Top Five of the First Half of 2011: Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

Posted in Features on July 1st, 2011 by JJ Koczan

Well, that’s another TFFH down. Of course, I haven’t heard every record that’s come out in the last six months — I feel like half of them I’m still waiting to review (Ulver, Zombi, etc.) — but I’ve done the best I can to get through as much as I can, and that’s where I stand. Here’s the list one more time, all together:

The Top Five of the First Half of 2011:
1. Lo-Pan, Salvador
2. Graveyard, Hisingen Blues
3. Red Fang, Murder the Mountains
4. Weedeater, Jason… the Dragon
5. The Gates of Slumber, The Wretch

It’s been a really strong year so far, and like I said at some point, there were records I reviewed in the last two weeks that could easily have been on the list. I’m thinking of Elvis Deluxe and The Book of Knots there, but honorable mention certainly also goes out to Olde Growth, Premonition 13, Earth, Roadsaw, Dark Castle, Sourvein, and plenty of others. There never seems to be any shortage of killer records.

Hope you enjoyed reading these posts, and in case you didn’t see, Gaia from Number of the Blog started a list thread on the forum, so if you haven’t yet, feel free to drop by and let everyone know your picks. You can always leave a comment here too. Those are welcome, and either way, thanks.

Lots to come in the rest of 2011. I just read in the latest Alone Records newsletter that Viaje a 800 will have a new record out before the end of the year, and that was killer to find out, and of course there’s stuff like YOB and Dixie Witch too that should hit pretty hard when it lands. Here’s looking forward to the next thing.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011, #1: Lo-Pan, Salvador

Posted in Features on June 30th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

At this point, between the review, the interview, live review, tour posts (there’s a couple), and sundry other rants, I’m not sure how many other ways there are for me to say it. I fucking love this album. Ohio rockers Lo-Pan‘s third full-length, Salvador, is the best record I’ve heard in the first half of this year, and listening to it now to write this post, I’m just as excited to hear it as I was the first time I did.

The only difference? Now I know the songs. I can follow Brian Fristoe‘s riffs, Skot Thompson and Jesse Bartz‘s bass and drums. I can ape singing along (having neither the range nor the capability to actually keep up with him) to Jeff Martin‘s vocals. These tracks, from “El Dorado” on down through “Seed,” “Chichen Itza,” and “Struck Match,” are amped-up stoner rock classics, and even when Lo-Pan hit the brakes and deliver moodier pieces like “Bird of Prey” or “Solo,” they seem to lose none of the immediacy or directness in the material.

The thing about it, really, is you can just hear the time these guys have put in on the road. It bleeds through the songs — all of the songs — in how tight they are, how together, and of all the albums I’ve heard so far into 2011, Salvador is the one I feel I’m most likely to keep with me long after this year is over. It’s the one record I can put on at any time, regardless of mood or any external factors, and enjoy. If that’s not a number one album, I don’t know what is.

Whatever Lo-Pan does from here, between Salvador and 2009’s Sasquanaut — the reissue of which was their first release on Small Stone — they have two excellent albums under their belt (the preceding self-titled isn’t half bad either, but I think even the band will tell you they hit a different level with the second and third offerings), and have emerged as one of this generation’s most essential American heavy rock bands. All you have to do is hear it and you know.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011, #2: Graveyard, Hisingen Blues

Posted in Features on June 29th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

Graveyard‘s second album and Nuclear Blast debut, Hisingen Blues, has become my wake-up call. Not in some existential “take action” sense. Literally. On those days (and I should say “these days,” since today’s definitely one of them) where my eyes never seem to open all the way and I’m in a sleepy fog for, well, ever, I’ll throw on Hisingen Blues and suddenly not only am I locked into Graveyard‘s considerable groove, but sad as some of this material is, I actually feel good listening to it.

I missed the boat on their first album. Self-titled and released on Tee Pee in 2008, it let the band make a huge impression in the US at South by Southwest and David Fricke said their name or something, so they magically became the go-to Swedes for retro rock. Whatever. I must have been absent that day. All I know is that whatever hype is around them, the four-piece back it up with memorable songs and enough genuine emotion on record to offset any accusations of posturing that might arise.

And however you feel about retro-minded rock, there’s no question Graveyard have the patterns down. Their songs feel live and warm and sound tailor-made for the blue vinyl Nuclear Blast issued them on, and in terms of establishing an aesthetic, Hisingen Blues is easily among the most complete albums of 2011. To be any more cohesive, they’d pretty much have to be doing a concept record about giant robots or something like that. Let’s hope they don’t go that route next time.

For the constant listens it’s been getting since it came in, Graveyard‘s sophomore outing is a definite for the top five at the end of the year, and like the best of the stuff on these lists, including Hisingen Blues here is basically an excuse to rant some more about how much I dig hearing it. Which I do.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011, #3: Red Fang, Murder the Mountains

Posted in Features on June 27th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

Try as I might, I can’t come up with an argument against Murder the Mountains, the Relapse Records debut from Portland, Oregon‘s Red Fang and their second album overall. The songs are diverse without being pretentious, rocking without being dumbed down and once they get into your head, you think you might lose your mind from how constantly you hear them. Maybe that’s an argument against, but if so, it should say something that the biggest complaint about an album is that it’s so catchy it’ll drive you nuts.

Red Fang‘s self-titled had a couple cool tracks and that one they did the beery video for, and that was fun, but with Murder the Mountains, they blew themselves right out of the water. Their choice of producer in Chris Funk of The Decemberists was a bold one, but it paid off huge in that Red Fang wound up making moves and arrangement choices that other bands of their scruffy ilk might not have thought of and/or done, and they were heavy enough to still make it work. The gruff vocals of guitarist Bryan Giles and the smoother approach of bassist Aaron Beam played off each other track by track — and often within the cuts themselves (see “Number Thirteen” or “Throw Up”) — and the material was so immediate that the songs couldn’t help but flow together.

They’ve gotten a fair amount of buzz thanks to high-profile touring, but one listen to Murder the Mountains will show that Red Fang have the songwriting to back up whatever hype might surround them, and best of all, that it’s the music, not the hype, that matters to the band. Rounded out by guitarist David Sullivan and drummer John Sherman, Red Fang proved that you don’t necessarily have to choose between being heavy and engaging with an audience. And all that’s wonderful, but most of all, Murder the Mountains is on this list because I can’t seem to stop listening to the fucking thing. With all of the quality releases that have come out this year, that should say something.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011, #4: Weedeater, Jason… the Dragon

Posted in Features on June 23rd, 2011 by JJ Koczan

There’s something about the lysergic haze of “Palms of Opium” that gets me every time I hear it. It’s like if you put Tiny Tim through a multi-dimensional meatgrinder, and given the hell Weedeater unleashes on either side of that song on their fourth album, Jason… the Dragon, it’s all the more a standout. The North Carolinian trio of bassist/vocalist “Dixie” Dave Collins, guitarist Dave “Shep” Shepard and drummer Keith “Keko” Kirkum survived broken bones and blown-off toes to get the Steve Albini-recorded full-length out the door, and when it hit in March — at least as someone listening who didn’t actually have to live through any of it — it was worth every minute of the hardship and impatient wait.

Weedeater‘s last album, 2007’s God Luck and Good Speed (which was also released through Southern Lord), saw the band begin to expand the reach of their ultra-fuzzed sludge, and on Jason… the Dragon, they took their sound to new places altogether, whether it was incorporating the guitar melody of “Homecoming,” or just ripping through the entire first half of the album live in the studio. From “The Great Unfurling” through the title-track, Weedeater were as raw and visceral as anyone could ever ask sludge to be, and a simple song like “Mancoon” or the plodding “Turkey Warlock” — which originally appeared on Shifty RecordsCrushers Killers Destroyers II compilation in 2004 — hit that much harder for the energy that the band and Albini were able to capture on tape.

Front to back, Jason… the Dragon was just a really strong record — and in precisely the right way. They tweaked some little things in their approach and definitely were making an attempt to branch out musically, but Weedeater knew too what worked best about their style and kept more than enough of that to satisfy their audience, and most importantly, themselves. With each new album a band puts out, there are going to be people who favor the one before, or the one before that, but I think Jason… the Dragon more than stands up to Weedeater‘s back catalog, maybe even surpassing it in terms of killer grooves and memorable songs. Wherever it sits on your list of favorites, they nailed this one.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011, #5: The Gates of Slumber, The Wretch

Posted in Features on June 22nd, 2011 by JJ Koczan

The Gates of Slumber‘s first album with drummer J. “Cool Clyde” Paradis, The Wretch gathers eight despondent tracks of potent traditional doom that demonstrate quite clearly why the Indianapolis trio have garnered their reputation as one of the best American acts going in the genre. Their last two records, 2008’s Conqueror and 2009’s Hymns of Blood and Thunder, were the band’s breakthrough, but with The Wretch, they cut the tempos and were able to put across a minimal, miserable atmosphere, epitomized in the woeful guitar and vocals of Karl Simon.

Balance that with a depth of songwriting that made cuts like “To the Rack with Them” and “The Scourge ov Drvnkenness” as effective on a structural level as they were in terms of ambience, and flat-out, The Wretch just ruled. Simon, Paradis and bassist Jason McCash were able to keep the barbaric feel of their prior to albums while also inflicting their melancholy on listeners, and of all the doom I’ve heard so far into 2011, none of it has been quite as doomed as The Gates of Slumber. It’s not just about being loud, or just being heavy, but it’s the downtrodden spirit driving the songs.

That feeling can’t be faked, can’t be a put-on, can’t be bullshit. You’re either in it or you’re not, and The Gates of Slumber pulled it off with a sincerity and honesty that was matched by the fact that the material also rocked. The Wretch has plenty of time to prove its merits over extended listens in 2011, but more than that, I expect its timeless doom will satisfy for years to come. If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s not too late.

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Top Five of the First Half of 2011: Intro

Posted in Features on June 22nd, 2011 by JJ Koczan

This being the third year in a row I’ve down a Top Five of the First Half countdown, and the name being so damn obvious as to the idea behind it, I’m not going to take a lot of time on the introduction here. I basically just wanted to let it be known in case anyone missed the previous notes that from now through next week, The Obelisk will be counting down the top five albums of the year so far, and that, as ever, it’s kind of a lighthearted list, basically just an excuse to point out a couple killer records that came out between January and now.

But this is always something I dig doing, and I hope that if you have a list of your own, or some agreement or disagreement, you’ll chime in with it as we go along, since that’s more than half the fun. At any point, if you want to see what’s on the Top Five of the First Half, you can do a search for TFFH11 in the sidebar, or find the posts with that tag. They’ll all have it, and we’ll get started with number five in just a bit…