How I Didn’t Learn to Play Guitar

In 1989 I got a book that was just strumming easy chords to famous songs. It was frustrating because they weren’t necessarily in the right key and so I couldn’t play along with the records. But I persevered. Went don’t a few dead ends – such as spending months fingering the open E chord the wrong way.

I had an Epiphone superstrat. But no amp for the first couple of years. I plugged the guitar into my boombox and if I wanted distortion just turned it up. I knew nothing and that probably slowed down my learning.

But things got better when I bought a Led Zeppelin tab book. It was mostly inaccurate, but it got me started on lead and riffs. But the big change was when I realised that I could play the notes from Black Dog in any order I wanted and they worked over the same notes. I’d discovered the pentatonic scale. So improv began.

I started buying American guitar mags that had tabs to songs in. And I bought tab books I had no chance of being able to play. But I’d enjoy muddling through playing along to Satriani’s Extremist album despite not being able to play the widdly bits. Though funnily enough it was often the riffs I loved more than the widdling anyway. By the time I started uni in 93 I would spend weeks pouring over tab books and could (back then, no chance now) play most of Maiden’s Fear of the Dark album.

The main thing for me though was right from the start I was more interesting in writing my own songs rather than play someone elses. Even now my repertoire of other artists’ material is very low. I would have been a better guitarist if I’d had lessons, but less fun for me I think. I enjoyed the journey, I wasn’t looking for some destination. I would do stuff like use two boomboxes to record my own songs with sound on sound – dubbing my live playing into it – adding drums from a cheap keyboard. I enjoyed the muddling through, the experimenting.

SMSL 793II DAC/Headphone Amp – Quick Review

You can pay an absolute fortune for a good headphone amp but much of this money goes into snake oil. A decent DAC chip is not expensive and amplification is not rocket science. SMSL is a Chinese company that’s making waves with good quality audio gear that means you don’t have to break the bank to get good sound. This DAC/Amp receives optical/coax digital PCM and sends it out of the headphone output at the front and via RCA line-out at the rear. The volume controls the headphone only – as it should – leaving the line-out to be a fixed volume. I’ve got this DAC set up on my desk where I feed it an optical signal from my motherboard, the line-out then goes to a hi-fi amp and speakers. The sound quality is excellent both in the phones and via the line-out. I’ve used the line-out to feed an SMSL SA-50 amp and a Marantz MR-603 hifi and in both cases the results were superb. Be aware like most headphone amps there is a little channel imbalance through headphones at the quiet end of the volume taper but this is gone at normal listening volumes.

Also as is often the case with excellent but inexpensive Chinese audio gear the power supply lets the side down with cheapness and potential electric death. My 793ii came with a two-prong switching power supply and a travel adapter. While the power supply seems fine – I didn’t like using it with the travel adapter and bought a 9v switching power supply from Maplin with a proper UK plug.

The Official Grumpyrocker Best Albums of 2013

Better late than never – it’s our round-up of the very best that rock and metal had to offer in 2013. And there’s not any noodly limp Waitrose-folk arse-water in site.

Before we move onto the best records of the year it’s traditional we cover a few disappointments. First a real stinker – Megadeth’s Super Collider. I can’t fully review the album because I’ve never been able to listen to the whole thing. Yes it’s that bad. Endgame showed a band back on form and while the follow-up 13 wasn’t as good it still seemed Mustaine had something to offer. However Super Collider is so bad you wonder how it even came to be. Did no one say “Dave, these songs are shit, shall we try something else?”

Disappointing but not on the same scale as the Megaturd is Amorphis’ Circle. This is a band whose releases I look forward to eagerly and this latest album flat out disappointed me. Where’s the band that created Skyforger?

Cathedral released their final album The Last Spire. This is a pretty good album. My disappointment is a more personal issue, disappointed they are calling it a day, and disappointed they didn’t go out in a “huggy bear oh year” Midnight Mountain glitterball kinda way. But kudos to the boys for not trying crowd-pleasing nonsense and doing their own thing. I just would have liked some silliness.

The Gathering released Afterwards this year. It seems to be an experiment in how far material first revealed in 2011 could be milked. While remix albums can be good this post-rock revisit to the album Disclosure did nothing for me at all. If I wanted to play an album through some TC Electronic reverb and delay effects I could do it myself thanks. Come on folks, lets have some proper new stuff.

The biggest disappointment of the year is the continued shittiness of production and mastering across the rock and metal world. We’re still being sold crushed mixes that sound awful. One of my favourite albums of the year might have made it right to the top if it hadn’t been mastered to death. The loudness war has to end, it’s possible to be heavy and brutal without trying to destroy any musical dynamics. Hell, one of the best sounding releases of the year was the Full Dynamic Range re-release of Carcass’ Heartwork. That CD didn’t lose once ounce of heavy in getting a decent sounding release.

On the other side of the coin some bands are still peddling 24-bit 192K versions of their albums like these are a sonic orgasm. Mix and master your album properly and even a 320K MP3 will sound really good. Me, I like a good CD to be honest and a 16-bit FLAC rip for archiving purposes. More bands should join the Bandcamp revolution and sell us decent quality FLAC files – we don’t need 24-bit nonsense. Yet Amazon continues to sell some of the worst sounding MP3 files available today – some shocking low bitrates on offer.

But I digress.

Before we move on to albums of the year, let’s do song of the year. Going to surprise you with this one, especially as Carcass’ The Master Butcher’s Apron was the runner-up.

Yes really. Now let’s get on with the best albums of 2014. As usual I don’t include re-releases and live albums in my list. But we’ve had some good live releases this year – Nightwish’s Showtime Storytime featuring the phenomenal pipes of Floor Jansen is definitely a highlight of the year.



Taking direct inspiration from sequences within Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, Cult of Luna’s Vertikal offers the sprawling, beautiful, haunting sound scape of a dystopian future. The synth work often recalls Vangelis’ wonderful Blade Runner soundtrack. But it’s the rhythm section that takes things to the next level. The importance of bass guitar in post-rock/metal can’t be underestimated and the low-end rumble’s integration with the percussion gives Vertikal its momentum, preventing the slower sequences from stopping any progress. Joined by powerful guitar riffage and those very metal vocals we have an album that at times is quietly beautiful if unsettling and in parts throbbing with classic metal guitar. Cult of Luna’s great achievement in Vertikal is bringing all this work together into a cohesive whole. Like many ambient post-rock/metal albums you’ll find nods to the giants of the genre – Pink Floyd. But Vertikal isn’t a softly softly album, it retains that power and that anger you might expect from Roger Water’s finest moments, not the sleepier elegiac passages of Gilmour/Wright collaborations. Anger isn’t the only emotion featured within. The often brutal picture of the future painted by Vertikal is brought to a more human and emotional end by the last track Passing Through.
* * *


No you’re not reading this wrong. Yes I know it’s not really as good as many of the records on this list, but I never said this was an objective list. We’re talking art here – as subjective a subject as there ever was. Fintroll’s latest album makes it onto this list because it is damn good fun. Sometimes you want some music that will make you smile and this is the metal album of the year for smiles. Ridiculously good fun if you like black metal versions of circus music.

* * *


Written when it was unclear whether the band would have a vocalist well enough to sing on it the result is a concept-album that works wonderfully as an instrumental only composition. Buy the 2CD versions and you get that version. More amazingly the vocal version is just as good if not better. The concept wins the 2013 up its own arse award – but I love 70s prog excess – here The Ocean has created an album that seeks to take us on a journey into the depths of the sea but also deeper into relationships. As the depth increases so does the pressure in the lyrics and the heaviness of the music. A great concept that the band has managed to pull off.
* * *


Let’s face it, if Steven Wilson doesn’t take any holidays he’s going to be on this list every year. The man can’t seem to do any wrong and continues to create fascinating intelligent music that’s hard to categorise. Not only are the songs fantastic, Wilson has surrounded himself with excellent musicians and pulls off one of the finest modern progressive rock records recorded. This one deserves to sit along your Pink Floyd on the shelf.
* * *


The appearance of 13 in this list is a testament to the brilliance of Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. When these two men work together magic happens. Forget all the talk of Ozzy being way over the hill, of Wilk’s drumming being flat and boring – this album works because two giants of metal are riffing together again. Would this be a better record with Dio? Undoubtedly, but we’ve still got a massive slab of classic metal here. If only the pacier bonus tracks had found their way onto the regular album we’d have had a classic on our hands. As it stands we have some old guys making better metal than most of the young guys and all power to Iommi and Butler for that. Long may they riff.
* * *


No no no not the joke that is Geoff Tate. But even so, who would have thought the rest of the band would arise from the ridiculous legal shenanigans to create one of the best metal albums of the year? In Todd La Torre the band has found a real star – his vocals on this eponymous album are superb, what a range the man has. It is so great to hear Eddie Jackson’s bass clang away like old times. Scott Rockenfield’s drumming is his best for many a year. And in Parker Lundgren Michael Wilton has found a guitar sparring partner worthy of the band. The only downside is this album is too short and it is brickwalled, a better mix and a couple more songs and this could have been our album of the year. This is the real Queensryche, welcome back lads.
* * *


The gods be praised – a metal album where you can hear the bass. Omnium Gatherum had a hard act to follow with Beyond, New World Shadows was a storming record. But the progressive death metallers returned in 2013 with an equally strong album and again one that grew on me with every listen. So while I was very enthusiastic when it was released I love it even more now. Few bands combine beautiful music and heavy music as well as Omnium Gatherum – there’s so much to enjoy in the dynamics of the band’s work. Beyond sees a band at the top of their game, I only hope they can keep up such a high standard.
* * *


Here we have the first of three records vying for album of the year. From this point on any of these three could have won it. Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord created this solo record with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse in mind for vocals. The result is a fabulous modern progressive rock record that shines with superb instrumentation, modern sounds and beats and great melancholy vocals.

* * *


The metal world reacted with delight – Carcass are coming back. But then the doubts set in. After all, Carcass created some of the best heavy music ever recorded, how could a return be anything other than disappointing? We needn’t have feared. Holy effing heck though what a return. Carcass’ Surgical Steel is easily the best metal comeback we’ve ever heard. It is a huge striding monster of a heavy metal record. This is a crushingly heavy record, superb death metal with plenty of melodic moments to enjoy. Riff and riff of heavy. We needn’t have feared.
* * *


So here we have it, the official Grumpyrocker best album of 2013. Dan Swano has returned to save metal along with his guitar-playing mate Ragnar Widerberg. The Inheritance is everything a modern metal record should be – it’s, powerful, heavy, intelligent and beautifully performed. Not only that it is actually recorded sympathetically – a proper dynamic mix – we even get the vinyl mix on the CD as an extra. There’s so much in The Inheritance to enjoy – moments of 70s prog, modern death metal, very light acoustic touches, massive heavy riffs, death metal barks, big-lunged crooning. Dan has thrown the whole thing into this record and it is a glorious musical statement. You can hear older influences like Genesis alongside more modern ones such as Opeth. In many ways this is the Opeth album we wanted this year but didn’t get. Swano has one hell of a voice, he belts out these songs like a metal Elvis and to show off he wrong the songs, played the drums and produced the damn record. Meanwhile Widerberg has done a great job with the guitars offering plenty of meaty riffs, more reflective moments and melodic solos. Buy it.

Katatonia Dethroned and Uncrowned Review

How do you top a great album like 2012’s Dead End Kings? You don’t, you strip it bare and make it even better. Katatonia is spoiling us.

You may remember that I really enjoyed Katatonia’s Dead End Kings – though I readily admit I still prefer Night Is The New Day of their most recent works. So I was delighted to hear that Katatonia were re-releasing the record in a different form.

Dethroned and Uncrowned strips back Dead End Kings – removing the drums and the heavy guitars – leaving a largely acoustic and keys work that is even more melancholy and ethereal than the original. Some electric guitars do remain – for the occasional lead – and the album is by no means the clich├ęd “unplugged” version.

Instead Katatonia have explored the emotional and darker aspects of the music and while obviously this isn’t a heavier record than Dead End Kings it is much more sombre. The result is a resounding success. In almost every case I prefer the Dethroned version of each song to the one presented last year. Jonas’ duet with The Gathering’s Silje Wergeland on The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here is even more haunting.

If I was going to nitpick I’d say it is a shame that the vocals were not re-recorded. In many cases it sounds like the Dead End Kings vocal lines remain and this does mean that sometimes the emotional emphasis isn’t in keeping with the gentler music on offer.

That aside Dethroned and Uncrowned is a fabulous moody, haunting and progressive take on a great heavy metal record. Highly recommended. And of course it’s the second great record of the year to feature the vocal talents of Jonas Renkse.

Katatonia’s Dethroned and Uncrowned is released by KScope on September 9th 2013.