Top 20 Records, 2015

With all the beautiful debuts, great returns, and stellar collaborations this year, I’m still baffled by people who complain about the current state of music. I couldn’t even cover all of 2015’s great releases, but here are the ones I listened to and loved the most.

Unless otherwise noted, each album is linked to its Bandcamp page so you can have a listen and support the artists, if you are so inclined.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda

Deafheaven New Bermuda (ANTI-): Let’s not kid ourselves, when a band does a record as good as Sunbather (Deathwish, 2013), it’s difficult to imagine what they’re going to do next. No matter what you had in mind, I’m sure New Bermuda is not it. Not that it’s a left turn from what they’ve done before, but I’m baffled as to how they got better. Until compiling this list, New Bermuda was the only record I wrote about this year. I’m still quite okay with that. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.

Publicist UK: Forgive Yourself

Publicist UK Forgive Yourself (Relapse): Forgive Yourself is perhaps not what one would expect from a band consisting of Brett Bamberger (Revocation), Zach Lipez (Freshkills), David Obuchowski (Goes Cube, Distant Correspondent), and Dave Witte (Melt-Banana, Burnt by the Sun, Municipal Waste), but it’s heavy in all the other ways. Two weeks of listening to little else besides this record sent me on a two-month long Bauhuas and Killing Joke kick, if that clarifies the sound at all.

Tunde Olaniran: Transgressor

Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): Flint, Michigan may as well be another planet where Tunde Olaniran is concerned. His spaced-out soul is from some future Flint where pop music is fun and funky above all else. Just have a quick listen to “Namesake,” “Diamonds,” or the title track. Olaniran succeeds where The Weeknd fails.

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Chelsea Wolfe Abyss (Sargent House): Chelsea Wolfe shines a bright light into so much darkness. This is a record of such binaries: light/dark, loud/quiet, ugly/beautiful, terror/calm… Wolfe holds them all in a deft, delicate balance. The abyss never sounded so inviting. [Also one of the best live shows I saw this year.]

Zombi: Shape Shift

Zombi Shape Shift (Relapse): You know the era of Rush that every old-man fan hates? It runs from Signals to Grace Under Pressure on through Power Windows and Hold Your Fire — the 1980s, basically? Well, Zombi has taken that thinking-person’s prog-pop and pushed it straight into outer space (The beginning of “Total Breakthrough” even sounds vaguely like “Subdivisions”). “Triumphant return” is a phrase we’ve all heard before. This record is what it means.

Tau Cross

Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse): Finally, a band that’s just the sum of its parts! With bassist and vocalist Rob Miller (Amebix), Michel “Away” Langevin (Voivod) on drums and Jon Misery (Misery) and Andy Lefton (War//Plague) on guitars, Tau Cross can afford to trust the math. Reminds me of when Al Cisneros and Chris Hakiusof (Om, Sleep) got together with Scott “Wino” Weinrich (St. Vitus, The Hidden Hand, etc.) and Scott Kelly (Neurosis) to form Shrinebuilder: It sounds fresh and weathered at the same time. Unexpect the expected. [Thanks to Grant at Bucket O’ Blood for the tip on this one.]

Heiress: Of Great Sorrow

Heiress Of Great Sorrow (The Mylene Sheath): Of Great Sorrow by Seattle’s Heiress, which includes vocalist John Pettibone (Himsa, Undertow, nineironspitfire) and was recorded by Tad Doyle (Tad, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth), reminds me of all the interesting ways hardcore and metal can mix (think Kiss It Goodbye or Botch). Heiress consistently does just that.

Failure: The Heart is a Monster

Failure The Heart is a Monster (INgrooves): The 1990s are coming all the way back! The thing is, all the bands returning from that decade (e.g., My Bloody Valentine, Godflesh, Failure, et al.) are not the ones bringing it back. The shadow of Failure’s 1996 space-rock classic Fantastic Planet (Slash/Warner Bros.) looms long not only over them but countless other bands and various genres. Fortunately The Heart is a Monster just sounds like Failure. That’s a good thing in any decade.

Liturgy: The Ark Work

Liturgy The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey): The Ark Work all but abandons the American Transcendental Black Metal that Liturgy helped establish. The result is a strange mix of layered samples, repetitive drones, blast beats, and chanted vocals. The result could just as easily end up in your recycle bin as it could on repeat for days. The result is annoying, compelling, and utterly intoxicating. It’s an album as polarizing as its creator.

Gnaw Their Tongues: Abyss of Longing Throats

Gnaw Their Tongues Abyss of Longing Throats (Crucial Blast): Out of all the horrendously beautiful noise that Gnaw Their Tongues have released, dare I say that Abyss of Longing Throats is the most musical? Don’t get that twisted, this fits the sound of the Crucial Blast family, which includes Theologian, Light, Gulaggh, Year of No Light, Across Tundras, and Hal Hutchinson, among others. Gnaw Their Tongues has been churning out nastiness for a while now, but this record plumbs ever new depths to reach a definitive new high.

Low: Ones and Sixes

Low Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop): Over the past 20+ years, Low has ever-so-quietly become one of the most important bands of our time. They’re yet to do a sub-par record or repeat what they’ve done before, and Ones and Sixes is no exception. No one blends vulnerability and power into such perfectly crafted songs like Low.

Cult Leader: Lightless Walk

Cult Leader Lightless Walk (Deathwish, Inc.): They call it “progressive crust,” which is apt. Cult Leader is like every heavy genre wrapped up in a shiny, bloody, metal point. Lightless Walk is not out-and-out noise though. Groove, melody, dynamics, and great production are not lacking here. Whatever you call it, it’s brutally moving.

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer: Crater

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer Crater (SIGE): I’ve been a fan of Daniel Menche‘s sound sculptures for damn near 20 years. On Crater his dense layers of sonic texture are tempered by Aaron Ross and Faith Coloccia’s muted sense of melody. It’s less of a balance you can hear and more of a tension you can feel.

Thou & The Body

The Body & Thou Released From Love / You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey): Two great tastes that taste great together. The Body spent 2015 building a small collection of excellent collaborations (the others with Vampillia and Krieg are also well worth checking out), and this is one of the best. Oh, and as great as it is, don’t let the cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Terrible Lie” be the only thing you hear off of this.

Metz: II

Metz II (Sub Pop): What exactly is this? Metz hearkens back to the early 1990s when everything from Fugazi and Jawbox to Barkmarket and The Jesus Lizard were redefining what it meant to play punkish, heavy rock. Metz doesn’t concern themselves with such genre trouble. On this, their second outing, they blast relentlessly through ten more songs of whatever it is, screaming forward with their collective foot fully on the gas pedal. It’s a fun and frenetic ride.

Dragged Into Sunlight / Gnaw Their Tongues

Dragged Into Sunlight & Gnaw Their Tongues N.V. (Prosthetic): “N.V.” stands for “negative volume.” One of the nameless members of Dragged Into Sunlight explains it this way: “The thing about modern volume is that it just isn’t as good as that negative volume, that real fucked-up, 90s, wall-smashing, soul-crushing volume, a level of unrivaled misery and a time when extreme music posed a genuine threat with bands such as early Obituary, Mayhem, and Godflesh. It is on that basis that the title N.V. best summarizes the intent of the music.” That’s exactly what this collaboration sounds like: unrivaled misery and genuine threat.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

Grave Pleasures Dream Crash (Metal Blade): Grave Pleasures emerged from the remains of Beastmilk this year with some sweet, gothic post-punk. Goth is stronger than ever thanks especially to Chelsea Wolfe, Publicist UK, Anasazi, and this. [Thanks to Radio Fenriz for this one.]

Sunn O))): Kannon

Sunn O))) Kannon (Southern Lord): Finally, Sunn O))) returns with another drone-metal masterpiece, their first non-collaborative album since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions (In the meantime they’ve worked with Scott Walker, Ulver, Nurse With Wound, and Pan Sonic, each on respective projects). Kannon is all the reasons you love or hate Sunn O))): the drones, the monk-like chants, the darkness. It’s perfect.

John Carpenter's Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s Lost Themes (Sacred Bones): For all the influence his creepy minimalist melodies have had, you rarely hear director John Carpenter’s scores mentioned much (Have a listen to Disasterpiece’s score for It Follows, for one excellent example). On Lost Themes he ventures into strictly sonic territory without moving images to accompany. Make no mistake, even without blades and blood, these are still scary little jaunts into the mind of horror.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (TDE): Don’t even front: No 2015 list is complete without it.

If This List Were Longer: Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista), Xibalba Tierra Y Libertad (Southern Lord), Flying Saucer Attack Instrumentals 2015 (Drag City), Marriages Salome (Sargent House), Trial Vessel (High Roller), Brothers of the Sonic Cloth s/t (Neurot), Marduk Frontschwein (Century Media), Dystopia Nå! Dweller on the Threshold (Avantgarde), Haust Bodies (Fysisk Format), Anasazi Nasty Witch Rock (La Vida Es Un Mus), Myrkur M (Relapse), Steve Von Till A Life Unto Itself (Neurot), Killing Joke Pylon (Spinefarm), Ghost Meliora (Loma Vista), Archivist Archivist (Alerta Antifascista), Wimps Suitcase (Kill Rock Stars), Anopheli The Ache of Want (Halo of Flies/Alerta Antifascista), Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings), Wives So Removed (Wives), Disasterpiece It Follows (Milan), Slayer Repentless (Nuclear Blast).

Slayer: Building Bridges With Fire

Opinions often vary widely on the most important bands and records of any era, but only a few dare dispute the reign of Slayer and their thrash watermark Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986). There has always been a weird rift between punk and metal, but thrash was the first sub-genre to draw heavily from both. The two major movements have since spawned such tributaries as grindcore, metalcore, murdercore, power violence, and various strains of post-metal. “What do you think would get a bigger reaction: a Minor Threat cover or a Slayer cover?” Tim Singer, of long-defunct Seattle metalcore band Kiss It Goodbye, asked me during the recording of their one full-length record, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not (Revelation, 1997). “Isn’t it weird that it’s debatable?”

Slayer
Fuckin’ Slayer.

As hardcore, post-punk. and new wave were expanding out of the punk explosion of the mid-1970s, thrash metal was also fomenting. Slayer and several other thrash bands helped knock parts of the punk/metal divide down during the 1980s. By decade’s end, there was a whole lot of genre trouble in heavy music. What exactly was Barkmarket? The Jesus Lizard? Helmet? Even Pantera, emerging from the most staunchly Southern forges, had sharpened its edges on something other than metal. Slayer was one of the early major bands to flaunt its roots in both genres, and Reign in Blood is clearly a blend of the best of both. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say it unified the metal and hardcore punk-rock crowds,” D. X. Ferris (2014) writes. “But no metal album did as much to open the channels between the two distinct cultures” (p. 6). Making those influences explicit a decade later, Slayer did a punk covers record called Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) that includes tracks from Minor Threat, TSOL, D.I., Verbal Abuse, Black Flag, and The Stooges (via Sid Vicious).

Reign in Blood: 33 1/3 Metal Hammer‘s recent Thrash issue names Reign in Blood #1 in its list of the top-50 thrash records of all time. Calling the album “perfect,” Dom Lawson writes, “Reign in Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity.”  There’s something about this half-hour slice of metal that no other band has ever come close to matching. It sounds as fast, as fresh, and as menacing now as it ever did. When I first heard it, I knew that things were different — for me, for metal, for music.” “It sounds like it’s ready to derail at any second,” Kerry King tells Ian Winwood, yet it sounds tightly controlled at the same time. There’s a tension, an anxiety to it that no one has touched in the almost 30 years since its release. Its terror so taut, its aggression so relentless, it’s focus so fierce, “It may never be surpassed,” Lawson concludes. He is not alone in this assessment.

It’s been a year since we lost Jeff Hanneman, and in the meantime, D. X. Ferris, who wrote the 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008), has cranked out another book about Slayer. Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years (6623 Press, 2014) is a highly readable rush job that fills in the blanks surrounding his 33 1/3 book. No one questions the fact that Slayer has done their best work as the classic line-up of Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Lombardo, and Ferris’s book is mainly about those times. After all, Reign in Blood was the first of what is one of the strongest three-album runs by any band in any genre: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). They remain the one metal band that punks who hate metal still revere.

Slayer: 66 2/3While Kerry King came up on traditional metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were the punks in Slayer. Hanneman was weaned as much on Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys as he was Black Sabbath. Thrash is as close to punk as metal got in its formative years. James Hetfield listened to the Misfits, and Dave Mustaine loved the Pistols. Others in the scene were into it, but Slayer was the only band actually jostling with the punks at the time, banging elbows with the likes of D.R.I., TSOL, Bad Brains, and Suicidal Tendencies. They weren’t burning bridges, they were building them with fire.

I saw the O. G. Slayer line-up live in 2009, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know, there seems to be this aura about Slayer,” King says, “and I definitely think our live performances have something to do with that.” No question. The show I saw was everything a Slayer fan wants from seeing Slayer: speed, aggression, evil, volume — classic thrash metal played with absolute abandon. And as much as I was looking forward to also seeing Marilyn Manson, no one can follow Slayer. No one.

They’re currently continuing without Jeff and Dave, and there seems to be no way to offer genuine support without sounding shitty about it. I have no doubts that Paul Bostaff and Gary Holt are holding down their half as they’ve both done with Exodus, who are widely considered the original thrash metal band. Regardless, Slayer will never be the same without the raw, punk aggression of Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo.

————

Postscript: I interviewed Jeff Hanneman on the phone in 1996 for the August/September issue of Ride BMX magazine. A little while after the interview, I got a call from their publicist. She said Jeff and Slayer were so stoked to be in a BMX magazine that they wanted to send me something. In the weeks before the package arrived, I made a joke that Slayer was sending me something to show their gratitude. Friends speculated wildly. Would it involve blood, bones, body parts? It turned out to be a Slayer hat, which I still have. Rest in peace, my brother.

References:

Ferris, D. X. (2008). 33 1/3: Reign in Blood. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ferris, D. X. (2014). Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. Akron, OH: 6623 Press.

Lawson, Dom. (2014). Metal Hammer’s 50 Hottest Thrash Albums of All Time. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 100-105.

Mustaine, Dave. (2010). Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Winwood, Ian. (2014). Slayer: Reign in Blood. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 106-109.

33 1/3: Books About Records

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

The line above has been attributed to several voices — Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Lester Bangs, among others — but if the roof is on fire, I say we dance. Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, helmed by the insightful and inimitable David Barker, is good books all about good records. Not just “good” records, but records that changed the face of music in one way or another — records that set the roof aflame, and the two I just read — Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy and Loveless by Mike McGonigal — are just that.

I know, what can possibly be said about Paul’s Boutique and Loveless that you haven’t already heard some drunken music geek say jumping up and down waving his or her (probably his) hands? I thought the same thing, but having been that drunken, hand-waving music geek more than once in the past, I was still interested.

Coming out of the wake of the Hip-hop parody that was License to Ill (Def Jam, 1986), The Beastie Boys surprised everyone with the sample-heavy psychedelia of Paul’s Boutique (Capitol, 1989). Upon its initial release, the record’s public response could be described as “doom” for The Beastie Boys’ career, but over the years it has proven itself one of the most important records of its time, and possibly the most creative sample-based record ever made.

The Beastie Boys were seemingly riding high after their many tours supporting License to Ill. On the contrary, they were ready for a break and ready to get paid, but their bosses at Def Jam were not about to offer them either of these. The suits neuvo there were stuck in a cashless lurch with their newly minted distribution deal with Columbia and anxious for a new record from the Beasties. This would not do. So, our heroes bounced to the Left Coast, found some new friends, some new collaborators, a lawyer, and a new label. Finally paid by a sweet advance from Capitol, the boys were set to blow off some steam and start work on what would become their undisputed masterpiece.

While the Beastie Boys were sorting out their post-License to Ill lives, a loose-knit group of DJs and producers was busy creating the soundtrack to their next era. Among these were John King and Simpson (The Dust Brothers), Matt Dike (DJ, promoter, Delicious Vinyl founder), and Mario Caldato Jr. (studio engineer). Paul’s Boutique would eventually include the music of many — real (?) and sampled.

Dan LeRoy’s book gets at how this all came together, and — it’s an interesting and illuminating read about a particularly mysterious time in the Beasties’ history. LeRoy’s insightful epilogue regarding nostalgia is also not to be missed.

Say what you will about The Beastie Boys, but Paul’s Boutique is the record that synced their placement in the alphabet and their placement among music legends: right between The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Not unlike Paul’s Boutique, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (Creation, 1990) is widely considered — and rightfully so — one of the most important and influential records of the 90s. Also like Paul’s Boutique, its making is shroud in rumor. Such myths (e.g., that it cost half a million dollars to record and bankrupt their label Creation only to be saved by Oasis, Kevin Shield’s notorious studio meticulousness, that there are thousands of guitar overdubs, etc.) are either clarified or dispelled herein.

Mike McGonigal does some digging for the roots of the signature My Bloody Valentine sound that was refined on Loveless and defined an era and countless imitators (also mentioning such worthy influences as Sigur Rós, Mogwai, M83, and Caribou, but spending a disproportionate number of pages on Rafael Toral), but how he went the whole book without mentioning Robert Hampson, I do not know. He does warn that writing about this record can make you “start believing it’s the most transcendent record ever,” and that “it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!!!” Thankfully, he avoids hyperbole except where appropriate and taps into why this beautiful wall of guitar noise remains the touchstone that it is.

These two books pull back the curtain on their respective subjects, giving us a glimpse behind the mystery surrounding both. So, if you’ve been that drunken, hand-waving music geek or know someone who has, these two books (as well as the rest of Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, including books on Reign in Blood by Slayer, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, …Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Led Zepplin IV, Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices, among many others) will help explain the phenomenon.

Now if I could just convince David Barker to let me do one… (Right?)

I cannot resist adding the video for My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” (runtime: 4:43) from which the cover art for Loveless was gleaned. It’s absolutely perfect.

fomiTa3Ryko

Underground Sounds

“Big wheel, big spin, big money, no whammies
Don’t save me a seat when you get to the Grammys” — nomadboy

So, against my better judgment, I watched the Grammys the other night. This viewing experiment reminded me both of how much I love music and how far away my tastes are from “Grammy material.” I made a quick trip to Lou’s Records in Encinitas, California prior to the show, and my purchases there should prove more than my point. Continue reading “Underground Sounds”

The Blue Series from Thirsty Ear

For the past three years, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series has been quietly building an arsenal of some of the most interesting collaborations available on wax. They’ve teamed up their Blue Series Continuum jazz band with innovative rappers, producers, and musicians including Antipop Consortium, El-P, DJ Wally, Saul Williams, Meat Beat Manifesto, and DJ Spooky, among many others. The results are neither Hip-hop nor Jazz, but ride the lines between those and several other genres. Continue reading “The Blue Series from Thirsty Ear”