All posts by KR Slade

Now

Shania Twain – The Woman In Me

A change today from the heavy metal that’s been a large part of my listening in recent weeks, with the new and long-awaited album from Canadian country music star Shania Twain. “Now” is Twain’s first studio album in almost fifteen years since 2002’s “Up!” and the first since 1995’s “The Woman In Me” not to be co-written and produced by legendary producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange.

Robert John “Mutt” Lange & Shania Twain

The reason for Lange not being involved is pretty straightforward really. He and Twain married in late 1993, just six months after first meeting. In 2008 it was announced that the pair had split, with Lange reportedly having had an affair with Twain’s best friend Marie-Anne Thiebaud. In one of those you-couldn’t-make-it-up twists, the couple divorced in 2010 and Twain then married Thiebaud’s ex-husband Frédéric Thiebaud on New Year’s Day 2011! In the midst of all this Twain’s singing voice began to suffer, culminating in her being able to neither sing or even speak properly as a result of dysphonia (in this case said to be brought on by lyme disease). Naturally, then, Lange wasn’t involved in Twain’s new work.

Shania Twain Live In Las Vegas

A period of recuperation was therefore necessary before Twain made a comeback with a residency in Las Vegas before taking the step of making a new album. And drama aside, that’s what we’re interested in. Is the record as good as her past, hugely successful albums? I’ll admit that early signs weren’t good.

Shania Twain

The single “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed”, a country / pop / reggae number has what I can only describe as a rather odd part at the end of each verse right before the chorus kicks in that still grates to my ears. Twain’s voice sounds strained in places, auto-tune / vocoder seems a little too obvious and (as my wife put it) there’s a “fiddle-dee-dee” bit that appears out of nowhere for no apparent reason that’s not quite in keeping with the rest of the song. Thank goodness the chorus is so strong and catchy!

Shania Twain Live In Hyde Park 2017

The singer’s appearance at BBC Radio Two’s festival in a day recently at Hyde Park in London hadn’t helped. Playing a short set of just seven songs, she sang the refrain of “You’re Still The One” a cappella a couple of times between numbers, but the vocal sound changed very noticeably when the song itself was performed, strongly suggesting the use of pre-recorded vocals – likely not just on that one track either. The singing voice is still a problem live then, so what would that mean for the album. Would it turn out to be a disaster on the scale of Meat Loaf’s woeful “Braver Than We Are”?

Shania Twain

The record begins with the aforementioned “Swingin’…” and I must say that it sounds a whole lot better on the stereo rather than the car radio! Twain’s records have never been pure country music in the traditional sense, with a great deal of pop sensibilities thrown in – especially on “Up!” and so it should come as no surprise that “Now” is a mature country pop (or more accurately pop country) album throughout.

Shania Twain – Up!

In some ways it feels like a natural successor to the aforementioned “Up!”, but without the cynical marketing attempt (that album was released in three different mixes to try to appeal as far across the board as possible) and with a less feisty lyrical approach overall.

Shania Twain

Much of the humour and zest of her previous songs has been replaced, on this long-player at least, by songs about self-empowerment and (despite Twain stating it’s not a divorce album) those clearly driven by heartbreak and betrayal, such as “I’m Alright” and other single “Life’s About To Get Good”.

Shania Twain

I can’t honestly say that this album is as immediate as either “Come On Over” or “The Woman In Me”, but it is a very accomplished one and is likely to get played as regularly as “Up!” if not those two. Not one for those just interested in the big hits, perhaps, but this album as a whole can hold its own with her back catalogue. Despite the obvious vocal differences that have occurred during the intervening years Twain has an easy and natural style that suits the new material as well as it did those singalong hits of the past.

Looking great at 52, and still sounding pretty good too, it’s good to have Shania Twain back “Now”…“Now” tracklist:

1. Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed / 2. Home Now / 3. Light Of My Life / 4. Poor Me / 5. Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl / 6. More Fun / 7. I’m Alright / 8. Let’s Kiss And Make Up / 9. Where Do You Think You’re Going / 10. Roll Me On The River / 11. We Got Something They Don’t / 12. Because Of You / 13. You Can’t Buy Love / 14. Life’s About To Get Good / 15. Soldier / 16. All In All

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The Forest Holds Many Secrets…

“After losing her job and her partner in one fell swoop, journalist Elspeth Reeves is back in her mother’s house in the sleepy village of Wilsby-under-Wychwood, wondering where it all went wrong.

Then a body is found in the neighbouring Wychwoods : a woman ritually slaughtered, with cryptic symbols scattered around her corpse. Elspeth recognizes these from a local myth of the Carrion King, a Saxon magician who once held a malevolent court deep in the forest.

As more murders follow, Elspeth joins her childhood friend DS Peter Shaw to investigate, and the two discover sinister village secrets harking back decades…”

The latest book to be read via my Kobo e-reader is a crime thriller with a sort of pagan / supernatural edge to it. Penned by young Darlington-born author (and comic writer) George Mann, this is something of a departure from his previous work which has seen him writing a number of books including adventures for famous characters Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes as well as his own Victorian crime books featuring London detectives Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes.

George Mann

“Wychwood” uses the author’s imagined legend of the Carrion King, a mythical figure who used occult rituals during the Saxon era to obtain supernatural power. In modern-day Oxfordshire people are being killed in ways that are in keeping with the stories of the Carrion King. When Elspeth, newly both single and unemployed, moves from London back to her mother’s home in a small village backing onto the titular Wychwood it takes her journalistic instinct no time at all to get herself involved in the investigation – handily enough being able to hook up with childhood friend (and now police detective) Peter without anyone raising any real objections.

I enjoyed this book, which I believe is set to be the first in a new series for Mann. That said, a certain suspension of disbelief was required. Not in relation to the magical / supernatural elements (though these are never really resolved one way or the other), but in terms of how the actual story unfolded. As hinted above, I found the ease with which Elspeth was able to get herself involved in the police investigation – and in truth her friendship / relationship with Peter wasn’t convincing (but makes a good bridge to further books I guess).

The identity and motivation of the baddie was also obvious pretty early on, though not quite like an episode of TV’s “Columbo” as our crime fighting duo were often quite slow at putting the pieces together. Despite this I did, as I said, enjoy the book – largely I think because of the mixture of modern-day police procedural and historical ritualistic elements. Certainly worth a look…

10 Year Anniversary Tour

Fuel Rock Club, Cardiff

Having spent a fair chunk of last week listening to various extreme metal albums (among them the rather good recent releases from Wolves In The Throne Room and Akercocke) on Friday evening it was time to experience some in the flesh at Fuel Rock Club in Cardiff.

Alpine PartyPlug Earplugs

Having suffered for days after attending a recent Death Angel show I was taking no chances this time, having invested in the meantime in a pair of Alpine PartyPlug earplugs, specifically designed to reduce the volume going into the ear without diminishing the quality heard. I found these through the British Tinnitus Association website, and having done subsequent research decided that they would make a good, fairly economical, choice. I’m pleased to say they worked perfectly and the ringing in my ears after the gig was only at the level that I’ve experienced daily for years now.

Nick Wallwork

Once I’d parked the car and navigated my way (eventually) to the club I had a quick drink in the bar. Between said bar and the performance area were the merchandise tables, and I was a little surprised to see the main attraction’s bassist Nick Wallwork sitting behind them. Before long there were loud guitar and drums sounds coming from said performance area and so I, and a fair number of those in the bar trooped through to find a space which with a capacity of just 150 matches the up-close-and-personal experience of the aforementioned Death Angel gig at Hobo’s in Bridgend.

The noise was coming from opening band Necronautical, a black metal band from Manchester. Having got their levels sorted the four-piece disappeared, only to reappear minutes later with stage outfits and corpse paint in place to storm through their set.

Flanked on either side of the small stage by red candles in candelabras, vocalist / guitarist Russ “Naut” Dobson led proceedings, with a rather Dani Filth-like spoken delivery, as he and his band (lead guitarist James “Carcarrion” Goodwin, bassist Matt “Anchorite” McGing and drummer Rob “Slugh” Harris) treated the still quite sparse audience to a theatrical thirty minute set comprised solely of four tracks from their second album “The Endurance At Night”.

Necronautical

The heat of the room meant that much of the corpse paint had melted by the time the band reached the climax of their set, but with a symphonic edge to their music (reminding me of the likes of Carach Angren) they were warmly received by the Cardiff crowd.

Setlist:

1. Strom / 2. Nihilartikel / 3. Spitzenkörper / 4. Oceanus Procellarum

1, 2, 3 and 4 originally from “The Endurance At Night” (2016)

Levy Seynaeve

It seemed only a few minutes followed before main support act Wiegedood were soundchecking and even less time before the now larger audience was pummelled into submission by the Belgian three-man outfit. Unusually the band do not have a bass guitar player, with the aural maelstrom being produced only by guitarist / vocalist Levy Seynaeve, guitarist Gilles Demolder and drummer Wim Sreppoc – all of whom are also involved with the band Oathbreaker – and I must say that the lack of bass wasn’t really noticeable.

Gilles Demolder

Whereas Necronautical have lyrical themes around the sea etc., I gather than Wiegedood’s output in concerned with death and anger. Granted it’s hard to tell what on earth Seynaeve is screaming about but the distinctly atmospheric black metal underpinning it all is certainly entrancing. I have to admit that I was a tad disappointed that Fen, the main support act from the mainland European leg of this tour, didn’t play the UK too. I have been impressed by both of Wiegedood’s albums to date but wasn’t sure what to expect in the live setting.

Wim Sreppoc

Well if you’re after witty repartee and lots of audience interaction then Wiegedood aren’t your band. Not a word was spoken before, during, or after the band’s forty-five minute appearance, as they clearly intend for their sonic intensity to be all-encompassing. And it worked as the crowd clearly responded enthusiastically to the almost trance-like wall of noise, albeit with the occasional quieter and more reflective passage (including the aforementioned Wallwork headbanging happily just in front of my vantage point). An experience for sure!

Setlist:

1. Svanesang / 2. Smeekbede / 3. Cataract / 4. De Doden Hebben Het Goed II / 5. Ontzieling

1 from “De Doden Hebben Het Goed” (2015) / 2, 3, 4 and 5 from “De Doden Hebben Het Goed II” (2017)

Nick Wallwork, Simon Lucas, Dan Capp & Chris Naughton

And so it was then on to the headliners, another Manchester black metal band – this one celebrating their ten-year anniversary – Winterfylleth. Alongside Wallwork, lead guitarist Dan Capp, drummer Simon Lucas and mainman Chris Naughton (vocals / guitar) took to the stage to do their own soundcheck. Naughton was already sporting a towel around his neck to wipe away the perspiration, such was the heat on stage – something he commented on a couple of times during the show too.

Winterfylleth

At 9:30pm they returned for their own performance, launching into “The Wayfarer Pt. I”, a track that has a singalong chant section at its close to get the heaving crowd going even more than they already were! This was my second time seeing the band live, having seen them open the show when Polish titans Behemoth played Birmingham nearly three years ago. At that time I was a bit underwhelmed by the experience.

Simon Lucas

If I’m honest (but maybe a bit harsh?) I did feel that, at times, the drumming from Lucas got a bit muddied and out of synch with the tremolo picking taking place at the front of the stage. I could be wrong, but the ex-drummer in me felt that it got that way a few times. That aside, this was a polished and extremely well received performance by a band whose brand of black metal has plenty of atmosphere. Whilst there are similarities at times with Wiegedood’s sound, Winterfylleth’s is probably better described as epic and has a much more English feel to it with the folk influences.

Winterfylleth

All too soon the show was over and it was time to head back out into the very busy Cardiff city centre. It was a bit of a culture shock, in a way, coming from the intense atmosphere of three plus hours of black metal to see a line of miniskirted students queueing to get into a club opposite Fuel! Wandering through crowds of inebriated folk on my way back to the car it struck me just how vulnerable some of these young women become when they can barely stand up having got so out of it (I guess I sound like on old fogey now!) Next up on the gig front is a far more doomy proposition in US act Windhand, but in the meantime this really was a great show with which to usher in winterfylleth (Old English for the beginning of Winter and the month of October)

Setlist:

1. The Wayfarer Pt. I – The Solitary One Waits For Grace / 2. The Ghost Of Heritage / 3. The Dark Hereafter  / 4. Forsaken In Stone / 5. A Valley Thick With Oaks / 6. Whisper Of The Elements / 7. The Swart Raven / 8. Defending The Realm

1 and 5 originally from “The Mercian Sphere” (2010) / 2 and 8 originally from “The Ghost Of Heritage” (2008) / 3 originally from “The Dark Hereafter” (2016) / 4 and 6 originally from “The Divination Of Antiquity” (2014) / 7 originally from “The Threnody Of Triumph” (2012)

Renaissance In Extremis

Akercocke

Today’s offering is from London-based black / death metal band Akercocke. The group was formed in 1997 with an initial line-up featuring guitarist / vocalist Jason Mendonca, guitarist Paul Scanlan, bassist Peter Theobalds and drummer David Gray.

Akercocke – Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene

Debut album “Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene” (1999) nailed the act’s colours pretty firmly to the mast with its mix of brutal death metal style riffing mixed with eerie horror interludes and a distinctly Satanic theme in the lyrics. The album didn’t boast the best production in the world so suffered somewhat from a muddy sound.

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

The approach on second album “The Goat Of Mendes” (2001) was to refine things musically whilst ramping up the erotic content of the still- Satanic lyrics and the end result was a definite improvement on the debut. It was 2003’s “Choronzon” that first got me listening to Akercocke. This was a quite simple brilliant album, showing more progressive tendencies whilst still being chock-full of heavy riffing and yet more eerie interludes and film dialogue samples.

Akercocke – Choronzon

By now the band had a rising profile and were notable for being a black metal band who were dressing in suits rather than studs and corpse paint while hanging out with nubile lovelies – as perfectly demonstrated in their video for album highlight “Leviathan”.

The Devil Rides Out

To me that visual approach, together with the Satanism and sexuality of their songs gave them an air of having stepped out of a film such as the 1968 Hammer classic “The Devil Rides Out”. Despite what this might suggest, back in 2001 they’d given an interview in which they’d discussed their Satanism at length, saying that they weren’t “…preaching Hammer Horror Satanism…”.

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone

That same interview contained quotes from both Mendonca and Gray stating “….this band is all about Satanism, there could never be a non-Satanic Akercocke song…” (Gray) and “…no Satanism, no Akercocke…” (Mendonca). This is significant when we come to the new album. Before we get to that though there were a further two studio releases from the group in “Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone” (2005) introducing guitarist Matt Wilcock in place of Scanlan and “Antichrist” (2007) seeing Theobalds replaced on bass by Peter Benjamin. Both albums continued with the same subject matter and both showed further progression musically – though I do retain a fondness for “Choronzon” over all of their initial five albums.

Akercocke In 2007

The band essentially disappeared off the radar for the best part of the next decade, with only sporadic gigs followed by a period of practically no information surfacing prior to the band’s official breakup in 2012. Subsequently Gray issued new music under the banners of both Voices (with Benjamin on guitar) and The Antichrist Imperium (which also featured Wilcock).

Akercocke – Antichrist

Then, nearly ten years after “Antichrist”, came the news that Akercocke were reuniting – Mendonca, Gray and Scanlan together with new bassist Nathanael Underwood and keyboardist Sam Loynes. Gone are the suits and so is the Satanism (so much for “no Satanism, no Akercocke” eh?! ). Hmm…

Akercocke In 2017

First track “Disappear” begins furiously enough before transforming into a brief lighter mid-section and then back into the metal again. The musicianship is top class from all concerned, and Mendonca’s vocals take on a number of approaches throughout the record.

Highlights for me include “Unbound By Sin”, “Insentience” and the excellent closer “A Particularly Cold September”. This is recognisably Akercocke – less dense and brutal than the first few albums, certainly more death metal then black metal in style, and with the progressive elements again more evident – but Akercocke nonetheless. And on the musical front it is most definitely a success. Lyrically I’m not so sure.

Jason Mendonca

I gather that Mendonca struggled massively with mental health issues during the band’s time away and the track “One Chapter Closing For Another To Begin” references his moving on fro that bleak period into more positive waters – and this has clearly fed into his songwriting in a big way, with a lot of positive phrases to be heard on this album. I do, I most confess, miss the out-and-out Satanic wordplay that adorned their previous work but that doesn’t stop this record from being a very high quality progressive death metal release. Welcome back Akercocke…

“Renaissance In Extremis” tracklist:

1. Disappear / 2. Unbound By Sin / 3. Insentience / 4. First To Leave The Funeral / 5. Familiar Ghosts / 6. A Final Glace Back Before Departing / 7. One Chapter Closing For Another To Begin / 8. Inner Sanctum / 9. A Particularly Cold September

Thrice Woven

I’m listening to quite a bit of extreme metal at the moment, partly getting myself in the zone ahead of the forthcoming Winterfylleth gig in Cardiff that I’m attending, but also because there are a number of significant recent and imminent releases in this area.

Wolves In The Throne Room

In the near future I will be wrapping my ears around new albums from Enslaved and Electric Wizard, whilst on rotation at the moment are those from Cradle Of Filth, From The Dead, Myrkur, Satyricon, Leprous and Akercocke as well as the one I’m looking at today – “Thrice Woven” by American black metal act Wolves In The Throne Room.

Nathan Weaver & Aaron Weaver

The band was formed sometime in 2003 by brothers Nathan Weaver (vocals / guitars) and Aaron Weaver (drums / bass / keyboards) together with Nick Paul (guitars) in Olympia, Washington State – an area bordering the Pacific Ocean and Canada, and which is also rich with National Forests and Reservations.

By the time debut album “Diadem Of 12 Stars” saw the light of day in early 2006 Paul had been replaced by guitarist Rick Dahlin, who also appeared on second album “Two Hunters” (2007). Album number three, “Black Cascade” saw Will Lindsay taking Dahlin’s spot, but then the next two albums were performed entirely by the Weaver brothers. That said, there was some vocal assistance from experimental singer Jessika Kenney on 2011’s “Celestial Lineage” (as there had been with “Two Hunters”) and some supporting musicians on the experimental ambient style follow-up “Celestite” three years later. Sabbath Assembly singer Jamie Myers has also provided some vocals for the band over the years.

Kody Keyworth

Now, with guitarist Kody Keyworth joining the brothers (having previously served as touring musician), the band are to back to black metal with their sixth studio album, the aforementioned “Thrice Woven”. Guests on this one are Swedish singer Anna Von Hausswolff and Neurosis frontman Steve Von Till.

Anna Von Hausswolff

Wolves In The Throne Room do not take the traditional (or perhaps more accurately, the stereotypical) approach to black metal. Not for them does black metal entail the wearing of lots of black, with corpse paint makeup and all songs played at high tempo utilising masses of tremolo picking (although there is still plenty of the latter technique to be heard). That’s not to say, however, that the music is not intense – it is, but as part of an overall rather epic soundscape. The band themselves put it on their website their approach is to “…re-imagine black metal as an ode to rain storms, wood smoke and the wild energies of the Pacific Northwest…” 

Steve Von Till

The inspiration behind the band’s music, according to Aaron Weaver, is “the idea of uncovering the occult or the spiritual or the energetic reality of place. Being deeply connected to a place and creating music and art that rises up out of a landscape…” In this respect there are distinct parallels, I feel, with acts such as Saor, Fen, Altar Of Plagues and Winterfylleth. This is atmospheric black metal rather than what I’d think of as more progressive black metal, more akin to the approach of those mentioned above rather than, for example, the likes of Ihsahn.

Metal Hammer – Subterranea

I don’t recall how exactly I got into this particular band, but it was about three years ago I think. I suspect, as with many acts that are unlikely to get much exposure via the airwaves – even via dedicated rock stations – it would have been either via Metal Hammer magazine’s “Subterranea” section that highlights extreme metal artists or as a result of reading up on one such act and finding mention of another that I’d not yet experienced.

Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestite

Regardless, I have over that period of time become pretty well acquainted with the band’s back catalogue, enough that I was pretty excited when I heard that “Thrice Woven” was on its way (especially as it was a return to their black metal roots after the not entirely convincing left-turn that was “Celestite”). So, now the album’s here and I’ve had a few days to immerse myself in it, how does it stack up?

Wolves In The Throne Room – Born From The Serpent’s Eye

Pretty well, truth be told. The album’s opening number “Born From The Serpent’s Eye” begins gently enough with a folk-ish sound until the frenetic drums and tremolo picking kick in after around thirty seconds. The songs fairly barrels along then until the 4:24 mark when it abruptly stops (as does the official video). Then, after a brief pause the ethereal vocals of Anna Von Hausswolff appear, singing in her native tongue (I think) until just after the six-minute point when the band re-enter with a huge, almost doomy, riff as the track builds before the guitars fade and give way to Von Hausswolff and expansive keyboard sounds as the song floats away after nine and a half minutes.

Imbolc Fire Display

Second track “The Old Ones Are With Us” is ushered in with narration from Steve Von Till. “Winter is dying, the sun is returning, ice is receding, rivers are flowing, the ground will be fertile, the seeds they awake, the ploughs will be charmed, fires are burning, the offerings are given, the old ones are with us, we are becoming…” he tells us over some acoustic guitar, monk-like chants and the sounds of a crackling fire before the band come in with a slow-paced number that relates the story of the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, which marks the end of winter and start of spring. Von Till returns to sing briefly during an acoustic interlude halfway though proceedings, and this is a much more sedate and even anthemic sounding track than the preceding one.

Fenris Wolf (As Depicted In The Movie Thor : Ragnarok)

“Angrboda” is, at 10:02, the second-longest song on the record and sees the return of the tremolo picking approach. Named after “… a frost giantess who birthed Fenris Wolf, a beast who was destined to destroy the world and murder the gods…”. The track fades into a completely different vibe after the first five minutes or so with a deep rumbling under some very slow single note synthesizer work before the heaviness of the group is reinforced with another huge riff section. This leads to a sudden finish before the sounds of the sea and air introduce Von Hausswolff’s second appearance in the brief “Mother Owl, Father Ocean” – again sung in Swedish.

Pacific North West Coast

Finally, track five (the longest on the album at eleven and a half minutes) is the rather grand “Fires Roar In The Palace Of The Moon” which, after over nine minutes of ferocious black metal, gives way to the sound of the mighty sea for the final two minutes of the record. The lyrics apparently “…offer blessings to the waters of the earth as they flow from the high places to the source of darkness, the ocean…” The thing with this kind of music is that often the lyrical content is indecipherable unless you have them written down so the music has to do its job of taking the listener to where the artist wants them to be. “Thrice Woven” as a whole just does that. It may not be stylistically much different to the band’s previous black metal albums but it still feels like an evolution from those which went before. Given that the group is so concerned with the natural world I guess that’s the perfect way for their music to be.

Wolves In The Throne Room Live In 2017

There will be more boundary-pushing releases, and those that are more challenging than this one, but if you’re looking for one that will transport you and paint pictures in your mind then you could do far worse than checking out “Thrice Woven” – truly atmospheric black metal…

“Thrice Woven” tracklist:

1. Born From The Serpent’s Eye / 2. The Old Ones Are With Us / 3. Angrboda / 4. Mother Owl, Father Ocean / 5. Fires Roar In The Palace Of The Moon

Maria Wants To Be Friends. But Maria’s Dead. Isn’t She?

“1989. When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren’t. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Within just a few days, Maria and Louise are on their way to becoming fast friends.

2016. Louise receives a heart-stopping email: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface: those first days of their budding friendship; cruel decisions made and dark secrets kept; the night that would change all their lives forever.

Louise has always known that if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria’s sudden reappearance threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she’d severed ties with to escape the past. But as she tries to piece together exactly what happened that night, Louise discovers there’s more to the story than she ever knew. To keep her secret, Louise must first uncover the whole truth, before what’s known to Maria – or whoever’s pretending to be her – is known to all…”

The most recent book that I’ve read is “Friend Request”, the debut novel from British author Laura Marshall a book that is a probably best described as a psychological crime thriller.

The tale is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Louise Williams. In 2016 Louise is a forty-something divorced interior designer living in a flat in London. Mother to four year-old Henry, she’s still wrestling with some latent feelings for her ex-husband Sam and has a very small social circle – best friend Polly being just about it. When she receives a Facebook notification that someone wants to be friends with her she is utterly shocked as that person, fellow schoolgirl Maria Weston, disappeared during their leavers’ party in Norfolk back in 1989, presumed drowned having fallen from a cliff edge near the school.

What makes the request even worse for Louise is the fact that ever since that night she has felt guilt for her role in Maria’s disappearance. Now Maria is back – or is she? If not who is it really and what do they want?

Laura Marshall

Louise reconnects with her best friend at school, Sophie Hannigan, through Facebook, to find out if she’s also had a friend request from Maria. Sophie, along with Sam and his pal Matt were the only other people who knew what Louise had done on the night of the leavers’ party.

An imminent class of ’89 reunion gives the reluctant Louise chance to try to discover what’s going on, but if the meantime she gets ever-more creepy Facebook messages from Maria and she begins to really feel the stress of her guilty secret more than ever…

The action switches between 2016 and 1989 as we slowly uncover the layers of secrets and lies that have affected everything since Louise’s final months at school. In between there are occasional streams of thought from an unknown source, describing the relationship between a male and female – though the identity of those concerned doesn’t become clear until the climax of the book as there are a number of possible candidates.

Marshall has written a vivid and compelling story which touches on themes including peer-pressure and bullying at school, the nature of distant and superficial “friendships” via social media with those we haven’t seen for many a year and how we view / they present their lives as well as how well we can ever truly know anyone and whether, at heart, everyone is really just looking out for themselves – even within intimate relationships.

In some ways reading this book reminded me a little of “Weirdo” by Cathi Unsworth, with the flitting backwards and forwards from present day to school days and the particular pressures of secondary school life. That said it a very different tale and one that’s been told very effectively. Highly recommended reading…

Solennial

Sophie Day

A recent musical discovery for me has been West Midlands-based doom metal outfit Alunah, via their latest album “Solennial”. The band was formed in 2006 by vocalist Sophie Day along with her husband David Day (guitars), Jake Mason (drums) and Andy Barnett (bass).

Alunah In 2008

Barnett had been replaced by Gareth Imber by the time the group’s debut album “Call Of Avernus” was recorded and released in 2010 and was to appear on second album “White Hoarhound” (2012) as well before departing and being himself replaced by current bassist Daniel Burchmore. “Awakening The Forest”, the band’s third album, surfaced in late 2014.

David Day

March 2017 witnessed the release album of number four, the aforementioned “Solennial” – the groups’ first with label Svart Records (home of Trees Of Eternity and Jess & The Ancient Ones amongst others). The record was recorded at Skyhammer Studios by producer Chris Fielding who has previously worked with artists including Winterfylleth, Sir Admiral Cloudesley Shovell and Electric Wizard.

Jake Mason & Daniel Burchmore

As with so many bands within the doom metal scene, Alunah clearly take inspiration from a fellow West Midlands act – the rather well-known Black Sabbath. However, whilst other groups of their ilk are content to use said inspiration as a template from which they seldom deviate Alunah have over the course of their previous three records sought to expand their own sonic palette.

Alunah In 2014

“Solennial” begins with a gentle and soothing “The Dying Soil”, as a cascading guitar part and barely-there drums lay a backing for Sophie Day’s delicate delivery of lyrics concerning the transition from Autumn to Winter. This introduction gathers in eerie intensity until coming to an abrupt conclusion as the fuzzy guitar tones of David Day usher in “Light Of Winter”, a song that shows the band’s pagan leanings as it concerns Alban Arthan – a Druidic festival at the Winter Solstice.

Alunah Live In 2017

“Feast Of Torches”, the second longest track on the album at a little over seven minutes, has more variety within its duration. This, and the vocal delivery brought to mind the sound of Blood Ceremony to me. This is underscored really by the psychedelic passages that occur throughout the album.

Thornborough Henge

“The Reckoning Of Time” has a fluid and melodic guitar solo amongst some nice light and shade before the monolithic riffing returns with the fabulous “Fire Of Thornborough Henge” – a song inspired by the fire festival of Beltane being celebrated at Thornborough Henge, a monument in Yorkshire spanning built approximately five thousand years ago.

Alunah In 2017

The next number “Petrichor” (which means the earthy scent produced with the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather) is another track with a nice balance of light and shade but is itself eclipsed by the rather good “Lugh’s Assembly” which addresses some Irish mythology concerning the pagan God named Lugh and his foster-mother Tailtiu who seems to have also been Queen of the Fir Bolg. Whatever the story it’s a great tune!

The Cure – A Forest

Finally we have a cover of “A Forest” – originally recorded by The Cure way back in 1980. The intro riff here is a slowed down version of the original which retains a gothic rock quality but that quickly gives away to doom riffing at funereal pace and a masterful reinterpretation of a song that – as with many of those preceding it – is concerned with the natural world around us, specifically forestry, and ancient lore.

David Day & Sophie Day

Performance-wise, the drums and bass of Mason and Burchmore are perfectly suited to this material, underpinning everything with unfussed economy, with the spotlight falling onto the two Days with the huge riffs providing a great counterpoint to the often ethereal quality of the lead vocal delivery.

Doom metal certainly isn’t for everyone, but Alunah’s sound is undoubtedly at the more accessible end of the spectrum with the aforementioned comparison to Blood Ceremony indicating that they are closer to that band’s doomy psychedelia than, say, the heavy intensity of Electric Wizard and I believe that most metal fans would find a lot to appreciate with this record…“Solennial” tracklist:

1. The Dying Soil / 2. Light Of Winter / 3. Feast Of Torches / 4. The Reckoning Of Time / 5. Fire Of Thornborough Henge / 6. Petrichor / 7. Lugh’s Assembly / 8. A Forest

It Was Their Worst Nightmare. Now It’s Their New Home.

“A young woman wakes up in a cold, dark cellar, with no idea how she got there or who her kidnapper is. So begins her terrible nightmare.

Nearby, the body of another young woman is discovered buried on a remote beach. But the dead girl was never reported missing – her estranged family having received regular texts from her over the years. Someone has been keeping her alive from beyond the grave.

For Detective Inspector Helen Grace it’s chilling evidence that she’s searching for a monster who is not just twisted but also clever and resourceful – a predator who’s killed before.

And as Helen struggles to understand the killer’s motivation, she begins to realize that she’s in a desperate race against time…”

The most recent novel that I’ve read (just finished, in fact) is “The Doll’s House”. This is the third book in the crime thriller series starring lead detective DI Helen Grace from London-born author M.J. Arlidge, and follows on from “Eeny Meeny” and “Pop Goes The Weasel”.

I must confess that I’m falling behind the author a little here, as he has already had books four, five, six and seven published – so I’ve got some serious catching up to do at some point!

MJ Arlidge

When I read the second novel I felt that the standard has slipped slightly from the debut, so I’m glad to say that overall I think the quality has improved once more with “The Doll’s House”. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. As the book raced to its conclusion we found our heroine in a life-or-death situation that had distinct echoes from “Eeny Meeny” and aspects of Grace’s internal battle with her superior officer were again somewhat familiar.

In addition, some of the sub-plot stuff relating to the Southampton-based police officers’ personal lives, just didn’t really grab me – oh, and we are still no closer to finding out what happened to the character Robert from the previous book, despite the suggestion that we may get somewhere with that during the story.

On the plus side the baddie is convincing and his motivation – which takes some time to uncover – is believable for a clearly damaged individual with the issues described. Also, the clever way in which he manages to keep his victims “alive” after he has dispatched them is a neat twist that one can imagine being all too easy to replicate in this day and age where folk can conduct that majority of their communications via text and social media platforms.

Despite the above-mentioned reservations I found the plot of the story to be very good and the delivery of it generally very good too and so would recommend it to previous readers of the author’s work and other fans of good British crime fiction…

It’s Not The Size That Matters… It’s How You Use It

A few evenings ago my wife and I watched “The Hitman’s Bodyguard”, an action comedy film from director Patrick Hughes (“Red Hill”, “Expendables 3”).

Ryan Reynolds

At the beginning of the film we meet bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds – “Criminal”, “Self/Less”) – a man at the top of his profession until one of his clients is assassinated right in front of him…

Gary Oldman

Two years later we find the International Criminal Court in The Hague conducting the trial of the dictator of Belarus Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman – “Child 44”, “JFK”). Witnesses are being killed off and the prosecutions hopes of conviction rest of the evidence of an imprisoned hitman.

Salma Hayek & Samuel L. Jackson

Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson – “Django Unchained”, “Kingsman : The Secret Service”) is the notorious hitman in question and agrees to testify in court, in exchange for the release from Dutch prison of his wife Sonia (Salma Hayek – “Americano”, “Everly”).

Elodie Yung & Ryan Reynolds

Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung – “Gods Of Egypt”, “G.I. Joe : Retaliation”) is tasked with leading the convoy taking Darius Kincaid from England to the Netherlands. When the convoy is attacked en-route – in Coventry, no less – only Kincaid and Roussel survive and, realising that there must be a traitor within Interpol, the agent calls her ex-boyfriend Bryce to protect Kincaid and get him to The Hague to testify…

Samuel L. Jackson & Ryan Reynolds

The movie has some decent action sequences and enough tension when required but the main attraction here is the comedy. The chemistry between Reynolds (with some priceless facial expressions) and Jackson is spot on with some very funny lines and scenes and it is this that really makes the film such an entertaining experience. Hayek gets to swear at her prison guards – and everyone else – a great deal, but her role is definitely that of support, as are those of Oldman and Yung. No, the stars of the show are without doubt those two adorning the movie poster and they definitely lift this film. Reviews for the film seem to have been routinely poor, but for us this was a very well-spent two hours viewing…

1997 – My Top Ten Albums Of The Year

It’s been a little while since my last entry in my (increasingly) occasional series of posts on my “top ten albums of the year” – the last was for 2016. Prior to that I’d looked back at 2015, 2010, 2003, 1995 and each year from 1975 through to 1989. This time I’ve decided to go back twenty years and figure out what my favourite ten albums released that year are.

This was surprisingly difficult. Not because there were so many contenders to choose from – quite the reverse. It took me some time to come up with a shortlist of fifteen notable (to me) records from 1997 and then no time at all to whittle them down to the following ten. I guess that just wasn’t a particularly strong year for album releases that really resonate with me to this day…

1. Blackmore’s Night “Shadow Of The Moon”

Blackmore’s Night –
Shadow Of The Moon

When Ritchie Blackmore quit Deep Purple for the final time in 1993 and reformed a version of Rainbow for 1995’s underwhelming “Stranger In Us All” it looked like he would carry on rocking under that banner for at least a little while longer. It was some surprise to many, despite his known interest in all things medieval , when he launched Blackmore’s Night – a renaissance music project featuring his fiancée Candice Night on lead vocals.

The group’s debut album “Shadow Of The Moon” surfaced in June of that year, and did particularly well in Germany. For me it was an accessible introduction into an older form of folk music than I was used to through tracks like “Play Minstrel Play”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Writing On The Wall” and “Greensleeves”. Not as essential as his work with Purple or Rainbow, granted, but this is still an enjoyable record.

2. Depeche Mode “Ultra”

Depeche Mode – Ultra

A total change of style for this entry. I can remember during my latter school days having an active dislike for Depeche Mode. Whilst I enjoyed “proper” pop bands such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet (as they played traditional instruments) alongside my regular diet of heavy rock and metal, I had no time for synthesizer-based acts. It was only with the rediscovery of the band around the time of hit single “I Feel You” that I began to appreciate Depeche Mode, leading in time to include their earlier work too.

Coming four years after said hit, “Ultra” found the band recovering from a near breakup following the departure of keyboardist Alan Wilder – leaving just Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (guitar / keyboards) and Andy Fletcher (keyboards) to soldier on. And soldier on they did, producing a great pop record with no less than four hit singles including “Barrel Of A Gun” and the brilliant “It’s No Good”. This album comes a close second to “Songs Of Faith And Devotion” as my favourites in the Depeche Mode catalogue.

3. Genesis “Calling All Stations”

Genesis – Calling All Stationssublime ballads

When Phil Collins quit prog rock legends Genesis in 1996 to concentrate on his solo career he likely wouldn’t have anticipated that this would lead to diminishing returns for himself as well as the band, but time would show that his solo glory days were behind him. For the group it looked to be all over, with just founding members Mike Rutherford (guitar / bass) and Tony Banks (keyboards) remaining. Despite recruiting vocalist Ray Wilson for the “Calling All Stations” album and tour this record would prove to be the band’s last release of new material to date.

But do you know what? This isn’t a bad album at all. Sure it’s no match for the trio of “Genesis”, “Invisible Touch” and “We Can’t Dance” from the group’s commercial peak of 1983-1991 and was their first not to reach number one in the UK since 1978’s “…And Then There Were Three…”. That said it does contain some great tunes like “Alien Afternoon”, “The Dividing Line” and sublime ballads “Shipwrecked” and “Not About Us”. A solid though unspectacular album but one that still gets fairly regular airings even now.

4. Oasis “Be Here Now”

Oasis – Be Here Now

“Be Here Now” was the third album from Manchester band Oasis, and was hugely anticipated following the massive success of second album “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” and its hit singles, not to mention all the publicity surrounding brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher and their various scrapes with the law and each other, as well as Liam’s decision to bail out of their 1996 US tour in order to buy a house!

Reportedly selling getting on for half a million copies on the day of its release (one of which was to me, purchased in Devon whilst on holiday) the album was preceded by the number one single “D’You Know What I Mean?”. Despite a subsequent backlash from press and fans, dismissing much of the record as self-indulgent and overblown (which the band themselves would later concur with, and I can also see where they’re coming from), “Be Here Now” remains my second favourite of the group’s, behind the aforementioned “…Morning Glory”. As well as the first single there were two others – “Stand By Me” and “All Around The World” – and other top tracks include “Don’t Go Away” and “Magic Pie”.

5. The Prodigy “The Fat Of The Land”

Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land

Now, if I hadn’t been overly keen on synthpop back in the Eighties, I definitely wasn’t fond of rave and techno music that acts like Essex’s The Prodigy were producing. At first I didn’t like the first single from “The Fat Of The Land”, the number one “Firestarter”, either.

However for reasons lost in the mists of time I found myself listening to the album as a whole and loving it! Kicking off with the controversial “Smack My Bitch Up”, then steaming through the superb “Breathe” and “Diesel Power” the record just didn’t let up until the epic nine-minute trip of “Narayan” which, in turn, gave way to “Firestarter” towards the back-end of the album. Very much of its time, no doubt, but an excellent album that made a great cycling soundtrack at the time and still gets the blood pumping today.

6. Robbie Williams “Life Thru A Lens”

Robbie Williams – Life Thru A Lens

Yet another artist and album that I didn’t like (or want to like) at the time! Despite the undoubted quality of their hit “Back For Good” I wasn’t, at the time, impressed by Take That and when Robbie Williams decided to go solo I was distinctly underwhelmed by his take on George Michael’s “Freedom”. In truth it wasn’t until the release of the singles “Millennium” and “No Regrets” from his next album “I’ve Been Expecting You” the following year that I sat up and took notice of Williams as an artist.

By that time the whole world and his dog knew mega-hit single “Angels”, the song that finally made “Life Thru A Lens” a bonafide hit album. As a whole it doesn’t come close to “I’ve Been Expecting You” or much of his subsequent work, but with songs including “Let Me Entertain You”, “Lazy Days” and the simply ace “Old Before I Die”, this album is always a good listen.

7. Rolling Stones “Bridges To Babylon”

Rolling Stones – Bridges To Babylon

Back onto more familiar territory here with a great British institution and a band that I’ve been a fan of for as long as I can remember. “Bridges To Babylon” was an excellent follow-up to 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” and arguably their last really good album of original material.

“Anybody Seen My Baby?” was the lead single and was accompanied by a video featuring the then relatively obscure actress Angelina Jolie. I was lucky enough to see the band on the world tour that followed the album’s release, catching the show at London’s Wembley Stadium in June 1999 during which they played tracks from the album including “Saint Of Me” and “Out Of Control”. The UK shows that year had been postponed from August 1998 as the band were unhappy with the then Labour government’s changes to tax laws which, Mick Jagger and co. claimed would cost them 40% of the entire tour’s earnings. Regardless of that, the show they did play was excellent. Back on the album itself, other top tracks include “Already Over Me” and Keith Richards’ “Thief In The Night”

8. Stereophonics “Word Gets Around”

Stereophonics – Word Gets Around

Well, wouldn’t you know it, another one I gave a wide berth to at the time. I was clearly having a more narrow-minded view of what I’d listen to back then! Stereophonics are a Welsh band and “Word Gets Around” was their debut album which interested me not one bit at the time, despite the recommendation of some work colleagues that they were great!

By the time of excellent second album “Performance And Cocktails” I had come around and also gone back to discover the debut and the great small town stories that are contained within its songs. Amongst the best of a very good crop of tunes are opener “A Thousand Trees”, “Not Up To You”, “More Life In A Tramp’s Vest”, “Traffic” and, of course, the ever-fantastic “Local Boy In The Photograph”. Kelly Jones and gang may have become a little stale and samey in recent years but the songs on this album will forever be classics.

9. Shania Twain “Come On Over”

Shania Twain – Come On Over

“Come On Over” was Canadian country singer Shania Twain’s third album, and would go on to become the sixth best-selling album in the US with over 17.5 million sales. I’d been introduced to Twain around the time of her breakthrough second album “The Woman In Me” in 1995 via the cable channel CMT, but she didn’t begin to make headway in the UK until 1998 when the ballads “You’re Still The One” and “From This Moment” took off.

Later, a very poppy remix of “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” in late 1999 became big hits (in fact, twelve of the album’s sixteen songs were issued as singles) and it was actually the 1999 revised and remixed “International Version” of the album that became a hit here in the UK (the remixed album idea would go to extremes with Twain’s next album “Up!” in 2002 which was released in three entirely different mixes at the same time). It is, however, the original more country sounding 1997 version of “Come On Over” that I play most often.

10. Whitesnake “Restless Heart”

Whitesnake – Restless Heart

The first new Whitesnake album since “Slip Of The Tongue” back in 1989, “Restless Heart” was apparently intended to be a solo album (despite featuring guitarist Adrian Vandenberg and drummer Denny Carmassi who’d both toured as part of the band on the previous tour in 1994) until the record company insisted on it being released under the moniker “David Coverdale & Whitesnake”.

A rawer sounding record than Whitesnake’s big sellers of the late Eighties, the album contains a good mix of bluesy ballad like “Too Many Tears” and “Can’t Go On” with a few tougher rock tunes like “Restless Heart”, “You’re So Fine” and the Zeppelinesque “Woman Trouble Blues”. A proper solo album would follow in 2000 before Coverdale would reconvene the band once more for some heavier rock records from 2008 onwards. “Restless Heart”, meanwhile is a fine link between the big hair days of “1987” and “Slip Of The Tongue” and the 1993 collaboration with Led Zeppelin man Jimmy Page – the cunningly titled “Coverdale Page”.

There you have it, then. My favourite ten albums of 1997. This was a year in which the nation mourned when HRH Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car crash. Elsewhere, in the US President Bill Clinton begins his second term in office whilst in Britain the government changes hands with Conservative John Major being succeeded by Labour’s Tony Blair. In football Manchester United win the Premier League for the second season running, then see talisman Eric Cantona announce his retirement, whilst Chelsea win the FA Cup. And in screen entertainment by far the biggest movie release was “Titanic”, with “The Lost World : Jurassic Park”, “Men In Black” and Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” some way behind. On the small screen Channel 4 in the UK became a 24 hour broadcaster and ITV crime drama “Midsomer Murders” makes its first appearance.

At some point in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future I shall look back to either 1974 or 1990…