Visual Evidence: 10 Album Covers that Kicked Ass in 2013

Posted in Visual Evidence on December 31st, 2013 by JJ Koczan

First thing, let me give the immediate and familiar disclaimer: This isn’t everything. If I wanted to call this list “The ONLY 10 Album Covers that Kicked Ass in 2013,” I would. I didn’t do that, because there were way more than 10 covers that resonated when I saw them this year. The idea here is just to check out a few artists’ work that really stuck out as memorable throughout the year and really fit with the music it was complementing and representing.

As always, you can click the images below to enlarge them for a more detailed look.

The list runs alphabetically by band. Thanks in advance for reading:

Beastwars, Blood Becomes Fire

Cover by Nick Keller. Artist website here.

Like Nick Keller‘s cover for New Zealand heavy plunderers Beastwars‘ 2011 self-titled debut (review here), the darker, moodier oil and canvas piece that became the front of Blood Becomes Fire (review here) created a sense of something truly massive and otherworldly. A huge skull with sci-fi themes and barren landscape brought to it foreboding memento mori that seemed to suggest even land can die. It was an excellent match for the brooding tension in the album itself.

Blaak Heat Shujaa,The Edge of an Era

Cover by Arrache-toi un oeil. Artist website here.

The level of detail in Arrache-toi un oeil‘s cover for Blaak Heat Shujaa‘s full-length Tee Pee Records debut, The Edge of an Era (review here), would probably be enough for it to make this list anyway, but the Belgium-based art duo seemed thematically to bring out the swirl, chaos and underlying order within the Los Angeles trio’s desert psychedelia. Blue was for the vinyl edition, brown for the CD digipak (both were revealed here), but in either format it was a reminder of how much visual art can add to a musical medium.

Black Pyramid, Adversarial

Cover by Eli Wood.

I look at the Eli Wood cover for Black Pyramid‘s Adversarial (review here) as representing the task before the band in putting out their third LP. Released by Hydro-Phonic, the album found Black Pyramid coming head to head with both their audience’s expectations of what they were in their original lineup and their own will to move past that and become something else. If there was a second panel to the cover, it would show the arrow-shot warrior standing next to the severed head of the demon he slayed. Easily one of my favorite covers of the year. The scale of it begged for a larger format even than vinyl could provide.

Ice Dragon, Born a Heavy Morning

Cover by Samantha Allen. Artist website here.

It was such a weird record, with the interludes and the bizarre twists, that Samantha Allen‘s cover piece for Ice Dragon‘s Born a Heavy Morning (review here) almost couldn’t help but encompass it. The direct, but slightly off-center stare of the owl immediately catches the eye, but we see the titular morning sunshine as well, the human hand with distinct palm lines, illuminati eye and other symbols — are the planets? Bubbles? I don’t know, but since Born a Heavy Morning was such an engrossing listening experience, to have the visual side follow suit made it all the richer.

Kings Destroy, A Time of Hunting

Cover by Aidrian O’Connor.

In Magyar mythology, the bird-god Turul is perched atop the tree of life and is a symbol of power. With its theme in geometry, Aidrian O’Connor‘s cover piece for Kings Destroy‘s A Time of Hunting — which was originally titled Turul — gave a glimpse at some of that strength, positioning the viewer as prey below a creature and sky that seem almost impossible to parse. I felt the same way the first time I put on the finished version of the Brooklyn outfit’s second offering, unspeakably complex and brazenly genre-defiant as it was.

Larman Clamor, Alligator Heart

Cover by Alexander von Wieding. Artist website here.

Alexander von Wieding deserves multiple mentions for his 2013 covers for Black Thai and Small Stone labelmates Supermachine, but he always seems to save the best for his own project, Larman Clamor. The one-man-band’s third LP, Alligator Heart (review here), was a stomper for sure, but in his visual art for it, von Wieding brilliantly encapsulated the terrestrial elements (the human and reptile) as well as the unknowable spheres (rippling water, sun-baked sky) that the songs portrayed in their swampadelic blues fashion. It was one to stare at.

Monster Magnet, Last Patrol

Cover by John Sumrow. Artist website here.

Similar I guess to the Beastwars cover in its looming feel and to the Black Pyramid for its scale, John Sumrow‘s art for Monster Magnet‘s Last Patrol (review here) mirrored the space-rocking stylistic turn the legendary New Jersey band made in their sound, taking their iconic Bullgod mascot and giving it a cosmic presence, put to scale with the rocketship on the right side. It stares out mean from the swirl and regards the ship with no less a watchful eye than Dave Wyndorf‘s lyrics seem to have on society as a whole.

Red Fang, Whales and Leeches

Cover by Orion Landau. Artist website here.

There’s a mania to Orion Landau’s cover for Red Fang‘s third album, Whales and Leeches, and while the songs that comprise the record are more clearly structured, the collage itself, the face it makes when viewed from a distance, and the (from what I’m told is brilliant) cut-out work in the physical pressing of the album, all conspired to make one of 2013’s most striking visuals. As the in-house artist for RelapseLandau is no stranger to landmark pieces, but this was a different level of accomplishment entirely.

Sandrider, Godhead

Cover by Jesse Roberts. Band Facebook here.

Fuck. Look at this fucking thing! Galaxy spiral, vagina-dentata, creepy multi-pupil eyes and a background that seems to push the eye to the middle with no hope of escape even as blues and oranges collide. Wow. Sandrider bassist Jesse Roberts (see also The Ruby Doe) artwork for Godhead (review here) is the only cover on this list done by a member of the band in question, and though I’m sure there are many awesome examples out there, I don’t know if any can top this kind of nightmarishness. Unreal. The sheer imagination of it.

Summoner, Atlantian

Cover by Alyssa Maucere. Artist website here.

When I put together a similar list last year, it had Summoner‘s first album under the moniker, Phoenix, on it, and with their second, they went more melodic, more progressive, and showed that heaviness was about atmosphere as much as tone, and that it was a thing to be moved around rather than leaned on. The Alyssa Maucere art, dark but deceptively colorful, rested comfortably alongside the songs, with a deeply personal feel and unflinchingly forward gaze, somewhat understated on the black background, but justifying the portrayal of depth.

As I said above, there’s a lot of stuff I could’ve easily included on this list, from The Flying Eyes to Sasquatch to Black Thai to Lumbar, Samsara Blues Experiment, Goatess, At Devil Dirt and others. Hopefully though, this gives a sampling of some people who are doing cool work in an under-represented aspect of underground creativity.

If I left anything out or there was a cover that really stuck with you that I didn’t mention, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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If You Only Download Seven Releases Today…

Posted in Features on November 19th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

It happened at the start of last month that there was a Tuesday during which I was so overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of the releases available that I had no choice but to present a rundown of all of them. No choice. You would ask, “Couldn’t you just –” and I would cut you off to say, “No I couldn’t.” It had to be all of them.

So it is today. Last night, Young Hunter posted a new EP, and Across Tundras guitarist/vocalist Tanner Olson released a new folk/Americana solo outing, and today has been more or less an onslaught of “out today!” and “don’t miss it!” and so on. Well, I’ve whittled what I’m sure is an incomplete list down to seven brand new releases currently available for download. Some of them — like the Stone Machine Electric and Tanner Olson — are pay-what-you-will, but even those asking for a cash deposit should prove well worth the investment. You can always get a sampling beforehand, and I’ve included players below to facilitate.

Here we go:

1. Black Skies, Circadian Meditations

This one’s a gem. The North Carolina duo of guitarist/vocalist Kevin Clark and bassist/vocalist Michelle Temple teamed up with Caltrop drummer John Crouch and the result is a more patient collection and exploratory feel than that which reared itself on 2011’s On the Wings of Time debut. Progressive but not pretentious, atmospheric but not letting go of its rocking side, it’s an album that begs for multiple listens and satisfies even more with them. Both Clark and Temple come off as more confident on vocals, and extended bookends “Lifeblood” (the 10-minute opener) and “The Dusk/Invisible Figures” (the nine-minute closer) showcase a burgeoning affinity for heavy psych mindgaming. It’s as much fun as it is a journey. Get it here.

Black Skies, Circadian Meditations (2013)

2. T.G. Olson, The Bad Lands to Cross

If you haven’t yet started to obsessively keep tabs on the Across Tundras/T.G. Olson Bandcamp page, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Olson is a prolific and experimental songwriter, and as much as he works in the traditional forms of country twang and Americana spaciousness, so too does he bend those elements to the will of his material. His latest outing, The Bad Lands to Cross, is a relic waiting to be unearthed. Recorded live with one Shure SM57 microphone, it’s an hour long collection as prone to beauty as tragedy, songs like “Return from the Brink” hovering somewhere between the canyon sides of the anxious and secure. He sings, which he doesn’t on all of his solo releases (see The Complete Blood Meridian for Electric Drone Guitar), and one might consider The Bad Lands to Cross a spiritual companion to Across Tundras‘ 2013 outing, Electric Relics (review here), but it more than stands on its own, whether it’s the minimalist folk of “Rarefied Blue” or the harmonica-laden melancholy of the Gene Clark cover, “Some Misunderstanding.” Get it here.

T.G. Olson, The Bad Lands to Cross (2013)

3. Sandrider, Godhead

Sandrider are the antidote to stagnation. Their second album for Good to Die Records, Godhead (review here), pummels with reckless glee and abandon, but don’t let that lead you to believe it isn’t also precise. The post-Akimbo three-piece of drummer Nat Damm, guitarist/vocalist Jon Weisnewski and bassist/vocalist Jesse Roberts returned to Matt Bayles to record the follow-up of their clarion 2011 self-titled debut (review here), and the continued partnership found Sandrider all the more gnarly and aggressive, but also with a development in their melodic sensibility to match. Songs like the opener “Ruiner” and punkish “Champions” are an unabashed good time — get loaded and call them “epic” — and cuts like “Godhead” and the closer “Traveler” work in more complex terrain, showing the dynamic at work between all three members of the band, each of whom proves essential in crafting the atmosphere of the whole. Listen to it for a party or for thinky-thinky bludgeoning. Either way you don’t lose. Also available on gatefold vinyl. Get it here.

Sandrider, Godhead (2013)

4. Second Grave, Antithesis

They call it an EP, but it eats like a full-length. Fronted by former Warhorse guitarist/vocalist Krista van Guilder and featuring Black Pyramid/The Scimitar bassist Dave Gein along with guitarist Chris Drzal and drummer Chuck Ferreira, Second Grave revel in doomed atmospheres and heavy metal stoicism. Their Antithesis EP follows last year’s self-titled debut outing (review here) and over the course of its two tracks, “Mourning Light” (6:37) and “Drink the Water” (11:41), it showcases what’s working in the band’s quickly solidifying approach, whether it’s the solo and riff interplay of the two guitars, undulating heavy grooves in the bass and drums, or van Guilder‘s propensity for throwing in ripping screams along with her melodic clean singing. The more rocking “Mourning Light” and “Drink the Water” play out the duality shown on the Cory John Heisson artwork, and recording by Black Pyramid‘s Clay Neely at Black Coffee Sound and a mastering job from Revelation‘s John Brenner wrap Antithesis up as a doom metaller’s delight in style and affiliation. Get it here.

Second Grave, Antithesis (2013)

5. Stone Machine Electric, 2013.02.07

When Arlington, Texas, riffers Stone Machine Electric released their self-titled full-length (review here) in January 2013, they had recently added third member Mark Cook on Warr guitar. Cook didn’t appear on that album, which was produced by Wo Fat‘s Kent Stump, and is seemingly since out of the band, but was on board alongside guitarist/vocalist William “Dub” Irvin and drummer Kitchens for this recorded show, which as the title would indicate was taped on Feb. 7, 2013. They were at The Grotto that night in Ft. Worth, and they played a considerable set. 2013.02.07 clocks in at 53 minutes, and extended pieces like “Carve” and “No/W/Here” give the trio plenty of space to jam out. Naturally, they take advantage, and though the lineup was new and the recording is rough, what purports to be the first in a series of free live albums from Stone Machine Electric seems to come as a document of an already bygone moment. One hopes their lineup issues get sorted soon one way or another so they can follow 2013.02.07 and the self-titled in good time. Get it here.

Stone Machine Electric, 2013.02.07 (2013)

6. Summoner, Atlantian

Didn’t I just write about this album? Well yes, yes I did. Summoner‘s second offering under the moniker and third overall, Atlantian (released by Magnetic Eye Records), is an ambitious and unrepentantly proggy heavy rock record. You’ll find some riffy thrust on “Horns of War,” but notice that they lead with “The Gatekeeper,” a track which couples its big-bigger-biggest plod with some of Summoner‘s most accomplished melodicism to date. Atmospheric explorations like “Changing Tides” (presumably the end of side A on the vinyl) and peaceful closer “Taken by the Sea” show the Boston foursome branching out beyond the reaches even of 2012’s Phoenix, and while the crushing progressions of “Into the Abyss” and the forward rush of “The Prophecy” offer contrast to these sleepier stretches — too substantial and precariously placed to be interludes — the full-album flow that runs across Atlantian demonstrates in no uncertain terms just how far Summoner have come since starting out as Riff Cannon with 2009’s Mercury Mountain. Get it here.

Summoner, Atlantian (2013)

7. Young Hunter, Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain

With no more ceremony than a quick, “Hey this is out now,” Young Hunter casually released a three-song follow-up to their wildly impressive 2012 full-length, Stone Tools (discussed here). I’ve gone back to that album often since I first heard it, and Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain is a terrifyingly solid answer to the formative work the doubly-drummed seven-piece did on their debut, whether it’s the mountain gothic stomp of “Welcome to Nothing” or spacious sway of the ensuing “Trail of Tears,” which is dark and otherworldly but tied to the cold clarity of a desert night all the same, picking up in its second half to a joyous guitar-led ritualizing that legitimately earns a Neurosis comparison more than most of what gets compared to Neurosis these days. Rounding out with the moody, percussion-led “Dreamer,” Young Hunter showcase a bit of drama to go with the intensity presented elsewhere, launching into full-bore thickness and fervent, desperate shouts. Someone needs to sign this band immediately. Tee Pee? Hell, Neurot? Someone’s gotta step up. This is too good. Reportedly a new lineup is in construction as guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Blake (and maybe others) has relocated from Arizona to Portland, Oregon (of course), and these tracks will be used as part of a split tape with Ohioan, but they’re free now, so go to. Get it here.

Young Hunter, Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain (2013)

Happy listening. If there’s anything I missed, please let me know in the comments.

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Summoner Post Second “Making Of” Episode; New Album Atlantian Out Today

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 19th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

Boston-based bashers Summoner release their second album, Atlantian, today on Magnetic Eye Records. The full-length follows their 2011 debut, Phoenix, which arrived after the band switched names from Riff Cannon and took on a more progressive aesthetic. Atlantian continues to work in that vein, but is also more melodically confident and given to fits of head-down driving. It’s clear in its production and intent, as you can hear in the full Bandcamp stream courtesy of the label right here:

Summoner, Atlantian (2013)

Atlantian was recorded by Summoner vocalist/bassist Chris Johnson and guitarist AJ PetersJoe Richner also plays guitar and Scott Smith drums — and in celebration of the release, in addition to the album itself, the band has also made available the second in a series of behind-the-scenes clips about the recording process. Last time around, they were just getting to the studio and getting started. Now the foursome are wading deeper into the making of the record, and it’s possible to get more of a feel of how they work together toward the goals they’d previously laid out.

They go pretty in-depth over the course of the eight-minute video, and where a lot of this kind of behind-the-scenes footage will kind of give you one sample riff and then two minutes of dudes fucking around before the “NEW ALBUM COMING SOON” sign flashes and it’s over, Summoner really seem to be more interested in conveying how Atlantian was constructed and how it was particularly for Johnson and Peters to work as both engineers and players. Smith undersells his role in saying “I’m just the drummer,” but it comes clear over the course just how much each member of the band makes up the whole of the finished product.

Reportedly they’ll have vinyl ready for Nov. 30 (they play the Middle East that night), but you can download Atlantian now and check out the clip below for a glimpse at how it all came together:

Summoner, The Making of Atlantian: Episode 2

Summoner on Thee Facebooks

Magnetic Eye Records on Bandcamp

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Summoner Post Behind-the-Scenes Footage Making New Album Atlantian

Posted in Bootleg Theater on September 30th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

Summoner‘s second LP under that moniker, Atlantian, is set to be released in November through Magnetic Eye Records. The Boston-based outfit issued their debut, Phoenix, after changing their name from Riff Cannon, whose own debut was 2009’s Mercury Mountain, and whose approach was different enough to justify the switch in name. A double-guitar four-piece, the band documented the making of Atlantian and have begun to post clips in an apparent series of three behind-the-scenes looks at the making of the album, which will be a vinyl-only 180 gram pressing (of course with a download available via the usual suspect list of purveyors) and will feature the following tracks and art:

01 The Gatekeeper
02 The Prophecy
03 Horns of War
04 Changing Tides

05 Into the Abyss
06 Crystaline Sky
07 Atlantian
08 Taken by the Sea

I dug these guys when they were Riff Cannon and both times I saw Summoner last year, they killed. Going by the descriptions they give of some of the differences in approach this time around — and even more importantly, by how excited they seem to be taking on the task of making a new album — Atlantian is one I’m looking forward to hearing. If you happen to be in the Boston area at the end of November, they’ll be playing a release show at The Middle East on Nov. 30 with Rozamov, Jack Burton vs. David Lo Pan and Second Grave. I’ve already got my calendar marked. More info is here.

Hopefully I’ll have more to come on Atlantian as we get closer to the release, but in the meantime, check out the first behind-the-scenes episode below and enjoy:

Summoner, The Making of Atlantian Ep. 1

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