Another Year Over...

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Sunday, December 26, 2010 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

The year is almost over, Christmas has come and gone and it is therefore time to take a look back (and share with you) those events and releases that, in my opinion, stood out above the others in the local music scene these past 12 months. Before actually venturing into the music aspect itself, one of the more important projects that emerged this year must be the M3P website. M3P, or rather the Malta Music Memory Project to give it its full name, is a collaborative multimedia database of Maltese music with the aim of building an online national archive of the Maltese music scene and associated arts. There has been some progress since the website’s launch last September, but I have the impression that local bands and artists have yet to understand that their direct involvement in uploading data is essential if this project is to succeed. On a positive note, Alfie Fabri’s Facebook posts with photos and clips from the past have also helped to revive interest in the Maltese music scene’s past.

In similar fashion but with more of an academic slant, Andrew Alamango’s mighty project in researching and preserving Maltese music from the early 1930s, released in CD/book format less than two months ago, was one of, if not the most interesting local release this year. Uniquely packaged and featuring two discs as well as in-depth information about the project and the music contained within, Malta’s Lost Voices 1931-32 offers exceptional insight into the first examples of our island’s indigenous ‘pop’ music recordings.

Another project that deserves to be lauded is the internet record label Pinkpube. Launched in August 2005, the label has to date put out some 37 releases – ipconfig’s From Winter to Sine being its most recent - and several compilations of largely electronic and often experimental music. Clearly, commercial aspirations do not figure in the label’s strategy, as all its releases are free to download; a truly remarkable sign of authentic passion for music by the label and all artists involved, and one that should be fully supported and explored by anyone seeking exciting new sounds.

And speaking of experimentation, I must mention Advanced Decomposition, an interesting album of jazz improvisations by Walter Vella with Dominic Galea and Joe Micallef that actually only represents part of the whole picture, since, in line with the album title, the featured music is deconstructed and reconstructed from scratch whenever it is performed live. UK-based multi-national collective Ethnamorte, among them Maltese guitarist Malcolm Callus, also released an unusual album that brought together the individual influences of its members into a melting pot of sounds of a fluid nature that transcends musical boundaries. Percussionist Renzo Spiteri’s Inkontri, on the other hand married his wide-angled musical vision with Joe Friggieri’s poetry, instilling a new dimension to the sensation of absorbing literature.

As far as recorded releases go, 2010 has been as prolific and populated as ever, with over 20 albums and twice as many radio singles released this year. Acknowledging that some albums are more mainstream than others, and therefore receive more airplay, one must also appreciate that almost a third of albums released came from the Maltese metal scene. More than pop, rock or any other genre, it is Malta’s collective metal export that has proved to be its most successful at an international level so far. Several local metal bands perform abroad regularly and one in particular - Nomad Son – even headlined a festival in Portugal this year and has already been confirmed as the headlining act for the Doomsday IV Festival which will be held in the UK in February.

Among the more prominent metal albums released this year, Nomad Son’s The Eternal Return, Loathe’s debut Despondent by Design and Indigo Darkpsych’s These Are The Roots stood out in particular, while Forsaken’s limited edition split 12” vinyl-only single proved to be another remarkable instalment in this mighty band’s musical canon to date. Still within the metal scene, the first editions of the Mediterranean Metal Gathering (which featured several local acts alongside foreign star acts Cannibal Corpse and Paradise Lost) and the Extreme Metal Assault festival took place this year. With a more dedicated outlook, the Malta Doom Metal festival (MDM) was a great success, fronting an incredible local line-up boosted by powerful live sets from foreign acts Lothus, Sorrow’s Path and Hands of Orlach.

The dance scene has also been quite rewarding in terms of foreign returns, with local DJ acts U-Bahn and Tenishia sharing the lion’s share of the spoils. That said however, one cannot leave out unsung heroes like Jo Micali and Jewel Kid, the latter having several of his tracks released abroad to critical acclaim. Also of particular note, Owen Jay (who also runs the Batti Batti label) and Melchior Sultana released a collaborative EP, Memories Of You through prestigious US label Underground Quality. Live performances abroad have also been abundant in this genre overall, another step forward in pushing Maltese music onto the international scene.

While two music award events vie for pole position in proclaiming the best of the best on the local scene, the bottom line remains that this is ultimately always a personal choice, no matter what anyone’s results show, and here are mine. Of the several albums, most of them quite impressive too, released in 2010 the first of my Top 3 is Red Electrick’s Vine Lady – a collection of songs that reflects not only the band’s youthful energy, but also their ingrained passion to seek out exciting melodies. Next up, Nomad Son’s The Eternal Return is a powerful confirmation of this band’s rise in popularity, transcending the local scene and making an indelible impression on the international Doom metal scene. In third place, after much deliberation between Airport ImpressionsMinutes of a lifetime, Winter MoodsArgento, London-based Fraser’s A Garden At The Top Of The Tree and Chasing Pandora’s The Driver And The Dancer, I finally opted for the latter because of its subtlety in slipping melodies into the songs rather than putting them at the forefront, and also because of the left-of-centre gusto lying at the core of the songs. One album I particularly liked that has yet to be officially released was The Lesser GodsFreedom Fields, but since it is so far only available for streaming, I’ve decided to give it a special mention and file it under next year’s releases.

In the singles department, my top 3 picks were K.O.I.’s Tears In Your Eyes, which oozed a certain immediacy that I found irresistible; hot on its heels, Airport Impressions’ Walk With Me, easily the best track off their debut album and Bletchley Park’s Waterfall, packed an equally powerful punch. There actually were a lot of good singles this year, among them Eve Ransom’s Bleed, Saving AlexisLipstick Lies, Stolen Creep’s Lector Spector, Red Electrick’s Jail Bail, Ellie & The OscarsPretty Rival, Kristina Casolani’s Get Out and Claudia Faniello’s I Hate This Song, the latter marking the first step towards a new musical direction for the promising singer.

It’s encouraging to see so many new bands emerging with powerful and catchy singles getting played on the radio, but it is important that bands remain true to their art and resist conforming to fit the requirements of some radio station or other, as this defeats the progress and the purpose of art itself. A special mention here goes to Freddie Portelli, a veteran of the local scene who continues to release original songs – in both Maltese and English – on a regular basis on his own terms.

Another medium that local bands seem to be getting more interested in is the music video, quite possibly because YouTube’s immediate and well-connected network frees the bands of any radio dependency to get their music heard. Of the videos that surfaced this year, I particularly liked Red Electrick’s Who The Heck Is REK for its zany Tarantino-esque spoof, Skimmed’s Napoleon for its surreal sketches and Bark Bark Disco’s I Love You Tonight, for the way its engaging animation embraces the song’s lo-fi essence.

On the live front, Malta has had a significant number of live gigs this year, including some top flight commercial acts like The Prodigy, Faithless, Elton John and Rod Stewart (well!), a record-breaking headlining concert by Winter Moods, an above-par Jazz Festival, the Tea reunion and as anticipated, an explosive Brikkuni & Xtruppaw double-bill. Quite a few alternative acts graced our shores too, among them UK-based Maltese duo South Central (a true revelation), the multi-talented Maltese-Australian Nicky Bomba, foreign artists Adem, Nancy Elizabeth, James Blackshaw, Evokateur, Ill Bill, Beardyman, Adam Ficek and, just the other week, a superb Subpop double treat featuring US singer-songwriter Daniel Martin Moore and Montreal-based duo Handsome Furs, the latter giving an amazing performance in true rock ‘n roll tradition. It would help in no small way to see support - public and otherwise – for such events increase, as without it there is little chance that local promoters will stage similar events in the future.

Last but not least I would like to mention ROCKNA, a radio show which airs every Friday on Radio 101 at 7.15pm. It is the only show of its kind, totally dedicated to promoting the local rock scene thanks to a mixture of live interviews with bands and playlists brimming with songs by Maltese artists. Ideally, more radio shows would feature a higher percentage of music by Maltese bands and artists, not because they are Maltese, but because there are plenty of good quality songs by local artists to choose from, and there’s plenty more still to come in 2011, with Scream Daisy, The Rifffs, Brikkuni, Xtruppaw, Stalko, Joe Mizzi, Carrie Haber, Ivan Filletti and possibly more bands all set to release new albums next year. Until then, have a Happy New Year!