Six Dumb Questions with All Souls

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on February 21st, 2018 by JJ Koczan

all souls photo Memo Villasenor

There is an entire league of brutally underrated crafters of heavy rock and roll whose greatest misfortune, perhaps, was being active before the ascendancy of social media made ‘word of mouth’ as simple as cutting and pasting a link to a news feed, and it is to this number that Tony Aguilar belongs. Together with Meg Castellanos, Aguilar stood at the helm of the raw, bold and deeply individualized outfit Totimoshi for more than a decade before their 2011 outing, Avenger (review here), served as their final triumph and swansong, and after a few years of exploring flamenco and folk influences together in Alma Sangre as well as tour managing for the likes of Sleep and the Melvins, the urge to reestablish a footing in heavy music asserted itself, and All Souls began to take shape.

Of course, no story is ever quite that simple, but as All Souls issued their self-titled debut (review here) on Feb. 9 through Sunyata Records and quickly took off on a UK tour alongside Fatso Jetson, that footing sure seems to have been found. Comprised of Aguilar on guitar/vocals, Castellanos on bass/vocals, Erik Trammell of Black Elk on guitar and backing vocals, and Tony Tornay, also of Fatso Jetson, on drums, All Souls offer nine songs of varied moods but universal impact on the self-titled, reminding of the strength that was in Aguilar and Castellanos‘ songwriting process during the Totimoshi days but building outward as well and covering new ground thanks to the contributions of Trammell and Tornay to the mix. A production job by Toshi Kasai blends weighted crunch with fluid layering on songs like “Money Man” and “Sadist/Servant,” the latter of which trades between open stretches of melancholia and some of the record’s most forceful percussive impact, making the entire experience more engaging, cohesive and sincere.

I’ve already reviewed the album, so I’ll spare you any further blah blah blah about how I think it’s worth your time and the effort of an active listen and just get to the interview. As All Souls just wrapped that tour with Fatso Jetson — Tornay pulling double-duty at his kit — it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get the story behind the band’s origins, how they came together after the slow dissolution of Totimoshi, and where they might be headed after this initial collection. Fresh from the road, Aguilar was kind enough to accommodate.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

all souls all souls

Six Dumb Questions with All Souls

Tell me about getting All Souls together. How did Erik Trammell and Tony Tornay get involved? Was there a specific impetus behind forming a new rock-style project, and when it came to it, what was behind the decision to not simply bring back Totimoshi? What are the differences between the two bands for you?

The rock music community is a small world, especially if you’re in a touring band. All the members of All Souls have been friends for years. Before the forming of our band, Meg and I had known Erik Trammell and Tony Tornay for probably 20 years. We met Erik back in the ’90s when he was in the band Wadsworth. Later his band Black Elk used to play shows with Totimoshi. Meg and I met Tony Tornay back in the ’90s as well when Fatso Jetson opened for Kyuss at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco.

When Meg and I moved to L.A., I got a job working for the Melvins, which turned into working for Neurosis and Sleep, which led to me being on road for nine months out of the year. I really believe that cost me Totimoshi. Being absent is not good for a band. Eventually, Chris Fugitt, the drummer in Totimoshi ended up moving back to Kansas City because of a job offer. Totimoshi tried to continue with new drummers but it just didn’t feel right. After Totimoshi ended, Meg and I started an acoustic band called Alma Sangre that incorporates Spanish guitar with flamenco dance. It was sort of a venture into a completely different type of songwriting and singing (I sing in Spanish with sort of a Chavela Vargas-type of delivery).

As that went on I got the itch to be in a rock band again, which eventually led me to starting a band called Last Days of Ancient Sunlight with my friend Ferdie [Cudia] from the band 400 Blows. We were a band for about a year and a half — even recorded a full length that never came out because of in-fighting. All this time, Tony Tornay and I would see each other occasionally and throw around the idea of starting a band. We even jammed a few times. About the time Last Days broke up Erik Trammell moved back to Los Angeles from Austin. I had set Erik up with a friend of mine that rented a room to him. Erik and I talked one day and the idea of writing together came up. Which is how All Souls basically started. Erik Trammell and I sitting in my spare room — him playing guitar and me mostly singing. Over the course of a few weeks we came up with the bare structure for three songs which I sent to Tony Tornay. Tony liked it; then TornayErik and I talked and decided on Meg for bass because we liked her playing and felt a female vocal would add something special. That’s how All Souls was born.

Personally, the difference between All Souls and Totimoshi is All Souls is way more developed. It’s 10 times the visual, 10 times the feel and strength of Totimoshi. It’s literally the band I always dreamed of being in. It is also more art by committee that Totimoshi ever was. I tended to be a bit of a dictator in Totimoshi. With All Souls, the I has turned into we. We all write, we all write well, we all trust. All Souls involved.

When were the songs for the self-titled written, and were they written with any specific goals in mind? Was there something in particular you wanted the album to express?

Before the band ever played together we sat at a table and discussed how we were going to proceed. This was Tony Tornay‘s idea and I still think back with fondness to that evening. We drank wine and discussed music… more importantly we discussed what we wanted All Souls to be. From what I remember we wanted female/male energy (no overly macho bullshit). We wanted the songs to decide the length of the song — not some ridiculous formula. We wanted dark music that illuminates, and we wanted deep complex melody. We talked about bands that we loved, but that’s a secret. Over the course of about a year we made this all come to fruition.

Tell me about being back in the studio with Toshi Kasai. How long were you there? What was the recording process like? You worked with him of course with Totimoshi, but how was it different this time and what did he bring to the table as a producer? What was it about him that let you know he was the guy for the job?

Meg, Erik, and myself had all worked with Toshi Kasai prior to All Souls. Tony Tornay listened to his work and agreed that Toshi was the guy. We are all friends with him, know and love him and respect his vision as a producer. Toshi has a very specific way of recording and mixing that we love. Personally, I feel that because we have worked so much together — we understand and trust each other. We recorded with Toshi in three different sessions. The goal was to write three songs, rehearse the shit out of the three songs, record the three songs, then move on to the next three. Over the course of about a year all nine songs were recorded at Toshi‘s Sound of Sirens Studio.

Is it any different working with Meg in All Souls as opposed to Totimoshi or in Alma Sangre? Not looking to pry, but how do you view the interaction between the personal relationship and the creative one? How interrelated are they?

Meg and I have been in a relationship for 27 years. That is 27 years of dreaming, writing, traveling and working together, and I don’t see us slowing down. We understand each other very well as people and as artists. That dynamic plays very similarly in each artistic endeavor that we have been a part of but I do feel that All Souls is our first real and true collaboration with other people. I feel like for the most part Totimoshi and Alma Sangre was basically Meg and I doing most of the major work and allowing input from other people that were involved. All Souls is a real and true circle of collaboration. Not only do we all write, but we all work on the forward movement of the band. I’ve never really been in a band until now that literally has every member of the band networking, setting up shows, tours, and dealing with PR. Namely, the business side of things. Before All Souls it seemed that it was always up to Meg and myself. It is truly a great thing to see, but I’m not surprised — we all sat at the table and drew this thing up. That is the strength of this project.

How was touring the UK with Fatso Jetson? How did Tony handle pulling double-duty on drums, and how much road Eme do you ulEmately think All Souls will do in the US and abroad?

The tour was amazing. There is nothing like playing and touring with not only friends but a band you consider a true inspiration. Tony Tornay was powerhouse on this tour — and he did it while fighting the flu!! He’s part man, part machine. We were well received everywhere we went, we got to see some incredible towns and meet some great people. One of the most amazing things we saw was people traveling from great distances to come see the show, some flying in from other countries. Some fans came to multiple shows. I think I can speak for all the members when I say we are hoping to tour as much as humanly possible. What better thing is there in life?

Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

Our first album is done and we are already writing for the next. All Souls forever!

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Review & Full Album Stream: All Souls, All Souls

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 5th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

all souls all souls

[Click play above to stream All Souls’ All Souls in its entirety. Album is out Feb. 9 on Sunyata Records.]

Momentum is quickly on the side of the self-titled debut from Los Angeles heavy rockers All Souls, as the result of a resounding opening salvo of uptempo hooks released like years of pent-up tension. And they just might be. The four-piece trace their roots back to a brutally underappreciated outfit called Totimoshi, from whence guitarist/vocalist Tony Aguilar and bassist/vocalist Meg Castellanos both come, and here joined with guitarist/backing vocalist Erik Trammell of Black Elk and drummer Tony Tornay of Fatso Jetson, the couple/core duo in some ways pick up where their prior band left off — that is to say, driving riffs with roots in punk, grunge and heavy rock, emotive melodies and memorable songcraft brought to bear with a boldness of naturalism through a Toshi Kasai production that would scare most groups away even in concept.

Issued through Sunyata Records, which is owned by Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and Mad Season (speaking of emotive melody), All SoulsAll Souls comprises nine tracks and runs an efficient but not bare 46 minutes, and whether it’s the blend of howling electrics and acoustic strum of “Sadist/Servant” later in the record — on which, by the way, Tool‘s Danny Carey puts in a guest appearance on drums — or the earlier circular chorus bludgeon of “Never Know,” it is a record varied of approach but unflinching in its expressive purposes. It builds unrepentantly on the past experience of the band’s members but finds them unwilling to give up exploring new ground in favor of simply retreading old paths, and particularly as side A moves into side B around centerpiece “Rename the Room,” grows into a listening experience that only becomes richer in repetition.

But those hooks. Those hooks — a one-two-three punch of upbeat rush that carries through opener “Party Night,” the aforementioned “Never Know” and the start-stop verse into stomping chorus launch of “Money Man” — set the course for All Souls, and it’s a 14-minute push that speaks to the high level of craft all throughout. Aguilar and Trammell weave complementary guitar lines fluidly from the outset — as in, immediately on “Party Night” — as Castellanos adds low-end tension to the Songs for the Deaf-style careen of the opener and Tornay finds his builds and crashing payoffs handed down alongside handclaps during the bridge. Leads, rhythms, acoustics, vocal harmonies, percussive presence and a residual tonal crunch permeate, but All Souls are firmly in control of “Party Night,” and they’ll remain so as “Never Know” — one of three inclusions here over six minutes long; the others being “Rename the Room” and closer “Time Bomb” — spins heads with its manically repeated title lyric.

Because Aguilar has such a distinct vocal delivery, because he’s often on his own during the verses, and because of the balance in the mix the inclusion of backing vocals from Castellanos and Trammell comes across as subtle, but it’s another aspect that, be it in “Never Know” or “Money Man” or the no-less-sing-along-ready “Silence,” which follows, adds a sense of cohesion to the tracks. And as to why “Silence” isn’t included in that opening salvo — because really there’s no dip in quality there or anywhere after — it’s a matter of vibe and tempo. “Silence” pulls back some on the accelerator from “Money Man” and introduces a more spacious sensibility especially in its echo-laden second half that “Rename the Room” continues to build upon, thereby serving as a transitional moment in the overarching flow rather than a furthering of the record’s initial argument in its own favor. That argument, in other words, is simply entering its next phase.

all souls photo Memo Villasenor

“Rename the Room” might be the emotional crux of All Souls‘ All Souls. Atop flourish of reverb guitar, Aguilar blends indie and grunge-style melodic sweetness in a serene, contemplative and still of-the-desert vibe as Tornay punctuates, and a break to minimalist quiet leads excitingly to a choice and unabashedly rocking groove in the second half, “cool” in the classic sense of sunglasses at night and a backdrop for a wailing solo, cyclical toms and an ambient feel that remains steady despite the uptick in activity, drawing the two sides of the track together, and really, doing the same for the album as a whole. It ends quiet and “The Ghost is Flying Home” stomps in quickly with a more foreboding mood before turning from the earlier-established structures to break into thirds with verses and choruses bookending an exploratory midsection that in addition to some highlight vocal interplay from Castellanos and Aguilar works to build to a driving thrust of a fuzz and payoff, leading to the quiet start of the emergently-percussive “Sadist/Servant.” I’m not sure if Tornay plays alongside Carey, but if you told me there were two drummers on the track, I’d believe it. Nonetheless, its primary impression comes through the woven guitars and melodies and the balance of rhythm and melody, rather than a showy or overly progressive spirit shoehorned into a record otherwise so brimming with humanity.

A galloping, squealing finish comes to a head and cuts out cold to set the stage for the mid-paced tension of the penultimate “Reveille,” which takes a more winding approach and winds up somewhat hypnotic for it despite a thud of toms two minutes in and resonant crescendo marked by thicker tones at the cymbal-wash finish. The varied course of “The Ghost is Flying Home,” “Sadist/Servant” and “Reveille,” in comparison to “Party Night,” “Never Know” and “Money Man” at the outset, does much to flesh out All Souls‘ aesthetic reach overall, and the finale/summary in the 6:51 of “Time Bomb” only underscores the achievement made in terms of dynamic and chemistry between players. Around yet another memorable chorus, All Souls swirl and churn and keep a forward trajectory even as they seem to willfully meander, pursuing sandy expanses one more time before pulling together and heading toward a last push, Tornay saving highlight snare work to cut through the echoing guitars before the whole thing seems to break apart amid residual tones and the album’s final notes.

It’s been seven years since Totimoshi released their last album, Avenger (review here), and nearly two decades since they made their self-titled debut in 1999. If All Souls, who’ve been together since 2015/2016, is to be a redirection of the work that Aguilar and Castellanos did in that outfit, then it’s a relief much of what made that band so underrated in terms of craft and performance and personality remains intact in this material. At the same time, it’s exciting to hear desert rock so readily engaged on the group’s own terms rather than those of the style itself, and used as part of a broad pastiche that one hopes continues to expand as they move forward. While it’s almost unfair to consider it a debut, for the excitement factor in the actual hearing, the songwriting on display and the potential in the already-so-prevalent chemistry among all four players, there’s no doubt All Souls‘ All Souls will stand among 2018’s best.

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All Souls Self-Titled Debut Due Feb. 9; New Song Streaming

Posted in Whathaveyou on November 3rd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

all souls

Oh I am very, very much looking forward to this one. I was always a big fan of Tony Aguilar and Meg Castellanos‘ work in the vastly underrated Totimoshi, who released their last album, Avenger (review here), in 2011, so to find them once again embracing a more heavy rock-style form in All Souls is only awesome news as far as I’m concerned. They’ve spent some time exploring textures of folk guitar and dance in Alma Sangre as well, but with Erik Trammel of Black Elk on second guitar and Fatso Jetson‘s own Tony Tornay on drums, All Souls take straight-ahead heavy rock to exciting and intricate places on tracks like “Silence,” “The Ghost is Flying Home” and “Party Night,” all of which are streaming now on their Bandcamp page.

The album, self-titled, was produced by Toshi Kasai and is set to release on Feb. 9 via Sunyata Records. I will very much hope to have more on it before then. Can’t wait to hear the full thing from the tracks posted so far.

From the PR wire:

all souls self titled

ALL SOULS (TOTIMOSHI, DESERT SESSIONS) RELEASE SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM ON FEB. 9 VIA SUNYATA RECORDS

All Souls, the Los Angeles-based band featuring former members of Totimoshi (Meg Castellanos and Tony Aguilar) and The Desert Sessions (Tony Tornay), release their self-titled debut album on Feb. 9.

The band is streaming their new song, “Never Know” as an instant download with All Souls pre-orders, which are available now (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/all-souls/id1301659862). All Souls, who formed in 2015 and have since toured with friends and colleagues in Red Fang, The Sword, Kvelertak, Torche and more, release the 9-track album via Barrett Martin’s (Screaming Trees, Mad Season) Sunyata Records.

“We had been wanting to be in another rock band,” explains Aguilar. “All Souls also reunited us with Toshi Kasai who produced three of our Totimoshi records. He has his own approach. It’s almost like you enter into a different world with his production. Each song becomes like a journey, and nobody curtailed that. We were all on the same page.”

All Souls was recorded at Sounds of Sirens Studio. Tool drummer Danny Carey guests on “Sadist/Servant.”

All Souls tracklist:

Party Night
Never Know
Money Man
Silence
Rename The Room
The Ghost is Flying Home
Sadist/Servant
Reveille
Time Bomb

All Souls is Tony Aguilar (Totimoshi), Meg Castellanos (Totimoshi), Tony Tornay (The Desert Sessions, Fatso Jetson) and Erik Trammel (Black Elk).

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All Souls, “Silence”

All Souls, “Never Know”

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Totimoshi Sort of Announce New Drummer; Playing L.A. on Thursday

Posted in Whathaveyou on March 13th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

I dug what drummer Chris Fugitt brought to Totimoshi on the band’s last album, 2011’s Avenger (review here), and apparently the band did too, since even though he moved halfway across the country, founders Tony Aguilar and Meg Castellanos haven’t completely parted ways with him. Still, time and gigs march on, so with new part-timer Derrick Hostetter, Totimoshi will be headlining tomorrow night at the Silverlake Lounge.

Details and badass poster follow, courtesy of the PR wire:

TOTIMOSHI Inducts New Drummer

New Live Actions Begin Via Headlining LA Show This Thursday

Los Angeles-based desert rock trio TOTIMOSHI has revamped its lineup and will break in the new blood this week at a special hometown show.

Following the their latest LP, Avenger — released in 2011 via At A Loss Recordings — TOTIMOSHI has been on somewhat of a live hiatus for the past year or so due to the partial departure of drummer Chris Fugitt. While Chris remains in the band’s official lineup, he now lives halfway across the country, so the band’s founding members — bassist Meg Castellanos and vocalist/guitarist Tony Aguilar — have recruited additional drummer Derrick Hostetter in the interim. Having played and toured in Illinois punk bands in the 90’s, and having formed and played in various electronic bands in the Peoria area, Hostetter relocated to the West Coast, recording three albums with San Francisco-based band Cast Of Thousands, two records with The Bruises and Seeking Empire, as well as LA-based hardcore act Bough Breaks.

TOTIMOSHI will perform live with Derrick for the first time this Thursday, March 14th at a hometown headlining show at the Silverlake Lounge, with support from Gaytheist, Stripper Pussy and Dolphins n Shit.

TOTIMOSHI Live:
3/14/2013 Silverlake Lounge – Los Angeles, CA w/ Gaytheist, Stripper Pussy, Dolphins n Shit

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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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Totimoshi Interview with Tony Aguilar: Portrait of the Artist in Motion

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

That Totimoshi guitarist/vocalist Anthony Aguilar was on the road when we spoke was no big surprise. The principal songwriter behind the Los Angeles (by way of Oakland) outfit’s six albums spends most of his time touring, whether it’s with his own band, or as guitar tech for the Melvins or tour manager for Neurosis, Shrinebuilder or Sleep. Many of the skeletal parts of the latest Totimoshi outing, Avenger, were written in transit — and maybe that’s behind some of the energy the songs just can’t seem to shake.

Avenger (review here) marks Totimoshi‘s first studio outing since departing from Volcom Entertainment, the imprint on which their last two installments — 2006’s Ladrón and 2008’s Milagrosa — were released, and while the 10 tracks continue the complex melodic development that songs from those records like “Dance of Snakes” and “Gnat” first began to demonstrate, there is an undeniable noise rock crunch in Aguilar‘s guitar as well that comes across right from the bluesy swagger of “Mainline” down through the grandiose epic “Waning Divine,” which features guest appearances from Mastodon‘s Brent Hinds and Scott Kelly of Neurosis. It’s a sound fit for the oft-groundbreaking At a Loss Recordings.

The drummer for the Melvins, Dale Crover, also shows up in the intro and elsewhere, but Avenger is much more than Totimoshi showing off the fact that they have cool friends. The chemistry between Aguilar and bassist/vocalist Meg Castellanos is pivotal to the album’s success, as is the input of drummer/vocalist Chris Fugitt, whose versatility in no small part allows the band to roam in the varied and genre-defying directions they do on a cut like “Rose,” which is just as exciting for its melodic apex as for its stylized heaviness. Having also been fortunate enough to see Totimoshi live supporting Avenger, and earlier in the band’s career, it’s apparent that they’ve hit new levels of creativity, confidence and mastery of their craft.

Totimoshi are, and always have been, beholden to themselves. That comes across as important to Aguilar in the following interview, and that he takes the time to consider his band’s place in the overall sphere is no great surprise considering the effort that goes into actually making the songs. In our phone conversation, he discussed the touring lifestyle, the tribulations surrounding the 2002 album, Monoli, working with Melvins producer Toshi Kasai on Avenger instead of Helmet‘s Page Hamilton (who helmed Ladrón and Milagrosa), the differences between headlining a tour and playing in a support slot, potential future directions, and much more.

Please find the complete Q&A after the jump, and enjoy.

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Live Review: Totimoshi and Pigs in Brooklyn, NY, 08.20.11

Posted in Reviews on August 23rd, 2011 by JJ Koczan

A much-needed dinner with The Patient Mrs. meant getting to the Saint Vitus bar after both Fashion Week and Bezoar played, which left Pigs and Totimoshi still to come on the bill for my second night in Brooklyn. This time, I rolled into the place like an expert, my awkwardly large camera bag on my shoulder, and set up shop at the bar for a homebrew before Pigs went on.

My positive first impressions the night before were confirmed when the bartender, instead of pretending to have never seen me before after a moment of recognition (as is the custom in the city), asked me, “Weren’t you here last night?” I said I was and a pleasant conversation ensued. Imagine human interaction. Very cool.

When Pigs got going, I made my way past Totimoshi‘s merch — in my mind saying, “I don’t need to buy the record right now,” as if it wasn’t inevitable — through the curtain and into the back room to watch their set. The trio is made up of guitarist/vocalist Dave Curran (Unsane, Players Club), drummer Jim Paradise (Players Club) and bassist/vocalist Andrew Schneider (Slughog, also producer for The Brought Low and countless others in and around NYC and beyond); all three Brooklyn locals. The sound was probably what you’d expect if you ever heard Players Club, resting on the spectrum between that band’s riffier, somewhat melodic take and Unsane‘s flat-out noise aggression.

They’ve been around for a bit, but it was my first time seeing them (quite a weekend of firsts I had), and I was eager to do so. The occasional interplay between Curran and Schneider on vocals did a lot to offset the visceral screams from the former alone, and Paradise proved to be yet third in the line of excellent drummers I saw this weekend at Saint Vitus — I’d soon add Chris Fugitt from Totimoshi to complete the list — and though the changes in approach between the songs were subtle, I got a sense of them just from hearing the songs live once through, which makes me suspect the material comes across even more diverse on record. As all three members of Pigs (plus Unsane‘s Chris Spencer, who was also at the show) are behind Coextinction Recordings, the avenue for hearing recorded versions seems obvious.

Last time I saw Totimoshi was circa 2008 at the now-kaput basement Club Midway in Manhattan. Like Pearls and Brass the night before, they’re a band I’ve been a fan of for years on top of years who’ve been largely underappreciated by those outside a limited critical circle. Unlike Pearls and Brass, though, Totimoshi never stopped. I did wind up buying a copy of Avenger, the new album, before they went on, and regretted it not for one moment after their set got going, as it’s where most of what they played was taken from.

Set-wise, they went no further back than 2006’s Ladrón — “Viva Zapata” and “The Dance of Snakes” were highlights — and of the newer cuts, “Mainline” proved the most immediately recognizable. As a special surprise, they included a cover of the Hendrix classic “Are You Experienced?” that set the song’s original swagger against Totimoshi‘s desert-inflected tonality. Guitarist/vocalist Anthony “Tonymoshi” Aguilar (no one calls him that that I know of, but being a fan of portmanteau, I’m trying to start the trend) convincingly delivered both the lines and blissed out leads of that song and of Avenger closer “Waning Divine,” cutting the song somewhat short at the end, but still giving enough of an impression for the crowd to get a sense of what Mastodon‘s Brent Hinds contributes to the album.

Bassist Meg Castellanos and aforementioned drummer Fugitt both contributed vocals to “The Fool” — the latter through a headset microphone that made him look a little bit like a motivational speaker — which proved even catchier in person than on disc. The body of Castellanos‘ Rickenbacker was roughly the size of her own torso, but she wielded it expertly nonetheless, her tone melding with Aguilar‘s own and her stage presence complementing his sometimes frenetic or spastic energy with a kind of subdued confidence as the trio plowed through the instrumental “Calling all Curs.”

For his part, Fugitt looked like a consummate professional. The drumming gloves might have helped, but in watching him play (and as I say, I’d already had a dose of killer drumming to compare), it’s not that he lacked conviction, but that he looked like you could have put any style of music in front of him and he’d have been able to play it just as well. I don’t know his history in terms of projects he’s been involved in, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s done session work. His style was creative and his playing so solid that it seemed like he’d have no trouble sitting down with anyone’s song, know it front to back in five minutes and play it with the abandon of a kid in the garage who thinks no one’s around.

As the third in the three-piece with founders Aguilar and Castellanos, he was more than good company to keep. Totimoshi‘s set seemed short (they cut the title track from Ladrón from their written setlist), but was wholly satisfying anyway, and for the second night in a row, I felt happy to have made the trip into Brooklyn. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Saint Vitus — I was a little tempted to show up on Sunday, just for the hell of it — but whenever it is, I’ll be glad to be there.

A couple extra Totimoshi pics after the jump.

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Totimoshi, Avenger: Time Spent in Paradise

Posted in Reviews on August 16th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

As they approach 15 years of existence in 2012, hard-touring Los Angeles trio Totimoshi return to the heavy crunch of their earlier albums on their sixth full-length, Avenger. 2008’s Milagrosa – produced by Helmet’s Page Hamilton and Toshi Kasai (the Melvins, Shrinebuilder) and released on Volcom – found Totimoshi heading in a more melodic direction, and while Avenger, which is out on forward-thinking underground imprint At a Loss Recordings, keeps some of that complexity, guitarist/vocalist Tony Aguilar’s tone is beefier and the three extra years of road-time he and bassist/backing vocalist Meg Castellanos have put in with drummer Chris Fugitt (who debuted with the band on Milagrosa) shows in the fluidity of their arrangements. Much of Avenger, which was produced by Kasai alone, traffics in the thoughtful and rhythmic melancholy for which Totimoshi have become most known, but the band are adventurous as ever as well, pushing forward into more open-toned sprawl here and there and going as far as to include guest appearances from Dale Crover (the Melvins, Shrinebuilder), Brent Hinds (Mastodon), and Scott Kelly (Neurosis).

The latter two show up on the stylistically out-there closer “Waning Divine,” which is Totimoshi’s most experimental excursion to date, trading in the comparatively straightforward and almost punk-ish drive of earlier cuts like the opening title-track (which follows a brief intro) or its chorus-centric follow up, “The Foot,” for a solid six-and-a-half-minute build capped by a solo from Hinds that’s well placed as the payoff for the whole of Avenger. All told, the record is just 42 minutes, but in that time, Totimoshi manage to work in a variety of moods. The aforementioned “Avenger” is about as pure as Melvins-worship can get (the two bands have toured together extensively over the years, and Aguilar techs for Buzz Osborne, so it’s an influence they come by honestly), and as Aguilar delivers the lines, “I have punch/I have kick/I will slash and wear your skin/I will teach you not to look at me” and threatens a feast of hemlock tea and strychnine meat in his characteristic snarl, the aggression is well met by his guitar work, Castellanos’ bass and Fugitt’s drumming. Immediately, Avenger presents the intensity of Totimoshi at their best – which is perhaps the element most absent from Milagrosa and the source of any comparison to the band’s older material – and from there, the band is able to capitalize on that momentum however they see fit.

Over the years, Aguilar has managed to turn his aforementioned snarl into a bona fide melodic approach, and one of the most effective aspects of Avenger is the balance it strikes between songwriting and its wheels-about-to-come-off feel. Fugitt is most at home in that element of Totimoshi’s sound – his fills on “The Fool” feel as though they could completely undo the song at any moment, but he’s never out of control. That song also shows the band’s grown capacity for melody and structure both in and out of its layered chorus, which sets up the punkish cabaret stomp of “Mainline” all the more effectively. Commencing with Avenger’s dirtiest riff and drunken bluesy sway, it moves into a solo to match, but then Fugitt steps it up on the drums and the half-minute delivers the title line with handclaps and one of Avenger’s most memorable flashes. “Calling all Curs” begins with Castellanos’ considerably-toned lead in and jams out a solid riff as the album’s only instrumental, but in the context of the record as a whole, it’s hard to see it as more than a cool groove and a stepping stone to side A closer “Rose.”

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