The latest instalment in our epic countdown of the 50 greatest albums of 2014, featuring Ace Frehley, Slash and Hiss Golden Messenger.
10 Hiss Golden Messenger
The Lateness Of Dancers Merge
On the cover of Hiss Golden Messenger’s most recent album, Lateness Of Dancers, a storm is coming and there’s a rainbow overhead. A mutt called Willie stares at M.C. Taylor – the man who makes most of the music inside – with a mixture of bemusement and adoration, and as anyone who has fallen under the spell of Taylor’s work will concur, that’s just about the appropriate reaction. “The dog belongs to my friend Phil Cook, who is one of the musicians we use,” says Taylor, speaking from the undergrowth of his front garden. “I think the dog is kinda quizzical. I don’t know how people view what we do.”
Hiss Golden Messenger offer an entry into a mystical world of country soul. David Bowie described Taylor’s previous outfit, Boxharp, as “mystical country, like an eerie yellowing photograph”, and Hiss Golden Messenger deal in the same Southern Gothic template, the same figurative and existential lyrical slant.
Taylor doesn’t quite see it that way. He works with Scott Hirsch, his long-time friend/collaborator/producer from the West Coast. ”He captures what I do with a minimum of fuss. We’ve played thousands of shows together. I’ve already spent my time writing so I know what the songs should sound like. The Dancers record was finished in five days and unless there is an egregious mistake all the imperfections are left in. I need to remember that perfection is not the goal. We don’t bother with fancy equipment – can’t afford it.”
Five albums in, this Southern Californian-born, North Carolina émigré (ex-The Court & Spark) doesn’t even remember why he chanced upon the name Hiss Golden Messenger, “except it seems vaguely Old Testament Biblical, like the word from a fallen angel”. A previous album, Haw, delves into the Native American people who inhabited the river of the same name, but on Lateness Of Dancers, Taylor deals with parenthood and the realisation that the chances for going out on the town on a Saturday night are limited. It’s a highly moral record with a dark and often depressing humour at its core.
“The songs are very insular and personal,” Taylor says. “They should fit other people’s experiences because mine aren’t unique. My son Elijah speaks the intro to Day O Day and I have a one-year-old daughter, so it’s nose to the grindstone.”
Taylor, Hirsch and their multi-instrumental friends strike a nerve with those who love the classic rock that emanates from a kind of Bermuda Triangle pinpointed by California, Nashville and the Durham, NC area where the band reside, often meeting over the Taylors’ kitchen table where they munch on M.C.’s home-grown okra, tomatoes and peppers picked from a tropical garden in his split-level southern ranch house. “I love it here. Nobody gave a shit about my music in California and you get more for your money in the south. It’s a great patch.”
As for his influences, Taylor mentions The Byrds, J.J. Cale, Bobby Charles, The Band and The Dead, but doesn’t want to be them. “I’m beyond that time when as musicians we would say, ‘Lets make something like Ballad Of Easy Rider.’ That’s playing dress-up. Anyway, those old groups weren’t emulating anything really: they could play and they drew on a deep well of source material. We provide our own aesthetic. I have no ambitions to become a ringer guitar player. Having children has taught me to prioritise or you get lost. That probably sums up the album. I’m a musician and this is what I do to engage with the world, but I’m never gonna be able to play the guitar like Clarence White.”
That doesn’t matter because Lateness Of Dancers is one of the most compelling albums of 2014 and is pretty much addictive once tracks like I’m A Raven (Shake Children) and Black Dog Wind (Rose Of Roses) stick their claws into your brain. Children, mortality, hope over experience: the ingredients add up to a bittersweet masterpiece. “I use a lot of emotionally suspended chords,” Taylor admits. And he should know since he lectures in Folklorist Studies at UNC on occasion.
“A music theorist would say that there is no resolution in what I do. Well, that’s intentional. I can’t make sense of life either.”
At least here, you can dance to its tune.
_Pale Communion _Roadrunner
With 2011’s album Heritage, the Swedes banished the last vestiges of their death metal past and fully embraced the sort of 70s-influenced prog that had always been mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s not-so-secret passion.
This time around, they opened up their sound even further, bringing in elaborate new textures and atmospheres, and even incorporating elements of classic rock into their ever-broadening palette.
The result took prog out of its post-millennial niche and into the UK Top 15, and highlighted the fact that with Pale Communion, Opeth’s strange but beautiful music had swelled into something that was truly majestic.
8 Black Stone Cherry
**Magic Mountain **Roadrunner
Album number four delivered arena-headlining status to these southern hard rockers from Edmonton, Kentucky – just as the group themselves had predicted some five years earlier while opening for Whitesnake and Def Leppard.
Their most mature and radio-friendly work to date, Magic Mountain was also the album that finally captured their pedigree as one of the most blistering live acts on the circuit. Tracks such as Me And Mary Jane, Holding On To Letting Go and Peace Pipe were fuelled not just by hard graft and talent, but also by the ingredient lacked by so many of their rivals: unremitting self belief.
7 Ace Frehley
**Space Invader **SPV
Of the four original members of Kiss, Ace Frehley was always the coolest: a booze-fuelled loose cannon with a streetwise rock’n’roll attitude that shaped his unorthodox lead guitar style, half-assed singing and ballsy songs.
All of those qualities were present in the best solo album he’s made since his first, in 1978, when he was still in Kiss. A loose concept album, themed on his ‘Space Ace’ persona, Space Invader ranged from gritty, earthbound hard rock to starry-eyed sci-fi fantasy. It showed that Frehley, at 63 and sober, was still kicking ass, and still crazy after all these years.
6 Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators
World On Fire Dik Hayd/Roadrunner
This epic, 17-track third solo release from the man in the hat was further evidence of a career on fire. The content was vintage Slash, with seething songs bolstered by Michael Baskette’s red-raw mix and the Conspirators’ GN’R-worthy chemistry, while the commercial reception proved there was still plenty of appetite for classic rock in the modern era.
Unveiled – bizarrely – at a showcase gig at the House Of Commons,_ World On Fire_ ultimately hit No.10 on the Billboard chart and raised the guitarist’s stock to see him fill Wembley Arena in December. Hats off.
5 Bruce Springsteen
High Hopes Columbia
High Hopes continues a hot streak dating back to Springsteen’s regrouping of the E Street Band for 2002’s The Rising. Released without fanfare, it’s essentially an odds and sods collection, pulling together songs mostly set aside from the albums he’s made during the past decade and pairing them with a smattering of esoteric covers.
What gives the album thrust is the input of erstwhile Rage Against The Machine man Tom Morello. Springsteen’s new sergeant-at-arms, Morello features on seven of the 12 tracks, his signature guitar swoops adding a razor’s edge to the E Street Band’s wall of sound. Morello’s heard best of all on The Ghost Of Tom Joad, the haunted title track of Springsteen’s 1995 solo album, once covered by RATM and here recast into a furious maelstrom, with Morello sharing lead vocal duties and eviscerating the song via a solo that sounds like glass shattering.
The impression that Springsteen’s castoffs are better than most other people’s ‘A’ game is strengthened through brooding pieces such as American Skin (41 Shots), Down In The Hole and the triumphant Heaven’s Wall. In any event, well into his 60s, The Boss is still fighting fit.
Rock Or Bust Columbia
In mid-April a rumour spread worldwide that AC/DC were to hold a press conference to announce their retirement. In fact, they did nothing of the sort. Instead, in September, the hard rock legends coupled the sad news of Malcolm Young’s departure from the band with the revelation that they’d recorded their fifteenth studio album (sixteenth in Australia) without him.
Provisionally titled Man Down – ultimately rejected for being “too negative” – Rock Or Bust duly arrived on December 1, its release only marginally overshadowed by the November 5 arrest of drummer Phil Rudd on charges of plotting to have two people killed (subsequently withdrawn) and possession of methamphetamine.
Recorded, as with its predecessor, 2008’s 6.5 million-selling Black Ice, at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio with producer Brendan O’Brien, the album features 11 tracks, four of which feature the word ‘Rock’ in the title and one of which pays tribute to a stripper (Sweet Candy). Granted, no one would have predicted the inclusion of a track referencing Carthaginian military commander Hannibal’s campaign against the Roman Empire (Dogs Of War), but with Stevie Young ably deputising for his stricken uncle, this was very much business as usual for ’DC as they approach their 40th-anniversary year. In rock they trust.
3 Robert Plant
Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar Nonesuch
Plant’s emphatic response to all those rumours of a Led Zep reunion was to issue arguably the best solo album of his career. A psycho-geographical route map that linked West Africa to the Welsh borders of his youth, the album came stuffed with world rhythms and Celtic accents.
His vocals, for the most part, were reined in, adding textural depth to the exotic concoctions of his back-up band, The Sensational Space Shifters. You were as likely to hear him emote over a Gambian fiddle as you were an electric guitar. Pocketful Of Golden was a gorgeous illustration of the band’s dizzying interplay, flush with trip-hop beats and electronica, while Turn It Up came with a shaded reference to Plant’s lung-busting past.
Above all, Lullaby… showed him to be a restless musical voyager, excited by the possibilities of the future rather than constrained by his past. And let’s be honest here: why go back to the old band when you can still sound as vital as this?
2 Royal Blood
Royal Blood Warner Bros
In the beginning was the riff and the riff was fat and played on a bass guitar, even though it sounded like a six-string, and the people didst nod their heads and scowl and say, “How the c**ting fuck is he doing that?!”
Maybe the most amazing thing about Royal Blood is how ordinary they are. They dress like typical twenty-somethings (jeans, baseball caps, half-arsed beards), their lyrics aren’t controversial (opening song Out Of The Black features the f-bomb but you could play it in the car without your kids noticing), and their delivery could never be described as flamboyant. They sounded modern but their references were ‘classic’: Come On Over wielding the same squealing string bend as Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box; You Can Be So Cruel throbbing like La Grange; fat and distorted basslines lifted from Lemmy; a wanton holler that lands on the right side of a Jack White squawk.
Somehow we thought that the Next Big Rock Band would have to be outrageous, controversial, attention-grabbing. Instead it was two blokes from Brighton. Not pushing rock to new extremes, just reminding us of the power of The Riff. How the c**ting fuck did they do that?