The last couple years, I’ve done a top five of the first half, and that’s cool, but as I sat down the other day to make the list that follows, I realized the numbers didn’t work. If I’m going to finish 2012 off with a top 20 — which unless a piano falls on my head between now and then I am — then half of that is 10. Half a year, half a top 20. I was never much for math, folks.
But the important thing is I got there in the end, and with a full top 10, I have a little more room to nerd out on what I think are some (not all) of the best releases of the last six months. And just so I can say I said it twice, these are my personal picks, based on what I’ve listened to most as much as whatever estimation of aesthetic value I might make. Let’s get to it:
10. Witch Mountain, Cauldron of the Wild
If you’re asking yourself, “Hey, wasn’t Witch Mountain‘s Cauldron of the Wild just reviewed the other day?” you’re right, it was. That’s why it’s number 10 — because I know it’s a really good record, but I’m not sure yet what the replay value will be as the year progresses. Let it say something that I didn’t want to make this list without including the third album from the Portland doom bluesers, but without the benefit of a little distance from the songs (I still have “Shelter” stuck in my head from reviewing it, though that may prove a permanent scenario), I thought it better to play it cautious than be overly excited. Sometimes it’s hard to restrain the geek within, and I know I’m not the only one Cauldron of the Wild has had that effect on.
9. Caltrop, Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes
Deceptively progressive and study on repeat visits, the newest full-length from North Carolina’s Caltrop, Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, is an album that doesn’t bow to accessibility but gets there naturally on its own anyway. The music the four-piece makes is technically complex, but the use they put that complexity to is warm and inviting, where so much prog feels cold and showy. Maybe that’s the Southern heat working its way into the tracks, but either way, with the varied work of multiple songwriters and a consistency of atmosphere running throughout, Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes helped me make the transition out of winter and into the warmer weather. I continue to think of Caltrop as a woefully underrated band.
8. Stubb, Stubb
The self-titled Superhot Records debut from London-based trio Stubb (review here) was a simple case of fuzz done right. The rhythm section here also had a strong outing on Superhot in the form of Trippy Wicked and the Cosmic Children of the Knight‘s Going Home (review here), but partnered up with guitarist/vocalist Jack Dickinson, the bass/vocals of Pete Holland and drums of Chris West formed a power trio inspired by classic rock but not imitating it, which is increasingly rare. Their stoner groove was straightforward and heartfelt and the songwriting on tracks like “Mountain” and “Hard Hearted Woman” left absolutely nothing to be desired. I consider myself lucky for having seen them live, and doing so only increased my appreciation for the album.
7. Ararat, II
Sergio Chotsourian‘s second album in post-Los Natas project Ararat (review here) was both more cohesive than its 2009 predecessor, Musica de la Resistencia (review here), and thicker. Indeed, it was his bass tone that made the rumble in extended tracks like “Caballos” and “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” so indispensable. Ararat has a different dynamic than did Los Natas, but hearing the beginning of what will hopefully be a long process of development has been part of the fun of listening to the band so far. Still, it’s the songs themselves more than their context that stand out, and every time I listen to “Lobos de Guerra y Cazadores de Elefantes,” I swear it seems like my brain is going to turn into liquid and start seeping out of my ears. It’s hard not to dig a record that makes you feel that way.
6. Ufomammut, Oro: Opus Primum
I’ll admit, this one’s a bit of a running gag I have with myself. Ever since I put Ufomammut‘s Eve as the number six on my top 10 of 2010, I’ve regretted it, and the thing about Oro: Opus Primum is (review here) that it’s only half the album, with Oro: Opus Alter still to come as the second part of their Neurot Recordings debut. So when I was wondering where to stick this thing on the list, the number that immediately came to my head was six and there it stands. Amazing to think that we’ll get another Ufomammut record before the year’s out. I look forward to hearing that, and in the meantime, there have been several occasions for which nothing has seemed quite doomed enough that Oro: Opus Primum has fit just right. Ufomammut have been and continue to be something really special.
5. Orange Goblin, A Eulogy for the Damned
What’s not to like about the prospect of a new Orange Goblin record? Nothing, that’s what. With killer songs like “Acid Trial,” “The Fog,” “The Filthy and the Few” and blistering leadoff single “Red Tide Rising,” A Eulogy for the Damned (review here) was the first highlight of 2012 and a fitting summation of much of what’s always been awesome about the band, who’ve become godfathers of the British heavy underground. The production on the album is cleaner than the band comes off live, but the energy in the tracks is undeniable, and it’s with that that Orange Goblin justify the five-year wait since 2007′s Healing through Fire last tore the heavy rock scene a new arsehole. They might be real rock ‘n’ roll’s best kept secret at this point, and their seventh album sends the damned out with a fitting tribute from some of their own kind.
4. Conan, Monnos
Try though I may — and I should probably say here that I haven’t tried — I still can’t get the riff to “Grim Tormentor” from Conan‘s Monnos (review here) out of my head. The album, which was the follow-up to 2011′s split with Slomatics and 2010′s mighty Horseback Battle Hammer debut, found the British trio bringing their songwriting up to a level to match Jon Davis‘ monstrous guitar tone, furthering their dual vocal approach between Davis and bassist Phil Coumbe while upping the pace somewhat on the album’s first half lend fleetness to the stomp in Paul O’Neil‘s drums. Monnos‘ second half was more ethereal, slower, swampier, with the morose “Golden Axe” paving the way for “Headless Hunter” and “Invincible Throne” to level everything in their path with atmosphere as dense as their musical weight. Easily the heaviest album I’ve heard so far this year.
3. Greenleaf, Nest of Vipers
Whenever I do these lists, I hit a point where on a given day they’re all number one. Sometimes it’s just between two albums. In 2010, it was six. This list, so far into 2012, it’s three, and Swedish heavy rock supergroup Greenleaf‘s Nest of Vipers (review here) is the first of them. I’ve been stoked on this record since before I heard it, and while that probably doesn’t do much to argue for my impartiality on the matter, I also don’t give a crap, because Greenleaf fucking rules. I’ll have an interview in the weeks to come with guitarist Tommi Holappa (also ex-Dozer) about the band, and once again, this is definitely one that is going to reappear on the top 20 come December. Not a doubt in my mind. I wasn’t sure the band would be able to live up to 2007′s landmark Agents of Ahriman, but the more I listen to Nest of Vipers, the clearer it becomes that they did precisely that.
2. Ancestors, In Dreams and Time
Brilliantly melodic, rife with complexity of emotion and execution, Los Angeles-based Ancestors‘ third album, In Dreams and Time, was the full-length answer to last year’s blissfully melancholic Invisible White EP. Finding the band mature, progressive and worshiping the song rather than the form, they transcended genre as easily as they embarked on it, crafting a wash of melody in Moog, synth, organ, guitar and vocals alike in their richest arrangements yet, culminating in what’s probably the single best extended guitar solo I’ve heard in the last five years on 19-minute closer “First Light,” a song that’s got so many ups and downs contained within its runtime that it’s practically an album unto itself. A gorgeous record and one that has enriched my excitement for Ancestors as they continue to throw creativity in the face of expectation and not look back either on what they’ve done before or what others think they should be doing.
1. Saint Vitus, Lillie: F-65
I’m more than happy to confess that part of my enduring affection for Lillie: F-65 comes from the fact that it’s Saint Vitus‘ first album in 17 years. If you want to tell me which part of that isn’t a totally valid reason to make it number one on this list, I’ll listen. It might not change my mind about the album, which arrives following three successfully reunited years touring and doing shows together. Led as ever by the stripped-down songwriting of guitarist Dave Chandler (interview here), Saint Vitus perfectly reinvigorated their most classic methods on Lillie: F-65 (review here) without sounding like they were wearing a suit that didn’t fit. The Tony Reed-produced album was the first to be fronted by Scott “Wino” Weinrich since 1990′s V, and proved that the chemistry between he and Chandler is a huge part of what has made the band legendary in American doom these last several decades. Together with bassist Mark Adams and drummer Henry Vasquez, Chandler and Wino issued the greatest of 2012′s doom triumphs so far, and in a mere fucked-up, feedback-soaked 33 minutes silenced every reunion naysayer with ears to hear their distant scream. Saint Fucking Vitus.
Wouldn’t be a list without a fair bit of honorable mentions. First to Snail, whose Terminus will probably end up on the year-end list when the time for that arrives, and also to C.O.C., High on Fire, Les Discrets, Wino & Conny Ochs and Electric Moon. Been a pretty good year so far. Here’s to the next six months of it.
Tags: Ancestors, Ararat, Caltrop, Conan, Greenleaf, Orange Goblin, Saint Vitus, Stubb, Top 10 of the First Half of 2012, TTFH12, Ufomammut, Witch Mountain