Posted in Features on January 1st, 2017 by JJ Koczan
The poll is closed, the results are counted and the top 20 albums of 2016 have been chosen. Hard to argue with the list as it’s shown up over the course of the past month, so I won’t try. Instead, let me just say thanks to incredible amount of participants who contributed this year.
All told, between Dec. 1 and Dec. 31, 612 people added their picks to the proceedings, compared to 388 in last year’s poll. Considering how much that number blew my mind on Jan. 1, 2016, I’m sure you can imagine how I feel about adding another 200-plus lists to the pot. In short, I’m astounded, deeply humbled and so, so, so grateful. I feel like we got enough of a sampling this year to give a genuinely representative showing for where people’s heads have been at, so thank you if you were a part of it.
Thank you as well as always to Slevin for running the poll’s back end and tabulating the results. As ever, the weighting system is one in which a 1-4 ranking is worth five points, 5-8 worth four, 9-12 worth three, 13-16 worth two and 17-20 worth one. You’ll find that list (plus some honorable mentions) below, followed by the raw-vote tally.
And after the jump, as has become the tradition, are the full lists of everyone who submitted, alphabetized by name. I’m in there too. It’s a huge amount to wade through, and even if you thought you heard everything in 2016, it should be more than enough to keep you busy for the next year.
One last note: I’m no statistician. Please allow for these numbers to change over the next couple days on some small level.
Top 20 of 2016 — Weighted Results
1. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh (375 points)
2. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow (368)
3. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree (324)
4. Asteroid, III (302)
5. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil (295)
6. Gozu, Revival (274)
7. Neurosis, Fires Within Fires (253)
8. King Buffalo, Orion (244)
9. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) (238)
10. Conan, Revengeance (232)
11. Cough, Still They Pray (228)
12. Holy Grove, Holy Grove (218)
13. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages (213)
14. Truckfighters, V (206)
15. Blood Ceremony, Lord of Misrule (200)
16. Khemmis, Hunted (192)
16. Red Fang, Only Ghosts (192)
17. Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (181)
18. Witchcraft, Nucleus (174)
19. Opeth, Sorceress (173)
20. Church of Misery, And then there Were None (159)
Honorable mention to:
Causa Sui, Return to Sky (157)
Goatess, II: Purgatory Under New Management (157)
Black Mountain, IV (148)
Mos Generator, Abyssinia (144)
Wretch, Wretch (140)
Look at those tallies for number one and two. That race was close all month. Wo Fat kept out front for the most part, but Greenleaf kept it interesting and Elephant Tree’s debut snuck in there at third, which I love to see, both because it’s their first album and because that record was indeed so great. King Buffalo, another debut, also made the top 10, underscoring those two as bands to watch, and though Brant Bjork, Conan, Asteroid, Neurosis, Gozu and Mars Red Sky might be more expected names, they still certainly delivered excellent records, so again, nothing to fight with here. Things flesh out a bit in the 10-20 range, but I don’t think there’s one album on this list you could call is “miss.”
Top 20 of 2016 — Raw Votes
1. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh (109)
2. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow (92)
3. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil (87)
4. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree (82)
5. Asteroid, III (80)
6. Gozu, Revival (76)
7. Conan, Revengeance (73)
8. Cough, Still They Pray (70)
9. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) (68)
10. King Buffalo, Orion (67)
11. Truckfighters, V (62)
12. Red Fang, Only Ghosts (61)
13. Khemmis, Hunted (60)
14. Blood Ceremony, Lord of Misrule (59)
14. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages (59)
15. Holy Grove, Holy Grove (58)
16. Church of Misery, And then there Were None (53)
17. Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (49)
17. Witchcraft, Nucleus (49)
18. Opeth, Sorceress (47)
19. Mos Generator, Abyssinia (45)
20. Black Mountain, IV (44)
20. Causa Sui, Return to Sky (44)
20. Wretch, Wretch (44)
Honorable mention to:
Goatess, II: Purgatory Under New Management (43)
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light (43)
Geezer, Geezer (41)
Crowbar, The Serpent Only Lies (41)
Gojira, Magma (37)
Slomatics, Future Echo Returns (36)
Graves at Sea, The Curse that Is… (35)
Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy (33)
Beastmaker, Lusus Naturae (32)
Vokonis, Olde One Ascending (31)
Left a few more honorable mentions in the raw-vote count, just for fun and so you could get more of a feel beyond the top 20 itself, which you’ll notice has a couple ties in it as the raw votes usually do and reorganizes a bit from the weighted results. One and two remain the same, however, and in the same order, and you’ll see Wo Fat was the only album that scored more than 100 votes on its own. As a whole, there were over 2,400 separate entries for albums this year, which is by far the most spread out that the voting has ever been. Frankly, with so many people involved and such a variety of stuff being voted on, I’m amazed anyone managed to agree on anything at all, but of course they did and once again a stellar list is the result.
Well, Happy New Year.
Before I go, thanks again to Slevin for the work put into running the back end of this site and this poll particularly. I show up with the finish lists, but it’s his code that makes it happen, and his efforts are appreciated more than I can say. Dude has never asked me for anything in the nearly eight years I’ve been a constant pain in his ass.
After the jump, you’ll find everybody’s list, alphabetized by name. Please enjoy browsing. I hope you find something awesome, because there’s certainly plenty in there that qualifies, and if you see something that looks like it appears often enough that it should be included in one or both of the counts above, let me know in the comments.
Posted in Features on December 30th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.
Yeah, I know I said as much when the Top 20 Debut Albums of 2016 went up, but I take it back: this is the hardest list to put together. And to be honest, there’s a part of me that’s hesitant even to post it because I know as soon as I do someone’s going to be like, “No way you dick your entire existence is shit because you forgot Release X,” and very likely they’ll be right. Up to the very moment this post is going live, I’ve been making changes, and I expect I’ll continue to do so for a while after it’s out there.
So what’s a “short release?” That’s another issue. Pretty much anything that’s not an album. Singles, digital or physical, as well as EPs, splits, demos, and so on. The category becomes nebulous, but my general rule is if it’s not a full-length, it qualifies as a short release. Sounds simple until you get into things like, “Here’s a track I threw up on Bandcamp,” and “This only came out as a bonus included as a separate LP with the deluxe edition of our album.” I’m telling you, I’ve had a difficult time.
Maybe that’s just me trying to protect myself from impending wrath. This year’s Top 30 albums list provoked some vehement — and, if I may, prickishly-worded — responses, so I might be a bit gunshy here, but on the other hand, I think these outings are worth highlighting, so we’re going forward anyway. If you have something to add, please use the comments below, but remember we’re all friends here and there’s a human being on the other end reading what’s posted. Thanks in advance for that.
And since this is the last list of The Obelisk’s Best-of-2016 coverage, I’ll say thanks for reading as well. More to come in the New Year, of course.
Here we go:
The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 Short Releases of 2016
1. Scissorfight, Chaos County EP
2. Earthless / Harsh Toke, Split
3. Mars Red Sky, Providence EP
4. Mos Generator, The Firmament
5. Soldati, Soldati
6. Monolord, Lord of Suffering / Die in Haze EP
7. Wren, Host EP
8. Goya, The Enemy EP
9. The Sweet Heat, Demo
10. River Cult, Demo
11. Stinkeye, Llantera Demos
12. Megaritual, Eclipse EP
13. Ragged Barracudas / Pushy, Split
14. Mindkult, Witchs’ Oath EP
15. Iron Jawed Guru, Mata Hari EP
16. Brume, Donkey
17. Bison Machine / Wild Savages / SLO, Sweet Leaves Vol. 1 Split
18. BoneHawk / Kingnomad, The Second Coming of Heavy: Chapter Three Split
19. Wicked Gypsy, EP
20. Love Gang, Love Gang EP
An expansive category as ever. In addition to what’s above, the following stood out and no doubt more will be added over the course of the next few days. If you feel something is missing, please let me know.
Cambrian Explosion, The Moon EP
Candlemass, Death Thy Lover EP
Cultist, Cultist EP
Danava, At Midnight You Die 7″
Dos Malés, Dos Malés EP
Druglord, Deepest Regrets EP
Fu Manchu, Slow Ride 7″
Geezer, A Flagrant Disregard for Happiness 12″
Gorilla vs. Grifter, Split
Holy Smoke, Holy Smoke! It’s a Demo!
Karma to Burn, Mountain Czar
LSD and the Search for God, Heaven is a Place EP
Pallbearer, Fear and Fury
Reign of Zaius, Planet Of…
Sea of Bones / Ramlord, Split
Shallows, The Moon Rises
The Skull, EP
Snowy Dunes, “Atlantis Part I” digital single
Sun Voyager / The Mad Doctors, Split
Valborg, Werwolf 7″
Was it just the raw joy of having Scissorfight back? No, but that was for sure part of it. It was also the brazenness with which the New Hampshire outfit let go of their past, particularly frontman Christopher “Ironlung” Shurtleff, and moved forward unwilling to compromise what they wanted to do that made their Chaos County so respectable in my eyes. Having always flourished in the form, they delivered an EP of classic Scissorfight tunes and issued a stiff middle finger to anyone who would dare call them otherwise. They couldn’t have been more themselves no matter who was in the band.
At the same time, it was a hard choice between that and the Earthless / Harsh Toke split for the top spot. I mean, seriously. It’s Earthless — who at this point are the godfathers of West Coast jamadelica — and Harsh Toke, who are among the style’s most engaging upstart purveyors, each stretching out over a huge and encompassing single track. I couldn’t stop listening to that one if I wanted to, and as the year went on, I found I never wanted to.
I was glad when Mars Red Sky included the title-track of the Providence EP as a bonus cut on their subsequent album, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul), both because it tied the two releases together even further and because it gave me another opportunity to hear it every time I listened to the record. Their short releases have always shown significant character apart from their full-lengths, and this was no exception. I still tear up when I hear “Sapphire Vessel.”
To bounce around a bit: Had to get Mos Generator on the list for the progressive expansion of the live-recorded The Firmament. Stickman was right to put that out on vinyl. Both Monolord and Goya provided quick outings of huge riffs to sate their respective and growing followings, while Megaritual’s Eclipse basked in drone serenity and the debut release from Sergio Ch.’s Soldati provided hard-driving heavy rock with the particular nuance for which the former Los Natas frontman is known. It’s the highest among a slew of first/early outings — see also The Sweet Heat, Wren (Host was their second EP), River Cult’s demo, Stinkeye, Mindkult, Iron Jawed Guru, Brume, Wicked Gypsy and Love Gang.
Ultimately, there were fewer splits on the list this year than last year, but I’ll credit that to happenstance more than any emergent bias against the form or lack of quality in terms of what actually came out. The BoneHawk and Kingnomad release, the Ragged Barracudas and Pushy split, and that heavy rocking onslaught from Bison Machine and company were all certainly welcome by me, and I’ll mention Gorilla vs. Grifter there too again, just because it was awesome.
One more time, thank you for reading, and if you have something to add, please do so in the comments below. Your civility in that regard is appreciated.
This is the last of my lists for 2016, but the Readers Poll results are out Jan. 1 and the New Year hits next week and that brings a whole new round of looking-forward coverage, so stay tuned.
Posted in Features on December 28th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
A WINNER HAS BEEN CHOSEN AND THIS GIVEAWAY IS CLOSED. THANKS TO ALL WHO ENTERED.
[TO ENTER GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment on this post with your email address in the form. You’ll be contacted at that address if you win. Winner is chosen one week from today.]
Enter now to win an Argonauta Records CD prize pack featuring releases from Hollow Leg, Dee Calhoun, Suma, Komatsu, Varego, Indivia, Mountain Tamer, Obese, Lowburn and Beneath the Storm. When the label hit me up last week and asked if I wanted to do a giveaway, I kind of assumed it would be one, maybe two records tops, but I guess when you’ve built up a catalog like the Italian imprint has over the last few years, things like “prize packs” become much easier to assemble. A lot of these releases have been reviewed (and others I’m still catching up to this week — hello, Komatsu), so hopefully the names will be familiar, but either way, free music. Free music sells itself.
Hey, by the way, free music.
I’ve tried to be pretty assiduous in covering Argonauta‘s stuff the last couple years, since I believe that Gero, who runs the label and plays in Varego, is doing good work and for the right reasons. If you’ve hemmed and hawed on checking any of it out, consider this your opportunity to do so with no investment. As always, let me just say I don’t keep anyone’s emails, have no interest in your data, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did. So there.
Thanks to Gero and Argonauta for ponying up the prize. Here’s a pic and a list of what you get:
Argonauta Records prize pack – 10 CDs:
INDIVIA – Horta KOMATSU – Recipe for Murder One VAREGO – Epoch DEE CALHOUN – Rotgut MOUNTAIN TAMER – Mountain Tamer BENEATH THE STORM – Lucid Nightmare SUMA – Ashes LOWBURN – Doomsayer OBESE – Kali Yuga HOLLOW LEG – Instinct
[TO ENTER GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment on this post with your email address in the form. You’ll be contacted at that address if you win. Winner is chosen one week from today.]
Posted in Features on December 23rd, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Easthampton, MA, Dec. 22, 2016 — New England snow peppered the westward Masspike ride to Sonelab in Easthampton, MA, where Elder were working all week on their fourth album. Eight years ago, they made their self-titled debut (discussed here) as a youngling trio loaded with potential who’d already earned a reputation for blowing old dudes off stages. In less than a decade’s time and across the two follow-up records, 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) and 2015’s Lore (review here), they’ve traveled the world over and become arguably the most pivotal act in the American heavy underground. Released through Stickman Records and Armageddon Shop, Lore was nothing short of a landmark for Elder, as the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto found a way to be heavy and progressive without sacrificing the impact of the one for the nuance of the other, or vice versa. Their cake, had and eaten.
They’d been at Sonelab all week putting pieces together for a crucial follow-up to Lore that, when released in 2017, will also mark their fastest turnaround between albums. The bulk of the recording was done. I pulled into the parking lot outside the studio, which is in a big warehouse space by the American Legion Hall with an independent brewery on either side — Easthampton is a big college area and looks to be gentrifying — and followed the low-end hum into the live room, where Elder were mid-jam. Sonelab engineer Justin Pizzoferrato and graphic artist Adrian Dexter were in the control room, further down the hallway, but in the live room the band was well dug in. A space longer than it was wide, with high ceilings — Pizzoferrato‘s recordings have a distinct snare drum sound, and with the space in question I immediately recognized its origin as Couto played — rooms off to the right for guitar and bass cabinets, painted concrete floors with the requisite rugs, amps and cabinets and organs and pianos and other assorted instrumentation lining the walls and otherwise scattered about. Old couches here and there. I took a seat on a piano bench and watched the jam unfold.
One does not necessarily think of Elder as a band given to improvisation. Particularly as time has gone on, their work has been clean, meticulous in its arrangements, and from what I heard of their impending fourth LP, that remains true, but these jams — and there were over 80 minutes of them recorded, ultimately — were being tracked with the intent of adding ambience to the record and building more of a sense of atmosphere. Interludes, maybe, or at very least complements to the structured songs. Joining the core lineup of the band were Mike Samos on a slide steel guitar setup and electric mandolin and keyboardist/guitarist Mike Risberg (a bandmate of DiSalvo‘s in the Gold & Silver side-project) on a Wurlitzer, who indeed fleshed out the effects wash bring proffered by the guitar as various jams built, established themselves, were held together by Donovan and pushed ahead by Couto‘s inimitable swing, and finally receded one by one. At times spacious and hypnotic and at times more active, this five-piece version of Elder was genuinely attempting to offer something different than anything the band has done before, and depending on which pieces actually make it onto the finished product, they just might get there.
Some meandering, some blending of progressive fuzzadelia and space rock, and some vital crash, the jams built from nothing into full-fledged explorations, each with their own personality. Arranged in a circle with a barrier setup behind Couto, they reveled in the process of creating this swirl, and though the going wasn’t always smooth — nor should it be — they held pieces together for as long as they wanted before letting them drift to a conclusion. The room was cold and bright, but the vibe warm and intimate, and standing outside some minutes later with the band and Dexter, whose designs for Elder have become an essential part of their presentation and whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times over the years despite his being based in Denmark, the same chemistry could be found in their ease of conversation, laughing and tossing off stories about rest stops on the sides of mountains in Sweden and, with ski-worthy MassachusettsAppalachians in the distance, remarking about the relative altitudes in places like the Netherlands, Denmark, and so on. This is a band who have traveled continents together, who’ve created together for a decade now, and their bond — even with Samos and Risberg, who are clearly close friends — is familial. One imagines that when DiSalvo, who’s been living in Berlin for the last year-plus, returned to hit the studio, the transition back into this mode of working was no less fluid than the jams I was fortunate enough to watch unfold in the live room.
Following the break, it was time to hear a new track. Pizzoferrato had been setting up rough mixes in the control room, so the band, Dexter and I made our way there to listen. No title yet, but DiSalvo informed that the sweeping nine-minute cut would be one of five included (plus whatever they got out of the jams), and as its quick start got underway, I could immediately hear progression not only in his vocals but in the arrangements from where Elder left off with Lore. Parts swept through over careening rhythms, winding basslines, stellar lead guitar work, sung harmonies and other flourish. It was clear they were building out arrangements, and with the layers working on top of each other as they were, I understood why prior to hitting the studio they’d played several shows with a four-piece, two-guitar lineup. One key distinction? The title-track of Lore had a part in its middle where DiSalvo‘s guitar emulated a Mellotron sound. This time the Mellotrons are real. Featured in both pieces I’d ultimately hear, they added their particular progressive theatricality to the proceedings, and helped further a lush melodicism that, once again, was complemented by considerable heft. I took notes as quickly as I could to keep up with the transitions — a direct quote from them: “It’s amazing how identifiable their sound has become” — as the Mellotron led through a break into the next movement of the song that, when the band kicked back in, made me hope Donovan would be high in the final mix. One of several guitar solos propelled the gallop to a cold finish circa 9:40, and as sudden as it had started, it was over.
Dexter, while the song played, showed me some of the progress for the cover and inside-the-LP artwork on his laptop, which at least as of now moves away from the deep blue tones of Lore and into darker browns and earthy, forest-feeling colors. Still elemental, but land, not sea. It was, of course, beautiful. When the track was finished, the band decided to do some more jamming, so it was back into the live room with DiSalvo, Donovan, Couto, Risberg and Samos. They’d discussed a few beginnings and ends for where interludes might make sense, decided they needed something in ‘G’ and something in ‘C,’ and set to it. It was a little more business-like than the first portion of the session had been with that set goal in mind, but each of the two movements conjured — one more droning and trance-inducing (I swear I lost time), the other led by Couto‘s toms, which was a departure in itself — seemed like it would give them something to work from. When the second one was finished, it kind of devolved into a heavy metal Xmas song, Donovan picking up sleigh bells and growling carol lyrics, laughing all the way and so on. He’d been taking direction from Risberg and the line of communication seemed to come apart toward the end, but again, that became part of the process of feeling the way through what the jam turned out to be. There were more slide guitar overdubs for Samos to add to other finished tracks, so his gear was moved into the control room and set up so he’d be able to see the specific places within the songs where his parts would go.
I don’t know how familiar Samos had been previously with the material prior to playing on it, but by the third time through each of the two songs I watched him play on, he’d nailed it. The first take, was a listen, the second a feeling out, the third — done. A fourth shot on the second song seemed more perfunctory than necessary, but didn’t hurt anything either. Still, they’d decided the jamming was done and the afternoon was getting on. It had been a two-hour trip for me to the studio, which meant two hours back, but before I left, I asked if I could hear another full track, just to get a better sense of the course of the record overall to go with the pieces, snippets, jams, and song I’d already heard. The band and Pizzoferrato were kind enough to oblige with the cut on which Samos had just played. DiSalvo set it up by calling it an “outlier” on the album, and I wouldn’t have the chance to ask him in what way he meant that, but I could hear their prog leanings coming to the forefront, another quick start of a winding motion met with his lead guitar. Some almost peak-era Porcupine Tree-style swirl crashed into deeper low end, leading to an open verse marked by harmonies at the ends of lines, and the song moved into a chorus that would cycle through and into a solo before taking off on an instrumental stretch that would be where the slide featured. Tempo shifted, the chorus returned, the Mellotron appeared, the crunch came back at the end, and trying to keep “outlier” in mind, I was nonetheless taken by the depths of layering at work, the sense of arrangement at play and, again, the growth that has marked each of Elder‘s records to-date and which seems to be fully intact going into this one as well.
Up next for the band was to continue with mixing on a song Pizzoferrato referred to as “Staving,” and to comb through the improvised material and see what fit where. No doubt that would be as much of a creative process in editing as was the making of those jams in the first place, but if Elder have shown anything over the course of their career, it’s a burgeoning sense of mastery in their sound. Lore may prove over the longer term to have been a moment of arrival for them, and I won’t speak to this follow-up as a whole without having heard the entire thing, but it was obvious to me sitting in the control room that their interest in stagnation is nil. Rather, Elder are evolving willfully, expanding their palette and broadening their approach in the same way that they’ve become closer as people over the years. How that will ultimately manifest in their next album remains to be seen as the holidays and New Year take hold, but one consistent factor in Elder‘s tenure has been that the potential they showed on barroom stages when they were still too young to buy beer has remained and blossomed with them, and as they’ve realized a catalog on which to look back, they’ve never lost sight that the most fundamental direction must always be forward.
My deepest thanks to the band, to Dexter and Pizzoferrato for having me to Sonelab. Elder‘s fourth album will be released in 2017. Please find more pictures from the studio after the jump, and thanks for reading.
Through five full-lengths, Hamburg-based Larman Clamor kept up a near-impossible clip. One might expect a creative burst of sorts from the likes of Alexander von Wieding, a noted graphic artist who’s done work across the heavy rock underground on covers and posters for the likes of Karma to Burn, Kind, this site, and many many more, but it seemed that especially since Larman Clamor functioned as a solo-project after its first, 2011 self-titled outing (review here), von Wieding was able to really let it flourish on his own terms. Those terms may vary, but under both the various EPs and singles that have supplemented and his proper albums — 2011’s Altars to Turn Blood (review here), 2012’s Frogs (review here), 2013’s Alligator Heart (review here), and 2014’s Beetle Crown and Steel Wand (review here) — he’s kept a consistent thread of otherworldly boogie blues, a swampy porch stomp, and though the break between has been longer, that’s maintained on his sixth offering, Beyonder, as well.
One can hear it in the early cut “Pig Priest and the Motor Hag,” as von Wieding layers banjo and acoustic guitar and provides his own percussion amid electric guitar flourish: He’s progressed, but the core of his approach to Larman Clamor is intact. Self-released digitally with a potential physical release to follow, Beyonder is the longest Larman Clamor record at 14 tracks/42 minutes — seven of which are dedicated to closer “In the Circus of Night” alone — and though many of the elements will be familiar to those who’ve dug into von Wieding‘s songwriting before and the songs were evidently born of some significant personal struggles, one finds some of the most striking moments to be almost playful in their nature. To wit, the way the opening title-track seems to beam Queens of the Stone Age‘s stop-start “Little Sister” riff in from another dimension, or how even beneath the sad story of “Something Bitter to Do,” the rhythm feels so vibrant and builds such momentum over a still-short three-minute run. Elsewhere, the hook of “Fo’ What You Did” taps darker impulses and turns them into one of Beyonder‘s catchiest hooks, von Wieding experimenting with falsetto vocals as he provides his own backups to his generally gruff delivery, and interludes like “The Draining,” “Come See…” and the instrumental “Tarnkappe” broaden the scope of the album overall with spoken narrative or even just an additional stretch toying with atmosphere.
Could well be that taking his time — relatively speaking — between one long-player and the next allowed von Wieding to further develop the rubber-band bounce of “Swamp Healing” and the tortured string-pull of “Haunted, Hexed, Let Down and Torn,” but from wherever the progression in scope comes, Beyonder is the most forward-thinking Larman Clamor album yet, and though von Wieding has clearly established his aesthetic across his six records, he’s just as clearly a restless soul within that, working to reshape what’s been done before. Long after the mud-psych of “And the Hand” and past the penultimate quietude of “All Wrongs are Right,” the plainest evidence of his creative evolution is found in “In the Circus of Night,” which narrates its way through an intertwining of worlds via mumbled discoveries pushed along by stomping feet, handclaps, foreboding drones and of course much more, building a tension that resolves itself in a rising hum of electric guitar tone that sounds just as much like a beginning as an ending. Which it may well be. We’ll have to wait to find out where von Wieding takes Larman Clamor from here, but the fact that even with a year between Beetle Crown and Steel Wand and Beyonder he’s produced six albums in five years with the project speaks to the significant measure of urgency with which he hones his craft. That, maybe even more than the boogie, is likely to remain the unifying factor no matter what else the next record brings.
Today I have the extreme pleasure of hosting a full stream of Larman Clamor‘s Beyonder as an album premiere. Release date is tomorrow, Dec. 24. Below, you’ll find a full track-by-track courtesy of von Wieding, who was kind enough to discuss his motivations and inspirations in how these songs came together.
Please dig in and enjoy:
Track-by-Track through Larman Clamor’s Beyonder with Alex von Wieding
Like every Larman Clamor riff, it came out of nowhere. Suddenly I had this punkish riff and thought: Damn, this doesn’t work for LC stuff… And then there was the idea of putting those two Thin Lizzy-ish solo guitars into the third quarter of the song — and I was even more like “Naah, c’mon… I guess I’ll have to start a second band for this”… But who was I to tell, ha. As the idea for the lyrics came up, it suddenly turned into a Larman Clamor song. And I thought, hey, this is so straight rockin’ and sorta-different (at least to me), why not go the whole nine yards and even make it the album title song? And there you go. So story-wise, there’s this paranoid wizard sitting in the heath wasteland and he puts one rock unto another in the river, making art. And even though he does know something bad might actually happen, he continues to create. Like manic at some point. Simply because what’s this life for if not to create. Create joy. Beauty. Art. Inspiration. Make your mark, come what may. And even if the wizard’s nemesis-esque creatures, the owl-priests (don’t ask me, I dunno), appear, he is facing his fate with something along the lines of “Even if you kill me now, you won’t be able to destroy what I’ve created in this life. My legacy will remain.”
2. “And the Hand”
A gloomy wanna-be-intstrumental. The fragment it’s based on is back from the Frogs era, but I finally found a place for bringing in my Danelectro Sitar. Yay. Because I suck at playing full chords, I decided to use it more like a drone-guitar. Which made the whole thing sound “vast” to me… Like a theme for a… wasteland. Maybe it’s the sort-of theme song for the world of Larman Clamor? I don’t know. Maybe I will know at some point. And because even wastelands are full of beauty, why not stroke them a little? You know. Give them a little love. Even in the biggest chaos, destruction and weirdness – at some point, beauty will reveal itself. You just have to be willing to look close enough. And care. So, there’s the hand caressing over the wasteland.
3. “Fo’ What You Did”
Originially turned up on the Blackwolfgoat / Larman Clamor split 7″ we did on H42 Records in 2015. And I’m very proud of that. That one was fun. The inspiration for the song wasn’t that much of fun though. I was scammed. But when I realized that it actually had been ME who maneuvered myself into that bad situation, being dumb, instead of wasting even more of my life’s energy on the shit, I rather gave it a smile and carried on. As The Dude says, “I can’t be worried about that shit. Life goes on, man.” That’s where the lyrics started from. In the end, atmospherically speaking, I guess it turned into a pretty (meant literally) dark song… Ha. So it sort of feels like the character in the song might be friendly waving when he tells us his story, but snipped his opponent’s nuts off before that anyways. Guess that’s a double ha.
4. “Pig Priest and the Motor Hag”
Also a song from the Frogs era. Finished this one a long time ago, but didn’t know what to do with it, as it was so furiously riffin’, it didn’t fit in anywhere 100 percent. When I added the dueling banjos, it suddenly all made sense. And it perfectly fit on this album. So there you go.
5. “Haunted, Hexed, Let Down ‘n’ Torn”
…Originally was a mean, mean song. But that didn’t fit the album theme anymore. Also one of the reasons why I layed ‘Beyonder’ to rest for a long time. At the bottom line, this song is another one of those “being given something bad and making the best out of it” songs on this album. The story in this one is something like a summoning ritual. But with a hint of Beetlejuice. Drawing a door unto the wall with chalk and wait for the ‘right’ person to stumble through to you, after you mumbled the correct incantation phrases. Come, dance with me!
Hey, a German title?! Yes, indeed. I always liked that word. Like a lot. And “magic hood” (the literal meaning) felt just lame. For instrumentals, I usually like to put on a strange title, one that makes your mind paint the picture to the song. But then, it’s a thin line. You wouldn’t want to give too much of a direction… So, I can’t really say much about this song, except for: “Tarnkappe.” That word’s cool sound should be inspiration enough.
7. “Swamp Healing”
You should never say never… But for the moment, I guess this song is the closest to ‘reduced oldschool blues guitar stomp on a porch by sundown’ I’ve done yet. Aside from the ritual aspect of the track (I’ve had it on my list to do a “ritual song” for a while), it’s simply about seeing the good things in life. Again. And anew. You may get down, and it may take some weirdo shit to get you up again sometimes, but in the end, when noticing all of that is rather stupid and funny (and that’s why it brings you up!) – you’ll get the essence of everything again: Get up, move on, enjoy life! It’s short enough! So go on, make the best out of it!
8. “Somethin’ Bitter to Do”
Also was on my ‘songs-to-do-list’ for some time: A “counting” song. Mourning over a broken heart can poison you. So, after some failed attepts and desperate measures and rituals, the character in this song decides to do something bitter. What exactly that is, I don’t know. Seems that he already cut out one heart (his own?)… Rock-bottom, put into a trash-can drums banjo stomp, executed with a smile.
9. “The Draining” / 10. “Soul Sane Juice”
A little one I wrote in the middle of a gloomy fall night. Nothing too deep. A song about an UFO landing and alien capture …maybe? The return of the “intro song” for LC. I wanted to do something like that again since “Lost Path Through the Mountains / Deep tn the Tar” (on Altars to Turn Blood).
11. “Come See…” / 12. “…Sighed the River of Larvas”
So I had this instrumental based on a breathing choir, mumbling some nonsense. The lyrics of “River” were never to make any sense, but at some point, it sounded like there’s a group of people rowing a boat… That’s when it took more shape. Maybe this is even the ghouls from “Caravan of Ghouls” (on Beetle Crown & Steel Wand) again. Who knows? Like the narrator at the beginning tells us, it’s no use hanging around and wasting your life away. In the end, the River of Larvas awaits us all. So you might as well get your ass up and do something of worth. Be creative. Row a boat on a river made of spaghetti… or larvas. Whatever.
13. “All Wrongs are Right”
You ever had one of those nights, where you find yourself alone and can’t be with the one you love? But it’s not sad or anything, it all feels right? It’s like a test. You know you love her and you know she loves you. You just can’t be together right now. No matter why. The ‘why’ is neither of importance nor of to be taken care of. So you just center your spirit and go on an astral journey to your loved and loving soulmate…
14. “In the Circus of Night”
Even if I spoil something here: This is a revamp of an old song if you didn’t notice. It’s in the same tradition as “Aether Bound” (on Alligator Heart) or “My Lil’ Ghost” on Beetle Crown & Steel Wand). I’ve had that riff flying around my head since 1997. And this finally is THE song made of it. Instead of making it into a straight blues song (what the riff itself might scream for), I rather wanted it to be sort of otherworld-ish romantic. Imagine one of these nights, when spring turns to summer. And you’re strolling around alone, out in the fields, when a smooth breeze comes up. And it’s warm. Suddenly. Strangely warm, being the first real summer breeze. And then the magic appears, making the night a circus. And it’s all around you, with its weedy scents of the night flowers awaking, the cicadas singing and the moon and starlight guiding you onto your way into the wild… And it more becomes a real “circus” when suddenly — in the Larman Clamor cosmos, a path surrounded by fiery lights appears, and at the end of it, a real big top shows up… And there’s these strange figures inviting you in to enjoy their show, the main character being a Mephisto-ish mesmerist guy… You don’t know what he’s up to… but you follow him… into the Circus of Night.
Posted in Features on December 21st, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Stockholm riff-pummelers Domkraft made their debut this fall with The End of Electricity on Magnetic Eye Records — a blown-out collection of dense-toned low end push, mean in its execution and weighted on a planetary scale. Rest assured, plenty of electricity went into its making, though perhaps they chose the title for the number of fuses they blew in the studio trying to power all those tube amps. A question for another time.
Today we concern ourselves with what drove the three-piece of bassist/vocalist Martin Wegeland, guitarist Martin Widholm and drummer Anders Dahlgren to craft this monstrosity of riff in the first place. One learns early on in writing about music that the question “Who are your influences?” is off limits once you’re no longer writing for the high school newspaper. That’s some shit that you, as a critic, should know by the time you talk to someone. But Domkraft were kind enough to take the initiative and answer the question anyhow in the form of counting down (counting up? either way, counting) 10 records that made them who they are as a band.
And though I’m sure you’ve heard it by now, just like you already know they’ve been tapped to play Psycho Las Vegas 2017, because you’re hip like that and into the rock and/or roll, just in case you want some context for what the band discusses below, I’ve also included the stream of The End of Electricity at the bottom of this post, so you can hear what all this cool stuff sounds like when it comes out the other side of Domkraft‘s blender.
Thanks to Domkraft for taking the time and to Jadd Shickler for coordinating. Enjoy:
10 Records that Made Domkraft
PINK FLOYD, Meddle (1971)
Well, where to start with this one? A seminal album in every aspect. This is the very blueprint for how drums, guitar and bass can interact in long, sweeping, echoing compositions that grow in and out of one given theme. Some of us have listened to this album ever since we were kids. The epic pounding of “One of These Days” still lacks comparison. And even if we work in a different musical context, the live version of the song from Pompeii 1972 in particular captures the very essence of how music should feel for us; overwhelming, transcendental and all-consuming. An inspiration in so many ways.
SPACEMEN 3, Playing with Fire (1989)
“Just play one note. No fancy stuff.” With fancy stuff being two notes, this band is a marvel in itself. When it comes to creating greatness out of almost nothing, Spacemen 3 are still unrivalled. And Playing with Fire is arguably their finest moment. From the dream-like inner and outer journey of “Honey” and “How Does It Feel?” to downright life-transforming sonic freight trains such as “Revolution” and “Suicide,” this is probably one of the bands that has had the biggest impact on how we apprehend music. The tones themselves decide the structure of the song, not the other way around. And less is almost always so much more. We love both sides of this band, the mellow stuff as well as the really powerful, even though I think most of the people who appreciate Domkraft will get more out of the louder stuff. Anyway, an amazing band and an album that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was released in 1989.
LOOP, A Gilded Eternity (1990)
When we’re writing, groove and pace are two cornerstones. Loop purified the bond between sparse, focused rhythms and feedback guitars. Their music is so self-conscious — it’s almost as if all parts not proven vital for the song’s existence have been removed. Staccato drumming and kraut-like bass grooves together with screaming minimalistic, echo-drenched wah-wah guitars give songs like “The Nail Will Burn” a unique, hypnotic vibe. The riffs feel endless. No beginning. No end. Everything so simplified, repeated and recycled that even the smallest alteration makes a huge difference. In Domkraft, we work a lot with the idea of trusting a riff enough to let it take over a song. One riff, one firm groove. That’s all you need, really. And it does not necessarily have to space out — keeping it sharp can be equally mind-bending. And Loop knew that early on.
GOD MACHINE, Songs from the Second Storey (1993)
Apparently there’s at least one other band with the same name now, but we’re talking about the classic San Diego ’90s band here. So, yeah, some elements on this album haven’t aged that well and sound very much like a product of their time. But when they hit the sweet spot, oh man… they are sooo good. Not metal, but still heavier than most bands of that era, and with longing, desperate vocals floating upon gluey, crawling, rock-solid riffing. It becomes something that is hard to really label –- without making a fuss about being genre-bending. You can definitely hear echoes of God Machine in Domkraft, especially in how we work with vocals.
ENTOMBED, Wolverine Blues (1993)
If you’re Swedish and into heavier music, you just have to relate to Entombed somehow. We’re pretty old school, so the first three albums are where it’s at for us. Strangely though, with Wolverine Blues being the defining moment that moved them away from the classic death metal they played a big part in shaping, this is also one of their absolutely heaviest offerings. And it also features some of Nicke Andersson’s finest drumming –- he has that pretty unique Bill Ward-quality of making everything sound alive and in constant motion. Apart from being an inspiration rhythm-wise, there’s also a few scales that would probably not be there if it wasn’t for Entombed.
MELVINS, Houdini (1993)
When Melvins decided to slow things down, they certainly didn’t half-ass it. Their raw, bass-heavy and down-tuned sound made a huge impact on us (and still does). There is something about these guys that makes you feel like metal, punk or rock music never existed before. Seemingly uninterested in appearance and with almost surrealist lyrics, they challenge the whole concept of genres. That, combined with the intense drumming, the bass tone, the rhythmic and sludgy riffing of songs like “Hooch” and “Night Goat,” was a big reference for us when Domkraft was formed.
MONSTER MAGNET, Dopes to Infinity (1995)
Even though the band had released a few albums before, Dopes to Infinity was the album that really made us fall in love with them. At that time no one could deliver more powerful riffing and spaced-out songs and still be heavy as fuck. They seemed to mix the anglo-surrealism of Syd Barrett with punk rock attitude, Iommic riffing and the free-form song structures of Hawkwind. Echoing phasers, earth-shattering riffs and songs that, when needed, are long enough to make you lose track of time. The result was mind-bending to us then and still continues to influence us.
HIS HERO IS GONE, Monument to Thieves (1997)
Like a restless bastard sibling to Neurosis, Memphis’ His Hero Is Gone made a couple of albums in the late ’90s that sounded pretty much like the musical equivalent of nuclear war. Crusty pain-ridden hardcore, no nonsense d-beat and extreme, doomy low-end. Call it proto-sludge, if you will. Call it brilliant, you must. The atmosphere of this album is dark and gloomy, still somehow strangely beautiful in all of its intensity and almost bittersweet –- and it all sounds natural. That is something that very well might echo in our songs as well.
BURIED AT SEA, Migration (2003)
How low can you go? Well, this is about it. At least if you want to retain some kind of detail. Pretty minimalist as far as song structures go and manages to be extremely dense and atmospheric at the same time. The deranged, distorted vocals that appear very sparsely are almost like they’re just there to remind you that “oh! this is actually played by humans.” It’s also brilliantly produced, and well, what less could you expect with Sanford Parker in the band? The low-end just levels everything in its path and the highs accentuate everything that happens in the background (and that is quite a lot). Possibly one of the most intense — and groovy! — albums ever. The impact on Domkraft is probably mainly the realization that you don’t have to fear either mid or treble in order to still keep things heavy as fuck.
SWANS, The Seer (2011)
There is something about Swans that is close to impossible to describe in words alone. Especially regarding the second stage of their career. The constant building, how minor alterations make all the difference and the notion that you never really know if there could ever be an end to it. And you really don’t ever want it to end either. It’s a trance-like state, but the sheer power still makes you very aware of every change. It’s beautiful and threatening at the same time. Clean, crisp and sometimes almost orchestral. We might be on the other side of the sonic spectra with our massive use of fuzz and effects, but the spirit and the idea that each song itself sets its own rules has been a massive influence on us. Probably one of the three most important bands for us -– the other two being Sabbath and Spacemen 3.
Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.
I say this every year: These are my picks. If you’re unfamiliar with this site, or you don’t come here that often, or if you do and just normally don’t give a crap — all of which is cool — you should know it’s all run by one person. One human being. Me. My name is JJ, and this is a list of what I think are the best albums that were released in 2016.
Since before 2016 began, I’ve kept a running list of releases. My criteria for what gets included in this list is largely unchanged — it’s a balance between what I feel are important records on the level of what they achieve, what I listened to most, what held some other personal appeal, and what I think did the best job of meeting the goals it set for itself. Pretty vague, right? That’s the idea.
The nature of worldwide heavy has become so broad that to encompass it all under some universal standard is laughable. Judging psychedelia, garage rock, heavy psych, doom, sludge and so on by the same measure makes no sense, and as genres continue to splinter and remake themselves as we’ve seen them doing all year and over the last several years, one must be malleable in one’s own taste. We’ve seen a new generation of heavy rock bands emerge in the last three-plus years. It’s been amazing, and there are a few pivotal second and third records that came out in 2016 to affirm that movement underway. Look for it to continue into 2017 and beyond.
This year more than any other seemed to want to bring the different sides together. A laudable goal. Thick riffing marked with flourish of psychedelia. Spacious doom bred against folk impulses. There’s been experimentation around melds that have led to considerable triumphs, and it just doesn’t seem to me that rigid standards can apply. It’s why I don’t grade reviews and never did.
Sound is evolving now as it always has been and as it will keep doing, but like any year, 2016 had a full share of landmarks to offer as a part of that process. As universal development hopefully remains ongoing, it’s only right that we celebrate the accomplishments helping to push it along its winding and sometimes divergent-seeming paths.
I have no doubt you know what I mean. Let’s get to the list:
Seems only fair to start with a record I couldn’t put down. Finnish trio Talmud Beach‘s second album and Svart debut, Chief, hit on just the right blend of laid back, semi-acoustic groove-blues, psychedelia and classic progressive folk rock, but with the exception of its sprawling dreamscape title-track (a welcome arrival at the finale), it also kept the songwriting simple, resulting in a natural, pastoral feel that only highlighted their melodic range in songs like “Mountain Man” and “Snow Snow Snow.” I think it flew under a lot of people’s radar, but I’ve kept going back to it over the course of the year and I see no reason to stop.
Space is still the place. I’ve already highlighted closer “Artificial Light” from Comet Control‘s sophomore LP, Center of the Maze as my favorite song of 2016, so I’ll spare you the longwinded treatise on its languid cosmic glories — this time — but consider this a reminder that that song was by no means the limit of what the eight-track release had to offer in terms of breadth. From the opening push of “Dig out Your Head” to the dream-drift of “Sick in Space,” it unfolded tonal presence and a melodic depth that engaged a gorgeous, multifaceted sonic wash as it moved onward toward that landmark conclusion.
There was not a level on which Madison, Wisconsin’s Droids Attack didn’t make it clear they were going all-out, all-in on Sci-Fi or Die. Even the title speaks to the stakes involved. And sure enough, the trio executed their fourth album with a sense of urgency and professionalism in songcraft, production, artwork (discussed here) and nuance of presentation that managed to make even a song called “Clawhammer Suicide” a classy affair. As guitarist/vocalist Brad Van said on the hidden title-track, “Death to false stoner thrash.” Droids Attack brought that ethic and more to life across the entire record.
A winding road brought Beelzefuzz around to following up their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), and as The Righteous Bloom brought guitarist/vocalist Dana Ortt and drummer Darin McCloskey together with bassist Bert Hall and lead guitarist Greg Diener, it found their songwriting more expansive, more progressive and dug further into their own particular oddball sense of grandeur. I’ve said on multiple occasions that no one out there is doing what Beelzefuzz are doing and that continues to be true. Even as a first offering from a new lineup of the band, The Righteous Bloom took bold and exciting forward steps.
Down to business. Immediately. Not a moment to spare. Taking part in what can only be considered a landmark year for Ripple Music, Baltimore’s Foghound issued The World Unseen as an answer to their 2013 debut, Quick, Dirty and High (review here), and upped their game across the board. From the intensity in the hooks of “Message in the Sky” and Rockin’ and Rollin'” to the quiet interlude of “Bridge of Stonebows” and the mid-paced heavy rock nod of “Never Return,” they made a strong case for themselves among their label’s foremost acts and found individualism in the growth of their songwriting. It was a kick in the ass you weren’t going to forget.
Put out by the band digitally in Dec. 2015 and issued on vinyl in 2016, Egypt‘s second LP, Endless Flight may be somewhat debatable in terms of when it actually landed (hence “25a.,” above), but the quality of the six-tracker more than warrants inclusion anyway. Rolling dense, massively-fuzzed groove, its nine-minute opening title-track set the course for the Fargo, North Dakota, three-piece, and they only grew the heavy revelry from there, as heard on the penultimate “Black Words,” which seemed to be chewing on rocks even as it played back and forth in tempo, build and push. The converted never had it so good.
There seems to be no stopping the Chiliomodi-based 1000mods, who with their third album have stepped to the forefront of Greece’s populous and vibrant heavy rock underground. Progressed well beyond where even 2014’s impressive Vultures (review here) found them, they seemed to hit a stride with Repeated Exposure To… thanks in part to road time and the ability to bring that energy directly into songs like the eight-minute roller “Loose” and the sizable crashes of “Groundhog Day.” Momentum working in their favor could be heard front-to-back from “Above 179” to “Into the Spell,” moving them toward something ever-more crucial and marking a considerable achievement along that path. 2017 might be a good time for them to test the waters with initial US shows.
Quick turnaround from Roman heavy psych magnate Gabriele Fiori (guitar/vocals) and company, but though it hit just about 13 months after their fourth full-length, Hawkdope (review here), Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy wholly succeeded in making an impact of its own, cuts like the oozing, organ-laced “Woman” and 11-minute jam-out triumph “Golden Widow” showcasing an approach in a continuous state of refinement that seems to get rawer as it goes, shifting like a rogue planetoid toward some maddening cosmic realization. How something can seem both so frenetic and so blissful is still a mystery, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Stellar Prophecy resonate as it does, but either way, Black Rainbows brought together some of the year’s most efficient psychedelic immersion.
Borracho don’t seem to release an album until they have something to say. That was to their credit on Atacama, their third LP and label debut for Kozmik Artifactz debut. Also their second collection issued as a trio behind 2013’s Oculus (review here), it distinguished itself from its predecessor in its sense of overarching flow, shifting between the ahead-thrust of “Gold from Sand” into the 10-minute sample-laden jam “Overload” to start out with such ease that the listener had little choice but to follow along. With an expanded scope on “Drifted away from the Sun” and the lightly-strummed memento mori “Flower,” Borracho found new avenues of expression to complement their well established dense, heavy riffing, and took obvious care in crafting their most realized LP yet.
Nothing Brooklyn’s The Golden Grass does feels like happenstance, and though their classic-styled boogie is imbued with a vibrant, friendly positive energy, there’s an underlying meticulousness in their arrangements and in their songwriting that came further into focus on Coming Back Again, their sophomore release 2014’s self-titled debut (review here). A more progressive take showed itself in “Reflections” and “Down the Line,” and taken in combination with the bookends “Get it Together” and “See it Through,” the three-piece stood on ground that was even more their own than on the first record, striking a careful balance between the willful exploration of new elements and the outright need for tracks to directly engage their listeners with catchy hooks and upbeat vibes. They did it. Expect continued growth.
For something so awash in fuzz, so nodding in its rhythms, so let’s-push-the-vocals-back-under-this-huge-awesome-fucking-riff, Curse the Son‘s Isolator was also remarkably clearheaded in its purposes. With the added vocal harmonies of “Callous Unemotional Traits,” the far-off spaces of “Hull Crush Depth” and the stoner metal despair of “Aislamiento,” the Connecticut three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Ron Vanacore, capital-‘d’ Drummer Michael Petrucci and newcomer bassist Brendan Keefe drew a direct, intentional line to sometimes-grueling (hello, “Sleepwalker Wakes”) weighted tonality and found justification for their largesse in its own being. Like 2012’s Psychache (review here), I expect to be returning to Isolator over a longer term than this single year of release.
I feel like I need to explain myself here. Make no mistake, Neurosis‘ Fires Within Fires is among the year’s most accomplished offerings. There’s just about no way it wouldn’t be. So why not top 10? Top five? It’s a question of timing. With the long-running post-metal progenitors, it’s always a longer digestion period. It was about two years before 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here) really sunk in, and I expect Fires Within Fires will work similarly over the greater term. Maybe a little guilt on my part for the disparity between its quality and its placement, but rest assured, Neurosis remain among the most imperative bands walking the earth, and as they took on the full brunt of 30 years of unmitigated progression through Fires Within Fires, they were no less brazen in pushing themselves creatively than they’ve ever been.
Though the narrative of Conan has remained largely unchanged since their inception — hack, slash, kill, riff — and they still bask in nigh-on-unmatched tonal slaughter, their third full-length brings a few key developments. Perhaps most notable from opener “Throne of Fire” onward is the vocal interplay between guitarist/founder Jon Davis and bassist/longtime-engineer Chris Fielding, who joined after 2014’s Blood Eagle (review here). Adding Fielding‘s deeper growls allowed Davis to subtly move into a cleaner shout, and the emergent dynamic between them made Revengeance a decidedly expanded affair compared to Conan‘s past work. Adding drummer Rich Lewis to the mix was no minor shift either, and as much as Conan had already established their sheer dominance, they also sounded refreshed and set themselves up to keep growing.
Some records just feel like gifts, and though many of its lyrical positions were cynical — “Reality,” “21st Century Slave,” “Mind Control Machine,” “Red the Sign Post,” etc. — Freedom marked the 15th anniversary of Danish garage-psych rockers Baby Woodrose with dripping lysergic aplomb, reminding some four years after their last LP, 2012’s Third Eye Surgery (review here), that bandleader Lorenzo Woodrose is unparalleled when it comes to manifesting his take on the psychedelic victories of 13th Floor Elevators and classic-era Hawkwind — firmly at home levitating on the edge of time. Its swirl and underlying foundation of songwriting, its Richie Havens cover title-track, and its sprawling interstellar “Termination” were like a welcome check-in from another dimension, and I only hope it’s not four years before Woodrose sends the next signal. Earth needs this band.
I’m not going to discount the shuffle of “Sunday Speed Demon” or sleeze of “Sunday Speed Demon,” but where Geezer‘s self-titled third full-length really showed how far the New York heavy blues-psych trio have come was in its extended midsection jams, “Sun Gods,” “Bi-Polar Vortex” and “Dust,” each of which showed a distinct approach while feeding into an engaging flow between them, offering a blend of trailmarker hooks as they drifted into realms of organic chemistry previously uncharted by the band. The slow-motion swing of “Hangnail Crisis,” raucous push of “Superjam Maximus” and concluding bounce of “Stoney Pony” brought them back down to earth to finish out with a symmetry to the album’s opening, but Geezer kept a collective hand on the controls the whole voyage and when they landed, it was an arrival indeed, and very much what their two previous records were building toward.
Beautifully experimental with its 27-minute finisher “As Sure as the Sun,” EYE‘s Vision and the Ageless Light seemed throughout its whole 46-minute run to be executing a cohesive vision in its synth-soaked progressive textures. Between the intro “Book of the Dead” and the subsequent “Kill the Slavemaster,” “Searching,” “Dweller of the Twilight Void” and the already-noted closer, each piece had something different to offer that added to the full impact of the whole, and with guitarist Jon Finely and bassist Michael Sliclen joining founding drummer/vocalist Brandon Smith and synth/Mellotron/Moog-ist Lisa Bella Donna (also vocals and acoustic guitar), EYE added to the scope of 2013’s Second Sight (review here) and found a place for themselves where prog complexity didn’t need to come at the expense of memorable songwriting and spaced-out vibes. An absolute joy, front to back.
Even Fatso Jetson themselves would probably have to admit that six years — even a six years that saw several splits, singles, etc. — was too long between albums. Fortunately, Idle Hands saw the desert rock forebears in top form as regards their quirk-fueled songwriting, angular approach to punk and inimitable groove. Following 2010’s Archaic Volumes (review here) was no easy task, but with additional depth to the material from the contributions of guitarist Dino von Lalli — son of founding guitarist/vocalist Mario Lalli and nephew of founding bassist Larry Lalli — guest spots from his sister Olive Lalli as well as Sean Wheeler (the latter moves second cut “Portuguese Dream” into high-echelon strangeness) and the ever-propulsive drumming of Tony Tornay, Fatso Jetson were both all over the place and right at the core of where they most ought to be sonically. At 56 minutes, it hardly seemed long enough.
Each song was like a different persona the band adopted momentarily, whether it was the Bowie-goes-proto-goth-prog of organ-ic opener “Transparent Eyeball” or the grim pastoralia of “Mirror Boy” and the condemnations/proclamations of “Drugged up on the Universe,” but wherever Hexvessel went on their third full-length and Century Media debut, When We are Death, that unifying theme went with them. Death. It was everywhere in the Finland-based genre-benders’ deeply varied approach, though its presence made their material in no way off-putting, and in the case of cuts like “Cosmic Truth” or the later “Mushroom Spirit Doors,” not even dark, and as it drew the tracks together despite working in different sounds and style, it became apparent that When We are Death worked because of a universal quality in songwriting and presentation allowing for such drastic shifts without any risk of losing the audience.
Yawning Man guitarist Gary Arce — a key figure in the development of desert rock and a player of unmatched tone, period — had quite a year, between Zun‘s Burial Sunrise, his main outfit and his collaboration with Fatso Jetson vs. HifiKlub, but it was the dreamscape drift of songs like “Come Through the Water” and “All that You Say I Am” as well as the subtle hooks of “Into the Wasteland” and “All for Nothing” that, for me, made this the highlight. Sure, bringing in vocalists Sera Timms (Ides of Gemini, Black Mare) and John Garcia (ex-Kyuss, Slo Burn, Vista Chino, etc.) and having them swap back and forth between the tracks didn’t hurt either, but the wash of ethereal presence in Arce‘s guitar was an excellent showcase for his patience and improvisational sensibilities, and the spaces Burial Sunrise covered seemed to have an infinite horizon all their own. Will hope for a follow-up, will hope Garcia and Timms return, and will hope for a duet.
One had reasonably high expectations for the debut full-length from London’s Elephant Tree after their 2014 EP Theia (review here) so deftly blended spacious, sitar-laced heavy psychedelic rock with more visceral sludge impulses — a difficult mix to pull off — but I think it would’ve been impossible to see the quality of this self-titled outing coming in any substantive way. Gone were the screams, in was a depth of tone and nigh-on-perfect tempo — see “Dawn” and “Aphotic Blues,” as well as the acoustic “Circles” between them — and where some first albums have a kind of tentative, feeling-it-out vibe, guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley (interview here), bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, drummer Sam Hart and sitarist/vocalist/engineer Riley MacIntyre took utter command of the proceedings. They won’t have the element of surprise working for them next time, but as Elephant Tree made perfectly clear in its biggest surprise of all, neither do they need it.
If you were to ask me to summarize in one word the last four-plus years of Mos Generator‘s tenure, since their reactivation with 2012’s Nomads (review here) and the subsequent lineup changes and hard-touring that followed 2014’s Electric Mountain Majesty (review here), I’d say “go.” I might say it three times: Go-go-go. One of three LP-ish offerings out this year, the studio album Abyssinia embodied this ethic as it started with immediate momentum on “Strangest Times” and “You’ve Got a Right” and seemed to push itself into new ground as it went. Guitarist/vocalist/founder Tony Reed brought heavy boogie to bear at a frenetic clip, but Abyssinia offset its early mania with later progressive stylization on “There’s No Return from Nowhere,” “Time and Other Thieves” and harmonized closer “Outlander,” so that in addition to representing their furious creativity, it also brought them to places they’ve never been before in sound.
In some ways, Future Echo Returns was simply picking up where Belfast’s Slomatics left off with 2014’s Estron (review here), as heard on the riff of lead-in track “Estronomicon,” but as the third in a purported trilogy following that record and 2012’s A Hocht, it also brought the tonecrushing three-piece to Skyhammer Studio to work with producer Chris Fielding (Conan) and presented a linear storyline that, while rife with standout moments in cuts like “Electric Breath,” the ambient “Ritual Beginnings” and ultra-catchy “Supernothing,” found a genuine sense of resolution in the finale “Into the Eternal” that spoke to the scope the entire work was meant to represent — not just itself, but an entirety spanning three albums. Not a minor feat, but what also made Future Echo Returns so resonant was how well the material stood on its own, so that even without the narrative context, it was immersive, hypnotic and unbridled in its heft.
After two landmarks issued by Small Stone in 2014’s The Conjuring (review here) and 2012’s The Black Code (reviews here and here), Texas forerunners of riff Wo Fat gave a concise rundown of their appeal in the six-track Ripple debut and sixth LP overall, Midnight Cometh. Their ongoing development as found them bringing together a two-sided personality of memorable songs and open, fluid jams, and cuts like “There’s Something Sinister in the Wind,” “Of Smoke and Fog,” “Three Minutes to Midnight” and “Nightcomer” emphasized the next stage of this process, while the shuffling “Riffborn” and swaggering blues rock of “La Dilleme de Detenu” gave listeners a chance to touch ground every now and again. Over the last two-plus years, Wo Fat have become a point of influence for other, particularly American, acts — see labelmates Geezer — and Midnight Cometh assured that will be the case going forward too; a status well-earned.
Offered up this summer as a limited self-release and picked up by no less than Stickman Records (Motorpsycho, Elder), Orion might be the most molten inclusion on this list. It’s also my pick for 2016 Debut of the Year, and to hear cuts like “She Sleeps on a Vine,” “Kerosene,” the sprawling closer “Drinking from the River Rising,” or even just to take the whole record front-to-back, which was clearly how the band intended it be experienced, there’s just about no competition in that regard that stands up. The Rochester, NY, three-piece showed marked promise on their 2013 demo (review here) and 2015 split with Lé Betre (review here), but the listenability of Orion — which earned every single one of its repeat visits — made it a triumph on a different level entirely, and distinguished King Buffalo as a formidable presence in the sphere of US heavy psychedelia, fostering a sound no less soulful for its outward cosmic reach and to-be-measured-in-lightyears scale of potential.
7. Wight, Love is Not Only What You Know
Released by Fat and Holy Records, Kozmik Artifactz, Import Export Music and SPV. Reviewed Sept. 7.
German outfit Wight answered significant anticipation on their third album, Love is Not Only What You Know, some four years after 2012’s Through the Woods into Deep Water (review here) and undertook a significant evolution in sound. A transition from a trio to a four-piece and adding a strong current of funk to their heavy psych groove and boogie resulted in cuts like “The Muse and the Mule,” the jammed-out “Kelele” and “The Love for Life Leads to Reincarnation,” which were as danceable as they were nod-ready, and when complemented by shorter classic rockers like “Helicopter Mama” and “I Wanna Know What You Feel” (still plenty funky) and the Eastern-tinged interlude “Three Quarters,” gave Love is Not Only What You Know scope to match its ass-shaking encouragement. It was a spirit unto itself among 2016 releases, but ultimately, the key to understanding the record was right there in the title: It was all about love, and wherever Wight went in a given track, they never lost sight of that.
A decade and a half after 2001’s Revolution Rock (discussed here), Sweden’s Greenleaf most embodied that ethic with Rise Above the Meadow, their sixth long-player and Napalm Records debut. 2014’s Trails and Passes (review here) represented the key step of founding guitarist Tommi Holappa (interview here) bringing vocalist Arvid Johnsson into the lineup, but Rise Above the Meadow built exponentially on what that album achieved, bolstered by work as a touring band and a revitalized songwriting process heard in “Howl,” “A Million Fireflies,” “You’re Gonna be My Ruin,” the stomping “Golden Throne” and “Tyrants Tongue,” among others. I refuse to discount the quality of Trails and Passes, 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) or 2007’s landmark Agents of Ahriman (review here), but as Greenleaf shifted toward a style more reminiscent of Holappa‘s later output with Dozer, they also seemed to stake their claim on the forefront of European heavy rock and roll, which was just waiting for them to do so.
Perhaps the most believable lyric of 2016 was the opening line of leadoff cut “The Gree Heen” from Brant Bjork‘s Tao of the Devil: “I got all that I need. I got the gree-heen.” From the prominent pot leaf on the cover to that single clause — which set the tone for that song’s mega-nod as much as everything that followed in the boogie of “Humble Pie” and “Stackt,” the so-laid-back-it’s-almost-unconscious title-track and the longer-form explorations of “Dave’s War” and the wah’ed-out “Evening Jam” — the inimitable Bjork seems to have embraced the role of stoner guru and the Godfather of Desert Rock. Tao of the Devil was his second release through Napalm behind 2014’s Black Power Flower (review here), which introduced the Low Desert Punk Band, and far from hanging its hat on the man’s historical accomplishments from his days in Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Che, Vista Chino, etc., the 50-minute eight-tracker came fueled by the soul most typified in Bjork‘s solo catalog, which it’s increasingly easy to argue is his greatest contribution to the desert aesthetic. Definitely in his wheelhouse, but what a wheelhouse.
What a relief it was to have Asteroid back, and what a relief it was to have III arrive some six years after II (review here) and find the Örebro, Sweden, trio’s certified-organic chemistry undulled by that long stretch. The songs — “Pale Moon,” “Last Days,” “Til Dawn,” “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold,” “Them Calling,” “Mr. Strange” — there wasn’t a miss in the bunch, and in addition to the reignited craftsmanship, III made clear a progression as players and the intent to move forward from guitarist/vocalist Robin Hirse, bassist/vocalist Johannes Nilsson and drummer Elvis Campbell (since replaced by Jimmi Kolscheen), so that the material didn’t just let listeners know Asteroid was a band again after having unceremoniously faded out for a half-decade, but gave a signal that perhaps they were just getting started. One can only hope that turns out to be the case, but either way, III felt like a reward dolled out to their fanbase after a long absent stretch, and one that, like II and their 2007 self-titled debut (discussed here) before it, will reverberate its echoes for years to come. Hands down 2016’s most welcome return.
Though it would carry the context of its scorching opener “Nature Boy” with it for the duration and, accordingly, hit with a more intense feel than its 2013 predecessor, The Fury of a Patient Man (review here), Gozu‘s fourth album overall and Ripple label debut was a kick in the ass on more than just that one level. It found the Boston foursome with the finally-solidified lineup of vocalist/guitarist Marc Gaffney, guitarist Doug Sherman, bassist Joe Grotto and drummer Mike Hubbard, and while one could argue they still wound up under the banner of a heavy rock band, that became happenstance to the songs themselves. That is, even more than The Fury of a Patient Man or 2010’s Locust Season (review here), Gozu came across as writing not to style, but to their own impulses, as demonstrated in “Big Casino,” the echoing soul of “Tin Chicken” and shuffle-thrust of “Oldie,” and as they moved beyond their initial swath of influence into this individualized sonic persona, they reaped the benefits of the locked-in lineup and a process of craft that never sounded so purposeful. Revival was indeed typified by its vitality, but it was also the sound of a band maturing as a unit, becoming who they were meant to be, and there is almost nothing more exciting than that for a single album to represent. Plus, it had a song called “By Mennen,” and, you know, references.
2. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul)
It was unreasonable to expect the third full-length from Bordeaux, France, trio Mars Red Sky to surpass 2014’s Stranded in Arcadia (review here) and the progressive crux that album brought to the warm tones and sweet melodicism of their 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) reinforced the elements that worked so well on previous outings while pushing inarguably onto what the band seemed to know was “Alien Ground” if the title of their intro was anything to go by. More over, it did so with a natural fluidity and poise that were as striking as they were encompassing in sound. Tying to earlier 2016’s Providence EP (review here) in concept and execution through that intro and the title-track following it, Apex III presented the to-date pinnacle of Mars Red Sky‘s growth in songs like “The Whinery,” “Mindreader,” the tear-inducing “Under the Hood,” the swing-happy “Friendly Fire,” the willful atmospheric crash of closer “Prodigal Sun” — each one a crucial advancing step from the trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — and brilliantly fed them one into the other, so that in addition to the standout impressions of each, there developed a personality to the whole span of the album; a world of Mars Red Sky‘s own creation, where they dwelt for what seemed too short a time before returning to earth and on from here to who knows where next.
Most of all, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages was fearless. For their fourth album, Salt Lake City’s SubRosa adapted themes from 1924’s We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which laid out a futuristic dystopia wherein all identity is subsumed to the state and even love is outlawed when not properly sanctioned. This framework, obscure if influential, gave guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/backing vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna, drummer/engineer Andy Patterson (formerly of Iota, among others), and a range of other contributors, a space in which to explore gender and LGBT issues across the six included tracks, and from the opening build and crush of the chorus to “Despair is a Siren” through the depiction of privilege in “Wound of the Warden,” the 97-second Italian-language ballad “Il Cappio” (translated: “the noose”) and into the gut-wrenching finale of “Troubled Cells,” their musical accomplishment was no less stunning than lyrics like, “Isn’t it good to be acquainted with darkness?/To caress it gently/To slit its throat,” from “Black Majesty.” Tense in its quiet stretches, harmonized vocally, given orchestral presence through its use of strings, flute, French horn, and so on, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages worked fluidly in what for most acts would be a contradictory modus of careful, meticulous arrangements and raw, emotional realism. No matter how deep it dove — and by the time identity was being erased and the state was taking control of the body on “Killing Rapture,” it was diving pretty deep — SubRosa never lost their sense of poise, so that the defiance in the last movement of “Troubled Cells” in which Heaven itself is rejected with the clearest of justifications, “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” the band seemed to stand as straight and tall as their multi-tiered righteousness would warrant. But even if one took For this We Fought the Battle of Ages with politics aside, its achievement in marrying post-metallic structures, gothic texture and progressive atmospherics was on a plane of its own making, operating under its own rules and in its own definitive space. Albums like it do not happen every year, and forward motion for genre as a whole is rarely so visible as it was in this special offering, which seems only fair to regard as a landmark for the band and anyone whose ears and hearts it touched.
The Next 20
Like any good Top 30, mine goes to 50. Here is the next batch:
31. Blaak Heat, Shifting Mirrors
32. Truckfighters, V
33. West, Space & Love, Vol. II
34. Seedy Jeezus with Isaiah Mitchell, Tranquonauts
35. Yawning Man, Historical Graffiti
36. Causa Sui, Return to Sky
37. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
38. Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Phantomonium
39. The Wounded Kings, Visions in Bone
40. It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting
41. Beastwars, The Death of all Things
42. Naxatras, II
43. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
44. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
45. Wretch, Wretch
46. Colour Haze, Live Vol. I: Europa Tournee 2015
47. Zaum, Eidolon
48. Bellringer, Jettison
49. Young Hunter, Young Hunter
50. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Y Proffwyd Dwyll
From the kinetic desert artistry of Blaak Heat to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s ethereal synth-laden doom, there are more than a few essentials here. I’ve never before done a year-end list that had so many releases on it, but my motivation in doing so this time around couldn’t have been simpler: They were simply too good and had too much to offer to leave out. It would’ve been an oversight to do so.
Even a Top 50 fails to grasp the full scope of what 2016 brought about musically, so here are even more, alphabetically:
Ancient Warlocks, II
Black Moon Circle, Sea of Clouds
Sergio Ch., Aurora
Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light
Øresund Space Collective, Visions Of…
-(16)-, Lifespan of a Moth
The Well, Pagan Science
Wovenhand, Star Treatment
And if that’s still not enough, here are 60-plus more names who shouldn’t be left out of the discussion, also alphabetically:
Akris, Atala, Atomikylä, Backwoods Payback, Beastmaker, BigPig, Black Cobra, Black Lung, Blood Ceremony, Blues Pills, Bright Curse, Bus, Dee Calhoun, Captain Crimson, Child, La Chinga, Church of Misery, Conclave, Cough, Devil to Pay, Domkraft, Dot Legacy, Electric Citizen, Estoner, Eternal Elysium, Fatso Jetson & Gary Arce vs. Hifiklub, Fox 45, Goatess, Goblin Cock, Graves at Sea, Heavy Temple (they’ll be back on next year’s list), High Fighter, Holy Serpent, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Inter Arma, Joy, Kaleidobolt, Khemmis, King Dead, Lord, Lord Vicar, Merchant, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Helen Money, Monkey3, Moon Coven, Mother Mooch, Necro, New Keepers of the Water Towers, T.G. Olson, Oranssi Pazuzu, Pooty Owldom, Russian Circles, Salem’s Pot, Samavayo, Seremonia, Skuggsjá, Sourvein, Spirit Adrift, Stone Machine Electric, Suma, Surya Kris Peters, Swans, Throttlerod, Virus, Wasted Theory, Wretch, and Zaum.
In case none of the above has made it clear, I’ll just say flat out that 2016 has been an amazing year for music, and that every time I feel like maybe underground heavy has hit a wall and there’s nowhere left for it to go, sure enough about three minutes later another record shows up that slaps me in the face with a reminder of just how wrong that notion is.
If you’re still reading — how could you be? — thank you so much for your incredible support throughout 2016 and all the years The Obelisk has been in progress. I already know that 2017 is going to bring some incredible music as well, but that’s another list for another time, so I’ll just say again how much I appreciate your being a part of this ongoing project, how much it means to me to have you here. Thank you, thank you, and thank you.
And please, if there’s anything I forgot, got wrong, misspelled, or if you just think I used the word “breadth” too many times, please let me know about it in the comments.
Posted in Features on December 15th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.
Of all the lists I do to wrap up or start any given year, this is the hardest. As someone obviously more concerned with first impressions than I am and thus probably better-dressed once said, you only get one chance at them. For bands, that can be a vicious bite in the ass on multiple levels.
To wit, you put out a great debut, fine, but there’s a whole segment of your listeners who’re bound to think you’ll never live up to it again. You put out a meh debut, you sell yourself short. Or maybe your debut is awesome but doesn’t really represent where you want to be as a band, so it’s a really good first impression, but a mistaken one. There are so many things that can go wrong or go right with any LP, but with debuts, the stakes are that much higher because it’s the only time you’ll get the chance to engage your audience for the first time. That matters.
And when it comes to putting together a list of the best debuts of the year, how does one begin to judge? True, some of these acts have done EPs and singles and splits and things like that before, and that’s at least something to go on, but can one really be expected to measure an act’s potential based on a single collection of songs? Is that fair to anyone involved? Or on the other side, is it even possible to take a debut entirely on its own merits, without any consideration for where it might lead the band in question going forward? I know that’s not something I’ve ever been able to do, certainly. Or particularly interested in doing. I like context.
Still, one presses on. I guess the point is that, like picking any kind of prospects, some will pan out and some won’t. I’ve done this for enough years now that I’ve seen groups flame or fade out while others have risen to new heights with each subsequent release. It’s always a mix. But at the same time, it’s important to step back and say that, as of today, this is where it’s at.
And so it is:
The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 Debut Albums of 2016
1. King Buffalo, Orion
2. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree
3. Heavy Temple, Chassit
4. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
5. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
6. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
7. Wretch, Wretch
8. Year of the Cobra, In the Shadows Below
9. BigPig, Grande Puerco
10. Fuzz Evil, Fuzz Evil
11. Bright Curse, Before the Shore
12. Conclave, Sins of the Elders
13. Pale Grey Lore, Pale Grey Lore
14. High Fighter, Scars and Crosses
15. Spirit Adrift, Chained to Oblivion
16. Bellringer, Jettison
17. Church of the Cosmic Skull, Is Satan Real?
18. Merchant, Suzerain
19. Beastmaker, Lusus Naturae
20. King Dead, Woe and Judgment
There are many. First, the self-titled from Pooty Owldom, which had so much weirdo charm it made my head want to explode. And Iron Man frontman Dee Calhoun‘s acoustic solo record was technically a debut. And Atala‘s record. And Horehound. And Mother Mooch. And Domkraft. And Spaceslug. And Graves at Sea? Shit. More than a decade after their demo, they finally put out a debut album. And Second Grave‘s full-length would turn out to be their swansong, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the thing. There were a lot of records to consider in putting this list together. As always, it could’ve been a much longer list.
For example, here are 20 more: Swan Valley Heights, Arctic, Blues Funeral, Teacher, Psychedelic Witchcraft, Nonsun, Duel, Banquet, Floodlore, Mindkult‘s EP, Mountain Dust, Red Lama, Red Wizard, Limestone Whale, Dunbarrow, Comacozer, Sinister Haze, Pants Exploder, Akasava, Katla and No Man’s Valley. That’s not even the end of it. I could go on.
It was a fight to the finish. There’s always one, and as late as yesterday I could be found kicking back and forth between King Buffalo and Elephant Tree in the top spot. What was it that finally put King Buffalo‘s Orion over Elephant Tree‘s self-titled? I don’t know. Ask me tomorrow and the answer might be completely different.
They had a lot in common. Not necessarily in terms of style — King Buffalo basked in spacious Americana-infused heavy psych jams while Elephant Tree proffered more earthbound riffing and melodies — but each executed memorable songs across its span in a way that would be unfair to ask of a debut. The potential for what both bands can turn into down the line played a part in the picks, but something else they share between them is that the quality of the work they’re doing now warrants the top spots. Orion and Elephant Tree were great albums, not just great first albums.
From there, we see a wide swath of next-generation encouragement for the future of heavy rock, whether it’s coming from Sweden’s Vokonis or Philadelphia’s Heavy Temple, or London’s Bright Curse, or Los Angeles duo BigPig. The latter act’s punkish fuzz definitely benefited from guitarist/vocalist Dino von Lalli‘s experience playing in Fatso Jetson, but one hopes that as the years go on his own multifaceted songwriting style will continue to grow as well.
A few offerings weren’t necessarily unexpected but still lived up to the anticipation. High Fighter‘s EP prefaced their aggro sludgecore well. Ditto that for the grueling death-sludge of Massachusetts natives Conclave. The aforementioned Bright Curse, Merchant, Fuzz Evil, Atala, Bellringer, Holy Grove, Wretch and Worshipper all had offerings of one sort or another prior to their full-length debuts — in the case of Bellringer, it was just a series of videos, while Wretch had the entire The Gates of Slumber catalog to fall back on — but each of those albums offered surprises nonetheless.
It would’ve been hard not to be taken by the songwriting on display from the likes of Holy Grove, Year of the Cobra, Pale Grey Lore and Beastmaker, who between them covered a pretty broad variety of atmosphere but found ways to deliver high-quality crafted material in that. Those albums were a pleasure to hear. Put Boston’s Worshipper in that category as well, though they were just as much a standout from the pack in terms of their performance as what they were performing. Speaking of performance, the lush melodies from Church of the Cosmic Skull and classic progressive flourish were enough to make me a believer. Simply gorgeous. And one-man outfit Spirit Adrift shined, if in that matte-black doom kind of way, on an encouraging collection of modern melancholic heavy that seemed to hint at sprawl to come.
As we get down to the bottom of the list we find Pennsylvania ambient heavy post-rockers King Dead. Their Woe and Judgment was released digitally last year (2015) but the LP came out earlier this year, so I wasn’t quite sure where to place them ultimately. I know they got some mention on the 2015 lists somewhere, but while they’re an act who’ve flown under a lot of people’s radar as yet, I have good feelings about how they might continue to dig into their sound and the balance of bleakness and psychedelic color they bring to their material. They’re slated for a follow-up in 2017, so this won’t be the last list on which they appear in the next few weeks.
Like I said at the outset, putting out a debut album is a special moment for any band. Not everyone gets to that point and not everyone gets beyond it, so while a list like this is inherently bound to have some element of speculation, it’s still a worthy endeavor to celebrate the accomplishments of those who hit that crucial moment in their creative development. Hopefully these acts continue to grow, flourish, and build on what they’ve thus far been able to realize sonically. That’s the ideal.
And before I go, once again, let me reinforce the notion that I recognize this is just a fraction of the whole. I’d like it to be the start of a conversation. If there was a debut album that kicked your ass this year and you don’t see it here, please drop a note in the comments below. I’m sure I’ll be adding more honorable mentions and whatnot over the next couple days, so if you see glaring omissions, let’s have ’em.