Hard to believe that by the time they finish this upcoming US tour, complete with stops at Maryland Deathfest as well as the 71Grind in Colorado and Northwest Terrorfest in their native Seattle, it will have been almost exactly half a decade since Samothrace released their last album, Reverence to Stone (review here). I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live their life or anything, but I think it might be time for a follow-up. Of course, the megadoomers have toured regularly since that offering landed like a giant-sized concrete slab carrying other concrete slabs — also it landed on a slab of concrete, and from a considerable height — but still, a third album would be welcome, even after they did the Live at Roadburn outing capturing their set from 2014 at the Netherlands-based fest, at which they, naturally, killed (review here).
They go in the good company of prog-sludge rockers He Whose Ox is Gored, and will be joined on select shows by Void Omnia as well. Their announcement went an awful lot like this:
It’s been a while since we have done a run in the States. Time to change that!! Headlining dates with appearances at Maryland Death Fest, 71Grind Fest and Northwest Terror Fest
This time being joined by our friends in Hewhoseoxisgored and select dates with our friends in Void Omina!!
See you soon!!
Wed 5/17/17 Great Falls, MT Back Alley Pub Fri 5/19/17 Fargo, ND The Aqurarium Sat 5/20/17 Minneapolis, MN The Reverie Sun 5/21/17 Chicago, IL Reggies Joint Mon 5/22/17 Cleveland, OH Now Thats Class Tue 5/23/17 Brooklyn, NY Saint Vitus Thur 5/25/17 Baltimore, MD Maryland Death Festival Fri 5/26/17 Atlanta, GA Club 529 Sat 5/27/17 New Orleans, LA Siberia Sun 5/28/17 Houston, TX Rudyards Tue 5/30/17 Austin, TX The Lost Well Wed 5/31/17 Dallas, TX Three Kings Thur 6/1/17 Oklahoma City, OK 89th St. Fri 6/2/17 Colorado Springs, CO 71 Grind Festival Sat 6/3/17 Salt Lake City, UT Loading Dock Sun 6/4/17 Las Vegas, NV Beauty Bar Tue 6/6/17 Tempe, AZ Yucca Tap Room Wed 6/7/17 Tucson, AZ Hotel Congress Thur 6/8/17 Los Angeles, CA Complex Fri 6/9/17 San Diego, CA Soda Bar Sat 6/10/17 Oakland, CA Golden Bull Thurs 6/15/16 Seattle, WA Northwest Terror Fest
[Click play above to stream ‘Scum of the Earth’ by Wounded Giant. Vae Victis is out April 1 on STB Records.]
Translated from the Latin, the title of Wounded Giant‘s second long-player, Vae Victis, reads as ‘woe to the defeated.’ I’m not sure what contextually that might have to do with the image of Grigori Rasputin, whose wide-eyed glare haunts the mushroom-laden front cover of the regularly-topless Seattle band’s first full-length for STB Records, which arrives following their 2015 split with Goya (review here) on the same label and a self-released 2013 debut album, Lightning Medicine, unless they’re somehow making reference to the Russian Revolution, but if defeat is the theme throughout Vae Victis, the band seem to do an awful lot of conquering for it to work on a meta level.
Rather, from the nine-minute opening title-track — also the longest cut of the seven included (immediate points) — the three-piece stomp and chug their way triumphantly through a dense slog of riffly mud and Pacific Coast grode, gleefully coated in hesher grungus on the Matt Pike-schooled “Vae Victis” itself and all that follows, whether it’s the interlude “Emmanentize the Eschaton” with samples from the Jonestown death tape or the nodding groove they bring to the politically suspect and woefully catchy take on Devo‘s “Mongoloid” that closes. One does not imagine guitarist/vocalist BobbyJames,bassist Dylan A. Rogers or drummer Alex Bytnar would be quick to claim any such victories unless perhaps the requisite trophy came coated in mud and had a statue on top flipping the bird, but the LP-limit-stretching 49-minute run of Vae Victis, produced by Billy Anderson and presented in STB‘s usual gorgeous array of limited and deluxe vinyl editions (one includes a ring), could easily put a few notches in its belt if it so chose.
To wit, Wounded Giant have their own nine-percent ABV beer courtesy of Oliver Brewing. Woe to your defeated liver.
The first line of the album? “I love corruption.” What unfolds from there in the title-cut — which includes its own translation — is a deceptive hook that arrives amid blown-out, riff-led sludge rock, somewhere between Sleep and High on Fire that establishes the tones but not necessarily the complete methodology or scope with which Wounded Giant will work on subsequent tracks. As an opener and accounting for roughly 20 percent of the album, though, its willful filth resounds amid all the drop-out-of-life proselytizing and increasingly harsh, noise-soaked paranoia, ending finally in a scream that gives way to the tom hits and rumble at the start of “Dystheist.”
Shorter, the second cut takes momentum from the end of “Vae Victis” and shoves it along via chugging guitar and double-kick from Bytnar, a more subdued vocal from James marking out a low-fuzzed verse that shifts into an explosive chorus, underlining an influence from thrash in its interplay between tension and release and leaving space in the second half for a guitar solo still too slow to call shredding but that gets the job done anyway and adds depth under the resurgent vocals as the apex hits.
An apparent drawdown is in the works, however, as the organ (or effects-guitar) of “Emmanentize the Eschaton” backs an even slower and even quieter launch for that four-plus-minute break, Wounded Giant moving toward the hypnotic perhaps in an effort to lull listeners into a false sense of security prior to the bludgeoning they’ll receive with centerpiece “Scum of the Earth” and “The Room of the Torch,” the two seven-minute slabs that follow. Either way, the Jonestown clips are manipulated for a suitably otherworldly feel and the ambience builds to some measure of payoff, though purposefully restrained.
Effectively so in making “Scum of the Earth” seem like a return to ground. Unless “Mongoloid” is a bonus track left off one or the other of the LP editions, I don’t know where the split between vinyl sides occurs, but presumably it’s “Scum of the Earth” starting side B, and if so, it seems fair to call the ensuing final four tracks of Vae Victis more straightforward than the first three, and as a (potential) second opener, “Scum of the Earth” sets that in motion. Rolling motion. Tense motion. Furious motion. The middle cut offers a hook and a payoff ending that make it a standout among its peer inclusions, again propelled by Bytnar‘s drumming, and the flow into the organ and tambourine intro of “The Room of the Torch,” over which James declares, “This is a love song,” before howling, is palpable; the groove of the subsequent track about as dug in as Wounded Giant get on their second outing. They execute it with a patience that seems far removed from “Dystheist,” but still maintain an energy especially in the later moments, the guitar working in some melody in a plotted lead over galloping kick and metallic winding basslines.
It comes apart at the end rather than claiming its ultimate victory — so close — but the slowdown into the post-Electric Wizard “Green Scar” is another marked win anyhow, with cleaner vocals and a grueling downer vibe that echoes some of what they did in the first half of the album without such a drastic departure in songwriting. As the last of the originals, “Green Scar” does right to finish with its chorus and a move into fading rumble and noise, as if to highlight the underlying core of structure that’s been at work on Vae Victis all along, if barely recognizable as such for the roughing-up it has received on an aesthetic level. “Mongoloid,” which was controversial upon its release in 1979, rounds out, and to their credit, Wounded Giant do well in recognizing what they can bring to its nodding rhythm tonally. I’m not sure they need it given the heavy lifting their own songs do in conveying their progression since the debut, but I doubt it’ll meet with much protest. Heavy Devo? Yeah, okay.
Across its two halves and six original inclusions, Vae Victis is quick to make a show of its corrosive aspects, but the ultimate story of the record is as much about what Wounded Giant accomplish in putting a spin on the churning semi-metal morass as it is about the thematic woes and defeats that may or may not outwardly define it. That duality can be heard in the interplay between songs on each side as well as in the fuckall that the trio proffer in their general attitude, but though it may seem incongruous at first, over repeat listens it provides Vae Victis with a depth that only makes the experience richer and more satisfying over a longer term. Wounded Giant are good at wallowing, in other words. They get sonic dirt under their fingernails and aren’t shy about putting it on display. And in so doing, they find a way to celebrate defeat without sacrificing the edge of loss amid the revelry.
Posted in Whathaveyou on February 17th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
No strangers to spending time on the road at this point, Year of the Cobra are set to make their first trip abroad. The occasion is an appearance set for March 4 at Hell Over Hammaburg, but they’ll be doing headlining gigs starting March 1 in Lille, France, with other shows in Germany as they continue to support their 2016 STB Records debut album, …In the Shadows Below (review here), as well as the limited single you can see above, originally put out by H42 Records and sold through last year, but the final copies of which the Seattle duo will have with them for the shows.
Upon their return, Year of the Cobra will take part March 11 in this year’s Ceremony of Sludge in Portland (info here), and they were also recently confirmed for adding a Pink Floyd cover to the impending Magnetic Eye Records tribute, The Wall [Redux], for which a crowdfunding campaign is on now (info here).
To top it all off, the band gives the hint below that they’ll be back in Europe this fall for a more complete tour. I would be downright amazed if that didn’t include one or more of the autumn festivals — Desertfest Belgium or Athens, Keep it Low, etc. — but that’s speculation on my part for now and we’ll have to see what comes together over the next few months. Seems fair to expect Year of the Cobra to have more US activity in the works as well, so keep an eye out.
Here’s the latest info:
This is YOTC’s first European tour and we’re heading over to play Hell Over Hammaburg Festival in Hamburg, Germany. We’re playing a handful of headlining dates around the festival in Germany and France.
H42 Records released a limited edition 7″, specifically for Hell Over Hammaburg and our tour – which sold out online within hours. We’ll have a small number of these for sale at our shows, they are the only copies available.
We’re planning on heading back to Europe in the fall for a full European tour.
Year of the Cobra on tour: March 1 Lille FR March 2 Essen DE March 3 Berlin DE March 4 Hamburg DE – Hell Over Hammaburg March 5 Freiburg DE
Posted in Whathaveyou on January 11th, 2017 by JJ Koczan
It’s a mini-tour in that it’s four dates, but it also covers the bulk of the geography of the West Coast, so you know, not really all that ‘mini.’ Seattle’s He Whose Ox is Gored are heading out as they continue to support their 2015 debut full-length, The Camel, the Lion, the Child (review here), and over the course of four nights, they’ll trek from Portland to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Sacramento. It’s that Portland to SF part that’s the real trouble, but the ride back northbound from L.A. to Sacramento is hardly an afternoon jaunt either.
Of course, the band aren’t exactly novices at this point when it comes to putting in time on the road, so it’s not like they’re not gonna make it, but one would hardly accuse them of taking it easy on themselves. Or, I suppose, on Dust Moth, with whom they’ll be touring.
The PR wire has it all like this:
HE WHOSE OX IS GORED: Ethereal Sludge Collective Confirms February Headlining Mini-Tour With Dust Moth; Video Teaser Posted
Ethereal progressive sludge collective HE WHOSE OX IS GORED will kick off the New Year with a West Coast headlining tour. The four-date mini excursion will commence on February 16th and make its way through Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Support will be provided by shoe gazing experimentalists Dust Moth featuring Ryan Frederiksen of These Arms Are Snakes.
“We are covering songs off all four releases, and may have a few surprises in the set as well,” issues the band of the upcoming dates. “We can’t wait to hit the road with our dear friends in Dust Moth. They are some of the hardest working, best people we know, and we couldn’t be more excited to share the stage with them for four nights.”
HE WHOSE OX IS GORED w/ Dust Moth: 2/16/2017 Ash Street Saloon – Portland, OR 2/17/2017 Thee Parkside – San Francisco, CA 2/18/2017 The Echo – Los Angeles, CA 2/19/2017 The Colony – Sacramento, CA
HE WHOSE OX IS GORED continues to tour in support of their critically-lauded The Camel, The Lion, The Child issued in 2015 via Bleeding Light Records. A monolithic, eight-track, near hour-long exercise in sonic alchemy, with The Camel, The Lion, The Child the Seattle unit travels far beyond the confines of traditional musical boundaries with a sound that’s at once cinematic, ethereal, and sprawling yet unequivocally heavy. Captured at Red Room and Ex Ex Audio in Seattle by Robert Cheek (Serial Hawk, Noise-A-Tron etc.) with additional recording at Avast Studios with Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Earth, Wolves In The Throne Room etc.), mixed by Matt Bayles (Isis, Mastodon etc.) and mastered by frequent collaborator, Blake Bickel, The Camel, The Lion, The Child is a truly cathartic audio expedition not to be ignored.
If you’ll allow me a sentimental moment: I remember quite clearly standing in front of the stage at Kimo’s in San Francisco in 2010 and singing along with Snail‘s Mark Johnson and Matt Lynch to the titular hook of their 2009 return album, Blood (review here). It was among the greatest joys of the day to do so again this past August at The Obelisk All-Dayer at the Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn. Some time passed between the two events, obviously, and Snail have put out two more records in the meantime in 2012’s Terminus (review here) and 2015’s Feral (review here) and shifted from a four-piece back to the original trio of Johnson on guitar, Lynch on bass and drummer Marty Dodson, but still, it was something special.
When I announced The Obelisk All-Dayer was a thing that was happening, Snail were among the first acts who got in touch with me, offering to make their way across the continent for what would be their first East Coast appearance ever in a history that stretched as far back as their 1993 self-titled debut (review here). The generosity of that gesture was unbelievable, but the truth of the matter is I’d already dreamed of having Snail involved in the show, as Feral was so decisively their best album to-date and those songs ones I very, very much wanted to see brought to life onstage. I’m hardly an impartial observer at this point, but they were even better in Brooklyn than they’d been six years earlier in California.
The video below for “Blood” was recorded at The Obelisk All-Dayer and takes footage captured by the esteemed Frank Huang and Jennifer Hendrix and manipulates it with some additional psychedelic weirdness suited to the overall vibe. But listen to the sound as well. Snail were so on-point that I was just blown away, and as I watch “Blood,” I can only keep my fingers crossed they follow this up with a companion clip for “Thou Art That,” or, you know, a tape release of the whole set. Either way. No pressure. Ha.
I’ve included the full-stream of Feral at the bottom of this post also. I know you’ve heard it, but hell, you should hear it again.
And please enjoy:
Snail, “Blood” at The Obelisk All-Dayer official live video
Happy New Year! The high point of 2016 (for us) was getting to play The Obelisk All-Dayer in Brooklyn. Matt combined footage from a variety of sources and the board tracks and created a really trippy video of our performance of ‘Blood.’ Check it out! See if you can find the footage of a person giving blood at a blood bank…
Video and Sound Production: Matt Lynch Footage courtesy of Frank Huang and Jennifer Hendrix. Photos by Jennifer Hendrix.
Special Thanks to: Jennifer Hendrix, Frank Huang, JJ Koczan and The Obelisk and all the folks who came to rock.
Posted in audiObelisk on December 27th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Seattle-based folk-blues guitarist Michael Wohl will release his new album, Windblown Blues, early next month. He’ll offer the full-length on CD and tape as he did with his prior Eight Pieces for Solo Guitar (review here) in 2013, but while both bask in a warm and organic creative spirit, the two outings could hardly be confused for each other. True to its title, that album was a minimalist affair, Wohl with a recording-into-a-tin-can-in-a-room sensibility to his approach, the whole thing feeling as DIY as it was and instrumental in its entirety. For Windblown Blues, Wohl expands the scope significantly. Still humble in its acoustic and organic roots, the 12-track/43-minute sophomore outing signals an immediately different intent on opener “Animals” via cello accompanying the guitar, and the arrangements continue to flesh out with fiddle, bass, pedal steel, drums, piano, all played by a range of guests, and — perhaps even more notably — vocals from Wohl and others as he takes on new original songs like the countrified “If I Could,” the semi-plugged “I Said too Much” and relatively minimal “Leaving the House of a Friend,” as well as traditional pieces like “In the Pines” (popularized by Lead Belly, also interpreted by Nirvana and countless others), “Cocaine Blues” (you may have heard Robert Johnson‘s version), and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” (see also Mississippi John Hurt). There are still plenty of instrumental pieces, from the aforementioned opener to the rambling solo guitar of “Ship of No Port” and electric-and-drum toe-tapper/near-samba “Ribosome,” but it’s a marked departure Wohl is making here, and one that ultimately serves him well over the course of the record.
The confidence of his vocals should be highlighted outright. Hailing from now-defunct classic-style heavy rockers Mystery Ship, he did sing in that band, but to do so in a context like Windblown Blues, with no distortion or tonal blast to hide behind, feels especially bold. Granted, he’s joined by no fewer than four other guest vocalists throughout — Alex Hagenah (also bass/guitar), Aaron Semer (also guitar), Danica Molenaar and Kate Voss — but his versions of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “In the Pines” find him standing alone and shining in the performance nonetheless, and as broad as the almost-CSNYian “Drown” seems next to the wholesome fiddle-laden finish of “Eastern Avenue Rag,” Wohl himself remains at the core of Windblown Blues and is responsible for guiding it down its deceptively varied path. That becomes a significant task as the lush melodies of “I Said too Much” shift into the piano-and-guitar “Pajaro,” but Windblown Blues holds firm to a clean-sounding sensibility no matter what its arrangements might bring — it was produced by Wohl and Tom Meyers, who also recorded at Ground Control in Ballard, Washington — and is united across its span by that while still coming across as natural and fluid in its transitions thanks to traditional songwriting and a generally subdued feel to the material. I wouldn’t at all call it humble in the same way as Eight Pieces for Solo Guitar, and Wohl seems to be moving at least partially away from willful primitivism in these songs — there are stretches on Windblown Blues that sound like a full band is playing because, essentially, one is — but this is still genuine Americana and carries with it a ready familiarity, whether that’s in the originals or the other pieces Wohl has chosen to include, and no doubt that will carry forward into whatever he decides to do from here.
Today I have the pleasure of hosting the premiere of “In the Pines” ahead of the proper record release next month. Amid this sonic expansion, it seemed only fair to get Wohl‘s perspective on the changes in approach that Windblown Blues represents, and he was kind enough to offer thoughtful introspection and insight into what went into the album’s making below.
Michael Wohl on Windblown Blues:
I started work on this record about two years ago. It represents a period of initial frustration that became one of a lot of musical growth and development . I was writing a lot of the songs as my old band, Mystery Ship, was coming undone. We had put in a lot of work, and I felt like our best days were around the corner, but things didn’t turn out that way. I’d started developing a solo style during the last part of those days, writing, recording, and playing out by myself. All of a sudden I found that to be my only outlet, which was scary and liberating at the same time.
My first solo recordings were all instrumental acoustic guitar explorations. As I continued to play shows by myself, I found that I wound up singing more and more, so this album represents a change in style. It’s not acoustic album; I’ve tried to push myself to write and arrange with respect to what the song calls for, rather than setting up initial parameters in which to work. I was also fortunate to have a huge stable of phenomenal players backing me up. Trying t o figure out which musicians would fit best in what songs as well as which would be better solo was a really cool part of the process. It was a new experience for me, and it brought the songs to a lot of places that I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve found that freedom to pursue whatever sounds I’m feeling to be one of the most rewarding things about my own music. I have a hard time zeroing in on a style to work within, so many times in my life I’ve shelved a song because it didn’t fit in with the aesthetic of a band I was with. I don’t have that problem any more.
In the process of recording, I think I developed as a singer a lot — “found my voice” so to speak — and more confidence in that. I also realized I pretty much blew my voice out and messed up my throat every time I sang with a loud band because I was trying to keep up with the volume.
I didn’t necessarily set out to do so, but I think the album paints a pretty good picture of the threads of my influences. I guess I’m trying to connect the dots and demonstrate that though there are some seemingly-disparate elements, it’s all a cohesive scene in my head. I started playing “In the Pines” a few years ago. I remember singing it with some friends on a lake up on Vancouver Island beneath a black blanket of stars and thinking it would be a good tune to offer up. I’d heard so many versions of it; Lead Belly’s original, the Kossoy Sisters version with the beautiful, haunting close harmony singing, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and of course the Nirvana version from “Unplugged in New York”.
It got me thinking about how these days I listen to a lot of these old folk and blues singers, but I’ve known that song through a different lens since I was very young. Like a lot of kids who were picking up guitars in the early-mid 90s, Nirvana and the Seattle scene had a huge influence on me. It was heavy, honest, and intense. Thinking about that really drove home the sense that there is a continuum from the folk, country, and blues tunes of the pre-WWII era through the folk revivals, psychedelia, and singer-songwriter eras of the ’50s/’60s/’70s, through the music of the ’90s and ’80s I was so inspired by when I first picked up a guitar.
Lori Goldston, who played the cello on the album on “Animals” played with Nirvana on that recording. When I thought about that, a lot of things kind of felt like they were folding inwards and like maybe musical development is not a linear thing. When the tunes all sound so superficially different, you start to think of the underlying fundamental quality – – what is it that draws you to a song in the first place, and what keeps you coming back? There’s an intense, unpolished quality to all of it, in which I think some grain of truth can be found. Trying to tap into that feeling is the guiding force for my music. If I feel that way upon playback, I’ll have done what I set out to do.
Posted in Whathaveyou on December 26th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Set to consume any and all light around them, as ever, SunnO))) have issued a new single as a name-your-price download and announced tour dates in the Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada for March 2017. In addition, the magnates of the form have also enacted a Bandcamp sale through the remainder of 2016 offering 35 percent off presumably as a favor to those of us whose finances are depleted as will happen circa the holidays. Some rare kindnesses on the part of SunnO))), who are much more known for the inherent cruelties and coldness of their approach, but take it either way while you can, since there are fewer darknesses out there more suited to January’s dismal stretch than that of the rumble and gurgle SunnO))) emit.
The PR wire has details, links and all that good stuff:
SUNN O))) To Tour Northeastern USA, Southeast Canada In March; Digital Bandcamp Sale And Free Track Available Through The Year’s End
The first set of SUNN O))) tour dates for 2017 sees the collective bringing their dense and arrhythmic blend of metal, drone, and minimalist music back to the Northeast USA and Southeastern realms of Canada for a week of performances. SUNN O))) will converge in Washington DC on March 12th, following with shows in Pittsburgh, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia confirmed through March 18th. Support on all shows will be provided by Southern Lord labelmates, Montreal-based Big | Brave, whom have also joined SUNN O))) on their recent tours of the Southwest, Southeast and Midwest states and Europe.
This follows the recent announcement of SUNN O)))’s appearance at London’s massive performing arts venue, Barbican Centre, as part of this year’s Convergence Festival on March 21st. Support for the performance will come from Icelandic singer and cellist, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has played and recorded with bands such as Pan Sonic, Throbbing Gristle, and Múm. Guðnadóttir also wrote the arrangements for the Wildbirds & Peacedrums session as part of the Barbican’s Nils Frahm curated Possibly Colliding marathon weekend in July.
Tickets for the East Coast shows go on sale this Friday, December 23rd at 10am local time. Tickets for the Barbican performance are available HERE.
As Winter Solstice approaches, SUNN O))) extends thanks to their fans for their support throughout 2016, and as a token of their appreciation, offer a free track as well as a digital sale through the rest of the year. Fans can now find the exclusive track «???? // ??» (aka “Aokigahara // Jukai” from the flexi 7″ which was released together with some vinyl copies of Kannon) for free download through the end of December at THIS LOCATION. To take advantage of the 35% Bandcamp discount, go to sunn.bandcamp.com or sunn-live.bandcamp.com and enter discount code SOLSTICE2016.
SUNN O))) Tour Dates: 3/12/2017 930 Club – Washington, DC w/ Big | Brave 3/13/2017 The Rex – Pittsburgh, PA w/ Big | Brave 3/14/2017 Queen Elizabeth Theatre – Toronto, ON w/ Big | Brave 3/15/2017 La Sat – Montreal, QC w/ Big | Brave 3/16/2017 The Coolidge – Boston, MA w/ Big | Brave 3/17/2017 Knockdown Center – Brooklyn, NY w/ Big | Brave 3/18/2017 Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA w/ Big | Brave 3/21/2017 Barbican – London, UK @ Convergence Festival w/ Hildur Guðnadóttir
Posted in Features on December 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan
Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.
I say this every year: These are my picks. If you’re unfamiliar with this site, or you don’t come here that often, or if you do and just normally don’t give a crap — all of which is cool — you should know it’s all run by one person. One human being. Me. My name is JJ, and this is a list of what I think are the best albums that were released in 2016.
Since before 2016 began, I’ve kept a running list of releases. My criteria for what gets included in this list is largely unchanged — it’s a balance between what I feel are important records on the level of what they achieve, what I listened to most, what held some other personal appeal, and what I think did the best job of meeting the goals it set for itself. Pretty vague, right? That’s the idea.
The nature of worldwide heavy has become so broad that to encompass it all under some universal standard is laughable. Judging psychedelia, garage rock, heavy psych, doom, sludge and so on by the same measure makes no sense, and as genres continue to splinter and remake themselves as we’ve seen them doing all year and over the last several years, one must be malleable in one’s own taste. We’ve seen a new generation of heavy rock bands emerge in the last three-plus years. It’s been amazing, and there are a few pivotal second and third records that came out in 2016 to affirm that movement underway. Look for it to continue into 2017 and beyond.
This year more than any other seemed to want to bring the different sides together. A laudable goal. Thick riffing marked with flourish of psychedelia. Spacious doom bred against folk impulses. There’s been experimentation around melds that have led to considerable triumphs, and it just doesn’t seem to me that rigid standards can apply. It’s why I don’t grade reviews and never did.
Sound is evolving now as it always has been and as it will keep doing, but like any year, 2016 had a full share of landmarks to offer as a part of that process. As universal development hopefully remains ongoing, it’s only right that we celebrate the accomplishments helping to push it along its winding and sometimes divergent-seeming paths.
I have no doubt you know what I mean. Let’s get to the list:
Seems only fair to start with a record I couldn’t put down. Finnish trio Talmud Beach‘s second album and Svart debut, Chief, hit on just the right blend of laid back, semi-acoustic groove-blues, psychedelia and classic progressive folk rock, but with the exception of its sprawling dreamscape title-track (a welcome arrival at the finale), it also kept the songwriting simple, resulting in a natural, pastoral feel that only highlighted their melodic range in songs like “Mountain Man” and “Snow Snow Snow.” I think it flew under a lot of people’s radar, but I’ve kept going back to it over the course of the year and I see no reason to stop.
Space is still the place. I’ve already highlighted closer “Artificial Light” from Comet Control‘s sophomore LP, Center of the Maze as my favorite song of 2016, so I’ll spare you the longwinded treatise on its languid cosmic glories — this time — but consider this a reminder that that song was by no means the limit of what the eight-track release had to offer in terms of breadth. From the opening push of “Dig out Your Head” to the dream-drift of “Sick in Space,” it unfolded tonal presence and a melodic depth that engaged a gorgeous, multifaceted sonic wash as it moved onward toward that landmark conclusion.
There was not a level on which Madison, Wisconsin’s Droids Attack didn’t make it clear they were going all-out, all-in on Sci-Fi or Die. Even the title speaks to the stakes involved. And sure enough, the trio executed their fourth album with a sense of urgency and professionalism in songcraft, production, artwork (discussed here) and nuance of presentation that managed to make even a song called “Clawhammer Suicide” a classy affair. As guitarist/vocalist Brad Van said on the hidden title-track, “Death to false stoner thrash.” Droids Attack brought that ethic and more to life across the entire record.
A winding road brought Beelzefuzz around to following up their 2013 self-titled debut (review here), and as The Righteous Bloom brought guitarist/vocalist Dana Ortt and drummer Darin McCloskey together with bassist Bert Hall and lead guitarist Greg Diener, it found their songwriting more expansive, more progressive and dug further into their own particular oddball sense of grandeur. I’ve said on multiple occasions that no one out there is doing what Beelzefuzz are doing and that continues to be true. Even as a first offering from a new lineup of the band, The Righteous Bloom took bold and exciting forward steps.
Down to business. Immediately. Not a moment to spare. Taking part in what can only be considered a landmark year for Ripple Music, Baltimore’s Foghound issued The World Unseen as an answer to their 2013 debut, Quick, Dirty and High (review here), and upped their game across the board. From the intensity in the hooks of “Message in the Sky” and Rockin’ and Rollin'” to the quiet interlude of “Bridge of Stonebows” and the mid-paced heavy rock nod of “Never Return,” they made a strong case for themselves among their label’s foremost acts and found individualism in the growth of their songwriting. It was a kick in the ass you weren’t going to forget.
Put out by the band digitally in Dec. 2015 and issued on vinyl in 2016, Egypt‘s second LP, Endless Flight may be somewhat debatable in terms of when it actually landed (hence “25a.,” above), but the quality of the six-tracker more than warrants inclusion anyway. Rolling dense, massively-fuzzed groove, its nine-minute opening title-track set the course for the Fargo, North Dakota, three-piece, and they only grew the heavy revelry from there, as heard on the penultimate “Black Words,” which seemed to be chewing on rocks even as it played back and forth in tempo, build and push. The converted never had it so good.
There seems to be no stopping the Chiliomodi-based 1000mods, who with their third album have stepped to the forefront of Greece’s populous and vibrant heavy rock underground. Progressed well beyond where even 2014’s impressive Vultures (review here) found them, they seemed to hit a stride with Repeated Exposure To… thanks in part to road time and the ability to bring that energy directly into songs like the eight-minute roller “Loose” and the sizable crashes of “Groundhog Day.” Momentum working in their favor could be heard front-to-back from “Above 179” to “Into the Spell,” moving them toward something ever-more crucial and marking a considerable achievement along that path. 2017 might be a good time for them to test the waters with initial US shows.
Quick turnaround from Roman heavy psych magnate Gabriele Fiori (guitar/vocals) and company, but though it hit just about 13 months after their fourth full-length, Hawkdope (review here), Black Rainbows, Stellar Prophecy wholly succeeded in making an impact of its own, cuts like the oozing, organ-laced “Woman” and 11-minute jam-out triumph “Golden Widow” showcasing an approach in a continuous state of refinement that seems to get rawer as it goes, shifting like a rogue planetoid toward some maddening cosmic realization. How something can seem both so frenetic and so blissful is still a mystery, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Stellar Prophecy resonate as it does, but either way, Black Rainbows brought together some of the year’s most efficient psychedelic immersion.
Borracho don’t seem to release an album until they have something to say. That was to their credit on Atacama, their third LP and label debut for Kozmik Artifactz debut. Also their second collection issued as a trio behind 2013’s Oculus (review here), it distinguished itself from its predecessor in its sense of overarching flow, shifting between the ahead-thrust of “Gold from Sand” into the 10-minute sample-laden jam “Overload” to start out with such ease that the listener had little choice but to follow along. With an expanded scope on “Drifted away from the Sun” and the lightly-strummed memento mori “Flower,” Borracho found new avenues of expression to complement their well established dense, heavy riffing, and took obvious care in crafting their most realized LP yet.
Nothing Brooklyn’s The Golden Grass does feels like happenstance, and though their classic-styled boogie is imbued with a vibrant, friendly positive energy, there’s an underlying meticulousness in their arrangements and in their songwriting that came further into focus on Coming Back Again, their sophomore release 2014’s self-titled debut (review here). A more progressive take showed itself in “Reflections” and “Down the Line,” and taken in combination with the bookends “Get it Together” and “See it Through,” the three-piece stood on ground that was even more their own than on the first record, striking a careful balance between the willful exploration of new elements and the outright need for tracks to directly engage their listeners with catchy hooks and upbeat vibes. They did it. Expect continued growth.
For something so awash in fuzz, so nodding in its rhythms, so let’s-push-the-vocals-back-under-this-huge-awesome-fucking-riff, Curse the Son‘s Isolator was also remarkably clearheaded in its purposes. With the added vocal harmonies of “Callous Unemotional Traits,” the far-off spaces of “Hull Crush Depth” and the stoner metal despair of “Aislamiento,” the Connecticut three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Ron Vanacore, capital-‘d’ Drummer Michael Petrucci and newcomer bassist Brendan Keefe drew a direct, intentional line to sometimes-grueling (hello, “Sleepwalker Wakes”) weighted tonality and found justification for their largesse in its own being. Like 2012’s Psychache (review here), I expect to be returning to Isolator over a longer term than this single year of release.
I feel like I need to explain myself here. Make no mistake, Neurosis‘ Fires Within Fires is among the year’s most accomplished offerings. There’s just about no way it wouldn’t be. So why not top 10? Top five? It’s a question of timing. With the long-running post-metal progenitors, it’s always a longer digestion period. It was about two years before 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here) really sunk in, and I expect Fires Within Fires will work similarly over the greater term. Maybe a little guilt on my part for the disparity between its quality and its placement, but rest assured, Neurosis remain among the most imperative bands walking the earth, and as they took on the full brunt of 30 years of unmitigated progression through Fires Within Fires, they were no less brazen in pushing themselves creatively than they’ve ever been.
Though the narrative of Conan has remained largely unchanged since their inception — hack, slash, kill, riff — and they still bask in nigh-on-unmatched tonal slaughter, their third full-length brings a few key developments. Perhaps most notable from opener “Throne of Fire” onward is the vocal interplay between guitarist/founder Jon Davis and bassist/longtime-engineer Chris Fielding, who joined after 2014’s Blood Eagle (review here). Adding Fielding‘s deeper growls allowed Davis to subtly move into a cleaner shout, and the emergent dynamic between them made Revengeance a decidedly expanded affair compared to Conan‘s past work. Adding drummer Rich Lewis to the mix was no minor shift either, and as much as Conan had already established their sheer dominance, they also sounded refreshed and set themselves up to keep growing.
Some records just feel like gifts, and though many of its lyrical positions were cynical — “Reality,” “21st Century Slave,” “Mind Control Machine,” “Red the Sign Post,” etc. — Freedom marked the 15th anniversary of Danish garage-psych rockers Baby Woodrose with dripping lysergic aplomb, reminding some four years after their last LP, 2012’s Third Eye Surgery (review here), that bandleader Lorenzo Woodrose is unparalleled when it comes to manifesting his take on the psychedelic victories of 13th Floor Elevators and classic-era Hawkwind — firmly at home levitating on the edge of time. Its swirl and underlying foundation of songwriting, its Richie Havens cover title-track, and its sprawling interstellar “Termination” were like a welcome check-in from another dimension, and I only hope it’s not four years before Woodrose sends the next signal. Earth needs this band.
I’m not going to discount the shuffle of “Sunday Speed Demon” or sleeze of “Sunday Speed Demon,” but where Geezer‘s self-titled third full-length really showed how far the New York heavy blues-psych trio have come was in its extended midsection jams, “Sun Gods,” “Bi-Polar Vortex” and “Dust,” each of which showed a distinct approach while feeding into an engaging flow between them, offering a blend of trailmarker hooks as they drifted into realms of organic chemistry previously uncharted by the band. The slow-motion swing of “Hangnail Crisis,” raucous push of “Superjam Maximus” and concluding bounce of “Stoney Pony” brought them back down to earth to finish out with a symmetry to the album’s opening, but Geezer kept a collective hand on the controls the whole voyage and when they landed, it was an arrival indeed, and very much what their two previous records were building toward.
Beautifully experimental with its 27-minute finisher “As Sure as the Sun,” EYE‘s Vision and the Ageless Light seemed throughout its whole 46-minute run to be executing a cohesive vision in its synth-soaked progressive textures. Between the intro “Book of the Dead” and the subsequent “Kill the Slavemaster,” “Searching,” “Dweller of the Twilight Void” and the already-noted closer, each piece had something different to offer that added to the full impact of the whole, and with guitarist Jon Finely and bassist Michael Sliclen joining founding drummer/vocalist Brandon Smith and synth/Mellotron/Moog-ist Lisa Bella Donna (also vocals and acoustic guitar), EYE added to the scope of 2013’s Second Sight (review here) and found a place for themselves where prog complexity didn’t need to come at the expense of memorable songwriting and spaced-out vibes. An absolute joy, front to back.
Even Fatso Jetson themselves would probably have to admit that six years — even a six years that saw several splits, singles, etc. — was too long between albums. Fortunately, Idle Hands saw the desert rock forebears in top form as regards their quirk-fueled songwriting, angular approach to punk and inimitable groove. Following 2010’s Archaic Volumes (review here) was no easy task, but with additional depth to the material from the contributions of guitarist Dino von Lalli — son of founding guitarist/vocalist Mario Lalli and nephew of founding bassist Larry Lalli — guest spots from his sister Olive Lalli as well as Sean Wheeler (the latter moves second cut “Portuguese Dream” into high-echelon strangeness) and the ever-propulsive drumming of Tony Tornay, Fatso Jetson were both all over the place and right at the core of where they most ought to be sonically. At 56 minutes, it hardly seemed long enough.
Each song was like a different persona the band adopted momentarily, whether it was the Bowie-goes-proto-goth-prog of organ-ic opener “Transparent Eyeball” or the grim pastoralia of “Mirror Boy” and the condemnations/proclamations of “Drugged up on the Universe,” but wherever Hexvessel went on their third full-length and Century Media debut, When We are Death, that unifying theme went with them. Death. It was everywhere in the Finland-based genre-benders’ deeply varied approach, though its presence made their material in no way off-putting, and in the case of cuts like “Cosmic Truth” or the later “Mushroom Spirit Doors,” not even dark, and as it drew the tracks together despite working in different sounds and style, it became apparent that When We are Death worked because of a universal quality in songwriting and presentation allowing for such drastic shifts without any risk of losing the audience.
Yawning Man guitarist Gary Arce — a key figure in the development of desert rock and a player of unmatched tone, period — had quite a year, between Zun‘s Burial Sunrise, his main outfit and his collaboration with Fatso Jetson vs. HifiKlub, but it was the dreamscape drift of songs like “Come Through the Water” and “All that You Say I Am” as well as the subtle hooks of “Into the Wasteland” and “All for Nothing” that, for me, made this the highlight. Sure, bringing in vocalists Sera Timms (Ides of Gemini, Black Mare) and John Garcia (ex-Kyuss, Slo Burn, Vista Chino, etc.) and having them swap back and forth between the tracks didn’t hurt either, but the wash of ethereal presence in Arce‘s guitar was an excellent showcase for his patience and improvisational sensibilities, and the spaces Burial Sunrise covered seemed to have an infinite horizon all their own. Will hope for a follow-up, will hope Garcia and Timms return, and will hope for a duet.
One had reasonably high expectations for the debut full-length from London’s Elephant Tree after their 2014 EP Theia (review here) so deftly blended spacious, sitar-laced heavy psychedelic rock with more visceral sludge impulses — a difficult mix to pull off — but I think it would’ve been impossible to see the quality of this self-titled outing coming in any substantive way. Gone were the screams, in was a depth of tone and nigh-on-perfect tempo — see “Dawn” and “Aphotic Blues,” as well as the acoustic “Circles” between them — and where some first albums have a kind of tentative, feeling-it-out vibe, guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley (interview here), bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, drummer Sam Hart and sitarist/vocalist/engineer Riley MacIntyre took utter command of the proceedings. They won’t have the element of surprise working for them next time, but as Elephant Tree made perfectly clear in its biggest surprise of all, neither do they need it.
If you were to ask me to summarize in one word the last four-plus years of Mos Generator‘s tenure, since their reactivation with 2012’s Nomads (review here) and the subsequent lineup changes and hard-touring that followed 2014’s Electric Mountain Majesty (review here), I’d say “go.” I might say it three times: Go-go-go. One of three LP-ish offerings out this year, the studio album Abyssinia embodied this ethic as it started with immediate momentum on “Strangest Times” and “You’ve Got a Right” and seemed to push itself into new ground as it went. Guitarist/vocalist/founder Tony Reed brought heavy boogie to bear at a frenetic clip, but Abyssinia offset its early mania with later progressive stylization on “There’s No Return from Nowhere,” “Time and Other Thieves” and harmonized closer “Outlander,” so that in addition to representing their furious creativity, it also brought them to places they’ve never been before in sound.
In some ways, Future Echo Returns was simply picking up where Belfast’s Slomatics left off with 2014’s Estron (review here), as heard on the riff of lead-in track “Estronomicon,” but as the third in a purported trilogy following that record and 2012’s A Hocht, it also brought the tonecrushing three-piece to Skyhammer Studio to work with producer Chris Fielding (Conan) and presented a linear storyline that, while rife with standout moments in cuts like “Electric Breath,” the ambient “Ritual Beginnings” and ultra-catchy “Supernothing,” found a genuine sense of resolution in the finale “Into the Eternal” that spoke to the scope the entire work was meant to represent — not just itself, but an entirety spanning three albums. Not a minor feat, but what also made Future Echo Returns so resonant was how well the material stood on its own, so that even without the narrative context, it was immersive, hypnotic and unbridled in its heft.
After two landmarks issued by Small Stone in 2014’s The Conjuring (review here) and 2012’s The Black Code (reviews here and here), Texas forerunners of riff Wo Fat gave a concise rundown of their appeal in the six-track Ripple debut and sixth LP overall, Midnight Cometh. Their ongoing development as found them bringing together a two-sided personality of memorable songs and open, fluid jams, and cuts like “There’s Something Sinister in the Wind,” “Of Smoke and Fog,” “Three Minutes to Midnight” and “Nightcomer” emphasized the next stage of this process, while the shuffling “Riffborn” and swaggering blues rock of “La Dilleme de Detenu” gave listeners a chance to touch ground every now and again. Over the last two-plus years, Wo Fat have become a point of influence for other, particularly American, acts — see labelmates Geezer — and Midnight Cometh assured that will be the case going forward too; a status well-earned.
Offered up this summer as a limited self-release and picked up by no less than Stickman Records (Motorpsycho, Elder), Orion might be the most molten inclusion on this list. It’s also my pick for 2016 Debut of the Year, and to hear cuts like “She Sleeps on a Vine,” “Kerosene,” the sprawling closer “Drinking from the River Rising,” or even just to take the whole record front-to-back, which was clearly how the band intended it be experienced, there’s just about no competition in that regard that stands up. The Rochester, NY, three-piece showed marked promise on their 2013 demo (review here) and 2015 split with Lé Betre (review here), but the listenability of Orion — which earned every single one of its repeat visits — made it a triumph on a different level entirely, and distinguished King Buffalo as a formidable presence in the sphere of US heavy psychedelia, fostering a sound no less soulful for its outward cosmic reach and to-be-measured-in-lightyears scale of potential.
7. Wight, Love is Not Only What You Know
Released by Fat and Holy Records, Kozmik Artifactz, Import Export Music and SPV. Reviewed Sept. 7.
German outfit Wight answered significant anticipation on their third album, Love is Not Only What You Know, some four years after 2012’s Through the Woods into Deep Water (review here) and undertook a significant evolution in sound. A transition from a trio to a four-piece and adding a strong current of funk to their heavy psych groove and boogie resulted in cuts like “The Muse and the Mule,” the jammed-out “Kelele” and “The Love for Life Leads to Reincarnation,” which were as danceable as they were nod-ready, and when complemented by shorter classic rockers like “Helicopter Mama” and “I Wanna Know What You Feel” (still plenty funky) and the Eastern-tinged interlude “Three Quarters,” gave Love is Not Only What You Know scope to match its ass-shaking encouragement. It was a spirit unto itself among 2016 releases, but ultimately, the key to understanding the record was right there in the title: It was all about love, and wherever Wight went in a given track, they never lost sight of that.
A decade and a half after 2001’s Revolution Rock (discussed here), Sweden’s Greenleaf most embodied that ethic with Rise Above the Meadow, their sixth long-player and Napalm Records debut. 2014’s Trails and Passes (review here) represented the key step of founding guitarist Tommi Holappa (interview here) bringing vocalist Arvid Johnsson into the lineup, but Rise Above the Meadow built exponentially on what that album achieved, bolstered by work as a touring band and a revitalized songwriting process heard in “Howl,” “A Million Fireflies,” “You’re Gonna be My Ruin,” the stomping “Golden Throne” and “Tyrants Tongue,” among others. I refuse to discount the quality of Trails and Passes, 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) or 2007’s landmark Agents of Ahriman (review here), but as Greenleaf shifted toward a style more reminiscent of Holappa‘s later output with Dozer, they also seemed to stake their claim on the forefront of European heavy rock and roll, which was just waiting for them to do so.
Perhaps the most believable lyric of 2016 was the opening line of leadoff cut “The Gree Heen” from Brant Bjork‘s Tao of the Devil: “I got all that I need. I got the gree-heen.” From the prominent pot leaf on the cover to that single clause — which set the tone for that song’s mega-nod as much as everything that followed in the boogie of “Humble Pie” and “Stackt,” the so-laid-back-it’s-almost-unconscious title-track and the longer-form explorations of “Dave’s War” and the wah’ed-out “Evening Jam” — the inimitable Bjork seems to have embraced the role of stoner guru and the Godfather of Desert Rock. Tao of the Devil was his second release through Napalm behind 2014’s Black Power Flower (review here), which introduced the Low Desert Punk Band, and far from hanging its hat on the man’s historical accomplishments from his days in Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Che, Vista Chino, etc., the 50-minute eight-tracker came fueled by the soul most typified in Bjork‘s solo catalog, which it’s increasingly easy to argue is his greatest contribution to the desert aesthetic. Definitely in his wheelhouse, but what a wheelhouse.
What a relief it was to have Asteroid back, and what a relief it was to have III arrive some six years after II (review here) and find the Örebro, Sweden, trio’s certified-organic chemistry undulled by that long stretch. The songs — “Pale Moon,” “Last Days,” “Til Dawn,” “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold,” “Them Calling,” “Mr. Strange” — there wasn’t a miss in the bunch, and in addition to the reignited craftsmanship, III made clear a progression as players and the intent to move forward from guitarist/vocalist Robin Hirse, bassist/vocalist Johannes Nilsson and drummer Elvis Campbell (since replaced by Jimmi Kolscheen), so that the material didn’t just let listeners know Asteroid was a band again after having unceremoniously faded out for a half-decade, but gave a signal that perhaps they were just getting started. One can only hope that turns out to be the case, but either way, III felt like a reward dolled out to their fanbase after a long absent stretch, and one that, like II and their 2007 self-titled debut (discussed here) before it, will reverberate its echoes for years to come. Hands down 2016’s most welcome return.
Though it would carry the context of its scorching opener “Nature Boy” with it for the duration and, accordingly, hit with a more intense feel than its 2013 predecessor, The Fury of a Patient Man (review here), Gozu‘s fourth album overall and Ripple label debut was a kick in the ass on more than just that one level. It found the Boston foursome with the finally-solidified lineup of vocalist/guitarist Marc Gaffney, guitarist Doug Sherman, bassist Joe Grotto and drummer Mike Hubbard, and while one could argue they still wound up under the banner of a heavy rock band, that became happenstance to the songs themselves. That is, even more than The Fury of a Patient Man or 2010’s Locust Season (review here), Gozu came across as writing not to style, but to their own impulses, as demonstrated in “Big Casino,” the echoing soul of “Tin Chicken” and shuffle-thrust of “Oldie,” and as they moved beyond their initial swath of influence into this individualized sonic persona, they reaped the benefits of the locked-in lineup and a process of craft that never sounded so purposeful. Revival was indeed typified by its vitality, but it was also the sound of a band maturing as a unit, becoming who they were meant to be, and there is almost nothing more exciting than that for a single album to represent. Plus, it had a song called “By Mennen,” and, you know, references.
2. Mars Red Sky, Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul)
It was unreasonable to expect the third full-length from Bordeaux, France, trio Mars Red Sky to surpass 2014’s Stranded in Arcadia (review here) and the progressive crux that album brought to the warm tones and sweet melodicism of their 2011 self-titled debut (review here), but Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) reinforced the elements that worked so well on previous outings while pushing inarguably onto what the band seemed to know was “Alien Ground” if the title of their intro was anything to go by. More over, it did so with a natural fluidity and poise that were as striking as they were encompassing in sound. Tying to earlier 2016’s Providence EP (review here) in concept and execution through that intro and the title-track following it, Apex III presented the to-date pinnacle of Mars Red Sky‘s growth in songs like “The Whinery,” “Mindreader,” the tear-inducing “Under the Hood,” the swing-happy “Friendly Fire,” the willful atmospheric crash of closer “Prodigal Sun” — each one a crucial advancing step from the trio of guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — and brilliantly fed them one into the other, so that in addition to the standout impressions of each, there developed a personality to the whole span of the album; a world of Mars Red Sky‘s own creation, where they dwelt for what seemed too short a time before returning to earth and on from here to who knows where next.
Most of all, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages was fearless. For their fourth album, Salt Lake City’s SubRosa adapted themes from 1924’s We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which laid out a futuristic dystopia wherein all identity is subsumed to the state and even love is outlawed when not properly sanctioned. This framework, obscure if influential, gave guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/backing vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna, drummer/engineer Andy Patterson (formerly of Iota, among others), and a range of other contributors, a space in which to explore gender and LGBT issues across the six included tracks, and from the opening build and crush of the chorus to “Despair is a Siren” through the depiction of privilege in “Wound of the Warden,” the 97-second Italian-language ballad “Il Cappio” (translated: “the noose”) and into the gut-wrenching finale of “Troubled Cells,” their musical accomplishment was no less stunning than lyrics like, “Isn’t it good to be acquainted with darkness?/To caress it gently/To slit its throat,” from “Black Majesty.” Tense in its quiet stretches, harmonized vocally, given orchestral presence through its use of strings, flute, French horn, and so on, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages worked fluidly in what for most acts would be a contradictory modus of careful, meticulous arrangements and raw, emotional realism. No matter how deep it dove — and by the time identity was being erased and the state was taking control of the body on “Killing Rapture,” it was diving pretty deep — SubRosa never lost their sense of poise, so that the defiance in the last movement of “Troubled Cells” in which Heaven itself is rejected with the clearest of justifications, “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” the band seemed to stand as straight and tall as their multi-tiered righteousness would warrant. But even if one took For this We Fought the Battle of Ages with politics aside, its achievement in marrying post-metallic structures, gothic texture and progressive atmospherics was on a plane of its own making, operating under its own rules and in its own definitive space. Albums like it do not happen every year, and forward motion for genre as a whole is rarely so visible as it was in this special offering, which seems only fair to regard as a landmark for the band and anyone whose ears and hearts it touched.
The Next 20
Like any good Top 30, mine goes to 50. Here is the next batch:
31. Blaak Heat, Shifting Mirrors
32. Truckfighters, V
33. West, Space & Love, Vol. II
34. Seedy Jeezus with Isaiah Mitchell, Tranquonauts
35. Yawning Man, Historical Graffiti
36. Causa Sui, Return to Sky
37. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
38. Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Phantomonium
39. The Wounded Kings, Visions in Bone
40. It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting
41. Beastwars, The Death of all Things
42. Naxatras, II
43. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
44. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
45. Wretch, Wretch
46. Colour Haze, Live Vol. I: Europa Tournee 2015
47. Zaum, Eidolon
48. Bellringer, Jettison
49. Young Hunter, Young Hunter
50. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Y Proffwyd Dwyll
From the kinetic desert artistry of Blaak Heat to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s ethereal synth-laden doom, there are more than a few essentials here. I’ve never before done a year-end list that had so many releases on it, but my motivation in doing so this time around couldn’t have been simpler: They were simply too good and had too much to offer to leave out. It would’ve been an oversight to do so.
Even a Top 50 fails to grasp the full scope of what 2016 brought about musically, so here are even more, alphabetically:
Ancient Warlocks, II
Black Moon Circle, Sea of Clouds
Sergio Ch., Aurora
Lamp of the Universe, Hidden Knowledge
Mondo Drag, The Occultation of Light
Øresund Space Collective, Visions Of…
-(16)-, Lifespan of a Moth
The Well, Pagan Science
Wovenhand, Star Treatment
And if that’s still not enough, here are 60-plus more names who shouldn’t be left out of the discussion, also alphabetically:
Akris, Atala, Atomikylä, Backwoods Payback, Beastmaker, BigPig, Black Cobra, Black Lung, Blood Ceremony, Blues Pills, Bright Curse, Bus, Dee Calhoun, Captain Crimson, Child, La Chinga, Church of Misery, Conclave, Cough, Devil to Pay, Domkraft, Dot Legacy, Electric Citizen, Estoner, Eternal Elysium, Fatso Jetson & Gary Arce vs. Hifiklub, Fox 45, Goatess, Goblin Cock, Graves at Sea, Heavy Temple (they’ll be back on next year’s list), High Fighter, Holy Serpent, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Inter Arma, Joy, Kaleidobolt, Khemmis, King Dead, Lord, Lord Vicar, Merchant, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Helen Money, Monkey3, Moon Coven, Mother Mooch, Necro, New Keepers of the Water Towers, T.G. Olson, Oranssi Pazuzu, Pooty Owldom, Russian Circles, Salem’s Pot, Samavayo, Seremonia, Skuggsjá, Sourvein, Spirit Adrift, Stone Machine Electric, Suma, Surya Kris Peters, Swans, Throttlerod, Virus, Wasted Theory, Wretch, and Zaum.
In case none of the above has made it clear, I’ll just say flat out that 2016 has been an amazing year for music, and that every time I feel like maybe underground heavy has hit a wall and there’s nowhere left for it to go, sure enough about three minutes later another record shows up that slaps me in the face with a reminder of just how wrong that notion is.
If you’re still reading — how could you be? — thank you so much for your incredible support throughout 2016 and all the years The Obelisk has been in progress. I already know that 2017 is going to bring some incredible music as well, but that’s another list for another time, so I’ll just say again how much I appreciate your being a part of this ongoing project, how much it means to me to have you here. Thank you, thank you, and thank you.
And please, if there’s anything I forgot, got wrong, misspelled, or if you just think I used the word “breadth” too many times, please let me know about it in the comments.