Posted in Features on January 2nd, 2015 by JJ Koczan
It was close for a long time, but in the last week or so, one record pulled ahead to stake a definitive claim on the top spot. Even so, more than the 2013 poll, this was a fun one to watch, three albums duking it out, trading back and forth in the raw votes depending on who happened to submit a list at any given time. In the end, 355 people participated in this year’s poll, which is an average of over 11 per day — there was a significant push at the end — and up from 2013, which now that it’s 2015 will no doubt soon feel like ancient history.
To that end, Happy New Year and huge, huge thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute a list to the poll. Even if it was one or two records, the simple fact that you felt it was worth your time to type out the names of bands and albums and take part in this thing is unbelievably gratifying to me. I do a lot of the talking around here, apart from comments and the forum, so to have your participation in this really means a lot to me. It’s nice knowing you give enough of a crap to take part.
You’ll find two lists below. The first, measured in points, is the weighted tally. A 1-4 ranking is worth five points, 5-8 worth four, 9-12 worth three, 13-16 worth two and 17-20 worth one. After that comes the raw votes, a measure of what caught the most attention along the way.
After the jump, you’ll also find all the lists contributed to the poll — including my own, which seemed fair since I do a lot of reading on this site, mostly to experience shame at the typos and correct them hoping no one else noticed — presented in the order in which they were received. Thank you all again.
Top 20 of 2014 — Weighted Results
1. YOB, Clearing the Path to Ascend (560 points)
2. Wo Fat, The Conjuring (404)
3. Electric Wizard, Time to Die (367)
4. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden (334)
5. Conan, Blood Eagle (275)
6. Orange Goblin, Back from the Abyss (254)
7. Greenleaf, Trails and Passes (240)
8. Truckfighters, Universe (237)
9. Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band, Black Power Flower (235)
10. Earth, Primitive and Deadly (230)
11. Fu Manchu, Gigantoid (225)
12. Blues Pills, Blues Pills (211)
13. Lo-Pan, Colossus (202)
14. Eyehategod, Eyehategod (198)
15. Monolord, Empress Rising (190)
16. Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun (188)
17. Mars Red Sky, Stranded in Arcadia (161)
18. John Garcia, John Garcia (156)
19. Bongripper, Miserable (141)
20. Radio Moscow, Magical Dirt (127)
Honorable mention to:
Goat, Commune (126)
Swans, To be Kind (117)
Monster Magnet, Milking the Stars (116)
Blood Farmers, Headless Eyes (105)
Floor, Oblation (104)
Mothership, II (104)
Stubb, Elephant Tree, Thou and plenty of others also did very well in the voting, but everything else I could find was less than 100 points. Again, it was close for a while between Wo Fat, Electric Wizard and YOB — and Pallbearer wasn’t so far behind them, either — but YOB pulled it out in the end and jumped way in front of everyone else. A lot of number-one votes for Clearing the Path to Ascend, which I can understand completely, since I happened to agree with the position.
On to the raw votes:
Top 20 of 2014 — Raw Votes
1. YOB, Clearing the Path to Ascend (138 votes)
2. Wo Fat, The Conjuring (111)
3. Electric Wizard, Time to Die (104)
4. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden (89)
5. Orange Goblin, Back from the Abyss (78)
6. Conan, Blood Eagle (72)
7. Fu Manchu, Gigantoid (71)
8. Truckfighters, Universe (66)
9. Earth, Primitive and Deadly (65)
10. Greenleaf, Trails and Passes (64)
11. Blues Pills, Blues Pills (63)
12. Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band, Black Power Flower (60)
13. Lo-Pan, Colossus (58)
14. Eyehategod, Eyehategod (55)
15. Monolord, Empress Rising (52)
16. Mars Red Sky, Stranded in Arcadia (48)
16. Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun (48)
17. John Garcia, John Garcia (47)
18. Bongripper, Miserable (41)
18. Radio Moscow, Magical Dirt (41)
19. Goat, Commune (37)
19. Mothership, II (37)
20. Swans, To be Kind (32)
And some honorable mentions:
Dwellers, Pagan Fruit (31)
Floor, Oblation (31)
Monster Magnet, Milking the Stars (31)
Mos Generator, Electric Mountain Majesty (30)
Thou, Heathen (30)
The Well, Samsara (30)
A couple ties here make the raw votes list a little more inclusive, and since it’s not like we’re giving out olympic medals, it didn’t seem fair to count out ties and sacrifice other numbers. The top 20 has 23 entries? Yeah, sounds about right. Again, not much mystery ultimately to who came out on top, but it was a more thrilling race than the final numbers might suggest. Cool to see some differences in placement emerge between the two lists as well, Greenleaf and Brant Bjork doing really well in the weighted results since they obviously inspire some strong support, and a couple of others working their way into the raw votes top 20. I’m not really a numbers guy, but it’s been cool putting this together.
About not being a numbers guy: All the lists that came in appear after the jump below. If you find some glaring error in my math, or something seems like it really got enough votes to be included in one or the other, it’s possible I just missed it. I hope you’ll point it out in the comments so that if there is a mistake, I can get on correcting it as soon as possible. Your vigilance is sincerely appreciated.
And thank you again so much for being a part of this readers poll. It’s been a really great experience and I look forward to doing it again come Dec. 2015.
Please find everybody’s list after the jump, and have fun browsing:
Posted in Features on December 22nd, 2014 by JJ Koczan
Please note: These are not the results of the Readers Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t added your list yet, please do.
This was a hard list to put together. The top three have been set in my mind for probably the last month, but trying to work my way backwards from there was a real challenge — what’s a top 10 record, a top 20 record, a top 30, honorable mentions and all the rest. I’ve never done a full top 30 before, always 20, but the truth is there was just too much this year to not expand.
I’m still juggling numbers even as I put together this post, and I’m sure that by the time I’m done several records will have switched places. That’s always how it seems to go. What I’m confident that I have is a list accurately representing critique and my own habits, both what I gravitated toward in listening throughout the year and what I feel is noteworthy on a critical level. This site has always been a blend of those two impulses. It’s only fair this list should be as well.
Before we dig in, you should note this is full-length albums only. I’ll have a list of short releases (EPs, singles, demos) to come, as well as a special list of debut releases, since it seemed to be a particularly good year for them. And since I’m only one person, I couldn’t hear everything, much as I tried.
The kings of London’s heavy scene offered more powerhouse heavy rock with their eighth album and second for Candlelight, and their rabid and ever-growing fanbase ate it up. Back from the Abyss proved yet again that few can attain the kind of vicious force that seems to come so natural to Orange Goblin, and made it clear their domination shows no signs of losing momentum.
A darker affair from Port Orchard, Washington’s Mos Generator, Electric Mountain Majesty still found its core in the songwriting led by guitarist/vocalist Tony Reed. They’re a band with some changes on the horizon, and I’ll be interested to hear what hindsight does to these songs. As it was, the hooks and downer vibes may have been in conceptual conflict, but the execution was inarguable.
Richer in the listening than 2012’s Misery Wizard debut, Pilgrim‘s II: Void Worship nonetheless held firm to the doomly spirit that’s made the Rhode Island outfit such a sensation these last couple years. Its longer songs, “Master’s Chamber,” “Void Worship” and the emotionally weighted “Away from Here,” were particularly immersive, and they remain a bright spot in doom’s future.
His long-awaited solo debut, John Garcia‘s John Garcia offered memorable tracks culled from years of songwriting from the former Kyuss, Slo Burn, Unida and Hermano frontman, performed in the classic desert rock style he helped define. I’m not sure it was worth trading a second Vista Chino record for, but it was hard to argue with “The Blvd” and “All These Walls.”
An overwhelming two-disc barrage from a relentless creativity that, more than 30 years on from its first public incarnation, is still to be considered avant garde. I’m not sure planet earth realizes how lucky it is to have Swans running around unleashing all this chaos, but I hope they don’t stop anytime soon. To be Kind was brutal and beautiful in like measure.
I initially made this list without Alunah‘s excellent third album and Napalm Records, but when it came down to it, not having the UK four-piece on here haunted me to the point where I had to come back in and swap them out with somebody else. Just couldn’t live with myself for not giving this record its due, which, to be frank, I’m still not since it should be higher on the list than it is. At least it’s here though, so the mistake is somewhat corrected.
The follow-up to Greenleaf‘s stellar 2012 outing Nest of Vipers (review here) brought lineup changes and stripped away many of the textural elements of the band’s sound — guest appearances, arrangement flourishes — in order to get back to a classic heavy rock sound and translate better to the stage. With guitarist Tommi Holappa‘s songwriting ever at the core, it would be unfair to call the process anything but a success.
Most of the headlines went to the fact that Primitive and Deadly had vocals, where the generally-instrumental Earth had avoided singers for 18 years prior, but even putting aside Mark Lanegan and Rabi Shabeen Qazi, whose performance on “From the Zodiacal Light” was the high point of the record, presented Earth‘s always progressive tensions in a rawer, heavier production, and was a joy for longtime fans.
Six years and one breakup later, Portland, Maine, doom trio Ogre returned with The Last Neanderthal, neither afraid to revel in Sabbathian traditionalism or rock out a more upbeat cut like opener “Nine Princes in Amber.” For bassist/vocalist Ed Cunningham, guitarist Ross Markonish and drummer Will Broadbent, it was a welcome resurgence of pretense-free heavy riffs and grooves.
Of course, at the time we didn’t know it would be the final outing from this lineup of UK doomers The Wounded Kings, whose guitarist/founder Steve Mills has now reunited with original vocalist George Birch, but Consolamentum was a hell of a closing statement anyway for this era of the band, showcasing their murky, increasingly progressive style still waiting for wider appreciation.
Wasn’t sure where to put Floor‘s reunion offering, Oblation, on this list at first, since I kind of fell off listening to it as the year went on, but I’ve gone back to it over the last couple weeks and it has held up to the revisit, whether it’s songs like the extended “Sign of Aeth” or shorter, catchy pummelers like “Rocinante” or “War Party.” Floor‘s 2002 self-titled holds an untouchable legacy in heavy rock, but I think the years will prove Oblation a worthy successor. Nobody knew what they had with Floor at the time either.
Little on 2011’s Motherfucker Rising (review here) or their 2010 demo (review here) prepared for the kind of assault that Druglord‘s Enter Venus brought to bear. Four stomp-laden slabs of tectonic crash and distortion, vocals buried under and calling up from the amp-bred fog. The Virginian trio were in and out on the 27-minute 12″ release, but had enough heavy for a record twice as long, and the tinges of darkened psychedelia made their songs like a lurking presence just on the edge of consciousness, a threat waiting to be unleashed.
For the sheer variety of Ararat‘s third album in rockers like “Nicotina y Destrucción,” “El Hijo de Ignacio,” the experimentalism of “El Arca” and the piano-driven “Los Viajes” and the acoustic closer “Atalayah,” and the assured, flowing manner in which the Argentina trio pulled it all off, Cabalgata Hacia la Luz should be higher on this list than it is. Part of that might be my frustration at my apparent inability to buy a copy, but don’t let that take away from the quality of the material here, which is wonderfully chaotic, memorable and engaging, rushing in some places and stopping to weep in others.
You won’t hear me deny that Radio Moscow‘s primary impact is as a live band, but their fifth album, Magical Dirt, managed to bring forth much of their psychedelic blues presence in “Death of a Queen,” “Before it Burns” and “Gypsy Fast Woman,” the blinding rhythmic turns and wah-soaked guitar supremacy of Parker Griggs front and center throughout. Together with bassist Anthony Meier (also Sacri Monti) and drummer Paul Marrone (also Astra and Psicomagia), Radio Moscow are hitting their stride as one of heavy rock’s most powerful power trios. One never knows what to expect, but hopefully they keep going the way they are.
Four years isn’t the longest time I’ve ever waited for a record to come out, but in the case of Indianapolis’ Apostle of Solitude, it felt like an especially long stretch. Their third full-length and first for Cruz del Sur, Of Woe and Wounds followed the anticipation-building Demo 2012 (review here) and a couple splits and brought aboard bassist Dan Dividson and guitarist/vocalist Steve Janiak (also Devil to Pay), who fit well with drummer Corey Webb and guitarist/vocalist Chuck Brown to result in a payoff worthy and indicative of the time that went into its making. Hands down one of the finest acts in American doom.
Stubb‘s second long-player, also their debut on Ripple, gets a nod for the sense of progression it brought in answering the potential of the trio’s 2012 self-titled debut (review here), guitarist/vocalist Jack Dickinson, bassist Peter Holland and new drummer Tom Fyfe expanding the scope to include more heavy psych influence and soul along with the fuzz riffs and steady rolling while giving no ground in terms of the level of craft at work. Cry of the Ocean has become one of those albums where all I have to do is look at a title, be it “Cry of the Ocean Pt. I” or “Sail Forever” or “Heartbreaker,” and the song is immediately stuck in my head. With these tracks, that’s not at all a complaint.
14. Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band, Black Power Flower
Brant Bjork has worn many hats, literal and figurative, over the years, whether it’s drummer in Kyuss or Fu Manchu, producer, solo artist or bandleader. With Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band, he steps once again into the latter role, and with guitarist Bubba DuPree, bassist Dave Dinsmore and drummer Tony Tornay, presents not only on his heaviest record to date, but what could easily begin a sustainable full-band progression that can go just about anywhere his songwriting wants to take it. “Stokely up Now,” “That’s a Fact Jack,” “Controllers Denied” and “Boogie Woogie on Your Brain” made for some of 2014’s best in desert rock, and Black Power Flower was an stellar return for Bjork to his “solo” work.
An earlier version of this list had Pagan Fruit at a lower number, but I couldn’t live with it not being closer to the top 10. Salt Lake City’s Dwellers pushed deeper into laid back psych and blues on their second album, and in doing so, crafted an atmosphere entirely their own. From “Creature Comfort” down to “Call of the Hollowed Horn,” with triumphs along the way like “Rare Eagle,” “Totem Crawler” (“Ohh, my queen… To whom, I crawl…) and “Son of Raven,” Pagan Fruit became a staple of my 2014, building off their 2012 debut, Good Morning Harakiri (review here), but presenting their stylistic growth with a confidence and poise that can only come from a band who’ve figured out what they want to be doing and how they want to do it. Front to back, Pagan Fruit sounds like an arrival.
What made Brooklyn trio The Golden Grass‘ self-titled debut such a special released wasn’t just that it was heavy, or that the tracks were catchy, or that guitarist Michael Rafalowich and drummer Adam Kriney could harmonize over Joe Noval‘s warm-toned basslines. That was all great, don’t get me wrong, but what really stood out about The Golden Grass was its irony-free positivity, the way it was able to capture an upbeat, sunshiny feel without having to smirk about it on the other side of its mouth. It was self-aware, to be sure — knew what it was doing — but the way I see it, consciousness only makes the stylistic choices more impressive. Add to that the nuance they brought to ’70s revivalism, and all that stuff about catchiness and the harmonies, and there just wasn’t a level on which the album didn’t work.
My appreciation continues to grow for The Well‘s Samsara, which successfully pulled together influences from garage doom and heavy psychedelia while crafting an identity for the Austin, Texas, three-piece at once raw and melodically accomplished, guitarist Ian Graham and bassist Lisa Alley sharing vocals to classic effect on “Refuge” while otherwise trading off lead position to bolster variety in the material. The high point might’ve been the eight-minute “Eternal Well,” on which Graham, Alley and drummer Jason Sullivvan conjured some of their grooviest demons, but the hooks of “Mortal Bones,” “Trespass” and the attitude-laced “Dragon Snort” were no less engaging. One of many strong releases from their label this year — Slow Season, The Picturebooks, etc. — they seemed to come ready to serve notice of a stylistic movement underway.
10. Montibus Communitas, The Pilgrim to the Absolute
Peruvian psych adventurers Montibus Communitas more or less blew my mind when I heard their late-2013 offering, Harvest Times earlier this year, and the narrative, conceptual 2014 release, The Pilgrim to the Absolute, is even more of an achievement in its portrayal of improvised exploration, sonic ritualism and open creativity. The weaving of longer pieces against shorter ones with the various steps along the path as presented in the titles, some journeying, some arriving, some descriptive, almost all accompanied by nature in one form or another, gives The Pilgrim to the Absolute an almost impressionistic quality, so that even as you listen to it, you engage it as much as it carries you along its vibrant, breathtaking progression en route to the closing title-track, which is a destination every bit worthy of the journey. This is the most recently reviewed inclusion on this list, but Montibus Communitas‘ latest readily earns its place in the top 10. It is unique in its surroundings.
Looking back at the last two Fu Manchu records, 2007’s We Must Obey and 2009’s Signs of Infinite Power, it seemed reasonable to expect the groundbreaking SoCal fuzz foursome to put out another collection of big-sounding riffs in a big-sounding production. Nothing to complain about, but probably not a landmark. By going the other way completely — stripping their buzzed-out riffing down to its punkish core thanks in no small part to recording with Moab‘s Andrew Giacumakis — Fu Manchu served up a raw reminder both of where they came from and how top notch their songwriting remains. Reissuing their earliest work and being on their own label might’ve had something to do with it, but whatever it was, the 35 minutes of Gigantoid was as efficient a heavy rock outing as one could hope from an already legendary band, whether it was the hook-prone opening salvo of “Dimension Shifter,” “Invaders on My Back,” “Anxiety Reducer” and “Radio Source Sagittarius” or the righteous ending jam “The Last Question.”
Given the origins of The Skull — ex-Trouble members Eric Wagner, Jeff “Oly” Olson and Ron Holzner joining with Lothar Keller and a series of other guitarists, finally Matt Goldsborough, working essentially as a tribute band to their former outfit — I think not only did the quality of the material and performance on For Those Which are Asleep surprise, as well as the classically doomed feel that resonates throughout the album, but the sheer heartfelt nature of songs like “Sick of it All,” “Send Judas Down” and the title-track itself. This wasn’t a cynical attempt to make a go of an already set legacy. It was an expression of appreciation both for what they accomplished as Trouble and a desire to continue that work. The Skull‘s whole thing has been that they’re “more Trouble than Trouble,” and in their lineup that’s been true since they brought Olson on board. For Those Which are Asleep demonstrated that the classic spirit of that band is alive and well, its address has just changed. Moreover, it’s the beginning of a new progression for that spirit, and I hope it continues.
Nineteen years after releasing their self-titled debut, New York’s Blood Farmers contended for 2014’s comeback of the year with their sophomore outing, Headless Eyes — a morose, horror-obsessed six-track collection that on “Night of the Sorcerers” owed as much to Goblin as to Sabbath. The closing cover of David Hess‘ theme from The Last House on the Left, “The Road Leads to Nowhere,” was a late bit of melodic flourish to add depth, but how could the highlight be anything other than the 10-minute title-track itself, with its samples from the 1971 horror flick The Headless Eyes, bassist Eli Brown in a call and response with lyrics comprised of lines directly taken from the movie? That after playing shows the last several years, Blood Farmers managed to get a record out was impressive enough. That Headless Eyes turned out to be the year’s best traditional doom release was an entirely different level of surprise. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for their third, but Brown, guitarist David Szulkin and drummer Tad Leger gave plenty to chew on with Blood Farmers‘ second. It was better than would’ve been fair to expect.
A lot of what you need to know about Lo-Pan‘s fourth album you learn in the first five seconds of opener “Regulus.” There’s no fancy intro, no time wasted, nothing to take away from the directness of the song itself. Tones are crisp — the verse is already underway — and guitar, bass and drums are laser-focused in their forward movement. Even when vocalist Jeff Martin enters the song, roughly six seconds later, his arrival comes with no indulgence, no pomp. Colossus is easily Lo-Pan‘s most immediate work to date, and throughout, Martin, guitarist Brian Fristoe (since replaced by Adrian Zambrano), bassist Scott Thompson and drummer Jesse Bartz retain that focus no matter where the material takes them, delivering a clinic in how to kick as much ass as possible at any given moment on cuts like “Marathon Man” and “Eastern Seas,” or even bringing in guest vocalist Jason Alexander Byers, who also designed the album cover, for a spot on “Vox.” They had a hard task in following up 2011’s Salvador (review here), but the Columbus, Ohio, unit stood up to the challenge and met it and everyone else head-on.
What to do with All Them Witches‘ Lightning at the Door? The Nashville four-piece released the album last fall digitally, but it wasn’t until this September that it saw a physical manifestation. In fact, if you go back, it was included on the Top 20 of 2013 as well. Which is the release date? I don’t know. What I know is that in terms of the sheer amount of time spent listening, I put on Lightning at the Door more than any other record this year. From where I sit, that alone gets it a place in the top five. Yeah, it might be a cop-out to do a “5a,” but sometimes exceptions have to be made, and All Them Witches have proved to be nothing if not exceptional in their still relatively brief, jam-laden history, the psych-blues dynamic between bassist/vocalist Michael Parks, Jr., guitarist Ben McLeod, Fender Rhodes specialist Allan van Cleave and drummer Robby Staebler pushing them quickly to the fore of American heavy rock’s innovators, their natural, improv-sounding material feeling brazen and exploratory while reshaping the elements of genre to suit their needs. One can only see this dynamic developing further as they continue to grow as a live band, so Lightning at the Door may just be the start, and that’s perhaps most exciting of all.
A beautiful, stunning work made even more powerful by the honesty driving it. Portland, Oregon’s Witch Mountain completed a trilogy with the Billy Anderson-produced Mobile of Angelsthat brought about some of the best doom of this young decade, their 2011 return from a years-long hiatus, South of Salem (review here) serving as the foundation for a stylistic progression that continued on the following year’s Cauldron of the Wild (review here) and onto Mobile of Angels itself as the four-piece’s most accomplished album to date. The reason it feels like such a concluding chapter is because of the departure of vocalist Uta Plotkin, whose voice helped establish Witch Mountain both on stage and in the studio, leaving founders Rob Wrong (guitar) and Nathan Carson (drums) with the sizable task of finding a replacement. That situation will be what it will be, but Mobile of Angels remains a gorgeous, lonely testament. Plotkin gives a landmark performance on “Can’t Settle” and “The Shape Truth Takes,” which in the context of what was happening in Witch Mountain at the time ring with a truth that’s rare in or out of doom, and she seems to have left the band just as they were hitting their finest hour. So it goes.
In all of heavy, there is no assault so severe as Conan‘s. With their second full-length and debut on Napalm Records, the UK trio solidified the two sides of the preceding 2012 outing, Monnos (review here), in constructing material that, fast or slow, short or long, retained an epic feel melded with their ungodly tonality and memorable songwriting. Their first recording at guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis‘ Skyhammer Studio, it affirmed Conan‘s will to conquer in its two massive bookends, “Crown of Talons” and “Altar of Grief,” and in the High on Fire-worthy gallop of “Foehammer” — a bludgeon commandingly wielded by Davis, bassist/vocalist Phil Coumbe and drummer Paul O’Neil, the latter to of whom have since left the band to be replaced by longtime-producer Chris Fielding and Rich Lewis, respectively. What effect the changes might have on the band — except apparently more touring, which isn’t a bad thing — have yet to be seen, but Conan are already in the process of writing a follow-up to Blood Eagle, so it doesn’t seem like it’ll be all that long until we find out. With Davis still steering the band in songwriting and overall direction, one severely doubts they’ll be fixing what obviously isn’t broken anytime soon. None heavier.
Dallas riff-rockers Wo Fat have grown steadily over the course of their five albums, from the nascent heavy roll of 2006’s The Gathering Dark, to the hooks of 2008’s Psychedelonaut (review here), the jamming that started to surface on 2011’s Noche del Chupacabra (review here) and was pushed further on 2012’s The Black Code (review here). And their approach has been as steady as the frequency of their releases. In making The Conjuring, the three-piece were simply engaging the next step in their progression, but the material on the five-track/48-minute outing goes further than just that. Putting aside (momentarily) the 17-minute closer “Dreamwalker,” the other cuts, “The Conjuring,” “Read the Omens,” “Pale Rider from the Ice” and “Beggar’s Bargain” each found a place for themselves in pulling together jammed-sounding elements with a memorable construction, and when guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump, bassist Tim Wilson and drummer Michael Walter did kick into “Dreamwalker,” they hit on not only their longest piece yet, but their most accomplished showcase of the chemistry that has developed between them. That song is a beast unto itself, but as has been the case with Wo Fat each time out so far in their career, there’s nothing on The Conjuring to give the impression the band can’t or won’t continue to keep going on the path that’s worked so well for them on this point. They’ve spent the last eight years on the right track and have yet to waiver. The Conjuring should be played at top volume for anyone who contends there’s no life left in heavy rock and roll.
Mars Red Sky‘s second LP and first for Listenable, Stranded in Arcadia was originally supposed to be recorded in the California desert, but visa problems kept the French trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Matgaz in Brazil, where they’d previously been touring. Thus, “stranded in Arcadia,” which is basically another way of saying “lost in paradise.” Can’t say the Bordeaux three-piece didn’t make the most of it, though. Songs like “The Light Beyond” and “Hovering Satellites” — not to mention the utter melodic bliss of “Join the Race” — took cues from their 2011 self-titled debut (review here) in terms of memorable songwriting and melodic craft, but added to that heft and tonal richness more of a psychedelic vibe, so that not only was there fuzz and wah, but a spacious world in which the songs took place. With Kinast on lead vocals, the sneaky boogie of “Holy Mondays” became a highlight, and the one-two swing ‘n’ stomp of “Circles” and “Seen a Ghost” were a perfect demonstration by the band of the various sides of their sound, particularly following after the dreamy instrumental “Arcadia,” an echoing jam distinguished by Pras‘ wistful guitar lead and coming before the closing “Beyond the Light,” which reprises the opener’s resonant unfolding. It probably wasn’t the record they intended to make, but Stranded in Arcadia became one of my go-to albums for 2014, and like the best of any given year’s output, I’ve no doubt it will transcend the passage of time and continue to deliver for years to come. Hell, I was barely done with the debut when this one came out.
Can’t imagine this is any great surprise. Not only did Clearing the Path to Ascend — YOB‘s seventh album and first for Neurot — produce my pick for song of the year in its sprawling, emotionally weighted 18-minute closer, “Marrow,” but in the three full-lengths the Eugene, Oregon, trio of drummer Travis Foster, bassist Aaron Rieseberg and guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt have released since the latter reformed the band after breaking it up following 2005’s The Unreal Never Lived, all three have been my album of the year. The Great Cessation was in 2009, and Atma was in 2011. Consistency aside, I’ll point out specifically that each of the same three records has earned that position, perhaps Clearing the Path to Ascend most of all for its progressive feel, moving past genre even at its most raging moment, second cut “Nothing to Win,” the chorus of which proved that among everything else YOB could be, they could be anthemic. The cosmic, spiritual questing that has always been present in their songs, that feeling of searching, showed up in opener “In Our Blood,” but even there, it was evident YOB were pushing themselves beyond what they’ve done before, rewriting their own formulas incorporating lessons from their past in among their other points of inspiration. “Unmask the Spectre” could have easily been an album closer itself, with its patient exploration and feverishly intense payoff, but with the melodic progressivism of “Marrow” and the soul poured into every second of that track, every verse and chorus, solo and build — including the Hammond added to the last of them by producer Billy Barnett — YOB created a landmark both for themselves and the increasing many working under their influence. I’ve said on several occasions (bordering on “many” at this point) that YOB are a once-in-a-generation band, and it feels truer in thinking of Clearing the Path to Ascend than it ever has. Without a doubt, album of the year and then some.
First, special note to Colour Haze‘s To the Highest Gods We Know. I’ve decided to count it as a 2015 release since the vinyl will be out in Spring, but otherwise surely it would earn a place on this list. Blackwolfgoat‘s Drone Maintenance also deserves note.
A few other honorable mentions:
Mothership, Mothership II — It’s hard to argue with a classic heavy rock power trio kicking ass. I won’t try.
Sólstafir, Ótta — They were originally on the list proper but had to be moved to make room for Alunah. I didn’t really get to know this record in 2014 anyway.
Ice Dragon, Seeds from a Dying Garden — Boston experimental psych/garage doomers continue to defy expectation. May their weirdness last forever and continue to produce material so satisfying.
Truckfighters, Universe — I thought at some point I’d go back to Universe again, but never really did. A problem with me more than the album.
Steak, Slab City — An impressive debut following two strong EPs.
Godflesh, A World Lit Only by Fire — I never got a review copy, so I never reviewed it. Its name is here because I’m a fan of the band and glad they’re back.
Thou, Heathen — Just recently purchased this and am only getting to know it, but a ridiculously strong album.
Corrosion of Conformity, IX — Everybody who gets a boner whenever Pepper Keenan is mentioned in connection with this band has missed out. This record and the self-titled kick ass.
Spidergawd, Spidergawd — Holy shit they’re over here! No they’re over there! No wait over here again! Oh my god I’ve just gone blind!
Monster Magnet, Milking the Stars — I wasn’t sure what to do with this since technically it’s not a new album, mostly reworked songs from the last one. I still listened to it a ton though, whatever it is.
Slomatics, Estron — Another one I’m just getting to know, but am very much digging.
Electric Wizard, Time to Die — People seem to do this thing where Electric Wizard puts out a record, everyone slathers over it for a few months and then spends the next two years talking about how it sucked. I guess I’ll be on the ground floor with not having been that into Time to Die.
Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden — Had to put their name somewhere on this list or someone would burn my house down. Album of the year for many.
The list goes on: Monolord, Comet Control, Mammatus, Triptykon, Eyehategod, Fever Dog, Moab, Karma to Burn, Atavismo, Grifter, 1000mods, Megaton Leviathan, Wovenhand, Mr. Peter Hayden, Primordial, and many more.
Before I check out and go sit in a corner somewhere to try and rebuild brain power after this massive dump of a purge, I want to sincerely thank you for reading. If you check in regularly, or if you’ve never been to the site before, if you don’t give a crap about lists or if you’re gonna go listen to even one band on here, it’s fantastic to me. Thank you so much for all the support this site receives, for your comments, for sharing links, retweeting, whatever it is. I am a real person — I’m sitting on my couch at this very moment — and being able to do this and have people see it and be a part of it with me is unbelievable. I realize how fortunate I am. So thank you. Thank you.
More to come as we close out 2014. I’ll have a list of short/split/demo releases, a year-end podcast, a list of the best debuts, a round up of the best live shows I saw, as much more as time allows. Please stay tuned.
And again, thank you. If I left anyone off the list, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments and contribute your own top albums, however many there are, to the Readers Poll.
Posted in Features on June 23rd, 2014 by JJ Koczan
It’s custom around here to do a Top 10 of the First Half of the Year, in advance of doing a Top 20 of the Year in December. The idea is that the later list will basically build on the earlier one. That’s never really how it works out — albums always drop off or appear unexpectedly depending on what gets listened to most, what gets reviewed late, etc. — but it always works out to be a good time anyway, and that’s really what it’s all about.
The difference this year is that instead of doing a Top 20 in December, I’m planning on expanding to a full Top 30, so to do a Top 10 of the stuff from January until now makes less sense. So here we are with a Top 15. A slightly longer list, but still the same basic idea as years past otherwise. These are albums I’m expecting will turn up again at the end of the year on the final Top 30, and though some will and some won’t and almost all of them will move around, there are more than a handful — particularly if we’re counting by fingers — of essential records released over the last six months recounted here.
If you missed something, I hope it’s something cool you get to check out, and if I missed something (as I inevitably did), I hope you’ll let me know in the comments. Please note that this is full albums only, no EPs, splits, singles or demos.
I’ll freely admit I was more than a little thrown off by the change in approach on Greenleaf‘s fifth album. Where prior outings like 2012’s Nest of Vipers(review here) and 2007’s megatriumph Agents of Ahrimanhad been lush heavy rock affairs helmed by Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa with a slew of guests on vocals, organ, etc., Trails and Passesdialed back the “extras” in favor of a more stripped down, stage-ready approach. Holappa‘s songwriting alone would likely be enough to have Greenleaf on this list one way or another, and Trails and Passesis one of the year’s best. The turn was just unexpected and I feel like I’m not caught up to it yet.
Initially put out in a limited tape run in late 2013 (review here), the Enter Venus full-length from Richmond-based sludgers Druglord codified the noisy murk of their prior outings into one devastating wave of lurching riffage and echoing shouts. The Virginian three-piece recorded with Garrett Morris of Windhand and the STB vinyl topped off with artwork by W. Ralph Walters, making for a package both visually and sonically devastating, and though it’s short for an album at under a half-hour, the 12″ still earns the nod for the unmitigated heft its four songs carry. It’s one you can either dig or miss out, but Druglord show there’s more room for invention in sludge.
There really isn’t much left to say when it comes to Wovenhand and their driving force, frontman David Eugene Edwards. Their first for Deathwish Inc., Refractory Obdurate is the latest document of one of this generation’s most accomplished songwriting progressions. It follows a brilliant record in 2012’s The Laughing Stalk (review here) and likely precedes one in whatever they decide to do next, and the enduring fascination on Edwards‘ part with tonal weight and groove continues to push Wovenhand into a creative territory that is without genre. Nobody else comes close.
Quick-working Danish jammers Papir made a strong impression with IIII early in the year, offering a progressive take on the style of heavy instrumental jamming that has flourished throughout Europe over the last half-decade or so. Immediately individualized, the Copenhagen three-piece carried across four intricately constructed pieces, most open with the 21-minute “III” but never lacking for twists and turns that were an utter joy to follow. A band that has already collaborated with the even-jammier Electric Moon and who’ve aligned themselves with Causa Sui‘s El Paraiso Records, they seem like a safe bet to continue to grow into reliable purveyors of high-quality instrumental heavy psychedelia.
Its arrival was heralded by the righteousness of a Lego video for “Nine Princes in Amber,” though even that was little preparation for the classic doomery that would take place on the return long-player from Portland, Maine’s Ogre. The trio of guitarist Ross Markonish, bassist/vocalist Ed Cunningham and drummer Will Broadbent broke up in 2009, got back together in 2012, and with their fourth album, they made it clear they still had plenty to offer those who worship trad-style riffing, Sabbathy grooves and the kind of hooks that stay with you for days. The Last Neanderthalhad plenty of those, and “Warpath,” the aforementioned “Nine Princes in Amber,” “Bad Trip” and “Son of Sisyphus” tapped into what makes the best of doom so ready for repeat listens.
Another reunited trio, Floor had it tough coming into their first album in a decade, Oblation. The legacy of their 2002 self-titled would loom large over anything they put out, and guitarist/vocalist Steve Brooks had since gained a huge following as the spearhead of Torche, but four years after they started playing shows again, Floor met the challenge head-on with Oblation‘s 14 tracks, showing a natural progression from where they left off so long ago without seeming like they were trying to recapture a past that inevitably would prove irretrievable. Instead, they’ve set themselves on a course for continuing to develop as a band, and though Torche have a new album expected out this summer on Relapse and doubtless that will take some time and focus away from Floor, hopefully they keep pursuing that growth.
I’ll claim no impartiality when it comes to Port Orchard, Washington, heavy rock purveyors Mos Generator or the craftsmanship of guitarist/vocalist Tony Reed, but if half the point of a list like this is to nerd out over albums you dig (and I’ll gladly argue that it is), then Electric Mountain Majestyis right where it should be. Reed, bassist Scooter Haslip and drummer Shawn Johnson are clockwork-reliable when it comes to putting out high-grade material, and their second record since getting going again after Reed‘s few years in Stone Axe pushed beyond the considerable accomplishments of 2012’s Nomads(review here) and brought their sound to new and at times surprisingly doomed places while still keeping their core in a love of classic heavy rock songwriting. From where I sit, new Mos Gen is never one to pass up.
Not that I didn’t expect a new Blood Farmers release to be cool, but Headless Eyes was still a surprise when it arrived earlier in 2014. Who was to say what the New York trio would concoct after a 19-year studio absence? Of course, what they came out with was dead-on horror-loving doomly plod, cuts like the instrumental “Night of the Sorcerers” and the deceptively catchy “Headless Eyes” not only worthy of Blood Farmers‘ substantial legacy but building on it. Void of pretense, Headless Eyesresonated with a brooding atmosphere capped by the surprising closer, “The Road Leads to Nowhere,” a cover of the theme from The Last House on the Left and positioned the three-piece of vocalist Eli Brown, guitarist/bassist David Szulkin and drummer Tad Léger among the fore of traditional doom’s practitioners.
After seeing them live late last year (review here), digging their 456th Div. tape (review here) and putting their debut single on the best short releases of 2013 list, I had little doubt that their self-titled debut full-length would deliver a satisfying listen. Sure enough, the five-tracks of the quality-over-quantity release did precisely that, the Brooklyn three-piece harnessing unashamed positive vibes to mesh with a burgeoning psychedelic feel, catchy hooks and classic-style road songs serving as a reminder of the good times that rock and roll both provides and complements. Now that summer is here, I expect to revisit The Golden Grassplenty of time over these sunny, hot months, since it would seem the year has finally caught up with the band’s warmth and day-long spirit. The Golden Grass are reportedly headed to Europe later this year, so more to come on them for sure.
Every time I think I’m out, Cabalgata Hacia la Luz pulls me back in. The third full-length from Argentina trio Ararat seems to hit me with a different song each week. This week, it’s the six-minute “El Hijo de Ignacio,” with the insistent, punkish drums from Alfredo Felitte, backing noise and later keyboard eeriness from Tito Fargo and the low bass rumble of Sergio Chotsourian (ex-Los Natas), whose vocals seem to hover over the rest of the mix as though piped in from someplace else entirely. The whole album had a hypnotic effect that pulled the listener away from how diverse it actually was, moving into and out of heavy psych atmospherics with expert smoothness, but the more attention you paid, the more rewarding the experience became, as Ararat defied any expectations that might have come from their 2012 sophomore outing, II(review here), and boldly pushed toward new avenues of progression.
Who’s heavier than Conan? The superlative UK trio have spent the two years since the release of their full-length debut, Monnos (review here), solidifying their dominance, and their first album for Napalm Records plays out like a victory lap over the skulls of lesser riffs. Opening with the near-10-minute lumber of “Crown of Talons,” Blood Eagle solidified the two-sidedness of Monnos into a back-breaking doom assault, and their pummel remains unparalleled as they continue to grow as players and songwriters. This year has also seen producer Chris Fielding join the band on bass, and as badass as Blood Eagleis — one would rarely think of a song called “Gravity Chasm” as being so aptly-named — I can’t help but look forward to hearing what Conan do from here and how they continue to refine one of doom’s most bludgeoning approaches.
It’s the songs. I really, really dug Dwellers‘ 2012 debut, Good Morning Harakiri (review here) as well, and I won’t say a bad word about that album, but Pagan Fruit is in a different class altogether. And you know, it’s not just the songs. It’s how the songs play next to each other, the mood they create, and the hooks that Dwellers bring to the table with so much stylistic poise, calling the bluffs of any number of heavy psych blues rockers on “Totem Crawler,” or “Creature Comfort,” or “Son of Raven” or “Spirit of the Staircase.” The Salt Lake City-based trio of guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano, bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis brought new levels of cohesion to their sound throughout Pagan Fruitand it remains an album that I have yet to get enough of hearing, one that seems to offer more each time I put it on and let my mind drift to its patient, open spaces.
From here on out, on any given day, any one of these is my album of the year. What a thrill it was to put on Fu Manchu‘s first album in five years, Gigantoid, and have it roll out such a tight-knit collection of heavy rolling excellence. The West Coast stoner riff gods of gnarl stripped down their production inspired in part by a reissue campaign of their earlier work on their own At the Dojo Records label, and the punkish feel suited them better than even they likely could’ve expected. With its opening four-song punch, the no-frills shot of “No Warning” and the closeout jam at the end of “The Last Question,” Gigantoid felt like more than one could’ve reasonably asked from a Fu Manchu long-player 20 years on from their debut, but the vitality they showed in its tracks, paired with the efficiency with which the songs were executed, showcased a timeless, perpetual appeal. They know what they’re doing and how they want to do it, and just because there was no doubt going into Gigantoiddoesn’t make the end product any less of a payoff.
I’ve gone on at some length about what I find so appealing in the second full-length from Bordeaux trio Mars Red Sky, so even putting aside the deft hand with which they incorporated further heavy psych soundscapes into their songwriting, let me just focus on how memorable Stranded in Arcadia actually is. That was true as well of Mars Red Sky‘s 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but these songs are more ambitious, from the eight-minute opener “The Light Beyond” to the gorgeous melody-wash in the chorus of “Join the Race” and the stomp in the de facto closer “Seen a Ghost” before the leadout/refrain “Beyond the Light” calls all the way back to the first track. The development of Mars Red Sky‘s take isn’t necessarily such a surprise — the debut had its psychedelic, jammy feel as well — but the fact that the trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Matgaz managed to elicit such development while remaining true to the warm tones and humble, unpretentious vibe of the debut only makes Stranded in Arcadiamore remarkable. I wouldn’t stop listening to it if I could.
It wasn’t easy to hold off on reviewing the fifth album from the Texas power trio for as long as I did, but I thought the record was too good to jump the gun on, and so yeah, it’s a pretty recent writeup, but I feel comfortable putting The Conjuring at number one here because I’ve actually had a while to live with these songs. Or maybe “live in” them would be a better way to say it, since the dense wall of fuzz and jammed-out distortion Wo Fat create across this record is basically thick enough to take up residence. Recently back from a European tour, Wo Fat hit the road supporting their finest work to date, and as the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump, bassist Tim Wilson and drummer/backing vocalist Michael Walter are more or less self-sustaining in their own Crystal Clear Sound studio in Dallas, there’s no reason they can’t just keep developing along the path they are. The Conjuringboasts their best jams yet but also holds firm to the already-planted-in-your-consciousness hooks that Wo Fat have long since established a penchant for, and one could just as easily put the band at the fore of traditional heavy rock riffing as of American heavy psych jammers. Any way you look at them, they’re at the top of their class.
Quick honorable mention goes to Radio Moscow, The Wounded Kings, 1000mods (review forthcoming), Eyehategod, Abramis Brama, Truckfighters, Valley of the Sun, the live Causa Sui record and Alcest. Been a hell of a year so far, and I’m already putting together a list of anticipated records for the next six months, so there’s much more to follow.
These are a little later than I’d prefer, but if I ran everything on time around here as much as I wanted to, it would probably take me 24 hours a day. Sometimes you have to go to the post office, or to The Patient Mrs.‘ workplace to scam free printer paper. I’m just saying things come up that can alter the course of your planned afternoon. One can either be flexible or go insane.
So, better (perpetually) late than never, and I hope you’ll agree with me that this stuff was worth waiting for.
Adds for June 17, 2014:
Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket, In a Dutch Haze
Behold the megajam: The jam that launched a thousand jams, and insert further hyperbole here, because this one earns it. At Roadburn 2012, the illustrious lineup of J. Mascis (Witch, Dinosaur Jr.) and his Heavy Blanket bandmate Graham Clise (also Witch and Lecherous Gaze) joined forces with Earthless‘ rhythm section, bassist Mike Egington and drummer Mario Rubalcalba for a one-time-only, off-the-cuff instrumental jam that has since become the stuff of legend. Yes, a legend two years later. Now dubbed “Paradise in a Purple Sky,” that hour-long one-track excursion into pure heavy psychedelic bliss is available as Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket‘s In a Dutch Haze, and the vibe is less that of a live album than a historical document. Call it lightning in a bottle, call it any other cliche you might want, but chances are In a Dutch Hazeis going to be the best live release you hear this year, and if the echoing intertwining guitar solos and unhindered thudding groove — immaculately captured by Marcel van de Vondervoort — aren’t enough to stir your soul and drive you to creation, then I’ve got nothing for you. This is heavy psych at its most vibrant and righteous. Burning World Records, Outer Battery Records.
Thine, The Dead City Blueprint
The Dead City Blueprint (out on PeacevilleRecords) is actually the third full-length from UK-based Thine, but it’s also their first since 2002, so the feel winds up somewhat like a debut anyway. What happened in the interim? Well, drummer Dan Mullins from the two-guitar five-piece has doubled in My Dying Bride since 2006, so that could at least partially explain the delay. Whatever else may have caused the stoppage, Thine make up for the years with 10 deep explorations of dark, melancholic rock. “Out of Your Mind and into a Void” is almost singularly indebted to Damnation-era Opeth, and opener “Brave Young Assassin” finds Thine somewhere between a less keyboarded Katatonia and a more active version of Anathema at their moodiest, but “The Precipice” provides an early peak to The Dead City Blueprintwith a surprise reinterpretation of NWOBHM guitar intricacy and wonderfully arranged vocals from Alan Gaunt, whose performance takes the piece to someplace entirely the band’s own. Winding, airy lead lines in “The Rift” will be a dogwhistle to those in the know, but the piano-inclusive apex of “Scars from Limbo” and ambient finale “Adrift through the Arcane Isles of Recovery” speak to an individuality in development, and if Thine get a follow-up out sometime before 2026, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them grown further into their style. Thine on Thee Facebooks, Peaceville Records.
Dwellers, Live at Bar Deluxe 29-04-2014
As the title hints, Live at Bar Deluxe 29-04-2014 is a new live release from Salt Lake City heavy rockers Dwellers, recorded in their hometown at the end of April. That puts it prior to the street date for their second album, Pagan Fruit (review here), but two cuts from that — “Rare Eagle” and “Totem Crawler” — make appearances anyway alongside highlights drawn from the first Dwellers offering, 2012’s Good Morning Harakiri (review here). Both those records were on Small Stone, but this 34-minute set is a self-release free download, essentially a band-endorsed bootleg to be spread around. The audio quality is definitely in the “audience recording” vein, but clear enough to let the spaciousness of “Old Honey” sink in as it flows out of “Ode to Inversion Layer,” and as this is as close as I’ve yet come to seeing Dwellers — the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano, bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis — live, I’m more than inclined to take it. Hearing Toscano nail the chorus to “Totem Crawler” as well as he does here only emphasizes how much I need to catch a gig sooner rather than later. Maybe it’s a fan piece, but screw it, I’m a fan. Dwellers on Thee Facebooks, Dwellers on Bandcamp.
Fever Dog, “Iroquois”
Just a quick look from these jammy Palm Desert youngsters at what their forthcoming sophomore full-length, Second Wind, will hold, but “Iroquois” bodes well, and in its two-minute span one can hear space rock ideals beginning to make themselves felt amidst a still tonally weighted push, the band’s confidence emerging as their sound continues to expand. Comprised of guitarist/vocalist/thereminist Danny Graham, bassist/noisemaker Nathan Wood and drummer Joshua Adams (also synth), Fever Dog show they have a clear dedication to being more than a heavy rock band, and as brief as “Iroquois” is, the immediateness with which it enacts a vibe puts Second Wind on my list of most anticipated albums for the second half of this year. Lot of potential for the desert’s next generation. Fever Dog on Thee Facebooks, Fever Dog on Bandcamp.
Electric Lucifer, Coming to the Mountain
Not to be confused with Cincinnati’s Electric Citizen, Cleveland-based triple-guitar stoner rollers Electric Lucifer get down to some post-Electric Wizard idolatry on their Dec. 2013 Coming to the Mountain three-track EP. The nod is central and effective, and with three guitars at work, riffing is obviously half the point, though the leads mesh naturally with well-held grooves on “Electric Lucifer,” which leads off, and the subsequent “Phantoms from the Outer Rim” and “Red Wizard,” the last of which finds Electric Lucifer at their most blown-out, proffering stoner rock for stoner rockers with a clear passion for the tenets of the genre. There isn’t much fancy about it, but with a reemerging interest in straightforward Sabbath worship and a subsequent full-length released shortly after from Electric Lucifer, easy to think the five-piece would hit a nerve for heads already converted and looking to nod out. Electric Lucifer on Thee Facebooks, Electric Lucifer on Bandcamp.
Also added this week were releases by John Garcia and Swedish stoner punkers Lightsabres. For the full list of updates and more, check out The Obelisk Radio updates page.
A guitar line echoes, swells, is met with a quick wash of cymbal, and almost before you realize it, Dwellers have eased you into the pulsing “Creature Comfort,” the opener of their second album for Small Stone, Pagan Fruit. The Salt Lake City, Utah, three-piece have refined the stylistic ideas put forth on their 2012 debut, Good Morning Harakiri(CD review here, vinyl review here), and the result is a molten nine tracks/48 minutes of graceful, patient, heavy psychedelic blues. Front to back, it is neither haphazard nor overly constructed feeling, guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano (ex-Iota) leading the sway with the rhythm section of bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis (both also of SubRosa) helping to steer the material as much as ground it. Songs like the cello-infused “Spirit of the Staircase” drive into exploratory vibes, spaced out and ethereal, but there’s a melancholy at work underneath that, in combination with a more confident vocal and instrumental approach, gives Pagan Fruita genuine sense of consciousness. It holds to these even in its most swaggering moments, say “Rare Eagle” on side A, “Devoured by Lions” or the penultimate “Waiting on Winter,” and finds its most vivid emotional ground in its moments of pleading, as on the rolling second cut, “Totem Crawler,” with its chorus, “Oh, my queen/To whom I crawl,” or the CD centerpiece “Son of Raven,” which begs, “Come home,” in repeated fashion. These songs are a far cry from any sort of toughguy mentality or dudely let’s-get-drunk-on-beer-and-write-songs-about-whiskey posturing, and ultimately it’s that sincere vibe paired with the memorable songwriting itself that makes Pagan Fruitsuch a satisfying, engaging experience.
It has its raucous stretches, and a steady flourish of organ from Jones and synth, vibraphone and Rhodes from Hatsis adds depth to the arrangements, and while its songs hit with no shortage of impact — recorded by Toscano‘s former Iota bandmate Andy Patterson, Hatsis‘ kick feels like it’s coming from inside your brain — Pagan Fruitis not a bombastic album. In pacing and execution it is patient and carefully done, a song like “Return to the Sky” finding its soul as much in the raindrop melody of its keys as in Toscano‘s lyrics. Guitar and bass tones are warm, perhaps most of all on the two longer cuts, “Rare Eagle” (7:10) and the closer “Call of the Hallowed Horn” (8:33). The first of the two, fourth of the total nine songs and likely the side A/B split, departs in its midsection to a psychedelic jam with subdued vocals over top, but picks up into insistent riffing, a space-rocking push emerging as organ, soloing and effects are layered in. They jam “Rare Eagle” to its finish, leading fluidly into the album-highlight “Son of Raven,” but “Call of the Hallowed Horn,” which brings in goth-rock singer-songwriter Raven Quinn for a guest vocal spot, reinterprets its chorus over its own sprawling, slow-rolling psych jam, bookending the song and album alike and showing Dwellers‘ care toward varying structures. Of course, by then, the band has done that for 40 minutes, so maybe the point is made, but they underline it well anyhow with the finale, further variety arriving earlier through elements like Toscano‘s harmonica on the swing-heavy “Devoured by Lions,” the steadily shifting key sounds or even just the changes of mood from song to song, all of which remains impeccably arranged and executed with a natural, organic feel, making non-traditional vibes and approaches sound immediately familiar.
Given the chance to pick a track for streaming ahead of the May 6 official release date for Dwellers‘ second album, Pagan Fruit, my mind immediately gravitated to “Son of Raven.” It’s not a raging rocker by any means, and Pagan Fruit— which follows the Salt Lake City trio’s 2011 debut, Good Morning Harakiri(review here) — has a few of those, but it’s among the record’s most memorable anyway, with guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano (ex-Iota) howling out a psych-blues chorus that sticks relentlessly in the listener’s head, all the while he, bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis (both culled from SubRosa) elicit a smooth progression, dynamic and flowing naturally between open, spacious verses and the return to the infectiously moving hook, subtle keys throughout leaving a mark almost unconsciously. “Son of Raven” is the centerpiece of Pagan Fruit, and for good reason.
Setting aside the quality of the songwriting itself, which is consistent throughout the nine-track/48-minute outing, what “Son of Raven” shows even more than opener “Creature Comfort” or a cut like the later, cello-infused “Spirit of the Staircase” is the level of growth between Dwellers‘ first time out and where they are now. Having recently revisited Good Morning Harakirion vinyl, it sets up much of the soul one finds refined on Pagan Fruit, but just in terms of the sheer confidence of the three-piece in their approach, the newer album allows them to push further into their sound and come up with something that’s more their own. “Son of Raven” is a showcase of patience. Unhurried but not still, it’s the kind of song that would be all but impossible to find on a band’s first album and even on Dwellers‘ second, it makes an impressive accomplishment and is a landmark in the tracklist, among other highlights like the hard-driving “Devoured by Lions,” which follows, and the extended finale “Call of the Hollowed Horn,” which revels in the unpretentious atmospherics the entirety of Pagan Fruithas managed to maintain.
In part, it’s the balance between that atmosphere and the sonic forcefulness of Dwellers that makes the long-player such a special, engaging listen. The band pushes the traditional boundaries of rock, psychedelia and blues, and in so doing, finds an individual place within them.
Give it a couple seconds to start, and please enjoy “Son of Raven” on the player below:
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
Pagan Fruitwas recorded by Andy Patterson at The Boars Nest in Salt Lake City, mixed by Eric Hoegemeyer in Brooklyn and mastered by Chris Gooseman in Michigan. Cover art is by Adrian Brouchy of Coven Illustración, and the album will be released on May 6 through Small Stone. More info at the links.
I think when Salt Lake City trio Dwellers released their 2011 debut, Good Morning Harakiri, I was still too enamored of guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano‘s previous outfit, Iota, to fully appreciate it on its own level. Iota‘s 2008 full-length, Tales, presented a masterful and forward looking blend of Hawkwindian psychedelics and Kyuss-style stoner rockery, and though I enjoyed Good Morning Harakiri (review here) thoroughly at the time and have only grown to dig the band more since, its unrepentant bluesiness — made a vital element thanks in no small part to the swinging rhythm section of bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis (both of SubRosa) — fit oddly with the context of what I was expecting. I was thrown off by it and had to right my assumptions before I could really dig in.
Listening to Small Stone‘s LP edition of Good Morning Harakiri — limited to 500 copies and pressed either in cyan/red swirl (as mine is), black or transparent purple 180g vinyl — I have no such momentary hesitation, thanks both to the time I’ve already spent listening to Dwellers‘ debut and time spent with its forthcoming follow-up, Pagan Fruit (review pending), due out May 6. Particularly in light of the sophomore outing coming up, Good Morning Harakiriseems ripe for a revisit, and the vinyl version provides a perfect excuse, its six tracks rearranged from the CD such that what was the fourth track, “Ode to Inversion Layer,” is repositioned as the opener and the relatively brief “Lightening Ritual” moves up to end side A, leaving side B to the combined sprawl of “Vulture” and “Old Honey,” both of which hover around the 10-minute mark.
That change makes sense practically — there’s only so much room on a given side — and sonically. “Ode to Inversion Layer” unfolds more gradually than did “Secret Revival,” the former opener and here the second cut, setting the listener up to expect a more languid roll than the swaying tension of “Secret Revival” might have, with no sacrifice of hook from one to the other. As it is on the platter, “Ode to Inversion Layer” draws you in and “Secret Revival” provides a smack to the face, Hatsis slamming hard on his crash in the chorus while Toscano — who seems apprehensive in his vocal approach as compared to the new album; this is shown largely in where he sits in the mix in one compared to the other — drawls out a resonant chorus, slowing fluidly in its midsection to smooth the shift into “Blackbird,” which worked well on CD also, his vocals a far back swirl of echo amid the weighted fuzz of his guitar and rumble of Jones‘ bass.
A dead stop precedes “Black Bird”‘s arrival, but the changeover is easy nonetheless, and of the tracklisting shuffles between the CD and LP editions of Good Morning Harakiri, putting “Black Bird” and “Lightening Ritual” next to each other gives the album a midsection comprising its strongest hooks, the stomp of “Black Bird” and the blown-out intensity of “Lightening Ritual” playing exceedingly well together. And when it comes to “Vulture” and “Old Honey” on side B, 20 solid minutes of Dwellers jamming out supernova blues is not a proposition with which I’m about to argue. Seated together, “Vulture” and “Old Honey” offer more than simple long-form indulgences, the former making deft rhythmic turns into a newly-paved groove that runs a highway right through the wandering nighttime desert ritualism of the latter. I don’t have to pick a favorite from between them, so I won’t. Better just to enjoy them back to back as what makes for half an album more immersive than most full-lengths.
As Dwellers come more into their own in 2014 with Pagan Fruit, I’m glad to have the chance to give Good Morning Harakirianother spin and appreciate some of what seemed like unevenness at the time for the progressivism it actually represents. One can only hope the second album holds up so well three years later.
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
I was all set to pat myself on the back for making a podcast and posting it when someone might actually see it, unlike the last two (033 and 032), which rather impractically both went up on the eve of a major holiday, and then I remembered today was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Whoops. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh well. There’s always next month.
This one took kind of a strange and fun turn in the making and got very languid, very spaced out and sort of dreamy but still heavy in the bottom end. We start out with new stuff from We Hunt Buffalo, Truckfighters and Dwellers right in a row, and I guess that set the tone for a heavy roll that carried through a lot of the rest of the nearly-two-hour span. Not a complaint. I think it flows really well, and of course I hope you do too.
Once again, no real theme, though in addition to the aforementioned, you’ll also find new tracks from Sahg, Papir, Radar Men from the Moon, Pontiak and The Wounded Kings, the latter providing a grim finish after All Them Witches and Black Skies offer prime terrestrial psychedelia. It’s a good mix, all told. It grooves. It nods.
We Hunt Buffalo, “Blood from a Stone” from Blood from a Stone (2014)
Truckfighters, “Get Lifted” from Universe (2014)
Dwellers, “Creature Comfort” from Pagan Fruit (2014)
Salitter, “But I am Not Consoled” from Salitter EP (2013)
Papir, “I” from IIII (2014)
Radar Men from the Moon, “Surrealist Appearance” from Strange Wave Galore (2014)
The Ravenna Arsenal, “The Desert Shows No Mercy” from I (2013)
Pontiak, “Surrounded by Diamonds” from Innocence (2014)
Sahg, “Blizzardborne” from Delusions of Grandeur (2014)
Doctor Cyclops, “Cobweb Hands” from Oscuropasso (2014)
Mammatus, “Brainbow/Brain-Train” from Heady Mental (2013)
Sun Voyager, “Space Queen” from Mecca (2013)
All Them Witches, “Swallowed by the Sea” from Lightning at the Door (2013)
Black Skies, “Lifeblood” from Circadian Meditations (2013)
The Wounded Kings, “Consolamentum” from Consolamentum (2014)