Friday, February 29, 2008

Best of 2007 - #19

19. evoken - 'a caress of the void'
As the more extreme forms of doom, and funeral doom in particular, become a more broadly accepted proposition, more and more bands of the sort begin to show up, either newly formed, or being picked up more easily by record labels. It's also a time, however, to remember the ones who have been here before, and who still are the natural leaders of the genre. Direct spiritual descendents of the two entities that basically formed the entire blueprint for the genre, Disembowelment and Thergothon, they have been spreading their miserable, crawl-paced terror since the frightening 1996 EP 'Shades Of Night Descending'. Always at the forefront with such monuments of heavy slow doom such as 1998's 'Embrace The Emptiness' or the recent 2005's 'Antithesis Of Light', Evoken have now delivered an album of a magnitude that can rival with anything they've done before. 'A Caress Of The Void' is a bottomless pit of despair, and a much more dangerous one than before. This time, there's camouflaged quicksand covering the pit, so you'll think you'll be okay at first and then you'll start to sink in, slowly, until you realize the creeping horror that's still down there. There is a newfound sense of melody (within this context, let's not get carried away with the word 'melody' here) in Evoken's music, with a song like 'Mare Erythraeum', for example, providing an almost singable line, or at least hummable. These bits, and the slightly more digestible song sizes, that now hover around the eight minute mark, make 'A Caress Of The Void' an album that's strangely easier to get into, but that on the other hand proves impossible to get out of. The small specks of light make the darkness all the more impenetrable, a feeling that's very helped both by the band's amazing performance and by the perfect production - the sound can get literally suffocating in behemoths like 'Astray In Eternal Night'. At one point, you'll need to come out for air, but you'll just want to hold your breath and go back in again.

Evoken - 'Astray In Eternal Night'

Monday, February 25, 2008

Best of 2007 - #20

20. whiskey priest - 'hungry'
And then, sometimes, you need to rest. You need to sit down, dim the lights and be quiet, let your troubles and your tiredness sink in. That's when you put 'Hungry' on. Whiskey Priest is Noah Hall and his guitar, together with a few friends, and it's the acoustic album of the year. The first line of the band's description on their MySpace reads I like quiet songs. I like honest songs., and that's precisely what 'Hungry' delivers. Songs that whisper and gently strum their words and chords to you, but also songs that resonate deeply very long after you've heard them because of the brutal honesty with which they are delivered. Noah also says love makes me want to sing songs about love, but don't think by that quote that you're getting into some sappy pink album. At its core, 'Hungry' is wounded and heartbroken. It's not completely hopeless and bleak, but hope is a distant concept, one that is there merely as a little beacon of light (should the years choose to be kind and after all you're still inclined, if some day I come across your mind and we're not completely out of time, I will be with you - 'Waiting Game'). Throughout these thirty-five minutes, Noah exposes his bare feelings, through outrageously beautiful and varied compositions, despite never leaving the simple guitar/voice/piano set-up. The guitar and voice were recorded live, for honesty's sake, so every song sounds warm, personal and like Noah is singing to you while sitting across your chair in your room. The lyrics don't offer too many unsolvable riddles, but they manage to speak of things in a very evocative way, bringing up very powerful images that complement the melodic richness of the songs perfectly. Highlights are everything, with every song glowing in its own very individual aura - there's the surprisingly gorgeous minimalist version of 'Sweet Child O' Mine', appropriately shortened to 'Sweet Child' as the second verse isn't sung, there's the biting sarcasm of 'Love & A Gun' (all you need is love, love is all you need, yeah, love and a gun I mean), there's the desperate wishing of 'Superman' (wanna be someone's hero someday if I can, don't wanna end up one more broken superman) and there's 'Souvenir', an exceptionally dangerous song if you're on heartbroken street yourself, so desolate and melancholic an ending it provides to the album, a bit like David Poe's 'Love Won't Last The Afternoon' on his remarkable 'Love Is Red' album. Yeah, I do run-on sentences when something touches me deeply, and that's precisly what 'Hungry' has done. Goddamn it, even the packaging itself is amazing, with a strangely moving little tale by Gina Ochsner that explains the meaning of the album title. If there's still some heart left in you after the world beats you down, you need this.

Whiskey Priest - 'Souvenir'

Go buy it here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #25 to #21

25. watain - 'sworn to the dark' / ixxi - 'assorted armament' (watain) (ixxi)
A double-header! I could go into all kinds of wonderful justifications to have two records sharing one spot, and they'd actually be valid, like both Watain and IXXI embodying what's still relevant about black metal these days, kind of torchbearers for the genuine core of a genre, how both albums are similar beasts of misanthropic aggression, all that. All true, but this is actually a bit of a cop-out to hide the fact that I discovered IXXI, shamefully, when this list was already well underway, and 'Assorted Armament' is way too good to leave out. While we were furiously headbanging in the car to it, noticing that it wasn't a million miles away from 'Sworn To The Dark', my bestest friend JMR suggested that I slip them both in the list side by side, so here it is. Watain is Watain, if you're not into them, you're not into black metal, period. 'Sworn To The Dark' might not be as essential as 'Casus Luciferi', for example, but it's still a trve-as-fvkk satan-worshipping black'n'rolling middle-finger to music in general, and stuff like 'Storm Of The Antichrist' makes it all worthwhile anyway. Catch them live and feel the smell of death as the blood of a hundred shows rots on their clothes. And fuck off. Preferably, while listening to 'Assorted Armament' - just the beginning of the record is enough for you to understand what you're getting into. After the intro, where you can hear a whole bunch of mouse squeaks, a voice spits out 'Earth, man. What a shithole!". After that, the let's-hit-other-people-NOW! rifff of 'Armageddon Nobility' kicks in, dirty, filthy, groovy and GRAAARGH and you're hooked. And it goes on for nine more songs, so go get it. Now. You wimp.

Watain - 'Storm Of The Antichrist'

IXXI - 'Armageddon Nobility'

24. david galas - 'the cataclysm'
David Galas is mostly known for his involvement with Lycia, and there are a few traces of that sort of goth-y darkwave in 'The Cataclysm', but you'd be well advised to approach this album as a self-contained piece of work. And such a stark and sombre work that it is - Galas has worked on it for six years ever since Lycia disbanded in 1999 up to 2005, and it shows. The scope of the record is massive, with nineteen tracks spanning over seventy minutes of music, a remarkably well-worked concept that ties in with the booklet photos, taken by the well known Elena, the "kid of speed" that has done shocking work among the ruins of Chernobyl. It's precisely the air of desolation and abandonment transmitted by that region and by those photos that David can transmit perfectly with his music, with his deep croon very reminiscent of Michael Gira and the lushly but sombre and soberly arranged instrumentation. A song like 'September' perfectly illustrates the depth of dark beauty and of heightened melancholy that permeates this entire masterpiece. All of 'The Cataclysm' has been written, performed, recorded and produced by David himself, which shows the level of musician that we're dealing with here. Superb.

David Galas - 'September'

23. dirge - 'wings of lead over dormant seas'
[review published on issue #165 of Terrorizer magazine]
Much like the unfurling of their long songs, Dirge’s evolution as a band has also taken its time and matured, and now it seems the ideal time for everyone to realize their worth, as they are currently an all-encompassing behemoth truly worthy of being up there with Neurosis or Isis. themselves. ‘Wings…’ is composed of two discs, with five songs on the first one and the title track as the single one-hour track of the second one. On that first disc, opener ‘Méridian’ is a perfect blueprint example of what you can expect from the other songs. A 19-minute slab of creeping atmosphere that grows patiently but also stealthily, so when you least expect it you find yourself in the middle of a thunderously heavy whirlwind of sludge doom, capable nevertheless of switching back to quiet, minimalist ambient again. All these transitions take their time, seamlessly, so it never feels like the album is pulling you along. If anything, it walks side by side with you. ‘Wings…’ would be essential for this disc alone, but that second disc elevates it to classic status. Profoundly deep, it’s a journey of rising and falling, of light and dark, of silence and abrasive noise, which sums up everything the band has done so far. For once, the word genius is entirely appropriate.

Dirge - 'Epicentre'

22. alcest - 'souvenirs d'un autre monde'
[review published on issue #160 of Terrorizer magazine]
Neige’s (he of Peste Noire) solo project has one of those press sheets that seem to try way too hard, as it describes Alcest like “Yann Tiersen applied to Burzum”, but bugger me with Varg’s spiky mace if that bit of surrealism doesn’t feel 100% accurate after listening to ‘Souvenirs…’ in its entirety. And listen to it you will, often, such is the addictive nature of these soundscapes. You’ll even start to throw crazier names onto that description pile, like Sigur Rós or Jesu, which are probably the most important comparison point here. The enveloping, feverish melancholy that drips from this album feels a lot like the hypnotic shoegaze of Jesu’s self-titled debut, with the important difference that the guitars are still used as black metal guitars, obviously without the same harshness as Neige’s pure BM work, but with similar texture and coldness. This juxtaposition of feelings helps make ‘Souvenirs…’ a towering monument of fragile, desperate beauty that you’d be foolish to miss, regardless of your usual genre of choice.

Alcest - 'Printemps Emeraude'

21. naglfar - 'harvest'
[review published on issue #157 of Terrorizer magazine]
With an evolution somewhat opposite to many other bands, Naglfar’s constantly ascending path has seen them rise from their obscure and rather indifferently generic beginnings to the potent beast they now are. Not even the loss of lead vocalist Jens Rydén after 2003’s ‘Sheol’, an album which was the first real sign that Naglfar might be reaching for something bigger, dampened their conviction, as bassist Kristoffer Olivius put on a hell of a performance on 2005’s ‘Pariah’. Olivius has now dropped his old bass altogether to focus only on his piercing screams, and his improvement is remarkable, no mean feat considering what he has already done before. His powerful and versatile shrieks are the first noticeable result of an overall step up in intensity. If ‘Pariah’ was angry, ‘Harvest’ is furious. Even though still predominantly mid-tempo, the dynamics are much improved, with the slower parts feeling oppressive and the faster parts feeling rabid. One of the great things about ‘Pariah’ was the way that it managed to transmit real hatred in its best songs, and ‘Harvest’ also reinforces that quality. The twisted riffing ‘Odium Generis Humani’ or the sick melodies of ‘Feeding Moloch’ feel full of bile, worthy successors to ‘Spoken Words Of Venom’, however they maintain a distinctive, memorable melodic feel to them. A new factor introduced here is the immense scope of some of these songs - epic in the sense of their vastness, a bit like Rotting Christ’s new album. Opener ‘Into The Black’ is a great example of this, but the pièce de résistance is the surprisingly devastating title track which closes the album. Not only the best thing on offer here, it indicates a possible future that could be very bright for the band. It would be not only lazy, but unfair to label Naglfar mere Dissection successors, as there is much more to them, but the fact remains that these Swedes balance their genres to a similar effect, blending the best of black, death and thrash in a way that has been done precious few times, if any, since ‘Storm Of The Light’s Bane’. Modern extreme metal at its best.

Naglfar - 'Way Of The Rope'

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #30 to #26

30. the great deceiver - 'life is wasted on the living'
[review published on issue #163 of Terrorizer magazine]
Shame that metalcore has become such a dirty word, otherwise it would be a perfect term to describe bands that actually can appeal to the sensitivities of both hardcore and metal audiences by doing a bit more than just mixing clean and rough vocals and doing a lot of breakdowns. As it is, it’s hard to describe The Great Deceiver’s new album without alienating the genre purists by the end of the first sentence. It’s their loss anyway. Tomas Lindberg (ironically enough, as At The Gates are often cited as an influence on the current “metalcore” bands) and Kristian Wahlin’s band has defied easy categorization ever since 1999’s ‘Cave In’, with each album a potent cocktail featuring a different balance of genres, and here that balance has clearly gone the way of the hardcore punk. The intensity is enough to bring Converge to mind often, while the creativity and agility of the guitarwork work beautifully in keeping the record fresh and interesting, despite the directness of the music, so you’ll be kicked in the face for 12 songs and enjoy every hit. Where’s the hunger? The dedication? Where’s the passion?, Tomas screams during closer ‘21st Century Heartburn’. Well, it’s right here.

The Great Deceiver - 'Home To Oblivion'

29. the angelic process - 'weighing souls with sand'
There is a certain frame of mind, a red thread going through some artists and bands of the past couple of decades that connects them, more spiritually than in actual performed music itself. The Angelic Process don't really sound like My Bloody Valentine, or Swans, or Jesu, and neither of those bands really sound like each other, but there is the same underlying feeling to their albums, the same bittersweetness that's left in your gut whenever they finish playing. The Angelic Process is a couple (K. Angylus and MDragynfly) who have recently put the band on hold, tragically, due to an injury to Angylus that prevents him, for an indefinite period, to play drums and guitar properly, but before disappearing (for what one hopes is a temporary period - here's hoping, K.) they've left us this monument of an album. What comes to mind after enduring a full listen of 'Weighing Souls With Sand' is waves - tidal waves of blurry, hazy, gigantic walls of noise burying inside them painfully beautiful and feverishly intense, emotional melodies. Everything in this album is both subtle and with immense scope, and it never meanders into pointless tragedy for tragedy's sake - it's like a brutal elegance that's thrown at you, enveloped in a surprisingly rich musicality, as the almost-hidden structure of the songs reveals itself once you get your head round the winds-lashing-across-Venus'-surface way in which they are presented. Approach with caution, for you might not come out.

The Angelic Process - 'Million Year Summer'

28. wolves in the throne room - 'two hunters'
It's interesting, and I have mentioned this before, how the impact of Burzum's music (while not necessarily Varg's lyrical message, or at least not in its entirety) is only now being fully processed and applied to evolution by some of the most interesting (post-?)black metal bands. 'Two Hunters' is one such example, strictly musically speaking, as Wolves In The Throne Room flow between raw, unadulterated aggression in the vein of the classics like Darkthrone or Immortal, and something quite beyond easy comparisons, a whirlwind of atmosphere and feeling. Take a song like 'I Will Lay Down My Bones Among The Rocks And Roots', for example, for a full Wolves In The Throne Room experience - the beginning is quietly acoustic, then after a while it surges into hyperspeed black metal distortion before pulling you back for another moment of quiet. The ending is then enormous, as intensity and ambiance are coupled together, including some beautifully mournful vocals by guest vocalist Jessica Kinney. By that title you can imagine a rural, back to the roots ideology at work here, and that's exactly what this band practises - the three members live in a self-sustained farm, growing their own nourishment and raising their own cattle. This nature worship transpires into their music, not in a hippie way but in a fundamental admiration for what surrounds us, both light and dark, both good and evil, with a balance in the crystallization of these feelings into sound rarely heard in recorded music.

27. a whisper in the noise - 'dry land'
[review published on issue #24 of Underworld magazine, translated and slightly adapted for too.many.records.]
Rarely has a band's name been so appropriate as here. Whisper In The Noise's sound is just that, a whisper among all the racket that can have a bigger impact just by its simplicity and meaning than all the loud volumes that might fill up the rest of your musical day. Three albums in, this Minnesota band give us an example of class and maturity. Recorded by Steve Albini, the songs exhibit a rare and delicate beauty, without ever getting into over-sentimentality. There is a minimalist elegance in these compositions, enriched superbly by the classical instrumentation which blends in with the low-profile piano and guitars. Songs like opener 'As We Were' or the wonderful 'This Time, It's' perfectly illustrate the general environment of the record, a slow development of an almost despondent sadness that nevertheless reaches leves of quiet euphoria, as West Thordsons voice echoes vague ghostly tales of a chilling evocative power. Monotony never sets in, through the intelligence with which the songs switch gears almost imperceptibly. The mood is very Southern Gothic - the old, wooden country houses, empty and abandoned, lonely old men inside slowly tracing the course of painful memories that they offer in each room. Albini's work is remarkable - each instrument resounds with crystal clarity the exact sound that is required by it, helping 'Dry Land' pull you in to repeated listens like few other records do, especially within a certain frame of mind. 'Dry Land' is an unusual, genuine record, and clearly reaffirms the faith if sometimes you think that people just don't do music like they used to.

A Whisper In The Noise - 'This Time, It's'

26. tombs - 'tombs'
[review published on issue #165 of Terrorizer magazine]
This is it, people. Whether you want the crushing weight of Godflesh, the hypnotic intensity of Swans, the piercing coldness of the darkest drone music or the atmosphere of the heavier shoegaze bands, Tombs deliver all that. This 30-minute EP is salivatingly brilliant, from the icy horror of ‘Fountain Of The World 666’ to the obliterating pain of ‘Calvaire’ or the ominous noise-instrumental that is ‘Marina’. A proper full length will probably kill us all. And what’s more, we’ll love it anyway.

Tombs - 'Calvaire'

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #35 to #31

35. iron and wine - 'the shepherd's dog'
It's been rather hard for those of us who fell in love with Sam Beam's first couple of softly hushed, minimalist guitar-picking albums, the unforgettable 'The Creek Drank The Cradle' and 'Our Endless Numbered Days', to follow his inevitable evolution into a more arranged, structured kind of composition, with more instruments and a few people around him colouring the songs. The 'Woman King' EP was okay, but it sort of passed you by, which raised my fears a bit for this album, but in the end Sam has been able to prove that no matter what the form is, the essence of his music can and will touch hearts regardless. Truth be told, there was little else to do with his old style anyway, and in this album he has thrown the doors of experimentation wide open. It's not wild "avantgarde" experimentation, but it's stuff like the fabulous dimension of 'Boy With A Coin', a song that is at the same time creepy and jolly, the little beat of 'House By The Sea' that propels Sam into his most adventurous vocal performance so far and the groovy undertones of 'Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog)', for example. Even a song like 'Resurrection Fern', which could be lifted straight off the first albums, is given a new shade by the quiet but present arrangements. Above all, this album must feel like a sort of liberation for Sam, who has now a hundred ways in which to explore his typical small-town, rural heartbreak stories in the next releases. I'll await them eagerly.

Iron And Wine - 'Boy With A Coin'

34. big business - 'here come the waterworks'
Big Business sure got their overdue spotlight this year, since both of the musicians that constitute the band are now also members of the Melvins line-up (and recorded an album I was quite excited about). However, that can also be a slight drawback for Jared Warren (vocals and bass) and drummer Coady Willis, since everything they do will now be looked at under the big shade of King Buzzo's crown. Which is unfair, especially since 'Here Come The Waterworks' is such a great record. Sure, there's hints of the Melvins here, but mostly in their approach to things, in that vaguely mocking-indie way that the Melvins do things, the same warped sense of humour. Apart from that, the album lives on a strange contrast that manages, somehow, to work - it's tremendously heavy but also surprisingly clean and uplifting, this both in music and in lyrics too. Take 'I'll Give You Something To Cry About', with riffs that weigh a ton and could have come from any doom album but also with twinkling guitar harmonies and sort of silly oh ohs, which happen right when Jared is singing about vultures. It's weird stuff, but it all comes together into a huge mass of pure rock. Go figure.

Big Business - 'I'll Give You Something To Cry About'

33. melt-banana - 'bambi's dilemma'
Play a random Melt-Banana album to anyone with a "conventional" music taste and the reactions are usually wonderful. From "are those yelping monkeys?" to "oh, those must be the South Park dolls!", I've had all sorts of reactions. At their core, however, these nutty Japanese girls are one of the coolest bands ever, mixing typical Japan weirdness with shit-heavy Godflesh-isms with go-ahead punk. All their albums have gone one step ahead in finding the perfect balance for all these apparently incompatible influences, and it's in 'Bambi's Dilemma' that they come closer than ever to the motherload. It's the album that goes to more extremes, in both directions - while it's the one with the most insane vocal acrobatics (the dog impression in 'Dog Song' is, well, hard to explain without listening), the harshest noise moments and the most unexpected bits of electronics, but it's also the one with the closest thing to hit singles that they've ever had and with the hugest metal riffs you could ever wish for in the middle of all this cacophony. Just when you've listened to the whole thing, rocked and punked out and think you're finally making sense of it all, they throw a mega-curveball on you with the ambient (?) industrial of closer “Last Target On The Last Day". Genius.

Melt-Banana - 'Cracked Plaster Cast'

32. marduk - 'rom 5:12'
Rarely has a vocalist change produced so many good things. When Legion left Marduk, the band felt kind of washed-up, repeating the same thing over and over. Since then, the former vocalist has gone on to do a wonderful blackthrash album with his new band Devian, and Marduk have been totally revitalized with the arrival of the creepy Mortuus, known for his ravishing work in Funeral Mist. Naturally fitting in the role as if it has been his for decades, his demented and from-the-gut-of-satan vocals helped make 'Plague Angel' a pulverising return to form, and now with the unholy 'Rom 5:12' he steps those up even a bit more and Marduk is definitely back on the christgrinding map. Finally, guitarist and main man Morgan has realized that evil does not only lie in speed, and Marduk are able to slow down to a grinding (that's the word) halt right off from 'The Levelling Dust', a thick miasma of black riffing from which you can almost smell the putrefaction. This haunting feel is intelligently built in the songs, so you don't get slow-song-fast-song like they have tried to do before on 'Nightwing' for example, but a varied and very uncomfortable overall experience. 'Imago Mortis' is one of the top black metal songs of the year, 'Cold Mouth Prayer' returns briefly to the warp-speed mode, which works much better because now you're not expecting it all the time anymore. then there's a little surprise that's the final piece to lift the album to amazing status - the authoritarian, menacing 'Accuser / Opposer', in which Primordial's vocalist Nemtheanga delivers a guest vocal performance worthy of all the brilliance that his band have delivered us recently.

Marduk - 'Imago Mortis'

31. impaled nazarene - 'manifest'
[review published on issue #164 of Terrorizer magazine]
If there is a band that embodies non-compromise, it’s Impaled Nazarene. Sure, throughout all the albums they have released so far (and there have been a few already, count ‘em!), there have been ups and downs in quality, but there isn’t a stinker among them and there are several brilliant ones, and, most importantly, in all of them Mika and the lads have shown that they don’t give a flying fuck about any trends or musical climates. Nor have they shown any sign of mellowing out, either, as each of those releases has been a blast of hate-fuelled violence. It’s quite a past to live up to, and the best thing about ‘Manifest’ is that not only it lives up to it easily, but it feels like a summing up of all the best bits of their body of work. Unthinkably long for ImpNaz standards, its 50 minutes hold some of the most varied and exciting tunes of their career. Despite being generally perceived as straightforward music, Impaled Nazarene have never been easy to categorize. There’s thrash, death, grindcore and black metal all mixed with an explosive punk attitude, leaving their own nuclear metal catchphrase as probably the most accurate term for it so far. But on ‘Manifest’, everything goes one step further – they manage to put in a doom song, ‘Funeral For Despicable Pigs’ and a goddamn exhilarating Motörhead-gone-extreme rock-out in ‘You Don’t Rock Hard’, just to cite a couple of examples of the generally looser, catchier approach to songwriting. This makes the record an addictive start-to-finish experience, but it’s done in a way that it keeps the furious, uncontrolled feeling of the earlier stuff like ‘Ugra Karma’. Just listen to the insanity of ‘Pandemia’ or the wonderful opener ‘The Antichrist Files’, in which Mika shamelessly shrieks “pledge allegiance to Satan.” No, they haven’t started to take themselves too seriously yet, and the obligatory goat song is still there. It’s still good old reliable Impaled Nazarene, except they’ve still got a few tricks up their sleeve and, unlike many other bands that have reached this level of extremity, they seem to be getting even better with age.

Impaled Nazarene - 'You Don't Rock Hard'