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.
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.
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.