I only purchased three albums and one EP during 2017. Admittedly, they’re extremely good ones, and by favourite bands – but that’s it. that’s my top five for this year. And it’s only four. I also went to only three gigs during the year – to see Magenta, Anathema and Akercocke – and I didn’t go to Bloodstock, after a six-year run, because it clashed with the Worldcon in Helsinki. And it looks increasingly likely I won’t be making Bloodstock in 2018 either. Ah well. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been consuming less music with each passing year. But I have a few theories. Partly, it’s economic – as the Tories have run down this country, first with their useless Austerity and now with their criminal Brexit, so fewer bands I like have toured the UK, and of those that do tour here, most stick to the major cities – some don’t even bother playing anywhere but London. Things changed at work too. I used to wear headphones when I was working, but I’ve been so busy these last couple of years I got out of the habit. And at home these days, I’m more likely to be in the living-room with a DVD on while I’m working on the laptop, than I am at the desk and listening to music.
Having said that, I’ve alwasy chased new music, rather than sit back and wait for the bands I like to release new albums. A lot of the metal bands I listen too aren’t professional, they have day jobs, and they have neither the time nor the money to put out a new album every year. But there were always new bands to find. But that requires time and effort from me, and I’ve just not been up to it this last year or two. Which means that for 2017’s best of, it was pretty much me sitting back and waiting for the bands I like to release new albums. Which, fortunately, some did. One band even reformed and released new album!
albums 1Aathma, Persefone (2017, Andorra). I’ve been a fan of Persefone’s complex progressive death metal since first hearing their album Core back in 2008. I’ve seen them live once, when they toured as support for Obituary in 2010. They were excellent. During the interval between their set and Obituary’s I wandered across to the merchandise table. One of Persefone’s guitarists was behind it. When I admitted I’d come to see them and not Obituary, he came round the table and hugged me. Persefone have not released many albums, but each one has been better than the last.
2Renaissance in Extremis, Akercocke (2017, UK). I first saw Akercocke back in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. Back then, they wore suits and had long hair, and had been nicknamed “Satan’s bankers”. I’ve seen them several times since – the most recently only a couple of months ago – and they always put on an excellent show, even if the suits and long hair are long gone. I was disappointed when they split u p – although that did give us Voices, an excellent band – but very happy indeed when they decided to reform. And Renaissance in Extremis is pretty much Akercocke on top form – it’s new, but it couldn’t be anybody but Akercocke. The editoin I bought came in a fancy hardback book, with three CDs.
3Beyond the Gate, Within the Fall (2017, Sweden). I came across this band a couple of years ago, and I’ve followed them ever since on bandcamp. They produce solid Scandinavian progressive death metal, and, okay, some times the clean vocals are a bit dodgy, but their guitar work is excellent. The title track to this four-track EP is especially good. The band is also surprisingly productive, althuogh they tend to release EPs rather than albums – but as a writer of novellas I can hardly complain.
4Farmakologinen, Oranssi Pazuzu (2017, Finland). I came across Oranssi Pazuz several years ago, chiefly because their music was described as a mixture of black metal and psychadelic space rock. And it actually was that. I loved their album Valonielu, and kept an eye open for new material. But they’re not very prolific, and while I missed 2016’s Värähtelijä, I didn’t miss this year’s Farmakologinen. And it’s just like the cover art suggests – a wall of black metal guitars with spacey psychadelic organ and bleeps and bloops. It shouldn’t work. But it does, it really does.
We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.
BOOKS 1Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.
2Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.
3The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.
4Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.
5Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.
Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.
Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.
FILMS 1Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.
2Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.
3Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.
4Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.
5The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.
Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.
And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.
ALBUMS 1Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.
2Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.
3From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.
4The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.
5Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.
Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.