The Obelisk Presents: THE BEST OF 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Okay:

The Top 50 Albums of 2020

#50-31

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

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

30. High Priestess, Casting the Circle

high priestess casting the circle

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed May 5.

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

29. Polymoon, Caterpillars of Creation

Polymoon Caterpillars of Creation

Released by Svart Records. Reviewed Oct. 12.

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

28. Sons of Otis, Isolation

Sons of Otis Isolation

Released by Totem Cat Records. Reviewed Sept. 30.

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

27. Lamp of the Universe, Dead Shrine

Lamp of the Universe Dead Shrine

Released by Projection Records. Reviewed May 25.

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

26. BleakHeart, Dream Griever

bleakheart dream griever

Released by Sailor Records. Reviewed Nov. 18.

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

25. Pale Divine, Consequence of Time

Pale Divine Consequence of Time

Released by Cruz Del Sur Music. Reviewed June 3.

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

24. Uncle Woe, Phantomescence

uncle woe phantomescence

Released by Packard Black Productions. Reviewed Oct. 21.

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

23. REZN, Chaotic Divine

rezn chaotic divine

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

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

22. Ruff Majik, The Devil’s Cattle

ruff majik the devils cattle

Released by Mongrel Records. Reviewed Oct. 29.

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

21. Curse the Son, Excruciation

Curse The Son Excruciation

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed June 8.

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

20. The Atomic Bitchwax, Scorpio

The Atomic Bitchwax Scorpio

Released by Tee Pee Records. Reviewed Aug. 26.

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

19. Cinder Well, No Summer

cinder well no summer

Released by Free Dirt Records. Reviewed July 21.

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

18. Pallbearer, Forgotten Days

pallbearer forgotten days

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Dec. 24.

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

17. Slift, Ummon

slift ummon

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

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

16. My Dying Bride, The Ghost of Orion

my dying bride the ghost of orion

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Feb. 25.

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

15. Causa Sui, Szabodelico

causa sui Szabodelico

Released by El Paraiso Records. Reviewed Nov. 11.

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

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

All Souls Songs for the End of the World

Self-released. Reviewed Sept. 21.

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

13. Kind, Mental Nudge

kind mental nudge

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Oct. 20.

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

12. Molassess, Through the Hollow

Molassess Through the Hollow

Released by Season of Mist. Featured Aug. 17.

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

11. Tony Reed, Funeral Suit

tony reed funeral suit

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Sept. 28.

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

10. Geezer, Groovy

Geezer Groovy

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed May 18.

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

9. Big Scenic Nowhere, Vision Beyond Horizon

big scenic nowhere vision beyond horizon

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed Jan. 29.

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

8. Elder, Omens

elder omens

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

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

7. Forming the Void, Reverie

forming the void reverie

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed April 15.

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

6. Grayceon, MOTHERS WEAVERS VULTURES

grayceon mothers weavers vultures

Released by Translation Loss Records. Reviewed Nov. 18.

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

5. Brant Bjork, Brant Bjork

brant bjork brant bjork

Released by Heavy Psych Sounds. Reviewed April 28.

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

4. Enslaved, Utgard

enslaved utgard

Released by Nuclear Blast Records. Reviewed Sept. 29.

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

3a. Colour Haze, We Are

colour haze we are

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

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

3. All Them Witches, Nothing as the Ideal

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

Released by New West Records. Reviewed Sept. 3.

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

2. Elephant Tree, Habits

elephant tree habits

Released by Deathwish Inc.. Reviewed April 13.

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

2020 Album of the Year

1. Lowrider, Refractions

Lowrider Refractions

Released by Blues Funeral Recordings. Reviewed Jan. 24.

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

The Top 50 Albums of 2020: Honorable Mention

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

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

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

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

Debut Album of the Year

Molassess, Through the Hollow

Molassess Through the Hollow

Other notable debuts (alphabetically):

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

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

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

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

Short Release of the Year 2020

King Buffalo, Dead Star

King Buffalo Dead Star

Other notable EPs, Splits, Demos, etc.:

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

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

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

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

Live Album of the Year 2020

Yawning Man, Live at Giant Rock

yawning man live at giant rock

Other notable live releases:

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to 2021

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

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

Thank You

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

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

More to come.

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The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio Playlist: Episode 31

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

the obelisk show banner

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

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

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

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

Full playlist:

The Obelisk Show – 04.03.20

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

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

Gimme Radio website

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Quarterly Review: Khemmis, Mutant Flesh, War Cloud, Void of Sleep, Pretty Lightning, Rosy Finch, Ghost Spawn, Agrabatti, Dead Sacraments, Smokemaster

Posted in Reviews on March 24th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

quarterly review

Alarm went off this morning at 3:45. Got up, flicked on the coffee pot, turned the heat on in the house, hit the bathroom and was back in bed in four minutes with an alarm set for 4:15. Didn’t really get back to sleep, but the half-hour of being still was a kind of pre-waking meditation that I appreciated just the same. Was dozing when the alarm went off the second time, but it’s day two of the Quarterly Review, so no time to doze. No time for anything, as is the nature of these blocks of writeups. They tend to be all-consuming while they’re going on. Could be worse. Let’s roll.

Quarterly Review #11-20:

Khemmis, Doomed Heavy Metal

khemmis doomed heavy metal

Denver four-piece Khemmis have made themselves one of the most distinctive acts in metal, to say nothing of doom. With strong vocal harmonies out front backed by similarly-minded guitars, the band bring a sense of poise to doom that’s rare in the modern sphere, somewhat European in influence, but less outwardly adherent to the genre tenets of melancholy. They refuse to be Paradise Lost, in other words, and are all the more themselves for that. Their Doomed Heavy Metal EP (on 20 Buck Spin and Nuclear Blast) is a stopgap after 2018’s Desolation (review here) full-length, but at 38 minutes and six songs, it’s substantial nonetheless, headlined by the Dio cover “Rainbow in the Dark” — capably done with just a flair of Slough Feg — with a take on Lloyd Chandler‘s “A Conversation with Death” and “Empty Throne,” both rare-enough studio cuts, for backing, as well as three live cuts that cover their three-to-date albums. The growls on “Three Gates” are fun, but I’ll still take the Dio cover as the highlight. For a cobbled-together release, it feels at least like a bit of thoughtful fan-service, and really, a band could do worse than to serve their fans thoughtfully.

Khemmis on Thee Facebooks

20 Buck Spin store

Nuclear Blast Records store

 

Mutant Flesh, Evil Eye

mutant flesh evil eye

There are shades of doom metal’s origins underlying Mutant Flesh‘s first release, the eight-song/33-minute Evil Eye, but the Philly troupe are too gleeful in their weirdness ultimately to be paying full homage to the likes of Witchfinder General, and especially in a faster song like second cut “Meteoric” and the subsequent lead-guitar-flipout-and-vocal-soar title-track, they tap into the defiantly doomed vibe of earliest Saint Vitus. That’s true of the crawling “Euthanasia” as well, which crashes and nods as it approaches the six-minute mark as the longest inclusion here, but even the penultimate “Blight” brings that twisted-BlackFlag-noise-slowed-down spirit that lets you know there’s consciousness behind the chaos, and that while Mutant Flesh might seem to be all-the-way-gone, they’re really just getting started. Maybe their sound will even out over time, maybe it won’t, but for what it’s worth, they do ragged doom well from the opening “Leviathan (Lord of the Labyrinth)” onward, and feel right at home in the unhinged.

Mutant Flesh on Thee Facebooks

Mutant Flesh on Bandcamp

 

War Cloud, Earhammer Sessions

war cloud earhammer sessions

Having just shredded their way across Europe, War Cloud took their set into the Earhammer Studio with Greg Wilkinson at the helm in an attempt to capture the band in top form on their home turf. Did it work? The results on Earhammer Sessions (Ripple Music) don’t wait around for you to decide. They’re too busy kicking ass to take names, and if the resulting 29-minute burst is even half of what they brought to the stage on that tour, those must’ve been some goddamn shows. Songs like “White Lightning” and the snare-counted-in “Speed Demon” and “Striker” feel like they’re being given their due in the max-speed-NWOBHM-but-still-too-classy-to-be-thrash presentation, and honestly, this feels like War Cloud have found their method. If they don’t tour their next album and then hit the studio after and lay it down live, or at least as live as Earhammer Sessions is — one never knows as regards overdubs and isolation booths and all that — they’re doing themselves a disservice. War Cloud play metal. So what? So this.

War Cloud on Thee Facebooks

Ripple Music website

 

Void of Sleep, Metaphora

Void of Sleep Metaphora

Void of Sleep return after half a decade with the prog-doom stylings of their third album, Metaphora (Aural Music), which stretches dramatically through songs like “Iron Mouth” (11:00), preceded by the intro “The Famine Years” and the shorter “Unfair Judgements,” preceded by the intro “Waves of Discomfort,” and still somehow manage not to sound out of place tapping into their inner Soilwork in the growled verses/clean choruses of “Master Abuser.” They get harsh a bit as well on “Tides of the Mourning,” which uses its 10:30 to summarize the bulk of the proceedings and close out the record after “Modern Man,” but that song has more of a scope and feels looser structurally for that. Still, that shift is only one of several throughout Metaphora, which follows the Italian five-piece’s 2015 LP, New World Order (discussed here), and wherever Void of Sleep are headed at any given moment, they head there with a duly controlled presence. Clearly their last five years have not been wasted.

Void of Sleep on Thee Facebooks

Aural Music store

 

Pretty Lightning, Jangle Bowls

pretty lightning jangle bowls

As yet, Germany’s Pretty Lightning remain a well kept secret of fuzz-psych-blues nuance, digging out their own niche-in-a-niche-in-a-niche microgenre with a natural and inadvertent-feeling sense of just writing the songs they want to write. Jangle Bowls, which puts its catchy, semi-garage title-track early in the proceedings, is the duo’s second offering through Fuzz Club Records behind 2017’s The Rhythm of Ooze (review here), and seem to present a mission statement in opener “Swamp Ritual” before bringing a due sense of excursion to “Boogie at the Shrine” — damn that’s a smooth groove — and reviving the movement in “RaRaRa,” which follows. Closer “Shovel Blues” is a highlight for how it drifts into oblivion, but the underlying tightness of craft in “123 Eternity” and “Hum” is an appeal as well, so it’s a tradeoff. But it’s one I’ll be glad to make across multiple repeat visits to Jangle Bowls while wondering how long this particular secret can actually be kept.

Pretty Lightning on Thee Facebooks

Fuzz Club Records store

 

Rosy Finch, Scarlet

rosy finch scarlet

The painted-blood-red cover of Rosy Finch‘s second album, Scarlet (on Lay Bare Recordings), and horror-cinema-esque design isn’t a coincidence in terms of atmosphere, but the Spanish trio bring a more aggressive feel to the nine-track outing overall than they did to their 2016 debut, Witchboro (review here), with additional crunch in the guitar of Mireia Porto (also vocals and bass) and bassist Elena Garcia, and a forward kick drum from Lluís Mas that hammers home the impact of a cruncher like “Ruby” and even seems to ground the more melodic “Alizarina,” which follows, let alone the crushing opener/longest track (immediate points) “Oxblood” or its headspinning closing companion “Dark Cherry,” after which follows the particularly intense hidden cut “Lady Bug,” also not to be missed. Anger suits Rosy Finch, it seems, and the band bring a physicality to the songs on Scarlet that only reinforces the sonic push.

Rosy Finch on Thee Facebooks

Lay Bare Recordings store

 

Ghost Spawn, The Haunting Continuum

Ghost Spawn The Haunting Continuum

Brutal, gurgling doom-of-death pervades The Haunting Continuum from Denver one-man-unit Ghost Spawn, and while the guitar late in “Escaping the Mortal Flesh” seems momentarily to offer some hope of salvation, rest assured, it doesn’t last, and the squibbly central riff returns with its extremity to prove once more that only death is real. Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Kevin Berstler is the lone culprit behind the project’s first full-length and second release overall (also second this year, so he would seem to work quickly), and across 43 minutes that only grow more grueling as they proceed through the centerpiece title-track and into “The Terrors that Plague Nightly” and the desolate incantations of “Exiled to the Realm of Eternal Rot,” there are some hints of cleaner grunts that have made their way through — a kind of repeated “hup” vocalization — but this too is swallowed in the miasma of cave-echo guitar, drums-from-out-of-the-abyss, and raw-as-peeled-flesh production. Can’t get behind that? Probably you and 99.9 percent of the rest of humanity. For us slugs, though, it’s just about right.

Ghost Spawn on Thee Facebooks

Ghost Spawn on Bandcamp

 

Agrabatti, Beyond the Sun

agrabatti beyond the sun

It’s kosmiche thrust and watery vibes when Agrabatti go Beyond the Sun. What’s there upon arrival? Nothing less than a boogie down with Hawkwind at the helm of a spacey spaced-out space rocking chopper that you shouldn’t even be able to hear the revving engine of in space and yet somehow you can. Also synth, pulsating riffs and psych-as-all-golly-gosh awakenings. Formed in 2009 by Chad Davis — then just out of U.S. Christmas, already at that point known for his work in Hour of 13 and a swath of other projects across multiple genres — and with songs begun to come together at that time only to be shelved ahead of recording this year, Beyond the Sun sat seemingly in some unreachable strata of anomalous subspace, for 11 years before being rediscovered from its time-loop like Kelsey Grammer in that one episode of TNG, and gorgeously spread across the quadrant in its five-cut run, with its cover of the aforementioned Hawkwind‘s “Born to Go” so much at home among its companions it feels like, baby, it’s already gone. Do you need sunglasses in the void? Shit yeah you do.

Agrabatti on Thee Facebooks

Agrabatti on Bandcamp

 

Dead Sacraments, Celestial Throne

Dead Sacraments Celestial Throne

Four sprawling doom epics comprise the 2019 debut album — and apparently debut release — from Illinois four-piece Dead Sacraments, who themselves are comprised from three former members of atmospheric sludgers Angel Eyes, who finished their run in 2011 but released the posthumous Things Have Learnt to Walk That Ought to Crawl (review here). Those are guitarist Brendan Burchell, bassist Nader Cheboub and drummer Ryan Croson, and together with apparently-self-harmonizing vocalist/guitarist Mark Mazurek, they cast a doom built on largesse in tone and scope alike, given an air of classic-metal grandiosity but filtered through a psych-doom modernity that feels aware of what the likes of Pallbearer and Khemmis have done for the genre. Nonetheless, as a first record, Celestial Throne shines its darkness brightly across its no-song-under-nine-minutes-long lumber, and affirms the righteousness of doom with a genuine sense of reach at its disposal.

Dead Sacraments on Thee Facebooks

Dead Sacraments on Bandcamp

 

Smokemaster, Smokemaster

smokemaster smokemaster

The languid and trippy spirit in opener “Solar Flares” is something of a misdirect on the part of organ-laced, Cologne-based heavy rockers Smokemaster, who go on to boogie down through songs like “Trippin’ Blues” before jamming out classic heavy blues-style on “Ear of the Universe.” I’m not saying they don’t have their psychedelic aspects, but there’s plenty of movement behind what they do as well, and the setup they give with the first two cuts is effective in throwing off the first-time listener’s expectation. A pastoral instrumental “Sunrise in the Canyon” leads off side B after, and comes backed by “Astronaut of Love” (yup, a lovestronaut) and “Astral Traveller,” which find an engaging midpoint between the ground and the great beyond, synth and keys pushing outward in the finale even as the bass and drums keep it tethered to a central groove. It’s a formula that’s worked many times over the last half-century, but it works here too, and Smokemaster‘s Smokemaster makes a right-on introduction to the German newcomers.

Smokemaster on Thee Facebooks

Tonzonen Records store

 

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Freak Valley 2019: God is an Astronaut, Monolord, King Buffalo, Stonefield, Duel and Pretty Lightning Added

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 15th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

freak valley 2019 banner

Once again, Freak Valley 2019 adds a righteous swath of bands to its lineup for this June, and once again, I had the pleasure of writing the announcement. It’s shaping up to be a huge bill, and from YOB and C.O.C. marking 25 years of Deliverance to Slomatics heralding their next release and It’s Not Night: It’s Space making an awaited European debut, it’s a wide swath of heavy from Europe and the US and to be frank, it looks pretty unbelievable. Imagine seeing Spaceslug and King Buffalo on the same lineup. Woof. Or Arc of Ascent and Electric Moon? The heart breaks at the thought.

I’d go on about the bands added this time — what with the Monolord and the God is an Astronaut and the Stonefield and whatnot — but again, I wrote the announcement below, so I’ve kind of already done that. To do so again feels a little redundant.

Freak Valley posted word thusly:

freak valley 2019 poster

FREAK VALLEY 2019 – GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT | MONOLORD | KING BUFFALO | STONEFIELD | DUEL | PRETTY LIGHTNING

Freaks, Assemble!

Gather ‘round the fires burning the dystopian fuel of your bygone expectations bear witness to another massive Freak Valley Festival 2019 lineup announcement! It. Is. Substantial. And we are accordingly substantially thrilled to bring to it to you.

First, it is with regret we inform you that Harsh Toke won’t be joining us this year. These things happen. However, the party must go on, so join us as we welcome God Is An Astronaut, Monolord, King Buffalo, Stonefield, DUEL, and Pretty Lightning to FREAK VALLEY FESTIVAL 2019!

You know who these bands are, but just for fun, let’s go through, shall we?

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT

More than 15 years on from getting their start, Irish instrumentalists God is an Astronaut seamlessly blend heavy post-rock and psychedelic soundscapes to an evocative degree that is all their own. In 2018, the band released ‘Epitaph,’ which was somewhat ironically titled given the vital spirit of its creativity but nonetheless carried a melancholic feel, wistful even in its most colorful moments. This is a band we love and we know that they’re going to be something truly special for Freak Valley 2019. We can’t tell you enough: Don’t miss them.

MONOLORD

Sweden’s reigning kingpins of tectonic riffery come to FVF on the heels of ‘Rust,’ their third and most expansive offering to-date. It’s hard to believe it was only six years ago they made their debut, but in the time since, they’ve toured relentlessly across Europe and the US and have left nothing but destruction in their wake. As their influence begins to spread, Monolord only continue to look forward, and while they prepare to move on to next work, they’ll bring their inimitable groove to once more affirm the righteousness of their riff worship.

KING BUFFALO

Working with producer Ben McLeod from All Them Witches, last year King Buffalo released their second album, ‘Longing to Be the Mountain,’ and indeed, they became it. They may hail from the cold reaches of upstate New York, but King Buffalo’s sound is warm and inviting and made all the more distinct by a level of craft that is their own. Their songs are spacious and tripped out with chemistry-driven jams, but they never seem to get lost either. At least not more than they want to. We’re happy their path will lead them to Freak Valley this year.

STONEFIELD

The Findlay Family Band comes to Netphen! Melbourne’s Stonefield is comprised of sisters Amy, Sarah, Holly and Hannah Findlay, and their take on classic psychedelia is peppered with right-on fuzz, a penchant for memorable melody, and just a bit of synthy weirdness that made their 2018 album, ‘Far From Earth,’ as dance-ready as it was nod-out. Get blissed as Stonefield come to Freak Valley for the first time and change all our heads in the process. Can’t wait. Also, no one really calls them the “Findlay Family Band,” so don’t do that.

DUEL

Duel have been doing their bit to “Keep Austin Weird” — as the bumper stickers say — for the better part of the last half-decade, putting out their debut ‘Fears of the Dead’ in 2016 and following it up with ‘Witchbanger’ the last year. They’ve put their noses to the tablesaw of touring ever since and we gladly open our doors, arms and hearts to welcome their acid-laced boogie intensity to Freak Valley. And their records are killer, no doubt about it, but live they absolutely bring it to another level. You’ll be buying a t-shirt, make no mistake.

PRETTY LIGHTNING

Far be it from us to tell you how to live your life or anything, but if you haven’t go hit up Bandcamp at some point today and take a listen to Pretty Lightning’s ‘The Rhythm of Ooze.’ The Saarbrücken duo released the LP in 2017 and used it to envision a psych-honed Delta blues vibe as much of the earth as it was stretched out on some cosmic ether. Soul music for those bound for the center of the galaxy. And once you take the time to listen, we won’t need to tell you to see them at Freak Valley. You’ll just know it’s where you have to be.

Line-up 2019:
Wolfmother, Corrosion Of Conformity, Brant Bjork, Yob, God Is An Astronaut, The Obsessed Official, Monolord, The Vintage Caravan, Electric Moon, King Buffalo, Minami Deutsch, Pristine, Stonefield, It’s Not Night: It’s Space, Spaceslug, Arc of Ascent, DUEL, The Fierce & The Dead, Pretty Lightning, Dead Lord

Freak Valley Festival 2019 // No Fillers – Just Killers

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Stonefield, Far From Earth (2018)

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Desertfest Berlin 2018 Adds Radio Moscow, Lucifer, Pretty Lightning, Lionize and Haik to Lineup

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 7th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Admittedly, I’m a few days late on this update from Desertfest Berlin 2018, and I don’t have an excuse for that other than ‘I suck at this,’ but don’t let that fact stop you from appreciating how righteous this festival is, both in terms of this year’s lineup and what they’ve built over previous installments. Adding Radio Moscow to a bill is always a good idea — also a good way to make everyone else playing that stage feel insecure — and I certainly dug the hell out of the latest from Pretty Lightning, The Rhythm of Ooze (review here), so having them aboard in this latest update along with Lucifer, Lionize and Haik only makes a strong Desertfest Berlin 2018 even stronger.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make my ass any timelier. It’s okay though, I hear immediacy isn’t a big deal on the internet…

From the PR wire:

desertfest berlin 2018 poster

DESERTFEST BERLIN 2018 ANNOUNCES RADIO MOSCOW + LUCIFER + LIONIZE + PRETTY LIGHTNING + HAIK!

Finally the wait for a new band announcement is over, DESERTFEST BERLIN is thrilled to welcome RADIO MOSCOW, LUCIFER, LIONIZE, PRETTY LIGHTNING and HAIK to their already exciting festival line-up in 2018!

Radio Moscow (US)
No need to introduce RADIO MOSCOW, the psychedelic blues rock juggernaut will make you groove so heavily, none of us at the entire ARENA Berlin will stand still!

Lucifer (US)
Why just a few guitar cabinets and amplifiers, when you could use TONS on stage? Heavy doom trio LUCIFER will bring their massive wall of sounds to our stage, the entire city of Berlin will shake!

Lionize (US)
Rooted in hard rock & heavy metal, American rockers LIONIZED are not afraid to experiment in various sounds: add some exciting dose of funk, reggae and even dub-step to their mix, this band will round off the perfect heavy rock party. No wonder that LIONIZE are signed to CLUTCH’ own label Weathermusic, while members such as Neil Fallon or Tim Sult already guest-appeared on several LIONIZE records.

Pretty Lightning (DE)
With the heavy psychedelic blues running through their veins, up and coming PRETTY LIGHTNING from Germany will serve us sundrenched vibes moving into a powerful dark affair of tunes!

Haik (DE)
Feating members of Rotor and Dyse, Berlin-based quartet HAIK has their roots in rock´n´roll while runnig into creations of metal, jazz, blues and electronic fever. Fresh ideas meeting old drives and will showcase the band’s unique sound live at Desertfest Berlin 2018!

With this new bunch of highclass acts for 2018, Desertfest Berlin will make sure fans of the entire desert rock genre and beyond will experience the most special edition to date. Alongside headliners such as MONSTER MAGNET, HIGH ON FIRE and GRAVEYARD, many more bands will be announced soon! Desertfest Berlin will take place between May 4th – 6th 2018 at the ARENA BERLIN, tickets are available at: www.desertfest-tickets.de

www.desertfest.de
www.facebook.com/DesertfestBerlin
www.facebook.com/DesertfestBerlin/events

Pretty Lightning, “This Machine is Running”

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Pretty Lightning, The Rhythm of Ooze: Blue Liquefaction

Posted in Reviews on December 13th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Pretty Lightning The Rhythm of Ooze

Much to its credit, The Rhythm of Ooze inhabits the fluidity its title implies. Does it even need to be said that the rhythm of ooze is about something that flows? Something malleable to suit a given purpose? Something that can be changed in its direction and manipulated? Think about pouring viscous liquid into a vertical maze and watching it crawl its way toward the end. The 10 tracks of the third full-length from Saarbrücken, Germany, two-piece Pretty Lightning — issued by Fuzz Club Records — works not all that differently. A decade after first getting together, the self-recording/self-mixing duo of Christian Berghoff and Sebastian Haas embody a psychedelic and loosely progressive take on heavy blues rock, chic like Black Keys and geared at times toward a similar-feeling idea that they might at some point make skinny white people dance — “This Machine is Running” might do the trick if anything ever could — but more expansive ultimately than most indie-minded rock is willing to let itself be, stretching into a lysergic hypnosis of effects and an immersive swirl that, indeed, carries the audience smoothly from the top of that maze to the bottom.

As they follow-up 2015’s A Magic Lane of Light and Rain (on Cardinal Fuzz and Sound Effect Records) and their 2012 debut, There are Witches in the Woods (on Fonal Records), their sense of command is strong, but that does nothing to undercut the playfulness of arrangements like that of “Rainbow Fantasies,” with its interwoven layers of effects-soaked guitar and jingling bells, or the inclusion of organ on opener “Thunder Mountain Return” that complements the bounce of that 7:42 track that bookends with 7:57 closer “Born to Snooze” as being nearly twice as long than the bulk of what occurs between. To go with versatility in terms of the elements at play, Pretty Lightning offer a ready juxtaposition of tempos, showing early stomp as the quicker “Willow Valley Blues” picks up from the dreamy beginning “Thunder Mountain Return” uses to ease the listener into the record and sets itself to establishing the subtle momentum that pushes through one song and into the next among the eight shorter, three-to-four-minute pieces sandwiched by the start and finish.

Also much to The Rhythm of Ooze‘s credit, it does not lose its underlying sense of cohesion while engaging this fluidity. There’s no secret to accomplishing that — it’s the songwriting. Haas and Berghoff don’t necessarily lean overly hard on the making of hooks, but even the backwards loops and soloing near the end of “Tangerine Steam” — which lead, suitably enough, into the more percussively-forward “Loops” — provide a memorable impression, and when they do want to elicit a chorus, they’re certainly more than able to do so, as songs like “Willow Valley Blues,” “Loops,” the swaying title-track, “This Machine is Running” and the penultimate “Moles” demonstrate. This notion of craft meets and lives comfortably alongside the shifts in approach on display across the 45-minute span of the album, as well as the psych-blues aesthetic that at times listening can make one feel like they’re in a beer commercial. But good beer. Not some shitty macro.

pretty lightning

Pretty Lightning, in other words, offer style and substance with their oozy rhythm, and the dynamic turns Haas and Berghoff hone throughout are not to be understated. To wit, “Thunder Mountain Return” seems in its first minute to set up a hypnotic loop of plucked and echoing banjo, hypnotizing the listener as a subtle wash of effects builds up behind, and it ends with that same progression — mirroring the bookending nature of the record as a whole — but the back and forth conversation between shoegazing patience and get-up-and-move begins as soon as the shove of “Willow Valley Blues” starts, and that is immediate.

It’s almost a call and response from there from one side to the other: “Tangerine Steam” channeling Dead Meadow while “Loops” basks in some of the most satisfying movement-based fuzz I’ve heard since Elvis Deluxe‘s woefully underappreciated Favourite State of Mind LP; “The Rhythm of Ooze” finding some middle ground between the two sides to lead into the more energetic “This Machine is Running” which gives way to the instrumental exploration in “Rainbow Fantasies” and “Pale Yellow”‘s rambling technicolor-cowboy drift; “Moles” once again reviving the swagger before “Born to Snooze” purposefully leaves its structure behind and sets out in its second half on one final exploration that will ultimately bring the album to an improvised-sounding and willfully imperfect end of synth and drums. These changes can be drastic but are easily followed with the mindful direction provided by the band, who do little to play to the novelty rawness indulged by some duos and instead take full advantage of a laudable creative range.

One more aspect to the album’s credit? The tones. I noted above aspects of shoegaze at work and the fuzz of “Loops,” but it’s only fair to emphasize the point of how much work the consistency of tone and the depth of tone does to unite the material throughout The Rhythm of Ooze. Tone is a key ingredient, and along with the vocal echo manipulations, it is what lets so much of Pretty Lightning‘s bluesy pulsations carry a psychedelic aspect as well. By giving the record this sense of fullness, they’ve made it all the more enticing a listen, and though they take risks in terms of setting up the contrast of tempos, tone is as much a factor in holding everything together as is the foundation of songcraft beneath the stylistic interplay.

The Rhythm of Ooze does not come apart and does not separate into its constituent aspects despite refusing to hold its shape, and Berghoff and Haas not only make their way through the maze they’ve set before themselves, but they do so without once getting lost along the way or veering off course. As such, their third long-player is a neo-psych collection brimming with purpose and fueled by a clear enthusiasm for its own making, passionately executed but not rushed even at its most active, and only stronger on the whole for the diversity and the chemistry so obviously at its core.

Pretty Lightning, The Rhythm of Ooze (2017)

Pretty Lightning on Thee Facebooks

Pretty Lightning on Bandcamp

Fuzz Club Records website

Fuzz Club Records on Bandcamp

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