Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 in review - top 100 albums of the year (part 6 - #34 to #24)

34. BONG We Are, We Were And We Will Have Been
If you'd change that last bit of the album title to "We Will Always Be", you'd have the whole point of Bong's existence nicely summarised. Ever since their first hum, a decade ago, they've acquired a sort of constant and infinite quality to them quite unlike any other contemporary artist (which they aren't, specifically, because they're infinite, right? My head hurts.) I can remember. Yes, everyone will have their favourites along the way (mine is 2012's 'Mana-Yood-Sushai'), and they're not all exactly alike, but every "unregulated experiment on tonal prolonging, solemn in its delivery and frightening in its implications," as the press release so wonderfully put it at the time, just fits the continuum and adds an extra chunk of infinity to it. Which I know is a silly thing to say, but shut up, it's my blog and I'll state mathematical nonsense if I want to. This time enlightenment comes in the form of two vast movements, each almost 20-minute long movements, which in the right conditions will turn your living room into the top of an impossibly tall mountain. Which will then rise slowly and fall down on you.

33. ALDA Passage
People from Washington State gathered around a fire in the photos, gathering inspiration from the staggering beauty of the Cascade region to fuel their atmospheric, sweeping kind of black metal. No, silly, Alda are from Tacoma and not Olympia like the other ones you were thinking! In all fairness, there's more to set Alda apart from Wolves In The Throne Room than their town of origin, as 'Passage' features a fantastic use of acoustic guitars and clean vocal harmonies that are deeply entwined in the furious, exceptionally enraged black metal that envelops them. But still, it's undeniable that the overal feeling is one of WITTR-ness, and that's not at all a band thing. On the contrary, of the many, many, many bands that exist based on that template today, Alda are by far one of the very best, to the point of having developed their own recognisable personality on top of it and delivering awesome records like 2011's ':Tahoma:' and this beauty here.

32. FALSE Untitled
      OBSEQUIAE Aria Of Vernal Tombs
What the hell, Minneapolis? Is it the cold, or something in the water supply, or what? Two of the year's most exciting black metal releases come from within your frequently chilly walls, so hey, we salute you and raise our rum-spiked hot chocolate mugs to you, or whatever. They're very different from each other, too. False are anything but their name - a blistering, hateful slab of disease and corruption and no sugar and no spice and nothing nice. There's a fucking vulture on the cover, alright? It probably wasn't even there on the original illustration, it was attracted by the putrid sickness that comes out of those twisted riffs that seem to accelerate or slow down of their own volition. Obsequiae are in many ways the opposite of this, only touching False in the way they twist black metal into something quite different, and quite theirs too. The fact that it features Tanner Anderson, whose other band Celestiial has made it into my lists before (here, #59) should tell you something about the piles of classy atmosphere this album is drenched with. In fact, Obsequiae themselves featured in one of my previous lists (here, #74), with 'Suspended In The Brume Of Eos' from 2011, and while I was fascinated enough to say things like "(...) a star-gazing elegance with which they evoke the wonder and magic of the Middle Ages, fusing it with sizeable amounts of intelligent, mid-paced black metal maelstrom, making for a most fascinating first record," the leap in quality to this second effort is staggering. It is possible to make music that is based on Medieval times, which is beautiful for the most part (they have a Medieval harp player now, it's not exactly raw grim kvlt whatever), but which can be serious and often stern and harsh, and does not need to evoke prancing minstrels or drunken parties with the innkeepers and their wenches.

31. CATTLE DECAPITATION The Anthropocene Extinction
Whoa. After twenty years and seven albums, you'd kinda forgive Cattle Decapitation if they did just-one-more, you know? It's death/grind, you're not supposed to keep going at it like the future of the ecosystem depends on how awesome your new album is. Misery Index, for instance, are great, but their latest stuff hasn't exactly called for the jaw-sweeping expert teams, and that's okay. But just when you're prepared to cut these guys some slack, they hit back with what is probably their best album ever, so you can stick your condescendence where the cows go to, erm, kill you. Maintaining the power of their concept and imagery, arguing a point with which it's hard to disagree (go investigate, or read a book or something), it's easy to see why this record seems to have touched people even more than is usual for this band.

30. BROTHERS OF THE SONIC CLOTH Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth
Dude, it's Tad Doyle! And if you're not sharing the excitement, I'll only forgive you if you were born after, like, 1995 or whatever year it is you young kids are born these days. For the rest of us old and fat losers, TAD was the most precious hidden gem in grunge - while all the other kids were losing their shit to Nirvana or Soundgarden (of whom I am a great fan as well, no stupid dick contests here, but hear me out), us more metal-oriented snobs would first throw Alice In Chains at them, to give them a reference they'd know, and then the game-changer, TAD. So go discover if you don't know them. Anyway, Tad Doyle then formed Hog Molly after TAD split up, and Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth is his sort of new band - it's been around for a while, it started as a solo project, and this is his first album. And man, is it heavy. Not just heavy as in, "sir, that is one riff distinctly lacking in lightness"-heavy, it's heavy as in "URGH"-heavy, okay? It's old Crowbar kind of heavy, where you can still sing bits and remember riffs but your neck hurts all the same. It's on Neurot Recordings, Steve Von Till has said that the music moves "at the speed of a glacier", and I said myself on my Rock-a-Rolla review that after a certain point, "the heaviness becomes so much and so constant that you cave in, and the whole thing becomes eerily soothing." Yeah, it's that heavy.

29. AN AUTUMN FOR CRIPPLED CHILDREN The Long Goodbye
You might notice the absence in my list of a certain band who mix black metal with shoegaze and other varied influences - not because I have anything against them, rather the opposite, but because their new album didn't really capture me all that much (it's Deafheaven I'm talking about, in case some of you at the back are still lost). However, they've reached a certain kind of fever pitch where the devotion is even bigger than the stupid, irrational hatred they inspire, so they're universally hailed and that's cool. Shame is, no one really pays attention to a much more consistent (and also prolific) band that has been releasing great album after great album since 2010. Holland's An Autumn For Crippled Children's output has been varied, to the point of no two albums being really alike, and the varying degrees of melancholy, sadness, beauty and indeed fury have always been expertly balanced throughout their career. 'The Long Goodbye' is one of their best yet, offering a rather urban depression kind of vibe while managing quiet contemplation and desperate anguish in some of the vocal deliveries. To top it all off, they released a wonderful two-song free EP a few months later called 'portugal'. It's like they're after my own heart.

28. CAÏNA Setter Of Unseen Snares
I got all touchy-feely when Caïna announced in 2011 that 'Hands That Pluck' would be their final album, and fortunately Andrew Curtis-Brignell did return to us a couple of years later, and he brought friends along too, making this incarnation of the band notably different than the first with the company of vocalist Laurence Taylor (who is fucking scarily intense as the live performance at Temples Festival clearly showed) and bassist Fraser Samson (who replaced Dom Moss), plus a couple of live musicians. This makes a lot of sense, because despite having been a solo project for that first part of their existence, each successive record fluctuating along with Andy's mood and creativity, Caïna never felt disjointed, or aimless. Creatively restless, for sure, but the personality was always there, and it always felt like a "proper band" at work, if that makes any kind of sense. Anyhoo, it doesn't have to. Everything you need for the world to make sense is to play 'Setter Of Unseen Snares', which I'll stop short of calling Caïna's best album ever because the others still mean a hell of a lot to me, and realise how massive a beast it is. Initially feeling like a punked-up, rawer version of the Caïna we know and love, the more obviously black metal release of the bunch, let's call it that, it soon opens up the whole range of atmospheric delights it offers, yet without losing that abrasive, immediate edge to it. It's the way it manages to be equally deep and instantly gratifying that really nails this as one of the best albums of the year. Also, I've heard a little sneak peek of things to come, and... beware. That's all I got to say for now.

27. THE BODY & KRIEG The Body & Krieg
There was no way in hell this could have gone any less brilliant than it is. Krieg is one of the, if not the, best USBM acts at the moment, and The Body are The Body, that bizarrely unique entity that punishes you with unholy shrieking, church chanting and the heaviest sludge ever, every time they decide to record something. Who woulda thunk it, The Body's terrifying noise lends itself well to mutations through collaborative effort, and after the fearsome oddities that were the collaborations with Thou (two of them), Vampillia and Braveyoung, not to mention a few splits too, 'The Body & Krieg' is the summit of their buddy link-up work so far. The records with Thou were awesome enough already, yes, but Krieg are much more different from the Portland duo and the way the contrasts are balanced makes for a fascinating final whole. In fact, while I've been focusing more on The Body, these songs are clearly Krieg songs at heart, but then put through the The Body mangler. Neill Jameson's typically tortured black metal becomes even more tortured and emotionally raw, when slowed down to a doom-noise pace, or when cast into the middle of a twisted procession. Like telling a prisoner fresh out of the torture room that torture room two is up next.

26. ENSLAVED In Times
When mentioning the great Norwegian avant-garde revival of 2015, one must not forget to inclued Enslaved in that mix. It was a tough record to get to grips with at first, admittedly, and I actually still feel that I haven't gotten to grips with it, not entirely, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. When I reviewed it for Terrorizer, where it was album of the month, I compared it to its amazing predecessor 'RIITIIR' and how that seemed to encapsulate all that is great about Enslaved: "Well, 'In Times' pulls it all apart again. Take opener 'Thurisaz Dreaming', where a surprisingly nasty black metal beginning suddenly erupts into a gloriously epic Herbrand-sung part which totally sounds like a different song, or the way a lot of the album seems restrained and held back because of the constant crescendos starting off the gentle, beautiful even, acoustic sections… in a normal world, these would all be criticisms, and we'd be moaning about a record that still feels alien and slippery, despite the absolutely infectious catchiness of most of it, after many listens, but here? In Enslaved-land, they're the very reasons we keep returning to it." In the end, I came up with the only logical explanation for this. "We're sure Ivar, Grutle, Herbrand, Arve and Cato found a wormhole somewhere on a fjord that allowed them to advance a few decades into the future and bring back a few popular tunes from 2145." Well, naturally.

25. AUTOPSY Skull Grinder
      WINDS OF GENOCIDE Usurping The Throne Of Disease
Let me tell you a little something about Autopsy - 'Skull Grinder' was one of the last 2015 albums I listened to, and when I was putting together this list, I thought to myself, better leave a spot in the top 30, at least, for Autopsy. I don't care how biased that sounds, but it's just meant to show you that my faith in these guys is unbreakable, and I have reasons for that. First of all, there is the matter of The Best Death Metal Album Ever (and also, The Most Unrecognised As Massively Influential In Every Extreme Band Since), obviously 'Mental Funeral', of which you should own several copies of and play them whenever mental sanity allows you to, but without letting it overshadow the remainder of their career which has been outstanding to say the least. Especially after their return from inactivity, a move that, as we all know, doesn't always go well for many bands, Autopsy have been unusually prolific, and adding quality to that quantity too. 'Macabre Eternal', 'The Headless Ritual' and 'Tourniquets, Hacksaws And Graves'' have all slipped their very best songs (which are many!) into my all-time Autopsy playilst, and 'Skull Grinder' promises to do the same, chock full as it is of, gasp!, more melody than usual in among the sloppy sickness. Theoretically it's an EP, but I interviewed Chris Reifert a few months ago and he told me that "it's technically called a mini-LP, it's seven songs in 28 minutes, but you can call it what you want. 'Reign In Blood' is one of the best albums ever and it's 28 minutes long, so...", so there. I'm calling it an album, and one of the best of the year too. And because I can fuck around with my list as much as I want to, I'm tacking Winds Of Genocide to it as well - the full-length (it's 32 minutes long, ha!) debut by these Durham bastards has been a long time coming, but it finally hit us in 2015 and it's everything we could have expected it to be. It's glued to Autopsy on my list not because it's particularly alike, as Winds Of Genocide are much crustier and punkier, but because the spiritual connection is for me very clear. There is a certain dirtiness, a certain death metal grime captured by the whole d-beating thing that really harks back to the horrid, doomy death metal of early Autopsy. It's the same kind of feeling, in a different wrapping, at least in my head, but I've listened to a lot of Autopsy over the years, so I don't know. Anyway, they're not really usurping the throne of disease, but they're telling Chris and the boys to scoot over because there's room for a few more in 2015. Also, frontwoman Kat Shevil is also in the much more Autopsied mob Uncoffined (drums/vocals, just like a certain Mr. Reifert), whom you should check out right now and get up to speed before their second album lands in 2016. Should be a monster.

24. LEONARD COHEN Can't Forget - A Souvenir Of The Great Tour
In the midst of all this noise and experimentation and weirdness and ugly metal, let me tell you this - if I have to pick one single artist that means the most to me, that has helped shape me and the way I think, and write, and feel, it is undoubtedly Leonard Cohen. I love Leonard Cohen, and this "love" is a bit deeper than what is usually meant when talking about music. By far my favourite songwriter ever, for the subtle, slow way he lets his compositions breathe, like a fine wine that took its time aging until it reached the perfect state, the way the simplicity in both word and song always hides (in plain sight!) a deep, pondered wisdom... I can be here for a long time enumerating the reasons why, but suffice to say that, at 81 years of age, Leonard is still one of the best performers around too. Seeing him live a couple of years ago was one of the pinnacles of my entire existence so far, and this sort-of-live album truly captures the many reasons why it was so. His soundchecks have long been the stuff of legend, apparently whole different concerts in their own right, and with these nine songs we get a remarkable glimpse of that. Mostly recorded during the soundchecks themselves, from alternative versions of widely known songs, to heart-stopping renditions of tunes we rarely get to hear on stage from the great man, and even two brand new songs, 'Can't Forget', beside a great snapshot of what might have been the last world tour from one of the world's most notable musicians, is Cohen in between the two states we've mostly heard him in - looser and less intimate than in the studio, but still with a certain wink-wink exclusive vibe to it that you don't get when listening to a song with 10.000 other people beside you. All in all, truly unique, as Leonard has always been. May he continue to remind us of that for many years.




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