Tag Archives: best of

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2

The Music of 2017 Part Three: Albums No. 7 to 1

It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect.  The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube.  A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal.  It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.

This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts.  In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap.  Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.

2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off.  Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different.  The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest.  In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.

After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out.  Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience.  That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up. Continue reading Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse; Or The Year of Introspection

The Music of 2017, Part 2 — Honorable mention, and albums 17 to 8.

You can read the introduction to the Music of the Year posts here. 

Honourable mention:

Tune – III

I did not receive this album until the second week of December, which is too late for it to be considered for a spot in the Album of the Year list.  But I do want to comment on it.

Tune are a rather odd bunch, a quirky art rock quartet out of Poland; I liked their second album (Identity) from three years back, showcasing clever and accessible pop songs but with a bit of an edge, but still there was something a bit too fey about them.

III is a step in the right direction.  It is a very short album, pretty much EP-length, but I have never really been concerned with that sort of thing.  It is better to have an album on the short side than one that outstays its welcome. At any rate: the songs here are darker, heavier, much edgier, demonstrating maturity and experience, and less quirk. The production is rich and up-close, showcasing the nice chunky bass sound and guitar – suddenly it is obvious that these guys are pretty damned good musicians.  Hopefully this album will bring them a bit more attention – it is worth the listen.

 

  1. Steven Wilson – To the Bone

Steven Wilson continues down the road well-traveled as he heads closer and closer to pure pop.  The last album had its pop moments, but this one Is pretty unapologetic: breakthrough is what he wants, and To the Bone gets him a lot nearer.  It is not a bad album but it is a rather boring one, really; Wilson is sticking to the safe route. There are those who excoriate him for his apparent abandonment of the prog that made him so beloved in the first place, but he has always been an International Pop Star at heart. Album review is here.

 

  1. Necro Deathmort – Overland

Another new album from one of the more prolific of the ambient electronic acts out there. Necro Deathmort never seem to be overt: they don’t promote themselves much, they don’t have a major social media presence, but they never quit and somehow I have amassed quite a collection of their stuff.  Overland is smooth and chill and unsettling, as befits the best of their music. The duo appeared on Steven Wilson’s latest album and they have slyly made use of the same colour scheme on Overland.

 

  1. Eclipse – Monumentum

Eclipse is a hard rock quartet from Sweden, been around for a few years now, and they make pretty decent no-frills rock songs: melodic and heavy and not too long, definitely worth a listen or two.  I like the album, and I really like two or three tracks from it.  Eclipse joined with Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins to make one of the better hard rock efforts from 2016, Nordic Union.  Rumour has it they will do it again in 2018.  Thumbs up for that one.

 

  1. Glass Apple Bonzai – In the Dark

Upbeat synthpop from Toronto, cheerful retrowave about satanism and devil-worship.  Well…why not?  It is actually a pretty good album.  And the guy does have a great voice.

 

  1. Nathan Gray Collective – Until the Darkness Takes Us

In July, I said this: “At some point in his life, Nathan Gray lost his faith in God and it made him very very angry.” Well, he’s still pretty pissed off, but the album has grown on me a bit.  Dark and dense and pretty heavy at times, and Gray certainly sounds like he means what he says.

https://nathangraycollective.bandcamp.com/track/skin

  1. While She Sleeps – You Are We

These guys are a metalcore quartet from Sheffield, been around for a decade or so, and with You are We they have created a pleasingly melodic but face-meltingly heavy collection of tracks well worth checking out.  Alternating between screams and clean singing, they have a bit of a Linkin Park vibe, but in a good way.

 

  1. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

An outfit that has been around for a while, but I can’t say I have paid them much notice. They do seem to shift styles and genres to a considerable degree, however, and this incarnation has managed to catch my attention.  This version of Ulver seems very synth-driven, dense and musical, and they do some interesting things here. Definitely worth a listen.

 

  1. The Quill – Born From Fire

Stoner blues rock from the southern US, an album about redemption, reclamation, conversion, finding God.

Oh wait – these guys are Swedes.

Well, they do this thing very well indeed.  I’ve been putting a lot of mileage on this album, and if I’d started playing it a bit earlier, it might have risen higher than 10.  It is certainly engaging, and I like it a lot better than I thought I would.

 

  1. Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?

Everyone needs a little pop in their lives, I think.  But make it good pop. Real pop, heavy and fun – like Royal Blood, the British bass-and-drums power duo. These guys are pretentious, popular, and very good at what they do, and I have an unaccountable fondness for them.  The album is short and to the point, and they put out so much wattage you would swear they have onstage help – but I have seen them.  They don’t.

 

  1. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

I never really paid much mind to Mastodon, and at this point in the year I don’t even remember why I listened to the new album.  But I did, and I liked it a whole lot, and went to see them live and everything.  In the meantime Emperor of Sand continued to grow on me. I don’t know if I will dig into the back catalogue, but I’m happy with this one.

 

 

The Music of 2017: Part One

The Best of the Not-2017 Discoveries

Noise Unit: Drill (released 1997)

Before we get to the actual releases of 2017, I will begin with this year’s discovery of a couple of bands who have put out albums that are truly great to my ears, and they come from two very different genres.  Both are old, well-established acts, but as far as I know only one is still active.  But boy – are they ever active.

The first is Noise Unit, an industrial electronica duo out of Vancouver, with links to Front Line Assembly and Delerium, who began back in 1989 with the album Grinding Into Emptiness.  As far as I can tell, their last one was 2005’s Voyeur.  I sampled a few things from Grinding into Emptiness, and Response Frequency, and Decoder, and they were good, interesting, but not attention-keepers.

Then I found Drill, released in 1997.  That was the game-changer.  What an album this is…the epitome of industrial electronica EBM, dense and intricate and as sophisticated as all hell; every time I play it I notice new things.  Melodic and addictive, definitely one of my best discoveries for a long time.

 

Pretty Maids: Pandemonium (released 2010)

And then there is Pretty Maids. Yeah well what can I say. The music we love the most digs into places in our psyche that other things don’t get to, and I have found that there is no predicting what that will be.  That Drill would work was not enormously surprising because I am not averse to the genre to begin with…but Pretty Maids surely was.  Established way back in the hair-metal heyday of the mid 1980s, at first glance they epitomize everything I don’t like about old-time classic hard rock and metal, and frankly their early albums don’t do much to change that perception.   But in 2010 something happened.  Well, Jacob Hansen, a new producer happened, and the resurrection of Pretty Maids makes Lazarus rising from the dead look like a parlor trick.

The last four Pretty Maids albums have rocketed to the top of my all-time album list; I started with their 2016 release Kingmaker and worked backwards from there, and then I hit 2010’s Pandemonium.

By jesus (as my dad would often say) this album might just be THE perfect melodic hard rock album. It has everything  — crunching heaviness, relentless energy, massive performances, even decent lyrics.  The vocal performance on this album is absolutely monstrous: Ronnie’s pipes must be made of cast iron. It don’t think there is a less-than-great song on this album (well, maybe “Cielo Drive”…),  but that title track…it doesn’t get much better than that.  By anyone.   Pandemonium astonishes me  – it fires every metal synapse in my brain every single time I play it, and I have played it almost daily since I stumbled on these guys.   Not just the discovery of the year — this album is the discovery of the goddamned decade, if not the century.

Albums of 2017, the Half-way Point

Okay, it is July, and in about 5 months I will be winding up another year of music.  It is time for the mid-year rundown of what I have found so far: the stuff that is good, the stuff that is not so good, the stuff that should be good but fails, and this year a list of the stuff I missed from previous years.

My music discovery process derives from all manner of sources: recommendations from friends, blurbs from various websites/review sites, accidents, and for the first time *cough*Spotify*cough*, via its weekly Discovery list, which does deliver up some interesting and unusual suggestions, especially given that I do not much stream, so its analysis of my tastes is necessarily limited.

Every year I seem to run a theme – some genre or style of music that tends to dominate my listening.  I’m not really sure why that is or how it happens.  Last year it was largely industrial electronica and ethnic-based post-rock; this year is Old Fogey Year – discovering the music of well-established outfits I heretofore ignored because I thought I didn’t like them.  It seems the older I get, the less of a music snob I become.  That is probably a good thing.

So here is the list of contenders so far, in reverse order of interest, with a brief capsule review. You may notice a certain…theme to some of the album titles.  Naturally, this order is subject to revision at any time.  And I will just note: So far my albums of 2017 were released long before 2017.  I just found them this year.

Continue reading Albums of 2017, the Half-way Point

The Albums of 2016 — Part Two.

So: on to the actual list of actual albums of 2016.  My introductory blurb is here.  This year it is a Top 20, because the quality of music was just so high.  In fact, unlike most years, this time I struggled with the bottom end of the list – there were a number of albums that were very close to making the cut, and it was difficult to not be able to include them (there were some no-hopers — there always are — but rather fewer this year than normal).  My apologies to those who didn’t quite make it.

A real feature of the albums at the top is their staying power.  Several of them were released early in the year (the Shearwater in fact was released digitally in December 2015 to those who pre-ordered), and despite the passage of time, and the tendency to focus on more recent albums, they hold up: They are as strong at the end of the year as they were when they were first released.  For me, this is the true test of an album’s quality: if it gives as much pleasure or demands as much attention from me a year (or more) later as it did when it first appeared.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator – Do Not Disturb

Is this the last VdGG album?  There are hints that it might be, but on the other hand there are few musicians out there as prolific as Peter Hammill has been over his career…so who knows?  At any rate, this is the old VdGG but sans David Jackson, which does remove a crucial familiar element from the music, but otherwise there is no mistaking the haunted angst, the echoes of the great band of the past.

 

  1. Throes of Dawn — Our Voices Shall Remain

Throes of Dawn are a Finnish outfit that apparently at one time were black metal. They have softened and broadened their sound, but the metal hasn’t left. They are a bit derivative to my ears, but there are some beautiful instrumental moments in these songs — and whoever that guitarist is — well, it is gorgeous playing, soaring and evocative, and that is enough to slide this album onto the list.

The title track has a bass line stolen right from Editors “Sugar” — but nevertheless, I love the song.

 

  1. Necro Deathmort — The Capsule

I’ve said this before: it is hard to predict what you are going to get with these guys. Relentlessly prolific, they are continually tossing out EPs and tracks that explore the landscape of ambience, electronica, drone, in myriad directions. The Capsule revisits the disquieting dark moodiness of Music of Bleak Origins, instrumental drone metal underlain with a jittery anxiety.

 

17. Opeth — Sorceress

Opeth is one of those bands that I have struggled mightily with for a long time, trying to hear what everyone else seems to hear, who love them so much. In the end I guess I have to say that they remain completely hit-and-miss for me. That being said, I find that Sorceress is one of their more accessible albums. I don’t love it, but I can listen to it more than most of their others. So here it is, number 17.

 

  1. uKanDanz – Awo

And now for something completely different.  It is hard to describe what we have here – based out of France, hard, energetic, proggy/jazzy rock, lots of guitar riffage and horns, and on top of it all the unique vocal stylings of their Ethiopian lead singer, Asnake Gebreyes.  It is heavy and strangely compelling, but may well be an acquired taste.

 

  1. Dead When I Found Her – Eyes on Backwards

As I noted earlier, 2016 was the year I really discovered industrial electronica, a genre I had never really explored before, having come across them completely by accident a couple of years or so ago when I found VNV Nation.  But this year there seems to have been a bumper crop of the stuff brought to my awareness.  DWIFH is a duo from Portland, Oregon; this album is all smooth synths and dark trance, oddly compelling and disquieting, perhaps a bit too sample-heavy for my taste, but interesting enough to make the list.

Continue reading The Albums of 2016 — Part Two.

The Music of 2016 — Part One

The Music of 2016

2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant.  We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one.  There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.

At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time.  This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention.  This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult.  Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10.  You get the picture.

Things didn’t start off so well.  I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:

I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year.  Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong.  In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016.  But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list.  And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows.  At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.

Oh how things changed after that….

Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica.  Some psychedelia (but just a little).  And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding.  At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions.  But good music is good music, whatever the genre.

There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good.  So for the first time I have a separate list for those.

And this is where I will begin.

The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums

These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money.  It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists.  I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).

  1.  Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016

One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release.  Well worth checking out.

 

  1. Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)

One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.

 

  1. Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares

Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.

 

  1. Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica.  It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs.  It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.

 

  1. Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music

Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen.  One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things.  Who has that kind of time?

Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done.  A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity.  But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake.  And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six.  Outstanding examples:  the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.

http://artoffact.com/album/i-am-awesome-because-i-still-buy-music-compilation-volume-one

 

  1. Porcupine Tree — Nil Recurring on vinyl.

My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album.  It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there.  But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant.  Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.

The Music of 2016: Mid-year Report

The State of the Music: Part One.

It’s halfway through 2016, so it is time for the semi-annual roundup of where we are.

It started out slowly, a couple of releases right off the bat from Shearwater and David Bowie, and then it seemed that there was little of interest in the immediate future.  However I can’t say that I was paying a whole lot of attention to the music scene anyway:  it’s been a tough year personally on a number of levels.  But when I started to think about music again, a few surprising things had snuck into my consciousness – albums in styles and genres that I would not necessarily have sought out on my own, but here they are.

Every year I can count on at least one act to show up that I’d never heard of and that blows me away, but this year there are several.  There are surprises, and there are disappointments.  Obviously the current rankings are tentative and entirely subject to change, but it is unlikely that an album currently sitting near the bottom will suddenly rocket to the top.  It is still a crapshoot though:  there are a couple of powerful contenders to come, and at least one anticipated release from a trio with no name, and whose sound is a complete mystery at the moment. Who knows what this list will look like at the end of the year?

Before we get into the list and mini-reviews, a quick glance at the albums I know are in the pipeline:

Upcoming:

  • Russian Circles – Guidance (August)
  • Seven Impale second album — September
  • Riverside electronica – looks like October
  • The as-yet unnamed Maciej Meller/Maciej Golyzniak/Mariusz Duda trio album (November)

Here we go: The contenders so far, in reverse order:

  1. Arcade Messiah – II

Complex and heavy instrumental progressive post-rock.  There is no doubting the musical chops of these guys, and there are some fine moments, but the album is perhaps a bit too self-important for its own good.

  1. Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

I’d like to like this better than I do, it is quite lovely and atmospheric, but to be perfectly honest the slow baroque-pop tends to get a little samey after a while, and the breathy vocal style wears.  The title track works so well because the male guest vocals effectively play off the soprano and provide density and interest.  And the last track is outstanding.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar

Another album I am supposed to like more than I do.  It is not a bad album by any means, and the title track is a strange, compelling monster…but I feel that sentiment is not really a good reason to rank an album, and it is only sentiment that could boost this album higher than it is.

  1. The Vliets – I – IX

These guys generally do alternative psychedelic pop, but this album, digital only, is pure ambient electronica, composed as a sonic backdrop for some art installation.  It does work perfectly in that context too – excellent background music.  It would rank higher if it was longer.

https://vliets.bandcamp.com/track/iv

  1. Votum — :KTONIK:

The first or second time I heard this I was kind of excited, because it sounded so much more interesting than the previous album.  It is heavy prog metal but more metal than prog, and more than a few moments really caught me up…and then something happened.  The third and subsequent times I played it…it just sat there.  It lost its edge really quickly, and I find that except for a couple of tracks near the beginning, I so lose focus that I am surprised to discover that the album is over.  I barely notice it.

  1. Inspired – Music Inspired by Alchemy

There are some great, atmospheric instrumental pieces on this album, the third in an occasional series, but not enough of them.  And most of them are just too damned short.  See my review here.

  1. Airbag – Disconnected

I was so hoping that this band would step outside its lush, sweeping Floyd-channelling boundaries this time around, and extend their efforts … but alas, apparently they decided to play it safe.  So very very safe.  Disconnected sounds so much like the previous two albums that in my mind I have trouble disentangling the songs one album from the other.  It’s just more of the same.  They can do better than this.

  1. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts

Another album that is not hitting me where it counts.  I was hoping for a return to heaviness, and there is some of that, but mostly they have turned to progressive metal with emphasis on the progressive.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for an album that goes for atmosphere over kick-ass, and an album in which I cannot sustain interest over its considerable length.

Except for “Serein”.  Which is jaw-droppingly amazing.

Continue reading The Music of 2016: Mid-year Report

The Top Albums of 2015: Nos. 6 – 1

 

The Music of 2015

2015 has been a wonderful year for new music, one of the best years in recent memory.  Almost all the new releases I checked out were worthwhile, even the ones that eventually didn’t make the cut. What’s more, most of the albums I found that had come out in previous years were also exceptional.  It is quite the opposite of last year when I had real trouble coming up with ten albums to talk about; this year the difficulty is deciding what to leave out.  That is why I have gone with a Top 15 of 2015.  Too much is just too good.

Some clear themes have emerged: this year’s music of preference seems to be either hard and heavy post-metal, post-punk, or sludge/doom metal; or beautifully sweeping songs, lush and melodic…there are few exceptions.  But pretty much all of it features lots of great powerful riffage, and real honouring of the song. Instrumental music makes up a significant portion of the albums I chose.  Established artists surprised by the shift in their direction, and new artists absolutely stomped into prominence.

This was also the year that the 1980s dominated: the influences from that decade are all over the damned place. Two bands active in the 80s that I hadn’t paid any attention to for years (or ever) blasted out of the past with monster releases. At least three other bands heavily reference 80s sounds (although technically one will not release their album until next year; at this point a single is available). Several decent live albums were released but only one snuck into the list. Live albums are generally not regarded as legitimate candidates for year-end lists, and the one that made it into mine was actually released in 2014, but fuck it, this is my list and I’ll include what I want.

 


 

And here we present my most beloved albums of the year — it was not easy to rank these last few; in fact, the Number 1 album did not arrive in the queue of possibilities until November, which is very late for consideration.  But such an album….anyway, see for yourself.

  1. Blindead: Live at Radio Gdańsk

I am cheating with this album. First, it is a live album and many people think that only studio releases should be considered for Album of the Year status.  Maybe they are right but in this case I don’t care.  Second, it isn’t a 2015 release at all, but came out the year before.  I just couldn’t lay hands on it until very late in 2014 so I am pretending it is a current album.  Sue me.

This is a great live album that presents impeccable versions of the last couple studio albums, along with several guest musicians including Piotr Grudziński of Riverside, playing guitar on the incandescent “A7bsence”.  This is a band that deserves way more attention than they get.

 

  1. Eschar: Nova

The first full length album from this UK-based prog metal outfit displays an astonishing level of maturity, an excellent follow-up to their first EP. Instrumental post-metal is a tricky genre – there are so many bands and they can all sound alike after a while, but Eschar have managed to avoid that trap with their thoughtful and sophisticated songwriting and intense playing.  This album has not disappointed; and coming in at No. 5 it has clearly kicked the ass of a whole lot of more established acts.  See my full review here.

https://eschar.bandcamp.com/track/discovery-one

  1. Klone: Here Comes the Sun

Another new discovery for me this year, a French band who have been around for about 16 years, and another band who seems to have made a shift in the nature of their sound with the current album, away from earlier harder-edged metal.  This is magnificently lush stuff, beautiful and sweeping and heartbreakingly melodic, played with intricate skill, a huge surprise to me.  “Nebulous” is the attention-grabber but almost all the tracks are superb.

 

  1. Riverside: Love, Fear and the Time Machine

I did so want this album in the No. 1 spot, because I am unapologetically in love with this band, but alas it was not to be.  Riverside’s sixth album follows the now-familiar trajectory of the last two in its uncompromising shift in style and direction, but this time there is something different. It is paradoxical. On an individual song-by-song basis it has moments of incomparable beauty, and at least one track that seems to be beyond transcendence…but the overall impression, the afterglow, as it were, when the last song ends, is almost like a musical coitus interruptus: a curious feeling of incompleteness. We know it is Riverside, there is no mistaking the characteristic sounds and nuanced richness of the guitars, drums, and organs…but the songs are more strongly bass-and-voice driven than ever before. And while Duda’s singing is more purely beautiful than anything he has ever done, there is a disconcerting lack of vocal diversity, an unusual absence of the playfulness of voice that Duda is noted for.  This leaves a strangely mono-tonal aftertaste when the album is done.  It seems very much like an album in limbo — not quite Riverside but not fully a Mariusz Duda effort either. One walks away from it vaguely dissatisfied.

 

  1. Sisters of…: The Serpent, the Angel, and the Adversary

This was the Album of the Year for me for most of the year, until a very late contender showed up.  But…this.  This album is something.  Sisters of… is a guitar/drum duo out of Missouri, and this is their first album, following up an EP from a couple years back that astonished almost everyone who heard it. The Serpent… is an absolute behemoth of an album.  Hard, relentless black instrumental post-metal that offers no mercy; listening to it is like clinging to the top of a runaway locomotive, loud and terrifying and yet exhilarating as hell, as long as you hold on for dear life.  Face-melting, heart-pounding, unstoppable.

 

  1. Killing Joke: Pylon

This album literally came out of nowhere, hitting my consciousness late in November.  Killing Joke are a band I have paid very little attention to – well, none at all, really — apart from “Love Like Blood”, a song which everybody knows, I knew nothing about them except, like Shriekback, they’d been around since at least the 1980s.  I followed a link someone posted to one of the tracks from the album and it grabbed my interest long enough for me to follow up – and boy am I glad I did.  I found the first couple or three listens a bit iffy, I couldn’t quite decide…and then Boom!  Like a ton of bricks.  This is just one monster of an album, industrial post-punk, compelling and addictive and heavy – sardonic, excoriating lyrics that deal with a bleak post-modern-age world: politics, the disconnectedness of virtual connection, wars and misery — everything I need.  Number One with a Bullet.

The Top Albums of 2015: Nos. 15 to 7

The Music of 2015

2015 has been a wonderful year for new music, one of the best years in recent memory.  Almost all the new releases I checked out were worthwhile, even the ones that eventually didn’t make the cut. What’s more, most of the albums I found that had come out in previous years were also exceptional.  It is quite the opposite of last year when I had real trouble coming up with ten albums to talk about; this year the difficulty is deciding what to leave out.  That is why I have gone with a Top 15 of 2015.  Too much is just too good.

Some clear themes have emerged: this year’s music of preference seems to be either hard and heavy post-metal, post-punk, or sludge/doom metal; or beautifully sweeping songs, lush and melodic…there are few exceptions.  But pretty much all of it features lots of great powerful riffage, and real honouring of the song. Instrumental music makes up a significant portion of the albums I chose.  Established artists surprised by the shift in their direction, and new artists absolutely stomped into prominence.

This was also the year that the 1980s dominated: the influences from that decade are all over the damned place. Two bands active in the 80s that I hadn’t paid any attention to for years (or ever) blasted out of the past with monster releases. At least three other bands heavily reference 80s sounds (although technically one will not release their album until next year; at this point a single is available). Several decent live albums were released but only one snuck into the list. Live albums are generally not regarded as legitimate candidates for year-end lists, and the one that made it into mine was actually released in 2014, but fuck it, this is my list and I’ll include what I want.

So: onto the list, starting at Number 15 and working upward.

 

  1. Ghost: Meliora

Ghost are a band with a clever, well-formulated gimmick, and they are not unskilled, and Meliora is an album of nice poppy metal, nothing too straining, pleasant to listen to, but I do not understand why everyone seems to think this is a great album.  No, it is not “great”, it is well done but not exceptional by any means,  and there could be other contenders for the bottom spot that didn’t quite make it.  This is the kind of album I play when I do not want to pay too much attention to what I am listening to: it has to have some merits in terms of good song structure and decent melodies, but not too demanding of one’s attention.  Meliora fits.

 

  1. The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet

I do admire Matt Stevens; he is a dedicated guitarist and untiring in his self-promotion, which one must be in this day of DIY musicianship.  However I tend to prefer his band project, The Fierce and the Dead, over his solo efforts. Magnet is a brief EP that came out this year showcasing their eclectic style, hard-rocking somewhat freeform math/post-rock.

 

  1. Steven Wilson: Hand Cannot Erase

I write this as I am listening to Insurgentes, Wilson’s first solo album.  The differences between these two albums, the first, and his fourth, could not be more stark. Insurgentes is superb; but I find that listening to H.C.E is an exercise in sheer determination to get through it; it must be done though because it is, you know, Steven Wilson and he is god (or something).  Naturally, the album is superbly executed with exceptional performances by the musicians, beautiful melodies, and is at times almost poppy (a welcome shift away from the jazz influences of the last two albums) — and while it is clearly meant to grab at the heartstrings I find it so obviously manipulative that it just leaves me cold.  But you can read my (rather generous) review here.

Continue reading The Top Albums of 2015: Nos. 15 to 7

The Top 25 Songs of 2015: Part III

7. “The Serpent” by Sisters of…: Album The Serpent, the Angel, and the Adversary

We have reached the part of the list  where the order of the top tracks almost doesn’t matter; at this point they are *all* monster, heavy-rotation superstars. So it is apropos to begin with a beast of a track from an insanely heavy album;  it also illustrates the kind of stuff I have lately found to be what greases my wheels most — blistering full-on prog/black/metal/post-metal…man when that is done right, it just doesn’t get much better. And these guys do it right.

 

 

6. “YANA” by Dead Letter Circus: Album Aesthesis

The album is a bit inconsistent, for some reason Dead Letter Circus have trouble living up to their enormous potential.  But this  soaring alt/post-punk track never fails to give me chills. Just one of those songs I inexplicably love.

 

 

5. “Oko” by Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster: Album Wires/Dream\Wires

An absolutely epic track from a long-anticipated album; these guys can pull off some of the best, heaviest, most thoughtful instrumental post-metal out there, and this is just a taste of what they can do.

 

4. “Planck Length” by Au4: Album And Down Comes the Sky… (2013 release)

The album this song is from came out in 2013, but I only discovered it this year. And it is an absolute *killer* of an album, it is by far the best thing I heard this year and then some, it really is my album of the year, except I can’t make it official.
It is hard to pull a favourite track from it, I could have listed four or five, but this one snuck up on me.  Industrial trip-hop about physics — and really, any song that can use “One point six times ten to the negative thirty-five” as a lyric, and make it work  — well, that’s some awesome songwriting right there.

 

 

3. “Annabelle” by Sisters of…: Album The Serpent, The Angel, and the Adversary

Another track from one of the best most intense albums I have heard this year. “The Serpent” was face-melting in intensity…and somehow “Annabelle” manages to take it up a couple of skull-cracking notches from there. This is the kind of stuff that eviction notices are made of.

 

2. “Everyone is Everyone (and Everything is Everything)” by Au4: Album And Down Comes the Sky… (2013 release)

Yes, this album is so extraordinary it supplied two songs in the top 5 of 25. Believe me, if there were songs from 2015 as good, I’d stick ’em here. But there aren’t…or at any rate, since the album can’t qualify for Album of the Year I’m going to promote it this way. You can find my review of the album here:

I cannot get enough of this track.

 

 

1.  “Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire” by Riverside: Album Love, Fear and the Time Machine

The album might not be their best, but this song…!! I really cannot stop listening to it; there are days when I think it just might be the greatest song Riverside ever created. Everything comes together in this track for me: the great martial rhythm compliments of Piotr Kozieradski’s drumming; Piotr Grudziński’s beautiful and nuanced guitar themes, the organ, the bass lines, the words, the singing…man it just hits every sweet spot, it digs deep into my soul where transcendence lies. It goes beyond mere words.