The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Recap: Episode 18

Posted in Radio on June 24th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

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Before I get started, I want to say thanks to Mark Kitchens from Stone Machine Electric for the artwork above. He did the platypus design and I added the blue background and yellow text kind of thinking it would be like one of those old title cards from David Letterman or something. I love it, so yeah. Thanks, Mark.

Like the prior episode, this one was themed around a playlist of some of the best of 2019 so far. I actually didn’t get to hear the whole show because I was at Maryland Doom Fest this past weekend, but I did check in on it while doing other stuff in Frederick. One way or the other, the playlist starts with Holy Grove and has Yawning ManMagic CircleDuelNebulaRoadsawEarth and Across Tundras on it, so you know it’s going to be killer. Really, the only thing I’d have listened for was to make sure I didn’t ruin it with my own derpy derp derp.

I wanted to include some lesser-known stuff here too, so check out the Cosmic Fall, SÂVEREaldor Bealu and Mount Saturn tracks if you haven’t, and that Centrum at the end I really dig a lot. Hell, the whole thing is great. You really can’t go wrong when your operating theme is “stuff that’s awesome.”

Thanks if you got to check it out.

Here’s the full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 06.21.19

Holy Grove Valley of the Mystics Holy Grove II 0:10:37
Duel Drifting Alone Valley of Shadows 0:04:27
The Well Death Song Death and Consolation 0:04:48
BREAK
Across Tundras The Rugged Ranges of Curbs & Broken Minds The Rugged Ranges of Curbs & Broken Minds 0:06:58
Yawning Man I Make Weird Choices Macedonian Lines 0:07:21
Cosmic Fall Lackland Lackland 0:08:32
Lamp of the Universe Rite of the Spheres Align in the Fourth Dimension 0:05:12
SÂVER Dissolve to Ashes They Came with Sunlight 0:07:43
Atala Upon the Altar The Bearer of Light 0:06:06
Magic Circle I’ve Found My Way to Die Departed Souls 0:05:11
BREAK
Mount Saturn Idol Hands Kiss the Ring 0:04:11
Nebula Man’s Best Friend Holy Shit 0:04:56
Ruff Majik Seasoning the Witch Tårn 0:06:31
Earth An Unnatural Carousel Full Upon Her Burning Lips 0:06:51
Ealdor Bealu Smoke Signals Spirit of the Lonely Places 0:07:32
BREAK
Roadsaw Under the Devil’s Thumb Tinnitus the Night 0:03:54
Centrum Sjön För Meditation 0:08:39

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio airs every other Friday at 1PM Eastern, with replays every Sunday at 7PM Eastern. Next show is July 5. Thanks for listening if you do.

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Recap: Episode 14

Posted in Radio on April 15th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

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No real running theme here other than it’s stuff that’s had my ears for the last couple weeks. I put the playlist together with a few tracks that were premiered here from The Dry Mouths and Cities of Mars, the new single from Astral Hand and a Bible of the Devil track to lead off because their amount of kickassery should most definitely put them up front. Some stuff here I haven’t covered as well. On the social medias I put out a question looking for album of the year suggestions and Elizabeth Colour Wheel were one of the top names that came back, so I included them for sure, and Magic Circle too. And I’ll listen to Lamp of the Universe any chance I get anyway, so having them was a no-brainer. Oh, and new Nebula, because duh.

I ended up cutting the voice tracks at Boston Logan Airport before my flight to Roadburn, so maybe there’s a little bit of muzak in the background. It was a little weird sitting there at the gate in Logan talking into my phone about how badass Dozer are, but you know, there’s a kind of anonymity in being in public like that too, and I wasn’t exactly projecting my voice. Bottom line is there’s a bunch of cool stuff though, so whatever I needed to to get it done was worth it. Similarly, I’m writing this from the office of the 013 before the show has even aired, so I don’t actually know yet how it’s all turned out [ed. – it sounds like crap]. If I sound like a jackass, we’ll call it par for the course.

Good fun.

Here’s the full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 04.14.19

Bible of the Devil Idle Time Feel It*
Astral Hand Universe Machine Universe Machine*
Cities of Mars Trenches of Bahb-elon The Horologist*
BREAK
Nebula Witching Hour Holy Shit*
The Druids Cruising Astral Skies The Druids*
Pharlee Warning Pharlee*
Magic Circle Valley of the Lepers Departed Souls*
Elizabeth Colour Wheel Life of a Flower Nocebo*
BREAK
Dozer Octanoid Madre de Dios
The Dry Mouths Impromental VII: Moustachette Memories from Pines Bridge*
Lamp of the Universe The Leaving Align in the Fourth Dimension*
Temple of the Fuzz Witch Infidel Temple of the Fuzz Witch*
BREAK
Picaporters M.I. XXIII*
Electric Moon Transmitter Hugodelia*

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio airs every other Sunday night at 7PM Eastern, with replays the following Thursday at 9AM. Next show is April 28. Thanks for listening if you do.

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Magic Circle, Departed Souls: A Way to Die

Posted in Reviews on April 3rd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

magic circle departed souls

There’s an awful lot of year left, so it’s probably best to avoid “best of”-type hyperbole, but it’s safe to say that whoever else puts out a traditional doom album in 2019 is going to have a hell of a time topping Magic Circle‘s Departed Souls. The Massachusetts five-piece’s third album and second through 20 Buck Spin behind 2015’s sophomore outing Journey Blind (review here) — they released the Scream Live! tape in 2016 as well — and their 2013 self-titled debut (review here). The intervening years between Journey Blind and Departed Souls would seem to have been crucial particularly for vocalist Brendan Radigan, who stepped in to act as live frontman for Pagan Altar. Singing for one of doom’s formative acts would seem to have had an effect on Radigan‘s approach, and where Journey Blind introduced a NWOBHM-style aspect to Magic Circle‘s sound, Departed Souls absolutely refuses to compromise between that and the doom that was so pervasive at their start.

I have said on more occasions than I care to count that classic metal belongs to doom, and Departed Souls proves it. Hell, “I’ve Found My Way to Die” alone might prove it, let alone anything else on the eight-song/45-minute LP. In terms of doom, they dig right to the root. The opening title-track begins with a synthesized-sounding sweep like that in Black Sabbath‘s “After Forever,” and from there, guitarists Chris Corry and Renato Montenegro begin a master class in tone and riff. Backed by the swing in Michael “Q” Quartulli‘s drums and the utterly crucial bass work of Justin DeTore, the two guitars fluidly drive tempo changes like that 3:33 into “Departed Souls,” where they kick into speedier shuffling after setting a middling pace prior — a classic Sabbathian move, and far from the last one on the album.

Particularly in terms of tone and the production of Will Killingsworth at Dead Air Studios Corry mixed and Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham mastered — it’s not just Black Sabbath, but particularly post-Master of Reality-era Sabbath, moving into the crunching riffs of Vol. 4Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage circa 1973-’75, that seem to define album highlights like “Valley of the Lepers” and the closing “Hypnotized,” even as the melding of lead and rhythm tracks give the band an opportunity they most certainly take to make that style their own. One might say the same of the layers of background harmonies periodically surrounding Radigan in the otherwise relatively straightforward arrangements, as introduced in “Valley of the Lepers” and brought to bear in the acoustic-led “A Day Will Dawn Without Nightmares,” which follows, as well as on and off again throughout “Nightland,” “Gone Again” and the slower-marching “Hypnotized.” It’s not the first time he’s had backing vocals, but their use here shows not only his increased command of melody in his already-powerful voice, but the ability to use that command to a defined purpose. “A Day Will Dawn Without Nightmares” is a song that simply doesn’t happen either on Magic Circle or Journey Blind, but on Departed Souls, the band seems well at home in its making, Mellotron-style keys and all.

Magic Circle (Photo by Dakota Gordon)

Acoustic guitar returns on the side B interlude “Bird City Blues” placed right ahead of “Hypnotized,” but it’s an 80-second instrumental piece that seems intended to enhance the titular effect of the closer — i.e., hypnosis — and keyboards make even more of an impression in the subsequent “Nightland” and “Gone Again,” but it’s how it all comes together in “A Day Will Dawn Without Nightmares” that makes the difference, as well as the showcase the song provides for Radigan, though admittedly, that’s more a question of context than quality of performance. There isn’t a point on Departed Souls in which he or the band around him doesn’t shine, whether it’s repurposing the rhythm of the bridge riff to “Sabbra Cadabra” in “Gone Again” or building the hook to “I’ve Found My Way to Die” as an understated anthem of anti-conformity — the lines, “I will never die with the herd/I gotta make my stand/Right!,” efficiently capturing the middle-finger ideology that the earliest of heavy metal raised to the mainstream popular culture that left it on the margins and that has come in the years since to be one of metal’s most defining aspects. Who needs you when I’ve got this?

They make every crash of Q‘s drums in the finale count, every subtle interaction between the lead and rhythm guitars, as in the first half of “Nightland,” the uptempo side B leadoff that breaks to a stretch of harmonies and mellotron that borders on the progressive but never loses its rawer, essential edge before it builds back up into the solo apex that finishes. With the swaggering title-track at the outset and the morose dirge of “Hypnotized” capping, Departed Souls is every bit a work of the classic metal that inspired it. Magic Circle are obviously versed in the style in which they’re working, but Departed Souls pushes further and internalizes that in a way that showcases the growth on the part of the band over the last six years. It’s as though they’ve taken the best of the first two outings and moved them both another step forward. On the most basic level, their songwriting has never sounded stronger, and their performances have never seemed so assured.

Add to that the atmosphere brought forth from the tones of DeToreCorry and Montenegro — hell, even the snare has a classic pop — and Magic Circle have tapped into something genuinely special within their sound. Subtleties like the guitar layering in “Gone Again” or the, yes, cowbell in “Departed Souls,” or even just the way they delay the entry of the vocal harmonies, letting that opener and “I’ve Found My Way to Die” act as a salvo before expanding the palette in “Valley of the Lepers” speak to an overarching fruition to their approach that, even those who’ve stood behind them since the first record would’ve been unlikely to predict. It is a triumph of style and substance that without question deserves consideration among the best albums of 2019.

Magic Circle, Departed Souls (2019)

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Magic Circle to Release Departed Souls March 29

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 4th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

magic circle 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Well, the new Magic Circle track sounds fucking killer. With an overarching proto-metallic spirit brought to bear in no small part through the Sabbath-meets-earliest-AC/DC vocals of Brendan Radigan, “Departed Souls” shares its name with the album it foreshadows, and what will serve as the third full-length for the social media-averse Boston doom/classic metal outfit will see release through 20 Buck Spin on March 29. Their last record, 2015’s Journey Blind (review here) saw them way up the NWOBHM quotient in their sound, but “Departed Souls” seems to speak to an even deeper, earthier and earlier glimpse at the foundations of modern heavy. I dig it. More than I thought I would dig it, and I thought I’d dig it plenty.

They’ll hit Germany for Hell Over Hammaburg on March 1 and play other select dates through the year, as the PR wire informs:

magic circle departed souls

MAGIC CIRCLE: Boston Heavy Metal Outfit To Release Third LP, Departed Souls, Via 20 Buck Spin In March; Video For Title Track Now Playing

Boston’s MAGIC CIRCLE returns with their triumphant third LP, Departed Souls. Ending a four-year gap since the band’s acclaimed Journey Blind LP, Departed Souls will see release through 20 Buck Spin. Ahead of its March 29th street date, the label has released a video created for advance single, the album’s opening song and title track, “Departed Souls.”

MAGIC CIRCLE’s self-titled debut hit the true doom scene like a revelation in 2013. Without hype or hyperbole, the band effortlessly invoked fundamental rock and roll truths putting their own stamp on early heavy metal darkness. Joining 20 Buck Spin for follow-up Journey Blind, the bandagain offered that unmistakable classic sound with natural unforced evolution. On their third LP, Departed Souls, MAGIC CIRCLE presents an expansive hard rock vision, adorning their signature doom with seamless psych and prog ornamentation.

Departed Souls finds MAGIC CIRCLE delving more deeply into ’70s sounds, expanding farther outward from the primordial Iommic matter of their birth. Heavy Sabbathian riffs abound, but MAGIC CIRCLE opens up, stretches out, exposing different shades that recall the moody peaks and valleys of the classic hard rock LPs of that era. Acoustic twelve-string, tablas, and Fender Rhodes appear in lush moments of kaleidoscopic decadence woven into the fabric of the pounding elemental thunder. All the while, vocalist Brendan Radigan seals the deal as one of the premier heavy metal singers of the 21st century, delivering that Wagnerian dynamism and vigor that screams from the heavens and becomes thoroughly controlled in moments of quiet solemnity. The album was recorded and engineered by Will Killingsworth at Dead Air Studios, mixed by the band’s Chris Corry, and mastered by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham (Black Sabbath, Angel Witch, Saxon, Rory Gallagher).

Though all members are busy with other projects including Innumerable Forms, Sumerlands, Devil’s Dare, Stone Dagger, Lifeless Dark, Missionary Work, Pagan Altar live, and more, when these five men come together in the MAGIC CIRCLE, the chemistry and palpable rock exhilaration reminds us that this band isn’t one destined to die with the herd.

MAGIC CIRCLE has created a video for the LP’s opening song and title track “Departed Souls,” compiling live footage of the band with ritualistic, religious, and spiritual practices.

See MAGIC CIRCLE’s “Departed Souls” video RIGHT HERE and stream the track at all major digital providers including Bandcamp HERE.

20 Buck Spin will issue Departed Souls on LP, CD, cassette, and all digital platforms March 29th. Watch for preorders to be posted in the days ahead. If you regularly spin Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Trouble, Led Zeppelin, Rainbow, Pagan Altar, Witchfinder General, early-Soundgarden, Judas Priest, Witchcraft, and Saint Vitus, become a part of the MAGIC CIRCLE.

The band will play select festivals and shows throughout 2019, with a performance at Hell Over Hammaburg in Germany on March 1st confirmed. Watch for more information to be released in the weeks ahead.

MAGIC CIRCLE Live:
3/01/2019 Hell Over Hammaburg – Hamburg, DE

Departed Souls Track Listing:
1. Departed Souls
2. I’ve Found My Way To Die
3. Valley Of The Lepers
4. A Day Will Dawn Without Nightmares
5. Nightland
6. Gone Again
7. Bird City Blues
8. Hypnotized

https://magiccircle.bandcamp.com/releases
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Live Review: Gozu, Worshipper, Magic Circle, Wormwood and Sylvia in Cambridge, MA, 06.03.16

Posted in Reviews on June 6th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

gozu release show lineup

It was a celebration. The first in a short series of release shows for Gozu‘s new album, Revival (review here), and for me, a fitting occasion to mark the last day of work at a job that, while providing a much-needed paycheck, for the last year put an unfortunate distance between myself and rock and roll. If I was looking to make up for lost time, a five-band lineup — more festival than show, even with a 9PM start — would probably be a decent way to make that happen, but while the bill was certainly packed, there was no one on it who felt like filler.

Rather, from starting off with Portland, Maine’s (the other Portland) Sylvia and continuing through Massachusetts-based WormwoodMagic CircleWorshipper and of course Gozu headlining, there was a flow to the night that took it from grinding sludge to soulful heavy rock in well-staged transitions, covering a swath of heft from front to back. Worth mentioning the show was presented by The Obelisk, but I had no hand in picking bands — that presumably was Gozu in conjunction with Grayskull Booking, who continues to do good work in Cambridge and Somerville, on the outskirts of Boston proper, which I think has banned music for its impediment to the developing of further luxury condos.

Here’s how it went down:

Sylvia

sylvia 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

My first exposure to the dual-guitar Portland four-piece was their 2013 self-titled debut full-length (review here), produced by Steve Austin of Today is the Day, and so I knew somewhat to expect as they took the stage, though they still managed to work in a few surprises in their riff-led blend of thrash, grind, periodic heavy breakdowns and headfirst dives into crunch that brought to mind earliest, heaviest Mastodon without actually losing itself in pseudo-progressive winding. They owed as much to Napalm Death as to any kind of sludge, but seemed to play out that grinding influence on a bed of thickened, sometimes-lurching tonality that made their material as much about groove as about speed. I’d forgotten their connection through guitarist/vocalist Candy and bassist Reuben Little to defunct slow-crawling doomers Ocean, but afterwards that context continued to make sense in line with what guitarist Sean Libby and drummer Michael brought to the proceedings. After one of their songs, someone in the crowd shouted, “Play that riff again!” which was an impulse I could understand. They didn’t, but the next riff turned out to be killer as well, so it all worked out.

Wormwood

wormwood 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Based in Boston, Wormwood have a series of singles out and had merch on the table, but this was my first time catching them live. They’re something of a supergroup — though they might prefer “band with dudes who are in other bands too” — with guitarist/vocalist Chris Pupecki also playing in Doomriders, drummer Chris Bevilacqua a former member of that same outfit, guitarist Mike Gowell shared with Phantom Glue — who have a new record out — and bassist Greg Weeks hailing from metalcore pioneers The Red Chord, and their stage presentation offered due variety from that, with Gowell off to the side, casually shredding out lead after lead while Weeks thrashed out Pupecki unleashed a torrent of noise and Bevilacqua held it all together from behind. Following up on Sylvia, they had a definite core of extremity in their approach, but leaned more toward doom than grind, which set the progression of the evening in motion and provided nod-worthy stomp and consuming atmospherics that made me feel like I’d missed something by not checking them out earlier. A curious blend of elements warranting further investigation.

Magic Circle

magic circle 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Two albums in, it’s pretty clear that Magic Circle have earned a reputation. Their second LP, Journey Blind (review here), came out late last year through 20 Buck Spin, and as the follow-up to their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), it played down the doomed riffing of the first outing in favor of a more decisively classic metal approach. While they played what frontman Brendan Radigan laughingly called a “classic” from 2011 in “Scream Evil,” their first single, the vibe of the newer material held sway, driven by the NWOBHM gallop in the guitars of Chris Corry — whose “NCC-1701-D” and “make it so” amp decorations were appreciated — and Dan Ducas. As ever for their kind of metal, however, the rhythm section is what makes such shredding possible, and I’ve rarely seen a drummer who looks like he’s enjoying playing as much as Q (also of Doomriders). His presence adds levity — to compare, bassist Justin DeTore is more subdued and assured with the confidence that he’s the center around which this chaos is swirling; and he is — and allows the rest of the band to be who they are in a way that another drummer might not, but it’s the entire group making an impact from the stage, and as they ran through “The Damned Man” and closed with “Journey Blind” itself, their command of their sound was complete. I wouldn’t be surprised if they continued down a more metallic path going forward, and it suits them.

Worshipper

Worshipper (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Played like a band on top of the world, which seemed reasonable. As announced here, Worshipper recently signed to Tee Pee Records for the release of their debut LP, Shadow Hymns, this August, and they’ve also reaped a Boston Music Award and the title at the annual Rock and Roll Rumble local competition, so if they’re feeling good about what they’re doing, the response they’ve gotten to their work thus far offers little counterargument. Neither could or would I, for that matter. Comprised of guitarist/vocalist John Brookhouse, guitarist Alejandro Necochea — who also filled in with Carousel on their last Euro run this Spring — bassist Bob Maloney and drummer Dave Jarvis, they offered noteworthy presence from the stage, playing in lighting that changed from the Middle East‘s bête noire red to near-total darkness save for some projections and reminding fervently of the chief appeal of what they do; the clear core of songwriting. Along with a grooved out cover of Pink Floyd‘s “Julia,” yet-to-be-released cuts listed as “Wolf” and “Arise” provided immediate impressions in their clarity of purpose, and if they weren’t professional-sounding enough, Brookhouse busted a string early in the set, calmly put his guitar down, walked off stage, came back with a flying V, plugged in, tuned and was ready to go in time for his next solo. They’re early into what one hopes will be a fruitful tenure, but they’re locked in already. Hope they tour.

Gozu

gozu

As stacked as the bill was, one could hardly accuse the headliners of taking it easy on themselves for their sold-out release show, but Gozu hit stage a little after midnight and made it abundantly clear to whom the evening belonged. Their set capped the evening’s progression from vicious grind to post-sludge to classic metal to classic heavy rock to heavy rock and while they didn’t play Revival — officially out June 10 on Ripple Music, but available on CD at the show — in its entirety, they did do every track but the spacier closer “Tin Chicken,” so it was well represented either way alongside “Ghost Wipe” and “Bald Bull” from 2013’s The Fury of a Patient Man (review here) and “Mr. Riddle” from 2010’s Locust Season (review here). They opened with the rampaging album launch, “Nature Boy,” which in just over three minutes’ time basked in both its own intensity and the maddening soul of its hook, guitarist/vocalist Marc Gaffney in top form joined here and there by guitarist Doug Sherman while bassist Joe Grotto and drummer Mike Hubbard nailed the grooves of “Big Casino,” which followed, only upping the party vibe. After “Ghost Wipe,” “Bubble Time” slowed the proceedings somewhat, but by then momentum was well on Gozu‘s side and it would not relent for the duration. Highlight of the set? Well, as they were playing it, I thought “D.D. McCall” into “Lorenzo Mama” — both from the new record — was as good as it was going to get, but they finished with “By Mennen,” which had Gaffney belting out the final lines of the set without instrumental backing, and it worked better than I might’ve hoped or expected, particularly with the older “Mr. Riddle” and “Bald Bull” as setup. There isn’t a band based in this region that I’ve seen more than I’ve seen Gozu since I moved to Massachusetts nearly three years ago now, and I’ve never seen them that they didn’t deliver. They owned the Middle East easily, out-rocked me by a mile at least — I hit a wall pretty hard from standing up front all night and had to move back or pass out — and gave Revival its due, which as that’s one of the best albums of this year, is saying something.

That having-hit-a-wall would define the rest of my night. Waiting outside the venue to meet up with The Patient Mrs., who’d been at another occasion in town, I could barely stand up. I was hydrated, hadn’t eaten much, and with the final work day I guess my body hit its limit. I had to stop and sit for a few minutes on a bench walking the several blocks back to where I’d parked, but the weather was gorgeous and my wife is gorgeous so I’d hardly call it unpleasant. The night on a whole had been a massive win, and I expect it will remain one of personal significance for some time to come, for multiple reasons.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

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The Obelisk Presents: Gozu Record Release Show, June 3 in Boston

Posted in The Obelisk Presents on May 13th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

gozu release show poster

On June 3, in conjunction with Grayskull Booking, The Obelisk will present the record release show for Gozu‘s new album, Revival, at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA. Due out June 10 via Ripple Music, Revival is Gozu‘s most ferocious outing yet, their first with a stable lineup and it shows the pointed trajectory their songwriting has taken, still unremittingly heavy, but less adherent to genre than they’ve ever been. I’ll have a review up before it’s out (hopefully), but the short version is it’s one of the year’s best records.

Accordingly, they’re doing it up to celebrate. It just wouldn’t be a Boston-area gig without five bands on the bill, so of course that’s where it’s at. But between bringing Sylvia down from Maine and partnering with Wormwood, Worshipper — recently signed to Tee Pee — and doom/classic metal mysteriosos Magic Circle, it’s a lineup worthy of consideration more as a festival than a regular gig, and considering advance tickets, which you can buy here, are a whopping $10, to say you’re getting your money’s worth feels like underselling it.

“I’m betting this night will have everything you need,” enthuses Gozu guitarist/vocalist Marc Gaffney. “Rock rolling, cocktails flowing, stomachs growing and many rock t-shirts primed for their first showing.”

“We are super excited to release this album and get it into the ears of peeps,” added guitarist Doug Sherman. “The release show will be a party with a bunch of bands/friends we respect. Come out and celebrate with us we’d love to have ya!! Massachusetts has an amazing scene and we are so blessed to be a part of it.”

Gozu also recently inked a deal with Heavy Psych Sounds and will tour Europe this fall with Holy Grove.

Here’s the release show info:

Grayskull Booking & The Obelisk Present
June 3 / 8PM / 18+
Gozu (Record Release!)
Worshipper
Magic Circle
Wormwood
Sylvia

Middle East Upstairs
472 Massachusetts Ave,
Cambridge, MA 02139

Tickets: $10 advance / $15 door

Advance tickets

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The Obelisk Presents: THE TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2015

Posted in Features on December 22nd, 2015 by JJ Koczan

top 30 albums of 2015 1

Please note: This list is not culled in any way from the Readers Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2015 to that, please do.

It’s damn near impossible to start one of these posts without some derivation of, “Whew! What a year it’s been!” The truth is that, since 2014, I’ve been keeping a list of the best releases of 2015, and the list has just grown and grown and grown over the last 12 months. Could have been a top 40, easy. Could have been a top 50, 60, whatever. It was complete inundation.

If you’ve been checking in on any of the lists that have gone up so far, you might notice that some of these records have appeared elsewhere, and possibly in a different order. How does an album end up ahead of another on one list and not on another? Different criteria. Different basis of judgment. As always, the big year-end list (this one) is derived both from what I think are the most important offerings of the year plus what I listened to the most, because while I believe deeply in the critical value of a given work, I also believe there’s value in the kind of record you just can’t put down.

Basically, I believe records have value. Stay tuned for more daring adventures in understatement.

A few emergent factors for 2015 to note: The increasing expansion of subgenres. Psychedelia and what I’ve come to call the heavy ’10s sound finding further root as prominent styles of the day, as well as a budding of emotive doom in the post-Pallbearer vein. At the same time, a more straightforward heavy rock is also making a return, and look for that to continue as new listeners discover past landmarks and modern plays thereupon. Everything is cyclical, and I’m interested to see what the next two or three years bring, both as Millennials hit 30 (and beyond) and as younger kids come up and fuzz out.

But that’s a conversation for a different time, and before we get there, it’s time to take a look back at the best full-lengths of 2015. I hope if I’ve left something out, you’ll let me know about it in the comments, but until then, here we go:

30. High on Fire, Luminiferous

high on fire luminiferous

Released by eOne Heavy. Reviewed June 15.

Going by some of the results I’ve seen from the Readers Poll, I’m guessing there will be some disagreement on the placement of High on Fire‘s seventh full-length, third for eOne and second to be produced by Kurt Ballou behind 2012’s De Vermiis Mysteriis (review here), but for me it came down to what I went back to more. The brilliant “The Falconist” would be enough on its own for Luminiferous to be included on this list, and taken as a whole, the record affirmed the trio as pivotal heavy metal marauders, an act whose devastation is undulled by the wear they’ve put on it touring the world over and again.

29. CHRCH, Unanswered Hymns

chrch unanswered hymns

Released by Battleground Records. Reviewed June 30.

Undaunted by a name change from Church to CHRCH, the Sacramento five-piece unleashed rare doom extremity on their debut album, but peppered that with a stylistic nuance that many in the pummel-pummel-pummel game cast off, whether it was psychedelic flourish in the guitar or some eerie atmospheric. Among the post potential-filled debut offerings of the year, that’s not a guarantee they’ll find future success on the same level, but it does mean that if you didn’t hear the 19-minute “Dawning,” you missed out.

28. Golden Void, Berkana

golden void berkana

Released by Thrill Jockey Records. Reviewed Sept. 22.

Coherent bliss. The second full-length from the four-piece Golden Void was a logical step forward from the band’s 2012 self-titled debut (review here), but that was precisely what it needed to be. With an emerging dynamic of dual vocals between guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (also Earthless) and keyboardist Camilla Saufley-Mitchell on cuts like “Astral Plane” and “Silent Season,” Berkana was less adherent to space rock overall than its predecessor, but gave a more individualized take and was all the richer for it.

27. Stoned Jesus, The Harvest

stoned jesus the harvest

Self-released. Reviewed Feb. 20.

Probably should have a higher number. Part of the enduring appeal for The Harvest for me is not only how Ukrainian three-piece Stoned Jesus so absolutely pushed back from the album before it, 2012’s sophomore outing, Seven Thunders Roar (review here), but how much reasoning they put behind the moves they made on the six included tracks. Each song had its purpose and place in the overarching flow, and The Harvest continues to deliver something new on thoroughly-earned repeat listens. Perhaps most encouraging of all, I have no idea what they’ll do next.

26. Graveyard, Innocence and Decadence

graveyard innocence and decadence

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Oct. 7.

Swedish retro forerunners are hands-down one of the most influential European heavy rock acts of their generation. The ’70s revivalism they helped spearhead on their first, second and third LPs has given them rich ground to develop, and they still managed to bring something new to their sound with the soulfulness of Innocence and Decadence, as well as increasing command and diversity in the vocals. Drummer Axel Sjöberg turned in a career performance, and although there are heaps upon heaps of bands out there indulging in post-Graveyard boogie, they showed once again that they’re able to stand both out from the crowd and well above it. Plus, any swing-rocking album that dares to break out soul-singer backing vocals and blastbeats, and pull both off without blinking deserves respect, no matter what else it might have going on.

25. Death Hawks, Sun Future Moon

death hawks sun future moon

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Nov. 3

It felt so good to put on Death HawksSun Future Moon for the first time and be completely blindsided by its serene psychedelic ritualizing. The Finnish four-piece reveled in classic progressive methods, and where it would’ve been so easy for songs like “Hey Ya Sun Ra” or “Dream Life, Waking Life” to come across as pretentious, the naturalism in the recording gave the band’s third album such a liquefied flow that it was impossible not to be swept up by it until, at last, “Friend of Joy” launched into and beyond a peaceful stratosphere in spaced-out ambience. My first exposure to the group and their first outing for Svart, it’s a record so textural and so graceful that it seems to unfurl itself more each time through.

24. Spidergawd, II

spidergawd ii

Released by Stickman Records and Crispin Glover Records. Reviewed Jan. 5.

A quick and strong turnaround from this Norwegian sax-inclusive foursome, who might seem to come out of nowhere were it not for the pedigree of Kenneth Kapstad and Bent Sæther in long-running progressives Motorpsycho. Together with Per Borten and Rolf Martin Snustad, Spidergawd spoke to more primal rock instincts — their two LPs to-date and soon to be three are testaments to the ability of music to move, to shove, and to shake; or as they put it, “Get Physical” — but as there is breadth as well, as the psychedelic “Caereulean Caribou” demonstrated. Anchored by the hook of “Fixing to Die Blues,” Spidergawd‘s second wandered far and wide, but welcomed listeners along for each step of the journey.

23. The Midnight Ghost Train, Cold was the Ground

the midnight ghost train cold was the ground

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Feb. 26.

As the title promised, The Midnight Ghost Train‘s third offering and Napalm Records debut delivered harsh truths. They came at breakneck speed and delivered with stage-hewn chemistry by the Midwestern power trio, whose years of road-dogging were brought to bear in the gruff, gravel-throated voice of guitarist Steve Moss, who led drummer Brandon Burghart and newcomer bassist Mike Boyne across nigh-unparalled riff torrents, with all the boogie of any number of ’70s-style sidewinders, but also with a tonal thickness that seemed a miracle it could move at all. Not without its adventurous side in the quieter “The Little Sparrow,” Cold was the Ground brimmed with intensity that brought the band to new levels in every conceivable fashion.

22. Leeches of Lore, Motel of Infinity

leeches of lore motel of infinity

Released by Lorchestral Recording Company. Reviewed Sept. 15.

Blessed art the weirdos, whose records might be few and far between, who might not tour, but whose bold fits and starts span genres easily and whose work truly stands alone. Leeches of Lore‘s Toshi Kasai-produced Motel of Infinity was a godsend in the enduring battle against normality. It was a grinding, grooving anti-punk stampede, at times frenetic and at other times whatever the opposite of frenetic is, and to-date, it’s the Albuquirky outit’s masterpiece, from the low-end buzzsaw, gang-shout and falsetto of “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” through the bass and organ bounce of “Noah’s Soul (is Burning).” They have been and still are a band unto themselves, and the we-do-this-every-day confidence of their execution across Motel of Infinity‘s run only emphasizes how utterly necessary they are.

21. With the Dead, With the Dead

with the dead self titled

Released by Rise Above Records. Reviewed Nov. 11.

With the Dead vocalist Lee Dorrian (also head of Rise Above Records, also ex-Cathedral) basically laid it all out there in the interview here when he said, “We wanted to make the most skull-crushing record we possibly could.” That’s precisely what With the Dead‘s self-titled debut is. It’s as heavy as possible, as filthy as possible, all the way through. In some ways very much the sum of its elements with Dorrian on vocals, Tim Bagshaw on guitar/bass and Mark Greening on drums (both ex-Ramesses), it was also of course more than just that, and while so much of their story has yet to be told as they move into their initial live appearances in 2016, their opening salvo was nothing if not as destructive as its intent.

20. Clutch, Psychic Warfare

clutch psychic warfare

Released by Weathermaker Music. Reviewed Oct. 6.

How could anyone possibly have even remotely reasonable expectations for a Clutch record after 2013’s Earth Rocker (review here). I won’t say the Maryland stalwarts didn’t deliver with Psychic Warfare, and I doubt any fan of the band who’s dug into “X-Ray Visions,” “A Quick Death in Texas” or “Noble Savage” would, but their returning to producer Machine for the second time in a row made it almost too easy to compare Clutch‘s 10th and 11th long-players. Four years between albums was shortened to just two, and that may have had something to do with it as well, but while the songs were there and I’ve no doubt that Psychic Warfare will endure over the long term — ask me sometime how long it took me to get into Pure Rock Fury — in the moment of its release, Psychic Warfare seemed to stand in the shadow of its predecessor rather than in its own light.

19. Mondo Drag, Mondo Drag

mondo drag self-titled

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

An awaited return for Midwestern-turned-West-Coast psychedelic rockers Mondo Drag, their self-titled sophomore outing had three years between its recording and release, and was made in 2012 with a shortlived incarnation of the band with bassist Zack Anderson and drummer Cory Berry, both formerly of Radio Moscow and then-soon to be of Blues Pills. Unsurprisingly, the grooves were tight, but even better, Mondo Drag blew past the peaceful headtrippery of their 2010 debut, New Rituals (review here), toward more expansive and proggy fare. They’ll look to continue that thread on their third outing, The Occultation of Light, in 2016, but the self-titled captured a special moment worthy of celebration, still rife with the classic-minded ethereal spirit of the first outing, but clearly bent on defining its own sonic dogma in hooks and synthy vibes.

18. Lamp of the Universe, The Inner Light of Revelation

lamp of the universe the inner light of revelation

Released by Clostridium Records and Astral Projection. Reviewed April 27.

At the risk of sounding biased, just about any new release from New Zealand tantric psych outfit Lamp of the Universe is going to be welcome by me. Comprised solely of Craig Williamson (also Arc of Ascent), the long-running project nonetheless casts out gorgeously textured meditative psychedelia, at times delving into drone or Eastern folk, but always marking out its own sonic space, whether in the more rock-minded groove of “God of One” or the drumless acoustic swirl of “Ancient Path.” Lamp of the Universe is a rare band — as much as it is a band — that covers a swath of ground stylistically and manages to sound like nothing but itself as it does so, and Williamson‘s commitment to his cosmic mantras remains firm and creatively fertile as the seeds he planted early on continue to bear fruit in complex arrangements that never distract from the central, spiritual purpose of the music.

17. Mammatus, Sparkling Waters

mammatus sparkling waters

Released by Spiritual Pajamas. Reviewed Nov. 9.

Even with its title-track broken into two 20-plus-minute side-consuming halves, it was abundantly plain to hear that Sparkling Waters was the most realized Mammatus outing yet. The four-song, 75-minute offering brimmed with a clarity that even their late-2013 third album, Heady Mental (review here), could only partially claim, leaving behind the fuzz and fog of their earlier work almost entirely while remaining open to employing sonic heft when suitable to their more complex motives. Most effective about Mammatus at this stage was the way they eased into and through varied parts while tying together a coherent whole piece, the builds and cascades of “Sparkling Waters Part One” setting up an expectation of fluidity that held firm even through the more jagged buzz in the early going of closer “Ornia,” the grand finale of which resonates as a cacophony without letting itself actually lose control.

16. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, The Night Creeper

uncle acid the night creeper

Released by Rise Above Records. Reviewed Sept. 3.

UK ladykillers Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats have emerged as one of the most essential bands of the ’10s. The Night Creeper is their fourth album and it takes the defining eeriness of their melodies and roughs it up with a mostly-live recording job — something which, now that they’re a touring act, they can do — for their grittiest, dirtiest-sounding offering yet. Songs like “Melody Lane,” “Pusher Man” and opener “Waiting for Blood” speak to what’s let their methodology spread so widely in the first place, the VHS grain of their guitars and vocals resting over classic swing and proliferating maddening hooks with lethal intent. Between the nine-minute gruel of “Slow Death” and the hidden acoustic track “Black Motorcade,” The Night Creeper wasn’t without its element of sonic progress, but with Uncle Acid, it’s still the combination of threat, swing and memorable songwriting that brings listeners back to their dark alleyways for another taste.

15. Death Alley, Black Magick Boogieland

death alley black magick boogieland

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed June 8.

Easily one of 2015’s most encouraging debuts. Making its opening salvo with the propulsion of Motörhead-derived heavy rock in songs like “Over Under” and “Black Magick Boogieland,” the first outing from Amsterdam-based foursome Death Alley touched on classic ideals without going retro on “Bewildered Eyes,” nodded toward psychedelic melodicism and more patient intentions in “Golden Fields of Love,” and portrayed its punker roots in “Dead Man’s Bones” — all before the 12:40 space rock extravaganza that took hold with closer “Supernatural Predator.” It was a lot of territory to cover, but Death Alley not only made it sound cohesive, they made it rock and they made it a good time. In just about 41 minutes, Black Magick Boogieland was not only a voyage well worth taking, it was a potential-filled, headbang-worthy ripper of an album from an outfit who deserves every bit of attention they seem to be shouting for. Hope they don’t wait long for a follow-up.

14. The Machine, Offblast!

the machine offblast

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed May 28.

Five records in, Dutch trio The Machine have found a niche for themselves between heavy psych rock, desert fuzz and exploratory jamming. Offblast!, with a title that seemed more reminiscent of Europunker speed rock, was as spacious as it was driving, and whether it was the more structured material like “Dry End” or “Coda Sun” or the two extended cuts, 16-minute opener ““Chrysalis (J.A.M.)” and 12-minute closer “Come to Light,” their dynamic remained natural and held firm to a spontaneous sensibility, like at any turn, any part might take off for an eight-minute ride to who knows where. That that didn’t always happen only made Offblast! a richer listening experience, its varied ideas coming through consistent tonality to affect a more than satisfying front-to-back flow that toyed with momentum even as it built more and more of it. Was a while in the making, coming three years after 2012’s Calmer than You Are (review here), but easily worth the wait.

13. Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

brothers of the sonic cloth self titled

Released by Neurot Recordings. Reviewed March 3.

There were moments where the self-titled debut from Brothers of the Sonic Cloth was almost too much to take in one sitting. By the time the Tad Doyle-led trio got around to the 11-minute “La Mano Poderosa,” sometimes I felt like I needed a second to catch my breath before diving further, always further, into the smoldering abyss their tones, growls and lurch seemed to create. Six years after their demo (review here) served notice like a tectonic rumble in the distance, the album arrived with comet-into-planet heft, and its oppression was as much about atmosphere as it was sheer aural assault. Imagine an arm reaching down your throat, grabbing your lungs, and forcibly deflating them one at a time. Is that hyperbole? Absolutely, and well earned. Every bit the debut of the year.

12. Kind, Rocket Science

kind rocket science

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Dec. 2.

No, Boston supergroup Kind aren’t so high on this list just because they called a song “Pastrami Blaster.” Granted, that didn’t hurt, but ultimately it was the blend of cavernous psychedelics and heavy rumble that made Rocket Science so infectious. Comprised of vocalist Craig Riggs (Roadsaw), guitarist Darryl Shepard (Milligram, The Scimitar, etc.), bassist Tom Corino (Rozamov) and drummer Matt Couto (Elder), Kind earned immediate interest for their pedigree, but it was more the breadth of jams like “Hordeolum” and “The Angry Undertaker” that defined their first outing, various impulses toward structure and open-endedness not so much pushing against each other as working in tandem to craft something that drew from the best of both mindsets. Obviously these are busy guys, but hopefully Kind doesn’t all by the wayside for other ongoing projects. Rocket Science was unmistakable in its demonstration that they have much to offer.

11. Bloodcow, Crystals and Lasers

bloodcow crystals and lasers

Self-released. Reviewed Aug. 4.

Iowa five-piece Bloodcow hadn’t put out a record since 2007’s Bloodcow III: Hail Xenu, but that didn’t stop Crystals and Lasers from being their best work yet. As much punk as metal as heavy rock, it wasn’t for everybody, but it was most definitely for me. With a constant thread of satire in songs like “Ultra Super Sexual,” “Sock,” “Dick for Days” and the oh-shit-I’m-middle-aged-how-the-fuck-did-this-happen (not saying I relate or anything, but holy shit I can relate) “After Party,” it was nonetheless a stylistically varied and universally professional-sounding 13-track collection, offering weirdo quirk in “Blood and Guts,” “Exploding Head” and “Little Chromosome” and finding room for a bit of scathing social commentary in its title-track and “HIVampyre.” If they’re working at an eight-year pace, I don’t know that we’ll get another Bloodcow record, but they very clearly put everything they had into Crystals and Lasers and the result was a defining statement.

10. Kadavar, Berlin

kadavar berlin

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed July 7.

After two wallops in the form of 2013’s Abra Kadavar (review here) and 2012’s self-titled debut (discussed here), German trio Kadavar continued to prove the effectiveness of their songwriting on Berlin, a return that front-to-back brimmed with vitality and bounce rare enough for heavy rock generally more content to be downtrodden or attempting to feign bluesy substance. Unabashedly poppy at times, Berlin was the party that brought everyone along who was up for taking the ride, and whether it was the hook of “Lord of the Sky” showing how just a tiny melodic turn could make a track infectious or cuts like “Thousand Miles Away from Home,” “Filthy Illusion,” “Stolen Dreams,” “Spanish Wild Rose,” “See the World with Your Own Eyes” — all of them, really — working their way into the consciousness, Berlin felt like it was primed to be the soundtrack of many summers to come. They moved away from the retro style of their first two outings, but in so doing took fuller command of their sound and put it to remarkable use.

9. Goatsnake, Black Age Blues

goatsnake black age blues

Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed May 19.

Picking up right where Flower of Disease closer “The River” left off with “Another River to Cross,” Goatsnake‘s third full-length arrived a full 15 years after its predecessor, and as one might expect that brought some considerable changes in the band’s sound. Oh, they still rolled the hell out of a riff, guitarist Greg Anderson (he of SunnO))) and Southern Lord Recordings) very much at the fore tonally, but a bluesy inflection from vocalist Pete Stahl (also earthlings?) and some well-placed backing vocals added personality in a daring and unexpected fashion. Songs like “Jimi’s Gone,” “Elevated Man” and “Grandpa Jones” sat comfortably in the band’s influential pantheon of heft, but it was how Black Age Blues pushed beyond what Goatsnake did in their initial run that made it so satisfying. For a record that arrived five years after they got back together, it could have easily been disaster, but Black Age Blues built on what Goatsnake was without detracting from the legacy that has influenced a generation of heavy rock.

8. Kings Destroy, Kings Destroy

kings destroy self titled

Released by War Crime Recordings. Reviewed April 15.

I’m proud to call the members of Kings Destroy friends and I won’t attempt to feign impartiality when it comes to considering their work as a band, but I felt in listening to their self-titled third LP that they had finally gotten to the point where they were bringing the onstage confrontationalism of their live show to the studio. Yeah, “Mr. O” was upbeat and catchy and gave side A some thrust, but even in chugging opener “Smokey Robinson” or the moody “Mytho” and “Embers,” Kings Destroy not only came further into their own in terms of style, building on the anti-genre defiant stance of 2013’s A Time of Hunting (review here), but did so with a clearheaded progressivism, a better sense of who they are musically and what they want the band to be. I wouldn’t trade seeing them play “Embers” or “W2” as many times as I have for anything, but even unto the gang-shout half-speed hardcore of “Time for War,” Kings Destroy‘s Kings Destroy made no bones about how it wound up with the eponymous title. It’s them through and through.

7. Cigale, Cigale

cigale self titled

Self-released. Reviewed May 4.

It may never be possible to listen to the self-titled debut from Cigale outside the context of the death of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets (ex-Sungrazer). That loss casts a dark shadow over a collection that otherwise radiates colorful sweetness and serenity, the peaceful depth beginning with “Grey Owl” and only broadening as it turns and weaves through “Steeplechase,” “Feel the Heat,” “Harvest Begun” and so on, but the record remains a gorgeous, engrossing wash of resonant melody and underlying presence. Not without its moments of melancholy, the more overarching impression was of beauty not tied to any notion of playing to genre or style, and while I don’t know what the future will hold for the band, if they’ll keep moving forward or not or if they’re even in a place yet to consider such things, they helped broaden the context of European heavy psychedelia with their first album, and that is no minor achievement.

6. Sun Blood Stories, Twilight Midnight Morning

sun blood stories twilight midnight morning

Self-released. Reviewed June 19.

Another one that just kind of smacked me in the face. Idahoan heavy psych explorers Sun Blood Stories‘ second album, Twilight Midnight Morning was soaked in vibe and moved fluidly between experimentalist noisemaking and patient, memorable songwriting. Tracks like “West the Sun,” “Witch Wind” and “Found Reasons Found Out” never raged, exactly, but had enough weight to their rhythm to let you know they were there and interested in groove, while later pieces “Time Like Smoke,” “Moon Song: Waxing” and “Misery is Nebulous” drew exponentially from earlier freakout impulses and shifted into a dronier and more ambient approach. The combination of the two — semi-structure up front, open expansion in the back — made the three-part Twilight Midnight Morning engaging and hypnotic in kind, and though I hope they get weirder and experiment and develop the atmospheric side of their sound, I’ve also got my fingers crossed they hold firm to their more grounded aspects, since its the range between the two that gives their sophomore outing its defining fluidity.

5a. Colour Haze, To the Highest Gods We Know

colour haze to the highest gods we know

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed Jan. 6.

I’ll cite precedent in last year’s list for including a “5a.” The intent in doing so is to convey the idea that Colour Haze‘s latest outing, To the Highest Gods We Know, is worthy of top five consideration, but its release date was split between 2014 (CD) and 2015 (LP), so it was a little unclear where to put it. As the album is basically a year old at this point, it seems fair to say it’s held up, drawing back from the grandiose vision of 2012’s She Said (review here) without losing sight of the progressive elements that have taken root in the German trio’s sound. Their work has been and remains essential to the development of heavy psychedelic rock in Europe and beyond, and even though To the Highest Gods We Know felt like something of a reset — a stripping down of arrangements in places and getting back to a trio-in-a-room feel — it still stepped forward in its title-track and in songs like “Überall” and “Call” and showed that even when it seems Colour Haze have pushed their approach as far as it can go, there’s always new ground to explore, and their pull to do so is undiminished.

5. The Atomic Bitchwax, Gravitron

the atomic bitchwax gravitron

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed April 20.

Doesn’t exactly seem like giving away state secrets to note that a record with songs like “Sexecutioner” and “Fuck Face” is aggressive, but it’s particularly interesting in light of the past work of New Jersey trio The Atomic Bitchwax, who I don’t think sounded as barn-burning as they do on Gravitron even in their earliest going. The trio of bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik, guitarist/vocalist Finn Ryan and drummer Bob Pantella kept their signature winding riff style intact — demonstrated most expansively over 2011’s single-song full-length instrumental The Local Fuzz (review here) — but while their turns were as blinding as ever, their tones were more pointed and Pantella‘s snare more upfront on the beat, which gave Gravitron a newfound sense of urgency. It worked. Even poppier songs like “Roseland” or the closing “Ice Age Hey Baby” benefited from the additional thrust, and the album overall felt lean, mean and ready to be taken on the road, which of course is exactly what they did with it. Six albums in, The Atomic Bitchwax were at their most vital yet.

4. All Them Witches, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker

all them witches dying surfer meets his maker

Released by New West Records. Reviewed Oct. 20.

Nashville four-piece All Them Witches probably could’ve gone into the studio, churned out a record of crunchy riffs with a quiet part or two for flavor and positioned themselves at the forefront of American heavy rock with their New West Records debut and third full-length overall, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker. Instead, they defied expectation boldly and brought their growing audience into the room with them and producer Mikey Allred as they captured the album, which finds its most affecting moments not in tonal weight, but emotional resonance, the melody at the midpoint of “Talisman” or the string arrangement gracefully tucked into “Open Passageways.” There’s still the push of “Dirt Preachers,” and entrancing closer “Blood and Sand – Milk and Endless Waters” has its heft as well, but All Them Witches‘ success ultimately came from being the album they wanted to make, built from the dynamic that’s developed on stage between bassist/vocalist Michael Parks, Jr., guitarist Ben McLeodAllan Van Cleave on Fender Rhodes/strings, and drummer Robby Staebler, and alive in its feeling of exploration. I won’t predict what they might do from here, but I’m willing to say outright it’ll be worth hearing one way or another.

3. Snail, Feral

snail feral

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Oct. 13.

My expectations for Snail‘s third post-reunion full-length and Small Stone label debut, Feral, were pretty high. Not unreasonably so, though. Their 2012 outing, Terminus (review here), built on the blend of heavy psych riffs, laid back roll and melodicism that 2009’s Blood (review here) established as the band’s working modus, but Feral was going to be a different beast from the start because it was the West Coast outfit’s first full-length as a trio since they made their self-titled debut (reissue review here) in 1993 before splitting up the next year. Whatever my expectations were, however, Snail shattered them almost immediately. In the progression of their songwriting as shown across the strong opening salvo of “Building a Haunted House,” “Smoke the Deathless” and “A Mustard Seed” through one of the year’s best songs in the expansive and crushing “Thou Art That,” the three-piece showcased a breadth unlike anything they’d conjured before, and it only continued through “Born in Captivity,” the catchy “Derail,” “Psilocybe” and the soul-infused wah leads that peppered the pleading closer “Come Home.” Where Terminus offered intensity, Feral offered patience in its execution, and the atmosphere it created suited the band’s sound as well as the Seldon Hunt cover art seemed to summarize the alternate reality in which the music took place. Everything about how it came together worked just right, and even as a fan of the band’s work since they got together again, I was taken aback by the unflinching quality of Feral front to back.

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

acid king middle of nowhere center of everywhere

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed March 19.

Ten years is a long, long time. Especially in music. The prospect of a fourth Acid King record has been tossed around for at least the last six of those 10 years, but to finally have it realized was something else entirely. Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere was without a doubt my most-listened-to album of the year, and its combination of tonal haze, low-end heft and spacious atmosphere was perfect. There’s just no other way to say it. It was perfect. From “Silent Pictures” and “Coming down from Outer Space” through “Red River,” “Infinite Skies” and the sprawling “Center of Everywhere” itself, guitarist/vocalist Lori S., bassist Mark Lamb and drummer Joey Osbourne crafted an absolutely perfect heavy psych record. How many bands walking the earth could even get away with calling a track “Laser Headlights,” let alone make it kick ass? Yeah, Goatsnake came back this year, and that was great, but for me, the return of Acid King to their throne of nod was even more the story of the year. Together with producer Billy Anderson, they offered a depth of tone that was simply unmatched, and without an ounce of pretense, they unveiled a roll that continues to resound. I’m a big fan of getting lost in a record, and Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere eased the listener in with its “Intro,” pulled reality apart from with “Silent Pictures” and set about doing the universe a favor by remaking the cosmos as the kind of place where one might find a wizard riding a tiger past the craters of the moon, until, at last, it deposited you back where you started. Best trip of 2015, no question.

1. Elder, Lore

elder lore

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

Make no mistake, 2015 was Elder‘s year. We were all just living in it. Truth be told, I’ve been back and forth between Elder and Acid King in the top spot for the last couple months (you might recall in July they were reversed), but when it finally came to it, there was no way I could feasibly call anything other than Lore the album of the year. From the gorgeous Adrian Dexter artwork (discussed here), through the progressive clarion of “Compendium”‘s noodling guitar line and into the massive scope of the title-track (discussed here), Lore was the moment in which Elder — guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto — tore down the walls of genre, whether it was heavy rock, psychedelia or anything else, and emerged with their own approach and complex, varied modus of songwriting. They’ve been turning heads since their self-titled debut arrived in 2008, but with 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here), they began to demonstrate the potential for really adding something to the patchwork of underground heavy. In moving forward by making clarity a hallmark both of their sound and of their purpose, Elder came into their own with these five tracks, and do not at all be surprised a couple years from now when bands start showing up aping DiSalvo‘s style of riffing, since such a bold and successful foray of individualism can only be influential in the longer run. At nearly an hour long, Lore was not a minor undertaking, but each song seemed to set up its own atmosphere, feeding not only its own singular focus, but that of the album overall. Its turns blinding, its impact forceful and its affect drawing from the best of the sonic personalities of all three players, Elder‘s Lore reaped wide acclaim and earned it every step of the way. Its progressive vision has only begun to be digested.

Honorable Mention

Killer Boogie, Detroit – Impressive debut from the retro-minded offshoot of Black Rainbows brought ’70s boogie to Italy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a quick turnaround, but either way, their first outing knew its audience and spoke directly to it.

My Sleeping Karma, Moksha – This one was on various incarnations of the list. Very interested to see where the German heavy prog outfit wind up in terms of expanding their arrangements, but Moksha was a satisfying step forward in that process.

Egypt, Endless Flight – Should probably have a number, but the fact is it’s only been out for like two weeks, so it hasn’t really been given the test of time at this point. Still, Egypt always deliver and this was no exception.

Valkyrie, Shadows – An awaited third full-length from Virginia’s Valkyrie and also their Relapse Records debut offered enough blazing guitar work to meet any quota, and was a welcome return after a long absence.

Magic Circle, Journey’s End – The second LP from this Massachusetts outfit pushed beyond doomly confines into more traditional metallurgy but held its eerie atmospherics intact, and the combination suited them remarkably well.

Monolord, Vænir – This was my go-to for 2015 when nothing else seemed quite crushing enough. The Swedish trio have very quickly stomped their way into the hearts and minds of the international underground, and rightfully so.

Freedom Hawk, Into Your Mind – After making a transition from a four-piece to a trio, this Virginian outfit proceeded to take a few stylistic risks on their second Small Stone long-player, and they paid off.

TombstonesVargariis – Fourth full-length from this Norwegian trio pushed them outside of doom’s confines into a darker and more extreme version of heaviness that pulled from death and black metals in addition to its sludgy underpinnings. The meld was punishing and lost nothing of its groove, wherever it went at any given moment.

Faces of Bayon, Ash and Dust Have no Dominion – I guess my only hesitation with including Faces of Bayon‘s second outing in any kind of year-end fare is I’m not sure if the album has actually been released yet. Even if not, they’re easily worth a mention.

Ice Dragon, A Beacon on the Barrow – Kind of a down year from Ice Dragon in terms of overall productivity, but if the quantity was down compared to some, A Beacon on the Barrow was quality enough to carry them through. In a way, I think the album actually benefited from the band giving listeners time to take it in.

Arenna, Given to Emptiness – Ah, so good. The Spanish heavy psych troupe dug in deep on Given to Emptiness and conjured sonic and emotional resonance on their second full-length. It’s one that still gets repeat listens.

Monster Magnet, Cobras and Fire – The long-running New Jersey outfit’s reworking of their 2010 album Mastermind was excellent, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t seem fair to list it when they’re working mostly from already-released source material. But still, if you haven’t heard it, go find it.

Various Artists, Electric Ladyland [Redux] – Even if the results hadn’t been so spectacular, Electric Ladyland [Redux] would deserve a mention for the sheer scope and logistical nightmare that the project must have been. Kudos to Magnetic Eye Records all around.

There are so many others: Abrahma, GoyaSun and Sail Club, DevilleSacri MontiDirty StreetsUfomammutWo Fat‘s live album, Mirror Queen, PentagramTorcheSumacGarden of WormBlack RainbowsHoly SerpentMinskBaronWeedpeckerElectric MoonFuzzBell WitchWindhand, Niche, We Lost the SeaSeremoniaSunderDomovoyd, The Heavy EyesDemon HeadFoggStars that MoveEnslavedRuby the Hatchet, on and on and on. That’s not even to mention the stuff I didn’t hear — Baroness will be on many people’s lists, no doubt, as well as Mutoid Man, Ghost and Kylesa — so yeah, I could pretty much keep going ad infinitum.

I, however, cannot. It’s been an absolute pleasure trying to keep up with 2015’s barrage the last 12 months, and I expect 2016 will only bring more. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading or that you’re able to get some use out of this post, whatever that might mean, and I thank you deeply, from the bottom of my heart, for your time and for reading. It means more to me than I can say that you might check out even any portion of this site or be involved, whether it’s sharing a link, leaving a comment to let me know who I forgot to mention or correct my spelling, signing up for the forum, listening to the radio, whatever it might be.

Thank you for an amazing 2015. And please stay tuned, because of course, there’s much more to come.

 

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Magic Circle Premiere “The Damned Man” from Journey Blind

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on November 10th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

magic circle (Photo by Dakota Gordon)

Boston doomers Magic Circle release their second album, Journey Blind, Nov. 20 on 20 Buck Spin. A dual-guitar five-piece, the band was a force to be reckoned with even before the release of their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), having garnered a formidable response to their initial single, Scream Evil/Lighting Her Fire, both online and in the physical realm with a 7″. The self-titled was light on frills but heavy on dark atmospherics and weighted riffing, and Journey Blind‘s seven tracks/45 minutes follow suit in that regard, but add stylistic nuance in the form of a decided lean toward ’80s-era NWOBHM metallurgy, taking cues on the opening title-track from Judas Priest fist-pumping chug in the guitars of Chris Corry and Dan Ducas, unconcerned with genre boundaries as it motors forward on a groove thickened by Justin DeTore‘s bass and propelled by the drumming of Q, topped off with classically soaring vocals from Brendan Radigan.

Their take on the sound is righteous and unabashed, and while Journey Blind is unmistakably different from what they were doing on Magic Circle, it makes sense as a next step. “Journey Blind” is both the opener and the longest track (immediate points) at 8:26, and does much work in setting the tone for what follows, but though it’s shorter, “The Damned Man” takes hold with pre-thrash intensity and vocal layering in its hook on the way to a surprising slowdown and build-up, a breakdown riff stomped out at around four minutes in that becomes the bed for soloing and a final verse before ending — wait for it — acoustic.

How any of that makes any fucking sense whatsoever, I haven’t the foggiest, but it does. In context, the acoustic finish of “The Damned Man” is as much intro for “A Ballad for the Vultures” as it is its own outro, but as a standalone it shows how willing Magic Circle are to bend the rules of verse-chorus to suit their whims, and that they can do it and not have a track fall apart. They’re due for a doom-out, and “A Ballad for the Vultures” delivers one in its first half, still tinged with Iron Maiden-style grandiosity and Dio-style poise, a midsection break serving as transition to a faster, more swinging movement of furious guitars and an magic circle journey blindongoing sense of build until its unbridled conclusion. They even slow down in there, but by the end, they’re at their most raging.

The subsequent “Lightning Cage” is maybe more ’70s than ’80s in its central riff early on, but the difference works out to be trivial with as much effort as Magic Circle put into making it their own. A meatier nod emerges in an extended bridge, but again, they end fast, reveling in the play of one tempo off another in a centerpiece track that’s the shortest inclusion at 4:19 but a standout moment all the same for its efficiency and the energy of its delivery. Already to this point, Magic Circle have galloped and stomped, they’ve howled and marauded, and they’ve torn into classic metal without giving up the atmospheric heft of their debut. More than a little impressive. They’ve grown — quickly — and remained cohesive working through a variety of structures. The final three songs of Journey Blind, which may or may not be side B, depending on where the vinyl puts “Lightning Cage,” present another turn, this time into more Sabbathian territory.

A doom band sounding like Sabbath? Not exactly news, but across “Ghosts of the Southern Front,” “Grand Deceivers” and the closing “Antediluvian,” Magic Circle seem to be on a campaign to redeem Tony Iommi‘s work post-Ian Gillan, and they make a convincing argument, whether it’s the steady pacing of “Ghosts of the Southern Front” or the highlight bass work DeTore brings to “Antediluvian.” And since this era of the genre progenitors coincides with the NWOBHM coming of age and even the birth of the thrash movement, it also makes sense in terms of the timeline in which Magic Circle are working throughout that they’d dip into such an influence.

The final three songs are almost an album unto themselves, but the straight-backed posture of “Grand Deceivers,” the chug and chorus of “Ghosts of the Southern Front” and the speedier takeoff that closes out “Antediluvian”‘s even-earlier Sabbathism mesh with Journey Blind‘s first four cuts in a way that maintains the flow of the record front to back. A considerable momentum is built across Journey Blind‘s span that makes it a quick listen, but the substance that Magic Circle put on offer isn’t to be discounted. Their second full-length outing goes beyond simply being a follow-up and pushes them into new stylistic ground that they conquer with boldness and confidence.

I have the pleasure today of hosting “The Damned Man” as a track premiere. Find it below, followed by more on the album, and please enjoy:

20 Buck Spin will round out its roster for 2015 with the release of Journey Blind, the triumphant sophomore LP from Boston-based quintet MAGIC CIRCLE. This year has already been the most productive and expansive year for the label, but Journey Blind will fit into your parents’ unwavering classic rock collection the same as it could be the hottest thing on your younger cousin’s latest playlist.

Following their self-titled debut which was well-received in metal and hardcore circles, MAGIC CIRCLE returns with forty-five minutes of dominant, pure heavy metal on Journey Blind, a record which sees the outfit doing what they do, but doing it even better. Self-produced and recorded by the band at guitarist CC’s The Pain Cave, the record surges with the viscosity a team of top-tier producers would be proud to back.

The cover art for Journey Blind is an unused piece dating to 1979 by legendary artist Joe Petagno (Motorhead, Mammoth Grinder, Autopsy) which has been properly fitted to this modern ripper which could have been captured three decades ago yet booms with a refreshed spirit to guide today’s misguided youth back to their unbeknownst roots. Devotees to the scriptures immotalized by 1980s Black Sabbath, 1980s Trouble, Pagan Altar, Saint Vitus and the like should not pass this one by.

20 Buck Spin will make MAGIC CIRCLE’s Journey Blind a reality on November 20th in CD and digital formats, with the vinyl to follow in mid-December or whenever the pressing plants can get their shit together.

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