Review & Track Premiere: Electric Citizen, Helltown

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on July 17th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

electric citizen helltown

[Click play above to stream ‘Lunch’ from Electric Citizen’s Helltown. Album is out Sept. 28 on RidingEasy Records.]

The stated intention behind Electric Citizen‘s third album for RidingEasy RecordsHelltown, is a turn from where the band was two years ago on their sophomore outing, Higher Time (review here). Likewise, Higher Time brought the Cincinnati four-piece to someplace their 2014 debut, Sateen (review here), hadn’t dared to go. Around a central core of memorable hooks and classic heavy rock riffing, Electric Citizen wove a vision of heavy glam, taking the riff-led fare of Sateen to someplace entirely bigger — in production value, in scope, in its unabashed poppiness. Helltown once more finds vocalist Laura Dolan, guitarist Ross Dolan, bassist Nick Vogelpohl and drummer Nate Wagner in an aesthetic pivot. While it would same to be driven by the same impulse toward refining their sound and trying to bring their songs to different levels of expression, etc., the manifestation is markedly different. Dolan‘s voice still commands the proceedings with pointed melodicism, and the guitar runs the instrumental charge beneath with classic swing from the rhythm section.

What’s different is largely down to presentation, and it’s one that finds Electric Citizen engaged in entirely rawer fare. Gone is the pop-ready sheen of Higher Time, and it’s been replaced by proto-metal tonality on the part of Dolan — as heard in the solo of second cut “Hide it in the Night,” as well as the riffs throughout — and Vogelpohl, as well as a decided lack of the keys/organ that featured so prominently last time out — “Father Time,” “New Earth” and “Mother’s Little Reject” notwithstanding — in favor of a more stripped down approach overall. Vocals are treated but not as many-layered, and the album as a whole is shorter, running nine songs and 32 minutes where the last one was 10 and 40. They largely stay away from following a punkish impulse — even centerpiece “Ripper,” which is definitely not a cover of Judas Priest‘s “The Ripper,” holds more to classic metal style — but the LP’s purpose is clearly to shoot for a more live sound, something that can be brought to life on stage, say, when the band tours as support for Monster Magnet in support of Helltown this Fall.

That’s not to say there isn’t any progressive edge to be found. Dolan as a guitarist is an intricate riffer and has been since he was doing his best mid/late-’70s Iommi on Sateen. As much as the smoothness and fluidity of Higher Time suited his style, he thrives here in showcasing his chemistry with Laura‘s vocals and with the righteous solidity of the bass and drums. Of course, a more barebones production style like this is no less an aesthetic choice than something hyper-elaborate, but the stylistic turn suits him and the rest of the band well, and would seem to have been something purposefully brought to the songwriting process. These tracks, in addition to being fewer in number, feel shorter and tighter in their structure. There are still drum transitions in “Lunch” and Dolan isn’t shy about taking a solo when called on to do so, but Helltown — named for the Cincinnati neighborhood the band calls home, as if to further telegraph the “back to their roots” sentiment at play — seems to pull back on some of the expanse that Electric Citizen made their own last time out, and it’s a meaner sound for it.

electric citizen

Of course, what draws the work together is the craft behind it. “Father Time” is the longest cut on Helltown at 4:25, and its quiet, more gradual introduction would seem to be a departure from some of the immediacy held forth in songs like prior opening salvo of “Heart Attack,” “Hide it in the Night” or “Cold Blooded Blue,” all of which are into their first verse before the first 30 seconds are up. Pacing in general is a big part of what makes Helltown distinct in Electric Citizen‘s catalog. Sateen was dug into semi-garage doom shuffle, and so had a middling pace, and Higher Time followed suit with its more outwardly accessible fare. Helltown isn’t a Motörhead record or anything, but “Ripper,” “The Pawn,” “Heart Attack” have a quick pulse to be sure, and even as “New Earth” would seem to be a transitional moment into the closing duo of “Lunch” and “Mother’s Little Reject,” the momentum holds steady. And though “Lunch” digs into that eased-up tempo somewhat and “Mother’s Little Reject” starts out with organ-backed spoken word over a “War Pigs”-esque progression before igniting a finale-worthy bounce, the energy in Electric Citizen‘s delivery is unflinching.

If Helltown has a central message, that’s it. It’s enough of a declaration of who Electric Citizen are that part of me is surprised it isn’t self-titled. That identity can change, of course, and likely will if their three-to-date albums are anything to go by, but the statement in these tracks is clear and unmistakable. Whatever else Electric Citizen might do and wherever their sound might take them, they’re a heavy rock band at heart. Helltown is a performance-minded collection that would seem to be the result of some genuine soul-searching on the part of the band. It could well be they’ve found themselves as players and as a group and that whatever they do from here will be a hopeful step forward from where they currently are. Or it could be that this album, like the one before it, will spur an equal and almost-opposite reaction and the Electric Citizen will move in a different direction entirely. I like the fact that, four years and three records into their tenure as a band, I have no idea what to expect from them next.

Other than songwriting. That’s the key. It let them serve introductory notice on Sateen and it provided the foundation for the expanded-sound of Higher Time, and now it serves as the very core of being for Helltown. And if it wasn’t there, there’d be no hiding it. This is as stripped-down as Electric Citizen have gotten, and if they didn’t have the songs and didn’t have the performance and the vibe, it simply wouldn’t work. Fortunately, they do and it does. I won’t discount what each of the past two records did for their own accomplishments in their own contexts, but listening to Helltown, it very much seems to be marking a new level for Electric Citizen, and as they cull the most essential facets of their approach as a band, they emerge from that process stronger than ever and at their most vital.

Electric Citizen, “Hide it in the Night”

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Friday Full-Length: Valley of the Sun, The Sayings of the Seers

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 23rd, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Not that they haven’t done plenty since, but can you believe it’s coming up on seven years since Valley of the Sun released The Sayings of the Seers (review here)? The Ohio-based heavy rockers issued their second EP in June 2011, and at the time, it was impossible to know what it would signal. I remember getting the vinyl and being so enthralled by the potential. Did it sound like Slo Burn? Shit yeah, but that wasn’t about to stop me from singing along to “Hearts Aflame” or “Riding the Dunes,” and for a band who was so new, they seemed to have their sound so together, so dead on, that — I’ll be honest — I thought they were going to take over the US heavy underground.

In a way, they did. The signal that was impossible to see at the time was just how much The Sayings of the Seers indicated that a new generation of American heavy rockers was on the rise and would take hold of the greater rock consciousness throughout the course of this decade. Ripple Music had gotten rolling in 2010, and certainly a heavy rock label boom followed in the wake of their success — it’s ongoing — but that wouldn’t have happened without an explosion of bands, and Valley of the Sun, if they were concurrent, they were also more cohesive than most at the time. Though its only five tracks long, The Sayings of the Seers presented them as a band whose work was essentially ready to roll out. Like few others in the sphere of US heavy — names like fellow Ohioans Lo-Pan, Portland forerunners Red Fang, Texas’ Wo Fat and Mothership and maybe one or two from a then-nascent scene in San Diego — Valley of the Sun not only represented a generation of heavy rock coming to fruition in the post-Facebook age, but did so at the head of the wave. The next couple years 2012, 2013, and 2014, would see a massive increase in the number of riff-led acts from across the country. Valley of the Sun by no means invented heavy rock and roll, but they sure as shit knew what they were doing when they started to play it.

The evidence of that is as plain as riff on “Hearts Aflame”‘s face. The way that song starts out a rager and subtly builds from there to give a genuine crescendo feel at the end. With guitarist Ryan Ferrier‘s vocals so dead-on in their John Garcia-esque delivery, Valley of the Sun seemed to be speaking immediately to a swath of the converted that most didn’t even know existed. The Sayings of the Seers only got stronger with the momentum-building boogie of “Deep Light Burns,” which gave their future Fuzzorama Records label bosses Truckfighters a run for their money in terms of its energy and seemed to be daring the audience to keep up with it. Later on, “Aquarius” would provide a likewise charge at the outset of side B, but to get there, one first had to brave the hook that was centerpiece “Mariner’s Tale,” which remains seven years later the kind of song one might listen to and say, “Okay, well there’s no way in hell they could possibly come up with anything catchier than this,” and then you hear “Riding the Dunes” close out and have to just throw up your hands and admit defeat. In sound, in the crispness of their production, the clarity of their execution, the vibe born of their tones and the accomplishment of their songwriting, Valley of the Sun wanted for absolutely nothing. At the time, I said, “Provided Valley of the Sun can continue to hone this level of craft and grow into their own as a band, I see no reason they couldn’t stand with a select few others at the forefront of their generation of American heavy rockers.”

A bit of a hyperbolic prediction, I’ll admit — there are many other factors besides quality of work that come into play between one band “making it” and another not; how much they tour, their management choices, their PR, their label, who they play with, when and where, etc. — but it was true enough that there was nothing at that point to indicate Valley of the Sun didn’t have that kind of potential. They’ve only grown bolder throughout their two to-date Fuzzorama LPs, 2014’s Electric Talons of the Thunderhawk (review here) and 2016’s Volume Rock (review here), though lineup shuffles around Ferrier and drummer Aaron Boyer have been a steady issue. Their work may be slightly underappreciated as a result, but they’ve never doled out anything less than ultra-engaging, sharply-turned professional heavy rock. Looking back on it now, The Sayings of the Seers was nothing if not a righteous statement of this intent.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

I really, really wanted to sleep until six this morning. I didn’t. I had an announcement that I’d meant to write yesterday for the Freak Valley Festival — it’ll be posted here Monday — that I needed to bang out on European time, so it was a 4AM wakeup, which quite frankly is better than 2:30. After I did the writeup, futzed through some emails and stutter-started this post, falling asleep with my head on the kitchen table all the while, I went back to bed for a bit. Maybe an hour and a half or so. Something like that.

It really only matters because tonight I’m driving to Worcester to see Judas Priest and Saxon, and as I’ll be taking The Patient Mrs.’ car — mine is registered and starts now, but the brakes, not so much — I’d prefer not to fall asleep at the wheel and veer into the woods off the Masspike. It would be just my luck to completely total her car and survive to catch hell about it for the rest of my life.

That possibility notwithstanding, I’ll have a review up of that show on Monday. Monday’s also a pretty special occasion that I’ll be marking, so please keep an eye out for that. Here’s the rest of the notes for the week:

Mon.: Special post, Judas Priest review, Malady album stream/review.
Tue.: Baby Bones track premiere, Black Rainbows video.
Wed.: Sunnata review.
Thu.: T.G. Olson double-review.
Fri.: Soldat Hans review.

Those last three are basically me doing myself a favor pre-Quarterly Review, which is the following week, but they might get moved around. We’ll see.

You’re probably not, but if you’re wondering, eating disorder treatment continues and continues to suck. I’ve hit the point in this process of “getting healthy” where just about none of the clothes I’ve bought or acquired in the last two years fit me — a record label very kindly sent me a t-shirt this week that I’ll never be able to wear — and my favorite flannel — “the wizard flannel,” so dubbed because it’s huge like a wizard’s robe and when you wear it, its magical powers make the world seem less shitty — has gone missing. It’s probably in the basement where the clothes are kept [update: it was], somewhere among the mass of baby clothes and now-too-tight boxer shorts, but frankly, every time I go down there to look and get something to wear, I see the stack of shirts people sent me, from Year of the Cobra to Comacozer to Cosmic Fall, on and on and on, that can’t get around me anymore and it makes me want to veer into the woods off the side of the Masspike. So I try not to go downstairs. Not a sustainable plan, but fuck it. I’m a homemaker. If I wear the same t-shirt three days in a row, as I have with this Ancestors shirt I have on now, the only people who are going to be disappointed in me are myself and Donna Reed. Oh, and I’ve also stopped showering every day because I hate the sight of my own body in the bathroom mirror. “Getting healthy!”

That’s a fun one. Also fun is my anxiety about leaving the house — I’m nervous enough about going to Worcester tonight; Roadburn already has me terrified — and the generic platitudes I get about how much better I’m doing. Some level of some stupid fucking thing in my bloodwork is higher or lower than it used to be, isn’t that great? Who fucking cares? Do I live forever now? “Well, you were miserable at 150 pounds too.” No shit. I’d rather be miserable and have my fucking clothes fit me. I went out last summer and bought three pairs of hippie pants. Real hippie pants. Not that I could get them around my ass if I tried, but I don’t ever want to wear colors again. Let me just fucking do whatever I can do disappear and leave it at that. Like stay home and fall asleep typing and feel bad about not answering emails and Facebook messages fast enough.

So many fucking typos. I’m doing my best to catch them, but I know they’re getting through. It’s because I’m only half-conscious when I’m writing. Now you know.

Wow. Okay. Hard reboot? Delete everything past the notes for next week and start over? Nah fuck it. If you’re interested enough to keep reading this far into a 1,600-word post, you deserve nothing less than the truth about what a wretched wreck (“wrecktched?”) I am. So there it is. This week. And everyone tells me I’m getting better.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. I wish I lived in New Jersey. I wish I had money enough to not have to worry about money. I wish I didn’t have to write down every fucking thing I eat in a day so it can be checked over like fourth grade math homework. I sucked at that too.

Thanks for reading. Please don’t forget to check out the forum and radio stream, and just to not end on a bummer note, please make sure you check back Monday for that special post. It’ll be the first post of the day and it’s a big one, so yeah, stay tuned. It’ll be fun. I mean it.

Until then, all the best.

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Review & Track Premiere: Beneath Oblivion, The Wayward and the Lost

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 29th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

beneath-oblivion-the-wayward-and-the-lost

[Click play above to stream ‘Satyr’ from Beneath Oblivion’s The Wayward and the Lost. Album is out March 27 on Weird Truth Productions.]

The sludge that Beneath Oblivion elicit is nothing less than a destructive force. While the Midwest and particularly Ohio is known for the unhinged, pill-added fuckall proffered by the likes of Fistula and their many offshoots and related outfits, 2018 marks a decade and a half of the Cincinnati-based troupe’s onslaught, and they celebrate with the issue through Japanese imprint Weird Truth Productions of their first full-length in seven years. Last heard from with 2011’s From Man to Dust, the woeful foursome return to apply roughly that same ethic to the five-track/64-minute churn of The Wayward and the Lost. It lurches. It crushes. It creates a sonic and emotional miasma from which it feels like there’s no escape.

Its depression runs deep through extended tracks like opener “The City (My Mausoleum)” (15:12) and “The Liar’s Cross” (13:47), and is immersive in its atmospheric punishment as founding guitarist/vocalist Scott Simpson leads the way through the molasses trudge. Granted, it’s been over half a decade, so one shouldn’t necessarily be surprised at some measure of stylistic shift, but Beneath Oblivion‘s approach on the whole throughout The Wayward and the Lost is more atmospheric than either of its two predecessors, From Man to Dust or 2006’s Existence Without Purpose, both of which were released through The Mylene Sheath and had more of a post-hardcore spirit than shown in the droning extremity of The Wayward and the Lost even in its shortest track, the penultimate “Savior-Nemesis-Redeemer” (7:21), which precedes ultra-lurching closer “Satyr” itself an all-consuming 16:20 of aural quicksand. Revelry in brutality; brutality in excess.

Taken in the context of the recent triumph of darkness that was Bell Witch‘s 2017 offering, Mirror Reaper, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that The Wayward and the Lost was also helmed by Billy Anderson (Acid KingNeurosis, etc.), as its blend of claustrophobic tonality from Simpson and Allen Scott — who also adds to the liberal amount of drones and noise included throughout these tracks — though the bulk of the basic material seems to have been put to tape in 2015 by SimpsonScott, bassist Keith Messerle and drummer Nate Bidwell with further grim flourish added after the fact.

beneath oblivion and billy anderson

One can hear the effects of that as drones and echoes fill out the reaches of the otherwise minimalist, extreme and excruciating “Satyr” at the album’s finish, but from “The City (My Mausoleum),” which opens with a deceptive innocent melancholy of guitar and eerie cymbal wash, the threat of violence is never completely absent. Unlike most of The Wayward and the Lost, “The City (My Mausoleum)” in its early going feels specifically indebted to Neurosis via YOB, but by the time Beneath Oblivion build into their first slow-motion rollout and engulfing, nod-topping screams, their course through sludge-laden cruelty seems set, and while their approach is by no means unipolar — that is, the screams and growls and lumber and pummel dissipate in favor of trades into sparse lines of guitar, swells of volume emerging in a dynamic back and forth interplay — they’ve already somewhat subtly begun the work that will continue throughout the subsequent tracks.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that, as regards subtlety and Beneath Oblivion, it’s probably not the first word that’s going to come to mind, what with the unmanageable 64 minutes of punishment that The Wayward and the Lost carries across with such ferocity and patience, but as grueling and intense as these songs can be, there’s a sense of exploration within them as well. That comes through in the pre-midsection of “The Liar’s Cross” and in the rolling “Savior-Nemesis-Redeemer,” which might be the most straightforward inclusion here from Beneath Oblivion by whatever standard one might want to apply. Again, all things are relative. The impulse with a band like Beneath Oblivion is to cast them as misanthropes, as a kind of four-man counterculture working against the norms of songcraft and accessibility.

Well, I’m perfectly willing to grant that The Wayward and the Lost is about as audience-friendly as a carpenter’s nail through the skull when taken front to back, but to separate the group from what it is to be human and especially what it is to be human in the varied age of wonders and horrors in which we live cheats the band of perhaps one of the most crucial elements of their expression. A group doesn’t just come back after seven years and put out a record if they don’t have something do say, and with the stated theme of addiction, The Wayward and the Lost explores a pivotal aspect of this moment, but even if one wants to take it on a less analytical, more impressionistic level, it shows us the depths to which our minds can go that more often than not we’re more afraid to plunder. The growth the band has undertaken that has allowed them to do so is no less evident than the volume of their delivery, and in Beneath Oblivion‘s maturity there is a focus of intent that belies the album’s title. We may be wayward, lost, but the band has every idea of how they want to represent that, and in their success, they cast depths and spaces the harshness of which reflects our own cruelties and apathy back at us.

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The Obelisk Presents: THE TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2016

Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

the obelisk top 30

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:

30. Talmud Beach, Chief

talmud beach chief

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Feb. 10.

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.

29. Comet Control, Center of the Maze

comet control center of the maze

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed June 22.

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.

28. Droids Attack, Sci-Fi or Die

droids attack sci-fi or die

Self-released. Reviewed Feb. 17.

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.

27. Beelzefuzz, The Righteous Bloom

beelzefuzz the righteous bloom

Released by Restricted Release and The Church Within. Reviewed Aug. 2.

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.

26. Foghound, The World Unseen

foghound the world unseen

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed July 6.

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.

25a. Egypt, Endless Flight

egypt endless flight

Released by Doomentia Records. Reviewed Dec. 11, 2015.

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.

25. 1000mods, Repeated Exposure To…

1000mods repeated exposure to

Released by Ouga Booga and the Mighty Oug Recordings. Reviewed Sept. 20.

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.

24. Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy

black rainbows stellar prophecy

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed April 11.

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.

23. Borracho, Atacama

borracho atacama

Released by Kozmik Artifactz. Reviewed Nov. 14.

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.

22. The Golden Grass, Coming Back Again

the golden grass coming back again

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed April 26.

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.

21. Curse the Son, Isolator

curse the son isolator

Released by Snake Charmer Coalition and The Company Records. Reviewed March 1.

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.

20. Neurosis, Fires Within Fires

neurosis fires within fires

Released by Neurot Recordings. Reviewed Sept. 21.

I feel like I need to explain myself here. Make no mistake, NeurosisFires 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.

19. Conan, Revengeance

conan revengeance

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Jan. 19.

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.

18. Baby Woodrose, Freedom

baby woodrose freedom

Released by Bad Afro Records. Reviewed Aug. 18.

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.

17. Geezer, Geezer

geezer geezer

Released by Ripple Music and STB Records. Reviewed Nov. 10.

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.

16. EYE, Vision and the Ageless Light

eye vision and the ageless light

Released by The Laser’s Edge. Reviewed Nov. 17.

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.

15. Fatso Jetson, Idle Hands

fatso jetson idle hands

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed Oct. 3.

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.

14. Hexvessel, When We are Death

hexvessel when we are death

Released by Century Media. Reviewed Feb. 5.

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.

13. Zun, Burial Sunrise

zun burial sunrise

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Feb. 16.

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.

12. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree

elephant tree elephant tree

Released by Magnetic Eye Records. Reviewed Jan. 29.

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.

11. Mos Generator, Abyssinia

mos generator abyssinia

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed July 12.

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.

10. Slomatics, Future Echo Returns

slomatics future echo returns

Released by Black Bow Records. Reviewed June 29.

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.

9. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh

wo fat midnight cometh

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed April 21.

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.

8. King Buffalo, Orion

king buffalo orion

Released by Stickman Records. Reviewed July 29.

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

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.

6. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow

greenleaf rise above the meadow

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Feb. 18.

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.

5. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil

brant bjork tao of the devil

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Sept. 15.

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 KyussFu ManchuCheVista 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.

4. Asteroid, III

asteroid iii

Released by Fuzzorama Records. Reviewed Oct. 21.

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.

3. Gozu, Revival

gozu revival

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed May 19.

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)

mars red sky apex iii praise for the burning soul

Released by Listenable Records. Reviewed Feb. 24.

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.

1. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages

subrosa for this we fought the battle of ages

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed Aug. 26.

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.

Honorable Mentions

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
Spidergawd, III
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.

Thank You

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.

One more time: Thank you.

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Horisont to Tour US with Electric Citizen in November

Posted in Whathaveyou on September 29th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

electric-citizen

horisont

That didn’t take long. After signing to Century Media this summer after the 2015 release of their fourth album, Odyssey (review here), on Rise Above, Swedish ’70s aficionados Horisont have newly announced their first-ever round of North American tour dates. On the run, they’ll join like-minded outfit Electric Citizen, for whom this is very much not their first-ever US tour, as the Cincinnati band continue to support their earlier-2016 sophomore full-length, Higher Time (review here), following their European stint with RidingEasy Records labelmates Salem’s Pot. That tour kicks off tomorrow and includes stops at Keep it Low, Desertfest Belgium, and so on.

Electric Citizen and Horisont kick off their shows on Halloween in Boston. Info and dates:

electric-citizen-horisont

ELECTRIC CITIZEN & HORISONT – NORTH AMERICAN TOUR

America! Hide your beer and lock up your parents because for the first time in human history, Horisont (from Sweden) is crossing the Atlantic to tour!

10/31 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
11/1 – New York, NY – Studio at Webster Hall
11/2 – Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
11/5 – Chicago, IL – Reggie’s Rock Club
11/6 – Rock Island, IL – Rock Island Brewing Company
11/7 – Denver, CO – Marquis Theater
11/10 – Oakland, CA – Starline Social Club
11/13 – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar
11/14 – Mesa, AZ – Club Red
11/16 – Dallas, TX – The Curtain Club Dallas
11/17 – Houston, TX – White Oak Music Hall
11/20 – Atlanta, GA – Masquerade
11/22 – Philadelphia, PA – Voltage Lounge
More dates will follow.

Awesome poster by Jon at Cryptogram

“We will leave you heartbroken and crying for more but rest assured, it will be worth it. With the help of the mighty Electric Citizen, we will make sure that a couple of very lucky cities will never again, be the same. See you fuckers in November! BAM!” comments Horisont on the upcoming tour.

Founded in 2006, HORISONT spent nearly a decade riffing their way to the front lines of the Scandinavian retro-rock revival movement. Infusing nostaligcally delicious retro with prog complexities and a touch of NWOBHM swagger; HORISONT stood out alongside peers such as Witchcraft and Graveyard. This quickly caught the attention of Century Media Records, who inked their brand new deal just as the band released their fourth full length album, Odyssey and corresponding 6 week tour across Europe with Kadavar and now label-mates, The Shrine. In addition to gearing up for their United States tour, HORISONT are already working on unleashing a brand new album! Stay tuned for more tour dates and recording details.

After bursting to the American heavy rock forefront with their 2014 debut album, Sateen, Cincinnati four-piece Electric Citizen are ready for a Higher Time. Their second album for RidingEasy, it is a breakout moment for the band as a whole and for vocalist Laura Dolan, who stands tall in the spotlight throughout “Evil”, “Misery Keepe”r and the rest of Higher Time, rising to the occasion of a fuller, bigger sound and meeting the memorable riffing of husband/guitarist Ross Dolan head on with already-stuck- in-your-head hooks and a fiery, passionate delivery.

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Electric Citizen, Higher Time (2016)

Horisont, “Odyssey”

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Valley of the Sun Return to Europe this Fall; Touring with Dot Legacy

Posted in Whathaveyou on July 13th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

This September, Ohio heavy rockers Valley of the Sun continue their Euro-minded focus with a tour supporting their latest album, Volume Rock (review here). That record, released by Fuzzorama, has come out since the band was last on European turf earlier this Spring, and not that it necessarily needed to, but it reaffirmed Valley of the Sun‘s general kickassness, marking the next step in the progression of their songwriting while holding onto the crisp presentation that has made their work to-date so refreshing sounding.

They’ll team up with Parisian rockers Dot legacy — who from what I hear have a new album of their own currently in progress — for the tour, which is presented by Total Volume Agency. Whenever it might arrive, their next outing will be the follow-up to their 2014 self-titled debut (review here), which was issued on Setalight Records.

Valley of the Sun offered some comment on heading abroad once again. Find that followed by the dates below:

valley-of-the-sun-tour-poster

“We’re really excited to be headed back to Europe to continue the support of our latest album, Volume Rock, hitting a lot of territories we missed last Spring. We’re equally as excited that our good friends in Dot Legacy will be along for the ride!” — Valley of the Sun.

Tour booked by Total Volume Agency:
22/09 UK Manchester / Rebellion
23/09 UK London / TBA
24/09 UK Bristol / TBA
26/09 AVAILABLE
27/09 BE Malle / Jeugdhuis Babylon
28/09 BE Gent / Kinky Star
29/09 FR Caen / La Demeurée
30/09 FR Nantes / La Scène Michelet
01/10 FR Paris / Espace B
03/10 FR Poitiers / Le Cluricaume
04/10 CH Olten / Le Coq d’Or *EXCLUSIVE SWISS SHOW*
05/10 AVAILABLE
06/10 DE Berlin / Urban Spree
07/10 DE Halle (Saale) / Rockpool eV
08/10 DE Chemnitz / Zukunft
09/10 AVAILABLE
11/10 RO Cluj-Napoca / The Shelter
12/10 RO Bucharest / Fabrica Club
13/10 BG Sofia / Mixtape
14/10 GR / TBC
15/10 GR Athens / Death Disco

Valley Of The Sun:
Aaron Boyer – Drums
Ringo Jones – Bass
Chris Harrison – Guitar
Ryan Ferrier – Guitar, Vocals

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Valley of the Sun, Volume Rock (2016)

Dot Legacy, Dot Legacy (2014)

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Valley of the Sun, Volume Rock: Well, Yeah, Obviously

Posted in Reviews on June 2nd, 2016 by JJ Koczan

valley of the sun volume rock

Perhaps it’s hard to believe Cincinnati riffers Valley of the Sun are only on their second LP because the band came out of the gate so assured in their approach. Since their early going with a 2010 demo and the 2011 EP The Sayings of the Seers (review here), the group — with the core duo of guitarist/vocalist Ryan Ferrier and drummer Aaron Boyer now joined by bassist Ringo Jones and guitarist Chris Harrison — have given the impression of knowing exactly what kind of band they want to be. Some groups flounder early, finding themselves, and I won’t knock that, but through The Sayings of the Seers and the 2014 debut LP, Electric Talons of the Thunderhawk (review here), Valley of the Sun have left no question as to their intent.

They excel at delivering driving, fuzzed-out heavy rock and roll marked by quality songwriting, clever shifts in tempo and feel, and a crispness to their presentation. Their second album, Volume Rock — out, like the debut, on Fuzzorama Records — continues the thread and brings a new batch of material that has already seen them back on the road in Europe, growing their reputation among US riff exports. Like its predecessor, Volume Rock traffics in air-tight structures and demonstrates a clear sense of control on the part of the band — it may or may not have been recorded with just Ferrier and Boyer, I don’t know; they’re the only ones in the pictures — who begin by showing something of a playful side with stick clicks at the start of opener “Eternal Forever” before unfolding a varied but uniformly well executed push of riffs and desert-style vibes.

“Eternal Forever” is an energetic launch to Volume Rock, immediately earning the album’s title, but also a setup when taken in combination with the subsequent two tracks, “Wants and Needs” and the shorter “The Hunt” (video premiere here). All three are barnburners, Valley of the Sun careening at top or near-top speeds through, building momentum as the hook of “Eternal Forever” and the handclaps in “Wants and Needs” and Ferrier‘s vocals leave impressions behind from the blur. That momentum hits a peak with “The Hunt,” which is perhaps the most efficient inclusion here at a speedy, lean 2:19, but it pairs with “Land of Fools,” the longest cut at 5:45 which reimagines the central start-stop rhythm of Truckfighters‘ “Monte Gargano” during its verse and signals a clear shift into Volume Rock‘s next phase.

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There’s an instrumental bridge in the second half, but much of the additional runtime comes just from Valley of the Sun riding the chorus, which they’re right to do. The entire track is a hook, and one of the record’s best, and followed by the slower, bigger-sounding “I Breathe the Earth,” which enacts its nod early and doesn’t let go for its duration, weaving through solos early and late amid well-positioned verses, non-lyric vocals following the riff, and call and response thrust along by Boyer‘s crash. Momentum from the opening salvo continues to carry Valley of the Sun forward, even as they begin to push outward from the directness of, say, “Wants and Needs,” but anyplace they go, they never fail to invite the listener along for the trip, and that accessibility proves to be one of Volume Rock‘s greatest strengths.

In accordance with that, Volume Rock is also the most identifiable as themselves that Valley of the Sun has ever sounded. Their beginnings drew heavily from tipping a balance to one side or another of Kyuss and Fu Manchu, and Ferrier‘s vocals still have some of that John Garcia gut-push, but the subtle shift of these elements into something more of the band’s own is evident in the starts and stops and melody of “Speaketh the Shaman,” a mid-paced, catchy groover that opens fluidly in its chorus. The roots from which they’re working are still discernible, but no less discernible is what Valley of the Sun are adding of themselves to that mix. “Beneath the Veil” returns to the kick-in-the-ass ethic of the album’s start, leading to a gradual slowdown with “Solstice” and “Empty Visions,” which closes out on a note akin to “Breathe the Earth,” but suitably placed as the finale for Volume Rock as a whole.

As they make their way out with one last hook brought to its apex, Valley of the Sun offer reinforcement of their progression, the soul in their approach that’s there despite its clean presentation, and the utter lack of pretense that has defined them for the last six years. When I first heard The Sayings of the Seers, I tagged them as having the potential to be one of the best of an upcoming generation of heavy rock. They’ve had lineup shifts since then and have turned their focus toward touring Europe exclusively, but in terms of the quality of their material, the raw craftsmanship of it, they continue to excel. And at this point, still just two albums deep, it only seems fair to expect no less.

Valley of the Sun, Volume Rock (2016)

Valley of the Sun on Thee Facebooks

Valley of the Sun on Bandcamp

Fuzzorama Records

Fuzzorama Records on Thee Facebooks

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Electric Citizen, Higher Time: Devils in the Passing

Posted in Reviews on May 23rd, 2016 by JJ Koczan

electric citizen higher time

Like several others often lumped into a retro categorization with a mind toward aesthetic longevity, Electric Citizen have modernized. To be fair, the Cincinnati four-piece’s 2014 RidingEasy Records debut, Sateen (review here), did indeed tap into a vintage feel, but while the second album, Higher Time, might still draw influence from brash ’70s heavy rock, the sound is full, modern and built on a foundation of air-tight, lean songwriting and a stellar performance from vocalist Laura Dolan, who positively owns this material. Prior to its release, Electric CitizenDolan and husband Ross Dolan on guitar as well as bassist Randy Proctor and drummer Nate Wagner — put out word they were looking for a full-time keyboardist, and listening to Higher Time cuts like “Evil,” the shaker-inclusive “Misery Keeper,” “Devils in the Passing Time,” “Ghost of Me,” “Crux” and “Two Hearted Woman,” it’s easy to understand why they might.

Performed here by Andrew Higley and Yusef Quota (the latter on “Ghost of Me”), organ and/or whatever more specific keys do a lot of the work in keeping Higher Time in league with a traditional sensibility as much as it wants to be — Ross‘ riffs deserve some credit there as well — but what’s even more striking about Electric Citizen‘s sophomore outing is the level of progression it has shown from where the band was two years ago. That’s not an accident, of course. Electric Citizen busted their collective ass and have been on the road in the US and more recently Europe pretty much since their inception, touring on their own and with Pentagram and Fu Manchu, among others. That tour-work feels evident in the brisk performance Laura delivers on vocals, which is a defining feature of the album as a whole.

Granted, it couldn’t be without the songwriting behind it, so maybe there’s something of a two-fold narrative when it comes to Higher Time, which marks both Dolan‘s emergence as a frontwoman and a pivotal signal of intent when it comes to the band’s songcraft. I was not kidding above when I called the writing lean. That might be understating it. While definitely produced-sounding, cuts like “Evil,” “Social Phobia,” “Devils in the Passing Time,” and even side B’s “Ghost of Me” and “Natural Law” — which offer a one-two punch of Sabbathian intent, nodding at “Children of the Grave” and “Wheels of Confusion,” respectively — have almost zero wriggle room; nothing that might for one second pull the listener out of the song. Even the title-track, which is the longest inclusion here at 5:36 appearing toward the middle of the tracklisting and presumably the start of side B, holds itself together through swirling guitar and keyboard effects as it makes ready to shift into a sci-fi atmospheric spoken word part leading to a build back into a solo from Ross, who shines in his role leading the instrumental trio behind Laura.

Electric Citizen (Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)

That said, as with the best classic-styled heavy rock, Proctor and Wagner are the foundation on which the Dolans are able to stand so tall, Wagner‘s drums propulsive on “Social Phobia” and “Ghost of Me” and no less a standout for the swing brought to the particularly memorable “Misery Keeper” and “Devils in the Passing Time,” two landmark-feeling impressions pushed toward the front of the record so that the swagger of the latter can add to the bluesy delivery of Laura‘s vocals, almost pouting but soulful. Ross adds far-back soloing to the verses in “Golden Mean,” which ends the album’s first half, and assures that momentum is on Electric Citizen‘s side as they push into the second, through “Higher Time,” and “Ghost of Me” and “Natural Law,” which follow.

A side-split structure is important to the overarching impression the album makes. It’s kind of a tenet of the heavy ’10s that a full-length would be divided into two component halves — at this point it would be stranger if Higher Time were set up linear-style, like a CD — but while clearly given to a flowing two-sided listening experience, it’s no less important to keep in mind that Higher Time is a collection of songs. It’s not a front-to-back concept album, it’s not a series of interconnected jams — it’s a precisely executed 40-minute offering comprised of 10 individual pieces that come across as though they’ve been fine-tuned either on stage or in the studio, but to a degree at which there isn’t anything left to chip away to get at the essentials of heavy rock. The grooving penultimate take, “Crux,” is hardly Higher Time‘s most essential cut — that might be “Evil” or “Devils in the Passing Time” — but even it has purpose behind its Uncle Acid-style bounce, and it serves to expand the palette of the album as a whole while still keeping consistent with its surroundings in terms of style.

I won’t decry the songwriting ability Electric Citizen showed on Sateen at all, but in addition to growing into a bigger sound, they’ve also grown into a unit with more chemistry and force behind their thrust. So it is that Higher Time builds on what they accomplished last time without being held back by a sense of subgenre. There are elements of it that are unabashedly, unashamedly pop-minded, and that suits Electric Citizen well and hasn’t come at the expense ether of their sonic heft or stylistic nuance. No question they are more themselves on Higher Time, and with Laura‘s voice tying together the various moods between the songs, Electric Citizen follow-up their first album with one that shows no less potential for where they might go and what they might do next.

Electric Citizen, Higher Time (2016)

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Electric Citizen on Bandcamp

RidingEasy Records

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