Sunday, 1 February 2015

Ales for Albums: Sonic Highways

Around Christmas I received a gift from my family's favourite Belgian (see here) and a challenge, which I think was part of the gift, and it's had me thinking ever since. If this goes well I suspect I shan't be long in trying a second bash at this sort of thing as it was an interesting exercise and, to my knowledge, it's not been done by anyone I have contact with before. What is this? Well, I was sent the album Sonic Highways by the Foo Fighters - this album is a concept album in which they take eight US cities and using their experiences there they created a song to match that inspiration.

The challenge was to listen to the album and then find an ale that was inspired by the music. That is, each of the tracks would be linked to an ale that would match their style and their rhythm and beat. Now, it goes without saying (I hope) that drinking an ale to each track (them being between four and seven minutes long) would result in rapid loss of use of one's body and is not to be recommended.

Would you like to see what this challenge has called forth from the dark recesses of my mind? You would? Excellent, click on the finely hand-crafted 'read more' link below!

Something from Nothing
This is a song about flames and heat but with a beat that is more mellow and easy-going. Plenty of clever recording tricks to get the brain thinking and following the song as it skips between speakers. Good raspy voice giving the lyrics in an almost familiar whisper over a good mix of warped guitars, heavy strumming and an unobtrusive drum bass line. I like the sudden switch in beat to the more repetitive section after the first verse that, for reasons that escape me, puts me in mind of Ulysses 31 and the 1980s generally. Apparently inspired by Chicago, IL, this is a track that clearly tries to conjure canyons of glass and steel - seedy underbellies and violence in the background (good use of bass guitar for that one).

It's a hard song but it's roiling throughout, never fully settled. Warm and inviting on the surface and packing a bit of a hit that you just weren't expecting despite the warning bassline at the beginning, until it lets lose just after the three and a half minute mark. I like this track, one of my favourites, and the ale it brings to mind has to be a Golden effort. I choose Quint Essential (here) because of the spicy undertone and the sudden explosion after the first few sips. Also, there's something about that orange label on a brown glass bottle that just screams this track at me. It is clever, subtle and has that raspy punch that one would expect of a brew matching this track.

The Feast and the Famine
This is a more traditional rock track, starting with that almost teasing method of heavy guitars breaking every now and then for strumming and noodling on the edges. It reminds me of Supervixen by Garbage that had me wondering if my stereo was slowly dying in the 1990s. In any case, this is apparently inspired by Arlington, VA, and it befits the home of the CIA being tricksy and never quite settling into one thing or another. The lyrics are delivered in short bursts with plenty of internal rhymes, links to revolution, religion and order and chaos abound and I do enjoy it. It's not as good as the opening track, but it is another good one to drive to work to.

This tamped down anger, a confusion of emotions and ideas awash with duplicity and pounding guitar alternating with silence and miniature rhymes and couplets reminds me of the sort of froth and action one gets in more Belgian offerings (which is rather fitting I think) because they are impossible to keep covered up and sane. In this instance I am minded very much of Speciale by Brampton Brewery (here) because of the light bubbly nature of it coupled with that massive kick of a mule in the ABV, like the sudden switch up to insane jubilation at the end of the track.

This wins my vote for the best named track on the album. Also, that opening guitar noise is beautifully dark and reminiscent of my favourite kind of synth-pop. The riff is more like the late 1980s easy rock from the states, it puts me in mind of the sort of stuff that my father used to listen to, almost Bruce Hornsby and the Range, before settling more into Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi territory. There's more shouting, more stuff that sounds like Muse, and that's all good. Less good as a driving track, this one needs to be taken sitting down and is decent for marking to. There's more depth to the words on this one, inspired by Nashville, TN, and every inch something that charts neatly the rise of singers of colour in a world that was prepared to accept them as they wold performing dogs.

This sort of track, anger-inducing but self-effacing, with it's twin beats of pride in achievement and sorrow at work unfinished; anger at the state of the world today but recognition of what has gone before; this sort of track requires an ale that can almost be something to all people. The bridge lead into a different track altogether suggests that this can't a stout, too solid and dark, nor can it be a bubbly and exciting golden ale all happy and light. So, this narrows us down. There's an adventure in this track that draws you ever onward with the darkness and the twists and turns of the music, ever downward and ever more confusing until the journey ends with the Spinal Tap style metal scream, seguing neatly back to the 1980s inoffensive pop-rock stylings of chanting the title. And that can only really be provided by Thornbridge's Wild Raven (here), another ale that I really must buy again to sample on its own and to the full. Maybe this album will keep me inspired long enough to do that...

What did I do?\God as My Witness
Bon Jovi opening, Always, with an element of Springsteen in his earlier years here. The piano opening is a nice touch, almost managing a Keane-esque quality, but it is dominated by that half-remembered rock touch that I assign to bands like Crash Test Dummies and the Connells. This track is easy-listening with a good beat, a good set of words, and borrows heavily from that clash then silence trick from the previous track. Inspired by Austin, TX, I can see the attempt to recreate the 'old music' that I recall my family in the States liking so much - when men made music from whatever they could find - and it has an element of the Alamo in the almost military stylings of the lyrics alone once the guitar drops and leaves just the piano from a very frontier sounding use of notes.

This change in character and the way it speaks to the unknown and the untamed for the Lone Star state demands an equally untamed ale to take it through the to the end. However, this track is not the heaviness of stout nor the lightness of a pale. The slightly Queen-esque departure near the end with the high guitar twiddling suggests something of an amber bent and the outro fade demands an ale with a pleasant and soft after-taste that doesn't leave you hanging or too sour. It's not the kind to cleanse palates. It's burning wood, it's Shepherd Neame's Up and Under (here) because of the out-doorsy feel and the fade. Yes, that about sums this track up.

Inspired by Joshua Tree, CA, this starts brooding and dark. The bass here is great and the over play of the maddening guitars coupled with a clashing drum track contrasts nicely with the quieter lyrics, less insistent and angry than the previous tracks, bringing to mind U2 and Bono in the early nineties without the whining insistence that one subscribe to their brand of politics. There's a glee to this track and a happiness about how it all fits together despite the apparent focus on the negative and the desire to leave and ride off into the distance. It's more Joshua Tree by U2 than a city in my mind, but I have never travelled to California so I could be wrong there. It reminds me of the scenes in films when they're driving across the midwest with plenty of dust on the highway and long stretches of flat nothing. This is probably not what California is like at all, but I have the joke from Austin Powers to guide me and that's all I know.

Deceptive mellow, deeply personal and with a dash of road-movie epic thrown in for good measure. Very like the stylings of U2 demands a softer celtic touch to the ale, something fragrant and special. There's the smooth overlay of one guitar on another bass track and the lyrics. There's the signature break mid-song to change styles but keep the basics from one part to the next, and there is the desire to leave and the wistfulness of missing home. It's no contest, this is Fraoch Heather Ale (here) and it fits almost too well. It's subtle, flowery and powerful. There's that same brand of not-quite-wilderness in the ale that is mirrored by the track and the soft sense of being home that never quite arrives. Almost melancholy but hidden beneath manliness and an attempt at virility. Yes, very fitting.

In the Clear
This starts in much finer fettle and better mood than the previous track, almost euphoric cacophany as its opening, then the standard guitar beat standing in for a drum, waiting until almost the end of the first minute to bring in the drum beat. Lyrics play with words "until I begin to begin" with a negative version of the title providing the twist in the chorus. It's a statement of freedom and a statement of slavery, the usual dichotomy that seems to be the main thread running through the album, and may explain the choice of cities to someone better versed in US geography and culture than I. As it is supposed to represent New Orleans, LA, I am saddened by the lack of Cajun vibe or French-ness in the lyrics but this is rock so I suppose that's not an easy thing to do. When Placebo tried it I liked it but I suspect most people thought them pretentious (and they wouldn't be in the wrong). I suspect more Katrina than Don McLean here.

Big guitar, big words and big reverb toward the end suggest something mighty and strong, a brooding presence that enforces its will on proceedings. It is clearly anarchic, clearly something to be respected. It's got to be Molotov Cocktail by Evil Twin (here) - the amber ale you could quite happily attack a government with. At 13% ABV I really wouldn't recommend drinking it whilst the track was playing, but sipping thoughtfully throughout the album. It's a fiery and spicy affair that, when chilled, has a syrup-like texture that allows that might and strength and insanity to slip down easily and without a fight. Roiling with contradictory flavours and senses, being both welcoming and heavily into the red-zone of ABV, this plays nicely into the style that the Foo Fighters have imbued New Orleans and makes, in my mind, a good match.

From the opening this sets itself apart as one of the more sinister tracks on the album, which is no bad thing, with a completely different character to the delivery of the lyrics. There's another song that this speaks of, almost Beatles with Lonely People or Eagles, and that plays nicely with the easy-going drum beat here. Lots of soft uses of the brushes and there's a hint of OK Computer that has me swaying along with it when it gets going. Yes, the loops and the almost discordant melodies are very much Thom Yorke and the more edgy parts of Coldplay (shut up, I really like Viva la Vida). This rather hipster styling is inspired by Seattle, WA, which, from my reading of PVP, seems bang on., I can imagine people going in and out of the latest Starbuck's and sharing wi-fi more easily than they do conversation. Appple stores do roaring trade in the riffs and the elitist but well-meaning Democrat proudly tries to gain a Liberal one-ness with people of other cultures without being seen as a chauvinist.

It's hard to nail down an ale that sums up this desire to honour those who aren't yourself but bound by that liberal-guilt that so plagues the middle-classes at the same time. Alas, it means that brews that speak of working class UK are right out, there's no room for the sort of thing one has with a ploughman's or a pint at the end of a shift at the steel-works. This needs a craft ale and one that is brimming with hops and credentials, meaning that we turn to the crafty IPAs to make sense of this track. It has to be the rather lovely Barry Island (here) which also plays nicely into the fact that this track has a hidden depth through the punch provided by the 6.6% ABV. At once something to quench a thirst and provide a headache induced by dehydration this ale matches the mood of the track, and why it is best to drive to only on a long journey where there will be songs either side, this is the middle of a trip along the motorway when Anna and I have run out of conversation, the children are gazing through the windows, before we start again.

I Am A River
Long intro to this one, the sort that reminds me of long wet days as a child, when I would play music on the stereo downstairs or in the spare room (latterly) and create long, intricate and complicated games that never really went anywhere but in which I would attempt to imbue emotion so hard that I would often get tears in my eyes. Not because I succeeded but because the sheer effort I was putting into minute movements of my transformers would make my eyes hurt and I'd forget to blink. I was an odd child. This track, of course, has nothing to do with those days nor my rather odd playing habits, rather it is inspired by New York, NY, and thus carries that sarcastic flavour and an element of cold cynicism that New York is famed for and probably doesn't have. There's a mourning here too, as if the Foo Fighters caught wind of the current protests and the moves by the NYPD to show how they are angry in ways that make them less than endearing. But so do teacher's strikes.

The backdrop of Radiohead synth behind the guitar loops and riffs with limited use of drums and constant builds to silence before beginning again suggest a no-nonsense ale to accompany it. Something that has some character but lacks the knock-out blows of definite hops or blow-your-head-off ABV. It has to be solid, straight-talking and unsurprising chestnut ale. There's a working class nature to this one, the sort of thing you can imagine being supped happily in industrial towns by men who didn't have to say much wearing working caps and nodding sagely as people entered the pub. There's an old-man feel to the track, and I mean that not as an insult. It's therefore got to be Mr Trotter's (here). Because.

I hope this review worked for you, dear reader, and if you think I ought to be doing something like this again feel free to suggest an album for me! I'll do my best!


  1. Really fantastic post, enjoyed reading this a lot. You should definitely do another post like this. I'll have to have a think, see if I can come up with a suitable album!

    1. Thank you, kind sir! I shall await your pleasure for an album.