Anyone who says that 2014 hasn’t been a great year for music simply isn’t looking – or listening – hard enough. In fact, with each and every year that passes, the late broadcaster John Peel’s answer to the perennial question “What has been the best year for music?” seems more and more appropriate. When asked, he would reportedly answer simply and in that instantly recognisable voice each and every year, “Last year. And the year before that.”
As the debate about digital music distribution continues, and artists and labels argue about the best way to ensure that their music reaches our ears and still makes money, the most forward thinking bands, singers and songwriters are finding their audiences by ever more direct ways and means, and fans old and new are connecting with that music in new and myriad different ways. Putting the commercial aspects of the industry to one side for a moment however, the last 12 months have seen rich pickings for those prepared to seek them out.
So, without further ado, here are the Skin Back Alley picks of the vintage that was 2014. Feast your eyes and ears, and let us know what you think.
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1. SERVERS – Leave With Us
Eschewing the philosophy of heavy for heavy’s sake, Barnsley based kings of cult SERVERS unveiled their remarkable debut album right back at the beginning of the year. Leave With Us arrived in February, indisputably well-crafted and undeniably fully formed, delivering densely layered arrangements that exist in an abrasive rock space, but that never sacrifice melody along the way. Debut single “Universes and Supernovas (The Ride)” set out the band’s stall in its up tempo blast of squally punk attitude, bolted on to a melodic hook that is, well, supernova in size.
Later in the year “Claustrophobia” proved that SERVERS were also capable of off-kilter alternative beauty in the vein of, say, Soundgarden’s cross-over smash “Black Hole Sun.” Collaborator Mark Latham served up an astonishing video to accompany it, too. But it was Leave With Us’ central epic “Dangerous Devotion” that lingered longest in the heart and mind, building in stature through its early verse and chorus until, in one fell swoop, it knocked us off our feet with its string laden coda, melting our faces along the way.
As if that wasn’t enough, the album was meaty of lyric, too. “[Leave With Us] took a dark lyrical context from conversations in the band and an interest in the subservient nature of people, and how cults or individuals can hold such a power over certain people, to the point of killing others or themselves for a cause. It’s both fascinating and terrifying,” said SERVERS in recent interview with Skin Back Alley. Well quite. Add in their post-millennial image of dark, hooded figures lurking in the murky shadows, and SERVERS proved that they were the real deal, here to stay. As Skin Back Alley was wont to say in our album review: “Both future vision AND past nightmare, Leave With Us is a stunning debut album, and in this time of crisis creation, SERVERS are surely the UK’s finest new rock and metal hope.”
Find out more at: Serversband.co.uk
2. King 810 – Memoirs Of A Murderer
If one thing was certain during 2014, it was that everyone in the rock and metal community had an opinion about King 810’s debut, Memoirs Of A Murderer, most of them seemingly negative. It only took a few moments of searching the net to unearth vast swathes of rubbish written about the crew from Flint, Michigan, who made a heavy, groove-laden, monumental metal racket, spitting lyrics that concerned gun crime, death, the downtrodden and dispossessed, hard lives and even harder hearts.
But accusations of bravado and the glamorising of murder and guns were, to these ears, hugely wide of the mark. Memoirs… certainly does not exist to shout “Look at me! Aren’t I clever and cool with a gun in my pocket!” As Skin Back Alley noted in its piece on the LP, the album “…does not boast or beautify. No, this album is run through with dread, fear, regret, the hardening of hearts and the sure knowledge that to be prepared and carry a gun is to become something less than human at the same time as being the only way to survive.”
Frontman and chief songwriter David Gunn revealed himself to be a master poet and lyricist in his missives which were presented as if they were the recorded memoirs of the album’s title, and an expert in delivering them in shocking, vivid, venomous and brilliantly realised vignettes. If defined as something creative that gets under your skin and makes you reconsider your world view, then Memoirs Of A Murderer proved itself to be nothing short of art.
Find out more at: King810.com
3. The Birds Of Satan – The Birds Of Satan
By the time November of this year rolled around, the world of rock was all about one band. You couldn’t open a magazine, navigate to a website or switch on HBO without hearing mention of Sonic Highways, the new album (and documentary series) from Foo Fighters. But whilst Skin Back Alley remained ever so slightly underwhelmed by Grohl & Co’s eighth LP, it was his stick wielding colleague, drummer Taylor Hawkins, who delivered the real rock gold back in April.
Teaming up with guitarist Mick Murphy (of My Ruin, Neanderthal and Chevy Metal fame) and bassist Wiley Hodgden (also a Chevy Metal alumnus), The Birds Of Satan delivered a boundary-hopping, rule-breaking, category-defying rock n’ roll masterpiece.
The chemistry evident on the band’s eponymous debut was undeniable, the three men (with a little help from their friends) hopping, skipping and jumping through select styles with a vintage sound that was full of unabashed joy. Murphy’s guitar wrangling was particularly impressive, providing several of the LPs high points in the tones, textures, rhythms and solos that propel the album along.
Consistently talked about in the press as a Hawkins side-project, the album felt far more substantial than that. As Skin Back Alley noted at the time of release: “…Contrary to popular belief, the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes. Take a stroll over to his aviary, however, and you might just find them there.”
The band remained fairly low-key for the rest of the year, with just fleeting live performances and a couple of TV spots on US talk show Last Call With Carson Daly. A new, non-album track “Be The Bird” slipped out with literally no warning in September, and all has been quiet on the Western front since. Nevertheless, even if this gem of a record proves to be a one-off, you make damn sure you acquaint yourself with it, and sooner rather than later.
Find out more at: Thebirdsofsatan.com
4. Matt Woods – With Love From Brushy Mountain
In a post-modern world, notions of the ‘real’ and the ‘authentic’ fall by the wayside. Thank goodness then for Matt Woods and his album With Love From Brushy Mountain, released in the Spring. Woods’ second LP delivered a rich slab of ‘real’ Americana straight from the heart of Knoxville, Tennessee, mesmerising us in the process.
“I write what is ready to come out and try to be as honest as I can about it,” says Woods of his songs. “A lot of my songs are very much based in classic Country music while others are grounded in straight forward and greasy rock’n’roll.” Yes indeed, and they always seem to arrive with wonderful results.
“If there’s a finer example of a musician bleeding on to record, we’ve yet to hear it,” we noted in our review, and whilst there is nothing brazen or flashy about Woods’ songwriting or musicianship, there is an astonishing amount of the highest quality. You may have guessed that at Skin Back Alley we very much fell in love with With Love From Brushy Mountain.
Find out more at: Therealmattwoods.com
5. Then Thickens – Deathcap At Anglezarke
On the other side of the Pennines, alternative rock magic was hard at work in the Chorley borough of Anglezarke. A sparsely populated area of Lancashire dominated by open country and a reservoir, the parish proved to be fertile ground for the imagination of Then Thickens. Their resulting debut album as a six-piece was a masterful and atmospheric slice of hazy indie-rock.
Mixing the melodic grunge stylings of the likes of Weezer with a peculiarly British sensibility, Death Cap… delivers an existential Thoreau-esque treatise on growing up in the more rural confines of contemporary England. A heady brew that takes in fuzzed-up guitar, ethereal synth, pounding drums and spectral vocals, Then Thickens’ brand of melodic, mellifluous and yet rough-hewn rock and roll stayed long in the memory.
Chief architect Jon-Lee Martin said in interview with Skin Back Alley: “The songs were kind of put together at random for the record… There wasn’t really much lineage to the choices of the songs.” And yet, serendipitously or otherwise, that overarching sense of returning to the self remained. The group have been back in the studio recently, hard at work on the follow up. We can’t wait to hear the results.
Find out more at: Facebook.com/thenthickens
6. Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray – Lean Into The Wind
A fine collection of beautifully crafted Cosmic American Music, husband and wife duo Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray’s album Lean Into The Wind seems to inhabit the very essence of the term coined by Americana pioneer Gram Parsons.
Both emotionally and politically charged, the music on display runs the gamut from Byrdsian psychedelic jangle, through Appalachian folk textures, past a raucous garage clatter and on to greasier, rockier ground.
“Don’t you cast your eyes down,” implores Miss Shevaughn in album closer “Brush The Dust Off (Lean Into The Wind)”, “Don’t you heed what they say…. Darlin’ you need somewhere to fly. Lean into the wind, we gotta’ keep movin’.”
“It might be natural to wonder who she is singing to following a diagnosis of cervical cancer in January 2013. Is it us, or herself?” we wondered in our review. In the end it didn’t really matter, for here are artists who know what it means to follow your dreams regardless of what may be around the corner.
Find out more at: Missshevaughnyumawray.com
7. Marmozets – The Weird & Wonderful Marmozets
The sheer breadth and depth of talent bursting out of Yorkshire and rampaging across the globe this year was phenomenal. In at the heavier end of the vibrant spectrum were Marmozets. Weird & Wonderful? You can count on it. The band’s debut album, released via Roadrunner later in the year, was rightly seized upon by the major music press as a remarkable slab of molten maths metal, rife with huge, crackling stop-start riffs and the agile stylings of frontwoman Becca McIntyre, who proved perfectly capable of shifting between splenetic rage one moment and soaring melody the next.
If anyone had anything contrary to say about the LP it was that it seemed ever so slightly more tame than Marmozets’ legendary live shows that they had been laying on for years prior to being scooped up by a major. But to these ears that mattered not one jot, as it simply refined their sound and showed that the northern upstarts were capable of painting a broad and complex canvas that fired the imagination as much as the heart and hips.
Find out more at: Marmozets.co.uk
8. Cloud Atlas – Beyond The Vale
Far from being a long extinct dinosaur from a forgotten age, progressive rock proved that in 2014 it is alive, well and still exploring music’s fantastic and expansive outer reaches in fine style. Proof of the fact came in the debut album from Cloud Atlas, the York based band that rose like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of previous outfit Stolen Earth.
Questing to realise her singular vision with her own band, head honcho Heidi Widdop set her controls for the heart of the sun, delivering an epic set of songs that tackled subjects metaphorical and philosophical, set against a backdrop of sublime instrumentation from guitarist Martin Ledger, Dave Randall on keys, Stuart Carver on bass and Neil Scott on percussion.
At the forefront of all this was Widdop herself, her astonishing vocals holding the whole thing together like a female version of Soundagarden’s Chris Cornell: all guttural and gritty power combined with exquisite and expert control. Elegantly simple in sound but achingly complex in scope, Beyond The Vale was a real highlight of the latter part of the year.
Find out more at: Cloudatlas.org.uk
9. Machine Head – Bloodstone & Diamonds
Alarm bells began to ring earlier this year when Bay Area veterans Machine Head announced that they were cancelling tour dates in order to spend more time in the studio refining their new album. Mainman Robb Flynn talked in terms of knowing that the band had something special and wanting to ensure that it got the attention it deserved. Nevertheless, journos and public alike were wont to wonder.
As it transpired, doubters needn’t have worried. On its release, Bloodstone & Diamonds proved to be something of a mainstream metal instant classic, bringing together everything that Machine Head have done so well for over two decades.
Punishing riffs and gargantuan grooves abounded across the album’s running time, alongside more experimental touches and textures, combining to deliver an immensely satisfying whole that deserved every plaudit it received.
“This is the finest mainstream metal album of 2014 by a huge margin” wrote seasoned metal scribe Dom Lawson in his Guardian review. Agreed, Dominic. Agreed.
Find out more at: Machinehead1.com
10. Acrania – Totalitarian Dystopia
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” wrote George Orwell in his literary classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And now, thanks to the UK’s extreme metal crew Acrania, you know what that future sounds like.
Not for the faint of heart, Totalitarian Dystopia does exactly what it says on the tin, tackling head-on the theme of a totalitarian state endlessly and needlessly crushing the individuality and freedom out of every human soul with unimpeded impunity.
As loud as an erupting volcano, as heavy as a planet and as dense as a black hole, anyone who listened was likely left a gibbering wreck, but the ride proved as thrilling as it did bruising. For those with a taste for the far reaching extremes of heavy music, there was no finer example released this year.
Find out more at: Facebook.com/acraniauk
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Honourable mentions need to go to those albums that have been sitting just outside of our Top 10, but have nevertheless made a significant impression over the past 12 months and spent a great deal of time on the Skin Back Alley stereo:
Distorted Harmony and their brilliant LP Chain Reaction have kept us in contemporary prog rapture for a large part of the year; Amaranthe delivered the best album of their career in Massive Addictive, which did exactly what it said on the tin; Sanctorum’s new full length Old Ghosts/New Wars served up a thrashtastic slice of metal that got its full roadtest on tour with My Ruin in August; Million Empire’s new EP The Lion Tamer proved to be a brilliant slice of alt-rock from Brum; Christina Rubino crafted a life-affirming work of singer-songwriter genius in her (A)Live From The Scrapheap LP which will be the subject of a future article here at SBA; Gandalf’s Fist created Jim Henson’s Labyrinth in prog-rock form with their woodland fantasy A Forest Of Fey; Matty Rockville harked back to prime-era 90’s REM with his gem of a record Chestnut Ave; Sister Sin’s fifth studio album Black Lotus had us pumping fists and playing air guitar like we were in Skid Row; Black Veil Brides’ self titled new release had us praising their songcraft and Bob Rock’s production to all who would listen; Nikki Lane’s All Or Nothin’, John Kilzer’s Hide Away and M.Lockwood Porter’s 27 had us drinking at the well of Americana that somehow never seems to dry up; and finally Panic Room’s new album Incarnate had us soaring on the wings of Anne Marie Helder’s wonderful voice and new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan’s extraordinary solos.