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Writing that top 50 album list last year almost killed me. About two fifths of the way through it I realised that that writing a magazine length end of the year feature all alone, without a giant staff of writers to help me find more synonyms for “awesome”, wasn’t the smartest idea I’ve ever had. But my desire to write about Slaughterhouse and Tramp kept me going. I don’t regret it, but just the idea of trying to write another makes me nauseous. Hitting publish did give me a certain perspective on those kinds of year end features though, and I’ve kept that in mind as I’ve been scrolling through each sites list in the past few weeks.

Those first few lists show that this year has been as wealthy as any other, but they also made me realise that most of the major-think-piece-inspiring albums left with me with at least a vague sense of hollowness. I’d happily wipe The Next Day out of existence for a Bowie megahits tour, and–even though his guest slot on the title track is one of my favourite moments of the year–something about Reflektor didn’t quite do it for me. And doesn’t it already feel like My Bloody Valentine’s return was 22 year ago? I came to enjoy the months were the release calendar slowed all the way down and I could delve into my backlog. I’ve most enjoyed getting lost in Bill Callahan’s discography for the first time and The Replacement’s for the millionth.

It’s pretty clear that deciding on an album of the year is insane. I haven’t given the majority of my 2012 top 50 a spin since last December. As desperate as I am for a new Sharon Van Etten album, I only gave Tramp a few full listens after placing it in my top spot. I returned most frequently to Ty Segall’s fantastic trio and Lower Den’s Nootropics. That makes me apprehensive to even bother trying to put my thoughts down and needlessly rank 50 things that I love. Given the fluidity of taste, it’s a much too final and overly definitive statement.

But I still read every list I can find, there fun to read. You can relive the year, maybe find something you missed, or just search for personal validation. So I’m doing it again, just not with 50 (if you really want to know what my full top 50 is you can find it here). So here’s my list of top 10 favourites, plus a few honourable mentions. Just don’t take it too seriously; I made that mistake last year.

Two Scrappy Rock Reissues:

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Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
People quickly warmed to the Lo-Fi Swagger of Parquet Courts after a quick January reissue of their 2012 debut album gave them a second chance to come bursting through the gate. Their somehow equal parts loose and tight sound snaps together perfectly on the 1-2 rush of “Master of My Craft” and “Borrowed Time”, blending a precise percussive drive with a detached but domineering vocal style. The sustained pounding repetition of “Stoned and Starving” slams the song’s drug addled desperation straight into your brain. Each song is carried by their ceaseless momentum; they use pure energy to build an intensity that most bands find in volume or heaviness. It’ll be a joy to see how far it can carry them.
Best Songs: “Borrowed Time”, “Light Up Gold II”, “Picture of Health”

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King Tuff – Was Dead
King Tuff’s apparently beloved (but seldom heard) debut Was Dead is a sweet and scrappy record that I couldn’t stop playing. After initially being released to quiet acclaim in various cassette and vinyl forms since 2008, Burger Records finally made it available in a non-nefarious way. With glossy guitar lines and syrupy vocal hooks it’s probably the most rocking thing ever recorded in a bedroom. 2012’s eponymous release was full of all-around good time rockers, but on Was Dead Kyle Thomas’ underdog spirit flies. He took his Lo-Fi means and fixed his eyes firmly on the radio, resulting in an absolute classic that’ll always have a place on my shelf.
Best Songs: “Connection”, “Freak When I’m Dead”, “So Desperate”.

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The “pissing in the face of my 15 year old self” album of the year award: Paramore – Paramore
My 15 year old self scoffed at Paramore’s “Misery Business” simply because it wasn’t an Iron Maiden song. But I secretly liked it, (how could you not?) and this year I stood in a crowd of something thousand and sung along to it. Those thousands were largely other 15 year olds who are far less self-serious than I was, and who definitely don’t give a shit about some flat out wrong self-definition of “authenticity”. I don’t know what I was thinking anyway because Paramore are pretty damn authentic, they’ve been writing bona fide hits for years now and just released their best ever album yet in the self-titled Paramore. It made them impossible to ignore, and endlessly enjoyable to my older (wiser?) and more open minded self. Pop shards blend with hair flailing theatrics and then transition into space rock opera outros, creating a sonically huge album that’s perfect for the sold out arenas that they’ve made their home. You might find yourself in one of their crowds one day like I did, so you might as well give it a listen so you can at least sing along.
Best Songs: “Grow Up”, “Ain’t It Fun”, “Part II”.

Muscle Memory

Best Comeback: Jamie Lenman – Muscle Memory
Judging from Reuben’s perfectly titled final mic dropping B-side and rarity release We Should Have Gone to University, the chances of them returning was unlikely. So the news of Jamie Lenman going solo with a lengthy 22 song double album was something I just didn’t expect. Reuben were one of my super favourite bands, but they grew sick of being dirty poor and gave up on their rock and roll dreams to get proper jobs. The hand draw cover of Muscle Memory may be an advert for Lenman’s new illustration job, but the unrelenting harshness of the record’s first disc is definitely something you wouldn’t expect to come from someone who once quit the screaming business to become a for real professional. The albums bold split/double album concept is mind bending, taking you from sweaty bar thrashers to swelling concert hall crooners within the space of 45 minutes.

He takes Reuben’s heaviness up close to Converge levels on the albums Muscle half, screaming himself hoarse over a crushing riff on “The Fuck of It All”. He seems to default to a kind of old man rambling on his hardcore lyrics, repeatedly decrying the banality and cowardice he sees in this young millennium before sounding furious as he demands his 20s back. There’s an argument to be made other whether this makes him out of touch, but this is an album made outside of any scene and free of the pursuit of a popular sound. This gives Lenman the freedom to write a song as sincere as “Pretty Please”, the Memory disc’s big band detour. It’s the sort of record that could only be made by someone who’s beholden to nothing. If you wanted a new “Alpha Signal Three” or another “Song for Saturday” you got it, but probably not to the extreme you would’ve expected. But forget about those songs if you can, they use to be all we had, but now we have the excitement of seeing what he’s going to do next.
Best Songs: “Shower of Scorn”, “The Fuck of It All”, “Pretty Please”.

Top Ten:

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10) Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Slow Focus is a scuzzy, filthy noise rock album made on hard drive fried in kerosene. Destroying and reassembling themselves with synthetic rapidity; the seven tracks boom with mini explosions that force you to grit your teeth through the gut churning aftershock. It reaches higher and higher apexes, pulling everything into its wake. Lines become blurred when organic drum sounds crumble and merge into the megabyte wash, and guttural sounds emanate from something inhuman. There’s nothing to guide you but an imperceptible cacophony of digital decay.

The Bristol two piece’s third album has all the ingredients of a deliberately difficult and abrasive work — which you might expect from the pair behind one of the most notable acts of band name self-sabotage — but they steer clear of any haughty use of subversion by maintaining a beatific focus on each song’s feel. It’s a purely visceral and immediate form of ‘rock’, and when the oscillating hell synth of “Stalker” reaches its crescendo you can feel the neurons pulsing in your brain.
Best Songs: “The Red Wing”, “Stalker”, “Hidden XS”.

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9) Bill Callahan – Dream River
There isn’t another album opener from this year that’s as memorable as “The Sing”. The image of Bill Callahan enjoying a drink with the silent company of strangers sets Dream River’s tone as perfectly and as vividly as anything ever committed to celluloid. Callahan uses deep guitar strums, and his even deeper voice to capture his version of a door opening onto Monument Valley, picking choice words in both his song writing and his narrative: “Well the only words I said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’”.

Dream River may fit logically into Callahan’s traditional post-Smog output, but it’s a restful album even by his modern standards. Taking inspiration from his dreams, Callahan becomes each of the figures that he carefully paints with his lyrics. His words can show him overcome with love in his happiest moments, or at his most lost, standing persecuted as an outcast who was just trying to make an honest living on “Summer Painter”. Then he follows an eagle along the river with his eyes before peering out across the land through those of a seagull.

Dream River is the result of a workman’s approach to creativity, with Callahan forcing himself to write and record it in shifts. But it’s rooted in the brains deeply inspirational moments of inactivity, a record made by and for a relaxed state of mind that proves Bill Callahan can still write majesty with his head on a pillow.
Best Songs: “The Sing”, “Spring”, “Summer Painter”.

 Ty Segall Sleeper

8) Ty Segall – Sleeper
Ty Segall has spent at least a song or two of his young, productive career looking inwards, but he’s always expressed his anxieties in the most outward and loud ways possible, condensing them into raucous pop phrases that are a blast to scream along with. But following the difficult loss of his step-father and a move to L.A, Segall had to be honest with himself; he didn’t have another album of his trademark hip shaking fury in him. The idea was almost repulsive to him, so he did what felt natural, he picked up his acoustic guitar and started writing. His work quickly became Sleeper, a comparatively low key and relaxed album that exudes a strong feeling of time, place, and state of mind. Some of its songs were written and recorded right in the moment of inspiration, his hurt is palpable on “Crazy”, a beautifully cryptic account of souring relationships and loss-inspired ugliness.

Segall mixes several of his garage rock hallmarks into Sleeper’s acid-washed version of folk, hissing to build up a grimy electric solo on “The Man Man” and giving “Queen Lullabye” the same retracted mega ton stomp he used on 2012’s “Ghost“. The fierce creativity that flows through Segall’s side projects have always been a perfect measure of his versatility, but his solo records generally provide a fantastic but safe reset. Sleeper marks the first time he has tried to do something radically different within his own solo discography, he pulled the shoot and steered away from stagnation just in the nick of time. That stagnation should’ve been inevitable considering his breakneck creative pace, but Ty Segall remembered that his name sits alone on that record spine, and made album that’s as honest to his fans as it is to himself.
Best Songs: “The Keepers”, “Crazy”, “The Man Man”.

Haim Days Are Gone

7) Haim – Days Are Gone
Este, Danielle and Alana Haim were everywhere this year, giving delightful interview after delightful interview, storming through standout set at every major festival on the planet, and even singing backup vocals with Primal Scream. It seems crazy that most of this was from before their album had even dropped, and it makes their Forever EP songs and its follow up singles at least feel like the giant radio hits that they deserved to be. When Days Are Gone finally arrived in late September they got to debut again as fully formed and furious Rock/Pop professionals.

Their music hooks both definitions of R&B together into an irresistible form of personality driven pop. Danielle Haim’s earns centre stage position with voracious staccato vocals and her measured interpretation of fiery rock star guitar leads, which blaze under the outro of the “The Wire” and moves with a bluesy stomp on “Let Me Go”. Danielle’s off hand vocal ticks on the indelible “Don’t Save Me” are just as enjoyable as the moments where the three sisters’ voices come together on the hook and split off again, and that’s just one song off on an unbelievably stacked side A. There’s also “Honey & I”, which dazzles with summer night atmospherics and sets your heart racing when it finally kicks in, it’s one of my absolute favourite songs of the year.

Days Are Gone producer Ariel Rechtshaid has had an equally eventful year sitting behind the board for excellent records from Vampire Weekend and Sky Ferreira, two artists I’d previously never had much affection for.  When you pair someone with that much talent with the current title holders of “most likeable band in the world” you’ve got yourself a guaranteed hit.
Best Songs: “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “Honey & I”, “Don’t Save Me”.

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6) Deafheaven – Sunbather
I’d bet most people paused for a second when they came to the genre field on their mp3 copies of Sunbather. Black Metal, Post-Metal, or Shoegaze? Do you just stick a bunk of slashes in there? The San Francisco band is a thrilling blend of all three, a vortex of ecstasy that most people probably would have missed out on if only one of those tags were appropriate. The uncompromising nature and humourlessness of Black Metal survives in the anguished screams of vocalist George Clarke, who shouts his incomprehensible poetry into the abyss. His splintering vocal chords are a welcome reprieve from the childlike vocals that some Shoegaze bands chose to contrast their heavy guitar leads. The way Clarke uses his voice to push the band ever higher at Sunbather’s peaks is a revelation.

Deafheaven blow the claustrophobic elements of Black Metal wide open, answering the traditionally tinny and buzz saw-like percussion sound with loud, well recorded drum tracks. The spatial production lets the speed of the bands playing form into a transcendent drone, and awe-inspiring sections of true melody tap into the beautiful expanse that lies behind their steely eyes intensity. There’s real serenity to be found in the soaring outros of “The Pecan Tree” and “Dream House”, the way they naturally segue and evolve from moments of pure aggression to pure bliss is nothing short of outstanding. It lets you stare back at the journey’s footsteps as you’re overcome with the beauty of the imagery that the music is inspiring in you. Genre doesn’t matter in those moments, and whatever Sunbather is, it’s never sounded better.
Best Songs: “Dream House”, “Sunbather”, “The Pecan Tree”.

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5) Fuzz – Fuzz
The mystery of who was behind Trouble in Mind’s “This Time I Got a Reason/Fuzz’s Fourth Dream” 45 lasted all of about two minutes. They tried to bill Fuzz as some unearthed treasure, which might have been believable if you’d never heard Ty Segall sing a syllable. But this longshot attempt at anonymity makes sense, after his trio of releases in 2012 Segall was probably sick of being asked about his prolificacy.

The full self-titled LP didn’t arrive until September, by which time Ty had already recorded and released Sleeper, a solo album that is seen as Segall catching his breath. Well I disagree with that. Even though it’s a hell of a lot louder, faster, and heavier, Fuzz is the true sound of Segall chilling out. Revelling and drawing soothing ragged breaths in the rhythm section as he backs Ty Segall Band cohort Charles Moothart and bassist Roland Casio. In a surprise to no one, he’s a fantastic drummer. He plays fast and loose, putting a powerful emphasis on fills as Moothart is ablaze with mammoth riffs. He seems to be having a blast smashing along on the drums to some crushing guitar leads, only stopping when he’s waiting his turn to dizzily trade solos on “Loose Sutures”.

Fuzz is a just a jam-heavy dusty throwback record, with the kind of cover that you want to spray on the side of a black van. It’s unapologetically old-school, taking its inspiration most clearly from Blue Cheer, Hawkwind, and early Black Sabbath. Casio, Moothart, and Segall just seem like they wanted to put some good grooves on wax. They’re not looking back; they’re living in the moment, just having a blast playing rock and roll at a volume that’s loud enough to blow your windows out.
Best Songs: “What’s In My Head?”, “HazeMaze”, “Preacher”.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze

4) Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Walkin on a Pretty Daze sees Kurt Vile becoming the sort of guitarist people obsess over, the kind that makes gearheads fight over the spot that has the best view of his pedal board. This seems to be the result of a few certain major changes in his life within the last few years. Playing for an hour and half every night during the widespread touring he embarked on after 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo couldn’t have hurt. The stage gave him countless chances to reinterpret each of his notes until he could probably play his songs backwards. But his major source of inspiration seems to have come from being home; Pretty Daze was written and recorded in the lead up to the birth of his second daughter, when he was still adjusting to the arrival of his first. You can imagine him overtired and anxious, wanting to lose himself in his swelling guitar loops whenever he had a spare moment.

He faces the tour guilt of almost being paid to be an absentee father on the beautiful “Too Hard”, it’s a self-portrait of his most conflicted inner thoughts set to gorgeous finger picked acoustic riff that’ll let you escape to wherever it is Vile wants to go. His song’s drift on and become side spanning epics as Vile becomes intoxicated by his own heady interpretation of classic rock. But the refrain of ten minute closer “Goldtone” puts an end to any talk of him being a for real stoner: “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned/But I never as they say, touched the stuff. I might be adrift, but I’m still alert/Concentrate my hurt into a gold tone.” That’s pretty much the M.O. of his entire career. Vile’s an escapist who made his own world, and if you listen to it in the right frame of mind, you’ll even forget about the pedals he used to build it.
Best Songs: “Wakin on a Pretty Day”, “Shame Chamber”, “Goldtone”.

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3) Torres – Torres
The reverberant concrete echo on Mackenzie Scott/Torres’ self-titled debut album makes every note and rare snare strike sing along with her like a choir. The giant room comes alive and begins to glow as her warm voice draws you closer and closer, transforming her intimate ballads into something truly grandiose with nothing but the quake in her vocal chords. It’s honed and mastered, sounding just as full even when it’s forced to stand naked with a hissing tape, or when it comes out as an unpolished and desperate cry when Scott stabs at your soul with lyrics of tragic beauty.

“Moon & Back” directly addresses an anonymous adopted child, the year mentioned seems to rule out the chance of it being her child, but the deep connection conveyed with her words and expressions make it hard to believe that the song is a complete work of fiction. You feel her pain in an immediate and real way. Scott perfectly vocalizes her narrator’s desperate plea on closer “Waterfall”, choosing a numb tone of worn out acceptance as the figure stands on the edge of a final terrifying form of freedom. It leaves you in need of the albums final silent seconds of contemplation. Torres is a sincere collection of aching ballads sung by one of the year’s best new voices, a slow motion blaze lit from the smouldering, sparking embers of a young and fiery heart.
Best Songs: “Honey”, “When Winter’s Over”, “Moon & Back”.

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2) Mikal Cronin – MCII
From co-penning riptide thrashers on Reverse Shark Attack, to providing ripping bass and cooing harmonies on the oppressive Slaughterhouse, Mikal Cronin has been a long-time friend and ally of garage rock savant Ty Segall. They’re huge celebrators of each another’s work —and Cronin released a pretty excellent debut album somewhere within their collaborative history—but this was the year he finally seemed to step out of his friend’s long shadow for good. Into what happened to be a very sunny spotlight.

His lyrics aim for your heart even when his guitar moves your body. He deals with his insecurities in the light and anthemic “Shout It Out”, which rings with sugary ooos and sharp handclaps, and delves deeper on the profound “Weight”; exploring the easily relatable lost and directionless feelings of young adulthood. Cronin’s clear musical talent and multi-instrumentalist prowess makes MCII an endlessly rich album. Gnarly guitar ragers sit right next to sweet acoustic ballads, and he even lets his string section get in on a rock out during “Change”.  The heart stopping and hopeful ballad “Piano Mantra” closes it out, but not before an earthy guitar crash parts the clouds for a final ray of glory. Cronin has a tinnitus ridden ear for pop; a seemingly intuitive sense of the perfect tune and the skill to wrap it in the right amount of fuzz and volume to make it shine ever brighter.
Best Songs: “Weight”, “Shout It Out”, “Piano Mantra”.

Personal Record

1) Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
There’s a distinct matter-of-factness about Eleanor Friedberger’s lyrics. She doesn’t seem to feel the need to disguise her feelings inside of vague poetics or allegory, and is happy to just come out and say: “I don’t want to bother you, but there’s something to say that I want you to know”. Personal Record is a pretty straight forward songwriter-orientated kind of album; it makes wonderful use of traditional song structure, with verses, choruses and bridges all where they’re meant to be. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone but Friedberger singing these beautifully constructed songs. Her wordy vocal style is almost like narration, it’s deeply evocative of specific times and places. Even when there’s not much to her lyrics you get a real insight into her frame of mind.

On “My Own World” she sings: “I was living and breathing and sitting quite quietly / Watching the TV and minding my diet / While I moved from my desk on to my treadmill / And I tried to move mountains or nothing but molehills”. It’s mundane. Yet when it’s combined with a light country guitar lead you get everything from it.  You can see what her apartment looks like and you can feel her conflicted feelings of boredom and relief as she tries to enjoy a quiet moment alone. There’s no way you could strip those songs down, or give them to The Byrds.

This—and the fact that the album is called Personal Record—is probably why I was so surprised to learn that the whole album was co-written by John Wesley Harding. Harding helped Friedberger move further in the direction outlined by her solo debut Last Summer; which condensed the fussier and intricate parts of her band The Fiery Furnaces into something much more immediate. If they can keep producing moments as sublime as the soaring horn-lead bridge of “She’s a Mirror”, and pop songs as good as “Stare at the Sun”, I hope their collaboration is long-lived. Their partnership doesn’t do anything to make the title any less perfect. The songs are irrefutably hers; you’re in the back of that taxi with her, and you’re there to desperately help her search for Soft Machine in that Oxford street basement.
Best Songs: “My Own World”, “I Am the Past”, “She’s a Mirror”.

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FUZZ 2

Favourite Albums 50-11:
50) Veronica Falls – Waiting for Something to Happen
49) Retribution Gospel Choir – 3
48) Steve Gunn – Time Off
47) Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
46) Mazes – Ores & Minerals
45) Windhand – Soma
44) Kylesa – Ultraviolet
43) Pissed Jeans – Honeys
42) Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
41) Pond – Hobo Rocket
40) Kvelertak – Meir
39) Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
38) Diarrhea Planet – I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
37) California X – California X
36) Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
35) Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
34) Palms – Palms
33) Low – The Invisible Way
32) My Bloody Valentine – mbv
31) Jamie Lenman – Muscle Memory
30) Touche Amore – Is Survived By
29) Purling Hiss – Water on Mars
28) Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
27) Phosphorescent – Muchacho
26) Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)
25) Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister
24) Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
23) Laura Marling – Once I was an Eagle
22) Superchunk – I Hate Music
21) Paramore – Paramore
20) King Tuff – Was Dead (Reissue)
19) Yo La Tengo – Fade
18) Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
17) The Men – New Moon
16) Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
15) Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
14) Kanye West – Yeezus
13) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
12) Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold (Reissue)
11) Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
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Waxahatchee

Best Singles/B’sides/Songs from albums not on my top 50 list:
Arcade Fire – Afterlife
Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
Black Sabbath – Damaged Soul
Bombino – Amidinine
Coliseum – Sister Faith
Cut Copy – In Memory Capsules
Daft Punk – Get Lucky
Danny Brown – Lonely
Deap Vally – I Can Hell
Deerhunter – Back to the Middle
Disclosure – When a Fire Starts to Burn
Eagulls – Nerve Endings
Fidlar – Gimmie Something
Foals – My Number
Futurebirds – Virginia Slims
Fuzz – You Won’t See Me
Haunted Hearts – Something That Feels Bad Is Something That Feels Good
Hebronix – Unreal
The History of Apple Pie – Mallory
In Solitude – Sister
Jagwar Ma – Uncertainty
Jonathan Rado – Faces
Janelle Monáe – Electric Lady
The Joy Formidable – This Ladder is Ours
Katy Perry – Roar
King Khan & the Shrines – Pray for Lil
Kurt Vile – The Ghost of Freddie Roach
Lana Del Rey – Young and Beautiful
Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
The Lonely Island – Spell It Out
Lorde – Royals
The Lovely Bad Things – Fried Eyes
The Mallard – Just an Ending
Marnie Stern – Nothing Is Easy
Motörhead – Heartbreaker
Nails – God’s Cold Hands
The National – Sea of Love
Neko Case – Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street
Nightlands – So Far So Long
Paul McCartney – I Can Bet
Phoenix – Trying to Be Cool
Pickwick – Lady Luck
The Preatures – Is This How You Feel?
Red Fang – Blood Like Cream
Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines
Royal Headache – Stand and Stare
Run the Jewels – No Come Down
Savages – She Will
Screaming Females – Poison Arrow
Sebadoh – State of Mind
Speedy Ortiz – Hitch
Thee Oh Sees – What You Need
Torres Y Moi – Rose Quartz
The War on Drugs – Red Eyes
White Fence – Pink Gorilla
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
Yuck – Middle Sea

Wakin On A Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile has always seemed like the sort of guy that would get a kick out of having an album that he could call his own Blonde on Blonde or Exile on Main St., and luckily for him he’s at the perfect time in his career to go big. Wakin On a Pretty Daze is his first release that a significant amount of people are waiting for, after 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo acted as his sort-of-breakout. That album felt like the culmination of all of his earlier Lo-Fi Folk/Rock/Pop recordings, and he could’ve bowed out right then having made his ultimate album. But Vile grew up on records from Rock’s lifers, your Neil Youngs and your Bruce Springsteens, so that just wasn’t an option, and he instead chose to follow it up with his biggest and boldest statement yet.

While considerably longer than his other records, it’s a pretty lean take on a double album. Vile has eliminated any expected filler by picking his eleven best songs and letting them sit for a while. He unhurriedly lets them unfurl as he restructures and resets their chord progressions for as long as ten minutes. It avoids double album gimmicks, the two discs aren’t distinct from each other and the flow is almost too good, which makes the idea of getting up and changing sides seem more like an annoyance than an essential part of the experience. It’s best enjoyed as an uninterrupted singular album, that just happens to have the very welcome bonus of being pretty long.

Partial-title track “Wakin On a Pretty Day” is a gorgeous, perfect opener, deep acoustic strings are layered over rich electric tones during the song’s breezy chorus, all building to an outro solo that practically glistens. Along with the upbeat, ragged lead of “KV Crimes” it’s the first sign that Vile has grown as a guitarist. Every song has an instantly identifiable and excellent guitar opening, from the swampy distortion of “Girl Called Alex” to the Nick-Drake-finger picked chords of “Too Hard”. He makes amazing use of these stringed motifs, and you never notice the songs lengths. In one of his first interviews about the album he called it his Tusk, and while that’s not really a spot on comparison his outro solos are definitely on par with Lindsey Buckingham’s.

“Shame Chamber” features some of Vile’s most self-loathing and self-exploratory lyrics, even if the fun and sharp “WOOOO”’s present him as a limosine ridin’, jet flyin, kiss-stealin, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun! He’s made a big double album, one the Rock artist’s biggest indulgences, but he has somehow kept his tone personal and humble, even as he adds another flavour with “Never Run Away” the album’s clear pop single. Its killer chorus is almost as cute as the song’s video.

Vile’s Americana influences are still at the forefront of his sound, Wakin On a Pretty Daze was recorded on both coasts, but it’s full of sounds and influences from all over the giant country. “Air Bud” mixes heartland guitar licks with sunny synths; its outro could’ve been a whole other song. “Goldtone” could be the track that this album is remembered for, Vile sings some of his most evocative lines over its floating melodies, and maybe even clears up some misconceptions about himself: “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned, but I never as they say touch the stuff / I might be adrift but I’m still alert, concentrate my hurt into a gold tone”. He reveals to us what’s behind his seemingly laid back front, and tells us how he comes up with so many great guitar sounds. It’s an odyssey of a closer, with organ keys, and soft female vocals moving freely within it, creating a beautiful sonic radiance that shimmers along with Vile’s guitar strings.

It really begins to reveal itself after a few listens and the length begins to feel vital. Wakin On a Pretty Daze may wear the clothes of a classic rock double LP, but it stays true to Kurt Vile’s style, and it’s a joy to bask in his songs’ bright and pale sunshine for just that little while longer.

5/5

Michael Gira

An awkward silence hung over the Birmingham audience as Swans took to the stage, either too polite, or too intimidated to applaud the arrival of Michael Gira and his legendary New York Experimental/Noise Rock band. It was the last moment of calm and silence that anyone in The Library would hear for over two hours. As Swans’ sucked the air from the room, any traditional concepts of melody or rhythm went with it, and the very idea of verse-chorus song structure probably would’ve been met with a sly smirk.

They opened with Gira shaking the room with his impossibly deep baritone, chanting “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” over a hauntingly shrill and sparse rhythm, sometimes singing it off-mic as he drifted around the stage with his own eyes closed. The rest of the band met his volume as they violently snapped through “Mother of the World”, a panting menace of a song from The Seer, Swans equally demented 2012 album. They ripped into it with such fervour that several earplugless individuals immediately fled the barrier.

Swans’ six man line-up ranges from your standard stern faced rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer, to the more nebulous and hard to define multi-instrumentalist. Thor Harris, who lived up to his name by playing bare chested, literally provided Swans’ bells and whistles, along with brass and fierce percussion. Chris Pravdica provided the punishing bass catalyst of “Coward”, coercing the rest of the rhythm section into the songs intense severity. Gira sang and spat out the unnerving lyrics amongst the troubled rhythms, shouting: “I don’t know you / I can’t use you / Put your knife in me”. He seemed to be aware of every noise and note that each of his band members were making or playing; he would repeatedly beckon to them for more volume, or place his guitar down and conduct their corrosive cacophony with his convulsive dancing.

They played long and unhurried versions of their songs, indulging in long abstract noise rock sections that frequently pushed song lengths well past the 20 minute mark. They would play the same earth shattering mantric refrains until the sense altering volume finally began to white out. After 90 minutes Gira said that there set was only half over, it’s hard to imagine he was joking, and he only found time for one more song before the 11pm curfew.

Their dirge of anguished violent noise was enough to set your brain on fire, engulfing it as it found a form of ecstasy within Swans’ transcendent onslaught, becoming enamoured and alive with frisson as their volume shook your bones, and Gira spouted what must’ve been demonic tongues. The awkward silence had transformed to loud applause by their set’s end, and the band relieved the haunting tension by taking uncharacteristically playful bows.

It’s so easy to call the noise produced by some of music’s loudest bands a ‘wall of sound’. Any band who push their volume far into the red have probably had their live set described this way, but for Swans it just doesn’t feel like an apt description. The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.

5/5

Yo La Tengo

A large portion of Yo La Tengo’s not-quite-sold out Manchester audience seemed to leave it dangerously close to the 8pm start time before arriving. You would’ve guessed the turnout was going to be disappointing judging from how empty The Ritz was just half an hour before show time, but it was mostly full by the start, and it was busy enough by the interval that getting to the bar became semi-difficult. Perhaps people just didn’t know that Yo La Tengo’s opening act was Yo La Tengo. They firstly took to the stage and sat in front of three cartoony model trees, for a whisper quiet acoustic set. Before returning for an electric (“JUDAS!”) set that slowly increased in volume, and about half of which consisted of long abstract guitar freak-outs.

But before he could get to those distorted heroics, Ira Kaplan led the band through a sparse take of “Ohm” with a thin guitar line. They stripped their new album’s opening sprawling epic bare, and all sang its sweet cooing “ooo ooo oos” in a hushed mumble. James McNew strapped his bass on for a similarly serene “Two Trains”; his thick notes resonated deeply beneath Georgia Hubley’s soft brush strokes and Kaplan’s airy guitar jangle. Kaplan playfully joked, whilst reminiscing about their soundcheck-less first tour, that the band are now “a well-oiled rock machine”, and their first set was quiet enough to let you know that the venue’s doors definitely aren’t. As the squeaking hinges temporarily became an unofficial members for “Season of the Shark” from 2003’s Summer Sun. Hubley missed her husband’s queue for acoustic set closer “Big Day Coming”, but followed McNew’s bass line to properly form the gorgeous Painful opener, which the trio somehow made it sound even more naked than the album version. It’s the perfect first set closer, as the two distinctive quiet and loud versions from the 1993 album seem to be the genesis of this distinctive quiet and loud set idea.

Yo La Tengo have the perfect discography to pull off this concept. Creating one set from their extensive and sonically varied back catalogue would result in many songs being missed out if they wanted to keep an even momentum going. But splitting them up allows for the band to show both of their sides, part unhurried acoustic and part hellfire guitar distortion. The acoustic set was pretty but the bump in volume at the beginning of the second set was very welcome, it was almost a revelation when Kaplan started to play with amplification. You knew they meant business the second you noticed that they’d changed their attire from sweaters to shirts during the interval.

Actual drumsticks didn’t appear onstage until they played I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’s “Moby Octopad”. Hubley shuffled them to Mcnew’s heavy bass leads, whilst Ira played keys and produced sounds that somehow went from jazzy piano chords, to an otherworldly organ riff, and then ended on a sprightly key melody. McNew joined the rhythm section with a snare and maracas for “Autumn Sweater” and “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”, as Ira and Georgia showed that their hushed voices could still be heard even with some volume beneath them. A rocking “Is That Enough” continued the electric sets slow increase in tempo and volume, and a solid rhythm section on “Before We Run” set the stage for Kaplan’s first guitar freak-out.

An electric repeat of “Ohm” completely eclipsed the earlier version, the driving beat and volume lent it far more power than the exhaled acoustic version did. Kaplan’s earlier solos were revealed to be mere warm ups just minutes into second set closer “I Heard You Looking”. He conveyed more emotion through his instrument in the extended Painful instrumental than through any of his vocals. The lower he let his guitar slip past his waist the better his playing sounded, he eventually gave up on even wearing his strap and just waved the screeching instrument through an invisible fog of distortion as he deliberated untuned it and seamlessly switched to another guitar to start the chaos anew. He returned triumphantly to the main riff resembling a one man Marquee Moon.

With the arc and progression of their two set experiment complete, their encores provided a reset. They played two covers, “You guys like London right?” asked Ira, sparking a choir of playful boo’s before they played a faithful punk rock take on Alternative TV’s “Action Time Vision”. The second cover was the first of two requests that closed the night, someone had apparently requested their cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” through email, and they closed with Ira asking, almost demanding, that someone he picked out of the front row request a song. Despite the shouts for “Sugarcube” she requested “From a Motel 6”. Which they played in a stripped down form, closing the night on the note that was far lower key, and felt almost quaint, compared to the noisy and inspiring “I Heard You Looking” that we’d seen just over 10 minutes before. There’s kind of no comparison to seeing Ira Kaplan play and abuse his electric guitar. All of their styles went over well as they segued from their quietest to their loudest material, and the heights that Yo La Tengo reached wouldn’t have been anywhere near as beautiful without that slow and steady climb

4/5

The Men

The promise of an excellent support slot from Parquet Courts probably had a lot to do with this show being a last minute ‘tickets on the door’ sell out. The opening band are currently riding on the success of last year’s Light Up Gold, an album that continued to gain momentum and find new successes earlier this year when it was picked up by bigger music websites. The band delivered on the promise and blasted their propulsive bare-bones rock at the Garage crowd, and recreated the album’s seamless transition between “Master of My Craft” and “Borrowed Time”. Their two guitarists/vocalists, Austin Brown and Andrew Savage, both sing with a manic delivery and when bassist Sean Yeaton joins in it’s like the band are singing along to their own set. Just seconds after they joke about failing to warm up the crowd for The Men they played an electric final two songs. During a solo-laden “Stoned and Starving” Savage left his screaming guitar propped against his amp, changed his stance, and delivered an intense reprise of the lyrics of “Light Up Gold” with a Patti Smith “Land”-like delivery, seemingly winning over anyone who was previously unsure.

There was a time when playing a venue called the Garage would have almost been apt for The Men, but the oppressive punk/noise/garage rock of their first two releases has pretty much been eclipsed by the recently released New Moon, which continues the expansion and mellowing of their sound that they started with 2012’s Open Your Heart. Both keep the grit of their earlier releases but hop frantically through rock and roll sub-genres, making the band increasingly harder to define. With such a wide range of sonic styles to choose from it was hard to guess exactly what this set was going to entail. They’ve gained a reputation of playing very little songs from their current albums, instead opting to play sets of predominantly new material. This has always made them seem slightly out of sync with their audience, it’s nice to hear new songs but people mostly just want to hear what they know. This is an obvious problem that their relentless and constantly developing song writing and recording regime has caused.

With all these things considered, it was a definite surprise when pianist/organist/vocalist Marc Perro began playing the opening bars of “( )” from Leave Home. He played it as the rest of the band slowly arrived and joined in, until drummer Rich Samis showed up and hurled them into the song with a vicious snare roll. The choice to open with the oppressive punk of Leave Home can be read as an attempt to stop the bellyaching amongst that album’s biggest fans, who feel isolated and disappointed by The Men’s more recent output. But it was probably played just because it was an instant dose of frantic and pulverising rock and roll music. They quickly abandoned any theoretical appeasements and mostly left Leave Home’s mega fans in the dust. They only returned to the album once, with a rubbery and motorik take on “Night Landing”.

After the noisy dramatics of “( )” they delved deep into New Moon with the whiskey-sweat-sentiment of the heart pumping “Half Angel Half Light”, and then delivered two of its best pop cuts in the form of “Without a Face” and “Freaky”. A rallying “Turn It Around” filled in the pit, which had previously been spacious and violent. The crowd in general was surprisingly varied considering the band is named after a gender. A slamming version of the Open Your Heart title track featured a raucous guitar solo from Ben Greenberg, good enough to make you wonder why he didn’t move over to the instrument from bass sooner. He made the switch when The Men recently changed their live setup, and bass duties are now handled by Kevin Faulkner who is credited as a lap steel player on New Moon. Their ability to switch around and the lack of a frontman may suggest a sense of anonymity in their band, but it just adds to their varied approach to music, and each singing member’s voice is distinctive and great, even if they’re slightly less capable than other members.

A piano interlude was possibly there just to kill time and mask the sound of the other members tuning, but by its end the full band had come together and they segued into “I Saw Her Face” with a light country jam. The song was extended to Crazy Horse levels and as they moved to Samis’ heavy bass drum; they played biting guitar licks and traded solos. Faulkner was also wearing a 2009 Neil Young tour t-shirt, providing a good indicator of the song’s influence for those who couldn’t effectively use their ears. It was a piece of crushing folk rock, with a galloping punk outro, all whilst being contrasted with Perro’s clear piano keys.

Nick Chiericozzi brutalised his throat on lead single “Electric”, as he tried to match the high octane guitar harmonies for volume, but he quickly recovered for the crooning “Candy”, which was scored with bottleneck guitar licks. They ended their main set with “The Brash”; Greenberg shouted and threw his mic stand to the floor after the first verse, matching the energy of the song’s devastating riff. For their encore they tried yet another style with the unabashed gritty Americana of “Bird Song”, which allowed Perro to add harmonica blasts while Greenberg ripped a showy guitar solo.

“We want dancing baby!” Chiericozzi requested whilst preparing for a song they described as being “very new”. It sounded almost like a shredding take on boogie woogie, complete with a tinkling piano solo. They played it with the house lights half up and ending it with Chiericozzi’s fun, panicked and repeated shouts of “We gotta go!”. It was of course another venture into a new area of rock and roll for The Men, but it still hit like a side swipe. It was a fun sampling of their future material that capped off a set of familiar and crowd pleasing songs. They hit all of the high points from their already extensive discography, and showed that when it comes to rock and roll, they can kind of do anything.

5/5

Kevin Shields

After brief stints in Asia and Australia, My Bloody Valentine have returned to play in the UK for the first time since Kevin Shields promised and delivered the impossible. This O2 Academy Birmingham show was a late addition to the UK tour, added after alternative music fans everywhere became swept up in the chatter leading up to the possible release of the band’s new album m b v. Many would have bet that by this gig the album would still be unreleased, but the Birmingham show improbably happened in a post m b v world, and while it wasn’t an official sell out, it was pretty damn close. Certainly not bad for a band who have disappeared completely several times, and whose most critically acclaimed album, Loveless, only sold 200,000ish copies worldwide.

The Birmingham audience was dotted with aging, deafened-veteran fans, but they were in the minority, some of those in the crowd seemed to be so young that not only were they not born when Loveless was released, they probably couldn’t even legally drink when the remastered version came out. The crowd was comprised of people that had discovered My Bloody Valentine’s amazing and truly unique music (unique before they inspired droves of imitators that is) at some time in their life, even if it was years after the fact. But some people had probably just been dragged along by someone else that had found the band’s music, and were about to get the shock of a lifetime.

Even with the focus on their new material being at an all-time high they opened with the melodious duo of “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” from Loveless. The woozy synth leads from both boast two of band’s biggest hooks, and for ten minutes people seemed to forget that the band has a new record out. As “New You” started they were quickly reminded, Shields played his oscillating guitar line with head almost pressed to his speakers. The band stood in front of video loops that were as cohesive as their production is. The images were marked with the same corroded and kaleidoscopic beauty that defines their songs. It was only upon seeing “New You” live that it finally became clear that it’s Bilinda Butcher who provides the sweet lead vocals. Her and Shields androgynous vocals were just as similarly inaudible as they sound on their studio recordings, almost to an irritating extent. It becomes a noticeable problem with their music when you lose the intimacy of headphones or home speakers, getting the right balance between quiet-but-audible vocals and louder-than-hell guitars must be close to impossible in a live setting.

They became the ear shredders that legend foretold with “You Never Should”, which completely did away with the laid back serenity of “New You”. They started the Isn’t Anything track with a significant volume bump to what was already a loud show. The legends must have spread, because this gig’s audience had the highest percentage of people wearing earplugs that I’ve ever seen. By the time Shields’ liquid slide guitar on “Honey Power” started, people were likely thanking the pieces foam in their ears. The addition of some aggressive and lesser known early EP songs made for a nice mix of sonically varied material that continued throughout their set, and it was a testament to their new material that m b v’s songs fit so seamlessly next to older and beloved tracks. With “Only Tomorrow” the volume somehow seemed to increase again, the warbling guitar drop and pained outro licks shook the stage.

Except for Butcher, the band members’ gazes were still fixed firmly upon their shoes; only Bilinda looked out at the crowd, as she softly sung with her guitar hanging motionless at her waist. It was the band’s lone acknowledge of their audience, and with the vocal mix being what it was, it was hard to tell whether Shields had said nothing, or merely little, to the similarly sedate crowd. He seemed to be lost within his guitar sound during a dissolving “Come In Alone”. Colm Ó Cíosóig’s snare queued up the wonky “Only Shallow”, with its guttural bass and reanimated six string squeal. Their set’s final visits to Loveless’ came in the form of the gorgeously muddled “To Here Knows When” and its stomping post punk closer “Soon”. The two songs bookended and overshadowed a messy version of “Slow” that seemed to leave the crowd unmoved.

They began their final act with the scraping slam of “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, an excellent blurry rocker with a dual vocal lead that trades between Shields and Butcher. But even midway through it you could feel people gearing up for the much hyped “You Made Me Realise”, with its supposedly apocalyptic and famed ‘holocaust section’ wherein the band play one note for as long and as loud and they can endure to. The beginning of the song came with another, possibly imagined, increase in volume, but the beginning of the holocaust section came with a definite and undeniable increase that redefined your definition of ‘loud’. As they dropped into it from the main riff you could feel the rays of sound tearing through your body and shaking your nervous system. Some of those without earplugs wisely covered their ears and others threw their hands above their head to fully embrace its might, as the volume slowly climbed past Jupiter and beyond the infinite. It sounded as if a rocket’s thrusters were burning and reverberating through the venue, conjuring visions of a hectic speed of light re-entry into our atmosphere.

For me, it provoked one of the strongest reactions that I’ve ever had due to live music or music in general, if ten minutes of intense distortion can even be counted as music. I was in disbelief that something so simple and theoretical had hit me so powerfully, that something so monotonous could be so beautiful and invigorating. Its frightening volume was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in person, definitely for such an extended period of time. That such a colossal, all-consuming noise was created by a small group of people with nothing but pedals and guitars is simply incredible. I feel bad for anyone that didn’t experience what I did within its blissful, troubled cacophony, and when the ten minutes were over my body was tingling.

It was awesome in the rarely earned non-hyperbolic sense of the word, an overwhelming and physical experience that no review or video will ever be able to faithfully capture or prepare you for, even I expected everything I’ve heard about it to be a ridiculous over positive appraisal of something that had to be a self-indulgent boring mess. But I’ve never been happier to be wrong, and for almost a quarter of an hour “You Made Me Realise” turned their good set into a great one. The section is completely dependent on its teeth shattering volume, and to turn it down would be to fatally defang it. Anyone who endured it without earplugs is dumb, but they have my respect. When the band returned to and finished the actual song part of it, it actually seemed quiet in comparison.

They broke tradition by not finishing with the song, and instead closed with the live debut of “Wonder”. Cíosóig left his drums and picked up a guitar as the pre-taped jet fuel percussion was piped into the Academy, and Shields’ unnerving vocals struggled to drift through the rumbling guitar layers. Following the distorted behemoth of “You Made Me Realise”, it was an unneeded but welcome addition to their set. It showed that My Bloody Valentine can still create loud and formidable anomalies that deafen you in the best way possible, even if their release dates are now twenty something years apart.

4/5

Foals

You’d probably guess that Foals are Sixth Form favourites judging from the predominantly youngish and enthusiastic crowd that was gathered to see them in The Institute. But upon closer inspection you’d notice a varied audience, and it’s easy to see why. The artsy, experimental sheen of Foals’ music is lightened, and made more accessible, by their aggressive pop hooks and dancey guitar lines. These elements make their music easy to sing, or drunkenly chant along to, and have likely caused the band to be embraced by general music lovers and laddish bantering students alike (these two demographics would probably make for a fun Venn diagram). Foals’ brand of Indie Rock/Pop will probably work for you whether you want to bang your head or dance your heart out. You can either slam along with the band’s measured aggression or simply let it move your feet.

The excitement noticeably erupted in the Birmingham venue as an intro tape of Anna Meredith’s “Nautilus” filled the room to announce the band’s arrival. They opened, aptly enough, with “Prelude”, the opening instrumental from their new album Holy Fire. Jack Bevan’s crisp percussive snare strikes and the looping textural guitar didn’t prepare the crowd for the song’s surprisingly sharp breakdown, which still worked even though it hit long after the crowd had pre-emptively gone nuts. After a brief pause their set shifted as Yannis Philippakis played the near-signature guitar line of Total Life Forever’s “Miami”, changing its definition from classical to post punk as the song progressed.

An early set appearance of “My Number” seized and converted any members of the crowd who weren’t already feeling it. Even as the excitable crowd slammed, crashed and careened into one another they still managed to generate as much noise as the band, by loudly singing along to the chorus as the air was squeezed from their lungs. It’s a song that is so catchy, and greeted so enthusiastically, that you’d think it was a much bigger hit than it actually it. After all it was even deemed to be funky and stone cold pop enough by gold standard Popists Hot Chip, who recently honoured the single with a neat remix. The infectious song hit the crowd and generated enough energy to make you believe that even the people outside of the venue, like in the song’s video, were dancing in the street. And you’d never be able to prove otherwise, unless you had the same unnervingly fluid, wall ignoring, Evil Dead II-like camera that was used to film said video with you.

As the song ended the transitional heartbeat bass drum of “Blue Blood” pulsed far slower than the majority of the circulatory systems on the dance floor did. The band almost lost momentum as the carefully allowed “Milk & Black Spiders” to build, but then they forcefully ripped it back with a glistening and galvanic middle section. They thrilled at half speed with the cruising smooth funk undercurrent of “Late Night”, which Yannis ended with a neon guitar solo. It was a paced and relaxed moment that Foals quickly dismissed with a violent looking stage dive that Yannis took during the dance floor fury of “Providence”.

Large chunks of the crowd tried to sit down during the serene opening of “Spanish Sahara”, which was probably so they could give the band the standing ovation they deserved as they furiously beat out the outros solid tempo. When they were back of their feet, people were jumping and ready to lose themselves again, even before the band kicked into the breakdown of “Red Socks Pugie” from their debut album Antidotes. The straight New York-like Dance Punk of “Electric Bloom” saw Yannis partly joining the rhythm section, whilst still fronting the band with an unhinged Byrne-ian energy as he brandished a pair of drumsticks and stormed through the refrain. Corrosive waves of distortion crashed through the venue and suddenly cut out at maximum volume as the song crashed into its ending and the band left the stage.

The crowd was wild enough by this point that not playing an encore just wasn’t an option. Yannis returned alone to open the encore with a solo version of “Moon”, which he introduced as a “twisted little number”. The song is a slow burn and he temporarily lost the still hopped up crowd, who began to chat amongst themselves during the pretty but sleepy number. He instantly won them back with an unimaginative but effective shout of “Are you fucking ready?” as his bandmates returned for a venue shaking rendition of “Inhaler” that hit with a supersonic force. A call from Yannis of “Let’s desecrate this building” prepped their closer “Two Steps, Twice”. It layered and layered and dragged the perfectly willing crowd through a final sweaty crush and dance along.

Foals play many of their songs live in a fashion that is far more vicious and thrillingly ill-mannered than any of their studio recordings, and the band was clearly loving their growing successes as they fed off of The Institute’s crowd. A crowd that couldn’t quite decide how to react to the music, but clearly loved it. The exhausted and beaming fans filed out of the venue to the sound of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which is probably the only song that could keep the party that Foals started going.

5/5

The Men New Moon

Over the course of four studio albums The Men have established themselves as one of Rock’s most versatile bands. After the gnashing Punk/Noise Rock of 2010’s Immaculada and 2011’s Leave Home, they gave up on sticking to one style per album. Last year marked a turning point in their short career when they released Open Your Heart, their most varied and emotionally bold album that was one of the year’s best. Their newest release New Moon follows just under a year after, and features songs that they have been playing from before even the 2012 album was released. It mostly presents a further mellowing of their sound, but then hits you with some of their harshest material. They commit fully to the abandonment of any concept of a constant thread within their music, and with no primary songwriter or lead singer to paint as a frontman the Brooklyn five-piece seem like a true band. Apart from their drummer, Rich Samis, every member takes a stab at singing, offering a variety of voices that range from great to capable.

This looseness has become The Men’s key component, and on New Moon they switch from fun Garage Rock grinding, to intense Krautrock oppression. The piano chords of opener “Open the Door” might make Leave Home mega-fans violently rage vomit over their record players. As it starts the album with more of a polite knock than a frame splintering kick. It’s a straightforward and pleasant acoustic song, which begins to make sense once it’s revealed to work as a build up to the aggressive radio rock of “Half Angel Half Light”. Which bursts with melody straight out of the gate, due to Nick Chiericozzi and Mark Perro heart-pumping joint lead vocals. Through a sunny acoustic guitar line and a verse-chorus structure that doesn’t waste a second, it conveys a love of radio rock that is as joyous as Jonathan Richman’s love letter to it.

A spirited refrain of “when your heart beats true” elevates “Without a Face”, and its harmonica blasts reveal a deep Folk Rock influence. Their east coast origins and Folk Rock leanings may welcome, encourage, and force comparisons to the Heartland Rock of Bruce Springsteen. But the brand of murky folk they play on “I Saw Her Face” is closer to the rawest albums in Neil Young’s long discography. The song’s front section is led by thick sluggish folk guitar and Perro’s harsh but tuneful croon. He harmonises wonderfully with bassist Ben Greenberg for the title line before the band snap into place for an excellent solo section and tempo bludgeoning outro. This aggressive form of folk rock is just another example of The Men’s music bearing a distinct love and reverence for the Classic Rock repurposing of The Replacements. Even The Men’s discography seems to be aping the sonic and melodic changes that occurred in the three short years between the releases of Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Let It Be.

New Moon is a very American Rock and Roll album, and it unabashedly embraces this with the “Like a Rolling Stone” piano and harmonica on “Bird Song”, a ragged Rock and Roll Hall of Fame styled slice of Americana. “High and Lonesome” is a slow sunset instrumental that is perfect for the plains. It seems to be building to something but The Men pull and shred the rug from under you instead with “The Brash”, a punk rock vortex with disorienting grunge riffs and duelling guitar solos. Before you can regain your footing they hit you again with the compressed crash cymbals and melodic buzzing thunder of lead single “Electric”. As a digital album the switch from gentle country instrumental to bone rattling ‘pop’ is kind of a sharp and unexpected, akin to crashing into a canyon during a leisurely drive. But as an LP, with a pause and a change of sides separating the two tracks, “High and Lonesome” becomes the perfect wind down and “The Brash” the perfect kick off, causing The Men to score a victory for the vinyl record and in turn strengthen their classic rock ties. But when taken as a list of MP3s, the album’s sequencing is basic, and it could be listened to on shuffle without losing much.

The variety of songs is great but the lack of flow is kind of a disappointment, because it seems like The Men have a truly great rock record within them. The songs are excellent but New Moon feels more like a singles collection, rather than their version of The White Album or Led Zeppelin III. Nothing shows the disparity in the album more than its two closers do. The quick shot “Freaky” moves with a loose pop beat and peaks with a brief rich-toned guitar solo, but “Supermoon” is an eight minute noise rock odyssey with an oppressive thrashing sway that is stuffed with squealing guitar. It beats its way into your skull and brings the album to a punishing conclusion.

The Men may have mellowed their sound, but their capricious approach to rock has made them even more unpredictable than they were as a snarling-lung-hacking Noise Rock band. They seem to have an ‘anything goes as long as it Rocks’ approach when they’re writing their excellent songs, and on New Moon they keep you guessing at what style they’re going to channel next, as they do their best shambolic impressions of a million different types of rock music.

4/5

The Joy Formidable

That they take a moment during their set to wish one of their biggest fans a Happy 71st Birthday, is a testament to incredibly varied nature of The Joy Formidable’s fan base. The Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall was full of fans of all ages, gathered to see the explosive part-welsh three piece who are touring in support of Wolf’s Law, their recently released second album. The album is kind of a mixed bag with its incredible highlights unfortunately being tarred by some skippable pace killing filler. But many albums with a similarly wide scope encounter the same problems, and Wolf’s Law still feels like a success, because it’s refreshing for an artist in the shape of a rock band to have the balls to aim so big. The assorted turn out shows they are well on their way to becoming a band who are just as gigantic as their volatile songs.

As a live band The Joy Formidable shed album lowlights and go hell or broke with their supercharged breakdown laden songs. They’ve honed their live chops as the support act for several giant arena level bands, giving them repeated tastes of, and fueling their appetite for, a highest level of success. The arena exposure seems to have awarded the band with a quiet confidence whilst performing. Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan conveys a perfect balance between self-seriousness and awareness as she zigzags around the stage and belts out her mammoth choruses. She knows when to be subtle and when to be larger than life, and demonstrates an embracement of the lovably dumb theatrics and guitar heroics of rock music.

They bring a learned arena rock fury to the comparatively modest Wulfrun Hall and almost immediately blow the roof off with the soaring chorus and unstable guitar riffs of their set opener “Cholla”, and encourage a sing along with the consciously designed crowd chants of “Austere”, from their 2011 debut album The Big Roar. Rhydian Dafydd’s fuzzy bass riff explodes with the help of a giant gong crash from drummer Matt Thomas and flashing guitar line from Ritzy, as the song rips open with frisson inducing hysteria.

Nothing quite says “We want to play arena rock” like a drummer with a gong and chimes, and Thomas beats the holy hell out of his front stage left drum kit for the entirety of their set. Becoming their chaotic driving force through Wolf’s Law opener and highlight “This Ladder Is Ours”, as Ritzy sung the thrillingly rushed vocal melodies of its excellent chorus. She moves around the stage with a bouncy energy and looks out at the crowd with a fun mischievous stare. There’s never any degree of intensity about her, she instead channels her aggression through her instrument and gives nothing but love to her audience. The band also don’t appear to be too cool for school, and don’t scoff at a group of fans who are wielding inflatable guitars above their heads, and dismiss and playfully mock the duelling crowd shouts of “BASS SOLO! DRUM SOLO!”. “I play Bass and even I don’t want to hear a bass solo”, says Dafydd.

After leading a sing along during the kinetic outro of “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade”, and knocking her microphone stand over as she blasted through an extended version of “Cradle”, that seemed like it had a 50 megaton breakdown, Ritzy handed the guitar lead over to Dafydd for “Silent Treatment”. An acoustic ballad that gives their propulsive set a brief moment of pause. She took back the lead with the intergalactic synth guitar solos of “Maw Maw Song”, which really came to life in a live setting, highlighted by its dramatic glam rock intro and motorik drum beat during the verses. They close out their main set with the epileptic guitar of “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie”, which concludes with an impossibly increasing racing tempo that somehow never quite falls apart as it rockets towards infinity.

When they return for their encores only one song is on people’s minds, but they open by dedicating a version of “Bats” to their 71 year old fan, “This is ‘Bats’ for an old bat” says Ritzy. After a blitzing “Forest Serenade” the anticipation for their beloved “Whirring” is at a fever pitch, and the gentle opening piano chords of “Wolf’s Law” are greeted by a noticeable feeling of tedium within the crowd as they lose patience and hope that the night isn’t a giant anti-climax. The hidden title track itself builds to a satisfying dizzying crescendo, but the band knows their audience and as they reach full volume during the song’s conclusion they erupt into “Whirring”.

The song is about as perfect as a dazzling crowd rousing closer gets, with its goliath sing along chorus, furious double bass drum lead, and stacked crash endings. It finally causes the band’s energy to fully spark within the crowd, and riles the front rows into a frenzy. The band gallop through it with wide grins on their faces, always teasing and delivering yet another crash ending. Amongst the madness Ritzy went to the barrier and allowed her fans to paw at her and her Stratocaster, before running back to the stage and triumphantly standing atop the drum kit for a final (for real this time) crash ending that laid waste to the Wulfrun Hall.

The majority of The Joy Formidable’s songs use this same structure, and you know the breakdown is coming, but it’s still an invigorating adrenaline rush every time. When their massive songs peak and detonate it’s easy to see why their audience is so varied, and it makes you wish we had more bands who aim for the skies.

4/5