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 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.
Try to stay with me on this one. Last weekend was Maryland Doom Fest 2016. I drove down from Massachusetts last Friday to Frederick, MD, for it with The Patient Mrs., dropping her off first at family friends’ outside of Baltimore. We had her car, which, on Sunday, died in the parking spot outside the venue and had to be towed to a garage to receive a new alternator. Okay. That’s step one.
Step two: I had to get back to Massachusetts on Monday to start my new job on Tuesday. As her car would not be ready in time, The Patient Mrs. rented another vehicle and came and picked me up in Frederick and north we went. The repair would end up costing $900, but I made it to work on Tuesday and all went well, so it could’ve been much worse. The snag was that her car remained in that garage in Frederick and the rental would also need to be returned to Maryland, so looming all week was this impending journey back down I-95/I-78 to swap out cars again.
My job is in Rhode Island and gets out early on Fridays. 1PM. After swinging through Frederick to get her car and dropping off the rental, we got to where we were staying Friday night at 11PM. Between that, the fact that I’d survived my first week at a new job while still feeling positive about the experience, and the likewise impending trip back north, there was basically zero fucking chance I wasn’t going to The Sound Garden in Baltimore to do some serious-business record shopping before we hit the road.
So that was Saturday morning. My foot still screwed up, I hobbled toward the Psychedelic section (which had moved since last I was there) and started grabbing discs. Some new, some old, some in between, but The Sound Garden is arguably the best record store I’ve been to on the Eastern Seaboard — my heart will always hold a place for Vintage Vinyl in NJ, of course — so I knew I was going to find plenty.
I don’t record shop the way I used to. It used to be constant, a snag-this-snag-that process to put CDs on the shelf. I’m a little less likely to find stuff now, buy more online and direct from bands, and so on, but though I couldn’t really walk in the early part of the day, I still very much enjoyed digging through the rows to see what there was that needed to get bought. Turned out I did fine:
Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God! Beastmaker, Lusus Naturae Causa Sui, Return to Sky Comet Control, Center of the Maze Conan, Revengeance Death, For all the World to See Earthless / Harsh Toke, Split Flower Travellin’ Band, Satori Graves at Sea, The Curse that is Graves at Sea Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Noeth ac Anoeth The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py Monolithe, Epsilon Aurigae The Motherhood, I Feel so Free The Peace, Black Power The Pretty Things, S.F. Sorrow Valley of the Sun, Volume Rock
Some of that was stuff I had to own on principle. How often do you run into a US-based store with El Paraiso Records distribution? Causa Sui, then, was a must. I was likewise surprised and thrilled to see Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard and Monolithe, so those were musts. The Death record (and documentary) was recently re-recommended to me from a trusted source, so I figured I’d grab that, and then stuff like Graves at Sea, the Earthless / Harsh Toke split, Comet Control, Valley of the Sun and Beastmaker were records I’d written about that I wanted physical copies of anyway. I’m about 80 percent sure I already have a copy of the latest Conan. but thought I’d get it while I was there, and if I wound up with a double, worse things have certainly happened.
From the aforementioned Psychedelic section, a couple treasures in Flower Travellin’ Band‘s Satori, which was also the first of the haul I put on, its hard-thudding krautrock-inspired proggy proto-metal enough to gloriously alienate a room, and The Pretty Things‘ concept album S.F. Sorrow, and The Motherhood‘s I Feel so Free — all ’70s-era outings. The Funk/Soul section yielded The Peace and The Meters, and Comedy/Spoken Word the Maria Bamford, which I picked up in no small part because her show on Netflix, Lady Dynamite, is so remarkably brilliant. If you haven’t yet watched it, do so immediately.
By the time I got through finding Monolithe, Graves at Sea and Beastmaker in the metal section to grabbing the Death record as I walked past it on my way to the register, I was feeling considerable discomfort at standing on my right foot, which was in the same supportive cast — I call it “das boot,” well aware that the actual German word means “boat” — I had on at the fest last weekend. That put something of a rush on the tail end of the shopping experience as I needed to get somewhere I could sit down, but while I probably could’ve spent a few more hours dicking around at The Sound Garden, I don’t at all feel like I missed anything except perhaps a t-shirt from the store, which I’ll grab next time, and for a trip that was made under less than ideal circumstances, I definitely felt as I walked out that I’d made the best of the time I had.
There are all kinds of record shop ratings out there, but if you happen to be in Fells Point or the greater region, The Sound Garden really is one of the best stores I’ve ever been to, and it continues to be a destination in my mind for when I’m around. It made the long drive back north that much easier to endure, which is saying something in itself.
Six months in, 2016 has been interesting to say the least. Every year provides its share of highlights — we’re fortunate enough to live in a crowded age when it comes to people doing quality work — but there have been a few unexpected offerings that have grabbed attention and held it well, and as we progress into the second half of the year, it seems entirely likely the pattern will continue.
All the better. As styles and scenes continue to develop, from Swedish boogie to West Coast psych to the party vibes out of the Pacific Northwest, bands are growing and changing. Everything is in motion, personalities are taking shape, and crucially, the new generation of groups is finding its footing building on the traditions of the past. Some of it is definitely formative, but individualism is rarely immediate, and I think we are at an interesting point as a crop of acts is figuring out where they want to be in terms of sound and what are their aspirations musically and practically. The question of the day might be, “How far can we push this?”
And of questions, that’s a good one to be working from. I’ve been asking it myself, but as the social media landscape continues to grow and integrate into the lives of a listenership that’s become accustomed to that kind of immediate access as well as the convenience of streaming outlets like Bandcamp, Spotify, Pandora and Soundcloud, the answer seems to be that the expansion will keep up, at least for a while yet. Frankly, it’s already gone on longer than I would’ve expected for how fickle trends are and the short attention span of the general public, but ‘heavy,’ as a worldwide concept, has continued to flourish.
Part of that stems from the excellent and progressive work being done by current bands — part of it is marketing — and at least for my own taste, those acts pushing the lines of genre seem to be doing so with a brazen confidence that they’ll be able to bring their audience along with them. So far in 2016, that’s pretty much how it’s worked out.
At the end of the year I’ll be doing a Top 30 list, and I expect many of these records will feature there as well, so I’ll try to keep this relatively brief in light of that, but here’s where my head has been at:
The Top 15 Albums of 2016 so Far
1. Mars Red Sky, Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul
2. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow
3. Gozu, Revival
4. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree
5. The Golden Grass, Coming Back Again
6. Zun, Burial Sunrise
7. Young Hunter, Young Hunter
8. Comet Control, Center of the Maze
9. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh
10. Conan, Revengeance
11. Causa Sui, Return to Sky
12. Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy
13. Goatess, Purgatory Under New Management
14. Blaak Heat, Shifting Mirrors
15. Lord, Awake
Honorable mention (in no order): Curse the Son, Holy Grove, Mondo Drag, Joy, Black Black Black, Spidergawd, Beastmaker, High Fighter, La Chinga, Church of Misery, Droids Attack, Cough, Beastwars, New Keepers of the Water Towers, Conclave, Valley of the Sun, Throttlerod, It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Ancient Warlocks, Bright Curse, Naxatras, Kaleidobolt, Atomikylä, Black Lung, Lord Vicar, Pooty Owldom, Vokonis, Electric Citizen, Stone Machine Electric, Graves at Sea, and Merchant.
Some quick notes on the list. First, it’s pretty fluid. On any given day, records from the honorable mentions list could be in there with the numbered stuff, and between the two, I find it striking and encouraging how many of these releases are full-length debuts. Just two in the top 10 with Elephant Tree and Zun — another will be added when King Buffalo‘s album is out in August; we’ll get there — but more in the honorable mentions between Holy Grove, High Fighter, Vokonis, Merchant, Graves at Sea and Bright Curse.
To go with that, there are some standbys. I’ve made no secret of my enduring affection for what France’s Mars Red Sky are bringing to the sphere of heavy psychedelia, so to have their Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul as my album of 2016 so far doesn’t seem out of line. It’s why I booked them to headline the All-Dayer in August (tickets here), and I don’t see that appreciation diminishing anytime soon. The path they’re on seems to me to be one of the most crucial going worldwide, and in a group like Elephant Tree, we can already see the influence they’re having.
No surprise that Gozu would end up near the top — their 2013 album, The Fury of a Patient Man, featured highly on that year’s list as well — and Revival is an even more dynamic outing. It’s pretty much even with Greenleaf in my mind at this point, but I gave the Swedes the edge for the bold forward stride that Rise Above the Meadow represents in its sound and scope. Both of those records will be top-tenners at the end of the year as well, if not top five.
Speaking of bold strides, The Golden Grass‘ more progressive take on Coming Back Again and their melodic charm continue to resonate, and between the expansive desert soundscaping of Zun‘s Burial Sunrise bringing together Gary Arce (Yawning Man), Sera Timms (Ides of Gemini) and John Garcia (ex-Kyuss, etc.), and the brooding darker heavy rock of Young Hunter‘s self-titled, it’s been a half-year covering a wide sonic range for sure. Comet Control‘s second album is still pretty fresh in my mind, having just reviewed it last week, but its quality is damn near undeniable and I can’t stop listening to it, so it goes in the top 10.
And rounding out to first 10 are two more mainstays in Wo Fat and Conan, who’ve had releases featured in lists around these parts for a while now but who still offer thrills in their newest collections, Wo Fat‘s Midnight Cometh bringing their jazz-jam-fuzz to new levels of exploration and Conan‘s Revengeance building on the aural crush of their prior work and finding founder Jon Davis with a hand-sculpted rhythm section (including producer Chris Fielding) very much suited to the band’s purposes. Their shifting instrumental dynamic made Revengeance almost like a second debut, but it was an album that couldn’t have been born except out of their experience and knowing what works in their aesthetic. Davis once told me he would never try to fix what wasn’t broken in Conan. As he’s lived up to that, they’ve become one of the most recognizable heavy bands in the world.
In the 11-15 range, a pretty broad cross-section between the flowing instrumental experiments of Causa Sui, the motor-ready space-psych of Black Rainbows — whose accomplishments seem to almost be coming too fast for the audience to catch up — the traditional-minded stoner-doom of Goatess, Blaak Heat‘s frenetic desert prog and reign-in-chaos sludge of Lord‘s Awake, but sonic diversity is a strength in the current and the upcoming generations of bands, and though some remain underappreciated as yet — Black Rainbows, Blaak Heat, Lord particularly so — it’s tough to ignore the sonic expansion underway in the US, Europe and beyond.
I’m not going to do a separate list for EPs, demos and splits before December, but thought there were more than a few non-full-length releases that warranted attention. From my notes: Mars Red Sky‘s EP, Dos Malés, Bison Machine/SLO/Wild Savages split, The Skull EP, Iron Jawed Guru, LSD and the Search for God, Cultist, River Cult, Karma to Burn, Wren‘s Host EP, Gorilla vs. Grifter, Goya, Brume‘s Donkey, Shallows‘ The Moon Rises, Sun Voyager/The Mad Doctors split, Earthless/Harsh Toke split, and the Ragged Barracudas/Pushy split. And many others, no doubt.
Still to Come
I alluded earlier to the King Buffalo album, Orion, which has significant top 10 potential for December. It’s officially out in August, or it would’ve been counted here. Some of these I’ve heard and some I haven’t, but also be on the lookout for: Foghound (out this week), Neurosis (album of the year potential), Worshipper, Monolord‘s new EP, Wight, Slomatics, The Wounded Kings, Electric Wizard, Geezer, Devil to Pay, Blues Pills, Baby Woodrose, Backwoods Payback, Beelzefuzz, Them Bulls, Cloud Catcher, Captain Crimson, and of course, Mos Generator.
If I’ve forgotten anyone in any part of this list, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments. Otherwise, thanks for reading and here’s to a great rest of 2016!
It may be in part because it’s so steadfastly instrumental that Danish four-piece Causa Sui‘s output hits with such an evocative effect on the listener. The material, as on Return to Sky, the band’s latest and upwards of ninth full-length, depending on what you count — minus jam sessions, live outings and collaborations, it’s number four — is wide open and vehement in its will for exploration, clearly plotted but sounding off the cuff and based heavily on the organically-presented chemistry between drummer Jakob Skøtt, guitarist Jonas Munk, keyboardist Rasmus Rasmussen and bassist Jess Kahr that has only developed further since the band’s last long-player, 2013’s stunning Euporie Tide, as their subsequent offerings, 2014’s Live at Freak Valley (review here) and Pewt’r Sessions 3 (review here), also showed.
That may be thanks partially to the chances taken on solo records by Skøtt and Munk over the last several years, but either way, they’re clearly a stronger band since they started to release through their El Paraiso Records imprint, through which Return to Sky now surfaces and which has become since its start circa 2011 a home for deeply creative and naturalist progressive psychedelia. As their own staple act, Causa Sui flourish across the collected five tracks/45 minutes, which arrive in packaging that has become El Paraiso‘s signature style as an unassuming LP the breadth of which isn’t to be understated, sandwiching between an extended (over 10 minutes) opener and closer some of Causa Sui‘s most resonant studio work to date, and some of the most spacious. Even down to Skøtt‘s snare drum on “The Source” or the preceding opener “Dust Meridian,” Return to Sky establishes a wide-open sphere, and yeah, maybe because there’s so much room it’s so satisfying to get lost in its progression.
Drums lead the way into “Dust Meridian” for guitar, bass and keys to follow, but it’s not long before Causa Sui are cascading and bounding along tight turns backed by what feel like extra percussive layers (I have the feeling they’re not) which shift in a measure’s time into a subdued break of jazzy drumming, sparse guitar and keys and a gradual build on a keyboard riff to a full tonal wash that pushes them past the seven-minute mark, crashing and spacing out along the way, building a tension that drops out before eight minutes in as they let it go in favor of a momentary shift back into the bounding, which in turn ends quiet en route to the more heavy rocking swing of “The Source.” Also the shortest track at 6:36, there are moments on “The Source” that sounds tailor-made for a guest appearance by Sergio Chotsourian, formerly of Los Natas. That doesn’t happen — again, instrumental throughout — but the vibe is right in the song’s early trades between a driving riff and sparser stops and pauses. They dedicate the last two minutes or so to a drone and melodic wash exploration that’s as pastoral as it is encompassing, the drums sitting out while bass provides a foundation for guitar effects and far-off keys.
Listening to the album front to back, it’s the kind of change that’s so fluid it’s almost possible to miss and wonder a minute later where the hell you’ve just been, but it makes a suitably liquid transition into “Mondo Buzzo,” which closes out side A by playing jazzy heavy rock punches off quieter surroundings. Causa Sui weave their way through a soft early going and into heavier push so smoothly, Munk layering in a lead as they head toward the midsection, that it’s hard to follow their going, but “Mondo Buzzo” is striking as much for the weight behind its thrust as for its lush ambience, though it’s with the latter that the four-piece choose to close out side A, turning quickly back to softer jamming of increasing melodic gorgeousness as they make their way through the final few minutes, effects, guitar and keys given a continued sense of structure by the drums, but playing out a bright sunshine that’s more energy than matter, in motion though it is.
While the guitar starts the song, it’s Kahr who makes the most resonant impression in the beginning moments of “Dawn Passage” at the start of side B, a serene bounce emerging from beneath all the airiness overtop in the first minute, the keys adding to the atmosphere in swelling melodies before they drop out and the band continues on the course of a linear build, which is over by the time they hit four of the track’s total eight minutes but leads to more progressive interplay of guitar, bass and keys, percussion fleshing out the jam as they subtly make their way toward another crescendo, which they finish with about a minute to spare for closing out with vastness and soundscaping. It would be difficult for the closing title-track to push out further than Causa Sui have already gone, but the 11-minute finale is ultimately a defining moment for the record that I’m sure by no coincidence bears its name, less improvised sounding in parts, but still untamed and natural, it teases a takeoff at around a minute in and recedes back into watery guitar for a moment before the drums drop out and the guitar sets the build in motion that will consume the next minute-plus in increasingly intense push — the apex of the album.
The payoff, for everything, lasts until about four and a half minutes, and then airy, quiet, almost minimalist guitar chords ring out peacefully but actively over a still-very-much-in-motion bassline (that might be another layer of guitar) to progressive affect, tension held in the latter that will come to the fore over the next six minutes or so as the keys reenter and another build is underway, this time more freaked out and psychedelic. Drums return after a time and Causa Sui carefully, patiently, bring the track forward toward its last noisy peak, getting over to the other side and, of course, moving easily through to finish quiet with volume swells that sound — no doubt purposefully — like waves. Aside from how interactive a listen it is — which is to say, how much of oneself one can put into the listening experience — what’s most striking about Return to Sky is how short it feels. Granted, it is. Euporie Tide topped out at 64 minutes, and Return to Sky is 45; prime for a single-LP release. Whether it was the band’s intent to balance out the fervent stylistic expansion this album represents by taking less actual time, I don’t know, but to think of something so outwardly lush as also being in some way “stripped down” only adds to the depth of the experience, which is welcome, though Causa Sui were hardly lacking anyhow. Their creative pursuit is multifaceted and relentless, and Return to Sky is a well-placed landmark on the road they’re traveling.
I wanted this podcast to sound good in headphones, since in all likelihood that’s how I’ll be listening to it. That and keeping it under two hours long were my only standards, everything else was open. What we wound up with was some pretty massive tonality, and where it’s not massive, it’s at very least immersive. A lot of longer-form material. Maybe that’s me making up for missing last month in terms of putting one of these together, but either way, there’s a lot to dig into here, and it’s my hope you’ll do just that.
Some things to watch for: Causa Sui into Atavismo at the start is awesome. Also dig Seedship into Low Flying Hawks into Crippled Black Phoenix. There’s some real density going on during that stretch and I don’t want to say it’s my favorite part of the thing, because I also did the jumps in the middle and the second hour that gets darker as it goes, but it’s pretty solid either way. And by solid I mean fluid. Got it? Solid.
As always, I very much hope you enjoy.
Track details follow:
0:00:00 Causa Sui, “The Source” from Return to Sky
0:06:16 Atavismo, “Haribo” from Split with Grajo
0:11:48 Cultist, “Follow Me” from Three Candles
0:17:22 The Canadian Sweetmen, “New Cigarettes” from Intro b/w New Cigarettes
0:20:22 Beastmaker, “Burnt Offering” from Lusus Naturae
0:23:12 Seedship, “The Condemned Adrift” from Demo 2015
0:31:09 Low Flying Hawks, “Wolves Within Wolves” from Kofuku
0:36:47 Crippled Black Phoenix, “New Dark Age” from New Dark Age
0:50:50 Giobia, “Sun Spectre” from Magnifier
1:05:44 Hijo de la Tormenta, “Un Mañana Aún Más Glorioso Nos Espera” from El Manto de la Especie
1:18:14 Eight Bells, “Landless” from Landless
1:30:57 Matriarch, “Moonburn” from The 44th Scribe and Lorde of the Hallucinauts
Posted in Whathaveyou on February 10th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Austria’s Lake on Fire festival marks its fifth anniversary with Lake on Fire 2016 this Aug. 5-6. Held at a gorgeous lakeside campground in Waldhausen, it looks to be a pretty amazing setting for some dead-on heavy. With the proceeds from each year donated to charity, this year began its lineup announcements with Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and The Flying Eyes and continues this week with Causa Sui, a Gomer Pyle reunion and Savanah. Last year’s bill had 14 acts, so it seems fair to expect Lake on Fire 2016 isn’t quite halfway there in terms of its final roster of bands, but as you can see, they’re doing just fine as it is.
There’s a video of clips from last year’s fest, and if you look at some of the photos from their website as well, it seems like a stunning way to enjoy some rock and roll:
Lake on Fire Festival returns for its 5th anniversary on 05-06.08 2016
LINE UP: Uncle Acid and the deadbeats (UK) Causa Sui (DK) Gomer Pyle (NL) The Flying Eyes (US) Savanah (AT)
As promised we start the week with the latest killer additions to the LOF line up!
Get psyched for CAUSA SUI / GOMER PYLE / SAVANAH!
Causa Sui – band page (DK/Heavy Psych) During the last years this band only played a very few shows, therefore we are beyond stoked that we can offer you this rare occasion at LOF2016. In our opinion this band shares the European throne with the almighty Colour Haze when it comes to Psychedelic Rock! A new record will be released as well!
Gomer Pyle (NL/Stoner Psychedelic) A very special one for us, as Gomer Pyle was one of the first bands which introduced us to the mesmerizing world of Stoner & Psych Rock back in the days. Unfortunately, they disbanded five years ago, however, the guys will start their engine again for a high anticipated reunion show at LOF2016.
Savanah(AUT/Stoner Rock) One of the most promising Austrian acts of the last years. Their recent EP “Deep Shades” gained very good reviews all over Europe and the band’s aggressive style of Stoner/Psych and Doom will be perfect enough to shake the floating stage to the ground.
Last month, Danish instrumentalists Causa Sui announced their upcoming album, Return to Sky, with a teaser video. That clip was short, but it showed the band reaching well beyond the warm desert-style tones of 2013’s Euporie Tide in favor of a more angular, experimental approach. Today, the band affirms both a March 18 release date and their progression in the first full-song to come from Return to Sky, titled “The Source,” in a kaleidoscoping new video. The track is still psychedelic in its roots, but Causa Sui are pretty clearly looking to expand what that designation means and what they do with it, playing off the chemistry they’ve developed over their decade-plus together and the various avenues members have pursued in solo projects over the last several years.
The four-piece’s reputation has rightly skyrocketed since Euporie Tide, but “The Source” seems more intent on building off what that album accomplished rather than repeating it, and some rougher edges and percussive thud along with the spacious guitars work well to do just that early on as Causa Sui make their way toward a tripped-out atmospheric break in the second half, guitars and keys creating a wash that caps the track on a long fade. Presumably that’s to set up the entry of the next song on Return to Sky, but not having heard the album yet in its entirety, I can’t speak to just how that interplay between tracks might go. However, as anyone who heard Euporie Tide, the subsequent Live at Freak Valley (review here) or Pewt’r Sessions 3 (review here) can attest, these guys are no strangers to creating a sense of flow from one piece to the next.
Use your imagination. They’re clearly using theirs:
Causa Sui, “The Source” official video
Causa Sui are back with a new studio record, the successor to 2013’s Euporie Tide, which consolidated the band as a crucial underground force in the European psych scene and spread their unique brand of warm-toned stoner rock to a wider audience. Return To Sky is a condensed piece of acutely experimental, yet immensely engaging, instrumental rock.
Each of the album’s five epics unfolds as a microcosm of the band’s genre-transcending psychedelia at large, yet adds something different to the whole. There’s a kind of musical metamorphosis taking place that’s deeply ingrained in the band’s natural flux by now: heavy, detuned riffs are transformed into wide, pastoral soundscapes, and fluid minimalism warped into swirling crescendos and back again. Occasionally the band even manages to sound turbulent, fuzzed-out yet strangely peaceful at the very same time.
Whereas so much of today’s psychedelic scene comes off as merely a tribute to a certain period of the past, Causa Sui seem to be on a different mission. More than any other record in their catalog Return To Sky declares their roots in the avant rock of the late 1990s – where different eras and genres merged into something that resonated as much with the present as it celebrated the past. It also reveals the fact that members of the band has had their hands in many different projects since the band’s debut album in 2005: solo excursions into synthesizer music, collaborations with members of Sunburned Hand Of The Man and Tortoise as well as film soundtracks, guest spots with krautrock legends Faust and Damo Suzuki and various improv sessions. It has all worked a subtle influence on the kind of band they have become.
Causa Sui’s music is now more earthy and heavy than ever before, but it’s ability to absorb everything from shoegaze and vintage Italian film music to spiritual jazz, afrobeat and minimalism into its fabric has matured as well. Never before has Causa Sui sounded as deep and mesmerizing as on this set.
Causa Sui: Jonas Munk: Guitars & electronics Jess Kahr: Bass Jakob Skøtt: Drums & Percussion Rasmus Rasmussen: Keys and electronics