Where to Start: The Obelisk’s Guide to Small Stone Records

Posted in Where to Start on May 3rd, 2012 by H.P. Taskmaster

Founded in 1995 by Scott Hamilton, Detroit imprint Small Stone Records is the single most influential American heavy rock label of the post-Man’s Ruin era. What started as Hamilton releasing local Detroit acts of varied genres like Morsel, 36D and Perplexa soon took on a dedication to the heavy aesthetic that remains unmatched in both its scope and its reach of influence. Looking back, Five Horse Johnson‘s 1997 Double Down debut, seems to have been the beginning of Small Stone‘s turn down the fuzzly path. It’s like Hamilton followed the riff right down the rabbit hole and never looked back.

Now, 17 years on, Small Stone has a reach that goes beyond even the distribution of the albums it puts out. Thanks to the diligent work of Hamilton and oft-encountered names like Mad Oak Studios engineer/mixer Benny Grotto, mastering engineer Chris Gooseman, graphic artist Alexander von Wieding, among others, the label has earned a reputation for quality output that new releases are constantly reaffirming. Over the years, Man’s Ruin refugees like Sons of Otis, (The Men Of) Porn, Acid King and VALIS have come into the fold, but the crux of Small Stone‘s catalog is made up of acts like Roadsaw, Dixie Witch, Halfway to Gone, Throttlerod, Puny Human and Novadriver, who no matter what else they put out or who they put it out with, will always be considered “Small Stone bands.”

That designation and those groups specifically have helped establish a core American-style heavy rocking sound that the label seems to delight in toying with even as it continues to promulgate. Next generation bands like Gozu, Lo-Pan, Freedom Hawk, Backwoods Payback and even newer newcomers Wo Fat, Supermachine, Lord Fowl and Mellow Bravo — who don’t yet have albums out on the label — are expanding its breadth, and recent international signees Asteroid, Abrahma, Mangoo, Nightstalker and Mother of God should help ensure that Small Stone keeps pushing both itself and genre boundaries well into the next several years.

One of the hazards, however, of an ever-growing catalog, is that it can be hard to figure out where to start taking it on, and to that end, I’m happy to provide you with 10 essential Small Stone picks. Note I didn’t say “the 10 essential Small Stone picks,” because the reality of the situation is this is just the tip of the fuzzberg. If it’s any indication, I started out with five and couldn’t leave the rest out.

Here they are, ordered by the date of release:

 
1. Novadriver, Void (ss-022/2001)

Still an album that’s more or less impossible to pin to just one genre, the stoner/space/weirdo jams of Novadriver‘s 2001 outing, Void, reside somewhere between Monster Magnet‘s early Hawkwind worship and the unbridled intensity of groove that came out of Detroit’s early- and mid-’70s heavy rock and proto-metal. The fact that Novadriver also came from the Motor City speaks to the label’s local roots, but if Void was coming out even today, it’d be coming out on Small Stone.

2. Los Natas, Corsario Negro (ss-028/2002)

Personally, I think 2005′s El Hombre Montaña is a better album and 2009′s Nuevo Orden de la Libertad is an even better album than that, but Corsario Negro earns the edge as a starting point because it was the beginning of the Argentinian rockers’ relationship with Small Stone (they too were left without a home in the wake of Man’s Ruin folding). Plus, if you haven’t heard them before and you get this, you can still marvel at the subsequent offerings. Either way, totally necessary.

3. Various Artists, Sucking the ’70s (ss-032/2002)

In a lot of ways, this is what it’s all about. Badass bands playing badass songs. By this point, The Glasspack, Los Natas, Fireball Ministry, Halfway to Gone and Five Horse Johnson (who lead off the first disc) had already put out at least one album through Small Stone, but Sucking the ’70s made the most of the label’s burgeoning reputation, bringing in Clutch, Alabama Thunderpussy and Lowrider, along with bands who’d later add records to the catalog like Roadsaw, Suplecs and Lord Sterling, all covering hits and obscurities from the heavy ’70s. A gorgeous collection that would get a sequel in 2006. Still waiting on part three.

4. Dixie Witch, One Bird, Two Stones (ss-037/2003)

The Austin, Texas, trio would go on to become one of the most pivotal acts on the Small Stone roster, and they’d do so on the strength of their Southern riffs and the soul in their songwriting. Led by drummer/vocalist Trinidad Leal, Dixie Witch hooked up with Small Stone on the heels of their 2001 debut, Into the Sun, which was released by Brainticket, and quickly gained a reputation for some of the finest classic road songs that Grand Funk never wrote (see “The Wheel”). Their 2011 offering, Let it Roll, affirmed their statesmen status among their labelmates.

5. Sasquatch, Sasquatch (ss-044/2004)

I was pretty well convinced that when the L.A.-based Sasquatch released their self-titled debut in 2004, rock and roll was saved. Whoever it needed saving from, whatever needed to take place to make that happen, this record did it. Truth is, rock and roll didn’t really need to be saved — it needed a stiff drink, as we all do from time to time — but Sasquatch would’ve been right there even if it had. They’re a Small Stone original with all three of their records to date out through the label, and still one of the strongest acts in the American rock underground, even though they’d never be quite this fuzzy again.

6. Dozer, Through the Eyes of Heathens (ss-061/2005)

Even now, seven years later, I can’t look at this album cover without hearing the chorus to “The Roof, the River, the Revolver.” Between that and songs like “Man of Fire,” “Born a Legend” and “From Fire Fell,” Swedish rockers Dozer made their definitive statement in their label debut (fourth album overall). Another former Man’s Ruin band, they’d already begun to grow past their desert rock roots by the time they hooked up with Hamilton, and Through the Eyes of Heathens played out like what heavy metal should’ve turned into after the commercial atrocities of the late-’90s. A gorgeous record and still a joy to hear.

7. Greenleaf, Agents of Ahriman (ss-074/2007)

It’s like they built nearly every song on here out of undeniable choruses. Even the verses are catchy. I’ve championed Agents of Ahriman since before I started this site, and I feel no less vehement in doing so now than I did then. A side-project of Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa that on this, their third album, included and featured members of Truckfighters, Lowrider, The Awesome Machine and others, Greenleaf became a distillation of many of the elements that make Swedish heavy rock unique in the world. It wasn’t aping classic rock, it was giving it a rebirth, and every Hammond note was an absolute triumph.

8. Iota, Tales (ss-084/2008)

Once, I had a t-shirt with the cover of Iota‘s Tales on the front. I wore it until it got holes, and then I bought another. That’s the kind of album Tales was. A trio crawled from out of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Iota took Kyuss, launched them into space, and jammed out for five, 10 or 20 minutes to celebrate the success of the mission. Recently, guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano has resurfaced in the bluesier, more earthbound Dwellers, which teams him with the rhythm section of SubRosa. Their debut, Good Morning Harakiri, was a highlight of early 2012, building on what Iota was able to accomplish here while pushing in a different direction.

9. Solace, A.D. (ss-093/2010)

It took the better part of a decade for the Jersey-bred metallers to finish what became their Small Stone debut after two full-lengths for MeteorCity, but when it finally dropped, there was no denying A.D.‘s power. My album of the year in 2010, the band delivered front to back on seven years’ worth of promise, and though it was recorded in more studios than I can count over a longer stretch than I think even Solace knows, it became a cohesive, challenging album, giving listeners a kick in the ass even as it handed them their next beer. I still get chills every time I put on “From Below,” and I put it on with near-embarrassing regularity.

10. Lo-Pan, Salvador (ss-116/2011)

If you know this site, this one’s probably a no-brainer pick, but the Columbus, Ohio-based riff merchants took on unabashed stoner rock fuzz for their Small Stone debut (third album overall) and made some of 2011′s most memorable songs in the process. Subversively varied in mood and heavy as hell no matter what they were doing, every part of Lo-Pan‘s Salvador worked. There was no lag. Small Stone also reissued the band’s 2009 outing, Sasquanaut, in 2011, but Salvador surpassed it entirely, bringing the band to new heights of professionalism they’d confirm by touring, well, perpetually. They’re still touring for it. You should go see them and behold the future of fuzz.

That’s the list as much as I could limit it. If you want to immediately add five more, throw in Roadsaw‘s self-titled (they’re writing the best songs of their career right now, I don’t care how attached to the early records you are), Puny Human‘s Universal Freak Out, Halfway to Gone‘s High Five, Milligram‘s This is Class War and Five Horse Johnson‘s Fat Black Pussycat. If you want to semi-immediately add five more than that, get the reissue of Acid King‘s Busse Woods, Mos Generator‘s Songs for Future Gods, The Brought Low‘s Third Record, Tummler‘s Early Man and Erik Larson‘s The Resounding. There. We just doubled the length of the list.

And the real trouble? I could go on. We didn’t even touch on curios like Axehandle, Lord Sterling and Brain Police, or The Might Could‘s Southern aggression, Hackman‘s instrumentalism or the druggy post-grunge of VALIS. Suffice it to say that Small Stone is one of very few labels out there from whom any output will at least be worth a cursory investigation. As the label continues to grow and develop in 2012 and beyond with new bands and new releases from its staple acts, taking on new avenues of commerce — like releasing vinyl for the first time, which it did in 2011 — whatever changes might crop up, Small Stone seems ready to meet the future, distortion pedal first. Can’t ask more of rock than that.

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Small Stone Announces SXSW Showcase Schedule

Posted in Whathaveyou on January 18th, 2012 by H.P. Taskmaster

I know I’ve talked before about the amazing times and staggering drunken debauchery I’ve (allegedly) witnessed and/or been involved in at Small Stone‘s SXSW showcases. For all the years I went to SXSW, it was unquestionably the high point, and if I was going to go now, it would be just about the only reason.

The label just announced their 2012 schedule with an exceptionally well-constructed press release — I mean, seriously, whoever wrote the thing should be hired for some cushy work-from-home newsletter-writing gig at a major corporation with money to spend so he can spend his days blogging about European heavy psych records — and the lineup is enough to make me wistful for the hazy memories that could be.

Mic check!

Now entering its 17th year of operation, Small Stone Records has announced the final lineup for its 2012 SXSW showcase, set to take place Friday, March 16, on the outside back patio at Headhunters on Red River in Austin, TX. The label, home to the best in heavy and ‘70s-fueled motor rock, has assembled a roster of new and old blood for a night that’s sure to remind Austin why it loves volume so much in the first place.

Says label honcho Scott Hamilton, “We are very much looking forward to our yearly showcase in Austin. We have a great lineup that we’ll stuff into Headhunters, which is also one of our favorite little watering holes on Red River. It is always nice to tilt some back with some old friends, and some new ones too! Save the date, Friday March 16th!”

Spanning genres from the fuzz-drenched psychedelic improv jams of Austin natives Tia Carrera, who will close out the night, to the crunchy, noise-driven blues of New Orleans trio Suplecs, Small Stone’s showcase is an annual high point of South by Southwest for those who manage to remember it the next morning. The complete lineup is as follows:

Friday, March 16
Headhunters (Outside Back Patio) 720 Red River at 8th St.:
1am: Tia Carrera
12am: Dixie Witch
11pm: Suplecs
10pm: Lo-Pan
9pm: Gozu
8pm: Backwoods Payback
7pm: Dwellers

Original 18″x24″ silk screen concert poster available by New York-based artist and illustrator Joshua Marc Levy.

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The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 of 2011

Posted in Features on December 9th, 2011 by H.P. Taskmaster

Please note: This list is made up of my personal picks, not the results of the Readers Poll, which is ongoing — if you haven’t added your top 11 to that yet, please do.

It was an impossible task to keep up with everything that came out this year. I’ll say flat out that I didn’t. There are records that I just didn’t get to hear, and I should note at the outset that this list is mine. It’s based on my personal opinions, what I listened to the most this year and what I think 2011′s most crucial releases have been.

I’ve spent the better part of this week (and last, if brain-time counts) constructing this list, and I finally got it to a point where I feel comfortable sharing. Since last December, I’ve kept a Post-It of names, and all year, I’ve logged bands I’d want to consider for the final top 20. In the end, there were 78 bands and more that I didn’t get to write down for whatever reason. 2011 was nothing if it wasn’t overwhelming.

But here we are, anyway, and it’s done. Let’s get to it:

20. Suplecs, Mad Oak Redux

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Nov. 5, 2010.

This is nothing if not a sentimental pick. Last year, I put Electric Wizard in the #20 spot because the record wasn’t out yet, and this year, I’m putting Suplecs (interview with bassist Danny Nick here) in just because I couldn’t imagine this list without them. Until literally a few minutes before I clicked “Publish” on this post, there was someone else in this spot, but ultimately, it had to be them. The New Orleans trio’s first record in half a decade wasn’t what I listened to most in 2011, it wasn’t the best album, or the most important, or career-defining, but when it came right down to it, god damn, I was just happy to have Suplecs back. It had been too long.

19. Elvis Deluxe, Favourite State of Mind

Released by Harmony Records. Reviewed June 14.

After a while, I was kind of shocked to find myself continuing to listen to Favourite State of Mind, the second album by Polish rockers Elvis Deluxe. The record’s dynamics didn’t immediately open up to me, but once I dug into the songs, I was wowed by their balance of catchy hooks and substantial-sounding riffs. The album was genre-relevant without being genre-minded, with vocal changes, organ, atmospheric shifts and a whole host of moods and turns. After hearing their 2007 debut, Lazy, I wasn’t expecting much out of the norm from Favourite State of Mind, and I’m still thrilled by just how wrong I was, and “Take it Slow” is among my favorite single songs of the year.

18. 40 Watt Sun, The Inside Room

Released by Metal Blade. Reviewed Aug. 11.

The gloomy opening statement from former Warning guitarist/vocalist Patrick Walker turned heads around the world with its unabashed emotional conviction, which was so much the central focus of the record as to be made a novelty by those who don’t usually consider doom an emotionally relevant genre (the widespread arguments against that notion I’ll leave for another time). What most stood out to me about The Inside Room was how the sentimentality translated into a gorgeous melodic sensibility and resulted in a lonely mood that was engrossing. On that level, it was easily among 2011′s most effective releases. It made you feel what it seemed to be feeling.

17. Sigiriya, Return to Earth

Released by The Church Within. Reviewed May 27.

It was an album that lived up to its name. Return to Earth marked the remaking of one of heavy rocks most stoned outfits: Acrimony. But, as Sigiriya (interview with drummer Darren Ivey here), the four-piece (down from five) would show that the years since the demise of their former band had found them progressing as musicians, resulting in a sound less directly stoner, more modern, more earthy. The songs, however, were what made it. It’s still a rare day that goes by that I don’t hum at least part of the chorus of “Mountain Goat” to myself, and if Return to Earth was a new beginning for these players, I can’t wait to see where they go next.

16. Totimoshi, Avenger

Released by At a Loss. Reviewed Aug. 16.

In addition to being Totimoshi‘s first album for At a Loss following the end of their deal with Volcom, Avenger was the first Totimoshi record since 2003′s ¿Mysterioso? not to be produced by Page Hamilton, and where 2006′s Ladrón and 2008′s Milagrosa moved away from some of the noisy crunch in the guitar of Tony Aguilar (interview here), Avenger managed to be both a return to form and a progression of the band’s melodicism. It seems, as ever, to have flown under most radars, but Totimoshi continue to refine their songwriting and have become one of the heavy underground’s most formidable and least classifiable bands.

15. Grifter, Grifter

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Aug. 30.

With their 2010 EP release, upstart British trio Grifter informed us that The Simplicity of the Riff is Key, and on their self-titled Ripple Music debut, they put that ethic to excellent use, resulting in straightforward, catchy songs that were as high-octane as they were low-bullshit. The ultra-catchy “Good Day for Bad News” showed Grifter at the top of their form, and with a dose of humor thrown in, Grifter was the drunken stoner rock party you always wanted to be invited to and, of course, finally were. Now if only I could get Skype to work and get that interview with Ollie Stygall moving, I’d be happy to tell him personally he put out one of 2011′s most kickass rock records.

14. The Book of Knots, Garden of Fainting Stars

Released by Ipecac. Reviewed June 16.

I don’t know what’s most impressive about The Book of KnotsGarden of Fainting Stars — the songs themselves or that they were able to make any songs at all. With upwards of 20 guest spots around the core four-piece, the third in a purported trilogy of records from the avant rock originalists was an epic in every listen. Songs like “Microgravity” and the Mike Watt spoken word “Yeager’s Approach” pushed the limits of both genre and expectation, and miraculously, Garden of Fainting Stars was cohesive and enthralling in its narrative aspect. If it really was their last album, it was triumphant in a manner befitting its expanding-universe thematics.

13. Ancestors, Invisible White

Released by Tee Pee. Reviewed July 5.

Had it been a full-length, Invisible White would be higher on this list. Many out there who were enamored of Ancestors‘ 2008 Neptune with Fire debut have gone on to bemoan the Californian collective’s shift away from extended sections of heavy riffing and tales of sea monsters and other things that go “doom” in the night. I’m not one of them. The Invisible White EP was a brave step along a fascinating progression, and as Crippled Black Phoenix didn’t release a new album in 2011, I was glad to have Ancestors there to fill that morose, contemplative void, and I look forward to seeing how they expand on the ideas presented on Invisible White (if they decide to stick to this direction) for their next full-length.

12. Elder, Dead Roots Stirring

Released by MeteorCity. Reviewed Oct. 5.

Speaking of shifting approaches, still-young Massachusetts trio Elder also moved away from the Sleep-centric methods of their 2008 self-titled debut on the follow-up, Dead Roots Stirring. Still based very much around the guitar work of Nick DiSalvo (interview here), Elder songs like “Gemini” and the über-soloed “The End” pushed an influence of European heavy psych into the band’s aesthetic, and the result was both grippingly heavy and blown of mind. As an album long delayed by mixing and business concerns, when Dead Roots Stirring finally arrived, it was a relief to hear that Elder, though they’d varied the path, were still headed in the right direction.

11. The Gates of Slumber, The Wretch

Released by Rise Above. Reviewed May 5.

Hands down the year’s best traditional doom release. The Wretch so gleefully and so earnestly employed the conventions of ’80s-style doom — most especially those of Saint Vitus and Trouble — that even though the lyrical and musical content was miserable, I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Songs like “Bastards Born” and “The Scovrge ov Drvnkenness” pushed The Gates of Slumber away from the barbarism the Indianapolis outfit had been touting on their last couple albums, including 2008′s Conqueror breakthrough, in favor of a more purely Chandlerian plod. “To the Rack with Them” remains a standout favorite and a line often referenced in my workplace dealings.

10. Weedeater, Jason… the Dragon

Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed Jan. 6.

I don’t know what you say to someone at this point who doesn’t like Weedeater. It just seems like a terrible way to go through life, without the madman ranting of “Dixie” Dave Collins (interview here) echoing perpetually in your ears, or never having witnessed their ultra-viscous fuzz in person. Jason… the Dragon was one of the earliest landmark releases of 2011, and practically the whole year later, it retains its hold, whether it’s the stomping fury of “Mancoon,” the lumbering groove of “Long Gone” or the surprisingly melodic “Homecoming.” The hard-touring, hard-hitting band did right in recording with Steve Albini to capture their live sound, and Jason… the Dragon was their strongest outing yet in terms of both songwriting and that unmistakable quality that makes Weedeater records Weedeater records.

9. Rwake, Rest

Released by Relapse. Reviewed Sept. 6.

I was surprised to see Rwake crack the top 10. Not because their first album in four years, the Sanford Parker-produced Rest, wasn’t superb, but because of how much the songs on the album stayed with me after listening. The Arkansas band’s last outing, Voices of Omens, was heavy and dark and had a lot going for it, but Rest upped the songwriting on every level and together with frontman CT (interview here) adopting a more decipherable shout over most of the record’s four main extended tracks, Rwake felt like a band reborn, and theirs was a highlight among several 2011 albums that showed there’s still room for individual growth and stylistic nuance within the sphere of post-metal.

8. Hull, Beyond the Lightless Sky

Released by The End. Reviewed Oct. 14.

It was back and forth, nine and eight, between Rwake and Hull for a while, but when all was said and done, the fantastic scope of Beyond the Lightless Sky gave the Brooklyn triple-guitar masters the edge. With a narrative structure behind it and a breadth of ambience and crushing, post-doomly riffing, Beyond the Lightless Sky was the defining moment that those who’ve followed Hull since their Viking Funeral demo have been waiting for. In concept, in performance, in sound and structure and heft, it absolutely floored me, and of all the heavy records I’ve heard with the tag applied to them in 2011, Hull‘s second full-length seems most to earn the tag “progressive.” A stunning and groundbreaking achievement.

7. Mars Red Sky, Mars Red Sky

Released by Emergence. Reviewed Aug. 29.

One of 2011′s most fascinating developments has been the boom in European heavy psychedelia, and the self-titled debut from French band Mars Red Sky was among the best releases to blend a jam-based sensibility with thick, warm fuzz and memorable riffs. Together with the sweet-hued vocals of Julien Pras (interview here), those riffs made for some of the most infectious hooks I heard all year on songs like “Strong Reflection” and “Way to Rome,” and where other bands jammed their way into psychedelic oblivion, Mars Red Sky were able to balance their focus on crafting quality songs, so that although they sounded spontaneous, the material was never self-indulgent or lacking accessibility. One just hopes they don’t lose sight of that musical humility their next time out.

6. Grayceon, All We Destroy

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed on March 8.

There was a point earlier this year at which I had forgotten about All We Destroy. After reviewing it in March, I simply moved on to the next thing on my list, and the thing after, and the thing after. But before I knew it, in my head was the voice of Jackie Perez Gratz, singing the line “As I live and breathe” over her own cello, the guitar of Max Doyle and Max Doyle‘s drums. It got so persistent that, eventually, I went out and bought the record, because the mp3s I’d been given to review simply weren’t enough. That was probably July, and I don’t think I’ve gone a week since without listening to Grayceon. So although I classify it in the same league as Rwake and Hull in terms of what it accomplishes in and for its genre, All We Destroy gets the extra nod for the fact that I simply haven’t been able to let it go. And though I’ve come to further appreciate “Shellmounds,” “Once a Shadow” and “A Road Less Traveled,” the 17-minute “We Can” — from which the above-noted lyric is taken — remains the best single song I heard in 2011.

5. Red Fang, Murder the Mountains

Released by Relapse. Reviewed Feb. 16.

On paper, this one should’ve flopped: Band with minor buzz and a cool video hooks up with indie rock dude to record an album of dopey riffs and beardo bombast. Instead, Red Fang‘s second album and Relapse debut became the 2011 vanguard release for the Portland heavy underground, which is arguably the most fertile scene in the US right now. They toured the record widely, and made another killer video for the mega-single “Wires,” but the reason Murder the Mountains is top five material is because it’s lasted. It was February that I reviewed this record, and March that I interviewed guitarist/vocalist Bryan Giles, and I still can’t get “Into the Eye” and “Hank is Dead” and “Number Thirteen” (especially the latter) out of my head. When it came down to it, the songs on Murder the Mountains lived up to any hype the album received, and I’m a sucker for quality songwriting. I mean, seriously. That key change late into “Number Thirteen?” It’s the stuff of the gods.

4. Graveyard, Hisingen Blues

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Feb. 25.

I wasn’t particularly a fan of Swedish rockers Graveyard‘s 2008 self-titled debut. Even watching them at Roadburn in 2010, I was underwhelmed. But when I heard Hisingen Blues and was able to get a feel for what the retro-minded foursome were getting at stylistically — and most of all, that they were acknowledging that they were doing it without being glib or ironic about it — I found the material irresistible. We’re getting into seriously indispensable records now; ones that I’ve been unwilling to leave home without since they came, in, and Graveyard‘s Hisingen Blues has been a constant feature in heavy rotation. Everything from the devilish testimony of the title-track to the wiry guitars of the chorus to “Ungrateful are the Dead,” to the Skynyrd-ified solo capping “Uncomfortably Numb”: It’s been a year of revelry in all of it, and since they overcame my prejudice to impress on such a level, Graveyard (interview with drummer Axel Sjöberg here) are all the more deserving of their spot on this list.

3. Sungrazer, Mirador

Released by Elektrohasch. Reviewed Sept. 9.

What I hear in the second album from Dutch trio Sungrazer is the heralding of a new generation of fuzz rock. Taking influence from their forebears in Colour Haze and Kyuss, the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets (interview here), bassist/vocalist Sander Haagmans and drummer Hans Mulders followed and surpassed their stellar 2010 debut on every level, playing heavy riffs on expansive psychedelic jams and still finding room for some of 2011′s most memorable choruses in songs like “Sea” and “Goldstrike.” In so doing, Sungrazer affirmed the character of next-gen European fuzz and placed themselves at the fore of their scene, with touring and festival  appearances to support. For their warmth of tone and for the fact that I spent the better part of the summer streaming the record through the Dutch website 3voor12, there was no way they were going to be left out of the top 20. It wasn’t until I sat down and actually put the numbers together, though, that I realized how vital Mirador actually was.

2. Lo-Pan, Salvador

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Feb. 16.

I was lucky enough to be sent some rough listening mixes of Ohio outfit Lo-Pan‘s Small Stone Records debut (following a reworked reissue of their Sasquanaut sophomore full-length), and in my email back to label head Scott Hamilton, I told him I thought he had a genuine classic on his hands. A year, I don’t even know how many Lo-Pan gigs and listens through Salvador later, I still feel that way 100 percent. If you were from another planet, and we got to talking at a bar, and you asked me what rock and roll should sound like in the place where I’m from, I’d hand you Salvador. I still think they should’ve started the album with “Generations,” but if that’s my biggest gripe, they’re clearly doing alright. “Bird of Prey” was the best live song I saw all year, and I saw it plenty, and cuts like “Bleeding Out” and “Struck Match” set the standard by which I’ll judge American heavy rock for a long time to come. Like the best of any class, Salvador is bigger than just the year in which it was released, and at this point, I don’t know what else to say about it.

1. YOB, Atma

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed July 6.

This is as good as it gets, and by “it,” I mean life. YOB‘s last album, 2009′s The Great Cessation, was my album of the year that year as well, and I knew from the second I heard the self-produced Atma that nothing to come this year would top it. Like Ufomammut‘s Eve in 2010, Atma brings the entire genre of doom along with it on the new ground it breaks, refining what’s fast becoming YOB‘s signature approach even as it pushes ever forward. I still have to stop whatever I’m doing (not exactly good for productivity) whenever “Prepare the Ground” comes on, and songs like “Adrift in the Ocean” and “Before We Dreamed of Two” were humbling. Seriously. Humbling. Listening to them was like looking at those photographs from the Hubble that cover trillions of miles that we’ll never know and reveal gorgeous colors where our naked eyes only see black. If that sounds hyperbolic, thanks for getting it. YOB guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt (interview here) is, almost in spite of himself, one of American doom’s most crucial contributors, and with Atma, he and the rhythm section of bassist Aaron Reiseberg and drummer Travis Foster released what is without a doubt the best album of 2011.

A few quick housekeeping items and we’ll call it quits. First, honorable mentions. If this list went to 25, also included would be The Wounded Kings, Earth, Larman Clamor, Olde Growth and The Atlas Moth. Roadsaw were also in heavy consideration, so they’re worth noting, as are many others.

Obviously, I couldn’t include them, but two of my favorite releases in 2011 also came from Blackwolfgoat and HeavyPink, and I’m thrilled and honored to have helped put them out in the small way I did.

And as I said above, there are records I didn’t hear. I haven’t heard the new Black Pyramid yet. Or Orchid. Or a bunch more that I could go on listing. I’m only one man and this is only my list, for better or worse. Again, I really do hope you’ll contribute yours to the group poll, the results of which will be out Jan. 1.

I’ll probably have some more to wrap up 2011 as the month winds down, but until then, thank you so much for reading this and the rest of the wordy nonsense I’ve put up the whole year long. Your support and encouragement means more than I’m able to tell. Here’s to 2012 to come.

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Dixie Witch, Let it Roll: This is a Traveling Song

Posted in Reviews on September 16th, 2011 by H.P. Taskmaster

As smooth and unpretentious as the easy-drinking Lone Star Beer brewed in their home state of Texas, heavy Southern rock trio Dixie Witch have undergone some considerable changes over the course of their 12-year run. It’s astonishing to think it’s been five years since their stellar third album, Smoke and Mirrors, was released by Small Stone, and even more so to imagine the three-piece without guitarist Clayton Mills, who left in 2009. On Dixie Witch’s fourth album, Let it Roll (also Small Stone), dreadlocked guitarist Joshua “JT” Todd Smith makes his debut alongside founding drummer/vocalist Trinidad Leal and bassist/vocalist Curt “CC” Christensen, and as much as Mills’ tone, classic rock soloing and ability to lock in a groove with Leal and Christensen was a huge part of what made Dixie Witch the rock and roll powerhouse they were, the band hasn’t missed a beat. Smith rips through leads and lacks nothing in tonal heft, and Dixie Witch’s latest brims with the energy that has always been so prevalent in their sound.

More than energetic, though, the 10 tracks on Let it Roll are memorable, from the opening title cut – on which Smith quickly shows his hand as regards sped-up blues soloing – to the punkish late-album highlight “Automatic Lady” and on through closer “December.” Dixie Witch have always had their love of classic rock on their sleeve, and that’s definitely in play on Let it Roll as well, but the album is more a showcase of songwriting ability than ‘70s fetishism. Recorded at Mad Oak in Allston, Massachusetts, by Small Stone’s go-to engineer Benny Grotto, the balance of natural, live sound and clarity that has shown up on much of the label’s latter-day output (see also: 2011 releases from Freedom Hawk, Backwoods Payback, Lo-Pan, Roadsaw and Suplecs) is in full and righteous effect across Let it Roll. The dude knows how to make rock records sound like rock records, and Dixie Witch, for their part, certainly have some expertise in the matter as well. Leal’s drums don’t have the same kind of brightness in the hi-hat or prevalence in the mix as they did on Smoke and Mirrors (produced by Joel Hamilton), but everything is in order, and as Leal and Christensen set the tone for the several lead-vocal tradeoffs the album has on offer in the transition between “Let it Roll” and “Boogie Man,” the sense of balance is palpable.

That Leal and Christensen share lead vocal duties adds diversity to Dixie Witch’s approach, which is still relatively straightforward no matter who’s fronting at any given moment. The band’s propensity for strong choruses shines through, and “Boogie Man” shows right away that just because they’re using a consistent songwriting tactic doesn’t mean different personalities can’t be carried across. “The High Deal,” for example, follows “Boogie Man.” Leal takes over the vocals once more, and the song is less outwardly vibrant, a little slower, a little more ringing Southern note progression from Smith in the verse, and in that kind of heavy rock song of the road that Dixie Witch have always excelled at crafting without ever sounding foolish or overtly inauthentic. It’s a solid lead-in for the catchy “Red Song,” which revives the more energetic take and finds Leal putting his toms and double-kick bass drum (of which I’m normally not a fan) to excellent use setting up another engaging solo from Smith. Of all the tracks on Let it Roll, “Red Song” is among the easiest to imagine in a live setting, Christensen’s rumble adding emphasis to Leal’s persistent pedal work, and the band’s formidable charisma materializing even from just the audio.

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What to Look Forward to in 2011, Pt. 2: Rampant Speculation

Posted in Features on January 18th, 2011 by H.P. Taskmaster

Please don’t think I’m breaking any news here one way or the other about any of these releases. This post is basically just me talking about albums I’d like to see this year. Some have been formally announced, some just alluded to, but if these and the records listed yesterday were all that 2011 had in store, we’d probably still come out of it on the winning side.

Once again, the headline says “Rampant Speculation” and that’s what this is. Maybe in reading it, you’ll agree with something, maybe you’ll disagree. Either way, any comments are appreciated as always.

Let’s have some fun:

YOB: Sad as it is that Oregon doom forerunners YOB had to cancel their appearance at Roadburn and European tour, one can only hope their follow-up to 2009′s blistering The Great Cessation comes out that much sooner as a result. It will be interested to hear where the band goes stylistically. Guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt had plenty to be pissed about going into the YOB reunion, following all that Middian/Midian legal nonsense, but now that that’s through with, will he bring the same kind of vitriol to bare in the songwriting? Hopefully it’s not too long before we find out.

Colour Haze: They’re one of the classiest bands on the planet, and their last album, All, was hands-down my favorite record of 2008. They’ve released the Burg Herzberg two-disc live recording since then, but it’s time for new album, and according to the last Elektrohasch Schallplatten, it’s not far off. All had a more live, more organic feel than anything Colour Haze ever did before — the snare drum’s reacting to the bass and guitar rumble like a nod to everyone listening that it was done with everyone in the same room — and I’m looking forward to hearing how they try to top it.

Clutch: 2010 saw numerous reissues and the usual insane amount of touring, but in 2011, it’s time to see where the next stage in Clutch‘s ongoing development is leading. Maybe they’ll continue the blues-laden path they’ve taken on their last couple records, or maybe they’ll decide it’s time to confuse the hell out of everyone and do something completely different. Aside from being an astounding live act, Clutch are a fantastic group of songwriters, and it’ll be exciting to get to know a new batch of tunes both live and on disc.

Elder: Their self-titled was some seriously riffy business, and I haven’t heard the follow-up yet, but all accounts from those who have say it’s a more ethereal, more open and stonery sound these young Massachusetts rockers have taken on, and that’s just fine by me. MeteorCity is supposed to have the release out later this year, and I have the feeling that when ti finally hits, it’s going to catch a lot of people off guard, in a good way. Hard not to expect big things for a band like Elder, who have so much potential.

Dixie Witch: When it’ll be out, I have no idea, but Dixie Witch‘s fourth full-length will be the band’s first without guitarist Clayton Mills. His tone and natural bluesy shred was a huge part of what made Dixie Witch‘s prior offerings so killer, and by the time the album gets out, it’s likely to have been five full years since they released the excellent Smoke and Mirrors. This one’s long overdue.

Argus: True, I said I’d only list five bands, and these Pennsylvanian metallers make it six, but I’m genuinely curious to hear what they come up with for their Cruz Del Sur label debut. I dug heavily on the trad doom of their Shadow Kingdom Records self-titled debut, and vocalist Butch Ballch (formerly of Penance) never fails to deliver, so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out.

There’s other stuff too: Olde Growth, Hour of 13, Wo Fat, Graveyard and a slew of albums that may or may not happen in time for December to roll around. Again, this is just the stuff I want to hear, so if you’ve got anything on your mind or something I should look out for, leave a comment. There’s nothing better than being exposed to new music.

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News from Small Stone: Sasquatch Vinyl, Lo-Pan Reissue and More

Posted in Whathaveyou on September 17th, 2010 by H.P. Taskmaster

Detroit rock kingpins Small Stone Records — who are the subject of this month’s podcast in honor of their two-day label showcase in Philadelphia next weekend — issued an update this week via the PR wire giving everyone the skinny on the label’s recent doings. Behold the report in its informative entirety:

First off, the new album from Denver’s Black Sleep of Kali, Our Slow Decay is now available at a better record store near you. If you can’t find it, feel free to get it from us.

The long awaited new album from Cleveland’s Red Giant, titled Dysfunctional Majesty rolls out to stores on the 28th of this month, but you can get it a little early right here on the Small Stone Online Store.

On the recording front, the new albums from both Suplecs and Roadsaw are almost finished (they just need to get mixed and mastered), and will both get released sometime between January and March of 2011. Also, the boys in Ironweed are still plugging away on their follow-up to Indian Ladder. Lo-Pan are scheduled to hit Mad Oak to record their follow up to Sasquanaut, and we will also be reissuing a new version of the Sasquanaut album that will be completely remixed by Benny Grotto and remastered by Mr. Goosman. This Winter both Dixie Witch and Sun Gods in Exile are scheduled to hit Mad Oak to record new albums for us as well.

You asked for it, so we are going to give it to you… Sasquatch’s III will be coming out on vinyl very shortly via Small Stone… That’s right folks, we are going to finally take the plunge into the vinyl game. We are currently getting the art together, and having the album remastered for the pressing plant.

Finally, we hope to see many of you in Philly next week… We have two rather kickass night of rock music all laid out for you at the Philadelphia Film and Music Festival.

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Small Stone Announces Lineup for Philly Showcase

Posted in Whathaveyou on July 14th, 2010 by H.P. Taskmaster

It’s the weekend of my wedding anniversary, but man, the lineup for Small Stone‘s Philadelphia showcase is pretty badass. True, I’ve seen most of these bands, but I don’t imagine House of Broken Promises are going to make a habit of being on the East Coast, Backwoods Payback are buddies, Solace kill every time, Red Giant‘s got a new album coming, I’d really, really like to hear some of the material from Sasquatch‘s third record live, and the Millcreek Tavern has their own home brew. Looks like it could be another test of The Patient Mrs. living up to her name.

Here’s the news from Small Stone:

Small Stone is pleased to announce that we will be doing two back-to-back showcases at The Philadelphia Film & Music Festival in September. Our events will be taking place at the Millcreek Tavern which is located at 4200 Chester Avenue, University City, Philadelphia (215-222-1255). And, now for the lineup:

Friday September 24th: Dixie Witch, The Brought Low, Throttlerod, Lo-Pan, Sun Gods in Exile, Backwoods Payback

Saturday September 25th: Solace, Roadsaw, Sasquatch, House of Broken Promises, Gozu, Red Giant

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Pre-Thanksgiving Media Blitz

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 25th, 2009 by H.P. Taskmaster

It is hour three of a football game about which you couldn’t care less if they paid you. Your family is just approaching the line of intoxicated where the passive aggression is activated. Your little cousin has just asked you where he or she can score some pot. You were hopeful this Turkeyyear would be different. You need an escape.

Suddenly, you remember The Obelisk posted a buttload of videos for just such an occasion, called it a “Pre-Thanksgiving Media Blitz,” figuring that maybe on this most familial of holidays, heads might need a break from everything, if only for a couple minutes. And is there a better way to spend that break than watching high quality live videos from Kyuss, Dozer, Colour Haze, Alabama Thunderpussy, Dixie Witch, Black Pyramid and — for those whose day is even a little more stressful — Acid Bath? You’ve already hid out in the bathroom long enough to do all the crossword puzzles in that book. Relax and enjoy the entertainment. At least catch your breath.

Truth be told, this is as much for me as it is for any of you who might see the benefit of it. Being the pajama-clad social misfit I am, even the thought of bringing my family together with that of The Patient Mrs. is enough to make me want to crawl into a hole. I fully anticipate excusing myself from the before-dinner goings on to come upstairs and watch at least one of these clips. And to make it holiday-special, I tried to find the best quality stuff I could. The Colour Haze video from DunaJam alone gives me a sense of inner peace, which I anticipate needing on Thanksgiving as much as another glass of wine.

If you’re like me (and if not, congratulations on your well-adjustedness), please enjoy the videos after the jump and remember, no matter what the tv tells you, you don’t actually have to get up at five in the morning to go shopping at Target.

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Wait. Dixie Witch Didn’t Break Up?

Posted in Whathaveyou on August 27th, 2009 by H.P. Taskmaster

If you’d asked me, I’d have sworn the departure of guitarist Clayton Mills meant the end of the seminal Austin rockers, but apparently Dixie Witch are moving on with a new guy named JT and a Texas-style weekend tour. Woke up this mornin’ and saw the news on StonerRock.com, and figured if anything warranted a cut and paste, it’s this:

The mighty Dixie Witch is back and will be playing four shows this weekend through Texas with thud rockers Weedeater.

Dixie Witch will be playing new material with a shout out to new guitarist JT. DW has been working all summer with JT and will begin regional touring this fall as they write more songs for an upcoming 2010 new record! Keep posted as new pics and website overhauls are under way…

Dixie Witch/Weedeater Tour Dates:
08/27/09: Dallas, TX - Double Wide, with Blood of the Sun
08/28/09: Austin, TX - Red 7, with Iron Age
08/29/09: San Antonio, TX - Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar, with Iron Age
08/30/09: Houston, TX - Walter’s on Washington, with Iron Age

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Clayton Mills Leaves Dixie Witch

Posted in Whathaveyou on March 31st, 2009 by H.P. Taskmaster

No more of this.As a fan of the band, I’m sorry to see him go, but given the reasons he cites on the band’s blog, I’ll have a hard time holding it against him. On behalf of The Obelisk, we wish (now) former Dixie Witch badass guitarist Clayton Mills all the best and hope to hear his six-string wizardry soon. Here’s what he had to say about it:

After 10 years as the founding guitarist of Dixie Witch, I am leaving the band to concentrate on family for awhile. I know that there have been some word of mouth rumors circulating so I just want to set the record straight. My wife and I are having a child this summer and I’m going to stay at home and take care of business there for the time being. The band will continue to play shows and tour with a new guitarist and we’ll just have to play it by ear as to my involvement with Dixie Witch in the future. By no means am I getting out of music or quitting playing guitar for good or any bullshit like that. Ya’ll will be hearing from me and my Les Paul again! Its been a great decade of playing music with the Witch, we’ve been all over and played nearly 1,000 live shows since 2000 and I’m very grateful for the experience and career I’ve had with the band.

I’d really like to thank all of those who have supported us over the years! The list of names could go on and on forever so I’d just like to say thanks to all the fans who have come out to the shows and bought our CDs and merch, all the bands we’ve shared the stage with, all the family we’ve made on the road (especially those who have opened their homes to us!), all the bartenders for the extended hospitality and all the clubs and venues who have let us rock their stages. I’d like to say an extra special thanks to Tone Deaf Touring (Erik, Troy and Greg), webmaster Jeff Downing, Scott and Small Stone Records, John Perez and Brainticket Records, Mauro and Arclight Records, Erik Larson and ATP, Jeff Pinkus and Honky, Suplecs, Joel Hamilton, Klaus at the Vibra Agency in Europe, Greg Barrett from Emissions from the Monolith, Walter and the Roadburn festival, the The duo 'Witch.Room 710, Emo’s Austinand of course to Trinidad and CC for being the incredible musicians that they are! Its been quite the ride!!! We have two more shows coming up in Texas with our good ‘ol friends Honky – April 10th at the Continental Club in Houston and April 11th at Room 710 in Austin.

- Clayton

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