The Obelisk Presents: THE BEST OF 2020

Posted in Features on December 31st, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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[PLEASE NOTE: These are not the results of the year-end poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t contributed your list to the cause yet, please do so here.]

Invariably, the ultimate measure of 2020 will be in lives and livelihoods lost around the world. I have nothing to add to the discourse of the COVID-19 pandemic that others haven’t said in more articulate and precise language. Suffice it to note that 2020 was the year that the very concept of “unprecedented” itself became trite.

One does not have to look far to find positives amid the devastation. Creativity continues to flourish. Art cannot be killed. Even locked away from each other in quarantine, artists will continue to reach out, to collaborate, to fulfill the human need for expression that has driven the species since cave drawings and will no doubt be the ruins we leave behind us when we’re gone.

In underground music, it was simply overwhelming. And though I’ll admit it was hard at times to listen to music and divorce it from the larger context of what was happening in the world — it was there like a background buzz — this year reinforced how necessary music is, not only as an escape or a source of income for those who make/promote it, but as an integral component of life and community. Absences have been keenly felt.

I won’t try to sate you with platitudes, to say “things will get better.” Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. One year turning to the next does not fix broken systems and it does not cure raging plagues. It’s just a number. Arbitrary except as a convenient marker for things like this, births, deaths, and so on. Bookkeeping.

Before I turn you over to the lists: Please be kind in the comments if you choose to leave one. To me. To other people. To yourself. These lists are culled from my listening preference and what I consider of critical importance. But I’m one person. If there’s something you feel has been left out, say so. I ask you only to do so in a spirit of friendship rather than argument. Thank you in advance.

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Okay:

The Top 50 Albums of 2020

#50-31

50. Sun Crow, Quest for Oblivion
49. Atramentus, Stygian
48. Arcadian Child, Protopsycho
47. Fuzz, III
46. Jointhugger, I Am No One
45. Dirt Woman, The Glass Cliff
44. Switchblade Jesus, Death Hymns
43. Foot, The Balance of Nature Shifted
42. Hymn, Breach Us
41. IAH, III
40. Lord Fowl, Glorious Babylon
39. Acid Mess, Sangre de Otros Mundos
38. 1000mods, Youth of Dissent
37. Deathwhite, Grave Image
36. Soldati, Doom Nacional
35. Cortez, Sell the Future
34. Kadavar, The Isolation Tapes
33. Black Rainbows, Cosmic Ritual Supertrip
32. Shadow Witch, Under the Shadow of a Witch
31. Insect Ark, The Vanishing

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30. High Priestess, Casting the Circle

high priestess casting the circle

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29. Polymoon, Caterpillars of Creation

Polymoon Caterpillars of Creation

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28. Sons of Otis, Isolation

Sons of Otis Isolation

Released by Online Hw Help.Buy local essay.Avoidance Of Plagiarism.Buy essay no plagiarism Totem Cat Records. Reviewed Sept. 30.

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27. Lamp of the Universe, Dead Shrine

Lamp of the Universe Dead Shrine

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26. BleakHeart, Dream Griever

bleakheart dream griever

Released by Sailor Records. Reviewed Nov. 18.

The debut album from Colorado’s BleakHeart collected pieces united by melody and overarching atmosphere, positioned stylistically somewhere around heavygaze or heavy post-rock, but feeling less limited to genre bounds than some others working in a similar sphere. As a first outing, it brought a promise of things to come even as the depths of its mix seemed to swallow the listener entirely, equal parts serving claustrophobia and escapism.

25. Pale Divine, Consequence of Time

Pale Divine Consequence of Time

Released by Cruz Del Sur Music. Reviewed June 3.

There is not enough space here to properly commend Pale Divine founding guitarist/vocalist Greg Diener on how much he opened up the band by bringing in his and drummer Darin McCloskey‘s former Beelzefuzz bandmate Dana Ortt on shared guitar, vocal and songwriting duties. Completed by Ron “Fezz” McGinnis on bass/vocals, Pale Divine are a refreshed and ready powerhouse of American traditional doom.

24. Uncle Woe, Phantomescence

uncle woe phantomescence

Released by Packard Black Productions. Reviewed Oct. 21.

One is going to have to get used to the idea of Uncle Woe residing in the places between, I think. An inward-looking cosmic doom that’s likewise morose and reaching, opaque and translucent, Phantomescence could be almost troubling in its feeling of off-kilter expression. Yet that’s exactly what multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rain Fice was going for. Thriving on contradiction, exploratory, and individualized. Start from doom, move outward.

23. REZN, Chaotic Divine

rezn chaotic divine

Released by Off the Record Label. Reviewed Oct. 15.

I don’t feel like I’m cool enough to offer any substantive comment on what Chicago’s REZN do, but their sax-laced heavy psychedelia comes across warm and is invitingly languid while still delivered with a sense of energy and purpose. It rolls and you want to roll with it, so you do. They were clearly hurt by not being able to tour this year, as were audiences for not seeing them. Call them neo-stoner metal or whatever you want, these songs deserve to be played live.

22. Ruff Majik, The Devil’s Cattle

ruff majik the devils cattle

Released by Mongrel Records. Reviewed Oct. 29.

A revamped lineup for South African desert-ish heavy rockers Ruff Majik brought producer Evert Snyman in as co-conspirator with frontman/principal songwriter Johni Holiday, and found the former trio working as a five-piece with a broader sound underscored by an electric sense of purpose and willingness to push themselves to places they hadn’t gone before. Their third record, it seemed as well to be a new beginning, and they met the challenge head-on.

21. Curse the Son, Excruciation

Curse The Son Excruciation

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed June 8.

The underheralded children of rolling fuzz riffage, Connecticut’s Curse the Son found new depths of emotion to bring to Excruciation — and I do mean “depths.” Dark times for dark times. Fueled by personal hardship, turmoil, motorcycle accidents and a pervasive sense of struggle, the LP was nonetheless a triumph of their songwriting and brought new melodic character to their established largesse of tone. Your loss if you missed it.

20. The Atomic Bitchwax, Scorpio

The Atomic Bitchwax Scorpio

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed Aug. 26.

Business as usual in ferocious heavy/speed rock from The Atomic Bitchwax on Scorpio — and that was only reassuring since the band’s eighth full-length marked the first since the departure of guitarist/vocalist Finn Ryan and his replacing with Garrett Sweeny, a bandmate of founding bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik and drummer Bob Pantella in Monster Magnet. They barely stopped to cool their heels and yet still managed to be catchy as hell. How do they do it? Jersey Magic.

19. Cinder Well, No Summer

cinder well no summer

Released by Free Dirt Records. Reviewed July 21.

Such pervasive melancholy could only be derived from Irish folk, and so it was on Cinder Well‘s No Summer, which managed to move between singer-songwriter minimalism from Amelia Baker and arrangements of deceptive and purposeful intricacy. Wherever it went, from traditional songs “Wandering Boy” and “The Cuckoo” to originals like “Fallen” and the nine-minute “Our Lady’s,” it was equal parts gorgeous and sad and resonant. It remains so, despite the fleeting season.

18. Pallbearer, Forgotten Days

pallbearer forgotten days

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Dec. 24.

Their fourth album and first since crossing the decade-mark since their inception, Pallbearer‘s Forgotten Days wasn’t just heavy, emotional or big-sounding; it was the most their-own of anything they’ve done. It felt exactly like the record they wanted it to be, and reconfirmed that the generation of listeners being introduced to doom by their music is going to be just fine if they follow the cues laid out for them here.

17. Slift, Ummon

slift ummon

Released by Stolen Body and Vicious Circle Records. Reviewed March 26.

Less a reinvention of space rock than a kick in its ass, Slift‘s Ummon pushed well past the line of manageability at 72 minutes and reveled in that. The French outfit were greeted as liberators when they released the album, and with the way the respect has been maintained in the months since they’ve given themselves a high standard to meet, but there’s only promise to be heard as you get lost in the nebular wash of this sprawling 2LP. They’ll have two more records out before this one’s fully digested.

16. My Dying Bride, The Ghost of Orion

my dying bride the ghost of orion

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Feb. 25.

The first album in half a decade from long-established UK death-doom forebears My Dying Bride found vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe coping with his daughter’s cancer diagnosis and translating that into the morose poetry for which the band is so well known and with which they’ve been so influential. My Dying Bride has never wanted for sincerity, but to call them affecting here would be underselling the quality of their craft and the heart they put into it. Follow-up EP is already out with extra non-album tracks.

15. Causa Sui, Szabodelico

causa sui Szabodelico

Released by El Paraiso Records. Reviewed Nov. 11.

Denmark’s Causa Sui may be on a mission to unite jazz and heavy psychedelia — and blessings on them for that — but the mellow jammy vibes they conjured on Szabodelico only emphasized how much it’s the character of what they do and the chemistry they’ve brought as bandmates that has allowed them to branch thusly in terms of aesthetic. It was the kind of album you wanted to put on again even before it was over, and its sweet instrumentals felt born to a greater timeline than a single year can encompass.

14. All Souls, Songs for the End of the World

All Souls Songs for the End of the World

Self-released. Reviewed Sept. 21.

I’m not a punk rocker, but All Souls make me wish I was. Their emotive and engaged heavy rock looks out as much as in on Songs for the End of the World — their second LP behind a 2018 self-titled debut (review here) — but it’s undeniably punk in its foundation, and what the four-piece of Antonio Aguilar and Meg Castellanos (both ex-Totimoshi), Erik Trammell (Black Elk) and Tony Tornay (Fatso Jetson) have put together builds on that in exciting, inventive and individualized ways, while staying nonetheless true to its roots.

13. Kind, Mental Nudge

kind mental nudge

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Oct. 20.

Five years after their debut album, Rocket Science (review here), Boston four-piece Kind return with Mental Nudge. And despite the different situations in which it finds the band’s members — bassist Tom Corino is now ex-Rozamov, drummer Matt Couto now ex-Elder — the group’s focus remains on carving memorable, mostly structured tracks out of ethereal heavy psychedelia, guitarist Darryl Shepard (Milligram, etc.) and vocalist Craig Riggs (Roadsaw, Sasquatch, etc.) adding space and melody to the crunching, driving grooves.

12. Molassess, Through the Hollow

Molassess Through the Hollow

Released by Season of Mist. Featured Aug. 17.

Founded by vocalist Farida Lemouchi (ex-The Devil’s Blood) and guitarist Oeds Beydals (ex-Death Alley, also ex-The Devil’s Blood) and commissioned as a project for Roadburn Festival 2019 (review here), Molassess are inextricably tied to Lemouchi‘s groundbreaking former outfit and its tragic ending, but the musical branching out into darkened progressive textures on Through the Hollow isn’t to be understated. It was an album that pushed past the past, not overlooking it, but finding new ways of moving forward in life and sound.

11. Tony Reed, Funeral Suit

tony reed funeral suit

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Sept. 28.

While of course the Mos Generator frontman is no stranger to writing or recording on his own, Funeral Suit was Tony Reed‘s debut as a solo artist and it carried his progressive stamp in melody and arrangement. It was not just a guitarist playing acoustic instead of electric, and it was not a manifestation of self-indulgence. Whether it was reworking a Mos Generator song like “Lonely One Kenobi” or pursuing a new piece like the title-track or “Waterbirth,” Reed found balance between personal and audience, evoking traditional songsmithing even as he reminded listeners of his dual role as a producer.

10. Geezer, Groovy

Geezer Groovy

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed May 18.

Spectacular showing from Kingston kingpins Geezer with Groovy as their first offering for Heavy Psych Sounds. Led by guitarist/vocalist Pat Harrington, the three-piece brought material that flowed with the organic feel of jams despite being structured and catchy songs. In pieces like “Dead Soul Scroll” and “Drowning on Empty,” they melded stonerized groove with what felt like genuine emotional expression, and “Dig” and “Groovy” still managed to be a heavy fuzz-blues party. And they still had room at the end to jam out on “Slide Mountain” and “Black Owl.” It was nothing but a win, rising to the occasion on every level.

9. Big Scenic Nowhere, Vision Beyond Horizon

big scenic nowhere vision beyond horizon

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed Jan. 29.

So Bob Balch from Fu Manchu and Gary Arce from Yawning Man have a band. They get Tony Reed from Mos Generator on board. Mario Lalli from Yawning Man/Fatso Jetson comes and goes. Nick Oliveri comes and goes. Bill Stinson from Yawning Man plays drums. Alain Johannes sits in on vocals. Reed does a bunch of vocals; his kid does a track too. Per Wiberg from Spiritual Beggars, Opeth, Candlemass, etc., lends some keys. What do you call such a thing? Who cares? You call yourself lucky it exists. They called the record Vision Beyond Horizon. Can’t wait to find out what they call the next one.

8. Elder, Omens

elder omens

Released by Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records. Reviewed April 27.

Omens marked a new beginning for Elder as the band pushed deeper into the realm of progressive rock and beyond their weightier beginnings. The arrival of Georg Edert (also Gaffa Ghandi) on drums in place of Matt Couto shifted the band’s dynamic in a number of ways, providing not a swinging anchor for the rhythm section necessarily, but another avenue of prog fluidity. Bassist Jack Donovan brought a steady presence in the low end as guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Risberg embarked on new melodic explorations while staying loyal to the band’s established penchant for sweeping changes. Omens may live up to its name as a sign of things to come, but either way, it was a strong display of the band’s will to pursue new ideas and methods.

7. Forming the Void, Reverie

forming the void reverie

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed April 15.

First words that come to mind here: “eminently listenable.” With seven tracks and 36 minutes, Reverie may not have taken up much of your afternoon… once. But by the time you gave it its proper respect and listened through three times in a row, the situation was somewhat different. The Lafayette, Louisiana, four-piece gracefully brought together structured songwriting with proggier leanings and were able to bring together rampaging hooks like “Trace the Omen” and “Manifest,” casting a sense of sonic hugeness without forgetting to add either melody or personality along with that. The band — who here welcomed bassist Thorn Letulle alongside guitarist/vocalist James Marshall, guitarist Shadi Omar Al-Khansa and drummer Thomas Colley — have worked quickly and evolved with a sense of urgency. Is Reverie the goal or another step on that path?

6. Grayceon, MOTHERS WEAVERS VULTURES

grayceon mothers weavers vultures

Released by Translation Loss Records. Reviewed Nov. 18.

Vocalist/cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (interview here), guitarist Max Doyle and drummer Zack Farwell comprise Grayceon, and with their fifth record, the band looks around thematically at environmental devastation through the lens of record-breaking California wildfires from their vantage point in the Bay Area. Even as the world shifted priorities (at least most of it did) to yet another global crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic, genre-melting-pot songs like “Diablo Wind,” “The Lucky Ones,” and “This Bed” reminded of the horrors humanity has wrought on its battered home, and still managed to find hope and serenity in “And Shine On” and “Rock Steady,” a closing duo that shifted to a more personal discussion of family and one’s hope for a better future for and by the next generation. 2020 had plenty of horror. At least we got a new Grayceon record out of it.

5. Brant Bjork, Brant Bjork

brant bjork brant bjork

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed April 28.

When Sho’Nuff asked Bruce Leroy “who’s the master?,” dude should’ve said Brant Bjork. It would’ve been a confusing end to Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, but ultimately more accurate, as Brant Bjork‘s homegrown kung fu was unfuckwithable as ever on the album that shares his name. After two decades of solo releases in one form or another, Bjork is not just a pivotal figurehead for desert rock, he’s a defining presence, as well as one of its most treasured practitioners. Brant Bjork, the album, brought initial waves of funk in “Jungle in the Sound,” explored weedy worship in “Mary (You’re Such a Lady)” and toyed with religious dogma in offsetting that with “Jesus Was a Bluesman” while still tossing primo hooks in “Duke of Dynamite” and “Shitkickin’ Now” ahead of the more open “Stardust and Diamond Eyes” and the acoustic closer “Been So Long.” With Bjork recording all the instruments himself, a due feeling of intimacy resulted, and yet he still found a way to make it rock. How could it be otherwise?

4. Enslaved, Utgard

enslaved utgard

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Sept. 29.

Why do I feel the immediate need to defend this pick? I’m not sure. Norway’s Enslaved are an institution, not just of black metal, but of bringing an ideology of creative growth to that style that often willfully resists it. They are iconoclastic even unto their own work. Utgard was released as the band stood on the precipice of 30 years together and yet it stood as their most forward-looking offering yet, as co-founders Grutle Kjellson (bass/vocals) and Ivar BjĂžrnson (guitar/sometimes vocals), as well as longtime lead guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal backed up the change from 2017’s E (review here) that brought in new keyboardist/vocalist Hakon Vinje with the incorporation of drummer Iver SandĂžy, who doubles as a vocalist (and triples as a producer). The “new blood” made all the difference on Utgard, allowing Enslaved to piece together new ranges of melody in their work and offset instrumental shifts into and out of krautrock-derived progressions. Simply the work of a band outdoing itself from a band who does so at nearly every opportunity.

3a. Colour Haze, We Are

colour haze we are

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten and Ripple Music. Reviewed Dec. 3, 2019.

Every year I allow myself one addendum pick, and this is it. We Are was on last year’s list because it was digitally released, but the vinyl came out this year and it received its North American release this year as well, so it seemed only right to acknowledge that. So here it is in its proper place.

3. All Them Witches, Nothing as the Ideal

All-Them-Witches-Nothing-as-the-Ideal

Released by New West Records. Reviewed Sept. 3.

This is a band controlling their own narrative. Instead of Nothing as the Ideal being ‘the one they made as a three-piece,’ the Nashville outfit decided to make it ‘the one they recorded at Abbey Road.’ Were they thinking of it on those terms? Yeah, likely not, but it goes to demonstrate all the same just how much of themselves All Them Witches put into what they do musically, since not only are they continuing to refine and define and undefine their approach, but they’re setting the terms on which they do it. Each of their records has been a response to the one prior, but that conversation has never been so direct as to make them predictable. So what are they chasing? Apparently nothing. I’m not entirely sure I buy that as a complete answer, but I am sure I love these songs and the experiments with tape loops and other sounds that fill these spaces. Whatever they do next — or even if nothing — their run has been incredible and exciting and one only hopes their influence continues to spread over the next however many years.

2. Elephant Tree, Habits

elephant tree habits

Released by Deathwish Inc.. Reviewed April 13.

There was a high standard set by Elephant Tree‘s 2016 self-titled debut (review here), but their second LP, Habits, surpassed even the loftiest of expectations. With vocals centered around harmonies from guitarist Jack Townley and bassist Peter Holland, the former trio completed by drummer Sam Hart brought in guitarist/keyboardist John Slattery (also sometimes vocals), and the resultant breadth gave the material on Habits spaciousness beyond even what the first album promised. Drifting, rolling, unflinchingly melodic and somehow present even in its own escapism, Habits was not just an early highlight for a rough 2020, but a comforting presence throughout, and the further one dug into tracks like “Sails,” “Exit the Soul,” “Faceless,” “Wasted” and the acoustic “The Fall Chorus,” the more there was to find — let alone “Bird,” which I’ll happily put against anything else one might propose for song of the year. As their former UK label crumbled, Habits emerged unscathed and Elephant Tree‘s future continues to shine with ever more hope for things to come. Being able to say that about anything feels like a relief.

2020 Album of the Year

1. Lowrider, Refractions

Lowrider Refractions

Released by Blues Funeral Recordings. Reviewed Jan. 24.

Twenty years ago, Sweden’s Lowrider put out what would become a heavy rock landmark in their 2000 debut, Ode to Io (reissue review here). A follow-up years in the making even after the band got back together to play Desertfest in London (review here) and Berlin in 2013, Refractions first saw limited release in 2019 as part of Blues Funeral‘s PostWax series (discussed here), but its proper arrival was in early 2020, and there was really no looking back after that. It wasn’t just the novelty of a new Lowrider album that made Refractions such a joy, but the manner in which the band went about its work. There was no pretending that 20 years didn’t happen. There was no attempt to recapture the bottled lightning that was the first record, and Lowrider did not sound like a band “making a comeback” rife with expectations and fan-service. Refractions acknowledged the legacy of Ode to Io, sure enough, but as a step toward adding to it in meaningful and engaging ways. The songs — “Red River,” “Ode to Ganymede,” “Sernanders Krog,” “Ol’ Mule Pepe,” “Sun Devil/M87” and the 11-minute finale “Pipe Rider” — were fashioned without pretense and came across as the organic output of a band with nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. They made it their own. In a wretched year, Lowrider shined.

The Top 50 Albums of 2020: Honorable Mention

Yeah, okay. There are a lot of these, so buckle in. Last year I just threw out a list of bands. This year I’m a little more organized, so here are bands and records alphabetically.

Across Tundras, LOESS ~ LÖSS
Across Tundras, The Last Days of a Silver Rush
Alain Johannes, Hum
Arboretum, Let it All In
Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin, Stygian Bough Vol. 1
Black Helium, The Wholly Other
Boris, No
Brimstone Coven, The Woes of a Mortal Earth
CB3, Aeons
Celestial Season, The Secret Teachings
Crippled Black Phoenix, EllengĂŠst
Cruthu, AthrĂș Crutha
Domo, Domonautas Vol. 2
DOOL, Summerland
Dopelord, Sign of the Devil
Dwaal, Gospel of the Vile
Elder Druid, Golgotha
Ellis Munk Ensemble, San Diego Sessions
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full
EMBR, 1823
Familiars, All in Good Time
Forlesen, Hierophant Violent
Galactic Cross, Galactic Cross
The Heavy Eyes, Love Like Machines
Hum, Inlet
Human Impact, Human Impact
Humulus, The Deep
Jupiterian, Protosapien
Kariti, Covered Mirrors
Khan, Monsoons
Kingnomad, Sagan Om Ryden
King Witch, Body of Light
Kryptograf, Kryptograf
Light Pillars, Light Pillars
Lord Buffalo, Tohu Wa Bohu
Lord Loud, Timid Beast
Lotus Thief, Oresteia
Malsten, The Haunting of SilvÄkra Mill
Mindcrawler, Lost Orbiter
Motorpsycho, The All is One
Mountain Tamer, Psychosis Ritual
Mr. Bison, Seaward
Mrs. Piss, Self-Surgery
Mugstar, GRAFT
Murcielago, Casualties
Oranssi Pazuzu, Mestarin Kynsi
Paradise Lost, Obsidian
Parahelio, Surge Evelia Surge
The Pilgrim, …From the Earth to the Sky and Back
Pretty Lightning, Jangle Bowls
Psychlona, Venus Skytrip
Puta Volcano, AMMA
Ritual King, Ritual King
River Cult, Chilling Effect
Rrrags, High Protein
Shores of Null, Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying)
Sigiriya, Maiden – Mother – Crone
Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises
16, Dream Squasher
Slomosa, Slomosa
Somnus Throne, Somnus Throne
Steve Von Till, No Wilderness Deep Enough
Stone Machine Electric, The Inexplicable Vibrations of Frequencies Within the Cosmic Netherworld
Sumac, May You Be Held
Temple of the Fuzz Witch, Red Tide
Temple of Void, The World That Was
The Kings of Frog Island, VI
Tia Carrera, Tried and True
Turtle Skull, Monoliths
Uffe Lorenzen, Magisk Realisme
Ulcerate, Stare Into Death and Be Still
Vessel of Light, Last Ride
Vestal Claret, Vestal Claret
Vinnum Sabbathi, Of Dimensions and Theories
Wight, Spank the World
Wino, Forever Gone
Yatra, All is Lost
Yuri Gagarin, The Outskirts of Reality

By no means is that list exhaustive. And to look at stuff like Psychlona, Oranssi Pazuzu, Wight, Wino, Puta Volcano, Kingnomad, Ellis Munk Ensemble, Paradise Lost, Alain Johannes, Arbouretum, Uffe Lorenzen, Tia Carrera — on and on and on — I can definitely see where arguments are to be made for records that should’ve been in the list proper. I can only go with what feels right to me at the time.

Together with the top 50, this makes over 110 albums in the best of 2020. If you find yourself needing something to hang your hat on, be glad you’re alive to witness this much excellent music coming out.

Debut Album of the Year

Molassess, Through the Hollow

Molassess Through the Hollow

Other notable debuts (alphabetically):

Atramentus, Stygian
Bethmoora, Thresholds
BleakHeart, Dream Griever
Crystal Spiders, Molt
Dirt Woman, The Glass Cliff
Dwaal, Gospel of the Vile
Electric Feat, Electric Feat
Familiars, All in Good Time
Galactic Cross, Galactic Cross
Human Impact, Human Impact
Jointhugger, I Am No One
Light Pillars, Light Pillars
Love Gang, Dead Man’s Game
Malsten, The Haunting of SilvÄkra Mill
Might, Might
Mindcrawler, Lost Orbiter
Mrs. Piss, Self-Surgery
Parahelio, Surge Evelia Surge
Polymoon, Caterpillars of Creation
Ritual King, Ritual King
SEA, Impermanence
Slomosa, Slomosa
Soldati, Doom Nacional
Somnus Throne, Somnus Throne
SpellBook, Magick & Mischief
Spirit Mother, Cadets
Temple of the Fuzz Witch, Red Tide
The Crooked Whispers, Satanic Melodies
White Dog, White Dog

Notes: I sparred with myself every step of the way here. The last couple years I’ve tried to give the top-debut spot to not just a new band, but a new presence. Green Lung, King Buffalo, etc. Molassess, with members from The Devil’s Blood, Death Alley and Astrosoniq, isn’t exactly that. So what do I do? Do I go with something newer like Polymoon, Dirt Woman, BleakHeart, SEA, White Dog or The Crooked Whispers, or something with more established players like Molassess, Soldati, or even Light Pillars?

In the end, what made the difference was not just how brilliant the songs on Molassess’ Through the Hollow, but how honestly the band confronted the legacy they were up against. The songs had a familiar haunting presence, but they were also moving ahead to somewhere new. It was that blend of old and new ideas, and the resonant feeling of emotional catharsis — as well as the sheer immersion that took place while listening — that ultimately made the decision. Turns out I just couldn’t escape it.

And why not a list? Because this feels woefully inadequate as it is. I reviewed over 250 records this year one way or another — and that’s a conservative estimate — but a lot gets lost in the shuffle and somehow it just seemed wrong this time around to call something the 13th best first record of the year. I wanted to highlight the special achievement that was the Molassess album, but really, all of these records kicked my ass one way or the other.

Short Release of the Year 2020

King Buffalo, Dead Star

King Buffalo Dead Star

Other notable EPs, Splits, Demos, etc.:

Big Scenic Nowhere, Lavender Blues
Coma Wall, Ursa Minor
Conan/Deadsmoke, Doom Sessions Vol. 1
Fu Manchu, Fu30 Pt. 1
Grandpa Jack, Trash Can Boogie
Howling Giant/Sergeant Thunderhoof, Masamune/Muramasa (split)
Oginalii, Pendulum
Kings Destroy, Floods
Lament Cityscape, The Old Wet
Limousine Beach, Stealin’ Wine +2
Merlock, That Which Speaks
Monte Luna, Mind Control Broadcast
Mos Generator/Di’Aul, Split
Pimmit Hills, Heathens & Prophets
Rito Verdugo, Post-Primatus
Rocky Mtn Roller, Rocky Mtn Roller
Spaceslug, Leftovers
10,000 Years, 10,000 Years
The White Swan, Nocturnal Transmission
Thunderbird Divine, The Hand of Man
Witchcraft, Black Metal

Notes: If you were wondering why King Buffalo’s Dead Star (review here) wasn’t on the big list, this is why. It was pitched to me as an EP and that’s how I’m classifying it. I’m taking the out. Is it an EP? Not really, but neither is it a full-length album, given its experimental nature and focus around its extended two-part title-track. Whatever it was, it was the best that-thing, and this is the category where such things go.

Again, tough choices after King Buffalo. Thunderbird Divine’s EP was wonderfully funk-blasted and woefully short (new album, please). The newly-issued Spaceslug EP branches out their sound in fascinating ways as a result of the lockdown. Witchcraft’s acoustic EP, Coma Wall’s EP and Big Scenic Nowhere’s EP all signaled good things to come, and Howling Giant’s split with Sergeant Thunderhoof was a highlight of the most recent Quarterly Review. There really isn’t a bummer on the list there, from the bitter psych of Oginalii to the industrial metal of Lament Cityscape, the unadulterated riffery of Merlock to the live-captured rawness of Monte Luna.

So again, why no list? Same answer. I want to highlight the progression King Buffalo made in their sound and leave room open elsewhere for things I missed. Please let me know what in the comments. Cordially.

Live Album of the Year 2020

Yawning Man, Live at Giant Rock

yawning man live at giant rock

Other notable live releases:

Ahab, Live Prey
Amenra, Mass VI Live
Arcadian Child, From Far, for the Wild (Live in Linz)
Author and Punisher, Live 2020 B.C.
Cherry Choke, Raising Salzburg Rockhouse
Dead Meadow, Live at Roadburn 2011
Dirty Streets, Rough and Tumble
Electric Moon, Live at Freak Valley Festival 2019
Kadavar, Studio Live Session Vol. 1
King Buffalo, Live at Freak Valley
Monte Luna, Mind Control Broadcast
Orange Goblin, Rough & Ready: Live and Loud
Øresund Space Collective, Sonic Rock Solstice 2019
Pelican, Live at the Grog Shop
SEA, Live at ONCE
Sumac, St Vitus 09/07/2018
Sun Blood Stories, (a)Live and Alone at Visual Arts Collective
Temple Fang, Live at Merleyn
YOB, Pickathon 2019 – Live From the Galaxy Barn

Notes: In this wretched year (mostly) void of live music, marked by canceled tours and festivals, the live album arguably played a more central role than it ever has, whether it was a band trying to keep momentum up following or leading into a studio release, taking advantage of the emergence of the Bandcamp Friday phenomenon or just trying to maintain some connection to their fans and the process of taking a stage. Or even playing in a room together. Or not a room. Anything. What was once a tossoff, maybe an afterthought companion piece became an essential worker of the listening experience.

You might accuse desert rock progenitors Yawning Man of playing to their base with Live at Giant Rock (featured here), and if so, fine. At no point in the last 50 years has that base more needed playing-to. And in the absence of shows, being able to hear (and watch, in the case of the accompanying video) Yawning Man go out to the landscape that spawned them and engage with their music was a beautiful moment of reconciliation. An exhale for the converted that didn’t fill one with empty promises of better tomorrows or tours to come, but served to remind what’s so worth preserving about the spirit of live music in the first place. The fact that anything can happen. A replaced note here, a tuning change there — these things can make not just an evening, but memories that go beyond shows, tours, to touch our lives.

There were a ton of live records this year. Some were benefits for worthy causes between saving venues, Black Lives Matter, voting rights organizations, and so on. And whether these were new performances from captured livestreams (Monte Luna, Kadavar) or older gigs that had been sitting around waiting for release at some point (Sumac, Dead Meadow), this, very much, was that point, and these live offerings kept burning a fire that felt at times very much in danger of being extinguished.

Looking Ahead to 2021

A list of bands. Some confirmed releases, some not. Here goes:

Dread Sovereign, Sasquatch, Year of Taurus, Apostle of Solitude, Weedpecker, Borracho, Love Gang, Jointhugger, Demon Head, Iron Man, Greenleaf, Samsara Blues Experiment, The Mammathus, Evert Snyman, Wo Fat, Conclave, Here Lies Man, Kabbalah, Komatsu, Hour of 13, Wedge, Amenra, La Chinga, Spidergawd, Wolves in the Throne Room, Vokonis, Freedom Hawk, Masters of Reality, ZOM, Eyehategod, Sanhedrin, Green Lung, The Mountain King, Albatross Overdrive, Elder, King Buffalo, Sunnata, Howling Giant, SAVER, Conan, Slomatics, Ruff Majik, Kind, Mos Generator, Yawning Sons, LantlĂŽs, Brant Bjork, Spiral Grave, Crystal Spiders, Lightning Born, Samavayo, Wovenhand, Merlock, Comet Control, The Age of Truth, Eight Bells, BlackWater Holylight, DVNE, Monte Luna.

Thank You

You’ve read enough, so I will do my best to keep this mercifully short. Thank you so much for reading — whether you still are or not — and thank you for being a part of the ongoing project that is The Obelisk. I cannot tell you how much it means to me to have such incredible support throughout not just this year, but all the years of the site’s existence. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Thank you most of all to The Patient Mrs. for her indulgence in letting me get this done. I’m am amazed forever.

More to come.

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Friday Full-Length: Datura, Visions for the Celestial

Posted in Bootleg Theater on August 21st, 2020 by JJ Koczan

With the benefit of 21 years of hindsight, it’s tempting to imbue Datura’s Visions for the Celestial with some kind of prescience, as though the New Zealand-based heavy rockers were somehow ahead of their time. The simpler truth is they were right in line with it. Formed in 1992, Datura were led by bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson — who would later found the one-man acid folk outfit Lamp of the Universe and return to heavy rock with Arc of Ascent — and as they solidified their lineup around WIlliamson, guitarist Brent Middlemiss and drummer Jon Burnside, they also made their way through various recordings and compilation tracks, demos and the like en route to the eventual 1998 debut EP, All is One.

Already there at that point was the sense that Datura were doing more than simply cloning riffs imported from Californian acts Kyuss, Sleep, Acid King and Fu Manchu, or the likes of Monster Magnet, Acrimony, Orange Goblin, etc., and the same holds true on the follow-up debut long-player. Comprised of six songs in its original incarnation, Visions for the Celestial came out on New Zealand’s Cranium Music in 1999 and saw US release through Brainticket Records — the imprint helmed by John Perez of Solitude Aeturnus — in 2000. Running 48 minutes that were expanded to circa 53 with the addition of the five-minute “Into the Light” as a centerpiece for a 2007 reissue on Williamson’s own Astral Projection label (Krauted Mind also did a vinyl in 2010), the album showcases a communion with heavy rock and psychedelia that were highly individual in their balance. Listeners hearing Visions for the Celestial for the first time in 2020 might be struck by the sense of roll in a song like the nine-minute penultimate cut “Voyage,” but there’s more to the track than just its forward motion and swaggering groove. The underlying organ line, the deep punch of its bassline, datura visions for the celestialand the weaving lines of guitar effects atop the live-feeling drums — even before funky-time hits with the solo about halfway through the song — all come together to create a sense of who Datura were as a band, and the personality they brought to their material. Should you be surprised when the flute and watery vocals come out? Yeah, probably, but you should also know by that point to just go with it. They’ve got it all well in-hand.

Songwriting is the underpinning upon which Visions for the Celestial is based, but that’s not just about putting verses together with catchy choruses. It’s also how the material is built, how it plays off each other in the context of the whole record, and of course how it’s performed on the recording. “Magnetise” opens with an intro of wah guitar that tells you much of what you need to know about where Datura are headed, and proceeds into a languid flow and lyrics about drifting in a floating mind, walking in colors, and the like, not hurrying but not at all staid either as it moves through its seven minutes en route to “Sunshine in Purple” and the more straightforward, also shorter, “Reaching Out.” “Sunshine in Purple” largely follows suit from the opener in terms of style — a sense of high-ceiling-room permeating the mix — but Williamson’s bass begins to really shine there and does likewise on “Reaching Out” as well, leading-from-behind a shove that, depending on which version of the record you’re listening to, gives way either to “Into the Light” or “Euphoria.” To be blunt, either way you go, you don’t really lose out, and in terms of placing a bonus track, “Into the Light” adds more to the middle of the record than it possibly could being tacked on after “Voyage” and its just-under-15-minute closer follow-up “Mantra.”

“Euphoria” sets up that last salvo with a trippier feel on the whole and cleverly wrought pulls of guitar as Wililamson preaches cosmic heavy, but clearly the two pieces are intended to stand on their own as the B-side of Visions for the Celestial, and they end up doing precisely that. Neither song is a radical departure from what Datura have been doing all along, but again, it’s a question of balance. “Voyage” shifts in its second half through the aforementioned stretch of purer-strain psychedelia before building up to its resurgent roll. As he has all along, Burnside turns in a righteous performance on drums, not overly flashy, but making even a simple-seeming hi-hat march effective in carrying the momentum behind Middlemiss’ guitar excursions. He starts out “Mantra” at a slow pace soon joined by swells of melodic effects or synth, and it’s immediately clear Datura are going as far out as they’ve gone. Harmonized vocals and progressive space jamming hint at what could’ve been, likewise a hypnotic drum solo before the last push and an ending of residual effects in a melodic dronescape. Resonant, sweet and otherworldly, it could hardly be more fitting.

Datura only put out one full-length, and by the time 1999 was done, Williamson would begin exploring the folkier textures that became Lamp of the Universe, which of course is a project he continues to this day, having released Dead Shrine (review here) in June. It wasn’t until 2010 that Williamson returned to heavier fare with Arc of Ascent, but hearing Datura now in relation to that band, it’s clear just how much of his signature style and patterning are essential to both. Visions for the Celestial, while it’s been re-pressed periodically, remains a work of underrated heavy lost to the shifting tides of social media mobilization and internet decay. It and All is One, as well as a live recording from 1998, are all up on Bandcamp, though, so like so many LPs in a crate somewhere in a musty record store waiting to be unearthed and unveil their heavy ‘70s treasures, so too does Datura await a moment to get their due. In terms of what they were doing, when and how, their debut/swansong was one of promise that still stands as a hallmark of its era. Lost classic? Not if you find it.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

 

As I write this, the site is down. Presumably, it’ll be back up at some point soon, and because my hours are limited, I kind of have to write when it’s time to write, which is now. Or, rather, about two hours ago when I started this post. I’ve been getting up early again — it was 3:45AM today — and that has been a tremendous help to me in terms of productivity. My head is pretty much goo by 8PM, but you know what? I was really fucking tired all the time anyway when I slept until 6AM or 6:30 or whatever I could get away with. I think maybe that’s just getting old.

Also I need to stretch more. As someone who knows zilch zero no nothing about living healthy, I do honestly believe that stretching, hydration and eating more veggies is the secret to immortality. It’s at least as good as anything I’ve seen in an infomercial.

Some requisite-feeling drama in the fallout from my father’s death this week in his side of the family wanting him buried somewhere else rather than where he’s going. Just too late on that end. It’s already all paid for, and I don’t think funeral homes do refunds. Anyway, I can’t and wouldn’t go against my mother’s wishes, regardless. He’ll be buried in Ft. Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Pennsylvania. He was an Air Force veteran whose time in the service very much resonated with the core of the person he wanted to be, and frankly, if he thought enough of himself to think he had any value whatsoever, it’s the kind of thing he might’ve arranged on his own. He didn’t. I am.

Went for a run a bit ago as I have been on the regular for the last however long. Feels okay. Trying not to be crazy about it. Intentionally not be crazy. It is difficult.

Alright, the Pecan is awake and has probably pooped in his diaper by now, so I need to grab him from his room and get him cleaned up, but thanks for reading this week. Hopefully this post is up before then, but there’s a new Gimme show at 5PM Eastern today if you can listen. Their app is free and so is their site: http://gimmemetal.com

I wish you a great and safe weekend.

 

FRM.

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Review & Track Premiere: Lamp of the Universe, Dead Shrine

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on May 25th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Lamp of the Universe Dead Shrine

[Click play above to stream ‘The Eastern Run’ by Lamp of the Universe. Dead Shrine is out June 22 through Projection Records.]

For over 20 years, New Zealand’s Lamp of the Universe have explored inner and outer cosmoses with tantric and meditative acid folk, veering into and out of and beyond psychedelic and space rock, drone and Eastern-influenced arrangements at the behest of lone multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Craig Williamson. Williamson‘s long-running one-man outfit has veered into and out of primary focus over the years as Williamson has contributed to and/or led other bands like the long-defunct-and-still-underrated Datura or the ongoing Arc of Ascent, who were last heard from on a 2018 split with Zone Six (review here). Lamp of the Universe, though, has been otherworldly in its consistency, and at this point it’s a mode of expression Williamson has lived with for more than 20 years. Think about that.

Dead Shrine is the 12th Lamp of the Universe full-length, and it follows behind last year’s Align in the Fourth Dimension (review here) in unveiling five cuts across a vinyl-ready 41 minutes that run the gamut from the intimate, minimally-percussed mantras of “Illuminations for the Divine” reminiscent of the project’s earlier work, to fuller-band-sounding, drum-and-howling-solo affairs like the still-languid-flowing “Seance in Parallels,” Williamson seeming to move into side B of the release with a vibrant sense of freedom in the creation.

If it ever had to be earned — and I’m not sure it did — he’s long since earned that freedom through his compositions, which retain signatures like organic sitar drone even as they introduce Mellotron and other synthesizer melodies, with Williamson‘s airy echoes acting as the lone human presence in this great swirling ether he’s made. From opener “The Eastern Run,” Williamson sends signals of intent toward a sonic richness this time around, and just as the album’s mandala-style artwork follows a pattern that continues from 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here), veered off for 2015’s The Inner Light of Revelation (review here) but seemed to begin with 2013’s Transcendence (review here) — ever prolific, Williamson also released splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here) in 2014 — so too does Dead Shrine walk a trail laid out for it by prior offerings.

Organ plays a heavy role in “The Eastern Run,” and Williamson‘s layered vocals do well to cut through in terms of presence, but the layer of low-end buzz reminds as well of his bass work in Arc of Ascent. Effects loop and swirl as the final guitar solo takes hold and the song marches on a straightforward drum progression toward its finish, complex in its arrangement but easy to follow and accessible in the true nature of folk music in no small part thanks to that use of drums. I won’t take away from Lamp of the Universe‘s effectiveness in moments of pure float, or the psychedelic minimalism brought to bear periodically throughout the project’s catalog, but one neither can nor should argue pairing electric guitar and a drum set is a bad idea at this point. The subsequent “Beams of Ra” also puts keys prominent, but pushes the drums deeper into the mix, allowing the vocals more space to lead the melody of the piece, which is a subtle but engaging shift and the track works out to be all the more hypnotic for it, churning in molten fashion throughout a relatively tidy six-plus minutes of willful repetition and a low-key highlight guitar solo, ascending even as the rhythm line it tops peppers it with looped notes and the keyboard coincides.

LAMP OF THE UNIVERSE

It’s not quite a wash leading back into the verse, but the spirit is meditative in a way that is very much Lamp of the Universe‘s own, and though Williamson is known to be well-versed in psychedelic obscurities, I’ve yet to encounter another artist who conjures worlds in such a fashion. “Beams of Ra” fades and shifts into “Illuminations for the Divine” with a sitar drone and a wisp of flute, guitar setting the rhythm before hand-percussion joins in behind, a cymbal wash leading into the first verse. It will follow a linear pattern, but the build remains understated — some harder strumming and the aforementioned Mellotron serving as the apex and doing well at it. The song and the mood don’t require anything else, and the restraint is only to Williamson‘s credit; a moment perhaps that showcases the maturity of the outfit as side A rounds out.

“Seance in Parallels” (9:47) and “Symbols” (10:12) are the two longest tracks on the record. They make up the entirety of the second side of the LP edition and they serve as the closing duo. They are, accordingly, a masterclass in psychedelic formation. Not only do both pieces draw from Williamson‘s folk explorations of yore, but from the spacious tonal largesse he’s brought forth in Arc of Ascent as well, and the introduction and disappearance of various elements and layers throughout “Seance in Parallels” is thrilling — swells of guitar rise and recede over a steady drum beat, a drone holds sway until it doesn’t — the whole thing is geared toward trance, and in an open and vast midsection, Williamson‘s voice rings out over an unseen landscape of various hues that may or may not be discernible to the human eye, chimes and sitar leading back into the central march and then returning at the end with a chant-like feel over top.

Organ, acoustic and electric guitar, vocals, drums and fuzz-as-its-own-instrument make “Symbols” a fitting summation of Dead Shrine as a whole, a capital-‘r’ Riff arriving after dream-toned noodling just as the song hits the 4:20 mark — must be coincidence — that feels like a call-to-worship for an entirely different kind of ceremony. The drums and vocals resume and eventually the keys in a kind of choral proceeding behind a swirling electric guitar solo that comes through like Earthless played at half-speed. By which I mean glorious. It is ultimately the organ and acoustic guitar that finish the track and the album on a fade, as Williamson — no doubt already set to move on to the next recording, the next batch of songs, the next thing, whatever it might be — reminds in those final moments of the soul and natural purpose at root in his work in Lamp of the Universe. I’ll cop readily to being a fan of Lamp of the Universe and Williamson‘s other projects; no shame there. Still, as recognizable as Lamp of the Universe is, it’s all the more striking how the project continues to evolve in sound and scope. Dead Shrine may get a follow-up next year and it may not, but one way or another, it can and should be seen as a step along a path that only leads ever forward.

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Friday Full-Length: Lamp of the Universe, Heru

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 1st, 2019 by JJ Koczan

 

On a pretty regular basis around here I speak about patience in songwriting as an asset on the part of bands and artists. I can think of few the world over who offer a master class in this idea on the level of Craig Williamson‘s Lamp of the Universe. The Hamilton, New Zealand-based one-man project has been more or less ongoing for the last 20 years, with a stream of regular output that has resulted in no fewer than 11 full-lengths, as well as — in just the last five years — splits with Kanoi (review here), Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here). Some work has veered into crafting a full-band sound as Williamson has come to split time over the course of this decade between creating with Lamp of the Universe and as part of the heavier-rocking cosmic trio Arc of Ascent, but Lamp of the Universe is always just him working in layers of sitar, guitar, synth, percussion, vocals, and a host of other instrumentation in order to create a psychedelic acid-folk immersion like nothing else I’ve experienced. From his 2001 debut, The Cosmic Union (discussed here) through earlier 2019’s Align in the Fourth Dimension (review here), his work has never wavered from its central purpose in exploring the self, the universe, and of course, how the two might be brought together through sound.

And when it comes to patience, one can point to any number of offerings from Lamp of the Universe as an example. Even when Williamson isn’t explicitly working in longer-form songwriting, he’s not exactly writing three-minute pop songs, but Heru is a special case. Released in 2005 on a limited CDR through Barl Fire and reissued in 2007 through Astral Projection — yes, Williamson‘s imprint — Heru is comprised of seven numbered parts that spread out as a single longform piece over the course of 61 minutes. It begins with a single sitar drone and that ends up being the bed for nearly the entire outing, and as each “Part” enters, “Part 1,” “Part 2,” “Part 3,” and so on, a different element is introduced or there’s some subtle shift in the flow. “Part 3” brings a fade-in of plucked sitar notes amid that drone and obscure voice swirl. “Part 5” seems to have cymbals washing in the farthest, deepest reaches of its mix. “Part 1” is the longest track at 12:20 (immediate points), but it’s really not until “Part 2” that the proceedings get underway.

But even when they do, it’s with patience as no less of a defining factor than that undercurrent of sitar woven across the whole thing. As the Lamp of the Universe Herusynthesizer/theremin/whatever-it-is begins to add to the liquefaction of consciousness on display, it becomes not just about doing one thing for a while over a loop and then moving on, adding one instrument on top of another, but of letting the song “Heru” become what it needs to be. It’s a different kind of communication between an artist and their work. I’m not saying urgency doesn’t have a place or isn’t admirable in its own right, or that something needs to be slow or fast to be either urgent or patient — there are patient three-minute pop songs, to use the earlier example — but most often, this seems to be something that’s either inherently understood by a songwriter or group or not. Maybe it’s dependent on the personalities of those doing the making. I don’t know. But the grace with which Williamson unfurls Heru is only enhanced by the fact that it feels so remarkably unforced, and its hypnotic aspect comes through as all the more sincere. As the band’s third album, it followed The Cosmic Union and 2002’s Echo in Light, which together made something of a holy duality, and it was surprising both in the three-year delay before its arrival and in the form it took when it came around.

One hates to use the word “straightforward” in this context, but to this point, Lamp of the Universe had at least had more of a structure to its root songwriting, and Heru left that behind and then some. There are vocals on Heru, in the later reaches of “Part 6” and then “Part 7,” when things get more active on this relative scale, but no discernible verses as such. Instead, they are obscure chants overwhelmed by electric guitar volume swells, synthesizer noise, various effects, and so on. It’s in “Part 7” that the most radical shift happens, and it’s the departure of that drone, the arrival of more upfront drumming, bass and guitar in jammy fashion. Of course it’s not like there’s a three-piece in a room together vibing out since it’s just Williamson on his own, but he presents a plausible facsimile of a trio hitting it in mellow style and brings Heru to an end on a long fade of drumming and bass that in turn gets swallowed by a swell of drone and hand-percussion — something of an epilogue for the offering as a whole; “Part 7.9,” maybe, since it’s so close to the end.

However one might want to consider that final movement, it’s a showing of symmetry on the part of Lamp of the Universe that highlights the mentality of the entire offering in terms of knowing where it’s heading and how it will ultimately piece together, making it seem all the more like a masterwork. Williamson has done numerous extended pieces since, from tracks on 2006’s From the Mystic Rays of Astrological Light the two-song Arc of Ascent outing in 2007 — of which I just bought a cassette on Discogs; why do these Friday Full-Length posts so often cost me money? — to the 22-minute space ritual “Doors of Perception” from the split with Krautzone in 2014, but Heru remains a standout in his discography as Lamp of the Universe and is something of a landmark out there in the galaxial vastness for how far his exploration has taken him to-date. I wouldn’t at all put it past him to do another single-song full-length — Align in the Fourth Dimension seemed to go in the other direction, but 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here) was bookended by tracks 13 and 14 minutes long, so you never know — but even if he gets there at some point, that does nothing to lessen the accomplishment of Heru in terms of its patience and its reach. It’s not going to be for everybody, but those who let themselves go with it will be all the more rewarded.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Shortly after 6. Yesterday wasn’t so bad. First blood draw after The Pecan’s 2-year-old checkup at the doctor. They want to test him for lead because the house we moved into was built in the ’50s and his level was high when we lived in MA. I have no doubt there were lead pipes in MA. Working-class area shit on and screwed over by cheap builders? Yeah, that sounds about right? And here? Well, it’s what used to be middle-class, but still old enough that it’s not unreasonable to think the pipes in this house are lead. Some of the paint is, I think. I don’t know. It’s North Jersey. Something’s gonna fuck you up and give you cancer.

But he was okay yesterday. Rest of the week was hard. We’re in the grind of a tough first semester at The Patient Mrs.’ new job at William Paterson. They’re talking about the faculty going on strike or something? I bet that shit’s a lot easier to consider when you’ve got tenure. Guess we’ll see how it goes.

Pecan’s up. Hang on…

Alright, one chill diaper-change later he’s in with The Patient Mrs. for the time being. Fine.

This weekend is the Magnetic Eye Day of Doom nine-bander at Saint Vitus Bar. Woof that’s a lot of bands. Nine, to be exact. I’m DJ’ing the pre-party, which means I’ll be putting together a playlist today I guess, and then since I’ll have my laptop anyway I’ll probably just writeup the bands while I’m at the show. I don’t know if I’ll also have time to sort through photos there, so it might not be a live live-blog, but even if I get the text part done, put pictures together on Sunday and post on Monday, that’s a load off my mind for the weekend. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

The timing’s important because I’m also streaming the full new Devil to Pay record on Monday and I want to give it its due. So I’ll be reviewing that before I leave the house tomorrow morning to go to Brooklyn. Tuesday the poll for the best albums of the decade goes up, as well as a track premiere from the new Iguana record. Wednesday is doubled-up again with a Brume premiere — their record’s so good — and a Very Paranoia premiere, some ’70s punk-ish stuff on Who Can You Trust? Records, then Thursday I have a Lemurian Folk Songs review slated but I might honestly just skip it and fill out the day with other stuff, and then Friday is a Kamchatka track premiere. So yeah, busy. Busy busy busy.

And to go with that, The Toddlerian in all his glorious volatility. He’s mad. Why? Wrong question.

But anyway. Quick merch update: I’ve seen the new site that’s in progress. It’ll be run through Made in Brooklyn directly. Should be live next week I hope? There will be Obelisk sweatpants. I will purchase a pair. And wear them. In public. Whether or not you do the same is of course between you and your higher power, whoever/whatever that may be.

That’s enough out of me. If you’re at Vitus tomorrow — and you should be, what with Domkraft and Elephant Tree and Horsehunter and all — say hi. I may or may not be the guy in tye-dye pants, depending on how much laundry I get done today. Camera and cosmic backpack (and laptop) either way though, so yeah. That’s me. I’m old.

Have a great and safe weekend, whatever your plans. Forum, radio, merch.

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Review & Track Premiere: Arc of Ascent, Realms of the Metaphysical

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 6th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

arc of ascent realms of the metaphysical

[Click play above to stream ‘Eye of Sages’ from Arc of Ascent’s Realms of the Metaphysical. Album is out digitally and on CD April 11 via Astral Projection with vinyl to follow this June/July through Clostridium Records.]

It’s been just over half a decade since the release of the last Arc of Ascent album, but to listen to the six component tracks of Realms of the Metaphysical, one hardly gets a sense of time at all, let alone a span of years. The Hamilton, New Zealand, outfit boasts bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson, also of Lamp of the Universe and formerly of ready-for-reissue heavy rockers Datura, and together with rejoined guitarist Matt Cole-Baker — who did not feature on 2012’s The Higher Key (review here) but took part in Arc of Ascent‘s 2010 debut, Circle of the Sun (review here) — and drummer Mark McGeady, who makes his debut here (also handling the cover art), Williamson steers a winding course of cosmic riffing across 46 flowing, nod-worthy minutes.

Issued on CD through his own Astral Projection imprint with vinyl to follow from Clostridium Records, Realms of the Metaphysical bears the hallmark shamanic circularity of Williamson‘s songcraft, as heard the last couple years in Lamp of the Universe offerings like late 2016’s Hidden Knowledge (review here) and 2015’s The Inner Light of Revelation (review here). That one-man project essentially picked up where Arc of Ascent last left off with its 2013 LP Transcendence (review here) and 2014 splits with Trip Hill and Krautzone (review here).

As Realms of the Metaphysical falls into place with the ongoing stream of output from Williamson, it’s easy as ever to read him as an auteur — and in the case of Lamp of the Universe having no other members, even easier — but the shift in context to Arc of Ascent and the contributions in fullness of sound from McGeady and Cole-Baker aren’t to be understated. Whatever lies at the core of “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” in terms of songwriting, they are unmistakably the work of a complete band, and suitably weighted that it might require three people to carry them.

Rest assured, the heft comes accompanied by due spaciousness, and as Arc of Ascent seem to begin a return to activity with Realms of the Metaphysical, they do so not at all having lost the blend of craft, atmosphere and lumbering tonality that made their earlier records such riffy celebrations to start with. Repetition, groove and crash are factors right from the start of opener “Set the Planets Free,” and as songs regularly range past seven minutes — only the penultimate “Benediction Moon” is shorter, at 5:58 — there’s plenty of room for parts to flesh out as they will. Still, Williamson, Cole-Baker and McGeady don’t shy away from hooks, and before it moves into its echoing solo section circa the halfway point, “Set the Planets Free” establishes the first of them for them to return to later, which, to their credit, they do.

It seems odd to call something of such largesse straightforward, but part of Arc of Ascent‘s approach has always been their ability to conjure memorable impressions in vast reaches. In doing so, “Set the Planets Free” reclaims the modus, and “Eye of Sages” follows suit with “Hexagram” not far behind. Rolling verses and choruses typify “Eye of Sages,” a harder push emerging early en route to another midpoint spaceout, but it’s at 6:23, when the full plod returns, that the crux of the second track is truly revealed — a stomp and shove that comes to a fervent apex before rumbling out and fading into the layered guitar start of “Hexagram,” which gets underway with a resonant gong hit and takes a more psych-leaning bent overall.

The swirl is welcome, particularly with the clarity of Kenny MacDonald‘s mix and master — Dan Howard and Williamson engineered the recording — and as the side A finale moves into its chorus, it proves to be a vocal highlight from Williamson, who pushes himself to new limits of soulfulness without losing control, and seems all the more commanding as a frontman for that. Where “Set the Planets Free” and “Eyes of Sages” introduced swirling flourish only to return to their more grounded riffing, “Hexagram” chooses to keep pushing further out, with Cole-Baker‘s guitar fading in a lead past three minutes in that will come around again to close after one final chorus runthrough, capping the first half of Realms of the Metaphysical amid a wash of effects.

arc of ascent kelsi j photo

The album breaks neatly into two three-song halves, each on either side of 23 minutes, and with “In the Light,” the trio reengage the thickened nod of the opening duo while setting up a catchy landmark that summarizes much of what’s working best in Arc of Ascent circa 2017. A post-Sleep cadence of riff is immediate, but guitar and keys give an early preview of the broadness to come before Wililamson‘s vocals start the first verse, and “In the Light” lives up to the promise of both its tectonics and its breadth, enacting a march toward a shift after three minutes in that opens wide beneath a multi-stage guitar lead with choral keyboards and a steady forward rhythm.

As one of the three songs over eight minutes long along with “Set the Planets Free” and closer “Temple Stone” still to come, “In the Light” has plenty of time to flesh out this part before switching back to the verse and chorus, but it’s the ending that brings the two sides together — that keyboard line returning amid the full-brunt crash and stomp — that brings its payoff to that next level and makes it such a highlight of Realms of the Metaphysical as a whole. “Benediction Moon” opts for a relatively sans-frills approach, which sets up an effective contrast with “Temple Stone” while underscoring the raw songwriting proficiency of Arc of Ascent as a whole and reminding of the grunge influence tucked away under all that depth in the mix.

In a corresponding shift to the ethereal to “Hexagram” at the end of side A, “Temple Stone” rounds out with the most fervent push into psychedelia on the record. Where cuts like “Set the Planets Free,” “Eye of Sages” and “In the Light” had their psych breaks, beginning usually somewhere around the middle, the finale takes this ethic more to its root, and from its very start — with a layer of sitar resonating over a patient, subdued guitar figure — it sets a lysergic tone. Its verse riffs are still righteously heavy, but the chorus feels more open with a line of organ and keys coming into focus, and by the time the band are three minutes in, they’ve set themselves up to journey into whatever expanses they will. Another chorus finds Williamson again pushing his voice ably, and just past the four-minute mark, the drums and bass drop out and the sitar and guitar take hold.

What’s different about it this time is Williamson adds vocals to that melodic wash, and in so doing gives an impression right out of Lamp of the Universe, effectively tying the two outfits together in the span of one short verse. It’s there and gone to the point that if one isn’t careful it might be missed, but it definitely happens. Drums build back in and they make their way through another chorus en route to a soaking-wet crescendo that finds the lead guitar and organ aligned in their purposes, with the keys playing root notes as the strings solo around them. It’s the keys that ultimately provide the finish as the drums and bass again drop out (save for a tambourine) and the album ends on a long cycle of the organ line that has underscored the song all the while, fading out gradually and gracefully as it hits 9:40.

Realms of the Metaphysical may or may not mark a shift in focus for Williamson‘s creative energies. It could be he’ll work simultaneously on two projects, move back and forth between them as he has, or do something else entirely; pointless to speculate. What’s more important as regards the songs collected here and the flow Arc of Ascent create between them is they demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the band still had more to offer after The Higher Key and still has more to offer now, that there are further, deeper reaches for them to explore as a group, and that they’re willing to do the work of making that exploration a reality. Taken in combination with the quality of the finished product in its entirety, one can only hope their meditative and heavy-footed peripatetics continue to move forward. But if it’s five more years before we get another Arc of Ascent, at least Realms of the Metaphysical lets us know it’ll be worth the wait.

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The Obelisk Presents: THE TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2015

Posted in Features on December 22nd, 2015 by JJ Koczan

top 30 albums of 2015 1

Please note: This list is not culled in any way from the Readers Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2015 to that, please do.

It’s damn near impossible to start one of these posts without some derivation of, “Whew! What a year it’s been!” The truth is that, since 2014, I’ve been keeping a list of the best releases of 2015, and the list has just grown and grown and grown over the last 12 months. Could have been a top 40, easy. Could have been a top 50, 60, whatever. It was complete inundation.

If you’ve been checking in on any of the lists that have gone up so far, you might notice that some of these records have appeared elsewhere, and possibly in a different order. How does an album end up ahead of another on one list and not on another? Different criteria. Different basis of judgment. As always, the big year-end list (this one) is derived both from what I think are the most important offerings of the year plus what I listened to the most, because while I believe deeply in the critical value of a given work, I also believe there’s value in the kind of record you just can’t put down.

Basically, I believe records have value. Stay tuned for more daring adventures in understatement.

A few emergent factors for 2015 to note: The increasing expansion of subgenres. Psychedelia and what I’ve come to call the heavy ’10s sound finding further root as prominent styles of the day, as well as a budding of emotive doom in the post-Pallbearer vein. At the same time, a more straightforward heavy rock is also making a return, and look for that to continue as new listeners discover past landmarks and modern plays thereupon. Everything is cyclical, and I’m interested to see what the next two or three years bring, both as Millennials hit 30 (and beyond) and as younger kids come up and fuzz out.

But that’s a conversation for a different time, and before we get there, it’s time to take a look back at the best full-lengths of 2015. I hope if I’ve left something out, you’ll let me know about it in the comments, but until then, here we go:

30. High on Fire, Luminiferous

high on fire luminiferous

Released by eOne Heavy. Reviewed June 15.

Going by some of the results I’ve seen from the Readers Poll, I’m guessing there will be some disagreement on the placement of High on Fire‘s seventh full-length, third for eOne and second to be produced by Kurt Ballou behind 2012’s De Vermiis Mysteriis (review here), but for me it came down to what I went back to more. The brilliant “The Falconist” would be enough on its own for Luminiferous to be included on this list, and taken as a whole, the record affirmed the trio as pivotal heavy metal marauders, an act whose devastation is undulled by the wear they’ve put on it touring the world over and again.

29. CHRCH, Unanswered Hymns

chrch unanswered hymns

Released by Battleground Records. Reviewed June 30.

Undaunted by a name change from Church to CHRCH, the Sacramento five-piece unleashed rare doom extremity on their debut album, but peppered that with a stylistic nuance that many in the pummel-pummel-pummel game cast off, whether it was psychedelic flourish in the guitar or some eerie atmospheric. Among the post potential-filled debut offerings of the year, that’s not a guarantee they’ll find future success on the same level, but it does mean that if you didn’t hear the 19-minute “Dawning,” you missed out.

28. Golden Void, Berkana

golden void berkana

Released by Thrill Jockey Records. Reviewed Sept. 22.

Coherent bliss. The second full-length from the four-piece Golden Void was a logical step forward from the band’s 2012 self-titled debut (review here), but that was precisely what it needed to be. With an emerging dynamic of dual vocals between guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (also Earthless) and keyboardist Camilla Saufley-Mitchell on cuts like “Astral Plane” and “Silent Season,” Berkana was less adherent to space rock overall than its predecessor, but gave a more individualized take and was all the richer for it.

27. Stoned Jesus, The Harvest

stoned jesus the harvest

Self-released. Reviewed Feb. 20.

Probably should have a higher number. Part of the enduring appeal for The Harvest for me is not only how Ukrainian three-piece Stoned Jesus so absolutely pushed back from the album before it, 2012’s sophomore outing, Seven Thunders Roar (review here), but how much reasoning they put behind the moves they made on the six included tracks. Each song had its purpose and place in the overarching flow, and The Harvest continues to deliver something new on thoroughly-earned repeat listens. Perhaps most encouraging of all, I have no idea what they’ll do next.

26. Graveyard, Innocence and Decadence

graveyard innocence and decadence

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Oct. 7.

Swedish retro forerunners are hands-down one of the most influential European heavy rock acts of their generation. The ’70s revivalism they helped spearhead on their first, second and third LPs has given them rich ground to develop, and they still managed to bring something new to their sound with the soulfulness of Innocence and Decadence, as well as increasing command and diversity in the vocals. Drummer Axel Sjöberg turned in a career performance, and although there are heaps upon heaps of bands out there indulging in post-Graveyard boogie, they showed once again that they’re able to stand both out from the crowd and well above it. Plus, any swing-rocking album that dares to break out soul-singer backing vocals and blastbeats, and pull both off without blinking deserves respect, no matter what else it might have going on.

25. Death Hawks, Sun Future Moon

death hawks sun future moon

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Nov. 3

It felt so good to put on Death HawksSun Future Moon for the first time and be completely blindsided by its serene psychedelic ritualizing. The Finnish four-piece reveled in classic progressive methods, and where it would’ve been so easy for songs like “Hey Ya Sun Ra” or “Dream Life, Waking Life” to come across as pretentious, the naturalism in the recording gave the band’s third album such a liquefied flow that it was impossible not to be swept up by it until, at last, “Friend of Joy” launched into and beyond a peaceful stratosphere in spaced-out ambience. My first exposure to the group and their first outing for Svart, it’s a record so textural and so graceful that it seems to unfurl itself more each time through.

24. Spidergawd, II

spidergawd ii

Released by Stickman Records and Crispin Glover Records. Reviewed Jan. 5.

A quick and strong turnaround from this Norwegian sax-inclusive foursome, who might seem to come out of nowhere were it not for the pedigree of Kenneth Kapstad and Bent SĂŠther in long-running progressives Motorpsycho. Together with Per Borten and Rolf Martin Snustad, Spidergawd spoke to more primal rock instincts — their two LPs to-date and soon to be three are testaments to the ability of music to move, to shove, and to shake; or as they put it, “Get Physical” — but as there is breadth as well, as the psychedelic “Caereulean Caribou” demonstrated. Anchored by the hook of “Fixing to Die Blues,” Spidergawd‘s second wandered far and wide, but welcomed listeners along for each step of the journey.

23. The Midnight Ghost Train, Cold was the Ground

the midnight ghost train cold was the ground

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Feb. 26.

As the title promised, The Midnight Ghost Train‘s third offering and Napalm Records debut delivered harsh truths. They came at breakneck speed and delivered with stage-hewn chemistry by the Midwestern power trio, whose years of road-dogging were brought to bear in the gruff, gravel-throated voice of guitarist Steve Moss, who led drummer Brandon Burghart and newcomer bassist Mike Boyne across nigh-unparalled riff torrents, with all the boogie of any number of ’70s-style sidewinders, but also with a tonal thickness that seemed a miracle it could move at all. Not without its adventurous side in the quieter “The Little Sparrow,” Cold was the Ground brimmed with intensity that brought the band to new levels in every conceivable fashion.

22. Leeches of Lore, Motel of Infinity

leeches of lore motel of infinity

Released by Lorchestral Recording Company. Reviewed Sept. 15.

Blessed art the weirdos, whose records might be few and far between, who might not tour, but whose bold fits and starts span genres easily and whose work truly stands alone. Leeches of Lore‘s Toshi Kasai-produced Motel of Infinity was a godsend in the enduring battle against normality. It was a grinding, grooving anti-punk stampede, at times frenetic and at other times whatever the opposite of frenetic is, and to-date, it’s the Albuquirky outit’s masterpiece, from the low-end buzzsaw, gang-shout and falsetto of “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” through the bass and organ bounce of “Noah’s Soul (is Burning).” They have been and still are a band unto themselves, and the we-do-this-every-day confidence of their execution across Motel of Infinity‘s run only emphasizes how utterly necessary they are.

21. With the Dead, With the Dead

with the dead self titled

Released by Rise Above Records. Reviewed Nov. 11.

With the Dead vocalist Lee Dorrian (also head of Rise Above Records, also ex-Cathedral) basically laid it all out there in the interview here when he said, “We wanted to make the most skull-crushing record we possibly could.” That’s precisely what With the Dead‘s self-titled debut is. It’s as heavy as possible, as filthy as possible, all the way through. In some ways very much the sum of its elements with Dorrian on vocals, Tim Bagshaw on guitar/bass and Mark Greening on drums (both ex-Ramesses), it was also of course more than just that, and while so much of their story has yet to be told as they move into their initial live appearances in 2016, their opening salvo was nothing if not as destructive as its intent.

20. Clutch, Psychic Warfare

clutch psychic warfare

Released by Weathermaker Music. Reviewed Oct. 6.

How could anyone possibly have even remotely reasonable expectations for a Clutch record after 2013’s Earth Rocker (review here). I won’t say the Maryland stalwarts didn’t deliver with Psychic Warfare, and I doubt any fan of the band who’s dug into “X-Ray Visions,” “A Quick Death in Texas” or “Noble Savage” would, but their returning to producer Machine for the second time in a row made it almost too easy to compare Clutch‘s 10th and 11th long-players. Four years between albums was shortened to just two, and that may have had something to do with it as well, but while the songs were there and I’ve no doubt that Psychic Warfare will endure over the long term — ask me sometime how long it took me to get into Pure Rock Fury — in the moment of its release, Psychic Warfare seemed to stand in the shadow of its predecessor rather than in its own light.

19. Mondo Drag, Mondo Drag

mondo drag self-titled

Released by Kozmik Artifactz and RidingEasy Records. Reviewed Jan. 8.

An awaited return for Midwestern-turned-West-Coast psychedelic rockers Mondo Drag, their self-titled sophomore outing had three years between its recording and release, and was made in 2012 with a shortlived incarnation of the band with bassist Zack Anderson and drummer Cory Berry, both formerly of Radio Moscow and then-soon to be of Blues Pills. Unsurprisingly, the grooves were tight, but even better, Mondo Drag blew past the peaceful headtrippery of their 2010 debut, New Rituals (review here), toward more expansive and proggy fare. They’ll look to continue that thread on their third outing, The Occultation of Light, in 2016, but the self-titled captured a special moment worthy of celebration, still rife with the classic-minded ethereal spirit of the first outing, but clearly bent on defining its own sonic dogma in hooks and synthy vibes.

18. Lamp of the Universe, The Inner Light of Revelation

lamp of the universe the inner light of revelation

Released by Clostridium Records and Astral Projection. Reviewed April 27.

At the risk of sounding biased, just about any new release from New Zealand tantric psych outfit Lamp of the Universe is going to be welcome by me. Comprised solely of Craig Williamson (also Arc of Ascent), the long-running project nonetheless casts out gorgeously textured meditative psychedelia, at times delving into drone or Eastern folk, but always marking out its own sonic space, whether in the more rock-minded groove of “God of One” or the drumless acoustic swirl of “Ancient Path.” Lamp of the Universe is a rare band — as much as it is a band — that covers a swath of ground stylistically and manages to sound like nothing but itself as it does so, and Williamson‘s commitment to his cosmic mantras remains firm and creatively fertile as the seeds he planted early on continue to bear fruit in complex arrangements that never distract from the central, spiritual purpose of the music.

17. Mammatus, Sparkling Waters

mammatus sparkling waters

Released by Spiritual Pajamas. Reviewed Nov. 9.

Even with its title-track broken into two 20-plus-minute side-consuming halves, it was abundantly plain to hear that Sparkling Waters was the most realized Mammatus outing yet. The four-song, 75-minute offering brimmed with a clarity that even their late-2013 third album, Heady Mental (review here), could only partially claim, leaving behind the fuzz and fog of their earlier work almost entirely while remaining open to employing sonic heft when suitable to their more complex motives. Most effective about Mammatus at this stage was the way they eased into and through varied parts while tying together a coherent whole piece, the builds and cascades of “Sparkling Waters Part One” setting up an expectation of fluidity that held firm even through the more jagged buzz in the early going of closer “Ornia,” the grand finale of which resonates as a cacophony without letting itself actually lose control.

16. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, The Night Creeper

uncle acid the night creeper

Released by Rise Above Records. Reviewed Sept. 3.

UK ladykillers Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats have emerged as one of the most essential bands of the ’10s. The Night Creeper is their fourth album and it takes the defining eeriness of their melodies and roughs it up with a mostly-live recording job — something which, now that they’re a touring act, they can do — for their grittiest, dirtiest-sounding offering yet. Songs like “Melody Lane,” “Pusher Man” and opener “Waiting for Blood” speak to what’s let their methodology spread so widely in the first place, the VHS grain of their guitars and vocals resting over classic swing and proliferating maddening hooks with lethal intent. Between the nine-minute gruel of “Slow Death” and the hidden acoustic track “Black Motorcade,” The Night Creeper wasn’t without its element of sonic progress, but with Uncle Acid, it’s still the combination of threat, swing and memorable songwriting that brings listeners back to their dark alleyways for another taste.

15. Death Alley, Black Magick Boogieland

death alley black magick boogieland

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed June 8.

Easily one of 2015’s most encouraging debuts. Making its opening salvo with the propulsion of Motörhead-derived heavy rock in songs like “Over Under” and “Black Magick Boogieland,” the first outing from Amsterdam-based foursome Death Alley touched on classic ideals without going retro on “Bewildered Eyes,” nodded toward psychedelic melodicism and more patient intentions in “Golden Fields of Love,” and portrayed its punker roots in “Dead Man’s Bones” — all before the 12:40 space rock extravaganza that took hold with closer “Supernatural Predator.” It was a lot of territory to cover, but Death Alley not only made it sound cohesive, they made it rock and they made it a good time. In just about 41 minutes, Black Magick Boogieland was not only a voyage well worth taking, it was a potential-filled, headbang-worthy ripper of an album from an outfit who deserves every bit of attention they seem to be shouting for. Hope they don’t wait long for a follow-up.

14. The Machine, Offblast!

the machine offblast

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed May 28.

Five records in, Dutch trio The Machine have found a niche for themselves between heavy psych rock, desert fuzz and exploratory jamming. Offblast!, with a title that seemed more reminiscent of Europunker speed rock, was as spacious as it was driving, and whether it was the more structured material like “Dry End” or “Coda Sun” or the two extended cuts, 16-minute opener ““Chrysalis (J.A.M.)” and 12-minute closer “Come to Light,” their dynamic remained natural and held firm to a spontaneous sensibility, like at any turn, any part might take off for an eight-minute ride to who knows where. That that didn’t always happen only made Offblast! a richer listening experience, its varied ideas coming through consistent tonality to affect a more than satisfying front-to-back flow that toyed with momentum even as it built more and more of it. Was a while in the making, coming three years after 2012’s Calmer than You Are (review here), but easily worth the wait.

13. Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

brothers of the sonic cloth self titled

Released by Neurot Recordings. Reviewed March 3.

There were moments where the self-titled debut from Brothers of the Sonic Cloth was almost too much to take in one sitting. By the time the Tad Doyle-led trio got around to the 11-minute “La Mano Poderosa,” sometimes I felt like I needed a second to catch my breath before diving further, always further, into the smoldering abyss their tones, growls and lurch seemed to create. Six years after their demo (review here) served notice like a tectonic rumble in the distance, the album arrived with comet-into-planet heft, and its oppression was as much about atmosphere as it was sheer aural assault. Imagine an arm reaching down your throat, grabbing your lungs, and forcibly deflating them one at a time. Is that hyperbole? Absolutely, and well earned. Every bit the debut of the year.

12. Kind, Rocket Science

kind rocket science

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Dec. 2.

No, Boston supergroup Kind aren’t so high on this list just because they called a song “Pastrami Blaster.” Granted, that didn’t hurt, but ultimately it was the blend of cavernous psychedelics and heavy rumble that made Rocket Science so infectious. Comprised of vocalist Craig Riggs (Roadsaw), guitarist Darryl Shepard (Milligram, The Scimitar, etc.), bassist Tom Corino (Rozamov) and drummer Matt Couto (Elder), Kind earned immediate interest for their pedigree, but it was more the breadth of jams like “Hordeolum” and “The Angry Undertaker” that defined their first outing, various impulses toward structure and open-endedness not so much pushing against each other as working in tandem to craft something that drew from the best of both mindsets. Obviously these are busy guys, but hopefully Kind doesn’t all by the wayside for other ongoing projects. Rocket Science was unmistakable in its demonstration that they have much to offer.

11. Bloodcow, Crystals and Lasers

bloodcow crystals and lasers

Self-released. Reviewed Aug. 4.

Iowa five-piece Bloodcow hadn’t put out a record since 2007’s Bloodcow III: Hail Xenu, but that didn’t stop Crystals and Lasers from being their best work yet. As much punk as metal as heavy rock, it wasn’t for everybody, but it was most definitely for me. With a constant thread of satire in songs like “Ultra Super Sexual,” “Sock,” “Dick for Days” and the oh-shit-I’m-middle-aged-how-the-fuck-did-this-happen (not saying I relate or anything, but holy shit I can relate) “After Party,” it was nonetheless a stylistically varied and universally professional-sounding 13-track collection, offering weirdo quirk in “Blood and Guts,” “Exploding Head” and “Little Chromosome” and finding room for a bit of scathing social commentary in its title-track and “HIVampyre.” If they’re working at an eight-year pace, I don’t know that we’ll get another Bloodcow record, but they very clearly put everything they had into Crystals and Lasers and the result was a defining statement.

10. Kadavar, Berlin

kadavar berlin

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed July 7.

After two wallops in the form of 2013’s Abra Kadavar (review here) and 2012’s self-titled debut (discussed here), German trio Kadavar continued to prove the effectiveness of their songwriting on Berlin, a return that front-to-back brimmed with vitality and bounce rare enough for heavy rock generally more content to be downtrodden or attempting to feign bluesy substance. Unabashedly poppy at times, Berlin was the party that brought everyone along who was up for taking the ride, and whether it was the hook of “Lord of the Sky” showing how just a tiny melodic turn could make a track infectious or cuts like “Thousand Miles Away from Home,” “Filthy Illusion,” “Stolen Dreams,” “Spanish Wild Rose,” “See the World with Your Own Eyes” — all of them, really — working their way into the consciousness, Berlin felt like it was primed to be the soundtrack of many summers to come. They moved away from the retro style of their first two outings, but in so doing took fuller command of their sound and put it to remarkable use.

9. Goatsnake, Black Age Blues

goatsnake black age blues

Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed May 19.

Picking up right where Flower of Disease closer “The River” left off with “Another River to Cross,” Goatsnake‘s third full-length arrived a full 15 years after its predecessor, and as one might expect that brought some considerable changes in the band’s sound. Oh, they still rolled the hell out of a riff, guitarist Greg Anderson (he of SunnO))) and Southern Lord Recordings) very much at the fore tonally, but a bluesy inflection from vocalist Pete Stahl (also earthlings?) and some well-placed backing vocals added personality in a daring and unexpected fashion. Songs like “Jimi’s Gone,” “Elevated Man” and “Grandpa Jones” sat comfortably in the band’s influential pantheon of heft, but it was how Black Age Blues pushed beyond what Goatsnake did in their initial run that made it so satisfying. For a record that arrived five years after they got back together, it could have easily been disaster, but Black Age Blues built on what Goatsnake was without detracting from the legacy that has influenced a generation of heavy rock.

8. Kings Destroy, Kings Destroy

kings destroy self titled

Released by War Crime Recordings. Reviewed April 15.

I’m proud to call the members of Kings Destroy friends and I won’t attempt to feign impartiality when it comes to considering their work as a band, but I felt in listening to their self-titled third LP that they had finally gotten to the point where they were bringing the onstage confrontationalism of their live show to the studio. Yeah, “Mr. O” was upbeat and catchy and gave side A some thrust, but even in chugging opener “Smokey Robinson” or the moody “Mytho” and “Embers,” Kings Destroy not only came further into their own in terms of style, building on the anti-genre defiant stance of 2013’s A Time of Hunting (review here), but did so with a clearheaded progressivism, a better sense of who they are musically and what they want the band to be. I wouldn’t trade seeing them play “Embers” or “W2” as many times as I have for anything, but even unto the gang-shout half-speed hardcore of “Time for War,” Kings Destroy‘s Kings Destroy made no bones about how it wound up with the eponymous title. It’s them through and through.

7. Cigale, Cigale

cigale self titled

Self-released. Reviewed May 4.

It may never be possible to listen to the self-titled debut from Cigale outside the context of the death of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets (ex-Sungrazer). That loss casts a dark shadow over a collection that otherwise radiates colorful sweetness and serenity, the peaceful depth beginning with “Grey Owl” and only broadening as it turns and weaves through “Steeplechase,” “Feel the Heat,” “Harvest Begun” and so on, but the record remains a gorgeous, engrossing wash of resonant melody and underlying presence. Not without its moments of melancholy, the more overarching impression was of beauty not tied to any notion of playing to genre or style, and while I don’t know what the future will hold for the band, if they’ll keep moving forward or not or if they’re even in a place yet to consider such things, they helped broaden the context of European heavy psychedelia with their first album, and that is no minor achievement.

6. Sun Blood Stories, Twilight Midnight Morning

sun blood stories twilight midnight morning

Self-released. Reviewed June 19.

Another one that just kind of smacked me in the face. Idahoan heavy psych explorers Sun Blood Stories‘ second album, Twilight Midnight Morning was soaked in vibe and moved fluidly between experimentalist noisemaking and patient, memorable songwriting. Tracks like “West the Sun,” “Witch Wind” and “Found Reasons Found Out” never raged, exactly, but had enough weight to their rhythm to let you know they were there and interested in groove, while later pieces “Time Like Smoke,” “Moon Song: Waxing” and “Misery is Nebulous” drew exponentially from earlier freakout impulses and shifted into a dronier and more ambient approach. The combination of the two — semi-structure up front, open expansion in the back — made the three-part Twilight Midnight Morning engaging and hypnotic in kind, and though I hope they get weirder and experiment and develop the atmospheric side of their sound, I’ve also got my fingers crossed they hold firm to their more grounded aspects, since its the range between the two that gives their sophomore outing its defining fluidity.

5a. Colour Haze, To the Highest Gods We Know

colour haze to the highest gods we know

Released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Reviewed Jan. 6.

I’ll cite precedent in last year’s list for including a “5a.” The intent in doing so is to convey the idea that Colour Haze‘s latest outing, To the Highest Gods We Know, is worthy of top five consideration, but its release date was split between 2014 (CD) and 2015 (LP), so it was a little unclear where to put it. As the album is basically a year old at this point, it seems fair to say it’s held up, drawing back from the grandiose vision of 2012’s She Said (review here) without losing sight of the progressive elements that have taken root in the German trio’s sound. Their work has been and remains essential to the development of heavy psychedelic rock in Europe and beyond, and even though To the Highest Gods We Know felt like something of a reset — a stripping down of arrangements in places and getting back to a trio-in-a-room feel — it still stepped forward in its title-track and in songs like “Überall” and “Call” and showed that even when it seems Colour Haze have pushed their approach as far as it can go, there’s always new ground to explore, and their pull to do so is undiminished.

5. The Atomic Bitchwax, Gravitron

the atomic bitchwax gravitron

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed April 20.

Doesn’t exactly seem like giving away state secrets to note that a record with songs like “Sexecutioner” and “Fuck Face” is aggressive, but it’s particularly interesting in light of the past work of New Jersey trio The Atomic Bitchwax, who I don’t think sounded as barn-burning as they do on Gravitron even in their earliest going. The trio of bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik, guitarist/vocalist Finn Ryan and drummer Bob Pantella kept their signature winding riff style intact — demonstrated most expansively over 2011’s single-song full-length instrumental The Local Fuzz (review here) — but while their turns were as blinding as ever, their tones were more pointed and Pantella‘s snare more upfront on the beat, which gave Gravitron a newfound sense of urgency. It worked. Even poppier songs like “Roseland” or the closing “Ice Age Hey Baby” benefited from the additional thrust, and the album overall felt lean, mean and ready to be taken on the road, which of course is exactly what they did with it. Six albums in, The Atomic Bitchwax were at their most vital yet.

4. All Them Witches, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker

all them witches dying surfer meets his maker

Released by New West Records. Reviewed Oct. 20.

Nashville four-piece All Them Witches probably could’ve gone into the studio, churned out a record of crunchy riffs with a quiet part or two for flavor and positioned themselves at the forefront of American heavy rock with their New West Records debut and third full-length overall, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker. Instead, they defied expectation boldly and brought their growing audience into the room with them and producer Mikey Allred as they captured the album, which finds its most affecting moments not in tonal weight, but emotional resonance, the melody at the midpoint of “Talisman” or the string arrangement gracefully tucked into “Open Passageways.” There’s still the push of “Dirt Preachers,” and entrancing closer “Blood and Sand – Milk and Endless Waters” has its heft as well, but All Them Witches‘ success ultimately came from being the album they wanted to make, built from the dynamic that’s developed on stage between bassist/vocalist Michael Parks, Jr., guitarist Ben McLeod, Allan Van Cleave on Fender Rhodes/strings, and drummer Robby Staebler, and alive in its feeling of exploration. I won’t predict what they might do from here, but I’m willing to say outright it’ll be worth hearing one way or another.

3. Snail, Feral

snail feral

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Oct. 13.

My expectations for Snail‘s third post-reunion full-length and Small Stone label debut, Feral, were pretty high. Not unreasonably so, though. Their 2012 outing, Terminus (review here), built on the blend of heavy psych riffs, laid back roll and melodicism that 2009’s Blood (review here) established as the band’s working modus, but Feral was going to be a different beast from the start because it was the West Coast outfit’s first full-length as a trio since they made their self-titled debut (reissue review here) in 1993 before splitting up the next year. Whatever my expectations were, however, Snail shattered them almost immediately. In the progression of their songwriting as shown across the strong opening salvo of “Building a Haunted House,” “Smoke the Deathless” and “A Mustard Seed” through one of the year’s best songs in the expansive and crushing “Thou Art That,” the three-piece showcased a breadth unlike anything they’d conjured before, and it only continued through “Born in Captivity,” the catchy “Derail,” “Psilocybe” and the soul-infused wah leads that peppered the pleading closer “Come Home.” Where Terminus offered intensity, Feral offered patience in its execution, and the atmosphere it created suited the band’s sound as well as the Seldon Hunt cover art seemed to summarize the alternate reality in which the music took place. Everything about how it came together worked just right, and even as a fan of the band’s work since they got together again, I was taken aback by the unflinching quality of Feral front to back.

2. Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere

acid king middle of nowhere center of everywhere

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed March 19.

Ten years is a long, long time. Especially in music. The prospect of a fourth Acid King record has been tossed around for at least the last six of those 10 years, but to finally have it realized was something else entirely. Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere was without a doubt my most-listened-to album of the year, and its combination of tonal haze, low-end heft and spacious atmosphere was perfect. There’s just no other way to say it. It was perfect. From “Silent Pictures” and “Coming down from Outer Space” through “Red River,” “Infinite Skies” and the sprawling “Center of Everywhere” itself, guitarist/vocalist Lori S., bassist Mark Lamb and drummer Joey Osbourne crafted an absolutely perfect heavy psych record. How many bands walking the earth could even get away with calling a track “Laser Headlights,” let alone make it kick ass? Yeah, Goatsnake came back this year, and that was great, but for me, the return of Acid King to their throne of nod was even more the story of the year. Together with producer Billy Anderson, they offered a depth of tone that was simply unmatched, and without an ounce of pretense, they unveiled a roll that continues to resound. I’m a big fan of getting lost in a record, and Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere eased the listener in with its “Intro,” pulled reality apart from with “Silent Pictures” and set about doing the universe a favor by remaking the cosmos as the kind of place where one might find a wizard riding a tiger past the craters of the moon, until, at last, it deposited you back where you started. Best trip of 2015, no question.

1. Elder, Lore

elder lore

Released by Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records. Reviewed Feb. 19.

Make no mistake, 2015 was Elder‘s year. We were all just living in it. Truth be told, I’ve been back and forth between Elder and Acid King in the top spot for the last couple months (you might recall in July they were reversed), but when it finally came to it, there was no way I could feasibly call anything other than Lore the album of the year. From the gorgeous Adrian Dexter artwork (discussed here), through the progressive clarion of “Compendium”‘s noodling guitar line and into the massive scope of the title-track (discussed here), Lore was the moment in which Elder — guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto — tore down the walls of genre, whether it was heavy rock, psychedelia or anything else, and emerged with their own approach and complex, varied modus of songwriting. They’ve been turning heads since their self-titled debut arrived in 2008, but with 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here), they began to demonstrate the potential for really adding something to the patchwork of underground heavy. In moving forward by making clarity a hallmark both of their sound and of their purpose, Elder came into their own with these five tracks, and do not at all be surprised a couple years from now when bands start showing up aping DiSalvo‘s style of riffing, since such a bold and successful foray of individualism can only be influential in the longer run. At nearly an hour long, Lore was not a minor undertaking, but each song seemed to set up its own atmosphere, feeding not only its own singular focus, but that of the album overall. Its turns blinding, its impact forceful and its affect drawing from the best of the sonic personalities of all three players, Elder‘s Lore reaped wide acclaim and earned it every step of the way. Its progressive vision has only begun to be digested.

Honorable Mention

Killer Boogie, Detroit – Impressive debut from the retro-minded offshoot of Black Rainbows brought ’70s boogie to Italy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a quick turnaround, but either way, their first outing knew its audience and spoke directly to it.

My Sleeping Karma, Moksha – This one was on various incarnations of the list. Very interested to see where the German heavy prog outfit wind up in terms of expanding their arrangements, but Moksha was a satisfying step forward in that process.

Egypt, Endless Flight – Should probably have a number, but the fact is it’s only been out for like two weeks, so it hasn’t really been given the test of time at this point. Still, Egypt always deliver and this was no exception.

Valkyrie, Shadows – An awaited third full-length from Virginia’s Valkyrie and also their Relapse Records debut offered enough blazing guitar work to meet any quota, and was a welcome return after a long absence.

Magic Circle, Journey’s End – The second LP from this Massachusetts outfit pushed beyond doomly confines into more traditional metallurgy but held its eerie atmospherics intact, and the combination suited them remarkably well.

Monolord, VĂŠnir – This was my go-to for 2015 when nothing else seemed quite crushing enough. The Swedish trio have very quickly stomped their way into the hearts and minds of the international underground, and rightfully so.

Freedom Hawk, Into Your Mind – After making a transition from a four-piece to a trio, this Virginian outfit proceeded to take a few stylistic risks on their second Small Stone long-player, and they paid off.

Tombstones, Vargariis – Fourth full-length from this Norwegian trio pushed them outside of doom’s confines into a darker and more extreme version of heaviness that pulled from death and black metals in addition to its sludgy underpinnings. The meld was punishing and lost nothing of its groove, wherever it went at any given moment.

Faces of Bayon, Ash and Dust Have no Dominion – I guess my only hesitation with including Faces of Bayon‘s second outing in any kind of year-end fare is I’m not sure if the album has actually been released yet. Even if not, they’re easily worth a mention.

Ice Dragon, A Beacon on the Barrow – Kind of a down year from Ice Dragon in terms of overall productivity, but if the quantity was down compared to some, A Beacon on the Barrow was quality enough to carry them through. In a way, I think the album actually benefited from the band giving listeners time to take it in.

Arenna, Given to Emptiness – Ah, so good. The Spanish heavy psych troupe dug in deep on Given to Emptiness and conjured sonic and emotional resonance on their second full-length. It’s one that still gets repeat listens.

Monster Magnet, Cobras and Fire – The long-running New Jersey outfit’s reworking of their 2010 album Mastermind was excellent, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t seem fair to list it when they’re working mostly from already-released source material. But still, if you haven’t heard it, go find it.

Various Artists, Electric Ladyland [Redux] – Even if the results hadn’t been so spectacular, Electric Ladyland [Redux] would deserve a mention for the sheer scope and logistical nightmare that the project must have been. Kudos to Magnetic Eye Records all around.

There are so many others: Abrahma, Goya, Sun and Sail Club, Deville, Sacri Monti, Dirty Streets, Ufomammut, Wo Fat‘s live album, Mirror Queen, Pentagram, Torche, Sumac, Garden of Worm, Black Rainbows, Holy Serpent, Minsk, Baron, Weedpecker, Electric Moon, Fuzz, Bell Witch, Windhand, Niche, We Lost the Sea, Seremonia, Sunder, Domovoyd, The Heavy Eyes, Demon Head, Fogg, Stars that Move, Enslaved, Ruby the Hatchet, on and on and on. That’s not even to mention the stuff I didn’t hear — Baroness will be on many people’s lists, no doubt, as well as Mutoid Man, Ghost and Kylesa — so yeah, I could pretty much keep going ad infinitum.

I, however, cannot. It’s been an absolute pleasure trying to keep up with 2015’s barrage the last 12 months, and I expect 2016 will only bring more. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading or that you’re able to get some use out of this post, whatever that might mean, and I thank you deeply, from the bottom of my heart, for your time and for reading. It means more to me than I can say that you might check out even any portion of this site or be involved, whether it’s sharing a link, leaving a comment to let me know who I forgot to mention or correct my spelling, signing up for the forum, listening to the radio, whatever it might be.

Thank you for an amazing 2015. And please stay tuned, because of course, there’s much more to come.

 

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Lamp of the Universe, Transcendence: Beyond the Material

Posted in Reviews on May 6th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

For more than a decade, New Zealand-based multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Craig Williamson has offered solo trips to the cosmos under the moniker Lamp of the Universe, early albums like The Cosmic Union (2001) and Echo in Light (2002) serving as the foundation for lysergic sitar explorations to come on a subsequent run of records that includes 2005’s Heru, 2006’s Earth, Spirit and Sky and that same year’s From the Mystic Rays of Astrological Light. Lamp of the Universe’s last ceremony was 2009’s Acid Mantra (review here), and in the interim, Williamson helped found and handled bass and vocal duties in Arc of Ascent, releasing two albums with the trio in the form of their 2010 debut, Circle of the Sun (review here) and last year’s The Higher Key (review here) and departing from Lamp of the Universe’s intimate feel toward heavy psych and grunge without retreading the ground Williamson already covered as a member of underrated heavy rockers Datura. Unsurprisingly, the time spent creating with Arc of Ascent seems to have fed into Williamson’s processes for the solo-project, and though Lamp of the Universe remains as expansive and intricately layered as ever on the newest release, Transcendence – Williamson handling acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums, sitar, Rhoads, synth, djembe, mellotron, tanpura, recorder in addition to the vocals, recording, mixing and putting the 46-minute full-length out through his own Astral Projection imprint – there’s a sense of movement to the songs that’s continued both from Acid Mantra and from the work of the full-band. For example, with six tracks broken even between, Transcendence has a distinct vinyl feel, each of its two sides ending with a longer cut that serves to push into new territory for the project or at very least further develop the ideas that the two prior tracks present, whether it’s “Transcendence” at the end of the first half taking the headphone-ready textures of “Pantheist” and “Creation of Light” to gorgeous interplay of mellotron and sitar or the closing “Beyond the Material World” mounting a one-man space rock freakout that’s the only cut on Transcendence to top 10 minutes long. Throughout, Williamson’s vocal approach, soft and spiritually contemplative, serves as a uniting factor, and as ever for Lamp of the Universe, the flow is unmistakable and consuming.

Drum lines are simple, but serve immediately on “Pantheist” to position Transcendence somewhere between acid folk and heavy psych, Williamson’s basslines tapping into some of the Om influence that showed up as well in the patterning of Arc of Ascent’s The Higher Key, while themes of love and freedom and exploration remain consistent with Lamp of the Universe’s earliest works. The drumming isn’t really new either – one can hear it as far back as “Freedom in Your Mind” from The Cosmic Union – but it’s the way the drums are used in the progressions and grooves that gives Transcendence a more rocking vibe, “Pantheist” playing out in a way that probably would’ve worked just as well structurally for Arc of Ascent, though of course the arrangement would be different, sans mellotron, backwards guitars and the overall peaceful feel that pervades. “Creation of Light” boasts a comparatively still atmosphere, interweaving a central acoustic guitar line and sitar atop lush tanpura drones and gradually introducing recorder flourish and djembe percussion without ever taking on the kind of rock-minded push of the opener. In its second half, Williamson layers vocal ambience to coincide with the instrumental payoff and the effect is as engaging sonically as it is a triumph of arrangement, but the highlight of side A is still to come with “Transcendence,” which marries the two viewpoints, bringing drums, tanpura, sitar, mellotron and a traditional verse structure together to a singular development that’s warmly toned, rich in color and neither pretentious nor obtuse. After three minutes into the total 8:28, Williamson opens into a sort of jam with himself, holding down the central line on bass and drums while adding a deceptively bluesy electric guitar solo amid the tanpura and sitar before resuming the verse and saving a fuzzier lead for later in the track, gradually diminishing on a long fadeout to end the first half of the album. Listening, I can’t help but wonder how long that jam actually went on, though the CD version of Transcendence allows only a few seconds to process the fullness of sound Williamson is able to accomplish before the acoustics and prevalent mellotron of “The Sign of Love” opens side B as the first of two shorter pieces.

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Shallow Grave, Shallow Grave: Get Digging

Posted in Reviews on March 26th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

The level to which New Zealander four-piece Shallow Grave carry listeners with them along their undulating downer path isn’t necessarily commensurate to the volume at which their self-titled debut is played, but more never hurt. On the six-track/55-minute outing, released by Astral Projection (Lamp of the Universe, Arc of Ascent), the Auckland outfit oppress almost universally, beginning with a cold atmospheric introduction to “Devil’s Harvest” and never quite losing that sensibility at any time throughout their assault. They are, impressively so for a first record, markedly individual within their sphere, with a sound that takes elements of sludge, post-metal (some “tribal” drumming here, some Neurosis guitar wail there), but despite coming across with considerable tonal largesse on the album itself still manage to maintain a raw sensibility as well – crust almost, but slower and more complex, with a subtle swirl that offsets the barking vocals. Comprised of Tim Leth, James Barker, Brent Bidlake and Mike Rothwell, they’re an outfit who keep their origins obscure but who’ve been playing out since at least 2010, and have obviously used that time well in developing this material, which is drawn together by ambient drones and samples that pull the listener along from one track into the next, as “Devil’s Harvest” moves into “Chemical Fog” once it has run its fervently abrasive course with low hum and high-pitched whistle, amp noise maybe run through an echo chamber. Shallow Grave are hardly the first band to use this method to unite their pieces into a single whole, but it works for them throughout here, and on the one occasion when they don’t – the later “From Boundless Heights,” which feedbacks its way into “To Unfathomable Depths” – the effect is even more complementary. At their heart, though, they pummel. “Chemical Fog,” which moves at a faster clip than the opener, gives no ground in terms of its tonal heft, and it’s a ferocious headphone listen, all the more consuming without distraction for the intricacies that show themselves in the two guitars at work and the layers of screams that show up as the song moves past its halfway point. The ensuing samples are well mixed and well met by the band’s crashes, but it’s the final mostly-instrumental (some ambient screams) push that most satisfies, the track arriving at a massive peak before being consumed to a rising wall of painful low-end static noise.

From there, they cut right into “Nameless Chants,” which rounds out the first half of the album. Shallow Grave is broken into de facto sides – three tracks on one, three tracks on another, broken up in the listing on the back cover of the CD – though at 55 minutes, it’s longer than an actual single LP would hold and “Nameless Chants” feeds as much into “From Boundless Heights” as anything else does to what follows. Still, the sense of structure remains resonant throughout, and it’s a handy tool for understanding part of Shallow Grave’s approach and the influences they’re working from, putting them in line with the tropes of more traditional doom without necessarily forging a stylistic alliance that might not comport with the droning, hypnotic repetitions of “Nameless Chants,” which works its way through several movements instrumentally, one led by the guitar, one led by the drums, gnashing and gnarling for a full five minutes before introducing a verse on vocals. This switch in compositional method comes at just the right time to throw off listeners, who might have a sense of knowing what to expect after “Devil’s Harvest” and “Chemical Fog,” which had their differences in tempo but essentially covered the same ground structurally. “Nameless Chants” is a harder read where it’s most needed, and the final slowdown serves as a crashing, crushing apex for the self-titled’s initial three cuts. With the linear listening experience of the CD, there’s no dip in momentum between that apex and the beginning of “From Boundless Heights,” the shortest track on Shallow Grave at just over five minutes – everything else tops eight, the opener 10 and the closer 15 – that continues the rush preceding and develops over its course into a furious churn topped by chaotic leads and screams that still manage to return to the song’s own march. Together, “From Boundless Heights” and “To Unfathomable Depths” account for the most distinctly post-metal section of the record, with the plod of the former leading straight into the gradually-arriving, lurching howl of the latter. Even here though – and for this I’ll give at least partial credit to the screamed vocals – Shallow Grave retain an identity of their own, keeping the atmosphere consistent with the rest of the album and the crushing sonics moving forward through loud/quiet tradeoffs.

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