2016 – A Retrospective

2016. A retrospective.

After a harrowing year in 2015 for my family and myself, 2016 was a chance for a refresh. A year of opportunities and discovery. I set myself some goals:

I will release music on my own. Music free from band politics, no personal differences to overcome. Music for myself. I set myself the goal of writing more, for myself and for the practice and to develop my skills.

I will learn another language. Spanish is pretty common, so it looks an ideal place to start. According to Duolingo I’ve hovering at about 25% fluency at the time of writing.

I will write. I will write with purpose. I will write for the sake of writing. I will write for the sake of developing the skills and muscle memory. I will write for happiness and personal growth and development.

During 2016 Joseph James of Will Not Fade contacted me. He reached out to me and asked if I’d contribute content to his blog. Joseph provided me with some tunes and validation. Validation that at least someone was reading and even better they liked it. Cheers for that Joseph, it has been a welcome nudge.

Over the course of the year, I built on a nascent interest in writing. I’d always enjoyed the mechanics and psychology information gathering. It’s my opinion that everybody should have a basic understanding of interview and research skills. They are such useful and transferable skills to many aspects of life.

At its purest level, writing can be the deliberate way of capturing thoughts. A way to reach into a different part of the brain, to find how the subconscious feels about things. Writing becomes the point of release for internal dialogue. Writing can be the process for capturing an idea, from a nothing and evolve into a fully-fledged idea.

Writing is this magical development in humanity. Humans were able to gain many lifetimes worth of knowledge through reading, not practice.

Writing is a cheap and easy vice. You can do it anywhere and at any time. Reading the writing of others and finding their rhythm and tempo, finding their tone. Writing like music, the same thought will vary so much depending on the author.

I aim to write as if I’m writing to my best friends. Sharing the same passion, excitement and disdain in my writing that I would face to face.

I’ve set for myself the goal to listen to and review a band from every country and build a map. A project to open me up to the world.

I appreciate the fact that I am able to write. I had two teachers for parents, so reading and writing were part of the routine from an early age. Now I’m fortunate to be able to write my thoughts on music on the internet. For this, I am truly grateful.

Music as a pillar.

Music has always been a part of my life. From an early age, I attended the local conservatorium. I took lessons in a plethora of instruments; recorder, clarinet, piano, vocals, and bass. I took bass lessons for a few months before taking a break and immersing myself. Years later I resumed lessons and within a few months, I was teaching guitar and bass. I went on to study music at University, debatably a waste of time, but an experience none the less.

Music is a social connector, coping mechanism, primal unexplained urge. From bedrooms, basements, boardrooms to stadiums. Music can be the foundation for relationships. Music can be the common thread that binds people together, in love and friendship. Music can be the vehicle to leave behind a life of struggle. Music can be the most beautiful free transaction there is. Algorithms generate music based on analysis of what people like. The spectrum of music is immense.

People invest billions of dollars a year and tens of thousands of hours of their lives to vibrations and air. After all, music is air being manipulated in the most pleasing of ways.

Sharing and discovering music is part of what makes us human.

We make social bonds around a campfire with a guitar. We share a glance at the person next to you at a packed stadium show when you know the chorus is coming. We share the joyous expectations your favourite artists are recording a new album. We share the nervous first listen of an album or song, it always makes me anxious. We all share the experience of a song weaving its way into the fabric of your life.

Music as memories.

Certain songs take me to specific memories. The video game Final Fantasy 7 is in my brain forever linked with the album World Coming Down by Type O Negative. Late 80’s and early 90’s Red Hot Chili Peppers will always remind me of visiting my friend Wes’s house. His brother giving me Faith No More’s Album of the Year because it wasn’t funky enough for him, thank you Jono. That album is 20 years old this year, it’s still a regular listen.

The New Normal by Cog and Themata by Karnivool, forever linked with my University years and friends. Listening ad nauseum to them for years and watching each band at least a dozen times as they toured the east coast.

U2’s Rattle and Hum invokes the memory of sitting in my parent’s house at my keyboard. The blinds closed and the dim red light in the horrid brown lamp playing along as best I could. Aged no more than age 5 or 6 and I’m sure it sounded terrible. Exactly what you would expect from a $100 Casio keyboard on patch #23 or #26. A child who was still years away from piano lessons yet felt like he was there at Red Rocks with the band.

Listening to all the classic of my teenage years, driving with my gig family from Wollongong to Sydney. Rook, Butterfly Effect, MM9, Jericco, Sleep Parade, et al. Bands worthy of the drive to the city and arriving home at 2 am back in Wollongong to back up for work the next morning. Such incredible memories, with incredible people.

Would I remember these memories without the music attached to them? I don’t remember many dull drives, yet I remember most of these. Music lives on. I hope that I’ll continue to link new memories with new music and be able to get all nostalgic when I hear these old songs.

An eventful year that it was.

2016 was a year of reassessment. A year of firsts. A year of highs and lows. A year I learned I was going to be a father. A year of friendships, old and new. A year of death and new life. It’s only fitting that my soundtrack for it is the same.

Over the last year Pandora, Google Play, and Spotify were all new means (to me) for discovering music. Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist and the competitor’s variants provided me with algorithm-based recommendations. Some songs were great and stuck, others fell short. That’s what I expected when they throw 30 odd songs at you each week.

Variety is good, so is curation.

I’ve got If This Then That (IFTT) saving my weekly playlists since I sometimes go for weeks on end of not listening to them. They seem to consist of one or two new songs that I like, five to ten old songs that I already like and the rest.

Algorithmic playlists have brought me much joy over the last year. New discoveries such as We Are The Ocean, Pineapple Thief, and Truckfighter. Watching as the algorithm refines itself, each iteration a closer attempt and “knowing” me. As fantastic as it has been, it doesn’t have the same emotional bonding opportunities as sharing with humans. No big deal, as that’s an itch easily scratched. When you find a song you love on one of these services, tell that special friend who will love it. Gets me right in the feels every time. Like a musical first date, stomach all in knots…

The exchange usually runs like this:

Me: “Boy I hope they like it, I LOVE this song….”

Sends the song

Me: “It’s going to be so disappointing if they don’t like it……”

Anxiety builds

“Have they listened yet? Oh god…. they hate it!!”

Gives up

Them: “Hey, haven’t listened yet. Will soon!”

AAAGH! The waiting! The suspense!

Them: “Yeah. I dig”.

All worth it.

The soundtrack of 2016

2016 had lots of love for the warm blanket bands. New albums from perennial favourites Biffy Clyro (Great), In Flames (Too soon to say), Soilwork (not yet listened), Blink 182 (Good album, great to have them back).

I invested time in further immersing myself in the catalogues of Nils Frahm, Reuben, Cake and Weezer. Time well spent.

Some bands who I’d previously dismissed grew on me in 2016. Deftones had never captured my imagination as it did my friends. They had always been one of those bands where people said “You have to like them”, which is a surefire way for me to not like them.

Such a rebel.

Their song Passengers was my favourite, but now I have Swerve City. The secret sauce is melody. It’s not something I usually associate with Deftones. I know I was three years late on this bad boy but I dig it. It’s been one of my most listened to songs of the year.

Weezer had an appearance on the Song Exploder podcast with their song Summer Elaine and Drunk Dory. It’s a decent podcast that becomes great when you actually like the song. The secret sauce here? For me, it’s the key change, plus it’s such a fun song. Weezer has a knack of writing inoffensive yet interesting songs.

Blink 182 released a new album, California. Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio replaces substitutes Tom Delonge on guitars and vocals. I’ve not listened to Blink’s previous album Neighborhoods aside from a few songs live when they played at Soundwave. The self-titled album before that is one of the greatest pieces of pop-punk ever recorded, or even one of the best cover to cover albums in any genre. That was 13 years prior to California and much has changed. I was so nervous on first listen to the debut single. I was so confused on first listen. Then second listen, where is Matt Skiba? Is he on this song at all? Watch a live clip of the same song – “Oh, man. He’s singing half the song and I missed it. I thought that was all Mark Hoppus. Whoa, this is great”. Secret Sauce = Fun songwriting, solid recording and Travis Barker can and has drummed on ads and made them sound amazing.

Note: one of my absolute favourite people in the world was visiting at Xmas and didn’t know there was a new album. I got to have the “LOOK NEW MUSIC” rant with her and share the first listen, then days later she had immersed herself. Giving me the full track by track review – her favourite: Home Is Such A Lonely Place.

Biffy Clyro released Ellipsis. I’ve already reviewed it here, so I feel I don’t need to say much more. Friends of Enemies will be my takeaway song from this album for the year. Secret sauce = possibly being the best band in the world. I don’t say that lightly. Below is footage of them playing it to a few people at Reading.

British Theatre released Mastery. Again, I’ve already written on it and the song from this album changes pending mood. I’ll say it’s the album opener. Secret sauce = great musicians expanding their horizons without apology.

Reuben released nothing, yet they remain one of my top five most listened to artists of the year. I promise one day I’ll write a massive tome on why they are one of the greatest bands to have never really cracked the big time and why that is such a huge shame. For a song of 2016 I’ll pick Dusk (from which I lifted the earlier heading “an eventful year that it was”). Secret sauce = amazing songwriting, a sense of humour and Jamie Lenman’s voice and lyrical wit.

Jamie Lenman (of Reuben) released a double album in 2013. As the main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist in Reuben I figured I’d love his solo album. To be fair I like half of it. It’s one side of screaming, the dissonant mess that I’m sure I would have loved when I was younger. The other side is the opposite. It is exquisitely written folk/big band/acoustic songs, performed equally beautifully. The lyrics are usually the last thing I listen to in music, yet this time I paid attention the second or third listen rather than my usual 20th or 30th. The songs were written with some of the same bitter anger that was evident in many Reuben songs, but now the angry boy has grown and matured into a man. To pick a single song would be impossible so I’m cheating and going with It’s Hard to Be a Gentleman. Please note as the album was a double album, Jamie decided the videos should be too – so you’ll know when It’s Hard to Be a Gentleman ends, it’s not subtle.

Arcane Roots released their EP Heaven and Earth in 2015, but it didn’t get much rotation on my stereo until this year. They are a band who combine often stunning melodic passages with hardcore elements. Some may find singer and guitarist Andrew Groves voice grating, his note choice mixed with his unusual tone can be jarring. I find his vocals hit and miss when he screams, overlook the shortcomings. His guitar playing, songwriting, and singing are excellent. Two handed tapping or some of the riffs are hard enough to play, let alone while singing. Google “Arcane Roots Triptych live” and I’m sure you’ll agree.

Heaven and Earth is akin to a musical diary entry. Listen to a Slow Dance. Secret sauce = riffs, riffs, riffs.

Nils Frahm released a few albums in 2016. If nothing else, Frahm is a prolific collaborator and musical journeyman. 2016 saw him release; a solo piano EP, Solo Remains; Oddments of the Gamble and The Gamble with his childhood friends under the moniker Nonkeen; Ellis with Woodkid; Trance Frendz with Ólafur Arnalds. Prolific, considering the high bar he has set for himself. I’ve not listened to any of those recordings in depth as 2016 saw me focusing on his earlier works – primarily 2010’s The Bells. The secret sauce is in his amazing musicianship paired with lyrical melodic sensibility.

We Are The Ocean – ARK. Google play music is I believe how this track first came on my radar. I love it. I’ve gone through the rest of the album and nothing else grabs me with the same instant love as ARK. The singing is reminiscent of Ian Kenny from Karnivool, the playing is tight and the inclusion of a brass section raises the song from a solid generic rock song into being a fantastical soaring triumph of the genre.

Listen loud and listen often, my favourite song discovery of the year.

Failure came on to my radar for the first time in 2015. Little did I know they were a pretty big deal in the 90’s, that all happened well outside of my circles of influence at age 10. Failure came into my world via the Pledge Music mailing list. I’d supported the British Theatre and Vennart albums via the service and after months Failure being on the mailing list, one day I finally succumbed to my curiosity.

Failure were recording their first album since 1996’s Fantastic Planet – an album of critical acclaim. Having now listened I can see why.

Pledge Music allowed the band to fund their fourth album – The Heart is A Monster. It’s a great album and I’ll do a full review of it another time. Secret sauce = restraint in performance and playing, fantastic production. Check out the fantastic video and song Counterfeit Sky:

pg.lost are a band who Joseph sent through for me to check out their new album. I dug it, I recommended it to several friends, I reviewed it warmly here.

 

Big Jesus are a band who I came across one night on Bandcamp in 2013. I heard one track “Cold Fire” and bought the album – One. They were a hard band to find, that is until last year when they released their second album – Oneiric. Six of the ten tracks are newly recorded, four are legacy tracks from One. After a three-year wait between releases, I found the evolution from old to new to be minor, though I expect the songs will grow an extra leg live.

Big Jesus released this particular track in 2013 and again in 2016, I love it – it feels equal parts Type O Negative, 90’s alternative, stoner rock and refreshing originality. Heaviest Heart –

The secret sauce is the tempo and relentless drive of that riff paired with a solid clean voice.

Trade Wind is a band that snuck up on me in 2016. Comprised of members of various hard-core bands Stray From The Path, Stick To Your Guns, and StructuresTrade Wind is a more mellow output. Trade Wind is built on the quite incredible singing voice of Jesse Barnett. His voice soars above distorted chugging guitars interlaced with haunting melancholic moments of restrained atmosphere. There is a certain melancholic quality to the music. The songs are a slower tempo than what you’d expect from hard-core musicians.

I will write up a review of the two Trade Wind EPs in the future; Suffer Just to Believe (2014) and You Make Everything Disappear (2016). The secret sauce here is the powerful melodic vocals given plenty of room by the highly dynamic music.

Side note: When mixing This Is Why, we used Pulling Strings as the reference track.

The most important release for me in 2016 was Rusty Camera – This is Why. After more than ten years in bands and life getting in the way I forced myself to release something.

Is it the definition of what I aspire to sound like musically? No.

Is this song likely to make an impact? Probably not.

This song is this song the culmination of years of frustration and inability to go that final step. I hope it’s the start of finding my feet and confidence as a songwriter, musician, singer and engineer. Doing it all at home has its perks, like fitting it with my schedule. The negatives are convincing the lazy and disorganised talent that some things are best when they are imperfect.

As I wrote earlier in this post/essay, writing is the opportunity and avenue to watch ideas be born. Music works in the same way. For every song and album that I’ve had the chance to write about here – at some stage there was nothing. From nothing came something good enough to record, release and then have some random Australian guy write about them.

This is Why started as an exercise in minor thirds. Lyrics grew from whatever was on my mind that day, refined and rebuilt over and over into a semblance of a song. I have recorded it over and over, until years later it is “good enough” to release. Through mixing and mastering it, making the artwork and clicking send for the world to hear it. What a journey that song took.

What a journey 2016 was. Bring on 2017.

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