Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TOP TEN GIGS OF 2011! (Need I say more...)

Ah yes, it's that time of the year again, when I look back at the past year of live music and go, "Fuck, that's why I have a near $2000 credit card debt!" Now at this time of year, it's usually the point where I go, "Well, it's going to be hard to top THAT!" But 2011 raised the bar sky-high once again, and delivered us a whole lot of quality acts that made the year just as memorable as previous years. The year was so good that I had to change one of my long-standing rules about awarding gigs a place in my top 10, and that is the rule that festival performances cannot make it in to the countdown. I had this rule in the past because, well, anyone who considers themselves a proper gig enthusiast knows that a band is much better enjoyed in an actual proper music venue at their own show, rather than a truncated set on a stage that’s also playing host to numerous other unrelated acts before and sometimes after them! This year however, some certain acts put on some absolute belters at festivals, and were certainly among the highlights in terms of everything else. It’s also important to note that some performances are often held as exclusive to the festivals, and the artists didn't get the opportunity to perform outside the festival at a "sideshow". Therefore, I have amended the rule! If a band/artist plays a truly unique and outstanding performance at a festival, and preferably didn’t perform their own show during the tour, then they are now allowed to qualify! Anyway, enough preamble, let's begin!

10. Tool (USA), at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, February 2. With support from Jakob (NZ).
A few people expressed the opinion that Tool weren't really living up to the lofty expectations placed upon them at their Big Day Out performances, and indeed on the night of the Melbourne Big Day Out, a good friend and I decided to skip their closing performance on the Main Stage in favour of something a little more... visceral. Nevertheless, I had a ticket to their Melbourne sideshow a few days later (perhaps this was why it was so easy to walk in the other direction at BDO), and was very keen to see what they'd do given a lengthier set which took place mostly in darkness, at a pretty special venue. And, thankfully, it completely lived up to expectations! A few extra songs, some special guest apperances, a bloody FANTASTIC light/laser/visual extravaganza, this was Tool as they are meant to be seen. Despite the fact that they haven't released any new material since their last trip to this country in 2007, it was still a damn fine performance from the prog-inclined alternative metal titans.

9. Primus (USA) & Melvins (USA), at Palais Theatre, March 3. No support.
The news that Primus were heading to Australia for the first time in god-knows-how-long as part of the Soundwave Festival got a lot of people very excited in the pants (and just about every other) region, but when it was announced that they would perform a joint headlining sideshow with the MOTHERFUCKING MELVINS, there was understandably a mad rush for tickets for the relatively small (and completely seated) Palais in St Kilda. Buzz Osbourne and his crew (the full band this time, unlike their last appearance on Australian shores in 2009) got things off to a sludgy, slightly bizarre start, before Messrs Claypool, LaLonde and Lane brought the house down with an amazing set of timeless tunes from their back catalogue - even throwing in a few new ones here and there!

8. Russian Circles (USA), at Corner Hotel, September 8. With support from Coerce, SCUL HAZZARDs and Bronze Chariot.
What was it about post-rock last year?! Whether they were the bands from our own backyard doing their thing, or those more established internationals being brought over, it's fair to say that fans of all things noodly and complex had a fairly good twelve months in 2011 in terms of live gigs to attend. Unsurprisingly, it was Rob MacManus and his Heathen Skulls banner that brought over Chicago's Russian Circles, one of America's finest exponents of the "post-metal" sound - the heavier take on post-rock that has been pushed out almost into the mainstream by such bands as Isis, Pelican and of course the mighty Neurosis. Sounding surprisingly heavy for a three-piece, the band managed to wrestle some incredibly monstrous sounds of the Corner PA, balanced out by their own dexterity and technical proficiency with their respective instruments. Hypnotic at times, crushing at others, amazing at all!

7. sleepmakeswaves (AUS), at East Brunswick Club, 22 July. With support from This is Your Captain Speaking, These Hands Could Separate the Sky, and Lunaire.
Before I dive into a quick review of what was obviously an outstanding gig to make my top 10, can I just draw attention to somethig extra special? THIS WAS AN AUSTRALIAN BAND! In the three previous years that I have bothered to sort my gig memories out into some form of order based on excellence, for some reason local bands never quite seem to make the cut. Why is that so, I wonder? I think the obvious reason is that you usually get to see them quite often, more than you do those bands who have to get on an aeroplane to get here anyway, and it just doesn't seem quite as special to witness their live exploits. But nevertheless, this year a little post-rock (yep!) band from not-so-far-away Sydney came to Melbourne to launch their smashing debut longplayer on what I remember as being a very chilly July evening. The mood was set right from the word go by a series of excellently-chosen likeminded musical acts, and then once sleepmakeswaves took to the stage... WOW. Despite the fact that many in the room (including myself) were hearing these songs for the very first time, given that the album had just been released the day before, it stopped nobody from absorbing and enjoying the band delivering their amazing command of dynamics, tension and mood. And of course, what better to way to end the set than with a guest appearance from one Tim Charles, lending his incredible violin talents to fan favourite One Day You Will Teach Me to Let Go of My Fears? Utterly spellbinding.

6. Rammstein (Germany), at Big Day Out, Flemington Racecourse, January 30.
Well, it's fair to say that when a band of this calibre returns to Australia after a massive TEN year absence (ten years which featured the release of no less than four albums), the anticipation among the fans is expected to be at an all-time high. The German Neue Deutsche Harte six-piece have been known to deliver some pretty spectacular live shows, and this was no exception! It began with a giant black curtain stretching from the ceiling to the floor, completely covering the view of the stage. As the slow-building synthesiser chord intro to Rammlied became audible, Till Lindemann’s voice drifted out across the grounds of Flemington Racecourse, and then the guitars came in, along with the chant of “RAMM! STEIN!” That black curtain came down, only to reveal another curtain, which happened to be a giant German flag. Then as the second “RAMM! STEIN!” kicked in, an almighty explosion saw the flag/curtain fall, and there they were! The band certainly made up for lost time, playing a pretty ripping set which managed to cover all of their six albums at least once, but perhaps more notably featured some pretty spectacular pyrotechnics and other stage theatrics. Flamethrowers on microphone stands, a keyboardist on a treadmill (only after he got "killed" by having fireworks poured on top of him), a crossbow that shot fireworks, a "random fan" that got set on fire... it was all there!

5. Mono (Japan) performing Holy Ground with the Wordless Music Orchestra, at Forum Theatre, October 7. With support from Wintercoats.
Japanese post-rock (again!) quartet Mono released a pretty special album in the year 2010 - entitled Holy Ground, it featured the amazing band playing a stunning set of songs from across their career accompanied by an orchestra, cleverly dubbed the "Wordless Music Orchestra" in homage to Mono's instrumental sound. In 2011, the Melbourne Festival (who always manage to put on some absolutely stunning shows) managed to get Mono into Australia, with no less than TWENTY-THREE musicians on various orchestral bit and pieces, for an exclusive repeat performance of the Holy Ground set. Having live strings, brass, and let's not forget the gong, really made the difference as this album was brought to life in the most spectacular form possible, in what was unquestionably a venue that was the perfect choice for such an occasion. Stunning!

4. Swans (USA), at Forum Theatre, March 10, and East Brunswick Club, March 11. With support from The Necks (Forum show only).
The unexpected 2010 reunion of the inimitable Swans project excited many in the music community, with their first studio release in fourteen years, entitled My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky receiving plenty of positive reviews and generally being viewed as a solid return to the scene. It wasn't long before an Australian tour was soon announced, with the stunning Michael Gira and his current six-piece incarnation of the group making their way to our shores in March. The band first took their magnificent show to a packed-out Forum Theatre on a Thursday night, and then headed to the more intimate environment of the East Brunswick Club to play a slightly longer set the following evening. On both occasions, Swans showed everyone that despite their overall sound and live performance being vastly different to their earlier days, they can still deliver a mesmering and incredibly visceral live show. If they ever play in your part of town, they are a MUST-SEE!

3. Spiritualized (UK) performing Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, at Vivid Festival, Sydney Opera Theatre, May 27. No support.
Though it hasn't been around that long, Sydney's Vivid Festival has really brought some great acts to our shores in its short existence, and the 2011 lineup was once again a cracker. As a Melbournian I didn't really get the chance to see all the acts I wanted of course, but there was one that I absolutely had to attend, and when one of your favourite bands is coming to perform one of your all-time favourite albums in full with a 30 piece orchestra, who cares what state the gig's in?!

2. Kyuss (USA), at Palace Theatre, May 8. With support from Fort.
Holy, fucking, shit. I saw Kyuss perform live. This evening completed my life. I'm not even joking.

1. Portishead (UK), at Harvest/The Gathering Festival, Werribee Park, November 12.
Yeah, after seeing Kyuss live I thought that there would be nothing that could possibly top it, but when the lineup for this festival arrived, I realised how wrong I was. Portishead were just absolutely stunning. Everything I expected from them, and a whole lot more. This was one special evening!

So that's it then! But you know what? We really were the lucky country last year in terms of all this live awesomeness being performed in our theatres, pubs and err, carparks! So for the first time ever, I'm going to throw in a few honourable mentions that weren't quite as good as the other gigs, but really, to not include them at all would just be wrong. In no particular order, the still great but not great enough gigs were!
Iron Maiden (UK), at Hisense Arena, February 23. With support from Rise to Remain (UK).
The Chemical Brothers (UK), at Rod Laver Arena, March 9. With support from James Holroyd (UK), Zane Lowe (UK) and Art vs Science.
Karnivool (AUS), at Corner Hotel, June 9, 10 and July 6. With support from Over-Reactor and Shockone.
Overground Festival at Melbourne Town Hall, June 12.
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (USA), at Corner Hotel, September 7. With support from Laura and Sincerely, Grizzly.
Gotye (AUS), at Forum Theatre, October 1. With support from Husky.
Fucked Up (Canada), at East Brunswick Club, November 30. With support from The Smith Street Band.
Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group (USA/Mexico) and Le Butcherettes (USA/Mexico), at East Brunswick Club, December 13 and 14. With support from Dead River and Bad Orchestra (first night), and Dead Wasp and River of Snakes (second night).
Future of the Left (UK), at Corner Hotel, December 16. With support from The Nation Blue and Brat Farrar.

Whew! But wait, there's more! I'd like to present two more new awards, and they are...
Best festival of 2011: Meredith Music Festival, at the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre, December 9-11. This was just a no-contest. I suspect it will be the winner just about every year.
Runner-up: Harvest/The Gathering, at Werribee Park, November 12.
Best live Australian act: Sydonia
Runner-up: Jericco, Engine Three Seven