Album of the Year 2017: #5 Benjamin Clementine – I Tell a Fly

Benjamin Clementine emerged as a surprise winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize with his first album At Least for Now, a collection of eccentric but beautiful piano ballads. For many artists, such a successful debut would be the platform for a lucrative career pitched at the mainstream, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to hear a new record from Clementine that sounded accessible and easy on the ears.

I Tell a Fly is not that record. No – this is an example of an artist leveraging their initial success to pursue their own singular vision to completion, and it is one of the most bizarrely brilliant records I heard all year. It finds Clementine doubling down on all of his most eccentric tendencies – acrobatic & high-pitched vocals, obtuse and poetic storytelling, and a wide-ranging gamut of musical influences.

Many of the songs on this strange, unclassifiable record are fragmented, and move between several different passages which are often wildly at odds to each other. Opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ begins with an echoing drone which segways into a gorgeous solo piano, but at the two-minute mark a psychedelic synthesizer gurgles its way into the song, which then suddenly explodes for all of ten seconds into a passage of huge, booming drums. And then the song ends, rather abruptly, on that same wandering piano.

The structure is utterly confounding, but makes the record feel unpredictable in a way few others were in 2017. Nothing is off the table for Clementine – songs might take a thirty second detour through trip-hop, or even drum ‘n’ bass, before winding back to something resembling a chorus. And in between, you’ll hear a diverse range of instruments, with some particularly strange and creative use of the harpsichord in more than one song.

There are a few moments of more straightforward brilliance that will appeal to those who liked the sweeping ballads of At Least for Now. One hair-raising moment comes in the middle of ‘Better Sorry than Asafe’, where Clementine croons over a bed of plaintive piano chords: ‘If you won’t come with me, I understand / Give us a last kiss’, and then howls: ‘Bon voyaaaaaage…don’t know where I’m going’.

But these are the exception rather than the rule on I Tell a Fly, which is more often than not mysterious and avant-garde. Many will find it too obtuse, and there are certainly parts of the record (‘Paris Cor Blimey’ for one) where I would agree. But taken as a whole, I Tell a Fly is just so unique, and I can only admire the daring and dedication it must have taken for Clementine to push something like this through his record label.

Make no mistake – I Tell a Fly will not be launching Benjamin Clementine to widespread success, or netting him any more accolades. But it is irrefutable proof of an artist in sway to nobody and nothing but his own wild imagination, and was among my very favourite albums of the year.

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Album of the Year 2017: #6 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Following the enormous success of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was widely hailed as the greatest rap album of the decade, Kendrick Lamar made a savvy return in 2017 with DAMN. Rather than try to outdo his last record in scope, he stripped things back to basics and gave us a set of loud, gratifying bangers with a confrontational & boastful edge. Somehow, he still ended up making the biggest record of the year.

DAMN was just unavoidable in 2017, from the ‘play it backwards’ conspiracy theories to the cinematic music videos, memes, and ‘HUMBLE’, which was as ubiquitous as any song all year. It’s not surprising, really: DAMN is an album pitched at the mainstream far more than TPAB ever was, and its aggressive lyrics captured the zeitgeist of 2017 like no other.

The Kendrick Lamar on DAMN was not King Kunta the righteous activist, or K. Dot the impressionable teenage hustler. This time around we were introduced to Kung Fu Kenny, the shade-throwing, ninja-creeping battle rapper who took shots at everyone from whack artists to fake friends, the media, the president, the hip-hop scene, and just about everything in between.

Opener ‘DNA’, a deliciously bassy trap slide, is pure flexing: Kendrick spits some of the fieriest and most versatile flows on the whole album right here at the start. In the second half of the track he piles up internal rhymes at a frightening rate while delivering some fantastic bars in rapid-fire staccato, seemingly never pausing for breath: ‘This how it is when you in the Matrix / Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’what you sow / Stackin’ up the footage, livin’ on the go’

It’s an exhilarating start to a record that, like Kenny himself, doesn’t often pause for breath. There’s the moody ‘ELEMENT’, with one of the stickiest hooks on the whole record, and the breezy ‘LOYALTY’, which was another of the album’s big singles. And in the back half there’s the unquestionable ‘HUMBLE’, as well as ‘LOVE’, a surprisingly tender but rather beautiful rap ballad.

DAMN. might not have the variety of voices and characters that TPAB had, and it might not have as much of a cohesive narrative as good kid, maad city. It certainly isn’t as ambitious as either of those two records, and it isn’t without it’s weaker tracks (‘GOD’ and ‘FEAR’, in my opinion). But DAMN. is purely and simply the boiled-down essence of Kendrick Lamar, and an unwaveringly confident demonstration of his plentiful hip-hop talents.

Many will try to pick apart the backwards songs, the opening skit, and the contrasting song titles in search of deeper meanings. Having sat with the record for almost a year now, I don’t think there’s a huge amount to be found there, honestly. There is a very loose sense of conceptuality around DAMN, yes, but its best enjoyed for what it is: simply the best mainstream hip-hop record of the year, immaculately produced and savagely performed at every single turn. Bitch, sit down.

Album of the Year 2017: #7 Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

Of all the albums in my top 20, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is by far the album I’ve listened to the least. That isn’t to reflect on its quality in any way. I’ve listened to A Crow Looked at Me perhaps a total of four times all year, for the simple reason that it is one of the most emotionally taxing records I have ever heard.

This is an album that deals in grief. But not the sort of grief that finds expression in lofty metaphors about The Beyond. This is an album about Real Death, and was recorded by Phil Elverum just a matter of weeks after he lost his wife to cancer. Listening to it is like vicariously experiencing that grief: through Elverum’s very direct and poetic lyrics he takes the listener on a painful odyssey through the process of grieving, as devastatingly emotional as it is horrifyingly mundane.

Surprisingly, it is the latter of those two which proves to be the most affecting. The moment where Elverum confronts the need to continue existing, even through unimaginable pain, while taking out the garbage at night. The moment where he is forced to go through his wife’s clothes, and throw away her underwear. The packages and letters that still arrive with her name on.

A Crow Looked at Me is full of these small, crushing details. It hits hardest in the moments you least expect it to: the quiet moments, the moments in between. Musically, the record is as loose and direct as its lyrical content. These eleven songs are played on spare arrangements of mostly guitar and piano, each feeling unmeditated to the point of improvisation. Words and chords spill over each other gently, the emotion pouring out without a thought for structure.

The album feels free and organic because of this, despite taking death and decay for the entirety of its subject matter. And it also feels, truthfully, like an album meant to be appreciated at a distance of decades, not months. A Crow Looked at Me is the kind of album that you only turn to in times of need, but in those moments it has a power that few other records can match.

As draining as it can be to sit through the record’s full length, it is hard not to come out of the other side with a sober appreciation for all the things, and people, you’re lucky enough to still have. And the very tiny glimmer of hope which is found in the album’s final track is surely to say: if it is possible to live through this, then it is possible to live through anything.

Album of the Year 2017: #8 Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

In a word: epic. That’s how I would describe the latest record from Massachusetts natives Elder – a stoner/prog metal opus of gigantic proportions. This album is thick and sludgy like the best stoner metal, and yet is shot through with a technical edge that gives these six tracks some real bite.

There is a wonderful dynamic maintained at all times between heaviness and weightlessness: the distorted lead guitars and bass provide the former, but there are plenty of cleanly plucked overdubs which supply the ‘floating’ from the album’s title. This dynamism is what makes Reflections of a Floating World really stand out: the band conjures some truly magical moments of contrast, where quiet introspective bridges erupt into white-hot, volcanic guitar riffs.

Opener ‘Sanctuary’ is an album highlight right out of the gates. It opens with a fantastic driving groove that develops in the opening minutes, adding some crashing cymbals before swirling out into a psychedelic breakdown. This then builds into a shredding guitar solo before the pace slows to a doomy stomp, at which point a dreamy interlude portends the huge extended climax of the song. Here, a colossal endorphin rush of reverbed guitars and bass provide the backdrop for Nick Disalvo’s growling vocals: ‘Sanc-tuaraayyyyyyyyy…’

These first eleven minutes effectively give you everything that makes the record so great in microcosm. Incredibly sharp writing, dynamic and structurally imaginative songs, all wrapped in a bow with some brilliant production work: gritty but clean, and always booming at a huge volume.

Elder are a band that know how to write amazing stoner metal riffs, but they don’t settle for just that, and have put together the tightest and most ambitious metal record I heard all year with Reflections of a Floating World. It truly does feel not just like an album but a place: a windswept corner of some alien rock, as crushingly inhospitable as it is remotely beautiful.

How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

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The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

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For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

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A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

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Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

5 Timeless Albums That Turn 50 This Year

The year 1968 was an incredible one for music. A year on from the summer of love and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of the best artists from the psychedelic ‘60s were taking their music to new and fascinating places as the hippy movement reached its peak. In this article, we’re taking a look at five albums that are celebrating their 50th birthday in 2018, and why these records have stood the test of time.

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1.) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

The 1960s was a decade that spoke the language of the guitar, and nobody was more fluent than the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Electric Ladyland is the finest hour in his all-too-short discography, which was brought to an end when he overdosed on barbiturates and died at the age of 27. This album features countless all-time classics like ‘Crosstown Traffic’ (two of the most perfect minutes of rock music ever recorded), ‘Gypsy Eyes’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Then there’s the absolutely epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, in which we can hear Hendrix writing himself into rock music mythology right before our very ears: ‘Oh the night I was born, lord I swear the moon turned a fire red…” Electric Ladyland oozes virtuosity, confidence and raw sexuality from its every note, even fifty years on.

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2.) The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat

No artist from the 60s was as influential as The Velvet Underground. This is a band that were relatively unknown when they debuted in 1967, but in the presiding 50 years their experimental and noisy songs have been a blueprint for generations of forward-thinking rock musicians. White Light/White Heat is their weirdest and darkest album as well as my personal favourite – it features scuzzy, lo-fi rock songs about heroin, orgies, and a lobotomy, as well as ‘The Gift’, in which an entire short story is read aloud to music. And to top it all off is the infamous ‘Sister Ray’, a controversial, 17-minute noise rock freak-out that is pure, uncensored chaos. The Velvet Underground were always torn between the musical interests of their two primary songwriters: the experimental John Cale and classic popsmith Lou Reed. But on White Light/White Heat, they found the perfect balance of beauty and filth, and created an experimental rock album for the ages.

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3.) The Beatles –   The White Album

The Beatles wrote and recorded much of their classic White Album – officially titled just The Beatles – while travelling in northern India. The group flew in to Rishikesh to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught them the practice of transcendental meditation. It was a trip intended to creatively recharge the group and bring them closer together, after they had burned out on touring and the music industry in 1966 and ’67. And though it did prove a fruitful period creatively, it also highlighted the growing division between the bands four members: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison wrote many of their songs separately, and the results were then compiled into one huge double album, thirty songs long. It’s for this reason that The White Album, as brilliant as it is, often feels quite uneven – there are timeless classics like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, but there are also throwaway tunes like ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Piggies’ that mostly serve as filler. In the end, you have to take the good with the bad and appreciate the whole for the brilliant, indulgent mess that it is.

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4.) Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded, but it’s a bit of a difficult record to pin down. Stylistically it is somewhere in between folk, jazz and soul, but its winding songs have an elusive, dreamlike quality. They feature strummed guitar, bass, violin, flute and many other instruments, all combining in semi-improvised harmony. Van Morrison’s wild scat singing style binds it all together, as his voice latches onto words and notes and spins them in dizzying patterns. His lyrics are poetic and difficult to make sense of, but always beautiful: “From the far side of the ocean / If I put the wheels in motion / And I stand with my arms behind me / And I’m pushin’ on the door…” Astral Weeks is the definition of a cult classic, and its stature has only grown over the course of the last 50 years. Today, it rightly takes its place among the greatest folk albums ever recorded.

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5.) The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money

Many bands and listeners were swept up by the idealistic views of the 1960s, but Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were not among them. We’re Only In It For the Money is an album that tears down the hippy subculture, and its naïve belief that love, drugs and tie-dye t-shirts could change the world. The cover of the album is a parody of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, featuring the band members posing in frilly tutus. And the songs, likewise, miss no opportunity to skewer the long-haired stoners flocking to San Francisco and Woodstock: on ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’, Zappa sings “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” We’re Only In It For the Money is a surreal, satirical concept album that feels very much of the 1960s, but its quirky sense of humour and playful songwriting have allowed it to stand the test of time.

Album of the Year 2017: #9 Perfume Genius – No Shape

Mike Hadreas has been releasing music under the Perfume Genius moniker for a few years now. Up to this point, it’s been mostly short albums of very pretty but very tortured piano ballads, dealing with issues of gay love, discrimination and vulnerability. His last album, released in 2014, was a spiky and introverted little record which went by the name Too Bright.

Hadreas’ latest album, by contrast, couldn’t be brighter. On No Shape, he became a shining beacon of LGBT visibility with a confident and colourful suite of songs that were all about one thing: pride. No Shape is a striking art-pop album about loving yourself and being confident with who you are, no matter what anyone else says.

On ‘Slip Away’, the album’s second track, Hadreas sings: ‘They’ll never break the shape we take / Baby let all them voices slip away’. You can practically hear him shaking off the shackles as he sings these lines, growing into his role as a musical spokesperson for the gay community, all while developing his craft as an artist.

No Shape is a diverse album – it starts off with the sweeping ‘Otherside’, which builds from a twinkling piano into a wall of luscious synthesizers. Then there’s the lilting ‘Just Like Love’, which has a bit of a Latin pop flavour, and some gorgeous breathy vocals in the chorus. There are simple guitar strummers like ‘Valley’, and then there are anomalies like ‘Choir’, which builds a sense of growing tension from sawing strings and choir vocals.

My favourite of all, though, has to be ‘Die 4 You’ – a sultry trip-hop slide that brings to mind Massive Attack or even Talk Talk. This track features a slow, jazzy bassline that really is to die for, and some shimmering keys which form the bed for Hadreas’ angelic vocals: ‘Oh my love / Take your time…’

No Shape was a huge step forward for Mike Hadreas. With it, he produced one of the most ambitious and confident pop albums of the year, delivering an important and vibrant message of diversity, acceptance, and above all, self-love. We would all do well to listen.