but there's still plenty to dazzle and intrigue on this latest offering at the Altar of Loop, each track surfing a hypnotic trajectory around your head until you become entranced by the endless stream of star-gazing Techno tweakery. His galaxy continues to expand outwards to reveal new and fascinating worlds.

38. Factory Floor - s/t

You can't move for 90s revivalism right now in the electronic world but I'm not gonna be the one to start complaining. 'Factory Floor' harks back to the era when producers didn't need to pander to the album market, they could just lay down a string of cracking 12" releases instead of building everything up to the perfect LP. Fortunately this long-awaited debut spreads its weight evenly between certified bangers and more complex flutters across the rave spectrum, amping it up enough to satisfy the thrill seekers but keeping enough range to entice those looking for something bigger. If Fischerspooner and The Rapture had started a decade later then they'd probably sound something like this.

37. Merchandise - Total Nite

I don't know what in the Seven Galaxies of Holy Fuck was going on here but I liked it. A lot. Merchandise spread themselves between Trash Can Sinatras, 'Nowhere'-era Ride, Captain Beefheart and an acid-frazzled Dire Straits over five perplexing tracks held together by a keen ear for fuzz pop and a very vivid imagination. 'Total Nite' is like Pink Floyd's 'Animals' reborn for the filesharing generation, the soundtrack to a confused and slightly worrying dream that leaves more questions than answers. This won't satisfy impatient visitors but if you're prepared to stick around for repeated listens then this bizarre gem of an EP might just turn out to be one of the year's most rewarding experiences.

36. Portal - Vexovoid

If you ever wanted to know what the entire universe collapsing and disappearing up its own bottom would sound like then Portal have come through with the answer. ‘Vexovoid’ isn’t just brain-curdlingly heavy, it pushes at the boundaries of music itself to make for a harrowing yet utterly compelling listen. Like a Death Metal answer to French BM enthusiasts Deathspell Omega, Portal dispense with traditional song structure in favour of an unsettling barrage of gurgles, rumbles and vocal effects that sound like they’re drawn from some new genetic hybrid forged at the bottom of a swamp. This is a blistering assault blending the warped genius of old school legends Possessed and Morbid Angel at their freeform freakiest.

35. Foals - Holy Fire

There’s absolutely no reason Foals shouldn’t be headlining festivals across the globe right now with the tunes they’ve got in the tank. ‘Holy Fire’ is a third successive triumph of nimble indie dynamics and effervescent electronic sheen that only strengthens their case for nabbing those main stage slots typically sucked up by cash-strapped 90s stalwarts on the comeback trail. They’ve still yet to produce a genuinely flawless LP but this was a more than ample addition to their canon and proves that five years on from their debut they’ve still got plenty of new ideas left to dazzle and delight.

34. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Old dude makes killer new album shocker! It should come as no surprise when someone like Nick Cave pulls a cracking record out of the bag but he somehow keeps coming out with new ways to thrill and tantalise. ‘Push The Sky Away’ is more of what he does so well, delicate and poetic with dashes of his trademark sleaze and menace plus a few tangents into the creative leftfield that will intrigue even long term fans. He went through the whole thing with a full band and even a kiddie choir this February when he came to Paris and by all accounts played another blinder last month with a totally different setlist – the boy’s no slouch and this latest platter shows that his best years may yet be ahead of him.

33. Seams - Quarters

It's nice to have electronic music that makes you want to get up and shake that ass but sometimes I'm more in the mood for something a little bit more laid-back that I can listen to on my headphones on the Metro so I can zone out from the inane conversation and poor personal hygiene. To term 'Quarters' as a mere distraction would be to do it a disservice though, the album weaving together neatly trimmed loops and effervescent synths with the finite touch of an experienced surgeon - the results are as smooth as a fridge door but reassuringly infectious as they whirr around your brain like little Techno-fuelled helicopters. This is pharmaceutical grade electronica that'll take the edge off nicely. 

32. Daniel Avery - Drone Logic

Whoever passed on their Trance Europe Express CD to this kid a few years back must have been pretty chuffed when they heard the results. 'Drone Logic' turns the clock back twenty years to the bloopy debuts of Orbital and Underworld but this is no corny nostalgia trip, Avery's take on proceedings showing enough love of the sequencer sound to slot in nicely alongside the class of '93 on this impressive debut platter. There's a didgeridoo player and a flashing pyramid-shaped light rig out there somewhere just looking for an owner that would be a perfect match for this knob-twiddling masterclass, tunes like 'Need Electric' and 'Water Jump' providing some of the year's finest electronic moments.

31. Primal Scream - More Light

There's no shortage of bands scrabbling to lay down the sound of the moment but precious few actually willing to write about the state of things in 2013, directly engaging with listeners at the risk of pissing a few people off along the way. It's sadder still that one of the only bands to actually put their money where there mouth is are about 87 years old and have already carved themselves out a reputation for zeitgeist-nailing over several key releases. 'More Light' wasn't quite on a par with 'XTRMNTR' or 'Screamadelica' but it was aiming for the same territory and succeeded in places, tracks like 'Culturecide' and the savagely accurate '2013' providing a fitting soundtrack to the troubled world we live in today.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 : 50-41

Fancy a few albums of the year? Of course you do. Plenty to choose from this year too - here's the first instalment of my top fifty.

50. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Let’s start off with a REALLY obvious one shall we? This would have been a lot higher on my list were it not for everyone else out playing the cock, arse and bollocks off it since it came out over the summer. Even set against their back catalogue this is a stunning achievement, a flawless torrent of streamlined disco and thumping club anthems that boasts both graceful attention to detail and universally accessible dancefloor appeal. Everyone latched onto this from the snootiest of music journalists to the most gormless of clubland punters which is testament to its potency as a crossover classic and any future retrospectives of 2013 will be woefully incomplete without reference to its many high points.

49. Dutch Uncles – Out Of Touch Into The Wild

Set against the worrying tendency for young bands to hedge their bets by penning music equally suited to bank adverts as indie dancefloors there was plenty of scope for this one to fall flat on its face but these boys managed to pull off an unexpected blinder back in January, coming strapped with polished studio chops and an ear for danceable guitar pop weaned on the cream of 80s Britain (Talk Talk, Orange Juice, early OMD). They’re perhaps a little too polite to warrant any sensationalist press attention but Dutch Uncles are rooted in catchy tunes and stand out ahead of their well-bred music student peers (Alt-J, Everything Everything et al) with their tightly trimmed brand of polished indie pop.

48. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

Half disarming genius and half freeform arthouse bollocks, The Knife’s latest outing should have run away with the ‘Album of the Year’ plaudits and would have done so had the duo been able to focus their charge on bowel quaking voyages through leftfield electronica and epic strobe-flecked performance pieces. Their desire to cultivate and challenge the listener spilled over into pretentiousness in places but even saddling this LP with a twenty minute track of abstract fridge noise couldn’t spoil the ride when set against meticulously constructed rave-ups like ‘Full of Fire’ and ‘Networking’. Not a flawless performance by any means but where ‘Shaking the Habitual’ was good it was bloody brilliant.

47. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Orbits between BOC albums are getting progressively longer as the duo seemingly glide further out into space but this one was worth the wait, conjuring up a lucid stroll across some barren moonscape at the end of the galaxy. Like Portishead before them the Scottish duo didn’t so much time their return to maximise sales as simply wait for emergent trends in electronic music to dislodge them from the ocean floor and bring them bubbling back to the surface for another well-received bout of knob-twiddling and sense-tinkering. This was like a warm footbath for your mind and reminded us all why they continue to be one of the genre’s best loved acts.

46. Drenge – s/t

Raging slabs from Metz and The Men brought splunderous garage indie back into the spotlight in 2012 and the same tidal wave of spew-infested slurry rolled on into the new year with corking debuts from the likes of Drenge whose hymns to violence, rutting and morbid obsession hit home like an out of control bin lorry. Subtlety isn’t so much sacrificed on here as rejected outright over thirteen tracks of rollicking garage fuzz that have the potential to turn your local toilet venue into scurvy bedlam when they rage through on tour – there’s nothing radically new on here but Drenge bring enough life to the formula to keep it alive and kicking for another bout of sweat, splatter and high volume showmanship.

45. Black Sabbath – 13

The tagline ‘Metal Legends back to their awesome best!’ has been shackled to myriad disappointments over recent years but Sabbath aren’t your average veterans and their back to basics approach proved devastatingly effective on this long-awaited return to grace. The band’s members have done more than enough to torpedo their own legacy since the glory days of the early 70s but ’13’ was a fitting addition to the likes of ‘Vol 4’ and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, stripping things back to the planet-crunching basics for a new setlist reminding you why they terrified so many people first time round. If they never do anything else then this will be a more than fitting epitaph for Metal’s founding fathers.

44. Kvelertak – Meir

In the same manner that Yank outfits like Clutch and Mastodon didn’t seem to form so much as emerge from the earth’s crust soaked in rock heritage and primordial fury, Kvelertak sound like they’ve floated to the top of a Fjord after years marinading in Black Metal dogma and imported Motorhead riffs – if their 2011 debut was the soundtrack to their surfacing then ‘Meir’ is them lurching onto the shores and baring down on the nearest village for a feast of terrified peasants, lunging and roaring through a torrent of bone-quaking rock ‘n’ roll and scorching metal delivery. The lyrics may be in Norwegian but they’re speaking a language that any discerning metalhead will understand only too well.

43. Chelsea Wolfe – Pain Is Beauty

Satan’s babysitter came through with the goods again this year with her most diverse offering to date, elaborating on her bone-dry acoustics and tormented garage rock with some poised electronic tangents and more languid passages to thrill and chill all over again. She could easily have turned herself into another gaudy caricature of moon-baked eccentricity by now just to curry favour with the Goth crowd but ‘Pain Is Beauty’ is deftly calculated, the soundtrack to a nervous tour around a mansion whose every room is haunted by a different type of ghost. Wolfe’s morbid visions become ever more vivid and fascinating with each release and four albums in she’s still impossible to predict. Spellbinding stuff.

42. Cult of Luna – Vertikal

Luna’s rise to prominence as part of the post-metal boom in the early noughties looked to have lapsed into complacency by the end of the decade but they burst back into life with this stonking return to form that projected the epic hardcore turbulence of their earlier work onto the far edge of the solar system for something truly spectacular. ‘Vertikal’ sounded like Prometheus-style Titans banging out Neurosis riffs from the inside of a hollowed-out planet somewhere far, far away – like cyborgs disassembled and rebuilt backwards in a terrifying new age, this LP was an earth-shaking roar of staggered alienation that was well worth several years of creative blight and confusion.

41. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

The class of 2008 came back in force this year (Foals, Fuck Buttons) but no-one shouldered quite the anticipation of Vampire Weekend whose third offering seemed to surface in a totally different world to their opening twinset. The rapid-fire festival anthems of yesteryear were dismantled and re-assembled for ‘Modern…’ resulting in a mix that was less immediate but ultimately all the more rewarding - they still have the potential to irritate but these lads are clever enough to balance their shtick between easily accessible pop and PHD quality genre-splicing. They remind me a bit of post-Police Sting with the wit and World Music, easy to hate on but impossible to resist in the long term. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

New : Watain - 'The Wild Hunt'

Black Metal, for all its years in the wildnerness as rock music's most despised and misunderstood subsection, actually seems to be drifting into mainstream favour at the moment - this week's NME actually ran a non-ironic essential BM albums feature without a hint of novelty to it and Deafheaven's blissfully abrasive 'Sunbather' LP has courted favour from fans across the musical spectrum. Clouds of ominous noise have crept across the landscape of 2013's release schedule with slabs of dark electronica from Fuck Buttons and Boards of Canada notching crossover success whilst the emergence of the first My Bloody Valentine LP in two decades reminded us all that indie doesn't need to be concessionary and subtle to connect to huge audiences. The nihilistic headspace of BM's more reflective moments has always held the potential to cross over to fans outside the genre partial to destabilising swathes of noise but the music's confrontational image and absolutist worldview has long alienated the more faint-hearted out there (this is probably no accident) and a major leap of faith still lies between you average indie fan and a wider appreciation of the Burzum back catalogue. The Deafheaven LP may well be the record to bridge that gap but the first port of call for new arrivals on the shores of Black Metal's craggy territory should be Watain's latest addition to their already sublime canon, one that  provides a conveniently diverse range of flavours to entice the uninitiated. I got into these boys a couple of years back with their utterly stunning 'Lawless Darkness' album and the live document that followed it but sailing further into the murky sea of their back catalogue reveals a seam of equally disarming quality, recreating the illicit joy of those first adolescent encounters with the dark art of Metal with a spirited recreation of the genre's most seductive moments infused with a savage dose of venomous bile and aggression that commands nothing less than your undivided attention until the last note fades from the speakers. 'The Wild Hunt' won't disappoint fans of their earlier material in its raging intensity and harrowing stormblast but the band have widened their attack to take in subtler forms of siege, at times whipping their assault into maddening tornados of borderline chaos whilst then allowing the air to clear enough for more delicate elements of acoustic guitar, piano and even more distinctly melodic vocals to rise to the fore. The latter element in particular will surely prompt numerous tedious web debates over whether or not the band have sold out to the sucker - Black Metal's dedication to stylistic purity is both its sternest virtue and biggest weakness - but there's enough here to satiate both traditionalists and those curious to hear intriguing new twists on the band's dark foul art. It might prove one step too far for the purists but 'The Wild Hunt' has a palette broad enough to open up its appeal to audiences far outside the notoriously reclusive confines of modern BM and see them finally recognised as the brightest creative force in modern Metal.

Things kick off with the lugubrious BM atmospherics of opener 'Night Visions' which soon give way to the rampaging sonic shitblast of 'De Profundis' in a similar vein to the onset of Morbid Angel's 'Blessed are the Sick' opus, Black Metal infused with the elegance of Renaissance Art yet shot through with the anguished twists and turns of a 17th Century painter in the throws of an Absinthe blackout. Riffs tumble forth like insects devouring carrion, ruthlessly efficient yet somehow fascinating in their intricate barbarism as the band tangle the listener in labyrinthine twists of dark matter like spiders ensnaring their next meal. 'Sleepless Evil' bursts in upon a tidal wave of murky water before spiralling into paroxysms of garbled shrieking like mischievous succubi tormenting the demented and balances some of the record's most scorching guitar onslaught with graceful passages of solemn piano that sound like they're echoing from the bowels of a deserted mansion whilst the devilish narrative of 'The Child Must Die' revives King Diamond at his most theatrical infused with the raging pulse of battle-hardened BM fury. For every relentless barrage of venom there's a lucid sequence to fascinate and perplex the listener, the face-melting fury of 'Outlaw' supplanted by the sublime moonlit melody of 'Ignem Veni Mittere' which builds on the Forgotten Realms fantasy shtick of classic Morbid Angel to create something altogether more graceful and exquisite, epic passages of intricate guitarwork echoing across the landscape of some dark planet in the vein of Metallica at their 80s creative zenith. A cynic would cite the album's softer moments as Watain's own 'Black Album' style leap into the mainstream, the towering solemnity of 'They Rode On' breaking with tradition starkly enough to potentially become their own 'Nothing Else Matters' - in reality 'The Wild Hunt' is more likely to represent their 'And Justice For All', a deftly-crafted addition to their already peerless canon that owes its commercial potential more to a mainstream shift to darker tastes than to the band's own tempering of their chosen formula. To call the gentler tracks ballads would be stretching it a bit, frontman Erik Danielsen's habitual death gurgle supplanted by a surprisingly soothing croon that twists to the song's gentle melody line like ancient trees creaking in the wind as the band reign in their stormblast to perplex and confound with evocative soundtracks to a different kind of nightmare. The title track glides through six minutes of mournful finality like the night glide down river to your encroaching demise whilst the aforementioned 'They Rode On' would be a ludicrous statement for a fledgling BM outfit but for a creative force as peerless as Watain it represents a band at the composed summit of their art and deserves to carry a generation of new listeners into the darker realms of Heavy Metal as their forbearers did all those years before. I've said before on this blog that Watain are the only band in Metal that truly encapsulate the thrill I felt listening to my cassette of 'Ride the Lightning' as a curious 14 year old, hanging on every note in the darkness of my bedroom with an intense mix of fascination and fear as a dark tapestry unfolded in front of me for the first time. Watain's potency continues to strengthen with each release and 'The Wild Hunt' represents their genre at its most intoxicating and majestic - if you have even a passing interest in Metal then I urge you to seek this one out without further ado for an introduction to the band who still have the potential to pilot the genre through the years that lie ahead.

Check out : the video for 'All That May Bleed' for the visual, the title track for the aural.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

New : Boards of Canada - 'Tomorrow's Harvest' / Tycho 'Dive'

One of the advantageous of being in a publicity-evasive electronic act is that you can probably get away with ageing extremely badly without anyone really noticing as there are no promo photos to accompany your releases. Seriously, Daft Punk have managed to navigate their way through fifteen years of cultural pertinence with a variety of upturned dustbins on their heads and Scotland's BOC have managed to last just as long ranked as one of electronic indie's biggest draws whilst hidden behind banks of dimly lit sequencers. I can remember seeing a photo of the pair fairly early on in their career and the only thing I can remember from it is that they both had beards. If this was indeed the case back then I can only assume said beards are now preposterously long and require plaiting and pinning back during their increasingly rare live performances, a bit like the knob-twiddling equivalent of ZZ Top. Anyway, it's a fairly healthy time for anyone who released a half decent album in the 90s to raise their heads above the parapet and the runaway success of 'Random Access Memories' must be encouraging to a band who've timed their releases in similar fashion, only now reaching their fourth full length after their much-feted beginnings in the electronica boom of the late 90s. There isn't much else to link the two bands admittedly, although I'd argue that world wasn't holding its breath for a new Daft Punk album but was very pleased for one to come along in 2013 and the same is probably true for 'Tomorrow's Harvest', a welcome return for a band absent from the airwaves since the muted success of 'The Campfire Headphase' in the mid-noughties. BOC always remind me of music you'd like on your headphones whilst walking round an art gallery, soothing and unintrusive yet sprinkled with clever ideas and evocative soundbites - the kaleidoscopic nostalgia buzz of their debut 'Music has the right to Children' from back in '98 and the let's get stoned in the woods throb of the 'In a Beautiful Place out in the Country' EP from 2000 gave way to a slightly sinister vibe for 2002's 'Geogaddi' which they've picked up again with this new one, stepping away from the 70s documentaries on rock formations and channelling something more atuned to those slightly scary sci-fi flicks from back in the day depicting barren planets and hypnotic soundwaves leading astronauts off the beaten track. I like to think that there's a film out there to accompany this stuff depicting intrepid space travellers exploring undiscovered ecospheres, pacing through crystal blue moon landscapes and taking samples of the mildly threatening wildlife. As with their earlier releases there's little point trying to pick favourites from the tracks present which blend seamlessly into one continuous melt of sound and colour and it's a record you'll need to give a few spins before the combined effects really start to sink in - fortunately the band's pedigree means that plenty of people will be willing to give them the time and I felt in fairly safe hands shelling out for a copy despite not being able to give the album a sample listen on Spotify for some reason. My money's worth was there waiting for me when I gave 'Tomorrow's Harvest' my full attention and it will surely provide a worthy soundtrack to many fun afternoons defrosting the fridge or recovering from a stinking hangover.

If you do pick up a copy of 'Tomorrow's Harvest', one thing you won't be doing is dancing your ass off to it with a Cheshire Cat grin reserved for those who've just chanced upon a set of stainless steel electronic anthems. For such thrills I would recommend a sneak peak at Tycho's stonking debut 'Dive' which dropped back in 2011 to moderate fanfare - the crystalline analogue throb and sunrise at the plankton colony reverb are present and correct, harking back to BOC's more accessible moments but Tycho's gameplan is focussed on providing satisfaction in five minute swathes rather than over the course of an entire LP. 'Dive' comprises ten such bursts all of which get to the point quickly and effectively without slipping into gimmickry, easing in melodic hooks that spiral through the songs like ink mixing with water to forge a set of memorable moments of serene electronica. In a way this reminds me of Apparat's 'The Devil's Walk' which also dropped to subdued acclaim back in '11 to hang in peripheral vision until someone decided to ruin it by sticking it on a car advert or something - Tycho may yet succumb to such a fate but for the moment he's safe from overkill so you should be able to enjoy 'Dive' on your own terms. Those BOC nature documentary synths resonate across most of the tracks but he eases the basslines into more prominent territory and rachets up the drum cracks to give a more recognisable frame to the material - there's even a spot of acoustic guitar in there to hang your coat on. The warm spearmint throb runs through every track but instead of numbing your head it gets into your bones and makes you want to shake a leg - this is one for those morning runs by the canal as opposed to the spiritually vulnerable lie-ins shaking off the Stella demons. You'll be picking playlist tracks off 'Dive' for some time to come and the diverse shades provided by the five remixes tagged on to last year's Deluxe version are worth the extra bucks to round out what is a thoroughly enjoyable journey through delectable fishtank techno. On this evidence Tycho is one sporting montage away from notching a breakthrough success that'll make his music unavoidable but it's equally plausible that he'll unleash a similarly gorgeous follow-up that'll have critics foaming at the mouth and see him spoken of with the same reverence as the reigning royals of the electronica world. Keep your eyes peeled either way, there's certainly more to this story - in the meantime bag 'Dive' and treat yourself to some fresh air and headphones for a glimpse of celestial glory.

Check out : BOC's 'Split Your Infinities' and Tycho's eight minute title track. Both sides win!

Monday, June 17, 2013

New : Deafheaven - 'Sunbather'

As someone who constantly daydreams about being a rock star despite never having even attempted learning how to sing or play an instrument I have been able to set aside plenty of time over the years to imagine just what sort of weird and wonderful music I would conjure up were I ever to actually delve into the realms of musical creativity. I think at some point along the way I came up with the idea of a genre splicing Shoegaze and Death Metal to forge a sound that combined the former's loved-up state of transcendent grace and the latter's abrasive thrashings in the darker side of the emotional spectrum. Pitching it to the major labels would have probably been quite a challenge but I was convinced the idea had legs and lo and behold only a few years later San Francisco's Deafheaven have only gone and brought my dream to life. I hadn't heard much about these guys until I chanced upon an E-music article describing them as 'The perfect middle ground between Slowdive and Marduk' which needless to say had me drooling onto my trainers in frenzied excitement and I duly bagged a copy of their 'Sunbather' LP to find out more - the contents are a puzzling mix at first but perseverance will reveal a layered cacophony of otherworldly sonic treats unlike much I've ever heard before. It's tempting to simply plant the creative flag at the crossroads between effects pedal psychedelia and windswept Black Metal soundscapes but in truth Deafheaven could have reached their final output via a number of circuitous routes through the sonisphere - Alcest's stonking 'Les Voyages de l'Ame' LP from early last year introduced emotional fragility and tear-cushioned sensual momentum to add shades of blue and green to BM's monochrome palette but they were still coming at things from a metal background, tracking back from the harsher elements of full frontal Satanism and Nihilism into a numbed, forgiving aura away from hateful reality. Deafheaven on the other hand appear to be arriving at their turbulent end product after several years labouring in the effects pedal indie  hinterland buoyed by a curiosity-fuelled trip through the Burzum back catalogue - they can strip paint with the best of 'em but it's unlikely you'll see them headlining Hole in the Sky any time soon. 'Sunbather' captures several of the now overfamiliar aspects of Chillwave indie but beams them through a bathful of sour milk and bloody hair to create a sound that pulls the genre through the looking glass into a vibrant world of negative shades and textures - your average Beach House fan will probably just pull faces but behind the screeching vocals and sandpaper riffing there's a cloud-covered realm of dreamlike sound to explore (it always bugs me how some people cream over MBV sticking five minutes of deafening feedback into 'You Made Me Realise' but can't deal with screaming vocals without curling their lips in disgust). The titles alone almost mock the Chillwave aesthetic, the title track and opener 'Dream House' both luring listeners in on a promise of lavender-scented fragility only to blast them with ten-minute deluges of abrasive noise, retaining the blastbeats 'n' scraping metal guitar rasp of standard BM infused with pink clouds of indie drone rock and epic end of the night wall of noise dynamics. There's a spot of the early noughties Isis/Cult of Luna hurricane metal in there along with the planet-sized theatrics of modern heavyweights like Shels and Amplifier and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to chuck in comparisons to the white noise floodwaves of MBV or the component tinkering of early Sonic Youth. The lads spread their charge wisely, never stormblasting for excess' sake and staggering their assault over waves of ten-minute plus journeys through raging whirlwinds of shrieking negativity purged by subdued clouds of sedated melody - this is the sonic equivalent of breaking up with your lover and shouting yourself hoarse whilst trashing your apartment before finally sinking into a drained state of resigned closure in a pile of smashed crockery. They'd excelled themselves here and their reluctance to temper the measure for populist appeal only makes 'Sunbather' all the more essential. The Chillwave boom was fun while it lasted but it's been dead and buried for a while and Deafheaven might just have found a way of using its corpse to new and thrilling effect here in 2013. 

Check out : closer 'The Pecan Tree', almost deceptively pastoral.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

New : The Knife - 'Shaking the Habitual'/Daft Punk - 'Random Access Memories'

Firstly my apologies for a prolonged absence on here - the reason for this is that I'm actually in the process of upgrading this blog to a different format and have been indulging in a spot of perfectionist tweaking whilst also augmenting the retroactive section of the site, but more on that later. Lame excuses thus dispatched, let us focus on two of this year's most significant electronic releases, The Knife's hot pink return from the artistic wilderness and Daft Punk's long awaited newbie that looks set to smash sales records all over the place. Both of these records look set to dominate the year's 'best of' lists and in truth both deserve all the praise they will undoubtedly receive, although the standard journalistic stampede to trumpet their combined qualities will probably gloss over much of their true merit. The Knife's effort is tailor made for the Guardian/Pitchfork set who cream themselves over anything bridging the gap between alternative music and modern art and the band's wordy, politicised press releases and 'challenging' performance art live shows will do nothing to put those people off whilst Daft Punk's streamlined commercial offering packs enough populist charm to seduce those simply looking for a new soundtrack to their Friday night but has plenty of depth and visceral charm to keep discerning listeners coming back for repeated listens.

I'd previously written The Knife off as unappealing clever bugger electronica on the strength of their mid-noughties material that seemed too comfortable in its own coolness for my liking - their calculated Nordic poise and reluctance to play too obviously to the elements of electronic music that actually make you want to dance made them seem like the aural equivalent of Ikea furniture, all crystallised consumer friendly charm but no beating heart beneath the surface, no humanoid flaws or righteous indignation. I may have been slightly harsh on them just because they're fucking Swedish but in any case such accusations would be thoroughly unfounded with this new slab of transgressive bleepery that comes after a protracted lull in activity stretching back to their operatic noodling on 2010's 'Tomorrow in a Year'. 'Shaking the Habitual' states its intention to lob a few curveballs in your direction from the very beginning, even the title making it clear that they're out to test boundaries - there's always a fine line between art house experimentalism and a splurging torrent of total bollocks and it's one they straddle throughout this LP with some degree of success. The tracks creep up toward the ten minute mark on several occasions and it's generally time put to good use, holding back from easy access hooks in favour of spiralling rabbit hole journeys into a murky world of underworld treasures. Their long form hypnotic pulse epics draw on the same propulsive energy that Underworld channelled on their late 90s meisterwerk 'Beaucoup Fish', moving the listener through different acts of throbbing muscle as momentum builds gradually to the point where you're powerless to resist - lead single 'Full of Fire' is the perfect example of this, a nine minute descent through the myriad sublevels of house music that seems to draw you nearer to the teeth-melting furnace as each minute passes. 'Networking' sounds like particles rebounding off every surface inside a plywood labyrinth as panic gradually sets in whilst you fumble around looking for a way out, the twittering flurry of activity taking place inside 'Without You My Life Would Be Boring' sounds like a UV-lit rave up in the exotic bird section of your local zoo and the paranoid metallic throb of 'Stay Out There' sounds like an evening of erratic shape-throwing locked into the basement of the Blair Witch mansion on a cocktail of very bad drugs. Where they connect to full effect The Knife are pretty much untouchable, constructing complex universes within their compositions that you can lose yourself in for hours - their reluctance to bow to stadium populism allows their artistic ambition to flourish on most tracks but proceedings spill out of the nightclub and into the art gallery on more than one occasion leaving passages on the record that all but their chin-stroking hardcore fanbase will simply skip past. Their talent in filling ten minute tracks with technicolor universes of sonic trickery is matched by their ability to spend the same amount of time achieving precisely nothing, meandering round in echoic circles for yonks on 'Fracking Fuel Injection' and throwing in the detached twangathon of 'A Cherry On Top' three tracks in to puncture any momentum they may have acquired along the way. The real patience tester is the record's twenty minute centrepiece 'Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized' which festers excruciatingly slowly like some instrumental Black Metal ode to decomposing forests - Varg Vikernes came out with shit like this whilst he was killing time in a Norwegian jail but The Knife have no such excuses for fucking with your head for such extensive periods. The shaking of the habitual in the title might just be that the average rave-sensitive listener will zone out during these less accessible passages but that's a debate that's too tedious to even contemplate right now so let's just celebrate this LP on its relative merits - where it connects, 'Shaking....' is as good an example of expansive, experimental dance music as you'll find and the cluster of rave-friendly fluo meteorites on display here are worth the asking price on their own. The rest will be there in the background if you want to delve that far down for the full art house experience so ultimately everyone goes home satisfied. Pitchfork will probably give this album of the year which is the only valid reason to dislike it but even that shouldn't put you off swimming deep in this day glo ocean.

Daft Punk's effort might not pull in the arthouse crowds quite as much as the Knife but their latest opus is perfectly timed to cross over to a new generation of listeners unfamiliar with their back catalogue along with a wide range of seasoned ravers, curious rock fans and anyone running a clothing store wondering what to stick on the stereo for the Saturday afternoon retail rush. The wily French duo have always succeeded in timing their runs at chart success to perfection, watching carefully as the electronic music landscape evolves in front of them and holding back from cheap thrills and token pot shots before finally unleashing that one classic nugget that goes on to become a universal dancefloor classic as well as a highly regarded critical success. I suspect that many of the skinny jeans 'n' champagne crowd bopping to this newbie were scarcely out of nappies when 'Homework' landed back in '97 alongside 'Dig your own hole' and 'Fat of the Land' as dance music blew up worldwide and took over from the fading energy of the Britpop era - whilst the Prodigy's jungle-hardened return to prominence a few years back saw them bring their 90s shtick into the modern age, it feels like the Punk have never really been away, their crystal-filtered synthesis of streamlined funk, disco and clubland glam remaining a constant undercurrent to the ever-evolving realm of dance music. 'Random Access Memories' sees the duo move away from the revivalist 80s aesthetics of their previous efforts towards a meatier, muscular blend of classic 70s funk and disco backed with a well-drilled studio band - the Manga-inspired rollerdisco rave of 'Discovery' and the bleep fetishism of their 'Tron' soundtrack linger in the background like glossy screen prints on the walls of a live venue suddenly brought to life by a crash helmet sporting troupe of performers playing right under your nose, coming out of the copy book to become fully fleshed-out human beings. The shimmering studio funk of Jacko's 'Off The Wall' runs through the more accessible cuts on here, opener 'Give Life Back To Music' unhooking the barrier and inviting you in through the disco doors before the smoooove vocoder funk of 'The Game of Love' sees you relax into a velvet couch for a spot of heavy petting and deep seductive bass. Jacko's influence looms large again on the Pharrell-assisted tracks, the effervescent glitterball disco of 'Lose Yourself To Dance' built to fill floors like classic Earth Wind and Fire whilst the effortlessly infectious single 'Get Lucky' has already repeated the trick of 'One More Time' in dominating radio playlists and smashing sales records across the world. They're not afraid to draft in a wider range of guest vocalists to vary the pitch though, Julian Casablancas getting the vocoder treatment to gorgeous effect on 'Instant Crush' whilst 70s MOR enthusiast Paul Williams puts in an equally impressive turn on end of the night Broadway ballad 'Touch' - clubland's producers also get a look in, 'Giorgio by Moroder' spinning out a nine minute tribute to disco's visionary architect whilst Animal Collective's Panda Bear flies the flag for modern electronica on 'Doin' It Right'. The glitter rains down on 70s soundtrack gems 'Beyond' and 'Motherboard' with such note perfect revivalist charm that you almost feel the room is suddenly coated in brown leather and orange wallpaper but the space age thrills return in force for stunning set closer 'Contact', the visionary sky gazing of their robotic material brought into human form with a clattering drumkit assault on the senses as the disco loops whip up a tornado of frenetic dancefloor mayhem that will leave crowds gasping for air as the curtain falls when the duo blow minds in the live setting with this shit over the coming months. Picking flaws in 'Random Access Memories' seems wholly pointless, this is a record that everyone will be able to hold close to their heart for at least the time it takes for it to get played to death and the next generation of ravers will be able to revere it as the stone cold classic of their time while reluctant rock fans will overcome their suspicions of studio electronica and latch onto the chunky dynamics of the live band busting out these disco eargasms. They've nailed the zeitgeist plenty of times in the past to massive commercial kickback but with this one Daft Punk have logged something they can retire on - this shit is going to be King Kong massive for at least the rest of the year and packs enough across the board gold-plated charm to surpass disco populism and transcend into the spheres of the true classics. I'd say go and check it out but the truth is you'll be hard pressed not to over the next few months so instead my advice is to bathe in this bubble bath of sonic delights on your own terms before you lose the record to shoe store saturation and endless media hyperbole. 'Random Access Memories' is too good to let everyone else ruin it for you.

Check out : The Knife's devastating 'Full of Fire' and the Punk's equally cosmic 'Touch'.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

New : Rotting Christ - 'ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ'

It's nearly Easter so what better time to check out the latest slab of mythical metal from the band least likely to bag themselves a residency on 'Songs of Praise'? Greek occult metallers Rotting Christ have been banging them out for twenty years now, having initially built themselves up as their country's contribution to the international Black Metal movement before branching out into the broader spectrum of extreme metal over more recent years - their trajectory is roughly similar to that of Poland's Behemoth whose post millennial output has seen them conquer the planet and singe the hair off Satan's nutsack with their punishing cocktail of all the best bits of Death and Black Metal overlaid with grandstanding occult mysticism and muscular showmanship. The Christ's latest release doesn't quite pack the scorched earth savagery of prime era Behemoth but it's no less satisfying as a consequence, staggering its assault over ten distinctive slabs of gargantuan riffs and dark atmospherics in the vein of late period Celtic Frost (go check out their back from the dead record 'Monotheist' right now and come back here when you've finished). Mainman Sakis has constructed this LP as somewhat of a labour of love, researching international folklore and legend to come up with ten tracks in ten different languages tackling religious mantras, demonic incantations and labyrinthine conjurings of ancient spirits to forge a record that transcends tokenism and instead sounds like an archeology PhD set to music (in this case some righteous planet-shifting extreme metal). A fairly ambitious project you have to admit but one that he's succeeded it bringing to fruition with some stunning results and the album's whistle stop tour through ancient civilisations is soundtracked by a diverse arsenal of metal delights taking in monastic chanting, Middle Eastern wailing and a string of atmospheric special effects - bells toll, clay pipes wail and drum rolls and guitar riffs reverberate like the infernal shockwaves of a ritualistic ceremony deep within the bowels of some cavernous temple. If you can imagine Indiana Jones stumbling across an impromptu celebration of the Fire God with a metal band providing the music then this is what it would probably sound like.

Atmospherics are what maketh metal these days and the Christ know when to turn up the cinema dial on their material, ushering in several morcels with sinister ululations and deep, vibrant intonations before layering on their intricate riffs and rhythms to build some headbanging magic upon their dusty foundations like priests constructing a shrine - opener 'In Yumen/Xibalba' lets the door creak open to invite the timid listener in over ominous bursts of raging bombast and yarbled speaking in tongues and its only once we've followed the corridor into the heart of the entity that they pick out a riff and spiral the track around it like a staircase into the void. Things remain spooky as the suite continues although they're not afraid to throw in a bit of melody, the serpentine riffs of 'P'unchaw Kachun' uncoiling like smoke rising from candles in the vein of Watain whilst the nimble-fingered chug of 'Rusalka'  channels classic Gothenberg Death Metal as guttural growls and whispered taunts jostle for centre stage. The title track lets their guitarists noodle away into the cosmos whilst remaining locked into a punishing rhythmic orbit and sounds like the sort of thing Morbid Angel should be putting out right now if they'd only quit playing video games long enough to write a proper song, matching freeform mysticism with enough forward momentum to keep you hooked right through to the eery climax. The band throw their weight behind a female-fronted take on Romanian folk tune 'Cine iubeste si lasa' tastefully enough to stay just the right side of self parody and the staggering riff driven one two of 'Iwa Voodoo' and 'Gilgames' plough the slow and menacing furrow to thunderous effect instead of caving in to blastbeat temptation and turning everything up to 100 just for the sake of it. Best of all is late gem 'Ahura Mazda' which announces itself like a biblical plague looming on the horizon before blasting open like the Ark of the Covenant for a tremulous barrage of ritualistic pounding and rapacious guitar riffs, gradually ebbing towards its climax like a hurricane gathering pace before slurping up an entire city. It's difficult to describe this shit without sounding like I'm trying to write my own adventure movie but that should act as fairly compelling evidence that Rotting Christ have conjured up something pretty epic with this album - their band name might by synonymous with quick fix shock tactics but these dudes have spent enough time in the library and the rehearsal room lately to merit a revisit by anyone even mildly interested in the complex and intriguing world of modern extreme metal. 'Kata....' is testament to the band's desire to achieve something monumentous and even those alienated by metal's harsher elements shouldn't see that as an obstacle to enjoying this veritable thesis of extreme metal glory.

Check out : 'Ahura Mazda - Anra Mainiuu', complete with the lyrics in case you're interested.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Retroactive : 1988

1988 : The Year In Music

1988 should've fucking STUNK. The pop charts were ruled by producers and record companies playing it safe with sanitised teeny pop and risk-free stadium AOR whilst the occasional industry flash of wisdom consisted of wheeling out some geriatric fartknockers like the Beach Boys or Chicago for another half-hearted stab at success or relaunching some oldies number via a jeans commercial. Toe-curling British soul pop (Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue) shared chart space with floral dress acoustic dross (Fairground Attraction, Tanita Tikaram) and icky new age crap (Gypsy Kings, Enya) whilst the UK charts fell victim to an endless slew of cacky chart pop from persil-washed drones like Bros, Sinitta and an emergent Kylie and Jason and the US had to stomach the even less appealing stream of mall pop muppets like Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and the nascent wriggling of the global sales device that was New Kids on the Block. But the charts being full of crud is nothing new and on the positive side there was plenty of quality material jostling for position with the jokers - Acid House continued to dominate with homegrown acts like Coldcut, S-Express and Bomb the Bass notching massive UK hits and radio gems from Go Go's alumni Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle brought breezy chick pop to the top of the charts but it was hip hop's all-conquering stampede across popular culture that made the biggest impact. Rap's fashion, imagery and musical innovation had lurked in the background for years but massive pop hits from Salt 'n' Pepa, The Fat Boys and Cookie Crew saw the genre dominate the singles charts like never before whilst a tidal wave of landmark album releases saw hip hop finally recognised by the press as a serious force in LP format. Rock critics salivated over the devastating twinstrike of 'Straight Outta Compton' and 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions' but there were plenty more to choose from with Ice-T's 'Power', EPMD's 'Strictly Business', Ultramagentic MCs' 'Critical Beatdown' and Jungle Brothers' 'Straight Outta The Jungle' all taking the music into new areas of production and lyrical delivery. The genre was yet to become synonymous with its least likeable characteristics and for a brief moment we were all free to bathe in the sonic delights of a new celebration of street culture. Elsewhere indie guitar rock continued to prosper with the stellar debuts My Bloody Valentine and House of Love alongside a revitalised Mary Chain giving Creation records its biggest year yet and career-consolidating smashes from Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr plus stellar debuts from the Pixies and Mudhoney kept the US underground in the music press. Metal meanwhile was becoming increasingly polarised, the commercial peak of the power ballad alienating many bands into producing increasingly sombre and furious music - scrofulous debuts from UK underground icons Godflesh, Carcass and Bolt Thrower warped metal into terrifying new forms whilst established thrash titans like Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth switched to slow and sinister to take their music to darker sub-levels of despair. The dross was drowned out across the board by new, vital tangents into popular music as acts crossed over from the underground to pepper the charts with exciting, colourful additions - things were pretty great and they would only get better as the decade raced towards its exilerating climax with local scenes in Seattle, Detroit, Manchester and Florida all poised to spread their influence across the planet over the next 12 months. Sling on yer rope gold and hi-tops and pump up my stellar 1988 playlist on Spotify for a trip back to one of music's true golden years.

Albums of the Year

1. Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

I'm not going to fly in the face of popular opinion on this one - pretty much every best album list from 1988 has PE's heavy-hitting second album at its summit and it's pretty difficult to argue with its selection as the year's most essential release. I found my way to 'It takes....' via the Manics' similarly ambitious debut 'Generation Terrorists' as an inquisitive 16-year old searching for the kind of uncompromising artistic statements that seem like all that matters at that age and it didn't disappoint, pedalling a lethal cocktail of bullet-headed political vitriol and heavyweight beats and breaks that demanded your attention from beginning to end and made nearly everything else sound lazy and conciliatory by comparison. PE's potshots were carefully chosen and devastatingly effective, raging against injustice and hypocrisy from governmental level through the music business right down to their own community, taking no prisoners on the way and laying down a stringent code of ethics that matched the heavyweight dent left by their music. What's most impressive about 'It takes...' is how well it's weathered the passing of time (unlike the Manics' debut which now sounds painfully thin) - the band reportedly came back into the studio looking to channel the pugilistic energy of their live shows into a new set of album tracks and the production stacks up a deafening barrage of airhorns, sirens and boiling kettles to bolster the vocal assault of Chuck D's bass heavy drill instructor bark and Flavor Flav's impish counterweight yelp. The beats don't just underly the vocal energy, they batter the listener into submission and force the MCs to raise their game to win the volume wars, creating an end product that stops you in your tracks even at the lowest stereo setting. What's even more impressive is that they achieved such a knockout blow without resorting to endless depictions of graphic violence, vocal feuds with their industry rivals or even widespread use of profanity - you can count the fucks used on one hand and Chuck D provides convincing evidence that being articulate and intelligent has way more impact than simply blurting obscenities and confirming every negative stereotype that rappers were saddled with at the time. The record's widespread appeal wasn't simply restricted to critical circles either with the band successfully keeping their hip hop credentials intact whilst simultaneously branching out into other areas of underground music - the mid-section riff from Slayer's 'Angel of Death' rolls through 'She Watch Channel Zero' whilst their thrash peers Anthrax benefit from a mention on 'Bring The Noise' and the band's British touring experiences that saw them cross over into the clubland breakthrough of electronic music are commemorated on opener 'Countdown to Armageddon' with DJ Dave Pearce's endearingly enthusiastic introduction (DJs were dropping hip hop alongside house music at the time without creating a stir - as Pearce himself comments, 'back then a tune was a tune'). Even the tongue in cheek use of Queen's Flash Gordon Theme in 'Terminator X to the Edge of Panic' acts as a leveller rather than a two-fingers to the mainstream, flinging the doors open to fans of all genres as part of the band's drive to create a record packed with confrontational politics yet immediately accessible to fans of all emerging musical genres. That they succeeded is without question, that they achieved their aims with a universally-acknowledged classic is even less open to debate.

Heaping impersonal praise on an established classic seems like preaching to the choir so let me pick the bones out of this record in my own fashion. 'Bring The Noise' is a knockout statement of intent to kick things off, throwing out scattershot cultural reference points ranging from Louis Farrakhan to Yoko Ono over screeching car alarm samples, clattering drums and rapid fire scratches with Chuck and Flav combining to lethal effect - NWA would drop jaws with the opening salvo of 'Straight Outta Compton' to similar impact but PE's delivery eschews kitchen sink realism and violent bravado for a rollcall of their inspirations and intentions as part of one universal rallying cry that stands up stronger to scrutiny. 'Don't Believe The Hype' turns both barrels towards the music industry, whether it be critics who focussed more on picking holes in the band's politics than listening to what they were trying to achieve or radio shows that shied away from their vitriolic delivery in favour of anodyne party anthems - the track remains a reference point for hip hop's Us vs Them mindset and has been re-appropriated across the musical spectrum by anyone facing a backlash to their quickfire success. Flavor Flav and Terminator X get their own solo spots next, Flav providing a spot of crafty comic relief notably absent from the output of future pretenders to the band's throne like Rage Against the Machine and the band's turntablist playing to the gallery whilst Chuck and Flav pile on the lyrical praise. Potshots rail against the establishment on 'Louder Than A Bomb' and 'Caught, Can I Get A Witness?', the former highlighting just how worried the authorities were becoming about the band's political influence and the latter providing an equally savage attack against the bloated bigwigs of the music industry who attempted to trip the band up over their use of samples (Chuck's immortal couplet 'You singers are spineless/As you sell your senseless songs to the mindless' is one of the most potent punches to the jaw I've ever heard and states in no uncertain terms how high he set the bar for his band). 'She Watch Channel Zero' builds a venomous rant against couch potato romantic fantasy over the aforementioned Slayer sample (these guys didn't just pick out a Foreigner riff, they went straight for the hard stuff), 'Night of the Living Bassheads' rails against drug dealers sewing sickness in their own neighbourhoods and the cold, chilling narrative of 'Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos' chronicles a prison escape attempt over six minutes of tightly-wound tension. Early single 'Rebel Without a Pause' set a standard the album tracks didn't fail to live up to, 'Prophets of Rage' boots the door off its hinges with a blaring celebration of righteous anger and conclusive set-closer 'Party for your Right to Fight' leaves us with a reminder that hip hop can be so much more than mere entertainment. Sample-based vignettes break up the action to provide a cohesive mix that avoids exhausting the listener with relentless vitriol and keeps the energy levels ready for the next blast of energy and there's barely a flaw to pick out from sixteen tracks of devastating potency. The record's legacy speaks for itself - references points cropped up over decades of subsequent hip hop records, cover versions exist across a diverse range encompassing Tricky's trip hop reworking of 'Black Steel' and Anthrax's thrashed-up duet with Chuck on 'Bring The Noise' in 1991 and vocal samples of the band would pop up on virtually every breakbeat rave track I laid my hands on in the early 1990s. Modern music has perhaps suffered for its widespread diversity in that it's almost impossible to imagine an artist producing something this vital and universally appealing today - 'It takes...' dropped just as hip hop was colonising the mainstream and formed the undisputed spearpoint of an emergent genre poised to radically change music and fashion the world over. To equal it seems nigh on impossible so all that's left to do is to appreciate it for the flawless assault on the senses that it remains to this day - like George Orwell, Led Zeppelin and a maiden voyage into sex and drugs, 'It takes...' forms part of the pantheon of ultimates without which no thrill-seeking adolescence is truly complete.

Check out : the promo for 'Night of the Living Bassheads'....welcome to Planet Earth 1988.

2. They Might Be Giants - Lincoln
Over in the States the 80s music scene was split quite clearly between mainstream, MTV-catered stadium music and what people liked to call 'college rock', basically stuff nobody gave a fuck about outside the university radio stations. The resultant underground scene gave birth to numerous bands that tend to dominate 'best of the 80s' lists churned out by Yank music rags like Pitchfork and Spin, generally at the expense of various vastly more interesting genres (thrash, Madchester, C86, death/grind, new romantic etc). I tend to find the nostaglic enthusiasm for stuff like Minutemen, Replacements, Husker Du et al a little bit tedious, though there are certainly some interesting bands there to explore if you're unfamiliar with the period. Check out 80s indie übernerd Michael Azzerad's all-encompassing study on the era 'Our band could be your life' if you're looking for a starting point, it's a pretty excellent read.

All or possibly none of this leads me to They Might be Giants, a longtime favourite in the Sykes household (yeah, my whole family likes these guys. Except maybe my mum, although I think she's learnt to live with them). Inescapably nerdy yet somehow incompatible with the US college scene in the mid 80s when they first emerged, these guys were rooted firmly in oddball pop music rather than DIY indie, carrying on from where folks like Talking Heads, B52s, Jonathan Richman and co had been before. 'Lincoln' was their second album which saw them gain breakthrough success in the US which was consolidated when global hit 'Flood' dropped two years later on the back of dweeb anthem 'Birdhouse In Your Soul'. Like all their early records, it's made up of 18/19 idiosyncratic pop songs built on the duo's surreal and slightly absurd sense of humour. Song titles like 'Pencil Rain' and 'Mr Me' sound like they were concocted by stoned students watching Sesame Street re-runs, although nothing could be further from the truth - these guys were as straightlaced as they came. Indeed, their personal and political values are behind everything they recorded if you look past the cartoon sillyness - humour as a defence mechanism is key to tracks like 'They'll Need A Crane' (about watching the house you built for your lover being smashed to pieces) and 'I've Got A Match' ('your embrace and my collapse'). Sadness may be in the background but it never prevails, bolstered by the gooftball nonsense of stuff like 'Stand On Your Own Head' and 'Shoehorn With Teeth' (I thought that was HILARIOUS back in the day). My point is that TMBG represent what I love about American college rock - birthed from a cocktail of Dr Seuss, Spike Jones and the Twilight Zone, they can do kooky in a way nobody else can. If there's an anti-mainstream message on here, it's that most people would hear stuff like 'Cowtown' ('I'm going down to Cowtown, Cow's a friend to me, lives beneath the Ocean and that's where I will be') and just say WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS despite the fact that the music is tailor made for the pop charts. They broke big as the 90s dawned alongside REM but unlike Michael Stipe and his 'Wear a Condom' T-shirts the Giants didn't use their stardom to bludgeon the MTV public with slogans, they just kept on making their own brand of oddball pop. Two decades later they're still at it too - if you're looking for a way into their universe, start here.

Check out : 'Ana Ng', which should have been number one all over the world but somehow wasn't.

3. N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton
Blur vs Oasis, The Clash vs Sex Pistols, Stone Roses vs Happy Mondays....every musical movement to graduate from underground culture into the mainstream charts has featured twin flashpoints, one which appeals to the intellectual arthouse crowd and another that proudly retains the rough streetwise edge that made it popular in the first place. NWA were the harsher, brattier counterfoil to Public Enemy's more cerebral take on the genre - not that they were any less intelligent (neither were Noel Gallagher, John Lydon or Shaun Ryder for that matter) but it was probably harder to justify your appreciation of their work to your more politically correct friends. Whilst Chuck D was preaching self-empowerment and revolution to universal acclaim, some people were never going to be won over by Ice Cube's own worldview that 'life ain't nothing but bitches and money'.

Thing is, NWA were undeniably the more entertaining band and 'Straight Outta Compton' has just as good a claim to 1988's hip hop crown as 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions...', it not a better one. I've gone for PE for personal reasons - I got into them when I was an idealistic 16-year old and at that point there's no way the ho-slappin', gun-totin' posturing of NWA would have won me over. However, refusing to listen to anything other than righteous left-wing rhethoric means you miss out on some great stuff and 'Straight Outta Compton' pretty much embodies what many listeners dislike about gangsta rap in general - in fact, you could argue that they set the template that's been used for all the nasty shit released since then. The subject matter may well upset the more sensitive listener but there's no denying the potency of the vocal frontline of Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy E all backed up by the superhuman production skills of Dr Dre. The boys brought lurid imagery to the genre but also a relentlessly aggressively delivery - previous hip-hop classics from the likes of Run DMC and the Beasties were partytastic, positive releases but NWA's rugged debut rubs the listener's nose in violence, sexism and urban poverty from the outset, all spewed forth with unprecedented bile and brutality. As the intro to 'I Ain't The 1' points out, 'We try to make music to piss you off....and fuck you if you don't like it!'. Ice Cube's uncompromising opening salvo on the title track is positively breathtaking, although looking back it was MC Ren who packed the biggest punch (Whatever happened to him? He was, as you say, dope). Dr Dre and Eazy E are perhaps more famous these days for their post-NWA potshots at each other (once again possibly initiating the nefarious trend of hip-hop 'beefs' which has been responsible for the untimely demise of some of the genre's best perfomers) which is a shame as they're a pretty ruthless proposal when playing for the same side. There's plenty of humour on here too - their chosen targets of suckers, Mexicans and women in general may not be to your taste but it's hard not to smile at least once listening to this (Eazy E's slate on Latino dealers on 'Dopeman' always makes me titter). Chris Rock, whose knowledge of the genre easily trumps my own, rates 'Straight...' as the best hip hop record of all time so feel free to take his word over mine - in any case this album ranks alongside 'Nevermind the Bollocks', 'Reign in Blood' and 'Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing' as potentially life-changing slabs of boot-to-the-nutsack brutality that everyone should experience at least once in their musical lifetime.

Check out : 'Gangsta Gangsta', if not the blueprint for an entire genre then at least its first classic.

4. The House of Love - s/t
British indie in the 1980s had become slightly dreary by the end of the decade, the shot in the arm provided by the Smiths having faded by the time their split came around after the release of the ferociously cynical 'Strangeways Here We Come' in 1987. With Goth turning into a commercial caricature of itself and the embarrassing likes of The Wonder Stuff and Pop Will Eat Itself representing indie's most recognisable personalities, the field was wide open for a band with genuine ambition to come along and make a dent. It was in this context that The House of Love's stunning début landed back in 1988, shot full of brooding intensity and subtle malevolence and boasting a flawless run of indie guitar classics. Fronted by well-spoken indie guru Guy Chadwick and teenage guitar introvert Terry Bickers, the band were poised to replace Morrissey and Marr as indie's most potent strikeforce when their album emerged and became the breakthrough act of the year on John Peel's radio show (whose listeners voted non-album single 'Destroy the Heart' as their favourite track of the year) with lead single 'Christine' topping the indie charts in May 1988. The album repeated the feat shortly afterwards and was Creation records' first financial success, allowing label boss Alan McGee to sell them off to a major for a vast profit when the follow-up was due a couple of years later. Later efforts would see their creative energies dissipate amidst drugs, booze and ego battles between Chadwick and Bickers with the latter jumping ship to form the equally brilliant Levitation in the early 90s - the duo were always diametrically opposed to one another but their début harnesses just that energy to dazzling effect, Bickers wild guitar effects matching Chadwick's brooding stage presence and debonair wit. He reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, articulate and composed on the surface but masking a streak of brooding menace and savage self-analysis once you start listening more closely. His deep, weighty tone on tracks like 'Sulphur' and 'Salome' sounds like it's only a step away from boiling over into something quite nasty whilst even the mellow moments like 'Love in a Car' and 'Man to Child' contain an undertone of bitterness and cruelty to intensify the hit. Bickers' guitar work is similarly powerful, eschewing the face-melting feedback of their Creation label mates Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine for a more subtle battering of the senses to leave you suffocated by his droning riffs rather than simply shocked into silence by sheer volume. Indeed as Creation's next success story after the Mary Chain's breakthrough in the mid 80s House of Love delivered the same hit as their predecessors in a different way with the focus on a more indirect and softly-spoken assault on the senses as opposed to the Mary Chain's leather clad drone pop and screeching guitar feedback. And apparently their meek appearance was just a front anyway - Alan McGee swears blind that the band were every bit as wild as party animals like Primal Scream back in their day, possibly even worse. The lifestyle got to them in the end though and an acrimonious split between the two frontmen left Chadwick repeating his steps for their second eponymous record which surfaced in 1990 to muted acclaim and moderate commercial success, although its lead single was a re-recorded version of their 1987 début single 'Shine On' which was left off their début LP suggesting the initial buzz of their early material would be difficult to replicate. In any case it's not like the indie world was holding its breath for another House of Love record by then with the Stone Roses' own début having landed in 1989 to kickstart the Madchester phenomenon which would dominate for the next year or two. Bicker's spin-off project Levitation enjoyed some success during the shoegaze era that followed and you'd have expected the drone-pop of 'The House of Love' to have been embraced as a blueprint for the guitar rush of newer groups like Ride and Chapterhouse but it wasn't to be, the band simply fading from view before tossing out two misguided follow-ups in the early 90s and splitting to little fanfare. Like many of their peers they've since reformed to tour and release some fairly decent new material but their début still shines brighter than anything they've managed to produce since then. 'The House of Love' is typically overlooked in favour of revisionist appraisal of My Bloody Valentine's début that landed the same year or the glut of guitar bands surfacing Stateside (Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Ultra Vivid Scene) but it merits its place in the canon of British indie as the missing link between the début records from the Smiths a few years earlier and Suede a few years later. They'd enjoy none of the longstanding success of either band but the House of Love tapped into the same vein of fey British theatrics and shimmering volume to devastating effect on their first record and, for a brief moment, burned brighter than any of their peers.

Check out : opening dronefest 'Christine', a stunning introduction to their world.

5. Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff
'Grunge' as a concept started out with the right idea, a sonic exploration of the scuzzy low-end of guitar rock matched with an aesthetic approach straight out of the toilet venues of America. Revisionist media appraisal has the bands plotting their creative arc in direct opposition to the polished poodle rock that dominated the airwaves at the time and whilst the  scrofulous approach of bands like Mudhoney probably flourished in isolation from mainstream tastes it ultimately stems more from a love of the lurching splurge of old school Sabbath and Stooges, bands pedalling a sound so satisfyingly grimy that like-minded musicians were tempted to roll around in it like kids in a mud pit. It's easy to big up Seattle as the alternative rock equivalent to New Orleans for the jazz scene but in truth it was just a case of right place right time for the city that unwittingly found itself at the roots of a massive musical culture shift - Seattle ironically benefited from its cultural isolation, crap local venues and dubious fashion sense which all became flaws celebrated as positives by journalists and fans looking for something earthy and primal in the American hinterland as indie guitar rock bloomed over the late 1980s. All of this was a convenient accident for a butt-ugly logging town in a frozen outpost of the States - if you want to draw any particular parallels then Birmingham, England is probably the most appropriate, a similarly unappealing shit tip that birthed forth a strain of rock music as rough-edged and unsophisticated as the city's industrial sprawl which acted as the launchpad for many of Britain's grizzliest metal acts of the same era (Napalm Death, Godflesh, Carcass etc). Whether or not Mudhoney best exemplify Seattle in musical terms is neither here nor there - their mudslide splurge of guitar rock acted as the template for much of what came afterwards and there's a case to be made for 'Superfuzz Bigmuff' being the first 'Grunge' record but viewing it as any kind of milestone misses the point. This wasn't an artistic statement, nor was it a cleverly constructed stab at crossover success - 'Superfuzz' simply caught one of their all-too-brief moments of hitting the target and provides a satisfying dose of guttural scuzz rock before clattering out the same way it came in leaving a trail of muddy footprints in its wake.

The original version of 'Superfuzz' ran as a six-track EP although future pressings coupled it with the band's instantly recognisable debut single 'Touch Me I'm Sick' along with a few other odds and ends from their early 7" releases. For most bands this would therefore be nothing more than an introduction but in Mudhoney's case it illustrated that their lurching shitstorm was better experienced in short bursts than as a fully-formed rock product - all their full lengths were charming enough but ultimately a disappointment and they only really gave a good account of themselves on split singles and standalone releases, perhaps an indication that they didn't really have a Plan B once they'd burnt out their initial rush. It didn't matter though - 'Superfuzz' benefits from its brevity and is the sonic equivalent to chugging your entire booze budget before the show even starts before flailing catatonically around the moshpit and losing your house keys, certainly not an astute move in the long term but one that provides maximum sensory enjoyment crammed into a satisfying burst of fun. The band's rough-edged guitar splurge reminds me of the familiar festival sight of a six-foot goon caked in crud after starting his drinking at breakfast time and collapsing in the mud prior to staggering through crowds and knocking everyone's drinks over - live performances only augment this vision with the band's directionless lurching and atonal howling matching the splunderous guitar noise on record. Vocalist Mark Arm packs a drawling yowl that tops off the mix perfectly - he veers between the desperate wail of a vagrant demanding small change to the unhinged screech of a drunk lumberjack whose girlfriend has locked him out of the house. There's more than a hint of Kurt Cobain in there too - the Nirvana frontman followed much the same path as Mudhoney and whilst the two bands were never in competition there are many parallels to be drawn between them, their trajectories only moving further apart as their careers progressed with Nirvana's reluctant lurch towards global notoriety succeeding at every turn whilst Mudhoney proceeded to trip over their own shoelaces every time they were given an opportunity to hit the big time. Cobain was probably the more talented musician, boasting a range that encompassed full on mudblast along with his heart-wrenchingly brittle 'Unplugged' moments but I personally find Mudhoney's one-track-mind approach the more enjoyable - these guys were happy to fart and belch their way through the same hairy scuzz rock over each release with more than a touch of dude humour and their genius lies in the fact that they weren't aiming any higher than entry-level kicks and thrills. Both sides of their 'Touch Me...' debut give a thrilling introduction to their canon, the lead track revelling in its own dishevelled uselessness whilst B-side 'Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More' depicts a Prom Queen passed out in her own puke, the ideal visual accompaniment to the lurching dirge spewing forth from the speakers. The meat of the EP swerves between the drawn-out yowl of opener 'Need' and the slow decomposition of the six-minute 'Mudride' to the rollercoaster ride through raw sewage of finale 'In 'n' Out of Grace' (whose opening sample Primal Scream employed to more uplifting effect on 'Loaded', the Honey instead using it to usher in a down-tuned rampage through the dustbins). The vast reams of press tributes to the plaid-clad revolution that emerged from Seattle post 'Superfuzz' is best left ignored and the scrofulous glory of this record should be enjoyed in isolation from rock folklore, preferably after guzzling a six-pack and letting the dishes pile up. Comparing the appeal of a rock album to a really satisfying dump would normally come across as needlessly crude but in the case of 'Superfuzz Bigmuff' there's really no higher praise I can offer - trust me, you'll feel all the better for it.

Check out : 'In 'n' Out of Grace', although spare a though for this watershed moment too.

6. Mano Negra - Patchanka
The term 'World Music' is all too often perjorative to my mind, a label worn like a badge of pride by both artists and fans who expect some kind of applause for fishing in musical ponds outside that of their native country and language. That's not to say that bands playing folk music from their own corner of the world aren't worth listening to - on the contrary they're often a refreshingly vital burst of energy laced with the exotic charms of an unfamiliar culture but they remain shackled to their domestic markets in most cases and unlikely to crossover to broad international appeal beyond the specialist festival circuit. The bands that have succeeded in mixing traditional influences with modern appeal have generally done so by virtue of their breeding ground rather than their own origins (whether genuine or adopted for purpose) and have pitched their own specific cocktail of old and new to audiences they knew would be fairly receptive to it - bands like The Clash, The Specials and The Pogues picked up pointers from their own ancestry as well as external influences from all over the place but took the fundamental step of packaging them in a concert-friendly format that they could take to punk crowds confident that they'd react well to it despite having little interest in the roots of the music. Mano Negra were Paris' equivalent to the Clash, gestating in France's capital amidst the myriad cultural influences on show in the city's cosmopolitan make-up - their sound was rooted in adoptive French punk rock but incorporated elements of North African Rai, American R'n'R and the traditional music of the band members' Spanish lineage (the debate has raged for years between Frogs and Spaniards over whose country can claim the band as their own). Their blend of influences successfully slurped up the most energetic elements of each genre and blasted them out with the frantic energy of classic punk to immediate appeal, crucially allowing them to bag both commercial and critical acclaim in a country that generally prioritises musical eclecticism and intellectualism over more standard qualities like people being able to dance to it. It was this blend of populism and adventure that broadened their appeal to the rest of the world but perhaps ironically prevented them from ever breaking the UK market - we like our French artists to sound 'typically French' with all the stereotypical box-ticking that implies which made a band like Mano Negra difficult to categorise and saw them pass largely under the radar whilst their scene peers like Les Negresses Vertes scored moderate success in Britain with their more discernibly Gallic take on affairs. It was our loss and everyone else's gain though and Mano's thirst for new ground to cover saw them embark on globe-trotting adventures all over the place including a ground-breaking South American tour that saw them set up their rig on a boat and play a series of port cities across the continent as they soaked up Latin influences later in their career.

'Patchanka' was their debut LP and throws the copybook open to different influences in much the same way that the Clash did a couple of albums in, straying from linear album format and instead compiling a menu of different sounds and styles with each track pranging off in a different direction - popular opinion in France ranks follow-up 'Puta's Fever' as their 'London Calling' but their debut is a more emphatic mission statement and serves up a diverse platter of aural treats across its 14 tracks. The balls out rockabilly popular amongst Paris punks at the time gets an airing on revivalist R'n'R like 'Rock Island Line' and 'Darling Darling' but they don't rely on it for crowd appeal and bang out trumpet-heavy flamenco punk on 'Indios de Barcelona' and French nightclub classic 'Mala Vida' to vary the mix, keeping the energy high but not being afraid to experiment. Eccentric retro rock creeps in on 'Baby Be Mine' with doses of wurlitzer keyboards, 'Noche de Accion' matches Alvin and the Chipmunks vocals with goonish Latin cartoon pop and 'Lonesome Bop' throws ska into the mix to great effect and the diverse mix provides no shortage of hooks to get you dancin'. Verbose French radio rock gets an airing on 'Bragg Jack' and 'Ronde de Nuit' and they're not afraid to slow things down for acoustic set-closer 'Salga la Luna' which drifts into the warmer waters they'd explore over subsequent releases. There's none of the self-consciously eclectic smugness here that often blights world music, the cocktail served up on 'Patchanka' is geared towards maximum crowd reaction and broad appeal dancefloor delirium, a gameplan that proved devastatingly effective for the band as they rose to rapid fame in France on the back of the crossover chart success of 'Mala Vida' and some legendary live performances. The wide range of styles they encompassed granted them ready access to rock audiences all over the planet (check out their Japanese live document 'In the Hell of Patchinko' for a taste of them at their frenetic peak) and they quickly became the reference point for numerous French bands keen to emulate their success and shake off the less appealing aspects of their own country's rock heritage - all this was of course taking place whilst the Anglophone world completely ignored them in favour of the more accessible Grunge, Acid House and Madchester phenomena. Mano's plans for world domination ultimately fell foul of their own lofty ambition and their Latin American tour ultimately proved to be their undoing both as a band and a creative force, killing off Mano Negra and giving birth to frontman Manu Chao's solo career that would retain some degree of the band's live ferocity but factor in a safer blend of Latin and Reggae influences resulting in mix better suited to bedroom pot smokers than boozed up punk audiences. The band's legacy lives on nevertheless through frequent revivals of their own music along with the seemingly endless parade of crap imitations cired in their wake and they remain one of the few French rock bands worth listening to as well as an enduring gateway into the wilder, more exotic areas of global rock 'n' roll culture. If you're not familiar with 'Patchanka' and its equally vibrant successors (and there's every chance you won't be if your first language is English) then this might just be the record to lead you into a parallel universe of global craziness from which you'll be reluctant to emerge - not so much a well kept secret as a band some of us managed to ignore against the odds, Mano Negra's contribution to world rock culture is one that's way too vital to be overlooked.

Check out : 'Mala Vida' if you don't know it, although I'm rather partial to 'Lonesome Bop'.

7. Helloween - Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II
Metal had gone global by 1988 with myriad twists on the formula cropping up all over the place as bands either chased commercial paydirt inspired by the immensely lucrative blueprint of MTV-endorsed poodle metal or mired new depths of sonic depravity via the expanding underground tape-trading circuit of extreme metal. Record deals had become easier to snare for bands playing unashamedly metallic material and even groups pedalling dark, aggressive blasts of molten lava stood a decent chance of crossing over to the mainstream with acts like Metallica and Anthrax notching hit singles without diluting their formula whilst more business-minded players like Iron Maiden were jostling with Johnny Hates Jazz and Erasure for top slot on the album charts. Germany's Helloween stood somewhere between the two, built upon foundations hewn from melodic thrash and the European extreme metal of Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost but marked out by a goonish sense of humour and taste for bright, anthemic metal that saw them gravitate further towards the pop charts as their career developed, their early days as a devastatingly tight speed metal outfit in the mid 80s having seen them broaden their horizons and change their formation to emerge as an altogether more theatrical proposal by the late 80s. The two-part 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys' set released in '87 and '88 respectively showcased their loftier ambitions across a jewel-studded assortment of neo-classical thrash wigouts, radio-friendly metal anthems and two separate thirteen-minute show closers - the twinset is by no means flawless but by and large they succeed in providing the listener with the full metal theme park experience, a colourful carousel of speed treats, high-energy pop metal and feature-length action and drama built for maximum enjoyment and scant acknowledgement of their own borderline ridiculousness. The band spread their material fairly evenly over both albums but for my money the second part has a slight edge over the former and sees the band hit their stride for a jubilant frolic through the more appealing elements of late 80s metal.

Such cinematic scope wasn't unusual at the time - Maiden's prog-influenced concept record 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son' granted them unprecedented success in both the album and singles charts the same year and Queensryche's cult success 'Operation Mindcrime' tapped into the same appetite for story albums that matched action flick narrative with the thrills of a modern rock LP (I could bang on about King Diamond again here but I can't be bothered). 'Keeper...' stopped short of a full on concept album and instead threw the door open to a wide variety of metal-edged thrills - throwaway opener 'Invitation' merely sets the stage for the utterly preposterous 'Eagle Fly Free' which embodies the band's appeal perfectly, romping along at breakneck pace and peaking with an unspeakably catchy chorus augmented by vocalist Michael Kiske's piercing shriek and some typically meaningless lyrics ('In the sky Almighty Eagle/Doesn't care 'bout what's illegal....'). As if things couldn't get any more over the top the band breakdown into a flurry of individual solos without losing their train of thought and the track culminates in trumpets blaring crescendo that will leave you utterly drained, either doubled over with uncontrollable laughter or grinning from ear to ear with metallic satisfaction. It's so fucking good you feel like giving them a medal when they finally cross the finish line. Things get even better from there on in as they bang out hyperspeed sugar rushes like 'March Of Time' and light-hearted headbangers like 'Rise And Fall', once again flaunting their questionable grasp of English as irresistible selling points (seriously, this shit makes Scooter sound like Shakespeare in comparison). Radio anthems 'I Want Out' and the cartoonish masterpiece 'Dr Stein' successfully crossed over to become minor hit singles and a support slot with their spiritual cousins in Iron Maiden gave them stage time to convert legions of potential fans all over the continent - Steve Harris and co may have surpassed them in sales tales with 'Seventh Son' but the 'ween arguably won the race on vinyl, the thirteen-minute title track of 'Keeper' navigating through numerous movements of gargantuan Tolkienesque drama that left Maiden's efforts looking puny in comparison. The album remains their highest chart placing in both Germany and the UK and seemed poised to launch them into stratosphere as the 90s dawned but a combination of rapidly evolving tastes and the three year gap between 'Keeper' and the directionless goonery of follow-up 'Pink Bubbles Go Ape' in 1991 left them with nowhere to go but back to their continental roots. A mid 90s transformation followed although not before the stylistic nadir of 1993's 'Chameleon' which still ranks as they worst record I have ever purchased (seriously - it's fucking abominable) but a re-tinkered line-up emerged with a revitalised take on the power metal genre that saw them flourish in Europe whilst Maiden descended into Blaze Bayley-fronted irrelevance over the same period. The 'ween have gone on to thrill and disappoint in equal measures since then and even attempted a misguided third instalment to the 'Keeper' saga in the mid-noughties which if nothing else merely highlighted the enduring appeal of the original episodes. Ludicrously OTT, dazzlingly theatric and as quintessentially German as mullets and Lederhosen, 'Keeper' is eager to please and crammed full of swashbuckling drama and melodic metal showmanship - much like the celluloid thrills of late 80s Arnie flicks it's difficult to take it all entirely seriously but you'd have to be a hard-hearted enemy of entertainment not to find something in here to make you grin like an idiot.

Check out : 'Eagle Fly Free', conclusive proof that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

8. Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown
1988 represents for many the pinnacle of what constitutes hip hop's 'Golden Age', an era where innovation and creativity took pride of place over commercial appeal and gratuitous lyricism. This is somewhat of a rose-tinted view although not entirely without foundation - the year did produce a staggering number of breakthrough releases providing many longstanding fans of the genre with watershed moments where they heard drum loops, samples and catchphrases that would later form part of popular culture used for the first time. Innovation alone isn't enough to guarantee you permanent appeal though - some of the records released back then have aged as badly as the clothes their creators wore and period appeal can't mask the primitive production that wore thin quicker than a cheap pair of trainers. 'Critical Beatdown' is one album from the era that hasn't suffered from the passing of time, namely because is was such an off-the-wall proposal back in '88 that few listeners knew what to make of it and suffered sluggish sales as a consequence only to emerge as a critically-lauded classic years later. The boys boasted a lyrical dexterity that dwarfed many of their peers and the album was bolstered by a ruthlessly in-your-face production job that would spread its influence way beyond the hip hop bracket but ultimately the Ultras were a bit too weird to be taken seriously by many, falling between the creative stools of old school hip hop that focussed either on politics (Public Enemy), partying (Run DMC, Beastie Boys) or gratuitous depictions of urban warfare (Ice-T, NWA) and instead forming a minority of one as the oddballs at the back of the class huffing lab gas and melting each others' pencils. Creative lynchpins Kool Keith and Ced-Gee acted as unwitting precursors to every weirdo 90s rap collective with an overactive imagination (Pharcyde, Dream Warriors, PM Dawn) with their lyrical tangents into science fiction, cartoons and surreal imagery to craft a parallel universe to the grim reality chronicled by many of their scene peers - their approach could be considered escapist if you're being harsh but these guys seemed to exist in a world governed by their own goofy sense of humour and creative daydreams rather than actively seeking to flee what lurked outside in the street. Keith's lyrical flow is second to none - I could listen to this guy for days - and he expounds layer upon layer of bizarre narrative with the pinched tone of a mischievous cartoon character, neither spitting vitriol nor drawling peace platitudes and pitching his delivery like the ringmaster to some surreal circus of impish delights. Ced-Gee plays second fiddle to him in the MCing stakes but plants his own flag in the album's groundbreaking use of samples, roping in the standard mix of James Brown, classic funk and soul along with the odd metal riff for good measure but chopping them up into a furiously dynamic stream of tightly-wound soundbites and snapping breakbeats to create an irresistibly danceable end product that would lace its influence over the emergent techno scene in Europe where the record became an underground hit and saw its liberal use of uncleared samples paid tribute to by numerous European DJs who lifted segments for the glut of breakbeat techno tracks that dominated clubland as the 90s dawned. The pair of them together fronting the Ultramagnetic was like your favourite comedy duo from back in the day locked in one endless sketch show, free to indulge in the surreal and the ludicrous as a showcase for their cheeky creativity and theatrical flair.

'Critical Beatdown' is aptly titled in that it packs a relentless verbal battering that'll have you on the ropes from the first track onwards but there's none of the puffy-chested machismo pedalled by Messrs Cube and T, rather an endless cycle of assertions of their lyrical superiority to all those around them conveyed via a series of high-speed twists and turns that leave you head spinning. Keith in particular manages to syncopate his lines like a percussionist, mirroring the jittering breakbeats of his backing track and practically inviting producers to sample him like another instrument for similarly high-paced club tracks. One of his biggest admirers was a young Liam Howlett who cribbed several of his lines for the vocal hooks in The Prodigy's rave era material - that 'take your brain to another dimension' sample on 'Out of Space' crops up on the title track as does the garbled hook from Jilted Generation's 'Full Throttle' but Keith's most notorious appearance was on the sample that provided 'Smack My Bitch Up' with its infamous focal point (Keith also guested on album track 'Diesel Power' from the Fat of the Land LP around the same time). It's not hard to see why the two work well together - both favour high energy delivery and crowd pleasing dynamics along with a dose of cheeky humour and aren't afraid to match almost imaginative tangents of an almost childlike innocence with a stream of visceral cheap thrills. Keith's own lurid imagination would lead into deeper forays into science fiction on the Black Elvis releases in the late 90s as well as the earlier Dr Octagon and Dr Dooom projects which focussed almost exclusively on graphic sexual depictions - we might all be thinking about it all day but it takes a certain type of talent to write it all down and make a tune out of it. The aforementioned 'Give The Drummer Some' rehashes James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' for the nth time but goes head to head with it in the rhythm stakes to raise the level and 'Travelling at the Speed of Thought' chucks in Motorhead's 'Louie Louie' for a riff 'n' rap dancefloor gem every bit as immediate as 'Walk This Way' but they're not sample reliant for their potency and Keith comes into his own as the centre of rhythmic attention on the title track and the staggering 'Kool Keith Housing Things'. When Ced and Keith combine on cuts like 'Ego Trippin' and 'Ease Back' they're as deadly as any other vocal duo but the two of them work equally well lost in their own creative dimensions and 'Critical Beatdown' sounds like it was taped as the soundtrack to some brightly-coloured cartoon film chronicling the Ultras' intergalactic quest to save the universe from the forces of wackness. The production here hasn't aged a day since it emerged in 1988 and the hyperactive energy crammed into the record still comes flying out of the speakers as soon as you press play - NWA and PE will continue to claim most of the year's critical plaudits and perhaps rightly so but 'Critical Beatdown' completes the podium for the strongest releases from a genre that was in the process of taking over the world back when it dropped as a gateway into the universe of some of hip hop's most fascinating minds. 

Check out : The cheap and cheerful promo for 'Travelling at the Speed of Thought'. Beware the Skeezoids!

9. Carcass - Reek of Putrefaction
Metal's inclination towards taking things as far as humanly possible has often led to accusations of token extremism and gratuitous one-upmanship which in certain cases is a fair cop but to tar all bands dabbling in transgressive art with the same moronic brush is to unfairly dismiss those who pioneer new and inventive ways to manipulate sound and image. Experimentation in extreme metal had spread across the world by the late 80s via the infamous underground tape trading circuit and listeners drawn towards the more abrasive end of the sonic spectrum were offered a diverse palette of approaches to heavy music issued from cocooned local scenes all over the planet with vastly different recording processes and background influences (not to mention the intervention of local censorship laws governing what they could and couldn't publicly release). Some bands took the format of extreme metal as a means to be as ludicrously graphic as they could in the name of art but shock value only got you so far and even bands dabbling predominantly in OTT imagery needed a pretty diverse sonic arsenal and a shitload of decent ideas to retain anything beyond fleeting appeal - forging a career out of music virtually tailor made to avoid media promotion and mainstream appeal wasn't easy and only the bands truly devoted to the overall artistic concept of extreme metal stuck around beyond their formative releases. Merseyside's Carcass shat out five albums over a career that encompassed death metal's commercial rise as well as its shift into the general framework of modern metal but each release saw them seize upon a glut of original (and often fiercely provocative) ideas that saw them lead rather than follow and their mid 90s split as death metal dissipated into soundalike mush saw the individual members revert to the confrontational stance they'd adopted as teenagers when the band formed over a shared interest in anarcho punk, animal rights and sonic subversion. Having formed via the same regional scene that spewed out Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower in the mid to late 80s (see my piece of Napalm's 'Scum' in 1987's rundown for more on that), Carcass embodied the DIY subversion of everyday Thatcherite Britain - every provincial city had a pocket of sour-faced teenage boys (and the occasional girl) bonded over cynical humour, anti-elitist politics and an illicit delight in sounds and imagery that would make your average Tory housewife faint in disgust. It was this last tangent that Carcass would pursue (at least on their earlier releases), eschewing the scorched earth war fixation of Bolt Thrower and the abrasive political tirades of Napalm and instead concentrating their efforts (both visual and musical) on creating the most unpleasant output they could muster - 'Reek of Putrefaction' acts a mission statement to this end, dispensing with the traditional structure of a rock LP to instead divert their creative energy towards an end product that tested artistic boundaries (not to mention nausea threshold) and provided scant commercial footholds for anyone seeking an easy way in. 

Fronted by a collage of gut-churning autopsy photos that ensured it stayed well away from the shelves of most record stores, the musical content of 'Reek of Putrefaction' gives even fewer concessions to the faint hearted - the band were devoted to left-leaning animal rights causes such as hunt sabotage and their use of nauseatingly graphic lyrics depicting cannibalism, decay and botched surgery was presented as a ruse to dissuade listeners from the carnivorous dietary regime that the vegan band members found objectionable. Whether or not it worked is perhaps beside the point (although I certainly wouldn't want to nosh down on steak tartare whilst looking at the cover art or reading the lyric booklet) but it lent a legitimacy to the band's confrontational approach that fellow gore fans like Cannibal Corpse couldn't muster and they used the standpoint to considerable effect, revelling in grotesquely descriptive medical imagery to craft lyrics that were both inventively poetic and unspeakably repulsive (example; 'Liquidized oesophagus mixes with bloodied excretion/as you pathetically gasp for breath/The stench of faeces scorches your nose/as you violently vomit to death' from 'Vomited Anal Tract'). What would have seemed mildly amusing as a token approach for a 7" single became a disturbingly dedicated artistic venture upon which they expounded across 22 tracks, matching Napalm's explosive tempos and short track lengths but indulging in wider scope of vocal and musical effects to further experiment in distortion and disturbance. Vocalist Jeff Walker veers from low-end belch to rasping screech whilst occasionally delving into warped oinks and grunts that sound barely human, former Napalm axeman Bill Steer serves up abrasive speed riffs along with lurching chug sections from the lowest end of electric blues resonance and drummer Ken Owen powers the whole thing forward with such relentless fury that your ears can barely keep up. The resultant splurge of sound packs in enough variety at the sheer end of the spectrum to keep things interesting and album's breakneck pace belies the band's talent for penning motor-fuelled electric rock 'n' roll and the vocal stylings are diverse enough to make it sound like a revolving door of farmyard animals were drafted in as backing singers. Carcass would pare their freeform gore 'n' roll down into more accessible chunks over their next two releases as death metal rose to international prominence but were quick to change tack as the genre strayed to close to the mainstream, shifting their focus to melodic DM for 1993's landmark 'Heartwork' LP to stunning effect before changing again to a ballsier R'n'R format for their ominously titled 'Swansong' record which landed after the band had already split. Since then Bill Steer has continued to bathe in retro rock with his Firebird project whilst Walker and Owen mired similar territory to 'Swansong' with their Blackstar project until the latter suffered a brain haemorrhage that sadly ruled him out of any future involvement in extreme metal. Their original time in the spotlight straddled extreme metal's most vibrant years perfectly though and their knowingly cerebral approach to the genre provided a vital exception to the norm to produce in arguments with people ready to dismiss metal as music for uncultured boneheads. In pursuing the grotesquely imaginative art projects of creative teenagers through to their natural conclusion in the midst of a global movement in rock music, Carcass proved that extreme metal could accommodate more than quickfix sensory thrills and gory showmanship and 'Reek of Putrefaction' stands as their tour de force in transgressive delight. It stands to reason that John Peel was one of their most vocal supporters in their early years and voted 'Reek' as his favourite album of 1988 - in line with his mantra 'I just want to hear something that I haven't heard before', the record provides a subversive blast of inhuman noise and bowel-quaking imagery that ticked that box only too well. Like Brett Easton Ellis' similarly shocking 'American Psycho' novel that would surface a year or two later, 'Reek of Putrefaction' showed that graphic horror and explicit gore could be pulled off with a certain amount of artistic grace and that transgressive needn't equal gratuitous or brainless for those willing to apply their full talents into the crafting of dark masterpieces.

Check out : 'Microwaved Uterogestation', complete with the lyric sheet - Enjoy!

10. Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session
Volume junkies like myself are often under-exposed to sounds and environments that privilege the sanctity of silence - I'm one of those people that puts music on as soon as he gets into the house and if for some reason my computer isn't working or my speakers cut out I'm left feeling fragile and abandoned. I was raised on shoegaze, breakbeat and thrash metal so any gaps and lulls tend to be nothing more than a pause for breath but there's something to be said for coming from the other end of the spectrum entirely, something that Toronto's Cowboy Junkies did with their stunning second record in the depth of the 1988 winter. 'The Trinity Session' was taped on the back of studious touring of the Southern US States as the band immersed themselves in raw, old school folk and country music before heading back to Canada with the intention of recording around one single microphone in a suitably echoic space. They eventually chose the Church of the Holy Trinity in their hometown and duly set up around the mic with their singer's voice piped through the PA system and laid down the entire record in a day, even nailing some tracks in a single take. It's no overstatement to say that the results are breathtaking stuff, stripping the music back to its most primal components of longing, mourning and loving with a sound so uncluttered and pure that you almost feel that the building in which in was recorded should be listed as an extra instrument. Churches are generally not places I enjoy spending time in but you have to admit that they offer some priceless alternatives for acoustics and spatial warmth and 'Trinity' sounds almost funereal in its purity, the sort of record you'd feel bad even talking over when it's on the stereo. The band mine the depths of American country music for gems that match the outlook of their name, pastoral ballads from US folklore that embody the romantic thrill-seeking and futile melancholy of the hopeless addict and tapping into that rare vein of heart-rending sadness that can only be touched by the truly gifted (Johnny Cash, Eva Cassidy and the King himself).

'The Trinity Session' is one that you have to tailor to the right setting - I was riding the metro across town today in an unexpected blanket of March snow and the uninterrupted swathe of bleak white covering the city prompted me to flick it up on my phone and disappear into a moment of quiet contemplation. I guess that's probably why people visit churches in the first place. Vocalist Margot Timmins has a voice that rarely raises above a whisper but rears a subtle power to match any lungbusting soul diva, drawing out solemn melodies in the same register as the low hum of the electric instruments backing her up - the band hold back mercifully with every note they play safe in the knowledge that the church's interior will add extra body to their sound and you almost feel that the vibrations they create are seeping into the woodwork, leaving behind a low resonance that's only audible in the dead of night. There's a deep, solemn tone to proceedings that suits the setting, one that accepts that you gotta sin to be saved - the band aren't here to celebrate romance, their register is tailored for those moments when love leaves you too weak to fight back, resigned to your broken-hearted fate and searching for consolation. 'To Love Is To Bury' sets the tone nicely, desolate and lonesome yet cocooned in a warmth that anaesthetises the longing and suitably fatalistic opener 'Mining For Gold' sees Timmins left in total solitude for a funereal paen to that which you desire proving your undoing. The deep, moody blue melancholy of classic Elvis himself looms over proceedings like a spectre, his reworking of Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' channelled with all its Southern honey and fragile sadness still intact whilst their 'Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis)' hits its intended target via a splicing of a traditional standard with their own brand of mournful soul. Their rehash of the Velvet Underground's 'Sweet Jane' offers a similarly accessible foothold but stays closest to the Velvet's downbeat live version as opposed to the beefier studio take and it sits perfectly alongside their own compositions, '200 More Miles' evoking the neverending night drive through the Southern States that brought about the record's genesis and the stunning 'Misguided Angel' relating a tail of flawed beauty with the soul-bearing emotional intensity of classic Nina Simone. The band allow silence to direct proceedings for the most part and perform like nature photographers keen not to disturb the wildlife they're observing in its pure, primal form - the soon-to-be-launched series of 'Unplugged' records would strip stadium rock down to its barest components only to highlight the vapid nature of much of the material but the Junkies come at things from the other end of the telescope, crafting magic that couldn't be removed from the stark, contemplative confines of its creation without destroying it completely. Mazzy Star would electrify a similar format to greater success a couple of years later but the Junkies' true peers are those timeless singers whose material is often overshadowed by their own tragic passing - Elvis' Hawaii set saw the 20th Century's ultimate icon perilously close to the downward spiral which would engulf him a few short years later, Johnny Cash's end of days covers records from the early 00s saw him infuse modern classics with the clarity of thought of a man whose end is nigh and Eva Cassidy's posthumous success with the 'Songbird' LP brought global recognition to a voice that was perhaps too beautiful to live. We're therefore pretty fortunate that the Junkies are still around to tour this record - they laid down a 20th anniversary version a few years back with a few modern cameos - and it's equally fortuitous that 'The Trinity Session' hasn't been seized upon by advertisers or rapacious cover artists looking to make a quick buck from its staggering beauty, leaving it as a largely undiscovered gem that curious listeners can come across at their leisure as if they were simply passing by the church on the day it was being recorded. A masterclass in melancholy, 'The Trinity Session' is a trip I cannot recommend highly enough and as a soft cushion counterweight to the bile and misanthropy elsewhere in this selection it's pretty much indispensable.

Tune of the Year

Rhythim is Rhythim - 'Strings of Life'

Club music had been all about the warm, bass heavy bounce of Chicago House until 1988 but the Windy City was to be joined by its snappier robotic cousin in the shape of Detroit Techno as the year wore on. Techno favoured synthetic keyboard stabs and rolling piano lines to the shimmering bass cocoon of classic House and catered to audiences hungry for more immediate hooks and melodies to throw shapes to on dancefloors across the land. Detroit native Derrick May saw his hometown alumni Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson cross over with the cyborg thwonk of Model 500 and the chart-friendly gospel pop of Inner City but he was the one to lay down what is arguably Detroit's definitive track - 'Strings of Life' initially emerged in '87 but was instrumental in Techno filtering into the mainstream and stuck around for repeated outings over the next year or two as tastes turned toward the choppier waters of piano-led house. The track retains some of House's glacial shimmering but leads with a layered piano loop that gives way to aerobic drum patterns and stop-start dynamics that acted like a wake up call amidst the loved-up clubland glide of classic House. Like most innovative dance tracks it evolves as the minutes pass, chucking in new twists and turns as that piano loop circles permanently overhead and dives back into earshot to pull the energy levels up to delirious new heights. The pulsating dynamics and incessant piano riff would inform piano house, breakbeat and eventually hardcore as dance music morphed into different blends of rhythm and melody and May himself could lay a reasonable claim to his own Dylan goes electric moment in club music if he weren't such a nice guy. You'll undoubtedly have heard 'Strings of Life' at some point even if you're unaware of its legacy so let's take a moment to dance our collective balls off to a true clubland classic.