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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.

Steven Wilson: To the Bone (Or, Pop Goes the Prog Man)

Released August 18, 2017

Musicians:

  • Steven Wilson: vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards
  • Adam Holzman: keyboards
  • Ninet Tayeb: vocals
  • Sophie Hunger: vocals
  • Dave Kollar: guitar
  • Nick Beggs: bass
  • Robin Mularkey: bass
  • Craig Blundell: drums
  • Jeremy Stacey: drums
  • Mark Feltham: harmonica
  • Necro Deathmort: sequencing

Tracklist

  1. To the Bone
  2. Nowhere Now
  3. Pariah
  4. The Same Asylum as Before
  5. Refuge
  6. Permanating
  7. Blank Tapes
  8. People Who Eat Darkness
  9. Song of I
  10. Detonation
  11. Song of Unborn

(This review is for the standard release)

While I was jotting down notes and observations for my To the Bone review, I decided to revisit what I wrote about Steven Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase.  I was struck by how similar my thoughts about that album are to the new one.  I could probably just copy/paste chunks of that review here and change the song titles.  I won’t do that, of course, because they really are not the same, but clearly it shows that the albums are consistent in their effect, if nothing else. (See the review for Hand. Cannot. Erase. here)

It is needless to point out that when Steven Wilson announces a new album, the fanbase excitement level heads into overdrive. This time Wilson released four tracks before the album itself hit, and the overall reaction to them was mixed, to say the least – enthusiasm, puzzlement, and dismay all rolled up into one roiling ball of internet pandemonium, especially around the unapologetically pop “Permanating”.  This was a direction that seemed new, or at least a substantial swerve away from what many people expected him to do.  Steven Wilson apparently was releasing an album of pop songs.

Continue reading Steven Wilson: To the Bone (Or, Pop Goes the Prog Man)

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

Pretty Maids — Kingmaker

Released: November 2016

Personnel:

  • Ronnie Atkins – vocals
  • Ken Hammer – guitars
  • Rene Shades – bass
  • Allan Tschicaja – drums

Guest:

Kim Olesen – keyboards

Tracklist:

  1. When God Took a Day Off
  2. Kingmaker
  3. Face the World
  4. Humanize Me
  5. Last Beauty on Earth
  6. Bull’s Eye
  7. King of the Right Here and Now
  8. Heaven’s Little Devil
  9. Civilized Monsters
  10. Sickening
  11. Is That What You Wanted (Look What You’ve Got)

I almost started this, um, review (excursus might be more to the point; bear with me), by calling my new obsession a “guilty pleasure” – but you know what?  Screw that.  I am not in the least embarrassed by stumbling on this stuff, and if you other folks fail to appreciate some of the best damned metal I have ever laid ears on, then that’s not my problem.  I’m just going to try to convince you otherwise.

I checked out Pretty Maids because a good friend is a passionate fan, and I am always interested in learning what greases my friends’ musical wheels.  Often the explorations don’t amount to much, but sometimes something sticks. And I am surprised, I will admit:  Pretty Maids is a glam rock/hard rock/metal outfit out of Denmark, who formed up way the hell back in 1981 and released their first album in 1984: in short they have been around for more than three decades and I had never heard of them.

Continue reading Pretty Maids — Kingmaker

Eye of the Soundscape

Released:  October 21, 2016

Tracklist:

CD 1

  1. Where the River Flows
  2. Shine
  3. Rapid Eye Movement (2016 mix)
  4. Night Session Part 1
  5. Night Session Part 2

CD 2

  1. Sleepwalkers
  2. Rainbow Trip (2016 mix)
  3. Heavenland
  4. Return
  5. Aether
  6. Machines
  7. Promise
  8. Eye of the Soundscape

(Triple vinyl tracklist is in a somewhat different order)

When I first discovered Riverside, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I was astonished: this music grabbed me in a way none ever had before — emotionally, intellectually, even physically – I listened in an enraptured transcendence that never seemed to fade.  A friend of mine likes to say: “The music of your life will find you”, and it was only with the discovery of Riverside and Lunatic Soul that I truly understood what he meant.  I’d listened to and loved a lot of music and artists over the decades, but nothing like this.

I eventually realized that I had also become part of an extended family, that there was a real connection – something I had never experienced before – between the band and their fans, and the fans with each other.  We shared anticipation, accolades, joy, and alas, the tragedies.  In this year especially that connection became manifest, where we came together, sharing our shock, our loss, our memories.  The line between the band and the fans blurred in the tears.

I discovered the experimental side of the band early on with the REM bonus material, and those tracks became among my favourites from that album. Fast-forward to the release of Shrine of New Generation Slaves and the spectacular “Night Sessions” bonus tracks: surely here was a direction that the guys should explore — in fact it would almost be criminal if they didn’t. Of course, the “Day Sessions” tracks just reinforced this. Piotr Grudziński was openly eager to do a dedicated ambient experimental project; his excitement was palpable.  And then, it became a reality.  The guys – at least Piotr, Mariusz Duda and Michał Łapaj — headed into the studio to make this special album, this anticipated addendum to the Riverside discography.  Good news indeed.

recording

Then…early in 2016 came that devastating blow to band and fans alike; and instead of being a celebratory exploration of a beloved genre of music, the project became a memorial.  A poignant tribute to an unfinished journey, a legacy of love and loss.

Continue reading Eye of the Soundscape

Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Released September 4th 2015

Tracklist

CD 1

  1. Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened by a Hat?)
  2. Under the Pillow
  3. #Addicted
  4. Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire
  5. Saturate Me
  6. Afloat
  7. Discard Your Fear
  8. Towards the Blue Horizon
  9. Time Travellers
  10. Found (The Unexpected Flaw of Searching)

CD 2 Bonus “Day Sessions”

Tracklist

  1. Heavenland
  2. Return
  3. Aether
  4. Machines
  5. Promise

It was about a year ago as of this writing that Riverside’s sixth album, Love, Fear and the Time Machine was released, with all the usual hype from the band, and excitement and anticipation amongst the fans near and far…and oh, I was going to review the shit right out of it.  I had the keyboard all polished and ready to go, headphones warmed up, I’d heard a couple of the songs on Youtube that had been played live at summer festivals…it sounded so hopeful.

Well…I listened to it and listened to it.  There were days when I loved it to death, and days when I couldn’t figure the damned thing out.  It was both a Riverside album and not a Riverside album.  It was marvelous to hear, and yet at the same time strangely off-kilter.  It should be a well-known fact by now that Riverside refuses to remain stylistically static – but LFatTM went even beyond that.  The album was written by Mariusz Duda during and after a series of events that influenced its flavour and direction, and his persona is more deeply embedded in this album than in any that have come before. It hangs like an obscuring veil over the presence of the other guys in the band. In fact, this is the first Riverside album on which Riverside the band received no writing credits at all.

My review, at least something sensible and coherent, never appeared.  I simply couldn’t figure out what to say.

Now, whatever the roadblocks were to writing … they might still pertain in some ways, but their importance is diminished.  Love, Fear and the Time Machine, due to an event after its release that no-one could even imagine, let alone foresee, is for all intents and purposes the last Riverside album.  There may well be other albums by a Polish band with that name, but with the death of Piotr Grudziński the old Riverside is gone forever.

So this is what I will say.

Continue reading Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Blowing The Dust Off: Scatterlings

Welcome to the third in an occasional series of reviews of albums in my collection that need revisiting.  Most of these are older albums, or obscure albums, or both…at any rate, a little attention never hurt.  Maybe you will find something interesting.

Juluka: Scatterlings

Released 1982

Personnel:

Johnny Clegg: Vocals, guitar, umhupe mouth-bow

Sipho Mchunu: Vocals, guitar, concertina

Gary Van Zyl: Bass, percussion, vocals

Zola Mtiya: Drums, percussion, vocals

Scorpion Madondo: Flute, vocals

Mike Faure: Saxophone

Mike Makhalemele: Saxophone

Glenda Millar: Keyboards and synthesizers

 

Tracklist

  1. Scatterlings of Africa
  2. Spirit is the Journey
  3. Umbaqanga Music
  4. Digging for Some Words
  5. Shake My Way
  6. Siyayilanda
  7. Kwela Man
  8. Simple Things
  9. iJwanasibeki
  10. Two Humans on the Run

 

The first time I ever heard Scatterlings I was stunned. It is easy enough to wax hyperbolic when we hear music that strikes our fancy, but in this case it is no exaggeration to say that this album was a revelation. The rhythms, the percussive sounds, the dominance of the acoustic guitars, and most of all the richly intricate Zulu language vocal harmonies were like nothing I had ever heard before.  At its core the music is infused with traditional South African sounds and styles, but nevertheless it is unmistakably modern, fully comprehensible and accessible.

When Johnny Clegg, musician and future anthropologist, was 16, he met the Zulu migrant worker Sipho Muchunu, who had come to Johannesburg to find work.  Clegg had already begun to immerse himself in the umbaqanga and kwela music that made up so much of South African street music, and in Zulu traditional dance.  He and Mchunu founded Juluka, a band of mixed white and black musicians, a subversive and risky move given the political context of South Africa at the time.  Despite the difficulties in finding venues to play in and radio stations that would air their music, they became a popular band and by the time Scatterlings, their fourth album, was released, they had garnered enough international attention to undertake a tour of Europe and North America.

Continue reading Blowing The Dust Off: Scatterlings

They Go From Us Too Soon

Piotr Grudziński:  1975 – 2016

As of this writing, I have spent well over a week reading the flood of tributes, stories, and remembrances of Riverside’s guitarist, from everyone: those who knew him intimately, those who knew him casually, and those who knew him only through his music.  It is astonishing how thoroughly he has touched people’s hearts, what an impression he made simply by being himself.  I have not said anything substantial beyond shock and sadness, but I need to say goodbye now.

2016 started out as a year bound to go down in collective musical memory as a major suckfest, as one by one musical icons and beloved individuals left us…but for most of them, somehow it was not completely unexpected. Illness, age, lifestyle choices — we regret their loss, and mourn it, but at some level we know that it is inevitable.

This was not one of those times. Fate was not yet done with us.  On February 21st, with both middle fingers stuck high in the air, she dropped the biggest karmic Fuck You possible on the prog music scene: She took Piotr Grudziński.

There are people in this world whose kindness, generosity of spirit, whose sheer genuineness set them apart. They find a way into your heart just because of who they are.  I met Gru because of what he did for a living.  I am broken-hearted because of the man he was.

MD PG

Continue reading They Go From Us Too Soon