Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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With every new Radiohead release comes huge expectation. ‘OK Computer’, adored by critics and fans alike, helped define a generation of guitar music back in the 90s. Almost a decade later, the pay what you want album ‘In Rainbows’, which was described by Time Magazine as “easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business”, helped win over a whole new generation of fans and remains a personal favourite of mine to this day. Whilst its follow up album, 2011’s ‘The King of Limbs’, was distinctively average by comparison, a new album always brings an air of excitement.

In a career spanning almost a quarter of a century, the Oxfordshire band are in a luxurious position in which they can afford to do what they want and be able to get away with it. For example, just a few weeks ago they deleted their entire internet history, with profile pictures and avatars fading to white before disappearing completely (an ode to Kid A’s ‘How To Disappear Completely) sending the internet into a frenzy. Shortly after, some fans received a leaflet through the post with the words “Burn the witch, we know where you live” embroiled on them. The internet began to talk and rumours of an imminent 9th studio album were rife. Just days later, Radiohead released ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ to the world.

Drawing parallels to ‘In Rainbows’, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is built around a number of songs that have been part of the band’s live catalogue for years. Lead single and album opener ‘Burn The Witch’ dates back to recording sessions for the band’s 2003 album ‘Hail To The Thief’. The track is bold and brash with dazzling strings and a chorus that just begs to be chanted back at frontman Thom Yorke and co across the band’s intense touring schedule this summer. The pairing of ‘Decks Dark’ and ‘Desert Island Disk’ complement one another well, the former being one of the record’s stand out moments, what with its haunting gospel choir and Yorke’s compelling vocals. “There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” he sings, creating a haunting image along the way.

‘Glass Eyes’ is a beautiful acoustic number whilst ‘Present Tense’, also an album highlight, has evolved dramatically following its appearances in Yorke’s recent solo repertoire. ‘Ful Stop’ is a mesmerising example of just how versatile Radiohead can be, building throughout as Yorke’s vocals reach an almighty crescendo, whilst on ‘Identikit’ he sings “Broken hearts, make it rain”, potentially alluding to the break down of his 23 year relationship. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ is compelling, if only for its dramatic string conclusion.

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It is the album’s closing moment that is perhaps its most defining moment, a studio version of the iconic ‘True Love Waits’. The song has been a staple of the band’s live shows for years and dates back to as early as 1995. As Yorke softly sings “I’ll drown my beliefs”, over a haunting piano, shivers are sent down the spine. An iconic moment that concludes ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ in the most fitting of ways.

Radiohead’s 9th studio LP is an incredible body of work that only affirms their status as one of the greatest bands of our generation. Their versatility and attention to detail shine massively on an album that benefits from multiple listens, discovering new intricate details along the way. Whilst ‘The King of Limbs’ felt disjointed in many ways, mainly due to all its experimenting, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ feels like the whole band have contributed in their own unique way. For many fans, the inclusion of ‘True Love Waits’ as the album’s finale has raised many questions. It is their 100th LP song after all, which has led people to question what the future holds for the band. Is this Radiohead’s swan song? Is this their final goodbye? One certainly hopes not, but if it is to be, then what an incredible way to bow out in a way that only Radiohead can.

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The Strokes – Future Present Past EP

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The Strokes are arguably defined by their groundbreaking debut album ‘Is This It’. ‘Room On Fire’ was a worthy follow up, but by the time 2006’s ‘First Impressions of Earth’ came round, the band had begun to go off the boil somewhat. A hiatus soon followed, and rumours of infighting and discontent have marred the band ever since. Comeback album ‘Angles’ certainly had its moments, mainly the excellent ‘Undercover of Darkness’ but by the time fifth album ‘Comedown Machine’ was released in 2013, the band refused to tour or promote the album, almost disregarding their own work.

Three years later and The Strokes have reunited for a new EP, the aptly titled ‘Future Present Past’, which coincides with a handful of live dates the band have lined up across the summer. The new EP consists of three new tracks, ‘Drag Queen’, ‘Oblivius’ and ‘Threat of Joy’, along with a remix of ‘Oblivius’ by drummer Fabrizio Moretti. ‘Oblivius’ is very much The Strokes by numbers, and wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Is This It’, what with its futuristic guitars and frontman Julian Casablancas’ iconic vocals. ‘Drag Queen’ is very much a Strokes song for the modern age. Its electronic guitars are reminiscent of New Order whilst you can also draw comparisons to Casablancas’ most recent solo LP, 2014’s ‘Tyranny’, thanks to its isolated and distorted vocals. Final song ‘Threat of Joy’ is also a throwback to the group’s early days, not sounding too dissimilar to the likes of ‘When It Started’ and ‘Someday’.

There is no doubt that the New York based quintet’s ability to write a great collection of songs remains and whilst musically ‘Future Present Past’ is very good, it would appear that The Strokes’ publicised dysfunctional relationships with one another are now spilling over into their music. Whilst there are no concrete plans to follow up this EP with a full length studio album, when asked the question about plans for a new LP in a recent interview, Casablancas replied “if the collective will can be summoned and caroused”. Not necessarily the definitive  answer Strokes fans were hoping for, but a glimmer of hope, at least, that the band can one day put their differences aside and make an album that challenges the legendary ‘Is This It’. We can all dare to dream, can’t we?

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Rihanna – Anti

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Home to possibly the worst album campaign for some time, Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ was finally unleashed to the world last month, albeit initially for free via TiDAL. The question is, however, following over a year of build up, was the album actually worth the wait, and can anyone actually understand the Barbadian singer? 

Perhaps most notable on first glance at ‘Anti’ is the omission of all three of last year’s promotional singles; ‘FourFiveSeconds’, ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ and ‘American Oxygen’. The good news, however, is that actual lead single ‘Work’, doesn’t set the precedent for the rest of the record. 

Opener ‘Consideration’ is one of the album’s most fascinating tracks, a curveball that sets the tone of the album nicely. ‘James Joint’ acts almost as an interlude than a song itself, whilst the 80s disco vibe of ‘Kiss It Better’ is about as commercial as ‘Anti’ gets. It’s Rihanna’s surprise cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ however, which is the record’s defining moment. Re-titled ‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’, Rihanna’s stamp on the track is even trippier than the original. ‘Desperado’, ‘Love On The Brain’ and the Florence + The Machine sampling ‘Goodnight Gotham’ act as other album highlights, whereas ‘Work’ really is the album’s only weak moment. 

Given its tiresome build up and its messy single releases, I was all ready to hate ‘Anti’. Like most, I’d written it off before I’d even heard it. However, Rihanna has surprised us all by producing one of the year’s most exciting and versatile records. Of course it would have been relatively easy for her to release another album full of club bangers, but that’s far too straight-forward for an artist of Rihanna’s nature. On ‘Anti’, Rihanna has gone completely left-field, throwing everyone off the scent and in doing so, has produced the most consistent and enjoyable record of her career thus far. There are only a handful of artists that could take a 3 year break from music and remain this relevant and be as prominent in the charts as Rihanna has, especially given such a risky release strategy. Despite the initial criticism, all things considered, Rihanna is back and is doing just fine.

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Everything Everything – Get To Heaven

It’s clear right from the opening minute of Get To Heaven’s album opener ‘To The Blade’ that Everything Everything’s third record sets out to be even bigger and bolder than where the critically acclaimed ‘Arc’ left off. Isolated vocals and glitchy synths are heard before the track unexpectedly turns into a bombastic rock number.

Over the course of the 11-track record, ‘Get To Heaven’ deals with everything from Ebola to beheadings, along with the rise of UKIP. Inspired after watching rolling news on a loop, frontman Jonathan Higgs said; “After we’d finished the record, I read the lyrics back and realised I’d written a horror bible.” The big issues on ‘Get To Heaven’ don’t overshadow the record however.

It is a testament to Everything Everything that whilst not one song on ‘Get To Heaven’ sounds alike, every track is worthy of being a single. Both ‘Regret’ and ‘Fortune 500’ can be counted amongst highlights along with lead single ‘Distant Past’ which boasts a sing-along chorus reminiscent of Calvin Harris’ early work. Penultimate track ‘No Reptiles’ is, however, the album’s defining moment, with a chorus that’ll echo around arena walls for years to come. “It’s alright to feel like a fat child in a pushchair/old enough to run/old enough to fire a gun,” Higgs belts out.

By my own admission I was extremely late to discovering the joys of Everything Everything. Three albums into the career and ‘Get To Heaven’ is a blistering mix of indie pop that thrives on its complexity and ability to tackle difficult issues yet still sound accessible to its listener. Quite simply, it’s a record that affirms the band’s status as critics’ darlings and an album that will no doubt find itself at the top of most Best of 2015 lists come the end of December.

Take That – Live In Birmingham 23/06/15

Perhaps the first thing to note is that as a 25 year old male I’m not your average Take That fan. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with them during their 90s heyday and certainly didn’t spend my hours ringing helplines when they split up. It was, however, their reunion as a four piece that grabbed my attention. Gone were the dodgy haircuts and questionable dancing and in its place came a more grown up Take That. 

Ten years since their reunion but now minus Jason Orange, perhaps the biggest question surrounding Take That’s latest sell out tour is whether they work as a trio. Since their comeback a decade ago, the band have built up a precedent for their live shows with a huge amount of production and resource ploughed into their work, none more so than this tour. The two hour spectacle features everything from flying bikes to underwater jellyfish, as well as the usual pyrotechnics and confetti cannons.

Old classics are mixed with new favourites in a setlist that caters for all. ‘Said It All’ and ‘Hold Up A Light’ are highlights, along with ‘Could It Be Magic’ & recent single ‘These Days’. Slower numbers such as ‘Patience’ & ‘Back For Good’ ditch the big production, allowing the band to show off their vocals. Gary Barlow-led ballad ‘Flaws’ is accompanied by a theatrical dance by Mark Owen and Howard Donald and is warmly received by the crowd.

A chorus of men and women of all ages belt out ‘Rule The World’, before an encore consisting of ‘Shine’ and ‘Never Forget’ ensures the sell out crowd leave the Genting Arena in high spirits. A rousing rendition of final track ‘Never Forget’ sees thousands (including security guards) raise their arms in unison during the now infamous chorus, before a blast of confetti showers the arena.

  As ever, Gary Barlow shines but so do fellow band mates Mark Owen and Howard Donald. Concerns surrounding whether Take That can still work as a three piece are quickly dismayed. An early joke by the trio introducing themselves as “what’s left of Take That” is the closest the audience comes to realising something may be amiss. It feels at times as if there’s too much going on, but that’s the only critique in an otherwise blistering pop production. Take That as a trio are still as relevant and entertaining as ever and with the promise of another tour in the future, the Take That juggernaut looks very much set to continue.

Muse – Drones

Let’s be honest, ‘The 2nd Law’ wasn’t very good was it? I’ve been a Muse fan for as long as I can remember, but their 2012 effort just didn’t quite cut it. Repeated riffs and an exploration into the world of dubstep felt like a band running out of ideas rather than leading the way, something Muse have always done so well in the past. Three years on and the Devonshire outfit are back, this time with ‘Drones’, a concept album that, in frontman Matt Bellamy’s words, sees the band revert “back to basics”.

Of course, when Bellamy uses the term “back to basics”, one must remember this is Muse, a band who thrive on eccentricity and produce 10 minute long symphonies that Mozart would be proud of , just for the fun of it. Bellamy’s political beliefs have often been a focal point of Muse’s records but in recent years they’ve often felt misguided and fallen flat. Luckily on ‘Drones’, they fit right into place. The record tells the story of “the journey of a human, from their abandonment and loss of hope to their indoctrination by the system to be a human drone.”

Album opener ‘Dead Inside’ is about the twisted end of a relationship. Bellamy says “This is where the story of the album begins, where the protagonist loses hope and becomes ‘Dead Inside’, therefore vulnerable to the dark forces introduced in ‘Psycho’ and which ensue over the next few songs on the album, before eventually defecting, revolting and overcoming these dark forces later in the story”. Minus its unnecessary drill sergeant interlude, ‘Psycho’ and its accompanying 16 year-old riff is a firm album highlight along with ‘Reapers’, which is easily the best thing the band have done in years. Most recent single ‘Mercy’ is a Muse anthem for the ages with its singalong chorus, whilst ‘Defector’ sees the group channel their inner Queen.

Whilst the band’s experimenting days are not strictly behind them, they appear to be more reined in on ‘Drones’. ‘The Handler’ tells the tale of transformation and becoming brainwashed and eventually controlled by a higher power. 10 minute epic ‘The Globalist’ is introduced by eery whistling that sounds like it’s come straight out of a Kill Bill movie, before being followed by some classic Matt Bellamy piano and crooning. While ‘The Globalist’ may not be the ‘Citizen Erased’ follow-up to which it was billed, its descent into a “prog nightmare” as the song reaches its closing stages is proof that Muse are still one of the most exciting and daring bands in the game.

Often uninspiring and repetitive, Drones’ only real downfall is in its lyrics. Gone is the needless experimentation that polluted ‘The 2nd Law’ and in its place is a return to the basic, guitar-driven anthems that have helped propel Muse to selling out stadiums across the globe. You only have to take a look at the band’s recent setlist from Download to see that Muse are a band rejuvenated and re-energised. Poppier moments from the band’s decorated discography such as ‘Starlight’ are omitted in favour of heavier material such as ‘Micro Cuts’ and ‘Dead Star’. Muse’s decision to strip back the added instruments from ‘The Resistance’ & ‘The 2nd Law’ has resulted in their best album in over a decade. It may not be ‘Origin of Symmetry’ or my beloved ‘Absolution’, but it is, at least, a return to form for the most exciting rock band of our generation.

Blur – The Magic Whip

Following the cancellation of Japan’s Tokyo Rocks festival, Blur were stranded in Japan for 5 days in July 2013. Putting their time to good use, the recently reunited quartet began work on a new studio album. Despite taking almost two years to surface, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon finished mixing the LP in mid February of this year, resulting in the first Blur record in 12 years; ‘The Magic Whip’.

Right from the off, the spirit of Hong Kong (where the album was recorded) is encapsulated. Opener ‘Lonesome Street’ sees the band on familiar territory, what with frontman Damon Albarn’s unique Cockney vocals setting off the album’s tone nicely. The theme of Japan is omnipresent throughout the record, never more so than on ‘There Are Too Many of Us’. The repetitive military-esque beats help paint a perfect moody picture of busy city life. ‘New World Towers’ is pleasant, if not slightly reminiscent of Albarn’s work on the third Gorillaz LP ‘Plastic Beach’ whilst album closer ‘Mirrorball’ is a perfectly rousing way to close any record.

Perhaps the album’s greatest triumph, though, is the collaboration between Albarn & Coxon. As has always been the case within the band, the pair work so well together and continue to do so on ‘The Magic Whip’. It’s no surprise that, given Coxon’s absence on 2003’s ‘Think Tank’, the record went on to be critically panned (although I was an advocate of the record). It’s midway through this record that the pair’s relationship really blossoms, particularly on ‘I Thought I Was A Spaceman’, a haunting yet encapsulating track that stands at over six minutes in length.

For those holding out for that classic Blur singalong moment, they have to wait to the album’s closing stages. There’s enough ‘la la la’s’ in penultimate track ‘Ong Ong’ to provide a beer-filled crowd with enjoyment at future live shows. I maintain comeback single ‘Go Out’ still sounds bland and a mess and doesn’t fit in context with the rest of ‘The Magic Whip’. That said, it’s really the only critique of an otherwise rather splendid album. Rather than resting on their laurels, Blur have opted for a smarter move with album No.8. ‘The Magic Whip’ is a bold and daring LP, yet still maintains the unique sound that propelled Blur to the centre of the Britpop revolution in the ’90s. Despite various successes on their individual solo ventures, it’s together as Blur when Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree really excel.