Friday, January 22, 2016

2015 in review - top 100 albums of the year (part LAST - #14 to #1)

Yay, the list is finished before we hit 2017!
Hope this saga at least helped direct you towards any band you enjoyed, that's the whole point.

14. PYRAMIDS A Northern Meadow
If you've ever been to this blog before, you probably know how I feel about Pyramids - one of my favourite bands of the century, utterly revolutionary, criminally underrated. Also, very difficult to talk about, so before my head starts hurting and you don't get the rest of the list, here's the gist of it from my Terrorizer review. "‘A Northern Meadow’ sounds like Pyramids spent the last few years thinking about their mind-blowing 2008 debut, rearranging its components, adding new ones and generally leaping ahead. While providing a less sudden impact than its predecessor, this is an experience that arguably goes deeper and will last longer. More is going on at the same time, yet it feels like less... martial industrial beats coexist with shadowy shoegaze and labyrinthine vocals as if they’ve been designed to go together since the dawn of time, and at the end you’ll feel like you’ve been abducted by aliens, but only to go for a breezy sing-along in the deep woods with them."

13. MGŁA Exercises In Futility
MISÞYRMING Söngvar Elds Og Óreiðu
No, these aren't joined because two of the band names have squiggly characters on them that the people from those countries insist are serious letters they use in regular conversation, although that would be a super awesome reason to stuff together a bunch of records. Alas, a criteria which would leave out Spectral Wound, and since they're the least well-known of the three, let's start there - remember me going on about a band called Ensorcelor that no one gave a shit about? They were amazing, but because you people only listen to, I don't know, Epica or whatever, we can't have nice things and they're now no more. Fortunately, Mike Kirkenbrannsår is a restless dude and besides all other cool bands he's in (seriously) and also the label he runs, he found the time to do a sort of follow-up, stylistically at least, to Ensorcelor with the amazing Spectral Wounds. It's black metal, Jim, but not as we're used to, the rawness and the rabid violence of the assault are counterbalanced by the warped and yet enticing atmospheres that so permeated Ensorcelor's best moments (ie, all of them), with the whole thing coming together as an alien and disturbing listen. Which is, in a nutshell, the best way to describe Mgła and what they do on 'Exercises In Futility'. 'With Hearts Towards None' had shown us that something vey worrying was afoot in Kraków, but this record is such a fist-in-the-face sort of coming of age that even with its slithering, hard-to-describe nature, most list-makers couldn't escape its blackened, terrible charms. When I reviewed it for Terrorizer I said that "It is still difficult to pinpoint why Mgła feel so unique, but in a way similar to Misþyrming, for instance, something about Mgła burrows down further into your heart than the others. The mastery of dynamics, the dense underlying atmosphere, the majestic circular-feeling guitarwork, hypnotic, melodic and dissonant at the same time," and I concluded that "It's raw, it's bitter and it's pitch-black, and yet it will inspire, illuminate and lead." Which leads us nicely into Misþyrming themselves, and yes, the two bands are quite different, but some of the feelings evoked by these records come from similar unhallowed grounds. The thing about Misþyrming is that, despite being already one of the leading lights of today's black metal, they are also a part of something bigger - a very particular scene spawning from Iceland, centred around the Vánagandr tape label, which comes together for the terrifying Úlfsmessa, of which you might have read about, and that you might subject yourself to if you go to the next Roadburn, where Misþyrming will deservedly be the youngest artists in residence ever. Oh, and why are these three bands together? Because "the future of black metal", a sort of stupid expression that has been used on every single new band for the last twenty years or so, if it had an intelligent equivalent expression, could be applied to this little bunch here.

12. GHOST Meliora
As any band that becomes huge, Ghost now draw polarising opinions, though I honestly don't get why. They're a rock band with super-catchy songs, it's okay if you don't like it, but can we just move on? Actually, extrapolate that to every other stupid band discussion and over-analysing, nitpicking-to-death argument anyone's ever had about bands, can we move on and just listen to shit? Anyway, yeah, Ghost. If you loved the first album, this is a bit like it but bigger and more ambitious, if you didn't like the production of the second album (and I know a lot of you didn't - in fact, me and my girlfriend have had more arguments about the production of that album than all you old couples have argued about money or your kids or plumbing or whatever the hell it is you fight about), don't worry because the guitars are back in full force, and honestly, I don't know what else I can say about this that you haven't made up your mind about it already. It's the best Ghost album so far, songs like 'Cirice', 'Mummy Dust' or especially the forever-in-your-brain 'He Is' are fucking amazing and U gioe these guys keep up being silly/serious for a long, long time. Because when all of your favourite stadium bands pull curtains, and let's be brutally honest, most of them aren't many years away from that, what the hell are you left with but Ghost?

11. SUNN O))) Kannon
I got this in the nick of time, like a week before I had to turn in my first lists for the magazines, and that should tell you a lot about 'Kannon' already - a Sunn O))) record that got into my head and revealed all its awesomeness in just under a week? And worry not, because its instant impact doesn't mean the long term part of it is affected, it's now been a couple of months and this still sounds fresh as all hell. But it is the most universal-appeal kind of record they've ever done, the shortest one, the one written with Attila in mind the most from the very beginning, and the one where even regular human beings might detected the vaguest form of a riff forming after five minutes or so. And that's it! There's a tendency to overthink Sunn O))) as if they're a super-intellectual experience that will heighten your spirit to Buddha Valhalla or something, so let's not. Let's put on 'Kannon', enjoy their best record since 'Black One', and wait for the next amazing thing they'll do.

10. STEVE VON TILL A Life Unto Itself
Not trying to Freudalise you or anything, but have you ever wondered, as an exercise, if you prefer mommy or daddy, in the deepest, darkest thoughts you keep locked inside your head? I do a similar thing with Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly. No, none of them's "mommy" in my half-baked random analogy in case you were going to crack that joke, but both of them being important members of one of my favourite bands ever, and both of them having remarkable solo careers, not to mention that people sometimes flat-out ask me which one of them I prefer (something I hope no one ever did to you with the mommy/daddy thing), and I've come to the conclusion that each record one of them puts out makes me like him more during those months. Despite Scott's 2007 record 'The Wake' being engraved in the inner walls of my heart forever, 'A Life Unto Itself' put me clearly in Team Steve for 2015. I actually had to sum up its appeal already on a little blurb for Terrorizer, so no use trying to say the same thing with other words. Here you go: "Rarely has such a subtle and generally quiet record packed such a thunderous emotional punch – the Neurosis guitarist/vocalist might present himself in the sparser, most minimalist fashion, just one man lost in the woods with an acoustic guitar, some effects and his coarse, haunting voice, but these songs will reach down into your heart and squeeze it with the force of a thousand men."

9. THERAPY? Disquiet
Here's another routine I've done a million times, explain why Therapy? are still one of the best rock bands in the planet. And yet most of you still think they're that band who hasn't done much since 'Infernal Love'. You know what, we don't care anymore. By "we", I mean the whole bunch of people who have been to their live shows in 2015, screamed every word along with Andy and Michael, and realised the 'Disquiet' songs are already among our favourites of the setlist, not a small feat for a new record. Always bitter, always sharp and always under-the-surface sad and melancholic, Therapy?'s songs go much, much deeper than your usual rock band but always packing a severe high-octane punch nevertheless, exhaling a stupendous degree of energy, vitality and anger. Highlights from 'Disquiet' include the immediacy of opener 'Still Hurts' ("each year / it gets worse", Andy spits sardonically during the chorus), the unbearable sadness of 'Tides' or the riff-of-the-year roaring behind metallic closer 'Deathstimate', but the entire album is full of blinders. Get on it!

8. GOATSNAKE Black Age Blues
How often do you really get to say, and mean it, that it was worth it to wait fifteen fucking years for a record? That's how good 'Black Age Blues' is. "For each year of absence there’s a kickass bluesy riff that’ll stay in your head forever," I said on Terrorizer a couple of months ago, and I mean it even more now. Having seen them live twice since the album came out, the fact that these simple, infectious rockers more than hold their own alongside all the other classics is a testament to how strong of a record this is. I'll never look at coffee and whiskey the same way after it, for instance. It would be great if they did another one, and if it didn't take them fifteen years this time, but whatever - this is an album for the ages and we'll be listening to it in 30 years time with the same gusto we do today.

7. SIGH Graveward
It's a funny moment, when 'Graveward' finally clicks with you. It might take a little more or not, depending on how familiar you are with Sigh's discography, especially with the weirder albums, but when it does, you'll realise, in the middle of everything that's going on at once in those 500 or so tracks they must have used in the recording, that 'Graveward' isn't such a weird record after all. You might even hum a few parts here and there without risk of brain damage. I don't pretend to know how Mirai (and, decisively, Kadenzza's You Oshima, a remarkable guitar player and Sigh's best addition to the line-up since the unstoppable Dr. Mikannibal back in 2007) did it, but he's fused almost indistinctly the entire symphonic complexity of the most difficult Sigh records to the immediacy of his love for thrash metals and just simple good tunes in one big avant-garde mix of wonderful strangeness. 'Scorn Defeat' means a hell of a lot to me, as I made abundantly clear here, where I guested on a feature about weird 90s record by my buddy Luís Pires, and that sentimental attachment is the only thing keeping me from stating that 'Graveward' is Sigh's best album ever.

6. TAU CROSS Tau Cross
We all mourned the ending of Amebix just after they had delivered 'Sonic Mass', one of the best albums of the 21st century, but if some psychic (where are you people when we need you?) had told us about Tau Cross, we would have had a much easier time. See, Rob Miller's new band encapsulates everything that was awesome about the new incarnation of Amebix - that skewed Killing Joke influence, the raw strength and impetus of the songs, the apocalyptic feel, the unforgettable melodies - and still adds more stuff to the melting pot. Not only the line-up is a stellar get-together of awesome people (Michel from Voivod, Jon from Misery and Andy from War/Plague), but the result is much more than the sum of the four. What's more, the album was released in May and there's no sign of it loosening its grip on me - it sits on my car stereo right now as I write this, in mid-January. I guess only the next one, which might not be too far away already, will be the only cure. By the way, I reviewed 'Tau Cross' for Rock-a-Rolla, here's a bit from that text in case you need more convincing: "[Rob Miller is] a gritty, rough anti-hero spewing his guts out for you with each word. And he has words – when he offers on the deeply emotional final song “I see you turn to me, and I clearly hear you say / That on the final day, we all stand alone / And the devil knows his own”, you’ll shiver with the sheer honesty and power of it all."

I used to write a whole post for the last few records of the list, but now I'm older. No, not wiser or anything, I'm just older and I'm very busy and fucking tired. So I'll really let the fact that these records are my absolute favourites, on a list that has had 95 others already on which the "last" ten were great records too, speak for itself. That way I'll also escape the torture that is finding new words to describe such a labyrithine headfuck like 'A Umbra Omega' is. Oh go on, have a few review snippets if you must. From Terrorizer: "Main man Vicotnik himself told Terrorizer recently that if he was to explain the album,  “it would be so abstract that no one would understand what I was talking about”. So, we’ll just tell us what this collection of five very long songs and an intro has made us feel – excited, because it’s crazy music that flows, exhilaratingly, without letting your attention wander. Frustrated, because nothing makes sense if you try to verbally define it. Disoriented, because after 25 minutes it feels like 25 songs have gone by, but you’re still on song two, ‘God Protocol Axiom’. Most of all, inspired, because, as Solefald’s ‘World Music. Kosmopolis Sud’ also proved a few weeks ago, the avant-garde isn’t dead, and it isn’t just a silly word. Anything is still possible in music, even the impossible. Even ‘A Umbra Omega’."

4. REVENGE Behold.Total.Rejection

3. MY DYING BRIDE Feel The Misery
PARADISE LOST The Plague Within
Because yes, sometimes we do get nice things, My Dying Bride are fucking back. Thought they have never gone underneath a certain quality threshold, I suppose even us, old and faithful fans whose lives were changed by 'Turn Loose The Swans' all those years ago, had to agree that not since 'The Dreadful Hours' had the band put out something truly amazing, truly relevant and earth-shattering like their doom used to be. Well, here it is. Several months after its release, I'm still very much feeling this misery with a stupid smile on my face. Same thing I just said with different titles for Paradise Lost - though the situation is slightly different, as I do admire their excursions into different genres they were brave enough to take over the years (and hold some of those records among my PL faves), it was clear that Paradise Lost needed a revitalisation of some sort in the past few years. Whether it was Greg and Nick's participation in Vallenfyre and Bloodbath respectively that lit a fire underneath their doomy bums that did it, whatever it was, it worked. 'The Plague Within' is a monster of doom/death metal like they don't do them anymore (well, Paradise Lost do, but you know what I mean) without being retro or directly referencing any of their past work. It's simply one of their best records ever, and the pleasure of having these two bands so high up on a 2015 list is beyond anything I can say. Here's a bit of my delightfully over-excited Terrorizer review of 'Feel The Misery: "Despite the overwhelming sorrow bleeding from the track, it's impossible not to get excited straight away – these are proper My Dying Bride riffs, it feels in our guts that we're back to 'God Is Alone' or 'Your River', or whichever classic it was that most floated your boat, with riffs that exhale dread and malice, but also powerful and memorable. Vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe also nails the ever-delicate balance between anguished growls ('To Shiver In Empty Halls' features one of his best opening roars ever!) and his unique kind of lamented singing and whispering, lending each part its correct emotional weight and greatly amplifying the dynamics of the album, from the fragile 'I Almost Loved You', the catchy title track or that furious 'To Shiver In Empty Halls'. It's not all perfect, and the unnecessary ten grey minutes of the bloated closing track could well have been sliced off, but who cares. The final rating is also bloated because we fuckin' missed this band so very much."

2. ROYAL THUNDER Crooked Doors
Royal Thunder were born awesome. I still remember all the things that went through my head when my buddy Jonathan Selzer put that first EP on after telling me he had found a band I'd love, weeks before it came out. I'll still take that EP to the car and sing along to every single word today, and it's a testament to how unbelievably brilliant Royal Thunder are today that 'Crooked Doors' is miles, miles ahead in terms of quality from that first EP that seemed unbeatable. A lot of superlatives have been thrown at the band since its release, and from being the best rock band in the world right now to comparisons to Sabbath and Led Zep, it all might seem excessive, but none of them are. They're all true, and hopefully Royal Thunder will become as world-conqueringly huge as they deserve to be.
Here's my Rock-a-Rolla review in full:
"If Royal Thunder turn into the world's biggest rock – just that, rock, no prefixes or suffixes - band in a couple of years, don't forget where you heard that prediction first. If they don't, it's okay, because they're very close to being the best already. While it might be a bold statement, it's not a product of over-excitement – we've lived with his album for several months now, and just like the stuff we call classic rock these days (you know, Led Zep et al), it still feels fresh and vital every time we spin it, and we have a feeling it will still do in ten or twenty years time. Trimming a lot of CVI's fat, Crooked Doors is much more direct and sparse, yet by no means simple effort. It works as a collection of songs as well as a full album, it is a record which understands the intangible stuff that great songs are made of, a record of subtlety and immediacy at the same time and a record that sounds both mature and electrically jovial. Bluesy in just the right amount, heartbreaking when it needs to (that closing piano ballad…), a riff factory you only noticed when you start humming the same riffs long after the album has finished playing… we could go on. But we'd rather give it another spin instead, and so should you. The biggest and best rock band in the world. Remember."

1. SOLEFALD World Metal, Kosmopolis Sud
Let me take you back to that feature on oddball 90s records that I did with my friend and kickass scribe Luís - this thing here. Or, think back to what you felt when you first heard 'La Masquerade Infernale', or your first Ulver album, or whatever album it was that first defied your teenage notions of music, that made you think and open your horizons, that made you realise that music is infinite and that someone, at any time, can come up with an entirely new collection of sounds that'll be like nothing else you have heard before. That feeling, right? There is a tendency, more than there's ever been, these days, to be negative about contemporary music, to spit out the old chestnut that all good music has been done before, that originality (or metal, or rock, or music, or whatever field you happen to have limited views on) is "dead". While we are indeed over-exposed to a lot of drab repetitions, re-hashings and unimaginative works, and while those are unfortunately what tends to be successful (as it has always been!), your view that whatever bit of music is dead depends entirely on you and how you choose to select .- or not -  what you hear. So, go back to that feeling on those first records that twisted your mind, and hell, if Solefald's first album 'The Linear Scaffold' was a part of that, even better. 'World Metal, Kosmopolis Sud' will have the exact same effect. Its many, many, many influences unfold like a stream of consciousness, but one that's been spat out with structure already, with thought and with meaning. Its main message is the perfect one for an Album Of The Year, which it clearly and undoubtedly is - a celebration of world culture, exploring everything that unites us through music instead of focusing on what separates us. As it said on the press release at the time of the album's promotion, "Merging raw Norwegian Metal, Dutch Techno with Norse and African folk and rhythms, Solefald has beyond doubt crafted an out of the ordinary sound; World music with black edges. A celebration of World Culture." "World metal", and the title of that first song, 'World Music With Black Edges', are indeed the more than perfect descriptions for what can be found throughout this album, the most shining example of why avant-garde is still a thing in our world of weird music, a very important thing and a much less complicated thing that what it is usually meant to be - it's just creativity. Wild, boundless, truly original creativity at work. Here's how I summed my album of the year up for Terrorizer:
 "This is avant-garde – wild-eyed exploration, meshing of genres, but never losing the musical appeal. Metal riffs were put alongside African tribal music, European dance beats and industrial aggression, and not a second seemed out of place. Genius, we say."
Genius indeed.

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