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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There was no shortage of anticipation for what L.A. cultists http://www.heimgart.com/dissertation-on-breeam/: Polished Paper is a trusted provider of Essay editing services online. Our essay editors & proofreader provide 24/7 service. 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 Any writing paper is a real challenge no matter where you are studying at school, college or university. Professional Phd Thesis Content Management System will Svart Records. Reviewed Oct. 12.

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28. Sons of Otis, Isolation

Sons of Otis Isolation

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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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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal Playlist: Episode 49

Posted in Radio on December 23rd, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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I was kicking around the idea of not doing a year-end list for 2020. Honestly, between this episode of The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal and the last one, that pretty much covers my picks, and who the hell cares about what order they’re in? It’s December and everyone and their brother has a list out. Do we really need another one? I’m doing a Quarterly Review right now, covering more music. To me, that seems like a more righteous cause.

Of course, I’ll probably end up doing a list anyway next week, but in the meantime, if you’re looking for a soundtrack to your in-quarantine holiday experience, the second half of the ‘Some of the Best of 2020’ spectacular should do well in getting you through the evening. I’m to understand we’ll be breaking travel protocols myself, so if I get the plague that is even as we speak ravaging my homeland, at least I will have deserved it. Firelung and whatnot.

Thanks for listening and reading. New art coming soon.

The Obelisk Show airs 5PM Eastern today on the Gimme app or at http://gimmemetal.com

Full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 12.25.20

Elephant Tree Bird Habits
Pallbearer Vengeance & Ruination Forgotten Days
Tony Reed Might Just Funeral Suit
Grayceon This Bed MOTHERS WEAVERS VULTURES
All Them Witches 41 Nothing as the Ideal
VT
Brant Bjork Cleaning out the Ashtray Brant Bjork
Soldati From Skulls Doom Nacional
Backwoods Payback God Smack VA – Alice in Chains Dirt: Redux
High Priestess The Hourglass Casting the Circle
Curse the Son Black Box Warning Excruciation
Elder Halcyon Omens
Black Rainbows Master Rocket Power Blast Cosmic Ritual Supertrip
Dirt Woman Fades to Greed The Glass Cliff
Polymoon Silver Moon Caterpillars of Creation
Enslaved Distant Seasons Utgard
Cinder Well Fallen No Summer
Geezer Drowning on Empty Groovy
Ruff Majik Lead Pills and Thrills The Devil’s Cattle

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal airs every Friday 5PM Eastern, with replays Sunday at 7PM Eastern. Next new episode is Jan. 8 (subject to change). Thanks for listening if you do.

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal Playlist: Episode 41

Posted in Radio on September 4th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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I guess the last couple episodes I’ve been trying to mix up the approach a little, pull back from starting off with rock tracks, then getting heavy, then tripping out. It was feeling a little formulaic, maybe. Not that we didn’t trip out at the end last time, but I pushed a block of noise up front and that was different at least. This time I’m pulling back from just doing new music and throwing in some older stuff that’s just been on my brain. Some Elder, some Mars Red Sky, and mixing that in with Neurosis and Isis and new Bitchwax and a few bands from Latvia just because I found them all at the same time and figured I’d present them the same way.

Simple change, right? I don’t know about you but I get locked into modes of doing things — even the format of these posts carries over from one to the next — and every now and then I want to shift how it’s done. Not so much to take myself out of my own comfort zone — heaven forbid — but mostly so I can tell myself I’m not completely compulsive about everything even though, yes, I very much am. Whatever. You know what I’m saying.

I hope you enjoy the show.

The Obelisk Show airs 5PM Eastern today on the Gimme app or at http://gimmemetal.com

Full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 09.04.20

Elder Dead Roots Stirring Dead Roots Stirring
Mars Red Sky Way to Rome Mars Red Sky
Saturndust Saturn 12.c Saturndust
VT
Saturn’s Husk Black Nebula The Conduit*
VVZ Dzeguze >>z*
Zintnieks Tumsais Zintnieks Demo Ieraksti
Acid Moon and the Pregnant Sun Creatures of the Abyss Speakin’ of the Devil
Pelican March into the Sea March into the Sea
Mos Generator Stolen Ages Shadowlands
Floor Sister Sophia Oblation
The Atomic Bitchwax Scorpio Scorpio
VT
Isis False Light Oceanic
Neurosis Reach Fires Within Fires

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal airs every Friday 5PM Eastern, with replays Sunday at 7PM Eastern. Next new episode is Sept. 25 (subject to change). Thanks for listening if you do.

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Psycho Las Vegas 2021 Lineup Announced

Posted in Whathaveyou on June 23rd, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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Plenty of this lineup looks familiar from what Psycho Las Vegas would’ve been in 2020, and duh, that’s the idea. You’ve still got Danzig doing Lucifuge, still got At the Gates and Katatonia and Emperor and Mercyful Fate. Still got the possibility that if I go, I can hang out after Pinback‘s set and bother Rob Crow about how badly he needs to do another Goblin Cock record. Wino, Fatso Jetson, Elder and Blackwater Holylight playing the pool party, six or seven curveball emo bands — all that fun stuff. Spectacle unmatched in heavy music, set in the Planet Earth’s official home for damned souls. It’s as perfect as it is incongruous.

Makes me wonder what Crowbar have going on next August.

But what you probably want to know is whether your ticket if you had one for 2020 is still good for 2021. Yes.

Behold:

psycho las vegas 2021 poster

Psycho Entertainment presents Psycho Las Vegas 2021

Psycho Las Vegas has been rescheduled to August 20th – 22nd, 2021. Psycho Swim has been rescheduled to August 19th, 2021. If you already purchased a pass for either event and want to attend in 2021, there is nothing you need to do – your passes will automatically be valid for the new dates.

80 of the 83 bands originally booked on the lineup are returning in 2021. The bands who are not joining us next year are Ty Segall, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Crowbar.

Danzig, Mercyful Fate, Emperor, The Flaming Lips, Blue Oyster Cult, Down, Mayhem, Satyricon, Obituary, Warpaint, Blonde Redhead, HEALTH, Watain, Ulver, Katatonia, At the Gates, Poison The Well, Paul Cauthen, Amigo The Devil, Exhorder, Wolves in the Throne Room, Thursday, Pinback, Zola Jesus, Drab Majesty, Boris, Eyehategood, Repulsion, Immolation, Midnight, MGLA, Windhand, Cursive, Tsol, King Dude, Pig Destroyer, Brutus, Profanatica, Lower Dens, Cult of Fire, Intronaut, boysetsfire, Death by Stereo, Curl Up and Die, Adamantium, This Will Destroy You, Khemmis, Mothership, Guantanamo Baywatch, Dengue Fever, Kaelan Mikla, Black Joe Lewis, Fatso Jetson, Wino, Creeping Death, Mephistofeles, Frankie and The Witch Fingers, Toke, Foie Gras, Flavor Crystals, Silvertomb, Lord Buffalo, Warish, Alms, Bombers, Glacial Tomb, Relaxer, Black Sabbitch, Hippie Death Cult, Vaelmyst, Mother Mercury, Two Minutes to Late Night

America’s rock n’ roll bacchanal returns to Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino August 20th through August 22th, with another resort-wide casino takeover unlike any of its kind. Now approaching its fifth year in the swirling neon decadence of Las Vegas, PSYCHO will feature over seventy artists across four stages including the world-class Events Center, the iconic House Of Blues, Mandalay Bay Beach, and the vintage Vegas-style Rhythm & Riffs Lounge in the center of the casino floor. PSYCHO LAS VEGAS 2021 will continue to redefine America’s conception of what a festival can be.

Psycho Entertainment presents Psycho Swim “The Official Psycho Las Vegas Pre-Party”

Old Man Gloom, Elder, Polyrhythmics, Death Valley Girls, The Skull, Blackwater Holylight, Here Lies Man, DJ Scott Seltzer

America’s rock n’ roll pool party returns to DAYLIGHT Beach Club on August 19th for the second annual PSYCHO SWIM. This official all-day pre-party celebrates the best of previous PSYCHO LAS VEGAS lineups with performances from a host of festival alumni as well as new PSYCHO additions.

DAYLIGHT Beach Club is nestled next to the Mandalay Bay Resort And Casino and features a 4400-square-foot main pool, daybeds, cabanas, and bungalows, with an elevated stage offering unobstructed, up-close-and-personal views of artist performances.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2513255765662644/
http://www.vivapsycho.com
http://www.facebook.com/psychoLasVegas
http://www.instagram.com/psycholasvegas

A Message from Psycho Las Vegas

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Interview: Nick DiSalvo of Elder on Omens, Songwriting and More

Posted in Features on May 8th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

elder

As Elder enter what would otherwise be a significant touring cycle following the release of their fifth album, Omens (review here), one can hear all around the band an increasing influential presence on other bands. The work they’ve been doing particularly over the last five years has begun to resonate with other acts now taking elements Elder helped bring to the fore and making them their own. One aspect of Elder‘s work that remains seemingly inimitable to this point, however, is the songwriting of founding guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, whose linear process brings together what are sometimes seemingly disparate parts — you can hear the stops in songs in places, as if the band were signaling, “Okay, now we go here” — and creating memorable movements out of what are purposefully not catchy choruses in the traditional sense.

In talking to DiSalvo about the new album, I wanted to get more of a sense of where his process comes from and how it has evolved over Elder‘s decade-plus together. The band’s tour plans may be scuffled for the time being due to forces out of their own control, but that does not seem to be hindering the fact that this band is shaping a form of progressive heavy rock in their own image.

Q&A follows here. Please enjoy:

Elder Interview with Nick DiSalvo

One of the most distinguishing facets of Elder is the method by which you write songs. How do songs begin for you? Is there an initial riff or melody that you build out from?

I’ve found recently that we can get more variety out of our songs by working piecemeal on many ideas simultaneously, and then seeing where they converge naturally or can be merged together. I do most of my songwriting at a computer these days, unromantic as it sounds, but I like to think of it as working with an infinite amount of blank canvases. When I’ve got an idea, I’ll plug in a guitar or keyboard and just record it immediately. Then I’ll build on it, fleshing it out with other layers. Sometimes that’ll immediately lead to a new part, or sometimes that’s where the inspiration stops, or sometimes I’ll realize that this is the missing element to a song already in progress. That also means that our songs aren’t being written one-by-one, but developing side by side, which might give the albums a unique flavor as a whole.

In terms of structure, Elder has a more linear style than traditional verses and choruses. How much of that is just what sounds right to you as opposed to a conscious decision?

It’s all pretty much just what sounds right. I like to pack a lot of ideas into our songs and rarely have the time for repeating parts. Instead, it’s more interesting to me to use motifs and recurring themes, changing or referencing them when they return. That’s not to say we couldn’t or wouldn’t use a verse or chorus in our songs if it felt right. I found it really amusing that when we released “Embers” off the new record, some people were complaining that we started using a ‘pop’ song format. Because a chorus appears 2 times in an 11-minute song? It’s apparently become our trademark to never repeat a part, for better or worse.

Are you ever tempted to write a traditional hook, just for the hell of it?

Traditional… maybe not? I don’t know if that would be my strength. A hook like they appear in pop songs wouldn’t work for our band because it just doesn’t fit into the rest of the structure. But I do think that Elder songs have some hooks in terms of catchy elements that, even if they don’t perform the traditional function of pulling a listener into the song at the beginning, they’ll tempt someone to go back and explore the song again, or anticipate that one part they love.

As Elder has grown more complex, you’ve fleshed out melodies and exploratory parts. How does jamming as a full band fit with your more plotted pieces? What specifically does this bring to Omens in your opinion?

We’re still actively trying to figure this out, especially now with a new drummer, and it’s insanely frustrating now with the COVID-19 situation that we have to further wait to get back in the saddle and keep refining ourselves. In general though I think the jamming thing adds a counterweight to all of the other planned parts in an Elder song. It’s the ballad to the rock anthem, in our own fashion. I don’t have a ton of patience for jam sessions and even here I find myself setting boundaries and structures, which maybe we’ll trim back even further in the future
 who knows? As far as Omens goes, the jammed-out, floating parts are probably some of my favorite moments of the album. I believe they balance and round out the record as a whole.

Tell me about writing “Halcyon.” What are the song’s origins and what was your vision for it?

That track is a classic case of a song really turning out very differently than expected. “Halcyon” originally began at the now 5-minute mark where the song really kicks in after its extended intro. That was the first part written and intended beginning of the song. At the same time, I was working on another track in the vein of Gold & Silver Sessions that I thought we might interweave into the record as an intermezzo. Mike came up with this guitar lead I really liked, so I slowed it down and built it into that song. Eventually I had the idea to weave the two together and have the jam gradually morph to begin featuring chords from the actual song. When that was established, it was cool because we had a kind of backwards song structure from what we normally do, since these extended jams usually don’t begin our songs. It took legs from there and I was able to write the rest of the song over the next weeks.

“One Light Retreating” seems to touch on more directly emotional ground than Elder has reached before. What is it expressing, instrumentally and lyrically?

In the story told on Omens, the last song describes a kind of last glimpse into existence for humanity on a dying planet. If you were to zoom out, the idea is that you’d see the lights from our planet slowly going out, retreating into dark. The last light retreating is like the last candle of human activity going out. But the mood on the song isn’t sorrow because of that, it’s actually a kind of hope expressed. The lyrics also describe the vegetation growing up again, reaching for the sun and even overgrowing either the bodies or structures left behind by mankind. I think of it as the scene depicted in the cover artwork, where moss is overtaking a ruined statue of a god or important figure. The album’s themes are pretty heavy for me, but the last song is a way of reminding the listener that there’s always light after the dark, or something cheesy like that.

With the band spread out geographically, how has your writing process changed over the years?

It’s been complicated. I’ve bounced around a lot, but we’ve managed to make it work, especially with technology. When working on Lore, I was living and teaching English in Germany at the time. That was the first time I really wrote a solid chunk of a record by myself in isolation, but we still had a pretty collaborative period of revision on those songs when I returned. By the time we were working on Reflections, I had moved again back to Europe and the guys and I would only see each other for tours. That’s where we really perfected the current mode of working, where I’m writing the music and recording it in my home ‘studio’ and sending to the other guys to critique and learn before finally meeting up to live rehearse the material for the studio. We did that with both Reflections and with Omens and it’s been working so far. We just underwent another pretty significant shift though with Matt leaving the band and Georg stepping up, just around the same time Mike decided to stay in Germany too. That means again 3/4 of the band is local and we can actually practice and write collaboratively again.

In general, how do you know when a song is done? Particularly on Omens, with so much lush keys and melodies built out, when is a piece actually finished?

I really like working on my own recordings particularly for this reason – you can not only hone in on all the little elements of each part, but also zoom out and listen to the whole thing. If I feel a song is done, I’ll usually let it sit for a day and then come back with fresh ears and listen to the whole thing. Anything that doesn’t make sense will automatically stick out like a sore thumb. It’s basically this kind of process of revision then until we’re satisfied with it. This is obviously just subject to my taste, some people think we could trim parts etc etc. but I know when I think a song is solid and cohesive.

How do you see your songwriting growing in the future? Do you have an idea yet of where you want to go next or what you’ll take from the experience of making Omens?

Well
 I hoped that we’d be on tour for the next half year supporting the record, which not only energizes and inspires us but also gives us time to jam on new ideas and sounds. That collaboration I was anticipating won’t be happening anytime soon. I’m working on new songs in the meantime from home, and I can sense a sound taking shape, but it’s too early to say. I thought for sure after Omens that we’d strip down our approach a bit – I found it kind of exhausting putting in all of these layers – but so far that hasn’t happened in anything new I’m working on. We’ll see in another year or so.

Elder, Omens (2020)

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Playlist: Episode 33

Posted in Radio on May 1st, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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Plenty of familiar stuff here if you’ve been hanging around the site lately, but there’s some stuff I haven’t written about yet too. The theme, such as it was — and man, themes are loose with this show anyway, but this one felt even more so — was just good stuff that happened in April. Today’s May 1, and it feels like last month was just lost on so many levels, that I wanted to highlight a few of the good things that happened despite the chaos and the dire feelings that defined so much of the time.

My point is the same as ever: Music still sounds good. If you’ve got that, you’ve got something to hold onto. If there’s nothing else, there’s music. That’s all I’m ever really saying. Sorry to spoil it. Now you don’t have to look at The Obelisk anymore. You’re all done.

You should still listen to the show though because I recorded the voice tracks for it on my phone while I was going to buy fresh mozzarella, and considering New Jersey’s got over 100,000 cases of COVID-19, the sheer Jersey-ness of the endeavor really I think shines through. Plus in the second break, if you stick it out, I say the word “awesome” like 50 times and sound like a total doofus, and that’s worth hearing. I overuse “awesome” anyway, but really, it sounds silly here. I listened back and heard it and decided to leave it in. Hell, at least it’s real.

Thanks for listening if you do.

The Obelisk Show airs 5PM Eastern today on the Gimme app or at http://gimmeradio.com

Full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 05.01.20

Elder Halcyon Omens*
Elephant Tree Exit the Soul Habits*
Forming the Void Ancient Satellite Reverie*
BREAK
Foghound Turn Off the World Turn Off the World*
Lord Fowl The Wraith Glorious Babylon*
Soldati Solar Tse Doom Nacional*
Trippy Wicked Green Memories Three Leaves / Green Memories*
Satyrus Black Satyrus Rites*
Marrowfields Dragged to the World Below Metamorphoses*
Pale Divine Tyrants / Pawns (Easy Prey) Consequence of Time*
Paradise Lost Fall From Grace Obsidian*
Katatonia Behind the Blood City Burials*
Itus Primordial Primordial*
BREAK
River Cult Chilling Effect Chilling Effect*
Astral Bodies Mythic Phantoms Escape Death*

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio airs every Friday 5PM Eastern, with replays Sunday at 7PM Eastern. Next new episode is May 15 (subject to change). Thanks for listening if you do.

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Album Review: Elder, Omens

Posted in Reviews on April 27th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

elder omens

There has yet to be an Elder release that did not move forward from the one before it. They have never repeated themselves, and even if 2017’s Reflections of a Floating World (review here) seemed to be in direct conversation with its predecessor, the landmark 2015 outing, Lore (review here), it found ways to expand their sound by incorporating the work of then-new keyboardist/guitarist Mike Risberg, opening up to fluid sections of kraut-inspired improvisational jamming that came to fruition more on 2019’s instrumental The Gold & Silver Sessions EP (discussed here). The band’s fifth album, Omens — which is issued through Armageddon Shop in the US and Stickman Records in Europe and might as well be taking its title from what an entire league of other groups’ debuts will sound like four years from now — is no exception to the rule. It is, instead, a leap with eyes and both feet forward into new echelons of lush melody and progressive rock.

While their foundation may have been in the lumbering riffery of their 2008 self-titled (discussed here), a penchant for complexity began to take hold in 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) and 2012’s Spires Burn/Release (discussed here), but even that feels primitive in hindsight in comparison to what they bring to light across the five tracks and 55 minutes of Omens. Risberg‘s work is central to that, and he’s joined on keys throughout by founding guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo — whose linear style of composition has remained an essential facet to Elder‘s approach even as so much else has changed — as well as guest spots on mellotron and Fender Rhodes by Fabio Cuomo, who makes an impression with the latter early in the near-11-minute rollout of the opening title-track. It is a shift in breadth of influence as much as one of sonic priorities, but Omens neither forgets where it came from nor gives up its sense of heft. Jack Donovan‘s bass arguably carries more responsibility than ever before for serving as the anchor of the rhythm section, since even as Elder have so clearly coalesced with Risberg as “the new guy,” they here introduce drummer Georg Edert (also of Germany’s Gaffa Ghandi) to the fold in place of Matt Couto.

As fluid as the results are throughout Omens, that is a major change. Couto‘s personality as a drummer is rare and distinct, and he’s not the kind of player one can simply replace. Much to their credit, Elder don’t try. Rather, Edert establishes quickly through “Omens” and “In Procession” his own style of play, feeding off the unfolding dramas of melody in the keys and DiSalvo‘s sweeping guitar progressions. A straightforward backbeat grounds the winding verse of “In Procession” even as Elder move into new textures and a more contoured sound than they’ve ever had before, some midsection crash satisfying those seeking a payoff along the way — indeed, the title-track’s opening riff likewise serves as something of an embrace of heavier impulses; give me a bit, we’ll get there — ahead of a keyboard solo and return of the vocals and finishing section, and Edert‘s play not only keeps up with these characteristically head-spinning, sometimes-maddening shifts from part to part, but enhances them. He emerges as a drummer of class and intention, able to bring a jazzy sensibility when called upon to do so or to rock out as need be. Though he’s inevitably the new “new guy,” this material is stronger for what he brings to it.

elder

That’s true as well in “Halcyon,” the designation of which as the centerpiece would not seem to be happenstance. The longest cut at 12:48, it summarizes much of the growth that’s to be heard throughout Omens, opening with a gloriously languid unfurling of electronic and natural rhythm and multi-layered melodic coasting. There is a subtle build happening, with tension mounting in the guitar that moves forward gradually, but there’s a stop in the drums before the full-volume surge happens at 4:24 (also, by coincidence, the release day), and Elder successfully bring together the various sides of their continually deepening sonic persona — the weighted tonality of their earliest work, the push into conscious craft, too heady to be psychedelic but too aerial to be called anything but otherworldly. It is time to start thinking of DiSalvo among composers like Opeth‘s Mikael Åkerfeldt, not just because of an affinity for prog, but in terms of the ability to take seemingly disparate styles and create something new and individual from them. Elder‘s sound, despite an increasing amount of bands working in their wake, is their own, and there is no compromise to be found across Omens.

“Halcyon” is a triumph of their method, its finishing balance of patience and push all the more emblematic of their well-earned maturity as a unit, and yet it hardly stops before the returning mellotron in “Embers” signals the next movement of the record is underway, with chunky start and stops and a heavier roll that gives ground about halfway through to an instrumental build that could almost be in answer to “Halcyon,” culminating in wah sweep and farewell spiraling noise. This, ahead of the wistful standalone guitar that begins closer “One Light Retreating” and is soon joined by the full crux of tonal presence, DiSalvo‘s voice in the initial lines bringing to mind an almost post-hardcore/emo mindset in the verse before that heavier part returns in a back and forth that finds the one building off the next. As Elder has progressed relentlessly, so too has DiSalvo as a singer and somewhat reluctant frontman, but the feeling conveyed in “One Light Retreating” is at a level that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. Unsurprisingly, “One Light Retreating” does not blow itself out at the finish, but indeed retreats, with a poised instrumental flow that once again underscores not just the emotionality on display — I haven’t had the benefit of a lyric sheet, so I’m just going by what I hear — but a genuine encapsulation of the melodic and rhythmic grace they’ve been displaying all along.

Elder are a refinement process. They are driven by this need to move forward, and each of their albums becomes a summary of what they’ve learned since the last. Omens, whatever its title might directly be referencing, inevitably looks ahead. An omen does not occur in the past — lore does. Omens is Elder signaling the beginning of their next stage as a band, as all their work has been, and as ever, it finds them not thinking about where they’ve been, but where they might still go creatively, and these songs are made to be lived with. They will reveal their nuances to listeners not over a period of weeks or months, but years. This is part of what makes Elder such a special, singular band, and part of what has led their work to resonate on as great a scale as it has. Whatever they might do next, don’t expect it to sound just like this, but if Omens is itself a portent of things to come, heavy music will be all the more fortunate to have Elder as statesmen.

Elder, Omens (2020)

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Days of Rona: Nick DiSalvo of Elder

Posted in Features on March 30th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

The statistics of COVID-19 change with every news cycle, and with growing numbers, stay-at-home isolation and a near-universal disruption to society on a global scale, it is ever more important to consider the human aspect of this coronavirus. Amid the sad surrealism of living through social distancing, quarantines and bans on gatherings of groups of any size, creative professionals — artists, musicians, promoters, club owners, techs, producers, and more — are seeing an effect like nothing witnessed in the last century, and as humanity as a whole deals with this calamity, some perspective on who, what, where, when and how we’re all getting through is a needed reminder of why we’re doing so in the first place.

Thus, Days of Rona, in some attempt to help document the state of things as they are now, both so help can be asked for and given where needed, and so that when this is over it can be remembered.

Thanks to all who participate. — JJ Koczan

elder nick disalvo

Days of Rona: Nick DiSalvo of Elder (Germany)

How are you dealing with this crisis as a band? Have you had to rework plans at all? How is everyone’s health so far?

I don’t think a pandemic would ever come at a “convenient” time, but since we’re releasing a new album at the end of April and had tours lined up for the next half-year following that, it’s causing some problems. We’re rescheduling the concerts coming up soonest and taking the rest on a wait-and-see basis. Thankfully, that’s our biggest problem and everyone is healthy. Jack continues to work in a very public space, being an ‘essential worker’, but so far so good.

What are the quarantine/isolation rules where you are?

In Germany, currently we’re allowed to move freely but with a few restrictions. Groups of over two people aren’t allowed in public or private, nonessential businesses are closed and everyone is predictably advised to stay in unless absolutely necessary. In Massachusetts, I believe it’s similar.

How have you seen the virus affecting the community around you and in music?

There’s a general sense of unwellbeing in the city. Supermarkets are eerie, streets are mostly empty. Needless to say the clubs and bands here are facing the same crises as elsewhere, but there is at least funding being freed up for artists by the state. I’ve seen an uptick in kind messages and bits of support in the way of merch sales and downloads, which is heartening. People are helping out where they can – I mean, except for the super-rich and corporations, etc.

What is the one thing you want people to know about your situation, either as a band, or personally, or anything?

Well, we’re fine. Things like this put your problems into perspective, even as they are creating them. We might have to cancel tours and lose money/momentum as a band, but people are suffering and dying by the thousands and it will only get worse.

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