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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Video Interview: Kelly Schilling of BleakHeart

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Features on November 18th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

bleakheart (Photo by Sarah Hoster)

Denver heavy introspectionists BleakHeart released their debut album, Dream Griever, last month on Colorado’s own Sailor Records. With five component tracks, the four-piece’s offering boasts a dynamic residing largely between heavy post-rock and doom, but there’s melodic resonance as well that stems from an all-deep-hued psychedelia, and even as the material touches on atmospheres reminiscent of Black Math Horseman or other tonally weighted ‘gazers, it brings a depth of sound and fluidity of craft that serves well to distinguish throughout. Founded by guitarist JP Damron (Vermin Womb) and with a lineup built around himself and vocalist/keyboardist Kelly Schilling (also Dreadnought) that includes guitarist Mark Chronister and drummer Josh Kauffman, the group bring a full-fledged sense of aesthetic to the long-player, replete with the patience necessary to construct such ambience and the underlying force of rhythm and melody to immerse the listener within its sprawl.

From the breathy, gradual unfurling of “Ash Bearer” into the emergent crush and later airiness of “Heed the Haunt” as Dream Griever cuts its river’s path toward and throughbleakheart dream griever the consuming heft of “The Visitor”‘s reaches and “The Dead Moon”‘s suitably mournful peel en route to the 11-minute finale title-track, the album remains united in feel and hue without being redundant in sound. Changes in volume are executed with a marked poise, and though tempos stay largely consistent — one almost expects blastbeats to break out on even the slowest records these days — BleakHeart don’t sacrifice the mood built up in order to proffer cheap catharsis. Even when “Dream Griever” unveils its final movement, righteously heavy and topped with synth that seems to hint toward a progressive future to come, the band are able to restrain themselves from undercutting what they’ve worked hard to establish.

In the interview that follows, Schilling discusses recording Dream Griever as the US was preparing to enter lockdown (the first one) for the COVID-19 pandemic, using the space within the songs as a means to explore new ideas in melody and approach — she talks about “belting it out,” and for an example, see “Heed the Haunt” circa 2:25 — as well as learning to function as a band in a socially-distant context, the possibility of ever playing live again, where she thinks BleakHeart might go sound-wise, the status of the next album from Dreadnought, and more. I couldn’t resist either asking about Schilling‘s taking part as a guest for SubRosa‘s ‘SubDued’ set (review here), what with it having been such an incredible and evidently once in a lifetime event to witness.

BleakHeart, Dream Griever Interview with Kelly Schilling, Nov. 16, 2020

Dream Griever was recorded, mixed and mastered by Pete DeBoer at World Famous Studios in Colorado, has cover art by Brian D’Agosta of Gostworks Art and is out now on Sailor Records. Full album stream follows here:

BleakHeart, Dream Griever (2020)

BleakHeart on Thee Facebooks

BleakHeart on Instagram

BleakHeart on Bandcamp

Sailor Records website

Sailor Records on Bandcamp

Sailor Records on Thee Facebooks

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BleakHeart to Release Debut Album Dream Griever on Oct. 23

Posted in Whathaveyou on September 7th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

bleakheart (Photo by Sarah Hoster)

The news about BleakHeart‘s debut full-length, Dream Griever, came through the other day, but believe me when I tell that it’s only now that I sit down to write about it that I understand the wordplay involved. To spare you, “griever” as opposed to “weaver.” Seriously. Actual earth days it took me to put that together. I’d like to tell myself I wasn’t thinking about it the whole time, and I wasn’t, but you know, neither did I immediately snap to.

And if you were looking for a little slice of what my life is like, that’s an instance in which I was just embarrassed, by myself, to myself, over nothing. There you go. Ready for some morose doomgaze? Shit yeah I am. Check out BleakHeart‘s “The Visitor,” the eight-minute unfolding of which is rife with not-debut-style patience that makes me wonder just how much crawl there is across Dream Griever‘s span. The vocals of Dreadnought‘s Kelly Schilling are a draw, but “The Visitor” is immersive in its entire atmospheric impression, as I would expect a significant portion of the record to be. They do it well here.

Info came down the PR wire thusly:

bleakheart dream griever

Denver doomgaze unit BLEAKHEART will release their stunning debut full-length, Dream Griever, October 23rd.

A haunting eclipse of sorrow and desire, BLEAKHEART weaves their longing psychedelia into a crushing mass of melancholic wonder. Drawing influences from indie rock, shoegaze, psych rock, doom metal, and goth/darkwave, the collective manifests an emotionally lush atmosphere of rich guitars, haunting synths, and dynamic vocals.

BLEAKHEART was initially the solo project of JP Damron (Vermin Womb, In The Company Of Serpents) who soon recruited friend Kelly Schilling (Dreadnought) to contribute her voice to the venture. Following the release of their first demo, the dreamy-dreary duo was joined by Mark Chronister and Josh Kauffman to fully realize their distinct downtrodden, mournful resonance.

By juxtaposing somber, low-fi, guitar-driven soundscapes with shimmering, ethereal vocals and keys, Dream Griever seeks to reflect on the absurdity of the human condition. “The album explores the patterns of destruction and turmoil created within ourselves, and the time we lose within those fleeting cycles,” says Schilling. Through anger, deception, loss, and wanting, Dream Griever presents a vulnerable and beautiful atmosphere of introspection around the pitfalls of human experience. “The record goes to all of those places – the acknowledgement, the attempted escape, and the inevitable missteps into the depths of our own machinations.”

Dream Griever was produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by Pete DeBoer (Blood Incantation, Dreadnought) at World Famous Studios in February/March 2020 and comes swathed in the art of Brian D’Agosta (Gostworks Art). In advance of the record’s official unveiling, the band is pleased to release first single “The Visitor” commenting of the stunning hymn, “‘The Visitor’ paints the atmosphere of our ephemeral reality and the anguish felt from repeating our past mistakes.”

BLEAKHEART’s Dream Griever will see release independently on CD, cassette, and digitally with Sailor Records handling the vinyl edition. For preorders, visit the band’s Bandcamp page at THIS LOCATION.

Dream Griever Track Listing:
1. Ash Bearer
2. Heed The Haunt
3. The Visitor
4. The Dead Moon
5. Dream Griever

JP Damron – Guitars
Mark Chronister – Guitars
Josh Kauffman – Drums
Kelly Schilling – Vocals, Keys

http://facebook.com/bleakheartband
https://www.instagram.com/bleakheartband/
https://bleakheart.bandcamp.com/

BleakHeart, Dream Griever (2020)

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Abrams Premiere “That Part of Me” from Modern Ways

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 7th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

abrams

Denver four-piece Abrams will release their new album, Modern Ways, on May 1 through Sailor Records and Atypeek Music. Though the semi-revamped outfit — founding guitarist/vocalist Zachary Amster and bassist/vocalist Taylor Iversen here welcome guitarist Patrick Alberts and drummer Ryan Dewitt to the fold — continue to maintain an edge of modern progressive metal à la the MastoBarodonness set, songs like “Joshua Tree,” the subsequent “That Part of Me,” and the later “Silver Lake” push the envelope of a Torchean pop sensibility to new and ultra-accessible ground. As with their two prior long-players, 2017’s Morning (review here) and 2015’s Lust. Love. Loss. (review here), Abrams create this blend of capital-‘h’ Heavy and more aggro metal elements — wait, “heavy” and “metal?” — in a collection of varied but mostly catchy, tightly written, energetically performed works of pointed, well-directed songcraft.

Their purposes in that regard are clear from the opening title-track, which seems to lyrically disavow modern ways even as the clarity of Dave Otero‘s production (he also mixed and mastered) highlights them in the band’s sound, onward into the grander-swinging of “Poison Bullets,” which introduces some more crunch in the double-guitar/bass combinationabrams modern ways to follow-up on the finish of the opener, the screams of which will also later find complement on the three-minute “Silence,” even as that track rounds out in earliest-Queens of the Stone Age start-stop bounce (thinking “Mexicola” particularly). In between, one finds “Find a Way” cleanly executed and “My War” shifting to more of a linear build structure from its still-voluminous beginning, dropping to quiet for its verse and gaining steam through its chorus surges as it goes, both tracks coming ahead of the five-minute “Silver Lake,” which coats its isolation in a dream-toned airy guitar figure and is perhaps a complement either conscious or not to “Joshua Tree,” the vocals reminding a bit of Mos Generator but holding fast in the midsection to the edge that comes forward in the second half that follows, that last push capped with a flourish via a return to the softer progression that started off; something of a head-spinner, but an enjoyable trip just the same.

It cedes ground to “Silence,” which clears the air ahead of the closing duo “Pale Moonlight” and “Marionette,” which are the only two songs on the 10-track Modern Ways to run over six minutes apiece. “Pale Moonlight” is the longer of the two and holds an initial tension in its drums despite starting off quiet, shoving ahead into more intense fare and a highlight guitar solo as it works through its instrumental back end, while “Marionette” brings where-the-hell-have-these-been-hiding vocal harmonies and finds a heavier footing in the undertone for some of the more floating guitar, finishing clean with a symmetry of bass that underscores the notion of just how much of what Abrams does and what makes their work to this point in their tenure so effective is based around songwriting. Their pieces successfully feed into an overarching flow across Modern Ways‘ 43 minutes, but it is abundantly clear they were composed one way or the other as individual songs, and they function accordingly well either in the full context of their surrounding tracks or standing on their own.

To that end, you’ll find the clearheaded four-minute push of “That Part of Me” premiering on the player below, followed by a brief quote from Amster about the track and of course the requisite album preorder link. For what it’s worth, it takes you right to Abrams‘ Bandcamp, and I know it’s always important to support bands directly, but given current events it feels all the more crucial. I’m not trying to sell you anything (ever; that ain’t my thing), I’m just pointing out what’s there.

Enjoy the song:

Zachary Amster on “That Part of Me”:

“‘That Part of Me’ was the first song we wrote for this record. It really set the tone for the type of sound we wanted to create en masse. Dynamically heavy rock and roll with hooks.”

Pre-orders: http://abramsrock.bandcamp.com/album/modern-ways

Modern Ways will be available on vinyl and streaming services via Sailor Records on May 1st, 2020. Pre-orders are available HERE. Mixed, Mastered and Produced by Dave Otero at Flatline Audio in Westminster, CO.

Based out of Denver, Abrams was founded in 2013 as a trio. Abrams debut EP, February was released in May 2014 on No List Records. The supporting tour for this release saw the band hit the West Coast, before heading immediately into the studio to record their first full length. Lust. Love. Loss was released independently in June 2015. The remainder of the year saw Abrams tour West, East, and West again. Their follow up, Morning, came out on Sailor Records in June of 2017, which was supported by three nationwide tours for much of the remaining year.

Abrams is:
Patrick Alberts: Guitar
Zachary Amster: Guitar & Vox
Ryan Dewitt: Drums
Taylor Iversen: Bass & Vox

Abrams website

Abrams on Instagram

Abrams on Thee Facebooks

Abrams on Bandcamp

Sailor Records website

Sailor Records on Bandcamp

Sailor Records on Thee Facebooks

Atypeek Music on Thee Facebooks

Atypeek Music on Bandcamp

Atypeek Music website

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Abrams Announce New LP Modern Ways & Stream Title-Track

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 4th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

abrams

If you don’t give them anything else, you have to give it to Denver’s Abrams on their producer choices. Both 2017’s Morning (review here) and 2015’s Lust. Love. Loss. (review here) were tracked with Andy Patterson, and their upcoming long-player, Modern Ways — out May 1 on Sailor Records — was helmed by Dave Otero, whom I’ll always remember as he who recorded Cephalic Carnage‘s Anomalies but is probably better known at this point for working with Khemmis and the like.

Fair enough for the band wanting to change things up as they approach their third full-length — at least in some regards; Morning also had cover art by the brilliant Samantha Muljat — and the first single, also the title-track, from Modern Ways finds them pushing their affinity for creating heavy-toned-and-pop-informed rock to the forefront of their sound. Expect quality songs, and a quality production. This band has set a standard for itself at this point.

Details from the PR wire:

abrams modern ways

Abrams share lead track from forthcoming third album Modern Ways

Abrams has upped the ante with their latest recording, Modern Ways. With a focus on songwriting, lyrical narrative, and addictive hooks and refrains, Abrams presents a highly focused, intensely polished sonic narrative. Written over the course of two and a half years, the album reflects the passions, pains, successes and nightmares of the members of Abrams lives.

Modern Ways will be available on vinyl and streaming services via Sailor Records on May 1st, 2020. Pre-orders are available HERE. Mixed, Mastered and Produced by Dave Otero at Flatline Audio in Westminster, CO.

Based out of Denver, Abrams was founded in 2013 as a trio. Abrams debut EP, February was released in May 2014 on No List Records. The supporting tour for this release saw the band hit the West Coast, before heading immediately into the studio to record their first full length. Lust. Love. Loss was released independently in June 2015. The remainder of the year saw Abrams tour West, East, and West again. Their follow up, Morning, came out on Sailor Records in June of 2017, which was supported by three nationwide tours for much of the remaining year.

Abrams is:
Patrick Alberts: Guitar
Zachary Amster: Guitar & Vox
Ryan Dewitt: Drums
Taylor Iversen: Bass & Vox

ABRAMS LIVE 2020:
01/29/20 Denver, CO @ Ophelia’s – Private Snowboard Industry event w/ ASG
05/02/20 Denver, CO @ Hi Dive – w/ Native Daughters and Palehorse/Palerider

Artist: Abrams
Album: Modern Ways
Record Label: Sailor Records
Release Date: May 1st, 2020
01. Modern Ways
02. Poison Bullets
03. Joshua Tree
04. That Part of Me
05.. Find a Way
06. My War
07. Silver Lake
08. Silence
09. Pale Moonlight
10. Marionette

http://www.abramsrocks.com
http://instagram.com/abramstheband
https://www.facebook.com/abramsrock
https://abramsrock.bandcamp.com/releases
https://www.sailorrecords.com/
https://sailor-records.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/sailorrecords/
https://www.facebook.com/AtypeekMusic/
https://atypeek.bandcamp.com/
atypeekmusic.com/

Abrams, Modern Ways (2020)

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Quarterly Review: Pelican, Swan Valley Heights, Mark Deutrom, Greenbeard, Mount Soma, Nibiru, Cable, Reino Ermitaño, Cardinals Folly & Lucifer’s Fall, Temple of the Fuzz Witch

Posted in Reviews on July 8th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

quarterly-review

More computer bullshit this morning. I lost about 45 minutes because my graphics driver and Windows 10 apparently hate each other and before I could disable the former, the machine decided the best it could do for me was to load a blank screen. Hard to find the Pelican record on my desktop when I can’t see my desktop. The Patient Mrs. woke up while I was trying to fix it and suggested HDMIing it to the tv. When I did that, it didn’t project as was hoped, but the display came on — because go figure — and I was able to shut off the driver, the only real advantage of which is it lets me use the night light feature so it’s easier on my eyes. That’s nice, but I’d rather have the laptop function. Not really working on a level of “give me soft red light or give me death!” at this point. I may yet get there in my life.

Today’s the last day of this beast, wrapping up the last of the 60 reviews, and I’m already in the hole for the better part of an hour thanks to this technical issue, the second of the week. Been an adventure, this one. Let’s close it out.

Quarterly Review #51-60:

Pelican, Nighttime Stories

pelican nighttime stories

Split into two LPs each with its own three-minute mood-setter — those being “WST” and “It Stared at Me,” respectively — Pelican‘s Nighttime Stories (on Southern Lord) carries the foreboding sensibility of its title into an aggressive push throughout the album, which deals from the outset with the pain of loss. The lead single “Midnight and Mescaline” represents this well in directly following “WST,” with shades of more extreme sounds in the sharp-turning guitar interplay and tense drums, but it carries through the blastbeats of “Abyssal Plain” and the bombastic crashes of presumed side B closer “Cold Hope” as well, which flow via a last tonal wash toward the melancholy “It Stared at Me” and the even-more-aggro title-track, the consuming “Arteries of Blacktop” and the eight-minute “Full Moon, Black Water,” which offers a build of maddening chug — a Pelican hallmark — before resolving in melodic serenity, moving, perhaps, forward with and through its grief. It’s been six years since Pelican‘s last LP, Forever Becoming (review here), and they’ve responded to that time differential with the hardest-hitting record they’ve ever done.

Pelican on Thee Facebooks

Southern Lord Recordings website

 

Swan Valley Heights, The Heavy Seed

swan valley heights the heavy seed

Though the peaceful beginning of 13-minute opener and longest track (immediate points) “The Heavy Seed,” for which the five-song album is named, reminds of Swan Valley Heights‘ Munich compatriots in Colour Haze, the ultimate impression the band make on their Fuzzorama Records debut and second album overall behind a 2016 self-titled (review here) is more varied in its execution, with cuts like “Vaporizer Woman” and the centerpiece “Take a Swim in God’s Washing Machine” manifesting ebbs and flows and rolling out a fuzzy largesse to lead into dream-toned ethereality and layered vocals that immediately call to mind Elephant Tree. There’s a propensity for jamming, but they’re not a jam band, and seem always to have a direction in mind. That’s true even on the three-minute instrumental “My First Knife Fight,” which unfurls around a nod riff and simple drum progression to bridge into closer “Teeth and Waves,” a bookend to The Heavy Seed‘s title-track that revives that initial grace and uses it as a stepping stone for the crunch to come. It’s a balance that works and should be well received.

Swan Valley Heights on Thee Facebooks

Fuzzorama Records on Bandcamp

 

Mark Deutrom, The Blue Bird

Mark Deutrom The Blue Bird

Released in the wee hours of 2019, Mark Deutrom‘s The Blue Bird marks the first new solo release from the prolific Austin-based songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist through Season of Mist, and it’s a 50-minute run of genre-spanning outsider art, bringing ’70s folk vibes to the weepy guitar echoes of “Radiant Gravity” right before “O Ye of Little Faith” dooms out for six of its seven minutes and “Our Revels Now Are Ended” basks in 77 seconds of experimentalist winding guitar. It goes like that. Vocals are intermittent enough to not necessarily be expected, but not entirely absent through the midsection of “Hell is a City,” “Somnambulist” and “Maximum Hemingway,” and if there’s traditionalism at play anywhere, it might be in “They Have Won” and “The Happiness Machine,” which, toward the back end of the album, bring a sax-laden melancholy vibe and a straightforward heavy rock feel, respectively, ahead of the closer “Nothing out There,” which ties them together, somehow accounting for the 1:34 “On Fathers Day” as well in its sweetness. Don’t go into The Blue Bird asking it to make sense on any level other than its own and you should be fine. It’s not a minor undertaking at 50 minutes, and not without its indulgences, but even the briefest of pieces helps develop the character of the whole, which of course is essential to any good story.

Mark Deutrom website

Season of Mist website

 

Greenbeard, Onward, Pillager

greenbeard onward pillager

Austin bringers of hard-boogie Greenbeard reportedly issued the three-song Onward, Pillager as a precursor to their next full-length — even the name hints toward it being something of a stopgap — but its tracks stand well on their own, whether it’s the keyboard-laced “Contact High II,” which is presumably a sequel to another track on the forthcoming record, or the chunkier roll of “WCCQ” and the catchy finisher “Kill to Love Yourself,” with its overlaid guitar solo adding to a dramatic ending. It hasn’t been that long since 2017’s Lödarödböl (review here), but clearly these guys are committed to moving forward in neo-stoner rock fashion, and their emergence as songwriters is highlighted particularly throughout “WCCQ” and “Kill to Love Yourself,” while “Contact High II” is more of an intro or a would-be interlude on the full-length. It may only be pieces of a larger, to-be-revealed picture, but Onward, Pillager shows three different sides of what Greenbeard have on offer, and the promise of more to come is one that will hopefully be kept sooner rather than later.

Greenbeard on Thee Facebooks

Sailor Records on Bandcamp

 

Mount Soma, Nirodha

mount_soma_nirodha

Each of the three songs on Mount Soma‘s densely-weighted, live-recorded self-released Nirodha EP makes some mention of suffering in its lyrics, and indeed, that seems to be the theme drawing together “Dark Sun Destroyer” (7:40), “Emerge the Wolf” (5:50) and “Resurfacing” (9:14): a quest for transcendence perhaps in part due to the volume of the music and the act itself of creating it. Whatever gets them there, the trajectory of Nirodha is such that by the time they hit into the YOB-style galloping toward the end of “Resurfacing,” the gruff shouts of “rebirth!” feel more celebratory than ambitious. Based in Dublin, the four-piece bring a fair sense of space to their otherwise crush-minded approach, and though the EP is rough — it is their second short release following 2016’s Origins — they seem to have found a way to tie together outer and inner cosmos with an earthbound sense of gravity and heft, and with the more intense shove of “Emerge the Wolf” between the two longer tracks, they prove themselves capable of bringing a noisy charge amid all that roar and crash. They did the first EP live as well. I wonder if they’d do the same for a full-length.

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Nibiru, Salbrox

nibiru salbrox

One might get lost in the unmanageable 64-minute wash of Nibiru‘s fifth full-length (first for Ritual Productions), Salbrox, but the opaque nature of the proceedings is part of the point. The Italian ritualists bring forth a chaotic depth of noise and harsh semi-spoken rasps of vocals reportedly in the Enochian language, and from 14-minute opener “EHNB” — also the longest track (immediate points) — through the morass that follows in “Exarp,” “Hcoma,” “Nanta” and so on, the album is a willful slog that challenges the listener on nearly every level. This is par for the course for Nibiru, whose last outing was 2017’s Qaal Babalon (review here), and they seem to revel in the slow-churning gruel of their distortion, turning from it only to break to minimalism in the second half of the album with “Abalpt” and “Bitom” before 13-minute closer “Rziorn” storms in like a tsunami of spiritually desolate plunge. It is vicious and difficult to hear, and again, that is exactly what it’s intended to be.

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Ritual Productions website

 

Cable, Take the Stairs to Hell

Cable Take the Stairs to Hell

The gift of Cable was to take typically raw Northeastern disaffection and channel it into a noise rock that wasn’t quite as post-this-or-that as Isis, but still had a cerebral edge that more primitive fare lacked. They were methodical, and 10 years after their last record, the Hartford, Connecticut, outfit return with the nine-song/30-minute Take the Stairs to Hell (on Translation Loss), which brings them back into the modern sphere with a sound that is no less relevant than it was bouncing between This Dark Reign, Hydra Head and Translation Loss between 2001 and 2004. They were underrated then and may continue to be now, but the combination of melody and bite in “Black Medicine” and the gutty crunch of “Eyes Rolled Back,” the post-Southern heavy of the title-track and the lumbering pummel of “Rivers of Old” before it remind of how much of a standout Cable was in the past, reinforcing that not only were they ahead of their time then, but that they still have plenty to offer going forward. They may continue to be underrated as they always were, but their return is significant and welcome.

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Reino Ermitaño, Reino Ermitaño

Reino Ermitano Reino Ermitano

Originally released in 2003, the self-titled debut from Lima, Peru’s Reino Ermitaño was a beacon and landmark in Latin American doom, with a sound derived from the genre’s traditions — Sabbath, Trouble, etc. — and melded with not only Spanish-language lyrics, but elements of South American folk and stylizations. Reissued on vinyl some 16 years later, it maintains its power through the outside-time level of its craft, sliding into that unplaceable realm of doom that could be from any point from about 1985 onward, while the melodies in the guitar of Henry Guevara and the vocals of Tania Duarte hold sway over the central groove of bassist Marcos Coifman and drummer Julio “Ñaka” Almeida. Those who were turned onto the band at the time will likely know they’ve released five LPs to-date, with the latest one from 2014, but the Necio Records version marks the first time the debut has been pressed to vinyl, and so is of extra interest apart from the standard putting-it-out-there-again reissue. Collectors and a new generation of doomers alike would be well advised on an educational level, and of course the appeal of the album itself far exceeds that.

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Cardinals Folly & Lucifer’s Fall, Split

cardinals folly lucifers fall split

Though one hails from Helsinki, Finland, and the other from Adelaide, Australia, Cardinals Folly and Lucifer’s Fall could hardly be better suited to share the six-song Cruz Del Sur split LP that they do, which checks in at 35 minutes of trad doom riffing and dirtier fare. The former is provided by Cardinals Folly, who bring a Reverend Bizarre-style stateliness to “Spiritual North” and “Walvater Proclaimed!” before betraying their extreme metal roots on “Sworn Through Odin’s and Satan’s Blood,” while the Oz contingent throw down Saint Vitus-esque punk-born fuckall through “Die Witch Die,” the crawling “Call of the Wild” and the particularly brash and speedier “The Gates of Hell.” The uniting thread of course is homage to doom itself, but each band brings enough of their own take to complement each other without either contradicting or making one or the other of them feel redundant, and rather, the split works out to be a rampaging, deeply-drunk, pagan-feeling celebration of what doom is and how it has been internalized by each of these groups. Doom over the world? Yeah, something like that.

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Cruz Del Sur Music website

 

Temple of the Fuzz Witch, Temple of the Fuzz Witch

Temple of the Fuzz Witch Temple of the Fuzz Witch

A strong current of Electric Wizard runs through the self-titled debut full-length from Detroit’s Temple of the Fuzz Witch (on Seeing Red Records), but even to that, the outfit led by guitarist/vocalist Noah Bruner bring a nascent measure of individuality, droning into and through “Death Hails” after opening with “Bathsheba” and ahead of unveiling a harmonized vocal on “The Glowing of Satan” that suits the low end distortion surprisingly well. They continue to offer surprises throughout, whether it’s the spaciousness of centerpiece “329” and “Infidel,” which follows, or the offsetting of minimalism and crush on “The Fuzz Witch” and the creeper noise in the ending of “Servants of the Sun,” and though there are certainly familiar elements at play, Temple of the Fuzz Witch come across with an intent to take what’s been done before and make it theirs. In that regard, they would seem to be on the right track, and in their 41 minutes, they find footing in a murky aesthetic and are able to convey a sense of songwriting without sounding heavy-handed. There’s nothing else I’d ask of their first album.

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The Munsens, Unhanded: When it’s Time to Let Loose

Posted in Reviews on February 19th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

the munsens unhanded

Though The Munsens call the mile-high environs of Denver, Colorado, home, their roots are along the Northeastern Seaboard in New Jersey, and sure enough, their debut full-length was recorded across the Hudson River from New York City in a town called Hoboken, which claims distinction as the birthplace of both Frank Sinatra and baseball. They’ve been looking for their sound over the course of the last five years, tracing their way through stonerly crunch on the 2014 Weight of Night EP (review here) and 2016’s moodier Abbey Rose EP (review here), but as Shaun and Michael Goodwin, who handle guitar and vocals/bass/cover photography, respectively, and drummer Graham Wesselhoff embark on their first album for Sailor Records, the five-track/38-minute Unhanded — which it’s worth noting is shorter than Abbey Rose by about two minutes — takes on a much more extremity-fueled approach, basking in sludgy groove and harsh, biting vocals.

There are moments where their prior fuzz shines through, as in the early going of penultimate cut “Bleeding from the Ears,” but The Munsens seem to be bent toward plodding their way into a vision of sludge that’s informed by brutality as much as heft, and indeed the centerpiece track comes across like slowed-down Mantar, their deeply weighted tones as captured by Mike Moebius at Moonlight Mile/Hoboken Recorders coming through all the more tectonic for their lumbering pace. But tempo too is malleable, and even in the 10:54 album opener and longest track (immediate points) “Dirge (For Those to Come),” the three-piece offset plod with blasting intensity. The result there as in several places on Unhanded is a sonic brutalism that is clearheaded in its intent and striking in its fluidity. They are not by any means friendly-sounding, but “Dirge (For Those to Come)” underscores at atmospheric approach late in its going, topping the nod-paced cacophony with an airier guitar solo that skirts the border of the hypnotic. Having become multifaceted certainly doesn’t hurt them, and the prevailing vibe throughout Unhanded is that The Munsens are hereby laying claim to the sound they’ve been seeking for the last five years.

It’s a convenient narrative, if nothing else, but there is evidence in the songs to back it up. The four-minute pummel and sway of closer “Rivers of Error” showcases The Munsens at some of their nastiest before its long fade brings the record to its end, but in the downtrodden riffing of second track “Pitiful” leads to a fervent gallop that’s straight out of heavy rock, even if its tones are coated in filth and the earlier vocals are guttural shouts reveling in their viciousness. That might be residual influence from what they were doing a couple years ago on Abbey Rose, but I don’t think so. The prevailing spirit of Unhanded seems to be more about honing who The Munsens are as a band. Even the title could be read as speaking to this kind of liberation — a sense of letting go. That’s what The Munsens seem to be doing here, and it’s a riskier proposition than was Abbey Rose.

the munsens

Certainly that release and Weight of Night — also recorded by Moebius; it’s a partnership the bass tone alone proves they were correct to resume — were dark, but the shift in vocal style puts them in a different category of bands entirely, and the ease with which their material careens from its noise-caked mania to either a slowdown or even just as standalone guitar as in the midsection of “Unhanded” itself willfully takes on that risk. If they alienate some heads, well, screw it. Plenty of skulls in the sea. The sense of crush they bring to Unhanded is purposeful and they wield it well, but even the act of taking it on in place of some of the far-back cavernousness of Abbey Rose is a bold move. The Munsens could have easily continued the path they were on, but frankly, Unhanded comes across front to back as more honest, and as the trio bask in this newfound freedom, it provides them with an energy of performance that bleeds into even their most lurching moments, as well as the brash onslaught of a piece like “Pitiful” or “Dirge (For Those to Come)” at its most raging.

But that’s just one way of taking Unhanded. The fact remains that by reuniting with Moebius, the Goodwins and Wesselhoff may indeed just be indulging an experiment of sound, and as resolved as they feel here, may be carried elsewhere by creative whims or the demands of future craft — i.e., “where the songs take them.” Given the context of Unhanded set against Abbey Rose and Weight of Night, I wouldn’t speculate, and while it’s telling that the newer release earns the distinction of being their first album while the prior EP had a longer runtime, that’s only part of the presentation, and it’s just as easy to regard the aesthetic shift as working in kind with Unhanded‘s overarching thematic, which is focused on a modern decay of environment and discourse. Lines like, “Not in my most fiendish of dreams/Could I have foreseen/Revolt so toothless/Preoccupied while pockets get lined,” from the title-track are tied to the current American social sphere, and likewise “Mountains of mistakes, ‘the promised land’/Rivers of errors flow with no delay/Buried in shit on our judgment day” from the finale, but neither goes so outwardly political as to name names.

Maybe next time, maybe not. The point is not to know. The Munsens have made their way to where they are on Unhanded by means of a genuine creative exploration, and for being their first long-player, they sound remarkably sure of themselves and what they’re doing across the bleak five-song span, but one would be blind to think they’re finished growing or don’t have more to say in terms of style as well as substance. Will they end up blending some of the aspects of their past work with what they do here? Will they push further into extreme metal? Have they secretly been a black metal band all along and just not told anybody? It’s entirely possible their next offering could arrive and be as unrecognizable from Unhanded as Unhanded is from their earlier output. If this record proves anything, it’s that The Munsens are in their element when it comes to taking chances.

The Munsens, Unhanded (2019)

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Greenbeard Release Onward, Pillager EP; Touring to Maryland Doom Fest 2019

Posted in Whathaveyou on December 28th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

greenbeard

As-yet-underrated Austin heavy rockers Greenbeard have released a new EP called Onward, Pillager. It’s three tracks and it’s cool. That’s about as simple as I can make it. Each song has its own kind of vibe, there is some guest synth, some guest vocals, and it all works pretty well to give an enticing showcase of where the three-piece are at. Worth your time? Worth your time. Stream it at the bottom of this post, via Bandcamp.

Greenbeard will tour their way out to Maryland Doom Fest 2019 next June. Right on for a few reasons. One, it means I’ll see them at MDDF. That’ll be fun. Two, it means they’re getting out on the road and a bunch of other people will see them at the other shows. Three, that itself means that the fest is having an effect even outside of itself on the heavy underground. Someone shows up to see Greenbeard on tour while Greenbeard are on tour to get to the fest? That’s awesome. That’s making things happen. Nothing but positive all around. And all the more so because the band is killer.

That’s my spiel. Not much critique, I guess, but I call’s ’em like I sees ’em, and to me this only seems like good news:

greenbeard onward pillager

OUT NOW! GREENBEARD’s new ‘ONWARD, PILLAGER’ EP available via Sailor Records; Confirming 2019 Tour Dates

Austin’s stoner/desert rock trio GREENBEARD launched their new EP ‘Onward, Pillager’ via the Denver, Colorado label Sailor Records on December 22nd. ‘Onward, Pillager’ serves as a teaser for an upcoming, full-length release on Sailor Records in 2019.

Both releases are produced, recorded, and mixed with Jeff Henson at Red Nova Ranch, in Austin, Texas. The EP is mastered by Alberto De Icaza. The band once again teamed up with long time collaborator Antoine Defarges of Headbang Design, to continue the Greenbeard tradition of elaborate, striking artwork for all their releases.

Greenbeard had this to say about their upcoming EP:

“It’s been great working with Jeff Henson on this EP! Aside from great recording quality, one of Jeff’s strengths that really works for us is his songwriting vision. We are all on the same page as far as rock and roll goes, and Jeff has been able to see our songs and give them a little extra shape to really make them stand out as some banging tunes. Because of this, we are very excited to release ‘Onward, Pillager’ and continue working more with Henson as we start getting things together for our next full length.”

‘Onward, Pillager’ is available on CD and Digital Download via Bandcamp and is now streaming on most digital outlets.

Order now at: https://greenbeard.bandcamp.com/

Track List:
1. Contact High II (synth by Conrad Keely)
2. WCCQ (background vocals by Felicia Andrews)
3. Kill To Love Yourself

UPCOMING DATES:

Greenbeard’s first confirmed tour dates for 2019 whirlwind around their appearance at the Maryland Doom Fest. More dates, details, and event links will be announced soon.

June 11 – Dallas, Texas
June 12 – Tulsa, Oklahoma
June 13 – Kansas City, Missouri
June 14 – Denver, Colorado
June 15 – Omaha, Nebraska
June 16 – Chicago, Illinois
June 17 – Fort Wayne, Indiana
June 18 – Lexington, Kentucky
June 19 – Cleveland, Ohio
June 20 – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
June 21 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
June 22 – Frederick, Maryland – MARYLAND DOOM FEST
June 23 – Richmond, Virginia
June 24 – Raleigh, North Carolina
June 25 – Savannah, Georgia
June 26 – Jacksonville, Florida
June 27 – Atlanta, Georgia
June 28 – Nashville, Tennessee
June 29 – Knoxville, Tennessee
July 01 – Sheveport, Louisiana

GREENBEARD:
Chance Allan – Guitar/Vocals
Jeff Klein – Bass/Guitar
Buddy Hachar – Drums

https://www.facebook.com/greenbeardtheband/
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http://www.greenbeardtheband.com
https://www.facebook.com/Sailor-Records-359148970778780/
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Greenbeard, Onward, Pillager (2018)

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