To describe Manchester at the end of 2010 is to describe a very different place to the city I pitched up in back in 2006. Upon my giddy undergraduate arrival I found a music community not exactly dormant, but certainly feeling the pinch placed on it by the burgeoning scene over the Pennines in neighbouring Leeds. This city is proud of its musical heritage though - to a fault, no matter what some may say - and what I at the time took for decay was merely the beginning of something new; a myriad of acts, promoters and venues working away free from the gaze of the Southern music press, uninhibited by certain expectations and prejudices that had come attached to the area in the previous fifteen to twenty years. And whilst it’s still easy enough to find a lad rock band if you look around a bit (this is the city that can give the fucking Courteeners a 15,000 strong homecoming gig,) creatively there is the feeling of a crescendo of sorts being reached. There’s a wider variety of music on offer than at any time to my mind in the past four and a bit years, and though things are by no means perfect, Manchester can look back on a twelve months that’s seen it re-assert its importance in the UK’s music scene.
Drowned In Manchester Album Of The Year
Entirely dictatorial, the panel consisted of me, was independently adjudicated by me and featured ballot boxes designed and provided from cardboard owned by me. Here are, for my money, the best five albums to emerge from the region in 2010.
5. Working For A Nuclear Free City – Jojo Burger Tempest (Melodic) An album that runs a gamut of genres, ‘Jojo Burger Tempest’ was a labour of frustration for Working For A Nuclear Free City, a group who can’t help but uncover and turn every stone in search for an end point to their schizophrenic musical pursuits. Such added tension holds an otherwise bright sounding LP together, providing a constant in its mind unravelling insanity, the peak of which is reached with the thirty three minute long title track.
4. riverrun – Pentimento (Saint Cecillia Records) Rarely gracing Manchester with his band The Modern Painters - instead opting to go on tour with shoegaze stalwarts Engineers - Daniel Land seems content to live on the city’s periphery and this feeling of outside isolation is prominent on his ambient side-project riverrun. ‘Pentimento’ drifted out into the ether almost unnoticed earlier this year, yet that’s how it starts on record too, a gentle humming proving the chrysalis from which the album gradually draws itself out from as sample sounds from rural coasts embed themselves amongst low rumbles and sustained, droning murmurs that envelope their spatial surroundings. The album’s end sees you at a different destination from where you started; the beauty is in working out how you got there.
3. Autechre- Oversteps (Warp) Ten albums in and Rochdale’s finest still sound aeons away from any of their contemporaries, the Warp duo providing a typically thorough fabric of weaved sounds and incongruous structures. As ever, their deadened electronics feel like loose fragments drifting in isolation, occasionally coming into contact with one another yet rarely colliding. What sets Oversteps apart is that from this at-first-listen aimless floating evolves a clear direction and purpose, the album’s big picture becoming clear by its end.
2. The Steals – Static Kingdom (Faun Records) Manchester regulars even if not residents, The Steals – led by chief song writer Jayn Hanna - frequented this city more than any other on their occasional appearances from the Pennine moors. Static Kingdom itself feels like a gradual emergence from those wild moorlands, the lush folk-gaze of ‘Hope’ unfurling gracefully, setting a strong template that the rest of the album seeks to alter and expand upon. It reaches its crescendo with the eight minute ‘Golden,’ before ‘All Coming Back’ heralds the retreat back out into the ether, returning to an untraceable undergrowth.
1. Gnod & The White Hills – Gnod Drop Out With The White Hills II (Rocket Recordings) Despite a slew of cassettes and MP3s since 2007 – including a previous CD-R with their collaborators here – little was known of mysterious psychedelics Gnod, the group hiding behind a curtain of different sound textures and hard-to-pinpoint world influences, and spending most of their time in Europe. Created by a seemingly ever changing line-up of disparate musicians picked up from both their native Salford and from travels abroad, these releases often crept out unannounced, the group’s appearances in Greater Manchester largely restricted to their own head quarters of Salford’s newly refurbished Islington Mill.
The assistance of Los Angeles’ White Hills however aided them in the production of their most defined statement yet. On Drop Out…II, Gnod step away from the hazy atmospherics and directionless squalls of their other work to let slip an album of real intent. It takes just over a minute to ensnare its listener, the false start of ‘Bits’ giving way to a writhing snake of a bass line that slithers through ‘Run-A-Round’s’ murky undergrowth, burying itself deeper and deeper amidst chemically enhanced Middle Eastern drones, which in turn intermingle with more stoical European krautrock influences. The pace of the album rises and falls without ever loses its hypnotic grip, descents into the loose noises of ‘Streams’ and ‘The Society Of Ants’ are often short lived, the band re-appearing from the haze with harsher bass lines and larger walls of sound. The album’s piece-de-resistance is the towering ‘Spaced Man’ which feeds the angry feedback of Spaceman 3 a valium and gives it space to calmly unravel over thirteen out-of-body minutes. Not just the best album to come out of Manchester in 2010, one of the best to come out this year period.
And The Rest…
On first glance a year which started with the ominous re-opening of the old Factory Records HQ as a live venue and ended with the closure of Saki Bar, an absolutely vital location for anyone from novices to the most experienced DIY promoter would appear to be a bad one. Certainly Saki’s demise, only weeks after the previously reported campaign to save its live license had been successful, is a huge blow to many. The impact is hard to judge at the moment; the new owners of Gullivers on Oldham Street deserve a great deal of credit for taking on the bulk of its bookings, including stalwart bi-monthly night Underachievers Try Harder, and its upstairs’ room’s rugged, traditional aesthetic is a welcome throwback to the days when venues were venues and didn’t masquerade as cocktail bars and cafes during the day. Beyond that though the options for beginners in the promoting racket are slim; The Castle’s recently refurbished backroom is crying out for more usage than its owners currently allow, while Fuel’s intimate surroundings in the suburb of Withington are also more than appreciable. The refurbishment of the 350-capabity Ruby Lounge, whilst certainly exciting, isn’t exactly aimed at those rich in ideas but short in the pocket though, while the same could also be said for Dry Bar’s recent downstairs overhaul. Kraak Gallery and Umbro are both tremendous spaces but are pretty much just that while, again, Islington Mill in Salford’s refurbishment is a good development, but its capacity is a daunting one. Promoters are going to have to come with fresh ideas this year, perhaps adopting a guerrilla-style attitude to gigs currently being applied in fine style across in Liverpool, lest they may struggle.
A disappointment, too, is the continuing decline of Night & Day; at once the go-to venue for the nation’s mid-level bands looking to play in the region, its continual lack of event promotion has finally worn thin for those unwilling to pay £3.80 for a can of Red Stripe in the company of about ten other people. Rumours of a new in-house promoter abound however, and so hope remains that it may reclaim some of its former glory.
One promoter who’ve cast a large shadow over the rest of the city is Now Wave, which situates itself - but doesn’t limit itself to - the city’s best mid-sized venue, the Deaf Institute’s Victorian dance hall. A glib comment made to me by one gig goer this year was that anything vaguely Pitchfork-approved could soon be expected to pop up on a Now Wave line-up; it’s an observation that hasn’t proven too wrong in truth, with Warpaint, Wild Nothings, Deerhunter and Toro Y Moi just a selection of those passing through under its moniker. Its success is ultimately one to be thankful for, providing a decent setting for up and coming British and first time US tourists away from the sterile environments of the smaller Academies on Oxford Road. With such success though comes the sort of monopoly situation that is slightly concerning, with others in Manchester being hit as a result. Wotgodforgot, one of the finest and most diverse ears for music in Manchester, in particular seems to have struggled for numbers – a recent Hype Williams show at Islington Mill attracted only 20 people and indeed his big successes have come through co-promoting with Now Wave, Warpaint at the Deaf Institute and Gil-Scott Heron at the Opera House name but two. The continual look Atlantic-wards for headliners by Now Wave has undoubtedly affected the musicians of Manchester too - with varying results: Egyptian Hip-Hop’s utterly vacuous dirge takes the glossiest of Brooklyn’s style and none of its melody, while having a crack at the wistful indie-pop lark are the hard-working but limited Golden Glow. Far more promising though are Weird Era and Patterns. The former played little live, but put out two albums worth of free material that, apart from its obvious influences, suggests potential in abundance. The latter meanwhile, after flitting around as the competent indie-pop four-piece Elmo Logic for a year or so, changed their name and released the disarmingly wonderful ‘New Noise EP’ at the back end of the year with long running zine and promoter Pull Yourself Together. Its four tracks managed to inject the sort of emotional sincerity into its hypnagogic ambience that so many others this year had forgotten to include.
Everything Everything, Hurts and Delphic’s success barely needs commenting on – on varying levels its deserved, all three having worked solidly for a number of years to get to their big break, and it looks like they’ll be joined next year by another of the city’s local stalwarts, as the Cardiacs-leaning oddball pop of Dutch Uncles grows significantly with each live performance. It was these four, alongside some others, who the NME rounded up at Common Bar in the summer in a clumsy attempt to pigeonhole some sort of “post-legacy” scene, though, for me, far more of the exciting stuff came off that particular beaten track. Underground music collective Mind On Fire had a terrific year, their summer culminating in a trip to Soundwave in Croatia and seeing their previously championed artists such as producer XXXY and Gnod reach a wider, albeit still largely niche, audience. Part-promoters, part-band, part-label, their new LPGreat Minds Volume 1 acts as a celebration of what’s gone on and who they’ve put on over the previous twelve months. On a similar theme, From The Kites Of San Quentin saw both their Massive Attack-inspired trip-hop and semi-regular nights This City Is Ours begin to take off, a November support slot with 65 Days Of Static at Academy 2 just desserts for the trio. There was no one real genre or movement that stood out above the others this year though; prog-rockers Trojan Horse finally put their debut LP out (reviewed here) and regular live playmates With That Knife and Deaf To Van Gogh’s Ear released their own cerebral math-rock singles, but equally impressive on a different spectrum was the gentle ambience of Borland and the understated synergy behind electronic duo D/R/U/G/S’ floor fillers.
Most of these acts found their statuses enhanced with appearances at Manchester’s ever growing number of festivals. 2010 saw the venerable In The City move to the Northern Quarter in its 19th year, and it returned to bustling, exuberant form in October, as headliners No Age and Health flew across from the US to play alongside the likes of Pulled Apart By Horses, Factory Floor and Mount Kimbie. As well as a slightly higher profile line-up and a more all-inclusive feel for both industry and music fan, proof that the showcase can still pay financial dividends occurred when local lo-fi garage group Mazes found themselves picked up by Fat Cat in wake of their scuzzy 25 minute set at Night & Day. Others standing out in a busy calendar included another innovative FutureEverything looking line-up in May, featuring Konono No. 1, Omar Souleyman and Ryoji Ikeda, while Postcards From Manchester’s annual festival featured Here We Go Magic and Allo Darlin’, packing out the Deaf Insitute in September. Perhaps the strongest of the year though was Salford’s Sounds From The Other City festival, which took the hub of Manchester’s music community and placed them in old mills, churches and pubs away from the city centre to resounding sell-out success. It helped that in utilising local promoters, the festival had a distinct home grown aura to it despite the presence of international acts like Chrome Hoof, Bo Ningen and Kelpe, and with all the venues situated within ten minutes walk of each other on Chapel Street there was an undeniable communal feel that in the end gave the day it’s true lasting impression.
Who to look out for in 2011…
When I was but a young lad still passing the time of day in the far flung wilderness of the North East during the mid noughties, a Mancunian-based friend of mine pointed me the way of Air Cav, a four-piece whose feedback driven psychedelia was concocted against the back drop of traditional English folk music, to these teen ears it sounded thrilling. Five or so years on, and with only a handful of singles since, the wait for them to deliver their debut LP is nearly over as, after band member changes, contract wrangles and other issues, they’re finally in the stages of mixing their as-yet untitled debut album with demo snippets sounding hugely promising.
Another group well overdue a return are schizophrenic three-piece Cats In Paris, whose follow up to 2008’s incendiary Courtcase 2000 is also edges nearer to completion, while self-described “aggresively chilled” math rockers Cyril Snear have a second album of their own ready to drop in the summer following the cautious prog of 2009’s slow burning In Seven Types Of Monotreme.
Before all of that though there’s the new EP from the shambolic but wonderful Well Wisher to contend with as well as more stately offerings from the violin-tinged grandeur of Spokes, whose debut LP Everyone I Ever Met comes out on January 17th, and Chorlton folk collective Samson & Delilah who bring out ‘Black Dog’ this month also.
Sounds Of 2010
Twelve tracks that made up my 2010, who have I missed? Who had a great year? Who should I look out for in 2011? Comment below or pester me on @essjaycats.