Thousands of years ago, humans decided that a great way to kill time was to hit drums with sticks and dance around a fire. In a lot of respects, things haven’t really changed all that much. Now there’s just a few more layers of complexity, a little more posing and the fire is sometimes replaced with a swirling mass of grappling humans.
It’s probably worth mentioning where what you are about to read comes from. Every week between 12-2PM on DemonFM, a little show called “TENSION” goes live, and I steer the ship (weather permitting). What started off a few years back as a brief and fairly incoherent association of punky bands has evolved into a labyrinthine and esoteric omni-genre organism. In a manner similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, it rose from the airwaves with the sole purpose of shaking things up, and ending up being appreciated. These days it’s more of a cult than anything. “The Tensionistas” are a globally disparate bunch of folks, listening in as far as California, Illinois and perhaps most surprisingly, Barnsley. But The Tensionistas are not one of those weird cults where you have to pray to a sheep or something: they just listen because they love the music.
I characteristically digress. I thought that seeing as the academic year has drawn to a close, it only seems appropriate to look back on a year of tunes and judge which ones have left the biggest mark on myself and the show. Some of these have been released recently and I have loved sharing with the world, whilst some are already legendary without my input. Either way, here it is. The TENSION Top 10 of 2016 AD. Subjective, in no particular order, kinda long, imperfect and just how it should be: with a whole lot of love put into it.
#1 LOVE by Monster Jaw (Basement Sessions)
Bradford’s finest, taken too soon. Monster Jaw were a phenomenal three-piece rock outfit with a refreshing tendency for harmony over chaos. I say ‘were’ because they broke up in late 2015, leaving a gaping hole in my heart. That hasn’t stopped my playing one of their songs almost every week, and I’m sure I will continue to do so until the show stops being broadcast.
They had attitude. There was a thumping rhythm section and some seriously whacked-out guitar pedals that made their songs seem like they were constantly in a struggle between reality and some sci-fi principle of unconsciousness, getting ready to drift into a artificial half-dream. I always thought that if the soundtrack of Bladerunner got a tattoo and a lip piercing, it would have been Monster Jaw. “Love” was, for me, their best track as well as the one I saw them perform live last. For the record, I think I saw them five or six times – all brilliant gigs. “Love” is a bittersweet affair with a speeding-train of a bassline and foggy production that make it seem almost out of kilter with anything you’ve ever heard before. A brilliant song that, in my opinion, should have taken them into the stratosphere.
But I think a combination of them giving away a lot of their music and also some unwanted attention by idiots on the internet (MJ were closely associated with New Model Army, my favourite band, which some other fans took against strongly for an undisclosed reason) lead to their implosion. I’m led to believe that all members are still on great terms and remain friends. I can only hope, even on the strength of Love alone, that a reunion tour is on the cards at some point. I’d go to every gig.
#2 More Than Just Friends by The Damselles & The TC4 (The Damselles & The TC4)
Pointed out to me by long-serving Tensionista Dave, The Damselles quickly became an earworm and due to the miracle of social media, I actually got to talk to them about their music shortly after. I was barely familiar with their angelic harmonies and sugar-sweet ‘you-can’t-get-to-me-because-I-don’t-care’ attitude before the planets had aligned and I was sitting in an oyster bar in Los Angeles talking to them. No, DMU had not given me an all-expenses paid trip to the other side of the world, I was on a faculty trip. The odds were unbelievable and I’m still not entirely sure if it happened and it wasn’t just the scorching California sun and sleep-depravation creating a fever dream. “I can’t believe you actually did that”, as many folks have said to me.
I digress again. But my meeting with The Damselles sutured my belief that they are a force (a lovely force might I add) to be reckoned with. “More Than Just Friends” was the first track of theirs I played on the airwaves and I’ve had a soft spot for their work and this particular song ever since. As Damselle Maria pointed out to me, their influences are too many to count. All I know is that the output is greater than the sum of its parts, and what we get is a sophisticated amalgam of pop, swing and country. It is traditionally and classically disciplined, but unorthodox in its execution. I can’t really think of any higher praise than it makes me smile every single time I listen to it.
Unlike many regular features on the show, their music is positive, hosting lyrics that seek out the good things in life but can also be melancholic too. The best of both worlds. Whilst to some this song seems almost out of place in a TENSION show, well, those folks just haven’t tuned in enough. Because if they did, they’d know that I adore this band. Also, one of their singers dropped me off at LA bus-station and chatted to me about music on the way there. Another outer-body experience.
#3 Jaldaboath by Jaldaboath (The Rise Of The Heraldic Beasts)
There’s something instinctive about my love for Jaldaboath. I think it might be my English genes: my blood runs hot with ancestral fire when I think of knights on horses riding around fighting dragons, pillaging castles and committing atrocities in the name of the King. Jaldaboath are a Templar Metal band, which is far less terrifying than it sounds. As one onlooker once commented, “these minstrels have calmed my jangled nerves”. In a very Monty Python type of way, their rusty chainsaw guitars and mountain-thunder drums are played against camp keys and jestful lyrics. It’s almost as if Tenpole Tudor decided “Turn it up to eleven, lads!” and jumped about a bit waving swords dressed as monks.
Jaldaboath, their eponymous track, is a tour de force of silly revelry which you can’t quite grasp until you’ve heard it. There’s something about that first lyric “If your castle needs defending, just call Jaldaboath!” that made me smile from ear to ear like peasant with a non-mouldy loaf of bread: a smile which I’ve yet to shake. Playing it always brings a glowing edge to a show, a real bouncing rest from the worries of the world which are oft mused upon on in TENSION. The imagery it synthesises is like Kingdom Of Heaven with a sultry grin at the knowledge of its own ridiculousness. Questing, catapult building, wench-satisfying and demon slaying abound. I have to thank my friend and Tensionista Jordy for pointing me their way. My life has genuinely been enriched by their majesty, and they will continue to do battle on the airwaves with this magnificent track for TENSION- eons to come.
#4 The End by The Doors (The Doors)
The first time I heard this song was upon my submersion into the world of Apocalypse Now, which has become my favourite film of all time (as many of you will undoubtedly know by now!) It plays over the opening of the film, as napalm rapes the forests of Vietnam with its sickly-rich fire and an overlaid image of the protagonist Captain Willard stares into the camera, his grasp on the world fading as the war spirals out of control, betraying the bonds of reality and ascending into a realm of nightmare.
No other song could ever capture all of the humidity and hallucinatory elements of the film in the same way. A friend once said to me “It summarises the world that the film makes”. And it’s true. That guitar lick is one of the most memorable committed to record, almost an entire genre by itself. When it’s intermittently overlaid across the full 10 minutes of the song, it becomes a fading signification of an individual losing his grasp on his surroundings. Just as Mr. Morrison’s lyrics twist out of control and skip from reality to abstraction in a single breath. The song is a build-up of pressure that becomes so intense, so precise in its nebulousness that it both explodes and leaves you feeling as if you’re submerged in a pool of sonic entropy.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I love this song. I really, really do. Although it’s from the 1960s, I had no idea of its existence until the start of this year and ever since the words “Come on baby, take a chance with us” have been burning in the back of my mind. I rarely play it on the radio, but when I do, it’s always an event and I get messages through of people saying “Woah! That’s insane!” Those words are true. But it’s almost like the song has always been there, unheard and suddenly awoken within you. Absolute genius.
#5 C.O.M.C by Blackballed (Blackballed)
Sometimes guitar riffs get stuck in your head for a few days after you first hear them. Well, I first heard C.O.M.C (Coat Of Many Colours) a few years back and Mr. Marshall Gill’s riff-that-keeps-on-giving is still up there with the catchiest of tunes. The riff is only one element of a brilliant song, however. The rhythm section performs a fantastically simple yet effective job which could very easily have been lost with overproduction. The track rumbles on at an incredible pace, yet also manages to keep that all important factor of space that is present in any truly great rock song. There are moments to sing along as well as times to jump around.
However, the real reason I love this song is from a few memories I have of it at gigs. What starts on record as a tight affair ends up as a windingly epic jam with all members of the band quite clearly loving every single second. The second they make it big and release a live album, I promise I’ll play it for you.
The band are also top lads with a great sense of humour, which combined with their suit and bowler hat dress code make them into something much more than just a great rock band. C.O.M.C was one of several tracks of theirs that I could have put on this list, but that riff just about sealed the deal. Doo-doo-da-der-dooh… Damn, there I go again.
#6 Euphoria by Killing Joke (Pylon)
Serial pessimists and regulars of the show Killing Joke were bound to make an appearance in the top ten. They’re on the show every week, and show no sign of becoming irrelevant to anyone or anything.
In various forms they’ve been doing their end-of-the-world prophesising since 1979, and their most recent album Pylon is a real masterwork. Blending more melodic elements of their mid-1980s work, such as harmonies and beautiful ascending choruses with the sputtering chainsaws, cataclysmically heavy drums and apocalypse inducing basslines seems on paper impossible. Pylon however does this and more, going into sonic realms I once thought implausible. They’re still the most terrifying band on the planet, and I think my ears are still ringing from a concert of theirs I attended four years ago…
Between the vitriol and what is described as “the sound of the earth vomiting” by their drummer, it’s easy to suggest that Killing Joke are a band devoid of love and passion. However, after searching through Pylon (literally) the second it was released, I found perhaps their best track of the last twenty years. Euphoria, a song which has featured on many editions of TENSION, is a unique kind of melancholic joy. It’s guitar and synth weave patterns hark back to the mandala-hallucination era of the Joke back in the late 1990s, yet it’s rhythm section emanates the recent industrial carnage that the band how wrought. This bizarre mixture of muted dub-trance-industrial-metal summarises Killing Joke: they’re un-submersible.
All of this is played off against Jaz (the singer / shaman of Killing Joke) and his growling harmonies, as he takes the listener on a lyrical journey into confronting their fears and overcoming the darkness. All of this make it a genuinely effecting and beautiful song, and in the short time it has been released it has become one of my very favourite tracks of all time. Perhaps this is the best way to get into Killing Joke before scaling their daunting back-catalogue, perhaps it is just a life altering experience compressed into four minutes and 17 seconds. Better yet, I believe it to be both.
#7 Many Moons by Fatmate (Fatmate)
I must have seen Fatmate live now about 15 times. I’ve lost count due to a heady combination of jumping around too much, being in a state of inebriation and also being sledgehammered by a wall of fuzz upon each separate occasion. Ever since I was directed their way by their singer / guitarist Ant, I’ve become something of a super fan, to the point where I paid them for an EP that was free.
To choose one Fatmate track is do the others a disservice, but I felt I had to do it. They’ve been on almost every show this year, bringing their trademark tongue-in-check grunge-dub madness and constantly invoking messages saying “Woah! Who are these guys and why aren’t they famous?!” from listeners. Honestly, I can’t wrack my brain for a reason why they aren’t, and Many Moons I believe is the track that could take them on a trip round the solar system. It’s a punchy, blisteringly quick tour-de-force of a guitar shred sprinkled on top of a narley rhythm section that ends about ten minutes too soon. When exposed to it, you feel as though you’re lying on your back in the towering ruins of an ancient Mayan temple looking up into star dotted sky. Often at gigs when Fatmate play Many Moons and their other tracks I look around to see the faces of onlookers, and their expressions always betray an almost outer-body experience. “What’s going on? WHERE AM I?!” and the like. As previously mentioned, I’ve been around them a lot, and if this track is anything to go by, I still have no idea what their music does to me. All I know is that it’s like a portal to some other time and space, where nothing really matters apart from Fatmate.
As my mate once said after a gig of theirs: “Oh my god, I can’t hear anything! THAT WAS AMAZING!” Damn right it was, Dimitrios…
#8 Black Box by The Simpletone (Black Box)
Music is the only medium of entertainment I know that can send that ice-cold shiver of excitement up your spine each and every time you listen to it. It can be addictive and it’s one of reasons that I love people whacking drums and playing guitars. The opening riff of Black Box makes me smile from ear to ear each and every time I listen to it.
The Simpletone are St.Neot’s finest. A genuine, raw and pounding talent. I first saw them opening for New Model Army a few years back and instantly craned my head to the stage thinking “Wait a minute, these guys are as good as NMA!” From that dreary Yorkshire night in April, my opinion has not changed and I doubt it ever will. Not only are The Tone one of the most talented group of songwriters I’ve ever come across, their live presence is The Doors-esque. Frequently during gigs, Glenn (the frontman) hops off stage, leaving the band to jam away whilst he buys a bottle of whiskey and passes it around the crowd. The lads go off into their own world, dragging forth the best concert vibes I’ve ever experienced and making some incredible sound whilst doing it. This is coming from a man who once saw U2 play at Wembley Stadium to 100,000 people. Somehow, The Tone made a Tuesday night in a pub in Leicester seem more of a joyous occasion.
Black Box is a regular of their live shows and also of TENSION, simply because it’s one of my favourite ever songs. Is there a better way to close a gig? Is there a way to get more adrenaline pumping in under six minutes? If there is, The Tone are probably going to release it on the next album. Do yourself a favour, listen to this song.
#9 Back To December by Taylor Swift (Speak Now)
Don’t close this article in disgust. Stick with me for a few seconds. I actually really like Taylor Swift. Not because she’s perpetually intertwined in “beef” with other mega stars, or because I think she’s absolutely stunning. Somewhere beneath all of the overdubbing, obviously studio-driven choices of direction and demographic exploitation, I believe there to be a genuine talent. After all, I doubt you could make the amount of cash she has without at least some kind of ability to put a song together.
I don’t exactly know how, but the mystery-train of TENSION this year lead to me discover her earlier stuff, which then eased my transition into her later pop-acaust phase. Love songs are all very well and good (and some of them are a tad too dewy-eyed even for this shameless sentimentalist), but sometimes something a little extra helps. Back To December is that song for me. It’s a ballad about someone who treated someone else incredibly unfairly during their time together, and now regrets their poor behaviour.
Maybe it’s because one of my ex-girlfriends comes sprinting to the forefront when I hear it, or maybe it’s because it’s a really well written song, but it grabs me every time. I’ve included it here to highlight how much the constitution of the show has shifted in 365 days. Totes emosh.
#10 Invisible by U2 (Invisible)
U2 were the band that got me into music. It’s as simple as that, really. No band has released as varied a quantity of work as they have over their 35 + year tenure, and this evolution seems to show no sign of slowing.
This song was released a few years back, a sort of filler between two albums. At the time I never really understood it, thought it was a tad directionless and not a typically memorable U2 single. So I resigned it to my encyclopaedic knowledge of the band and continued to wait eagerly for the new album. Now that it’s been released, it’s odd that not only do I love Invisible, I honestly believe it be their best song.
Finding itself somewhere between a Kraftwerk ambient masterpiece and a Simple Minds stadium-rocker, the track is teeming with life. It occupies a bittersweet supercharged place in the U2 cannon, with The Edge’s trademarked angelic jangle mixed with Adam Clayton’s faux jazzman bass lines. Bizarrely, Larry Mullen on the drums goes for a drum-synth set instead of his usual standard issue kit, adding an old science-fiction film score element to the song, making it almost seem timeless and omnipresent. Bono’s lyrics add a typical romantic minimalism to the whole thing, telling the story of someone going through a breakup and feeling at first as if they are wholly defeated. Invisible tells the story of the triumphant moment when a person realises that it isn’t all over when a partner leaves them: that they are not invisible.
It resonates on a sonic level and also on a human one, too. When I saw it live (twice) at the band’s stay in the London O2 last year, it on both occasions reduced me to a smiling, teary wreck. It’s a redemption song, and so many of us do need a little of that.
So of course this track takes pride of place in the TENSION top ten. I regularly end shows with it, and will continue to do so in the future. I also hope that it serves to break some of the odd prejudices people seem to have against the band. As Youth from Killing Joke once said: “Bono is one of the best lyricists of the last 50 years”. That dude knows a whole lot more than I do about music, so I’ll go with him.
And there it is, the top 10 tracks of the year. 2015/16 has been an incredible year for the show and I’ve been constantly astounded by listeners support and kind words. The regulars always seem to make it feel easy presenting a two-hour radio show of music that I have hand-selected: a labour that I feel is sorely missed on the radio elsewhere. Thank you all for your incredible support.
I’m sure that some of you may think this list is bogus. “But Jimbob, what about X or Y? You scoundrel!” Perhaps your right. You probably are, to be honest. But the show has always been a wholly subjective and invited such calls of heresy. Consider TENSION, if you will, as the sparring ground of genres. A place where showdowns of bizarre constitution often result in peculiar results.
Above all it’s something I try to enjoy, and I hope you all do too.
Here’s to another year of TENSION. Onwards brave music-crusaders, there be chart music to pillage!