The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 EPs, Demos and Singles of 2013

Posted in Features on January 2nd, 2014 by JJ Koczan

I’ve been trying to get this one on the page for a couple weeks now — really since last year if you want to go back that far — and I finally just decided to do it. Granted, it’s already 2014, but I’m pretty used to being behind the times, so I hope you’ll indulge me on this one.

The thing is, of course we already did the Top 20 Albums of 2013, but that leaves an awful lot out in terms of quality shorter releases. Demos, singles, EPs, splits — whatever it might be — there’s a lot more to the story of a year in music than who’s putting out what full-length. That might be true now more than ever, with digital releases and artists having the ability to more or less give a song-by-song feed of new material should they so choose. Since this is the first time I’ve done this list, I’ve kept the presentation pretty basic, but there’s a lot to dig into here anyway in terms of the quality of the music and what people were able to accomplish in, in some cases, just one or two tracks.

My basis for judgment here is basically the same as with the full-albums list, and by that I mean how much I listened to something played a huge role, and it’s not just how important I think an EP or a split or a demo was that got it included on this list — though of course that stuff matters as well. Like spelling, repeat listens count. And it goes without saying these are my picks and have nothing to do with the Readers Poll, the results of which are here.

Okay, let’s do this:

The Top 20 Short Releases of 2013

1. The Machine/Sungrazer, Split
2. Dozer, Vultures
3. Mars Red Sky, Be My Guide
4. Black Thai, Seasons of Might
5. Wo Fat/Egypt, Cyclopean Riffs Split 12″
6. Young Hunter, Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain
7. Shroud Eater, Dead Ends
8. Steak, Corned Beef Colossus
9. Geezer, Gage
10. The Golden Grass, One More Time b/w Tornado 7″
11. Trippy Wicked and the Cosmic Children of the Knight, Underground
12. King Buffalo, Demo
13. Groan, Ride the Snake
14. Crypt Sermon, Demo MMXIII
15. Stubb, Under a Spell b/w Bullets Rain 7″
16. Salem’s Pot, Watch Me Kill You Tape
17. Undersmile/Coma Wall, Wood and Wire Split
18. Second Grave, Antithesis
19. Sinister Haze, Demo
20. Olde Growth, Owl

Honorable mention has to go to the Fatso Jetson/Yawning Man split, C.O.C.‘s Megalodon EP, which was right on but which I didn’t really hear enough to include. The Gates of Slumber‘s Stormcrow as well.

Just a couple notes: In the case of Olde Growth, putting them last was actually more about not being sure when the official release date of Owl was than anything else. I actually listened to that quite a bit, and “Tears of Blood” remains my favorite work of the duo’s to date. In terms of demos, it was a good year for doom debuts, with Crypt Sermon and Sinister Haze both showing some malevolent classicism, and King Buffalo‘s demo grew on me almost immediately upon hearing it and right away made me look forward to whatever might come next from them.

I was a little hesitant to put a split in the number one spot, but The Machine‘s riff for “Awe” alone made it necessary. I’ve kept this disc on my person for almost the entire year and continue to have no regrets in doing so. For Dozer, yeah, it was a collection of older material, but I still enjoyed the crap out of it. Both Mars Red Sky and Black Thai signaled considerable creative growth in four-song EPs, and the Wo Fat and Egypt split more than lived up to its mission. The riff lives in bands like that, and as we get further into stylistic nuance and subgenre development, it’s those groups who are holding on to the Heavy.

Young Hunter are one of the most promising bands I’ve heard in the last three years. Flat out. Killer release. Ditto that in a much different context for Shroud Eater, whose take on heavy only got more sinister and more effective with Dead Ends. Steak emerge as tops among the five British bands — a quarter of the list! — here. Their Corned Beef Colossus also had the best title I heard all year, and though Trippy Wicked, Groan, Stubb, and Undersmile/Coma Wall (the latter earning bonus points for putting out a split with themselves) all thrilled, Steak‘s potential got them that spot. Time for a full-length, guys.

Not to leave out New York — though the geographical alignment is a coincidence — Geezer‘s Gage tapped into a jammier feel that I thought suited the band remarkably well, and The Golden Grass‘ debut single offered one of the most charming irony-free good times I’ve heard in a long while. The Salem’s Pot cassette was one of my most-listened-to tapes this year, last mentioned but not at all least, Second Grave‘s Antithesis probably would’ve clocked in higher if I’d had more time with it, but was definitely one I wanted to put in here anyway.

As I said, a lot of really astounding shorter outings, and worthy of attention in their own right. If I missed anything, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments.

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It’s Not Night: It’s Space Announce Weekender Tours

Posted in Whathaveyou on October 16th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

New Paltz, New York, trio It’s Not Night: It’s Space celebrated the first anniversary earlier this week of their debut full-length, Bowing Not Knowing to What (review here). Since the album’s release, the space-rocking instrumentalists have signed to Small Stone for the impending follow-up, and while word has yet to come through about that, the band has announced a series of weekender and take-a-day-off gigs over the next couple weeks that will take them around the Northeast and pair them with some cool acts, including Eidetic Seeing, Moon Tooth, Queen Elephantine and Olde Growth.

Solid company to keep, and the prospect of the band working out new material on the road makes it all the more an exciting prospect. It’s Not Night: It’s Space also have shows lined up for Halloween and into November (they’re playing Nov. 15 with Geezer at The Anchor in Kingston, NY), so make sure to check the Thee Facebooks link below to keep up to date with their cosmic doings.

Until then, here’s what we know:

(((Philly, Long Island, New Paltz))) Our Hiatus Ends in THREE DAYS! it’s been four months since we played to an audience and we are fiending for your energy. that’s the longest we’ve ever gone since we started the band three years ago. we are looking at an epic stretch of Five Weeks of shows. it’s gonna be delicious.

It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Moon Tooth, Carved Up & Dead Empires
10/18 Teri’s Bar. Philadelphia, PA.
10/19 Centerville Studios. LI, NY. Nick Lee’s Birthday / Halloween RAGER at Centerville HQ
10/20 BSP Lounge. Kingston, NY.

It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Queen Elephantine, Eidetic Seeing & Black Norse
10/24 Brooklyn NY The Archeron
10/25 New Paltz NY Snug Harbor
10/26 Boston MA Space Mountain (It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Queen Elephantine, Olde Growth & Keefshovel)

https://www.facebook.com/innis.band
http://innis.bandcamp.com/

It’s Not Night: It’s Space, “Palace of the Bees” Live in Poughkeepsie, NY, 2013

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Live Review: Olde Growth, Balam and Keefshovel in Somerville, 08.22.13

Posted in Reviews on August 23rd, 2013 by JJ Koczan

The woman tending the bar at P.A.’s Lounge in Somerville when I — accompanied by The Patient Mrs. in her second rare public appearance in a week (she had also come to Truckfighters in Brooklyn) — was quick to call it “thirsty Thursday” upon our arrival. I’m fairly certain that’s code for “buy a drink,” but I tip my hat to the marketing nonetheless. It was my first time at the bar, essentially a townie kind of place, but with a more than decent beer selection and a dimly lit stage on the open side of the room in what I suspect was at one point an adjacent business before they took the wall down. It was early yet. Shrew, about whom I won’t pretend to know the first thing, were slated to open the show, but had dropped off, leaving Keefshovel, Balam and Olde Growth on the bill, which was obviously plenty enough to get me out to it.

I was particularly interested to see Keefshovel after the Elder show last week, as the two bands share drummer Matt Couto‘s ear-ringing crash, though they set it to different contexts between them. A double-guitar four-piece, Keefshovel dug into straightforward, sludgy grooves. Guitars ran through Sovtek and Sunn to come out in thick, bowel-troubling tones that only gained mass when taken in kind with the bass, and though the riffs they played were steadily familiar, they were delivered with conviction enough to be the band’s own; screams and shouts from either side of the stage arising periodically, though they seemed to have plenty of longer instrumental stretches as well. I don’t know how long Keefshovel have been playing together, but they reportedly have a tape release in the works and they’ve playing out a few more times over the next month or so, so I doubt this first time seeing them will be the last they’re heard from, and that suits me. They seemed to be still feeling out where they wanted to be musically, but were on their way.

Imported from Rhode Island, Balam had no scruples about their doomly aesthetic. With a standalone singer in Alexander Carellas who seemed to be following the what-would-BobbyLiebling-do model of frontmanship (hopefully in everything other than his choices of narcotics), Balam started off in rocking form and at one point sounded enough like early-Soundgarden-via-Roadsaw as to make me wonder if Boston’s long-established rock scene was beginning to influence a subsequent generation of acts, but the five-piece turned gradually to more trad-doom material, to which Carellas‘ voice was perfectly suited in a classic metal kind of way, nodding at Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General and however many other NWOBHM obscurities while guitarists Zack Wilding and Jonathan Janis led a riffy charge that at times seemed to be culling a Cathedral influence into its churn of varying tempo downerisms. They were an easy band to dig.

One new song that went unnamed seemed particularly promising, but “Soul Scour” from their 2012 demo — which they had for sale on CD and tape at the merch table; I figured better to buy both to be safe and explained same to the sweet, ever-rolling eyes of The Patient Mrs. — provided a grim ending through an effective blend of stoner riffs and doomed plod, the groove anchored by bassist Nick Arruda and drummer Zigmond Coffey, culminating in a change to a faster progression for an amply energetic finish. The room hadn’t been packed by any means, but by the time Balam were about halfway through, there was a good crowd that had rolled in, and Olde Growth took stage after a break to play a set also comprised in good proportion of new material. Well, sort of.

When bassist/vocalist Stephen LoVerme announced onstage a song or two in that he and drummer Ryan Berry‘s next project would be an album of Neil Young covers, he got a chuckle from the audience. Then they played three in a row, including a thickened punk-noise take on “Heart of Gold.” Berry confirmed afterwards as well that yes, that’s really their plan. In the time since their 2010 self-titled got picked up for issue via MeteorCity in 2011 (review here), the two have clearly grown melodically, which the subsequent Owl EP (radio add here) — initially released on tape as the Tour EP 2012 — as well as LoVerme‘s increased comfort in singing clean live demonstrates, but to take on Neil Young for what will reportedly be a mix of deep cuts and hits is a bold move for them. No word on what the timing or plan for the release is, but it’s a fascinating prospect that will no doubt turn the head of anyone who heard the self-titled and thought all there was to them was low-end crush, High on Fire influence and songs about Lord of the Rings. Maybe that’s the idea.

That’s not to say that even the rawest moments of that self-titled don’t have an enduring appeal. They certainly do. But there’s a creative progression underway with Olde Growth that was palpable even in the darkness at P.A.’s Lounge and as interesting as a record of Neil Young covers is in terms of seeing the band as being willing to take risks in the name of doing what they want to do as artists, I’ll be even more interested to hear how doing that affects their next batch of original material, whenever that might surface — what kinds of atmospheres they might discover and how the already-dynamic chemistry between LoVerme and Berry might continue to develop. At this point, they’re already a better band than people know. Closing out with “Tears of Blood,” Olde Growth gave a last-minute reminder of their ability to craft a potent hook as well as bludgeon with noisy bass riffs and drum crash — Berry‘s fills seeming especially cathartic — and while they still clearly feel they have growing to do, I take their lack of compromise as a sign of an overarching awareness of where they want to be and how they want to get there. It had been a rough couple days. They were encouraging to watch.

People seemed to be hanging out afterwards to take fuller advantage of the opportunity to quench their Thursday thirst. All the better for them. I had to work in the morning, so The Patient Mrs. and I headed out after a few quick goodnights to make the drive back to the South Shore for some high grade crashing out. No regrets on any front.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

Read more »

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The Obelisk Radio Add of the Week: Olde Growth, Owl EP

Posted in Radio on March 20th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

You probably wouldn’t think a song with lines like, “And so we shed these tears of blood upon the ground/As the ancestors await us in the sky,” and a chorus about butchering those who sleep at night would be so damn catchy, but kudos to Boston bass/drum duo Olde Growth for turning grim tales into potent hooks. Hell, with bassist/vocalist Stephen LoVerme‘s delivery, it practically swings. Could be a lounge arrangement in an alternate universe. That would rule a little bit.

As it stands, LoVerme and drummer Ryan Berry do pretty well even without the Rat Pack tuxedos, and their new Owl EP slays all the more for the swagger they put into it. The four-track collection was originally released in 2012 as a limited-type tour-only cassette (initial nerding out here), but the material stands up to the wider — if still pretty limited — self-release it’s now receiving. “Tears of Blood” is a highlight, but each of the cuts stands itself out, and though I noted it prior, Olde Growth‘s development since their self-titled still rings true in these songs, given new context by John Trimmer artwork and due out shortly in an edition of 100 CDs and 50 tapes.

“Brother of the Moon” broods as much as its propels, its riff sounding big enough to stand up to the band’s epic lyrical ethic while still maintaining a stonerly fuzz. As the band is essentially a rhythm section, there’s no shortage of groove throughout, but LoVerme‘s capable of carrying a melody at this point even as he offsets it with gruffer shouting. Alternately manic and doomed, “Brother of the Moon” leads into “Warrior Child”‘s blend of bass groove and subtle effects swirl, marauding its way through a verse before a shouting chorus that plays out in call and answer before bowing to a final slowdown, heavy and a not unexpected but certainly welcome guest.

The longest of this small batch at 5:22, “Tears of Blood” is a ripper straight through, engaging in Olde Growth‘s post-High on Fire battle axe rush. It’s the melody that holds the song together, LoVerme following the riff but beginning to show that he doesn’t necessarily need to while Berry punctuates each line with a snare fill, cymbal crashes, sometimes both. If anything on Owl might foreshadow the next stage in Olde Growth‘s evolution, I hope it’s “Tears of Blood,” but that’s not to count out the handclap-ready bass drum of closer “Edge of the Sea,” which pulses with energy but finds room for a chorus slowdown that only serves to highlight the evolving dynamics of the two-piece outfit.

I dug this when it was called Tour EP 2012 and I find my appreciation not at all diminished for it as Owl, so I’m glad to have the excuse to revisit it by making it The Obelisk Radio‘s Add of the Week. In addition to having the CD and tape up for preorder, LoVerme and Berry have put the EP up for a limited-time-only pay-what-you-will download at the Olde Growth Bandcamp, from whence the following is also hoisted:

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Buried Treasure: Olde Growth’s Tour EP 2012 and the Imperial Impulse

Posted in Buried Treasure on August 27th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

I consider myself pretty progressive, politically speaking. As in all facets of my existence, I’m at very least an opinionated dick. But even though I’ll rant about wealth redistribution and the need for violent uprising among the American working and middle classes against the corporate fascists and right wing demagogues stealing their potential for social advancement and polluting their bodies and minds, there’s still a part of me that gets all imperialist when it comes to limited runs and “I have it and you don’t.”

That being the case, I was all the more stoked when Massachusetts stonerly doom stompers Olde Growth sent over a copy of their Tour EP 2012, a limited-to-50 tape release that they brought with them on their Spring 2012 tour. I almost got to see them on that string of shows (almost-review here), but even though I creeped myself out in the process, the band was kind enough to mail in the last remaining copy of the cassette, along with a CD version of earlier mixes of the tracks that apparently wasn’t ever for sale.

The tape, which is hand decorated as you can see above, is blown way the fuck out. Like, into the next room blown out. Like, went down the street to the deli blown out. I guess when bassist/vocalist Stephen LoVerme and drummer Ryan Berry had James Plotkin master the thing, they didn’t share the info that it was going to be a cassette. I like that about it, but the gnarl is strong in this one, running through each of the four tracks that, though Berry‘s snare is a little high and raw in the mix, sound much clearer on CD.

Apart from the whole appeal of having it, though, I wanted to post about Olde Growth‘s Tour EP 2012 specifically to note the quality of the songs themselves. There are four tracks on the tape — “Brother of the Moon,” “Warrior Child,” “Tears of Blood” and “Edge of the Sea” — and even in relation to their 2010 MeteorCity self-titled debut, growth is evident in their songwriting and overall approach. LoVerme‘s vocals are clearer, and cleaner, the melodies more prevalent, and though the songs are kind of barebones in terms of the recording itself, there’s a natural feel that sounds recorded live, and the songs are almost instantly familiar, the opener and closer being particularly memorable.

There’s noise to bridge the gaps between the cuts, and it you didn’t get the chance to get Tour EP 2012 when Olde Growth were on the road earlier this year, rest easy, as I hear there’s a vinyl release in the works for 2013. One imagines it’ll get a different name between now than then — any one of the four would do for a title-track, though “Brother of the Moon” has a special ring to it — but either way, the EP is a more than suitable follow-up to what was an impressive debut, and something to look out for when it comes to vinyl. In the meantime, I’m stoked to have my nerdly completist greed sated and glad I got to hear these songs.

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Too Old for the House Show

Posted in Whathaveyou on April 26th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

My plan last night was to drive down to New Brunswick to catch a house show of up-and-coming Jersey sludge bands topped off with the final gig of Massachusetts duo Olde Growth‘s most recent tour. Also on the bill were Pharaoh (not to be confused with the trad metal band from Chicago), the previously On the Radar-ized Eternal Fuzz, and Dutchguts, whom I’ve seen kicking around Jersey a couple times and who run the multi-stage basement venue The Meatlocker in Montclair — where Olde Growth played last time they came through.

Being forever in the shadow of NYC as regards actual venues — that is, the second anyone’s big enough to fill a bar, they’re not doing it here anymore — New Jersey has a long tradition of house shows. In the mid to late ’90s, it was how frantic tech metallers The Dillinger Escape Plan and numerous others first cut their teeth, and it’s been the foundation of the state’s obnoxiously/admirably persistent punk rock scene ever since. I wasn’t a part of that scene. Too young. The place where this show was held was just an old house on a wide street full of old houses. They called it The Alamo, and I walked through the side yard and around the back and knew almost immediately I was too old to be there.

I’d left work at six, dropped the dog off at home and driven, hurriedly, an hour south to go to the show. I genuinely wanted to see it. But you gotta understand, these were kids. I played a New Brunswick house show a few years back, but it’s different when you’re not actually in a band, and it was weird. I had my camera bag with me, but as the first band was getting ready to go on — the dude I asked didn’t know their name but said they had the guitar player from Sonofabitch, which didn’t help much — my choice very quickly became clear. I could stand around and be the old guy no one knows at the house show, or I could split. There wasn’t going to be any middle ground.

The year I was born, 1981, is listed as the dividing point between Generation X and the Millennials, but the reality of the situation is, I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged to one generation or another. I turn 31 later this year, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I knew the freshmen were coming from someplace completely different. Most of my youth I spent trying to hang around with people older than me. I sucked at being young. But I never really hit a point where I could relate to the perspective of those older than me either. It’s an awkward middle-ground that feels half a decade on the wrong side of either place. Born too late, born too early.

I don’t have a problem with being too old for the house show. Like I said, I sucked at being young, and so youth — inasmuch as it’s something I’ve “lost” — isn’t something I really miss. Youth had a lot of dire-seeming bullshit that I hated, and everyone treated each other like a motherfucker. But being where I was when I was, I never had a scene like the one growing now in Jersey, and the lesson I learned last night was that at least in the capacity of going to the shows and digging on these bands as they come up and get their footing creatively and in terms of performance, it’s just not going to work. I can support bands the way I do (i.e. writing), but being a part of it, being actually in it and of it, is something I’ve missed out on.

And in another three or four years, assuming they can keep it together, these bands are going to slay. Dutchguts, Pharaoh. I haven’t seen Eternal Fuzz yet, but I can only assume from what I’ve heard on the recording that the same applies. They’re young and arrogant enough to have their discovery of bands like Eyehategod be a natural outcrop of post-hardcore, and not so self-aware yet that they’ve lost their edge. I heard a report on the BBC yesterday that adolescence, that brain development, continues until the age of about 25. If they can make the most of the freedom they have — and especially doing it in an environment where they support and encourage each other, as they seem to be — then New Jersey’s heavy future is bright. I’ll look forward to hearing those records.

But there are things you can do that come with age and things you can’t, and at 30, my needs and my desires aren’t what they were even three years ago, let alone five or 10. I made my way through the house and down the small entranceway to the old basement, a pipe coming down from the already-low ceiling that I had to duck under, and watched that first band for a couple songs. Two guitars, drums, vocals, coming through Sunn heads and a shitty P.A., grooving out slow riffs like they just invented them, and just knew I was in the wrong place. I didn’t even want to take the camera out of my bag to take pictures. I didn’t want to move except to leave. So I left.

Maybe it didn’t matter. I don’t live under the delusion that wherever I go people are automatically paying attention to me, but I stood out and it made me uncomfortable. I was older, I was bigger, and if I wasn’t going to enjoy being there, what’s the point? Everything else sucks, music doesn’t. If going to shows is going to be a pain in my ass, then pretty much I’ve got nothing going for me. I didn’t see the Olde Growth dudes, and I didn’t get to catch Dutchguts, Pharaoh or Eternal Fuzz, as I wish I had, but in that place at that time, it just wasn’t going to work. Whether or not I actually was, I felt like I was intruding.

On my way out, I spoke to Rich Bukowski from Pharaoh for a bit. He was a couple years behind me (of course) at Seton Hall, and I’ve seen him around at shows ever since, so we’re friendly enough to say hey when we run into each other. I told him I envy what’s happening with these bands right now, that I wished it had been going on six years ago, and that I was going home. And then I did. The band inside was just launching into a cover of “Sister Fucker Pt. 1.” I got back in my car, turned on the Yankees, and the dulcet tones of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman provided theatre of the mind for what turned out to be a shitty game as I made my way the hour back north to my humble river valley, where upon arrival I made myself a bowl of cereal, checked my email, and went to bed, kept awake yet for hours by the caffeine I’d ingested prior to heading out in the first place.

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Video Premiere: Olde Growth Unveil Clip for “Sequoia,” Announce Vinyl Release, New Tour Dates

Posted in Bootleg Theater on April 13th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

Normally I’d hold off posting these dates and this video until I’m back in the States next week, but by then, the tour will have already started, so here we are. Massachusetts thunderduo Olde Growth are hitting the road out through the Midwest and back up the East Coast starting on Sunday, April 15, to herald the forthcoming Hydro-Phonic Records vinyl issue of their 2010 self-titled (review here). The new pressing features a cover by John Trimmer, and the band will be bringing along a limited edition tape of new material on the road.

In addition, they’ve got a new video for the song “Sequoia” that they’ve given me permission to be the first to host. It reminds me of something you would’ve seen on Headbangers Ball at two in the morning in the early ’90s. Dig it:

And here are those shows. Updates will be posted on Olde Growth‘s Thee Facebooks page:

04/15 Wacky Kastle, Allston, MA (email for address oldegrowthbooking@gmail.com) with Set, Vaast
04/17 J Watt’s Barista House, Soctia, NY with Yoma
04/18 TBA (help needed) Buffalo/Rochester NY
04/19 The Sco (Oberlin College), Oberlin, OH with Blackout
04/20 Mulligans Pub, Grand Rapids, MI with Ozenza, BerT, Mass Murder Phenomena
04/21 TBA (help needed)
04/22 The Gourley Hole, 1003 W Gourley Pike, Bloomington, IN with Dolphin Mouth, LEGS
04/23 Carabar, Columbus, OH with Traitors Return to Earth, Drose
04/24 222 Sapling Way, Pittsburgh, PA with Low Man, Purge, Us, Erased
04/25 Alamo, New Brunswick, NJ (email for address) with Pharoah, Eternal Fuzz

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The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 of 2011

Posted in Features on December 9th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

Please note: This list is made up of my personal picks, not the results of the Readers Poll, which is ongoing — if you haven’t added your top 11 to that yet, please do.

It was an impossible task to keep up with everything that came out this year. I’ll say flat out that I didn’t. There are records that I just didn’t get to hear, and I should note at the outset that this list is mine. It’s based on my personal opinions, what I listened to the most this year and what I think 2011’s most crucial releases have been.

I’ve spent the better part of this week (and last, if brain-time counts) constructing this list, and I finally got it to a point where I feel comfortable sharing. Since last December, I’ve kept a Post-It of names, and all year, I’ve logged bands I’d want to consider for the final top 20. In the end, there were 78 bands and more that I didn’t get to write down for whatever reason. 2011 was nothing if it wasn’t overwhelming.

But here we are, anyway, and it’s done. Let’s get to it:

20. Suplecs, Mad Oak Redux

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Nov. 5, 2010.

This is nothing if not a sentimental pick. Last year, I put Electric Wizard in the #20 spot because the record wasn’t out yet, and this year, I’m putting Suplecs (interview with bassist Danny Nick here) in just because I couldn’t imagine this list without them. Until literally a few minutes before I clicked “Publish” on this post, there was someone else in this spot, but ultimately, it had to be them. The New Orleans trio’s first record in half a decade wasn’t what I listened to most in 2011, it wasn’t the best album, or the most important, or career-defining, but when it came right down to it, god damn, I was just happy to have Suplecs back. It had been too long.

19. Elvis Deluxe, Favourite State of Mind

Released by Harmony Records. Reviewed June 14.

After a while, I was kind of shocked to find myself continuing to listen to Favourite State of Mind, the second album by Polish rockers Elvis Deluxe. The record’s dynamics didn’t immediately open up to me, but once I dug into the songs, I was wowed by their balance of catchy hooks and substantial-sounding riffs. The album was genre-relevant without being genre-minded, with vocal changes, organ, atmospheric shifts and a whole host of moods and turns. After hearing their 2007 debut, Lazy, I wasn’t expecting much out of the norm from Favourite State of Mind, and I’m still thrilled by just how wrong I was, and “Take it Slow” is among my favorite single songs of the year.

18. 40 Watt Sun, The Inside Room

Released by Metal Blade. Reviewed Aug. 11.

The gloomy opening statement from former Warning guitarist/vocalist Patrick Walker turned heads around the world with its unabashed emotional conviction, which was so much the central focus of the record as to be made a novelty by those who don’t usually consider doom an emotionally relevant genre (the widespread arguments against that notion I’ll leave for another time). What most stood out to me about The Inside Room was how the sentimentality translated into a gorgeous melodic sensibility and resulted in a lonely mood that was engrossing. On that level, it was easily among 2011’s most effective releases. It made you feel what it seemed to be feeling.

17. Sigiriya, Return to Earth

Released by The Church Within. Reviewed May 27.

It was an album that lived up to its name. Return to Earth marked the remaking of one of heavy rocks most stoned outfits: Acrimony. But, as Sigiriya (interview with drummer Darren Ivey here), the four-piece (down from five) would show that the years since the demise of their former band had found them progressing as musicians, resulting in a sound less directly stoner, more modern, more earthy. The songs, however, were what made it. It’s still a rare day that goes by that I don’t hum at least part of the chorus of “Mountain Goat” to myself, and if Return to Earth was a new beginning for these players, I can’t wait to see where they go next.

16. Totimoshi, Avenger

Released by At a Loss. Reviewed Aug. 16.

In addition to being Totimoshi‘s first album for At a Loss following the end of their deal with Volcom, Avenger was the first Totimoshi record since 2003’s ¿Mysterioso? not to be produced by Page Hamilton, and where 2006’s Ladrón and 2008’s Milagrosa moved away from some of the noisy crunch in the guitar of Tony Aguilar (interview here), Avenger managed to be both a return to form and a progression of the band’s melodicism. It seems, as ever, to have flown under most radars, but Totimoshi continue to refine their songwriting and have become one of the heavy underground’s most formidable and least classifiable bands.

15. Grifter, Grifter

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Aug. 30.

With their 2010 EP release, upstart British trio Grifter informed us that The Simplicity of the Riff is Key, and on their self-titled Ripple Music debut, they put that ethic to excellent use, resulting in straightforward, catchy songs that were as high-octane as they were low-bullshit. The ultra-catchy “Good Day for Bad News” showed Grifter at the top of their form, and with a dose of humor thrown in, Grifter was the drunken stoner rock party you always wanted to be invited to and, of course, finally were. Now if only I could get Skype to work and get that interview with Ollie Stygall moving, I’d be happy to tell him personally he put out one of 2011’s most kickass rock records.

14. The Book of Knots, Garden of Fainting Stars

Released by Ipecac. Reviewed June 16.

I don’t know what’s most impressive about The Book of KnotsGarden of Fainting Stars — the songs themselves or that they were able to make any songs at all. With upwards of 20 guest spots around the core four-piece, the third in a purported trilogy of records from the avant rock originalists was an epic in every listen. Songs like “Microgravity” and the Mike Watt spoken word “Yeager’s Approach” pushed the limits of both genre and expectation, and miraculously, Garden of Fainting Stars was cohesive and enthralling in its narrative aspect. If it really was their last album, it was triumphant in a manner befitting its expanding-universe thematics.

13. Ancestors, Invisible White

Released by Tee Pee. Reviewed July 5.

Had it been a full-length, Invisible White would be higher on this list. Many out there who were enamored of Ancestors‘ 2008 Neptune with Fire debut have gone on to bemoan the Californian collective’s shift away from extended sections of heavy riffing and tales of sea monsters and other things that go “doom” in the night. I’m not one of them. The Invisible White EP was a brave step along a fascinating progression, and as Crippled Black Phoenix didn’t release a new album in 2011, I was glad to have Ancestors there to fill that morose, contemplative void, and I look forward to seeing how they expand on the ideas presented on Invisible White (if they decide to stick to this direction) for their next full-length.

12. Elder, Dead Roots Stirring

Released by MeteorCity. Reviewed Oct. 5.

Speaking of shifting approaches, still-young Massachusetts trio Elder also moved away from the Sleep-centric methods of their 2008 self-titled debut on the follow-up, Dead Roots Stirring. Still based very much around the guitar work of Nick DiSalvo (interview here), Elder songs like “Gemini” and the über-soloed “The End” pushed an influence of European heavy psych into the band’s aesthetic, and the result was both grippingly heavy and blown of mind. As an album long delayed by mixing and business concerns, when Dead Roots Stirring finally arrived, it was a relief to hear that Elder, though they’d varied the path, were still headed in the right direction.

11. The Gates of Slumber, The Wretch

Released by Rise Above. Reviewed May 5.

Hands down the year’s best traditional doom release. The Wretch so gleefully and so earnestly employed the conventions of ’80s-style doom — most especially those of Saint Vitus and Trouble — that even though the lyrical and musical content was miserable, I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Songs like “Bastards Born” and “The Scovrge ov Drvnkenness” pushed The Gates of Slumber away from the barbarism the Indianapolis outfit had been touting on their last couple albums, including 2008’s Conqueror breakthrough, in favor of a more purely Chandlerian plod. “To the Rack with Them” remains a standout favorite and a line often referenced in my workplace dealings.

10. Weedeater, Jason… the Dragon

Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed Jan. 6.

I don’t know what you say to someone at this point who doesn’t like Weedeater. It just seems like a terrible way to go through life, without the madman ranting of “Dixie” Dave Collins (interview here) echoing perpetually in your ears, or never having witnessed their ultra-viscous fuzz in person. Jason… the Dragon was one of the earliest landmark releases of 2011, and practically the whole year later, it retains its hold, whether it’s the stomping fury of “Mancoon,” the lumbering groove of “Long Gone” or the surprisingly melodic “Homecoming.” The hard-touring, hard-hitting band did right in recording with Steve Albini to capture their live sound, and Jason… the Dragon was their strongest outing yet in terms of both songwriting and that unmistakable quality that makes Weedeater records Weedeater records.

9. Rwake, Rest

Released by Relapse. Reviewed Sept. 6.

I was surprised to see Rwake crack the top 10. Not because their first album in four years, the Sanford Parker-produced Rest, wasn’t superb, but because of how much the songs on the album stayed with me after listening. The Arkansas band’s last outing, Voices of Omens, was heavy and dark and had a lot going for it, but Rest upped the songwriting on every level and together with frontman CT (interview here) adopting a more decipherable shout over most of the record’s four main extended tracks, Rwake felt like a band reborn, and theirs was a highlight among several 2011 albums that showed there’s still room for individual growth and stylistic nuance within the sphere of post-metal.

8. Hull, Beyond the Lightless Sky

Released by The End. Reviewed Oct. 14.

It was back and forth, nine and eight, between Rwake and Hull for a while, but when all was said and done, the fantastic scope of Beyond the Lightless Sky gave the Brooklyn triple-guitar masters the edge. With a narrative structure behind it and a breadth of ambience and crushing, post-doomly riffing, Beyond the Lightless Sky was the defining moment that those who’ve followed Hull since their Viking Funeral demo have been waiting for. In concept, in performance, in sound and structure and heft, it absolutely floored me, and of all the heavy records I’ve heard with the tag applied to them in 2011, Hull‘s second full-length seems most to earn the tag “progressive.” A stunning and groundbreaking achievement.

7. Mars Red Sky, Mars Red Sky

Released by Emergence. Reviewed Aug. 29.

One of 2011’s most fascinating developments has been the boom in European heavy psychedelia, and the self-titled debut from French band Mars Red Sky was among the best releases to blend a jam-based sensibility with thick, warm fuzz and memorable riffs. Together with the sweet-hued vocals of Julien Pras (interview here), those riffs made for some of the most infectious hooks I heard all year on songs like “Strong Reflection” and “Way to Rome,” and where other bands jammed their way into psychedelic oblivion, Mars Red Sky were able to balance their focus on crafting quality songs, so that although they sounded spontaneous, the material was never self-indulgent or lacking accessibility. One just hopes they don’t lose sight of that musical humility their next time out.

6. Grayceon, All We Destroy

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed on March 8.

There was a point earlier this year at which I had forgotten about All We Destroy. After reviewing it in March, I simply moved on to the next thing on my list, and the thing after, and the thing after. But before I knew it, in my head was the voice of Jackie Perez Gratz, singing the line “As I live and breathe” over her own cello, the guitar of Max Doyle and Max Doyle‘s drums. It got so persistent that, eventually, I went out and bought the record, because the mp3s I’d been given to review simply weren’t enough. That was probably July, and I don’t think I’ve gone a week since without listening to Grayceon. So although I classify it in the same league as Rwake and Hull in terms of what it accomplishes in and for its genre, All We Destroy gets the extra nod for the fact that I simply haven’t been able to let it go. And though I’ve come to further appreciate “Shellmounds,” “Once a Shadow” and “A Road Less Traveled,” the 17-minute “We Can” — from which the above-noted lyric is taken — remains the best single song I heard in 2011.

5. Red Fang, Murder the Mountains

Released by Relapse. Reviewed Feb. 16.

On paper, this one should’ve flopped: Band with minor buzz and a cool video hooks up with indie rock dude to record an album of dopey riffs and beardo bombast. Instead, Red Fang‘s second album and Relapse debut became the 2011 vanguard release for the Portland heavy underground, which is arguably the most fertile scene in the US right now. They toured the record widely, and made another killer video for the mega-single “Wires,” but the reason Murder the Mountains is top five material is because it’s lasted. It was February that I reviewed this record, and March that I interviewed guitarist/vocalist Bryan Giles, and I still can’t get “Into the Eye” and “Hank is Dead” and “Number Thirteen” (especially the latter) out of my head. When it came down to it, the songs on Murder the Mountains lived up to any hype the album received, and I’m a sucker for quality songwriting. I mean, seriously. That key change late into “Number Thirteen?” It’s the stuff of the gods.

4. Graveyard, Hisingen Blues

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Feb. 25.

I wasn’t particularly a fan of Swedish rockers Graveyard‘s 2008 self-titled debut. Even watching them at Roadburn in 2010, I was underwhelmed. But when I heard Hisingen Blues and was able to get a feel for what the retro-minded foursome were getting at stylistically — and most of all, that they were acknowledging that they were doing it without being glib or ironic about it — I found the material irresistible. We’re getting into seriously indispensable records now; ones that I’ve been unwilling to leave home without since they came, in, and Graveyard‘s Hisingen Blues has been a constant feature in heavy rotation. Everything from the devilish testimony of the title-track to the wiry guitars of the chorus to “Ungrateful are the Dead,” to the Skynyrd-ified solo capping “Uncomfortably Numb”: It’s been a year of revelry in all of it, and since they overcame my prejudice to impress on such a level, Graveyard (interview with drummer Axel Sjöberg here) are all the more deserving of their spot on this list.

3. Sungrazer, Mirador

Released by Elektrohasch. Reviewed Sept. 9.

What I hear in the second album from Dutch trio Sungrazer is the heralding of a new generation of fuzz rock. Taking influence from their forebears in Colour Haze and Kyuss, the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets (interview here), bassist/vocalist Sander Haagmans and drummer Hans Mulders followed and surpassed their stellar 2010 debut on every level, playing heavy riffs on expansive psychedelic jams and still finding room for some of 2011’s most memorable choruses in songs like “Sea” and “Goldstrike.” In so doing, Sungrazer affirmed the character of next-gen European fuzz and placed themselves at the fore of their scene, with touring and festival  appearances to support. For their warmth of tone and for the fact that I spent the better part of the summer streaming the record through the Dutch website 3voor12, there was no way they were going to be left out of the top 20. It wasn’t until I sat down and actually put the numbers together, though, that I realized how vital Mirador actually was.

2. Lo-Pan, Salvador

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Feb. 16.

I was lucky enough to be sent some rough listening mixes of Ohio outfit Lo-Pan‘s Small Stone Records debut (following a reworked reissue of their Sasquanaut sophomore full-length), and in my email back to label head Scott Hamilton, I told him I thought he had a genuine classic on his hands. A year, I don’t even know how many Lo-Pan gigs and listens through Salvador later, I still feel that way 100 percent. If you were from another planet, and we got to talking at a bar, and you asked me what rock and roll should sound like in the place where I’m from, I’d hand you Salvador. I still think they should’ve started the album with “Generations,” but if that’s my biggest gripe, they’re clearly doing alright. “Bird of Prey” was the best live song I saw all year, and I saw it plenty, and cuts like “Bleeding Out” and “Struck Match” set the standard by which I’ll judge American heavy rock for a long time to come. Like the best of any class, Salvador is bigger than just the year in which it was released, and at this point, I don’t know what else to say about it.

1. YOB, Atma

Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed July 6.

This is as good as it gets, and by “it,” I mean life. YOB‘s last album, 2009’s The Great Cessation, was my album of the year that year as well, and I knew from the second I heard the self-produced Atma that nothing to come this year would top it. Like Ufomammut‘s Eve in 2010, Atma brings the entire genre of doom along with it on the new ground it breaks, refining what’s fast becoming YOB‘s signature approach even as it pushes ever forward. I still have to stop whatever I’m doing (not exactly good for productivity) whenever “Prepare the Ground” comes on, and songs like “Adrift in the Ocean” and “Before We Dreamed of Two” were humbling. Seriously. Humbling. Listening to them was like looking at those photographs from the Hubble that cover trillions of miles that we’ll never know and reveal gorgeous colors where our naked eyes only see black. If that sounds hyperbolic, thanks for getting it. YOB guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt (interview here) is, almost in spite of himself, one of American doom’s most crucial contributors, and with Atma, he and the rhythm section of bassist Aaron Reiseberg and drummer Travis Foster released what is without a doubt the best album of 2011.

A few quick housekeeping items and we’ll call it quits. First, honorable mentions. If this list went to 25, also included would be The Wounded Kings, Earth, Larman Clamor, Olde Growth and The Atlas Moth. Roadsaw were also in heavy consideration, so they’re worth noting, as are many others.

Obviously, I couldn’t include them, but two of my favorite releases in 2011 also came from Blackwolfgoat and HeavyPink, and I’m thrilled and honored to have helped put them out in the small way I did.

And as I said above, there are records I didn’t hear. I haven’t heard the new Black Pyramid yet. Or Orchid. Or a bunch more that I could go on listing. I’m only one man and this is only my list, for better or worse. Again, I really do hope you’ll contribute yours to the group poll, the results of which will be out Jan. 1.

I’ll probably have some more to wrap up 2011 as the month winds down, but until then, thank you so much for reading this and the rest of the wordy nonsense I’ve put up the whole year long. Your support and encouragement means more than I’m able to tell. Here’s to 2012 to come.

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