Skin Back Alley’s Top Albums of 2015

SBA AOTY 2015

I could try and write a lengthy summary of the year in music that was 2015 here, but let’s just get straight down to it, shall we?

What follows is the list of the 25 albums that Skin Back Alley considers the best of the year. These are the albums that have moved us, stayed with us, grown on us, blown our heads off at first listen or revealed their beautiful secrets over a longer period of time. All of them are damn fine.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that some of these releases were described and marketed as EPs during the previous 12 months. That said, we’ve worked using the definition of an album as containing four or more tracks and/or lasting more than 25 minutes. Each and every release in our run-down meets those criteria, so there ya’ go, no trolling now.

Feast your eyes. More importantly, feast your ears. Then be sure to let us know which you agree with, which you would fling out of the nearest window, and which no doubt awesome albums we’ve missed during the year.

Enjoy.

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Agent Fresco - Destrier cover1. Agent Fresco – Destrier
Iceland’s Agent Fresco are a band working hard at the sustained peak of their artistic powers. Debut album A Long Time Listening marked the group out as ones to watch; a cohesive unit creating a unique and uncompromising kind of rock music, and one that has built an intensely devoted fan base that reaches beyond the boundaries of their homeland, despite the commercial challenges of physically travelling beyond those same borders.
They really are a band that defy categorisation, the ‘progressive’ tag just one of many that Agent Fresco get lumbered with, and yet one that somehow does not truly manage to encompass all the elements of pop, rock, post-rock, metal, electronic, jazz and classical that they successfully incorporate into their inspired and inspiring music.
Essentially the sound of a man navigating his emotional response to being the victim of an act of physical violence, Agent Fresco’s second studio album drew upon frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson’s street assault for inspiration, an event that left him bloodied, battered and with a broken eye socket. As the man himself told Skin Back Alley in interview earlier this year when discussing the album’s title (the name of a medieval warhorse): “Well, very simply put, this album acts as my Destrier. It was created to confront destructive emotions such as anger and angst. I just really wanted to explore that battle within and the Destrier just felt like a perfect, beautiful and powerful metaphor for this process and album.”
And so it proved to be. For all its emotional exploration of anger, angst and anxiety, Destrier was also an album of great hope and positivity, musical director Tóti’s instrumental work coming from a place of pure inspiration and creation, and holding in tension and balance the more destructive forces at work in the words of Arnór Dan.
Incorporating brooding piano lamentation and sinister synths, crushingly heavy guitar breakdowns, syncopated riffing and unsettling, off-kilter time signatures, the beauty of Agent Fresco’s Destrier was in its ability to fuse such seemingly disparate styles into such an organic, dynamic and engaging whole. A masterclass in the possibilities that remain within the world of rock music today, Agent Fresco and Destrier were in a class all of their own in 2015.

Iron Maiden Book Of Souls cover2. Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls
When news broke in the summer that Iron Maiden would release their new album in the autumn, the world of metal lost its collective mind. A new LP from the world’s biggest metal band was reason enough for excitement, but The Book Of Souls was no ordinary collection of songs even by Maiden’s ridiculously high standards. Not only was it the band’s first new material in five years, but it would also be their first studio double-album and contain the longest song the band had ever committed to tape in the Bruce Dickinson-penned “Empire Of The Clouds.”
When it finally landed, the music did not disappoint. From the more traditional Iron Maiden signature gallops of “Speed Of Light” and “Death Or Glory”, through to the twitchy progressive rhythms of “Tears Of A Clown” and on to the highly impressive aforementioned “Empire…”, The Book Of Souls quickly cemented itself as a bona-fide double classic and the best thing that the band had recorded since ’88’s canonical heavy metal landmark, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
Add to this the extraordinary back-story of frontman Dickinson fighting and winning a battle with cancer of the tongue during the first half of the year, and the album seemed like even more of a triumph. Next year we’ll all get to hear how huge it sounds live as Iron Maiden circumnavigate the globe on The Book Of Souls World Tour in their equally huge customised 747 jet, Ed Force One, piloted by Dickinson himself. “Up The Irons!” indeed.

Nightwish Endless Forms Cover 640x6403. Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Over in the corner of symphonic metal, bigger really did mean better in 2015. Endless Forms Most Beautiful was Nigthwish’s first album with new vocalist Floor Jansen and the permanent addition of multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. It was also the band’s most ambitious work of their career, inspired by evolutionary biology and culminating in a 24 minute suite titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” that featured spoken-word passages from Richard Dawkins and the full might of the London Symphony Orchestra. The grandeur of the music was entirely on point with the themes of the mysteries of universal science, nature and a timely reminder that Earth’s and our own very existence is one enormous cosmic crap shoot. Far from despairing though, Nightwish mastermind Tuomas Holopainen found beauty and majesty in the ideas contained within and delivered them in electrifying fashion.

Bring_Me_The_Horizon_Thats_The_Spirit4. Bring Me The Horizon – That’s The Spirit
Upon its release much was made of the softening of Bring Me The Horizon’s metallic edges on That’s The Spirit. It’s true to say that the electronic, melodic and, yes, pop elements of the band’s sound were front and centre of this brilliantly realised album, but there was no sense of Oli Sykes and co. trying to follow outside trends or piss on their metal roots. In it’s thematic and sonic coherence, it felt more like an organic culmination of this ridiculously hard-working group’s efforts to cement their sound and grow in to their own skins. Emotional, cathartic, both excoriating and yet beautiful, That’s The Spirit sounded very much like the definitive mainstream rock album of 2015.

Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase Cover 640x6335. Steven Wilson – Hand.Cannot.Erase
When Steven Wilson revealed that he was putting his band, Porcupine Tree, to one side for the foreseeable future, some corners of the rock, metal and prog scenes cried out in dismay. They need not have worried as Wilson’s solo career in the years since has produced an embarrassment of riches, including this year’s sublime album, Hand.Cannot.Erase. Inspired by the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, who lay dead in her apartment for nearly three years before anyone realised, the album explores themes of alienation, detachment, loss and the anonymity of modernity against a rich musical soundscape that draws on rock, electronica and orchestral arrangements to deliver a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty. A prolific producer and musician, Wilson has already confirmed that his next album, 4 1/2, will be out in January.

the-river6. Zero She Flies – The River
Releasing “Small Mercy” (their debut single as a band) in May, Zero She Flies were back just a few short weeks later in the summer with The River, a stunning collection of electronica-tinged, ambient-inflected folk rock featuring a set of songs all themed around water. Anchored by the crystalline tones of singer Maria Milewska, the music drew on a wonderful array of instruments including keyboards, flute, 6 and 12 string guitars, cor anglais, oboe, recorders and double bass to deliver a highly evocative set that was as hypnotising as it was transporting. Building on the core quartet of Milewska, Jamie Field, Wendy Marks and Shane Webb, guest spots from Jonathan Edwards, John Pearce, Hannah Simons and Robert Kelly rounded out proceedings and left our appetites whetted and wanting more.


Meleches - Enki album cover7. Melechesh – Enki
From the moment that lead single “Lost Tribes” appeared early in 2015, it was clear that Assyrian extreme metallers Melechesh were about to serve up something extraordinary in their new album, Enki. When it did arrive, the band’s sixth full length collection evoked the very qualities of the LP’s namesake, the Sumerian god of craft, creation, water, wisdom and mischief, who mythology tells us also saved humanity from the Deluge sent to kill us by Enki’s half-brother Enlil. A raging river of Middle-Eastern themed black-metal, the songs rode high on an all-conquering wave of dynamic groove that laid waste to all before it. The likes of “Tempest Temper Enlil Enraged” and “Enki – Divine Nature Awoken” delivered epic and atmospheric blasts of sagacity, roaring out of the desert like a vicious and vengeful deity. The album set the bar high for the rest of the year.

Periphery Juggernaut Alpha_Omega8. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha & Omega
Intricate, jazzy and dense, Periphery delivered the one-two suckerpunches of their mighty double album, Juggernaut back in January. Split into two distinct sections, Alpha and Omega, the 80+ minutes of music saw Misha Mansoor and co. break out of their restrictive djent mold and move more squarely into contemporary progressive metal territory. By Periphery’s previous standards, Juggernaut concentrated a little more on story, mood and atmospherics, rather than technical complexity for its own sake. That said, it took many-a-listen before the themes and patterns became clear, particularly given that Periphery themselves seemed reluctant to discuss the specifics. Nevertheless, for those who wanted meat on the bones of their metal, Periphery were more than happy to deliver their most fully-rounded work to-date and let the fans explore in the weeks that followed.

Vintage Curses cover9. Tairrie B – Vintage Curses
Before her 20 year, highly-acclaimed career as a screaming metal potentate in her band My Ruin, Tairrie B. Murphy blazed a trail in the world of West Cost rap and hip hop, recording skillful slabs of seditious word-play for N.W.A. lynchpin Eazy E’s Ruthless Records imprint, Comptown Records. In 2015 Tairrie returned to the old school with a proverbial bang, dropping a new solo rap album, Vintage Curses, in August. Big beats (including live instrumentation from husband and co-producer Mick Murphy), inspired samples, fiery poetry and a wholly undiminished flow delivered a collection of songs of otherworldly energy that was spellbinding in its intensity. Wordslinger, truth-bringer, multi-faceted and mercurial maven, on Vintage Curses Tairrie B almost single-handedly brought the heart back to hip hop, paying respect to those who came before, and laying the groundwork for those who will surely follow.


Lindi-Ortega-Faded-Gloryville10. Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville
A Canadian of Irish-Mexican descent, Lindi Ortega has been releasing the finest goth-rock-country music from the fringes of the country scene since her Last Gang Records debut, Little Red Boots, in 2011. With new record Faded Gloryville, it felt as though 2015 might finally be the year in which the singer and songwriter crossed over into the mainstream consciousness. The album contained some of Ortega’s finest work, garnering a hugely positive response from both fans and critics alike, and Ortega’s self-aware vignettes such as “I Ain’t the Girl” and “Run-Down Neighborhood” painted engrossing pictures of characters existing on the margins, accepting themselves and their own skins with grit, determination and wry humour. Stripping the genre of its sentimental hoke, Faded Gloryville nevertheless gave us an authentic country record that it was a delight to rally behind.

Diemonds Never Wanna Die cover11. Diemonds – Never Wanna Die
Diemonds have always played a straight-up, no frills, balls-out brand of hard rock and have never apologised for doing so. And nor should they. Bringing some contemporary touches to their classic sound, the band bolted together huge riffs, driving beats and a snarling rock n’ roll attitude on this, their third studio album and first for new home Entertainment One. From the first salvo – the cathartic emotional blast of “Over It” – onward, Never Wanna Die delivered everything the band are known and loved for, just sounding a little bigger and better than before. As frontwoman Priya Panda belts out during the album’s closing track: “Here’s to the misfits / We are the ones that keep it alive / Let’s raise our voices / I’m sent here to save your life.” Quite.

Baroness Purple cover12. Baroness – Purple
It seems that 2015 really has been a year for triumph over adversity. By the band’s own admission, Baroness’ devastating bus crash in 2012 loomed large over Purple. In its wake, some band members quit altogether, whilst others soldiered on, months of recovery and chronic pain seeping in to the process of healing and the music itself. It’s a wonder to behold, then, that Purple represents nothing short of the most rich and absorbing work that the band have ever recorded. Sounding more expansive and melodic than before, Baroness have essentially distilled down the sonic progression they made on sprawling double album Yellow & Green into its essential, still sludge-tinged core. The ebb and flow of tracks like “Morningstar”, “Chlorine & Wine” and “Shock Me” helped to build a remarkable album that, despite its traumatic gestation, moved forward with an overriding sense of positivity and release.

James Taylor Before This World13. James Taylor – Before This World
“I’m not smart enough for this life I’ve been livin’, a little bit slow for the pace of the dream,” lamented James Taylor in lead single “Montana”, taken from his new album, Before This World. Taylor’s bewitching, keenly observed poetry musing upon life, love and the expanse of the universe suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, nothing about the album suggested that the singer and songwriter was being disingenuous, rather he seemed simply to be reflecting on the beauty of the world around him and wondering at the fact that he is still around to make music in the way only James Taylor can (“Somehow I haven’t died”, he observed in the up-tempo “Today Today Today.”) A little nostalgia could certainly be forgiven then on this first collection of new songs in 13 years, as Taylor proved that it was definitely worth the wait.

Sometimes I Sit And Think cover14. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
In 2015 Aussie alt-rock troubadour Courtney Barnett solidified her reputation for brilliant, insightful, witty and literary observation, raising the most mundane aspects of human life to the level of Shakespearean tragi-comedy. Like her previous collection, The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit set the darkly comic poetry against a spiky backdrop of squally and memorable guitar-driven rock n’ roll. Her songs typically lampooning numerous targets and operating on a number of levels, mini-masterpieces such as “Pedestrian At Best” were self-lacerating, whilst at the same time poking fun at Barnett’s external critics. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she sang. On this evidence, Courtney, not bloody likely.

WELLHUNGHEART_EP_COVER-Web300px15. Well Hung Heart – Well Hung Heart
LA alt-rock never sounded in such rude health during 2015 as on Well Hung Heart’s self-titled release. The California-based band’s single and accompanying video “Throw It All Away” seemed to embody what Well Hung Heart were all about. Spiky, punchy, memorable and bouncing along on an up-tempo beat, the track brought together the best elements of rock and pop, infused it with a touch of grunge and then mixed in a guitar breakdown the likes of which Rage Against The Machine would have been proud of. They then topped it all off with the incendiary vocals of frontwoman Greta Valenti and blew our collective, sun-drenched minds. Valenti may have capped the year with a Star Wars inspired nerdcore side project, The Rebel Scumbags, but it was here in Well Hung Heart that she and her bandmates forged our ongoing fandom.

Tesseract-Polaris-Album-Cover16. TesseracT – Polaris
TesseacT’s third studio album saw the band teasing out ambience and atmosphere and paring back some of the more thunderous elements of their sonic pallette. The result was perhaps the most satisfying body of songs the band have recorded. TesseracT lynchpin and guitarist Acle Kahney pointed to the greater involvement of friend and live sound engineer Aidan O’Brien as being a key influence on TesseracT’s sonic evolution, but the return of vocalist Daniel Tompkins also played a part. Whatever the driving forces behind TesseracT’s forward march, Polaris turned out to be an album of coherence, power and great beauty, as evidenced on the likes of tracks “Tourniquet”, “Hexes” and album closer “Seven Names.”

Iwrestledabearonce-Hail-Mary17. Iwrestledabearonce – Hail Mary
Rife with thundering blast beats, intricate guitar work and the heart-stopping roar of vocalist Courtney LaPlante, Hail Mary did to the Nth degree what Iwrestledabearonce do best, namely confound expectations and defy genres with a gnarly mix of death metal, hardcore, electro and jazz tropes, all bound up with a healthy dose of black humour. Jarring changes in pace, lead guitar lines that sounded like a thousand nails scraping down a blackboard and lounge-like passages of melodic music that were so blissed-out they made you want to sleep kept the synapses firing throughout every listen to this hybrid mongrel of a record that was as thrilling and jaw-dropping as it was discombobulating. A unique and genuine highlight of the year.

Stoneghost - New Age Of Old Ways cover18. Stoneghost – New Age Of Old Ways
Grab yourself a fucking huge melting pot. Add two parts groove metal to one part metallic grunge. Throw in a pinch of sludge and a soupçons of sunset strip guitar riffery. Mix well then leave to boil in the raging fires of Hades. Result? The towering debut album from London’s fast-rising metal stars Stoneghost. A collection of songs that sounded very different to what most of their contemporaries were doing stood Stoneghost in good stead when New Age Of Old Ways dropped in April. “Faceless Ghost”, “Devil’s Motion” and “Raynardine” were all prime examples of why this band have a very bright future ahead of them. With a lot of hard work and a little luck it’s not too hard to imagine Stoneghost developing in to one of the UK’s heavy music finest.

Sylosis Dormant Heart19. Sylosis – Dormant Heart
That Sylosis’ Dormant Heart stuck long in the heart and mind in spite of it’s January release date speaks volumes about the quality of the music the band recorded for their fifth full length. Slowing things down just a little when compared to previous releases, the album managed to find an electrifying sweet spot somewhere in the middle of the metalcore, melodic death and thrash metal that Sylosis have explored through their output to date. Technically thrilling but always accessible, the likes of “Where The Wolves Come To Die”, “Victims And Pawns”, “Leech” and “Harm” delivered a career-high collection that moved the band beyond their metallic hardcore beginnings and in to a hugely promising, more progressive place.

Kowloon Walled City - Grievances cover20. Kowloon Walled City – Grievances
A post-metal howl exploring the disassociation brought upon humanity by industrialised monotony, Kowloon Walled City’s Grievances could be, in many ways, the raging, mechanical little brother of Steven Wilson’s next-gen-technology minded Hand.Cannot.Erase. Brash, noisy and yet littered with hints of melody, Grievances is somehow full of wiry, blustery wrath, and yet manages to maintain an economic, melancholy minimalism. “No love, no memory, just admit it,” intones mainman Scott Evans on the album’s high point, “The Grift”, and yet Grievances inspires the former and lingers in the latter. “Our band is a living breathing thing. It’s not a franchise. So yeah, let’s get going and see where we end up,” said Evans in recent interview. We can’t wait to see where that is.

Brainwashed While She Sleeps21. While She Sleeps – Brainwashed
It wasn’t all that long ago that it looked very much like the game might have been up for Sheffield metalcore outfit While She Sleeps. Following a debut album that was lapped up by fans and critics alike in This Is The Six, throat problems, cancelled gigs and vocalist Loz Taylor ultimately going in to hospital for vital throat surgery meant the band were laid dangerously low right at the moment that they should have been riding high. Fortunately for all concerned, Taylor made a full recovery and While She Sleeps returned, rough, ready and firing on all cylinders with new album, Brainwashed. From THAT riff in the title track on down, the album was a triumphant return that put any lingering doubts and fears to rest.

Ghost Meliora cover22. Ghost – Meliora
Maintaining the air of mystery and intrigue surrounding the band (Who are these ‘nameless ghouls’? Have they really been through three lead-singers, or is it all just a carefully crafted ruse?), Ghost returned in 2015 with the unsettling majesty of their third studio album, Meliora. An intoxicating mix of dark melancholy, ethereal spirit and stately metal, the LP was a masterful collection that cemented the band’s reputation for delivering brilliant music as well as upholding their striking image. Ghost will hopefully be bringing tracks such as “Cirice”, “From The Pinnacle To The Pit” and “He Is” to dramatic life when they return to the UK in March of 2016 for a very special one-off show at London’s Palladium Theatre.

Parkway Drive Ire23. Parkway Drive – Ire
“Now snap your neck to this!” implored Parkway Drive frontman Winston McCall towards the end of Ire album track “Bottom Feeder.” Fans of contemporary metal needed no further reason to do just that on the back of the best album of Parkway Drive’s career. The Antipodean outfit’s fifth full-length moved the band beyond their metalcore roots and placed them firmly in the modern heavy metal firmament, delivering bludgeoning riffs, scintillating guitar lines, thrilling rhythmic shifts and more mosh power than most could handle. On the cusp of destroying their southern hemisphere leash, global domination surely awaits.

Mark Edgar Stuart - Trinity My Dear24. Mark Edgar Stuart – Trinity My Dear
Circling a sweet spot occupied by the likes of American greats such as John Prine, Randy Newman and Vic Chesnutt, Mark Edgar Stuart’s second solo album, Trinity My Dear, was a delightful showcase for the man’s skilled song-writing and musicianship. Exploring life, love and disappointment in exquisitely observed detail, spritely shuffles and heart-rending melodies the album was both sad and deeply, darkly humorous. A personal and intimate collection (“A lot of it deals with some stuff me and my wife were going through at the time,” said Stuart), like the best writing, it also had a timeless, universal quality that made it completely accessible.


Rock Formation EP cover25. Neanderthal – Rock Formation
Screw the rock mainstream, we’ll keep the extraordinary talents of guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mick Murphy for ourselves, thank you very much. The mainstay of My Ruin, The Birds Of Satan and this year’s who’s-who of punk, rock and metal, Teenage Time Killers, Murphy somehow found the time to write, record and release this mind-melting new collection of instrumentals under his Neanderthal moniker. Free of rules, regulations or large record labels, Rock Formation showed Murphy in full, joyful flight, delivering the kind of jaw-dropping, ideas-led guitar music that you simply don’t come across very often in rock music today. In interview with Skin Back Alley earlier this year, Murphy himself summed it up thus: “[The EP] …has an adventurous spirit like the music I made in my youth. It’s the most musically dynamic and it has the best sound quality of any Neanderthal album so far. It’s a strong batch of unique songs and I’m really stoked about it.” We couldn’t agree more.


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Of course honourable mentions need to go to those albums that sit just outside of our top 25 for the year, but that provided us with many hours of unbridled musical joy nevertheless.

They include: Von Hertzen Brothers with New Day Rising; Holly Herndon and her extraordinary electronic soundscape Platform; Mieke with her self-titled debut EP; Michael Monroe’s glam-punk highlight Blackout States; Jason Isbell and his new solo album Something More Than Free; Joni Fuller and her corking new EP Letters from the West Coast; Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation’s psych-tinged album Horse Dance; Gazpacho and their potentially world-ending album Molok; Riverside’s sublime collection of new songs Love, Fear and the Time Machine; The Decoy and their gravity defying EP Parasites; The one and only supergroup that really mattered this year, Teenage Time Killers and their debut album Greatest Hits Vol.1; UK stalwarts Thunder and their classic return to form Wonder Days; AWOLNATION and their industrial-tinged alt-rock sophomore LP Run; Aussie metalcore outfit Feed Her To The Sharks and their banger of an album Fortitude; Laura Marling and her new album Short Movie; Yorkshire’s very own Fear Lies and their debut album Elements, along with their fellow Yorkshiremen Of Allies and their EP Fragments; Derby hard rockers Eva Plays Dead delighted with their EP Sounds Of The Written Word; B. Dolan’s brilliant Kill The Wolf LP stuck on the stereo for quite some time, as did Suze DeMarchi’s new solo album Home; Brandon Flowers’ The Desired Effect was an engaging follow-up to previous solo album Flamingo; there was much to recommend Butcher Babies’ new album Take It Like A Man; Gary Clarke Jr’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim was something to behold; Halestorm came back very strongly with career best Into The Wild Life; Finally, singer and songwriter Julia Holter had us all beguiled with her new release Have You In My Wilderness. If you pushed us to choose our favourite re-release of the year, it would certainly be The Replacements’ The Complete Studio Albums: 1981-1990, so there.

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Skin Back Alley’s Top Albums of 2014

SBA Top Albums Of 2014-001

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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servers_leave_with_us1. 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

King 810 Memoirs Cover2. 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

Birds Of Satan3. 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

Matt Woods - Brushy Full Size4. 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

Then Thickens - Death Cap at Anglezarke5. 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

Miss Shevaughn - LITW6. 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

Marmozets Cover7. 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

Cloud Atlas Beyond The Vale Cover8. 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

Machine Head Bloodstone and Diamonds9. 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

Acrania-Totalitarian-Dystopia10. 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.

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