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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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Metal Playlist: Episode 49

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

the obelisk show banner

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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Elephant Tree Post “The Fall Chorus” Video

Posted in Bootleg Theater on November 2nd, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Elephant Tree

Eventful few months for Elephant Tree. Also the rest of the planet, but definitely too for the London-based four-piece, who were about to unveil the latest video from their oh-why-don’t-I-just-go-put-it-on-again 2020 sophomore LP, Habits (review here), when a series of allegations of sexual harassment and rape were brought against Alex Fitzpatrick, the head of what was then the band’s label, Holy Roar Records.

Well then. Label exploded, of course. Some of the other parties involved in Holy Roar formed a new imprint called Church Road Records that a few bands migrated toward. Elephant Tree seemed to buy back whatever rights, etc., to their own material and one assumes that before their third LP surfaces sometime in the future, they’ll figure out a next move in terms of who’s putting it out. There’s time, and certainly in a case where there are victims of sexual assault involved, distribution/promotion concerns are superseded. It’s 2020. Nobody’s on the side of an accused rapist except apparently about 43 percent of my country in pre-election polls.

Zing!

I’ve had the back end of this post ready to roll out since Sept. 2, I think, and it’s just been sitting there in my drafts since I knew sooner or later Elephant Tree would indeed unveil “The Fall Chorus.” The teaser that they posted was duly enticing, and the clip itself follows an artfully conveyed narrative done with cut-out puppeteering and well shot to coincide with the emotionality on display in what’s unquestionably the most subdued track on Habits, an answer perhaps in part to “Circles” from the band’s 2016 self-titled debut (review here).

To call the situation around their now-former label ugly and unfortunate is understating it, but I’m glad the band finally got to release this video. Yes, because it means I can finally make use of this draft, but also since it’s a sure sign that after releasing one of the best albums of 2020, they’re ready to move forward and see what comes next.

Enjoy:

Elephant Tree, “The Fall Chorus” official video

Video Directed by Mark Crane @ Theatre On Wax [https://www.theatreonwax.com/]
Additional puppeteering and construction by Sheelagh Frew Crane [www.sheelaghfrewcrane.com]
Snow Overlay provided by Videezy [https://www.videezy.com/]

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Stream Review: Elephant Tree, Live at Buffalo Studio, London, 07.24.20

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

elephant tree boiler room

It is a fortunate happenstance of relative geographic positioning that so many live streams taking place in European primetime occur right in the midst of my toddler son’s afternoon nap. An 8PM start in Elephant Tree‘s native London meant 3PM for me, and amidst global pandemic and a chaotic year that no one could have anticipated except for all the people who did and were ignored, I’ll take what I can get. As far as I’m concerned, 3PM is primetime anyway.

I parked myself on the couch to stream Elephant Tree‘s hour-long performance at Buffalo Studio in East London — presented and produced/directed by The Preservation Room — and even managed to cast it to the tv, which the Facebook app has been iffy on in the past. Presumably, the four-piece would’ve been on tour by now under different circumstances, supporting their album-of-the-year-contending second LP, Habits (review here), on Holy Roar/Deathwish Inc., but like everybody’s everything, well, you’re alive, so you know.

Shit luck. The record deserves to be hand-delivered by the band to audiences far and wide. Elephant Tree‘s progression as a four-piece, what guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist John Slattery — who joined in 2018 — brings to the lineup, was evident when I last saw the band in Nov. 2019 at Magnetic Eye‘s Brooklyn showcase at Saint Vitus Bar (review here), and they seemed all the more comfortable highlighting songs from Habits, moving from a windy drone opening similar to that which starts the album with “Wake.Repeat” into lead-single “Sails,” quickly adjusting the line sound to pull Sam Hart‘s reverby snare down and bring up fellow founder Jack Townley‘s guitar and vocals, joined in the chorus as he was by Slattery and bassist Peter Holland (also of Trippy Wicked). Under studio lighting with two movable cameras, it was very much a made-for-tv stream, as opposed to more of a concert-minded experience.

If there was a warmup-factor, they were through it fast. I don’t know how often the four of them have been able to get together or rehearse over the last several mostly-locked-down months, but they ended “Sails” tight and shifted immediately to the between-song banter that has become a staple of their live sets, Townley remarking on how is ears were too small for the in-ear monitors in what would become a running gag for the set — Slattery later referred to himself as “blessed” in that regard — before they moved into the harmony-focused roller “Faceless,” continuing to follow the progression of the album’s tracklisting, Townley chastising himself after for getting the lyrics wrong. New songs. Likewise, Hart reminded Holland before they went into “Wasted” that the count-in was six stick-clicks. Holland pointed to the camera: “Six clicks. Remember.”

They had threatened new material — newer even than the album, which came out in April — but none was aired. The combination of fuzz tones and keys in “Wasted” would be a highlight just the same, Slattery bringing more synthy melody later in the song, before they wished a happy birthday to superfan Sister Rainbow and APF Records‘ Andy Field and launched into “Aphotic Blues.” It was one of two cuts from their 2016 self-titled debut (review here) they would play, and perhaps shifting into something older let them loosen up a bit more, but as that track turned to its bigger-riffing second half, they seemed to let fly a little and get into it, having pushed through the three-part vocal midsection and positively nailed it.

elephant tree buffalo studio

Goofing their way through a vinyl giveaway that would continue after — the game was that Townley was thinking of a number between 1-1,000 and if you guessed it you won a vinyl; I guessed eight and 42 — they soon went into “Bird,” another Habits high point and particularly emblematic of the progressive edge that’s emerged in their sound. With a duly floating vocal above Hart‘s steady drum and Holland‘s bass, they segued smoothly into the song’s atmospheric middle and dynamic ending with energy worthy of a live show, and though I’d seen them play it in November, knowing the song from actually having the record of course made a difference. Not ashamed to say I was singing along with the television at several points during their set, “Bird” being one of them.

Holland, who had been handling shout-outs (though Townley mentioned Sister Rainbow), gave me a hello — hey Pete — and “Exit the Soul” followed, with its extended break, three-part vocal and before closing with “Dawn” from the first record, they gave away the Habits vinyl. The winning number was five. At least I was close. Finishing off, they seemed once more right at home, as they had long since gotten momentum on their side and rolled through with apparent ease. Newer songs or older, they had it down and I don’t know if it was me projecting or an actual feeling on the part of the band, but there was evident relief when it was over before the feed cut, like they were glad to have gotten it off their collective chest. There wasn’t a full audience in the room to see it, but hell, at least they got to play and at least those who tuned in got to watch.

I was glad I did, and again, thankful for the afternoon timing making it possible to do so. I wound up spending a decent portion of the second half of the set being chewed on by our new puppy, which reminded me not only to take her out, but of how “real life” and music interact with live streaming in a way that never happens with actual live shows. If it was 10PM, would I have watched in bed on my phone before crashing out for the night? If it was 7PM, would I have been annoyed at having my nightly Star Trek viewing interrupted? Maybe. These are weird times and they’ve forced those who care about art and creativity to adjust the balance of the space they occupy in the day to day. The dog nipped at my hand while they played “Exit the Soul.” I was happy that at no point did she pee on the floor.

Watching the several streams I’ve seen — some trying to capture a band-on-stage experience, some a fly-on-wall camera in the rehearsal space, some, like this, kind of in-between — I can’t help but feel some pressure to bring it in the context of the “current moment,” but honestly, screw that. Bands are trying to get by, like everyone else. They can’t play shows so this seems to be what’s happening. It’s interesting seeing different acts’ personalities come through their A/V presentation, and of course it’s different than watching a band on stage. Do I need to say that? Do I need to say how important supporting each other through a global pandemic is? If I do, I shouldn’t have to. Whatever.

I took the dog for a walk after Elephant Tree were done, then got the kid up from his nap at the appointed wake-up time (4:38PM, if you’re curious). We drove around for a bit while he looked at sundry construction vehicles and ate some food, and when we came home, watched PBS Newshour, took the dog for another walk. I made leftovers for dinner, we watched Star Trek, the dog peed on the floor, and we went to bed. The Yankees — also playing without a crowd — had a day off. Life happened, and the stream got folded into the day, not quite the escapist experience a live show would be, but still something special while it lasted. Listen to Habits.

If you’re still reading, thanks and I’ll make it easy:

Elephant Tree, Habits (2020)

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Playlist: Episode 33

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

the obelisk show banner

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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Interview & Track Premiere: Elephant Tree Talk About the Making of Habits and More

Posted in audiObelisk, Features on April 17th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

elephant tree with riley

[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Exit the Soul’ from Elephant Tree’s Habits. Album is out April 24 through Holy Roar Records and Deathwish Inc.]

I’ve been fortunate a few times now to see Elephant Tree play live, and never once have they not surpassed the prior gig. Each time has been better than the last. The clarity of their progression as a band can likewise be heard in their recordings. The latest of them, Habits (review here), is a sure-fire, no-question contender for the best heavy rock album of 2020, and though it was preceded just by their 2016 self-titled debut full-length (review here) and 2014’s Theia EP (review here), their evolution is to be ignored only at the non-listener’s loss. Emerging as they have from a hyper-crowded London and UK scene, with the advent of Habits, they stand among the most essential underground heavy bands currently active. And yes, I mean that.

Just a few days ago I expounded at great (read: probably too much) length about the quality of their craft across the wide scope of Habits, so I’ll spare you that. If you’re still reading this and haven’t just scrolled on to the Q&A, first, thanks, and second, I’ll just say that another aspect of who they are that comes across with Habits more than ever is the closeness of bond between the now-four members of the band. It’s not just about the harmonies between guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley and bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, or the hefty dose of synth John Slattery brings in his first recording with the group, or the steady foundation of roll drummer Sam Hart sets beneath the floating melodies. It’s the core relationship among the players upon which their performance chemistry is built. These guys laugh together. They’re becoming family as the best and steadiest bands do over time. You can see it when they clown around on stage. Just ask Pete what his favorite kind of bird is.

As that relationship extends to their work with producer/sometimes-bandmate Riley MacIntyre, it’s only fair that all five are included in this interview. If you haven’t found it yet, you’ll find the Q&A below.

Enjoy:

elephant tree habits

Interview with Elephant Tree: Habits Forming

Tell me about being in the studio this time vs. last time. What was different, other obviously than the songs, and what did you want to keep sound-wise from the self-titled?

Riley: The biggest difference between the making of this album and the last was the amount of time we spent on it. With the self-titled we had a very short and specific period of time to finish it. I believe we recorded all the music in four days, and then spent another few weekends doing vocals, production and mixing. It was maybe 8-10 days total. Also, I had a very clear vision for that album in terms of how it should sound. So, although we did play around a bit in the studio, it was a relatively focused process of recording what we needed to make it sound the way we imagined.

By contrast, Habits took the better part of a year (not full time by any means, mind you), and we had almost no idea how we wanted it to sound when we started out. Although we still did all the main live recording inside of a week, the production ultimately became a protracted process of trial and error, exploration, discovery, mistakes and happy accidents. For better or worse, without a deadline we were able to let the album take shape over time, and to be guided by what we found to be working along the way.

In terms of changes to the sound, we knew we wouldn’t be messing with core elements of the band – we would certainly be keeping the heavy guitars and vocal harmonies – but I think everything else was more or less fair game. I don’t remember having any conversations about what we wanted to stay the same, but we did have some about what we wanted to add… namely, energy. Whereas the last record was deliberately raw, lethargic, and syrupy sounding, we wanted this one to have a slightly more focused energy and to feel more alive and exciting. We tried to achieve this with more top end on the guitars, the drums being a bit less smashed and drowned out, little production tricks, and lots and lots of SYNTHS!

Describe recording with Riley. What does he bring to Elephant Tree’s sound as a producer?

Sam: Riley brings us a pretty unique opportunity when it comes to recording. He usually works on music that’s totally different, if not the polar opposite, to ours, so being able to come at the tracks with fresh ears and ideas is a real boon. The process usually involves us heading into the studio with an idea and Riley really then has free reign to deconstruct and digest it before coming up with all these wired and wonderful suggestions. Sometimes that can mean the whole re-writing of a track and others it might just be an odd synth added here and there. Most of the time though is him taking the hodge podge of riffs we have and moulding them into a song that makes sense.

Obviously having John in the band is a change from the first album. How much of Habits was written when he joined? How do you feel about the way the keys and second guitar fit in this material and how has it changed the experience of playing live for you?

Sam: John was there from the start on Habits pretty much. I think we had maybe Bird and one other track written but nowhere near finished. We needed to take the Self Titled on the road and wanted to do it justice with the extra guitars and synth that you could hear on the album. The more John practiced with us, the more we ended up jamming, and then from there he just naturally became a part of the next album. The keys and extra guitars were there on the self titled release but perhaps slightly less focused. That was because we wanted to still be able to give a live performance that was true to the album that people would listen to at home in some respect. Having John with us now means we can explore those second guitar parts and add these synth flutters knowing that when it comes to playing live we can deliver. He’s really a key member in pushing the band forward now.

How did you land on the title Habits and what does it mean to you? – Jack: It was actually Pete who shouted the album name out when we were trying to think of a title that sums up the ideas behind the album. I wouldn’t want to explain exactly what it means to us because I think it could mean a lot of different things to everyone else. However, I will say that it does reflect different parts of our lives and the times we are living through in a very real sense.

What’s happening in “The Fall Chorus” lyrically, and how intentional was it to pair that with “Broken Nails” at the start and end of side B?

John: Lyrically, “The Fall Chorus” is about struggling on with life against the backdrop of what seems to be an increasingly hostile environment politically and economically. The verses and choruses operate as counterpoint to each other. The chorus offers up the idea of having personal hope and being saved (whatever that might mean to you personally). The verses counter that with a feeling of impending doom. The last verse slightly aims to offer comfort in knowing that it cannot last forever and that at some point in the future, I will die (along with all my hopes and fears). I find some comfort in that.

With regard to the pairing of both songs, I think thematically they are in a similar vein. There was a strong feeling that Broken Nails was going to close the album out relatively early on in the recording process. I think we tried out a few different arrangements for the tracks, but felt that it was nice to come out of Exit The Soul and into something completely different with The Fall Chorus when you flip to Side B.

Tell me about the development of “Bird,” how that came together instrumentally and lyrically. –

Jack: The initial sketch music for Bird came first followed by the first ideas for the lyrics about 10 minutes later! I’ve never really written an idea down like that. Musically it came from a folk place. I’d been listening to old watersons records and a lot of Lankum at that time. I’d also just had my daughter! All this you can hear. The lyrics reflect the happiness and worries that come with raising a child (the worry part is especially relevant now). I brought the demo to the gang and it all came together really easily. We started to play it live for a while before we took it into the studio, it changed a fair bit in terms of arrangement since then as most things do when we work it all out together! Once in the studio Sam helped with parts of lyrics that had holes, Pete brought the riffs in. Slootz Mcootz brought in his keys, synths and charm, and Riley brought the whole thing together with his massive (when warm) production!

One assumes, plague permitting, you’ll tour. Any plans or closing words you want to mention?

Pete: Definitely, when this has settled down and normality (or as close to normal as we can get) has returned to us, we hope to pick up where things have been put on hold. Play out the new tracks from the album people have gotten used to by then, and be the band people want and need. The messages we get from fans can really leave us feeling humbled, we forget how our music and lyrics can help people through tough times, so it truly keeps our glass half full.

And as far as touring goes, plans were being made to be on the road with another band that, coincidentally, have their album coming out the same day as us, so fingers crossed for that come September.

Elephant Tree, “Bird” official video

Elephant Tree, “Sails” official video

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Album Review: Elephant Tree, Habits

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 13th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

elephant tree habits

To put the bottom line first: Elephant Tree‘s Habits is absolutely, unquestionably one of the best heavy rock releases of 2020. A top-five album, if not top-three, and such declaration is made with full awareness that half the year has not yet passed. Then a three-piece, the London-based heavy psychedelic rockers set a high standard with their 2016 self-titled debut full-length (review here), and Habits meets and surpasses the standard on every level. It is perhaps a less stark leap than the band made between their 2014 Theia EP (review here), but in following the course that Elephant Tree laid out, the eight tracks and 43 minutes of Habits expand the band’s scope on a multitude of levels.

This continuing evolution is palpable, whether it’s in the shared harmonies between guitarist Jack Townley and bassist Peter Holland, the inclusion of strings and more complex vocal arrangements on the acoustic “The Fall Chorus,” the welcoming of John Slattery on synth and guitar as he adds to the lushness of the melodies throughout, or the intricacies of rhythm that Sam Hart brings to the drums on a cut like “Bird,” or the earlier shifts between roll and chug of “Faceless.”

Habits finds Elephant Tree on every level a more progressive band, and the substance of their material is writ across each track in performance, arrangement, and purpose. This applies even unto the initially-ponderous intro “Wake.Repeat,” which is a 1:14-long drone that builds into the start of the true opener, “Sails,” but which ends up providing the basis of side A’s symmetry as a droning flourish rounds out “Exit the Soul,” the longest cut on the record at 7:20 and the finale of the first half, which gives way to side B’s own reflective property, as heard in the already-noted acoustics of “The Fall Chorus” that later find answer in album-closer “Broken Nails.”

The hidden message, as it were, sets up a duality between the ethereal and the natural, both seeming to correspond as a part of the entirety of Habits itself; the sound of the band serving as a duality unto itself between airy melody and weight of tone and groove. This conversation is the essence of Habits.

It is a subtlety and depth — conscious or not, whether correctly interpreted here or not — that is simply new ground for Elephant Tree as a band, and it’s brought out with the careful studio guidance of returning-producer/sometimes-bandmate Riley MacIntyre, whose familiarity with what Elephant Tree do and who they are is an essential component. It is crucial to note, however, that as much as the four-piece have grown over the last couple years both through adding Slattery to the lineup and substantial touring, they have maintained and pushed forward their propensity for memorable songcraft.

Elephant Tree

Thus, as much as “Sails” establishes the tonal and melodic foundations upon which “Faceless” and “Exit the Soul” build in succession, each piece makes an individual mark as well, and even the verses of “Faceless” seem to be a hook. The same is true of Habits‘ second half, as “The Fall Chorus” invites quiet sing-alongs as the lines, “So say we all/Saved from the shelf,” in the chorus offset the kind of minimalist verses also found in “Sails” and “Faceless.”

So too does “Bird” — which moves into an airy midsection jam before its chorus surges back and gives way to a faster, more twisting and winding progression that closes out — maintain its poise and undercurrent of purpose, and after coming to structural ground in the penultimate “Wasted,” the show of reach that is “Broken Nails” moves beyond even the rest of Habits in terms of overall scope, while holding fast to a rhythm in the vocal delivery of its verses that gives a sing-song feel, almost becoming at least in part the lullaby that “Bird” seems intended to be.

Front to back, Habits is gorgeous and resonant in kind, and the growth of melodies into harmonies and the broadening of the band’s sound with Slattery‘s keys — plain to hear on “Exit the Soul” as well as at the outset with “Sails,” and indeed across the rest of what surrounds — only makes their approach come through as more masterful. In crunching, riff-led moments like “Faceless” or even the consuming psychedelic finish of “Wasted” — where the largesse seems so much to be the focal point of their intention — Elephant Tree execute their songs with rare grace, perhaps most present in the quiet beginning stretch of “Broken Nails,” but never really gone.

And that closer, which on its own would situate the band among those bringing increasing progressive flourish to heavier styles, offers some of the slowest and most outwardly dense-feeling crash on Habits, while also pursuing the most atmospheric breadth, and as such, it could hardly be a more appropriate end, in its symmetry with “The Fall Chorus” and also in emphasizing the journey the band has undertaken from the relatively straightforward roll of “Sails” to the far-out place they find themselves at the end, with that lightly-strummed guitar leading them on the final fade. It is one last unabashedly beautiful moment on an album that is rife with them, and for all the potential that Elephant Tree‘s self-titled demonstrated, Habits moves beyond even what one might’ve hoped for in a follow-up.

This sounds like hyperbole, and it is, to be sure, but a work of such creative realization doesn’t happen along every day or every year, and what may seem like an extreme response is nonetheless earned in the material itself. These are not songs to visit and disregard. These are songs to live with. To listen to and be enveloped by. To learn and internalize and engage with over a course of time not defined by a release date, or the end of a year, or whenever. To hear the conversation Elephant Tree are having with their sound and their craft is to understand how special their work here genuinely is, and if the methods of Habits were to become a point of influence for other acts, it would only be an improvement to heavy music as a whole.

Recommended.

Elephant Tree, “Bird” official video

Elephant Tree, “Sails” official video

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Playlist: Episode 31

Posted in Radio on April 3rd, 2020 by JJ Koczan

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The theme for this episode of The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio is pretty straightforward if you listen. It’s comfort songs. You would not necessarily believe that of a playlist that opens with Total Fucking Destruction doing the title-track of an album called To Be Alive at the End of the World, but again, once you listen, it’s actually kind of soothing. There’s a fair amount of instrumental material included, led off by Yawning Man, and I think the part with Vinnum Sabbathi and Forming the Void is probably as heavy as it gets, though that new Elephant Tree track certainly has some roll to it. God damn that’s a good song, not that that’s a huge surprise from those guys.

I haven’t cut the voice breaks for it yet but will do so sometime before this is posted, but I intend to talk a bit about the Om song and my association with their early work and seeing them at SXSW for what I think might’ve been the first time. It was a while ago and it’s hard to remember for a few reasons, but anyway, if I can remember it between typing this and speaking that, I hope to speak to it a bit, because I know that’s not their most soothing stuff by a long shot, but the memory I have of it puts it in that framework for me. Closing with YOB’s “Marrow” was, of course, a given.

Thanks for listening if you do. I hope you enjoy, and if you see this and don’t listen, then thanks for reading. If you’re not reading, well, you’ll never know you were being thanked.

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

Full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 04.03.20

Total Fucking Destruction To be Alive at the End of the World To be Alive at the End of the World*
Yawning Man I Make Weird Choices Macedonian Lines
Acid King Center of Everywhere Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere
Colour Haze Peace, Brothers and Sisters! Colour Haze
BREAK
Pretty Lightning Boogie at the Shrine Jangle Bowls*
Elephant Tree Bird Habits*
Charivari Lotus Eater Descent*
Tia Carrera Layback Tried and True*
Vinnum Sabbathi Quantum Determinism Of Dimensions & Theories*
Forming the Void Manifest Reverie*
BREAK
Om Annapurna Variations on a Theme
YOB Marrow Clearing the Path to Ascend

The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio airs every Friday 5PM Eastern, with replays Sunday at 7PM Eastern. Next new episode is April 17 (subject to change). Thanks for listening if you do.

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