China: 20 Years of Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk

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Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk

Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records

Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic.  It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off.  Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering.  That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen.  While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.

By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic.  Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993).  He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes.  Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites.  Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.

Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint.  The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn.  The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven).  Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 2

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Special Friday Edition!

Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music.  Ha.  Ha ha.  Well, they try, that’s the important thing.

If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist:  I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is.  In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right.  Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above:  it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.

Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.

Anyway…

June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”

Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton.  Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before.  In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.

A

#2:  Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”

Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song.  Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set.  Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.

B+

#3:  Beck – “Wow”

Ah, the new Beck track.  The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album.  Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness.  Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion.  Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.

B

#4:  The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead.  My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick.  Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.

C

#5:  A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”

Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names?  Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging?  Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth?  Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?

Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.

F

#6:  The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”

Okay, show of hands.  Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback?  Anyone?  Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ.  Wait, this is actually sort of good.  I…I kind of like this.  Noel Gallagher co-wrote it?  I suppose that explains some things.

B+

#7:  Portugal.  The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”

Who gave the indie kids access to the internet?  They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great.  It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act.  You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up.  Good work, Reddit.

C+

#8:  Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”

The rest of the post title literally reads:  “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.

Who are you trying to fool, anyway?  We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.

Decent tune though.

B

#9:  Link Wray – “Rumble”

Link Wray  poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino.  At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .

B+

#10:  Joywave – “Nice House”

Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden.  The outro is rather nice though.

C+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  B- (Not bad, Reddit!)

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 1

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And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.

It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music.  Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here.  Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.

Or is it?  I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes.  Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.

Without further ado, I give to you:

June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Rancid – “Ruby Soho”

The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs.  /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.

 D+

#2:  The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”

The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar?  You win this time Reddit.  You win this time.

A+

#3:  Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”

I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok.  This isn’t completely dildos.

B+

#4:  Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”

The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”.  At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”.  In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite.  Thank you, Jesus.

C+

#5:  The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”

Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers.  It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less.  Also, those fucking spikes.  Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right?  How punk rock of you.

C-

#6:  Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”

Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic.  What the hell is wrong with you?

F

#7:  Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”

Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit.  Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you.  Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.

D

#8:  Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”

GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average.  Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those.  For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.

A-

#9:  Men At Work – “Down Under”

Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia.  I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs.  Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through?  Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses?  Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work?  At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.

C-

#10:  The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”

Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.

B+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  C+

Ulver -ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

Released January 22nd, 2016 on House of Mythology

The Norwegian black metal band turned art-house experimental collective Ulver has gone even more out-there for their twelfth album.  Bored of the usual way in which they made albums, they embarked on an experimental series of live concerts that they branded “free rock”, in which they got up on various stages throughout Europe and jammed on whatever motifs came into their heads that night.  These live recordings were then culled and cut into shape by the band, further enhanced with noise and, on “Moody Stix”, samples of their older work.  The outcome is the ultimate ambient jam, not so much a collection of songs as a roadmap of their trip through Europe and the noise that came into their heads on any given night.  There is a freeing quality to the recordings that is remarkably free of the sort of formality one comes to expect from studio jams; the off-the-cuff nature makes for a series of aural hallucinations that move in and out of grooves as the group chooses.  “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are the best examples of the trance-like groove state the band would find themselves in, although the lysergic ambiance of “England’s Hidden” and “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” evoke the same feeling without locking themselves into an outright beat.

Forget Explosions In The Sky:  ATGCLVLSSCAP is post-rock, in that it clears the space of anchors like structure and studio formality and sets the stage for something potentially new and exciting.

(And if you’re wondering, the title is an acronym referencing the twelve signs of the zodiac).

The 100 Best Albums of 2015, Part 5: 20-01

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#20:  The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

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Wrestling is a sport (sorry, “sports entertainment”) that has elicited a rather divided reaction over the past few decades. To some it’s a tiresome recreation of patriarchal gender roles, emphasizing hyper-masculinity through a series of half-cocked storylines that repeat the same simplistic hero-villain duality over and over again. To others – and John Darnielle is in this particular listing – it’s a pure distillation of justice and morality, set up for ease of viewing and digestion. In many ways Beat The Champ is the aural companion piece to Mickey Rourke’s 2009 film The Wrestler; both focus on the grit and loneliness of being a pro wrestler. These are not the pro wrestlers of the WWE; they are the lonely men that wander the roads between the cities, going from one match in a packed gymnasium to the next, getting television coverage where they can, unknown outside of their own home regions. These are men for whom turning the heel means their career is winding down, men for whom death is always snipping at their heels. When one such character is murdered near San Juan, it is exactly as much as we expect; a life of simulated violence only leads to the real thing in the end. Still, there’s a glimmer of dawn on that deserted road: love, justice, and the raw triumph of the moment are always lingering, like the carrot in the midst of the path.

#19:  U.S. Girls – Half Free

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Meg Remy emigrated to Canada after toiling in the small noise labels of America for quite a while. Since then, her career has taken an upward trajectory, culminating (so far) in Half Free, which Remy explicitly mentioned was a collection of character studies in the vein of Bruce Springsteen or John Cassavettes. The characters of Half Free are far more Darkness On The Edge Of Town than they are Born To Run. These are women whom life has taken more than a few swings at, women that are on the desperate bleeding edge between life and death. A husband is revealed to have slept with all of his wife’s sisters before settling with her; another dies in a valley in Iraq and the grief of his war-widow wife is palpable. There are women who stand up and say “enough is enough” and leave their philandering and/or abusive men. It’s touched off with a lengthy slab of high-contrast Italo-Disco that stands up as a screed against the dictates of the religion of beauty. It’s a deeply feminist record, and one in which pop tropes and messy noise compositions stand together hand in hand.

#18:  Ought – Sun Coming Down

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The poppiest band on Constellation Records is really only marginally accessible, as you might imagine.  Ought take the ideas and the sounds of early 80s post-punk and run with them, mutating them until they become something vital and alive once again.  This is the relentless motorik energy of The Feelies and the skewed tilt of the Talking Heads melded with cut-up riffs from the DIY emo scene of the mid 90s, delivered with a view towards the desperation of modernity.  In the hands of Ought, that desperation is surrendered to and, in that surrender, is shown to be a blissful, clarifying escape.

#17: Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack

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The Great Vaporwave Album of Hip Hop – the Chinese Democracy of rap, if you will – was Detox, the supposed third album by the kingpin producer of the West Coast, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. It was revealed this year that Dre has put Detox to bed permanently, unable to come up with anything that would truly live up to the hype. Instead, we got Compton, inspired by the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton and packaged with the eye of a man who has been watching his city change from idealistic suburb to gang-ridden warzone and back again since the early 80s. The vision and sound presented here are only partially Dre, however. Dre, whose discoveries have included Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game, found in Kendrick Lamar a talent that would take over; if Compton bears a resemblance to To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s because Lamar has stamped his features indelibly on both. Anderson.Paak takes the Bilal role here, wrapping the retro-facing jazz, soul, and funk slices in warm buttery vocals; the songs become an introduction for every aspiring rapper that Dre has been mentoring over the past few years. It’s a widescreen, cinematic view of Dre, Dre’s city, and the West Coast in general.

#16:  Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too

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The Edinburgh hip hop group declared that White Men Are Black Men Too, the follow up to their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut Dead, would “break them out of the ghetto”. While the album still revolves around a hard centre of hip hop, the songs play with that form until it is at times unrecognizable. White Men reinterprets British pop and distills key elements out of it, then adds in influences from the continent. If calling Young Fathers “hip hop” makes no sense to you, it’s because the group has increasingly less connection to the American sense of the genre. Instead, they choose to move forward, bringing in trip hop, krautrock, British electronic traditions, and avant art-pop to leaven the aggressive vocals and focus on beats that tethers them, however tenuously, to the hip hop tradition. This is Euro-rap, in a sense; bristling with ambition and aggression, but insistent that art should mean something, and that this meaning can take on a life in and of itself.

#15:  Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

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Earl locked himself in his basement so you don’t have to. He details the gory, gritty details of his descent into being a young, cynical curmudgeon so that you can walk outside, feel the sun on your neck, and be thankful for your existence. When OFWGKTA leader Tyler, The Creator started tweeting earlier this year about “people” whose attitudes brought him down and that life was great, you don’t need to do so many drugs, stop being so depressed all the time, etc. it was clear that Earl was who he was talking about. The fact that Tyler’s album was a bomb and Earl’s was not is telling about who should be proferring advice to whom in the rap game.

#14:  Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

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Melbourne indie phenom Courtney Barnett caused a lot of heads to turn with her twin EPs, packaged together last year as A Sea of Split Peas. Her debut magnifies what made those two EPs work. Barnett’s eye for detail exceeds pretty much anyone else out there whose name isn’t Dennis Coles, and she uses it to weave quotidian stories that cross class and gender boundaries. These are universalist themes: embarassment, ennui, confusion, creeping depression. The subjects are light-hearted for the most part – a girl who nearly drowns at the public pool trying to impress someone, a guy who skips off work to watch the city from above and gets mistaken for a jumper, a person who can’t sleep picking out all the mundane parts of her room – but there’s a real existential weight that drags at them. There’s real life going on here, in all of it’s ragged glory, and Courtney Barnett is the person to bring it all to the light.

#13:  Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie

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Girl Band is not a post-punk band. Instead, the Irish quartet take the sounds of post-punk and deconstruct them. “Deconstruct” is sort of a misnomer; what they really do is smash them with a hammer, melt them with a blowtorch, and weld them back together in amusing and vaguely horrifying shapes. Their lyrics are bizarre, cut-and-paste, and obsessed with food, in perfect keeping with the sound of the album. Unlike most blasphemous creations, the misshapen, mutated sounds on display here don’t ever croak out a hair-raising “kill me”; instead, they swarm for your jugular and don’t let up until they’ve rinsed your bones clean of flesh. If that sounds like a fun experience, it’s because it is.

#12:  Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

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If You’re Reading This dropped like an atom bomb: completely by surprise and with devastating force. Coming out of nowhere (and a rumoured record label tiff with Birdman and Cash Money Records), it was originally meant to be a free mixtape. At the last minute, Drake decided to release it as an actual album that you had to pay for – and made millions in the process. The entirety of the rest of Drake’s year stemmed from this: the Meek Mill beef, the wild success of his diss track, the frenzy around “Hotline Bling”, and the even-more-hyped anticipation for the forthcoming Views From The Six. And why not? The record is a study in modern beatcraft: spare, menacing, and throbbing with that 808 bass. Drake’s delivery is on point, and his use of ear worms as hooks makes for an album you’ll be humming forever. If this was, as rumoured, the cutting-room floor of the Views sessions, then the future album will be a monolith.

#11:  Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

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In the summer of 2006 Vince Staples was 13 and being introduced to life in the crime-ridden streets of Long Beach, CA. Summertime ’06, his debut, is an attempt to capture the peaks and valleys of that time of his life, and it cuts deeply. Drug taking, drug selling, gun play, the mercurial interplay of love and casual sex: none of it is shied away from, and Vince Staples keeps a duality of magic and regret in balance for the duration. The production is handled expertly, the bulk of it by No ID and Clams Casino. The Clams Casino tracks are among the best tracks he’s ever had a hand in, especially on the nauseous “Norf Norf”. Summertime ’06 transformed Vince Staples from being merely another OFWGKTA associate to being one of the biggest emerging stars in the rap game.

#10:  Viet Cong – Viet Cong

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From the ashes of tragedy, a pheonix rises. Women were a Calgary band that garnered a great deal of good press for being hard-edged experimenters with indie rock sounds. When Chris Reimer, Women’s guitarist, died, half the band went on to form Viet Cong with members of Lab Coast. Viet Cong, their debut, fuses post-punk sensibilities with aspects of electronic, lo-fi, and noise to create an art rock that is specifically their own. The tracks on the record are a delicate balance between constructed hook-oriented melodies and messy, coloured-outside-the-lines noise worship. Jangly R.E.M.-indebted 12 string guitars line up next to forceful, droning keyboards and relentless drum patterns; it’s a fusion of man and machine that points toward the future even as it keeps one foot entrenched in the recent past.

#09:  Grimes – Art Angels

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The effort to follow up Visions, her 4AD breakthrough, has been painful. It’s only been three years, but in that short time the Montreal singer has already recorded and scrapped an entire album, leaving only the enigmatic single “REALiTi” as proof that it had ever even existed. The reasons were probably numerous, but the most obvious one is that the scrapped album featured production work by other people, and Claire Boucher is not the sort of artist to let other people do her speaking for her. Art Angels instead features songs and production by the artist herself, a package of visual and aural media that outlines the particular, peculiar vision that is Boucher’s very own. This is pop that isn’t afraid to be pop, filtered through the lens of someone for whom pop means something different from the way the rest of us use the word. This is an album where “high concept” and “ridiculously catchy” can exist side by side without it ever being considered strange, where the cheerleader-esque vocals on “Kill V Maim” can seem perfectly right, rather than a Gwen Stefani-style effort to seem hip. This is, in short, pop as it should be: willing to move forward, disdaining the safe path in favour of making people think and dance at the same time.

#08:  Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

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Patrick Stickles is a weird dude. The New Jersey punk frontman started off as the most literate Shakespeare nerd in the indie punk world, expanded on this with a sprawling concept album that merged the U.S. Civil War with modern post-crash New Jersey, and then retreated into the small and mundane – into “Local Business”. That last album, Local Business, held odd allusions to despair, depression, and eating disorders; The Most Lamentable Tragedy expands on these themes to the extent that the listener becomes uncomfortably aware that Stickles is dealing with his own problems. In lesser hands this would be a slog, but Stickles and his band make the crushing grind of clinical depression and its resultant branching symptoms seem like the most invigorating thing on Earth. Returning to the sprawling form that made The Monitor such a messy delight, the band burns through jagged power-pop, lengthy drone-rock, burningly intimate ballads, and, in “Dimed Out”, the sharpest blast of punk rock to grace the year. It’s a triumph, all the more so because of the obviously painful circumstances that gave birth to it.

#07:  Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

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The pillar of the entire post-rock genre have returned, proving that the surprise strength of Polaris Prize-winning album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend was not a fluke. Asunder finds them paring down their sound to its essentials, cutting the fat that mired them originally in the swamp of 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. Godspeed in 2015 is a band that has more to do with Black Sabbath than with the avant-garde; every movement, through guitars, strings, or pure noise, is built to evoke a cacophonous drone of doom that sums up all of the existential dread that weighs down the West as we move further into the 21st Century. Godspeed have lost the train noises and the warnings about solicitors in the parking lot, but they have kept all of the apocalyptic fury that powered their best work.

#06:  Destroyer – Poison Season

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Kaputt brought Vancouver’s Dan Bejar into the limelight, but it was the very last thing he wanted to happen. Tellingly, he dropped the exploration of yacht rock and lite disco that informed his world-weary work on Kaputt in favour of musical snapshots of life in New York City. Poison Season offers the haze of the crowded streets, the sultry jazz of the night, and especially the wailing heartland saxophones of vintage Bruce Springsteen. Not just any Bruce, though; Poison Season channels the Boss as he was on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. These are songs that aren’t afraid to get lengthy, to shift gears, to fall in love with themselves as much as they’ve fallen in love with their subject matter. This is Bejar at his best, poetic and mystical in as much as he is self-deprecating and uncomfortable with himself and his surroundings.

#05: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

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Rock n Roll comebacks are a tricky thing. While any band that’s ever tasted success tries to come back after a decade or so of being apart to try to cash in on their old fame with new albums, none of them ever manage to make it work like they did before. Black Sabbath tried to recapture the magic with 13 but the only people listening were curmudgeonly “modern rock” stations that were trying to freeze the clock at 2001. Any band that ever lived through the Eighties never made it back. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains have tried to muddle along as though their respective hiatuses never happened, but they’ve never sounded the same since. There’s usually a story – some pheonix-like rise from the ashes of hitting rock bottom – and that story is supposed to galvanize their fanbase into buying the album and pretending that it’s as good as anything they’ve ever heard before. A lot of people are good at that pretense.

Sleater-Kinney, though, don’t have much of a story. Or, rather, perhaps they have the best story. They were sitting around with Fred Armisen watching advance screenings of Portlandia episodes when they decided that it might be fun to play live again. They’d been out of commission since 2005 and The Woods, an album that was commonly thought of as the best possible record to bow out on – go out on top, after all. The ten years between The Woods and No Cities To Love are so chock-full of media projects of various stripes that by all rights it should have been the story of any other band: they should have lost their way, forgotten what it meant to sound like Sleater-Kinney, and turned out a half-baked excuse to tour, like any other band stemming from the 1990s.

No Cities To Love is not that album. It is, simply put, the eighth Sleater-Kinney album. It sounds as though there never was an intervening period of time between the two. The guitar lines are still as knotted and imposingly complex as they ever were, the vocals still as impassioned, topical, and liberating. If Sleater-Kinney were the pillars of the riot grrl movement in the mid-1990s, it’s telling that they’re still a pillar as such. There is just as much room for them to carry the standard for righteous feminism in 2015 as their was in 1995, and they carry it as though it never left their fingers. Unlike their contemporaries, Sleater-Kinney still sounds exactly like Sleater-Kinney, and it’s a fucking rush to hear it.

#04:  Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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Sufjan Stevens is best known for his massive pop gestures. Albums like Illinoise or The Age of Adz married blissful pop melodies to orchestral symphonies of folk instrumentation and thereby made his bones. Carrie & Lowell, by contrast, sounds more like 2004’s Seven Swans, an acoustic collection released before either of those aforementioned albums. This is Sufjan Stevens stripped down to his elements – guitar, voice, maybe some piano here and there for effect. Despite this, he manages to fill the sonic room just as well as he does when he’s piling on hundreds of voices and crafting shaky little symphonies to John Wayne Gacy. The songs sound gigantic, and a lot of that has to do with the way he’s learned to use his voice over the past decade.

The origins of Carrie & Lowell stem from the 2012 death of Sufjan’s mother, the titular Carrie. Life with Carrie was difficult as she was both a paranoid schizophrenic and addicted to drugs and alcohol. After Carrie left her family, Sufjan only saw her on vacation with his new stepfather, the titular Lowell – who also manages the Asthmatic Kitty record label that Sufjan has recorded for since the beginning of his career. Carrie & Lowell is a reminiscence of sorts of those times, and as such it performs two functions. First, it allows Sufjan to grieve, by committing all of the good and bad parts of his memories to song. Secondly, it’s consistent referencing to Oregon makes it so that it can be said that Carrie & Lowell is the third in Sufjan’s half-joking ambition to make an album for each of the 50 states (Michigan and Illinois being the first two).

Carrie & Lowell is an album about grief and death, and the hope for rebirth that can spring from them. It runs the gamut from bleak to hopeful, and it encompasses Sufjan’s faith in a way that doesn’t feel overt or forced. It’s a spiritual album by a spiritual man that doesn’t shove its spirituality down your throat – a rare item indeed in these times.

#03:  Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

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Josh Tillman was originally a member of Seattle neo-folkies Fleet Foxes. When that project went on apparently indefinite hiatus he tried his hand at solo albums. When those solo albums went nowhere, he created the character of Father John Misty, a lothario and a “ladies man” whose mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing made him a compelling, sarcastic, hilarious character on Fear Fun, the character’s debut. There’s only so far you can go with a character like that, though, so when it came time to record a follow-up it was a matter of anything goes.

Character study or not, all things flow from the author. Given Tillman’s subsequent marriage, it is unsurprising that I Love You, Honeybear is an album at once about the fear and uncertainty stemming from one night stands and casual relationship and the surprising stability and comfort of a more lasting relationship. This is an album where a girl almost dies in his bathtub, where he can’t perform for the most annoying girl he’s ever met, where he stumbles in wasted at seven in the morning screaming that he’s going to get some girl pregnant. That this is also an album where two lovers watch the economic apocalypse occur, where Tillman yearns to actually talk to his lover and not just on a phone or tablet, and where he outlines how he met his wife and what he thinks their future holds, cannot be overlooked.

Tillman melds the best parts of the singer-songwriter tradition to create a vision that is, at its core, scruffy folk-pop, but a scruffy folk-pop that sounds fully realized and artistically sound. Strings, pianos, and guitars are everywhere, and yet never does one voice seem to overpower any other, even Tillman’s own. It is worth mentioning that the best part of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” is not Tillman’s impassioned account of giving in and taking the plunge, but the mariachi horns that burst out near the end of the song, a brass orgasm that feels more satisfying than any other musical moment this year.

#02:  Deafheaven – New Bermuda

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Black metal was long ago relegated to the extremes of even an extreme musical movement like metal. Rather than clearly defined riffs and brutal, gorilla-like vocals, it preferred to blur everything together, approaching shoegaze more than Slayer. It was a movement that was staunchly anti-commercial, trying to be as edgy as possible while conjuring up sounds that eerily approximated the howl of the Norwegian winter.

The second wave of black metal involved the Americans, who adopted the sound of black metal – blurring riffs, blastbeats, howling vocals – while ditching much of the immature, pretentious Satanism that infested the Norwegian bands. Deafheaven belongs to a movement that is beyond even this second wave – a movement often decried as not being pure enough by black metal purists. This includes Liturgy – the ultimate in Brooklyn hipster appropriations of musical styles – and Deafheaven.

Sunbather, Deafheaven’s breakthrough album, was a howling merger between black metal, noise punk, and shoegaze, a metallic meeting of genres that absconded with traditional metal imagery altogether in favour of class struggle, alienation, and isolation. New Bermuda carries on in this vein, albeit in a bleaker way. New Bermuda is, at its core, an album concerned with the abanonment of joy. Nothing feels good anymore. Work is drudgery, and the life that comes after it has become drudgery as well. Hobbies barely stave off boredom. Sex doesn’t happen anymore. Life is intolerable, inescapable, and the only way out is through the bliss of death.

At the same time, New Bermuda musically invokes a chilling, majestic form of joy all its own. The black metal core is still there, but there are also more straightforward nods to traditional heavy metal structures, drone-noise, and hazy dream pop moments. It is as surreal as it is bleak, and it moves New Bermuda from being unrelentingly bleak to be relatably so. It’s the sort of depressing montage of images that can avoid being overwhelming by resonating with nearly everyone who listens to it. This is life, warts and all, dressed up in the best cross-cultural promotion of heavy metal styles heard in decades.

#01:  Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

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2015 was the year the scab of racial relations in America broke open again, spilling centuries-old pus from coast to squalid coast. It began before the year, with the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but it picked up steam with a dizzying series of shootings of black men by the police. Ferguson, loose cigarettes, and the argument of whether being young, black, and male in America was a de facto death sentence became household talking points in a country increasingly divided along class and racial lines. This was the year of Black Lives Matter, a protest group born out of racial protests and the target of a new young conservative movement that decried social justice, racial justice, and the idea that being white and male gave you privilige at all.

Into this uncertain and divided year came Kendrick Lamar once again, following up the hip hop masterpiece of good kid m.A.A.d. city, an album that examined youth, gangbanging, young love, and alcoholism. From the start To Pimp A Butterfly is completely different, although no less masterful than its predecessor. Beginning with the sample of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star”, Kendrick throws racism and racial identity in the face of the listener. The song was the title track to a Jamaican movie from the early 1970s, part of the early attempt to reclaim the racial slur from white racists and encourage black pride across the world. That the world the sample is reborn into is as starkly divided as the one the original was created in is telling, and likely not an accident. This is an album that considers racism and stardom in equal measures, conflating the two in a myriad of ways. “Wesley’s Theory” examines the problem with black men becoming famous and then losing all of their money, having been pimped out by the media industry; “King Kunta” talked about escaping the cycle of poverty and what losses that entails; “Institutionalized” discussed the corruption of wealth and the hardening of the soul that the pursuit of it produced; “These Walls” seeks solace in the allure of sex but can’t escape the circle of violence and retribution; “u” and “i” are the mirror images of each other, showing the duality of self-disgust and self-confidence, self-hatred and self-love; “Alright” became the Black Lives Matter anthem; “Momma” and “Hood Politics” are about being true to himself as an artist and a performer; “How Much A Dollar Cost” has him meeting God disguised as a beggar in South Africa (it was also President Obama’s favourite song of 2015); “Complexion” and “The Blacker The Berry” tackle respectibility politics and the problem of racialized self-hatred; “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” discusses the problem of returning home after finding any sort of fame, especially if there’s a racial element involved.

At the same time as it opens up discussion of the issues, it changes the dynamic in hip hop completely. One of the biggest complaints about the album from hip hop heads was that there weren’t any “bangers” on the album. That is to say, there weren’t any traditional trunk-rattling hip hop anthems (although this is debatable depending on how far you stretch the definition). Instead, Kendrick abandoned traditional “beatcraft” for a swampy mix of funk, soul, and jazz – traditional forms of black music, in other words. The Flying Lotus crew, especially Thundercat, provided a lot of the mixture of bass and jazz freakouts; George Clinton guested in spots and brought the funk; Bilal stepped out of his road up from tragic obscurity to slather his soulful voice over everything. It wasn’t hip hop like the radio was blasting, but it was the first album in a long while to span the traverse of black music and amalgamate them into something greater than merely the sum of its parts.

That’s not even getting into the running theme of the album. On first blush, a lot of people found the title ridiculous, and on the surface it is. “To Pimp A Butterfly” – it sounds cliche and kind of cringeworthy. When Kendrick reveals the real source of the title – in a poem he reads to a cut-and-paste incarnation of the late Tupac Shakur at the end of the album – everything becomes several grades clearer, and the title ascends from the ridiculous to the profound. Kendrick is examining the pimping of black talent – his own and others – by not just the hostile system profiting off of it, but by the artists themselves, whose dual nature and life in the institutionalizing ghetto requires them to survive by doing it to themselves. By pimping that butterfly.

In the end this was basically the consensus pick.  Unless you really felt very passionately about a single album, To Pimp A Butterfly was the Album Of The Year.  It’s rare these days to find an album like that, or one that elicits such strong reactions on both sides of its divisions.  It’s one of those rare combinations of albums and years – The Beatles and 1968, Nevermind The Bollocks and 1977, Nevermind and 1991 – that signals a change in the tone, and furthers an established art form in new and exciting ways for the mainstream.  It’s an album that will be talked about for a very long time.

Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

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Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

Abyss is, at first blush, loud and crushingly heavy.  This is, of course, not new territory for Chelsea Wolfe; the L.A. singer-songwriter has claimed black metal, doom, drone, and dark ambient music as her influence since the very beginning.  Compared to her last album, 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, however, it’s practically a doom metal album in its own right.  A good deal of this is the presence of guitarist Mike Sullivan, whose post-metal group Russian Circles sets the standard for crushingly heavy guitar work.  The very first moments of “Carrion Flowers” make for the most oppressive sounds Chelsea Wolfe has ever engaged in, and the way her dusky voice cuts through the thickness is a moment of sheer frisson.  The album cover sets the tone perfectly:  the singer falling into deep water, sinking beyond breath, light, and life.

Unlike many of her influences, however, she manages to expertly balance oppressive heaviness with passages of lighter (though no less eerie) folk work; “Iron Moon” is the standard-bearer for this, shifting from the pound of sledgehammer guitars to fingerpicked strings and vocals with ease and a deftness of which a thousand grunge bands from two decades prior could only dream.  “Maw” and “Crazy Love” focus more on the quieter parts, outlining a masterful interplay between acoustic instrumentation and the singer’s emotive voice.  She even manages, on “Grey Days”, to incorporate programmed drums without having it sound out-of-place, or like bad Evanescence.  It’s gothic-tinged rock done correctly, without angst or pandering to the over-makeup’d karaoke set.

Abyss takes Chelsea Wolfe’s music to a new, heavier level that plays up her influences while still keeping the proceedings firmly in her own camp.  At times it feels as though the music is creeping out of your speakers to surround you, and smother you in darkness.  Rather than go over-the-top in this, like many of her influences, she keeps her music agile, dynamic, and always interesting.

Liturgy – The Ark Work

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Liturgy – The Ark Work

Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is a Brooklyn musician who has an academic-level philosophy outlining his vision of transcendental black metal, which involves a lot of overthinking that seemed galvanizing when it was paired with an album like Aesthetica and a lot less so when you consider it in context with The Ark Work.  Aesthetica was an album that was as polarizing in the black metal community as Sunbather would be a couple of years after it.  It was stylistically American black metal – the hoar-frost vocals, the blastbeats, the fuzzed-out atmospherics – but it switched out the immature Satanism and borderline-and-beyond anti-Semitism of Norwegian black metal for something more philosophically in line with peace and love, or something to that effect.  While Hunt-Hendrix and Liturgy weren’t the first to mark a change in the narrative of black metal – credit for that goes primarily to the Cascadian scene and the nature-worshipping Wolves In The Throne Room – they were the first to take it so seriously that their ideas were presented at an academic conference.  It was a powerful album that drove a rather punk-inflected, politically reactionary kind of music towards a more progressive, more intelligent end.

The Ark Work doesn’t continue this narrative.  Hunt-Hendrix had professed a desire to move beyond black metal into more electronic areas, but this album is something else entirely.  Just exactly what is unclear.  It’s not quite brutal enough to be black metal, although there are blurred blastbeats throughout the album.  It’s not quite an electronic blend, unless we’re all content with calling cheap, thrift-store MIDI presets “electronic” now.  There’s faded, screamed vocals, but there’s no power in them.  There’s rapped sections, but they come off as uncomfortably cheesy more than anything else.  There’s glitch sections, but they sound half-formed; rather than being a cohesive part of a statement of art, they sound as though the songs were merely rendered on an old refurbished desktop and no one could be bothered to fix them.

What the hell is the point of all of this?  This just feels like a bad joke from a trust-funded musical tourist.  I can’t imagine anyone hearing the master tapes full of synth cheese, lazily shouted vocals, and badly manipulated sections and thinking that it was anything that anyone should seriously release.  “Reign Array” has some old spark of life to it, but the fact that the stinking corpse of “Vitriol” comes right after it outlines almost every problem this album has.  Here’s hoping Deafheaven doesn’t disappoint this badly.

 

Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

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It’s funny how things work.  Take black metal for instance.  Emerging from the bleak, permanent-winter vibe of the Scandanavian metal scene in the early 1990s, it was simultaneously praised for it’s new, lo-fi, nearly shoegazer take on death metal and derided for it’s cheesy, immature Satanic imagery and for it’s nationalistic ideals that approached National Socialism (indeed, there is a distant branch of the genre literally named “national socialist black metal”).  Then, six or seven years ago the Americans took the genre by force, and acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy breathed new life into the instrumental hallmarks while generally abandoning the lame imagery.  At the same time, the post-rock movement has, in recent years, developed a harder-edge strain through acts like *shels and Russian Circles, using heavy guitar passages and bludgeoning arrangements to inject metal into the sprawling suite-structure made popular by Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

Sunbather, then, represents a junction between the two disparate movements:  they use the brutal, blastbeat-ridden instrumentation and howling-demon vocals of black metal and use it in the sprawling, dynamically-exciting structures of post-rock.  The album hovers between the two worlds with sure-handed expertise; there are moments, such as on the stellar closer “The Pecan Tree”, where the band shifts from a blur of heaviness into droplets of pure, calm beauty without even batting an eye.  Hunter Hunt-Hendrix may have developed the ideal of “transcendental black metal” but Deafheaven has crafted something that is actually Zen; it shows the chaotic futility of modern existence and then proceeds to show us that even in those seemingly bleak days there is sunshine, colour, love.  It is a meditation on life circa 2013, a perfect representation of the unpronounceable feelings that rule us beneath the surface of consciousness.  It may not be, strictly speaking, the best album of 2013 (I mean, we still have Kanye and Arcade Fire to get to), but it is, to this music nerd, probably going to stand up in December as the most important.

FINAL MARK: A+