Thursday, 27 February 2014

Piano Nights - Bohren & der Club of Gore

Moody, sullen, and utterly enthralling. Piano Nights is a collection of nine slow tempo, minimalist jazz tracks that present a mellow yet sinister world of film noir, rainy days, and deep contemplation. It's a dark place, though not without touches of warmth, and it's played out on piano, organ, drums, bass, and saxophone, along with the odd touch of other instrumentation whenever its needed. "Hauntingly good" springs to mind, along with 'for gods sake someone make a movie to use this as the soundtrack for'. It isn't the kind of thing I normally go for but I've been utterly dragged in by it's charm, its simplicity, and its unwillingness to rush into anything. I strongly advise anyone who has the time to give it a listen as it's just mesmerizing in all the right places.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Why are festival headliners getting older?

A while ago a friend observed that the headliner acts at major festivals are getting older and older, with his theory being that 'there are no new acts good enough to be headliners these days'. Initially I disbelieve him, thinking it was "things were better in my days" type thinking, so I set forth to see what was actually happening. Mostly because my theory is that there are plenty of great, acts out there who can do just as well as the more established groups, both in terms of musical quality/ability and performance giving.

I selected Reading and Download/Monster Of Rock as my data set, mostly because they have been running the longest and partly because they have consistently aim for a similar audience through all their years (if you discount Reading's origins as a Jazz festival, which Reading has). Glastonbury has been running for a comparable length of time but its audience has changed dramatically, going from being a drugged-up hippy-fest to a drugged-up middle-class-fest through its promotion by the BBC (but that's another story). They have also been relatively consistent since the start of the 80's, which is when recent musical history starts in the minds of most of my chums/people likely to read this blog. So, over the course of several hours, I went over all the headlining acts (as defined by the Festival, and counting 2nd and 3rd stages) and compared the year the headliners performed against the year of their first album release (as the actual starting year of many bands is a contested issue). After crunching through the data I came to the all important truth: Darren Douglas was right.

No two ways about it, the headlining bands are getting older. So why, when there are so many good new bands, is this happening? It is counter intuitive to the whole 'joy and power of youth' element that rock has always espoused. Why did two musical events, aimed at different demographics in the market ( in broad terms Reading is more 18-25 whilst Download is more 21+), end up having a similar trend? From a bit of research, and from talking to some 'industry insiders', I came the following conclusions:

The growth of festival audiences has changed who can headline

Both of the events listed have grown in size since the 80's, so where as you could previously have had a headlining act that could attract a couple thousand people you now need someone that pull in the tens of thousands. Both events have 90,000+ tickets for sale and the headliner acts are still the main draw, so to cover that many tickets you need a band with a proven track record who can regularly sell out venues like the O2 Arena (which only holds 23,000 so its 'multiple nights' rather than 'one off show' territory). These kinds of acts are not that common, to give you an idea I've been able to find four rock acts currently billed to play +15,000 venues this year.
Additionally many headliners are booked two or even three years in advance now, to ensure that they will attend the event. A 5 year old band might still be together in 3 years time but its not as likely as one that's been going for 15+. This means you need a band that you know will still be together by the time the festival comes around, so reliable and seasoned acts are less of a gamble on that front. 

It also gets worse when you find out that record sales are one of the factors involved when calculating the size of a band, something that not all new bands are focused on in the new media age, which leads to the next issue.

The new media has reduced bands ability to headline

Previously if a band could get championed by MTV, Kerrang, Melody Maker, or NME they had a decent chance of success, and potential headliner status. This was due to their being a very narrow amount of information that could be transmitted, for example if you were into alternative rock in the 90's you had a two two-hour shows a week on TV in which to actually listen to new stuff being released, meaning that each band had a far larger mindshare to play with (around an 80th a week) where as now you can happily hit youtube and watch 3360 completely new videos of alternative rock if you wish. This is good in many ways, because more people can find music they really like, but is also bad in some as there is no central path or 'gatekeeper' that can result in a band getting big. You also have a lack of major co-defined movements in rock: the 80's had NOBHM and thrash, the 90's had Alternative and Nu-Metal, whilst the 00's had an outbreak of minority interests like the varying forms of extreme and noise. Diversification has become the rule, rather than focus or exemplar bands.

The medium-to-big sized bands scene has shrunk, whilst the small-to-medium has exploded. From a festival viewpoint this means you are more likely to get to play at one of them with a smaller audience, however its going to be harder to get the critical mass needed to headline. Bands starting now are in a 'post-headliner' world, to a great degree, where diversification has taken over the market. As stated previously many of them are actually good enough to headline, it's just that they will never be able to get the kick needed to get that big. This is further complicated by headlining keeping the older acts big, you may not go to a festival to see the headliner but you are very likely to end up watching them which will help perpetual their bigness. All of this is reducing the chance of a smaller act picking up new audience, and keeping them away from the headliner spot. And even if a small band lucked out and got that slot would it actually do them that much good?

Not everyone will want to headline a festival

The idea of headlining a festival is a lovely one, but the reality of it is quite different. To begin with there is the simple pressure of putting on an hour and a half show, but you soon have to add in the fact that everyone is watching. If you go out there and don't perform perfectly word is going to get around very quickly, and very publicly, around both the fans and the industry. Doesn't have to be a major thing, doesn't even have to be your fault, but if it goes wrong you'll be remembered for it and never be able to get rid of that history. This will impact record sales, PR opportunities, and booking opportunities. From what I have had explained to me that pressure alone has caused internationally renowned acts to give a 'thanks, but no thanks' response when offered the headline. Much better to go second or third, especially when you realise that unlike an arena performance: This crowd is not "your crowd".

If you can sell out the big three arenas in the UK that means around 60,000 people in the UK want to spend money to see you live. If all of them turn up to see you headline a major festival that means that only 1 in 3 of the audience may not actually give that much of a damn about you. One in three is a lot of people that you have to convert to your side, so you have to be damn confident that a large section of the crowd isn't going to go from 'disinterested' to 'outright hostile' on you. It could mean them walking home early (embarrassing) to a being booed all the way through to a 'Reading Salute' of projectiles being thrown onto the stage. Not something that everyone would be interested in having to face, regardless of the prestige or money, when they are used to a positive home-field audience.

There could be other reasons as well, for example families now going to events so organisers having to find more cross-age-group appealing acts or the lack of major co-defined movements in rock during the 00's resulting in a lack of big enough exemplar bands for particular scenes. However hopefully the above goes someway to explaining why it's not just a case of 'no good new bands' and more of a changing market that has made it far harder for a new band to get to the top.

If anyone has thoughts on this one I would very much like to hear them by the way, so please post up whatever you may have. Also the raw data is available if anyone else wants to have a play with it.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Brits

No, I'm not going to blog about the Brit Awards 2014. For an event that claims to represent the UK record industry they are highly unrepresentative, focusing purely on Pop/Mainstream acts, and consistently fail to give any regard to hard rock, dance music, or anything else that sells millions but doesn't fit their cookie-cutter view of how Hip British Music will be marketed that year. They get a ton of coverage because they are on the BBC, so are given over due amounts of hype and attention. Occasionally they are exiting but mostly its a gong-party to signpost who's albums should be on your coffee table to make you appear interested in music. They also gave James Corden employment, which is always a bad thing.

UPDATE: BWAHAHAHA, viewing figures are down even after a massive media push. Suck it!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

DJ JustJay

Life can't be filled with just loud, angry noises so when Deep House Records sent me in the direction of one of their new acts soundcloud, I snapped it up. Partly it was because it's nice to know that House is still going, despite the onslaught of DubStep, EDM, and the euro sound, and partly it's something I don't listen to all that much (even though a load of the early 80's American Industrial stole from it wholesale) and it's always good to hear something different.

The three mixes presented have, unsurprisingly, a good, deep grove to them, occasionally moving into what this ill educated ears would call 'trancy'. What is pleasantly surprising is how sparing the sound is: rather than a million things trying to happen all at once there is a single clear baseline, drumline, and hook happening at any one time. You end up with a solid but clear sound, laid back but still ready to party, that would sound just as good at the bar as on the dancefloor. The samples are varied, the core tracks are diverse, and the soundbites are nicely picked but it's presented in an unhurried fashion which allows each idea to unfold and conclude as the section demands. No stunt DJing, no jarred drops, just everything in place and orderly. It also manages to avoid sounding retro, whilst it clearly shows off it's old-school roots this is something that is happy to not reinvent the wheel but still stick to the basic formula when its called for. So give it a listen, and if you spot him in a club near you go and give him a look. You'll be in for an enjoyable time.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Fuck All Diseases - Various

Fuck All Diseases is two things, both of which are very good.

Firstly it's a collection of mostly instrumental industrial tracks covering a variety of styles including ambient, EBM, noise, chiptune breakcore (which I never knew was 'a thing') and occasionally what I can only describe as "soundtrack". Varied enough to be interesting, but curated well enough for it to all fit together as a single demonstration of some of the interesting things that are happening in the underground. There isn't a duff track among them, which is a feat in itself, and picking out best tracks if a bit of a nightmare. If I was pushed I would have to go with Deep by MelakwaToci by Tzolk'in and Warholic by S.K.E.T., but those are all by a nose and I'm likely to change my mind tomorrow.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly, it's a chance to give a measly seven Euro's towards helping Alexey Protasov (of Ambassador21 and Suicide Inside) cover their medical expenses as they fight throat cancer. (So possibly also a third thing, as it reminds me how wonderful a social medical system is). So please consider buying the album, as it's well worth the coin.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Parallel Evolution - Black Sheep Screaming

Ever wanted to know what Eraserhead: The Musical would sound like? According to Black Sheep Screaming and their latest offering it's a combination of Atari Teenage Riot discordant breakdowns, Navicon Torture Technologies blasted soundscapes, a couple hundred assorted movie soundbites, and some moments of utterly catchy EBM that put Suicide Commando and CombiChrist to shame. All of which could very easily be a mess, and in some places it very intentionally is, but somehow manages to work together into an almost enjoyable listening experience. And I say "almost" as the album is so perfectly choppy, and often honestly creepy, that it never gives you enough time to settle down and feel comfortable about what is going on. This is not something you would just put on the stereo and have as background music, this is a 13 slices of art that demand you pay attention to what is going on (even if you won't understand half of it).

Clearly something this distinct or intense isn't going to be for everyone, and I can happily imagine that a lot of people will find it far to noise-filled and intentionally confrontational . The extensive use of samples also means that some listeners will end up playing 'Spot the soundbite' rather than actually digging the music. It's also utterly un-dancable, even though there are several sections which are good, solid industrial-dance music which could have made classic club-tracks if left to be a little duller. But this is industrial music as free-jazz so should be listened to in such a manner, and whilst many are not going to like it because of its inaccessibility those who 'get it' are going to absolutely love it.

Friday, 7 February 2014


Radkey are three brothers from Missouri who are, if there is any justice in this world, about to break it big. They play short, catchy little numbers that get your toes tapping, and are clearly quite angry about a lot of things but in a calm and clear manner, rather than an unfocused frenzy. Their sound is halfway between the more melodic hardcore punk and doom metal, but with a subtle modern touch to it (think The Misfits and Saint Vitus if they had grown up listening to Nirvana), finely complimented by the booming and clear voice of singer Dee.

Currently they have their two EPs (Devil Fruit and Cat & Mouse) up on their website for free, or you can do what I did and just buy their collection now as this is clearly brilliant music that is just bursting to the brim with excitement, youth, and joie-de-vivre. Really, really, exciting stuff.

Listen to it.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Skindred @ The Junction, 31/01/2014

As a rule January is a horrible month. So what better way to ignore the horrible, wet weather (and snot inducing colds) than to get blasted in the face with a load of upbeat, high energy, positive rock & roll!

Due to traffic and rain we only got to see about half of Viza's set, which was annoying as they were kicking up a storm with their traditional Greek styled hard rock. For a band that no-one had heard of they were doing incredibly well, and by their last tracks the first few layers of the bit were bouncing and most folks I could see at the back (colds and pits really don't mix) were nodding along with approval. They impressed me enough that I got their latest album and I hope to be seeing a lot of them in the press.

Soil were up next, which surprised me as I'd thought they split years ago. However they are still very much an ongoing concern, sufficiently popular to have brought along a decent chunk of their own crowd, and their take on rocking groove-metal proved entertaining enough. The tracks were a little 'by the numbers' for me but I'm not going to deny the reaction they got, nor the skills they showed off. The only thing I would question was the singers decision to got down to audience level during the final track, as from anything but the front row it looked like he just disappeared before the end of the set.

Talking of questions: just before main act went on the lights were dropped and "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC was started at full volume. What appeared to be entrance music was then played in its full, accompanied by an impressive display of lighting synchronization. Yet no band, just sound and lights. Answers on a postcard please.

Then a dub version of the Imperial March kicked off and Skindred walked on to conquer all with their high energy metal-meets-reggae-meets-punk-meets-dub-(meets-occasional-touch-of-dubstep) sound. It's difficult to not use the word "unique" when describing what their music is like, so for full reference just checkout their discography. Let's just say that it sounded fantastic, that all musicians were at the top of their game, and that if the tunes didn't get you moving then you were dead to the world. To top it off Benji Webbe, resplendent in dredded up business suit and union jack hanging from his microphone, soon had the audience in his hands, getting every moving and swaying just as needed. The positiveness of his message was unmistakable: it's not common to have a frontman demand everyone live "meaning lives", but when he says it you know its a serious command rather than crowd pleasing platitude. Never pious though, as proven by asking who in the audience smokes dope and then playfully threatening to tell the police on them. There was also a fair amount of 'start song, stop song, tell crowd they have to do better, then start up again' (possibly a little too much) and sing-along fun to be had, all of which gave a great sense of community and togetherness. And then the final song was played, and everyone realised they had to go home in the rain. Still, totally worth it!