Unnnnnngh. Whoo. Ummm… yeah. 2016. OK. Shit.
*deep breath* Right. Let’s do this. *girds loins*
2016 was The International Year of Pulses, but despite that it started badly and then went downhill from there. And after that it got worse. We were still reeling from the (not wholly unexpected) passing of Lemmy in December 2015 when the (relatively unexpected) news of David Bowie’s demise reached us, and so began Super Grim Reaper Ultra Party Bonanza Deathfest. (Plenty) more on that shortly. I had spent my Christmas holiday (hah) looking for work, and ended up back at my old place (phew). Zika broke out, North Korea got all launchy, the United Kingdom punched itself as hard as possible in the financial bollocks while screaming WHY ARE YOU HITTING YOURSELF?, the US and China joined the Paris climate agreement (insert le sigh here), the USA elected a FUCKING MORON (whose name I shan’t lower myself to type) to its highest office, and the whole world basically swirled further and further down the shitter. Oh and I bought a house.
Mortal-coil-shuffler of the year awards go to (oh boy… here we go… grits teeth) the aforementioned David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Abe Vigoda, Terry Wogan, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Johan Cruyff, Garry Shandling, Prince, Nick Menza, Muhammad Ali, Anton Yelchin, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Pete Burns, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Andrew Sachs, Fidel Castro, Shepherd Book, Peter Vaughan, Greg Lake, John Glenn, Henry Heimlich (yes, he of the manoeuvre), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rick Parfitt, Liz Smith, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Carrie Fisher’s mother).
Unnnngh. Yeah. Ooof. So, I wasn't so deeply into Bowie when I was younger, but he was always there doing quality stuff. I loved the Bowie/Jagger “Dancing in the Street” video, and of course I was massively into Queen so dug “Under Pressure” the most. It was his later work – really from Heathen onwards – that really grabbed me. I saw him at Wembley Arena on the Reality tour, and then laughed my arse off with a tipped hat when he recorded The Next Day without even his record company knowing about it. I think that is my favourite album of his from this period, but that’s just because it’s impossible to listen to Blackstar without being reminded in every word that you’re hearing one of the most creative and influential artists the Western World has ever produced wave goodbye to the world and his life. Not an easy listen, then, but a worthwhile one. Top track: "Lazarus"
If you’ve never heard of The Dead Daisies, that’s OK, don’t feel bad. They’re a kind of revolving-door band with an ever-shifting line-up and only one consistent (founder) member, David Lowy. This is their third album, and for me this is where all the pieces really clicked together primarily due to the partnership of two of the longest-standing and most consistent stalwarts of the hard rock scene, John Corabi (The Scream, Mötley Crüe, many more) on vocals and Doug Aldrich (Whitesnake, Dio, many more) on guitar. This album packs mean tunes, some great production and a proper sense of fun rock and roll. Best straight-up hard rock record in years. Get on it. Top track: "Song and a Prayer"
Oh look, another appearance by friend of the show, HHJM†. Frost*, though, are the brainchild of Jem Godfrey with John maintaining guitar duties with the occasional lead vocal thrown in. This is the third album from the BritProg supergroup, and it’s the most cohesive and best yet. The debut Milliontown is pretty hard to beat, but I reckon this does just about manage it. Progtacular! Top track: “Signs”
†His Holiness John Mitchell
When I discovered acts like Scale the Summit, Plini, Chimp Spanner and Sithu Aye back in around 2012 or so I gorged non-stop for months on their wonderful chuggy grooves and brain-melting technical prowess, but one thing I did start to yearn for was something similar but with vocals. Enter stage left, the bafflingly-monikered Mandroid Echostar with their eponymous EP that year and the followup EP Citadels in 2013. However, in 2016 they graced us with their first full-length album and it left my old boots firmly stuck on the “fucked” setting. Vocally Michael Ciccia reminds me a little of Claudio from Coheed & Cambria, but instrumentally the band are a little heavier though no less melody-focussed. Tight as. Top track: "Matoax"
So, Scottish/Burmese shred prodigy Sithu Aye is certainly more prolific than his buddy, the truly astounding (and oft-mentioned in these pages) Aussie wunderkind Plini, but I'd say his quality control is perhaps not quite as stringent. On my first listen through this double album I felt I had a problem with the mix, and that the lead guitars just weren't prominent enough, spoiling my enjoyment of some otherwise excellent instru-prog. Subsequent listens, however, have revealed that I just had bad ears on that day, and it's great. A long, interesting musical journey as the name would suggest. Great fun throughout. Top track: "Beyond the Boundary"
And the winner is…
Oh, be still my fluttering heart, this album. I'll be honest with you, I hadn't even finished listening to this for the first time (on release day, 26th August) and I knew it was going to be the 2016 winner.
By now regular readers of this column will doubtless be sick of my clanking on about Plini, but tough. Strap in. When I first heard Joe Satriani in 1988/9 I was blown away. In 1990 when I heard Steve Vai's Passion and Warfare everything changed again. In 1992 John Petrucci's playing on Images and Words by Dream Theater floored me. It was a good 14 years or so before I was as impressed by a player again, and that was Guthrie Govan.
Wind forward a few more years and a new wave of players begins to emerge – people who've put in the time and effort in their bedrooms and are able to produce nigh-on professional quality albums right at their computer, and regularly do. Add web-based platforms like Bandcamp, and you have homegrown virtuosity making its way right from the player's hands to the listener's ears without record labels or even recording studios needing to be involved. I'm talking about players like Aaron Marshall, Sithu Aye, David Maxim Micic, Jakub Zytecki, and of course Plini Roessler-Holgate, among others.
I've been a huge Plini fan since I first heard his work, so when it was announced that he was releasing his first full-length album, my anticipation went through the roof, and by deep-fried CHRIST, did he deliver.
Handmade Cities comprises 7 songs and clocks in at 34:38, but my god what a ride. From the opening teasing notes of "Electric Sunrise" to the closing echoes of "Cascade", the listener is left in no doubt that this is a creative musical force finally given free reign to produce his very best work. Yes, there is shred here in abundance, but as ever with Plini, it is never unwarranted and always joyous to hear. This is not guitar wankery, this is music first and foremost. Even if Guthrie Govan leaves you unmoved (you monster!) you should still listen to Plini – the innate musicality of his composition is somehow more pleasing to my ear than GG's more fusiony moments. You may agree, or your mileage may naturally vary.
Try it though. If you like instrumental guitar music of any stripe, there's a strong chance you may spend half an hour grinning like a loon like I did.
Top tracks: “Pastures”, “Electric Sunrise“, “Handmade Cities“
Turkey of the Year
Oh dear fucking Satan, no. I'm on record as saying that the rot set in with DT when Rudess joined, and that Scenes From a Memory is bollocks, and that it only got worse from there. Well, I seriously SRSLY hope that it can't get any worse from here. This is one of the worst things I have ever done to my ears. Utterly utterly fucking execrable. A double concept album based on a world in which "the Ravenskill Rebel Militia […] defy the Great Northern Empire of the Americas using the magical power of music". Holy shit. With Gabriel and Princess Faythe on one side and Emperor Nafaryus on the other? Oh good god. Faythe. Nafaryus. Right.
I think I really checked out when LaBrie started singing in an evil voice to represent Nafaryus. Sorry guys, you're turning into a fucking parody of yourselves, if you hadn't already.