It's that time of year again and what a year it has been, and now it's time to start publishing the Best Of 2016s from our key people and on 31st December we'll be announcing the end result, one winner from each category. Here's Andy's Best Of 2016s...
BEST BAND: DIAMOND HEAD
Completely reinvigorated by the arrival of their new singer Ras, not only did they release one of the albums of the year, but they also upped their game in a live setting.
2. CATS IN SPACE
Not the bunch of muppets that their ironic name suggests, the band members have a formidable musical pedigree and song-smithery skills to match. Their brilliantly executed debut album is matched by the purrfection of their live shows.
3. NEAL MORSE BAND
Long acknowledged for his skill and talent, it's only now that he has finally assembled a band worthy of his name, with guitarist Eric Gillette possibly the best the band could get. Their 'Live Again' DVD is splendilous and not only showcases Neil's debut 'band' album, it also includes stellar versions of prime cuts from his formidable solo back catalogue. New album and upcoming London gig highly anticipated.
BEST GIG: GEOFF TATE, ISLINGTON ACADEMY, LONDON
Talk about having the Dr X factor, this totally defied expectations. Billed as an acoustic set, this was far from the under-rehearsed, low-budget, Crime-light strum-along set that many feared. Not only did we get a full ninety minute show, but the man was in inspired form and backed by a string quintet and percussionist, smiling, relaxed and that air-raid Warning voice.
Although there was plenty of interaction with the crowd and some fascinating anecdotes, the focus was on the music. Best of all the set spanned his full musical journey with Queensrÿche from their first recording, 'The Lady Wore Black', to prime cuts from latter-day releases like 'American Soldier'. Most surprising was that songs from 'Empire' outnumbered 'Operation...' two to one. A happy and glorious evening, God save our Geoff. It was most definitely all Rÿche on the night.
2. ATOMIC ROOSTER: 100 CLUB, LONDON
An unexpectedly brilliant return of the voice and guitar of the fine 'In Hearing Of' line-up, augmented by a breakthrough band of young bucks. A fine supporting cameo from Snafu made the whole evening a wonder to behold.
3. BLUE OYSTER CULT: KENTISH TOWN FORUM, LONDON
Making amends for the criminally short set time at last year's Ramblin' Man, BoC's extended set centred around the seminal 'Agents Of Fortune' album and rocked like a Godzillan Dizbuster. The presence of Albert Bouchard was icing on the cake for a phenomenal show.
BEST ALBUM: FATES WARNING: 'THEORIES OF FLIGHT'
Yet another quality release by the prog Metal innovators following their equally fine 'Darkness In A Different Light' release from 2013. Far superior to Dream Theater's recent outings to these ears.
2. TREMONTI: 'DUST'
Great companion release to 2015s strong 'Cauterize' release that showcased Tremonti's strong sense of melody counterpointed by crushingly precise riffage and capped-off by a confident and warm vocal style that never fails to engage.
3. FROST*: 'FALLING SATELLITES'
Joyously bonkers neo-prog conceived and conducted by loveable polymath Jem Godfrey, aided and abetted by John Mitchell, Nathan King and Craig Blundell. The superb twenty minute 'Sunlight' suite runs rings around Dream Theater's less than Astonishing concept release while other standalone songs like 'Numbers' and 'Signs' combine sophisticated arrangement and virtuoso delivery to enthralling effect.
BEST FESTIVAL: RAMBLIN' MAN FAIR
Head and shoulders above the rest, the best fest. A fabulous weekend of fine weather, great friends and awesome bands, with Kentucky Headhunters, Headspace and Hawkwind confounding my expectations with awesome sets.
2. STONE FREE
Inaugural year for this new two-day classic rock event spanning multiple venues inside London's O2 Arena. Somewhat mismatched headliners meant that those attending Saturday's more metallic line-up, topped by Alice Cooper, were less likely to return for Sunday's more progressive bill and vice-versa. Those with more eclectic tastes were richly rewarded by strong performances on both days with Arthurian Sunday perhaps the more compelling with Marillion and Steve Hackett's short but sweet supporting sets quite sublime.
Left-field festi held in Victoria Park, the erstwhile venue for High Voltage. Remarkable sunset slot from ice-men Sigur Ros and Lianne La Havas charming and vocally supreme.
BEST VIDEO: SAXON: 'BATTERING RAM'
An elegant and wistful ballad to sooth the gossamer winged fairies into beatific slumbers? Not on Biff's watch. This is ovine brutality at its most cruel with a serenade of sledgehammer riffs and a banshee wail to summon the dead. Simply lovely. Saxon fire.
2. QUEENSRŸCHE: 'HELLFIRE'
Great to see the rhythmic core of this fine band return with songs worthy of their legacy and a dynamite singer in Todd La Torre.
3. TANK: 'VALLEY OF TEARS'
With Doogie White taking an extended love drive with Michael Schenker, these armour-plated riff masters have played a blinder by drafting in current (post-Bach) Skid Row singer ZP Theart for their latest album, with the title track video a perfect showcase for his piercingly melodic vocal style.
BEST NEW BAND: SIMO
Topped the recent Roadstars triple decker bill in London and took full advantage to deliver a stunning extended set that encompassed rock, bluegrass, jazz, psyche and soulful fusion. This power trio from Nashville recall the Mountain men both physically and in their instrumental mastery and seemingly telepathic ability to improvise.
Many missed this fine band when they opened for leading AOR tunesmith Mitch Malloy at the Underworld. Based on a nickname that mainstay Kurt Lowney acquired when recording in Japan, the band's debut album is a fine amalgam of the swagger of Aerosmith and the melodic power of Boston. With MM providing production and songwriting support and a great supporting cast of players, especially Tristan Avakian (Red Dawn, TSO and none-more-Brian) on seering lead guitar, I really hope the band develops as a going live concern.
3. BROKEN WITT REBELS
Barely a year after their first showcase gigs in dingy west London basements, these Brummy gems are now stepping up to the big stages, with prestigious support slots on extensive theatre tours with King King and Joanne Shaw Taylor early in the new year. This increased profile reflects not only road miles travelled, but also the evolution of a really compelling set-list, which should see them finally secure a deal to release their long awaited debut album.
LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2017
Pain Of Salvation: after the savoury double dose of Road Salt, PoS are due to release their first plugged album in over six years, 'In The Passing Light Of Day', in January. Advance previews indicate a return to the intellectual Metal of their lauded 'Remedy Lane' release, which hopefully will lead to a full-band tour to follow the album release.
Anderson Rabin Wakeman: The voice of Sunhillow answered in the affirmative when offered the opportunity to regroup with lonely hearted Trevor and newly awoken Rick. With a promise of a era-straddling set-list and the possibilty of new music in the longer term, this collaboration is sure to generate big interest.
Lonely Robot: The first chapter in John Mitchell's solo endeavour rightly garnered significant plaudits so the prospect of a follow-up is enticing indeed. Domo arigato Mr Mitchell.