Some bands, you just know they’re out to make trouble. That’s been Five Horse Johnson‘s game all along. The Midwestern heavy blues rock outfit haven’t had a record out since 2013’s The Taking of Black Heart (review here), and though four years isn’t the longest stretch in the world, it’s certainly been long enough. Jake Leg Boogie is set to hit June 30 via Small Stone, and with preorders up and a new song streaming now, it’s bound to land with some fervent anticipation. I’m not gonna say I’ve heard it yet or anything — actually, I guess I’ll say that I have because I wrote the bio on which the press release below is based — but it smokes. Dudes are long-since established as ace songwriters but they still sound they just bang out tunes for the hell of it to play in dive bars while they get loaded. Call it the best of both worlds.
With the hope that I’ll have more to come before the album’s actually out, here’s the announcement off the PR wire and the stream of the title-track:
FIVE HORSE JOHNSON: Toledo Blues Riffers To Release Jake Leg Boogie This June Via Small Stone; New Track Streaming + Preorders Available
When FIVE HORSE JOHNSON formed back in 1995, referring to themselves as a “blues band,” a few brows might well have been furrowed. But this is a band that has always understood that the blues isn’t a formula – it’s a way of looking at the world. Their take on the “blooze” is as a dirty, sensual thing, enhanced with a healthy dose of humor.
Now some two decades and seven albums into their career – with eighth Jake Leg Boogie, set to drop late this June on Small Stone – FIVE HORSE JOHNSON has dug out a niche of their own, a genuine love and respect for traditional blues and classic rock leading them to likewise become one of the most loved and respected bands in the heavy rock underground. Always a freight train live, they’ve toured the US (with Clutch and Halfway To Gone) and Europe extensively (including the festival circuit), gathering fans, friends, and drinking partners all over the Western World.
Jake Leg Boogie sees FIVE HORSE JOHNSON going back to its recording roots. Original drummer Tim Gahagan has rejoined, and the results are powerful. Brad Coffin’s guitar has never sounded heavier, his voice never stronger. Eric Oblander’s harp, meanwhile, is as sharp as a tailfin, and his gravelly vocal delivery a growling, howlin’ counterpoint to Coffin’s gruff style. Steve Smith’s bass is a strong backbone, while Phil Dürr’s guitar complements that of Coffin, adding extra edge for good measure. From the slow, bluesy stomp of the title-track, to the dirge vibe of “Daddy Was A Gun” – a story of some weird goings-on in a strange parish – Jake Leg Boogie is pure old-school FIVE HORSE JOHNSON, recorded live, everyone in the same room, with as little overdubbing as possible. Accordingly, it feels lively and loud in the MC5-come-Hendrix vibe of “Hard Times,” the hard-rocking “Magic Man” (a tale of depravity set in the town of Springfield, Missouri), and the near-Texan boogie of “Smoke Show.”
Elaborates Oblander of the release, “Having original drummer Tim back in the band made writing Jake Leg Boogie so much damn fun. It feels like we’re back to Fat Black Pussycat form. This time around we channeled a little more Hendrix and Funkadelic as much as the usual bluesy Aerosmith insanity. All the songs are a bit more stripped down, and have a deep-pocket groove thanks in part to Tim locking it down. Brad had a lot to do with the overall creation of this record. He came up with the concept for the title, and sings more than half the songs this time around. We can’t wait to hit the road with thing and flex these new songs live!”
Jake Leg Boogie was recorded at Rustbelt Studios, with longtime producer Al Sutton (Big Chief, Novadriver, Halfway To Gone, Detroit Cobras) at the production helm, with a definitive nod to Dave Cobb (All Them Witches, Rival Sons). Artwork was provided by noted graphic artist and FIVE HORSE JOHNSON -collaborator Mark Dancey, keeping with a tradition established on 1999’s Fat Black Pussycat.
Jake Leg Boogie will see release via Small Stone Recordings June 30th on CD, limited LP, and digital formats. For preorders, visit the Small Stone Bandcamp page at THIS LOCATION where you can also sample the opening title track.
Jake Leg Boogie Track Listing: 1. Jake Leg Boogie 2. Magic Man 3. Cryin’ Shame 4. Ropes And Chains 5. Hard Times 6. Smoke Show 7. Little Lonely 8. Overload 9. Daddy Was A Gun 10. Last Song
FIVE HORSE JOHNSON is not a band that makes apologies, and compromise is not an option. The truth is, this is hard, heavy, dirty blues rock ‘n’ roll for people who like the sound of an engine roaring or the feeling obtained by following a cold beer with a shot of good whiskey. FIVE HORSE JOHNSON will gladly kick your ass, and then wait for you to say thank you and ask for another. Which you will.
Five Horse Johnson is: Eric Oblander: vox & harp Brad Coffin: vox & guitar Steve Smith: bass Phil Dürr: guitar Tim Gahagan: drums & percussion
Perennially reliable in conveying that no space they occupy will ever qualify as ‘safe,’ Ohio sludge bastards Fistula remain as gut-spewing, vigilantly misanthropic and generally-on-pills as ever. Also productive. After issuing their latest full-length, The Shape of Doom to Cumm))), in December, the litmus-test abrasives will have a slew of singles out in 2017, and the first ones announced will be splits across opposite coast. Joining forces with likewise long-running Los Angeles troupe -(16)- and Boston’s Grief-offshoot Come to Grief, Fistula align themselves with other powerhouses of American sludge, though to be perfectly honest, they’re in a league of their own when it comes to sheer gross-out extremity. As ever.
They’ll reportedly have two more splits out before the end of 2017 on PATAC, so stay tuned for more. Here’s the latest in the meantime:
FISTULA announce upcoming split 7″s with COME TO GRIEF & -16-
Ohio’s purveyors of pain and filth FISTULA have reassembled the Longing For Infection lineup and are back in the basement tracking new compositions for upcoming split releases. With this first announcement, FISTULA will be extending their deafening plague of ‘rust belt doom’ coast-to-coast across two split EPs with COME TO GRIEF and -16- scheduled for release Fall 2017 on PATAC Records.
Expect a second pair of split recordings to be announced in the upcoming months.
Ohio’s FISTULA was forged in 1998 by musical partners-in-crime Corey Bing and Bahb Branca. Over the years,FISTULA has released a seemingly endless barrage of studio albums and split EPs through numerous lineup changes featuring the creative talents of bands such as –(16)-, Sloth, Hemdale, The Disease Concept, Accept Death, and so many others. FISTULA is a band that is impossible to categorize, combining elements of remedial sludge, hardcore and a proverbial “bad case of the Mondays.” Nearing two decades of ear bleeding, FISTULA remains the kings of doomed-out “miserycore.”
2015 saw the band at its creative peak, headlining the Het Patronaat stage at Roadburn Festival and recording the Destitute demo as well as the new full studio album Longing For Infection. Aside from Roadburn, FISTULA played the Haunted Hotel 13th Anniversary Fest as well as the Berserker III Fest. FISTULA returned to Europe (Bloodshed Festival) in October 2016 to bring their ultimate onslaught of pure, unbridled hatred, and negativity. FISTULA released another full-length last Fall coinciding with the tour on Totem Cat Records. Entitled The Shape Of Doom To Cumm ))), the record featured guest guitarist David Szulkin from Blood Farmers and Church Of Misery.
Personnel response for all that racket: Corey Bing – guitar/backups Bahb Branca – guitar/backups Dan Harrington – vocals Buddy Peel – bass Jeff Sullivan – drum
Posted in Reviews on March 30th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
From harsh doom to urban pastoralism to heavy blues rock to rolling doom nonetheless metallic in its defiance, Day Four of the Quarterly Review spins around a swath of styles and hopefully, hopefully, finds something you dig in the doing. It’s been a long week already. You know it. I know it. But it’s also been really good to dig into this stuff and I know I’ve found a few records that have made their way onto the already-ongoing 2017 lists — best short releases, debuts, albums, etc. — so to say it’s been worth it is, as ever, an understatement. Today likewise has gems to offer, so I won’t delay.
Quarterly Review #31-40:
Unearthly Trance, Stalking the Ghost
Brooklyn’s Unearthly Trance make a somewhat unexpected reentry with Stalking the Ghost (on Relapse), their sixth album. In the years since 2010’s V (review here), guitarist/vocalist Ryan Lipynsky has delved into a wide variety of extreme genres, from the blackened fare of The Howling Wind to the deathly-doom of Serpentine Path, in which Unearthly Trance bassist Jay Newman and drummer Darren Verni also shared tenure, but reuniting as Unearthly Trance feels like a significant step for the three-piece, and on tracks like “Dream State Arsenal” and the darkly post-metallic “Lion Strength,” they remind of what it was that made them such a standout in the first place while demonstrating that their years away have done nothing to dull the surehandedness of their approach. At eight tracks/52 minutes, Stalking the Ghost is a significant dirge to undertake, but Unearthly Trance bring pent-up anguish to bear across this varied swath of punishing tracks, and reassert their dominance over an aesthetic sphere that, even after all this time, is thoroughly their own.
Probably a smart move on the part of Heavy Traffic spearhead guitarist Ian Caddick and drummer/vocalist Tav Palumbo to swap coasts from Santa Cruz to Brooklyn ahead of putting together their sixth (!) full-length in three years and Twin Earth Records debut, Plastic Surgery. Cali is awash in heavy psych anyway and Brooklyn’s been at a deficit (as much as it’s at a deficit of anything) since space forerunners Naam became one with the cosmos, so even apart from the acquisition of bassist David Grzedzinki and drummer Dan Bradica, it’s a solid call, and one finds the fruits yielded on Plastic Surgery’s dream-fuzzed blend of heft and roll, heady jams like “See Right Through,” the oh-you-like-feedback-well-here’s-all-the-feedback “Broth Drain” and winding “Medicated Bed” finding a place where shoegaze and psychedelia meet ahead of the low-end-weighted closing title-cut and the bonus track “White and Green,” which finishes with suitable push and swirl to mark a welcome and vibe-soaked arrival for the band. Hope you enjoy the Eastern Seabord. It could use you.
In the second Saturn album, Beyond Spectra, one can hear one of retro rock’s crucial next movements taking place. The Swedish four-piece, who debuted on Rise Above with 2014’s Ascending and return with a periodically explosive 10-track/45-minute outing here, find a niche for themselves in adding dual-guitar NWOBHM elements to ‘70s-style (also ‘10s-style) boogie, as on the scorching “Still Young” or opener “Orbital Command.” They’re not the only ones doing it – Rise Above alums Horisont come to mind readily – but they’re doing it well, and the last three years have clearly found them refining their approach to arrive at the tightness in the shuffle of “Wolfsson” and the creeping Priestism of “Helmet Man” later on. I’ll give bonus points for their embracing the idea of going completely over the top in naming a song “Electrosaurus Sex,” but by the time they get down to closing duo “Silfvertape” and “Sensor Data,” I’m left thinking of the subdued intro to “Orbital Command” and the interlude “Linkans Delight” and wondering if there isn’t a way to bring more of that dynamic volume and tempo breadth into the songwriting as a whole. That would really be far out. Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. Either way, Beyond Spectra, like its predecessor, makes a largely inarguable case for Saturn’s potential.
Measuring its impact between doomly traditionalism and attitudinal fuckall, Lucifer’s Fall’s II: Cursed and Damned (on Nine Records) is a doom-for-doomers affair that tops 55 minutes with its nine tracks, recalling Dio-era Sabbathian gallop on opener “Mother Superior” and landing a significant blow with the slow-rolling nine-minute push of “The Necromancer.” Shades of Candlemass, Reverend Bizarre, and the most loyal of the loyalists show themselves throughout, but whether it’s the crawl in the first half of “Cursed Priestess” or the blistering rush of the clarion centerpiece “(Fuck You) We’re Lucifer’s Fall,” there’s an undercurrent of punk in the five-piece’s take that lends an abiding rawness to even the album’s most grueling moments. One looks to find a middle ground in songs like “The Mountains of Madness” and closer “Homunculus,” but Lucifer’s Fall instead offer NWOBHM-style guitar harmonics and soaring vocals, respectively, only pushing their stylistic breadth wider, playing by and breaking rules they’re clearly setting for themselves rather than working toward outside expectation. As a result, II: Cursed and Damned keeps its fist in the air for the duration, middle finger up.
Over the course of six-minute opener “A New Architecture,” guitarist Trevor Shelley de Brauw gradually moves the listener from abrasive noise to sweet, folkish acoustic guitar backed by amplified wavelengths. It’s a slowly unfolding change, patiently done, and it works in part to define Uptown (on The Flenser), the Pelican guitarist’s six-song solo debut long-player. Noise and drone make themselves regulars, and there’s a steady experimentalism at root in pieces like “Distinct Frequency,” the low-end hum and strum of “You Were Sure,” and the should’ve-been-on-the-soundtrack-to-Arrival “Turn up for What,” which unfurls a linear progression from minimalism to consuming swell in eight minutes ahead of the more actively droning 11-minute sendoff “From the Black Soil Poetry and Song Sprang,” but de Brauw manages to keep a human core beneath via both the occasional acoustic layer and through moments where a piece is being palpably manipulated, à la the spacious distorted churn of “They Keep Bowing.” I’m not sure how Uptown didn’t wind up on Neurot, but either way, it’s an engaging exploration of textures, and one hopes it won’t be de Brauw’s last work in this form.
Someone in Scuzzy Yeti has roots in metal, and the good money’s on it being vocalist Chris Wells. Joined in the Troy, New Hampshire, five-piece by guitarists Brad Decatur and Jason Lawrence (ex-Skrogg), bassist Wayne Munson and drummer Josh Turnbull, Wells casts a sizable frontman presence across the five-tracks of Scuzzy Yeti’s self-titled debut EP, belting out “Westward” and “BTK” as the band behind him hones a blend of classic heavy rock and doom. The sound is more reminiscent of Janne Christoffersson-era Spiritual Beggars than what one might expect out of New England, and the band amass some considerable momentum as centerpiece “Conqueror” and the shorter shuffle “Knees in the Breeze” push toward slower, lead-soaked closer “Flare,” which finds the lead guitar stepping up to meet Wells head-on. They might have some work to do in finding a balance between the stylistic elements at play, but for a first outing, Scuzzy Yeti shows all the pieces are there and are being put into their rightful place, and the result is significant, marked potential.
The insistent push from punctuated Denver trio Urn.’s self-titled debut demo/EP is enough to remind one of the days when the primary impression of Mastodon wasn’t their complexity, but the raw savagery with which that complexity was delivered. Urn. – the three-piece of Scott Schulman, Graham Wesselhoff and Jacob Archuleta – work in some elements of more extreme metal to “Rat King” after opener “Breeder,” both songs under three minutes and successfully conveying an intense thrust. The subsequent “Stomach” ranges further and is the longest cut at 4:45, but loses none of its focus as it winds its way toward closer “To the Grave,” which in addition to maintaining the nigh-on-constant kick drum that has pervaded the three tracks prior, offers some hints of lumbering stomp to come. As a first sampling, Urn.’s Urn. is a cohesive aesthetic blast setting in motion a progression that will be worth following as it develops. Call it rager metal and try not to spill your beverage while you windmill, you wild headbanger.
2016 found San Diego aggressors Nebula Drag making their self-titled, self-released debut (review here) with a record that seemed to work in willful defiance of their hometown’s psychedelic underground while at the same time occasionally nodding to it. The forebodingly-titled Always Dying three-song EP does likewise, launching with a vengeance on “Crosses” before burying the vocals and spacing out behind the crashes of the more languid-rolling title-track and giving a bit of both sides with the four-minute closer “Flying Fuckers.” It’s almost as if the three-piece of Corey Quintana, bassist Mike Finneran and drummer Stephen Varns, having thus completed their first album, decided to boil it down to its essential stylistic components and the result of that was this 14-minute outing. An intriguing prospect, but it could also be these were leftovers from the prior session with Jordan Andreen at Audio Design Recording and putting them up for a free download was an easy way to give them some purpose. In any case, if you haven’t yet been introduced to the band, Always Dying is an efficient telling of their story thus far.
If their moniker doesn’t have you immediately running through the most legendary of cheat codes, congratulations on being born after 1990. Cleveland burl-sludge metallers Contra make their full-length debut on respected purveyor Robustfellow with the 10-track/41-minute Deny Everything, and if it sounds like they have their shit together – at least sound-wise – it should make sense given the pedigree of drummer Aaron Brittain (ex-Rue), bassist/guitarist Adam Horwatt (So Long Albatross), guitarist Chris Chiera (ex-Sofa King Killer) and vocalist Larry Bent (ex-Don Austin). Be it established that songs like “Snake Goat” and “Son of Beast” are nobody’s first time at the sludge rodeo. Fair enough. Doesn’t mean Contra don’t establish their own personality in the overarching fuckall and total lack of pretense throughout Deny Everything – hell, seven-minute closer “Shrimp Cocktail” proves that on its own – just that that personality has roots. What Contra wants to do with them still kind of seems up in the air, but something about these tracks makes me think the band likes it that way. See the aforementioned “fuckall.”
Comprised of four songs tracked live in the trio’s native Córdoba at 440 Estudio, the self-titled debut EP from Argentine trio IAH – guitarist Mauricio Condon, bassist Juan Pablo Lucco and drummer José Landín – would seem destined to catch the attention of South American Sludge Records if it already hasn’t. In the interim, the three-piece have made the instrumental EP available as a free download and its unpretentious heavy psychedelics and edge of rock-minded thrust on opener “Cabalgan los Cielos” and the early going of closer “Eclipsum” more than justify their intention to spread the word as much as possible. Set to a balance of post-rock guitar, the bassline of “Stolas” carries a progressive inflection, and the fuzz that emerges halfway into second track “Ouroboros” shows a desert rock influence that blends well into its surroundings as a part of a richer sonic entity. A nascent but palpable chemistry at work across its 26 minutes, IAH’s IAH could portend expansive ideas to come, and one hopes it does precisely that.
[Click play above to stream ‘Pathfinder’ from Lo-Pan’s In Tensions EP, out Jan. 13 on Aqualamb Records.]
One might consider In Tensions and the band who made it both as limited edition. Ohio’s Lo-Pan — who, by my estimation, remain among the best currently active purveyors of heavy rock in the US — enlisted guitarist Adrian Lee Zambrano (also Brujas del Sol) after parting company with Brian Fristoe following the release of what’s still their latest full-length, 2014’s Colossus (review here). That album, their fourth and third for Small Stone, marked a sharpening of sound for the hard-touring four-piece and left a tighter, faster, and overall more aggressive impression than 2011’s Salvador (review here), while still maintaining the groove and thrust that have been central to Lo-Pan since 2007’s Sasquanaut (reissue review here) and their formative 2006 self-titled debut.
Clearly they were a band in the midst of changes or at very least a stylistic refinement, but the lineup shift seemed significant. Zambrano, however, quickly proved himself. With him alongside bassist Scott Thompson, drummer Jesse Bartz and vocalist Jeff Martin, Lo-Pantoured Europe for the first time in 2015, as well as the States, and worked with Joe Viers at Sonic Lounge to record the five tracks of In Tensions. “In tensions,” as in both “tense” and “intensions,” and “intensions” as in “the best of…,” which speaks to the idea that things don’t always work out the way we think they’re going to. And so, In Tensions, which is released by Brooklyn’s Aqualamb Records as a limited CD/LP with a 100-page artbook containing tour diaries, might have been the moment when Lo-Pan established themselves with Zambrano on a studio recording.
Instead, following Zambrano‘s departure and subsequent replacement by Chris Thompson (also Sleepers Awake) this past July, the blazing, air-tight 22-minute collection is a look at what might’ve been had Lo-Pan been able to continue writing in that incarnation for a fifth full-length. One hesitates to call it their best work to-date, if only because as a fan of what they do it doesn’t seem fair, but the simple truth of the matter is they’ve yet to put something out that wasn’t a decisive step forward from the preceding release, and that applies to In Tensions as regards Colossus as well, despite the EP, obviously, being shorter.
But it does showcase some of Zambrano‘s progressive flourish on guitar — he’s a different personality of player than was Fristoe during his time in the band — starting from the tense chug of opener “Go West,” which Bartz meets head-on with toms, and it does boast the most accomplished vocal performance of Martin‘s career thus far, taking his soulful, gonna-belt-this-out approach and adding methodical, layered harmonizing for emphasis in the hooks of “Go West,” the subsequent “Sink or Swim,” the centerpiece “Long Live the King” and the six-minute closer “Pathfinder,” which quite simply is the best song Lo-Pan have ever written.
Actually, there’s really nothing simple about it, from the sleek and fuzzy bassline from Thompson that opens to the backing volume swells of guitar (is that ebow?) that provide ambience as Martin and Bartz kick in for the verse to the linear build that moves toward an apex as affecting as it is memorable, shifting after an airy solo circa the four-minute mark to a concluding movement that takes the energetic shove of “Long Live the King” and the crashing gracefulness (yes, both) of “Alexis” — which actually might be Martin‘s boldest performance here — and adds the laser focus that typified Colossus to finish out with maximum force while still remaining in complete control of the torrent they’re making.
If there’s a drawback to it, it’s that that single payoff, with its carefully arranged vocal layers, choice riff, and all-go rhythm, runs the risk of overwhelming the rest of In Tensions. But repeat listens, which aren’t hard to do when the offering is 22 minutes long, show that’s not at all the case, and while “Pathfinder” lands a bigger impact than a short release requires — that is, it could easily have served as the payoff for a full-length — it’s not out of place among the no-nonsense, headbang-worthy drive of “Go West” and the careening chorus of “Sink or Swim” or the thicker impression of low end that Thompson brings to “Long Live the King” and the wistfulness of “Alexis.” Rather, it ties these elements together and highlights further what could’ve been had In Tensions turned into Lo-Pan‘s next album, and it’s for that reason that the EP is a little sad in addition to being such a triumph for the band.
Hearing Zambrano‘s scorcher solo on “Alexis,” it’s difficult not to think of In Tensions as a showcase for the potential in this lineup of Lo-Pan. The title would seem to acknowledge this idea as well, but while they may not have lasted with Zambrano on board, another way to think about In Tensions is how fortunate it is that the band got to record when they did to capture this material which otherwise might’ve been lost to the personnel change. When one considers the artbook format (the cover is by Chris Smith) and numbered pressings from Aqualamb, the emphasis on the fleeting nature of the band that wrote and recorded these songs is all the more prevalent — thus “limited edition” at the outset — and while it’s a quick listen, In Tensions earns every bit of the intricacy with which it arrives. It is a welcome document of a moment already gone. That’s not, however, to say Lo-Pan have necessarily peaked and it’s all downhill from here as they move forward with Chris Thompson on guitar. After all, In Tensions demonstrates that they pulled off one difficult lineup change in the face of daunting odds. There’s nothing to say they can’t do so again. If anything, they seem to be a band who thrive on the challenge.
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.
Posted in Whathaveyou on November 21st, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Columbus, Ohio, heavy rockers Lo-Pan have just announced a new limited EP, In Tensions, to be released in January via Aqualamb Records. These were the songs recorded during the relatively short but distinguished tenure of guitarist Adrian Lee Zambrano with the four-piece, during which they went to Europe for the first time and toured the US at a greater scale than they ever had before. The band, who were also recently announced as taking part in Maryland Doom Fest 2017 (info here), recruited new guitarist Chris Thompson back in July in time to head out on a summer tour with The Atomic Bitchwax and Dirty Streets, and since it’s Lo-Pan, one can only assume a bevvy of road activity is in the works for 2017, though I’ve yet to hear/see concrete details in that regard. Rest assured, they’ll be out there.
I was hoping these tracks would be released, and Aqualamb‘s method of limited-art-book/digital pressings seems like a cool way to do something special for them, kind of celebrating the one-off that they are while still acknowledging this as a crucial time for the band moving forward from their fourth full-length, Colossus (review here), which came out in 2014 on Small Stone. Looking forward to hearing the songs, and as soon as humanly possible, I’m going to make a beeline right for “Pathfinder,” because you bet your ass I know what’s good for me.
Just off the PR wire:
LO-PAN: Limited-Edition In Tensions EP Due January 13th, 2017 On Aqualamb Records; Video Teaser Posted
LO-PAN’s fifth release, In Tensions, is a new five-song EP that sees the seasoned Columbus, Ohio unit continuing their blistering trajectory, building on the infectious, riff-filled grooves of their 2014 full-length, Colossus.
Their first release on Brooklyn’s Aqualamb Records (Husbandry, Black Black Black, Godmaker et al), In Tensions also marks the next stage in the band’s ever-evolving direction – anchored by the lead single “Go West,” an optimistic, sun-kissed, open highway anthem. Regarding the song, singer Jeff Martin elaborates, “It’s about setting out to accomplish a goal and then having that goal change along the way. And ultimately realizing the new goal was better than what you wanted in the first place.” A perfect rallying cry for action in uncertain times, Martin continues, “it’s also about getting out and doing something…. So keep moving forward. Keeping progressing. Keep evolving.”
LO-PAN has indeed been moving forward, both figuratively and literally. In Tensions is equal parts modern sludge metal and ’90s-influenced alt rock – synthesized to perfection. Jeff Martin has never sounded more soulful, confident, and passionate on record. The riffs courtesy of the now former guitarist Adrian Lee Zambrano compliment the tribal influenced drums of Jesse Bartz and grounding bass lines of Skot Thompson, pummeling the listener on each repeated listen.
Recorded in Columbus, Ohio by Joe Viers, with mixings duties split between Jonathan Nunez (Torche, Shitstorm) and Ryan Haft (Wrong, Capsule) in Miami, and mastered in Chicago by Carl Saff (Big Business, Helms Alee, Russian Circles), In Tensions is a sonic masterpiece created across multiple time zones – the fruit of relationships forged through the band’s unending dedication to the life of touring road dogs.
The band also hit a major touring milestone in 2016, having logged over 250,000 miles on their original van since 2005 – crossing the country countless times over on headlining tours and supporting the likes of Torche, High On Fire, Weedeater, KENmode, Whores, Fu Manchu, Atomic Bitchwax, Black Cobra, and Bongzilla. Not surprisingly, they’ve become one of the most ferocious live acts in American heavy rock as a result.
And with In Tensions, they show no sign of slowing down. A full US tour in support of In Tensions is expected this Winter along with a European tour in the Spring of 2017.
LO-PAN’s In Tensions will be released on 10-inch vinyl limited to 500 copies and accompanied by a one-hundred-page book featuring artwork by Chris Smith of Grey Aria Design as well LO-PAN tour diaries, flyers, and a complete collection lyrics from LO-PAN’s previous releases: Sasquanaut, Salvador, and Colossus. Preorders are currently available at THIS LOCATION.
In Tensions Track Listing: 1. Go West 2. Sink Or Swim 3. Long Live The King 4. Alexis 5. Pathfinder
Inspired by the lack of album art in the age of invisible music, Brooklyn-based record label Aqualamb publishes one-hundred+ page printed books of artwork and writings as physical accompaniments to its releases. Essentially, each album’s art and liner notes (traditionally confined to an LP gatefold, a CD booklet, or the screen of some music-playing device) are reconfigured into an expanded book form. Each book also includes a download code for the music.
LO-PAN is: Jeff Martin – vocals Skot Thompson – bass Jesse Bartz – drums Chris Thompson – guitar Additional Musician: Adrian Lee Zambrano – guitars on In Tensions
Posted in Reviews on November 17th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
There’s a line to follow, something like a trail EYE leave for their listeners to lead them into their third album, Vision and the Ageless Light. It would be cruel on their part to offer no guidance whatsoever for their debut offering through The Laser’s Edge, which basks in space ritualizing in an increasingly immersive pattern from three-minute opener “Book of the Dead” through the 27-minute, multi-tiered finale “As Sure as the Sun.” All flows as one piece, at least where they want it to, and all comes across in a gorgeous wash of synth, guitar, and vocal harmonies, building on what EYE accomplished with their last outing, 2013’s Second Sight (review here) and their 2011 debut, Center of the Sun (review here and here), while finding new avenues of texture, atmosphere, and dynamic throughout.
The band has been through some key changes in the last three years, bringing in guitarist Jon Finely and bassist Michael Sliclen alongside founders Brandon Smith (drums and vocals) and synth/Mellotron/Moog expert Lisa Bella Donna (also vocals and acoustic guitar), but the core of their sound in heavy progressive rock remains well intact and undiminished, and if anything, the patience they show early on in the record, the boldness of their craft on “As Sure as the Sun” and the overarching flow across Vision and the Ageless Light in its entirety make it plain that not only have EYE not lost a step since Second Sight, they’ve only continued to grow and move forward in their creative breadth — which should be the ultimate endgame of anything bearing a “prog” label of any kind.
I’m not sure it needs to be said, but EYE earn theirs outright, and Vision and the Ageless Light is a cosmic adventure that moves inward and outward in kind and for all its indulgence — nature of the beast for a release of this kind — it never leaves those making the journey with it alone on the path it lays out. Nor, like its full-length predecessors or other offerings like the Wooden Nickels single (review here) or the Live at Relay tape (review here) in 2013, does it shy away from beauty. To wit, the synth/acoustic mindmeld of the penultimate “Dweller of the Twilight Void,” which one invariably has to hear as the closer for side A of Vision and the Ageless Light given the breadth that unfolds thereafter.
With the introductory “Book of the Dead,” the spacial Hawkwindian shuffle of “Kill the Slavemaster,” and the sleeker thrust of “Searching” before it, “Dweller of the Twilight Void” offers a surprising turn toward serenity, offering highlight vocal harmonies and a patience that “Book of the Dead” hints at in its relatively brief 3:35 unfolding and agenda-setting blend of Mellotron and synth, but gives way to the initial roll of “Kill the Slavemaster” before it can fully develop as an entity of its own. The smoothness of that transition is not to be understated, however. Side A of Vision and the Ageless Light functions no less as a single work than does “As Sure as the Sun” as it pushes the limits of side B (if it doesn’t actually surpass them — can a 27:11 track fit on a vinyl side?), despite the shifts in vibe and purpose throughout. “Kill the Slavemaster” plays organ and guitar leads off each other to exciting effect in its midsection after establishing its hook early, then moves into bass and key-led jazz as the foundation for its turn back to where it started, some backwards guitar tossed in for good measure along the way.
It hits into a quick finish at 6:05 with not one of its component seconds wasted and the momentum continues into “Searching”‘s more low-end-minded vibing. There’s just about no way it’s not plotted, but after “Searching” departs its verses and instrumental all-push chorus, it does seem to take a jammier approach than “Kill the Slavemaster” before it, as the drums crash out cymbals to clear the way for a guitar-driven boogie at about 3:20 and the four-piece spend the remaining two minutes living up to the title — i.e. searching — until a sudden appearance of synth swirl signals the arrival of “Dweller of the Twilight Void.”
From there, EYE only continue to go further and further out. The opening lines, “Pay no mind to what you see/You were not born for the grave,” ooze with headphone-worthy melody over acoustic strum and various kosmiche psychedelics, and though I can’t help but be reminded of lost Belgian troupe Hypnos 69, in reality it’s probably more a common latent Pink Floyd/King Crimson influence than anything so direct.
Wherever it comes from, EYE make it their own here with no need to repent in the process because there’s no doubt of the traditions to which they’re playing. After three minutes in, Bella Donna‘s keys come to the fore in a mini-freakout, and while the guitar line holds underneath, and it’s strum and underlying Mellotron that actually finish the song, it’s clear they’re not coming back from that voyage. So ends side A, and on side B, “As Sure as the Sun” begins with its title lyric, again, gorgeously harmonized, near-Beatlesian, before a Mellotron progression is established and the full scope of layers begins — but only begins — to show itself. Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, more devices than I can name come into play before EYE are two minutes deep into “As Sure as the Sun,” and the song has barely started.
Drums don’t even show up until after the next movement, more cinematic, dramatic, a drone emerging that leads to a faded-in winding guitar figure that Smith joins at 5:20, not crashing in in grandiose style, but showing up right when he’s needed all the same with hit and rolling toms and immediately backing a shredding guitar solo that gives way to Mellotron wash before a snare roll turns back to that winding figure — different now, with more keys — and a more peaceful section that marks a reintroduction of more commanding vocals, more declarative in the classically progressive sense of intonation, and over the next few minutes, EYE rock out, fall into a singularity of synth and rock out again, finding shuffle in all that mystery circa 14 minutes in as swirling vocals underscore the idea that all this — all of it — is a ritual at work.
They build toward a solo with crashes and turns, then return to the serenity of the quiet verse, now more tense with the shifted context and a build in Smith‘s ride cymbal and Bella Donna‘s Mellotron/synth and the vocals. Rather than explode, at 20 minutes, the tempo cuts and EYE go even more pastoral, setting the stage for what will be Vision and the Ageless Light‘s last movement and, more immediately, another guitar solo. Thicker tones arrive before the 22-minute mark, and they continue to build melody around them while maintaining a measured tempo for the time being, and though they build with black-queen-chants-the-funeral-march fluidity circa 25 minutes in, they never let themselves fully go into chaos even in the closing minutes of “As Sure as the Sun.”
It’s an active finish — they’re not still by any means — but the sense of control that EYE have displayed all throughout the record and that steady, guiding hand never seem to lose their place. That would seem to be the clearest signal of all throughout Vision and the Ageless Light of EYE‘s utter mastery of their form, but that’s not necessarily meant to take away from the impact the songwriting across their third long-player has either. In a still-manageable five tracks/46 minutes, their craft brings them to places they’ve never been before and finds them not only covering this new sonic ground but establishing their claim on it, and once more, inviting those listening to be a part of that happening. It is not an invitation that should be in any way refused.
That warmth you feel on the horizon is the Nov. 18 release date of EYE‘s Vision and the Ageless Light drawing closer. Don’t worry, it’ll get here soon enough. The Ohio space-prog masters make their debut on The Laser’s Edge with their third full-length, which proffers tumult and serenity in kind and brings to bear a richly textured and expansive vibe that only seems to keep moving outward until, finally, it decides it doesn’t want to bother coming back. And why should it? It’s been a long three years since EYE offered up their sophomore record, Second Sight (review here), and I’d say we’re all due a voyage through the three-dimensional soundscapes that seem to flow so naturally from them.
Oh yeah, and hey, they’re playing with Hawkwind twice this week. No big deal, though frankly they probably should be playing asHawkwind and not just in a supporting role. Somehow I doubt EYE are inclined to complain. I’m going to have a review of the album up sometime between now and when it’s out, so I don’t really want to dive too deep into its structure or whatnot, but as they’ve got a new, kind of atmospherically-minded video for the track “Dweller of the Twilight Void,” it seemed only reasonable for me to post that in the interim, both because it gives me an excuse to talk about Vision and the Ageless Light more, which is fun, and because it serves as a preview to the album for anyone who had the misfortune of not seeing them dig into new material earlier this summer at the first-ever The Obelisk All-Dayer in Brooklyn, where they absolutely shined in the most heartening manner possible.
Not that I’m an impartial observer or anything, but yeah. Food for the soul.
Check out “Dweller of the Twilight Void” below, followed by more info from the PR wire.
EYE, “Dweller of the Twilight Void” official video
Written and performed by EYE Recorded & Mixed by Lisa Bella Donna Film & Video production: Bubba Ayoub
With their Vision And The Ageless Light LP approaching release through Laser’s Edge later this month, Ohio-based psychedelic/prog quartet EYE has just debuted a video for “Dweller Of The Twilight Void.”
The serene but intense kaleidoscope of sound EYE produces on Vision And The Ageless Light is expressed perfectly within the track, “Dweller Of The Twilight Void,” as displayed in the new video for the track, which was created by Bubba Ayoub.
The band offers, “‘Dweller Of The Twilight Void’ was the final song to be written and recorded for Vision And Ageless Light…We met at our dimly lit studio one evening and performed over the already tracked acoustic guitar and constantly drifting Mellotron. Brandon and I sang together as I played the Moog straight through to the end. Jon rolling through it with us on second acoustic, and Michael putting it all together on upright bass. It was fun and fulfilling to capture that moment which we feel is the epicenter of the record in such a gliding session. Some songs don’t come so easily. There were definitely lots of laughter, smiles, and smoke rings swirling with the frequency and spirit of this song that night…”
EYE’s Vision And Ageless Light was recorded in parts at Relay Recording with Jon Fintel, and at the band’s Lisa Bella Donna’s own Backroads Recording Studio, after which it was mastered by Phil Demetro from Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto, and completed with artwork by Anthony Yankovic, as with the band’s three prior albums.
Laser’s Edge will issue Vision And The Ageless Light on CD, LP, and digital formats on November 18th, 2016; preorders for the CD are live HERE and the LP HERE.
EYE Live: 11/11/2016 The Union – Athens, OH w/ Hawkwind 11/13/2016 The Grog Shop – Cleveland, OH w/ Hawkwind 12/16/2016 Thursdays – Akron, OH w/ Nights 12/17/2016 Happy Dog – Cleveland, OH
EYE is: Brandon Smith: Vocals Lisa Bella Donna: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Mellotron, MiniMoog & ARP 2600 Synthesizers Jon Finely: Acoustic Guitar Michael Sliclen: Upright Bass