Th1rt3en by Megadeth
Megadeth are survivors in the truest sense, having solidified their reputation back in the 80s alongside contemporaries Metallica with thunderous thrash metal and a slew of legendary albums, before spreading their wings with more commercial fare and – also like Metallica – allowing distinctly non-metal influences to creep into their work. Both bands survived the flirtations with FM rock radio and more mainstream stylings, but Megadeth emerged with their integrity more or less intact, whereas so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside, victims of in-fighting, record label politics, or something as simple as their muse deserting them. Band lynchpin Dave Mustaine’s bloody-minded tale of survival in the industry is the stuff of legend now (and if you’re not familiar with it, you should read the man’s fantastic warts-‘n-all autobiography, A Life In Metal). Th1rt3en is, logically enough, the band’s thirteenth studio album, and delivers ample proof that there’s plenty more great material where the previous twelve albums left off.
Th1rt3en takes a slightly different tack to the band’s previous album (the much-lauded Endgame), though. Whereas that album married the furious energy of their 80s thrash period with the melodic radio-friendly tendencies of their mid-90s heyday, this new offering sees the band ease up (albeit slightly) on the accelerator and opting for heavier, chainsaw-buzzing riffs and shout-along choruses – it’s more akin to mid-90s masterpieces Countdown To Extinction and Youthanasia. That’s not to say that the band’s trademark fury has been reined in, though: Never Dead is truly ferocious, whilst opener Sudden Death is likely to leave the uninitiated feeling like they’ve been beaten around the head.
All the traditional Megadeth lyrics concerns are present and correct: disdain for the system, anger at what our leaders are doing behind the scenes, organised crime, a few wince-inducing tales of horror and even another tongue-in-cheek number about how Mustaine feels he is regarded by the ‘suits’ (the brilliantly cheeky Public Enemy No. 1). Add in Mustaine’s dizzying riffing and soloing, and great foils in the shape of returning stalwart bassist Dave Ellefson, guitarist Chris Broderick (who acquits himself extraordinarily well here) and Shawn Drover’s relentlessly energetic drumming, and you’ve got the ingredients for another rip-roaring Megadeth classic. Endgame was brilliant – this is not as intense an album, but in some ways it’s even more enjoyable. One can’t help wondering what Metallica are doing messing around with Lou Reed when Megadeth can deliver two such strong albums in such a short period. Perhaps – understandably, after so many years of friendly (and not so friendly) competition – Metallica now regard themselves as outside of the scene that spawned them. One thing’s for certain, though: Mustaine is now in real danger of strolling off with the accolades that were so often accorded to his band’s biggest perceived rivals.
HIGHLIGHTS: We The People, Never Dead, Wrecker
 Paper Monkeys by Ozric Tentacles
Let’s face it, you know what you’re getting when Ozric Tentacles release a new album. The tried & tested Ozrics brand of psychedelic space rock is alive and well on this, their 18th (at least, depending on how you count them) studio album. Their detractors insist that they just make the same album over and over again, but that’s selling their invention short: as regular listeners will know, every Ozrics album as a slightly different flavour, a subtly different magic. This time around, the more obvious electronic influences of some of their more recent work have been dialled down, and the result is one of their more earthbound, organic records. Perhaps because of this more organic feel, the rhythm section seem particularly strong this time out: drummer Ollie Seagle has settled into his role now and provides both a solid backbone to proceedings when needed, as well as some extravagant fireworks here and there. Similarly, Brandi Wynne seems completely at home on bass now, and provides a thick, warm tone that bulks up the sound with real style.
The real star of the show, though, as always, is the Ozrics mastermind Ed Wynne (Brandi’s husband) who is, as ever, completely dazzling on guitar (and synths): it is Ed’s masterful, energetic and highly atmospheric playing that provides the focus of everything the band does, and he’s on rare form here. In fact, I might even go further and assert that this could be the best Ozrics album since 1999’s much-feted (and rightly so) album Waterfall Cities. There’s a real sense of the band getting back to basics after a few years where it seemed to be hard work keeping the band afloat, financially and creatively, and for the long-term Ozrics fan, it’s just a joy to listen to. For everyone else, this is as good a place as any to start. There’s never been a more opportune time to turn on, tune in and drop out.
HIGHLIGHTS: Flying Machines, Lost In The Sky, Paper Monkeys
 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush
I have to confess, I still haven’t heard all of Bush’s last album, the much-maligned Director’s Cut – mostly because I have very fond memories of the material that she re-tooled for that album, but also because the word of mouth about the album was so poor. Revisiting material that, by and large, was such a triumph the first time around seemed more than redundant, it seemed like a pointless expenditure of Bush’s time and much-appreciated creative talents – an opinion only strengthened the more that time passed in the wake of her last album of new material, the beautiful Aerial (released in 2005).
Consequently, the announcement that Bush was to release an album of truly new material was very exciting. Aerial was great, so my expectations were fairly high. Happily, they have been met, for the most part. 50 Words For Snow couldn’t have been conceived by anyone else: even before Bush’s vocals come in, musically it is clearly identifiable as a product of her writing: quite some achievement really, since so much of this album feels like it was built on sparse, exploratory, almost improvised piano parts.
I suppose that that last line has caused some furrowed brows among those who haven’t heard the album yet. Improvised? Exploratory? Is this the same Kate Bush that turned in so many classic 3 or 4 minute pop songs? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s clearly her, but this feels very different in terms of how the songs are constructed. Fans will note a slew of typical little Bush flourishes now and again; a familiar chord change here, a vocal ad lib that you can’t imagine anyone else making there. However, whilst it’s identifiably her work, it carries the unhurried atmospherics of parts of Aerial to a new extreme. Most of the tracks here hover around the 7 or 8 minute mark, or even longer. Chart-friendly pop this is not; neither does it have the more rock or folk-oriented feel of some of her more left-field material. These are not songs so much as tone poems, recordings that are less about the notes being played, and more about the space between them.
This is starting to sound more than a little pretentious. I didn’t mean for it to be so – the results certainly don’t sound pretentious, merely atmospherically appropriate. For an album so wrapped up in the idea of winter – the snow, the cold, the icy stillness – the remote, tinkling piano, gentle washes of strings and the predictably warm blanket of Bush’s own vocals, the arrangements are brilliantly successful. This is one of the most immersive records I’ve heard this year. I swear you could listen to this over headphones, lying on the beach in Rio, and every inch of your body would be covered in cold-induced goosebumps. It’s that successful in creating a mood.
The subject matter is predictably unpredictable: we have the world as seen by a snowflake, tales of yeti and snowmen, the haunting tale of a lost girl and – perhaps most eventfully of all – a time-travelling couple regaling us with the story of their relationship in the staggeringly beautiful Snowed In At Wheeler Street, and – perhaps as light relief – the deliberately humorous and daft (and yet strangely touching) title track, where actor and comedian Stephen Fry comes up with the 50 different terms for snow, urged on by a comically enthusiastic and impatient Bush.
The more unkind critics are not treating this as a ‘proper’ album, instead trying to saddle it with that most depressing of labels, the ‘holiday’ or ‘seasonal’ album, mere filler until Bush can be cajoled into the studio for a ‘proper’ follow-up to Aerial. They’re missing the point, and a bloody great record to boot.
HIGHLIGHTS: Snowflake, Snowed In At Wheeler Street, Among Angels
 The Unforgiving by Within Temptation
Once collected together with bands like Nightwish and After Forever, Within Temptation have long since developed into a very different animal. Choosing to retain their Gothic tendencies, the band have chosen to largely dispense with the male/female counterpart vocals that are such a feature of the genre, jettisoned their more overtly metal stylings and honed a much more commercial, radio-friendly approach. It’s done wonders for them: they’re now one of Holland’s biggest-selling acts and are a success story even in the US, where the female-fronted metal scene is still struggling to get a foothold.
Unfortunately the tendency is to disparage bands that change their sound – whatever the reason – and become successful. They are said to “sell out”. Even rock legends like Nirvana are still accused of “selling out”. These bands produce a second album that sounds quite different to their first, and suddenly they’re “forgetting where they came from”, are “ditching the people who supported them from the beginning” and are pandering to the lowest common denominator. Whilst I would never suggest that this chain of events never occurs, such changes are more often the result of the bands in question actually developing, finding out what their strengths and weaknesses are and moving in a slightly different direction. They don’t call fans “fans” for nothing. It’s short for “fanatic”, remember?
But whilst some of the more fickle members of Within Temptation’s audience have decided that they don’t want to listen to a band that gets played on the radio, the rest of us have been thoroughly enjoying what they’ve been up in the years since they delivered their debut recording, Enter. The Unforgiving is the logical culmination of their development: a slick, highly commercial collection of Gothic-tinged rock songs and carefully crafted ballads that manage both to be hugely memorable and genuinely affecting.
Let’s be honest: instrumentally, Within Temptation are not especially adventurous. What they do, they do very well, but epic soloing, shifting time signatures and virtuosity are not their watchwords. The focus of the band – aurally and visually – has always been chanteuse Sharon Den Adel. She is on nothing less than awesome form here: her vocals soar and swoop with assurance, but when it’s needed (as on In The Middle Of The Night and Faster) she possesses some real grit, too. She has an unerring skill for dialling her performance up and down exactly when required and mines every last atom of emotion from what in less capable hands would be much simpler, straightforward fare. As a result, Fire And Ice is beautifully moving; Lost is a shimmering jewel of a song, and closer Stairway To The Skies is utterly gorgeous.
Ironically, though – for a band that has so often impressed with its ballads – it’s the more up-tempo fare that really shines this time out. The band sound tighter than ever, and Sharon’s vocals give already memorable songs the extra push they need to become instant classics. Faster is fantastically defiant; Shot In The Dark anthemic in a way that latter-day Bon Jovi can only dream of; and In The Middle Of The Night is a rollercoaster treat that will have you pressing ‘repeat’ until your finger is bruised.
The Unforgiving even has a concept of sorts, based around events in a comic book series. However, the sons all work so well in isolation that the concept almost feels like an afterthought. What we have here is one of the band’s finest offerings to date; and at the same time, easily their most commercial offering. Diehard Goth metal fans may sneer, but on this form, Within Temptation are most definitely going to have the last laugh.
HIGHLIGHTS: Shot In The Dark, Faster, Iron
 Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
Over the past 20-odd years, Polly Jean Harvey has amassed a body of work that’s the envy of any singer-songwriter you could name. She’s tried her hand at everything from scuzzy indie-metal to elegaic harpsichord-backed balladry, and amazingly, she’s made it work every time. Crossover success and a slew of critical awards have been her reward, and she now enjoys a deserved reputation as a national treasure of sorts.
Her writing has never been about sunshine and lollipops, however, and this, her 8th solo offering is typically uncompromising. A concept album of sorts about the gradual decay and collapse of England (a sort of “sunset on empire” record, if you will), Let England Shake is brave, bleak and moving in equal measure. Harvey’s vocals will put you in mind of a graveside mourner as she laments a country in entropy, her concerns ranging from individual struggles to the cost of war, moral decay and the larger picture of a changing world in which her home country seems increasingly ill-equipped to cope. Looming over everything, the raven-pecked, desolate cityscape of a country that manages to be a giant and a pygmy at one and the same time, it’s inhabitants singing of its glory, whilst recognising that the “good old days” are long since gone.
Reading that back, it’s fairly clear that the album is not a sing-along feelgood treat. Despite the bleakness, though, it *is* a fabulously emotive record: I dare anyone to listen to the title track and not be moved. It’s a cathartic record, but especially so for those of us who live in England and see the truth of Harvey’s lyrics in every news broadcast, every time we step out of our front doors. Harvey’s skill has always been to hold up a mirror to personal experience; this time she does it with an entire citizenship, and the result is correspondingly more powerful. She’s won a ton of critical awards for this album (including this year’s Mercury Music Prize): she richly deserves them all.
HIGHLIGHTS: Let England Shake, The Glorious Land, Bitter Branches