Friday Full-Length: Lamp of the Universe, Heru

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 1st, 2019 by JJ Koczan

 

On a pretty regular basis around here I speak about patience in songwriting as an asset on the part of bands and artists. I can think of few the world over who offer a master class in this idea on the level of Craig Williamson‘s Lamp of the Universe. The Hamilton, New Zealand-based one-man project has been more or less ongoing for the last 20 years, with a stream of regular output that has resulted in no fewer than 11 full-lengths, as well as — in just the last five years — splits with Kanoi (review here), Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here). Some work has veered into crafting a full-band sound as Williamson has come to split time over the course of this decade between creating with Lamp of the Universe and as part of the heavier-rocking cosmic trio Arc of Ascent, but Lamp of the Universe is always just him working in layers of sitar, guitar, synth, percussion, vocals, and a host of other instrumentation in order to create a psychedelic acid-folk immersion like nothing else I’ve experienced. From his 2001 debut, The Cosmic Union (discussed here) through earlier 2019’s Align in the Fourth Dimension (review here), his work has never wavered from its central purpose in exploring the self, the universe, and of course, how the two might be brought together through sound.

And when it comes to patience, one can point to any number of offerings from Lamp of the Universe as an example. Even when Williamson isn’t explicitly working in longer-form songwriting, he’s not exactly writing three-minute pop songs, but Heru is a special case. Released in 2005 on a limited CDR through Barl Fire and reissued in 2007 through Astral Projection — yes, Williamson‘s imprint — Heru is comprised of seven numbered parts that spread out as a single longform piece over the course of 61 minutes. It begins with a single sitar drone and that ends up being the bed for nearly the entire outing, and as each “Part” enters, “Part 1,” “Part 2,” “Part 3,” and so on, a different element is introduced or there’s some subtle shift in the flow. “Part 3” brings a fade-in of plucked sitar notes amid that drone and obscure voice swirl. “Part 5” seems to have cymbals washing in the farthest, deepest reaches of its mix. “Part 1” is the longest track at 12:20 (immediate points), but it’s really not until “Part 2” that the proceedings get underway.

But even when they do, it’s with patience as no less of a defining factor than that undercurrent of sitar woven across the whole thing. As the Lamp of the Universe Herusynthesizer/theremin/whatever-it-is begins to add to the liquefaction of consciousness on display, it becomes not just about doing one thing for a while over a loop and then moving on, adding one instrument on top of another, but of letting the song “Heru” become what it needs to be. It’s a different kind of communication between an artist and their work. I’m not saying urgency doesn’t have a place or isn’t admirable in its own right, or that something needs to be slow or fast to be either urgent or patient — there are patient three-minute pop songs, to use the earlier example — but most often, this seems to be something that’s either inherently understood by a songwriter or group or not. Maybe it’s dependent on the personalities of those doing the making. I don’t know. But the grace with which Williamson unfurls Heru is only enhanced by the fact that it feels so remarkably unforced, and its hypnotic aspect comes through as all the more sincere. As the band’s third album, it followed The Cosmic Union and 2002’s Echo in Light, which together made something of a holy duality, and it was surprising both in the three-year delay before its arrival and in the form it took when it came around.

One hates to use the word “straightforward” in this context, but to this point, Lamp of the Universe had at least had more of a structure to its root songwriting, and Heru left that behind and then some. There are vocals on Heru, in the later reaches of “Part 6” and then “Part 7,” when things get more active on this relative scale, but no discernible verses as such. Instead, they are obscure chants overwhelmed by electric guitar volume swells, synthesizer noise, various effects, and so on. It’s in “Part 7” that the most radical shift happens, and it’s the departure of that drone, the arrival of more upfront drumming, bass and guitar in jammy fashion. Of course it’s not like there’s a three-piece in a room together vibing out since it’s just Williamson on his own, but he presents a plausible facsimile of a trio hitting it in mellow style and brings Heru to an end on a long fade of drumming and bass that in turn gets swallowed by a swell of drone and hand-percussion — something of an epilogue for the offering as a whole; “Part 7.9,” maybe, since it’s so close to the end.

However one might want to consider that final movement, it’s a showing of symmetry on the part of Lamp of the Universe that highlights the mentality of the entire offering in terms of knowing where it’s heading and how it will ultimately piece together, making it seem all the more like a masterwork. Williamson has done numerous extended pieces since, from tracks on 2006’s From the Mystic Rays of Astrological Light the two-song Arc of Ascent outing in 2007 — of which I just bought a cassette on Discogs; why do these Friday Full-Length posts so often cost me money? — to the 22-minute space ritual “Doors of Perception” from the split with Krautzone in 2014, but Heru remains a standout in his discography as Lamp of the Universe and is something of a landmark out there in the galaxial vastness for how far his exploration has taken him to-date. I wouldn’t at all put it past him to do another single-song full-length — Align in the Fourth Dimension seemed to go in the other direction, but 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here) was bookended by tracks 13 and 14 minutes long, so you never know — but even if he gets there at some point, that does nothing to lessen the accomplishment of Heru in terms of its patience and its reach. It’s not going to be for everybody, but those who let themselves go with it will be all the more rewarded.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Shortly after 6. Yesterday wasn’t so bad. First blood draw after The Pecan’s 2-year-old checkup at the doctor. They want to test him for lead because the house we moved into was built in the ’50s and his level was high when we lived in MA. I have no doubt there were lead pipes in MA. Working-class area shit on and screwed over by cheap builders? Yeah, that sounds about right? And here? Well, it’s what used to be middle-class, but still old enough that it’s not unreasonable to think the pipes in this house are lead. Some of the paint is, I think. I don’t know. It’s North Jersey. Something’s gonna fuck you up and give you cancer.

But he was okay yesterday. Rest of the week was hard. We’re in the grind of a tough first semester at The Patient Mrs.’ new job at William Paterson. They’re talking about the faculty going on strike or something? I bet that shit’s a lot easier to consider when you’ve got tenure. Guess we’ll see how it goes.

Pecan’s up. Hang on…

Alright, one chill diaper-change later he’s in with The Patient Mrs. for the time being. Fine.

This weekend is the Magnetic Eye Day of Doom nine-bander at Saint Vitus Bar. Woof that’s a lot of bands. Nine, to be exact. I’m DJ’ing the pre-party, which means I’ll be putting together a playlist today I guess, and then since I’ll have my laptop anyway I’ll probably just writeup the bands while I’m at the show. I don’t know if I’ll also have time to sort through photos there, so it might not be a live live-blog, but even if I get the text part done, put pictures together on Sunday and post on Monday, that’s a load off my mind for the weekend. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

The timing’s important because I’m also streaming the full new Devil to Pay record on Monday and I want to give it its due. So I’ll be reviewing that before I leave the house tomorrow morning to go to Brooklyn. Tuesday the poll for the best albums of the decade goes up, as well as a track premiere from the new Iguana record. Wednesday is doubled-up again with a Brume premiere — their record’s so good — and a Very Paranoia premiere, some ’70s punk-ish stuff on Who Can You Trust? Records, then Thursday I have a Lemurian Folk Songs review slated but I might honestly just skip it and fill out the day with other stuff, and then Friday is a Kamchatka track premiere. So yeah, busy. Busy busy busy.

And to go with that, The Toddlerian in all his glorious volatility. He’s mad. Why? Wrong question.

But anyway. Quick merch update: I’ve seen the new site that’s in progress. It’ll be run through Made in Brooklyn directly. Should be live next week I hope? There will be Obelisk sweatpants. I will purchase a pair. And wear them. In public. Whether or not you do the same is of course between you and your higher power, whoever/whatever that may be.

That’s enough out of me. If you’re at Vitus tomorrow — and you should be, what with Domkraft and Elephant Tree and Horsehunter and all — say hi. I may or may not be the guy in tye-dye pants, depending on how much laundry I get done today. Camera and cosmic backpack (and laptop) either way though, so yeah. That’s me. I’m old.

Have a great and safe weekend, whatever your plans. Forum, radio, merch.

The Obelisk Forum

The Obelisk Radio

The Obelisk shirts & hoodies

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Astral Witch to Work with DHU Records and Fuzzed & Buzzed Records on Self-Titled LP Release

Posted in Whathaveyou on August 22nd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Ontario three-piece Astral Witch were brought to my attention earlier this summer by the good folks of Fuzzed and Buzzed Records, who included them in a 7″ box set called Altar Box they kindly passed my way. The band also issued a self-titled debut full-length last year, and the thing about it is it’s pretty awesome. That only makes the news that Astral Witch and Fuzzed and Buzzed have aligned with DHU Records to work together on a vinyl release that will seemingly encompass both the Love two-songer that was in Altar Box as well as the self-titled together all the better. DHU‘s taste is becoming increasingly reliable over time, and the cooperation between imprints here I can only see as strengthening everybody’s position, most especially that of the band. Mark it a win.

I don’t see a firm release date, but maybe November? Maybe December or February? I don’t know. Keep an eye out, either way. If you need to know why you should, both releases are up on Bandcamp.

Here’s DHU‘s announcement as per the social medias:

astral witch

DHU Records is excited to announce the signing of Canadian Doom Rockers Astral Witch to release their debut S/T 2018 Record together w/ Fuzzedandbuzzed Records on Limited Edition Vinyl!

When Fuzzed and Buzzed released the Altar Box earlier this year, it did not take long for DHU and the Fuzzed and Buzzed crew to work out an agreement to release full lengths on each side of the ocean for Rough Spells, Häxan and Astral Witch. It was a match made in Hell!

For all 3 releases there will be a DHU, F&B and Band Edition and all Editions will be available from both record labels and band to save on shipping, how about that!

More info & details coming soon…

STAY DOOMED STAY HEAVY
STAY FUZZED STAY BUZZED

http://www.facebook.com/astralwitchband
https://www.instagram.com/astralwitchband
https://astralwitch.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Fuzzedandbuzzed-631019733954614/
https://www.instagram.com/fuzzedandbuzzed/
https://www.fuzzedandbuzzed.com/
https://www.facebook.com/DHURecords/
https://www.instagram.com/dhu_records/
https://darkhedonisticunionrecords.bandcamp.com/
darkhedonisticunionrecords.bigcartel.com/

Astral Witch, Love 7″ (2019)

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Lamp of the Universe, Align in the Fourth Dimension: Finding Inner Space

Posted in Reviews on May 13th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Lamp of the Universe Align in the Fourth Dimension

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hamilton, New Zealand-based multi-instrumentalist Craig Williamson founding Lamp of the Universe as his primary solo outlet. At the time, he was best known as the guitarist of underrated pre-social-media heavy psychedelic rockers Datura, but in the years since, in addition to founding the trio Arc of Ascent at the dawn of this decade, he’s become a guru of mantra psych, acid folk and, of late, effects-swirling cosmic serenity. Lamp of the Universe is still identifiable from its 1999 debut, The Cosmic Union (review here), not the least because of Williamson‘s enduring penchant for sitar and his vocal style, but as one might hope over the course of 11 albums, the scope has increased for Lamp of the Universe, and the latest full-length for Sulatron Records, Align in the Fourth Dimension, puts emphasis on inward and outward exploration, with Williamson blending guitar and keys, percussion and voice, and always a lush and languid sense of melody that finds songs like “Light Receiver” and the later “Absolution Through Your Third Eye” poised and thoughtful works of assured execution.

Really, the same could be said of the eight-track/46-minute release as a whole. It’s the work of someone who has long since mastered the form but continues to refine processes naturally over time while keeping a central creative identity, shamanic in this case, but not at all overwrought or cartoonish. In some ways, Align in the Fourth Dimension, particularly in its acoustic-led side-closing tracks “New Forms” on side A and “Seasons of Love” on side B, calls back directly to the beginnings of the project in terms of the atmosphere created, somehow minimalist and spacious at the same time, but Williamson‘s arrangements have fleshed out. Layers of effects or keys/synth of various stripes give Lamp of the Universe a broader range, and even though opener “Visitors” is among the shortest inclusions at 4:39 — the CD-only penultimate cut “Call from Beyond” is the only one shorter, by a full minute — the context its backing waves of modular synth undulations and solar wind, eventual string-mellotron drama and slow-delivered vocal lend to the beginnings of Align in the Fourth Dimension is resonant enough to affect everything that follows. This, of course, is precisely the idea.

I don’t know at what point Williamson bought the organ that features so prominently on second track “Rite of Spheres” — seems to me it was a few albums ago — but it was the right choice. Still, it’s the drums that really make the difference. Williamson will generally employ some manner of percussion, but it’s not always a traditional drum set. Cymbals and snare and kick drum with quick fills maybe on a floor tom (?) give “Rite of Spheres” its pervasive sense of movement beneath the organ line and watery vocal. The drums are far back in the mix until the three-minute mark, when they come forward following a cymbal sweep and propel and electric guitar solo that puts even further emphasis on the full-band feel before the last fadeout leads to “Light Receiver.” With just a shaker for percussion, “Light Receiver” is a wash of melody in mellotron and guitar and sitar, etc., with an especially memorable chorus that holds to the rhythmic style of delivery one has come to expect from Lamp of the Universe, and it comes paired with the ultra-immersive “New Forms,” which feels more linear in its execution, but is gorgeously hypnotic while answering back the ambient spirit of the opener at the same time.

lamp of the universe

It’s by no means still, but the intertwining of acoustic guitar, soft eBow-sounding electric and effects, along with a purposeful-seeming lack of percussion, seems only to make it all the more gracefully fluid. As noted, it’s how the first half of Align in the Fourth Dimension ends, and the subsequent “The Leaving” begins side B with a likewise peaceful spirit, acoustic strum, vocals and organ flowing easily over the early going of the song only to turn more dramatic past the three-minute mark with the arrival of a fuzzy plugged-in solo, distant cymbal splash and general uptick of energy. It’s the organ and acoustic guitar though that hold sway when all is done, and “The Leaving” goes smoothly into “Absolution Through the Third Eye,” which sees the return of hand percussion and sitar along with a backing drone filling out the mix ahead of an echoing electric guitar lead that’s a subtle highlight of the album in its entirety not so much for what’s played as how it’s presented so seamlessly with its surroundings. The verse returns after with all the more a sense of drift, and makes its way eventually out, leaving “Call from Beyond” to push as far into minimalism as Lamp of the Universe will go.

Obviously, a big part of the appeal for Lamp of the Universe as an ongoing entity is Williamson‘s skill at varying arrangements for his material and his tack as a multi-instrumentalist. Working mostly alone if not always entirely alone, he’s able to bring either breadth of scope or deep-running intimacy to his craft in a way that is continually engrossing. With “Call from Beyond,” it’s the latter. Just him and his acoustic guitar. A bit of echo, but it seems to be mostly a single layer throughout, and I’d be surprised if at least the basic performance track wasn’t done live. As a “bonus” to the CD, it’s a standout, and placed well ahead of the finale and longest inclusion, “Seasons of Love,” which at 8:49 conjures a reach entirely its own with percussion, synth, acoustic guitar, more eBow, harmonized vocals and a flow unto itself that nonetheless makes a fitting conclusion to Align in the Fourth Dimension as a whole.

There is a linear flow that ties together Williamson‘s output as Lamp of the Universe that one can trace back across the last two decades, and for an ongoing project like this, it can be intimidating for a new listener to dig in. The age-old “where to start” dilemma. That’s fair. With 11 albums, who the hell knows. The truth, however, is that it doesn’t matter. And even less here than with many others. The overarching style and sound of Lamp of the Universe is welcoming enough that whether Align in the Fourth Dimension is someone’s first experience or they bought Heru from Williamson on MySpace in 2005, it isn’t going to make a difference. It’s about cosmic freedom — certainly not about to play the elitist. So, while time is often thought of as the fourth dimension and Williamson here aligns with it in a way that evokes a sense of infinity beyond what a human might conceive, I’ll just note that now would be as good a moment as one could ask for to get on board.

Lamp of the Universe, Align in the Fourth Dimension (2019)

Lamp of the Universe on Thee Facebooks

Lamp of the Universe on Bandcamp

Sulatron Records webstore

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Arc of Ascent & Zone Six, Split LP: Seeds in Hyperspace

Posted in Reviews on December 31st, 2018 by JJ Koczan

arc of ascent zone six split

Among the releases one might encounter and consider a no-brainer, a split LP that finds Arc of Ascent and Zone Six sharing room has to be among the easiest of duh-inducers. “Wait, you mean you’re going to pair up New Zealand cosmic metaphysical rock with German prog-infused space stoner jams? It’ll never work! It’s too crazy!” Except it’s not. At all. It’s brilliant. And it does absolutely work. Headspin Records is the imprint no-doubt-proudly standing behind the vinyl pressing, and if I hadn’t already posted my list of the year’s best short releases — which it would count as because it’s a split, i.e. basically an EP from each band — surely Arc of Ascent and Zone Six‘s combined efforts would’ve earned a place thereupon. Running 45 minutes with two extended cuts from Arc of Ascent and one even-more extended piece from Zone Six, it’s the kind of release that I consider writing about doing myself a favor because it means I get to listen to it a bunch of times.

For Arc of Ascent, their “Black Seed” and “Serpents 25” stand in as their first offering since marking their return from hiatus with 2017’s Realms of the Metaphysical (review here), and both songs bear the hallmarks of craft belonging to bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson. Also known for his work as the acid-drenched one-man outfit Lamp of the Universe, Williamson brings a fervent, crunching progression to “Black Seed” set to the riffs from guitarist Matt Cole-Baker and the roll of drummer Mark McGeady, who made his first appearance with the band on the last record but seems to have had no trouble fitting in with their spacious and spacey style. “Black Seed” checks in at 12:08 and “Serpents 25” — think of the number 25 as two snakes intertwined, with their heads facing apart from each other — at 11:13, so there’s plenty of time to go exploring, and the three-piece do precisely that while also pushing closer to Williamson‘s work with Lamp of the Universe than they’ve ever done before on the latter track.

As a fan of the band, I’d consider that in itself enough of a forehead-slapper to seek it out, but even for those unfamiliar with Arc of Ascent or Lamp of the Universe or Williamson‘s prior outfit, Datura, the spiritualism of the riffing in “Black Seed” and the push into psychedelic liquidity of “Serpents 25” are enough to make for a rousing introduction to their expanding scope. I’m not sure the origins of the songs in terms of when they were recorded, but it’s possible they were originally intended for a split with The Re-Stoned, and either way, the first of them immediately shows its hook, stomp and nodder groove. It’s quick into the verse and chorus, and while of course it takes its time as a 12-minute song inherently will, the band never really departs from the central structure, such that the maddening heft and crash that emerges in “Black Seed”‘s second half is still cognizant of where it came from.

They don’t go so far as to return to the verse or chorus at the end, but neither do they need to, having not veered so far from them in the first place. To contrast, “Serpents 25” is a reinterpretation of “Master of the Serpents” from the band’s debut, Circle of the Sun (review here), driven by acoustics, hand percussion and Eastern inflection of melody. There is a “plugged” guitar solo that picks up in waves shortly before the midpoint, but even then, the song maintains its peaceful vibe as it cycles through and back to the chorus en route to further acoustic/electric exploration and a finish of sitar. If you told me it was just Williamson handling the instruments, I’d have to believe it — it’s certainly within the range of what he’s done on his own before — but there’s also a fuller sound to the production of “Serpents 25” that fits with “Black Seed” before it and Arc of Ascent‘s work on the whole. It is not, in other words, a three-way split by any other name — although names come into some further curiosity as Zone Six consume the entirety of side B with the 21:52 sprawl of “Hyperspace Overdrive.”

The long-running, on and off-again krautwash purveyors here feature guitarist Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt, bassist “Komet Lulu” Neudeck and apparently-sans-alias drummer Pablo Carneval — otherwise known as the current lineup of Electric Moon. When Zone Six released the live album Live Spring 2017 (review here), they had Rainer Neeff on guitar and Schmidt on drums, so whatever brought the change about, “Hyperspace Overdrive” is essentially Electric Moon playing Zone Six. If that’s not enough to make your head explode, then surely the song itself will. It is a patient, effects-laced space rock wash, all thrust as it bounds out of the atmosphere in the first half — sampled countdown included — before reaching a point of blissful drift in its second movement and returning to ground with even greater velocity and gravity before an ending of leftover thruster burn finishes out.

Energy-wise, it is more active than much of what Electric Moon might produce under that banner, but there’s little mistaking Sula Bassana on guitar and Lulu on bass, the depths and reaches cast by their swirling effects and rhythms. Whatever band you want to call it, “Hyperspace Overdrive” is next-level Hawkwindian, a massive interstellar reach that pushes distortion the way asteroids slam into each other and splinter off in multiple directions. The better part of the last four minutes is dedicated to the ending, which holds out effects drone and a long string of kosmiche minimalism. At the end, the audience departs the wormhole and is somehow back where it started, out of phase with what’s normally thought of as spacetime, but otherwise uninjured. As a fan as well of Zone Six and of the players comprising this incarnation thereof, there’s absolutely nothing more one might ask of its molten flow or turned-on mindset.

Like I said at the outset, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a pairing that works on paper and a pairing that works on a platter. I’ll be interested to see what Zone Six do from here and who’s involved, and Williamson will have a new Lamp of the Universe release out early in 2019 on Schmidt‘s Sulatron Records imprint, so this is by no means the last collaboration between these players/entities. Will we ever get to the point where Williamson sits in with either Zone Six or Electric Moon for a jam? I guess that’s the big question left to answer by this split, but either way, even on opposite sides of the vinyl, Arc of Ascent and Zone Six have no trouble working toward parallel ends.

Arc of Ascent on Bandcamp

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Zone Six on Bandcamp

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Friday Full-Length: Lamp of the Universe, The Cosmic Union

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 3rd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Lamp of the Universe, The Cosmic Union (2001)

Whatever you’re doing, stop. Take a minute. Take an hour. Take whatever you need to take, and breathe. That seems to be the underlying message of Lamp of the Universe‘s 2001 debut album, The Cosmic Union. The ongoing psychedelic project was formed and continues to be manned solely by Craig Williamson, guitarist at the time for the underrated Datura, who in 2001 were two years removed from the release of their second and — as would turn out to be — final full-length, 1999’s Visions for the Celestial. Immediately, Lamp of the Universe presented a different direction for the Hamilton, New Zealand-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, engaging richly textured Eastern-influenced acid folk of rare potency. Sitar, tabla, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, chimes, synth, various percussive elements and a cascade of watery melodies lend The Cosmic Union an experimentalist feel, but in the years and numerous offerings since, Williamson has never deviated from the core vibe Lamp of the Universe established its first time out, despite delving into drone, full-band sounds, and other avenues of exploration.

Still, if Lamp of the Universe has always been a project with a mission, part of that mission has been not sounding like a band with a mission. That is to say, to listen to the seeping space-born pastoralism of “Born in the Rays of the Third Eye,” the sense of inner peace that comes through is nigh unmatched in psychedelic realms. Likewise the acoustic strum of the later “Give Yourself to Love,” on which Williamson offers subtle self-harmonies atop birdsong-esque guitar noise and backing swirl. Taken together, “Born in the Rays of the Third Eye,” the subsequent nine-minute highlight “Lotus of a Thousand Petals” and the late wah-soaked electrified soloing atop hand percussion of “In the Mystic Light” form an essential salvo for anyone who would seek to understand Williamson‘s methods. Core elements of Lamp of the Universe are laid as bare as the figures on The Cosmic Union‘s cover art. Key rhythms are set. Melodic progressions are established. Methods are honed. It’s by no means even close to the entirety of the scope that Wiliamson has unfurled with the project over the last 16 years, but it’s definitely the foundation, and as the theme of love as spiritual and physical entity arises in “Give Yourself to Love” and “Freedom in Your Mind” looses itself on organ-flourish and ultimate guitar drift — gorgeous, flowing, and utterly gone — the increasing complexity of the overarching approach does nothing to undercut the resonant ambience or the serenity that seems to emanate warmly from each of the album’s beautiful arrangements, so seemingly minimal and yet so spacious on “Her Cosmic Light” where only a few songs prior, “Lotus of a Thousand Petals” had seemed nearly like an entire group celebration of consciousness and mantra, universe-minded, somehow sexual and coherent despite the fact that its intricacy is the result of one person’s work. Williamson‘s skill as a craftsman is on ready display throughout the eight tracks of the original release, but there never seems to be a formula employed.

Rather, the variety seems to emerge as a result of organic processes, and a balance is struck between experimentalism and poise of songwriting. The peaceful noodling of “Her Cosmic Light” is a prime example of this, but one can hear it all throughout The Cosmic Union as well, whether it’s the uptempo, handclap-ready circle-folk of the sitar-led “What Love Can Bring,” or the immersive hypnotism brought on by “In the Mystic Light”‘s slow-moving liquefied swirl. Beauty is central to the process, and whether it’s longer tracks or shorter, freak folk or freak psych, layered or singular in delivery, Lamp of the Universe‘s debut offers a listening experience unlike anything I’ve encountered since — and make no mistake, I’ve looked. There’s purpose behind it, but the purpose is having no purpose. It oozes forward and yet keeps its feet on solid ground. Its scope is vast and diverse, but it remains deeply human and believable as the output of a lone individual. As “Tantra Asana” closes out with sitar echoing over a backing drone, building to one last consuming, gorgeous melody, keyboards emerging late to further the depth of Williamson‘s arrangement — again, without distracting from the effectiveness thereof — the shimmer of the album as a whole is reaffirmed, and though one couldn’t have known then what was being set in motion, it’s plain to hear across the 50-plus-minute outing that a world is being made, a place in which to dwell.

The Cosmic Union remains a joy to dwell in, and as the beginning point of a Lamp of the Universe discography that’s gone on to include no fewer than 10 full-lengths — the latest of which, Hidden Knowledge (review here), came out last year on Clostridium Records — it is all the more a genuinely special landmark. Williamson has at times over the last half-decade lent his focus more toward the heavy psych rock trio Arc of Ascent, whose third long-player, Realms of the Metaphysical (review here), arrived earlier in 2017, but he seems to perpetually return to Lamp of the Universe — a new split with Kanoi is currently on offer that I’m hoping I get the chance to check out — leading one to believe the project is as essential to him as it should be to anyone who’s ever sought an experience of communion with the aurally lysergic.

Note the version above comes from the Lamp of the Universe Bandcamp page and includes the bonus track “By the Grace of Love.” This is featured on the 2011 reissue that came via Williamson‘s own Astral Projection imprint. The album was originally released via Cranium Records.

Bottom line is I love this record, and I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Interesting week. I guess it started last Friday when The Patient Mrs., The Pecan and I made a daring escape from the hospital and headed home, the baby for the first time. The weekend was kind of a blur. I tried to do as much writing as I could, changed diapers, did daddy-stuff, cleaned as much as possible, made sure The Patient Mrs. was fed and so on. We listened to music. Family came up on Saturday or Sunday. I don’t remember which.

Then the power went out. That might’ve been Monday evening. There was a storm. Apparently a decent section of the Northeast was hit and because it’s 1930 and we put electric wires on poles in the air instead of in the ground where they belong, we lost power. In the three years we’ve lived in this spot, we’ve never had the power go out for more than an hour. New baby home? Two days. Solid. Bound to happen.

I thought we were going to die. I think it was Monday night. We toughed it out changing diapers and doing feedings by flashlight, but it was cold. Tuesday we decided pretty early on to get the hell out of dodge. We had an appointment in Providence on Wednesday anyway, so Tuesday afternoon I packed up the car and drove us the 45 minutes to Rhode Island. The Pecan sleeps in the car anyhow. I hear that’s a baby thing. There was a doctor’s appointment in there — the “you’ve been born” check-in for The Pecan; all is well — I think on Wednesday, and when we got back home after that, the lights had miraculously been turned back on. We damn near wept with joy. Then I made myself a protein shake for dinner. It was unbelievably good.

Yesterday was relatively quiet. A short walk, a daring half-hour of alone time for The Pecan and I while The Patient Mrs. ran an errand, and so on. Today I think we’re going to try to hit Costco, and then family comes up tomorrow, so yeah, goings on going on and whatnot. You might’ve noticed the last couple days have been lighter on posts, today included. That is not a coincidence. I’m doing the best I can and trying to support my wife as best I can.

Real quick, here’s what’s on tap so far for next week. I’m still waiting for some stuff to come together, so this will likely change:

Mon.: Uffe Lorenzen review/track premiere; Josefus live videos.
Tue.: Fireball Ministry review; Iron Monkey video.
Wed.: Maybe a review/premiere of some new Eggnogg.
Thu.: Six Dumb Questions with Great Electric Quest, I hope.
Fri.: Video premiere & album review of the new The Moth.

Pretty busy but hopefully manageable. We’ll see how it goes, and again, things might shift around pending baby stuff and whatnot. He’s been pretty cool to have around thus far though. He doesn’t have much to say at this point — though he grunts like a madman — but it’s been nice to hang out with the little guy after waiting for so long for him to show up.

Have a great and safe weekend, whatever you’re up to, and please don’t forget to check out the forum and the radio stream. Thanks again for reading.

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Review & Track Premiere: Arc of Ascent, Realms of the Metaphysical

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 6th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

arc of ascent realms of the metaphysical

[Click play above to stream ‘Eye of Sages’ from Arc of Ascent’s Realms of the Metaphysical. Album is out digitally and on CD April 11 via Astral Projection with vinyl to follow this June/July through Clostridium Records.]

It’s been just over half a decade since the release of the last Arc of Ascent album, but to listen to the six component tracks of Realms of the Metaphysical, one hardly gets a sense of time at all, let alone a span of years. The Hamilton, New Zealand, outfit boasts bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson, also of Lamp of the Universe and formerly of ready-for-reissue heavy rockers Datura, and together with rejoined guitarist Matt Cole-Baker — who did not feature on 2012’s The Higher Key (review here) but took part in Arc of Ascent‘s 2010 debut, Circle of the Sun (review here) — and drummer Mark McGeady, who makes his debut here (also handling the cover art), Williamson steers a winding course of cosmic riffing across 46 flowing, nod-worthy minutes.

Issued on CD through his own Astral Projection imprint with vinyl to follow from Clostridium RecordsRealms of the Metaphysical bears the hallmark shamanic circularity of Williamson‘s songcraft, as heard the last couple years in Lamp of the Universe offerings like late 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here) and 2015’s The Inner Light of Revelation (review here). That one-man project essentially picked up where Arc of Ascent last left off with its 2013 LP Transcendence (review here) and 2014 splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here).

As Realms of the Metaphysical falls into place with the ongoing stream of output from Williamson, it’s easy as ever to read him as an auteur — and in the case of Lamp of the Universe having no other members, even easier — but the shift in context to Arc of Ascent and the contributions in fullness of sound from McGeady and Cole-Baker aren’t to be understated. Whatever lies at the core of “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” in terms of songwriting, they are unmistakably the work of a complete band, and suitably weighted that it might require three people to carry them.

Rest assured, the heft comes accompanied by due spaciousness, and as Arc of Ascent seem to begin a return to activity with Realms of the Metaphysical, they do so not at all having lost the blend of craft, atmosphere and lumbering tonality that made their earlier records such riffy celebrations to start with. Repetition, groove and crash are factors right from the start of opener “Set the Planets Free,” and as songs regularly range past seven minutes — only the penultimate “Benediction Moon” is shorter, at 5:58 — there’s plenty of room for parts to flesh out as they will. Still, WilliamsonCole-Baker and McGeady don’t shy away from hooks, and before it moves into its echoing solo section circa the halfway point, “Set the Planets Free” establishes the first of them for them to return to later, which, to their credit, they do.

It seems odd to call something of such largesse straightforward, but part of Arc of Ascent‘s approach has always been their ability to conjure memorable impressions in vast reaches. In doing so, “Set the Planets Free” reclaims the modus, and “Eye of Sages” follows suit with “Hexagram” not far behind. Rolling verses and choruses typify “Eye of Sages,” a harder push emerging early en route to another midpoint spaceout, but it’s at 6:23, when the full plod returns, that the crux of the second track is truly revealed — a stomp and shove that comes to a fervent apex before rumbling out and fading into the layered guitar start of “Hexagram,” which gets underway with a resonant gong hit and takes a more psych-leaning bent overall.

The swirl is welcome, particularly with the clarity of Kenny MacDonald‘s mix and master — Dan Howard and Williamson engineered the recording — and as the side A finale moves into its chorus, it proves to be a vocal highlight from Williamson, who pushes himself to new limits of soulfulness without losing control, and seems all the more commanding as a frontman for that. Where “Set the Planets Free” and “Eyes of Sages” introduced swirling flourish only to return to their more grounded riffing, “Hexagram” chooses to keep pushing further out, with Cole-Baker‘s guitar fading in a lead past three minutes in that will come around again to close after one final chorus runthrough, capping the first half of Realms of the Metaphysical amid a wash of effects.

arc of ascent kelsi j photo

The album breaks neatly into two three-song halves, each on either side of 23 minutes, and with “In the Light,” the trio reengage the thickened nod of the opening duo while setting up a catchy landmark that summarizes much of what’s working best in Arc of Ascent circa 2017. A post-Sleep cadence of riff is immediate, but guitar and keys give an early preview of the broadness to come before Wililamson‘s vocals start the first verse, and “In the Light” lives up to the promise of both its tectonics and its breadth, enacting a march toward a shift after three minutes in that opens wide beneath a multi-stage guitar lead with choral keyboards and a steady forward rhythm.

As one of the three songs over eight minutes long along with “Set the Planets Free” and closer “Temple Stone” still to come, “In the Light” has plenty of time to flesh out this part before switching back to the verse and chorus, but it’s the ending that brings the two sides together — that keyboard line returning amid the full-brunt crash and stomp — that brings its payoff to that next level and makes it such a highlight of Realms of the Metaphysical as a whole. “Benediction Moon” opts for a relatively sans-frills approach, which sets up an effective contrast with “Temple Stone” while underscoring the raw songwriting proficiency of Arc of Ascent as a whole and reminding of the grunge influence tucked away under all that depth in the mix.

In a corresponding shift to the ethereal to “Hexagram” at the end of side A, “Temple Stone” rounds out with the most fervent push into psychedelia on the record. Where cuts like “Set the Planets Free,” “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” had their psych breaks, beginning usually somewhere around the middle, the finale takes this ethic more to its root, and from its very start — with a layer of sitar resonating over a patient, subdued guitar figure — it sets a lysergic tone. Its verse riffs are still righteously heavy, but the chorus feels more open with a line of organ and keys coming into focus, and by the time the band are three minutes in, they’ve set themselves up to journey into whatever expanses they will. Another chorus finds Williamson again pushing his voice ably, and just past the four-minute mark, the drums and bass drop out and the sitar and guitar take hold.

What’s different about it this time is Williamson adds vocals to that melodic wash, and in so doing gives an impression right out of Lamp of the Universe, effectively tying the two outfits together in the span of one short verse. It’s there and gone to the point that if one isn’t careful it might be missed, but it definitely happens. Drums build back in and they make their way through another chorus en route to a soaking-wet crescendo that finds the lead guitar and organ aligned in their purposes, with the keys playing root notes as the strings solo around them. It’s the keys that ultimately provide the finish as the drums and bass again drop out (save for a tambourine) and the album ends on a long cycle of the organ line that has underscored the song all the while, fading out gradually and gracefully as it hits 9:40.

Realms of the Metaphysical may or may not mark a shift in focus for Williamson‘s creative energies. It could be he’ll work simultaneously on two projects, move back and forth between them as he has, or do something else entirely; pointless to speculate. What’s more important as regards the songs collected here and the flow Arc of Ascent create between them is they demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the band still had more to offer after The Higher Key and still has more to offer now, that there are further, deeper reaches for them to explore as a group, and that they’re willing to do the work of making that exploration a reality. Taken in combination with the quality of the finished product in its entirety, one can only hope their meditative and heavy-footed peripatetics continue to move forward. But if it’s five more years before we get another Arc of Ascent, at least Realms of the Metaphysical lets us know it’ll be worth the wait.

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Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge: Experience Beyond (Plus Full Album Stream)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on October 14th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

lamp-of-the-universe-hidden-knowledge

[Click play above to stream Lamp of the Universe’s Hidden Knowledge in full. Album is out Oct. 15 on Clostridium Records.]

For those of us existing on a temporal plane, it’s been 15 years since the solo-project Lamp of the Universe made its debut with The Cosmic Union in 2001. Since then, Hamilton, New Zealand’s Craig Williamson, who at the time he started working under the extended alias was fresh off the 1999 final release from his prior band, Datura — more recently he’s worked in the trio Arc of Ascent — has largely stayed true to the outfit’s original intentions of tantric, meditative psychedelic folk. As his ninth album as Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge (on Clostridium Records and Astral Projection) demonstrates, neither has the project stagnated.

Even from where Williamson was on last year’s lush The Inner Light of Revelation (review here) — which teemed with life as the follow-up to splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here) in 2014 and the 2013 LP Transcendence (review here), which, at the time, was Williamson‘s return to activity after four years since 2009’s Acid Mantra (review here) hinted at the direction Arc of Ascent would soon take — the four tracks/41 minutes of Hidden Knowledge show a forward step in their use of synth and the spaciness of their vibe overall.

It’s not just about drones and/or Eastern instrumentation — hell, I don’t think Williamson breaks out the sitar here at all — but about the space-folk swirl conjured across “Space Craft” (13:17), “Mu” (6:41), “Dawn of Nebula” (7:01) and “Netherworlds” (14:25) that makes them distinct from Williamson‘s past work while still remaining decidedly his own and recognizable as such.

It may seem like a fine line to some listeners, but for anyone who’s followed Lamp of the Universe for a while, the progression should be clear. Since coming back in 2013 after releasing the two Arc of Ascent albums, 2010’s Circle of the Sun (review here) and 2012’s The Higher Key (review here), Williamson has actively worked to expand the palette for Lamp of the Universe.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not chanting by the time “Netherworlds” gets down to its final couple minutes, but he’s doing it over what sounds like backwards-looped e-bow electric guitar and what might be loops running through an Echoplex or otherwise synthesized droning. And, frankly, that is a difference. One can hear it mostly on the bookending opener and closer, “Space Craft” starting and “Netherworlds” ending, just how widened the path of Lamp of the Universe has become.

When Williamson‘s voice first arrives, it does so atop a dreamscape of keys and far-back percussive beats, plus some swirl and periodic washes of cymbals, and as the track develops over its first half, it winds up making its impression with a standout organ line and deeply-mixed electric guitar soloing, executed patiently — of course — as one of the many layers winding its way out at the time.

This immersive, hypnotic flow holds, backed by the same far-off beat well into the second half of the track, unfolding gracefully such that the start of “Mu,” the shortest track here, is jarring with its forward acoustic strum, which feels positively earthbound by comparison. No doubt that’s the intention of the side A finisher, but Williamson keeps the line of manipulated e-bow guitar (or whatever it is) consistent and with material so molten, it’s going to flow from one song to the next either way, so it’s not like “Mu” is out of place, it’s just a jump from one feel to another where “Space Craft” felt like it could’ve gone on perpetually.

lamp-of-the-universe

The jump, however, is effective, and “Mu” becomes a standout moment on Hidden Knowledge in signature Lamp of the Universe form. Granted, reading that signature over time has become like drawing lines between stars to make constellation pictures, so it’s hardly a case of Williamson doing the same thing across different records, but the intimate feel conjured even in the organ and percussion-laced “Dawn of Nebula” is his own.

Keyboard swirl and other background wash fills out the track, which remains instrumental, and the sound that carries between “Dawn of Nebula” and “Netherworlds” has a classic electronics style, almost like something one might hear from Sula Bassana — if there was ever a cross-continental collaboration that needed to happen, there it is — but it nonetheless makes for an effective transition.

Vocals return for the closer, but the hypnosis is long since complete. E-bow guitar, or again, what sounds like it, works its way in and out, but “Netherworlds” is further distinguished through its use of drums, which arrive after about three minutes and keep together a march behind a wah-drenched guitar solo and the already-there-where-did-it-come-from resurgent line of e-bow.

All of this, performed and recorded by Williamson, as ever, sets up Hidden Knowledge‘s final movement, which plays out with no less grace than anything before it, moving toward the already-noted chanting that ends the album in a languid experimentalist wash that includes the sounds of running water and an underlying bassline that, subtly, turns out to have been there all along.

One might liken Hidden Knowledge to Acid Mantra, if only because like that album it seems to signal a shift in approach and arrangement that will progress from here — the inclusion of more synth and keys and space-minded atmospherics — but what form that might take, be it another band, a return from Arc of Ascent, or further exploration from Williamson as Lamp of the Universe, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.

These songs are nonetheless a logical branching out from where The Inner Light of Revelation left off in their blend of elements, and Lamp of the Universe remains as much an invitation to a ritual as a personal contemplation. The cosmos the project inhabits only continues to grow.

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The Obelisk Presents: The Top 15 of 2015 So Far

Posted in Features on July 6th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

top 15 of 2015 so far the-rhinoceros-albrecht-durer

If 2015 ended tomorrow, I think you’d still have to say it was a pretty good year for heavy rock. Doom veered into a swath extremes — its own subgenres emerging almost one by one in a growing splinter that nonetheless continues to draw water from its roots — while the neo-stoner ignition of the West Coast continued its boom of new acts proffering classic groove. The East reveled in a progressive vision just waiting to be picked up by others, and in Europe, the ’70s traditionalist movement spread ever wider, essentially defining a modern sound in organic sounding, sometimes-vintage elements. Whether you’re going for crushing, oppressive barbarism or cosmos-bound blissouts, it is, in short, a good time to be alive.

Of course, 2015 doesn’t end tomorrow, and there’s still a whole lot of year to come. About half, as it happens. So, as has been the tradition around here for the last half-decade — and seems to be the tradition in a growing number of outlets; not taking credit or claiming to have invented anything, just noting a proliferation — it’s time to count down the best records of the year so far. There have been more than a handful of gems, and since in December I’m planning on doing a top 30, we’ll mark half the year with a top 15. Seems only fair.

Please note that this isn’t purely a critical evaluation, but a personal list, and that what I’ve put on most is as crucial a factor in my ranking as how important I think a given record is. You know the drill by now. Let’s go:

15. Stoned Jesus, The Harvest

stoned jesus the harvest

Self-released. Reviewed Feb. 20.

Kiev three-piece Stoned Jesus have a varied stylistic history, and their third outing, The Harvest was ultimately a success in large part because of its complete refusal to be defined. Atop a foundation of quality songcraft, the trio proffered a sound that was not necessarily experimental in terms of anti-structure noise or effects onslaughts, but bold in each of its forays outward from its heavy rock underpinnings.

 

14. Freedom Hawk, Into Your Mind

freedom hawk into your mind

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed June 26.

It has consistently taken me a while to get a hold on what Freedom Hawk are up to. The steady elements in their sound are held to so firmly that on the first couple listens, it seems to just be more of the same. But the more one digs in, the more there is to be found, and with Into Your Mind, the Virginia Beach trio overcome losing a member to create their most progressive outing to date, flourishes of psychedelia melding easily with their signature style of sunshiny riffing.

 

13. My Sleeping Karma, Moksha

my sleeping karma moksha

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed May 12.

Five albums deep, Germany’s My Sleeping Karma are an act unto themselves. Their progress has been natural, fueled by a clear, varied sense of exploratory will, and the results on this year’s Moksha were nothing short of stunning. Branching out their arrangements might not be new to them, but the inclusion of horns, drones, percussion, etc., amid the central guitar, bass, keys and drums lent an almost orchestral feel to the flow between the tracks, and one can only hope they continue on their current path, because it is unquestionably the right one.

 

12. Death Alley, Black Magick Boogieland

death alley black magick boogieland

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed June 8.

So much potential, so much vitality at the heart of this debut from Death Alley. The Amsterdam-based four-piece (interview here) stormed out of the gate with a ripper of a debut, and just when you seemed to have it all figured out, they hit the ignition on a 12-minute full-impulse space rock thrust, a guest vocal appearance from Farida Lemouchi (a former bandmate of Death Alley guitarist Oeds Beydals in The Devil’s Blood) adding both mystique and emotional resonance to what was already a stunning track. With all the riotousness preceding, Black Magick Boogieland readily lived up to its righteous title.

 

11. Mondo Drag, Mondo Drag

mondo drag self titled

Released on RidingEasy Records and Kozmik Artifactz. Reviewed Jan. 8.

Midwestern-turned-West-Coast heavy psych rockers Mondo Drag may have taken their time in releasing their self-titled sophomore outing, which followed their 2010 debut, New Rituals (review here), and was recorded in 2012, but it’s easy to imagine that’s because they wanted the circumstances to be as special as the album itself, recorded with a fleeting five-piece lineup that included the one-time rhythm section of Radio Moscow who wound up leaving to further their then-nascent project, Blues Pills. Even without that lineup shift as a factor, the late ’60s vibe Mondo Drag brought out across the release proved eminently listenable and has held up on repeat visits.

 

10. Cigale, Cigale

cigale self-titled

Self-released. Reviewed May 4.

A gorgeous, shimmering and melodically resonant debut from the Dutch four-piece Cigale, their self-titled gracefully maintained tonal presence and warmth while also enacting a psychedelic sprawl and grooving serenity that acted like the landscape in which the songs took place. It was a rich, bright vibe, and an utter joy to behold, tracks like “Harvest Begun,” “Feel the Heat” and “Eyes Wide Shut” proving as memorable as they were inviting. Having two former members of the much-missed fuzz rock outfit Sungrazer may have initially turned some heads in their direction, but Cigale‘s first album proved they’re an outfit with their own personality, their own development to undertake, and already much to offer.

 

9. The Machine, Offblast!

the machine offblast

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed May 28.

The awaited return of The Machine brought the band’s fifth album and a further-refined sense of maturity in their processes, as well as intrigue as to where they might be headed, two dual modes of open-ended jamming and more structured songwriting playing off each other in the extended “Chrysalis (J.A.M.)” and “Come to Light” and the more verse/chorus stylizations of “Dry End” and “Off Course.” To be perfectly honest, I doubt The Machine will ultimately pick one side over another, since if Offblast! proved anything it’s that they can easily handle either or both, but as they continue to grow, it’s encouraging to have their style establish itself as so multi-faceted.

 

8. The Atomic Bitchwax, Gravitron

the atomic bitchwax gravitron

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed April 20.

First time I pressed play on Gravitron was a real “oh shit!” moment. The last release from NJ stalwarts The Atomic Bitchwax was 2011’s The Local Fuzz (review here), a single-song full-length instrumental riff onslaught that had its charm but was inherently divorced from the appeal of the band’s songwriting. Not only does Gravitron re-factor that in with songs like “Roseland,” “It’s Alright,” “Coming in Hot” and “Ice Age Hey Baby,” among others, but it hits with kick-in-the-ass production force and an all-out heaviness that 2008’s TAB4 showed the three-piece steering directly away from. Just a killer record. Utterly void of pretense. No bullshit. No need to rely on anything more than chemistry, and with the Bitchwax, that’s plenty.

 

7. Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

brothers of the sonic cloth self titled

Released by Neurot Recordings. Reviewed March 3.

Right now, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth are my band to beat for Debut of the Year, and I’m quite frankly not sure how anyone is going to be able to do it, so if list time comes in Dec. and you see Tad Doyle‘s trio marked out as such, know that it’s been that way in my head for some time. The three-piece of Doyle, bassist Peggy “Pegadeth” Tully and drummer Dave French arrived with a roar, and even when their self-titled let up sonically, the atmosphere remained viscerally heavy. Six years having passed since the release of their first demo (review here), I wasn’t sure there was ever going to be an album, but then to have Brothers of the Sonic Cloth show up and enact such thorough demolition only made it more impressive.

 

6. High on Fire, Luminiferous

high on fire luminiferous

Released by eOne Heavy. Reviewed June 15.

It can’t possibly be a surprise to have Luminiferous show up somewhere on this list. The seventh long-player by High on Fire had all the rage and bombast in “Slave the Hive” and “The Black Plot” that have become the band’s hallmarks over their 17 years together, but branched out progressively as well in songs like “The Cave” and “The Falconist,” the latter of which was brazenly catchy and about as emotionally direct as the band has ever gotten, their general modus being — and in that song too, just to a lesser extent — a metaphor-laced lyrical approach. That song was a triumph and so was the album as a whole; the second collaboration with producer Kurt Ballou building on the rampaging victories of 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis (review here) while also showing growth on the part of one of modern metal’s most pivotal bands.

 

5. Kings Destroy, Kings Destroy

kings destroy self titled

Released by War Crime Recordings. Reviewed April 15.

Hitting more or less concurrent with a vinyl release of their prior album, 2013’s A Time of Hunting (review here), Kings Destroy‘s Kings Destroy is not at all coincidentally titled. Over the course of now three full-lengths, the New York five-piece — about whom I feign no impartiality, let it be noted — have distinguished themselves with a sound neither noise, nor doom, nor heavy rock, but drawing on elements of all three when it suits their purposes with chemistry built from years of being in bands together of various stripes and in various genres. What stands the self-titled out from their past work, in part, is that it is the closest they’ve yet come to capturing their live sound in the studio, and accordingly, it’s a volatile kind of heavy that bends aesthetic to its will rather than capitulating to expectations of any sort. I don’t think they’re done growing by any stretch, but Kings Destroy feels like an arrival front-to-back.

 

4. Colour Haze, To the Highest Gods We Know

colour haze to the highest gods we know

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed Jan. 6.

This one was almost a sneak-attack. German heavy psych forerunners Colour Haze released To the Highest Gods We Know, their 11th full-length, in Dec. 2014 on CD (the vinyl was in 2015, which is what we’re counting in this instance), with very, very little fanfare of any sort. There was a track premiere here that came shortly after the album was announced, but I think it was officially out less than a month after its existence was made public, which for a band of Colour Haze‘s stature and influence was surprising. Less devoted to grandeur than 2012’s 2CD She Said (review here), it nonetheless pushed the band’s sound forward and found them experimenting in their studio, particularly on the string-quartet-inclusive finale title-track, which offset jams like “Überall” and the laid back highlight “Call” with a rhythmic oddness that was somehow still Colour Haze‘s own. I couldn’t help but wonder where it was leading, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t masterful in its own right.

 

3. Goatsnake, Black Age Blues

goatsnake black age blues

Released by Southern Lord Recordings. Reviewed May 19.

Goatsnake didn’t have it easy going into their third album. It had been 15 years since their sophomore outing, Flower of Disease, 11 since their last EP, and five since they first started playing shows again. Expectations? Through the roof. Among heavy rock heads, a new Goatsnake was like seeing the mountaintop. I mean, a big fucking deal and then some. Then the record hits, and there’s just about no way it can live up to the anticipation, but god damn if Goatsnake not only finally put out a third album, but one that was better than I think anyone could’ve hoped for. Hearing Pete Stahl with however many backup singers he had on “Another River to Cross” et. al. was like finding an animal in its native habitat, and between his soul, Greg Anderson‘s riffs, bassist Scott Renner‘s low end rumble and drummer Greg Rogers‘ roll, Black Age Blues won almost immediately and then spent the rest of its 47 minutes throwing itself a victory party. “Elevated Man,” “House of the Moon,” “Jimi’s Gone,” “Grandpa Jones,” almost on a per-track basis, Goatsnake added to the reasons they’ve been so heralded despite a decade-plus’ absence from the studio.

 

2. Elder, Lore

elder lore

Released by Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records. Reviewed Feb. 19.

On the level of achievement alone, Elder‘s Lore will be the album of the year for many, and there are times (such as right now) when I listen to it and question whether or not it isn’t also my pick for that honor, but wherever it falls on whatever list, far more important is what the Massachusetts/Rhode Island/New York trio manage to accomplish across their third LP’s formidable five-track/59-minute span, songs like “Compendium” and “Deadweight” bridging a rarely approached gap between heavy and progressive rocks while maintaining a flow consistent with the psychedelic vibing of 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) but grown outward in another aesthetic direction and no sooner setting foot on the ground than seeming to master it in a flurry of blinding turns, sprawling soundscapes and clarity of mind that found perhaps its greatest expression in the centerpiece title-track, the 15-minute “Lore” itself, which I’ve no doubt will stand among if not atop the best songs of 2015 when the year is over and encapsulates the ambition and the corresponding breadth of Elder‘s songwriting, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan, and drummer Matt Couto rising as one of the East Coast’s most pivotal acts, with a sound completely their own.

 

1. Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere

acid king middle of nowhere center of everywhere

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed March 19.

I use the word “molten” pretty regularly to describe an album or song that seems to just ooze its way out of the speakers or shift seamlessly between its songs, but Acid King set an entirely new standard for the term with Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere. Their first outing for Svart and their first release in a decade, its 55 minutes were a riff-rolling nirvana of lurching fuzz and tonal excellence, the guitar of Lori S. at the fore accompanied by Mark Lamb‘s bass and Joey Osbourne‘s drums, the swing of which propelled a highlight track like “Coming down from Outer Space” right back into it, while elsewhere on the record, “Silent Pictures,” “Red River” and “Infinite Skies” torched stoner conventions into a new space-biker rock, culminating in the heavy psych of “Center of Everywhere,” which seemed to emanate from the place it was describing, at once empty and full. More than just a welcome return after a long dearth of releases, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere found Acid King progressed even beyond where they were with 2005’s III, though more than anything else, what makes it my top pick for the year so far is the fact that I can’t seem to walk away from it for too long before going back, and ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to with his kind of thing. I’ve yet to find a standard to which these songs don’t live up.

Honorable Mention:

A few others worth noting. The Sun Blood Stories album (streamed here) continues to resonate. Also MonolordValkyrie, Lamp of the UniverseGarden of WormWo Fat‘s live record, The Midnight Ghost Train‘s Cold was the Ground and Ufomammut‘s Ecate. The Black Rainbows was a joy, as was Spidergawd‘s second LP, and while I still feel like I haven’t given it its due, the Sumac won many over and should get a mention. Steve Von Till‘s solo outing and the latest from Enslaved are worth seeking out as well for anyone who hasn’t heard them yet.

More to Come:

The year’s only half over, which is kind of a scary thought but true nonetheless. Watch out in the coming months for new stuff from BloodcowAll Them WitchesClutchGraveyardZunSacri Monti (if that one’s not already out), SnailUncle Acid, and Kind. The new Kadavar is a sure-fire top tenner, and between that, the potential for a new Neurosis album and stuff like Magnetic Eye Records‘ Electric Ladyland [Redux], there’s no way the book is written on the best of 2015.

So stay tuned.

And if I’ve still got your attention, thanks for reading.
 

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