The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 of 2017 So Far

Posted in Features on June 12th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

the obelisk top-20-2017-so-far

The time has come to take a look at some of the best albums of 2017 so far. I hardly know where to start. In some ways, this list is harder to put together than the end-of-year one that comes out in December, because by then not only do you have the full year to draw on, but it’s easier to sort of put a narrative to the course of events of 12 months, whereas in this case, obviously, the story is half told. So I guess if the list feels incomplete, that might be part of why.

Even with just six months to work from, the list has become fairly immense. I’ve been keeping track of 2017 releases since about September of last year, and the amount of stuff that’s come through has been staggering. Every year brings good music, and the basic fact of the matter is that if you don’t think so it’s because you’re either unwilling to find it or unwilling to let yourself hear it, but 2017 has been a multi-tiered assault of sounds from all over the world, and it seems like whatever you might be into, the universe stands ready to accommodate.

There’s a lot to say about that — is the market flooded? — but it’s a topic for a different post. I’ll keep it short here and just say that as always, it’s an honor to be covering the stuff that I cover and that I deeply appreciate you taking the time to read. I hope if there’s a release you feel deeply passionate about that you don’t see on my list below that you’ll please let me know about it in the comments.

Also, please note that in order to qualify for this list, a record had to come out on or before June 9. That’s the cutoff.

Okay, here goes:

The Top 20 of 2017 So Far

elder reflections of a floating world

1. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World
2. All Them Witches, Sleeping Through the War
3. Samsara Blues Experiment, One with the Universe
4. Colour Haze, In Her Garden
5. Atavismo, Inerte
6. Sun Blood Stories, It Runs Around the Room with Us
7. Cloud Catcher, Trails of Kozmic Dust
8. Vokonis, The Sunken Djinn
9. The Obsessed, Sacred
10. Mothership, High Strangeness
11. Spaceslug, Time Travel Dilemma
12. Electric Moon, Stardust Rituals
13. Alunah, Solennial
14. Arc of Ascent, Realms of the Metaphysical
13. Rozamov, This Mortal Road
14. Siena Root, A Dream of Lasting Peace
15. PH, Eternal Hayden
16. Geezer, Psychoriffadelia
17. T.G. Olson, Foothills Before the Mountain
18. Telekinetic Yeti, Abominable
19. The Devil and the Almighty Blues, II
20. Lord, Blacklisted

Notes

If you keep up with this site at all, there probably aren’t a lot of surprises in there. These are all records that have been discussed at great length over the last six months, reviewed, streamed, analyzed, whathaveyou’d all the way. If you don’t believe me, search any of the names. Still, as far as my personal picks go and who I think has crafted something special over the last six months, this feels pretty representative to me. I managed to live for a full week with the list as you see it above, without making changes. That’s usually my standard.

And as always, it’s a combination of what I’ve listened to most and what I feel has had the greatest impact thus far into the year. Between the two, there was little doubt Elder would take the top spot. I’ve probably listened to the All Them Witches record more than anything else this year, including Elder’s Reflections of a Floating World, but the truth is the Massachusetts trio are working at a level of their own making in terms of their sonic progression, and that they’ve emerged as one of if not the most pivotal American underground heavy rock bands going. The situation was much the same when they put out Lore in 2015 and claimed that year’s top-album spot, but even since then their sound has expanded and they continue to demand ultimate respect.

As for the All Them Witches album — absolute stunner. The increased depth of their arrangements on Sleeping Through the War came at no expense of songwriting, resulting in ultra-memorable material that could either wash over you with melody or shove you out of your seat with the force of its rhythm, and that band continues to be a treasure. No other way to put it.

From there, we move into what I think are the four best heavy psych offerings of 2017 so far, with Samsara Blues Experiment, Colour Haze, Atavismo and Sun Blood Stories, in that order. Samsara Blues Experiment’s return has been a joy to witness and their first album in four years lived up to the occasion. Colour Haze expanded the palette from their last album with In Her Garden and proved as immersive as always. I’m still getting to know that record. Atavismo’s second full-length upped the progressive influences without losing fluidity or cohesion in songwriting, and Sun Blood Stories’ hypnotic shoegaze offered expansive thrills and a sense of varied, beautifully crafted exploration.

A pair of exciting young bands thereafter in Colorado’s Cloud Catcher, whose boogie is right-on-right-on and whose development continues to hold much potential, and Vokonis, whose crushing riffs on The Sunken Djinn were met with an increased focus on structure and tightening of approach that maximized overall impact. The Obsessed’s unexpected return could only be called a triumphant one, and Mothership’s third long-player found them working in a richer sense of mood than previous outings, adding yet more character to what was still a blast of good-time rock and roll. They round out the top 10 in full command of who they are as players.

Granted, the next 10 releases are kind of all over the place, but I think that just shows the overarching quality of work being done across the board. From Spaceslug’s melodic stoner-psych to Electric Moon’s studio return — so, so, so good — to Alunah’s continued growth in nature-worshiping heavy and Arc of Ascent’s comebacker of rolling heavy riffs and metaphysical themes, there’s been so much to take in. I especially like the pairing of Rozamov and Siena Root as a sense of scope for 2017 so far; the former being so dark and crushing and the latter who lived up to calling their record A Dream of Lasting Peace. You want to know both ends of the spectrum? There they are.

PH’s Eternal Hayden gets a nod for its effective reset of the context of that band following the completion of their trilogy of albums, and Geezer’s Psychoriffadelia might have been something of a tossoff in the making, but the level at which the New York trio jams nonetheless assures it a spot here. Plus, a Nazareth cover. So duh.

I couldn’t help but include T.G. Olson’s Foothills Before the Mountain on the list as the Across Tundras frontman creeps closer to a full-band sound for his solo work, adding to his acoustic singer-songwriter foundations, and the crush of Telekinetic Yeti’s post-Sleep riffing evoked so many nods I thought they deserved one here as well. Placing The Devil and the Almighty Blues was difficult, but especially after seeing them live, I felt like I had a better idea of where they were coming from on II, so knew they belonged somewhere, even if it was tucked in at the end. And of course, Lord. Always killer, always experimenting, always chaotic. Never have grind and sludge sounded more cohesive together. They’re the band I wish Soilent Green had become, and yes, I mean that.

Honorable Mention

Let’s do another 10 releases, shall we?

21. Beastmaker, Inside the Skull
22. Arduini/Balich, Dawn of Ages
23. Brume, Rooster
24. John Garcia, The Coyote Who Spoke in Tongues
25. Six Sigma, Tuxedo Brown
26. Demon Head, Thunder on the Fields
27. Summoner, Beyond the Realm of Light
28. Steak, No God to Save
29. Six Organs of Admittance, Burning the Threshold
30. Dool, Here Now There Then

And just to make the point, here are even more worthy of note in this space:

Elbrus, Elbrus
Cortez, The Depths Below
Ecstatic Vision, Raw Rock Fury
Child, Blueside (a December 2016 release, maybe, but I think the vinyl was this year, so whatever)
Pallbearer, Heartless
Spidergawd, IV
Green Meteor, Consumed by a Dying Sun
Loss, Horizonless

There are of course other names as well that come to mind. Like I said at the outset, it’s a crowded field: Hymn, Arbouretum, Green Meteor, REZN, Demon Head, Galley Beggar, Devil’s Witches, Orango, Heavy Traffic, Coltsblood, Mt. Mountain, Vokonis, Solstafir, High Plains, on and on.

Also worth highlighting several really, really quality live records that have surfaced so far this year. I didn’t really know where to place them among the other studio offerings, but they deserve note for sure:

Causa Sui, Live in Copenhagen
Death Alley, Live at Roadburn
My Sleeping Karma, Mela Ananda – Live
Enslaved, Roadburn Live

More to Come

Of course, we’re still just barely halfway through the year, so keep on the lookout for more to follow. If you didn’t see my massive 200+ albums to watch for list in January, it has many that have come out and many more still to surface, but here are a few highlight names as well that you’re going to want to keep an eye on in the months ahead:

Queens of the Stone Age
Radio Moscow
The Atomic Bitchwax
Kadavar
Ufomammut
The Midnight Ghost Train
Moon Rats
Clamfight
Egypt
the Melvins
Bison Machine
Seedy Jeezus
High on Fire
Monster Magnet

Thanks for Reading

Before I check out, I’d like to give special mention to Lo-Pan’s In Tensions EP as the best short release of the year thus far. Along with EPs from Godhunter, Kings Destroy, Solace and Shroud Eater, it has assured those seeking a quick fix are handed their ass in return for asking.

Well, that’s about where I’m at with it. As per usual, I’m sure there are things I forgot and/or left off here, because I’m human and whatnot, so please if you have something to add, feel free to do so in the comments so long as you can keep it cordial. No name calling. I’m sensitive and you’ll ruin my whole day. I mean that.

Thanks again for being a part of this and here’s to an excellent rest of 2017.

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Death Alley, Live at Roadburn: Into the Supernatural

Posted in Reviews on March 16th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

death-alley-live-at-roadburn

Not going to attempt any impartiality when it comes to this release, and I’m starting to think anyone who does is approaching it wrong. Amsterdam-based Death Alley — somehow heading toward veteran status despite having only one record out in their 2015 Tee Pee Records debut, Black Magick Boogieland (review here) — aren’t trying to invoke impartiality. Just the opposite. The four-piece want to charge on a primal level and they want to charge outward from there into reaches unknown to player or listener alike. To be unaffected by that seems like an immediately incorrect starting point.

I was at the Green Room of the 013 Poppodium to see them perform the set last April (review here) that Astrosoniq drummer Marcel van de Vondervoort and his team captured and is seeing release as Live at Roadburn through Tee Pee and Suburban Records, and I watched as Death Alley — then the lineup of vocalist Douwe Truijens, guitarist/backing vocalist Oeds Beydals, bassist/backing vocalist Dennis Duijnhouwer and drummer Ming Boyer (the latter of whom has since left the band) — brought Ron van Herpen and Jevin de Groot onto the stage with them to share in the expanses they were creating. Also a member of Astrosoniqvan Herpen is a former bandmate of Beydals‘ in crucial cult rockers The Devil’s Blood, while de Groot was a member of the vastly underrated cosmic doom outfit Mühr alongside Duijnhouwer, so not at all strangers to each other. Friends. It was billed as Death Alley & Friends, and that’s exactly what it was in spirit as well as the plain reality of circumstance. By the time they got through the clarion set-opener “It’s On,” everyone in the room seemed to have been handed an invitation to be included in that as well. Death Alley and about 700 new and old friends.

Live at Roadburn only has four tracks — “It’s On,” “666666,” “Feeding the Lions” and “Supernatural Predator” — but it’s full-LP length at 45 minutes. The entirety of side B is dedicated to “Supernatural Predator,” which is drawn out from its already substantial 12-minute push on Black Magick Boogieland to a galaxial 22 minutes, a hypnotic and immersive jam taking hold that, having watched and heard it happen, hit like welcoming waves of soulful tone that seemed at once forward looking and an inherent homage to former The Devil’s Blood spearhead Selim Lemouchi, who took his own life in 2014 leaving a chasm in the Netherlands heavy underground. His sister and The Devil’s Blood vocalist, Farida Lemouchi, guests on the studio version of the track, but on Live at RoadburnDeath Alleyvan Herpen and de Groot sing her part as a full Hawkwindian chorus of “ahhs” to righteous effect, culminating a build that seems to have started with the motoring thrust of “It’s On” and continued into the mega-guitar vibes of “666666” and the more classically styled “Feeding the Lions.”

death alley roadburn 2016 jj koczan photo

Though the name comes across like a toss-off because there were six players on stage — in shows they’ve done since with this expanded lineup, they’ve used the moniker Death Alley 6 — “666666” is a key moment in the set. I don’t know if the set as a whole has been edited to fit on a single platter; my sense is it has but I wouldn’t guess how. Nonetheless, “666666” is the point of departure from which Death Alley take flight for the rest of their time on stage. It happens at about three and a half minutes in when, over a Butlerian bassline, the guitars begin to soar toward a linear apex that pays off in lockstep harmonized runs nearly four minutes later for a gorgeous and cohesive effect. It must have been worked out ahead of time to some degree — I don’t play guitar, but improv harmonies don’t seem like the kind of thing that happen often — but the feeling of warmth and spontaneity conveyed in that jam is a defining moment for Live at Roadburn as a whole, however long and however grand the finale might be.

“Feeding the Lions” picks up from there with bass and drums setting a tense tone amid initial wah swirl from the guitar, and though the vibe stays spacey, Truijens reassumes the fore as vocalist and his charisma and classic frontman strut is no less a part of making the mid-paced piece a standout than the depth of the instrumental progression playing out behind him. By this point, Death Alley are in utter command of the room and their sound, and they hint just past the midpoint at some Floyd-style theatrical weirdness to come but hold to a sense of structure all the same and purposefully so for where they’re about to head on “Supernatural Predator.” A short guitar solo circa 5:40 makes me wish it went longer, but “Feeding the Lions” ends in a wash of cymbals and wah as Truijens thanks the crowd and van Herpen and de Groot and Duijnhouwer thanks Roadburn organizer Walter Hoeijmakers, and then the quiet intro of “Supernatural Predator” starts, its sleek intertwining of guitar and bass — willfully restrained in comparison to what follows — an immediate signifier of arrival for the group and everyone in the room.

Once it bursts out, “Supernatural Predator” makes a resounding argument for rock and roll as means of attaining spiritual freedom, and its extra time is triumphantly spent in its already-noted jam, which rounds out by first teasing a turn back to the song itself and then actually making one, so that as far out as Death Alley (and friends) have gone, they finish clear-headed and give the audience a sense of the complete experience. This not only underscores the value of their songwriting, but also of the maturity the band has been able to hone over just a few short years. As they move away from Black Magick Boogieland toward an inevitable sophomore full-length, Death Alley seem poised to establish themselves in a major way, and to make a definitive statement of who they are as a group. Live at Roadburn shows in its blend of forward rhythmic drive and cosmic psychedelia just how multifaceted that statement can potentially be, and highlights the reasons why Death Alley are one of the most exciting and affecting bands in the worldwide heavy underground. Not an impartial statement, but yes, I mean that.

Death Alley BigCartel store

Death Alley on Thee Facebooks

Death Alley website

Tee Pee Records website

Suburban Records website

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