Kanaan and Ævestaden Release Collaborative Single “Habbor og Signe”

Posted in Whathaveyou on July 9th, 2024 by JJ Koczan

Yeah, this came out a bit ago at this point, a week or two, fine. It’s been kind of a busy time, so maybe a bit of slack could be cut. And I know the nature of the internet and music right now is a thing exists for about a week before it’s released and maybe three days thereafter before the next whatever comes along, but this collaborative track between Norwegian trio Kanaan and countrymen neofolk troupe Ævestaden, a take on the traditional song “Habbor og Signe,” is vibrant enough that I wanted to put it here regardless of time, if only to say I hope they do a full record together.

It wouldn’t be the first time Kanaan as a whole turned into another entire band — see also Full Earth — but either way, the way they give a sense of classic shuffle, Nordic folk, and tight progressive turns is engrossing for only being a five-minute jaunt. Maybe it’s a one-off thing, and if so, fine, but it’s vibrant enough that I don’t imagine you’ll have any trouble hearing what I mean about the potential. You’ll find the stream under the links.

The info came from Bandcamp, I’m pretty sure:

kanaan and aevestaden habbor og signe

Here’s a new collaboration that should arouse attention and excite music lovers with open ears. The psychedelic power trio Kanaan and the neo-folk innovators Ævestaden are both among Norway’s busiest and most critically lauded bands. Now, the two powerful young bands combine musical forces, with an altogether unique outcome.

The medieval ballad “Habbor og Signe” has been updated and showcases new musical sides of both Kanaan and Ævestaden.

Produced by Kanaan and Ævestaden. All arrangements by Kanaan and Ævestaden.
Mix and master by Hans Martin Rundberg Austestad.
Rose painting by Eir Vatn Strøm and layout by Jakob Skøtt.
This release was supported by Norsk kulturråd.

Ask Vatn Strøm – guitar, vocals
Eir Vatn Strøm – vocals, kravik lyre
Eskild Myrvoll – bass, vocals
Ingvald André Vassbø – drums, vocals
Kenneth Lien – vocals, electric guitar
Levina Storåkern – vocals, fiddle, octave fiddle

https://instagram.com/kanaanband
https://www.facebook.com/kanaanband
https://kanaanband.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/aevestaden/
https://www.instagram.com/aevestaden/
https://aevestaden.bandcamp.com/
https://www.aevestaden.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Jansenrecords
https://www.instagram.com/jansenrecords/
https://www.jansenrecords.com/

Kanaan & Ævestaden, “Habbor og Signe”

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Notes from Freak Valley 2024: Day 1

Posted in Features, Reviews on May 31st, 2024 by JJ Koczan

Freak Valley 2024 stage

Before the Show

So, hey. I’m at Freak Valley Festival. Not by much, admittedly. My general position is that until I’m standing (or preferably, casually reclining) in a place, I’m not convinced a thing that is maybe supposed to happen is going to pan out, but this trip was tenuous even by that standard. It’s Thursday. I flew out of NYC yesterday afternoon. I didn’t know for sure I’d be making the trip until Tuesday, and if I’d been able to cancel the flight and get a refund — which I couldn’t, because capitalism — I’d more likely have stayed home to be with my family as my mother recovers from having her knee replaced, also yesterday afternoon, which I was getting text updates about sitting on the plane waiting to take off. I’d have gotten them during the whole flight as well, but you had to pay for internet even just for basic phone signal — again, capitalism; the airline also randomly played commercials at one point during the flight, whether you were watching a movie or not; gross — but was able to find out after the flight landed how her evening went. I went from the hospital to the airport, stopping at home to get the dog for the car ride. My mother is fine and recovering, in case you’re curious.

The flight got in at 6AM and led to a train trip from Frankfurt to Siegen, where I’m staying, that took the better part of the next four hours. No sleep worth mentioning overnight on the plane; I was thankful to the very nice man at the information counter who printed out my route with the wheres and whens for changes — it even had the tracks; not gross — though the timing ended up being incorrect and there was an extra hour of waiting at Geißen. I was glad to have brought chargers. After taking a cab from the train station and not having cash for the driver, who of course didn’t take cards, I checked in, crashed for about two and a half hours, showered and headed out to the outdoor fest grounds in Netphen, which is the next town over. Did I mention it was raining?

All of which is to say that it has been quite a 24-hour stretch, but I know that once the music starts it will be okay. I’ll leave it there for now in advance of that.

Full Earth

Full Earth (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Not to say it’s a surprise that Full Earth’s songs are so recognizable from their earlier-this-year debut, Cloud Sculptors (review here), but I am willing to say that I don’t always think of an 85-minute synth-led instrumental heavy prog 2LP as a context for earworms. Nonetheless, here we are, with the Oslo-based five-piece offshoot of Kanaan (who play shortly) cementing the immediate you-are-here vibe of Freak Valley 2024, and living up to my “it’ll be okay when…” above — there’s a tattoo artist here in back; it is tempting to have that put somewhere on my person as a reminder for those days where it seems like “never” is when it’s okay — with their material, poised and purposeful live as on the record(s). I got to the grounds in time to grab coffee and almost buy two tie-dye shirts for my daughter — they’re awesome and the right size — but the line for the chipkarte (a bracelet with an RFID you put money on) was massive, so I opted to stay put for a few minutes, breathe and let some of the residual adrenaline go into the twisting movement coming from the stage. Light rain falling, mud in the photo pit, but I brought a poncho and am ready to dig in. Full Earth, to that end, were a perfect start.

Daevar

Köln’s Daevar released their second album, Amber Eyes, in March through The Lasting Dose Records, and for the life of me, I thought I reviewed it but can’t find the link. Maybe I just enjoyed listening to it instead and thought sentences about it without typing them? New realities every minute in whatever you call this universe. Either way, that Daevar record is murky-rolly-melodoom, and the trio’s ethereal thickness of tone worked well with the concurrent uptick in rainfall, pushing the line between drizzling and raining and making me glad I brought a poncho should it continue. You could argue that, despite the differences in sound between Full Earth and Daevar, the common factor is still immersion, and certainly in both there’s room for everybody, and Daevar’s nod was also enough to draw a crowd around the Rockpalast video-feed monitor backstage, centered in on riffs and density but broad in the guitar leads and bigger moments of crash. They’re an easy band to dig among the converted, it seems, though I have to imagine most humans not in this valley on the AWO grounds in Netphen would have any idea where they’re coming from. And maybe that’s part of what resonates too. Subculture speaking to itself about itself. I think that’s how you build community, right? With riffs influenced by other riffs influenced by Black Sabbath? Governments should be giving out grants for this shit. Somebody has their baby here in a carrier (with proper ear protection). The smell of mud and cigarettes and weed. Me and coffee. Plus riffs.

Kanaan

Striking how different Kanaan are in their intention than Full Earth, in which all three members of the band take part. For Kanaan, it’s the heavy jams, and where Full Earth felt plotted front to back, Kanaan are certainly tight as musicians — they’d have to be or neither band would work, let alone be good — but you can hear improvisation at root in their sound as opposed to composition. And they’re still playing songs from records — they dipped back to their first album, 2018’s Windborne, for “A. Hausenbecken” — so there’s a plot being followed, but the structure is different and the atmosphere follows on from that in a way that it might not for many acts whose players are pulling double-duty in a given festival day. I didn’t get many pictures before being unceremoniously kicked out of the photo pit for reasons that, if they were stated at all, were not in a language I speak — and that’s my problem, not the dude from security’s — but I’ve chosen to not stress about that shit. I started taking pictures at shows like 13 years ago because I felt like photos were missing from live reviews and I didn’t want to ask anyone else to do it, but I harbor no delusions of talent in that regard and I feel like all this time later doing the thing, it’s still tertiary in my mind to the experience of watching Kanaan take a bow at the end of their set. If it was something I was better at, I’d probably be more interested in it, and vice versa. I got a couple shots anyhow, and having now seen Kanaan three times and twice in the last year, I’m having a hard time coming up with anything to say about their on-stage chemistry that isn’t hyperbole. They should probably tour the States, in theory, but between visa fees and the crowd getting it, I have to wonder if it would be worth their time to do so in the first place.

C.O.F.F.I.N.

They win the day easily in terms of distance traveled to be here. And it’s a good thing their singer was busy also playing drums, since with all the barking behind the mic it kind of felt like somebody was going to get bit. I had listened to C.O.F.F.I.N. — whose moniker stands for Children of Norway Fighting in Finland; they’re from Sydney, Australia — on the ol’ internettobox, and they were plenty punky in person as well, but perhaps tailored their set a bit to the crowd to lean into groove rather than shove, though I’ll emphasize, no lack of either. Before they went on, The Mad Hatter did a secret-ish quick set during the changeover, giving a kind of local color to the bluesy proceedings. As for C.O.F.F.I.N. themselves, they wereI neither retro nor bullshit in their interpretation of old-school rock volatility, and even the barking had charm, let alone the dry ice bubbles that were launching from out of the stage. I’ll admit to being distracted and exhausted enough to feel like I earned the headache I was fighting against, but even in such a state the brash energy wrought from the stage was palpable, whatever else might’ve been going on at the time as it started to get dark a bit after 9PM. C.O.F.F.I.N. weren’t all the way my thing, much as I have one, but I got to take pictures for a couple songs and that was a relief, and then I hung back and watched the crowd go from drunk to drunk-dancing, which I took to mean that a hell of an evening was under way. And so it was, mud-mosh and everything.

Slomosa

“Cabin Fever” and “Rice” into the much mellower verses of “Psykonaut” at the start of the set was a bold play, but Norway’s Slomosa seem to be used to that by now, and it suits them on stage. A clearly developed and worked-on stage presence and vitality, songs that don’t sacrifice hooks at the altar of their own fuzz, and professionalism beyond the fact that to-date they only have one record out — there’s a lot about Slomosa to like, even beyond the earliest-QOTSA tone of “In My Mind’s Desert” and the stonery bounce of the drums in “Battling Guns,” which is a highlight of their out-at-some-point sophomore LP, which they followed with another new song, but not before saying they planned to release the set as a live album — an advantage of having Rockpalast on hand. Another new one, “Red Thundra,” followed, and an invitation to sing along to “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” followed, which was accepted by some even in back where I was standing. Bottom line, they were locked in. A band with this much going for them, even in a largely-ignored, underground style, all they really need to do is keep going the way they are. They’re not a stylistic revolution, but over the next couple years there are going to be a lot of bands coming out of Europe working under their influence — there already are a few — and on stage they absolutely lived up to what I hoped they would be. More, they seemed like they enjoyed it, and were at home holding their energy for the duration. If they can keep this lineup together, they’re on their way to being something very special. They finished with “Horses,” which opened their 2020 self-titled debut (review here), and it was easy to think they might do so for years to come, then did an encore of “Scavengers” that felt like it had been earned.

Monolord

Masters of nod. Even if you could deny Monolord at this stage in the game, for the life of me I have no idea why you would. A decade removed from their debut LP, Empress Rising (discussed here), the Swedish trio of Thomas V. Jäger, Mika Häkki and Esben Willems are easily among the most essential heavy bands of that same decade, and the way they’ve been able to take generic notions like heavy riffs and rolling grooves with melodic vocals and own them to a point of casting a subset of modern stoner-doom in their image is all well and good, but they also still kill it live. In a move that would only ever aid in that cause, they had the esteemed Per Wiberg — who was here in 2023 with the bluesy Kamchatka as well, and has done time with the likes of Spiritual Beggars, Opeth and Candlemass; his latest solo album, The Serpent’s Here (review here), came out earlier this year — sitting in on guitar before moving to keys for the 2023 standalone single “It’s All the Same,” which was duly flattening. It’s just about never what you hear talked about when it comes to their recordings or live shows — and they’re so heavy that it’s kind of understandable — but I’ll argue there’s emotional resonance at play especially in their later work, and it’d be miraculous if calling it that didn’t undercut the work they’ve put in growing as songwriters and performers let them march and convey slog without actually being a drag to hear. All this and Per Wiberg doubling the riff of “Empress Rising,” too? It was a good night to be alive at Freak Valley Festival, and I ended it up front while the band handed out setlists and tossed drumsticks to the crowd, and zero regrets for that.

More tomorrow, and more the day after that. Hi from Freak Valley. Pics after the jump.

Read more »

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Red Smoke Festival 2024 Makes First Lineup Announcements

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 19th, 2024 by JJ Koczan

When I started this post, Poland’s Red Smoke Festival had just unveiled the first names for its 2024 edition, set for this July 12-14. That was Domkraft, Coogans Bluff, Earth Tongue and Narbo Dacal. You know how it goes, you get caught up with stuff, a couple days go by, and now there’s four more adds in Acid Rooster, Kanaan, Perilymph and Tuskar, so it’s safe to say the event is taking shape at a fairly good clip. I don’t know the announcement schedule or anything like that, but if you’re in Poland or thinking of making the trip, I imagine you also don’t need me to suggest following their socials, etc. Even if you don’t, I believe you are capable.

So does the festival, which admirably dispenses with some of the social-media-era hoopla around these things by making a slogan out of ‘The Less You Know the Better.’ They might be right, or at least there’s a philosophical argument waiting to be made there. Either way, there were YouTube and Facebook links for the bands, but again, I believe in your power to dig and would encourage you to do so. I only took them out because it looked funny on the page and this site does weird things with YouTube hyperlinks. Certainly all parties involved have online presences and audio, which even 30 years later kind of makes the internet feel like a miracle. Not to mention it’s how I know this fest exists in the first place.

Even so, I don’t know much more than this, so I suppose I’m doing alright in that regard:

red smoke 2024 first and second names

First announcements for RSF2024

COOGANS BLUFF – Horns Rock’n’Roll Dance From Germany

Domkraft – Riffs Riffs Riffs Repeat From Sweden With Love

Earth Tongue – Odd But Gold Heavy Psych Fuzz From New Zealand

Narbo Dacal – (Be)Witching Metal From Poland

Acid Rooster – Endless Trippy Kraut Experience from Germany

Kanaan – Blazing Freeform Psychedelic Rock From Norway

Perilymph – Beautiful Psychedelic Sounds From Germany

Tuskar – Heavy Doomed Hammer From UK

Event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1316543752328569/

Save the date 12-14.07.2024

The Less You Know The Better

https://www.facebook.com/RedSmokeFest
https://instagram.com/redsmokefest
https://redsmokefestival.pl/

Domkraft, Sonic Moons (2023)

Acid Rooster, Flowers and Dead Souls (2023)

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The Obelisk Presents: THE BEST OF 2023 — Year in Review

Posted in Features on December 18th, 2023 by JJ Koczan

the-obelisk-best-of-2023-year-in-review

[PLEASE NOTE: These are not the results of the year-end poll, which ends in January. If you haven’t contributed your picks yet, please do so here.]

It is encouraging in the extreme to see heavy music, as both concept and practical reality, growing more diverse. For all its rebellious airs, rock and roll has always been predominantly white and male, and its heavy underground form is no different. But for any artform to survive let alone evolve, it has to be open to new ideas and perspectives, and I firmly believe that the underground is becoming a more inclusive community. It has a distance to go that can only be measured in light years, but progress is progress.

2023 was a stunner from the start, with early highlights that stuck around and were joined by more as the months progressed. And while we’re speaking about it in past tense and it’s wrap-up time and so on, there are still new releases coming out every day and week. All over the planet, the heavy underground represents a vibrant subculture, rife with creativity and purpose, speaking inside genre and out, and all the time looking to grow artistically and in terms of listenership. As a result, the work being released holds itself to a high standard.

And yes, that’s true even if it’s about bongs.

Actually, that such willful primitivism is taking place at the same as doom forays into goth, psych forays into mania and tone-worshipping stoner rock seems intent to both double-down on simplicity while expanding into increasingly progressive territory is emblematic of that very standard and the diversity among practitioners of these styles in the current and up and coming generation.

One could go on here, speculate on future directions and so forth, but frankly there isn’t time just now. The list you see below is mine. I made it. It’s informed by my listening habits — what I had on most — by what I see as the greatest level of achievement by the band in question, and in some cases by critical import. It’s a weird mix, but let’s face it, you don’t care. The bottom line is all I’m claiming to represent here is myself and this site.

Accordingly, as with every year, I’ll ask you to please be mindful of the feelings and opinions and others if and as you proffer your own. I love comments here, I love discussions on this post most of any throughout any year, every year, but that can’t happen if somebody’s being a jerk, so don’t. If you disagree with me or someone else, I don’t care if you have a 40-page treatise on your opinion or if you just don’t dig a thing, but if you’re seeing these words, it is our responsibility to each other to be respectful and kind.

Beyond that, in advance of what’s about to unfurl below, please know that I thank you for reading.

**NOTE**: If you’re looking for something specific, try a text search.

The Top 60 Albums of 2023

For the last two years (2022 and 2021, linked for reference), I’ve done my own list as a countdown from 60, and since it feels both like way too much, over-the-top, totally unnecessary, and like a completely inadequate sampling of what was worth hearing this year, I guess it’s the way to go once again. Right now is the first of three times I’ll encourage you not to skip this list.

This is the second. Here we go:

60. Codex Serafini, The Imprecation of Anima (review here)
59. Strider, Midnight Zen (review here)
58. Black Helium, Um (review here)
57. Humulus, Flowers of Death (review here)
56. Fuzz Evil, New Blood (review here)
55. Blood Lightning, Blood Lightning (review here)
54. Rotor, Sieben (review here)
53. Cleõphüzz, Mystic Vulture (review here)
52. Black Sky Giant, Primigenian (review here)
51. Khan, Creatures (discussed here)
50. Slumbering Sun, The Ever-Living Fire (review here)
49. Massive Hassle, Number One (review here)
48. Búho Ermitaño, Implosiones (review here)
47. Black Moon Circle, Leave the Ghost Behind (review here)
46. Oldest Sea, A Birdsong, a Ghost (review here)
45. Edena Gardens, Dens (discussed here)
44. Merlock, Onward Strides Colossus (review here)
43. Obelyskkh, The Ultimate Grace of God (review here)
42. Lord Mountain, The Oath (review here)
41. Dorthia Cottrell, Death Folk Country (review here)
40. Yawning Balch, Volume One / Volume Two (reviews here and here)
39. The Golden Grass, Life is Much Stranger (review here)
38. Somnuri, Desiderium (review here)
37. Haurun, Wilting Within (review here)
36. Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree, Aion (review here)
35. Stinking Lizaveta, Anthems and Phantoms (review here)
34. Black Rainbows, Superskull (review here)
33. Polymoon, Chrysalis (review here)
32. Fuzz Sagrado, Luz e Sombra (review here)
31. Yawning Man, Long Walk of the Navajo (review here)

Notes:

This is the third time I’m telling you not to skip this list. Linking to more on these is new. I haven’t done that before for this part of the list, but I hope it helps if you want to dig in.

That Khan stands out to me as needing to be higher given the quality of the work itself, but I got there late. But if you sent this into the year-end poll as your top 30, I feel like you wouldn’t be ‘wrong’ with some of the showings here, whether that’s the blinding shimmerprog of Polymoon, Merlock’s axe-swing sludge or Dorthia Cottrell of Windhand’s acoustic-based solo work.

Strong debut full-lengths from Haurun, Oldest Sea, Boston supergroup Blood Lightning, Cleõphüzz who already broke up, the aforementioned Merlock, mega-weirdos Codex Serafini, Slumbering Sun (kin to Monte Luna and Destroyer of Light), Church of the Cosmic Skull offshoot Massive Hassle, Turkish heavy rockers Strider and Californian metal traditionalists Lord Mountain. Established outfits like Yawning Man, Stinking Lizaveta, Cottrell, Black Rainbows, The Golden Grass, and Rotor continue to explore new avenues of their sound.

In the meantime, the respective progressions displayed by the likes of Black Helium, Fuzz Sagrado, Somnuri and Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree, the e’er-listenable Fuzz Evil and Argentinian instrumentalists Black Sky Giant offered thrills anticipated and not. Humulus bringing in Stefan Koglek from Colour Haze was a nice touch, and though I haven’t even reviewed it yet, the third and maybe-last Edena Gardens LP completes that collaborative trilogy with members of Causa Sui and Papir as fluidly as one could ask, which is only saying something because of the personnel involved.

There are a ton of others I wanted to put on this list, but numbers are cruel and if I get into decimals or fractions or something like that I’m going to end up huddled in a ball crying. But please know that because something’s not here doesn’t mean it sucked even just in my own opinion or whatever. At the end of the list come the honorable mentions and rarely have they been so honorable.

30. Moodoom, Desde el Bosque

Moodoom Desde el Bosque

Self-released. Reviewed April 13.

Buenos Aires trio Moodoom nailed a classic, ’70s-style Sabbathian blues rock with a non-cornball vintage feel better than anyone else I heard who tried in 2023. Their Desde el Bosque didn’t top half an hour, but you can almost feel the heat from the tubes of the amplifiers behind it, and it’s such an organic flow that it’s undeniable as an LP. Dig that creeper riff in “El Ente,” man. Proh. Toh. Doom.

29. Negative Reaction, Zero Minus Infinity
Negative Reaction Zero Minus Infinity

Self-released. Reviewed Nov. 27.

The eighth full-length in a career that goes back 33 years, Zero Minus Infinity is the second Negative Reaction album since guitarist/vocalist Kenny Bones moved himself and the band from Long Island to West Virginia and revamped the lineup, and it’s a beast. It’d be here for “I’ll Have Another” alone with that crush of distortion and Bones raw-throating “It’s you I need,” on repeat, perhaps to alcohol, but that’s just one example of the disaffected delights on offer from the kings of anxiety sludge.

28. Kanaan, Downpour

Kanaan Downpour

Released by Jansen Records. Reviewed May 12.

Downpour is one of two 2023 outings from upstart progressive Norwegian instrumentalists Kanaan, as they answered its Spring release with the jammy Diversions Vol. 2: Enter the Astral Plane. Any way you go, composed or improvised, this is a band with a special chemistry. In addition to the nodder highlight “Amazon,” which brought a collaboration with Hedwig Mollestad and the dense boogie riff-push of “Black Time Fuzz” at the start, they proceeded on an evolutionary path that looks now like it will go as long as they do. For now, in its urgency and space both, Downpour is a pinnacle achievement. How long that lasts depends on what comes next.

27. Mathew’s Hidden Museum, Mathew’s Hidden Museum

mathew's hidden museum self titled

Released by Interstellar Smoke Records. Reviewed Feb. 3.

Some records make a world. Mathew Bethancourt of Josiah, Cherry Choke, etc., put at least a solar system into the self-titled debut from his solo-project Mathew’s Hidden Museum. Melding lysergic experimentalism and off-kilter vibing with classic boogie, acoustic grunge, the piano quirk of “Golden” and more, it drew lines connecting disparate ideas and ended up making its own kind of sense, with depth enough in its layers that when I close out a week with it half a decade from now (inshallah), I’ll probably still be talking about it. Go get swallowed.

26. Borracho, Blurring the Lines of Reality

borracho blurring the lines of reality

Released by Kozmik Artifactz. Reviewed Aug. 17.

Recorded in Winter 2021/2022, Borracho‘s Blurring the Lines of Reality carried its where-did-we-go-wrong head-scratching sensibility into 2023, where to be sure it remained relevant. The Washington D.C. riffer trio know who they are and what they’re about, and their songwriting, groove and total lack of pretense continue to satisfy five records later even as the band pushes themselves further in structure and craft. And if you’d hold the social comment of their lyrics against them, first, grow up, second, your loss. Give me that smooth jam at the end of “Burning the Goddess” every time.

25. Khanate, To Be Cruel

Khanate To Be Cruel

Released by Sacred Bones Records. Reviewed July 19.

It was a total shock when superlatively-filth-encrusted sludgers Khanate not only returned with the surprise release of their first LP in 14 years, but that they pulled off such a remarkable change of style, abandoning their former miseries in favor of a more upbeat, uptempo outlook and poppier structures. What’s that you say? That didn’t happen? The record was just so completely, engrossingly wretched that my unconscious mind actually replaced it with something more palatable because Khanate stretch the limits of what punishment human beings can absorb in sound? Well fucking right on. That sounds like Khanate.

24. Saint Karloff, Paleolithic War Crimes

Saint Karloff Paleolithic War Crimes

Released by Majestic Mountain Records. Reviewed April 18.

Oslo-based doom rockers Saint Karloff harnessed an energy that 25 years ago or so propelled the very beginnings of modern Scandinavian heavy rock and roll, and they did it as a duo paying tribute to bassist Ole Sletner as well. Rife with familiar genre elements, stoner riffing, and band-in-room vibes, and even a little cosmic prog in closer “Supralux Voyager,” Paleolithic War Crimes had its emotional crux in its celebration of song and style, and so became the successful rebound after a terrible loss. If you call yourself a fan of heavy rock, chances are there’s something for you in it.

23. Child, Soul Murder

child soul murder

Self-released. Reviewed March 6.

Though they released the single-song I EP (review here) in 2018, the severely-titled Soul Murder is their first full-length since late-2016’s Blueside (review here). It puts the heavy blues frontmanship of guitarist/vocalist Mathias Northway at the fore as he, bassist Danny Smith and drummer Michael Lowe offer the most live-sounding studio effort I heard this year. Even if you go beyond the songwriting, the soul in the performances, the emotionalism and the believability of their blues, the classic warmth in their tones, the epic oil painting from Nick Keller that adorns its cover, you still have vitality (yes, even in slow parts) and the instrumental conversation happening between the members of the band. The degree of that alone warrants inclusion here.

22. Enslaved, Heimdal

Enslaved Heimdal

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Feb. 24.

It can be a challenge to keep up with the ongoing progression of Bergen, Norway, progressive black metal innovators Enslaved, but these 32 years on from their founding it remains worth the effort. Heimdal followed tumultuous but busy years for the band, who mostly supported 2020’s Utgard (review here) digitally for obvious reasons, and was perhaps that much freer in its experimentation as a result of the period of less live activity. However they got to the keyboard part sticking out of “Congelia,” it is only fortunate that they did, since certainly in another couple decades the rest of us might actually be on Enslaved‘s wavelength, and we’ll be glad for it. Until then, they outclass just about everyone’s everything across the board. One of the world’s best bands, outdoing themselves as ever.

21. Mondo Drag, Through the Hourglass

mondo drag through the hourglass

Released by RidingEasy Records. Reviewed Oct. 19.

Mondo Drag‘s fourth album was also their first in eight years, and with it the Oakland outfit put the lie to the stereotype that prog music is staid. Indeed, the crux of Through the Hourglass came with the passing of founding keyboardist/vocalist John Gamiño mother, in whose honor the Days of Our Lives reference in the title was made. That personal exploration of loss became a classic melancholy progressive psychedelic rocK, bolstered by a partially revamped lineup that includes bassist Conor Riley (Birth, ex-Astra) and drummer Jimmy Perez alongside the established character in the guitars of Nolan Girard and Jake Sheley (both also founding members). Likewise beautiful and sad, songs like “Passages” and “Death in Spring” resonated with the universal experience of mourning as filtered through a rich breadth of influences, memorable movements and entrancing melody. One hopes it was a comfort to Gamiño as surely it has been to others.

20. Slomatics, Strontium Fields

Slomatics Strontium Fields

Released by Black Bow Records. Reviewed Aug. 29.

With shorter, tightly composed songs, Northern Ireland trio Slomatics managed to make the most atmospheric record of their career to-date. Their seventh LP, it used its time in songs like “Time Capture” and “Zodiac Arts Lab” to underscore the melody that’s been in their sound all the while but has never as much been the focus when set next to the abiding crush of David Majury and Chris Couzens‘ guitars, and though he’s behind the kit, drummer/vocalist Marty Harvey seemed all the more a frontman as his voice soared when called upon to do so. Of course, there was still plenty of time in the 36-minute run for Slomatics‘ crushall in “Wooden Satellites,” “I, Neanderthal,” later in “Voidians,” and so on, but it’s clear their range and reach have grown and their gradual evolution has brought a new level of complexity to their approach. If they keep this up, they risk feeling compelled to stop calling themselves Neanderthals, and while that would be a bummer, one very much hopes they keep it up anyway.

19. Dead Shrine, The Eightfold Path

Dead Shrine the eightfold path

Released by Kozmik Artifactz. Reviewed Feb. 23.

A new solo incarnation of Hamilton, New Zealand’s Craig Williamson — who is best known for his other one-man operation, Lamp of the Universe — the full-band-style heavy roller riffs throughout Dead Shrine‘s The Eightfold Path scratched what must have been a pretty fervent itch for heavy groove, classic swing, and fuzz, fuzz, fuzz, which cuts like “The Formless Soul,” “As Pharaohs Rise,” and side-ending self-jammers “Enshrined” and “Incantation’s Call” fortunately also have a mix spacious enough to hold. Williamson has rocked plenty since the turn of the century when he was in the heavy rock trio Datura, and around 2010 when he had the trio Arc of Ascent going. That band and this one have a lot in common, but Williamson has proven his most sustainable and seemingly preferred way of working is solo, and as one, Dead Shrine stands alongside Lamp of the Universe (wait for it…) in a way that feels like it could be longer term, even as Williamson seemed to blur the lines between the two sides on Lamp of the Universe‘s own 2023 outing…

19a. Lamp of the Universe, Kaleidoscope Mind

Lamp of the Universe Kaleidoscope Mind

Released by Sound Effect Records. Reviewed Dec. 4.

Although they’re certainly distinct enough to be separate from each other at this point, Dead Shrine and Lamp of the Universe obviously share a lot in common and it felt right to pair them like this. Every year I give myself one ‘#a’ pick, so this is it for 2023 and I’ll just use it to say how incredibly vast Lamp of the Universe has become. While remaining loyal to its beginnings in acid folk and meditative psychedelia, Williamson‘s multi-instrumentalism, the scope of his production, and the absolute care he puts into the project have brought it beyond what reasonable expectations might’ve been. And in part, by that I mean Kaleidoscope Mind rocks. That wah solo in “Golden Dawn?” The blowout drums behind nine-minute opener “Ritual of Innerlight?” Goodness gracious, yes. Even “Immortal Rites,” which is about as close as Williamson gets to Lamp‘s beginnings here, has evolved. But it’s also still the same thing in the root. I don’t know. If you don’t stretch reality to get there, try again later. The most honest thing I can say about it is I feel lucky to be a fan.

18. Sherpa, Land of Corals

sherpa land of corals

Released by Subsound Records. Reviewed Nov. 29.

It was the feeling that at any given point they might just go anywhere that made Sherpa‘s Land of Corals a surprise as the Italian practitioners of the psychedelic arts have thrown open the doors of both perception and microgenre and come across as thoroughly willful in their krautrock-minded ethereality, and just because the listener doesn’t know what might be next doesn’t mean the band aren’t working with a plan regardless. The follow-up to 2018’s Tigris and Euphrates (review here), the six-song/39-minute collection seemed to be fearless in what it took on, and though much of it was less serene than either of their first two outings, the divergences and the complexities in mood, ambience and arrangement render Land of Corals unto itself. Are we post-heavy here? Maybe. Still heavy as the drums behind “High Walls” show, however, though Sherpa‘s take on what that means and how that manifests is no less individualized than anything else in these tracks. Not something everyone is going to get — I’m not convinced I get it myself at this point — but an act whose creativity has yet to get its due.

17. Gozu, Remedy

GOZU REMEDY

Released by Blacklight Media / Metal Blade Records. Reviewed May 18.

The Boston riff factory known as Gozu have only gotten more vicious, more pointed with time, and yet, tucked at the end of their 2023 outing, Remedy, which has them as veterans at 14 years’ tenure, are “Ash” and “The Handler” and it just goes from sweet to sweeter. Yeah, it’s a ripper into its blood with “CLDZ,” “Tom Cruise Control,” and GozuMarc Gaffney (vocals/guitar), Doug Sherman (guitar), Joe Grotto (bass) and Seth Botos (drums), working with producer Dean Baltulonis for a threepeat — have a brand of melody in Gaffney‘s vocals that’s all their own, and fast or slow, loud or quiet, ’80s movie reference or ’70s movie reference, Gozu have been around long enough to know what they’re about. But, after 2018’s Equilibrium (review here) and 2016’s Revival (review here), Remedy feels one step heavier. Revival was a great sharpening of sound. Equilibrium brought refinement to that. Remedy comes across with a little of a sense of letting go, of the band digging in where it’s more about what they can do together than the response it’ll get afterward. It suits them.

16. The Machine, Wave Cannon

The Machine Wave Cannon

Released by Majestic Mountain Records. Reviewed Feb. 14.

Oh, The Machine. Seven records deep and still in your 30s. That’s the advantage of starting early, which the Netherlands-based trio most definitely did. Wave Cannon, accordingly, is both masterful in its conjurations of warm heavy psychedelic fuzz, and energetic in its delivery, with founding guitarist/vocalist David Eering bid welcome to bassist Chris Both and farewell to original drummer Davy Boogaard. And where 2018’s Faceshift (review here) tipped a balance in their style toward more of a punker push, Wave Cannon led off with “Reversion” and seemed all the more purposeful in its mature heavy psychedelic delve for that. It could be Wave Cannon will be the blueprint for a settled-in aesthetic the trio now more than ever driven by Eering, or it could be the beginning of a whole new evolution of sound from the revamped three-piece recommitted to trippy sounds and warm nod. Either way, it’s not that often you talk about a band’s forward potential after seven full-lengths, so The Machine are in a pretty special place circa 2023 and Wave Cannon, whatever it leads to, is a special moment of transition captured.

15. REZN, Solace

Rezn solace

Self-released. Reviewed March 7.

Similar to how trees live in an experience of time separate from ours and the way an earth year is laughably tiny set against the scale of the universe, Chicago heavy psych rockers REZN seem to operate on their own temporal wavelength throughout their fourth album, Solace. Able to crush at will, as at the end of “Possession,” or the early going of “Stasis,” in the trades of “Reversal,” et al, Solace found REZN more confident in their dives through melody and atmosphere than even they were on 2020’s Chaotic Divine (review here), they created a space and dimensionality of sound that belongs solely to them in the style. Quieter stretches in “Webbed Roots” enthralled with their depth, and the ethereal vocals brought human presence while furthering the smoke-swirls and incense mystique. On their own terms, and yes, very much at their own pace, REZN have made themselves one of America’s most essential heavy psych bands, and Solace — joined in 2023 by REZN‘s collaboration with Mexico’s Vinnum Sabbathi, Silent Future (discussed here) — crowns their to-date discography.

14. Church of Misery, Born Under a Mad Sign

Church of Misery Born Under a Mad Sign

Released by Rise Above Records. Reviewed June 23.

I’m not saying I think it’s cool to write songs about serial killers, but if you’re going to listen to a Church of Misery release almost 30 years after bassist Tatsu Mikami started the band, chances are you know their stated theme is nothing if not consistent. Born Under a Mad Sign delivered on its promise of memorable doom riffs, and as the songwriter and figurehead for arguably Japan’s most influential doom export, Mikami acted as ringmaster while returning vocalist Kazuhiro Asaeda brought mapcap intensity (and fun) to the grooves fostered through Yukito Okazaki‘s guitar, Tatsu‘s bass and Toshiaki Umemura‘s swinging drums. As ever, loyalty and reverence to Black Sabbath are at the core of Church of Misery‘s everything, and in that sphere, there are very, very few humans walking the planet who can do the thing as well as Tatsu. Like, maybe four going on five. As such, regardless of the subject matter (something I can say because I don’t know anyone who’s been murdered) and some eight years after their preceding long-player, Church of Misery are essential as the vehicle for that.

13. Kind, Close Encounters

kind close encounters

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Aug. 9.

I’m not sure if in 2015 when Boston’s Kind released their first album, Rocket Science (review here), anyone would have guessed there would even be a third full-length from them, let alone one that so much typifies the personality the band has built for itself. Comprised of the otherwise-plenty-busy lineup of vocalist Craig Riggs (also Sasquatch‘s drummer and so constantly touring), guitarist Darryl Shepherd (ex-MilligramBlackwolfgoatTest Meat, scores of others), bassist Tom Corino (Rozamov) and drummer Matt Couto (Aural Hallucinations, ex-Elder), Kind have found a sound that is separate from what its component members have done on their own, and become a genuinely more-than-sum-of-parts grouping. Whether it’s the rush of “Power Grab” or the way the rhythm of “What it is to Be Free” seemed to gain so much extra punch, or “Massive” at the record’s center earning its name in tone and swing alike. The “whoa baby come on” at 1:56 into that song is of course the reason Close Encounters made this list, but rest assured that across the span Kind are at what is a thus-far peak of their powers.

12. Iron Jinn, Iron Jinn

iron jinn iron jinn

Released by Stickman Records. Reviewed April 3.

Stay with me here, because as you scroll further down this post, you’re going to see that Iron Jinn‘s hour-long 2LP first offering, declaratively-titled Iron Jinn, is my pick for debut album of 2023. Born out of an initial onstage collaboration at Roadburn 2018 (review here), the Arnheim, Netherlands-based four-piece brings together guitarist/vocalists Oeds Beydals (Molassess, ex-Death Alley, ex-The Devil’s Blood) and Wout Kemkens (Shaking Godspeed) with the labyrinth-constructing rhythm section of bassist Gerben Bielderman (Pronk, etc.) and drummer Bob Hogenelst, and from the late pointed lead lines of “Truth is Your Dagger” acting in duly jabbing fashion to the heady ambient drama of “Bread and Games” and the dark-prog atmospheres fleshed out as a backdrop to the melodies of “Soft Healers” and “Blood Moon Horizon,” the all-corners turns of “Lick it or Kick It,” on and on and on, the album resounds with both scope and ambition. What the long-term story of this project will be, I have no idea, but Iron Jinn is a record that brings new ideas to a sphere that very much needs them, and if there’s any luck, it will prove influential in the coming years.

11. Green Lung, This Heathen Land

green lung this heathen land

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Nov. 3.

Let the record show that when tasked with the biggest moment of their career to this point, Green Lung absolutely stepped up to meet it. This Heathen Land, as their first full-length with Nuclear Blast‘s backing (and third overall), will be the point of introduction for what will gradually become the bulk of their audience, and in its occult lyrics, sweeping, unironic, all-in grandiosity, weight of tone and craft of hooks, it tells you everything you need to know about why and how Green Lung got to where they are (save perhaps touring). Their task from here will be to find and refine the balance between metal and rock in their sound, but for a band whose clear intention from the outset was to take on the world to bring themselves to a point where they’re arguably doing so at least as regards the heavy underground is an accomplishment in itself. Then you get to songs like “Maxine (Witch Queen)” and the over-the-top finale “Oceans of Time,” and if you can let yourself have a little fun every now and again with your doom and witches and whatnot, this one was just about irresistible.

10. Dopelord, Songs for Satan

Dopelord Songs for Satan

Released by Blues Funeral Recordings. Reviewed Dec. 11.

The album that boldly asked if it needed to be a wizard to earn your love, the fifth long-player from volume/tone/devil-worshiping (and perhaps in that order) Polish doomcrafters Dopelord was not at all the first heavy record to use Satan as a political statement — specifically in this case about social oppression in their home country and the political power of the catholic church there — but they wielded their rebel-angel argument with already-in-your-head songs like “Night of the Witch,” “The Chosen One,” “One Billion Skulls,” “Evil Spell” and the upped nastiness of “Worms,” in other words each and every of the non-intro/outro tracks, with emergent mastery and a plod that was as clear and infectious a call to praise as I heard in 2023, no less for its melodicism than its heft or the crispness of its delivery, the guttural rasps of “Worms” aside, which swapped in vitriol at just the right time. Songs for Satan was a new level for Dopelord‘s approach and as much an epistemological fuckoff to fundamentalism as it was consuming nod, and there was none more righteous in their cause. At the risk of saying the quiet part loud, dudes are going to be copping riffs from it for years.

9. Domkraft, Sonic Moons

Domkraft Sonic Moons

Released by Magnetic Eye Records. Reviewed Sept. 14.

Returning with their fourth long-player, Swedish trio Domkraft have found the style they’ve been working toward all along. As with some of the others on this list, it’s not that Sonic Moons was such a radical departure. It wasn’t. They worked with the same production team that helmed their 2022 Ascend/Descend (review here) split with Slomatics as well as 2021’s Seeds (discussed here). Björn Atldax‘s cover art was on point and in keeping with their visual aesthetic. But there’s a spaciousness on Sonic Moons in “Downpour” and amid the intensity of crash in “Stellar Winds,” and their sound has grown to become dynamic enough that as nine-minute leadoff “Whispers” pushed through its crescendo it seemed to get more and more physically forceful as part of the process. Couple that with assured writing and performances from bassist/vocalist Martin Wegeland, guitarist Martin Widholm and drummer Anders Dahlgren, and Domkraft honed in on an evolved cosmic noise rock and were unafraid to incorporate elements of psychedelia, space and classic stoner riffing into a definitive statement of their purpose.

8. Stoned Jesus, Father Light

stoned jesus father light

Released by Season of Mist. Reviewed March 2.

Ukrainian progressive heavy rockers Stoned Jesus released a career album this year. Did you catch it? Restricted from touring as their home country continues to struggle against a Russian invasion that’s been ongoing for, well, a decade, but more intensely for the better part of the last two years, Stoned Jesus offered something different across each of Father Light‘s six tracks. From the catchy strums of “CON” to the only-timely-but-written-earlier “Thoughts and Prayers” and the you-want-riff-here’s-your-riff 11-minute neckroll of “Season of the Witch,” they proved once again to be a more diverse and thoughtful act than they’re almost ever given credit for being. Expanded stylistically from 2018’s Pilgrims (review here), Stoned Jesus — guitarist/vocalist Igor Sydorenko, bassist/backing vocalist Sergii Sliusar and drummer Dmytro Zinchenko — toyed with retroism on “Thoughts and Prayers” while the late solo in “Get What You Deserve” underscores the sentiment in that climate-change-themed finisher, all the while standing astride their own material, solid, confident, still looking forward. It’s the world that’s the problem, not the band.

7. Kadabra, Umbra

Kadabra Umbra

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed Sept. 6.

First of all, I stand by the review. To expand on that (and the review itself was expanded on here), it was the songwriting that kept me coming back to the second album from Washington trio Kadabra, who progressed on all fronts from their already-impressive 2021 debut, Ultra (review here). They made hooks like “The Serpent” and “The Devil” feel like landmarks in a record-long horror feature that’s told as much in riffs as lyrics, but at the same time there’s nothing fancy happening in terms of sound. Some organ in “Mountain Tamer,” plenty of fuzz throughout, and the songs. It’s the songs. The songs. The fucking songs. That uplift in “Midnight Hour.” The feeling of oh-shit-we’ve-arrived in “The Serpent.” Playing toward some of Uncle Acid‘s lyrical creep with tight-knit grooves and sharp turns, Umbra not only showed the preceding LP wasn’t a fluke, it conveyed mood and atmosphere without giving up momentum or structure, and every move it made, from the shimmer opening “White Willows” to the last strains underscoring the chorus of “The Serpent” in the concluding acoustic reprise “The Serpent II,” Kadabra‘s sophomore outing communed with genre with a perspective becoming increasingly its own. And again, the songs.

6. Dozer, Drifting in the Endless Void

Dozer Drifting in the Endless Void

Released by Blues Funeral Recordings. Reviewed April 20.

There was a while there where I honestly didn’t think Dozer were ever going to do another record, so Drifting in the Endless Void is a life event as far as I’m concerned. The trailblazing Swedish heavy rockers have been playing live periodically for the last decade, and word has been kicking around of studio work, new songs following what was until this year their most recent album in 2008’s Beyond Colossal (featured here), but to actually have such a thing manifest and take the form it did made it a reinvigoration of Dozer‘s sound and what seemed to be a chance to try both new and old methods of working. In the raging “Ex-Human, Now Beast” and the breadth of “Missing 13,” Dozer reminded older heads. and showed a generation that’s come up since, why they’ve had the influence they have over the last quarter-century, including in their absence. Realize you’re lucky to be on the planet with it.

5. Mars Red Sky, Dawn of the Dusk

Mars Red Sky Dawn of the Dusk

Released by Vicious Circle Records and Mrs Red Sound. Reviewed Dec. 7.

A fifth full-length brought fresh ideas and new perspectives to the established progressive, melodic heavy psychedelic rock methodology of Bordeaux’s Mars Red Sky, who’ve greeted their maturity as a band with creative openness rather than stagnation. To be sure, guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — each crucial to the group as they are — have plenty of recognizable aspects for longtime fans. Indeed, their signature blend of warm but remarkably heavy tonality and floating melodic vocals remains unflinching, but what they do with it has changed. And that’s not just set up for mentioning the Queen of the Meadow collaboration either (more below), glorious as Helen Ferguson‘s contributions to “Maps of Inferno” are (she’s also on the closing reprise “Heavenly Bodies”), or that Jimmmy takes a lead vocal on “The Final Round.” You can hear the progression in “Break Even,” in the expanses of “Carnival Man,” that groove in “Slow Attack,” and even the spaciousness around the lurch of “A Choir of Ghosts.” Fast or slow, loud or quiet, even the interludes here shine with a sense of purpose, and if e’er forward is to be the course of Mars Red Sky for hopefully a long time to come, so much the better.

4. Sandrider, Enveletration

Sandrider Enveletration

Released by Satanik Royalty Records. Reviewed March 1.

I will not mince words. This has been a difficult, taxing year for me personally and emotionally, and anytime I felt like I wanted to beat my head into the wall — which has been A LOT — Seattle bringers of chicanery-laced heavy punk-metal Sandrider were ready to go along for the ride. Working as ever with producer Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis, a small city’s worth of others), guitarist/vocalist Jon Weisnewski (who also released a killer record this year with his experimental grind/weirdo project Nuclear Dudes; don’t skip), bassist/vocalist Jesse Roberts and drummer Nat Damm wound at mostly high speed through energy summoned from a place I’ve clearly never been with songs that, while they were smashing all your favorite everything to tiny bits, left a memorable impression behind as bruises in the shape of themselves and ended up with enough bounce so that cuts like “Alia,” “Weasel” (the delivery of, “Here comes the mouth/Look at all its teeth”) the their-version-of-epic-and-that’s-pretty-epic “Ixion,” “Circles,” “Grouper,” the title-track, were fun in doing so. It’s their fourth record and I don’t know if there are a ton of surprises, but I sure was happy when it came along and kicked so much ass in such a specific and, for me, helpful way. A catharsis record, but don’t take that to mean it’s just angry. There’s a lot of humor here as well and the songs are a blast. Hard to imagine this isn’t what Sandrider had in mind when they set out over a decade ago.

3. Ruff Majik, Elektrik Ram

ruff majik elektrik ram

Released by Mongrel Records. Reviewed April 27.

A breakthrough in craft and style, and immaculate in its turns, tight-but-not-choked arrangements, and willingness to go and be in unexpected spaces, Elektrik Ram was for South African heavy rockers Ruff Majik — comprised of guitarist/vocalist Johni Holiday, bassist Jimmy Glass, guitarist/backing vocalist Cowboy Bez and drummer Steven Bosman — a rare realization of potential. I said as much in the review. Not every band gets to make a record like this. From the charge of its title-track and “Hillbilly Fight Song” and the unspeakable catchiness that begins there and threads throughout the stylistic shifts of “She’s Still a Goth,” “Cement Brain,” “Delirium Tremors” — on the 15th anniversary reissue, maybe bring the triangle down in the mix? (kidding; it’s painful and should be) — and into the broader grooves of its ending section with “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title),” “Shangrilah Inc.” and the raw-emotive “Chemically Humanized,” which when set against the oh-look-I-just-beat-your-ass thematic of “Hillbilly Fight Song” feels duly brought low. This is a great — yes, great — album, and I don’t think I listened to anything as much this year as I listened to it. They’ve already started work on their next LP, reportedly, and I worry it’s soon, but with the kind of control over their approach that they demonstrate here, there’s really no choice but to trust they know what they’re doing, since that is so much the underlying message in the material, even if its lyrical themes were by and large much darker.

2. Howling Giant, Glass Future

Howling Giant Glass Future

Released by Magnetic Eye Records. Reviewed Oct. 20.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Howling Giant had momentum and progression on their side. They’ve toured hard the last couple years, offered the instrumental Alteration EP (review here) in 2021 following their oh-shit-these-guys-are-for-real split with Sergeant ThunderhoofMasamune/Muramasa (review here), and back to their debut LP, 2019’s The Space Between Worlds (review here), and have worked so diligently to engage their audience that a sense of reachout has become part of their sound. You knew that when they next set themselves to making a long-player, there was a real chance for them to sculpt something special, but Glass Future was still a surprise. Unflinching in its construction, mixed for brightness as well as weight, and cutting through that with clearly-schooled harmonies between guitarist Tom Polzine, drummer Zach Wheeler and bassist Sebastian “Seabass” Baltes to give a pop-ish sensibility to progressive sounds that in other hands would serve far more self-indulgent ends. Received as a whole work with its timely endtimes lyrical foundation, it exuded welcome in the hooks of “Siren Song,” “Hawk in a Hurricane,” “Glass Future,” “Sunken City,” “Juggernaut” and the periodic slowdowns through “Aluminum Crown,” “Tempest, and the Liar’s Gateway” and the closer “There’s Time Now,” which called back to the Twilight Zone reference (Simpsons did it) in intro “Hourglass” while fleshing out a brilliantly melodic comedown for the human species. As with the finest of any year’s releases, it will hold its relevance far past the coming January, and for Howling Giant, it sets them on a path of fresh ideas and expansive sound, filtered through a cohesive process to be the engaging good-time apocalypse they’ve become. Glass Future makes Howling Giant one of America’s most essential heavy rock bands and figureheads for a generation still on the rise.

2023 Album of the Year

1. Acid King, Beyond Vision

Acid King Beyond Vision

Released by Blues Funeral Recordings. Reviewed March 23.

There was never another choice, and not much choice to start with. The manner in which founding guitarist/vocalist Lori S. revamped her band, bringing in bassist/synthesist Bryce Shelton (Nik Turner’s Hawkwind) and drummer Jason Willer (Jello Biafra’s Guantanamo School of Medicine) as the rhythm section supporting the band’s trademark rolling fuzz, and collaborating with Black Cobra‘s Jason Landrian, who added guitar and synth to the tracks, was an expansion and redirection of sound that simply wasn’t anticipated from a band closing in on three decades of activity. But after 2015’s still-undervalued Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere (discussed herereview here), saw Lori and her then-lineup explore more heavy psychedelic sounds, Beyond Vision expanded on that with atmospheres never before conjured by any incarnation of Acid King, and Billy Anderson‘s production, as ever, allowed for scope and claustrophobia to exist in the same aural space. Hypnotic in the riffs of year-highlight “Mind’s Eye” and its penultimate title-track, Beyond Vision freely incorporated an influence from Author and Punisher into the slow plods of “Electro Magnetic” and the huge-in-a-new-way-for-them “90 Seconds,” tripped out easy on the roundly immersive opener “One Light Second Away” and galloped to a (again, surprisingly) rousing finish in “Color Trails.” A band you thought was a known quantity, whose sound you thought was set, showing that creativity doesn’t have to stop just because you have an established sound or are known for doing one thing. Acid King are still Acid King on Beyond Vision, but the boldness with which the album is realized and the sheer bravery of taking the risks it takes in pushing beyond (oh!) what were the parameters of Acid King‘s trailblazing, mellow-psych-informed stoner riffing — always possible it would fall flat in ways it obviously very much doesn’t — came together on a level that was simply unmatched in 2023. Acid King have perhaps never been more royal, more regal as they unfurl these seven cosmic triumphs, but somehow underneath they’re still punk rock. One way or the other, that the on-paper concept of Beyond Vision — all the changes, growth, shifts — winds up secondary to the strength and listening experience of the songs themselves makes it undeniable as the album of the year. It was a no-doubter.

The Top 60 Albums of 2023: Honorable Mention

I could very easily do another top 60 with these, and then some. Alphabetically:

1782, Abanamat, Acid Magus, Ahab, Albinö Rhino, Ananda Mida, Astral Sleep, Bell Witch, Benthic Realm, Bismut, Black Helium, Black Rainbows, Blood Ceremony, Blood Lightning, Bong Corleone, Bongzilla, Bridge Farmers, Cavern Deep, Cleõphüzz, Cloud Catcher, Clouds Taste Satanic, Danava, Darsombra, Dead Feathers, Deadpeach, Delco Detention, Desert Storm, Dommengang, Doom Lab, Dr. Space, Earthbong, Ecstatic Vision, David Eugene Edwards, End of Hope, Avi C. Engel, Fin del Mundo, Fire Down Below, The Fizz Fuzz, Formula 400, Fuzz Evil, Gévaudan, Ghorot, Giöbia, Godflesh, Godsleep, Graveyard, The Gray Goo, Green Yeti, Hail the Void, Haurun, Healthyliving, Hexvessel, Hope Hole, Humulus, IAH, Iron Void, JAAW, Jack Harlon & the Dead Crows, Katatonia, La Chinga, Lamassu, Larman Clamor, L’Ira del Baccano, Love Gang, Lucid Void, Maggot Heart, The Magpie, Mammatus, Mammoth Caravan, Mansion, Margarita Witch Cult, Masheena, Melody Fields, Melt Motif, Merlock, Minnesota Pete Campbell, Mizmor, Moon Coven, Moonstone, Morag Tong, Morass of Molasses, Morne, The Moth, Mountain of Misery, Mouth, Mudness, Mud Spencer, Los Mundos, Mutoid Man, Natskygge, Nebula Drag, Nuclear Dudes, Obelyskkh, Conny Ochs, Øresund Space Collective, Orsak:Oslo, Patriarchs in Black, Plainride, Primordial, Restless Spirit, Ritual King, The River, Robots of the Ancient World, Rocky’s Pride & Joy, Royal Thunder, Runway, Sadus The Smoking Community, SÂVER, Seum, Siena Root, Slowenya, Smokey Mirror, Evert Snyman, Sonic Moon, Sorcia, Spidergawd, Spotlights, Surya Kris Peters, Swan Valley Heights, These Beasts, Thousand Vision Mist, Thunder Horse, Tidal Wave, Tortuga, Travo, Treedeon, Trevor’s Head, Unsafe Space Garden, Vlimmer, Warp, Westing, Wet Cactus, Witch Ripper, WyndRider, Yakuza, Zone Six, and apparently frickin’ everything that Dr. Space touches.

Notes:

Certainly a landmark year for Blues Funeral and Magnetic Eye, while Ripple Music, Heavy Psych Sounds, Small Stone, Kozmik Artifactz, Napalm, Sound Effect, Spinda, Mongrel Records and Exile on Mainstream fostered a deeply admirable swath of sounds. If you’re not following these however you do your following — email lists, social media, Bandcamp, etc. — I suggest in a spirit of friendship that you consider doing so.

A couple thoughts before we wrap the big list. First, I harbor no delusions that it’s complete. There always are and always will be records that slip by me. I’m one person running this site. I’ll never be able to hear everything, appreciate everything I do hear to the utmost as everyone else might, or even want to. This is my list, my listening habits for the year and what I thought were 2023’s best full-length releases. If you’d put more in it than that, go look at the headline again. It’s a list. I take it seriously, of course, but if you had Swan Valley Heights or Godflesh or La Chinga at number three on your list — all of which are totally valid picks, just like the rest — and I didn’t, that’s okay.

In fact, it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t always come out that way in the discussion. I’m asking as I do every year to please keep opinions and conversations civil in their presentation. I know arguing on the internet is fun but I’d rather not have the drama and rest assured, I take it all personally.

So, about the honorable mentions: where do you even start? While the balance of the main list, the top 60, is toward established and even veteran acts, it’s encouraging to see so many up and coming groups forcing their way into consideration. From the ambient evocations of Orsak:Oslo to Sorcia’s thick sludge and Melt Motif’s sultry industrializations, Mountain of Misery branching off from Spaceslug, outfits like IAH and Swan Valley Heights finding new maturity, Mammoth Caravan bring aggro edge to huge tones, Healthyliving, Merlock, Morag Tong, Godsleep, These Beasts, Margarita Witch Cult, Warp, Earthbong, Abanamat, Runway, WyndRider, Trevor’s Head, Fire Down Below, High Priest, Nebula Drag, The Magpie, Love Gang, Jack Harlon and others, a slew of impressive debuts and second albums, the generational evolution of sound is ongoing, vibrant, bands establishing themselves and claiming their aesthetic place and respective audiences as we speak. I would urgently encourage you to engage with these artists now, both for immediate satisfaction and as investment in the shape of heavy music to come, which they will make.

The bottom line is this: I believe deeply in the power of art to affect your life, to make it richer, fuller, better. There are mornings when The Obelisk is the reason I’m getting out of bed, and I thank you for reading, for being a part of this. I’ll say more later. We still have a ways to go.

Debut Album of the Year 2023

Iron Jinn, Iron Jinn

iron jinn iron jinn

Other notable debuts (alphabetical):

Altered States, Survival
Astral Hand, Lords of Data
Benthic Realm, Vessel
Blood Lightning, Blood Lightning
Bog Monkey, Hollow
Bong Corleoone, Bong Corleone
Cleõphüzz, Dune Altar
Codex Serafini, The Imprecation of Anima
Daevar, Delirious Rights
Dead Shrine, The Eightfold Path
Deer Lord, Dark Matter Pt. 1
Dread Witch, Tower of the Severed Serpent
Ego Planet, Ego Planet
Embargo, High Seas
From the Ages, II
Fuzzy Grapes, Volume 1
Haurun, Wilting Within
Hibernaut, Ingress
HIGH LEAF, Vision Quest
High Priest, Invocation
Inherus, Beholden
JAAW, Supercluster
The Keening, Little Bird
King Potenaz, Goat Rider
Lord Mountain, The Oath
Margarita Witch Cult, Margarita Witch Cult
Massive Hassle, Massive Hassle
Mammoth Caravan, Ice Cold Oblivion
Medicine Horse, Medicine Horse
Merlock, Onward Strides Colossus
Milana, Milvus
Mountain of Misery, In Roundness
Ockra, Gratitude
Oldest Sea, A Birdsong, a Ghost
Pyre Fyre, Pyre Fyre
Runway, Runway
Slow Wake, Falling Fathoms
Strider, Midnight Zen
WyndRider, WyndRider
Slumbering Sun, The Ever-Living Fire
Sonic Moon, Return Without Any Memory
Tō Yō, Stray Birds From the Far East
Tribunal, The Weight of Remembrance
Weite, Assemblage

Notes:

Tell your friends. I think what I like most about that glut of names just above is that there’s a full spectrum of sounds there. Yeah, it’s all under an umbrella of expanded-definition heavy, but that’s the point too. A creative boom is happening that’s seeing the post-Gen X and the earlier end of the Millennials making room for newer acts with new ideas and perspectives.

Why did I pick Iron Jinn as debut of the year, when there was obviously so much otherwise to choose from? Easy. It was the most its own thing out of any of these releases. I love Dead Shrine, Blood Lightning’s intensity speaks to my brain in a way not everything can, Margarita Witch Cult have been building buzz all year. Oldest Sea’s debut is a melancholic declaration of arrival. I was not short on choices, and I’ll probably keep adding to this list as the next week or so goes on.

Dark, heavy, progressive in its approach and complex enough that I still feel like I’m getting to know it, Iron Jinn‘s self-titled so much brimmed with purpose that it seemed to go beyond a first record. My hope, honestly, is that Oeds Beydals and Wout Kemkens spend the next 30 years or so refining that collaboration and exploring where it can go, because if this is the starting point, it’s got enough to it to be the beginning of a lifetime’s exploring. One never knows how things will work out when songwriters work together, but clearly Iron Jinn drew from the strengths of all its members. Records like this, on the unlikely occasion they happen at all, don’t happen by accident.

And yes, Iron Jinn are a new band not necessarily comprised of inexperienced players, but most bands start from members of other bands. Blood Lightning, Slumbering Sun, Weite, Mountain of Misery, JAAW, Ego Planet, Massive Hassle, all the way back up to Benthic Realm and Altered States. New bands, new sounds, new ideas all coming to the fore. Couple that with acts like WyndRider, Daevar, Lord Mountain, Hibernaut, Oldest Sea, Mammoth Caravan, Sonic Moon, Tō Yō, Medicine Horse, High Priest and others here whose members haven’t necessarily appeared in an Obelisk year-end post before, and you get a more complete picture of the churning magma that is the potential for the heavy underground over the rest of the 2020s and hopefully beyond.

Short Release of the Year 2023

Mars Red Sky & Queen of the Meadow, Mars Red Sky & Queen of the Meadow

Mars Red Sky & Queen of the Meadow Mars Red Sky & Queen of the Meadow

Other notable EPs, Splits, Demos, Singles, etc.

Aawks, Luna EP
Aawks & Aiwass, The Eastern Scrolls Split LP
Apollo80 & Dimartis, Reverberations Vol. 1: Tales of Dust and Winds Split LP
Beastwars, Tyranny of Distance EP
Black Glow, Black Glow EP
Bloodsports, Bloodsports EP
Book of Wyrms, Storm Warning Single
Borracho, Kozmic Safari Single
The Bridesmaid, Come on People Now Smile on Your Brother
Burning Sister, Get Your Head Right EP
Cervus, Shifting Sands
Familiars, Keep the Good Times Rolling EP
The Freqs, Poacher
Grin, Black Nothingness EP
Guided Meditation Doomjazz, Expect EP
High Desert Queen & Blue Heron, Turned to Stone Ch. 8: The Wake Split LP
The Holy Nothing, Volume I: A Profound and Nameless Fear EP
Iress, Solace EP
Josiah, rehctaW EP
Kal-El, Moon People EP
Kombynat Robotron & DUNDDW, Split LP
Lammping, Better Know Better EP
Monolord, It’s All the Same EP
Mordor Truckers, Nowhere
Nerver & Chat Pile, Brothers in Christ Split
Night Fishing, Live Bait EP
Oxblood Forge, Cult of Oblivion
Zack Oakley, Demon Run / Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter EP
Severed Satellites, Aphelion EP
Space Queen, Nebula EP
Speck & Interkosmos, Split LP
Stöner, Boogie to Baja EP
Suspiriorium, Suspiriorum EP
Trillion Ton Beryllium Ships, Destination Ceres Station: Reefersleep EP
Ufomammut, Crookhead EP
Vokonis, Exist Within Light EP
Weedevil & Electric Cult, Cult of Devil Sounds Split LP
The Whims of the Great Magnet, Same New Single

Notes:

In keeping with their history of releasing EPs ahead of their LPs, Mars Red Sky this Spring offered the Mars Red Sky & Queen of the Meadow short outing as a preface to Dawn of the Dusk (number five on the big list), but with just three songs it became one of the releases I listened to most this year. I had “Maps of Inferno” on repeat to a degree that was kind of embarrassing to me even in front of family, and since the EP was basically that, the companion “Out at Large,” which isn’t on the full-length, and an edit that cuts out most of the trippy midsection of “Maps of Inferno” so that it all the more hammers groove into your head in what drummer Matgaz very kindly explained to me was 4/4 timing with three extra beats. Good luck following along to his kick on what seems like such a straightforward nod. What a band. I’m not doing a separate section for it, but “Maps of Inferno” was also hands-down my song of the year.

You can see above, it’s a pretty broad mix, both of release types, of new and older acts, and of styles. I’ve been hailing Vokonis’ better-future queer prog-doom on the regular, and Josiah, Monolord and Ufomammut’s EPs were nothing if not listenable. I dug the first outing from Suspiriorum (mems. Destroyer of Light and more) and hope they continue to flesh out their cult-horror ambience, and Severed Satellites’ (mems. Sixty Watt Shaman, etc.) jams set just right in their Marylander groove. Lammping will likely be on some list of mine until they break up — I’m hooked — and Zack Oakley’s funk also resonated. From the warm heavy psych of Cervus to The Bridesmaid’s all-in-on-far-out experimentalism, a victory lap from Stöner after two quality LPs and the High Desert Queen and Blue Heron split that’s another landmark in Ripple’s ongoing ‘Turned to Stone’ series, it’s been a good year if you’re willing to be distracted bouncing from one thing immediately to the next, which apparently I am.

It’s no coincidence Aawks are on the list twice, and I haven’t reviewed that Black Glow EP yet (it’s in the next Quarterly Review), but it’s a gem as well. Also very interested to see where The Freqs go as a new voice in heavy rock from Boston, and Night Fishing (mems. Abrams) feel like they’re just starting to find what they’re looking for, but this year was also their first and second releases, so they’re on their way. Grin’s assault was furious, and Beastwars always tick that box as well. I continue to dig the vibe of Trillion Ton Beryllium Ships and look forward to more from them, and same goes for both DUNDDW and Bloodsports here, as well as both Apollo80 and Dimartis on that split. Burning Sister took advantage of an opportunity to expand on their sound, and their take on Mudhoney’s “When Tomorrow Comes” was overflowing with love for the source material. If you can’t get behind a band being fans, I’m not sure what we’re doing here.

Because a ‘short release’ can be so much, I won’t call this list complete. If you have a single you loved, or an EP or split or anything else of the sort, and you don’t see it above, please just leave a comment. Maybe I left off something crucial. Maybe you can put me onto something awesome I didn’t hear. I’ll take it either way, and only ask again please be kind.

Live Album of the Year

Ecstatic Vision, Live at Duna Jam

Ecstatic Vision Live at Duna Jam

Other notable live albums:

The Atomic Bitchwax, Live at Freak Valley
Causa Sui, Loppen 2021
Dool, Visions of Summerland
Duel, Live at Hellfest
Edena Gardens, Live Momentum
King Buffalo, Live at Burning Man
Messa, Live at Roadburn
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Live in NY
Rainbows Are Free, Heavy Petal Music
Sacri Monti, Live at Sonic Whip
Temple Fang, Live at Freak Valley
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Slaughter on First Avenue
Villagers of Ioannina City, Through Space and Time

Notes:

This isn’t a huge list, but it’s burners front to back, and in that regard there’s little in the heavy underground, certainly toward the maddened-space-psych end of it, that can touch Ecstatic Vision’s intense performance ethic. If they’re not yet, I firmly believe the Philadelphia outfit led by guitarist/vocalist Doug Sabolick (also guitar for Author & Punisher) are on their way to having their reputation as a live band precede them, and Live at Duna Jam is further evidence that it should. Issued through Heavy Psych Sounds, it both captured the four-piece’s ultra-dead-on cosmic blast, but it paired that with the theatre-of-the-mind romance of Duna Jam itself; the best-kept-secret-in-heavy week-long unofficial festival held each year in Sardinia is the ultimate escapist daydream. That combination was just too powerful to ignore.

King Buffalo’s surprise Live at Burning Man release will do well to hold over till their next full-length, and I’ll just tell you flat out that no home should be without Causa Sui’s Loppen 2021. Uncle Acid’s first live outing was somewhat obligatory but welcome, and Messa’s Live at Roadburn celebrated the emergence of that genre-blending Italian unit as one of the most essential up and coming bands in Europe. They also made their first appearance on North American shores this year. One suspects it won’t be their last.

I’ll be very much anticipating what’s next from Sacri Monti, Duel, Causa Sui (of course), Temple Fang and actually the rest on this list, which leads us to…

Looking Ahead to 2024

You’re almost there. Just keep going. Special thanks to the folks in The Obelisk Collective on Facebook for the help on rounding up this hopefully-alphabetized list of names:

10,000 Years, Acid Mammoth, Apostle of Solitude, Big Scenic Nowhere, Bismarck, Blue Heron, Castle Rat, Coogans Bluff, Crystal Spiders, Curse the Son, Deer Creek, DVNE, Foot, Full Earth, Fu Manchu, Greenleaf, Hashtronaut, Heavy Temple, High on Fire, Horseburner, Iota, Ironrat, King Buffalo, Kungens Män, Lamassu, Mammoth Caravan, Mammoth Volume, Maragda, Mario Lalli & The Rubber Snake Charmers, Monarch, Monkey3, Moura, My Diligence, The Obsessed, Orange Goblin, Psychlona, Red Mesa, Rhino, Ruff Majik, Sacri Monti, Sasquatch, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Slift, Slomosa, Spirit Mother, Stonebride, Troy the Band, Ufomammut, Unida, Vitskär Süden, Vokonis, Weedpecker, and just because they should probably be on this list every year until a new record comes out if one ever actually does: Om.

If you’ve got names here too, the more the merrier, comment button is below.

THANK YOU

This has not been a minor undertaking, whether or not you count the fact that I started keeping notes for 2023 in 2022, just like right now I’ve already got notes going for 2024. It never stops. But every year, I feel like this is among the most important things this site puts out and I use these lists all the time for reference, looking back on what was happening where and when, what came out when, etc. I hope you also find something useful here. I don’t have an exact count, but just by estimate there are at least somewhere between 200-300 bands talked above above. It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. But I hope you can find something that sounds like it’s speaking directly to you, because I know that I have several times over. Any one of my top five picks I consider an ‘album of the year,’ if that’s a decent place to start.

Thank you to The Patient Mrs. for her support, love and inexplicable willingness to put up with my crap. Right this second, she is keeping our daughter hooked into a going-late morning loaf in bed I think specifically until I get up from the couch, go in the other room, and declare I’m about to start The Pecan’s breakfast, which I probably should’ve done like an hour ago. I am luckier than I am able most days to realize, and I’m working on that, and it is the beauty and flat-out amazing nature of the two people with whom I share our home that is the reason why it’s worth that effort.

I’m sure I said as much above, but I believe in art. I believe in creativity. I believe these things are a path to fulfillment that lives without them do not experience. There are ups and downs to everything, and any glorious creative individual is just as likely to be their own worst critic, but isn’t that still worth it too? Don’t we move forward anyway, because what’s the other choice?

I thank you for reading a lot. I’ll do it again now: Thanks for reading. Your support is the reason this site is still here. It’s why it’s worth it to me to take hours from days stretched across the better part of a week (I actually finished early, thanks again to The Patient Mrs.) to do this in the first place, let alone entertain the notion of doing so again next December and on into some unknown measure of perpetuity.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. If you’re seeing these words, I wish you and yours the best of everything for fucking ever, and cannot begin to tell you how much I value your time and willingness to spend it here.

Taking tomorrow off, but after that, we go as ever: onward.

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Kanaan Announce Diversions Vol. 2: Enter the Astral Plane Out Nov. 10

Posted in Whathaveyou on October 11th, 2023 by JJ Koczan

Kanaan (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Word came through the Stickman Records newsletter — I’m telling you, sign up for that shit — that Kanaan will now be sharing drummer Ingvald André Vassbø with countrymen progressive legends Motorpsycho, and they toured twice this year I think and they signed their side-project Full Earth to Stickman, released their LP Downpour (review here) on Jansen Records and are now about to release the jam collection Diversions Vol. 2: Enter the Astral Plane, an improv LP being issued behind the series opener, Diversions Vol. 1: Softly Through Sunshine, which came out late in 2022. Dudes stay busy, in other words.

If the day goes as I hope, this won’t be the only time I’m talking about how vibrant the Norwegian underground is, but either way, know that Kanaan are a bright spot in it. And the photo above I took at SonicBlast in August (review here), where I was fortunate enough to see them burn down a stage for the second time. Oh, it was fun.

This will be an enjoyable thing to listen to. I hope, if that happens, it makes your day better:

Kanaan Diversions vol ii enter the astral plane

 

We have a new album coming out November 10th! This one is the second volume in our «Diversions» series, and is a collection of fully improvised Kanaan recordings – our first proper jam album, titled «Enter the Astral Plane»!

Available on our Bandcamp now in four different colours, limited pressing of a 100 of each. Great cover by Robin Gnista, once again released by Jansen Records!

Pre-order: https://kanaanband.bandcamp.com/album/diversions-vol-2-enter-the-astral-plane

No Composition, No Ego, Psych as Religion

Kanaan never rests. Having already released one album and completed two successful European tours in 2023, you would think they’d be happy to catch a breather. But not these guys. In November, volume two in their free-flowing session/impro series, Diversions will be released.

Diversions Vol. 2: Enter the Astral Plane is a collection of improvised compositions recorded in 2021. The record shows a different side of Kanaan, where the aim is to explore different states of mind and musical spaces where collective improvisation is at the forefront. Improvisation has been an important part of the band’s live shows from day one, but it hasn’t been as prominently documented on record – until now.

Freed from the constraints of song structures, Kanaan’s eminent musicianship and boundless creativity is allowed to run wild. These new musical pieces vary between explosivity and youthful exuberance (“Blitz”), combined with a more mature and patient approach to song development (“Enter the Astral Plane”).

Kanaan citing Cream, Jimi Hendrix at the Atlanta Pop Festival, CAN, The Heads, Hawkwind and Ash Ra Temple as inspirations and references should give an idea of the sounds that await the listener. The band states this motto as the ethos for their own brand of space rock: No composition – No ego – Psych as religion.

Kanaan features guitarist Ask Vatn Strøm, drummer Ingvald André Vassbø, and bassist Eskild Myrvoll.

https://instagram.com/kanaanband
https://www.facebook.com/kanaanband
https://kanaanband.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Jansenrecords
https://www.instagram.com/jansenrecords/
https://www.jansenrecords.com/

Kanaan, Downpour (2023)

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Dispatch from SonicBlast 2023: Day Three

Posted in Features, Reviews on August 13th, 2023 by JJ Koczan

SonicBlast Fest 2023 day 3 sq

08.12.23 – Sat. – Fest site

Before show

Found a shady spot and got here in time to catch some of Earthless’ soundcheck. The haze of yesterday and mist/rain of last night have been replaced by a bit of wind and blue skies clear enough to see neighborhoods on Mars. It is a little cooler than yesterday, about which I will not complain. If it holds till tonight, I’ll be glad I have my wizard flannel.

To get here today I took the beach route, rather than going by the river as Church of the Cosmic Skull once advised, and the waves looked like something off a wall calendar. They sell shirts here that say “beach and riffs,” and I’ll tip myThe beach in Portugal goofy wide-brimmed hat to whoever decided to roll that out. Marketing making the world go around.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing the last couple days, which has felt good, seen wonderful people and heard great music at consuming volumes, which as far as I’m concerned is the stuff of life. Traveling alone can feel weird sometimes — like anything — but the truth is that once I get where I’m going, I’m never alone except when I want to be, to work or sleep, and so on. It’s been busy, and I think it’ll be a few days home before I really process any of it beyond the initial impressions conveyed in the notes I’ve been taking as it’s taken place — check in Friday — but I feel good about the work and the experience, and I’m glad I came.

This is the last day, and I expect by six or The main stages at SonicBlast 2023seven this evening my head will start to move back into travel-mode thinking about getting on the plane tomorrow — the airport in Porto is beautiful, as it would invariably be — and I don’t know if I’ll get to write again before I’m back in the US. Accordingly, thank you again to Ricardo, Thelma and all here at SonicBlast. I have been treated better than I probably needed to be, and am on awe of the passion and drive that has built this festival up to what it is over the last 11 years. As I listen to Kanaan line-checking before they open the day on the third stage — that’s four-for-four on kickoffs, if you’re keeping score — and look over the now-empty-but-soon-to-be-slammed main stage(s) area, it’s a little surreal, but as realities go, I’m happy to dwell in it while I can. Thank you for reading. Thanks to the bands and everyone I’ve spoken to or hung out with. Thanks to my family and obviously, thanks to Wendy, through whom all things are possible.

Getting close now. I can feel it. Here’s the day:

Kanaan

Kanaan (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Noting from the stage that it was their first time in Portugal, Norwegian instrumentalist trio Kanaan did not look back after a 15-or-so-minute delayed start owing to a fence blowing over outside as doors were supposed to open. So yes, the wind is a factor. Or at least it was until they put the fence back up and Kanaan came out to lock into the hypnojazz of “Downpour” from the 2022 album of the same name (review here), bass, guitar and drums coming together, seeming to each split its own direction, meeting up later on as one might with friends, only with riffs instead. This was my second time seeing them. The first was Høstsabbat last Fall in Oslo, which is about as different a setting as you can get from SonicBlast, and it’s to the band’s credit that their sound holds up to either context. Maybe it was the sun, or the wind, or the last-day blues, but the spacey, patient unfolding of “Pink Riff” felt extra resonant, as did the synth-laced fuzz that followed to underscore the upward launch in progress. Working against gravity, they rode that groove for a while and did a few orbital laps in circles and twists of rhythm, and resolved in a noisy freakout before coalescing again around the guitar, but the message was clear and the controls were set to ‘far out.’ If they were bummed at cutting their set short, they didn’t show it as they finished with “Return to the Tundrasphere,” having saved the thickest nod for last. Right on. I’ll take seeing them at any opportunity. Wound up chatting with them later on and let it spill that I thought they were onto something really special and they talked about some of their plans for future records. This is a band with the potential to be very good for a long time. A band that can grow with its players. Fingers crossed.

Black Rainbows

Black Rainbows (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Space hippies of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your dayjobs! I’d been looking forward to Black Rainbows, as they always seem to find a line between more straightforward heavy rock, classic cosmodelia, and hooks, hooks, hooks, and wouldn’t you know, that’s precisely what they delivered to open the main stage. They covered MC5’s “Black to Comm” and gave it due urgency, and with their new album, Superskull (review here), relatively fresh in mind, I dug the crap out of it. I think they get overshadowed in a weird way by the work founding guitarist/vocalist Gabriele Fiori does in running the Heavy Psych Sounds label/booking company, but god damn, if you actually listen to their records, they’re spot on heavy psych rock, taking some of the energy and enthusiasm that I forever associate with the Italian underground and making it theirs through performance and a strong stylistic foundation. I dig this band, is what I’m saying. If you haven’t been introduced, hit up the latest album and work your way back to the desert idolatry of their earliest stuff and I sincerely doubt you’ll regret it. They’re like a one-stop shop for everything you could ask modern stoner rock to be, while also being able to occasionally blow it out or loose a riff like “Grindstone,” and hold another level of thrust in reserve for a multi-tiered finish. First band on the big stage and people were already dancing. This place is amazing, this band way undervalued.

Spirit Mother

Spirit Mother (Photo by JJ Koczan)

The only reason I wasn’t absolutely blindsided by how heavy Sprit Mother’s thud landed in-person was because of being fortunate enough to premiere their “Dead Cells/Locust” two-songer last month. Both those songs were aired, and it was likewise a pleasure to hear their rawer, more all-in sensibility extended to tracks from their 2020 debut, Cadets (review here). They played as a double-guitar, double-violin five-piece. One violin? Well that’s interesting. Outside the heavy norm. Respect to that, especially since the songs are good. Two? That’s downright individual. Maybe by their fourth record they’ll be doling out fuzz accompanied by a string quartet — and I’m not trying to be a smartass; I think that’d rule — but the takeaway is that the Los Angeles band are growing. Growing heavier, growing in depth and texture, and looking for ways to distinguish themselves. They’re on their way. This tour and the upcoming US run with Hippie Death Cult will help, but there’s nothing they should be doing that they’re not already doing. I’ll look forward to remembering seeing them here for the first time, including that laugh shared by the band and the front row when guitarist/vocalist Armand Lance attempted to throw his bandana out to the crowd but it hit a wall of wind and didn’t travel more than a meter before landing unceremoniously in the photo pit. Sometimes it’s the little things.

Earthless

Earthless (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It’s safe by now to call Earthless legends, right? A fully-earned reputation two decades running that precedes them by miles, the quintessential heavy trio released Night Parade of 100 Demons (review here) in January, and even though I knew what was coming, it was hard not to feel physically overwhelmed as they built up the characteristically extended, vinyl-side-consuming title-track to its full breadth. And I saw them like a month and a half ago. Shit, I heard their soundcheck today! Nonetheless, when guitarist/sometimes-vocalist Isaiah Mitchell, bassist Mike Eginton and drummer Mario Rubalcaba dug in, you had no real choice but to bodily sense it. Sure, it’s been loud all weekend, but with Earthless it’s never quite just about any one thing — even Mitchell’s guitar, which feels like sacrilege to say somehow — but about the full combination of all of it working at a scale that belongs solely to the band. Maybe that’s how you get to be legendary to start with. There’s just something intangible there, and as much as it feels like they’re plunging headfirst into the unknown, you always know that they’re in control, hand-on-the-wheel, and so forth. As spacey as they got at SonicBlast, that was still true, and while I’m not so far removed from my last exposure, it’s a testament to the power of what they do that they could be so affecting. Rest assured, I went back after refilling my water bottle and taking a minute to write this, in more than enough time to catch the burner ending, the next outbound excursion, and the staple cover of The Groundhogs’ “Cherry Red” that capped the set.

A Place to Bury Strangers

A Place to Bury Strangers (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Today I learned that the dude from A Place to Bury Strangers — multi-instrumentalist/live guitarist and vocalist Oliver Ackermann — really hates his guitar. Before the first song was done, he’d launched it in the air multiple times and let it hit the stage, swung it over his shoulder like he was trying to split wood, and run the strings along the front edge of the stage. Then he tuned up, which I think might’ve been my favorite part. I haven’t seen them before, but by all accounts that’s kind of how it goes. Not arguing. True to their New York roots, their sound is a kind of no-wave indie noise punk, but without atmosphere, but trying to crawl out of its own skin anyhow. Restless movement in the bass of John Fedowitz and drummer Sandra Fedowitz was fitting company for all that fucked up amp-noise wash, and I don’t know if Thurston Moore is still hanging around today — let’s figure probably not, but you never know — but it’s easy to imagine him smiling, wherever he may be. Intermittently caustic, light on accessibility and thick on fuckall, they sounded the way my brain feels when I think about the climate crisis, and soon enough, Ackermann left the stage to bring the shenanigans directly to the people out front, but he and maybe Sandra (?) got back up eventually and hit it on the next song, leaving half the crowd slackjawed and a whole other portion smiling knowingly. I guess they’re not really my thing sound-wise, otherwise I might have driven into NYC from Jersey to see them at some point in the last 20 years, but you have to appreciate the expression and the sheer physical effort in it. And the fact that they played after Earthless. I’m glad nobody got hurt, with the exception of that guitar, which, admirably, somehow made it through the whole set, Ackermann handing it behind the drum kit to free his hands so he could swing one of the stage strobes around by the cable — you know, like you do — before taking it back to finish the song, getting a couple more high-arc tosses in in the meantime. There was more as Fedowitz came out from the kit to the front of the stage for vocal duties, bringing the floor tom and snare along and playing while standing up. I have to think you get the point. A spectacle.

Eyehategod

Eyehategod (Photo by JJ Koczan)

I don’t know how long it’s been since I saw Eyehategod, and in the spirit of the band, I don’t really give a shit. The New Orleans sludge originators — they didn’t do it on their own, but there’s sludgers the world over who should be calling them Uncle — came out and jammed for a couple minutes before the set actually started, and from there it was feedback abrasion, raw-throated gnash from vocalist Mike IX Williams, the somehow-bouncing riffs of Jimmy Bower and bassist Gary Mader’s tonal density like the dirt from which their mud is made, while drummer Aaron Hill — who’s been in the band a decade now — managed to make it go. I was off them for a few years, but they’ve stood up to the years with middle fingers ever raised, and I can’t think of another band who can come across as both completely professional and unhinged at the same time, as when Williams started the faux-prayer “dear god, please forgive us,” before seeming to think better of the whole idea and end with a quick “fuck you” as the next song slammed in. In a crowd with this many people, it was most likely somebody’s first Eyehategod show, and while I’m no expert on the subject, when I think of Eyehategod, I think of precisely the kind of omnidirectional aggro disaffection they tore into. “How many people have to go to work tomorrow?” Some hands. I have to think more would be up if tomorrow was Monday. Right into “Every Thing, Every Day.” They’re a band who’ve been underestimated for over 30 years, and much more than most, they make it believable that they don’t care. And probably by now they don’t, if they ever did. That, plus riffs.

Imarhan

Imarhan (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Today’s Tuareg contingent, Imarhan come from Algeria and followed suit in rhythmic style and resultant danceability from Bombino and Etran de L’Aïr, both of whom also had the crowd moving yesterday and the day before, which is starting to feel like a very, very long time ago. Whatever focus might be on the guitar, Imarhan kept the theme running of bass I could happily spend an evening listening to, as well as clearing the slate after the aural violence of Eyehategod and the actual violence of A Place to Bury Strangers to transition into the evening ahead. I know little about Tuareg culture or the plight of the people who are part of it, but the music as an outlet for that reinforces the communicative nature of art, and the more Imarhan jammed, the more they got their point across. Their latest album is called Aboogi, and the connection between desert rock and, well, desert rock, should be plain to anyone who encounters it. Mellow, warm boogie gave over to sweet psych instrumental melody, spirals of engaging guitar noodling, vocals and hand-percussion going right along, as if they wouldn’t, and the flow held. In America, everything is political and everything is race, and I’d be more than happy to go on about the long history of white producers “discovering” and recording music from around the world, from Lead Belly to Bombino — aesthetic colonialism — and I noted in reading up that Aboogi was recorded by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, but this isn’t the time or place for that rant. I’m not looking to be misunderstood, and frankly, the music felt more about erasing lines than drawing them. Probably that makes me chickenshit. A privilege afforded by my own culture. As the sundown act for the final day of SonicBlast 2023, Imarhan invited all to dance, and many took them up on it.

The Black Angels

The Black Angels (Photo by JJ Koczan)

I’ve dabbled in the work of Austin psych rockers The Black Angels, but not much more than that. Most of what I know is people like them and they’re well regarded critically. Big mags that go to SXSW write about them, though that’s hardly their fault. There were times when it seemed like the kick drum was the only thing keeping the whole set from turning into a puddle of goo, but obviously that’s on purpose, and with the keys and the two guitars, bass, more keys, multiple vocalists, one drummer — more two-drummer psych bands now! — all seeming to go at once, they were full in sound and heavier live than I would have expected them to be, which I guess is a compliment since they also had that languid sway speaking to some notion of coolness that is timeless if you believe the Baby Boomers invented time or that anyone in mainstream culture knows psych rock still exists, or cares, for that matter. You could call it indie crossover if you want — it’s the internet; the stakes couldn’t be lower — but they were plenty lysergic, and parts felt like a grown-up version of what Spirit Mother were up to this afternoon, rockin’ out in Reverb City. But the crowd knew them more than I did and they put out a record last year called Wilderness of Mirrors that was probably genius and if I bothered to listen would change my life, so there you go. I guess they left me a little cold, but I’ll take that on myself since I’m both waiting for Dozer and half thinking about packing and flying out tomorrow. Did I say “last day blues” yet? Fair enough. Throbbing, they were.

Church of Misery

Church of Misery (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It would be fun to put together a list of the best riff writers of all time — I’m not going to; no fun — but any such endeavor would be bullshit without the inclusion of Tatsu Mikami from Church of Misery. The low-slung founding bassist of Japan’s leading doom rock export has been through entire lineups of singers, guitarists and drummers, but the guitar of Yukito Okazaki, the drums of Toshiaki Umemura and returning vocalist Kazuhiro Asaeda marked themselves out as a version of Church of Misery to see, making the case strongly on this year’s Born Under a Mad Sign (review here) for showing up. Certainly Church of Misery fucking did. And oh, when that bass tone hit, I could feel it like a rumbly in my tumbly and all of a sudden I didn’t care if the lyrics were about the dude feeding his cat, it was that groove that had me. They were on fire. Kazuhiro waving his hands around swimming through the fog of the riffs — also the actual fog — absolutely nailing “Born to Raise Hell,” and Yukito might be a generation younger but he also might be the best guitarist I’ve seen with this band, and by this time in my life I’ve seen a few. For a new incarnation of the band, everybody owned the material, Toshiaki with the oh-so-essential swing to make that doom boogie, and Tatsu on the far side of the stage, an absolute master at this thing he does. As the photographers were getting kicked out of the pit — not complaining; that time/song limit is useful every now and again to keep you in check and handling your shit — I put my body in front of the P.A., just for a second, so I could feel it in my bones. Incredible how a band so obsessed with mass murder can be so life-affirming. I’m glad they’re back, and I’m lucky to have seen this version of the band. They finished with “Beltway Sniper” and “Freeway Madness Boogie,” both from the new record, and the place went off like the songs were 20 years old. It was a celebration.

Dozer

Dozer (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Life affords you very few — none to date, in my case — to get on stage and watch while Dozer are playing. Did I dare? It was now or never. And as experience-making as that was, I’m glad I went out front again in time to see Arvid from Greenleaf come out for a guest spot on “Rings of Saturn.” I’d heard before they went on that was going to happen, and it was quick but great, no less because they followed it with “Supersoul” and man, I just went nuts. It was so great. So great. Chills the entire time, not even exaggerating. Well maybe a little bit fucking hell give me a break Dozer were so god damned amazing I was headbanging in the photo pit. Maybe the pics will suck. Who cares? Arvid back out: “this is Monster Truck. That big thing that pushes stuff.” A bit of standup “Always eat spinach.” My friend, I have been trying for three days to find some to no avail. If you got the hookup don’t hold out. Yes, I saw Dozer last December. Again, who cares? If I saw them yesterday this would’ve still been incredible. Shit, I DID see Greenleaf yesterday. Unreal. Culmination of the weekend. “Born a Legend.” Existential high point I feel like I’ve been chasing for the last two and a half years. The payoff for my pandemic. Sebastian Olsson on drums. Holy shit. Fredrik Nordin’s vocals coming through those giant speakers. That shout. Those riffs. Johan Rockner’s bass not only keeping up with Tommi Holappa’s twists and punches and shred but doing so with a singular immediacy. Dozer is the band who taught me heavy rock could be explosive, propulsive, volcanic, and still beautiful. They went to their first album in 15 years, Drifting in the Endless Void (review here), to close out with “Missing 13,” Olsson knocking over a cymbal and Arvid picking it up en route to Dozer riding that riff and Holappa soloing away. There was some mic feedback toward the end, but it didn’t matter. I stopped writing. I stopped worrying. I put my phone down and banged my fucking head and threw my fist in the air, and for a few gorgeous minutes I hope I never forget that’s what life was.

Lunavieja

Lunavieja (Photo by JJ Koczan)

An occult epilogue to my evening and my SonicBlast, Lunavieja had skulls, reeds, incense and centuries of Iberian heathenism to draw from, and with a sound that was vibrant and a theatricality unlike anything else I’ve seen this weekend, they built an atmosphere of malevolent, writhing doom, psychedelic post-metal, some rock, and meditative, dark folk. I said a few goodbyes and made my way out during their set, stopped up on the boardwalk to sit on a little bench there in the mostly dark — the town is right there, so there is ambient light — and look at the stars and listen to the music and the waves together. “Beach and riffs,” right? It wasn’t planned, and it was only a few minutes, maybe five, but just stopping, sitting for a breath, it was like taking a huge drink of water. I was already on my way out mentally and physicality — got my ride to the airport tomorrow confirmed and everything — so this was just about being there, putting myself in that moment, to be, just to be, in that place one more time. Lunavieja’s grim mass behind, the anticipation of returning to my family ahead, I allowed for the appreciation of being in the middle, not existing in either world yet. Not thinking about the travel, the writing, the to-do list that awaits. I doubt Lunavieja will ever know they were a part of that, that they helped make it happen in a weird kind of way — ‘weird’ suiting them quite well, generally — but they were. It meant something to me. I learned a lot here. They were a part of that, too.

Thank you. If your eyes are on these words, thank you. The list of names is so long. Everybody I spoke to, everyone who came up and said hi, the fucking Sasquatch guys shouting me out, being onstage while Dozer are playing. Meeting Berto, seeing Claire after a decade, hanging out with Dr. Space, chatting music with Daniel and Bruno in the photo pit, taking pictures of bands, pictures with people, trying to cram as many memories into my head as I possibly could because I’m just so god damned lucky to be here. The flight, the nerves. It was all worth it, easily. For Dozer alone, never mind Acid King, Ruff Majik, Greenleaf, Kanaan, Church of Misery, Spirit Mother, Temple Fang, Naxatras (now I get to say I’ve seen Naxatras forever!), Weedpecker, Kadavar, all the way back to Plastic Woods, the first band at the pre-show, absolutely schooling me on where I was and what it meant to be here. Thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you Ricardo and Telma. Thank you for inviting me, for welcoming me, for the music and the place. The reality of what you’ve built is so much more than just the beach and riffs. Thank you.

I fly out tomorrow evening, 6PM-ish. I don’t know that I will or won’t write again before then, so one more time, thank you for reading, thanks to Wendy, The Pecan, my mother, my sister. I don’t know that I’ll be invited back to SonicBlast again, and that’s not what matters. What matters is how fortunate I was to be here at all. Thank you. Thank you.

More photos after the ‘read more’ jump.

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Kanaan Confirm Spring and Summer Live Dates; Downpour Out Now

Posted in Whathaveyou on May 18th, 2023 by JJ Koczan

I won’t claim to know where Kanaan are going to end up, sound-wise, but where they are now is fascinating. Their 2023 album, Downpour (review here), came out earlier this month and sees the instrumental Norwegian trio with a well honed, almost carved-seeming, approach to heavy rock that owes as much to the direct, morally-objecting-to-frills riffing of Karma to Burn and the psych-jazz exploration of Causa Sui. And, most crucially, the record doesn’t fall apart from the disparity of those two sides.

Instead, Kanaan thrive on the righteousness of their straightforward grooves while using them also as a foundation for broader creative reach. This has set them among some of the brightest prospects in the next-gen European heavy underground — a grouping with a not-insignificant Norwegian contingent — and the fact that their approach is as malleable to their purposes as the new album portrays it is only going to help them as they continue to grow, hipefully garnering a likewise broader fanbase in the process.

To that end, they’ve got live shows lined up for the next few months that are already underway. They’ll be at Desertfest Berlin this weekend and Esbjerg Fuzztival, SonicBlast Fest, and Down the Hill this Spring and Summer, and unless they’re headed right back in the studio or, you know, stopping to catch their collective breath — which one needs to do every now and again — I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked up even more fests and/or club dates for after this list ends on Sept. 15.

On that too, we’ll have to wait and see. But as someone who’s been lucky enough to do so, I’ll tell you outright that if you can see this band play, even if their studio work hasn’t resonated with you yet, you should make efforts to do that.

Dates follow as per socials:

Kanaan Downpour tour

KANAAN – TOUR ANNOUNCEMENT

We’ve just added a row of European shows to our Downpour release tour, come catch us at one of these! First show tomorrow at Spillestedet Stengade in Copenhagen! Tour poster by Henrik Myrvold, all European shows booked by El Borracho Bookings

17/5 STENGADE, COPENHAGEN (DK)
18/5 SCHAUBUDE, KIEL (DE)
19/5 DESERTFEST, BERLIN (DE)
20/5 IMPORT EXPORT, MUNICH (DE)
21/5 CHELSEA, VIENNA (AT)
22/5 INSTANT, BUDAPEST (HU)
24/5 GOLDGRUBE, KASSEL (DE)
25/5 BAR 227, HAMBURG (DE)
26/5 ESBJERG FUZZTIVAL, ESBJERG (DK)
27/5 PLAN B, MALMÖ (SE)
28/5 VEGA BRYGGERI, GÖTEBORG (SE)
14/7 TUKIKOHTA, OULU (FI)
15/7 TIILITEHDAS, JOKELA (FI)
21/7 WMF, LOSHAUSEN (DE)
12/8 SONIC BLAST, MOLEDO (PT)
25/8 DE ONDERBROEK, NIJMEGEN (NL)
26/8 DOWN THE HILL, RILLAAR (BE)
27/8 DB’S, UTRECHT (NL)
28/8 LOLAPAROLI, AACHEN (NL)
29/8 FZW, DORTMUND (DE)
31/8 PIZZINI, BAMBERG (DE)
1/9 URBAN SPREE, BERLIN (DE)
2/9 TOR 9, BREMEN (DE)
5/9 L’INTERNATIONAL, PARIS (FR)
6/9 COLD CRASH, NANTES (FR)
7/9 LE CIRCUS, CAPBRETON (FR)
8/9 EL PERRO, MADRID (ES)
9/9 PARAL·LEL 62, BARCELONA (ES)
10/9 MOLOTOV, MARSEILLE (FR)
13/9 FREAKOUT, BOLOGNA (IT)
15/9 MOOD CLUB, MEMMINGEN (DE)

Kanaan features guitarist Ask Vatn Strøm, drummer Ingvald André Vassbø, and bassist Eskild Myrvoll.

https://instagram.com/kanaanband
https://www.facebook.com/kanaanband
https://kanaanband.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Jansenrecords
https://www.instagram.com/jansenrecords/
https://www.jansenrecords.com/

Kanaan, Downpour (2023)

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Quarterly Review: Spotlights, Kanaan, Doom Lab, Strange Horizon, Shem, Melt Motif, Margarita Witch Cult, Cloud of Souls, Hibernaut, Grin

Posted in Reviews on May 12th, 2023 by JJ Koczan

the-obelisk-qr-summer-2020

Today is the last Quarterly Review day until July. I don’t know yet what shape that QR will take, whether 50 records, 100 records, 700 records or somewhere between. Depends on how the ongoing deluge of releases ebbs and flows as we head into summer. But if you count this and the other part of this Spring’s Quarterly Review, you get a total as of today of 120 releases covered, and considering the prior QR was just in January, and that one was another 100 records that’s a pretty insane amount of stuff for it being May 12.

And that’s basically the moral of the story, again. It’s a ton of stuff to encounter, hear, maybe live with if you’re lucky. I won’t make it a grand thing (I still have too much writing to do), but I hope you’ve found something cool in all this, and if not yet among the 210 albums thus far QR’ed in 2023, then maybe today’s your day as we hit the end of this round.

Quarterly Review #41-50:

Spotlights, Alchemy for the Dead

Spotlights Alchemy for the Dead

There are not many boxes that Spotlights‘ fourth album and third for Ipecac, Alchemy for the Dead, leaves unticked. Thematic, musically expansive, finely crafted in its melody and with particular attention to mood as when the bassline joins then leaves behind the acoustic guitar as a preface to the big finish in the closing title-track, it is a consuming, ultra-modern take on heavy rock from the trio of bassist/guitarist/vocalist Sarah Quintero, guitarist/synthesist/vocalist Mario Quintero and drummer Chris Enriquez, substantial even before you get to the fact that its 47 minutes push LP format limits, it speaks emotionally in rhythm as much as the thoughtful vocal interplay on “Sunset Burial,” growing intense around a central chug of guitar for one of the album’s more brazenly metal stretches. Elsewhere, standout moments abound, whether it’s the channel-panned snare buried in the second verse of “Algorithmic,” the proggy moodshifting in “Repeat the Silence,” Spotlights becoming what Deftones wanted to be in the heavygaze of “The Alchemist,” drift meeting head-on crash in “Ballad in the Mirror,” which also rolls out a fuzz-tone riff of statistically significant proportion then finds room for a swell of airy guitar before dissipating into the next mellow verse circa 2:30, more crashes to come. With the synth/sax/big-riff-and-shout interplay at the center in “False Gods,” Alchemy for the Dead would seem to mark the arrival at where Spotlights have been heading all along: their own version of a heavy of everything.

Spotlights on Facebook

Ipecac Recordings website

 

Kanaan, Downpour

Kanaan Downpour

The mellotron in the title-track, surrounded by dense bass, fleet runs of scorch-prone guitar and resoundingly jazzy drumming, emphasizes the point: Kanaan are a band elevating heavy rock to their level. The Norwegian trio aren’t shy when it comes to riffing out, as they demonstrate in the Hedwig Mollestad collaboration on “Amazon” and intermittently throughout Downpour‘s closing pair of “Solaris Pt. 1” and “Solaris Pt. 2,” each topping seven minutes. But neither are they limited to a singular nodding expression. While still sounding young and energetic in a way that just can’t be imitated, Downpour boogies almost immediately on opener “Black Time Fuzz,” and is often heavy and grooving like a straightforward heavy rock record, but as that tambourine in “Orbit” shows, Kanaan are ready at a moment’s notice with a flourish of guitar, some key or synth element, or something else to distinguish their pieces and in the soundscaping of “Psunspot” (sic) and the scope they claim throughout side B, they remain one of Europe’s brightest hopes for a future in progressive heavy, sounding freer in their atmospheres and in the build of “Solaris Pt. 1” than they did even on 2021’s Earthbound (review here). There’s a reason just about every festival in Europe wants them to play. The proverbial band-on-fire.

Kanaan on Instagram

Jansen Records website

 

Doom Lab, Zen and the Art of Tone

Doom Lab Zen and the Art of Tone

Zen and the Art of Tone, perhaps unsurprisingly, sets itself to the task in its title as Anchorage, Alaska-based Doom Lab mastermind Leo Scheben guides the listener through mostly short-ish instrumental pieces based around guitar, sometimes ultra-fuzzed with a programmed beat behind as on “Whole-Tones on Tail” or the extra-raw 1:24 of “Motörvamp” or the subsequent “Sabotaging the Sabocracy,” a bit clearer at the outset with “X’d Out,” but the drive toward meditation is clear and allows for both the slower, more doomed reaches of closer “Traveling Through the Cosmos at Beyond the Speed of Light” and the playful elder-funk of “The Plot-Twist” or the bounce of “Lydia Ann.” All told, the 12 songs and 36 minutes of experimentation on offer will resonate with some more than others, but Scheben sounds like he’s starting a conversation here with “Mondays Suck it Big-Time” and “Psychic Vampires” and the real question is whether anyone will answer. Sometimes a project comes along that’s just on its own wavelength, finding its own place in the pastiche, and that’s where Doom Lab have been at since the outset, prolific as well as dedicated to exploration. I don’t know toward what it’s all leading, but not knowing is part of enjoying hearing it, and maybe that’s the zen of the whole thing to start with.

Doom Lab on YouTube

Doom Lab on Bandcamp

 

Strange Horizon, Skur 14

Strange Horizon Skur 14

Barely a year after making their full-length debut on Apollon with Beyond the Strange Horizon (review here), Bergen, Norway, traditionalists dig deeper into the proto-style roots of doom on their four-song second LP, Skur 14. Named after a rehearsal space complex (presumably where they rehearse) in their hometown, the album runs shortest-to-longest in bringing together Scandi-folk-rooted classic prog and heavy styles, but by the time they get to “Tusser Og Troll,” the 14:47 finale, one is less thinking about the past than the future in terms of sound. Acoustic guitar begins “The Road” ahead of the straight-ahead riff and post-punk vocals, while “Cursed and Cast Out” is both speedier in the verse and more open in the hook before shifting into rolls on the snare and more theatrical shove that, much to the band’s credit, they handle fluidly without sounding either ironically over the top or like goobers in any way other than how they want. With the seven-minute “Candles,” the procession is slower and more vintage in form, reminding a bit of Demon Head but following its own anthemic chorus into an extended solo section before side B is dedicated solely to the spread of “Tusser Og Troll,” which ends with an organic-feeling jam laced with effects. A strong second outing on a quick turnaround that shows clear progression — there’s nothing more to be asked of Skur 14.

Strange Horizon on Facebook

Apollon Records store

 

Shem, III

Shem III

Sure, the third album from Stuttgart drone-psych-jammers Shem — titled III, lest there be any doubt — starts off with its 16-minute opener/longest track (immediate points) “Paragate,” but given the context, it’s the second cut on side A, “Lamentum” (2:50), that most piqued my interest. It’s a fading in snippet of a progression, the drums steady, volume swells behind a strumming guitar, some vocal chanting as it moves through. Given the entrancing spaciousness of “Restlicht” (7:34) and “Refugium (Beyond the Gravitational Field of Time and Space)” (11:55), I didn’t expect much more than an interlude, and maybe it’s not intended to be, but that shorter piece does a lot in separating the long cut on III‘s first half from the two on the second, so serves a vital purpose. And in that, it represents III well, since even in “Restlicht,” there seems to be a plan unfolding, even if improvisation is a part of that. Bookending, “Paragate” is mellow when it isn’t congealing nebular gasses to make new stars, and “Refugium (Beyond the Gravitational Field of Time and Space)” finds itself in a wormhole wash of guitar while the ride cymbal tries to hold structural integrity together, the whole engine ending up kissing itself goodbye as it shifts from this dimension to one that, let’s be honest, is probably more exciting.

Shem on Bandcamp

Clostridium Records store

 

Melt Motif, Particles. Death Objective

melt motif particles death objective

You ever hear a band’s album and think maybe it worked out better than the band thought it would when they started making it? Like maybe they surprised even themselves? That was Melt Motif‘s 2022 debut, A White Horse Will Take You Home (review here). The heavy industrial outfit founded by Kenneth Rasmus Greve and legit-doesn’t-need-a-last-name vocalist Rakel are joined by Brazilian producer Joe Irente for the curiously punctuated 10-track follow-up, Particles. Death Objective, and though they don’t have the element of surprise on their side this time out (for themselves or listeners), Melt Motif as a trio do expand on what the first album accomplished, bringing ideas from electronic dance music, sultry post-rock and hard-landing beats — plus some particularly striking moments of weighted guitar — to bear such that “Warrior” and “I’m Gone” are assured in not needing to explode with aggression and even with all its ticks and pops, the penultimate “Abyss” is more about atmosphere than impact. “Fever” creates a wash and lurches slow and heavy following on from “Broken Floor” at the beginning, but in “Full Moon” it’s a techno party and “Never_Again” feels like experimentalist hip-hop, so if you thought the book was closed aesthetically on the project, the sophomore outing assures it very much is not. So much the better.

Melt Motif on Facebook

Apollon Records on Bandcamp

 

Margarita Witch Cult, Margarita Witch Cult

margarita witch cult self titled

As it begins with the telltale strut and maddening catchiness of “Diabolical Influence,” one might be tempted to think Birmingham’s Margarita Witch Cult are playing in Uncle Acid‘s sinister sandbox, but the two-minute fuzz-chug-punker burst of “Death Lurks at Every Turn” corrects this notion, and the rest of the UK trio’s nine-song/31-minute self-titled Heavy Psych Sounds affirms there’s more going on. “The Witchfinder Comes” is a classic Sabbath-worship roller with multi-tracked vocals — guitarist Scott Vincent is the only one listed on vocals, so might just be layering; Jim Thing is on bass and George Casual on drums — and “Be My Witch” is a lesson in how to make thickened fuzz move, but it’s the pointedly Motörheaded “Annihilation” (1:42) that most stands out, even with the likewise speedy shuffle of “Theme From Cyclops” (1:34) right behind it, the faster takeoff welcome to offset the midtempo home-base of the trio’s grooves. As to that, “Lord of the Flies” nestles itself into a comfortable tempo and resolves in a nod that it seems to have spent much of its five minutes building toward, a last run through the main riff more celebration than repetition ahead of the instrumental “Aradia,” which like “The Witchfinder Comes” featured on the band’s 2022 Witchfinder EP (review here), and the previously-issued single “Sacrifice,” which closes. Bottom line is they’ve got a righteous sound and their first album shows they know how to wield it. The smoke-filled sky is the limit from here. Hail next-gen stoner rock.

Margarita Witch Cult on Facebook

Heavy Psych Sounds website

 

Cloud of Souls, A Fate Decided

Cloud of Souls A Fate Decided

Trading between charred rasps and cleaner declarative singing, Indianapolis-based multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chris Latta (The Skyspeakers, Lavaborne, ex-Spirit Division) guides the mostly-solo-project — Tucker Thomasson drums and plays lead guitar; not minimizing anyone’s contributions — Cloud of Souls through a tumultuous journey along the line between ancient-of-days doom and black metal, strident at times like Bathory, sometimes all-out ripping as on the earlier-Enslaved-style “Hiding from Human Eyes,” and growing deathlier on “Where Failure Dies” ahead of the closing title-track, which threatens to break out the razors at any moment but stays civilized in its doomly roll for the duration. Whatever else Latta accomplishes in this or any of his other outfits from here on out, he’ll always be able to say he put out a record with a centerpiece called “Time for Slaughter,” which isn’t nothing as regards artist achievements — the song taps pre-NWOBHM doom until it turns infernal in the middle — and while there’s clearly an aspect of self-awareness in what he’s doing, the exploration and the songwriting are put first such that A Fate Decided resounds with a love for the metal that birthed it while finding its own path to hopefully keep walking across future releases.

Cloud of Souls on Facebook

Cloud of Souls on Bandcamp

 

Hibernaut, Ingress

Hibernaut Ingress

When I tell you Hibernaut has three former members of Salt Lake City psych-blues rockers Dwellers in the lineup, just go ahead and put that expectation to the side for a minute. With guitarist Dave Jones stepping to the front as vocalist, Joey Toscano (also ex-Iota) moving from guitar/vocals to lead guitar, Zach Hatsis (also ex-SubRosa) on drums and Josh Dupree on bass, their full-length debut/first release of any sort, Ingress — recorded of course by Andy Patterson — has more in common with High on Fire and dirt-coated raw thrash than anything so lush, and at 11 songs and 74 minutes long, that will toward the unrestrained is multifaceted as well. There’s rock swagger to be had in “Magog” or the spinning riff of “Summoner,” but “Mines” has more Celtic Frost than Kyuss to it, and that isn’t a complaint. The material varies — at over an hour long, it fucking better — but whether it’s the double-kick rampage of “Kaleidoscope” or the furious takedown of “Lantern Eyed,” Hibernaut revel in an overarching nastiness of riff such that you might just end up scrunching your face without thinking about it. There’s room for a couple nods, in “Projection,” or “Aeons Entombed,” but the prevailing impression is meaner while remaining atmospheric. I like that I have no guess what they’ll do after this. I don’t like having to check autocorrect every time it replaces their name with ‘Hibernate.’ If only I had some gnasher heavy metal to help me vent that frustration. Oh wait.

Hibernaut on Instagram

Hibernaut on Bandcamp

 

Grin, Black Nothingness

GRIN BLACK NOTHINGNESS

For their Black Nothingness EP, Berlin-based DIY aficionados Grin — bassist Sabine Oberg and drummer/vocalist Jan Oberg — stripped their sound back to its most essential parts. Unlike 2022’s Phantom Knocks (review here) long-player, there’s no soundscaping, no guitar, no Hammond. There is low end. There are drums. There are growls and shouts and there are six tracks and none of them reaches three minutes in length. This ferocious display of efficiency counterintuitively underscores the breadth of Grin‘s approach, since as one band they feel unrestricted in terms of arrangements, and Black Nothingness — on their own The Lasting Dose Records imprint and recorded by Jan — benefits from the barebones construction in terms of sheer impact as heard on the rolling “Gatekeeper” before each ending measure of “Midnight Blue Sorrow” seems to leave a bruise, or even the opening semi-title-track “Nothingness” staking a claim on hardcore gangshout backing vocals for use pretty much anytime. “Talons” is less in-your-face with its violence, but the threat remains fervent and subsequent closer “Deathbringer” perfectly conveys that sense of exhaustion you have from when you’ve been so angry for so long that actually you’re just kind of sad about it. All this and more in about 12 minutes out of your busy and intensely frustrating life makes Black Nothingness one of 2023’s best short releases. Now rage, damnit.

Grin on Facebook

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