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Albums Of 2008: A Rock-A-Rolla list

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As 2008 slips out of view invariably we are asked to compile numerous, ‘Best Of’ lists. The following is the top 30 non reissue, non cover albums of 2008 with my Rock-A-Rolla magazine head on. Arguements on a postcode please!

1 Grails: ‘Doomsdayers Holiday’

2 Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: ‘Sunday At Devil Dirt’

3 Johnny Foreigner: ‘Waited Up Until It Was Light’

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The Aliens

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This article originally appeared on Subba Cultcha.

“When was it decided that listening to music had to be easy?” John Maclean talks about The Aliens difficult second album.

The Aliens new album ‘Luna’ is a difficult beast. The follow up to their 2007 debut, ‘Astronomy for Dogs’, ‘Luna’ is a sprawling behemoth of a record, it’s songs span out in front of you creating rolling, expansive sonic panoramas. A third of the records tracks flow out well past the 6 minute mark, two making double figures, it is safe to say that this is not a primped and preened MTV pop record, where running over the radio sanctioned 3 minute timeline is tantamount to creative blasphemy. It is coincidentally, and possibly for exactly that reason, a mesmeric, psych tinged, honeycomb folk-pop masterpiece. It’s the album that The Aliens should have been able to make first time around but were perhaps not allowed to, where ‘Astronomy for Dogs’ felt muted, like a curtailed version of what could have been, ‘Luna’ runs free. Recorded in the remote Scottish home studio of chief Alien, Beta Band co-founder and Lone Pigeon man Gordon Anderson, the relaxed recording schedule the band adopted allowed them to explore each track with the focus and willful experimentation upon which they thrive.

“It (Luna) was actually a lot easier to make than ‘Astronomy…’ because with ‘Astronomy…’ we decided to do it in a largish studio in london so the pressure was on and we actually only had a week or two to actually record. So we didn’t get that much time to experiment and do what we usually do with tracks,” recalls John looking back to the first time The Aliens committed their singular space folk vision to tape. “ Whereas with ‘Luna’ we recorded it in Gordons cottage up in Scotland and spent 6 months on it. So much more time to experiment with tracks and scrap tracks and add things to tracks, and I suppose as well because Gordon’s slightly fragile at times so when it comes to big cities like London I think he found it really difficult getting to the studio and using the tube. Just moving through all the people and the hassle of a hot summer in london. Whereas with ‘Luna’ he was comfortable in his own fishing village and in his own cottage.” The fragility that John is alluding to reflects the well documented history of mental illness attached to Anderson, who spent the best part of 10 years institutionalised. It is something that has been with him since the Beta Band and inevitably informs both the process and the music of The Aliens, evoking further comparisons with other musical explorers who have flirted with the darker sides of the human psyche such as Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett, who both ploughed into similar psychedelic layered pop.  ‘Luna’ is an incredibly expansive record of glorious 60s tinged folk, songs like ‘Billy Jack’ and ‘Bobby’s Song’ stretching out forever creating giant sonic wormholes that suck the listener deep inside, yet it hangs around a uniquely intimate core, heard, as one might imagine, almost by accident, like a garden hopping youth pressing their ear to a window of Brian Wilson’s studio during the creation of ‘Smile’. It feels like you’re a voyeur to a moment of aural conception, the tinkerings of flawed genius.

The spectre of ill health raised itself again throughout the recording process and again after the album had been finished causing the band to cancel a string of scheduled summer dates. “We haven’t really got our teeth into playing a lot of the new stuff live yet because Gordon got a bit unwell again after the album was finished.” Notes John, “If we had serious funds to make a proper live show then we were talking about actually playing the album as it appears on the record because we think it might suit that…starting at the beginning and going straight through, and getting everyone involved who appeared on the record…but that’s just not possible so we’ve got to scale a lot of it back, I mean there’s so much going on on some of the record that we’ve really got to look at how to produce that live.” It would take a small army to reproduce the album note for note live as the list of vintage instruments and antique drum machines goes on and on, the bands love of excessive experimental sonics highlighted in the song title ‘Theramin’. “We’re all fans of rare instruments. I’m especially a fan of vintage electronic equipment. We use a lot of vintage drum machines and stuff, there’s one called a sonivox which was a really early vocoder used on the radio in the 1940s, but it’s getting harder and harder to afford them. With Ebay everyones a bit more savvy about what they have now. We’re fans of like the old BBC sound workshops where they make crazy psychedelic sounds out of computers they built themselves like. It’s an exciting area of sound.” Though, given the nature of the band and the uncertainties surrounding Anderson every time he steps onto a stage can lead to an audience not knowing what to expect from  The Aliens live the band do have plans to keep the shows as high energy as possible. “ I think there’s a lot more upbeat songs on this record which will translate well live, on the first record there were some songs we didn’t play live because we felt they were too downbeat. We always want the live experience to be a bit more like a club…we want people to move and dance and not just stare at us as we self indulgently moan,” says John. “I think for this tour it will end up being a mix of ‘Luna’ and ‘Astronomy’, The great thing about getting gordon onstage is that you never know what to expect, we never really have a set list so whatever he’s in the mood to play we’ll play.”

There seems scant danger of any self indulgent moaning taking over the sheer triumphant splendor of the songs from ‘Luna’. They pitch and glide, washing various hues over you, this is the sound of joy projected through a prism of stereotyped Scottish dour, songs like ‘Blue Mantle’ and ‘Boats’ find you just wanting to wallow in their sonics as they fall over you like giant aural snowdrifts. So what has been inspiring these mini-opera’s? A lot of salmon and cinema it would seem. Certainly tales of the various recording sessions that stretch back to 2007 have the band debating the finer points of salmon preparation with at least equal veracity to the benefits of diving chord changes. “After you’ve spent all day playing music and sitting in front of pro tools you really don’t want to listen to other peoples music, so we’re always watching films and there’s a lot of ‘Luna’ that’s more influenced by films than music or anything like that. The last film I saw at the cinema was Hell Boy 2 so we love the art house films and the mainstream movies as well.” The Aliens are definitely art house but with ‘Luna’ they may well have the sleeper hit of the year.