Friday, 25 February 2011

Album review: The King of Limbs - Radiohead

There are a handful of bands that define their generation – bridging the gap between underground credibility and mainstream acceptance. The Beatles managed it in the 1960’s, Floyd in the 70’s, U2 in the 80’s and Nirvana briefly in the 90’s. So who are today’s standard bearers? In my opinion there is only one real contender – Radiohead.

The Oxford quintet are undoubtedly the most important band in the world right now – selling out stadiums wherever they play, loved by critics and yet able to experiment with jazz rhythms and electronic instrumentation without fear of how their huge fan-base will react. They’ve been phenomenally consistent throughout a twenty year career. Firstly they redefined guitar rock at the tail end of britpop with The Bends and then went on to make what is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time in OK Computer. They then completely re-invented themselves with the lush electronica of Kid A and Amnesiac before metamorphosing again to produce the (admittedly a bit patchy) Hail to the Thief and the triumphant record-industry breaking In Rainbows. Along the way they’ve played some of the finest ever festival sets (greatest ever Glastonbury performance?) and been one of the few musical acts to take a political stance on the key issues of our time.

Its fair to say then that there was some excitement last week when the band announced that they would release an album the following Saturday. The first point of interest about King of Limbs was the formats it has been released in. Fans had the option of MP3, WAVV or a deluxe vinyl edition. It is increasingly clear to the band that the CD format is obsolete (although there will be a CD release of the album further down the line). Those who simply want the music go digital while those who want to collect a format increasingly prefer the more tactile vinyl.

There had been rumours of recording sessions taking place for some time but no-one was quite sure when Radiohead’s eighth album would drop. In this age of leaks left, right and centre they’ve once again managed to release material on their own terms at a time of their own asking.

So, what’s the music like? Well, the influences, according to the band themselves include the work of Jamie XX and beats master Ramadanman although an album comprising of bass-driven electronica was always fairly unlikely. To be honest, at first listen, its a little underwhelming but this is often the case with their releases. The band’s sound is increasingly subtle and the hooks and melodies take a while to get under the skin.

Opening track Bloom starts with classical piano and juddering drums before giving way to what could only be described as a jazz bass line and Thom’s vocal. The time signature, in keeping with their last album is also reminiscent of jazz or even african music. As with In Rainbows things really kick off on the second track. 'You’ve got some nerve coming stole it all, give it back’ sneers Thom on Morning Mr Magpie over an upbeat, Neu-esque guitar sound. The song breaks nicely about halfway through and as with many tracks on the album the bass comes to the fore. It goes without saying that the playing is excellent throughout with each member (with the possible exception of Johnny Greenwood) being given ample opportunity to showcase their talents but the rhythm section in particular are able to show what they can do and don’t disappoint.

The album gathers pace from hereon in. Little by little is perhaps the only track here that wouldn’t be out of place on OK Computer. It starts with some John Barry style flourishes and culminates with some backward masking. Feral meanwhile is more electronic sounding. Again heavy drums and a rolling bass feature heavily. This is probably the track that best reflects the influence of Flying Lotus and other electronic pioneers. By now the album is flying by as the sheer number of ideas is quite dizzying and only when listened to on repeat do they fully sink in.

It’s no surprise that Lotus Flower was chosen as the first track to promote the album via an online video (Radiohead don’t seem to do anything as conventional as actually release singles anymore). It’s the catchiest track on offer and features a great vocal performance from Thom. The subject matter vaguely sexual but somehow slightly creepy.

The album then switches a gear for its conclusion. Codex is essentially a piano ballad but is off-set with an ecstasy tinged vocal and jazz piano arpeggios to prevent it becoming too syrupy. Give up the ghost continues the mood. It’s very melancholy, perhaps reminiscent of Pyramid Song from Amnesiac and you can almost picture hugging cupples in woolly jumpers hugging up to each other on the hill of the pyramid stage as Thom wails into the night. The song ends with him singing rounds with sampled versions of his own voice – it’s spooky and quite lovely.

Final track Separator again uses bass rather than guitar to build its melody, just as you think you’ve got to grips with it what sounds like a steel guitar comes into the mix followed by a synthesized choir which lifts us towards the light. It’s a fitting end to an intriguing record, subtle but joyful. The whole album clocks in at under 40 minutes which feels a bit short but certainly leaves the listener wanting more.

The fundamental problem with Radiohead is that we’ve come to take them for granted. This is a band that makes truly beautiful music entirely on their own terms, the complete antithesis of the majority of today’s acts. This isn’t their best work but it bears comparison with it and those who are prepared to persevere with repeated listens will be rewarded. Radiohead continue to intrigue and inspire. We should all be grateful.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The 20 greatest heavy metal albums

Heavy metal – that most derided of genres. Critics hate it, girls (for the most part) hate it and its core audience is teenage boys – how uncool as that? Having said that, metal is one of the biggest genres of all time with huge sales worldwide. Its apologists argue that its the very fact that everyone else hates it that makes it so popular with the disaffected. For an excellent exploration of this theory and metal's enduring appeal check out the movie Metal: A headbanger’s journey. In the meantime enjoy the fact that sometimes there’s nothing better than punching the air and banging your head – even the most cynical towards the genre will find something to love here...if you disagree with my choices please leave your own suggestions at the end of the article.

20. Blackout in the Red Room - Love/Hate

This is an album that takes you straight to LA’s infamous sunset strip of the early 1990’s. Love/Hate wore their drinking and drugging on their sleeves as much as their numerous tattoos. From the title track to stoner anthems Why do you think think they call it dope? and Mary Jane, this record rocks.

19. Ritual De La Habitual – Jane’s Addiction

Features classic alt-rock anthem Been caught Stealing (which notoriously starts with the sound of dogs barking) but this album works from start to finish with its second side (a memoriam to a dead friend of Perry Farrell's) in particular showcasing some excellent songwriting. Ritual... made Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time
18. A vulgar display of power – Pantera

One of the few metal acts to emerge from the post grunge years with any credibility intact.Texans Pantera were clearly as much influenced by hardcore as metal and used crunchy guitars rather than long solos to showcase their power. Fucking Hostile and Walk were just two of the great tracks on this record. Guitarist Dimebag Darrell was later tragically murdered onstage.
17. Van Halen-Van Halen

Arguably the album where US metal found its feet (although Kiss fans might argue the point). This set the template for everyone who would follow in their wake from Twisted Sister to Motley Crue . Eddie Van Halen became a guitar hero for millions and the track Eruption set the model for all other guitar solo led tracks that followed. David Lee Roth was the consummate metal front man excelling here on such classic tracks as Runnin’ with the devil and Ain’t talking about love.
16. The Real Thing- Faith no More

Few metal albums display as much invention as this. It features rap (Epic), creepy torch songs (Zombie Eaters) and heads down thrash ( Surprise You’re Dead). The Real Thing deservedly became a huge seller prior to the grunge years which alt-metal (Faith No More, The Chilli Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden et al) arguably set the context for.
15. Blues for the Red Sun – Kyuss

Kyuss were Joss Homme's band before he formed Queens of the Stone Age. This album set the template for stoner metal– a wonderful combination of Sabbath riffs and drawn out acid rock.

14. Slipknot – Slipknot

Slipknot completely reinvigorated a dying genre when they burst upon the scene (even getting coverage in hipster’s magazine the Face). The combination of terrifying masks and field pummelling nu-metal immediately appealed to teenage boys – the core market for all metal before and since.

13. Burn my eyes – Machine Head

A Modern Classic – essentially thrash but with a more crunchy guitar sound and embracing more modern production techniques. Opening track Davidian is about the Waco siege and pulls you in with its ‘Let freedom reign with a shotgun’ chorus but there is quality stuff throughout.Like Sepultura and Slipknot, this was released on the classic metal independent label Roadrunner.

12. Chaos AD- Sepultura

Signifying the huge global appeal of metal – Brazil’s Sepultura recorded a number of key albums but this is probably their most accessible and manages somehow to combine thrash metal with traditional Brazilian rhythms. The opening track Refuse/Resist is widely regarded as a classic and like a number of the records featured here manages to transcend the usual metal lyrics about sorcerers and shagging.
11. Operation Mindcrime – Queensryche

This one is at the more proggy end of the spectrum. A concept album (of course!)about a hospitalised revolutionary which featured pomp-rock classic Eyes of A Stranger and power ballad Silent Lucidity. Tommy Vance used to hammer this album on his Friday night rock show.

10. Reign in Blood – Slayer

29 minutes of pure thrash heaven (hell surely?) Often named as the heaviest album of all time, this is the full realisation of the power of thrash and manages to be completely uncompromising and raw. Subject matter included Nazi atrocities and organised religion.The sleeve also set the template for pretty much every thrash album since. I always loved Kerry King’s wristband made of nine inch nails – METAL!

9. No Sleep til Hammersmith – Motorhead

We had to have at least one live album and it was a toss-up between this and Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, Kiss' Alive and Iron Maiden's Live after death. This wins for being the most metal, for going to number 1 and for including the all time classics Ace of Spades and Bomber.

8. Earth versus the Wildhearts – Wildhearts

Some would argue that this isn’t metal in the strictest sense (songwriter Ginger is a master of creating huge pop melodies set to crunching guitars) but this is a personal favourite. I saw them play in Liverpool once to seven people but I'm pleased to say that since then they've gained a loyal and sizable following. This album kicks off with the gloriously sleazy Greetings from Shitsville and also features huge singles TV Tan and a Nine Inch Nails-esque Suckerpunch.
6/7.Rocks/Toys in the Attic – Aerosmith

I can’t choose between these two records so I’ll take them both. For me, Aerosmith are one of the most underrated rock n roll bands – only really appreciated by the metal fraternity which is a shame because they’ve written some fantastic stuff over thirty years. These two albums show what a great band they were – Walk this Way, Sweet Emotion, Back in the Saddle, Toys in the Attic – all stone cold classics. Slash famously went back to a girl’s house when he was fourteen – she put on Rocks and he couldn’t speak to her for an hour being so drawn to the music. Its supremely funky stuff and the Toxic Twins (Tyler and Perry) are two of the greatest characters in rock.

5. Iron Maiden– Iron Maiden

Bruce Dickinson’s air-raid siren vocals even alienate some metal fans (although many would claim Number of the Beast as a classic). My preference is for their debut, recorded with original vocalist Paul Dianno – its more punky in feel but already displays Steve Harris’s ability to write strong hooks and those famous duelling guitars. Running Free still sounds good now and Phantom of the Opera (famously used in a Lucozade advert featuring Daley Thompson) is one of my favourite ever metal tracks for its sheer stop-start energy.

4. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

Where it all started. The title track opens the album with wind and rain and the chiming of a church bell – its probably the most atmospheric start to any album. You also get The Wizard (sampled by Cypress Hill among others), NIB and Evil Woman. Sabbath were metal, Zeppelin were heavy rock – there is a difference. The subject matter and sound here is undoubtedly metal.

3. Ride the Lightening – Metallica

Few would disagree that Metallica have had an extraordinary career. There is some debate about which of their albums is the greatest although many would plump for Master of Puppets. I’ll champion the album before, Ride the Lightening. This is their first work where you can really hear their melodies coming to the fore although its still remarkably powerful. Fight fire with fire, the title track, Creeping Death and Fade to Black must be one of the strongest Side A’s of any album. It starts with classical instrumentation and ends with their first power ballad but what comes in between packs an almighty punch. I saw them live last year and they still put on a fantastic live show.

2. Appetite for Destruction – Guns n Roses

The album that changed my (and many other people’s) lives. One minute I was into Dire Straits, the next I was travelling up and down the country camping outside stadiums in hope of a glimpse of one of the most infamous bands of all time. Even now I can’t get over how utterly cool they were on that first album – the Stonsey indifference of Izzy, the smack-addled Steven, Punky Duff, guitar legend Slash and the bandanna wearing nutter that was Axl. And then there was the music – quite simply this album has at least eight of the all time greatest metal tunes including the best opening track (Welcome to the Jungle), the funkiest metal track since Walk this Way (Mr Brownstone) and arguably its best ever ballad (Sweet Child O Mine) - an incredible achievement – especially given the state they were in when recording it. Pretty it ain’t.

1. Back in Black ACDC

Worth the entry price for the title track alone. The opening riff of Back in Black is arguably the greatest metal riff of all – it’s no wonder that its loved by hip-hop DJs as its as funky as much as it is heavy. Back in Black is famously the second best selling album of all time after Thriller and all the more remarkable given that it was their comeback album following the death of original vocalist and key member of the band Bon Scott. I’ve seen You Shook Me All Night Long rock the coolest of dance floors. ACDC are the definitive rock n roll band with Angus's riffs and Brian's raspy holler - irresistible.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Interview with Skitz

OK I admit it, I came to hip hop fairly late. I wasn't one of those guys whose favourite record at the age of 14 was Planet Rock. It was only when I was at university that I got into Cypress Hill and from there discovered The Fugees, Nas and eventually KRS One. Even then, it was some time before I really enjoyed UK hip hop, not because it wasn't good but simply because it didn't occur to me to listen to it (this was a time before Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal were scoring chart hits). There were good artists who finally caught my attention - from Manchester you had the Grand Central Crew led by the likes of Rae and Christian and Aim while in London you had Skinnyman and a young Roots Manuva. My favourite by some distance though was Stoke Newington's Skitz. His Countryman album immediately connected with me and made me completely rethink what hip hop was about. It brought home that the point of hip hop was not necessarily clever wordsmithing (although that clearly helps) but the artist's reflection on his environment. Skitz brought together the cream of UK talent to provide a brilliant distillation of what it was like to like in urban Britain in the year 2000 (or 2001 as this was when the album was released). 

Countryman was an album that didn't necessarily sell loads of copies but those who did buy it loved it (Its interesting to note that 11 out of 12 reviews by customers on Amazon give it a full five stars!). If you haven't heard it and you like urban music (whatever that is) then make sure you do. Countryman is like a who's who of British hip hop - featuring (amongst others) Rodney P, Roots Manuva, Skinnyman, Estelle and Represent's MC Dynamite. It surpasses most other urban records in terms of MCing and production and is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.  I caught up with Skitz recently keen to find out what his inspirations were in making the record and to find out more from the man behind one of the very best hip hop albums of the Twenty First century .

What were the first hip hop recordings that made an impression on you?

I guess that would have been Run DMC, Fat Boys, LL Cool J, UTFO.Just old school stuff really. After i got into it I started trawling second hand record shops and understanding the foundation. My Sugarhill section is the pride and joy of my vinyl collection.

When did you first decide that you wanted to make your own music?

I was doing pause button mix tapes about 87-88 stringing up two tape decks going into another before i got decks. I guess that's when i fell in love with building stuff.

Who were the key influences on the 'Countryman' album?

Really my life at the time. UK Hip Hop, Primo, a lot of underground US stuff. My Son Solomon, Graff, My people, sweaty dingy clubs, big sound systems, revolutionary music and obviously a lot of producers that were around at the time.

What do you remember about the recording of the album?

Well it took a while. We spent a long time mixing and recording. Jonny Too Bad that was doing all the engineering and co producing had a nice studio round the corner from my house in Stokey and we'd just hang out catch a vibe and go in. The vibes were good and the Ronin label was pretty happening so yeah it just felt like a good productive and creative time.

How do you work in the studio?

All ideas are done at home then i take it to the big studio for the vocals and to mix. Any extras are recorded that need to be

For me, one of the stand out tracks is Fingerprints of the Gods which consists of 4 different MCs showcasing their skills – how did the idea of that come about?

I blatantly took the idea straight from Primo and the tune 'speak ya clout', he had Guru, Jeru and Lil Dap on it. He had 3 mcs and 3 riddims. I had 4..

What about We Make Them Make Noise – what were you trying to achieve with that track?

Just fusing my love of Jungle and Hip Hop and showing that Jungle mc's could hold their own on the lower tempos.

How did the cover art come about?

She One was a friend of mine i used to roll around with in Brighton. I was a second rate graff artist so loved the letter form..She is the don when it comes to wildstyle so was an obvious choice to do the cover. Mau Mau who is like one of my oldest friends did the back cover. On Sticksman he did the cover.

What impact do you think the album had? Do you think the breakthrough of artists such as Dizzie and Plan B as well as Roots Manuva has led to a tipping point for the UK sound?

I like to think that it showcased a lot of talent that we had over here and shone the light on a few. A lot of people went on to bigger and better things...but they all had their own thing going on before Countryman. I think it was just nice for them to all be heard together. The UK goes from strength to strength on the underground. Shame about all the absolute shit that's sweeping our radio dials and DABs. So much weak watered down garbage that gets support...drives me crazy. But the diversity of the UK scene always comes through...Dubstep, DnB, Dancehall, Garage, Electro, Grime, Hip Hop....Everything pushes boundaries. Its just a crying shame that most Radio stations follow fashion and are just scared to take a risk or really support talented acts.

The follow up Sticksman came out this year, how has the reaction been to that?

Amazing. The feedback has been so positive and everyone seems to agree its a quality album that you can listen to the whole way through which is what i set out to achieve. No weak tracks! I spent a whole heap of time mixing and tweeking each track as well as bouncing all the album to tape for that beautiful warmth that only tape can give. Then I mastered it. No corners were cut! Although obviously the scene has changed since the first album. This is a Smartphone, app loving, Youtube generation who don't go record shopping, people hardly buy Cd's any more. Everyone downloads for free. The next generation are here and UK Hip Hop is different now. You can't really make money from sales as a smaller artist. Its all about gigs, live shows, merchandise and building the brand. Change is good and has to be embraced otherwise you get left behind.. I feel like i did that on Sticksman influenced by other genres and other sounds and tempos. Go check it on itunes and honestly you can't tell me its not quality...!!

What next for Skitz?

Keep building, hustling, ducking and diving (fucking and skiving).
Look after my children.
Make a million.
Keep it revolutionary.
Sticksman is available now at Itunes, Amazon and all good retailers

Friday, 4 February 2011

Hidden gem: Harmonise or Die - Me (Popgod, 1993)

I wasn’t a cool teenager. Growing up in Gloucestershire there were two possible musical routes – heavy metal or indie. I chose the former. It was when I got to sixth form college that this orthodoxy was challenged. There were regular coach trips to indie gigs and being a music lover I tagged along in order to catch some live action. I recall what I considered a dire Wedding Present gig in Newport – although everyone else seemed to enjoy David Gedge’s miserabilism. Far more to my liking was a trip to Gloucester Guildhall to see Bristol indie hippies Me.

The only non-metal album I liked at the time was the Stone Roses’ debut. It wasn’t therefore too much a departure to get into this psychedelic shoegazey collective. I remember thoroughly enjoying the gig ( probably aided by my newfound love of marijuana) to the point that I bought their album at the end of the gig and got it signed. That album was Harmonise or Die. I played it quite a lot at the time until it inevitably moved to the back of my collection where it lingered for 15 years.

I recently picked it up again and had a listen. At first listen it brings to mind a number of bands of the era – Gorky’s Xygotic Mynci for one and the Stone Roses another but the obvious comparisons are with bands on the Creation roster – Super Furry Animals, Primal Scream and, perhaps most obviously, Teenage Fanclub. Having said that it doesn’t really sound like any of them. None of the aforementioned acts featured a recorder in their songs for instance, or for that matter a didgeridoo. This is an album that has a pop heart but dig below and it is awash with experimentalism. It has dated for sure and is very much of its time but if you loved Fuzzy Logic, Bandwagonesque or the Stone Roses you could lose your heart to Harmonise or die.

Me were actually formed in Durham by Francis Kane and George Claridge who moved to Bristol and met Ronan Maguire and brothers Mark and Paul Bradley. Their break came when they hooked up with the Moonflowers, another great psychedelic band in the city at the time. Both bands were signed to Popgod who ruled the Bristol roost until trip-hop hit the city later in the decade. Harmonise or Die was the band’s debut in 1993, they released one other record (Fecund Haunts 1996) before splitting.

The album starts with what can only be called an acoustic lament. It leads the listener into thinking they are going to be hit with a hippy-drippy folk thing but then, just as you reach that assumption, they kick into We Must Be a jangly slice of indie pop. Its quite lovely and makes you want to dance by flopping your head from side to side while wearing a long sleeved t-shirt.

Next track Funny Thing gives us something else again. Beach Boy harmonies over acoustic guitar but very dark lyrics ‘I don’t know how this will end, but I do know that it’s a funny thing, when you let the creatures in and you tremble in the wind’ suggests someone has some serious demons at bay. We then get the didgeridoo-led Here Comes Everybody which has a slightly Krauty beat and Dreambleeding which for me is one of the weaker tracks, a fairly standard indie tune. Much better is ...To The Stars which wouldn’t be out of place as a Stone Roses B-side – its got a lovely bassline and Byrds harmonies – for starters – shame its less than a minute long. The final track on side one is the really peculiar Yousong which consists of someone half-singing, half-rapping numbers alongside someone with what sounds like a helium-fuelled voice which isn’t dissimilar to Madlib’s Quasimoto. Sounds odd? It is.

The optimistic Water kicks off side two ‘You’re the moonlight in the darkness, you shine for everyone’. It has the feel of a  Meddle-era Pink Floyd track. Next up is a straight up electro-folk number and this in turn is followed by perhaps the best track on the whole album. Guilty Feet Fall Foul has a fantastically funky drum beat and yet more lovely harmonies. The playing on this track in particular is very tight with a lovely breakdown in the middle. Paul is another quirky track with some really funky playing. The lyric 'Paul its your birthday, soon it will be over, nothing will have changed.' makes one wonder whether the Paul in question is Paul Bradley or another Paul living in Bristol dining out on the fact that someone once wrote a tune about him. Either way its a nice track. Final track Happy Place is a fitting closer with its piano chords suggesting a lullaby - its a lovely end to an album that constantly surprises and yet somehow still hangs together. It won't be to everyone's taste (the harmonies may grate for some) but its a real slice of West Country exentricity and for that should be treasured.

PS: One interesting thing I note is that the producer was one Andy Smith. I presume this is the Andy Smith that later found fame as Portishead's DJ and curator of the Document series but don't know for sure. If you do, perhaps you could leave a comment?!