Archive for the ‘Lists’ Category

My favorite shows of 2007

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Well, so this was my year in shows.

If you count NEARfest as two concerts (which seems fair, since it was two days and I saw five shows), then I hit my goal of seeing 52 shows in 2007. There were tons more I wanted to see, but between playing a competitive sport, spending many spring and fall weekends backpacking, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, it was particularly difficult for me to make weekend shows this year. So all in all I think I did pretty well. Here are some of the highlights — I’m just putting these in chronological order, and not necessarily limiting myself to 10 or anything like that.

  • Atomic at Twins Jazz, February 8 (blog entry) — What a great surprise! This quintet plays a very accessible brand of free jazz; it’s really fun to hear Paal Nilssen-Love in particular playing a more straight-ahead style. Twins Jazz was packed with about 80 people who gave Atomic an ecstatic reception. Fantastic, high-energy jazz, a great way to kick off the year.
  • The Vandermark 5 at Jammin’ Java, February 16, $12 (blog entry) — Actually this was along the same lines as Atomic: great, explosive energy jazz, also very accessible (I even took three friends to this show). They were a hundred times better than when I saw them in 2006; Fred Lonberg-Holm went from being an interesting addition to a core part of the group’s sound, pushing them further and further “out.” The crowd was kind of lame but the band nevertheless played two very hot sets.
  • Zs at The Hosiery, February 26, $5 (blog entry) — This show cemented Zs as one of my favorite current avant-rock groups; before, I liked them a lot, but seeing them live really made their brilliance unmistakably clear. The image of four musicians staring intently at each other and their sheet music, while cranking out some of the loudest and most intricate (yet still aggressively rocking) sound imaginable, is permanently burned into my brain.
  • Dälek at Rock and Roll Hotel, March 2, $10 (blog entry) — Speaking of loud… Dälek on record is an intense experience, but Dälek live is something else altogether. This was my second time seeing them, and if anything they were better than the first, if a little less overtly in-your-face.
  • Do Make Say Think at The Black Cat, April 1, $10 (blog entry) — The best rock show I saw all year. DMST played a transcendently beautiful set, and I don’t use those words lightly. I love their take on post-rock, which involves a cacophony of instruments making coherent noise, often with one single instrument (an acoustic guitar, or most often electric violin) rising to the surface with a gorgeous, straightforward melody. One of the most purely joyous concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
  • Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller at The Red Room (Baltimore), April 13, $12 (blog entry) — A legendary free-jazz skronker teamed up with an extreme metal rhythm section? Yeah, this was probably the most unrelentingly intense show I’ve ever seen. Once I managed to figure out how to parse it, though, I found it enthralling, especially Wertmüller’s drumming, which alone could have given me nightmares if I’d been having a bad day.
  • The Dismemberment Plan at The Black Cat, April 28, $15 (blog entry) — DC’s biggest phenomenon since Fugazi reuniting for two shows, four years after their breakup, guaranteed a crazy event, something bigger than just a mere concert. Sure enough, this was something to behold, especially since the band was, bizarrely, at their peak, better than they ever were when they were actually together. I saw better concerts in 2007, I think, but maybe none as memorable.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at The Black Cat, June 5, $12 (blog entry) — The third time was the charm: the first two times I saw SGM I was actually kind of underwhelmed for some reason, but this time they really brought their A game. Maybe it was just my newfound familiarity with the In Glorious Times material, but it just seemed like the band had really mastered their peculiar meshing of theatricality, creepy beauty, and crushing heaviness.
  • Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress, October 30, free (blog entry) — A very intellectual concert that I also found quite viscerally effective, which is a good combination indeed. This 20-piece ensemble played a series of pieces chosen specifically for their rhythmic complexity, and they pulled it off with gusto. There were some avant-rock type moments here, but the real fun was seeing them play live renditions of a couple IDM songs, music that was never meant to be played by humans.
  • Om at Rock and Roll Hotel, November 13, $10 (blog entry) — I guess I must just like really, really intense concerts. This one had it all: incredible feats of tension-building, wonderfully effective individual performances, high-wire drama, and above all, a sense of spiritual searching of the sort that I like to think listeners must have experienced at late-60s Coltrane shows.

Honorable mentions go to Magma, Richard Pinhas, Wilco, Aussie Floyd, Nelly Furtado, Epica, Cowboy Junkies, and Dhafer Youssef, all really great shows but perhaps a tiny step down from the above. The most disappointing show I saw was probably John McLaughlin, but then again I think I just don’t like fusion very much, so maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Isis and Mastodon were also pretty terrible, the former being particularly disappointing as I saw them put on a great show in 2006.

I’m not sure I’m going to try quite as hard to see every concert I possibly can in 2008, for financial reasons if nothing else — but 2006 and 2007 definitely have awakened a certain passion for live music in me that I don’t think is just going to go away. I’ve already started making a list of interesting 2008 shows

What’s spinning, December 23 edition

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Apparently all the stuff I’ve been listening to lately, with just a few exceptions, is by bands whose names begin with the letters A-E exclusively. Wonder what that means? Anyway, here are some quick impressions.

  • Anti-Pop Consortium - Shopping Carts Crashing — My favorite avant-hip-hop group aside from Dälek, this is their 2001 album that for some absolutely inexplicable reason was only released in Japan. I’ve been hunting for it for years and finally scored a copy for a reasonable price (around $20) on eBay. It’s great; I’d say a notch below their two U.S. released albums, Tragic Epilogue and Arrhythmia, but only a small notch.
  • Aranis - II — I’ll be reviewing this soon, but it’s one of my favorite albums of 2007 so far. Wonderfully composed chamber-rock, full of rich counterpoint, tricky time signatures and beautiful melodies. One of the best records I’ve heard in this little niche.
  • Meg Baird - Dear Companion — The female half of Espers‘ solo album is a very straightforward recording of mostly traditional songs; not the most exciting listen, but some of the songs are pretty memorable. Baird’s wispy voice isn’t particularly well-suited to some of the songs that have her singing more aggressively, but when she’s more laid back, the effect is often beautiful.
  • Baroness - Red Album — Nice but maybe overhyped metal album that’s like a slightly more metal Isis. Still digesting, I think this could grow on me in a big way.
  • Between the Buried and Me - Colors — I just bought this at a Borders in my hometown in North Carolina, and the cashier looked at it and said, “oh cool, bee-tee-bam!” Apparently they are pretty popular among the younger set here in their home state; she had seen them live a couple times. This is off-the-wall extreme metal, kind of reminds me of Unexpect except a little less crazy and a lot less schizoid.
  • Burial - Untrue — I never quite understood the hype around last year’s self-titled debut, not being a follower of the UK electronica scene, but this sophomore effort makes a lot more sense to me. Someone said this is what Massive Attack would sound like in the year 2020, but I think Burial’s sound is perfect for modern-day post-industrial cities. More accessible than last year’s effort, I’m really digging this one.
  • Demilich - Nespithe — This is strange death metal with vocals so low they sound like the singer is belching. No, seriously. When I was on my Gorguts kick a few weeks ago, I went looking for similarly bizarre metal, and this name came up a lot; turns out the album is free to download. I’m getting a kick of out this but I can’t say I’ve really processed it yet.
  • Dillinger Escape Plan - Ire Works — This one’s getting rave reviews at all the metal websites, and I can see why; it combines some of the brutality and complexity of classic DEP material with more of the melodicism seen on Miss Machine. There’s one track that’s a dead ringer for “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II” if it had been written in 2007.
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles Wieder Offen — I’m beginning to think that these guys will never top Silence is Sexy; I was a bit disappointed by Perpetuum Mobile and this one is another small step down. It’s very melodic and accessible, and I was expecting something much harder-hitting.
  • Carla Kihlstedt & Satoko Fujii - Minamo — Two of my favorite improv musicians teaming up: a dream duo for me, and this recording doesn’t disappoint. Naturally, its charms are revealed only after repeated listens, and I’m justing getting started with it, but I can already tell I’m really going to like this one.
  • Scorch Trio - Live in Finland — A limited edition CD-R (400 copies) with no distribution whatsoever, I picked this up from Paal Nilssen-Love at the Frode Gjerstad Trio show I wrote about below. For much of its duration it’s surprisingly spacious, but when the musicians kick it into high gear, wow! Exhilirating, and the recording quality is beyond reproach, surprising for a limited release like this.
  • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay - Flux + Mutability — This is an old one that I stumbled across at Paul’s CDs in Pittsburgh; it was $10 new so I picked it up on a whim. It’s not what I expected; Sylvian doesn’t sing, and the music is two very long tracks of relaxing, unintrusive ambient music. Nothing particularly innovative or even memorable, but certainly pleasant enough for this kind of thing.

Here it is! Best of 2006

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

This best of 2006 list was extremely challenging to come up with, if only because I’ve begun listening to new music at an even greater rate, and I just had a lot more to choose from this time around. The list below is one that, perhaps more than any other best-of-year list I’ve done, I feel could be significantly different a year, a month, or even a week from now. That said, I am definitely glad I waited a year to do this one, as I hadn’t even heard 40% of these albums by the end of 2006.

Before we get started, if you’re curious, my best-of lists for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available on this blog. Now for the main attraction:

  1. Newsom, Joanna - Ys
    Head and shoulders above the rest, Ys could be my favorite album of the decade, not just the year. Newsom’s voice, lyrics, compositions and harp playing are bewitching, and I’ve been listening to Ys regularly for the past year and never get tired of it. I expect this to be a long-lasting classic, and unlike many critics, I don’t use that word lightly.
  2. Tanakh - Ardent Fevers
    I’ve become fairly indifferent to most new indie-rock out there, but this group plays an endlessly interesting meshing of styles that transcends genres. There’s post-rock and ambient music influences as well as straight-ahead melodic songwriting, and there are some wicked scorched-earth guitar solos to boot. Music that’s difficult to describe and pigeonhole is often very appealing to me, and Ardent Fevers is a perfect example.
  3. Zs - Buck
    Perhaps the most interesting avant-rock band operating today, this live album shows the power that a telepathically tight ensemble playing formally composed, wickedly difficult music can have. A must for anyone interested in dissonant, rhythmically complex modern music.
  4. Decapitated - Organic Hallucinosis
    Speaking of rhythmically difficult, this band’s nerdy death metal is occasionally jaw-dropping in its technicality, which makes the recent death of their drummer in a car crash all the more tragic. I was all stoked to see these guys live, but the death of their drummer and hospitalization of their guitarist was too much for the band to handle and they promptly disbanded. One of the saddest stories in music all year (2007, to be clear). RIP Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka.
  5. NeBeLNeST - ZePTO
    I guess I do still like prog. ZePTO is the only original prog album on this top 10 list, though admittedly it’s no namby-pamby symphonic fairy tale. This album sees the French quartet dip into avant-garde waters; their music has always been dark, dissonant and amorphous, but never quite to this extent.
  6. Univers Zero - Live
    Notable for many reasons, not least that it’s the first official live release for this 30-year-old band, but also because the performances are simply top-notch. “Xenantaya” especially absolutely comes alive compared to the studio version, and the inclusion of older pieces like the classic “Toujours Plus à l’Est” is a wonderful surprise.
  7. Om - Conference of the Birds
    There’s only one transcendent song on this album, but then there are only two songs total. The 16-minute “At Giza” is an absolute triumph of repetitive, trancey, spiritual metal, still the best thing this band has ever done. In concert, three separate people exclaimed after this song that it was a “religious experience.” They may be overstating the case, but not by too much.
  8. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
    Everyone’s favorite noisy indie-rock band gets back to the noise! The opening and closing epics on this album are the classic feedback-drenched workouts that, as much as their poppy vocal numbers, helped give this band their reputation. The best thing they’ve recorded since the glory days in the mid-90s.
  9. Espers - II
    I was a latecomer to this acid-folk group, and this was my introduction to their music. Greg Weeks, formerly of New Sonic Architecture fame, and Meg Baird combine to make some of the most evocatively edgy folk music I’ve heard. Mellow Candle comes to mind; these guys possess an equally formidable melodic sense (and their vocal duets are equally as wonderful), but their vision is way darker.
  10. Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura - In Krakow In November
    I love Fujii’s quartet albums and like her orchestra works, but it’s in a solo and duo setting that, in my opinion, she really shines. Her melodic sensibility is simply beautiful, and that really comes through in this recording with trumpeter/husband Tamura. “Morning Mist” is pure distilled beauty, but the whole record is a delight.

I seem to say this every year, but 2006 was a pretty damn good year. I suspect this will be true for every year as long as I continue keeping up with a wide depth and breadth of new music. Certainly 2007 — in which I bought more albums released this year than ever before — is shaping up to be fantastic. It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of underground, experimental music.

Just to prove the point — and this is probably a bit excessive — here are a bunch of other albums from 2006 that I really liked. Four or five of these could easily have been in the top 10 if I’d been in a slightly different mood.

  • AghoraFormless
  • Christina AguileraBack to Basics
  • Amon AmarthWith Oden On Our Side
  • AtomicHappy New Ears!
  • Michaël AttiasCredo
  • Tim BerneLivein Cognito
  • Iva BittováSuperchameleon (DVD)
  • BorisPink
  • Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas & Michael WertmüllerFull Blast
  • BurialBurial
  • Nels ClineNew Monastery
  • The CoreBlue Sky
  • The CoupPick a Bigger Weapon
  • DamselDistressed
  • The DecemberistsThe Crane Wife
  • EnslavedRuun
  • From a Second Story WindowDelenda
  • Nelly FurtadoLoose
  • Genghis TronDead Mountain Mouth
  • IsisIn the Absence of Truth
  • IsisClearing the Eye (DVD)
  • Isis & AereogrammeIn the Fishtank 14
  • Glenn KotcheMobile
  • MagmaEpok II (DVD)
  • Loreena McKennittAn Ancient Muse
  • MogwaiMr. Beast
  • Simon Nabotov & Tom RaineySteady Now
  • NightwishEnd of an Era (DVD)
  • NIMBYSongs For Adults
  • One ShotEwaz Vader
  • Peeping TomPeeping Tom
  • Radio Massacre InternationalSeptentrional
  • Sunn O))) & BorisAltar
  • Justin TimberlakeFutureSex/LoveSounds
  • UnexpectIn a Flesh Aquarium
  • UzvaUoma
  • The Vandermark 5A Discontinuous Line
  • YakuzaSamsara
  • Dhafer YoussefDivine Shadows
  • ZaarZaar

There you have it. I’m planning a couple other posts, coming towards the end of the month, recapping my 2007 without actually doing a top 10 albums list, since, of course, that’ll be coming in a year. But I do want to talk about my favorite concerts of the year, as well as discuss the continuing evolution of my music tastes (in this case, this year saw me listening to more extreme metal and free improv than ever).

What’s spinning, August 7 edition

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

Long time no post (although it’s nice that I start feeling like I’ve been neglecting this after a couple weeks of not posting instead of, say, three months, as has happened in the past). This summer has kind of revealed to me how important live music has become towards keeping my interest peaked in music in general. In short, no concerts = less enthusiasm about listening to records. Which is kind of interesting considering that it was only in the past few years that I really started going to see a lot of live music.

In any case, here are a few things (in no particular order) that have been getting me excited lately despite the lack of live shows:

  • Joanna Newsom - live at the First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, PA — a 90-minute audience-shot film of her performance last November in Philly. This is the most sublime thing I’ve downloaded from Dimeadozen in the past couple years. I wrote about it way back in January and I’m still enamored with it. Mike McLatchey thinks it’s pretty swell too. This is wonderful stuff; Newsom’s voice is toned down a bit and getting to watch her play her harp is a treat.
  • Pulsar - Memory Ashes — yes, it’s the same Pulsar that released Strands of the Future and Halloween, a full three decades ago. As I posted on ProgressiveEars, this reunion album is nothing groundbreaking, and it borders on new-agey at times, but it also has some very nice Floydian moments. This is how some folks have described Gorlitz, which I have not heard.
  • Dälek - Deadverse Massive Vol. 1 — only a couple listens so far, but for an outtakes album this is pretty damn good. There are some killer beats and soundscapes here, and the 17-minute shoegazer epic in the middle of the album is pleasantly engaging. Dälek is fast becoming one of my favorite currently active artists.
  • Amarok - Sol de Medianoche — with a few exceptions, I haven’t found this as consistently engaging as Quentadharkën, but there are still some really beautiful pieces, especially early in the playlist. As far as symphonic progressive rock goes, these guys are still a favorite of mine.
  • Vedres Csaba - Fohász — as a huge fan of early After Crying, it’s a little weird that I’ve never explored Vedres’ solo output, but I had been scared off by the “solo piano” stuff, thinking it would be boring. Well, it’s not. It’s gorgeous. And Vedres sings on some of these songs, too, and I love his voice. This is a compilation drawing from 4-5 of his solo albums, basically all of which I now want.
  • Grayceon - Grayceon — they’re marketed as some kind of proggy metal, but to me they sound like indie-chamber-post-rock or something like that. The recording and vocals have a slightly amateurish feel but the compositions are great, taking full advantage of the band’s rather interesting cello/guitar/drums configuration. This is for sure a band to keep an eye on.
  • Marc Ribot - Asmodeus — John Zorn’s Masada Book of Angels series can’t be accused of staying too tightly within the confines of jazz, what with every other album in the series falling completely in another genre. Asmodeus is pretty much straight-up power trio instrumental rock, and good rock at that. This series has been a bit hit-or-miss for me, but this one’s a definite hit. (Also, the news that Secret Chiefs 3 are doing the next Book of Angels record: hit!)
  • From a Second Story Window - Delenda — one of Dave Kerman’s extreme metal recommendations, these guys are like a more extreme version of Opeth, combining rapid-fire grindcore riffs with the occasional clean vocals that are all the more effective for their rarity. The few tracks that feature brief clean vocals are definitely my favorites.
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet - Stone/Water — this is my first Brötzmann Chicago Tentet album, and the one that came with the highest recommendations from I Hate Music. And I can see why, because damn it’s awesome! I was expecting a near-unlistenable blowfest, but there are tons of nuanced moments. Fred Lonberg-Holm’s cello work is wonderful throughout, and Jeb Bishop on trombone also stands out for me.

Sorry for neglecting the site a bit in the past month, after the next couple weeks are over with I will have a lot more time to commit to adding reviews and blogging more regularly.

What’s spinning, June 18 edition

Monday, June 18th, 2007

If you’ve actually been following the last.fm widget up there at the top of the blog, you might know some of this, but in any case here is what has been occupying my ears for the past couple weeks.

  • Anekdoten - A Time of Day — Well, it’s better than Gravity, but that’s not exactly high praise. Jury’s still out on this one for me; I could see it being a grower.
  • Cato Salsa Experience & The Thing with Joe McPhee - Two Bands and a Legend — This was on my previous list of this sort, from back in April, and it’s still in heavy rotation. I’ll be reviewing it soon.
  • Do Make Say Think - You, You’re a History in Rust — This one is also a long-lasting pleasure, and will likely end up being one of my favorites of the year. This is post-rock at its most beautiful, yet sacrificing nothing in depth (unlike, say, some of the material by Explosions in the Sky).
  • Dungen - Tio Bitar — My first impressions so far are just that; nothing has really stood out to me. For some reason I get less and less excited about this band as time passes, and I was hoping this album would change that. Hasn’t happened yet.
  • Grails - Burning Off Impurities — This is a really hard band to pigeonhole; they’re somewhere between post-rock and prog and metal and ambient and world music, or something. Previous albums have not really excited me, but this one has some really great moments.
  • Isis - Live.04 — Isis’ latest limited-edition live CD is a mixed bag of cuts mostly from Celestial and Oceanic. Oddly, I like the earlier stuff the best; the band’s raw power really comes through in the live context.
  • King Crimson - Live in Heidelburg 1974 — Highlight of this one is pretty clearly the funky “Heidelburg II” improv, in which Bruford comes through with some of the most agile playing I’ve heard him pull off in a KC improv, and Wetton just levels everything in his path.
  • Joanna Newsom - Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP — I’m not really that thrilled by the re-recorded versions of “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” and “Cosmia,” but the new song “Colleen” is up there with anything else Newsom has yet recorded. I cannot wait for her next release, and I’m even more excited for her next tour.
  • Nightwish - End of an Era — There are so many things I don’t really like about this band — the silly bombast, the terrible male vocals, the lyrics — but somehow in the end I’m always won over by their sheer energy and the obvious joy they get from playing their music. This DVD is addictive, and although there are several throwaway pieces, it’s great fun.
  • Pelican - City of Echoes — Not sure what I think about this one yet; I think I like it better than The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, but I could be wrong. It definitely seems more dynamic, although the Pitchfork review is dead-on in picking out the drummer as a factor holding the band back from greater heights.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - In Glorious Times — Well, duh. This has been dominating my speakers for weeks now. My review basically says all I need to say about it: it’s awesome.
  • The Thing - Live at Blå — Basically two half-hour pieces consisting of “covers” of barely recognizable songs strung together by free improv sections. Definitely not the most accessible place to start with this band, and I find myself thinking it definitely has some dead spots that could have used cutting, but it’s an accurate picture of what they do when they play live.
  • Wilco - Sky Blue Sky — Now this is a huge disappointment. Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche are two premier innovators on their respective instruments (and the rest of the band are hardly slouches), but instead of a worthy followup to the skewed indie-pop of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, we get a middle-of-the-road, mostly boring, totally straightforward album of pop-rock that’s to the band’s earlier output as David Gilmour’s On An Island is to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Some reviewers have been saying “but it’s so well-crafted!” but I disagree with that, too — some of Tweedy’s vocal lines and melodies here are nothing short of cringeworthy.

What’s spinning, April 25 edition

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

The past two months have seen an unprecedented amount of new music cross my path. Here’s what I’ve been listening to lately…

  • Aethenor - Deep In Ocean Sunk the Lamp of Light — Dark ambient stuff by members of Sunn O))) and Guapo (now there’s an inspired combination!). Not surprisingly, this is very creepy stuff, utterly devoid of the structures of the two aforementioned bands.
  • Alamaailman Vasarat - Maahan — Their fourth album harkens back to their earlier material, namely the stuff before the collaboration with Tuomari Nurmio. For most fans, this is a good thing.
  • Michaël Attias - Credo — Very tuneful avant-jazz on Clean Feed. I am starting to really get in to this label, thanks to the prolific amount of material they have on eMusic.
  • Cato Salsa Experience and The Thing with Joe McPhee - Two Bands and a Legend — A free jazz group collaborates with a garage-rock band, and the result is nothing short of awesome. Seriously.
  • Cowboy Junkies - At the End of Paths Taken — Their umpteenth album is, well, kind of boring, despite a new emphasis on electric instruments and some aggressive instrumental passages.
  • Kevin Drumm - Sheer Hellish Miasma — I’m not a huge noise-rock fan, but this stuff is just brutal. Maybe the most balls-to-the-wall intense electronic music I’ve ever heard, this sure is one aptly titled album.
  • Earthless - Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky — Pretty great heavy space/psych-rock, the kind of thing that readers of the Aural Innovations site will go bananas for.
  • The Electrics - Live at Glenn Miller Café — A nice cross between structured avant-jazz and purely sound-based free improv.
  • Lane/Vandermark/Broo/Nilssen-Love - 4 Corners — I am getting seriously addicted to both Vandermark and Nilssen-Love these days, and this is one of the more immediately accessible collaborations of theirs that I’ve heard lately.
  • Loreena McKennitt - Nights at the Alhambra — Wonderful DVD/2CD set for fans of this Celtic/world musician. The CDs are probably redundant for those who own Live in Paris and Toronto, but the DVD is essential.
  • Nadja - Touched — Sludgy doom-metal that, in my opinion, puts Sunn O))) to shame. Maybe it’s just that this stuff is much more accessible and, dare I say it, almost tuneful.
  • (((Powerhouse Sound))) - Oslo/Chicago: Breaks — More Ken Vandermark; this band seems to be trying to go for the Spaceways Inc. avant-jazz/funk crown, but with more noise and more electronics. I dig it.
  • Runaway Totem - Esameron — Everyone’s favorite second-tier zeuhl band releases their new, well, second-tier zeuhl album. To be honest I find this stuff pretty damn annoying, although fans of their other material (or Amygdala’s album) might like it.
  • David Torn - Prezens — Tim Berne fans relax, this is definitely not the new Hard Cell album despite the lineup. More than anything else, this is like Cloud About Mercury, re-envisioned and updated for the 21st century.

What’s spinning, January 9 edition

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

Seems like I’m working on a bunch of new music right now; my listening is spread thin and on all this stuff I just have some quick first impressions:

  • Aghora - Formless: I liked their self-titled debut, and this one seems like more of the same, maybe a little more polished. All the songs kind of fly by in a haze, but hopefully they’ll become more distinctive with closer listening.
  • Bassdrumbone - The Line Up: These guys are coming to Baltimore next month, so I downloaded their latest album from eMusic. I think I’m going to really like this one. Avant-jazz that really swings.
  • Blops - Blops (3CD box set): Folksy Chilean group from the early 70s; their folk stuff is solid but it’s the third album that really makes an impression, when they started doing a kind of jazzy psych-rock fusion.
  • Cardboard Amanda - Cardboard Amanda: I’m having a hard time getting around the vocals, which I currently find intensely annoying. Need to work on this one.
  • Elliott Brood - Ambassador: More “death country”; I like pretty much everything I’ve heard from this little subgenre and this is no exception.
  • Loreena McKennitt - An Ancient Muse: It’s been nearly a decade since her last studio album, but believe it or not, this one sounds almost exactly like the last three. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Steve Swell’s Nation of We - Live at the Bowery Poetry Club: I love Swell’s work as a sideman (with Tim Berne’s Caos Totale band, on El-P’s High Water, etc), but have never heard him as a leader. This big-band effort seems like a pretty good start; one of Ayler Records‘ download-only releases.
  • Uzva - Uoma: None of this band’s albums ever really grab me at first listen. I like this one well enough, especially “Arabian Ran-Ta,” but it’s yet to completely suck me in.
  • Jack Wright & Bob Marsh - Birds in the Hand: Got this free-improv album a while ago as a promo, but never actually noticed it til now. I saw Wright live last year in one of the most head-spinningly avant-garde shows I’ve ever seen. This CD is a little more accessible; mostly quiet, contemplative improvs involving sax, cello and voice.
  • Yügen - Labirinto d’Acqua: Twitchy avant-prog that lots of RIO types are really loving. It takes me a while to get my head around this kind of thing. I’m pretty sure that when all is said and done, I’ll like this one, but not love it.

Arguing about lists is stupid

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

Piero Scaruffi’s The Best Jazz Albums of all Times (sic) list is making a bit of a stir over at head-fi. Of course any list with a title like that is going to garner consternation and spite from the masses on the Internets. Scaruffi’s list is particularly provocative since he’s a big fan of the freer stuff; though as such, I find the list kind of helpful, at least in terms of alerting me to good stuff I should investigate. That’s all personal lists are really good for anyway, but somehow they seem to have this unique ability to deeply offend people who post on message boards.

Maybe I can start a full-scale war on some hapless prog forum (I’m looking at you, ProgArchives):

The Scientifically Determined Best Prog Albums of All Time

  1. Genesis - Foxtrot
  2. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery
  3. Änglagård - Epilog
  4. King Crimson - Red
  5. Starcastle - Starcastle
  6. Yes - Union
  7. The Pussycat Dolls - PCD
  8. Yes - Close to the Edge
  9. Jordan Rudess - Feeding the Wheel
  10. Pat Boone - In a Metal Mood

Note: A complex mathematical formula has been used to construct this completely objective list in descending order of best-ness. Please do not attempt to argue with this list as it represents concrete fact. The universe does not care about your mere opinion.

My best of 2005 list is here!

Monday, December 4th, 2006

Early December means best-of-last-year list time! Here’s what my Best of 2005 list looks like right now. (For those of you interested in ancient history, my best-of lists for 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available in this space, along with explanations of why I delay these lists by a full year.)

  1. Bar Kokhba Sextet - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 11
    Even now, as I begin to tire of John Zorn and his millions of side projects, this outfit gets me excited every time. The sextet — guitar, violin, cello, bass, drums, percussion — lends a rich orchestration to Zorn’s tuneful Masada compositions. This bargain 3-disc set captures the group at the height of their powers, and boasts a sound that skillfully combines beauty and skronk.
  2. Charming Hostess - Punch
    I guess technically this is an archival release, recorded in the late 1990s. However one categorizes it, it’s a worthy follow-up to the Charming Hostess big band’s Eat, and might even be better than that rather astonishing debut. Impossible to easily describe and also impossible to dislike.
  3. Orthrelm - OV
    “Impossible to dislike” sure as hell doesn’t describe this one, though: it’s about as grating as can possibly imagined. I actually heard this in an independent record store — they put it on without knowing anything about it, and only lasted about three minutes before they had to change it. Imagine a metal record skipping continuously (for 45 minutes) in the middle of a particularly speedy riff, and you get the idea. The thing is, though, it’s genius — a kind of metal minimalism that’s hypnotic and affecting once you get over the initial shock of it all.
  4. Iron & Wine - Woman King
    Sam Beam is a fantastic songwriter, but on previous Iron & Wine albums I’ve felt that the minimal arragements made his songs less exciting than they could be. This six-track EP ups the ante a bit with bigger production and more instrumentation, and to amazing effect. Combined with the (also very good) EP he did with Calexico, also in 2005, this was easily the best year yet for this excellent indie songwriter.
  5. Maneige - Live à L’Évêché
    This archival release was my first exposure to this French Canadian symph group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains a lasting favorite. I’ve yet to hear anything from these guys that I like as much as this album (though I haven’t disliked anything I’ve heard). Really beautiful melodies and a keen sense of orchestration, all done in a pretty tasteful way — if only Maneige had been the poster children of 70s symphonic rock and not, say, ELP!
  6. Tim Berne - Feign
    I get the sneaking suspicion that any year this prolific avant-jazz saxophonist releases something new, he’ll make my top 10 list. Feign features Berne’s “Hard Cell” trio (piano/sax/drums) and is as energetic and driving as one might expect, without sacrificing Berne’s trademark compositional complexity. Now if only he would do more live performances outside of New York City and Europe…
  7. Pelican - March Into the Sea
    This post-metal band, second only to Isis in my estimation, has a weird habit of releasing absolutely brilliant EPs followed by somewhat disappointing full-length albums. Such was the case in 2005; March Into the Sea consists of a brilliant 20-minute title epic that is my favorite song the band has yet recorded. Unfortunately, the full-length album that followed a few months later seems mostly uninspired in comparison.
  8. Painkiller - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12
    While the Bar Kokhba set listed above is charming and lyrical, this entry in the Tzadik 50th Birthday series is mean and ugly. Painkiller was always Zorn at his skronkiest, but here the noise factor is actually toned down quite a bit thanks to Hamid Drake’s drumming that actually, dare I say it, swings at times. And as it turns out, a kinder, gentler Painkiller is a better, more listenable Painkiller. Still seriously aggro, but no longer annoyingly so.
  9. Frank Zappa - Imaginary Diseases
    I don’t count myself as a huge Zappa fan, but I’ve always loved Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo as much as any diehard FZ fanboy. This album, a live performance from that same period, is a treasure for folks like me who like Zappa’s big-band material and wish there were more than just a couple official releases of the stuff. Long-expected and well worth the wait!
  10. Present - A Great Inhumane Adventure
    This one makes it onto my list almost entirely thanks to the rendition of “Promenade au Fond d’un Canal,” which attacks the listener with all the ferocity and subtlety of a tyrannosaurus rex. Present can get pretty dark and eeevil, but this is just might be the most deliciously violent they’ve ever been on record. I wonder if there are any survivors from the live show where this was recorded. Are they all brain-dead by now?

This one was tough, because while I love all these albums, none of them really stands out and the order seems almost interchangeable. I also had a hard time with OV — it’s an incredible work, but hard to figure out where it goes on a list of favorites because it’s simply not something I’d want to listen to every day (or week, or month for that matter).

And a bunch of honorable mentions in alphabetical order: Scott Amendola Band’s Believe, Banco’s Seguendo le Tracce, John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note, The DecemberistsPicaresque, Earth’s Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method, Electric Masada’s At the Mountains of Madness, Ephel Duath’s Pain Necessary to Know, Satoko Fujii’s Angelona, Guapo’s Black Oni, Indukti’s S.U.S.A.R., Koenjihyakkei’s Angherr Shisspa, Konono No. 1’s Congotronics, Jérôme LangloisMolignak, Miasma & the Carousel of Headless HorsesPerils, Nil’s Nil Novo Sub Sole, Opeth’s Ghost Reveries, Rova::Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension, The Vandermark 5’s The Color of Memory, and Wilco’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.

Obviously, it was a pretty good year for me. Nothing completely jaw-dropping like the top four or five albums from 2004, but a really, really large group of very good releases (and admittedly, comparing any year to 2004 is a little unfair, given how amazing that year was). Any one of those albums on my honorable mention list would probably crack my top 10 at some point in time, given my mood, emotions, time of day, whatever. It’s odd, and surprising, that three of my top ten albums are archival releases, but regardless, there was plenty of excellent music to go around in 2005.

What’s spinning, November 29 edition

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Listening to lately:

  • Damsel - Distressed: Nels Cline and drummer Zach Hill (Hella) team up for four long, spacy improvs. I think I actually like this better than the other Cline/drummer duo album I have - Interstellar Space Revisited with Gregg Bendian. Less intensely noisy than some of Cline’s more recent improv stuff, this is still pretty captivating material.
  • Joanna Newsom - Ys: After the debut album by this folksy singer/harpist, the last thing I expected was an uber-ambitious sophomore effort consisting of five epic-length songs. But it works, somehow: Newsom’s lyrics capture the imagination and her inimitable vocals never fail to surprise. Beautiful, dramatic, and perhaps my favorite album of 2006 so far.
  • NeBeLNeST - ZePTO: my recent review pretty much says what I want to say about this one. Great stuff from one of my favorite recent prog bands.
  • Henry Cow - Concerts: the remaster sounds great. The opening suite on disc 1, bookended by “Beautiful as the Moon,” is just jaw-dropping.
  • 16 Horsepower - Hoarse: “death country?” I suppose that means country music more along the lines of Johnny Cash than Nashville. Whatever it is, I like this stuff: indie-rockish country with a real rock-oriented drive, dark and heavy lyrics, and intriguing use of banjos and mandolins. This is a pretty raw, energetic live recording.