Posted in Reviews on January 2nd, 2017 by H.P. Taskmaster
Now having spanned multiple years since starting way back in 2016, this Quarterly Review ends today with writeups 51-60 of the total 60. I’ve said I don’t know how many times that I could go longer, but the fact of the matter is it would hit a point where it stopped being a pleasant experience on my end and I’d rather keep things fun as much as possible rather than just try to cram in every single release that ever came my way. Make sense? It might or it might not. I can’t really decide either. From the bottom of my heart though, as I stare down the final batch of records for this edition of the Quarterly Review, I thank you for reading. Let’s dive in.
Quarterly Review #51-60:
Crippled Black Phoenix, Bronze
Nine albums and just about 10 years on from their 2007 debut, A Love of Shared Disasters, the UK’s Crippled Black Phoenix arrive on Season of Mist with the full-length Bronze and remain as complex, moody and sonically resolute as ever. If we’re lucky, they’ll be the band that teaches a generation of heavy tone purveyors how to express emotion in songwriting without giving up the impact of their material, but the truth is that “Champions of Disturbance (Pt. 1 & 2),” “Deviant Burials,” “Scared and Alone” and take-your-pick-from-the-others are about so much more depth than even the blend of “heavy and moody” conveys. To wit, the spacious post-rock gaze of “Goodbye Then” gives a glimpse of what Radiohead might’ve turned into had they managed to keep their collective head out of their collective ass, and the penultimate “Winning a Losing Battle” pushes through initial melancholia into gurgling, obtuse-but-hypnotic drone before making a miraculous return in its finish – then closer “We are the Darkeners” gets heavy. Multi-instrumentalist, founder and chief songwriter Justin Greaves is nothing shy of a visionary, and Bronze is the latest manifestation of that vision. One doubts it will be the last.
Nothing shy about Trouble in Eden, the third full-length from San Jose heavy rockers Zed and second for Ripple Music. From its hey-look-guys-it’s-a-naked-chick cover to the raw vocal push from Pete Sattari –which delves into more melodic fare early on “The Only True Thing” and in rolling closer “The Mountain,” but keeps mostly to gruff grown-up-punker delivery throughout – the 10-tracker makes its bones in cuts like “Blood of the Fallen” and the resonant hook of “Save You from Yourself,” which are straightforward in intent, brash in execution and which thrive on a purported “rock the way it should be” mentality. Well, I don’t know how rock should be, but Zed – Sattari, guitarist Greg Lopez, bassist Mark Aceves and drummer Rich Harris – play to classic structures and seem to bring innate groove with them wherever they go on the album, be it the one-two punch of “High Indeed” and “So Low” or the Clutch-style bounce in the first half of “Today Not Tomorrow,” which leaves one of Trouble in Eden’s most memorable impressions both as a song and as a summary of their apparent general point of view.
Limited to just 200 copies on We Empty Rooms and Gotta Groove Records, the Collective Fictions split 180g LP between Melbourne noise duo Dead and Mark Deutrom (Bellringer, Clown Alley, ex-Melvins) is a genuine vinyl-only release. No digital version. That in itself gives it something of a brazen experimentalism, never mind the fact that one can barely tell where one track ends and the next track starts. Purposeful obscurity? Maybe. It’s reportedly one of a series of four LPs Dead are working on for the next year-plus, and they present two cuts in “Masonry” and “In the Car,” moving through percussion and mid-range drone to build a tense jazz on the former as drummer Jem and bassist Jace make room for the keys and noise of BJ Morriszonkle, which continue to play a prominent role in “In the Car” as well, which is also the only inclusion on Collective Fictions to feature vocals, shortly before it rumbles and long-fades snare hits to close out Dead’s side of the LP, leaving Deutrom – working here completely solo – thoroughly dared to get as weird as he’d like. An opportunity of which he takes full advantage. Over the course of four tracks, he unfurls instrumentalist drone of various stripes, from the nighttime soundscaping of “The Gargoyle Protocol,” which seems to answer the percussive beginning of Dead, through the spacier reverb loneliness of “Presence of an Absence,” like a most pastoral, less obtuse Earth, dreamy but sad in a way that denotes self-awareness on the part of the title, or at very least effective evocation thereof. Likewise, “Bring the Fatted Calf,” with its gong hits, Master Musicians of Bukkake-style jingling and minimalist volume swells, is duly ritualistic, which makes one wonder what the prog-style keys at the open of “View from the Threshold” are looking at. Deutrom moves through that side-closer patiently but fluidly and ends at a drone, tying up Collective Fictions as something of a curio in intent and execution. By that I mean what seems to have brought the two parties together was a “Hey, wanna get weird?” impulse, but each act makes their own level and then works on it, so hell yes, by all means, get weird.
Any record that starts with a narration beginning, “In the not too distant future…” is going to find favor with my MST3K-loving heart. So begins The Apocalypse Trilogies: Spacewolf and Other Dark Tales, the cumbersomely-named but nonetheless engaging Salt of the Earth Records debut full-length from Toronto’s Ol’ Time Moonshine, whose 2013 The Demon Haunted World EP (review here) also found favor. The burl-coated outing is presented across three chapters, each beginning with its own narration and comprising three subsequent tracks – trilogies – tying into its theme as represented in the cover art by vocalist/guitarist Bill Kole, joined in the band by guitarist Chris Coleiro, bassist John Kendrick and drummer Brett Savory. They shift into some more complex fare on the instrumental “Lady of Light” before the final chapter, but at its core The Apocalypse Trilogies remains a (very) heavy rock album with an undercurrent of metal, and whatever else Ol’ Time Moonshine bring to it in plotline, they hold fast to songwriting as the most crucial element of their approach.
Italian four-piece Ufosonic Generator (also stylized as one word: UfosonicGenerator) make themselves at home straddling the line between doom and classic boogie rock on what seems to be their debut album, the eight-track The Evil Smoke Possession, released through Minotauro Records. Marked out by the soaring and adaptable vocals of Gojira – yup – the band offer proto-metal shuffle on shorter early cuts “A Sinful Portrait” and the rolling nod of “At Witches’ Bell,” but it’s the longer pairing of “Meridian Daemon” (7:47) and “Silver Bell Meadows” (6:53) on which one finds their brew at highest potency, sending an evil eye Cathedral’s way without forgetting the Sabbathian riffery that started it all or the Iron Maiden-gallop it inspired. They cap with the suitable lumber of their title-track and pick up toward the finish as if to underscore the dueling vibes with which they’ve been working all along. Ultimately, the meld isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it does pay homage fluidly across The Evil Smoke Possession’s span, and as a debut, it sets Ufosonic Generator forward with a solid foundation on which to progress.
Issued digitally in late-2015 and subsequently snagged for a 2016 vinyl issue through Krauted Mind, Nocturnes is the debut full-length from Dublin five-piece Mother Mooch, and in its eight tracks, they set their footing in a genre-spanning aesthetic, pulling from slow-motion grunge, weighted heavy rock, psychedelic flourish and even a bit of punk on the shorter, upbeat “My Song 21” and “L.H.O.O.Q.” Those two tracks prove crucial departures in breaking up the proceedings and speak well of a penchant on the part of vocalist Chloë Ní Dhúada, guitarists Sid Daly (also backing vocals) and Farl, bassist Barry Hayden and drummer Danni Nolan toward sonic diversity. They bring a similar sensibility to the closing Lead Belly cover “Out on the Western Plain” as well, whereas cuts like opener “This Tempest,” “Into the Water” and “Misery Hill” work effectively to find a middle ground between the stylistic range at play. That impulse, seemingly innate to their songraft, is what will allow them to continue to develop their personality as a band and is not to be understated in how pivotal it is to this first LP.
To my knowledge, this only-70-pressed five-song tape release is the second self-titled EP from off-kilter North Carolina heavy rockers The Asound following a three-songer back in 2011 (review here). Offered by Tsuguri Records, the new The Asound starts with its longest track (immediate points) in the 6:54 “Moss Man” and touches on earliest, most righteous High on Fire-style brash, but holds to its own notions about what that that blend of groove and gallop should do. Through splits with Flat Tires (review here), Magma Rise (review here), Lenoir Swingers Club (review here) and Mark Deutrom (review here), the trio of Guitarist/vocalist Chad Wyrick, bassist Jon Cox and drummer Michael Crump have always had an element of the unpredictable to their sound, and that’s true as centerpiece “Human for Human” revives the thrust of the opener coming off “Controller”’s less marauding rhythm, but the sludgy rollout and later airy lead-work of “Pseudo Vain” and chugging nod of closer “Throne of Compulsion” speaks to the consciousness at play beneath the unhinged vibes that’s been there all along. They’ve sounded ready for a while to make a full-length debut. They still sound that way.
Immediate bonus points to Richmond, Virginia’s Book of Wyrms for titling a track on their full-length debut “Infinite Walrus,” but with the Garrett Morris-recorded tones they proffer with the seven-song/53-minute Sci-Fi/Fantasy (on Twin Earth Records), they don’t really need bonus points. The five-piece of vocalist Sarah Moore Lindsey, six-stringers Kyle Lewis and Ben Coudriet, bassist Jay Lindsey and drummer Chris DeHaven mostly avoid the sounding-like-Windhand trap through stretches of upbeat tempo, theremin and other noise flourish, and harmonies on guitar, but they’re never far from an undercurrent of doom, as opener “Leatherwing Bat” establishes and the long ambient midsection and subsequent nod of centerpiece “Nightbong” is only too happy to reinforce. “All Hallows Eve” gets a little cliché with its samples, but the dueling leads on 11-minute closer “Sourwolf” and included keyboard noise ensure proper distinction and mark Book of Wyrms as having come into their first long-player with a definite plan of action, which finds them doing well as a showcase of potential and plenty immersive in the here and now.
Despite the sort of cross-cultural ritualism of its cover art, Oxblood Forge’s self-titled debut EP has only the firmest of ideas where it’s coming from. The Whitman, Massachusetts-based five-piece boasts former Ichabod vocalist Ken MacKay as well as bassist Greg Dellaria from that band, and guitarist Robb Lioy (also in Four Speed Fury with MacKay) alongside guitarist Josh Howard and drummer Chris Capen, and in a coherent, vigilantly straightforward five-tracker they touch on aggressive fare in “Lashed to the Mast” as their Northeastern regionalism would warrant – we’re all very angry here; it’s the weather – and demonstrate a knack for hooks in “Inferno” and “Sister Midnight,” the latter blending screams and almost Torche-style melodies over clam chowder riffing before closer “Storm of Crows” opens foreboding with Dellaria’s bass and moves into the short release’s nastiest fare, MacKay sticking to harsher vocals as on the earlier “Night Crawler,” but in a darker instrumental context. They set a range here, and might be feeling things out in terms of working together as this band, but given the personnel involved and their prior familiarity with each other, it’s hard to imagine that if a follow-up is in the offing it’ll be all that long before it arrives. Consider notice served.
Ukrainian trio The Heavy Crawls set out as a duo called just The Crawls and released a self-titled debut in 2013 that was picked up in 2015 by ultra-respected German imprint Nasoni Records. Under the new moniker, they get another stab at a first album with the 10-track/42-minute classic rocker The Heavy Crawls, the three-piece of founding guitarist/bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Max Tovstyi, drummer Inessa Joger and keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist Iryna Malyshevska evoking spirited boogie and comfortable groove on “She Said I Had to Wait” and the handclap-stomping “Girl from America.” Elements of garage rock show up on “Too Much Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the soul-swinging “I Had to Get Away,” but The Heavy Crawls are more interested in establishing a flow than being showy or brash, and the payoff for that comes in eight-minute closer “Burns Me from Inside,” which stretches out the jamming sensibility that earlier pieces like the organ-laced “One of a Kind” and the staccato “Friday, 13th” seem to be driving toward. Some growing to undertake, but the pop aspect in The Heavy Crawls’ songcraft provides intrigue, and their (second) debut shows a righteous commitment to form without losing its identity to it.
Posted in Whathaveyou on December 28th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster
Rest assured that although Austin’s Evil Triplet put forth a track on their forthcoming Super Secret Records debut called ‘Get a Job,’ the sundry freakouts on offer across the 2LP are way more likely to make you want to quit the one you’ve already got than pretend on any level you’re a productive member of society. I’m not saying I’ve heard the thing or that I’m listening to it as I type this or whatnot, but it’s pretty telling that “Get a Job” is followed by “Planet I’m On.” That basically sets up the dichotomy right there. Dudes are tripped out, is what I’m saying. Immersive like heavy psych should be, but with some raw underpinnings that convey the punk lineage of guitarist/vocalist Steve Marsh without — miraculously without — aping The Stooges any more than anyone does by simply existing. Again, not saying I’ve heard it, but I dig the vibe.
There’s some live video below you can check out if you’re so inclined, and abundant background from the PR wire to dig into. Have at it:
Evil Triplet – Heavy psych by Austin punk pioneer ex-Terminal Mind, w/ mbrs of My Education, Cinders
Austin trio Evil Triplet announce their forthcoming double LP debut album Otherworld on Super Secret Records.
Evil Triplet is a heavy psych trio from Austin, TX. The space rock behemoth is comprised of Steve Marsh (guitar and vocals), Kirk Laktas (drums), and Joe Volpi (bass).
Marsh traces back to Terminal Mind, a seminal band in the Austin punk scene of the late 70s that spawned The Big Boys and The Dicks (Super Secret offshoot Sonic Surgery Records will be reissuing Terminal Mind’s original recorded output, plus unreleased studio and live tracks, later in 2017). He then led Miracle Room, a psychedelic industrial hoedown that shared stages with Snakefinger, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Negativland, and Sonny Sharrock, among others, and morphed into Wisdom Tooth, which released a CD on Knitting Factory’s imprint.
Kirk is the keyboard wizard in post-rock bands My Education and Cinders, and was an early member of Stars Of The Lid. He has worked sessions with Acid Mothers Temple, Shearwater, Pauline Oliveros and ST37.
Mr Volpi toured and recorded with Primordial Undermind, as well as lending his chops to countless other Austin bands, including The Flood and Reverend Glasseye. He also performs a dark acoustic song cycle solo as Kaiser Soze, and plays standup bass in Cinders.
Evil Triplet recorded their debut opus at Sonic Ranch Studios, in the desert outside El Paso, TX. The sound is lush, lysergic and overpowering. In addition to the solid foundation of classic heavy guitar rock, there are multiple points of experimentation, with Marsh attacking the electric guitar with vibrator, drill, electric razor and music box. There are also underlying synth loops, piano and organ, all in service to the tripped-out material, with lyrics covering such topics as space, mushrooms, human consciousness as alien possession, and a plea from Lucifer to his minions to stay in school.
The record will be distributed by Revolver USA and available in 180g vinyl and CD at record stores and by mail order from Super Secret Records. The band will be touring to support the record release this Spring, so get ready to be absorbed into Evil Triplet’s Otherworld!
Otherworld will be available on LP, CD and download on February 10th, 2017 via Super Secret Records.
Artist: Evil Triplet Album: Otherworld Label: Super Secret Records Release date: February 10th, 2017
01) Star Ladder 02) Fungus 03) Get a Job 04) Planet I’m On 05) Post Group Date Scene 06) Pyramids 07) We Are The Aliens 08) Worship Satin 09) Road Trips
Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster
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 H.P. Taskmaster
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.
Posted in Whathaveyou on November 14th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster
Next month, Austin, Texas, three-piece The Well head west to support their new album, Pagan Science (review here), which is out now via RidingEasy Records. They’ll be joined in this endeavor by Beastmaker from Fresno and R.I.P. from Portland, so for a significant portion of the run what you’re getting is three bands kicking ass from town to town, each with their own style, each with something different to offer.
I only mention it in that way because the other day I put up a news post about a European tour Sweden’s The Order of Israfel are doing early next year with Year of the Goat and Tombstones (info here) that I said should be read as a reminder of how much ass Europe’s heavy underground kicks. Well, please take my posting about this tour as saying the same thing about the US heavy underground. For the last decade or so, I’ve watched as a new generation of heavy rock has taken root and flourished in the States like nothing that was here before, and while there are a lot of European bands I really, really dig, that doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of my appreciation for the hometown team, as it were.
That’s my preach. Oh yea, and The Well are friggin’ awesome and you should listen to them (I made it easy by putting the album stream at the bottom of this post). Can’t forget that. This tour includes a stop for them at The Decemburger fest/competitive-eating whathaveyou on Dec. 3 (info here), and since I seem to be working on a theme today, I’ll also note they’ll be at Maryland Doom Fest 2017 (info here) next June.
Tour dates follow:
West coast! Heading out with @beastmakerband and @r.i.p.p.d.x next month:
12.01 – Dallas, TX @ Doublewide 12.02 – Oklahoma City, OK @ Blue Note 12.03 – Denver, CO @ Decemburger Fest at Hi-Dive 12.04 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge 12.05 – San Diego, CA @ Brick by Brick* 12.06 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Satellite* 12.07 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill+ 12.08 – Grants Pass, OR @ G Street+ 12.09 – Seattle, WA @ Fun House+ 12.10 – Portland, OR @ Kenton Club+ 12.11 – Nevada City, CA @ Coopers* 12.12 – Fresno, CA @ Fulton 55*
[Click play above to hear a new track from The Well’s Pagan Science. Album is out Oct. 14 on RidingEasy Records.]
In 2014, Austin trio The Well offered up Samsara (review here), their first full-length, on RidingEasy Records. The album wasn’t a revelation in style from what they’d accomplished on their 2012 single, Seven (review here), or the subsequent First Trip EP, but it was a definitive step forward and, to my ears, represented a key piece in the arrival of a new league of US bands ready to take up the mantle of heavy rock.
With the follow-up, Pagan Science (also on RidingEasy), guitarist/vocalist Ian Graham, bassist/vocalist Lisa Alley and drummer Jason Sullivan confirm that supposition. They’ve put in no shortage of road time in the interim, and that would seem to have affected the songwriting in making their material tighter, with shorter, crisply executed songs that manage to fit four more tracks in and still only be five minutes longer than the preceding outing at a vinyl-able 44 minutes.
Not only that, but the arrangements of Alley and Graham‘s vocals, as heard on songs like “I Don’t Believe” and the closing Crosby, Stills and Nash cover “Guinnevere,” as well as the flow between tracks particularly earlier in the proceedings, how “Skybound” picks up from the curiously but rightly placed second-track interlude “Forecast” and leads directly into “A Pilgrimage”‘s tales of gypsy woes all speak to the growth the three-piece have actively undertaken over the last two years, and it makes Pagan Science an expansion of reach even as it seems to have tightened the reins on some of the loose, jammy feel of the first LP.
As in the best of cases, songs feel written to stand out and run together in kind. The band returned to work with producer/engineer Chico Jones at Micro Mega Studio (Mark Deutrom also worked on the last one) earlier this year, so there’s some consistency in overall sound. From the harmonies that signal the beginning of opener “Black Eyed Gods,” The Well still skulk around a murk somewhere between garage doom, heavy psych, classic stoner and yet-undefined Sabbath-born impulses.
Riffs lead the way through the shuffle of “Black Eyed Gods,” and the effect of pairing that with the 41-second low-end noise wash of “Forecast” isn’t to be understated in giving Pagan Science an open sensibility immediately.
The drive of the speedier “Skybound” is introduced and from there, The Well dig deeper into the heart of what their second record is all about — Graham and Alley coming together vocally over Sullivan‘s steady roll busting out memorable tracks that remain spacious in their intent and echo while working around a deceptive structure that even in a longer cut like “Skybound,” which is one of four songs to top five minutes, though none hit 5:30, holds the material together even as they directly tie songs into another to create the whole-album spirit.
“A Pilgrimage” has a landmark chorus and laid back solo that should translate well to the stage if it hasn’t yet, with Alley and Graham trading parts back and forth to conversational effect and though “Drug from the Banks” seems to shift the narrative, its build and chug balance an airy feel in the verse and far-back hook that keep the momentum going, underscoring the efficiency that’s taken root beneath the spiky leaves of The Well‘s sound.
Further in that argument, the chants that mark the arrival of centerpiece “Byzantine” make that song feel all the more appropriate for its position and its gradual unfolding, but it’s still under four minutes long, despite leaving a much grander impression.
I’m not sure where the vinyl split is, if it’s before “Byzantine” or after, but that track is a definite landmark for Pagan Science either way, and “One Nation” picks up with Graham‘s vocals introducing the hook before the rest of the band crashes in with a two-and-a-half-minute nod of some lyrical social comment cloaked in suitably ethereal language.
Could that be The Well showcasing a punk side? Possible, but it fits nonetheless, and “One Nation” ends with a cymbal wash that leads into the ultra-languid bass-highlight start of “Choir of the Stars,” the back half of the album’s own instrumental (save for some samples that may be shouting, may be dogs barking; it’s all pretty obscure) that works to a mirror the effect of “Forecast” in broadening the context of its surroundings. Again, it’s just three minutes, but the effect is longer lasting.
With a sort of Eastern minor-key flair that draws on Om without directly emulating them, “Brambles” introduces the closing trio with a purposefully repetitive course no less memorable than that of “A Pilgrimage” earlier, and “I Don’t Believe” provides immediate complement in that regard, with its long-since-dropped-out-of-life righteous vibe and sing-along section in the second half leading to a faster charge to close out.
Might be fair to think of “Guinnevere,” since it’s a cover and since “I Don’t Believe” caps with such a push, as a bonus track, but it works exceedingly well with the rest of the material here and offers one last vocal highlight from Alley and Graham while taking the central progression of the original and turning it into a more malevolent, thickened riff backed up by atmospheric noise.
It ends Pagan Science on a somewhat understated note, but if anything, The Well‘s second offering makes the clear point that the band is ready to keep rolling onward on their forward course, progressing and expanding and refining what they do as they go, but going most of all. As a part of that up and coming surge in American heavy rock, they only prove themselves more crucial here.
Posted in Whathaveyou on September 8th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster
Kind of nice to post some US tour dates for a change. Don’t get me wrong, I love covering stuff from Europe or happening in Europe, and as regards this fall, that’s clearly where the party’s at, what with the 7,000 festivals — exact number — happening every weekend and all, but it’s nice to know that as the heavy underground turns its focus toward the old world, the new won’t be entirely bereft of good times.
To wit, the teaming up of Oakland psych-proggers Mondo Drag, who’ll be out supporting this year’s The Occultation of Light (review here) after a European run this Spring, a residency in L.A. and a stop at Psycho Las Vegas, with their RidingEasy Records labelmates in Austin troublemaking trio The Well, who’ll have their new one, Pagan Science, out on Oct. 14, and San Marcos upstarts Crypt Trip is sure to take some of the sting out of not being in Switzerland, or Belgium, or Germany, or wherever on any given day. It’s nice to know somebody still cares, that’s all.
Hope you go to a show and make it worth their while, because that’s how tours keep happening. You don’t need me to tell you that shit. We’re cool. It’s all those other jerks we need to worry about.
RidingEasy announced the dates thusly:
Mondo Drag, The Well and Crypt Trip are hitting the road! What show will you be at???
10/7/2016 Rock Island, IL @ Rock Island Brewing Co 10/8/2016 Chicago, IL @ Cobra Lounge 10/9/2016 Detroit, MI @ El Club 10/11/2016 Pittsburgh, PA @ Spirit 10/13/2016 Cleveland, OH @ Now That’s Class 10/14/2016 Asbury Park, NJ @ Wonder Bar 10/15/2016 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus 10/16/2016 Baltimore, MD @ Metro 10/17/2016 Philadelphia, PA @ Voltage 10/18/2016 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter Thursday 10/20/2016 Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn Friday 10/21/2016 New Orleans, LA @ Siberia Saturday 10/22/2016 Houston, TX @ End It Fest Sunday 10/23/2016 Austin, TX @ Hotel Vegas Wednesday 10/26/2016 Phoenix, AZ @ Yucca Tap Room Thursday 10/27/2016 San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
Posted in Reviews on September 1st, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster
Austin-based heavy rockers Bellringer have been kicking around since showing off a since-retracted self-titled demo EP (review here) in 2014. Changes in personnel involved have given an added sense of intrigue as the band trickled out singles in videos like “Von Fledermaus” (posted here), “Click Bait” (posted here), and “Art Thief” (posted here) throughout the second half of 2015, but they went relatively quiet after that until announcing their debut full-length, Jettison.
As has been the case all along, at the center of the project is Mark Deutrom, known for playing bass in the Melvins during their major label period (arguably their peak era) as well as his solo work under the Mark D moniker, bands like Clown Alley, production work for early Neurosis and Melvins, The Well, and so on.
Here, Deutrom is credited with writing, recording and mixing the material, as well as providing vocals, guitar and various keys throughout, so he is very much at the core of the proceedings, though the rotating cast around him makes formidable contributions as well, be it on bass, drums, flute, vocals, or other. What’s most striking about Jettison isn’t necessarily the lineup, though. It’s how much Bellringer‘s album material willfully seems to remove itself from the prior singles.
None of those songs are featured on Jettison, and apart from opener “The God of Roosters Does Not Forget,” Deutrom works in a much more open creative spirit, veering into lounge lizardry in the back half of “Inner Freak” and calling out The Doors and others in the lyrics to the subsequent “Cowboy Fight.” Things get strange, and as the six tracks/36 minutes of Jettison play out, that strangeness only becomes more welcome.
Looking at it as a two-sided release gives some context to “The God of Roosters Does Not Forget,” which is the shortest cut included at 2:55, in that “Cowboy Fight,” which would start side B, is also shorter than the two songs that follow it, and maybe more straightforward in its easy desert bounce and emergent thicker push. It cycles through twice at a slower pace than “The God of Roosters Does Not Forget,” which seems to show some of Deutrom‘s underlying punker roots, but if one is expecting Bellringer to do the same thing twice, that just doesn’t seem to be the band’s modus or purpose.
Nonetheless, it’s a pointed turn when the Angelo–Badalamenti-circa-Twin-Peaks synth line starts the eight-minute “Quitter,” holding a long note as the sort of grumbling guitar tone kicks in, rolling out an immediate nod that it maintains for most of the duration, Deutrom joined by vocalists Chico Jones and Jennifer Deutrom (the latter of whom also did the album art), as well as drummer James Flores, bassist Brian Ramirez and percussionist/vocalist Monique Ortiz — who is also listed as contributing fretless bass, but I’m not sure if that’s here or on “Inner Freak” or “Double Yellow Line” or “Demon,” on which she also appears — as he switches from the mellow but heavy verse to a chorus of “aahs” that makes up in memorability what it lacks in lyrics.
In the final third, an extended version is underscored by a guitar solo, not overdone, but drawn out and playing with sentiment in a similar fashion as the keyboard intro. That dreamy line is how Bellringer end the song, immediately showing more patience than anticipated. With drums, more percussion and a funked-up guitar line at its start, “Inner Freak” is about the groove, presenting its verse as a duet between Deutrom and Ortiz. It’s right at the four-minute mark that the song breaks and shifts into bizarro-jazz territory, Bryan Kennard adding flute along the way to the noodling guitar and shuffling snare. The bass and guitar follow the flute as “Inner Freak” ends, giving way to the aforementioned “Inner Freak” at the start of Jettison‘s second half.
And “Inner Freak” does well in regrounding the proceedings somewhat, reminding me of Chris Goss‘ most desert-y work with Masters of Reality as Bellringer has in the past. What makes the following “Double Yellow Line” a highlight, however, is its ethereal tonality, its spaciousness, its mellotron, and its languid flow — completely different from everything on the album to that point and yet not at all out of place in style or substance.
A mellow vibe pervades, with just a hint of foreboding before the second verse, but it’s carried by Deutrom‘s vocals from there and Aaron Lack‘s drums do well in giving them and the guitar plenty of room to breathe and spread out as they do. I doubt they were an influence, but it’s the kind of hypnotic effect that Sungrazer‘s Rutger Smeets could often produce during quieter jams, or that seems to come so naturally to Gary Arce of Yawning Man. Of course, the context is different with “Double Yellow Line,” but it’s an otherworldly excursion that greatly broadens the reach of Jettison overall.
Its subdued vibe continues into the start of closer “Demon,” though with more prominent bass fuzz and a horror-flick organ line, repetitions of “demon” and lines derived therefrom, the mood shifts as well. The organ disappears and returns at around four minutes in, and then an angular start-stop line of thicker guitar provides transition into an extended solo that serves as the album’s final movement, closing instrumentally with a couple last measures of chugging insistence and keys, which are sustained until everything else has stopped, then cut short as well.
I’ve been trying to come up with a solid reason Bellringer might call the record Jettison, and I can’t decide between a few. On the one hand, it’s a synonym for “release.” Might as well call the album “Album,” but it would fit with some of the sonic quirk in the material in its subtle cleverness. There’s also to jettison in the sense of shooting outward or letting go. A somewhat more satisfying notion is that Deutrom, as the force behind the songwriting, is letting go of this material by releasing it in the first place — the notion of jettisoning these songs to attain some kind of catharsis.
I don’t know if that’s the case, obviously, but if Jettison is the result of Deutrom feeling these ideas needed to get out, neither am I inclined to argue with the results of his efforts in that regard. His will to defy expectation and change approach becomes one of the record’s most satisfying aspects, and while it seems superfluous to point out again this is a debut given his pedigree, to think of Jettison as the beginning of an exploration, one can only hope that exploration will continue.