Category Archives: Wales

Sker House 2020

Like most other people, I am struggling to take any positives from 2020. One positive, however, is the fact that I’ve had more time to reassess things, and tackle some of those jobs I’ve been putting off. One of those jobs was revising my novel, Sker House, my attempt at the ‘Great Welsh Haunted House Story.’

I worked on it sporadically for five or six years, mainly because there was so much research involved because I wanted it to be as factually accurate as possible. Sker House, and many of the places I talk about in the book, are real, and so are some of the local legends I reference including that of Kenfig Pool and the Maid of Sker. Well, they are at least as ‘real’ as legends can be, anyway. The book also incorporates some documented historical events, like the awful practice of wrecking and the Mumbles Lifeboat Disaster, which didn’t actually happen in Mumbles, but here at Sker Point.

In 2016 I got to a point where I was just done with Sker House. I was so desperate to get it out there, I forewent the process of looking for a traditional publisher, commissioned my old mate Greg Chapman to design a cover (based on an old postcard I found of the original Sker House) and decided to publish it myself. Or more accurately, via a now-defunct writer’s collective I was then part of.

Sker House 3D

Though it became my biggest selling book and picked up some great reviews, truth be told, I’ve never been 100% happy with the version of Sker House I originally put out. The plot was a bit meandering and unfocused in places, and I slipped into using the passive voice a bit too much. The back end of the book felt a bit rushed, and there were a few silly grammatical errors and the odd missing apostrophe or comma. In places I forgot I was writing for an international audience, and referenced things like the Dissolution of the Monastries without actually saying what it was, or what the implications were and how it tied in with the story. From a more practical standpoint, the formatting was also a bit wayward. I was still learning the ropes then and experimenting with different techniques and software.

Some things seem fine the first dozen times you read them, but if you go back and read them a thirteenth time years later you’ll probably find some things you’d like to change. The beauty of self-publishing, apart from maintaining complete creative control, is that you can do just that. During this re-write I also added 4,000 words or so to the original. I’m not sure how that happened because my intention was to do the opposite, but there you go.

Helped largely by a succesful Bookbub promotion, the first edition is my biggest selling book which means a lot of my readers already have it. If you’re one of the few thousand who are in possession of the original (now substandard) version, get in touch and I’ll send you a free copy of the 2020 remaster.

If you still haven’t visited Sker House, why not take advantage of the special relaunch offer I’m running and do so now? It shouldn’t need saying, but THIS INVITATION APPLIES TO THE BOOK ONLY. NOT THE ACTUAL HOUSE.

I said something similar before and got a solicitor’s letter from the house’s current owner. I don’t want that to happen again. 

The revamped, revised, rewritten, and remixed Sker House is available on ebook and paperback.

Onwards and upwards


Surzhai in ParABnormal magazine

My short story Surzhai, about an ill-fated meeting between modern day sex traffickers and a bunch of ancient Chinese warriors with supernatural powers and an axe to grind, has just been published in ParABnormal magazine.

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I wrote the story in the summer of 2019 after returning from a road trip through the Guangdong countryside with my then-girlfriend. We saw a lot of little isolated dwellings, and I began to wonder what life was like in those places, largely removed from the trappings of modern life. I’d read a news report about young girls being kidnapped in rural China and being sold into the sex trade, and as we all know, at least in fiction, you can’t have evil without good. Everyone loves a revenge story. Somehow, all these things became intertwined in my mind, and Surzhai emerged.

The Mandarin words ‘sur’ and ‘zhai’ combined mean something close to ‘Death Cult’ in English, at least colloquially, though I know it isn’t a direct fit. My Mandarin is awful, and I was scrambling to find something authentic sounding which had some kind of relevant meaning. It was a balancing act. You can send complaints to the usual address.

ParABnormal Magazine is a print digest released by Hiraeth Publishing which publishes original stories, articles, art, reviews, interviews, and poetry.

From the writer’s guidelines…

The subject matter of ParABnormal Magazine is, yes, the paranormal. For us, this includes ghosts, spectres, haunts, various whisperers, and so forth. It also includes shapeshifters, mythological creatures, and creatures from various folklores. If your story also has science fiction or fantasy elements, we regard that as a plus.

One last word on language and linguistics. Hiraeth Publishing are based in Iowa (like Slipknot!), but interestingly enough, ‘Hiraeth’ is an old Welsh word. There is no direct English translation but it means something close to ‘homesickness’ or a sense of yearning/regret. As a proud Welshman, that struck a chord with me.

The latest issue of ParaABnormal is available now…

 


The Alarm – Stream (Hurricane of Change) (review)

The Alarm were bothering the charts long before the triumphant one-two combination of Equals and Sigma. Between 1987 and 1989 they released a trio of seminal albums beginning with Eye of the Hurricane and ending with Change, with the live mini-album Electric Folklore sandwiched in between. The late eighties were turbulent times, not just for the band, who despite arguably being at their commercial and creative peak were beginning to be torn apart by internal politics and squabbling, but also in a wider social context. This was the aftermath of the Miner’s strikes, and when the Berlin Wall fell shortly afterwards it catapulted Europe and the rest of the world into a period of seismic change. While all this was going on, lead singer Mike Peters travelled extensively through his homeland of Wales in a bid to rediscover his roots. During that period of intense retrospection he wrote extensively, many of the lyrics eventually being incorporated into the songs which appeared on the original albums while others fell by the wayside and still others remained unfinished or in some cases even unwritten.

Though it was their third official release (fourth if you count the debut EP) the original Eye of the Hurricane was the first Alarm record I ever bought, and I soon busied myself filling out my collection. The fact that I ended up with some of that collection on vinyl, some on cassette, and some on CD was perhaps indicative of the uncertainty of the times. The thing that resonated with me most wasn’t the anthemic, fist-pumping choruses or impassioned musicianship, though those things definitely played a part, but more the lyrics. In a landscape consisting mostly of Bon Jovi and Guns N Roses clones, it was refreshing to hear someone singing about the place where I was from, and about the things that mattered to me, especially at that stage in my life. I was 13 or 14, and things are especially confusing then. You begin to ask questions and seek meaning, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the Alarm’s music helped me find answers to some of those questions.

Thirty years later, Peters has revisited that period and put all the material in a modern context, recently commenting:

I have always thought of these three albums as an Alarm trilogy. A lot happened to the band and the world, during the writing and recording sessions from 1987-1990. As one decade bled into another, the themes of response and resolve to contend with uncertain times are running through the core of each and every album. Played together, these songs tell their own story and, with the tumultuous times Europe and the USA can expect to face in the coming months and years, are still as relevant today as when they were first written.”

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The original tracks have been re-recorded or even re-imagined, those unfinished or unwritten songs have finally been laid down, and the whole thing adapted into a sprawling double album called Hurricane of Change tied together with segments of poetry and spoken-word narratives. Mike Peters has adopted a similar approach in recent years with re-recordings of earlier Alarm albums Declaration and Strength which, though critically and commercially well received, split much of the fanbase with some appreciating the new interpretations and others maintaining that the original recordings should be left as they are. My stance has always been firmly in the former camp. I enjoy hearing different versions of my favourite songs. Always have. Remixes, remasters, covers, demos, acoustic or live versions, bring them on. Music, like life, is always progressing and evolving whether we like it or not. If your favourite flavour ice cream is strawberry, it doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy the occasional scoop of mint choc chip as well. Besides, the hardcore traditionalists will always have the original recordings by the original line-up. It’s not like anyone is forcing them to surrender their record collection at gunpoint.

This is an ambitious project, told in chronological order with the emotive autobiographical spoken-word parts delivered by Peters, with a supporting cast of members including his wife Jules, and other members of the band, all adding depth and a theatrical quality that was missing from the originals. Most of the re-imagined songs, slower-paced and piano-heavy, bear little relation to the original versions. Rain in the Summertime and Rescue Me, two of the band’s biggest hits, are virtually unrecognisable. Of the new songs, for me Ghosts of Rebecca and The Ballad of Randolph Turpin stand out both lyrically and sonically dealing, as they do, with folk heroes and uprisings, and really do sound at home in this setting. The first disc (dubbed Downstream) presents the Eye of the Hurricane album, where the new songs serve as missing pieces. The second disc (Upstream) is comprised of tracks originally found on the Change album, including Where a Town Once Stood which I tactfully re-purposed as the title of one of my stories recently, as well as a few b-sides recorded around the same time and another new song, A New Day. The whole package makes a worthy addition to any Alarm fan’s collection, serving to put the original albums in context and take the songs down a different, lyrically-focused route where there is more of an impetus on mood, atmosphere, and storytelling rather than eighties radio-friendly pomp.

Watch the official trailer for Hurricane of Change HERE.

Peters describes the recording process thus:

“By looking at the lyrics afresh, I have now been able to fully realise what I was grasping for as a songwriter and lyricist in 1987-1989. Back then, my confidence had been blunted by a difficult creative process, and I had always privately felt that there was a lot more left to be discovered within the original body of music. With these new recordings, I have been able to realise a torrent of new possibilities and emotions and, in turn, draw them out of the very same songs. By recording Hurricane of Change in this new way, I feel that I have been able to liberate my original lyrical vision and re-present the music in a way that I believe, is just as relevant, if not more vital than ever before.”

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Go HERE for merchandise, tickets, and Alarm/Mike Peters recordings.

 


Demon Tree @ Haunted MTL

My short story Demon Tree is now free to read on the new horror website Haunted MTL, which features a steady stream of news, reviews, and horror fiction definitely not for the squeamish. I also did an interview with them recently, which you can read here if you’re interested.

There’s a little pine forest near my childhood home in south Wales, and on summer days I enjoy walking through it to get to the country pub on the other side. It’s a beautiful area, with rolling mountains, a sea of green, and wild horses roaming the fields. But there’s something weird and ominous about that forest. Maybe its the way the shadows move, or the way the canopy steals the sunlight. It just makes you uneasy, and you can’t help but hurry along the narrow path that takes you through. When I get to the other side, I always wonder why I didn’t take my time. I wanted to try to express the way it makes me feel in a story, and hence Demon Tree was born.

demon tree pic

Something else that often goes through my mind when I go to that forest is the role trees and the natural world played in Celtic Britain. The druids worshipped trees, with each one said to have a different significance, and some were considered sacred. I thought it might be fun to play around with that concept a little and reverse it. Throw in some graphic and (I hope) unsettling imagery, and you have a story.

I hope you like it.

And do check out Haunted MTL for all your horror news. 

Suitably moody pic stolen from Google images.


The Corona Book of Ghost Stories

I am pleased to report that my 6th short story of the year, Where a Town Once Stood, has been included in the Corona Book of Ghost Stories on Corona Books, UK-based independent publishers of the “brilliant, innovative and quirky.”

Corona

 

I’m not sure which category Where a Town Once Stood belongs, probably the third one. It’s a pretty straight-forward ghost story with a dash of social commentary based on a period of my life when I was trying to break into journalism. I was still working full-time in a packing factory, so I did a few voluntary shifts at a local newspaper called the Merthyr Express in my spare time. I just wanted to see what went on behind the scenes at a newspaper. Suffice to say it wasn’t exactly Fleet Street. In fact, it was far more boring than I thought possible, and while I sat in the office fielding phone calls about fetes and community meetings I yearned for something exciting to happen. A real-life ghost story would have been the dream, but there were times when I would have settled for a giant cucumber story.

Reading it now, Where a Town Once Stood would be a perfect addition to my series of stories set in the fictional Welsh village of Wood Forge. For some reason however, I named the village Tref y Meirw which (I think) means ‘Town of the Dead’ in Welsh.

A little private joke there.

By the way, to give credit where it’s due, I appropriated the title Where a Town Once Stood from an Alarm song about the decline of post-industrial Wales from the seminal album Change.

Check out the ToC:

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The Corona Book of Ghost Stories is out now.


Feeder – Tallulah (review)

My introduction to Feeder came on 31st December 1999 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, at an event headlined by the Manic Street Preachers. Coming at the height of both the Britpop and Cool Cymru movements, it was billed as Manic Millennium and at the time was the biggest indoor music event ever. It was also Y2K, the night the world was supposed to end. It didn’t. In fact, nothing happened. But we didn’t know that at the time, and the tension-edged excitement and we really did party like it was 1999. There were several other bands on the bill that night; Shack, Super Furry Animals, as well as a spoken-word slot from Nicky Wire’s poet brother Patrick Jones, but even though they played a severely truncated set, Feeder stole the show for me. The energy they emitted during Insomnia and the raw emotion of High were definite highlights. I was hooked. Most of the material came from then-current album Yesterday Went Too Soon, but they didn’t really make it big until a couple of years later when Buck Rogers became a massive hit and exposed them to a whole new fanbase. Then came the usual array of ups and downs experienced by most bands who stick around for twenty-plus years, before their current resurgence saw them claim their rightful spot near the top of the rock tree, and near the top of the charts.

So, here we are.

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Always prolific, Tallulah is Feeder’s tenth album proper, not including compilations, EPs and Arrow, the album of new material released as part of 2017’s ‘Best Of’ collection. Their longevity is impressive, despite never being on a major label and benefiting from the associated financial clout. First single Fear of Flying, written through the eyes of a female rock star waiting for the bubble to burst, could almost be autobiographical. As you might expect, Fear of Flying is one of the standout tracks on what is undoubtedly a very strong album. Elsewhere, the lyrics touch on such themes as living in the social media age, nostalgia, growing old and the constant pursuit of happiness. In interviews, songwriter, guitarist and frontman Grant Nicholas has said opener and second single Youth deals, in part, with mental health and the 2002 suicide of former drummer Jon Lee which reduced the trio to a duo, something he is still coming to terms with. These sentiments might seem slightly at odds with the jangly, upbeat tempo, but the weighty lyrics tell the story. Elsewhere, as with the title track, Kite, and especially Guillotine, things are a bit more introspective and subdued. Truth be told, Feeder are at their best when treading the middle ground, as they do on Blue Sky Blue (which was reputedly written for Liam Gallacher because let’s be honest, he needs the help) and the radio-friendly Shapes and Sounds. The weirdest and downright heaviest track (and, conversely, the longest) here is the crunching Kyoto, which sounds as if the band are trying to recapture their Swim/Polythene period.

Like most albums, there are a few tracks on Tallulah which pass by without saying or doing much, but to offset this there are several hidden gems. Rodeo calls to mind earlier single Idaho, and the utterly brilliant Windmills could grace any Feeder album. For the traditionalists, all the usual influences are there (Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies, Husker Du) and in that sense Feeder stay loyal to their roots and the spiky indie guitar sound that made them famous. However, some tracks are more Foo Fighters or Tom Petty, and there is very a progressive feel to many of the tracks. All in all, this is a great collection, and a definite contender for album of the year, even if it the title makes it sound like a homage to a Thai ladyboy.

Tallulah is available now, and is an absolute bargain at £5 for the digital download.


Flame Wars!

I’ve had a few interesting experiences recently. My life is full of interesting experiences. I seem to attract them. But these particular interesting experiences involved social media.  What a strange world we’ve created. Sometimes, it’s a free-for-all. Other times, it’s worse. I’m talking about flame wars, people!

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A couple of weeks ago, a guy sent me a friend request on Facebook, closely followed by a copy-and-pasted ‘Please fund my Kickstarter’ message. He was trying to raise funds to make a horror movie. I replied, saying I’d be happy to support him, if he supported me in return. If he would be so kind as to buy one of my books, I would gladly make a comparable donation to his Kickstarter scheme. Seems like a fair deal, right?

You know what he did? He blocked me.

Rude!

Even Kickstarter guy couldn’t match another dude I ran into recently for pure assholery. This guy added me out of the blue claiming to be a ‘Hollywood Celebrity.’ It was actually in his Facebook bio. I messaged him, out of genuine interest, and asked how he won this celebrity status. In all fairness, he took time out of his busy superstar schedule to respond with a chirpy, ‘Hard work, motherfucker!’

I replied with, ‘What work is that?’ Quite reasonable, I thought. I wanted to get to know my new celebrity friend. Yup, that sucker blocked me, too.

I HATE it when people block me. I rarely feel strongly enough to block others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a universal rule. Some blockings are completely justified. Like the fake profiles fronted up by stolen pics of babes in bikinis that just want to spam your page with ads for sunglasses, or the ridiculously attractive Filipino girls who want you to send them money for a new phone. You can also add angry exes, terrorists, asylum seekers, and assorted gold diggers and career criminals to that list. But the truth is, it’s rarely so dramatic. Most blockings result from trivial online disagreements.

For example, you might be involved in one of those ridiculous group chats at two in the morning discussing the merits (or not) of Metallica’s latest album, when someone disagrees with something you say and instantly hits the block button. That really gets my goat. It’s the equivalent of farting and leaving the room. What would happen if we all just blocked everyone who had a different opinion to us? Our narrow online world would soon be populated by a bunch of people who all think the same way we do. It world would become one big echo chamber. And how boring would that be?

It’s a sad indictment of the human condition that most people just want their ego stroked. In short, they want validation.

What they DON’T want is to be challenged. Some do, obviously. That’s why they actively seek out controversial topics and discussions and say stupid shit. But the vast majority just want people to agree with them. Say how right they are, and how wrong everyone else is.

Well, here’s an idea. How about us, as a race, manning the fuck up? If someone doesn’t agree with you, stand and fight your ground, put your ideas and opinion across in a calm, rational manner. Help the other person see things the way you do. Don’t just go crying off like a little gutless princess. That’s weak.

Some people jealously guard their Facebook page, as if anyone actually cares what they say on it. They keep their ‘friends’ to a minimum and have rules like, ‘If I don’t know you in real life, I don’t want to know you on FB.’

That’s understandable. But it’s not how I roll. My Facebook page is a free-for-all. An open window into my life. Being a struggling indie writer (we’re all struggling) I need the exposure, so the more ‘friends’ I have and the more interaction I can promote, the better. It’s an integral part of my platform. I also move around a lot. I’ve lived in eight cities in three countries over the past decade or so. Facebook makes it easy to stay in touch with people who would otherwise disappear from my life. So yeah, my Facebook page is utter carnage sometimes.

One of my pet hates is people coming on to one of my social media profiles and telling me off. My pages are my domain. You may as well run in my house and yell at me. Not cool. The Brexit debacle of 2016, closely followed by the American election, prompted a whole new level of Internet assholery. One acquaintance wrote ‘Get a better brain, get better friends,’ on my wall then promptly unfriended me. I messaged him to ask what his problem was, and apparently my crime was ‘liking’ something he didn’t like. I shit you not. This is how petty things were.

In the resultant fallout from Brexit, I was called things I’d never been called before, including right wing thug, fascist, and Nazi sympathiser. All those came from the same guy.

His issue stemmed from the fact that at the time I had a red dragon as my cover picture on my Facebook page, because Wales were doing well at the Euros (it’s a football tournament). Some people decided that because I had a dragon on my page, the national symbol of Wales, I must be a racist. What’s gone so wrong with society that people confuse national pride with racism?

When you take these accusers to task, they invariably try to show their superior intellect by nit-picking. In one conversation I misplaced an apostrophe. In another, I used the common abbreviation ‘U’ instead of ‘you’ because I couldn’t be bothered typing three letters when one would do. Both were jumped upon with great delight, as if that was the only thing that could justify their argument. MISPLACED APOSTROPHE? HA! YOU MUST BE A THICK XENOPHOBIC RACIST!!

Not really, mate.

Block.

The saddest and most ironic thing of all was that these ‘Remainers’ who supposedly pride themselves on a liberal attitude and racial tolerance made a snap judgement based on a picture. That isn’t very tolerant, is it? They believed what they WANTED to believe. They wanted to assume the moral high ground and label me a ‘Leaver’ and, by extension, right-wing, fascist, Nazi-sympathising scum. The truth is, I didn’t even vote to leave. Okay, I didn’t vote to remain, either. I was one of the apathetic 27.3% who couldn’t be arsed to vote at all. Far from being neutral, it turned out to be the only position guaranteed to piss almost everyone else off, except other people who by then had run out of all their fucks.

More recently, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment on a friend’s status, about him posting too many statuses, and one of his friends told me to go and kill myself.

Harsh.

And another block. I don’t need that level of hostility.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Use social networks as tools, not weapons, and don’t be dicks about it.

This post first appeared on Deviant Dolls


Where the ‘M’ Comes From

I’ve been doing this for a while now, and you may have noticed I use different names for different kinds of writing. For academic writing and more formal or serious stuff, I use my full given name. It looks more official. For sport, lifestyle and comedy writing, I use the slightly snappier moniker Chris Saunders. And for fiction, I usually use the name C.M. Saunders . There are practical reasons for doing this. I like to keep different facets of my writing career separate because it’s easier to get my head around. Besides that, the people who read my horror fiction would probably be deeply disappointed if they accidentally picked up one of my travel books, or the one I wrote about Cardiff City FC, and vice versa.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me why I use C.M. Saunders, especially since I don’t actually have a middle name, and so no middle initial. It’s kind of a happy coincidence that my boyhood nickname was Moony. Because I have a round face, apparently. I guess it could have been a lot worse. There was a boy in my street called Dickhead. Anyway, no. That’s not where the M comes from. It’s not as straightforward as that. But there is a very good reason for it and I’m going to tell you what that reason is.

It’s for my grandfather on my mother’s side. Firstly, he’s probably part of the reason I grew up to be so into the whole horror thing. He was a big reader, and would go to the local library a couple of times a week. This was back when libraries had books. Whenever I went to visit him and my grandmother in his bungalow at the top of the village when I was a kid, he would always have the latest horror novels lying on the table next to his reading chair. I was too young to read them, or even remember much, I just loved looking at those covers. Stephen King, James Herbert, Graham Masterton.

A little word about my granddad, or Pop as we called him. His name was Stanley Martin. Here he is with my gran and my sister in 1982.

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And here’s where he lived, New Tredegar, south Wales.

New Tredegar, South Wales

Like my other granddad on my father’s side, he was a coal miner almost all his life. Proper old school Welsh. This is Elliot’s Town colliery, where he used to work.

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Being a miner was a hard life. He would delight in telling me, my sister, and cousins horror stories. Some were things that really happened to him or his friends, some were local myths or legends, and he probably made the rest up just to entertain us. The man was covered in little blue scars where coal dust had got into his cuts when he was underground, and he was still coughing up black shit twenty years after he was pensioned off. He and my nan Lillian had three daughters, including my mother. All three daughters grew up and got married. As per tradition, when they got married they took the names of their husbands so pretty soon, the Martin name disappeared. I always thought that was a bit sad, and when I started taking fiction a bit more seriously and was looking around for a pseudonym to distinguish it from my journalism, I thought using the ‘M’ initial might be a cool way to keep the name ‘Martin’ alive. Stanley Martin died a long time ago, and when he did his surname died with him. Now, every time I have something published under the name C.M. Saunders, it’s a silent nod to the man who introduced me to horror. If there’s a heaven, I know he’s up there looking down and winking at me.


The Last Night Shift @ Deadman’s Tome

Heads up! My short story, The Last Night Shift, was included in a recent edition of Deadman Tome’s free-to-read (and download) horror zine.

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The Last Night Shift is one of my oldest stories. I wrote the first draft about twenty-five years ago, when I worked in a packing factory. That’s why the protagonist works in a packing factory. One night he meets a new colleague, who has some extremely strange mannerisms and eating habits. In fact, it’s almost as if he comes from another world.

A factory life was the only life I knew back then, and I wrote stories to escape my humdrum existence. It’s a bit rough, and not as polished as my later stories, but I like it that way. It’s raw, and has a kind of innocence about it. I hope I managed to capture a little of the frustration and hopelessness that comes with working a crap job. Because of what I considered to be its flaws, I never really felt confident in the Last Night Shift, and I hardly ever sent it out to publishers. After a while I started to question why I’d written it at all. Was it just a part of my learning curve? A sign post on my writing journey? Or did it represent an important stop in itself?

I never forgot about The Last Night Shift. I was just waiting for the right opportunity. Then, a few months ago, I saw a submission call by Jesse Dedman, and for some reason it popped into my head. I decided to take a shot, and thankfully, the shot whistled into the back of the net. I’m a bit worried about how people will take it, but at the same time I’m excited that The Last Night Shift will finally have an audience.

The Last Night Shift brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Dead end job.’

Download the zine for free, with no strings attached, HERE.

 


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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