Tag Archives: Epica

2016 – My Top Ten Albums Of The Year

Entries on my blog have been rather sporadic thus far in 2017 and I have realised that there have so far been only two music-related posts – a look at a psychedelic compilation and a gig review. I’m not sure why I’ve not written much on the music front. It’s certainly not because there isn’t any good new (and old) music being discovered and listened to with over two hundred new releases already having been digested since January.

There will be a more gig posts coming up soon as I have shows by Iron Maiden and Hawkwind in my diary during the next week or so, and a few more over the coming months too, but for now I thought I’d return to my rather occasional series on “top ten albums of the year” and look back at my personal favourite ten releases of 2016.

These weren’t easy to choose – with over six hundred new albums passing across my desk to shift through – and the list will likely change as time goes by but here are my current favourite ten albums of 2016, some of which got an individual review last year…

1. Alter Bridge “The Last Hero”

Alter Bridge – The Last Hero

It’s not the first time that Alter Bridge have made my top ten, having achieved that with “AB III” for 2010’s list. I wouldn’t bet against them making the lists for the years that their other three albums hit the shelves either once I get around to looking back at those particular years. Back to 2016, however, and the band’s excellent fifth studio album “The Last Hero”.

A natural progression from previous record “Fortress”, the album is a little over an hour of top quality hard rock music. Kicking things off is lead single “Show Me A Leader”, which really tells you everything you need to know. Huge guitar riffs, thunderous bass and drums, face-melting soloing from guitar hero Mark Tremonti all topped off with majestic vocals from Myles Kennedy as he sings lyrics demonstrating discontent with today’s political leaders. If you like that you’ll love this record. Alter Bridge are a band that keep getting better and better.

2. David Bowie “Blackstar”

David Bowie – Black Star

“…the latest (and presumably last, unless there’s stuff in the vaults for future releases) album is, of course, the brand new “Blackstar”. So how does it stack up against his back catalogue? Well, to be honest, to begin with I found it hard going, especially after the fairly straight-forward sounds of “The Next Day”. Having given it repeated plays however, especially in the last twenty-four hours I have to say that it has really grown on me and I now think it’s fabulous!

Kicking off with the near-ten-minute title track, a fusion of drum ‘n’ bass percussion, jazz parts, ethereal vocals, progressive rock style changes and a fairly impenetrable lyric! It takes a few listens to get a handle on, but boy is it a great track… In the end this is a wonderful piece of music by a man who has for decades reinvented himself and his art, so makes for a fitting epitaph…”

3. Epica “The Holographic Principle”

Epica – The Holographic Principle

I’ve been an admirer of Dutch band Epica since hearing their debut album “The Phantom Agony” in 2003 and was fortunate enough to be able to witness the band performing live in Bristol in late 2015 when they were touring sixth studio record “The Quantum Enigma”.

September 2016 saw the release of the follow-up album, “The Holographic Principle”. As is usual with a band whose music is as layered and complex as Epica, it took a while to get into the album. When you’re dealing with orchestral instrumentation and choral vocals on top of the six band members contributions there’s a lot to take in. Add in the concept of the record, which is looking at “…the near future, where virtual reality allows people to create their own worlds which can’t be distinguished from ‘reality as we know it’. This raises the question whether our current reality could be a virtual reality in itself – a hologram. The lyrics challenge you to reconsider everything you took for granted and to be open-minded towards recent revolutions in science. Nothing appears to be what it seems in our holographic universe…” So that’s straightforward enough eh?

Leaving aside the lyrical concept, one can enjoy the album simply for the songs themselves. A super mix of classical themes and driving heavy metal riffs and solos with Simone Simons’ fabulous vocal delivery on top, as illustrated perfectly by the singles “Universal Death Squad” and “Edge Of The Blade”. Perhaps not the most immediate record to appreciate but one that is worth taking the time to get into for sure.

4. Ihsahn “Arktis”

Ihsahn – Arktis

If the Epica record demands some listening to really appreciate, then that applies possibly even more to “Arktis”, the sixth solo album from Ihsahn, guitarist / vocalist from Norwegian black metal band Emperor. That’s not because it’s inaccessible, however, but because it is a diverse platter indeed. Progressive metal riffs and black metal vocals dominate tracks such as “Mass Darkness” but suddenly electronics rear their head on “South Winds”. “Until I Too Dissolve” is almost hair metal in a way, “Crooked Red Line” has acoustic and jazzy elements and closing nine-minute bonus track “Til Tor Ulven (Soppelsolen)” is an ambient spoken-word piece that gradually morphs into glacial black metal vocal styling.

There are echoes of Opeth’s mix of progressive metal and 1970s rock sounds to be heard too. You never know quite what to expect next and despite the variations in style and singing style throughout it is both easy to listen to and challenging too. A simply awesome album from start to finish…

5. Joanne Shaw Taylor “Wild”

Joanne Shaw Taylor – Wild

“Sometimes I hear a record and it instantly connects, others take a while to kind of sink in and improve with repeated listens. Then there are the albums that somehow manage to do both – they’re immediately gratifying and yet continue to get better with each listen. English blues singer / guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor‘s latest album “Wild” is definitely one of the latter.

I believe that with this simply superb record Joanne Shaw Taylor – an inspired and inspiring musician – deserves her place amongst the greats…”

6. Joe Bonamassa “Blues Of Desperation”

Joe Bonamassa – Blues Of Desperation

There are surely few modern musicians as prolific as blues singer / guitarist Joe Bonamassa. Since his 2000 debut album “A New Day Yesterday” he has released, to date, a further eleven studio albums, thirteen live albums, three albums with singer Beth Hart, four as a member of Black Country Communion and three a part of Rock Candy Funk Party – so I make that thirty-five albums in sixteen years?! Anyway, Bonamassa’s most recent solo studio release is “Blues Of Desperation”. This followed 2014’s “Different Shades Of Blue” which was strong without quite reaching the heights of some of his other work such as “Dust Bowl” or “The Ballad Of John Henry”.

From the moment opener “This Train” comes steaming out of the speakers the suggestion is that this album is a step up from the last, and each successive track goes to confirm that to be correct.

There are the heavy blues numbers like “Mountain Climbing” and the laid back late night tracks like “Drive”, the Led Zeppelin-tinged title track and of course a good extended guitar workout in “No Good Place For The Lonely”. A simply brilliant guitar player and still-improving singer, Joe Bonamassa remains an artist to be reckoned with.

7. Marillion “F.E.A.R. (Fuck Everyone And Run)”

Marillion – F.E.A.R. (Fuck Everyone And Run)

Although there will always be folk who think of Marillion as being the band headed by singer Fish (who held that role from 1981-88), the band’s many fans have continued to follow and enjoy their evolution since current vocalist Steve “H” Hogarth took on the mantle in 1989. “F.E.A.R…” is the band’s fourteenth album with Hogarth at the mic, and carries on their strong catalogue from where 2012’s “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” left off, with excellent musicianship, great songs and thought-provoking lyrics.

This time around the themes of the record are inspired by the state of the country and the world today. Hogarth stated “…the title is adopted and sung tenderly, in sadness and resignation inspired by an England, and a world, which increasingly functions on an “Every man for himself” philosophy. There’s a sense of foreboding that permeates much of this record. I have a feeling that we’re approaching some kind of sea-change in the world – an irreversible political, financial, humanitarian and environmental storm…”

With a duration of over an hour the record comprises just six tracks, and is one of those that rewards total immersion to fully appreciate both the music and the message – the latter including greed and corruption (“The New Kings”), war (“Living In FEAR”), lost youth (“White Paper”) and even life on the road (“The Leavers”). Perhaps the most potent of all, though, is the opener “El Dorado” with lines including “…we all know about the wars that are raging, all the millions who just cannot see, there’s so much more that binds us than divides us but our fear denies it while the papers stir it, the colours of the flag we wave were and will become blood red again…”. The band do not preach and give us answers but ask plenty of questions and get us to think about what the answers might be.

For a group approaching forty years of age one could be forgiven for expecting something formulaic and so-so but this is surely one of Marillion’s strongest albums yet and a real tour de force from the whole band.

8. Myrkur “Mausoleum”

Myrkur – Mausoleum

“…not an acoustic album in the usual sense, the songs are recognisable from the original versions and yet the treatment given here means that they do stand up in their own right. In fairness, I find it impossible to point to any particular highlights on this record as all nine tracks are uniformly excellent. Despite not having the extremes in sound of the studio work this beautiful recording still enchants the listener. Best listened to late at night in the dark, or perhaps out in the forest or on a hill without modern civilisation breaking the spell, this is twenty-seven minutes of pure atmosphere. Utterly compelling listening…”

9. Opeth “Sorceress”

Opeth – Sorceress

“Sorceress” is the twelfth studio album from Swedish progressive metal band Opeth, recorded not far from here at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth. It all starts peacefully enough with the delicate acoustic guitar and piano intro of “Persephone”. The jazzy groove of the title track then starts up before a massively heavy guitar riff kicks in at around a minute in, ushering in Mikael Åkerfeldt’s clean vocals. Death metal vocals are heard less and less with Opeth as the years go by but amongst the lighter moments that adorn their material these days there are still plenty of crushingly heavy passages.

Although only two of the album’s thirteen tracks made the setlist for the band’s Wembley show last year – the title track and “The Wilde Flowers” – the rest of the record is certainly strong enough to be included alongside their classic material, with my favourites including “Chrysalis”, “Era” and the brilliant “Strange Brew”.

10. Skuggsjá “A Piece For Mind & Mirror”

Skuggsjá – A Piece For Mind & Mirror

“…you would perhaps expect Skuggsjá’s music to sound like a cross between Enslaved and Wardruna, given who the creative forces behind the project are. Bjørnson contributes vocals, guitars, bass and keyboards whilst Selvik provides vocals, taglharpa, Kravik-lyre, goat-horn, birch-bark lure, bone-flute, percussion and electronics.

This is a unique sounding album, taking the best of the two composers’ day jobs and coming up with something distinctively different, even from one track to the next. The running order is beautifully balanced and the whole thing is evocative and uplifting, a superb album from start to finish…”

So there we have it. My favourite ten albums released in 2016. Honourable mentions should be made to records that nearly made the grade, which include All Saints “Red Flag”), Big Big Train (“Folklore”), Seth Lakeman (“Ballads Of The Broken Few), Megadeth (“Dystopia”), Merry Hell (“Bloodlines) and Winterfylleth (“The Dark Hereafter”). A less than honourable mention, however, must go to Meat Loaf for his “Braver Than We Are” album which recycles old Jim Steinman numbers (including lines later used for Bonnie Tyler’s hit “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” which just sound odd re-used in this context) as sung by a legendary performer who just doesn’t seem to be able to sing anymore. Not one that will get many repeat plays around here I’m afraid, and this review sadly sums it up very well.

OK, I’ll get back to individual album reviews shortly, with releases from Wolcensmen, Thunder, Snakecharmer, Quinn Sullivan, Fen, Mostly Autumn and the lovely Imelda May on rotation at the moment…

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Like An Arrow Tour

Time for a word or three about the latest gig attended by myself and my good lady wife. Thursday 6 April saw the pair of us setting off for Bristol to see southern rockers Blackberry Smoke at the O2 Academy.

We left home just after 4pm, keen to avoid the issues that we’d had on our last concert trip to the city, when heavy traffic on the M32 had caused us to miss all but one song by the opening band when we went to see Dutch metallers Epica at the O2 Academy.

Taking the alternative route from the Severn Crossing meant that we travelled south briefly on the M5 before heading into the city via The Downs. The result of this was time for a visit to Pizza Hut before the show and still left enough time (just!) to make it to the O2 before the doors opened at 7:00pm.

From From The Access Area At The Bristol O2 Academy

As before, the venue staff were very good and soon had us in the access area for disabled customers and carers. Sadly this was where we encountered the low point of the evening. This show was clearly a popular one and the access area filled up very quickly. Unfortunately, however, it was obvious that a number of the seats were being taken by the able-bodied carers which meant that some of those with access needs were unable to get into the area. I appreciate that it is a help for the disabled person and carer to be close to one another – I stand behind my wife’s chair if room permits – and have no problem with the carers sitting if space allows, but on this occasion there were one or two who were clearly oblivious to the needs of others, whether this was by being unaware or just simply ignorant… well, only they will know for sure but I wonder if there is a better way for these areas to be allocated to customers so that those with genuine need get the seats first?

Biters – The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Anyway, on with the show… First up, from the same American town as the headliners – Atlanta, Georgia – were Biters. A rather different proposition than the headliners, Biters offer hard rock with a definite Seventies vibe. You can hear echoes of bands like Cheap Trick in their sound and a few of the songs, such as “Heart Fulla Rock ‘N’ Roll” were very reminiscent of Marc Bolan’s T. Rex. This is not a bad thing, as the band’s songs are original yet instantly kind of familiar.

Tuk Smith At The Bristol O2 Academy

Fronted by singer / guitarist Tuk Smith (“he looks like Noel Fielding”, said my wife, who’s probably not the first person to make the comparison), Biters are the kind of band that remind you why rock music can be such fun and make you want to pick up an instrument and play. To be honest I don’t think their records to date have really done the band justice in terms of getting their sound across and tracks like “Low Lives In Hi Definition” and the excellent closer “1975” hit far harder in the live arena. Songs were aired from their debut album as well as a few from their upcoming second full length release “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be”.

Matt Gabs & Tuk Smith At The Bristol O2 Academy

Smith was an engaging front man and told a couple of funny road stories which I’m sure helped the audience warm to the band. Ably assisted by seriously impressive guitarist Matt Gabs – how could he see to play those great solos with his face almost constantly obscured by hair?! – bassist Philip Anthony and rock solid drummer Joey O’Brien, Smith’s band got the night’s entertainment off to a great start and went down very well with the Bristol crowd.

Setlist:

1. Restless Hearts / 2. Low Lives In Hi Definition / 3. Gypsy Rose / 4. Hallucination Generation / 5. So Many Nights / 6. Going Back To Georgia / 7. Stone Cold Love / 8. Heart Fulla Rock ‘N’ Roll / 9. 1975

1, 2, 8 and 9 originally from “Electric Blood” (2015) / 4 and 5 originally from “Last Of A Dying Breed” (2012) / 3, 6 and 7 originally from “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” (2017)

Blackberry Smoke At The O2 Academy

Once Biters and their small crew had cleared their gear from the stage and we’d had an interval it was time for the lights to go down again as singer / lead guitarist Charlie Starr led his band Blackberry Smoke into a storming rendition of “Fire In The Hole”. If you thought Biters had gone down well – and I did – then the response to Blackberry Smoke was nothing short of ecstatic.

Charlie Starr At The Bristol O2 Academy

Starr comes across a little like he’s part-rock star and part-evangelist preacher, which is no huge surprise when you realise that he comes from a very musical family with his dad being a guitar player and singer and his paternal grandmother teaching him all about gospel singing and harmony. The latter shines through on Blackberry Smoke material where every song is catchy and memorable, whether it’s one of their acoustic tunes like the hillbilly country of “I Ain’t Got The Blues”, the harder rocking stuff like “Up In Smoke” or the likes of “Pretty Little Lie” which sits somewhere in between. Large sections of the crowd seemed to know practically every word and sang along with great gusto!

Paul Jackson At The Bristol O2 Academy

Completing the line-up of the band are the ever-smiling Paul Jackson (guitar / vocals), Brandon Still (keyboards) and the hat-wearing duo of Brit Turner (drums) and steady-as-a-rock Richard Turner (bass, vocals).

Blackberry Smoke’s music evokes the spirit of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Crowes (whose Chris Robinson gave Starr’s group their name), Blackfoot and The Allman Brothers Band.

Richard Turner At The Bristol O2 Academy

In fact the latter are given a nod during the extended rendition of “Sleeping Dogs” with a snippet of their “Mountain Jam” in the jam section that also features a blast of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”. I was slightly concerned that this lengthy workout would fall on deaf ears with my wife, as she doesn’t always enjoy that aspect, preferring the more country music elements at play. I needn’t have worried though. Shortly before the band left the stage prior to returning for a well deserved encore she leaned back in her chair and looked back to me asking what time the band had first come on stage. When I told her she looked at her watch and declared that she’d slept through about an hour of the group’s set – her pain medication taking effect as it had done during our previous visit to the venue, but for rather longer this time!

Brandon Still At The Bristol O2 Academy

In a setlist heavy with tunes from the group’s breakthrough album “The Whippoorwill” and last year’s release “Like An Arrow”, my personal highlights from the show, which didn’t have a duff moment in it, would be the superb one-two of “Six Ways To Sunday” and “Good One Comin’ On”, the aforementioned “Sleeping Dogs”, the simply brilliant “Pretty Little Lie” and an energetic cover of The Move’s “California Man”.

Blackberry Smoke

A mate of mine has seen Blackberry Smoke a number of times and been regularly enthusing about their performances. Although I’ve enjoyed their records before the show I hadn’t appreciated quite how good a band they are and will certainly look out for them on tour in future.

Jessica Simpson In The Dukes Of Hazzard

This was a top quality Southern-flavoured show that meant I just had to get my guitar out the next day and attempt to jam along to 2012’s “The Whippoorwill” album and also inspired me to dig out the “Dukes Of Hazzard” movie remake (nothing to do with Jessica Simpson’s greatest hits, honest guv!) and see if I can track down the original TV series too.

Blackberry Smoke – a great band giving us a great soundtrack on a great night out…

Setlist:  (I’m not 100% sure that this is right. The list on www.setlist.fm has changed a few times since the first person uploaded it and I’m positive it’s still missing one song that was definitely played, “Ain’t Got The Blues”, which I’ve used an educated guess to place at track 14!)

1. Fire In The Hole / 2. Six Ways To Sunday / 3. Good One Comin’ On / 4. Waiting For The Thunder / 5. Scare The Devil / 6. Like An Arrow / 7. Leave A Scar / 8. Rock And Roll Again / 9. Sleeping Dogs / Your Time Is Gonna Come / Mountain Jam / Sleeping Dogs 10. Shakin’ Hands With The Holy Ghost / 11. Pretty Little Lie / 12. Up In Smoke / 13. Let It Burn / 14. Ain’t Got The Blues / 15. Payback’s A Bitch / 16. Sunrise In Texas / 17. California Man / 18. One Horse Town / 19. Ain’t Much Left Of Me

1, 8 and 15 originally from “Holding All The Roses” (2015) / 2, 7, 10, 11, 14, 18, and 19 originally from “The Whippoorwill” (2012) / 3 and 12 originally from “Little Piece Of Dixie” (2009) / 4, 6, 13 and 16 originally from “Like An Arrow” (2016) / 5 originally from “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime” (2004) / 9 originally from “The Whippoorwill” (2012) / cover of Led Zeppelin song from “Led Zeppelin” (1969) / cover of The Allman Brothers Band song from “Eat A Peach” (1972) / 17 cover of The Move single (1972)

 

King Of Kings

leaves eyes top

Liv Kristine
Liv Kristine

In 2003 the Norwegian gothic metal band Theatre Of Tragedy fired their female vocalist Liv Kristine as a result of “musical differences which could not be bridged”. Kristine was apparently either emailed the news or discovered it when it was announced on the band’s website.

Alexander Krull
Alexander Krull

She then formed a new band, symphonic metal act Leaves’ Eyes, with the then-members of her German husband Alexander Krull’s gothic metal band Atrocity backing her.

In the years since Leaves’ Eyes released five studio albums beginning with 2004’s “Lovelorn” up to 2013’s “Symphonies Of The Night” as their profile gradually increased.

Thorsten Bauer
Thorsten Bauer

Last September saw the release of the band’s sixth studio release, that I have just caught up with, titled “King Of Kings”. Joining Kristine and keyboardist / vocalist Krull are co-founding member bassist / guitarist Thorsten Bauer, drummer Joris Nijenhuis (since 2013) and new guitarist Pete Streit. All three make up the current line-up of Atrocity with Krull too.

Joris Nijenhuis
Joris Nijenhuis

The record is a concept piece about the first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair, who reigned in the late ninth and early tenth centuries and is regarded as having been responsible for uniting Norway into one kingdom. It kicks off with a short but very atmospheric folky / Viking metal number “Sweven” (meaning, I believe, dream) which segues straight into the title track. Operatic vocals from Kristine, harsh vocals from Krull, heavy guitars, solid drums, orchestration and masses choral backing vocals. It’s all very Epica / Nightwish-like.

Pete Streit
Pete Streit

First single “Halvdan The Black” is a song about Harald’s father, and is again very Epica-like, but with a folky edge not unlike a mixture of Epica with bits of Eluveitie thrown in. Next up is the second single “The Waking Eye” which is all about dreams and prophecies and is very catchy and somehow distinctively European too.

Harald Fairhair
Harald Fairhair

A folky (think whistles, violins, Celtic drums etc.) instrumental interlude “Feast On The Year” then leads into “Vengeance Venom”, a Viking drinking song in essence, then “Sacred Vow”. This latter song relates to the tale the Harald, then King of the Norwegian region of Vestfold, wanted to marry Gyda Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, who was King of the region of Hordaland. She refused until such time as Harald was King of the whole country.

Simone Simons
Simone Simons

Simone Simons, lead vocalist with the aforementioned Epica, appears on “Edge Of Steel” and demonstrates to me that, despite the very high quality of the band, Kristine’s voice – very good as it is – just isn’t quite as special as that of Simons, though I’m sure many will beg to differ. The pair do blend really well on this song though.

Lindy-Fay Hella
Lindy-Fay Hella

“Haraldskvæði” refers to a ninth century poem of a conversation between a raven and a valkrie discussing the life of Harald, and is a gentle folky number with insistent percussion and lots of chanting, giving it a real Viking vibe. This feeling carries on into “Blazing Waters”, a battle song, but this soon gives way to heavy guitar riffing and harsh vocals and a catchy chorus. This is the longest track and features a guest vocal appearance from Lindy-Fay Hella of Norwegian band Wardruna.

Sverd I Fjell
Sverd I Fjell

There is a monument in Hafrsfjord, where the Battle of Hafrsfjord took place in the late ninth century and lead to Harald becoming King of a unified Norway. The monument is named Sverd I Fjell, which translates as “Swords In Rock”, the title of the final track of the regular album. Hafrsfjord is also, apparently, the place where Kristine was born, which gives the whole thing a real connection between the stories and the voice that’s singing them. I do think it’s great when the music you listen to then inspires you to find out about things like history too!

Leaves' Eyes
Leaves’ Eyes

The deluxe edition contains two bonus tracks, the lovely acoustic ballad “Spellbound” and “Trail Of Blood”, another Viking folk metal track.

In a nutshell this is classic symphonic metal with added Nordic folk, making it something that I feel is quite distinctive from the many symphonic metal and folk metal bands around. It would go well with any film or TV epic set in the Viking era too, I suspect. Well worth a listen…leaves eyes btm

“King Of Kings” tracklist:

1. Sweven / 2. King Of Kings / 3. Halvdan The Black / 4. The Waking Eye / 5. Feast Of The Year / 6. Vengeance Venom / 7. Sacred Vow / 8. Edge Of Steel / 9. Haraldskvæði / 10. Blazing Waters / 11. Swords In Rock / 12. Spellbound / 13. Trail Of Blood

The Ultimate Enigma

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The week before last my wife and I went to the O2 Academy in Bristol to catch the opening show of Dutch symphonic metal band Epica‘s short UK tour.

Epica-A3The night before the show we received word that the timings had changed so that the doors would now be opening at 6:30pm instead of 7:00pm. This seems to be a recurring theme with gigs lately, as this was the third in a row I’ve been to where the timings shown on the ticket was subsequently changed.

Having arranged a babysitter for the kids for the evening we headed off to Bristol in plenty of time to arrive for 6:15pm. We were aiming for that time as we had arranged for a disabled access ticket for my wife and were therefore able to enter the venue before the official time.

However, traffic on the M32 into Bristol had other ideas, and it was nearly 7:00pm by the time we arrived at the car park behind the venue. The door staff were excellent and arranged for a medical person to come and escort us to the area reserved for the disabled and their carers immediately. I must say that this was a huge help to my wife, enabling her to sit in a usually standing-only venue, with a good view of the stage as she wouldn’t be able to manage a standing event.

Scar Symmetry
Scar Symmetry

The first band of the night were Scar Symmetry, a Swedish death metal band, and the one I suspected that my better half would enjoy least. As it turned out the traffic delay meant that we arrived in time to witness the band’s final song “The Illusionist” so neither of us had time to make much of a judgement – though my wife did say that she thought the band’s singer had smeared his arms in baby oil to make himself look sweaty!

Eluveitie
Eluveitie

After a fairly brief interval it was time for band number two, Swiss folk metal act Eluveitie. An eight piece, the band feature two electric guitarists (Rafael Salzmann and Ivo Henzi), bassist (Kay Brem), drummer (Merlin Sutter), violinist (Shir-Ran Yinon), a hurdygurdy player / occasional vocalist (Anna Murphy), a guy who played tin whistle and bagpipes (Matteo Sisti) and a lead vocalist (Chrigel Glanzmann) who also played mandolin. Quite an eclectic mix of instrumentation resulting in a sound that I described on the night as sounding like they could have been the offspring of The Corrs and Slipknot.

Chrigel Glanzmann
Chrigel Glanzmann

The group had the audience well and truly enthralled, with Glanzmann and Murphy (who took the lead on the atmospheric “Scorched Earth”) being the focal points – there were even a couple of girls in the audience dressed somewhat like Katheryn Winnick’s character in the TV series “Vikings” – so much so that they had an encore at the end of their set, which is something that I’ve never seen a support act do in all the years I’ve been attending concerts.

Anna Murphy
Anna Murphy

Unfortunately guitarists Salzmann and Henzi were not very audible, I would imagine it’s rather tricky trying to get a good balance of such a range of instruments. I thought that Sisti had his work cut out too, simply because it can’t be easy trying to look all rock and roll when you’re holding a tin whistle and it’s not your turn to be playing!

A side effect of the  pain medication that my other half has to take is that she often falls asleep rather quickly mid-evening. This one was no exception and she did indeed fall asleep during Eluveitie’s set, albeit only briefly rather than completely. I don’t imagine that this is something that occurs often when they are playing!

Eluveitie
Eluveitie

Ultimately the band had nearly as much stage time as the headliners, and to be honest I felt that, enjoyable though their music is, it became rather samey after a while, with the Celtic reels tending to sound much the same from song to song. There’s no denying that the band went down really well on the night though.

Setlist:

Intro – Origins / 2. King / 3. Nil / 4. Luxtos / 5. Omnos / 6. The Call Of The Mountains / 7. From Darkness / 8. Brictom / 9. Scorched Earth / 10. Kingdom Come Undone / 11. Neverland / 12. Tegernakô / 13. Havoc / 14. Alesia / 15. Inis Mona

1, 2, 6 and 7 originally from “Origins” (2014) / 3 and 10 originally from “Everything Remains (As It Never Was)” (2010) / 4, 9, 11, 14 and 15 originally from “Helvetios” (2012) / 5 and 8 originally from “Evocation I : The Arcane Dominion” (2009) / 12 originally from “Spirit” (2006) / 15 originally from “Slania” (2008)

Epica
Epica

Before we knew it the lights went down again for Epica as the intro tape “Originem” from their most recent album “The Quantum Enigma” boomed out through the PA. This was just the first of seven tracks taken from that album given an airing during the set, demonstrating perhaps just how strong the band believe the record to be.

Ariën Van Weesenbeek, Simone Simons & Rob Van Der Loo
Ariën Van Weesenbeek, Simone Simons & Rob Van Der Loo

The band entered the stage – first drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek, then keyboard player Coen Janssen, bassist Rob Van Der Loo and guitarists Isaac Delahaye and Mark Jansen – and they plunged headlong into “The Second Stone”, with singer Simone Simons last, but certainly not least, onto the stage.

Coen Janssen
Coen Janssen

From the off it was clear to see that here was a band thoroughly enjoying what they do. Janssen was very entertaining spinning his keyboard around to face different directions, sometimes strapping on a portable keyboard and interacting well with the rest of the band and the audience with a humour filled performance.

Isaac Delahaye, Simone Simons & Mark Jansen
Isaac Delahaye, Simone Simons & Mark Jansen

Delahaye and Jansen’s guitar playing was top-notch and fit seamlessly with one other, whilst also involving the audience through smiles and gestures.

Mark Jansen
Mark Jansen

Band founder Jansen’s harsh vocals came across clearly too. This is the one thing that my wife is less keen on, but she commented that it worked much better live than on record because she felt that the band’s instrumentation and vocals actually meshed better and made the experience more enjoyable as a result.

Isaac
Isaac Delahaye

Van Der Loo and Weesenbeek anchored everything brilliantly. It did seem a bit odd to see the drum kit positioned stage left (the keyboards being stage right) rather than centrally, but it was quickly clear that the central riser was for Simons to use in addition to the front of stage.

Simone Simons
Simone Simons

And what of Simons?  Well, her vocals were superb. Admittedly she was supported by pre-recorded backing vocals, but given the often choral nature of Epica’s backing vocals that really was the only way to achieve the fullness of sound that you hear on their recordings.

Isaac Delahaye, Cohen Janssen, Rob Van Der Loo & Simone Simons
Isaac Delahaye, Coen Janssen, Rob Van Der Loo & Simone Simons

Nonetheless, it was clear what was her live vocal and what was pre-recorded and her performance was flawless. Not as operatic as some singers in this particular genre, Simons has a purer sound to my mind making the lyrics clearer and more intelligible than some of her contemporaries.

Simone Simons
Simone Simons

Of course, speaking for myself, it doesn’t hurt that she is so easy on the eye too – though I wasn’t madly keen on the skirt chosen for this performance as it didn’t make the most of her legs – but that’s me being an old-fashioned sexist male I expect!

It’s hard to pinpoint specific highlights of the band’s set as it really was of a uniformly high standard from start to finish and the whole group performed excellently and with a clear sense of enjoyment and fun. This was illustrated perfectly by the rendition of “The Phantom Agony” at the end of the main set.

Epica
Epica

Simons prefaced it by asking if we’d all brought our dancing shoes and then said that they’d prepared a disco number for us. Naturally, as the song started I presumed she’d been joking. However, when a couple of minutes into the song the band broke into a disco beat and started dancing around it became clear that she was not! A video is currently available on YouTube. I’ve subsequently discovered that this isn’t the first tour that the band have done this on, but it was great entertainment on the night.

Mark Jansen & Coen Janssen
Mark Jansen & Coen Janssen

After keyboard teases from Janssen offstage the band returned for a well deserved encore before we headed off into the night for the journey home. A fabulous gig by a great band, with some excellent lighting and perfect sound – thoroughly enjoyable!

Epica & The O2 Audience
Epica & The O2 Audience

Again praise must be given to the staff at the O2 who were on hand to ensure that my wife and I were able to exit the building safely, even offering the opportunity to get to the merchandise stall quickly too. It’s also worth mentioning that all of the fans that we (or more specifically my wife) encountered were polite and respectful and did their best to give any help that they could. This all added to an already great night that will live long in the memory…

Setlist:

1. Intro – Originem / 2. The Second Stone / 3. The Essence Of Silence / 4. Sensorium / 5. The Fifth Guardian / 6. Chemical Insomnia / 7. Unleashed / 8. Martyr Of The Free World / 9. Cry For The Moon (The Embrace That Smothers, Part IV) / 10. The Obsessive Devotion / 11. Victims Of Contingency / 12. Design Your Universe 13. The Phantom Agony / 14. Sancta Terra / 15. Unchain Utopia / 16. Consign To Oblivion (A New Age Dawns, Part III)

1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 11 and 15 originally from “The Quantum Enigma” (2014) / 4, 9 and 13 originally from “The Phantom Agony” (2003) / 7, 8 and 12 originally from “Design Your Universe” (2009) / 10 and 14 originally from “The Divine Conspiracy” (2007) / 16 originally from “Consign To Oblivion” (2005)d6796a99ae794ff74612e4357654072b17339e2ca6a742cb46a9fe472ab18149_large

2003 – My Top Ten Albums Of The Year

Today I’m going to look at another top ten albums of the year – this time 2003 – the year that I left Bristol for a new chapter of my life in Gloucestershire. The list includes some long-term favourite acts alongside some newly discovered artists. So, without further ado…

1. Akercocke “Choronzon”

Akercocke - Choronzon
Akercocke – Choronzon

Discovered via a magazine article, though I can’t remember with magazine it was, Akercocke were a black metal band from London, and “Choronzon”, their third studio album, was my first exposure to their unique take on the genre.

The band had an unusual visual image for a black metal band, choosing to present a suited and booted gentleman image rather than the more usual black leather and corpse paint, as can be seen in the video for the single from this album, the rather fabulous track “Leviathan”.

As with the rest of the album the music is dense and challenging and entirely evocative of the satanic theme that runs through the record. Although I also enjoy the rest of Akercocke’s catalogue, this album remains – in my view – the pinnacle of their musical achievements, containing such highlights as “Praise The Name Of Satan”, “Goddess Flesh” and “Valley Of The Crucified”. Cracking stuff!

2. Cara Dillon “Sweet Liberty”

Cara Dillon - Sweet Liberty
Cara Dillon – Sweet Liberty

The second new discovery here, Cara Dillon is an Irish folk singer who these days hails from Somerset where she lives with her husband Sam Lakeman and children.

“Sweet Liberty” is her second album and featured a wonderful version of “There Were Roses”, a song about sectarianism in Northern Island.

Cara has a beautifully pure voice which is very much to the fore on this excellent album. The best songs, or rather my favourites, are “Black Is The Colour”, “The Winding River Roe”, “The Emigrant’s Farewell” and the aforementioned “The Were Roses”. A brilliant modern folk album.

3. Dream Theater “Train Of Thought”

Dream Theater - Train Of Thought
Dream Theater – Train Of Thought

American progressive metal band Dream Theater followed 2002’s double disc concept album “Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence”, which featured just six tracks across it’s 96 minute running time (including the 42 minute title track) with a more concise, direct and musically darker and heavier record “Train Of Thought”.

Seven tracks made up this single disc release, and although there is one track, “Vacant”, that comes in at under 3 minutes and another, the single “As I Am” at nearly 8, the rest are all over 10 minutes duration. Nonetheless, this is a far more accessible record than it’s predecessor featuring the angry “Honor Thy Father”, instrumental tour de force “Stream Of Consciousness” and the epic “In The Name Of God”. One of the band’s strongest albums to date.

4. Epica “The Phantom Agony”

Epica - The Phantom Agony
Epica – The Phantom Agony

Another new discovery to me in 2003, Epica are a Dutch symphonic metal band formed by former After Forever guitarist Mark Jansen and featuring the fantastic Simone Simons on lead vocals.

The record features parts 4-6 of Jansen’s “The Embrace That Smothers” series of songs, which had started on After Forever’s 2000 release “Prison Of Desire”. These songs are all on the theme of the dangers of organised religion.

Three singles were released to promote the album – title track “The Phantom Agony”, “Feint” which addresses the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, and “Cry For The Moon” which is a song about child abuse carried out by Catholic priests.

The band have gone from strength to strength since, but “The Phantom Agony” is a very assured and accomplished debut album, featuring strong performances and superb material.

5. Iron Maiden “Dance Of Death”

Iron Maiden - Dance Of Death
Iron Maiden – Dance Of Death

The second studio album released since the return to the band of singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith, “Dance Of Death” was even better than it’s predecessor “Brave New World”.

Kicking off with the singles “Wildest Dreams” and “Rainmaker” the record is chock full of brilliant tracks. Amongst the strongest are “No More Lies”, “Dance Of Death”, “Paschendale” and the acoustic “Journeyman”. As is so often the case, this is an essential Iron Maiden album.

6. Marilyn Manson “The Golden Age Of Grotesque”

Marilyn Manson - The Golden Age Of Grotesque
Marilyn Manson – The Golden Age Of Grotesque

The last really good album from Marilyn Manson until “The Pale Emperor” in 2015, “The Golden Age Of Grotesque” is probably my favourite Manson record.

For this album Manson was using themes from the Weimar Republic of the 1930s and early days of Nazism, musically and visually, as can be seen in the videos for single release “mOBSCENE” and “This Is The New Shit”. Perhaps Manson’s then-girlfriend Dita Von Teese’s burlesque style was also an influence.

A more electronic based album than previous releases, “The Golden Age Of Grotesque” also features other highlights such as “Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag”, “Para-noir” and “(s)AINT”. Dark and edgy lyrics combined with catchy and infectious grooves, this is a very good album.

7. Meat Loaf “Couldn’t Have Said It Better”

Meat Loaf - Couldn't Have Said It Better
Meat Loaf – Couldn’t Have Said It Better

This was Meat Loaf’s eighth studio album release, and easily his best outside of the “Bat Out Of Hell” series.

Only the third album to feature no material from long-term collaborator Jim Steinman, instead having songs from a number of different composers including Diane Warren and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx.

My favourite tracks on the record are “Testify”, “Mercury Blues”, a great cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, “Love You Out Loud” and the title track “Couldn’t Have Said It Better”. A very solid album.

8. Opeth “Damnation”

Opeth - Damnation
Opeth – Damnation

Recorded at the same time as 2002’s “Deliverance”, which showcased the Swedish progressive metal band’s heavier side, “Damnation” highlighted the other side of Opeth – this time a far lighter and more introspective sound.

The album starts with the single “Windowpane” which is a great snapshot of the record as a whole. Progressive, acoustic, cinematic and expansive.

The involvement of Porcupine Tree man Steven Wilson, who contributed keyboards and backing vocals, the lyrics to “Death Whispered A Lullaby” as well as studio wizardry, continued to make a mark on the sound of Opeth too. A totally indespensable Opeth album.

9. Liz Phair “Liz Phair”

Liz Phair - Liz Phair
Liz Phair – Liz Phair

“Liz Phair” is the self-title fourth album from the American singer / songwriter, and was my introduction to her work. A more commercial record than her previous work, “Liz Phair” seemed to have been aimed more at fans of the likes of Avril Lavigne than her own existing fan base.

Nonetheless, I found it to be a very good rock / pop record, glossily produced and containing good songs with some great hooks.

My favourite tracks on this album include the singles “Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary”, as well as “Rock Me”, the delicate “Little Digger”, “Favorite” and the x-rated “H.W.C.”. All in all, accessible great rock / pop record.

10. Stereophonics “You Gotta Go There To Come Back”

Stereophonics - You Gotta Go There To Come Back
Stereophonics – You Gotta Go There To Come Back

Stereophonics were formed in the village of Cwmaman in South Wales, and “You Gotta Go There To Come Back” was their fourth studio album – and their third UK number 1.

Sadly it was also to be their last album with the late Stuart Cable on drums.

It felt to me that, having toured previously with the Black Crowes, there was an influence to be found within the dense sound of this record, particularly on tracks like “High As The Ceiling”, and Kelly Jones has since confirmed that the band were stoned for a lot of the recording process.

Regardless, this is one of my all-time favourite Stereophonics albums, with my personal highlights including “Help Me (She’s Out Of Her Mind)”, “Jealousy”, “Rainbows And Pots Of Gold” and the brilliant hit single “Maybe Tomorrow”. A top class rock album.

So that’s my top ten albums of 2003. Things of note that year? Prime minister Tony Blair leads Britain into the Iraq War, Manchester United win the Premier League with Arsenal winning the F.A. Cup, and some of the year’s top cinema releases were “The Lord Of The Rings : The Return Of The King”, “Finding Nemo” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean : The Curse Of The Black Pearl”…