Posts Tagged ‘NeBeLNeST’

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).

My take on NEARfest 2007

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

The promised NEARfest post, one week late. Although I’m sure anyone who has been reading any US-centric prog rock forum is probably sick and tired of these things, here are my few cents.

I drove up Saturday morning from DC, a not entirely pleasant trip up I-95 that involves $10+ in tolls one way even though it really isn’t that far (around three hours or so). I skipped Izz’s set in the morning, got to Zoellner in time to pop into the vendor rooms and buy a copy of the new Magma DVD and pick up my ticket from John Reagan (whose Big Balloon Music is having a going-out-of-business blowout sale you should really pick through, there are good deals to be found still). Then it was time for NeBeLNeST.

I am a big fan of this band’s last couple albums, Nova Express and ZePTO, so I came in with pretty high expectations, having heard also that they pretty much tear it up live. They did, but I was a little disappointed nevertheless: the sound was pretty lousy, and in particular the guitars were kind of buried in the mix. So what should have been a jaw-droppingly powerful show came up a little lame, though it was still intense and quite enjoyable. They closed their set with “Nova Express,” which was a joy, although they fucked around with the ending a bit, which threw me off — I think the studio cut of that song has one of the most perfect endings of any 15-minute spacy epic out there, and what they did instead wasn’t nearly as cathartic.

After a short break, Bob Drake treated a few of us to a highly entertaining set that was clearly not meant to be taken very seriously. Of his albums, I only have The Skull Mailbox and was never really able to get into it very much. I had a similar problem with his live set, just wasn’t quite sure how to approach it to get maximum enjoyment, so I ended up just laughing my way through it. Enjoyed it a lot but it wasn’t the most memorable concert I’ve ever seen. Still, I’d guess I took away what Bob intended the audience to take away: that is, I had fun.

Then came the real surprise of the festival for me, which was the fact that I really enjoyed Magenta’s set. If ever there was a subset of prog that really doesn’t do it for me, it’s modern UK prog-by-numbers. Magenta has that style down pat, with lots of melodic guitar lines, fat keyboard leads, straightforward, sunny lyrics and a fair amount of bombast. These guys confound me, because I inexplicably like their music — and not only that, but I like their stuff that’s most bombastic and traditionally “proggy.” I really can’t explain this one. Their new album, Home, is much less “pretentious” in the prog style, more down-to-earth, and I find it dreadfully dull; whereas their proggy stuff with all the keyboard cheese, soaring guitar solos and cliches I somehow really dig.

In any case, their music aside, as performers Magenta put on a fabulous show. Their frontwoman, Christina Booth, is reasonably charismatic (and reasonably attractive) and has a great voice, but it was guitarist Chris Fry who stole the spotlight, showboating to the crowd and playing some beautiful solos with great tone and phrasing. The rest of the band were no slouches either, so basically it came down to this: if you were in the mood for neo-prog cliché, you probably really liked this show. If not, well, probably you didn’t. Shockingly I found myself in the former frame of mind. I really liked all the material they played from New York Suite and Seven; was less enthused by the Home songs and by the epic they closed out with from Revolutions.

Hawkwind was the headliner for Saturday night; I am totally unfamiliar with their music, so I went in as a completely blank slate. Unfortunately, I was never captivated by their set, which seemed like fairly anonymous space-rock riddled with totally ridiculous science-fiction/neo-hippie imagery and narration. I felt neither particularly positive nor negative about anything in the set, so I ended up leaving after a little more than an hour to get some much-needed sleep. I don’t regret this decision at all, as it seems that all but the die-hard Hawkwind fans thought the set was anywhere from laughable to mediocre.

One of the three reasons I came to NEARfest this year was Indukti, who played the Sunday morning slot that seems traditionally reserved for lesser-known bands that can rock the shit out of half-asleep progheads (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Guapo, etc). Indukti rocked the shit out of me. Their show was a little more metal than I expected, but combined with some very nice Frippish guitar atmospherics and violin accents (no harp, sadly). It did being to sound samey after a while, but that might be because I only recognized two songs from S.U.S.A.R., with the rest presumably being new material that I’m eager to hear on record. Great show, great energy.

I kind of took Sunday afternoon off. After a few songs of La Maschera di Cera, I decided I just really wasn’t feeling it. Unlike Saturday when Magenta put me in the mood for prog, LMdC did the opposite. The flamboyant vocalist and aggressive use of stock prog flourishes turned me off instead of on, so although everyone seemed to really dig this show, I don’t really regret leaving early. I also skipped Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution, using the afternoon to run some errands and explore the historic district of downtown Bethlehem (I am fascinated by Moravians, being from Winston-Salem, NC, the other home base of Moravians in the United States). I’m a little dismayed about skipping PRR after hearing all the reviews and discussions of their set after the fact, but I’m glad that I saved my energy for Magma.

After a very enjoyable dinner with some folks from rmp and ProgressiveEars, I felt ready. I’ve never seen Magma before, having missed all their previous appearances in the United States. Regarding Magma concerts, Greg Northrup said something like, “not to get your hopes up too high, but… well, they really can’t be too high.” Needless to say, I was excited, and from the moment Antoine Paganotti yelled, “Hamatai!” to kick off “Kohntarkosz,” I was grinning. Paganotti’s opening yelp was immediately followed by Christian Vander’s crashing drums, and let me tell you: even the various Magma DVDs do absolutely no justice to just how physically dominating a presence Vander is on his drum kit. When he’s pounding away at full blast, it’s absolutely mesmerizing, and the rest of the band might as well be his backing musicians. Even when he’s tapping out a skeletal beat on the cymbals, letting the vocalists or soloists take the spotlight, his intensity is riveting.

“Kohntarkosz” and “Emehntet-Re” made up the majority of the show (”Hhai” and “Lihns” were the other two pieces they played) and while the former was jaw-dropping all the way through, I got lost at times in the latter, not knowing the music all that well. I wished they’d played some of “K.A,” just because I know it so well and could have followed much better. Compounding the problem was that where I was sitting, the vocals were way too low, and we all know the vocals are second only to Vander’s drumming in importance for Magma music. More often than not, Emmanuel Borghi’s Rhodes totally drowned out the vocals, which kind of ruined some of the more meditative parts for me. Still, my attention never wandered, and the effect of these extremely lengthy compositions was mesmerizing. Intense yet spiritual — the word I want to use is “peaceful,” although not in any literal or obvious sense (Vander’s drumming was often rather violent, of course).

So while the poor mix combined with my unfamiliarity with “Emehntet-Re” conspired to make this, for me, somewhat short of the transcendent experience that others had, I still thought it was an excellent show, and I will never forget how Vander exerted such complete command of the stage and the music, both from behind his drumkit at up front at the mic. Hopefully this will be merely the first of many chances I get to see this band live, but if not, at least all those DVDs I own have taken on new meaning for me.

Quick update: I went to NEARfest

Monday, June 25th, 2007

So I went to my first NEARfest in seven years. Saw some good music and some mediocre music, but no bad music. Also no transcendently great music, although Magma at times got close (but they were compromised by an atrocious mix, at least from where I was sitting). I’ll post at length when I have time, but for now here is the box score:

  • NeBeLNeST was the first band I saw (drove in Saturday morning), and they were good, but the mix seemed a little flat and that robbed them of some power.
  • Bob Drake was hilarious.
  • Magenta was surprising. As you probably know, I’m not exactly a certified neo-head, but I found myself really enjoying their performance.
  • Hawkwind was ehhhhh (but then, I am totally unfamiliar with their material). I left after a few songs.
  • Indukti was the first real highlight for me. They were great and their drummer is a beast!
  • La Maschera di Cera, like Hawkwind, I didn’t know beforehand and the concert didn’t inspire me to learn more.
  • Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution I skipped to run some errands, although from the reports I’m actually kind of bummed that I missed the latter.
  • Magma was intense, exhausting, overwhelming. And the keyboardist was way too loud and drowned out all the vocals, damnit.
  • The vendor rooms were dangerous. I kept myself mostly in check, though. And I picked up a copy of the rather OOP first Lard Free album from Dave Kerman.
  • The people were both great and hilarious (in all sorts of ways), met a bunch of characters I hadn’t met before, and missed meeting many more.
  • The drive home was uneventful, well except for the beginnings of a high-speed chase I witnessed outside of (where else?) Baltimore.

More later.

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.

It’s about that time: top 10 of 2002

Saturday, December 6th, 2003

Alright, so people on other forums are starting to post their Top 10 lists for 2003, which means it’s about time for me to post my Top 10 list for 2002. I started doing this last year - I think top 10 lists for the current year are dumb, because (1) the year’s not over yet, (2) there’s no way I already have many of the great releases from this year yet, and (3) a lot of great CDs have long gestation periods before I really start to like them (I’m looking at the new Thinking Plague here).

Without further ado, my top 10 favorite releases (not limited to prog, as will become obvious) of 2002 are as follows, in some kind of rough order:

  1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
    I’m one with the indie critics here: this was the best album of the year. When I reviewed it I was taken by its meshing of catchy melodies with slightly skewed instrumental tendencies, and its charm has yet to falter. Anyone interested in somewhat “out” pop-indie should check this out.
  2. Anti-Pop Consortium - Arrhythmia
    The biggest shame of 2002 was the dissolution of this group, one of the most innovative rap groups of the past decade. Arrhythmia has all the usual Anti-Pop trimmings: dazzling, abstract wordplay, production from an alien planet, and even some killer beats. For the cutting edge of hip-hop, look no further.
  3. 5uu’s - Abandonship
    This one made a huge splash in the prog/RIO world, and with good reason, marking a triumphant return to Hunger’s Teeth form. Best prog album of the year, easily.
  4. Shalabi Effect - The Trial of St-Orange
    This was the pleasant surprise of the year for me; I didn’t expect to like this kind of abstract psychedelia so much, but these guys are good enough at what they do that they make it accessible to anyone. There are some amazing moments of beauty swimming around the ambient haze here.
  5. NeBeLNeST - Nova Express
    Grandly portentous instrumental prog, full of imposing riffs and sinister, rumbling bass: epic “space-zeuhl” at its best. The closing title track on this album is simply a treat.
  6. Satoko Fujii and Tatsuya Yoshida - Toh-Kichi
    This is just about as weird and whimsical as you might expect from the pairing of Yoshida with a free-jazz pianist (in an improv setting no less), and amazingly, it works. By turns stunning, amusing, and fucking hilarious.
  7. Do Make Say Think - & Yet & Yet
    In a year with a dearth of good new post-rock, this album was a saving grace. Jazzy, atmospheric instrumental noodling that never gets too unfocused and yet always takes its sweet time getting to the point. Luckily, the journey is an enticing one.
  8. The Flying Luttenbachers - Infection and Decline
    Okay, I admit it: this one is on the list solely for the utterly blazing cover of “De Futura” (from Magma’s Üdü Wüdü), which takes the funk out of the equation and replaces it with pure, unmitigated aggression. The original pieces here are also capable of blowing your head off.
  9. Opeth - Deliverance
    Many a fan of this group panned this album, and indeed it offers little variation on a well-established formula. But for me, it perfects said formula, mixing perfectly its death-metal aggression and vocals with more leisurely (and accessibly melodic) passages. This actually might be my favorite Opeth album.
  10. The Roots - Phrenology
    This one’s just a lot of fun. Perfectly accessibly hip-hop with just a touch of experimental tendencies, particularly on the track “Water”, which has been called “prog-hop”. More importantly, this thing grooves, and has some great melodies to boot.

Barely missing the cut were Beck’s Sea Change, Missy Elliott’s Under Construction, Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, Uzva’s Niittoaika, and even PaatosTimeloss (solely on the strength of its closing track). Some mildly surprising omissions include ( ) by Sigur Rós, which simply didn’t have the staying power I expected it to have, and Univers Zero’s Rhythmix, which I liked at first but really pales in comparison to the band’s older work, IMHO.

Overall, despite everything I just wrote, I think 2002 was a pretty disappointing year. There are a lot of pretty good albums listed above, but only the top few on the list really blew me away. As preliminary as it is, I can already say that 2003 has been a much better year for music.