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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Scatterlings of Africa
Spirit is the Journey
Digging for Some Words
Shake My Way
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It used to be that “going home” – returning to my home town — was a fairly casual affair that didn’t take much planning. Call a relative, say “We’re coming”, and someone would open their doors to us. I went home to see my folks, to see the ocean, to trigger memories: streets and houses, sounds, smells; the wind and the marsh.
These last trips, however, were not about visiting. They were about saying goodbye — winding up a life. And with the end of that life, the thread that connected me directly to my place of birth, to the sweetest childhood memories (in a childhood that was in desperate need of them) was broken.
My father is gone, the last of my direct relatives, and the idea of going home has a new significance. Making the trip must be for a reason other than to visit the folks, because there are no more folks to visit. It must be planned as if I was a tourist. “Home” is not where family is; it is where family was.
In the wake of someone’s death, all the mundane, routine minutiae of a life suddenly loom large. So much to be done all at once: cut off the newspapers, telephone, cable and internet, cell phone; switch the gas and electrical accounts over, stop the insurance policies…oh yeah, I’d better get to the post office before it closes to stop the mail! All that ammo upstairs that Syd didn’t take when he took the firearms must be delivered to the police. But wait — okay, here is a loaded rifle under the couch cushions and a handgun hidden in a book. Um…!!
For all that, it strikes me that dying, well-known in a small town, is not a bad deal for your loved ones. The paperwork was easy (relatively), people were accessible and eager to help. Government issues were handled largely by the funeral home. Only the customer-service representatives of the large nation-wide companies were a bit balky, but they are tied to scripts after all. There might be some merit to all of this activity; one has little time to sit and mourn. At least, during office hours.
Robert Srzednicki: keyboards, guitars, programming
Kris Wawrzak: basses, wave drum, programming
Mariusz Duda; Anja Orthodox; Anna “Anucha” Piotrowska; Katarzyna “Dyba” Dybowska; Daria Druzgala; Mariusz “Maniok” Kumala; Barbara Piotrowska; Agnieszka Sobolewska; Igor Szeligowski; Tomasz Chmielarz
Agrippa von Nettesheim
The Philosopher’s Stone
Music Inspired by Alchemy is the third in what appears to be an occasional series of albums released by the members of the Polish prog outfit Annalist, but not, apparently, under that name. In the liner notes they call themselves “Inspire”. To be precise the first album, Music Inspired by Tarot (1998) involved only Artur Szolc; the second, Music Inspired by the Zodiac (2001) involved all of the guys. Certain listeners will be familiar with Robert Szrednicki in his role as producer of Riverside and Lunatic Soul. At any rate, Annalist and Inspire have the same lineup.
…Alchemy is an album of short, largely instrumental prog/ambient pieces, full of atmosphere and melody, with rich arrangements of synths, strings, guitars and percussion. Plenty of guests contribute everything from vocals to strings and horns; it is clearly related musically to the other two Inspired by… albums, but with more mature production values. Most of the track titles take the names of various historical (and perhaps not-so-historical) alchemists and occultists.
However (yeah you saw this coming, didn’t you?)…while it makes for pleasant listening, there is very little that is especially gripping about this album. The standout tracks are clustered near the beginning: “Alexandria” is a powerful opener with sweeping synths and orchestration, and a vaguely eastern rhythm and flavor, and the next two tracks manage to maintain the interest by being different enough but also very atmospheric. Of course, one must give special mention to the three tracks on which Mariusz Duda provides vocals (not words, mind you): “Transmutation I”, “Faustus”, and “John Dee”. His voice is a thing of such extraordinary beauty and emotion that it really can elevate even the most conventional piece above the ordinary.
Overall though, the album does not live up to the promise of these songs. The tracks range from experimental ambient to almost conventionally poppy — and almost all of them are simply way too short. That is the major problem with Inspired by Alchemy – instead of a sweep of emotion carrying the listener along through track after track, it comes across as more a compilation of movie or game soundtrack snippets than anything else (in fact, “Hermes Trismegistos” sounds like an outtake from the soundtrack of the movie Serenity). The pieces are barely long enough for the ideas to really develop: as soon as something begins to sound interesting, it ends – only reinforced by the fact that “Edward Kelley”, one of the few long-ish tracks on the album, manages to sound like a full-fledged song.
This would make for good background music, but even then it doesn’t work completely: there are very nice moments, and ones bound to grab attention for a brief time, but overall it is just too disjointed-sounding—its brevity works against it. Given that this is the third effort in this series, it is strange that it strikes one almost as a freshman effort with the kinks still to be worked out. However, it has also been more than a decade since Music Inspired by the Zodiac so maybe it’s like starting over, I don’t know.
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.