I know, it’s March and a bit late for the second part of my review of 2013. To be honest, I had forgotten to write this and so, it’s probably not going to be as detailed as it should be when it comes to the reasons why I chose my top albums, but in the interest of completeness…
Ignoring, as usual, the compilation albums that come free with Prog magazine, I added 67 albums and 3 EPs to my collection during 2013. Inevitably most of my purchases were at gigs, with the bigger names being reserved for family and friends to buy me for birthday and Christmas presents. Full back catalogues from Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Deborah Bonham (excluding her debut, which I used to own on vinyl but which is, as far as I can tell, no longer available), Enochian Theory and King King were included in the tally, along with a fair-sized chunk of The Enid’s available albums. Many of the albums I bought were from acts that previously hadn’t featured in my collection, including the likes of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo, Buffalo Summer, Jefferson Grizzard, iLiKETRAiNS, Iona, Kobra and the Lotus, Willie Nile and Train. There were also debut albums from Dream of Apollo, Noterminus, Sankara and The Temperance Movement.
Of the 67, only 29 were released during 2013 and one of these was a re-release package of five Y&T albums, so is not eligible for the following top ten. By way of explanation, I’m not knowledgeable enough about music production or writing to choose my top ten based on those criteria. For me music is about how you feel when you hear it and how much you want to hear it again. So, as usual, the following list has been chosen by looking at the albums I bought in 2013 and selecting the ten I would pick to play next. Originally, the list was selected back in January and it is entirely possible that it would be different if I chose again today but, as it has been published elsewhere, I sticking with it.
So without further ado, my top ten albums for 2013, in no particular order, are:
This was always going to be (and probably always will be) a favourite of mine. Long-time readers may know the story of how I, with a couple of friends, stumbled across this band playing the back room of a pub a few years ago. Since then, I’ve seen them live a number of times and got to know them. When they announced that they were raising funding for an album through a pledge campaign, I was only to happy to contribute. When they asked if I wanted to sit in on one of the recording sessions, I was delighted and, ultimately, fascinated. When I, along with other pledgers, attended the packed launch gig I was delighted for them. As Winston, the band’s guitarist, explained to me, he now had a thing that he could boast to his future grandchildren as something “he had made”. How many of us can say that? With the addition of a cellist, the songs on the album gained an extra layer that hadn’t been present in the live performances, a layer that has continued to enhance them as the band have performed mostly acoustic sets since the album launch. Alpha is a lovely debut that will always serve to remind me how good some of the lesser-known local talent can be. It also has the added bonus that both my wife and daughter like it.
I am by no means a Fish aficionado, owning just two of his previous studio albums (and those were selected for me, at a gig, by a slightly drunken, much bigger fan). This album, though, was getting rave reviews almost everywhere I looked, including from said fan, and the opportunity to have the deluxe edition, including a 100-page book of artwork, lyrics and the background of the album, bought for me for Christmas was too good to pass up. I have only played the album a couple of times since but that has been enough to propel it into this list. The power of the ex-Marillion frontman’s vocals may have diminished slightly, but there is no doubting the passion and, musically, the album is outstanding. The Suite of songs based on the World War One experiences of Fish’s grandfathers make this a powerful, yet personal album.
This one came somewhat out of left field. I had never heard of Leafblade before and it was only through a couple of mentions in a Facebook group that I had any inkling that it was a prog-rock album. Bought completely blind, it took me completely by surprise. More introspective and mystical than most prog (which, let’s face it, can verge on the bombastic) this is a pleasure to listen to.
Again, I came late to Manning and only picked up my first albums by them last year. For me this is almost quintessential English Prog, even if founder Guy Manning doesn’t really think so. At the same time, though, there’s something a bit more accessible, catchy almost, with this album than others I have heard (although, that is by no means the majority of their output). Guy’s vocals remind me of a time gone past, sometimes Ian Anderson, sometimes, bizarrely, Noel Coward and the highlight of the album, Palace of Delights, describing a department store full of childhood wonders, does something similar with its lyrics. Like the Leafblade album, this is another slice of easy-listening Prog.
I was recommended to see this band live by somebody whose musical judgement rarely, if ever, lets me down and was once again surprised to find a Fibbers packed with people seeing a band that I hadn’t, until a couple of days earlier, even heard of. That gig was superb, full of energy from a band that I later described as bringing “rock and roll music back for a new generation”. This album, released shortly afterwards, entered the midweek chart at number 9, eventually settling down at number 12 for the weekend. It doesn’t quite capture the live energy, but few studio albums do. And ignore the nay-sayers who suggest it is just Rolling Stones/Black Crowes re-done. It might be – I’m not overly familiar with the former and know nothing of the latter – but there is little original these days and, for me, it is how you perform rather than who you emulate.
Another recommendation, again from the Facebook group, I asked a friend to pick this album up for me from a gig that I couldn’t attend. I knew nothing of what to expect – the gig was part of York’s DV8 festival, but Jordan Reyne was supporting Blackbeard’s Tea Party, who couldn’t be further from the image I have of DV8. The friend told me that her set was “quite interesting technically. More clever than fun” and I was none-the-wiser until I received the CD a few days later. It is a beautifully dark, sometimes intense album that is like nothing else in my collection. My only gripe is the addition of three remix versions (two of songs on the album) that feel slightly out of place to me.
Back to Prog for a band whose main claim to fame seems to be that Simon (son of Phil) Collins provides vocals and drums. Dimensionaut has a more usual style of Prog-rock than the albums above and was, therefore, always going to please me. I don’t think I have fully digested its contents yet and that might be the reason it appears in this list – the desire to hear it again to find out what I am still missing. I do know, however, that I like what I have heard.
More Prog (it is, after all, my musical genre of choice) but this time verging on the heavier side, almost prog-metal. Oceans Of Time marked a return to form for Touchstone after the slight (but definitely only slight) disappointment of The City Sleeps. Helped by a brilliant live performance at The Duchess, the songs on this album propelled themselves into my head with more ease than those on the previous album.
Sharing the bill with Touchstone were Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers. I knew than Nine Lives was getting good reviews but wasn’t prepared for the energy and intensity of their live act, which only served to cement my resolve to buy the album. For some reason, Finnish bands seem to charge an arm and at least a shin for albums at UK gigs (both this one and one by Santa Cruz a few weeks later set me back £15) but as there was the opportunity to get it signed and support the tour it was, for me, worth it. Anything to bring these guys back. Unlike The Temperance Movement, Nine Lives does manage to convey the energy of the live act.
This is another album that has, in some places, been criticised for being other acts re-hashed. Perhaps more accurately it shows its influences. Again, I say there is nothing wrong with that when new listeners may not know those influences and, more importantly, when you produce a thing of such beauty that it could easily be said to surpass those influences anyway. Steven Wilson seems to be a Prog-genius. He is the go-to man when older works get re-released, having worked with the likes of King Crimson and Yes on remixing their older albums, as well as being the guiding force behind Porcupine Tree. That band, it seems, may no longer exist but as long as he carries on releasing works of this quality, I’ll be happy.
Finally, a word about a couple of albums that, if I had bought them a year earlier, would definitely have made my list for 2012. Ask anybody of my age what they think of the band Europe and they will almost certainly remember the glam/hair metal of the slightly cheesy The Final Countdown. Coming across their latest album, Bag Of Bones, without having heard anything in between was almost a revelation. It is a much more Bluesy, dare I say “mature” album that remained on almost constant play for a few days after I received it. Conversely, I knew nothing about The Enid until I saw them play during the Tramlines festival in Sheffield and thoroughly enjoyed their brand of orchestral/theatrical Prog. I asked the lady on the merchandise desk which album she recommended and she pointed me at Invicta. I have since added more to my collection but Invicta is different to most of them, featuring vocals more heavily than the mostly instrumentals of previous releases. And what vocals they are – Joe Payne comes across as something like Freddie Mercury on the West End stage. A truly superb album.