Saturday, February 9, 2013

Favorite Albums Of The 2012

Again, real life seems to interrupt my attempts at writing. Things are back on track now, so I hope to be back to weekly updates. In the meantime, I've started a Tumblr page and have been doing some micro-blogging with reviews and assorted weirdness. Be sure to check that out:

Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind: My love for Converge can be summed up in an anecdote: I got to see them live for the third time last year headlining a show the day before Halloween that awesomely had Torche and Kvelertak opening. I was waiting to use the one bathroom stall in the men's room when lead singer Jacob Bannon came literally bouncing out of the stall and out of the bathroom like he was lit on fire. He didn't look like he was late for anything. In fact, he seemed to be smiling. Dude doesn't even slow down to take a dump.

(Also, my butt touched the same place his butt just touched so I think that means we're now lovers. I'm pretty sure that's how it works, right?)

To me, that's Converge in a nutshell: bursting with restless energy. They've been doing this with a consistency and a pace that left most of their peers wheezing in their wake. They all seem to have creative endeavors and side project outside of Converge that keep them busy. (Dear Nate, more Doomriders, plz?) Rather than run out of ideas on their first couple records, they actually seem to be getting better as musicians and taking more chances with their sound as time passes.

After what might be a career highlight with 2009's guest-heavy Axe To Fall, they've responded with a tighter, more focused album. They can still batter you with sound but time has also taught them where best to hit for maximum impact.

Baroness - Yellow & Green: According to my stats, I listened to 674 Baroness tracks in the last 12 months. "March To The Sea" 89 times and "Take My Bones Away" 86. That sends a pretty clear message: I am deeply disturbed. Or I have a desk job and I listen to a lot of music. Y'know. Whatevs. Honestly, the worst thing about Baroness' switch up from dynamic sludge metal to a more palatable hard rock was watching music journalists contort themselves into uncomfortable shapes trying to describe it. The vocabulary for talking about hard rock music has completely atrophied from disuse so seeing comparisons ranging from Nickelback to Thrice to Foo Fighters were kind of inevitable.

Baroness, of course, sounds nothing like any of those bands. They're similar only in the sense that no one in them are legally considered dead. The imagery of the lyrics alone should separate Baroness from the pack. Bones and water are recurring themes. Textural interstitial pieces help the album flow and keep a sense of atmosphere. Lyrics about bones and bodies of water give everything a sense of immensity or expansiveness. This is not a pop record.

Downshifting from the exhilarating Blue Record still leaves the band cruising at a healthy speed. "March To The Sea," "Take My Bones Away" and "Psalms Alive" all sound fantastic blasting out of a car chugging well over the speed limit. "Eula" is gorgeously dark, one of their very best songs. "Cocanium" and "Stretchmarker" allow them to experiment more with the listeners expectations while remaining very much a Baroness song. In the end, I guess it's okay that music journalists couldn't find the right words for this band. No one else is doing it like this.

Golden Void - Golden Void: Based in the Bay Area, named after a Hawkwind song, and with a sickly yellow cover of dead tree limbs, you can get a good idea of what you're going to get from Golden Void's first album before you drop the needle on the platter: gauzy production, hazy psychedelic atmosphere, and some champion level guitar playing. This is no empty throwback, though. Isaiah Mitchell's limber guitar playing cuts through the smoke with ease. I could listen to the guitar solo on "Atlantis" for days on end.

In true record fetishist fashion, the album is a brief seven track, thirty-seven minute and change affair, perfect for two sides of a thick slab of vinyl. (You get a bonus live track on the iTunes version.) While the atmosphere is thick throughout, they still try on a fair share of styles. Mitchell's vocals may recall Hendrix one moment or Ozzy the next. They may go at a more languid pace on "Jetsun Dolma" only to charge straight through on a song like "The Curve." It's all foreplay to get to "Atlantis," as far as I'm concerned. It's rare for a song to so clearly hit me where I live. All the promise of the earlier tracks comes together for a nearly eight minute ride that begs for big headphones and a volume dial broken at 11.

My only hope is that this isn't a one off project.

Pig Destroyer - Book Burner: Read my review here. Easily the best grind band working today.

High On Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis: Read my review here. I follow guys named Matt Pike on Twitter who aren't the actual Matt Pike in hopes that one day they'll miraculously transform into him and play a gnarly riff that will make you HEAR WRITTEN WORDS. Because that's how awesome Matt Pike is.

Unsane - Wreck: Read my review here. The last and best of a dying breed.

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music: Sometimes all a rapper needs is a distinctive voice. Not "voice" in the sense of his overall approach to music, just the way words come out of their face hole. There's plenty of rappers who don't have much in the way of technical skill but can convince you solely through the power of their voice. Others have technical skill to spare but no personality or charisma. Atlanta's Killer Mike is the total package.

Buoyed by El-P's most accessible production to date, Killer Mike tears through twelve tracks without stopping for penny ante skits or instrumentals. This is a lean, mean, no bullshit rap album. The album opens strong with monster track "Big Beast" that has a sly turn from T.I. and a confident Bun B but most of the album's guest stars are only there for the hooks. This is Killer Mike's show and rightly so.

The album's centerpiece, the incendiary "Reagan," is soaked in well-earned paranoia as he tears down sacred cows in his own culture as well as the government that enables them. It's strong stuff and an album full of similar political rap would have blunted (pun intended) it's impact. While the tone of the album certainly isn't light, it's not oppressive either.

I don't often buy instrumental albums but after hearing his beats on this record, I picked up El-P's instrumentals just to admire them in their original form. I love El-P's records but seeing him try his hand at a more mainstream friendly style only highlights the range of his productions. When you put Killer Mike over top the beats, you end up with a really killer collaboration that I hope continues on more records in the future.

Easily my favorite rap record of the year.

Swans - The Seer: While my 2012 wasn't exactly rose-scented, two high points of the year were standing front and center on Halloween night to witness the mighty Earth play Phoenix for the first time in fifteen years. It was fucking transcendent. The other was watching with awe as Michael Gira and company (including a Nordic-looking guy named Thor who naturally played shirtless) absolutely wreck the audience at Crescent Ballroom. Lucky for us, what makes them so captivating live is very evident on record.

Their latest album, a double CD titled The Seer, is not casual listening. Swans records never are. Each disc is weighted down by dark epics like the 32 minute "The Seer" on disc one and the one/two punch of "A Piece Of The Sky" (19 minutes) and "Apostate" (23 minutes) on disc two.

If you're willing to put in the time, Swans can open up a whole new world of oppression and darkness. Wielding a different kind of heaviness since their reformation, the band is continuing down a path of apocalyptic folk and psychedelia. In other bands, that would be hyperbole but with Swans it's just facts. It's absolutely pummeling in it's bleakness to the point that comparisons to other bands would be doing Swans a disservice.

It's an exhausting, emotionally draining listen but it's well worth the trip.

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