Quarterly Review: Paradise Lost, Alastor, Zahn, Greynbownes, Treebeard, Estrada Orchestra, Vestamaran, Low Flying Hawks, La Maquinaria del Sueño, Ananda Mida

Posted in Reviews on July 15th, 2021 by JJ Koczan

the-obelisk-fall-2016-quarterly-review

The days grow long, but the Quarterly Review presses onward. I didn’t know when I put this thing together that in addition to having had oral surgery on Monday — rod in for a dental implant, needs a crown after it heals but so far no infection; penciling it as a win — this second week of 10 reviews per day would bring my laptop breaking and a toddler too sick to go to camp for three hours in the morning. If you’re a fan of understatement, I’ll tell you last week was easier to make happen.

Nevertheless, we persist, you and I. I don’t know if, when I get my computer back, it will even have all of these records on the desktop or if the hard-drive-bed-shitting that seems to have taken place will erase that along with such inconsequentials as years of writing and photos of The Pecan dating back to his birth, but hey, that desktop space was getting cleared one way or the other. You know what? I don’t want to think about it.

Quarterly Review #81-90:

Paradise Lost, At the Mill

Paradise Lost At the Mill

If Paradise Lost are trying to hold onto some sense of momentum, who can blame them? How many acts who’ve been around for 33 years continue to foster the kind of quality the Yorkshire outfit brought to 2020’s studio outing, Obsidian (review here)? Like, four? Maybe? So if they want to put out two live records in the span of three months — At the Mill follows March’s Gothic: Live at Roadburn 2016, also on Nuclear Blast — one isn’t inclined to hold a grudge, and even less so given the 16-song setlist they offer up in what was the captured audio from a livestream last Fall, spanning the bulk of their career and including requisite highlights from ’90s-era landmarks Gothic and Icon as well as Obsidian features “Fall From Grace,” “Ghosts” and “Darker Thoughts,” which opened the studio LP but makes a rousing finisher for At the Mill.

Paradise Lost on Facebook

Nuclear Blast Records store

 

Alastor, Onwards and Downwards

alastor onwards and downwards

The second long-player from Sweden’s Alastor is a surprising but welcome sonic turn, pulling back from the grimness of 2018’s Slave to the Grave (review here) in favor of an approach still murky and thick in its bottom end, but sharper in its songwriting focus and bolder melodically right from the outset on “The Killer in My Skull.” They depart from the central roll for an acoustic stretch in “Pipsvängen” after “Nightmare Trip” opens side B and just before the nine-minute title-track lumbers out its descent into the deranged, but even there the four-piece hold the line of obvious attention to songcraft, instrumental and vocal phrasing, and presentation of their sound. Likewise, the spacious nod on “Lost and Never Found” caps with a shorter and likewise undeniable groove, more Sabbath than the Queens of the Stone Age rush of “Death Cult” earlier, but with zero dip in quality. This takes them to a different level in my mind.

Alastor on Facebook

RidingEasy Records website

 

Zahn, Zahn

Zahn Zahn

Its noise-rock angularity and tonal bite isn’t going to be for everyone, but there’s something about Zahn‘s unwillingness to cooperate, their unwillingness to sit still, that makes their self-titled debut a joy of a run. Based in Berlin and comprised of Felix Gebhard (Einstürzende Neubauten keyboards) as well as drummer Nic Stockmann and bassist Chris Breuer (both of HEADS.), the eight-tracker shimmers on “Tseudo,” punkjazzes on lead cut “Zerrung,” goes full krautrock drone to end side A on “Gyhum” and still has more weirdness to offer on the two-minute sunshine burst of “Schranck,” “Lochsonne Schwarz,” “Aykroyd” and finale “Staub,” all of which tie together in one way or another around a concept of using space-in-mix and aural crush while staying loway to the central pattern of the drums. “Aykroyd” is brazen in showing the teeth of its guitar work, and that’s a pretty solid encapsulation of Zahn‘s attitude across the board. They’re going for it. You can take the ride if you want, but they’re going either way.

Zahn on Facebook

Crazysane Records website

 

Greynbownes, Bones and Flowers

Greynbownes bones and flowers

Bones and Flowers is a welcome return from Czech Republic-based heavy rockers Greynbownes, who made their debut with 2018’s Grey Rainbow From Bones (review here), and sees the trio foster a progressive heavy flourish prone to Doors-y explosive vocal brooding tempered with Elder-style patience in the guitar lines and rhythmic fluidity while there continues to be both an underlying aggressive crunch and a sense of Truckfighters-ish energy in “Dream Seller,” some blues there and in “Dog’s Eyes” and opener “Wolves” besides, and a willful exploratory push on “Burned by the Sun and Swallowed by the Sea,” which serves as a worthy centerpiece ahead of the rush that comprises much of “Long Way Down.” Further growth is evident in the spaciousness of “Flowers,” and “Star” feels like it’s ending the record with due ceremony in its largesse and character in its presentation.

Greynbownes on Facebook

Greynbownes on Bandcamp

 

Treebeard, Nostalgia

Treebeard Nostalgia

One can’t argue with Melbourne heavy post-rockers Treebeard‘s impulse to take the material from their prior two EPs, 2018’s Of Hamelin and 2019’s Pastoral, and put it together as a single full-length, but Nostalgia goes further in that they actually re-recorded, and in the case of a track like “The Ratchatcher,” partially reworked the songs. That makes the resultant eight-song offering all the more cohesive and, in relation to the prior versions, emphasizes the growth the band has undertaken in the last few years, keeping elements of weight and atmosphere but delivering their material with a sense of purpose, whether a give stretch of “8×0” is loud or quiet. Nostalgia effectively pulls the listener into its world, duly wistful on “Pollen” or “Dear Magdalena,” with samples adding to the breadth and helping to convey the sense of contemplation and melodic character. Above all things, resonance. Emotional and sonic.

Treebeard on Facebook

Treebeard on Bandcamp

 

Estrada Orchestra, Playground

Estrada Orchestra Playground

Estonian five-piece Estrada Orchestra recorded Playground on Nov. 21, 2020, and while I’m not 100 percent sure of the circumstances in which such a recording took place, it seems entirely possible given the breadth of their textures and the lonely ambience that unfurls across the 22-minute A-side “Playground Part 1” and the gradual manner in which it makes its way toward psychedelic kraut-drone-jazz there and in the more “active” “Playground Part 2 & 3” — the last part chills out again, and one speaks on very relative terms there — it’s entirely possible no one else was around. Either way, headphone-ready atmosphere persists across the Sulatron-issued LP, a lushness waiting to be closely considered and engaged that works outside of common structures despite having an underlying current of forward motion. Estrada Orchestra, who’ve been in operation for the better part of a decade and for whom Playground is their fifth full-length, are clearly just working in their own dimension of time. It suits them.

Estrada Orchestra on Facebook

Sulatron Records webstore

 

Vestamaran, Bungalow Rex

Vestamaran Bungalow Rex

Even in the sometimes blinding sunshine of Vestamaran‘s debut album, Bungalow Rex, there is room for shades of folk and classic progressive rock throughout the summery 10-tracker, which makes easygoing vibes sound easy in a way that’s actually really difficult to pull off without sounding forced. And much to Vestamaran‘s credit, they don’t. Their songs are structured, composed, engaging and sometimes catchy, but decidedly unhurried, unflinchingly melodic and for all their piano and subtle rhythmic intricacy, mostly pretense-free. Even the snare sound on “Grustak” feels warm. Cuts like “Risky Pigeon” and “Cutest Offender” are playful, and “Solitude” and closer “Only for You” perhaps a bit moodier, but Vestamaran are never much removed from that central warmth of their delivery, and the abiding spirit of Bungalow Rex is sweet and affecting. This is a record that probably won’t get much hype but will sit with dedicated audience for more than just a passing listen. A record that earns loyalty. I look forward to more.

Vestamaran on Facebook

Apollon Records website

 

Low Flying Hawks, Fuyu

low flying hawks fuyu

Three records in, to call what Low Flying Hawks do “heavygaze” feels cheap. Such a tag neither encompasses the post-rock elements in the lush space of “Monster,” the cinematic flourish of “Darklands,” nor the black-metal-meets-desert-crunch-riffing-in-space at the end of “Caustic Wing” or the meditative, post-Om cavern-delia in the first half of closer “Nightrider,” never mind the synthy, screamy turn of Fuyu‘s title-track at the halfway point. Three records in, the band refuse to let either themselves or their listenership get too comfortable, either in heavy groove or march or atmosphere, and three records in, they’re willfully toying with style and bending the aspects of genre to their will. There are stretches of Fuyu that, in keeping with the rest of what the band do, border on overthought, but the further they go into their own progressive nuance, the more they seem to discover they want to do. Fuyu reportedly wraps a trilogy, but if what they do next comes out sounding wildly different, you’d have to give them points for consistency.

Low Flying Hawks on Facebook

Magnetic Eye Records store

 

La Maquinaria del Sueño, Rituales de los Alucinados

la maquinaria del sueno rituales de los alucinados

Cult poetry on “Enterrado en la Oscuridad,” garage rock boogie “Ayahuasca” and classic, almost-surf shuffle are the first impressions Mexico City’s La Maquinaria del Sueño make on their debut full-length, Rituales de los Alucinados, and the three-piece only benefit from the push-pull in different directions as the seven-song LP plays out, jamming into the semi-ethereal on “Maldad Eléctrica” only to tip hat to ’60s weirdo jangle on “Mujer Cabeza de Cuervo.” Guitars scorch throughout atop swinging grooves in power trio fashion, and despite the differences in tone between them, “Enterré mis Dientes en el Desierto” and “Ángel de Fuego” both manage to make their way into a right on haze of heavy fuzz ahead of the motoring finisher “La Ninfa del Agua,” which underscores the live feel of the entire procession with its big crashout ending and overarching vitality. Listening to the chemistry between these players, it’s not a surprise they’ve been a band for the better part of a decade, and man, they make their riffs dance. Not revolutionary, but cool enough not to care.

La Maquinaria del Sueño on Facebook

LSDR Records on Bandcamp

 

Ananda Mida, Karnak

Ananda Mida Karnak

A three-tracker EP issued through drummer Max Ear‘s (also of OJM) own Go Down Records, Karnak features an instrumental take on a previously-vocalized cut — “Anulios,” from 2018’s Anodnatius (review here) — an eight-minute live jam with Mario Lalli of Fatso Jetson/Yawning Man sitting in on guitar, and a live version of the Conny Ochs-fronted “The Pilot,” which opened 2019’s Cathodnatius, the cover of which continues to haunt one’s dreams, and which finds the German singer-songwriter channeling his inner David Byrne in fascinating ways. An odds-and-ends release, maybe, but each of these songs is worth the minimal price of admission on its own, never mind topped as they are together with the much-less-horrifying art. If this is a reminder to listen to Anada Mida, it’s a happy one.

Ananda Mida on Facebook

Go Down Records website

 

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Vestamaran Releasing Bungalow Rex June 18; Stream “Risky Pigeon”

Posted in Whathaveyou on June 7th, 2021 by JJ Koczan

Vestamaran

In my immediate defense, I’d like to say that no, I’m not just posting about the impending June 18 release of Vestamaran‘s debut album, Bungalow Rex, because the lead single is called “Risky Pigeon.” Surely that title would be enough motivation on its own, masterful as it is, but if we’re being honest with each other — and I hope we are — it’s the swaying classic melody underscoring the band’s songs throughout the 10-track offering that’s doing the trick. They capture a summery vibe without being overly ’70s-retro-prog, rather like some ’90s indie that forgot to be miserable or at least fake it. An abiding organic sensibility is highlighted by piano and flourish of psychedelic guitar shimmer, and the tracks are engaging on their face with enough ramble and depth to hold fickle attention spans.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Apollon Records was the same label that unveiled Slomosa‘s well-received debut last year. The Bergen-native label would seem to have found a niche in highlighting up and coming acts from Norway. Noble purpose, especially with results like these.

You can stream “Risky Pigeon” under the PR wire info below. Preorders and all that are on Bandcamp as well:

Vestamaran Bungalow Rex

Vestamaran – Bungalow Rex – Apollon Records

Release: 18 June 2021

This is low-octane rock music from the Norwegian happy campers Vestamaran, the answer of the questions you didn’t raise? Or is it just another musical loveless pandemic hug? While the habitants of the world got together and pointed out the word bongalow to be everybody’s favorite word, Vestamaran quickly adapted this award winning letters to their title. You might say that this word is the only trending element of this release, but suddenly you also notice the lovely purple colored vinyl. The word rex is also included as a contrast. Life is not just bungalow all day long, it also includes a lot of rex in the evenings.

From the fjordy west coast of Norway appears the best friends, and melody makers in Vestamaran. Their only intention is to make high quality rock without gibberish. It’s not masculine. Rather genderless, but their music still has a fair amount of sex. Like the sexyness which gets you up in the morning. Not the one that gets you horny. It’s saxophone rock without the saxophone. A strip club without the strippers. Their debut album, Bungalow Rex, has now been launched through the channels of Apollon records. Its a fair chance that this album can function as a small replacement for the woman you never kissed, for the child you never gave birth to, or the trauma you never dealt with. It can also function as just another futile time waster.

Tracklisting:
1. Error Come Save Me
2. Risky Pigeon
3. Swag
4. Cutest Offender
5. My Finest Eye
6. Solitude
7. Grustak
8. Salt Chair
9. Follow Me
10. Only For You

Line-up: Endre Aasebø, Kjartan Ericsson, Kjell Arne Kjærgård, Jon Bolstad & Kristian Linz

https://www.facebook.com/Vestamaran-104479057619001/
https://vestamaran.bandcamp.com/
www.apollonrecords.no
www.facebook.com/bergenapollonrecords

Vestamaran, Bungalow Rex (2021)

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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

Notes: To say nothing of the honorable mentions that follow the rest of the list below, immediately we see the problem of so-many-albums-not-enough-space. People talk about a top 50 as ridiculous, like there’s no way you can like that much music. Bullshit. I agonized over how to fit Sun Crow on this list because their Quest for Oblivion felt like it deserved to be here. Ditto that for Arcadian Child. And the achievements of bands like Kadavar, 1000mods and Switchblade Jesus and Insect Ark in breaking the boundaries of their own aesthetics deserve every accolade they can get, and likewise those who progressed in their sound like Cortez, Shadow Witch, Lord Fowl, Hymn, Foot, Black Rainbows, Deathwhite and IAH. Add to that the debuts from Atramentus, Dirt Woman, Jointhugger, Acid Mess and Sergio Ch.’s Soldati, and you’ve got a batch of 20 records — some born of this year’s malaise, some working in spite of it — that vary in sound but are working to push their respective styles to new places one way or the other.

30. High Priestess, Casting the Circle

high priestess casting the circle

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed May 5.

There was no shortage of anticipation for what L.A. cultists High Priestess would do to follow their 2018 self-titled debut (review here), and the three-piece did not disappoint, instead gave a ritual mass that included the 17-minute concept piece “Invocation” alongside infectious and ethereal melodies like “The Hourglass.” And now that the circle’s been cast? Seems like they can do anything.

29. Polymoon, Caterpillars of Creation

Polymoon Caterpillars of Creation

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Oct. 12.

High-powered cosmic metal from Finland pulling apart heavy psychedelia on an atomic level with an urgency that speaks of youth, progress and an ingrained need for exploration? Sign me up. A lot of bands on this list put out their first album this year. There are few for whom my hopes are as high as they are for Polymoon. If you haven’t yet heard Caterpillars of Creation, do.

28. Sons of Otis, Isolation

Sons of Otis Isolation

Released by Totem Cat Records. Reviewed Sept. 30.

Of the sundry horrors 2020 wrought, a new album from long-running Toronto three-piece Sons of Otis was an unexpected positive, and their ultra-spaced, murky riffs on their first studio album since 2012’s Seismic (review here, also here) launched like a slow-motion escape pod of righteous doom (s)tonality. There will never be another Sons of Otis. Be thankful for everything you get from them.

27. Lamp of the Universe, Dead Shrine

Lamp of the Universe Dead Shrine

Released by Projection Records. Reviewed May 25.

Organ, Mellotron, sitar, acoustic and electric guitars, various percussion elements, and of course the inimitable fragility in Craig Williamson‘s voice itself — the ingredients for Lamp of the Universe‘s Dead Shrine were familiar enough for those familiar with the one-man outfit running more than two decades, but the lush acid folk created remains a standout the world over. Dead Shrine was a much-needed gift of peace and meditation.

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 (RoadsawSasquatch, 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 Bjørnson (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 Sandøy, 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, Ellengæst
Cruthu, Athrú 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 Silvåkra 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 Silvåkra 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, Lantlôs, 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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Stream Review: Enslaved, Utgard – The Journey Within

Posted in Reviews on October 2nd, 2020 by JJ Koczan

enslaved

One day ahead of its release date — which is today for those of you not confined in a temporal loop — Enslaved‘s 15th full-length, Utgard (review here), received an airing as the final installment of what was billed as the Norwegian progressive black metallers’ ‘Cinematic Summer Tour.’ Such as it was — and it was more “cinematic” than it was “tour,” of course owing to circumstances outside the band’s control — the tour consisted of three filmed shows. A fan-picked setlist titled ‘Chronicles of the Northbound’ (review here) was streamed at the end of July. A set playing 2003’s Below the Lights in full followed, and finally, the album to which it all was leading, Utgard, got its due. Sort of.

As new album celebrations go, Utgard – The Journey Within was somewhat brief. The press info for the stream used the language, “they’ll be performing several tracks [from Utgard] for the first time ever,” so I wasn’t necessarily expecting them to play the entire record front to back, though that might’ve been feasible, time-wise; it’s 44 minutes long and the whole stream here ended up being 45. But the performance itself, which true to the others was impeccably directed and shot — foggy at the start, but dramatic with a hooded and spoken intro and professional lights, sound and editing; very much a concert film, complete with title cards before each song — ran about 23 minutes and featured just four songs in “Jettegryta,” “Homebound,” “Urjotun” and “Flight of Thought and Memory.”

enslaved 2

Look. I ain’t complaining. The stuff sounded great. I think I liked the balance of the mix in “Homebound” between the keys and guitars even better than on the album, and I got a new appreciation for how much bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson actually sings clean on “Jettegryta” alongside keyboardist Håkon Vinje, never mind VinjeKjellson and drummer Iver Sandøy coming together to all sing on “Flight of Thought and Memory.” The krautrock aspects of “Urjotun” came through all the more in the “live” setting, and with the LP fresh in mind, I felt fortunate to be as close as that to actually experiencing the material on stage. And it was free. Bands out there are charging fans far more and delivering far less.

They did justice to what they played, but album opener “Fires in the Dark,” “Sequence,” “Storms of Utgard” and the rousing finale “Distant Seasons” felt missing — especially the opener and the closer. Even if the band hadn’t wanted to delve further into the atmospheric parts of “Fires in the Dark” or the spoken LP-centerpiece “Utgardr,” there was plenty more to work from. Maybe they didn’t want to give everything away ahead of the actual release. Maybe between the pandemic and the sundry other manifestations of chaos this brutal year has wrought the band hasn’t even had the opportunity to get the other songs ready for the stage. Certainly possible. Maybe they figured by the third streaming show everyone would be tired of them? I don’t know.

Iver Sandøy

But either way, Enslaved have 15 records, so it’s not like they couldn’t have filled out the set if they chose to do so. As it was, they wrapped up playing and the camera followed as they adjourned upstairs for some conversation (in Norwegian) and cake and champagne to celebrate the release. KjellsonVinje, Sandøy, guitarists Ivar Bjørnson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal all shook hands and tossed back some wine, and then the camera cut to Bjørnson on his own, who revealed the band were planning something for the winter solstice — Dec. 20 — and thanked everyone for their support. After that, they capped with encore airings of “The Crossing” from the Below the Lights stream and “Fenris” from 1994’s Frost as played in ‘Chronicles of the Northbound.’

Welcome enough, if a little anticlimactic despite the news-drop that they’ve got something else in the works. It was hard not to come away from ‘Utgard – The Journey Within’ wanting more, and now that I say that outright, perhaps that was the idea all along. Less of a celebration of the release than a teaser, maybe. Highlighting the tracks that have been released as singles — “Jettegryta,” “Homebound” and “Urjotun” all have videos out (posted here) — and giving just a glimpse of a deeper dive into the album with “Flight of Thought and Memory.” If that’s what they were going for, then fair enough. One way or the other, it’s hard not to long for the day Enslaved can be experienced live again in a concert setting — 2021? 2022? ever? — and the vital force of their stage presence and command of their creativity was reaffirmed. Was it ever in doubt? Nope, but like I said, I ain’t complaining.

enslaved handshakes

I watched this with my son, The Pecan, who turns three next month. He knows “quiet songs” and “loud songs” and generally prefers the latter when we’re driving, and he’s interested in seeing guitars and drums on tv and whatnot. My wife, The Patient Mrs., was teaching a college class in other room, working remotely. I changed a poopy diaper during “Urjotun” and he played with trucks for a while as he will these days when blowing off what used to be afternoon naptime. The point of telling you this? It goes to the running theme of life-reorganization that one has found without the actual going-to-a-show ritual.

Perhaps the crucial insight that there’s a big difference between putting something on the television and entering a venue to see a band live isn’t particularly deep, but if anything, the advent of streaming shows like this and the multitudes now happening from around the world demonstrate how important to the core of people’s being creativity is and needs to be. If you’re passionate about something, you find a way. It’s not easy, and always ideal, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it was going to be when you started. Welcome to existence. But you find a way. This is the way for now. Fine.

Enslaved are participating in a follow-up Q&A session at 2PM Eastern today on their YouTube channel, linked below. Utgard is available now on Nuclear Blast.

Thanks for reading.

Enslaved, ‘Utagard – The Journey Within’ limited-time stream

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Enslaved on Instagram

Enslaved on YouTube

Enslaved website

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Album Review: Enslaved, Utgard

Posted in Reviews on September 29th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

enslaved utgard

Few bands last. Fewer still last while maintaining their commitment to creative progression, and Bergen, Norway’s Enslaved have pushed themselves forward once again with Utgard in broad-reaching and exciting ways. The album is their sixth to be delivered through Nuclear Blast, and as the band approach their 30th anniversary in 2021, they seem to enter an entirely new era of their sound, more boldly engaging with the krautrock and prog influences they’ve touted for years and bringing them into their long-established extreme metal context.

The founding duo of bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson and guitarist/sometimes backing vocalist Ivar Bjørnson, along with Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, who joined in 2002, have set the band on a trajectory over the course of their career, and Utgard — which runs nine songs and 44 minutes, making it the shortest full-length they’ve put out since 1998’s Blodhemn — is a fitting next step along their path. At the same time, from the choral vocals that start opener “Fires in the Dark” and running through the additional percussion in “Jettegryta,” the almost poppy melody in the hook of “Sequence” offset delightfully by Kjellson‘s rasp, the darkened space rock thrust of “Homebound” and the galloping culmination to which it leads, on and on across the clearly-delineated two sides of the LP, Utgard also sees Enslaved more committed to embodying “progressive black metal” as an ideal than they would ever have seemed to be, and it toys with the balance between the progressive and the charred with grace and an electrifying sense of creativity.

On 2017’s E (review here), the group introduced keyboardist Håkon Vinje, and in taking up the clean-vocal role formerly occupied by Herbrand Larsen, Vinje soared. He does so again throughout Utgard, but Enslaved have made another pivotal change in personnel, bidding farewell to drummer Cato Bekkevold after 15 years and bringing aboard Iver Sandøy, who also adds clean vocals to complement those of Vinje. Sandøy — who has worked with Ivar Bjørnson in other projects like his Skuggsjá collaboration with Einar Selvik — is also a noted producer in Bergen and has engineered on Enslaved albums going back a decade to 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini (review here), but again, by bringing him into the band as well as having him helm the recording, it is one more way in which Enslaved are adjusting the balance of what they do in order to discover new breadth in their aesthetic.

As the “new guys,” Vinje and Sandøy make formidable contributions to Utgard‘s songs, and from the lushness in the momentary atmospheric break of “Sequence” and the harmonies that follow to the unabashed kraut-ness of the electronica fusion at the outset of side B’s “Urjotun,” they are crucial in Enslaved‘s success across the record’s span.

It is worth underscoring that, even with the shifts in lineup that recent years have brought, and with the movement toward prog in their sound, Utgard is still very much an Enslaved record. Kjellson stakes his claim to the forefront early following the Viking chants at the outset of “Fires in the Dark” — one imagines them playing that song in open air to stirring effect to begin a set at the 2020 Fire in the Mountains festival in Wyoming, which Bjørnson was to have curated — and themes of heritage, mythology, and even the symbolism of the crow in Truls Espedal‘s cover art feel like a part of the longer narrative the band has been conveying at some level for nearly the last 20 years.

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What Utgard shows, however, is just how vast the idea of being “an Enslaved record” can be nearly 30 years into the band’s career. The droning, spoken-word semi-title-track “Utgardr” carries an experimental feel that builds into “Urjotun” and reminds of Bjørnson‘s Bardspec project, and just two songs later, the furious double-kick and harsh vocals in the verse of “Flight of Thought and Memory” offer one of Utgard‘s most pummeling moments. That’s soon offset by Vinje‘s extended chorus, but the point and the contrast holds true, and even as they move toward that highlight cut’s crescendo, they do so with exacting propulsion, leading to a quieter finish and silence ahead of “Storms of Utgard” and the finale “Distant Seasons,” the former marked out by its straight-ahead structural approach as well as its tambourine and the latter something of a hidden gem that seals the band’s ultimate triumph in a mere four and a half minutes.

“Distant Seasons” finishes not so much summarizing Enslaved‘s achievements across the preceding tracks, but using them as a preface to go even further into a wash of melody and thereby leave their listenership with the clear message that the journey — that undertaken by the band and joined by the audience — isn’t over yet. And indeed, it might not be. The ideal Enslaved are chasing on Utgard is not a static target. It is an evolving notion of creativity, and as much as these songs are able to do in setting themselves as a landmark, “Distant Seasons” leaves one assured that Enslaved have yet more exploring to do.

The advent of Vinje in the band was a significant distinguishing factor of E from recent predecessors like 2015’s In Times (review here) and 2012’s Riitiir (review here), as he bolstered the tenets of their sound and helped bring new ideas to the fore. Sandøy, as a drummer, backing vocalist and presence in the production, would seem to have no less of an effect throughout Utgard, and as a result, continue to sound refreshed. It would be hyperbole to say they come across like a new band — because, come on, it’s their 15th record; also one wouldn’t want to belittle either their experience as songwriters or the overarching nature of their progression — but as resonant and masterful as Utgard is, it’s also brimming with possibilities for how the new ideas it presents might flourish in works to come.

Few bands last. Fewer still last while growing. Almost nobody can look back on 30 years of breaking ground and still leave a listener with the notion that the best may be yet to come. Enslaved have been around long enough that their audience can pick and choose favorite albums from along the way, but Utgard is a singular accomplishment, and thinking of the band as a life’s work for Kjellson and Bjørnson, all the more worthy of that designation. Recommended.

Enslaved, “Urjotun” official video

Enslaved, “Jettegryta” official video

Enslaved, “Homebound” official video

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Enslaved Change Date for Utgard – The Journey Within Streaming Event

Posted in Whathaveyou on September 18th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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I’m listening to the new Enslaved album for the first time as I write this and they’re barely three minutes into it before they reaffirm both the brutality and the progressivism at heart on their sound. Seriously, I’m on track one and they sound like they wilfully constructed the lineup to bring the most out of this material. I’m impatient to hear more even as I’m hearing it.

The band has rescheduled the final date of their virtual tour to Oct. 1, the day before the album comes out on Nuclear Blast. Fair enough. They’ll play songs from the record to herald its arrival. Whatever dudes, just take my money.

Check out the preview video with bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson and the prominently displayed vinyl of the second Lennon-Claypool Delirium album. That record ruled.

From the PR wire:

ENSLAVED VIRTUAL TOUR UPDATE

ENSLAVED ANNOUNCE NEW DATE FOR SUMMER BREEZE ‘UTGARD – THE JOURNEY WITHIN’ RELEASE EVENT + LIVE Q&A

NEW ALBUM, UTGARD, OUT OCTOBER 2ND

RELEASE EVENT: OCTOBER 1ST @ 11AM PT/2PM ET
Q&A: OCTOBER 2ND @ 11AM PT/2PM ET

Enslaved are preparing for the final act of their Cinematic Summer Tour – now due to take place on Thursday 1st of October at 7pm BST / 8pm CEST. This virtual release event ‘Utgard – The Journey Within’ is named after their upcoming studio album Utgard (out on the 2nd of October), from which they’ll be performing several tracks for the first time ever.

The show is a collaboration with respected Dinkelsbühl, Germany metal festival Summer Breeze who have been long-time friends and supporters of the band. The performance will be presented by Louder alongside their sister sites Prog and Metal Hammer, who will also be hosting an exclusive Facebook Q&A with the band the following day also at 7pm BST / 8pm CEST – the day Utgard is revealed to the world.

Enslaved launched an exclusive merchandise range to accompany the Cinematic Summer Tour, with designs viewable below inc. more information. To give everyone the chance to be part of this completely novum in music, all three shows will be free of charge, however Enslaved have launched a donation link if fans wish to make a contribution towards the costs of putting the shows on.
Donation link: paypal.me/enslavedofficial

Purchase exclusive Cinematic Summer Tour merch here:
US store enslaved.aisamerch.com / EU store enslaved.aisamerch.de

For this forward-thinking concept, ENSLAVED joined forces with three festivals, to present fans with three different shows:

July 30th – in cooperation with Roadburn, the tour launched with a “Chronicles Of The Northbound” show.
August 20th – this second show was a “Below The Lights” set, presented by Beyond The Gates festival.
October 1st – the band will end their virtual tour at Summer Breeze festival with a presentation of some new songs, for their release event “Utgard – The Journey Within“. Presented by Louder.

Enslaved is:
Ivar Bjørnson – guitar
Grutle Kjellson – vocals/bass
Ice Dale – guitar
Håkon Vinje – keys/vocals
Iver Sandøy – drums

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Enslaved Post “Urjotun” Video

Posted in Bootleg Theater on September 1st, 2020 by JJ Koczan

enslaved urjotun

It does not take Enslaved all that long to upend decades of listener expectation with the latest single from the upcoming Utgard LP, which is set to release on Oct. 2. That’s one month from tomorrow, and as we move into the period of time whereby it begins to cause me physical pain that I’ve not yet heard the album in its entirety, “Urjotun” does precious little to quell the yearning. The Norwegian progressive black metallers wholeheartedly embrace their krautrock side in the four-minute track — even before reading the press release below, my first thought when I heard the initial keyboard line was “Kraftwerk” — and with lyrics about the cosmic birth of gods, it’s a fittingly weirded-out and somehow-grand backdrop for what plays through.

You’ll note in the image above that the crow that has featured in other recent Enslaved videos “Homebound” (posted here) and “Jettegryta” (posted here) — as well as on the cover of Utgard itself — makes an appearance, and “Urjotun” is further enhanced by the artwork of one Kim Holm, with whom it has been my absolute pleasure to work in the past at Roadburn in the Netherlands. Dude is maddeningly talented and his art fits smoothly the atmosphere of this track. I may have missed posting it before, but I wanted to make sure to put the tracklisting for Utgard here as well, because now that there are three songs out from the record — the band will also play it live in a streamed show on Sept. 30 — it’s a little more possible to get a sense of the shape of the whole release. I’m intensely curious as to what “Urjotun” leads to in “Flight of Thought and Memory” and “Storms of Utgard,” but then, I’m intensely curious pretty much as to the entire album.

Clip follows here, along with preorder links and more info from the PR wire.

Enjoy:

Enslaved, “Urjotun” official video

From the new ENSLAVED album ‘UTGARD’, out on October 2nd: https://nblast.de/Enslaved-Utgard. Subscribe to Nuclear Blast YouTube: http://nblast.de/NBytb / Subscribe to Enslaved YouTube: http://bit.ly/subs-enslavd-yt

Norway’s premier progressive black metallers Enslaved have today released third single ‘Urjotun’ from their upcoming studio album Utgard – out October 2nd via Nuclear Blast. The single, one of their most experimental yet, is accompanied by a psychedelic video detailing dark visions and a journey to the outer reaches of the subconscious.

Vocalist Grutle Kjellson commented:
“The lyrical idea for Urjotun had been spinning around in the chaos in the back of my head for quite a while, when Ivar sent me the riff-demo last autumn. I knew instantly that this was it, the very soundtrack of the rise of the primeval giant, the Urjotun! Our mutual love and fascination for that early krautrock scene and for bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, finally fully ascended in an Enslaved song, almost 30 years after we picked up those legendary kraut-albums. It’s funny, that in Germany they referred to this kind of music as “Kosmische Musik”, cosmic music! And, that is exactly what this song is about; cosmic chaos. On top of this, director David Hall, made a perfect projection and visualization of our troubled minds”

Produced and Directed by David Hall
Illustrations by Den Unge Herr Holm
Actor: Kelsey Watkinson

Utgard tracklisting:
1. Fires In The Dark
2. Jettegryta
3. Sequence
4. Homebound
5. Utgardr
6. Urjotun
7. Flight Of Thought And Memory
8. Storms Of Utgard
9. Distant Seasons

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Slomosa, Slomosa

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

slomosa slomosa

[Click play above to stream Slomosa’s self-titled debut in full. It’s out Friday, Aug. 28 on Apollon Records.]

Slomosa may be newcomers, but their sound draws on decades of established heavy rock traditions that are nothing if not stalwart. Based in Bergen, Norway, and releasing their self-titled debut full-length through Apollon Records, the four-piece formed in 2017, recorded in 2018 and traded out half their lineup in 2019, bringing in guitarist Tor Erik Bye and bassist Marie Moe alongside drummer Severin Sandvik and vocalist/guitarist Benjamin Berdous. Starting last Fall, Slomosa began issuing singles from the eight-song/37-minute recorded-live-with-overdubs offering, beginning with the rolling riff that starts the album in “Horses” before following-up with “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” (posted here) and, most recently, “In My Mind’s Desert” (posted here) giving a different look at the breadth of their more than capably conveyed melody. Helmed and mixed by Eirik Sandvik (Amped OutHowlin’ Sun) and mastered by Enslaved‘s own Iver Sandøy, the album benefits from the experienced hands of its production (the band is listed as a co-producer), bringing due tonal presence to a style that is well aware of genre tenets and speaking alike to the formative days of Californian desert rock in the 1990s and the Scandinavian interpretations that followed soon behind.

Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age are two anchor influences, the former coming into play throughout, in songs like “Kevin” and “Estonia” and even “Scavengers,” which hints at more progressive nuance in the guitar twists of its second half, but remains grounded ultimately in its structure and staves off digging too far into such indulgences. The latter manifests perhaps even more palpably in the vocal patterning and riffing style of Berdous and then-guitarist Anders RørlienKristian Tvedt played bass — and comes to the fore in “In My Mind’s Desert” and “Just to Be,” both of which specifically key in on the Josh Homme-fronted outfit’s 1998 self-titled debut.

Along with this, the driving thrust of “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” seems to harness the intensity that Dozer once brought to the desert sound, and the march of “Horses” at the launch of the record feels derived more from the earliest work of The Sword — who, it should be noted, are from neither California nor Sweden — so there’s more to dig into throughout Slomosa‘s Slomosa than it might at first appear. And while still definitively a desert rock aesthetic — they call it “tundra rock” in honor of Norway’s lack of deserts; you work with what you’ve got — one of the most encouraging aspects of the collection, especially taken in its manageable entirety, is how much Slomosa are able to bring these influences along to suit the purposes of their own songwriting. Ultimately, it is that songwriting that rules the day.

It might take a given listener a turn or two through Slomosa to get past the novelty of picking out riffs and saying, “Oh, that’s this Kyuss track,” be it “Estonia” drawing from “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” or whatever else, but the rewards are ample for that minimal investment of effort, and they come in form of hooks like those of “Horses” or “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” or “Just to Be,” as well as the more willfully sprawling showcase that is closer “On and Beyond.” The last of those is a singular worthy showcase of the band’s potential, but the truth of the matter is that same potential is writ large across the entirety of the release.

slomosa

Their songs work well together and are placed smoothly for an overarching full-length flow, but it is no coincidence that they spaced out three singles ahead of the full album’s arrival, since that is very much the modus in which the record operates: as a presentation of the individual tracks that comprise it. Each song is crisp and smoothly executed — not so smooth as to detract from the weight or edge, but enough to highlight the melody in Berdous‘ vocals for sure. As “In My Mind’s Desert” taps those nascent Queens of the Stone Age vibes (or is it a less melancholy “I Never Came?”), even the word-playfulness of the lyrics seems to be on board in the line, “No man’s an island in no man’s land.” But even here, there’s more happening than simply deriving new material from something built before.

Certainly there’s plenty of that, and you won’t hear me say otherwise — I don’t imagine even Slomosa themselves would come out and say they’ve completely invented a new sound; beware of anyone who does — but the energy and the vitality behind what they’re doing stylistically is an asset that comes into play all along the album’s varied path. Recording at least the basic tracks live would seem to have been a correct choice in that regard, since that natural foundation resonates even through whatever overdubbing and the added-later vocals. It becomes an essential aspect of each track, as heard in the fuzz-forward “Scavengers,” which hits into a bounce and push that would seem to be positioning itself as an heir to Truckfighters‘ unmitigated sense of fun, or in “There is Nothing New Under the Sun,” which in addition to Dozer directly and perhaps with tongue-in-cheek recalls “My God is the Sun” from QOTSA‘s …Like Clockwork, as well as anywhere else one might have ears to hear it. Slomosa sound like a young band. A young band who know what they want stylistically and are able to craft their material in such a way as to manifest that.

Such things don’t come along every day, and if you’re looking for theses in Slomosa, they’re readily apparent in “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” and “In My Mind’s Desert” — two cuts that seem to find the band directly acknowledging where they’re coming from in terms of overall perspective. An act of that kind of boldness isn’t to be taken lightly, especially from a new group releasing their first album. What remains to be seen is how Slomosa‘s lineup change will affect their sound, and what lessons they’ll take with them from having successfully executed this offering at the high level they have. Will they push outward as “On and Beyond” seems to want to do, or dive deeper into the thrust of “Kevin,” or head somewhere else entirely? Part of what makes Slomosa so exciting as an album is not knowing the answer, but only part, because the work they’ve done in these songs is more than enough to stand on its own, regardless of what might come after.

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