Category Archives: music

The Alarm – Equals (review)

I’ve been a fan of Welsh rockers the Alarm since I first discovered music in the eighties. Back then, their passion, integrity and sheer intensity spoke to me, and it still does. I’m happy to report that though the intervening thirty years or so have brought ups and downs, for me as well as the band, we are all still here. That’s something to raise a glass to. This might be the first official Alarm album of new material since 2010’s Direct Action. I say ‘might’ because it’s difficult to keep track as Mike Peters (sole survivor of the original incarnation of the Alarm and driving creative force) is one of the most prolific figures in rock. In the past few years there have been countless reissues, soundtracks, live albums and re-recordings of earlier material, as well as the recent Blood Red/Vinyl Black project, mostly put out through his own 21st Century Recordings label, all of which muddy the waters somewhat. You do get the feeling, however, that most of the aforementioned has been leading up to the release of Equals, which has more in common, both lyrically and thematically, with Direct Action than anything that has come between the two releases.

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When I started writing this review, I told myself that it should be more about the music than the man. God knows, there have been more than enough column inches written about Mike Peters’ (and latterly his wife Jules’) health issues. But it quickly became apparent that this was going to be easier said than done, as over the years the music and the struggle have become inexorably linked. Thriving in the face of adversity is a big component of the bigger picture, and in my opinion to not understand and acknowledge the back-story detracts slightly from the power of the music. To quote the Classic Rock review of Equals, “The fact that this album exists at all is a testament to the endurance of the indomitable human spirit in the wake of tragedy and woe.”

The tone is set from the restrained yet subtly defiant opening chords of the first track Two Rivers, an uplifting synth-led rocker with a lyrical focus on redemption and reinvention, and continues into standout track Beautiful, another hard-edged anthem with a soft centre. The next track sees Mike Peters rekindle his bromance with Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, who does a serviceable job adding some depth and potency to Coming Backwards, before the pace drops slightly for Transatlantic. The scathing, socio-political commentary of Crowd Trouble follows before we are hit by Peace Now, a kissing cousin to Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World, which The Alarm covered in 1991 for their Raw album. A nice touch is the repurposing of Pink Floyd’s famous “Just another brick in the wall” lyric, along with the “No guitars in the war machine” refrain. The next highlight for me is another stirring anti-war Cenotaph, which surely ranks among the best Alarm songs ever written. Like Peace Now, this track was debuted a couple of years ago on the well-received Spirit of ’86 tour, itself a continuation of the Year of Strength, where it slotted in seamlessly alongside an expansive repertoire of 80’s classics. The album closes out with Hell Fire (on CD and download only) and Tomorrow which, from a slightly whimsical opening, builds to a soaring crescendo of a climax. A fitting way to finish.

You already know what you’re going to get with an Alarm/Mike Peters release, so there’s a small element of preaching to the converted here. Peters found his niche decades ago. He knows what the people who buy his music want and, apart from adding the occasional dance beat or funky bass line, is unlikely to break any new ground at this point in his career. But why should he? If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. Impassioned and poignant, Equals stands as one of the best albums of his career to date, and it’s out now.

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Senses Fail – If There is Light (review)

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It’s weird how some bands stick with you and accompany you on your journey through life. Like a faithful dog that never dies, they’ll be at your side through thick and thin, good times and bad. Senses Fail are one of my ‘go-to’ bands. They are inspirational, and give me strength to continue when I don’t really feel like it. It’s not as if they try to be that way. When bands try too hard, it always comes across as lazy and contrived. But SF are real and they mean every word, even if those words aren’t always nice to hear. I know how lame that sounds,  but don’t just take my word for it. They aren’t the most technically gifted group of musicians in the world, but their passion, belief and enthusiasm for what they do is captivating.

How did all this start? Sometime in 2006 I was browsing Pure Volume for new music and came across the track Buried a Lie, from their debut album Let it Enfold You. This was when SF were riding the emo wave, though they were always more melodic hardcore than emo. Or post-hardcore, if you believe the record label. Some people call them screamo, others call them a punk band. Who knows what they are? Their music doesn’t really fit in any convenient category or sub-category, which is one of the reasons I love them so much. Another reason is the name. In Hinduism it is believed that being alive is a kind of hell, and the only way to reach Nirvana is to have no attachments to the physical world. No love, no job, no material possessions. You go out into the wilderness and meditate until you achieve the ultimate level of separation. As lead singer James ‘Buddy’ Nielsen explains, “If you want to reach the highest level of being and see God, you have to have all your senses fail.”

So even though on the face of it, ‘Senses Fail’ sounds like a massive negative (death?), it’s actually a metaphor for enlightenment or a higher state of consciousness.

Despite the labels they often get tagged with, SF aren’t always a blood and thunder kind of band. They release a lot of acoustic stuff which reveals their softer side, as evidenced by last year’s excellent In Your Absence EP. However, our first taste of seventh full-length If there is Light brings the thunder in spades. First single Double Cross, unleashed last November, is as bone-crushingly brutal as they come. It was soon followed by Gold Jacket, Green Jacket, and if this song was any more melodic they might have had a chart hit on their hands. Nielsen, who wrote that and every other track on the album, says the song is meant to give a voice to, “The millions of people struggling every day to follow their dreams and passions.” And it does. The third single release, New Jersey Makes, the World Takes, gave us more of the same and amped up the excitement levels to an all-time high.

As all three singles are sequenced in the first four tracks, you’d be forgiven for thinking some bright spark at the record label was doing some front-loading. But the sequencing works extremely well as Double Cross is the perfect opening track. Other stand-out’s for me are Is it Gonna be the Year and Stay what you Are, both infectious slices of vintage emo-tinged pop punk. The amazing thing is, they sound as fresh and vibrant as they would have had they been released back in 2004. The epic title track, which closes the album, also deserves a mention. Over the past few albums SF have built a reputation for making the closing track something to remember and they continue the tradition here. Like a microcosm of the album as a whole, If There is a Light is reflective, powerful, and moving. Anyone who has experienced profound loss and come out the other side will be able to relate to the subject matter, typified by the lyric, “I guess the best thing I can do with my time is love every minute of life.”

With producer Beau Burchell twiddling the knobs, SF vowed that their experimental phase was over and they were going back to their roots with this album, and it seems like they’ve kept their promise. It certainly has more in common with Still Searching than last full-length effort Pull the Thorns from your Heart (2015) which became their lowest-charting album to date. In the years between those releases they suffered several line-up changes and delivered the odd patchy piece of work. But here they are again, back from the dead and in top form. Front to back, this could be their best and most consistent album yet. Check it out immediately.

You might also like:

Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia (review)

Blink 182 – California (review)

BABYMETAL – Metal Resistance (review)

2016 – The Greatest Year in Music for Three Decades?

When Word Got Around about Cool Cymru


Five Thoughts

I recently did a fun piece with the Deviant Dolls where each of us had to lay out five random thoughts. Here are mine…

1: I Have no Faith in Politicians

And neither should you. No matter what party they represent, or what country they come from, all politicians have one thing in common. They are all lying, scheming, manipulative, self-serving assholes. You think any of them really want what’s best for you? Nope. They want what’s best for them. They want the power, the prestige, and the expense accounts. Whoever they claim to represent, the first sign of trouble they’re going to bail and leave you drowning in the sea of excrement they leave behind while they launch a new career doing after-dinner speeches for £6,000 a time. And it will be your own fault for voting for the cunts.

2: Music is Getting Progressively Worse

As I get older, I find myself experiencing some weird kind of musical regression. Another sign that modern life is rubbish. I just can’t stomach any chart music these days, apart from a bit of Taylor Swift. My music taste stalled in around 1995, and in recent years I’ve transcended even that embarrassment by discovering a penchant for 70’s and 80’s rock. Deep Purple, Bob Seger, Night Ranger, Cheap Trick, Survivor, you’ll find them all in prominent positions on my playlist. Did you know Survivor had an entire alternate career untainted by Rocky films? Me neither! Less happily, I also discovered that Jimi Jamison, the lead singer who featured on Burning Heart (Rocky IV), the Moment of Truth (Karate Kid) and, most famously, the Baywatch theme, died in 2014 as a result of methamphetamine intoxication.

3: And While we’re on the Subject…

The recording industry has never shied away from ripping people off, ever since the sixties when labels would release albums by their most popular artists, then put out singles that weren’t on it so fans would have to buy both. But what’s with these ‘Deluxe Versions’ of albums? They have to be the ultimate rip-off. A band puts out a nice, solid 12-track album. It sells well, and the fans love it. In fact, it does so well that six months later, the record label tags on two bonus tracks, either leftovers from the recording sessions or different versions of tracks already on the album, and re-releases it. Except this one costs more money. They might even pull the same trick further down the line and call it a ‘Super Deluxe Version,’ or a ‘Tour Edition.’ These days, some artists license exclusive editions, with subtle changes to the track listing, to large retailers like Target or Walmart, knowing that their hardcore fans, the ones they should be looking after rather than exploiting, will be eager to get everything they put out. Some things change, but record company execs being money-grabbing cunts is one thing that always stays the same.

4: Technology is Scary

When I was a kid, the height of technological advancement was the Betamax VCR. And that, my friends, was a fucking revelation. You can watch horror movies, with the gory bits still in, whenever you want? Get the fuck outta here!

Now you can make your own movies. On your phone. And then share them with millions of people at the touch of a button. What the actual fuck? Of course, technology comes at a price, and like most people my age, I’m very glad the Internet didn’t exist when I was young and stupid, because there’s no way I’m living that shit down.

5: Aliens Exist

I believe in ’em. What’s up? When I admit this to people, they very often laugh in my face. But what’s so hard to believe? It’s incredibly arrogant and naïve to go around thinking that in all the infinite vastness of space, the only intelligent life exists right here on this one little floating speck of dust. We don’t even know what lives at the bottom of the ocean for fuck’s sake. Take the blinkers off. The truth is out there.

This post originally appeared  on the Deviant Dolls website.

 

 

 


When Word Got Around About Cool Cymru

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Stereophonics debut album, Word Gets Around. I’ll skip the ‘I can’t believe it was so long ago!’ rhetoric and get right to why it was significant. 1997 was the peak of Cool Cymru, a spin-off from the Britpop-fuelled Cool Britannia movement, which deemed it a positive thing to be from Wales. This was new to me. Until then, for most people living in the valleys, our existence had been anything but cool. Frustrating, alienating and angst-ridden maybe, but never cool. Wales is a nice place to visit, but has been on an economic down-turn since Thatcher closed the coal mines in the 80s. Sadly, no money often equals no prospects, no hope, and no reason to believe that will change any time soon. Cue high crime rates, teenage pregnancies, and widespread alcohol and drug abuse.

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While Cool Britannia was typified by a new influx of guitar bands with suitably provocative one-word names (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Sleeper, Cast, Keane, Embrace, to name but, er, nine) Cool Cymru was always about more than music. Sure, it was spearheaded by the Stereophonics, The Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and the Super Furry Animals, but it encapsulated so much more. Howard Marks was showing us that bad boys really can come good, in the sporting arena we had Joe Calzaghe (boxing), Ryan Giggs (football) and Scott Gibbs (rugby). The Cardiff Devils ice hockey team were dominant, Ioan Gruffudd was on the Titanic, Twin Town was all the rage, and a national referendum voted ‘yes’ to devolution. The emphasis was very much on growth, progress and change, the historic Cardiff Arms Park being demolished to make way for a plush new venue (the Millennium Stadium) symptomatic of this general shift in attitude. It was an exciting time, filled with optimism and grand expectations, and through it all was an overriding sense that anything was possible.

All this was manifested in the music, and Word Gets Around is a prime example. Not much time for naval-gazing on the Welsh music scene. We were too busy getting wasted and jumping around, high on the fact that if a bunch of beery blokes from a tiny village near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley called Cwmaman could make it, any of us could. The album kicks off with a quartet of fast-paced, fist-pumping, balls-out floor fillers laden with killer riffs and pop hooks. A Thousand Trees, Looks Like Chaplin, More Life in a Tramp’s Vest and Local Boy in the Photograph which, incidentally, were the band’s first four singles, breeze by in a combined total of about eleven minutes, before things are taken down a few notches for track (and single) five, Traffic. These songs are still regulars in the band’s live gigs today.

“Is anyone going anywhere?

Everyone’s got to be somewhere.”

The second half of the album, or side 2 if you are a vinyl worshipper, is where you’ll find all the deep cuts. Two of my all-time favourite ‘Phonics tracks, Same Size Feet and Too Many Sandwiches, reside there. Most of the songs on Word Gets Around are about small-town life, holding a magnifying glass against it and articulating the desire to escape that we all felt, or are based on actual events in and around Cwmaman. Weddings, funerals, suicides, sexual abuse, violent encounters and mundane acts like selling fruit in dying market stalls. Like most valley towns, Cwmaman is a place you don’t visit unless you have to, or you are very, very lost. The isolation can be both a blessing and a curse, and songs like Goldfish Bowl and Last of the Big Time Drinkers’ sum up this state of existence perfectly. Lyrically, the former is pretty self-explanatory, while the latter is about working a dead end job with your only release being a few pints in the local at the end of the week.

“I don’t live to work,

I work to live,

I live at the weekend.”

The album closes on the poignant ballad Billy Davey’s Daughter, about a young girl who drowns herself, which is another standard that has stood the test of time. It’s probably one of the strongest tracks on the record, and it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see it released as a single. But then again, five singles was enough. This isn’t Michael Jackson we’re talking about. While we’re on the topic, a few words must be said about the sheer quality of b-sides to be found on the singles that were released, most of which have been included on various re-issues. Carrot Cake & Wine is strong enough to grace virtually any album of the decade and Poppy Day isn’t far behind, while covers of The Last Resort (originally by The Eagles) and Who’ll Stop the Rain (Creedence Clearwater revival) not only pay homage to the ‘Phonics roots, but make decent additions to any collection.

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The year before, the ‘Phonics had been the first band to sign to Richard Branson’s new V2 label which meant they had some money and industry clout behind them, ensuring the album reached number six on the UK charts and eventually went triple platinum. Later albums may have sold more (2001’s Just Enough Education to Perform remains their biggest seller to date), but Word Gets Around is the one that got under people’s skin, and is still a firm fan favourite. It featured the original, stripped-down line up of Kelly Jones, Richard Jones and Stuart Cable, who were so polished through years of playing together in workingmen’s clubs that they were as tight as the proverbial nun’s arse. And just as dirty. This is the sound of a band on the cusp, energetic, wide-eyed and hungry, before their next album Performance & Cocktails launched them into the stratosphere, and listening to Word Gets Around now two decades later still evokes the same feelings of defiant celebration.

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69 with Alice Cooper?

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It was Alice Cooper’s (who’s real name is Vincent, by the way) birthday recently. Hilariously, he turned 69. I didn’t do a blog about it then because, well, I had more important stuff to do. Now, though, I have a small gap he can fill. Ahem. To me he’s always been a bit of a parody, something that’s reflected in his image and OTT stage theatrics. It also comes across in his lyrics and song titles, some of which are cheesy, some derivative, some pervy, some borderline disturbing, and some just plain funny, whether intentionally or not.

I didn’t want to do just another tribute. I wanted to do something different and fun, which maybe hasn’t been done before. So here it is…

Top 10 Most Ridiculous Alice Cooper Song Titles Ever!

(and where you can find them)

10: Muscle of Love (Muscle of Love, 1973)

9: Earwigs to Eternity (Pretties for You, 1969)

8: Every Woman has a Name (Dragontown, 2001)

7: I’m the Coolest (Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, 1976)

6: You Look Good in Rags (Special Forces, 1981)

5: Mr. and Misdemeanor (Easy Action, 1970

4: I’ll Bite Your Face Off (Welcome 2 My Nightmare, 2011)

3: Take it Like a Woman (Brutal Planet, 2000)

2: I Never Wrote Those Songs (Lace & Whiskey, 1977)

1: Thrill my Gorilla (Constrictor, 1986)

Most Ridiculous Alice Cooper Album Title:

Zipper Catches Skin (1982)

What I Learned whilst Writing this Post:

1: Alice Cooper’s career didn’t end after 1989’s Trash, but probably should have.

2: He and Steve Carrel might actually be the same person.

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Boss Blogs #1: Meet Me in the City Tonight

For many people, seeing Bruce Springsteen live, especially with the E Street Band, is akin to a religious experience. His epic three-hour plus live shows are the stuff of legend. The vast majority of artists have their carefully arranged 16-song set consisting of a smattering of tracks from their latest sub-par album, closing the show with a few hits from when they were more popular to send the crowd home happy. They play the same songs, in the same order, every night. Even their salutations are hollow. “Thank you (INSERT NAME OF LATEST STOP ON THE TOUR)! This has been the greatest night of our lives!”

Of course it has, pal.

Springsteen doesn’t just go through the motions. Every show, every note of every song, is shot through with energy, emotion and intensity. Virtually every night the set list is different. Sometimes there are minor tweaks, sometimes there a radical overhaul. He usually does something special, making it unique for those lucky enough to be in attendance. He might dust off a rare deep cut, a non-album track, a new arrangement of an old classic, or an unexpected cover. He has an extensive repertoire to draw from, and nothing is off-limits. After Prince died last year he played Purple Rain as a tribute, in London he played the Clash song Clampdown in homage to Joe Strummer, and in Australia he played the relatively obscure INXS track Don’t Change as a nod to Michael Hutchence. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to witness him tackle a George Michael or Motorhead standard at some point. The first time he ever played in Wales on the Magic tour in 2008 he started the show with From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), in reference to the size and stature of the country.

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I’m not as fanatical as some Springsteen aficionados. I’ve met people who have seen him live literally hundreds of times, making my six gigs in four countries over twenty years seem pretty fucking weak. Still, I do have some good stories. Like the time I was on a coach coming back from Rotterdam and French border police decided to take us in a room one-by-one and strip search us all. I’d never had that treatment before, so that was an experience. As was travelling all the way from Wales to Philadelphia for the reunion tour in 1999 only to arrive at the venue to find the show had been cancelled because of a hurricane. After being shut in the hotel bar for the night, we eventually got to see another show later in the week so the trip wasn’t completely wasted. Unlike me that night in the hotel bar. At the actual gig, my then-girlfriend went out for a cigarette halfway through the show and security wouldn’t let her back in, so she had to stand in a car park by herself in downtown Philly for two hours. No, I didn’t go out to find her. A man has to get his priorities right. Besides, I didn’t know what had happened until later. There were no mobiles in 1999.

Thinking about it, my Boss gigging history has been dogged by drama. I was also at the infamous Hyde Park gig in 2012, when the council pulled the plug in the middle of a historic duet with Paul McCartney. Hilariously, the Boss started the next gig in Dublin in the middle of Twist & Shout and had a fake policeman drag him from the stage at the end. The first time I ever saw The Boss live was as a starry-eyed 18-year old at Wembley Arena in 1992. By some fluke, my friend and I had great seats, just a few rows from the front. But probably my favourite ever Boss gig was at the San Siro, Milan in the summer of 2003. I’ve always thought the music spoke to me on some weirdly personal level, and that show seemed to prove it. I still worked in a factory in Wales at the time. I had a car, a steady girlfriend and a PlayStation. All the things that are supposed to make you content. But man, I was so fucking miserable. I was beginning to realize it’s a big world out there, and I was frustrated at only being allowed to experience a tiny part of it. My first book had just been released and, I knew big changes were coming in my life. He sang ‘Follow That Dream,’ a song he doesn’t do often, and it almost sent me over the edge. It certainly put things in perspective. I decided to roll the dice and risk everything to pursue a career in writing. Within a few months, I’d split up with my girlfriend, sold my car, laid my PlayStation to rest (which I still think is the biggest loss) and moved to Southampton to study journalism. Strange how things turn out. I look back on that San Siro gig as some kind of tipping point.

When Bruce & the E Street Band began this latest tour, they were playing The River album in it’s entirety from start to finish, then a handful of oldies at the end. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. It was too rigid, too predictable. The handful of oldies at the end soon stretched to a dozen, then 15 or 16, and by the time he got to Europe the ‘whole album’ format had been discarded altogether in favour of a career-spanning mash-up. What’s even better is EVERY show is being recorded and released via his website. I used to collect live bootlegs. Over the years I amassed hundreds of them. I’ve always been aware that the studio albums, even taking into account the 4-CD retrospective set Tracks, only tell half the story. But they were expensive and the sound quality was hit or miss. Normally miss, to be fair. These new releases are absolutely flawless, and at $9.95 (MP3 format) for four hours of music, reasonably priced. There’s a bit of polishing and mixing going on, but if it enhances the sound quality I’m not against it like some purists are. Incidentally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think you can go far wrong by investing in the Washington National Park show.

After a few months off following the last US leg, the River tour found it’s way to Australia last month. Because, bizarrely, it’s summer there. And winds up next week in New Zealand. I’m envious of all you Australasians who were lucky enough to get tickets but I’m not that put out. I’ll just get the MP3s.

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2016 – The Greatest Year in Music for Three Decades?

No, this isn’t satire. This is some serious shit. Don’t mock. I know it’s a massive two-fisted claim, but when you think about it, 1986 was an outstanding year in music. Most of us just didn’t appreciate it at the time. Through no fault of their own, half the people who read this post probably weren’t even alive thirty years ago, which is a thought that absolutely terrifies me.

Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi, License to Ill by the Beastie Boys, The Queen is Dead by the Smiths, Invisible Touch by Genesis, Graceland by Paul Simon, A Kind of Magic by Queen, Master of Puppets by Metallica, So by Peter Gabriel, Liverpool by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Classics, one and all. Thirty-year old classics. Well, except that last one. Apart from Rage Hard Frankie’s long awaited follow-up to Welcome to the Pleasuredome was utter crap. But it was memorable crap.

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You might not think it, but look beneath the surface and you’ll see that three decades on, 2016 has been another stellar year in music for people of a certain persuasion. Not only did Blink 182 return revitalised and reinvigorated, but there were new albums from Bouncing Souls, Biffy Clyro, BabyMetal, Bayside, Bowling For Soup, and even a few bands that didn’t begin with ‘B,’ like Taking Back Sunday, Feeder, Good Charlotte, Yellowcard, Against Me! A Day to Remember, and the kings of modern punk rock (yes, I said it), Green Day. Still to come we have releases from Jimmy Eat World and Sum 41. Even the Ataris, who haven’t put out anything new since 2007, came to the party. Granted, October in the Railroad Earth is an EP made up of studio outtakes, so it’s neither a proper album nor new, but I’m including it here because I want to, and it’s fucking awesome.

You could say 2016 has been something of a pop punk renaissance, a fact further underlined by imminent new offerings from Billy Tallent, Tonight Alive, Set it Off, and the Starting Line. I think this speaks volumes about the state of the world we live in right now. People are fucked off and miserable. We want the happy back. Break out the fart jokes and beer, all is forgiven! ADTR, Blink and All Time Low even toured the US together in what is probably the greatest live bill I’ve never seen. Thanks for that. A slightly more unsettling alternative is that pop punk now qualifies as retro, and is benefiting from that warm, fuzzy nostalgia buzz that people yearn for when they hit their late-thirties. It’ll be popping up in Classic Rock mag next.

I realise all this might not mean much to some of you. But to get to the point, pretty much ALL my favourite bands of the past fifteen years or so are releasing new albums at roughly the same time. And not only that, but most of them are good! This is a truly unprecedented event of near-cataclysmic significance well worthy of a blog post. Like an inter-planetary alignment over Stonehenge or something. Now, if someone could get Funeral for a Friend to reform and knock out a new album by the end of the year, we’ll be golden. Ta.


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