Cosmo Lee consistently has the best soundbites of any music writer out there these days, or at least it seems like it to me, because I keep linking to him. Today in Invisible Oranges, he throws out a review of Epica’s new record (which he’s only reviewing because he basically wrote a post saying “Please don’t make me review the new Epica record,” and so of course everyone asked him to review the new Epica record).
The whole brief review is worth a read but the meat is right here: “But everything is loud and dramatic, which means that nothing is loud and dramatic. I call this ‘Carmina Burana metal.’ It’s like if Dethklok weren’t a joke.”
And yet I still like this stuff. Which, I suppose, would make it pretty hard for me to get all soapboxy about, say, neo-prog, if I were still into doing that kind of thing.
Hey, ok, this was supposed to be done last December, but instead I was busy pulling together a best of 2008 list for the Washington City Paper. But that just means more perspective, right? So no worries. Anyway, as of now, here is my top 10 list of 2007. Next month, I promise, I’ll have my real best of 2008 list posted, on time (a year late as normal, instead of two).
Do Make Say Think - You, You’re a History in Rust In which the venerable post-rock band explores glorious noise, rough vocals, and moments of pure beauty amidst chaos. DMST have never stopped evolving and this is easily their best album yet. It’s also to their lasting credit that they are pretty much the only post-rock band that might actually be considered somewhat unpredictable.
Aranis - II Largely acoustic, upbeat, highly melodic, sometimes insanely intricate chamber-rock. No drums or percussion, yet this is some of the most head-noddingly rhythmic stuff imaginable. Composer/bassist Joris Vanvinckenroye is a pretty phenomenal talent, and this one is his finest hour so far.
Zs - Arms As far as room-clearing records go, parts of this one rank just below Orthrelm’s OV. This may well be the last of Zs’ overtly progged-out records, given their recent lineup change and a shift towards more minimal, less accessible material. So, Arms is likely to remain my favorite studio album by this band, ever.
Dälek - Abandoned Language After the brutal, no-holds-barred noise of Absence, this seemed like a letdown at first. In this case, first impressions are deceptive: the relative calm of this album masks a seething anger and hidden intensity that makes Abandoned Language my favorite album by this cutting-edge hip-hop ensemble.
Om - Pilgrimage Not too much metal left in this stoner-metal outfit; instead, it’s a spiritual journey with Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun” as a guide. Powerful, intense, and moving, this one is short and sweet and leaves me wanting more every time I listen to it.
Despised Icon - The Ills of Modern Man Perhaps the pinnacle of the entire deathcore genre, this album is really just awesome death metal with some breakdowns (and pig squeals) thrown in for the moshers. Catchy hooks and killer rhythmic breaks abound, and the dual growling vocalists grab your attention and never let go. Even if you hate deathcore, you might like this record.
St. Vincent - Marry Me Understated and weird, this album from a former guitarist for Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree took me completely by surprise with a unique, offbeat charm. Annie Clark’s guitar work is wonderful when she lets it rip, but it’s her voice and her bizarre compositional sense that carry this album. It’s indie-rock with a hint of the avant-garde, and it’s one of the more memorable debuts in recent memory.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - In Glorious Times So, this is a pretty solidly great album from this uniquely theatrical avant-rock band. Somehow, though, it hasn’t been nearly as memorable for me as either of the albums that preceded it. All of SGM’s albums are basically essential for any fan of heavy experimental rock, this one’s just a tiny step lower than the other two.
Nadja - Touched I cannot describe this better than a frequent poster on the 5/8 forums: “Listening to Nadja is like swimming in a sea of declawed kittens.” Yes. So much fuzzed out bliss. Especially on this album, which is far and away my favorite of this prolific drone/doom-metal band’s many releases.
Thing with Ken Vandermark, The - Immediate Sound This one falls perfectly into that niche of avant-jazz that I like: it’s “out,” with plenty of wild collective improv and unpredictable solos, but it’s also recognizably jazz, anchored in rock-solid grooves and accessible melodies. Also, it rocks. You wouldn’t really expect anything less from this lineup.
As always, this was hard, and lots of great things missed the cut. One of particular note is Epica’s The Divine Conspiracy. I listened to this a ton but couldn’t quite bring myself to put it on the above list. I’m sure I’ll catch some heat for liking this stuff - it’s like warmed-over prog-metal with a combination of death-metal vocals and beautiful female clean vocals. But damn can these guys write a catchy song. I don’t understand why they don’t get more love in the prog world; there’s tons of bombastic keyboards, epic lyrical themes, and general cheesiness, plus a fantastic lead vocalist and really long songs. What’s not to love, prog fans?
If I think to do it, perhaps a couple “favorite shows” posts will be forthcoming as well (one for 2008, since I forgot to do one last year, and one for 2009). But the top 10 albums of 2008 post is definitely coming soon.
Well, concert reviews are no longer something I’m doing for the Washington City Paper (just concert photos), and that actually works out nicely because it means I can write about concerts that inspire me right here at this blog, like I used to. The latest in a long list of enjoyable concerts I’ve seen in 2009 was Shrinebuilder last Friday night at Sonar in Baltimore.
I dig the Shrinebuilder record, although predictably I like the parts that sound like Om and Neurosis the best. Lots of folks have been saying that it’s exactly the sum of its parts, and I basically agree. That said, the song “Pyramid of the Moon” is absolutely incredible and in its case at least, I enjoy the parts so much that the sum of them is pretty immense. It goes from sounding like Neurosis into an intense Om-like mantra part into Wino’s juicy psychedelic lead guitar back to sounding like Om but more fleshed out. This is a recipe for awesomeness. Still, yes, the record as a whole is good, but not quite great. (Say a strong 10 on the Gnosis scale.)
Live is a different story. They were fantastic. They played like a real band, not a cobbled-together supergroup. The best tracks from the album were better live; I particularly liked seeing/hearing Wino and Scott Kelly trade off on vocals. Their vocal styles are so incredibly different, but they fit together perfectly in the live setting (whereas on the record I found Wino’s vocals a tad bit annoying). Their guitar styles are also incredibly different, and seeing them live gave me new perspective to how their guitar lines fit together in the compositions. Getting to see and hear Al Cisneros do his thing in a full-band setting rather than the stripped-down context of Om was a real treat, too. His first “aaaaaaaahhhhh” vocal drone in “Pyramid of the Moon” was as powerful as any moment I’ve seen with Om. And Dale Crover on drums? Sick. Of the four members’ “main” bands, Shrinebuilder sounds the least like Melvins, but Crover definitely puts his personal stamp on the music nonetheless.
I have a hard time with albums or live performances that consist of a single solo instrument (with the exception of solo piano). Acoustic bass in particular is tough for me to handle in a solo setting - I believe I saw improviser Reuben Radding do a solo upright bass set some years ago and truly had difficulty staying awake, even though Radding is a massively talented musician.
So when I received a package in the mail some time ago with the new Aranis album Songs From Mirage (yay!), and a recording of Aranis composer Joris Vanvinckenroye’s works for solo bass (under the band name Basta!), it’s not surprising that I spent some time with the full-band record and, embarrassingly, none at all on the solo bass record. I’m only now getting around to the Basta! disc, Cycles, and that’s a shame, because it’s fantastic.
Cycles has Vanvinckenroye’s stamp all over it, of course, not just in the instrumentation but in the compositions. The 12 pieces on the record are chock-full of the tasty melodies, rhythmic grooves and intriguing counterpoints of Vanvinckenroye’s Aranis compositions. But wait, you say: counterpoints? On a solo record? Yes, there are tons of overdubs going on here. This might as well be a full band recording, if the full band were all playing basses; it’d be impossible to pull off live as a solo show, but who cares? A far cry from an improvised set tossed off as an accompaniment to the new Aranis record, Cycles is a fully realized set of engaging compositions that just might be better than Songs From Mirage.
I’ve given it one and a half listens so far and you can bet that it’ll be getting many more.
I’ve admittedly moved largely to digital music purchases, in an attempt to stop cluttering up my house with more and more CDs (I’m also selling a bunch of CDs, of course, and will be adding hundreds more to the list soon). But I also like to support the vendors that have served so well over the years, so today for the first time in quite a while I placed a big order at Wayside Music.
Jim Black/Alas No Axis - Houseplant
Magma - Emehntehtt-Re
Minamo - Kuroi Kawa~Black River
Opus Avantra - Introspezione
Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores - The Blind Spot
Vidna Obmana - Legacy
Wadada Leo Smith - Spiritual Dimensions
Zevious - After the Air Raid
Yes, there’s even an Italian prog album on the list! Can’t remember the last time I bought one of those, ha.