Posted in Reviews on February 24th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
It’s an exceedingly clever idea, but that wouldn’t matter in the slightest were the execution not so utterly brilliant. As the phonetics of the title indicate, Lost Chants/Last Chance works strongly off ideas of duality. The late-2016 Rooster Rock offering from Kandodo McBain, pairs Kandodo3 — an offshoot of UK psych legends The Heads featuring guitarist Simon Price (who also operates solo under the moniker Kandodo), bassist Hugo Morgan and drummer Wayne Maskell from that band with guitarist John McBain, formerly of Monster Magnet and Wellwater Conspiracy. These two parties, each a psychedelic powerhouse on their own, come together across two sets of tracks recorded in two separate places — Bristol and San Francisco — and offer two distinct vibes on the 2CD/2LP Lost Chants/Last Chance by changing nothing more than the playing speed of the songs themselves.
To explain, if you get the Lost Chants/Last Chance CD, it comes with two discs — one with five songs at 45RPM speed, and a second with the same songs at 33RPM speed. The digital version on the Kandodo Bandcamp changes the names so that “Megladon’t” becomes “Megladon’t Ever” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Last Vulture” becomes “Chant of the Ever so Slowly Circling Last Vulture,” etc., but in runtime as well as mood, Lost Chants/Last Chance emphasizes the role that tempo plays in a given song’s feel while offering — at both speeds — wonderfully immersive, hypnotic psychedelic drift as only true masters of the form can provide. Front to back across the 10-track entirety, it tops an unmanageable two hours and 10 minutes, but whether listening in a single go, breaking it in half by material-version, or however else one might want to take it on — part of the joy of the thing is its utter amorphousness — Lost Chants/Last Chance lives up to being about more than just its conceptual objective in terms of showcasing the instrumental dynamic between these players, and thereby becomes all the more special.
Resonance abounds from the initial drifting guitar figure that begins “Blowed Out” — which later becomes “Really Blown Out,” naturally — and continues on from there. I tend to use words like “molten,” “fluid,” liquefied,” and so on to describe the sonic flow of heavy psychedelia. Tracks like “Blowed Out,” which earns immediate points for being the longest on Lost Chants/Last Chance at 15:43 in its 45RPM version as well as the opener, are the reason why. Even in its faster incarnation, it holds a languid spirit well past the 10-minute mark, keys adding melodic flourish to an anchoring guitar line that maintains its presence throughout and sets up a key factor in Kandodo McBain‘s execution: blending memorable instrumental hooks with ultra-expansive jamming. Its back third changes up the drums to a more tense use of toms, but the ending finds peace in guitars intertwining gorgeously. This sets up the pair of seven-minute slabs “Holy Syke” and “Megladon’t,” the former of which continues the mellotron-ic flow initially only to find spacier forward thrust at about 90 seconds in, setting up a build that becomes noisier — or is it “blowed out?” — as it moves through crafting another somehow-catchy impression, and the latter which relies on Maskell‘s thudding toms as the foundation for accompanying bass bounce and resonant guitar noodling.
What will seem to be the song most affected by the change in playing speed, “Megladon’t” brings about push without insistence and showcases an extended guitar lead as it heads through its midsection, turning shortly after five minutes in toward a fuzzier riff around which the four-piece will congregate until the fadeout brings on “Chant of the Ever Circling Last Vulture,” a 13-minute unfurling with an immediately space-rocking vibe — like Hawkwind on a preflight countdown — that holds percussive tension beneath swirling effects and key work.
Even after the drums fade down in the mix — McBain mixed and mastered — Morgan‘s bassline holds steady, and when Maskell returns shortly before the 10-minute mark, it gives solid ground beneath all that float from Price and McBain, a righteous turn that, if it came from a stage, would almost certainly prompt applause. On record, an agreeing nod will likely do. Siren loops from some kind of tonal submarine arrive late and set in motion the hum and fade-in of “Pelagic Blue Haze,” the 11:57 closer of the 45RPM segment, the patient unfolding of which offers something of a transition for those about to embark on the slower incarnations of these same tracks. It’s fair play that Kandodo McBain would save their most willfully hypnotic cut for last, but around 7:45, when the drums cut out, they shift into guitar drones and sort of residual melodies with just a hint of noise, as if to remind there’s more to come.
And so there is. Of course, with the slower playing speed, Lost Chants/Last Chance becomes about a third longer at 33RPM, going from 55:41 to 1:15:13. The shift also puts “Really Blown Out” over the 20-minute mark. Time, however, stops mattering by about 30 seconds in, and as so much of the groove presented earlier will, “Really Blown Out”‘s flow seems all the more graceful in its more downtempo showing. I don’t know if the 33RPM versions are mixed differently, but the mellotron reads as more of a forward presence in the opener, and the resulting immersion is a delightful dreamstate that continues as “Holiest Syke” enacts a familiar but modified push just before it hits two minutes. Both it and “Megladon’t Ever,” which on the 45RPM disc were relatively quick compared to their surroundings, benefit from the tempo change, but again, “Megladon’t Ever” might be the single piece most changed by the swap to 33RPM. Maskell‘s drums, particularly the steady hits of ride cymbal, emerge with a ritualized sensibility one only hears in hindsight on “Megladon’t” proper. That makes the song’s shift into noise all the more of a march to oblivion and nothing short of glorious for that, and between “Chant of the Ever so Slowly Circling Last Vulture” at 17:53 and “Deep Blue Pelagic Haze” at 16:09, the final two cuts on Lost Chants/Last Chance comprise an album unto themselves.
Along with the somewhat more grueling stomp of toms, the underlying drone in “Chant of the Ever so Slowly Circling Last Vulture” is a defining factor, but really, if you’re not lost in what Kandodo McBain are doing at this point, heavy psych might not be your thing. The penultimate slab oozes into and through a wash of noise and those same sirens — only slower — lead into the more foreboding-sounding drone that starts “Deep Blue Pelagic Haze.” It’s interesting to note that in changing the titles between the 45RPM and the 33RPM versions, Kandodo McBain emphasize an idea of “more.” Granted the tracks are longer inherently, as noted, but it goes further than that as well in there being an increased expressiveness that comes through. One can hear it in the sweet guitar figures of “Deep Blue Pelagic Haze,” which bring the entire project full circle in the otherworldly but memorable vibe they create, as well as in Maskell‘s hi-hat — even that becomes part of the overarching wash. A long trail into the titular haze and a likewise long fadeout follow, capping Lost Chants/Last Chance with the sense of having journeyed to another plane, arrived there, and departed again for someplace yet to be discovered. It is a trance that lasts even after the actual audio stops, and so seems fair to call genuinely affecting.
One of the aspects that most stands out about Lost Chants/Last Chance when viewed from some measure of distance, is that if Kandodo McBain had chosen to release either of the 45RPM or 33RPM versions of these tracks on their own, one would hardly be able to sort out which were the originals. That is, if one heard the “Megladon’t Ever” without having heard “Megladon’t” before it, the likelihood of their going, “This sounds like the slowed-down version of another track” is just about nil. Both listening experiences are believable, and each creates its own soundscape and sets its own course using the same music, and while it’s an experiment that just about everybody with a turntable has tried at one point or another in their lives, to put out a full-length album of jams that specifically promotes the change in rotation speed is admirably bold, and Kandodo McBain pull it off entirely through the scope and strength of the material itself, rather than just the novelty of the initial exercise. Cool concept, yes, but it’s the songs that make all the difference.
Posted in Whathaveyou on January 30th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
I have no problem admitting to feeling overwhelmed looking at the full lineup and individual day splits for Desertfest London 2017. I mean, seriously. Look at that poster. What a way to spend a weekend.
Likewise, I have few grand reflections to offer in light of that overwhelming feeling, except perhaps to take a step back and be massively impressed at how much this event has grown in just six incarnations. Along with Desertfest Berlin, the London edition has become an anchor not only for the UK heavy rock underground — which is well represented here as ever in Elephant Tree, Black Spiders, Stubb, Vodun, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Terminal Cheesecake, Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, and so on — but for bands from abroad as well. You’ll note the three headliners: two American, one Norwegian, and the next line down on the poster is two Swedish, one American. Desertfest London 2017’s reach feels wider than ever. Staring at the final lineup, it’s clear just how much of a big fucking deal this festival has become.
Wish I could be there to see it.
Here’s the announcement of the individual day lineups from their website:
DESERTFEST 2017 DAY SPLITS AND DAY TICKETS ARE HERE!
Finally, the Desertfest 2017 day and stage splits are here, along with individual day tickets. It’s the point of the year where you can start planning the weekend, you can imagine the sets in your head and you can curse those god damned clashes.
Last things first, let’s get straight to that insane Sunday main-stage. To celebrate The Roundhouse joining the Desertfest family, we made their debut appearance something special. Not only will stoner doom icons Sleep be topping the bill, but the Roundhouse hosts a full bill of huge acts. Candlemass, with over three decades of underground acclaim to their name, bring the epic doom metal. USA’s Wolves in the Throne Room bring the atmospheric black metal. Traditional doom metal stalwarts Saint Vitus bring the classic riffs. And how about this for a ‘curtain jerker’? Bongzilla bring the raw weed metal for their second show of the weekend; more on the first later.
It’s not just about the Sunday though. Friday’s stage at the Electric Ballroom is headlined by returning heroes Slo Burn whose short run in the mid 90s furthered the then fledgling stoner rock scene. One band they surely had an impact on is Lowrider, who play Europe’s finest stoner rock alongside them. Ukraine’s Stoned Jesus celebrate their resonant album Seven Thunders Roar, and 1000Mods and Pontiak round up the main stage on the Friday.
The Electric Ballroom on Saturday will be swarming with Turbojugends as death-punk grandmasters Turbonegro turn Camden into party central. John Garcia sticks around for a solo show, sure to feature classics from his years of nonstop mastery in the stoner rock scene. Sheffield’s rock and roll five piece Black Spiders visit London for one last time on their farewell tour, with Satan’s Satyrs and Avon rounding up the main stage.
As ever though, it doesn’t stop at the main stages. Our regular partners have delivered three stages with diverse lineups. Human_Disease_Promo and When Planets Collide take over The Underworld on Saturday in a bill headlined by Bongzilla with a special set celebrating the band’s early work. The Quietus stage is led by synth wavers Zombi, and Nightshift Promotions bring an eclectic mix led by Hungary’s Apey & the Pea. To be honest, just stick a pin in the lineup poster and you’re guaranteed a good time.
For those who can’t make the full weekend, we have a limited number of individual day tickets. Priced at £40 for Friday tickets, £40 for Saturday tickets and £45 for Sunday tickets, links are below.
So there we have it. Our final lineup for Desertfest 2017. We hope you’re as excited as we are to get back to Camden this April and riff London to the ground.
DESERTFEST LONDON 2017 Final Lineup: SLEEP SLO BURN TURBONEGRO CANDLEMASS WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM SAINT VITUS JOHN GARCIA BAND BONGZILLA LOWRIDER SCISSORFIGHT BLACK SPIDERS SAMSARA BLUES EXPERIMENT THE PICTUREBOOKS STONED JESUS SATAN’S SATYRS INTER ARMA WEAR YOUR WOUNDS 1000MODS STEAK AVON DEATH ALLEY DEAD LORD BOSS KELOID PONTIAK YURI GAGARIN HARK VODUN CHRON GOBLIN PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS THE WELL MAMMOTH STORM CELESTE STUBB MONOLITHIAN WUCAN VENOMOUS MAXIMUS BRUME APEY & THE PEA ELEPHANT TREE GRAVE LINES IRON WITCH EARTH SHIP BACKWOODS PAYBACK WIZARD FIGHT BRULE CLOSET DISCO QUEEN GRAND MAMMOTH CHUBBY THUNDEROUS BAD KUSH MASTERS MAMMOTH WEED WIZARD BASTARD SAMAVAYO WELCOME BACK DELTA DEAD LETTUCE MONSTERTONE LEDFOOT ZOMBI TERMINAL CHEESECAKE KHÜNNT BASK BRUXA MARIA
Later this year, UK heavy overlords Orange Goblin will celebrate 20 years since the release of their first album, Frequencies from Planet Ten. The nine-track outing surfaced via Rise Above Records in fall ’97, following their split 7″ the year before on the same label issued under their original moniker, Our Haunted Kingdom. It was the beginning of what’s become one of heavy rock’s most storied journeys, and while there have seemed to be times when the London outfit have been doing nothing except waiting for the world to catch up to them — say, the five years between 2007’s Healing Through Fire and 2012’s A Eulogy for the Damned (review here) — they’ve never compromised either their assault or their creative will, and both got their beginning in these nine tracks. It was also a different time. Probably fair to call Frequencies from Planet Ten “stoner rock” for the Sabbathian loyalism it shows in the shuffle of “Saruman’s Wish” or the trippy Monster Magnetism that crops up in opener “The Astral Project,” but already in those cuts, in “Aquatic Fanatic,” “Land of Secret Dreams” and the eponymous “Orange Goblin,” one can hear the roots of the gruff, harder-driving path Orange Goblin would stomp as their sound took shape across their subsequent two full-lengths, 1998’s Time Travelling Blues (discussed here) and 2000’s The Big Black (discussed here), the then-five-piece making an unholy trinity of their first three albums the influence of which continues to reverberate today, especially in London’s fertile heavy rock underground.
Safe to say no one knew that was going to happen 20 years ago, but in addition to being relatively early adopters of a classically heavy sound in the late ’90s and a blueprint others would follow, Orange Goblin showed immediate distinction in their songwriting on Frequencies from Planet Ten. It’s not a perfect album and I don’t think it was meant to be — remember, this was the era of wider-adopted use of ProTools and other digital recording methods, so they were perhaps reacting to that in going for a live sound — but its rawness is only an asset in the forward thrust of “Magic Carpet” or “Aquatic Fanatic,” and vocalist Ben Ward, guitarists Joe Hoare and Pete O’Malley, bassist Martyn Millard and drummer Chris Turner (as well as Duncan Gibbs on keys) cleverly played psychedelics off their more straightforward material, both within in and between songs, so that as “The Astral Project” opened and set a spacious tone, “Magic Carpet” would soon answer by hitting the ground running with a wah-bass and drum boogie that turned into a post-Kyuss push that few making the rounds at the time could match in its tone or execution. Likewise, “Orange Goblin” and closer “Star Shaped Cloud” seemed to reinforce the structure, working at a middle-paced nod and a trippy build, respectively, to round out Frequencies from Planet Ten with an emphasis that while the two weren’t by any means mutually exclusive within their sound, a given track didn’t necessarily need to be aggressive in the metallic sense to be vigorously, righteously heavy.
Of course, over the subsequent two decades, Orange Goblin would become known for plenty of ferocity on their own level. From 2002’s Coup de Grace through 2004’s Thieving from the House of God, the aforementioned Healing Through Fire and A Eulogy for the Damned, as well as their latest outing, 2014’s Back from the Abyss (review here), they’d continue to refine, sharpen and tighten their approach to a point of impact that, by three years ago at least, was positively Motörhead-esque. And while that may have been a long, long way from where Frequencies from Planet Ten saw them start out, they were no less Orange Goblin than they’d ever been (unless you count the actual numbers of their mid-aughts change from a five- to a four-piece with the departure of O’Malley). While they’ve offered many, the most resonant lesson of Orange Goblin‘s tenure — which is hardly over; I’ve heard word of a new album this year on Spinefarm and they continue to tour — has proven to be that when you believe in what you’re doing and if you’re willing to stay true to that in the face of external trend, market, whatever, and if you’re right, you can make yourself a leader. They’ve certainly done that, and looking back on it nearly 20 years later, Frequencies from Planet Ten still kicks ass with what’s become Orange Goblin‘s signature footprint.
As always, I hope you enjoy.
I needed something of a pick-me-up this week, as it’s been a tough one at work. Add to that the fact that Tuesday night I woke up around 1:30AM and never got back to sleep, so went into Wednesday with about four hours of extra-unfortunate consciousness, and yeah, it was even harder. Stressful. Corporate living.
But the whole of today was awesome, so it seemed only fair to close out the week in that fashion as well. I hope yours was good. I’ve got family coming north this weekend — my mother and nephew — and am looking forward to that as well as to a couple hours of relaxed coffee sipping and writing in the mornings. It’ll be a good time. I’m exhausted, but not nearly so miserable as I was, say, Wednesday afternoon circa 2PM. Easy low point of the year so far, if you’re keeping track.
Next week is pretty full already, which I’ll take. I’ve slated reviews for the next however long, and some of it might get interrupted as premieres come in (that happened today, actually, with the John Garcia), but here’s how it looks at the moment:
MON: Eternal Elysium review & Basalt video premiere.
TUE: Electric Funeral Cafe Vol. 3 comp review & Hornss video premiere.
WED: Vinnum Sabbathi review.
THU: Aathma album stream/review.
FRI: Either a Buddha Sentenza review or a new podcast.
I’ve set Monday, Jan. 23 as the date for launch of my 2017 most anticipated albums list, but that might change as the list has over 100 bands at this point — I will not be writing them all out like last year; nobody read it, nobody cared and the post almost collapsed under its own weight — and has become a beast to organize. Some selection of 35-40 picks will be written out, the rest broken up either by how likely they are to show up or some other standard. I’ll sort it all this coming week, hopefully. Definitely by the end of the month.
Anyway. Thanks for reading this week and I wish you the kind of great, safe and recuperative weekend that I’m hoping to have. Please check out the forum and the radio stream.
Posted in Whathaveyou on January 11th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
Hardly a better time to hear about an impending sophomore full-length from UK trio Coltsblood than these cold winter hours. The bleak doom extremists will issue their second long-player, Ascending into the Shimmering Darkness, sometime in the next couple months via Candlelight/Spinefarm as the follow-up to their similarly-titled 2014 debut, Into the Unfathomable Abyss (review here), and early next month, they head out with London’s Bast on an eight-day UK tour to herald its arrival. Bast offered up their Spectres album through Burning World/Black Bow Records in 2013 and also seem likely to have new material en route sooner than later.
Info from the PR wire:
Hailing from the North of England, COLTSBLOOD prepare to release their second full length ‘Ascending Into Shimmering Darkness’ this winter via Candlelight Records/Spinefarm Records. Following 2014’s highly acclaimed album ‘Into The Unfathomable Abyss’, COLTSBLOOD toured throughout the UK, Ireland and Europe, appearing at Roadburn Festival, North Of The Wall Festival and Doom Over London, gaining a reputation as crushing, devastating, other-worldly, bleak and horrific. COLTSBLOOD now return to many parts of the UK for the first time in over a year to celebrate the release of their new album and immerse the UK in darkness once again!
Formed in South London, 2008, BAST is a trio specialising in an unhealthy blend of Black Metal and Doom, with a flair for experimentation and emphasis on storytelling. Following the release of their debut full-length ‘Spectres’ in 2014 (Burning World/Black Bow Records), and numerous tours across the continent with the likes of Pallbearer and Conan, the band is currently crafting the second part of their journey, exploring the depths of humanity in the far reaches of a cosmic nightmare.
Posted in Whathaveyou on January 9th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
Various announcements have been trickling out over the last couple months concerning London heavy rockers Elephant Tree. Okay, that sounds kind of ominous. It’s nothing dire. It’s live shows. But what matters is it’s a considerable uptick in live activity and in the scale of what they’re doing. They toured the UK last year with Mars Red Sky in support of their self-titled debut (review here), released by Magnetic Eye, but before the end of 2016, they’d already been announced for Desertfest London 2017 (info here), so it was pretty clear they were looking to hit another level in the New Year.
Thus far, they have. In addition to Desertfest in London and a Snuff Lane weekender in Bristol this March, Elephant Tree have been announced as making a debut US appearance at Psycho Las Vegas (info here) in August, and word came out just this past Friday that they’ll play Freak Valley 2017 as well in Germany alongside Conan, among many others.
Top it all off with an incursion into France next month and vague rumblings about new material in the works, and all of this has been enough for me to hit up guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley and see if he’s willing to give a rundown of the band’s ultimate plans for 2017. You’ll see in the quote below he shies away from specifics — they’ll be hitting “a few festivals” and “a few countries” — but he does confirm they’ll be in the studio working on their next release, though whether or not that hits before 2018 will have to remain to be seen for now.
All the live dates I could find and word from Townley follow:
Elephant Tree Live Dates:
06/02 Paris FR Dr. Feelgood* 07/02 Nantes FR Scene Michelet* 08/02 Poitiers FR Le Zinc* 09/02 Tours FR Puzzle Pub* 10/02 Lyon FR Les Capucins 11/02 St-Etienne Thunderbird Lounge* 04/03 Super Special Snuffy Weekender Stag & Hounds Bristol UK 28-30/04 Desertfest London 2017 Camden UK 15-17/06 Freak Valley 2017 Siegen Germany 18-20/08 Psycho Las Vegas 2017 Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Las Vegas NV * with The Necromancers
Jack Townley on Elephant Tree’s 2017 plans:
We’re absolutely blown away by the reaction to our last album. Thanks to everyone who took time to listen and enjoy it! As a result, we’ll be hitting a few festivals and a few countries this year, starting with Paris, France, on the 6th February. We’ll also be jumping back into the studio to work on a follow-up, so it’s all go-go-go at ET HQ.”
Elephant Tree is: Jack Townley (Guitar, Vocals) Peter Holland (Bass, Vocals) Riley MacIntyre (Production, Sitar, Vocals) Sam Hart (Percussion)
Posted in Features on January 1st, 2017 by JJ Koczan
The poll is closed, the results are counted and the top 20 albums of 2016 have been chosen. Hard to argue with the list as it’s shown up over the course of the past month, so I won’t try. Instead, let me just say thanks to incredible amount of participants who contributed this year.
All told, between Dec. 1 and Dec. 31, 612 people added their picks to the proceedings, compared to 388 in last year’s poll. Considering how much that number blew my mind on Jan. 1, 2016, I’m sure you can imagine how I feel about adding another 200-plus lists to the pot. In short, I’m astounded, deeply humbled and so, so, so grateful. I feel like we got enough of a sampling this year to give a genuinely representative showing for where people’s heads have been at, so thank you if you were a part of it.
Thank you as well as always to Slevin for running the poll’s back end and tabulating the results. As ever, the weighting system is one in which 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. You’ll find that list (plus some honorable mentions) below, followed by the raw-vote tally.
And after the jump, as has become the tradition, are the full lists of everyone who submitted, alphabetized by name. I’m in there too. It’s a huge amount to wade through, and even if you thought you heard everything in 2016, it should be more than enough to keep you busy for the next year.
One last note: I’m no statistician. Please allow for these numbers to change over the next couple days on some small level.
Top 20 of 2016 — Weighted Results
1. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh (375 points)
2. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow (368)
3. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree (324)
4. Asteroid, III (302)
5. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil (295)
6. Gozu, Revival (274)
7. Neurosis, Fires Within Fires (253)
8. King Buffalo, Orion (244)
9. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) (238)
10. Conan, Revengeance (232)
11. Cough, Still They Pray (228)
12. Holy Grove, Holy Grove (218)
13. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages (213)
14. Truckfighters, V (206)
15. Blood Ceremony, Lord of Misrule (200)
16. Khemmis, Hunted (192)
16. Red Fang, Only Ghosts (192)
17. Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (181)
18. Witchcraft, Nucleus (174)
19. Opeth, Sorceress (173)
20. Church of Misery, And then there Were None (159)
Honorable mention to:
Causa Sui, Return to Sky (157)
Goatess, II: Purgatory Under New Management (157)
Black Mountain, IV (148)
Mos Generator, Abyssinia (144)
Wretch, Wretch (140)
Look at those tallies for number one and two. That race was close all month. Wo Fat kept out front for the most part, but Greenleaf kept it interesting and Elephant Tree’s debut snuck in there at third, which I love to see, both because it’s their first album and because that record was indeed so great. King Buffalo, another debut, also made the top 10, underscoring those two as bands to watch, and though Brant Bjork, Conan, Asteroid, Neurosis, Gozu and Mars Red Sky might be more expected names, they still certainly delivered excellent records, so again, nothing to fight with here. Things flesh out a bit in the 10-20 range, but I don’t think there’s one album on this list you could call is “miss.”
Top 20 of 2016 — Raw Votes
1. Wo Fat, Midnight Cometh (109)
2. Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow (92)
3. Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil (87)
4. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree (82)
5. Asteroid, III (80)
6. Gozu, Revival (76)
7. Conan, Revengeance (73)
8. Cough, Still They Pray (70)
9. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) (68)
10. King Buffalo, Orion (67)
11. Truckfighters, V (62)
12. Red Fang, Only Ghosts (61)
13. Khemmis, Hunted (60)
14. Blood Ceremony, Lord of Misrule (59)
14. SubRosa, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages (59)
15. Holy Grove, Holy Grove (58)
16. Church of Misery, And then there Were None (53)
17. Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (49)
17. Witchcraft, Nucleus (49)
18. Opeth, Sorceress (47)
19. Mos Generator, Abyssinia (45)
20. Black Mountain, IV (44)
20. Causa Sui, Return to Sky (44)
20. Wretch, Wretch (44)
Honorable mention to:
Goatess, II: Purgatory Under New Management (43)
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light (43)
Geezer, Geezer (41)
Crowbar, The Serpent Only Lies (41)
Gojira, Magma (37)
Slomatics, Future Echo Returns (36)
Graves at Sea, The Curse that Is… (35)
Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy (33)
Beastmaker, Lusus Naturae (32)
Vokonis, Olde One Ascending (31)
Left a few more honorable mentions in the raw-vote count, just for fun and so you could get more of a feel beyond the top 20 itself, which you’ll notice has a couple ties in it as the raw votes usually do and reorganizes a bit from the weighted results. One and two remain the same, however, and in the same order, and you’ll see Wo Fat was the only album that scored more than 100 votes on its own. As a whole, there were over 2,400 separate entries for albums this year, which is by far the most spread out that the voting has ever been. Frankly, with so many people involved and such a variety of stuff being voted on, I’m amazed anyone managed to agree on anything at all, but of course they did and once again a stellar list is the result.
Well, Happy New Year.
Before I go, thanks again to Slevin for the work put into running the back end of this site and this poll particularly. I show up with the finish lists, but it’s his code that makes it happen, and his efforts are appreciated more than I can say. Dude has never asked me for anything in the nearly eight years I’ve been a constant pain in his ass.
After the jump, you’ll find everybody’s list, alphabetized by name. Please enjoy browsing. I hope you find something awesome, because there’s certainly plenty in there that qualifies, and if you see something that looks like it appears often enough that it should be included in one or both of the counts above, let me know in the comments.
Posted in Whathaveyou on December 29th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Last heard from this past Fall when they headed out on tour in support of their 2016 album, We’re Already Inside Your Mind, Cardiff-based Lacertilia have put out word of a follow-up short UK run in April 2017. The Fall stint was with Cybernetic Witch Cult and the Spring one will find them out with mischievous sludge rock purveyors Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters, so they continue to keep good company as they go and spread the word on their LP, which was released on Red Sound Records in July.
In the meantime, Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters have dropped hints of new stuff to come in 2017, including a split with I-don’t-know-who-yet and potentially a debut album follow-up on 2015’s Earth Hog EP (review here). Whether or not that first long-player will show up before the end of the year, I don’t know, but if it does, I’ll take it. They’re currently signed to Riff Rock Records, having signed with the imprint in November and announced it here while also premiering their video for “Mother Chub,” which if you haven’t seen it is a damn good time.
We’re heading out on tour with our brothers of the riff, Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters in April!
Lacertilia // Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters hit the road in April 2017:
19/04- Arches Venue Coventry // Coventry 20/04- Mulberry Tavern // Sheffield 21/04- Opium – Alternative Club & Bar // Edinburgh 22/04- Rebellion Manchester // Manchester 23/04-The Stag and Hounds // Bristol
Lacertilia are a cosmic blend of primal rock ‘n’ roll energy, heavy psychedelia and sludgy groove rock. Their new album ‘We’re Already Inside Your Mind’ is out now on Red Sun Sounds and is available to buy via their Bandcamp page https://lacertilia-uk.bandcamp.com
Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters: Tie dye Fuzz & Stoner.
Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.
I say this every year: These are my picks. If you’re unfamiliar with this site, or you don’t come here that often, or if you do and just normally don’t give a crap — all of which is cool — you should know it’s all run by one person. One human being. Me. My name is JJ, and this is a list of what I think are the best albums that were released in 2016.
Since before 2016 began, I’ve kept a running list of releases. My criteria for what gets included in this list is largely unchanged — it’s a balance between what I feel are important records on the level of what they achieve, what I listened to most, what held some other personal appeal, and what I think did the best job of meeting the goals it set for itself. Pretty vague, right? That’s the idea.
The nature of worldwide heavy has become so broad that to encompass it all under some universal standard is laughable. Judging psychedelia, garage rock, heavy psych, doom, sludge and so on by the same measure makes no sense, and as genres continue to splinter and remake themselves as we’ve seen them doing all year and over the last several years, one must be malleable in one’s own taste. We’ve seen a new generation of heavy rock bands emerge in the last three-plus years. It’s been amazing, and there are a few pivotal second and third records that came out in 2016 to affirm that movement underway. Look for it to continue into 2017 and beyond.
This year more than any other seemed to want to bring the different sides together. A laudable goal. Thick riffing marked with flourish of psychedelia. Spacious doom bred against folk impulses. There’s been experimentation around melds that have led to considerable triumphs, and it just doesn’t seem to me that rigid standards can apply. It’s why I don’t grade reviews and never did.
Sound is evolving now as it always has been and as it will keep doing, but like any year, 2016 had a full share of landmarks to offer as a part of that process. As universal development hopefully remains ongoing, it’s only right that we celebrate the accomplishments helping to push it along its winding and sometimes divergent-seeming paths.
I have no doubt you know what I mean. Let’s get to the list:
Seems only fair to start with a record I couldn’t put down. Finnish trio Talmud Beach‘s second album and Svart debut, Chief, hit on just the right blend of laid back, semi-acoustic groove-blues, psychedelia and classic progressive folk rock, but with the exception of its sprawling dreamscape title-track (a welcome arrival at the finale), it also kept the songwriting simple, resulting in a natural, pastoral feel that only highlighted their melodic range in songs like “Mountain Man” and “Snow Snow Snow.” I think it flew under a lot of people’s radar, but I’ve kept going back to it over the course of the year and I see no reason to stop.
Space is still the place. I’ve already highlighted closer “Artificial Light” from Comet Control‘s sophomore LP, Center of the Maze as my favorite song of 2016, so I’ll spare you the longwinded treatise on its languid cosmic glories — this time — but consider this a reminder that that song was by no means the limit of what the eight-track release had to offer in terms of breadth. From the opening push of “Dig out Your Head” to the dream-drift of “Sick in Space,” it unfolded tonal presence and a melodic depth that engaged a gorgeous, multifaceted sonic wash as it moved onward toward that landmark conclusion.
There was not a level on which Madison, Wisconsin’s Droids Attack didn’t make it clear they were going all-out, all-in on Sci-Fi or Die. Even the title speaks to the stakes involved. And sure enough, the trio executed their fourth album with a sense of urgency and professionalism in songcraft, production, artwork (discussed here) and nuance of presentation that managed to make even a song called “Clawhammer Suicide” a classy affair. As guitarist/vocalist Brad Van said on the hidden title-track, “Death to false stoner thrash.” Droids Attack brought that ethic and more to life across the entire record.
A winding road brought Beelzefuzz around to following up their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), and as The Righteous Bloom brought guitarist/vocalist Dana Ortt and drummer Darin McCloskey together with bassist Bert Hall and lead guitarist Greg Diener, it found their songwriting more expansive, more progressive and dug further into their own particular oddball sense of grandeur. I’ve said on multiple occasions that no one out there is doing what Beelzefuzz are doing and that continues to be true. Even as a first offering from a new lineup of the band, The Righteous Bloom took bold and exciting forward steps.
Down to business. Immediately. Not a moment to spare. Taking part in what can only be considered a landmark year for Ripple Music, Baltimore’s Foghound issued The World Unseen as an answer to their 2013 debut, Quick, Dirty and High (review here), and upped their game across the board. From the intensity in the hooks of “Message in the Sky” and Rockin’ and Rollin'” to the quiet interlude of “Bridge of Stonebows” and the mid-paced heavy rock nod of “Never Return,” they made a strong case for themselves among their label’s foremost acts and found individualism in the growth of their songwriting. It was a kick in the ass you weren’t going to forget.
Put out by the band digitally in Dec. 2015 and issued on vinyl in 2016, Egypt‘s second LP, Endless Flight may be somewhat debatable in terms of when it actually landed (hence “25a.,” above), but the quality of the six-tracker more than warrants inclusion anyway. Rolling dense, massively-fuzzed groove, its nine-minute opening title-track set the course for the Fargo, North Dakota, three-piece, and they only grew the heavy revelry from there, as heard on the penultimate “Black Words,” which seemed to be chewing on rocks even as it played back and forth in tempo, build and push. The converted never had it so good.
There seems to be no stopping the Chiliomodi-based 1000mods, who with their third album have stepped to the forefront of Greece’s populous and vibrant heavy rock underground. Progressed well beyond where even 2014’s impressive Vultures (review here) found them, they seemed to hit a stride with Repeated Exposure To… thanks in part to road time and the ability to bring that energy directly into songs like the eight-minute roller “Loose” and the sizable crashes of “Groundhog Day.” Momentum working in their favor could be heard front-to-back from “Above 179” to “Into the Spell,” moving them toward something ever-more crucial and marking a considerable achievement along that path. 2017 might be a good time for them to test the waters with initial US shows.
Quick turnaround from Roman heavy psych magnate Gabriele Fiori (guitar/vocals) and company, but though it hit just about 13 months after their fourth full-length, Hawkdope (review here), Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy wholly succeeded in making an impact of its own, cuts like the oozing, organ-laced “Woman” and 11-minute jam-out triumph “Golden Widow” showcasing an approach in a continuous state of refinement that seems to get rawer as it goes, shifting like a rogue planetoid toward some maddening cosmic realization. How something can seem both so frenetic and so blissful is still a mystery, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Stellar Prophecy resonate as it does, but either way, Black Rainbows brought together some of the year’s most efficient psychedelic immersion.
Borracho don’t seem to release an album until they have something to say. That was to their credit on Atacama, their third LP and label debut for Kozmik Artifactz debut. Also their second collection issued as a trio behind 2013’s Oculus (review here), it distinguished itself from its predecessor in its sense of overarching flow, shifting between the ahead-thrust of “Gold from Sand” into the 10-minute sample-laden jam “Overload” to start out with such ease that the listener had little choice but to follow along. With an expanded scope on “Drifted away from the Sun” and the lightly-strummed memento mori “Flower,” Borracho found new avenues of expression to complement their well established dense, heavy riffing, and took obvious care in crafting their most realized LP yet.
Nothing Brooklyn’s The Golden Grass does feels like happenstance, and though their classic-styled boogie is imbued with a vibrant, friendly positive energy, there’s an underlying meticulousness in their arrangements and in their songwriting that came further into focus on Coming Back Again, their sophomore release 2014’s self-titled debut (review here). A more progressive take showed itself in “Reflections” and “Down the Line,” and taken in combination with the bookends “Get it Together” and “See it Through,” the three-piece stood on ground that was even more their own than on the first record, striking a careful balance between the willful exploration of new elements and the outright need for tracks to directly engage their listeners with catchy hooks and upbeat vibes. They did it. Expect continued growth.
For something so awash in fuzz, so nodding in its rhythms, so let’s-push-the-vocals-back-under-this-huge-awesome-fucking-riff, Curse the Son‘s Isolator was also remarkably clearheaded in its purposes. With the added vocal harmonies of “Callous Unemotional Traits,” the far-off spaces of “Hull Crush Depth” and the stoner metal despair of “Aislamiento,” the Connecticut three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Ron Vanacore, capital-‘d’ Drummer Michael Petrucci and newcomer bassist Brendan Keefe drew a direct, intentional line to sometimes-grueling (hello, “Sleepwalker Wakes”) weighted tonality and found justification for their largesse in its own being. Like 2012’s Psychache (review here), I expect to be returning to Isolator over a longer term than this single year of release.
I feel like I need to explain myself here. Make no mistake, Neurosis‘ Fires Within Fires is among the year’s most accomplished offerings. There’s just about no way it wouldn’t be. So why not top 10? Top five? It’s a question of timing. With the long-running post-metal progenitors, it’s always a longer digestion period. It was about two years before 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here) really sunk in, and I expect Fires Within Fires will work similarly over the greater term. Maybe a little guilt on my part for the disparity between its quality and its placement, but rest assured, Neurosis remain among the most imperative bands walking the earth, and as they took on the full brunt of 30 years of unmitigated progression through Fires Within Fires, they were no less brazen in pushing themselves creatively than they’ve ever been.
Though the narrative of Conan has remained largely unchanged since their inception — hack, slash, kill, riff — and they still bask in nigh-on-unmatched tonal slaughter, their third full-length brings a few key developments. Perhaps most notable from opener “Throne of Fire” onward is the vocal interplay between guitarist/founder Jon Davis and bassist/longtime-engineer Chris Fielding, who joined after 2014’s Blood Eagle (review here). Adding Fielding‘s deeper growls allowed Davis to subtly move into a cleaner shout, and the emergent dynamic between them made Revengeance a decidedly expanded affair compared to Conan‘s past work. Adding drummer Rich Lewis to the mix was no minor shift either, and as much as Conan had already established their sheer dominance, they also sounded refreshed and set themselves up to keep growing.
Some records just feel like gifts, and though many of its lyrical positions were cynical — “Reality,” “21st Century Slave,” “Mind Control Machine,” “Red the Sign Post,” etc. — Freedom marked the 15th anniversary of Danish garage-psych rockers Baby Woodrose with dripping lysergic aplomb, reminding some four years after their last LP, 2012’s Third Eye Surgery (review here), that bandleader Lorenzo Woodrose is unparalleled when it comes to manifesting his take on the psychedelic victories of 13th Floor Elevators and classic-era Hawkwind — firmly at home levitating on the edge of time. Its swirl and underlying foundation of songwriting, its Richie Havens cover title-track, and its sprawling interstellar “Termination” were like a welcome check-in from another dimension, and I only hope it’s not four years before Woodrose sends the next signal. Earth needs this band.
I’m not going to discount the shuffle of “Sunday Speed Demon” or sleeze of “Sunday Speed Demon,” but where Geezer‘s self-titled third full-length really showed how far the New York heavy blues-psych trio have come was in its extended midsection jams, “Sun Gods,” “Bi-Polar Vortex” and “Dust,” each of which showed a distinct approach while feeding into an engaging flow between them, offering a blend of trailmarker hooks as they drifted into realms of organic chemistry previously uncharted by the band. The slow-motion swing of “Hangnail Crisis,” raucous push of “Superjam Maximus” and concluding bounce of “Stoney Pony” brought them back down to earth to finish out with a symmetry to the album’s opening, but Geezer kept a collective hand on the controls the whole voyage and when they landed, it was an arrival indeed, and very much what their two previous records were building toward.
Beautifully experimental with its 27-minute finisher “As Sure as the Sun,” EYE‘s Vision and the Ageless Light seemed throughout its whole 46-minute run to be executing a cohesive vision in its synth-soaked progressive textures. Between the intro “Book of the Dead” and the subsequent “Kill the Slavemaster,” “Searching,” “Dweller of the Twilight Void” and the already-noted closer, each piece had something different to offer that added to the full impact of the whole, and with guitarist Jon Finely and bassist Michael Sliclen joining founding drummer/vocalist Brandon Smith and synth/Mellotron/Moog-ist Lisa Bella Donna (also vocals and acoustic guitar), EYE added to the scope of 2013’s Second Sight (review here) and found a place for themselves where prog complexity didn’t need to come at the expense of memorable songwriting and spaced-out vibes. An absolute joy, front to back.
Even Fatso Jetson themselves would probably have to admit that six years — even a six years that saw several splits, singles, etc. — was too long between albums. Fortunately, Idle Hands saw the desert rock forebears in top form as regards their quirk-fueled songwriting, angular approach to punk and inimitable groove. Following 2010’s Archaic Volumes (review here) was no easy task, but with additional depth to the material from the contributions of guitarist Dino von Lalli — son of founding guitarist/vocalist Mario Lalli and nephew of founding bassist Larry Lalli — guest spots from his sister Olive Lalli as well as Sean Wheeler (the latter moves second cut “Portuguese Dream” into high-echelon strangeness) and the ever-propulsive drumming of Tony Tornay, Fatso Jetson were both all over the place and right at the core of where they most ought to be sonically. At 56 minutes, it hardly seemed long enough.
Each song was like a different persona the band adopted momentarily, whether it was the Bowie-goes-proto-goth-prog of organ-ic opener “Transparent Eyeball” or the grim pastoralia of “Mirror Boy” and the condemnations/proclamations of “Drugged up on the Universe,” but wherever Hexvessel went on their third full-length and Century Media debut, When We are Death, that unifying theme went with them. Death. It was everywhere in the Finland-based genre-benders’ deeply varied approach, though its presence made their material in no way off-putting, and in the case of cuts like “Cosmic Truth” or the later “Mushroom Spirit Doors,” not even dark, and as it drew the tracks together despite working in different sounds and style, it became apparent that When We are Death worked because of a universal quality in songwriting and presentation allowing for such drastic shifts without any risk of losing the audience.
Yawning Man guitarist Gary Arce — a key figure in the development of desert rock and a player of unmatched tone, period — had quite a year, between Zun‘s Burial Sunrise, his main outfit and his collaboration with Fatso Jetson vs. HifiKlub, but it was the dreamscape drift of songs like “Come Through the Water” and “All that You Say I Am” as well as the subtle hooks of “Into the Wasteland” and “All for Nothing” that, for me, made this the highlight. Sure, bringing in vocalists Sera Timms (Ides of Gemini, Black Mare) and John Garcia (ex-Kyuss, Slo Burn, Vista Chino, etc.) and having them swap back and forth between the tracks didn’t hurt either, but the wash of ethereal presence in Arce‘s guitar was an excellent showcase for his patience and improvisational sensibilities, and the spaces Burial Sunrise covered seemed to have an infinite horizon all their own. Will hope for a follow-up, will hope Garcia and Timms return, and will hope for a duet.
One had reasonably high expectations for the debut full-length from London’s Elephant Tree after their 2014 EP Theia (review here) so deftly blended spacious, sitar-laced heavy psychedelic rock with more visceral sludge impulses — a difficult mix to pull off — but I think it would’ve been impossible to see the quality of this self-titled outing coming in any substantive way. Gone were the screams, in was a depth of tone and nigh-on-perfect tempo — see “Dawn” and “Aphotic Blues,” as well as the acoustic “Circles” between them — and where some first albums have a kind of tentative, feeling-it-out vibe, guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley (interview here), bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, drummer Sam Hart and sitarist/vocalist/engineer Riley MacIntyre took utter command of the proceedings. They won’t have the element of surprise working for them next time, but as Elephant Tree made perfectly clear in its biggest surprise of all, neither do they need it.
If you were to ask me to summarize in one word the last four-plus years of Mos Generator‘s tenure, since their reactivation with 2012’s Nomads (review here) and the subsequent lineup changes and hard-touring that followed 2014’s Electric Mountain Majesty (review here), I’d say “go.” I might say it three times: Go-go-go. One of three LP-ish offerings out this year, the studio album Abyssinia embodied this ethic as it started with immediate momentum on “Strangest Times” and “You’ve Got a Right” and seemed to push itself into new ground as it went. Guitarist/vocalist/founder Tony Reed brought heavy boogie to bear at a frenetic clip, but Abyssinia offset its early mania with later progressive stylization on “There’s No Return from Nowhere,” “Time and Other Thieves” and harmonized closer “Outlander,” so that in addition to representing their furious creativity, it also brought them to places they’ve never been before in sound.
In some ways, Future Echo Returns was simply picking up where Belfast’s Slomatics left off with 2014’s Estron (review here), as heard on the riff of lead-in track “Estronomicon,” but as the third in a purported trilogy following that record and 2012’s A Hocht, it also brought the tonecrushing three-piece to Skyhammer Studio to work with producer Chris Fielding (Conan) and presented a linear storyline that, while rife with standout moments in cuts like “Electric Breath,” the ambient “Ritual Beginnings” and ultra-catchy “Supernothing,” found a genuine sense of resolution in the finale “Into the Eternal” that spoke to the scope the entire work was meant to represent — not just itself, but an entirety spanning three albums. Not a minor feat, but what also made Future Echo Returns so resonant was how well the material stood on its own, so that even without the narrative context, it was immersive, hypnotic and unbridled in its heft.
After two landmarks issued by Small Stone in 2014’s The Conjuring (review here) and 2012’s The Black Code (reviews here and here), Texas forerunners of riff Wo Fat gave a concise rundown of their appeal in the six-track Ripple debut and sixth LP overall, Midnight Cometh. Their ongoing development as found them bringing together a two-sided personality of memorable songs and open, fluid jams, and cuts like “There’s Something Sinister in the Wind,” “Of Smoke and Fog,” “Three Minutes to Midnight” and “Nightcomer” emphasized the next stage of this process, while the shuffling “Riffborn” and swaggering blues rock of “La Dilleme de Detenu” gave listeners a chance to touch ground every now and again. Over the last two-plus years, Wo Fat have become a point of influence for other, particularly American, acts — see labelmates Geezer — and Midnight Cometh assured that will be the case going forward too; a status well-earned.
Offered up this summer as a limited self-release and picked up by no less than Stickman Records (Motorpsycho, Elder), Orion might be the most molten inclusion on this list. It’s also my pick for 2016 Debut of the Year, and to hear cuts like “She Sleeps on a Vine,” “Kerosene,” the sprawling closer “Drinking from the River Rising,” or even just to take the whole record front-to-back, which was clearly how the band intended it be experienced, there’s just about no competition in that regard that stands up. The Rochester, NY, three-piece showed marked promise on their 2013 demo (review here) and 2015 split with Lé Betre (review here), but the listenability of Orion — which earned every single one of its repeat visits — made it a triumph on a different level entirely, and distinguished King Buffalo as a formidable presence in the sphere of US heavy psychedelia, fostering a sound no less soulful for its outward cosmic reach and to-be-measured-in-lightyears scale of potential.
7. Wight, Love is Not Only What You Know
Released by Fat and Holy Records, Kozmik Artifactz, Import Export Music and SPV. Reviewed Sept. 7.
German outfit Wight answered significant anticipation on their third album, Love is Not Only What You Know, some four years after 2012’s Through the Woods into Deep Water (review here) and undertook a significant evolution in sound. A transition from a trio to a four-piece and adding a strong current of funk to their heavy psych groove and boogie resulted in cuts like “The Muse and the Mule,” the jammed-out “Kelele” and “The Love for Life Leads to Reincarnation,” which were as danceable as they were nod-ready, and when complemented by shorter classic rockers like “Helicopter Mama” and “I Wanna Know What You Feel” (still plenty funky) and the Eastern-tinged interlude “Three Quarters,” gave Love is Not Only What You Know scope to match its ass-shaking encouragement. It was a spirit unto itself among 2016 releases, but ultimately, the key to understanding the record was right there in the title: It was all about love, and wherever Wight went in a given track, they never lost sight of that.
A decade and a half after 2001’s Revolution Rock (discussed here), Sweden’s Greenleaf most embodied that ethic with Rise Above the Meadow, their sixth long-player and Napalm Records debut. 2014’s Trails and Passes (review here) represented the key step of founding guitarist Tommi Holappa (interview here) bringing vocalist Arvid Johnsson into the lineup, but Rise Above the Meadow built exponentially on what that album achieved, bolstered by work as a touring band and a revitalized songwriting process heard in “Howl,” “A Million Fireflies,” “You’re Gonna be My Ruin,” the stomping “Golden Throne” and “Tyrants Tongue,” among others. I refuse to discount the quality of Trails and Passes, 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) or 2007’s landmark Agents of Ahriman (review here), but as Greenleaf shifted toward a style more reminiscent of Holappa‘s later output with Dozer, they also seemed to stake their claim on the forefront of European heavy rock and roll, which was just waiting for them to do so.
Perhaps the most believable lyric of 2016 was the opening line of leadoff cut “The Gree Heen” from Brant Bjork‘s Tao of the Devil: “I got all that I need. I got the gree-heen.” From the prominent pot leaf on the cover to that single clause — which set the tone for that song’s mega-nod as much as everything that followed in the boogie of “Humble Pie” and “Stackt,” the so-laid-back-it’s-almost-unconscious title-track and the longer-form explorations of “Dave’s War” and the wah’ed-out “Evening Jam” — the inimitable Bjork seems to have embraced the role of stoner guru and the Godfather of Desert Rock. Tao of the Devil was his second release through Napalm behind 2014’s Black Power Flower (review here), which introduced the Low Desert Punk Band, and far from hanging its hat on the man’s historical accomplishments from his days in Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Che, Vista Chino, etc., the 50-minute eight-tracker came fueled by the soul most typified in Bjork‘s solo catalog, which it’s increasingly easy to argue is his greatest contribution to the desert aesthetic. Definitely in his wheelhouse, but what a wheelhouse.
What a relief it was to have Asteroid back, and what a relief it was to have III arrive some six years after II (review here) and find the Örebro, Sweden, trio’s certified-organic chemistry undulled by that long stretch. The songs — “Pale Moon,” “Last Days,” “Til Dawn,” “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold,” “Them Calling,” “Mr. Strange” — there wasn’t a miss in the bunch, and in addition to the reignited craftsmanship, III made clear a progression as players and the intent to move forward from guitarist/vocalist Robin Hirse, bassist/vocalist Johannes Nilsson and drummer Elvis Campbell (since replaced by Jimmi Kolscheen), so that the material didn’t just let listeners know Asteroid was a band again after having unceremoniously faded out for a half-decade, but gave a signal that perhaps they were just getting started. One can only hope that turns out to be the case, but either way, III felt like a reward dolled out to their fanbase after a long absent stretch, and one that, like II and their 2007 self-titled debut (discussed here) before it, will reverberate its echoes for years to come. Hands down 2016’s most welcome return.
Though it would carry the context of its scorching opener “Nature Boy” with it for the duration and, accordingly, hit with a more intense feel than its 2013 predecessor, The Fury of a Patient Man (review here), Gozu‘s fourth album overall and Ripple label debut was a kick in the ass on more than just that one level. It found the Boston foursome with the finally-solidified lineup of vocalist/guitarist Marc Gaffney, guitarist Doug Sherman, bassist Joe Grotto and drummer Mike Hubbard, and while one could argue they still wound up under the banner of a heavy rock band, that became happenstance to the songs themselves. That is, even more than The Fury of a Patient Man or 2010’s Locust Season (review here), Gozu came across as writing not to style, but to their own impulses, as demonstrated in “Big Casino,” the echoing soul of “Tin Chicken” and shuffle-thrust of “Oldie,” and as they moved beyond their initial swath of influence into this individualized sonic persona, they reaped the benefits of the locked-in lineup and a process of craft that never sounded so purposeful. Revival was indeed typified by its vitality, but it was also the sound of a band maturing as a unit, becoming who they were meant to be, and there is almost nothing more exciting than that for a single album to represent. Plus, it had a song called “By Mennen,” and, you know, references.
2. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul)
It was unreasonable to expect the third full-length from Bordeaux, France, trio Mars Red Sky to surpass 2014’s Stranded in Arcadia (review here) and the progressive crux that album brought to the warm tones and sweet melodicism of their 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) reinforced the elements that worked so well on previous outings while pushing inarguably onto what the band seemed to know was “Alien Ground” if the title of their intro was anything to go by. More over, it did so with a natural fluidity and poise that were as striking as they were encompassing in sound. Tying to earlier 2016’s Providence EP (review here) in concept and execution through that intro and the title-track following it, Apex III presented the to-date pinnacle of Mars Red Sky‘s growth in songs like “The Whinery,” “Mindreader,” the tear-inducing “Under the Hood,” the swing-happy “Friendly Fire,” the willful atmospheric crash of closer “Prodigal Sun” — each one a crucial advancing step from the trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — and brilliantly fed them one into the other, so that in addition to the standout impressions of each, there developed a personality to the whole span of the album; a world of Mars Red Sky‘s own creation, where they dwelt for what seemed too short a time before returning to earth and on from here to who knows where next.
Most of all, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages was fearless. For their fourth album, Salt Lake City’s SubRosa adapted themes from 1924’s We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which laid out a futuristic dystopia wherein all identity is subsumed to the state and even love is outlawed when not properly sanctioned. This framework, obscure if influential, gave guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/backing vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna, drummer/engineer Andy Patterson (formerly of Iota, among others), and a range of other contributors, a space in which to explore gender and LGBT issues across the six included tracks, and from the opening build and crush of the chorus to “Despair is a Siren” through the depiction of privilege in “Wound of the Warden,” the 97-second Italian-language ballad “Il Cappio” (translated: “the noose”) and into the gut-wrenching finale of “Troubled Cells,” their musical accomplishment was no less stunning than lyrics like, “Isn’t it good to be acquainted with darkness?/To caress it gently/To slit its throat,” from “Black Majesty.” Tense in its quiet stretches, harmonized vocally, given orchestral presence through its use of strings, flute, French horn, and so on, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages worked fluidly in what for most acts would be a contradictory modus of careful, meticulous arrangements and raw, emotional realism. No matter how deep it dove — and by the time identity was being erased and the state was taking control of the body on “Killing Rapture,” it was diving pretty deep — SubRosa never lost their sense of poise, so that the defiance in the last movement of “Troubled Cells” in which Heaven itself is rejected with the clearest of justifications, “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” the band seemed to stand as straight and tall as their multi-tiered righteousness would warrant. But even if one took For this We Fought the Battle of Ages with politics aside, its achievement in marrying post-metallic structures, gothic texture and progressive atmospherics was on a plane of its own making, operating under its own rules and in its own definitive space. Albums like it do not happen every year, and forward motion for genre as a whole is rarely so visible as it was in this special offering, which seems only fair to regard as a landmark for the band and anyone whose ears and hearts it touched.
The Next 20
Like any good Top 30, mine goes to 50. Here is the next batch:
31. Blaak Heat, Shifting Mirrors
32. Truckfighters, V
33. West, Space & Love, Vol. II
34. Seedy Jeezus with Isaiah Mitchell, Tranquonauts
35. Yawning Man, Historical Graffiti
36. Causa Sui, Return to Sky
37. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
38. Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Phantomonium
39. The Wounded Kings, Visions in Bone
40. It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting
41. Beastwars, The Death of all Things
42. Naxatras, II
43. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
44. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
45. Wretch, Wretch
46. Colour Haze, Live Vol. I: Europa Tournee 2015
47. Zaum, Eidolon
48. Bellringer, Jettison
49. Young Hunter, Young Hunter
50. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Y Proffwyd Dwyll
From the kinetic desert artistry of Blaak Heat to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s ethereal synth-laden doom, there are more than a few essentials here. I’ve never before done a year-end list that had so many releases on it, but my motivation in doing so this time around couldn’t have been simpler: They were simply too good and had too much to offer to leave out. It would’ve been an oversight to do so.
Even a Top 50 fails to grasp the full scope of what 2016 brought about musically, so here are even more, alphabetically:
Ancient Warlocks, II
Black Moon Circle, Sea of Clouds
Sergio Ch., Aurora
Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light
Øresund Space Collective, Visions Of…
-(16)-, Lifespan of a Moth
The Well, Pagan Science
Wovenhand, Star Treatment
And if that’s still not enough, here are 60-plus more names who shouldn’t be left out of the discussion, also alphabetically:
Akris, Atala, Atomikylä, Backwoods Payback, Beastmaker, BigPig, Black Cobra, Black Lung, Blood Ceremony, Blues Pills, Bright Curse, Bus, Dee Calhoun, Captain Crimson, Child, La Chinga, Church of Misery, Conclave, Cough, Devil to Pay, Domkraft, Dot Legacy, Electric Citizen, Estoner, Eternal Elysium, Fatso Jetson & Gary Arce vs. Hifiklub, Fox 45, Goatess, Goblin Cock, Graves at Sea, Heavy Temple (they’ll be back on next year’s list), High Fighter, Holy Serpent, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Inter Arma, Joy, Kaleidobolt, Khemmis, King Dead, Lord, Lord Vicar, Merchant, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Helen Money, Monkey3, Moon Coven, Mother Mooch, Necro, New Keepers of the Water Towers, T.G. Olson, Oranssi Pazuzu, Pooty Owldom, Russian Circles, Salem’s Pot, Samavayo, Seremonia, Skuggsjá, Sourvein, Spirit Adrift, Stone Machine Electric, Suma, Surya Kris Peters, Swans, Throttlerod, Virus, Wasted Theory, Wretch, and Zaum.
In case none of the above has made it clear, I’ll just say flat out that 2016 has been an amazing year for music, and that every time I feel like maybe underground heavy has hit a wall and there’s nowhere left for it to go, sure enough about three minutes later another record shows up that slaps me in the face with a reminder of just how wrong that notion is.
If you’re still reading — how could you be? — thank you so much for your incredible support throughout 2016 and all the years The Obelisk has been in progress. I already know that 2017 is going to bring some incredible music as well, but that’s another list for another time, so I’ll just say again how much I appreciate your being a part of this ongoing project, how much it means to me to have you here. Thank you, thank you, and thank you.
And please, if there’s anything I forgot, got wrong, misspelled, or if you just think I used the word “breadth” too many times, please let me know about it in the comments.