Biffy Clyro live at the 2012 iTunes Festival

Biffy Clyro live at the  2012 iTunes Festival London Camden RoundhouseOne of this year’s major coups at the iTunes Festival was lining up Scot-rockers Biffy Clyro to play London for the first time in over a year. With the band having just announced a January 28th release date for their sixth studio album ‘Opposites’, this was a great opportunity to showcase some of their new material.

First up, the crowd were roused into good spirits by fellow Scots Frightened Rabbit. The Selkirk quintet served up a 45-minute set that varied from compelling to pedestrian. ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ got a strong reception, with lead singer Scott Hutchinson sounding in fine fettle.

Following the now customary 60-second iTunes Festival countdown, Biffy Clyro got a thunderous response when they took to the stage, with the laid-back sounds of Simon and Garfunkel providing a stark contrast to the juddering rhythms of new single ‘Stingin’ Belle’.

From here on in, the set was fairly evenly split between new material, hit singles, and obscure tracks getting their first run-out in years. Of the new tracks, the expansive stadium rock of ‘Victory Over The Sun’ was by far the most impressive, while ‘Sounds Like Balloons’ blossomed from a funky off-beat intro into a full-blown hard rock crescendo. The hits were out in force, from a joyous rendition of ‘The Captain’ to the bounce-along classic ‘Who’s Got A Match?’. The arms-in-the-air ballad ‘Many Of Horror’ split the crowd right down the middle, with the odd cry of “we love you Matt Cardle” undercutting the mood somewhat.

To read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room, click here.

Bloc Party – Four (Album Review)

Bloc Party Four new albumBack in June, Kele Okereke admitted that “there was a big question mark over whether Bloc Party were ever going to make a record again”. Well two months later and it’s a good thing that they stuck at it, because ‘Four’ is their most consistently brilliant album since ‘Silent Alarm’.

Produced by Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, Mars Volta), this is an unashamedly heavyweight rock album that proves once and for all that guitar music still has a place in the British indie scene.

Bloc Party’s last effort ‘Intimacy’ and Okereke’s subsequent solo-project ‘The Boxer’ seemed to suggest that they believed otherwise. But right from the crunching riffs of ‘So He Begins To Lie’, to the grandstand Queens of the Stone Age-inspired closer ‘We Are Not Good People’, this record throbs with confidence in the decision to go back to their roots and become a guitar-based band once again.

Musically, ‘Four’ feels like the bravest album released so far this year, with plenty of gambles that almost all come off. ‘3X3’ is a dark, twisted song of seduction, which has the urgency of Yourcodenameis:Milo in their pomp, while ‘Octopus’ is the perfect lead-off single for this album, highly unusual with its falsetto verses, but undeniably catchy and with a Daft Punk-esque guitar solo that ties it all together.

Fans of early Bloc Party won’t be disappointed either…

To read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room, click here.

Kick Up The Fire – Money Men (ep review)

Kick Up The Fire Money Men unsigned bandTwo years ago, when Kick Up The Fire released their self-titled debut ep, I boldly suggested that they could take 2011 by storm.

Well it’s 2012 and they’ve only just got round to releasing their follow-up effort. Can’t win them all, eh?

Happily, the band’s sophomore effort is more than worth the wait. ‘Money Men’ is a tightly honed record, with each track as well produced and catchy as the last. Much like on their debut ep, the band still retain a slow-burning style, which may not knock your socks off at first, but gradually worms its way into your mind.

Lead singer Kenny Wastell’s lyrics are a big reason for this, with clever turns of phrase as he poetically skewers lad-mag culture on opening track ‘Loaded’. The more rhythmic guitars help to create a danceable tempo, and the lead guitar licks on ‘Spiders’ add plenty of flair.

‘Takeover’ is possibly the best of the bunch, acting as a passionate call-to-arms for disenchanted commuters and office drones, while ‘White Cube’ draws proceedings to a close with quirky rhythms and incongruous brass, much in the vein of Biffy Clyro (circa ‘Infinity Land’).

The only real criticism to be made is that the band don’t make as much of the call and response vocals that worked so well on their last record, which is a shame.

But it must be said ‘Money Men’ feels like a more coherent and polished effort, it proves their worth as one of the UK’s most exciting prospects, and at just 12 minutes long it will leave you crying out for more.

You can read more about Kick Up The Fire on their hilariously foul-mouthed blog, and if you head to their Bandcamp page before Monday 30 July, you can download their debut ep for free.

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten (album review)

Gaslight-Anthem-HandwrittenWith their first major label record, The Gaslight Anthem have gone all-out to live up to their name, delivering 11 truly anthemic tracks that fuse Bruce Springsteen-esque vocals, hard rock riffs and raw, honest emotion.

Produced by the double-Grammy winning Brendan O’Brien and with the backing of Mercury Records, their fourth studio album should see the New Jersey quartet reach an even wider audience in 2012.

Leading off with the current radio-hogging single ’45’, Brian Fallon and co set a dizzying tempo; with sing-alongs and crunching guitars in abundance. Staying true to his promise, Fallon has delivered a much more aggressive album, which contrasts strongly with his sombre 2011 side-project The Horrible Crowes.

Benny Horowitz and Alex Levine provide a solid, driving rhythm section as always, but more noticeable is how Alex Rosamilia’s lead guitar has developed into one of the band’s biggest strengths. Whereas before his licks sounded ornate and elaborate, on this record they are far more central to the overall sound, particularly on ‘Keepsake’, a lip-biting stomp that will have you fighting the urge to crack out the air guitar.

Elsewhere, the album slips in a wide range of cultural references, from the suitably cinematic ‘Mulholland Drive’, to the joyous ‘whoa’s of Allen Ginsberg tribute ‘Howl’ (which would make an excellent follow-up single) while ‘Here Comes My Man’ is a clever nod to the Pixies.

Read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room click here.

RIP MCA – Why Adam Yauch’s death will be a great loss to music

Adam 'MCA' Yauch of the Beastie Boys (1964-2012)
Photo: Flickr User: Michael Morel

“I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs / And that’s a lot because I’ve got my share”

With lyrics like these, it’s obvious that Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch was no ordinary rapper. Self-aware, self-deprecating and acutely witty to the last, he was the creative heart of the Beastie Boys and his death, at the age of 47, will be felt throughout the music scene, from hip hop to punk and beyond.

At the time of MCA’s death, the band were reportedly planning a return to their roots in the form of a full-band punk tour, making the news so much more of a shock when it emerged earlier this weekend. Not that it was completely out of the blue – Yauch’s health had been a matter for concern ever since he was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland back in 2009.

A true musical pioneer, Adam Nathaniel Yauch co-founded the Beastie Boys in New York in 1981 with Adam ‘Adrock’ Horovitz and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond. Originally a hardcore punk act, the band spanned the genres as the years went on, famously supporting Madonna on tour in 1985 and being banned from the UK in 1986 for provoking the trend for stealing VW badges from cars and wearing them as oversized necklaces.

True pioneers of both white boy rap and rap rock, without Yauch and the Beasties we quite possibly wouldn’t have Rage Against the MachineEminem or Linkin Park. MCA’s deep gravelly voice was integral to the band’s sound, providing a perfect counterpoint to the nasally tones of Mike D and Adrock.

Beyond music, Yauch was a committed activist with many causes to shout about, from environmentalism (the band appeared at the 2008 Live Earth concert) to non-violence. He even went public with his views on peace in the Middle East during the band’s 1998 VMA awards acceptance speech and the Dalai Lama paid tribute to Yauch upon hearing the news of his death:

Adam had helped us raise awareness on the plight of the Tibetan people by organizing various freedom Tibet concerts and he will be remembered by his holiness and the Tibetan people.

For many, the Beasties were the first hip hop act to reflect this left-wing liberal sensibility. From the late 90s onwards, they railed against bigotry in all its forms, proving that rap music doesn’t have to be all about self-aggrandisement and blatant machismo.

To read the rest of this article on Virgin Red Room, click here.

UPDATE 10/08/12: Beastie Boys star Adam Yauch’s will bans music in ads – what a legend!

The Cribs – In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull (album review)

The Cribs - In The Belly of the Brazen BullIt would be fair to say that The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman has had a fairly tough time of late. Ending his high-profile relationship with singer songwriter Kate Nash, as well as his musical alliance with The Smiths‘ former guitarist Johnny Marr left him in something of a dark place. In an interview with the NME earlier this year, he admitted to periods of self-loathing and depression, but claims that this is now behind him due to the excitement of releasing his fifth studio album, backed as usual by his brothers Gary and Ross.

‘In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull’ is the result of this period of introspection and Dave Fridmann is the latest name in The Cribs’ revolving roster of producers (The Flaming Lips,WeezerMogwai). In terms of progression this record seems like a step back towards the band’s earlier work as a trio, with standout tracks ‘Chi Town’ and ‘Come On, Be A No-One’ both offering seriously catchy hooks and snarling punk vocals. Those expecting a barrage of riffs and singalongs in the vein of 2007’s ‘Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever’ will be disappointed, however.

‘Glitters Like Gold’ is a hard-hitting and direct opener, but the laborious ‘Jaded Youth’ and the cumbersome ‘Uptight’ fail to keep up the tempo. Indeed, the band’s style remains distinctly coloured by their hit-and-miss collaboration with Marr on 2009’s ‘Ignore The Ignorant’.

What’s more, there is a noticeable leaning towards the most abstract soundscapes of Sonic Youth, no doubt influenced by their brief dalliance with Lee Ranaldo on their six-minute epic ‘Be Safe’, which featured on ‘Men’s Needs…’ and was their most ambitious recording to date. That is until you hear the last track on this new album…

To read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room, click here.

Maps & Atlases – Beware & Be Grateful (album review)

Maps & Atlases
"Call that a beard? THIS is a beard!"

Chicago quartet Maps & Atlases have shaken off their math rock background, but not their evident love of ampersands and biblical beards (see right), for their sophomore record ‘Beware & Be Grateful’.

Released in the UK next week (April 16th) via One Little Indian, this album comprises ten tracks of delightfully creative indie pop, with echoes of Vampire Weekend and subtle nods towards 80s artists such as Peter Gabriel.

The extravagant flourishes and technical guitar-work in the vein of This Town Needs Guns are still very much in evidence, particularly with the two-minute guitar solo on the album’s slow-building centrepiece ‘Silver Self’. However these technical aspects are no longer the focus, allowing the melodies to come to the fore instead.

‘Important’ is a strange choice of opening track, but this slow-burner sets the tone for the more sombre and reflective moments that punctuate this record.

Next up, ‘Be Three Years Old’ picks up the pace with a vibrant plea for immaturity, and this track works as a strong blueprint for the more upbeat moments of the album. Playful samples and calypso vibes abound throughout, and it sounds like the band have even sampled the coin grabbing sound from Super Mario Land on ‘Bugs’.

The main thing that will divide opinion amongst new listeners is lead singer Dave Davison’s esoteric vocal style, which is flamboyant, affected and immediately recognisable – like a higher-pitched Morrissey with an American accent.

It all comes together quite nicely on the closing double header of ‘Fever’ and ‘Old & Gray’, where Davison really gets to show off his full range in an uplifting and optimistic crescendo.

Overall, ‘Beware & Be Grateful’ is a very catchy, upbeat record to get you in the mood for the summer and one that should play particularly well during the upcoming festival season.

Baddies – Build (album review)

Baddies, the indie rock back from Southend, EssexEssex four-piece Baddies burst onto the indie-rock scene in 2009 with their critically acclaimed debut album ‘Do The Job’, having made their name by playing more festivals in one summer than any other band in Europe (32, since you asked).

The success of that record was built on classic hard-rock riffs, mindlessly catchy choruses and a staccato vocal style that was almost robotic.

This sound drew favourable comparisons withThe Futureheads and early Queens of the Stone Age. On this, their difficult second album, the band has gone for a more synth-led sound, largely jettisoning the riffs in favour of slow-burning melodies.

On producer duties, in comes Sean Genockey, who has previously worked with the Manic Street Preachers. This new approach doesn’t always hit the mark as directly or consistently as their earlier stuff, but the few tracks where they manage to pull it off are really effective. Think ‘Humbug’-era Arctic Monkeys and you’re not far off.

The yearning for reinvention is made blatantly clear on the first two tracks, as lead singer Michael Webster tells us: “Underneath the surface, I’m not feeling quite the same, I need rewiring” and “I’m going to build my very own man-made man”. From here onwards…

To read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room, click here.

Frank Turner – The Second Three Years (album review)

Frank Turner singing liveIt takes a pretty prolific songwriter to turn out four albums in six years and still have enough left in the tank to record two twenty-track compilations. But not only has Frank Turner managed this, he has done so with style and aplomb, especially on this, his second collection of live tracks, b-sides, covers and rarities.

‘The Second Three Years’ crams together the non-album tracks from his 2010 ‘Rock n Roll’ EP, the special edition bonus tracks from last year’s ‘England Keep My Bones’ LP, as well as a broad selection of punk, folk and pop covers; from Wham to Nirvana, and from NOFX to Take That.

This compilation is an essential purchase for any serious Frank fan, but it also works suitably well as a far-reaching introduction to one of England’s greatest songwriting talents. Right from the opening acapella verse of ‘Sailor’s Boots’, Turner’s voice is enthralling; by turns gentle and powerful, intimate and abrasive.

There’s also plenty of evidence of how his music has developed and matured…

To read the rest of this review on Virgin Red Room, click here.

Top five bands to look out for in 2012

With 2011 proving to be such a fantastic year for new music, you may be thinking that  2012 can’t possibly top that? Well you’d be wrong! There are plenty of exciting records on the horizon, so I thought I’d run you through a handful of decent prospects to whet your appetite:

1.) Freeze The Atlantic

If, like me, your early 2000s were defined by Hundred Reasons and Reuben, then you should be chomping at the bit to finally hear the debut album from Freeze The Atlantic. Featuring the mercurial drumming talents of Guy Davis (Reuben) and the solid guitar work of Andy Gilmour (bassist for HR), this five-piece looks very promising indeed, especially given they have recruited a front man with a rather fantastic voice, by the name of Chris Knott. If this sounds like an intruiging combo, then check out the video for their upoming single Volcanoes:

 

2.) Baddies

One of the big success stories of 2009, Baddies are back with a bang in 2012. The Southend quartet have a highly distinctive sound, which is robotic, angular and very catchy – think The Futureheads with some beefier riffs and better outfits. New music guru Zane Lowe has been lauding their latest single Bronto and you can download it here for free.

3.) Fighting With Wire

This Northern Irish trio were possibly the most underrated band of 2008, as their debut album Man Vs Monster was packed full of top choruses and fantastic riffs. Put simply, they play rock and roll just like it should be done. They have promised big things for 2012, including a stint supporting US alt-metal legends Helmet on their UK tour in March and April. What’s more, FWW album number two is shaping up nicely, with the first track Waiting On A Way To Believe already committed to record. Have a listen, you won’t regret it!

4.) James Cleaver Quintet

If you haven’t heard anything by the JCQ yet, then they could well be your surprise package of 2012. Their debut album That Was Then, This Is Now was a complete shock to the system when I stumbled across it recently, blending together a wide range of styles from hardcore to swing and from ska to punk. I can only imagine how good they would be at a summer festival…

5.) Brand New

New Jersey’s most famous gloom merchants are going happy in 2012. After three fantastic records in five years, 2009’s Daisy was a distinctly sour note for a band that sounded like they had run out of ideas. However, with an upcoming UK tour and a new album planned, all this is about the change. The band recently said they are “tired of bumming you guys out. We’re trying to write something happy.” I’m intrigued…