Critics' Choice 2014: Live And Loud!

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MACHINE HEAD (BRIGHTON CONCORDE 2)

The final date on an unexpected but very welcome run of intimate UK shows, Machine Head’s first trip to Brighton brilliantly encapsulated the band’s unbreakable connection with their loyal fanbase. It was insanely hot in the venue and there was barely room to fart, let alone mosh, but all of that simply added to the life-affirming chaos that erupted when Machine Head hit the stage, launched into Imperium and then spent 90 minutes ripping the place apart with evangelical glee. And if your spine didn’t tingle during the audience singalong at the end of Darkness Within, you should probably apply to be an extra on The Walking Dead. Machine Fucking Head, baby. DL/o:p

WHILE SHE SLEEPS (DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL)

How do you announce your return to the fray after over half a year on the sidelines, in what was poised to be a pivotal year for your band? With a show-stealing turn at the UK’s biggest rock festival, obviously! Sheffield’s finest tore Donington apart with an impassioned, ferocious showing that climaxed memorably with frontman Loz scaling the festival’s sound desk, Sleeps-emblazoned flag in hand. Shit was lost, bodies were broken and the UK’s Next Big Things found themselves right back on track to conquer the planet. On the evidence of this set, there really is nothing stopping them now. MA/o:p

SLIPKNOT (KNOTFEST, SAN BERNARDINO, CA)

San Bernardino’s San Manuel Amphitheater is the spiritual home of metal in California, but it had always lacked that true festival vibe. Trust the Des Moines Hate Machine to change all that! Slipknot were back with a new album and a final farewell to bassist Paul Gray and, perhaps most noticeably this time out, back with nine masks on stage! The old songs, of course, sounded phenomenal, but it was the new stuff that made Knotfest so special, with Custer in particular sounding utterly destroying. A new chapter of Slipknot was born, and a legacy as one of metal’s greatest bands was cemented even further. MA/o:p

MARMOZETS (LONDON SCALA)

Very rarely do you feel a musical shift physically happen around you, but one night at Scala could be the gamechanger contemporary rock undoubtedly needs. In a world full of bands hammering out beatdown after beatdown, these fresh-faced Yorkshire noiseniks sold out the London venue to a crowd of punks and metallers with their brand of mathy flailing and über-powerful vocals. ‘Hype band’ these guys are not: the sheer talent and passion being thrashed out on stage was mesmerising and goosebumps covered the skin of an entire audience as the new kids on the block looked to pick a fight with the bigger boys. And they might well win. LM/o:p

EMPEROR (HELLFEST OPEN AIR, FRANCE)

A sun-baked, dusty field in the west of France might not have seemed the ideal arena for Emperor to celebrate 20 years of their masterpiece, In The Nightside Eclipse, but as dusk began to fall and anticipation began to reach fever pitch, the album’s transformative power began to rise again. With Ihsahn and Samoth devoid of spiked battledress, this wasn’t a return to the feral intensity of the original album so much as a pristine, widescreen reworking, amplifying the inhuman majesty and tuning into a searing romantic frequency that felt both timeless and devastating. Emperor, possibly for the last time, corralled history and sent it hurtling into the beyond. JS/o:p

EVIL SCARECROW (BLOODSTOCK FESTIVAL)

If one moment in 2014 slayed the idea that diehard metalheads have no sense of humour, it was the way that Evil Scarecrow took a vast crowd by storm at the seemingly hangover-unfriendly hour of 11am on Saturday at Bloodstock. After their triumphant performance at the same festival in 2013, these lovable corpsepainted gonks could hardly fail to get a good response this year, but the way that the Scarecrow crew conquered an entire festival, eliciting the bizarre but laudable sight of thousandsofburlymetalheads waltzing, robot dancing and lobbing fistfuls of grass into the air (DIY pyro, obviously!), made for an unforgettable triumph. DL/o:p

CROSSFAITH (TOKYO SHIBUYA-AX)

Take one of the decade’s most explosive live bands, put them in front of a hometown crowd that need little encouragement to lose their shit and you have memories to last a lifetime. From the crowd’s amazing collective synchronised headbanging and leaping off of one another’s shoulders to the band being a whirlwind of showmanship and chaos, all controlled by mischief-maker-in-chief Kenta Koi, this felt more passionate and personal than the majority of gigs of anyone’s life. As punk and ‘fuck the rules’ as Black Flag and as forward-thinking as The Prodigy were back in the day, this was the fucking future in gig form. TB/o:p

IRON MAIDEN (SONISPHERE FESTIVAL)

Never mind Bruce Dickinson’s heroically daft pre-show aerial dogfight, as stupidly entertaining as it was… Maiden’s return to Knebworth was a wonderful and joyous occasion that reminded us, yet again, that there is no band on Earth as loved or as consistently thrilling as the British legends. The last, exhilarating gasp of their Maiden England global jaunt gave us a dazzling setlist, a gloriously over-the-top stage show and, perhaps most significantly, wave after wave of overpowering feelgood vibes that should sustain the faithful until Maiden return again. The greatest metal band of all time? Of course they fucking are. DL/o:p

SÓLSTAFIR (EISTNAFLUG FESTIVAL, ICELAND)

For a band whose sound is so tied in to their country’s vast landscape, a homeland gig for Iceland’s Sólstafir was always going to be a charged affair. But playing at the Eistnaflug festival on the country’s east coast, which is pretty much at the ends of the Earth, with the haunting Ótta album recently recorded and a hall full of ecstatic fans for whom the band resonated on the deepest of levels, this became something transcendent, even spiritual. The likes of Ótta itself and a radiant, rebirthing Draumfari became heart-bursting, generational anthems uniting fusing boundless yearning and the ecstatic. JS/o:p

ARCHITECTS (LONDON KOKO)

It took a while for Architects to rediscover the momentum that catapulted them to the forefront of the UK metal scene, but with two excellent albums in 2012’s Daybreaker and this year’s monumental Lost Forever // Lost Together, the stage was set for something truly special come the Brighton crew’s date at London’s increasingly prolific KOKO back in March. And boy, did they take the bull by the horns. A blistering run through a set tellingly heavy on recent material brought London to its knees, firmly reinstating Architects as one of this isle’s most vital bands. Long may they reign. MA/o:p

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Jump For Joysticks!

Five games that gave us serious nerdgasms…

DESTINY

Despite everything we’d all heard, read and seen in the lead-up to the release of Bungie’s MMORPG’s sci-fi spectacular, nothing could have fully prepared us for the grandeur and spectacle of this instant classic. Rarely has roaming around doing piss-all for hours on end been so much damn fun!/o:p

THE EVIL WITHIN

Like a truly horrific cross between Resident Evil, Silent Hill and, at points, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (only more scary than that all sounds), the best horror game of the decade had us filling our knickers well into the small hours. We may never recover./o:p

ANGRY BIRDS TRANSFORMERS

Just when you think the Angry Birds phenomenon has run its course with the ace Star Wars series, along comes this ace sequel featuring bigger guns, cooler characters and even 3D-rendered environments. Our thumbs are freakin’ knackered./o:p

ALIEN: ISOLATION

Finally: an Alien game that does justice to the original films. Isolation took a tone adopted from Ridley Scott’s original space-horror classic, choosing extreme suspense and big scares over mindless Xenomorph target practice. Fuck those stupid robots, though. Fuck them./o:p

WORLD OF WARCRAFT: WARLORDS OF DRAENOR

The latest addition to the WOW experience offers another raised level cap, upgradeable garrisons and a time-travel plot that threatens to turn the canon of the entire series on its head. If you’re not bothered by that, you can just go on a fun raid with your mates./o:p