I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
I remember the first movie soundtrack that had an impact on me, lingering long after I watched the movie. That soundtrack was Doctor Zhivago, and I was captivated by Maurice Jarre’s dark, orchestral take on old Slavic traditional music (and the pomp of Russian classical). The great choruses and rich folk melodies hit some deep spot in me that must have been there from the beginning. I was too young to understand it in terms of music appreciation, but it was the beginning, and eventually led to an abiding love of folk-rock.
Fast forward many decades….
I discovered Lunatic Soul. That music dug in more deeply than anything had before, finding a Lunatic Soul-shaped space inside me I didn’t even know was empty. The earlier albums (LS I, II, and Impressions) weren’t strictly folk-driven, but did have a rich, vaguely eastern feel that served much the same purpose. With the fourth album, the project shifted to something sparser, electronic, and song-driven rather than atmospheric, but even so, hints of that primal heart sneaked through.
The seventh Lunatic Soul album, Through Shaded Woods, heralds a return to the acoustic folk-themed feel of the first three albums, but it follows a different path. The early albums tended towards ambience with some heavy moments worked in; but this album is pure joyous folk-rock. The eastern Slavic influence gives a weightiness to the the tracks that the music of the early LS albums did not possess. And there is no hesitation — right from the first note the album kicks into high gear, plugging straight into that ancient part of the brain that is connected to rhythm, pulse, and heartbeat. It is impossible for me to sit still while this album plays, and I mean that quite literally.
Lyrically, the album falls in with the story arc of the first two LS albums: death and rebirth, facing the past or losing it, and Duda does dip deliberately into the lyrical past with clear references to LS I and II. However, while the words evoke a yearning search for resolution, the music is for the most part hard, bright, and upbeat, driving the album along. It is an interesting contrast. There are monstrously heavy, distorted bass riffs, chants and shouts, layered acoustic guitar, thudding drumbeats (Mariusz plays everything on this album, including the drums), and of course Duda’s soaring vocals throughout (words and wordless). Not every track is a folk-rock juggernaut, of course, but the overall feel is one of chugging forward motion, right to the end. Which comes rather quickly, the album being a brief 39 minutes long.
Duda aimed (apparently) to have less eastern/oriental influences in this album than the others; however he didn’t completely escape them, as can clearly be heard in the title track. This is a song of the steppes, evocative of both the east and of dark Slavic folk. One can imagine the music the ancient travellers on the Silk Road must have heard as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and the caravanserai hove into view. The vocals are juddering and thickly distorted; spooky music indeed.
The star of this musical show though is the brilliant and compelling “Summoning Dance” — the longest track, and one that at times reaches almost ecstatic heights of pure rhythm and melody. This track demonstrates Duda’s masterful command of the style, and may have the most apt title of any: whoever does not respond to its call probably needs medical attention.
A feature of the later LS (and Riverside) albums has been a “wind-up” song — usually short, simple, and optimistic, even if not necessarily upbeat. While the core of “The Fountain” is a beautiful guitar/vocal/keyboard melody, it is so overpowered by the relentlessly swelling electronic strings and effects that the song itself struggles to survive under the weight of it all. It is distracting at best, and a bit of a disappointing end.
My reaction to this album is on two levels. On one hand, the melodies and rhythms are absolutely compelling, and I love them. They do the heart of this old folky some real good, and I play the record a lot. On an individual basis, these tracks hit me right where it counts.
However, one of my tests for an album is the resonance, so to speak, it leaves behind when it is over. The best albums feel bigger than they are: their effect lingers in the soul, and one does not want to play anything else until those echoes subside. I have to say that Through Shaded Woods doesn’t have that effect. The album, as a whole, feels insubstantial: not as much depth or meat as my favourite Lunatic Soul albums, and I think this is because the songs do not really connect together. There is no song-to-song continuum that carries the story along. This is very different from the three albums TSW is meant to follow. As well, for the first time for any of Duda’s shorter albums, it feels short. When it is over, I have fragments of songs playing in my head, bits of rhythm, but the main reaction is a sense of incompleteness: there should have been something more.
There is a bonus disc, which consists of three tracks including a 27-minute-long epic. “Vyraj” and “Hylophobia” sound like instrumental folk-rock outtakes — not bad songs by any means, and nice and danceable on their own, but it is clear why they didn’t make the main release.
Then there is “Transition II” — and it is hard to find words to describe this one. The closest I can come in the Mariusz Duda canon is probably “Eye of the Soundscape” from the album of the same name, but this is in spirit, not in sound. “Transition II” is a long, contemplative wander through the history of LS, with lots of references to past songs, reworked and linked together in a brilliantly-conceived and executed compendium of ideas that swirl around, lush and atmospheric one moment, spare and almost electronic the next. Impressions of Impressions, fragments of familiar themes, ideas and snippets on the edge of memory… This is the kind of track you need when you need something that is more than just aural wallpaper; an atmospheric soundscape that forms both a sonic backdrop, and rewards close listening. As far as I’m concerned it is right up there with the best of the genre: Tangerine Dream, Fripp and Eno, Bass Communion, early Mike Oldfield.
Apparently, there is one more Lunatic Soul album to come, one that will take its place on the “Life” side of the Circle of Life and Death, and I am very curious about how this album will wind things up. I say that because Through Shaded Woods has an air of finality about it; it very well could work as the last episode. But the plans have been laid out well in advance, and when that eighth album comes, it will spell the end of a remarkable musical journey.
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
Marcin Odyniec: saxophone
Sinfonietta Consonus Orchestra
Blood on the Tightrope
Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes
Red Light Escape
A Thousand Shards of Heaven
It is no secret by now (to anyone) that Fractured, the fifth Lunatic Soul album, was not the album of 2017 for me. I stuck it in at Number 5 but that was probably higher than it should have been. To say that I was disappointed and baffled would be an understatement. No matter how hard I tried, it just wouldn’t take. Fractured is anomalous, an outlier, straddling the border between Lunatic Soul and Riverside, not really one or the other: but perhaps closer in spirit to the last half of Love, Fear and the Time Machine than to any Lunatic Soul album.
It is hard to pin down exactly where the problem lies. I know this might sound a bit…self-serving, but the warning bells rang when so many people, heretofore not particular LS fans, embraced the album with enthusiasm. Lunatic Soul is a project with a fundamentally different feel than Riverside, darker and more ambient, less hard (but not “soft” by any means) dense and percussive, more adventurous and syncretic, perhaps even more nuanced. It is a project that has a rather more specialized audience, and perhaps a more dedicated one; certainly a much smaller following than Riverside. So it seemed distinctly odd that suddenly so many Riverside fans should profess to love the new album so much.
It is indeed an album of high accomplishment, with the trademark beautiful melodic passages that are a Mariusz Duda forté, and with some very powerful moments. But somehow, it doesn’t add up. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts. It is an album of fragments, a couple of very good songs (“Blood on the Tightrope”, “Fractured”) and exceptional bits from other tracks (“A Thousand Shards of Heaven”, “Battlefield”). But it has few of the attributes of Lunatic Soul. Duda has been moving away from lush analogue sounds towards more electronically-driven music, so the sound is sparser, more open, cooler. The rich density of small percussion is largely absent, replaced by a lot of guitar and electronic effects. This trend began with Walking on a Flashlight Beam, but that album retains the Lunatic Soul gestalt. Fractured has moved in a different direction.
Two reasons for this post: 1) to make a list of the stuff that is out/will be coming out/has been rumoured might appear at some point this year; and 2) to keep the blog alive. I really do need to actually write stuff for it…otherwise why am I dishing out $150 a year?
It might be a bit early to talk about new releases (for me; I do not accumulate new music at the pace of some others I know), but there does seem to be enough interesting stuff upcoming to make it worth taking a look to the future. There is a spate of albums coming out this spring, and then we wait for the fall season. If certain rumours/promises come true, it could be another epic year.
So far in 2018:
The Temperance Movement: A Deeper Cut : This album is seriously kicking my ass. Great blues rock from England. These guys are sharp and tight as hell, and clearly know what they are doing.
Dope Default: Ofrenda: Loose and dirty hard/stoner rock from Greece. Ofrenda is their debut album, and it sounds like a debut album, but it is certainly listenable and has some good moments. They are worth keeping an eye on.
Upcoming for sure/preordered (or will be):
Riverside: I have heard one track from this album, in demo form … and ohboy ohboy ohboy. If the album lives up to that promise…well, The Boys are Back. Fingers crossed.
Lunatic Soul: Under the Fragmented Sky (EP) – tracks that did not make it on to Fractured but are worth a release. As above – I heard one track from this, and it revives my hopes for a return to the LS of old—or more precisely the LS that sets hooks deep in my soul.
Solar Fields: Ourdom – time for some classic industrial electronica. I like some of his stuff more than others; I preordered the album on the basis of the youtube preview. I hope it is worth it.
Amorphis: Queen of Time. One track (“The Bee”) released so far. The Finnish folk-metallers sound much more symphonic and expansive, while retaining the heaviness and their signature growl/clean vocal tradeoff. Based on this track I’m not sure it will equal the last album.
Awooga: Conduit – nice heavy metal/hard rock, they had a great EP from 2016 which I would play more often if I didn’t have to switch to 45 rpm (details details…). A couple tracks already available to preview, they seem to have developed a more spacious sound.
The Fierce and the Dead: The Euphoric — I like them, but often what they do tends to get a bit too far into the technical/alt/art-rock region for me to love them. But when they are good they are great, and I think the new one holds some promise. Preordered based on the released track.
Toundra: Vortex – I have all the previous albums from these Spanish post-rockers, that I don’t play all that often…but once in a while they hit the spot. The single “Cobra” sounds pretty much like Toundra, dense and heavy.
Front Line Assembly: WarMech – new soundtrack for a new game. I find myself kind of up and down about these guys, I much prefer Leeb’s other project Noise Unit, but on the strength of the previous game OST (AirMech, which is pretty nice) I sprang for the preorder.
VNV Nation: Noire – Out in October, described as “dark and intense”, first studio album since Transnational in 2013.
Leech – The only Swiss band in my collection. It has been what – 5 years since their last one? Six? Anyway, it was a pretty nice post-metal album, and the only album I tried purely because of the cover. Be interesting to hear what the new one will sound like.
Nordic Union: wherein Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark) lends his iron pipes to the sound of the hard rock outfit Eclipse (Sweden). At this point it is just the promise of a new release, no other info. But that is enough for me: hopefully it will be the same kind of straight-up kick-ass hard rock as the first one, which I love.
Rumoured for 2018:
Au4: Last fall an American internet radio guy scheduled a playthrough of 2014’s …And Down Goes the Sky, and had the guys live on the air to talk about it. They said a new album should appear this year. I surely hope so…if it is anything like that last one, it will be a strong contender for album of the year.
Missed from 2017:
Hypergiant: Father Sky – interesting doom/psych rock. It has its moments, and the track “Colossi” is truly epic, but the album might be a bit too much all at once.
Believe: VII Widows – a band that has been around for a while, in various incarnations, guitarist Mirek Gil’s vehicle since the end of Collage. I am not a fan of long-winded modern prog, as many of you know, but VII Widows is surprisingly good, very nice arrangements and passages, and I must say beautiful guitar themes (Gil on here reminds me of Steve Hackett, and there is nothing wrong with that). I am not crazy about the somewhat overblown and mannered style of the vocalist, but there are few enough vocal sections that he ends up intruding less on the experience than would otherwise be the case. Nice and listenable.
Decapitated: Anticult – I confess that I checked this out mostly out of morbid curiosity; the band found itself in deep shit in late 2017 while on tour in America (i.e. they were tossed in jail in Seattle for three months; charges were all dropped). Not generally being a fan of thrash metal (or so I thought), I had not paid them any attention. Well, you just never know: when I listened to Anticult I found, inexplicably, that I liked it a whole lot: in fact, it would have been one of the stronger releases of last year had I found it sooner.
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→
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was difficult to know what to do with this album. Clearly it is the number one album of my year, but it didn’t take too many listens to realize that this was an album I could not in good conscience stick into the same list with the other, mere music offerings – it was hardly fair to them. At any rate, since it transcends just about everything else I’ve heard—not only this year but maybe for the last decade, I decided to put it into its own category. So yes, my list goes to eleven. 😀
The actual review for this album can be found here. Please read it if you want a detailed, somewhat rational take on it.
I have to admit, I was somewhat anxious about how this album was going to fit in with the other three Lunatic Soul albums. It is difficult to describe what this music means to me–hell I wouldn’t even call it “music”…whatever it is that is at the heart and soul of Lunatic Soul: the approach and sounds, the musical philosophy and vision…it absolutely enmeshes itself into me. It is essential like blood and bone and breath. I am astonished that something like this even exists out there, and abjectly grateful to whatever fates might be at work that I was able to find it (or that it found me…there is a case to be made for that).
But enough of that.
I needn’t have worried. WoaFB is different, but only in the details. The essence of Lunatic Soul has not changed, in fact maybe even more Lunatic Soul-ish…likely because its creator was more focused and it is a true solo album, with no dilution of vision through other people (yes, there is a drummer, but clearly Mariusz Duda and Wawrzyniec Dramowicz are on the same wavelength).
However…now I worry that if ever I am stranded on that Desert Island, forty percent of my album allocation is already accounted for. I wonder if I can pretend it is a single item….