We appear to be smack-gob in the middle of another golden age of music, at least for the music I like.
Those year things just keep on coming, don’t they? Jesus. I swear they’re getting more frequent, too…
In 2018 there was a super blue blood moon total lunar eclipse (no that isn’t an album title), a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury, the last male northern white rhino died, ETA was officially dissolved, GDPR came into force, Saudi Arabia decided to let women drive, twelve footballing kids and their coach were rescued from a flooded cave after being stuck for 17 days, scientists found water on Mars, India decriminalised homosexuality, Canada legalised cannabis, 700,000 people marched through London to protest against Brexit and InSight landed successfully on Mars.
We waved goodbye to Peter Wyngarde, Dolores O'Riordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mark E. Smith, Pat Torpey, Roger Bannister, Ken Dodd, Stephen Hawking, Eric Bristow, Dale Winton, Verne Troyer, Dennis Nilsen, Margot Kidder, Kate Spade, Peter Stringfellow, Anthony Bourdain, Dirty Den, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Koko the gorilla, Vinnie Paul, Harlan Ellison, Barry Chuckle, Aretha Franklin, Kofi Annan, Burt Reynolds, Fenella Fielding, Denis Norden, Chas off of Chas and Dave, Montserrat Caballé, Scott Wilson, Stan Lee, Paddy Ashdown and June Whitfield (along with many many others, of course).
Musically speaking – well pickle my cotton socks, we appear to be smack-gob in the middle of another golden age of music, at least for the music I like, and once again there was no way to get the shortlist down any lower than 12. Even with this bumper harvest, there was still no room for any of the following: Black Veil Brides - Vale, The Dead Daisies - Burn It Down, Halestorm - Vicious, Kino - Radio Voltaire, Rabea Massaad - Grinding Gears, Orphaned Land - Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, Plini - Sunhead, Joe Satriani - What Happens Next, Slash - Living the Dream, Tremonti - A Dying Machine… all of which are really good and I recommend the whole lot. Yes, even the Satriani one. I know, I was surprised too.
So, twelve releases that rank higher on the playlist at Murray Towers than every one of those? Damn straight. Now shut up and dance.
I honestly wasn't that fussed about Alice in Chains first time round. For one thing, they arrived as part of the wave of grunge that killed rawk back in the day, but they just never really grabbed me. I like "Man in the Box" well enough, and people tell me that Dirt is a barnstorming album, but I guess I must have been doing it wrong. I'll tell you what though - wind forward to 2018 and they're still going (RIP Layne, natch) and I was curious enough to check out this album, named after a volcano that overlooks Seattle apparently, and I found myself to be suitably impressed. This was a real grower – I just kept coming back to it again and again. Still do, because it's great. Top track: “Rainier Fog”
Regular listeners will know that I love me some Amorphis, so I was chuffed as a Finnish elk who's just discovered a whole glade of aspen sprouts to read AMG's frothing review of Queen of Time, and I duly bought it on release date and shoved it through my head. It did not disappoint, and Amorphis appear to still somehow be simply infallible. Tomi's voice is in absolute top-form and the orchestrations are some of the best I've ever heard from them. Indispensable folk-ish metal – get it down you. Top track: “Amongst Stars”
New York's sci-fi-space-prog-rock-opera darlings return to their concept narrative again with their 9th studio album, having deviated from that path just once, and by cracky are they good at this or what? As always, you don't have to care about the characters, the story, sci-fi in general, or any of that to enjoy what is under all the concept frippery a damned good prog rock album. Claudio Sanchez can write hooks like no-one else, and his voice is just fucking unnatural. (In a good way.) Top track: “Toys”
I was all geared up to dislike this. I had my best disliking boots on and everything. I'd previously had a quick listen to Gus's band Firewind and been pretty unimpressed, and just because he plays for Ozzy doesn't make everything he touches turn to gold. Seen Zakk Wylde lately? Me either. Anyway, I was super-pleasantly surprised by an absolutely top-drawer hard rock album with guitar pyrotechnics that are always interesting, never just pure dull shred. (Even the slightly misguided Dire Straits cover sort of works.) Top track: "Don't Tread on Me"
I became aware of the superb Al Joseph's instrumental work through a friend and via JamTrack Central, and his instrumental albums Out in the Open and All of Creation are absolutely top-drawer stuff – the man can shred, of that there's no doubt. I was chuffed to find he'd gone back in the studio armed not just with his guitar, but also his lungs, and the results are superb. Heavy, melodic, sometimes proggy, sometimes catchy, all really well done. Top track: "Shift"
I've always loved Myles Kennedy's vocals with Alter Bridge and with Slash, and I think he has one of the best voices in rock today. That said, when I first heard this album and realised "Oh, it's an acoustic album? Dude, where's the rawk?" I took it out of the shortlist. But you know what, it kept popping up on shuffle and every time it did, I enjoyed it more and more. This is an absolutely solid album from start to nuts, 12 solid songs some of which will lodge in the hindbrain and stay there. Two thumbs fresh. Top track: "Year of the Tiger"
I, and some of my contemporaries, first heard of Thomas McRocklin in the late 80s, when he was a child shred guitar prodigy. I had it in mind that he was featured in Decline of the Western Civilization pt.2: The Metal Years, but have since found this to be false. In fact, according to this clip I dug off the tubes, it was in fact a BBC Arena "Heavy Metal special" from 1989. Nonetheless, it showed Thomas wailing away on an Ibanez JEM77FP and smashing out Vai/Roth tunes, and apparently he even opened for Ozzy when he was 8 years old. He then appeared in Steve Vai's video for "The Audience is Listening" portraying Vai's younger self, then in 1992 released an album with a teenage (literally the oldest member was 16 – they were under the wing and guidance of Vai though, it was all OK, really) rawk band called Bad4Good, which was honestly not terrible. And then as far as I was concerned, he disappeared off the face of the earth (along with most of the good music of the times…). It was with some joy then, that in 2018 I noticed the name McRocklin crop up somewhere attached to a bandcamp link. "Here, Tommy, have six of my very freshest pounds, it's damn good to see you" quoth I, and have not regretted it. In the interim it appears Tommy has i) grown up (duh), ii) kept up his playing (yay, more than I've managed), and iii) gotten his hands properly dirty as a producer and learned some serious studio chops (seriously, way to go man). So then he popped out a 6-song instrumental EP, and this is it. And you should listen to it if you like that sort of thing, because it is so very choice. Top track: "Square Dreamz"
I first became aware of Hurricane Nita as one of the members of The Iron Maidens (the world’s only all female Iron Maiden tribute act), and figured I’d check them out. I did, and they’re great. Then she left them and toured with Alice Cooper before writing and releasing her own solo album, which is a shred masterpiece (if you ignore the extremely ill-advised Queen cover at the end) with neo-classical leanings. Lovely. Top track: "Mariana Trench"
Toska are a funny one. Guitar-playing listeners may well be familiar with the name Rob Chapman, he of Chapman Guitars. Well he plays in a band called Dorje who are not really to my taste for some reason. But the rest of the band have an instrumental side band, and that is Toska. All the guitars in Toska are handled by none other than the absolutely blazing Rabea Massaad, one of my absolute favourite players of the moment (he also provides lead guitar for FrogLeap when they play live). Toska's music is moody dark instrumental prog, and while their first album Ode to the Author didn't really grab me, this one did. Top track: "Abomasum"
And the winners are…
Yeah, it's happened again. With so much awesome music out these days it's getting impossible not only to prune the shortlist down to 6, but also to separate my favourites. So 2018 has provided us with a three-way tie, I'm afraid. Not my fault, honest.
Well. It’s true that last year’s winner From the Fires was in fact two EPs bolted together to make an album in order to get GVF out into the world, but it never felt like it. It felt like a cohesive album, though maybe one that could have used another month or two in the studio (two covers out of eight songs (one of them by sodding Fairport Convention for cock’s sake) could be seen as meriting a black mark). Nonetheless, it was with a little trepidation that I received their first proper full-length studio album and put the zeros and ones into the player and lowered the virtual needle.
I needn’t have worried – it’s a belter from soup to finish. The kids (I’m allowed to call them that – I’m twice the age of their eldest member) from Michigan have absolutely stuck the landing with this one. I’ve seen them live twice too (it would have been three times had singer Josh not gone down with a chest infection and had to postpone the 2019 tour) and they are absolutely electric in the flesh. This is a brilliant rock album, full of heart and sincerity, and if you can’t get past the comparisons to Led Zeppelin then the problem lies with you, not them. These guys are something new and inspiring.
Top tracks: "When the Curtain Falls", "The Cold Wind", "Brave New World"
It was another particularly foamy AMG review that tipped me off to Michael Romeo, and knowing absolutely nothing of his previous work (his daytime gig is apparently Symphony X of whom I know nothing) I went into this with virgin ears wide open. That sounds wrong.
Anyway, what I found in my ears was one of the best heavy metal albums I have ever heard. Romeo’s arrangements and orchestrations really carry along the concept-y feel of the album (it is apparently inspired by the H. G. Wells novel but is not a full concept album in the literal sense) and the guitar work is flawless and pyrotechnic throughout. Romeo even manages to work in some elements of dance music and even dubstep without it feeling out of place – no mean feat in what is on the face of it a straight-up metal album.
The vocals, supplied by Rick Castellano apparently, are of the clean variety, or to be honest this wouldn’t even have made the shortlist. I cannot be fucking doing with death metal growls. Really. I’m sure it’s lovely if you’re into that, but I’m not, so Rick’s style suits me fine and it definitely suits the material.
If you like metal – and you do like metal, by the way – then you will like this. So what are you doing? Why aren’t you listening to it? I AM.
Top tracks: "Fear the Unknown", "F*cking Robots", "Oblivion"
This Finnish virtuoso was first known as Mr. Fastfinger – an animated (Flash, remember that?) web character who ran his own online guitar school back in 2005. Behind the gimmicky character and animation was in fact a great guitarist running real guitar courses, and that was Mika Tyyskä. (Incidentally, he did all the animation and stuff himself – talented bugger.) The more the site gained popularity, the more the mythical mystical Fastfinger was asked to share and teach in the real world, and so Mika stepped out from behind the computer and began running guitar clinics in Europe and Japan.
Inevitably there had to be output, and so the debut Fastfinger album The Way of the Exploding Guitar was released in 2009, and excellent it is too. It might have been in the shortlist had I known about Tyyskä when I compiled that year's list. (The same goes for 2012's In Motion, 2015's Spirit Rising, and the 2013 and 2016 EPs Stringweaver and Neon Alchemist, actually. They're all excellent.)
Anyway, I only became aware of Mika in 2018, and it was in that year that he set himself a challenge which resulted in releasing his first album under his own name – Night Overdrive. Inspired by the films and the music of the 80s, Mika had discovered an old 4-track tape recorder and a bunch of tapes, and so set himself a challenge – to write, record and produce an album of music entirely using tape. No DAWs in sight. He wrote pretty rudimentary stereo backing tracks using Korg Gadget on the iPad (which I have since purchased and HIGHLY recommend), and then wrote guitar parts to go over the top on the two tracks he had left.
The result? An absolutely fabulous shredwave album. When I heard this I fell in love with Tyyskä's playing all over again, and the 80s aesthetic and shredwave vibe all over this stuck me in nostalgia overdrive for a good month or two.
If you like the movie soundtracks of John Carpenter, anything by Jan Hammer, or just interesting guitar music, you need to get this.
Also, if you have an hour to spare and this sounds interesting, do watch this 1-hour long workshop video Mika made documenting the process he used to inspire himself and come up with this splendid album.
Top tracks: "Punch In - Punch Out", "Driving with Mr. Carpenter", "I Respect This Moment"
Turkey of the Year
I don't have one for you, to be honest. It seems I made only good music choices in 2018. Just goes to show… something, possibly.