Saturday, January 2, 2016
MeteorJadd's Top 10 Of 2015
Pretty often, it’s seething rage at why some album, film, or TV show got made. As in, how could someone feel that [insert total embarrassment to artistic originality here] was worth dedicating incalculable dollars to inflicting on the world?
Are we (Americans or humans, your choice) just utter, absolute idiots as a population, with no idea what quality is, and they’re just giving us what we want?
Or are they intentionally keeping us moronically pliable by making sure the formulaic, auto-tuned drivel they pump into the mainstream is never remotely smart or innovative, so that we don’t get a taste for really interesting stuff and make their jobs (finding genuinely worthwhile artistic output to produce and promote) a lot harder?
My wife thinks I get too angry about this stuff. From a health perspective, she’s probably right.
Still, if no one took a stand and shouted, “this stuff fucking sucks!” would anyone have the motivation to go looking for something better?
All of this being my long-winded way to introduce my year-end top 10 albums retrospective, via a rant about how so much other stuff blows, of course. What can I say? Infuriation is my muse.
Before I get started, I want to point out that I’ve included an audio mix of my top songs from the about-to-be-mentioned albums for your listening pleasure. It’s about an hour long, which is longer than it’ll take you to read what I’ve got to say (though not by much, probably, given my tendency to descant endlessly); on the other hand, you can hear these amazing tunes for yourself rather than trying to figure out whether or not you’ll like it from my indiscriminate blathering. For those of you that decide to listen, it’s a single, streamable track comprised of the following songs:
1. Golden Void – I’ve Been Down (from Berkana)
2. We Hunt Buffalo – Prairie Oyster (from Living Ghosts)
3. Sergeant Thunderhoof – When Time Stood Still (from Ride Of The Hoof)
4. Mark Lanegan – When It's In You (from Houston: Publishing Demos 2002)
5. The Heavy Eyes – Z-Bo (from He Dreams Of Lions)
6. Torche – Restarter (from Restarter)
7. Kings Destroy – Mythomania (from Kings Destroy)
8. Cancer Bats – Beelzebub (from Searching For Zero)
9. Greenleaf – Ocean Deep (from Trails & Passes)
10. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – Downtown (from The Night Creeper)
11. Windhand – Kingfisher (from Grief's Infernal Flower)
12. We Hunt Buffalo – Walk Again (from Living Ghosts)
This thing was a bitch to create, but hey, what else did I have to do with my Saturday than learn the audio-editing basics of Audacity?
Anyhow, enjoy if you listen. Now let’s get on with things.
10. (Tie) Mark Lanegan – Houston / Cancer Bats – Searching for Zero
Yes, I’m starting off with a tie. Why? Because both of these were solid records, and each one supplied one of my top individual songs of 2015, possibly of all-time:
Lanegan’s 13-year-old-but-just-released demos compilation includes “When It’s In You,” a languid, trippier precursor to what would later become the song “Methamphetamine Blues” from the EP of the same name. It’s something Lanegan (and lots of artists, actually) do regularly: re-working or cannibalizing pieces of old songs to fashion new ones. To me, this earlier, less angular version hits the perfect balance of late-summer nostalgia and druggy resignation. It’s perfect Lanegan, which to me is the pretty much the same as calling it perfect music. If you dig “Methamphetamine Blues,” take a listen and see if you agree that this tune probably never should’ve been plundered for its parts (although, on the other hand, we got two great songs out of the decision to do so).
These two equally shining bastions of musical darkness made it impossible for me to give one album a nod over the other, meaning I had to shoehorn both in. Thus, my 2015 top 10 is comprised of 11 fantastic albums. (And, in order to maintain some style consistency, that didn’t even take into consideration my non-heavy 2015 faves from Murder by Death, The Districts, Field Report, and Noah Gundersen. I would’ve been struggling till early 2016 to make those cuts!)
I didn’t grow up listening to hardcore—D.C., New York, or any other brand. And when I’ve tried to retroactively plunge in, it always feels like a genre that had as much to with the era and the environment that produced it as the sound itself. As such, I’ve never really been able to get into it, having not been there the first time around.
Interestingly, though, contemporary heavy rock bands with a hardcore background often hit me right in the sweet spot. Something about transitioning from fast, angry, and in-your-face to incorporating melody, meatier riffs, and more tempo variation seems to relocate them to a neighborhood that I feel right at home in. Plus, the aggression is usually still there, just simmering between the notes rather than sweating and spitting in your face.
My prime example of this is Solace (who I never skip an opportunity to bring up), but Kings Destroy is another perfect illustration. Basically, you take musicians who started their journey with hardcore, stick around until they discover subtlety and dynamic shifts, and then listen to the gripping, slow-burning epics they create.
On their 2015 self-titled album, Kings Destroy deliver miles of anguish and frustration in a compact, city block-sized package. If bands were prisoners, this isn’t the crazed fucker who’s shouting and banging on the bars; this is the guy hunkered down and glaring at you from the back of the cell, the one you’re glad is way the hell back there so you’ll have a chance to bolt if the door should happen to swing open.
I’ve said it before: I listen to this record and I hear Escape from New York or Night of the Comet. Melodic vocals and doomy, mid-tempo riffing, all conjuring the vibe of a post-apocalyptic city. Yes, that’s a compliment.
I was a fan of Fu Manchu when their seminal opus The Action is Go came out in 1997. It’s still one of the best albums that ever came out of the heavy-stoner heyday, from its titanic riffs to its somehow-singable SoCal-chanted vox. Fu Manchu, in my opinion, never topped that one, a fact made painfully evident by the lackluster record they put out recently. Fortunately, The Heavy Eyes’ latest delivers everything a fan of Fu Manchu at their height could want. Head to head, The Heavy Eyes is out-Chuing the ‘Chu.
This slab is a neon urethane time-warp. The fuzz is thick, the toms are thunderous, and when the music drops to accentuate vocal lines like, “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies – the man who whispers in your ear is the devil in disguise,” you know you’re listening to the modern soundtrack for the trouble-seeking, empty-pool skating ‘70s… except with contemporary production values and a songwriting maturity that hefts She Dreams of Lions to the top rung of the fuzz rock ladder.
This is the first Torche album I’ve felt this strongly about. It’s like Steve Brooks finally found the right blend of heaviness and catchiness, reining things back in from the almost QoTSA heavy-poppiness of Harmonicraft. Restarter is weighted more on the other side of the line, thought it still has melodies that glue themselves to your cortex.
Ironically enough, figuring out the right balance seems to have happened when they made a Torche record that sounds like a Floor record with better vocals. In fact, when I heard it, I wondered, “Why a Torche album that could easily pass for Floor?” Especially right on the heels of Floor’s 2014 reappearance with Oblation. I don’t know the answer, and it’s kind of more enjoyable not to know. Let me explain why:
I once had the chance to talk to a Swiss painter about a piece of his art that was characterized by his significant use of the color red and which really struck me. In retrospect, maybe it was a dumb question, but I asked if there was a reason for so much red when everything else in his gallery featured a predominance of blue and yellow; his unhesitating, accented answer was, “People buy red, I paint red!”
Come on. I know you’ve gotta pay the bills, dude, but lie to me a little, huh? Tell me you were chasing a dream of desert sunsets or crime-scene spatter that only a staggering wash of crimson allowed you to realize.
What if Brooks’ response was equally, uninspiringly pragmatic? “Two bands means twice the income!” “People want Floor, I’ll give them Floor!” I’d just as soon not know. Maybe writing songs with and for two bands simultaneously makes it difficult to maintain separation. Maybe he’s just liking a certain sound, and aspects of that sound are presenting themselves in both Floor and Torche. Truthfully, it doesn’t bother me, and I’m not curious enough to ask, especially when the result is an album as solid and driving as Restarter.
I’ve only known Uncle Acid since October of this year, but it only took a day for them to make a tremendous impact on me.
Look, I’m no bandwagon-jumper to the whole zombie/horror thing. Yeah, I like The Walking Dead, but I also love a range of horror flicks from The Omen to Cemetery Man to Suspiria to 28 Days Later. I bring that up because Uncle Acid has tapped into something I had no idea I was looking for: a band who sounds like the musical embodiment of classic horror movies.
It’s heavy, yes, but moreover, it’s creepy. Every note, from the guitar melodies to the faraway vocals to the crackling production, communicates the feeling of something dangerous around the corner. I close my eyes and play “Waiting for Blood,” and it’s like I’m locked in a sub-zero arctic research station with Kurt Russel and a shape-changing alien who might be any one of my colleagues; put on the second half of “Downtown” and it’s easy to imagine strolling casually through a chilly Chicago neighborhood at twilight, slowly realizing that there’s no one else on the streets, gradually sensing that something is unnervingly wrong if the whole city is abandoned…
Yeesh! Chills. Anyway, I was taken with Uncle Acid pretty much instantly. The heaviness is present more psychologically than in any bludgeoning guitar volume, but it’s there nonetheless, ominous and persistent. This band is distinctive right out of the gate, kind of the way YOB was when they burst onto the scene, and really doing something that can’t easily be compared to much else.
Disclosure: I was living in Seattle earlier this year when Windhand was up there to record, and producer Jack Endino is a friend. That said, what I’m disclosing is that I, stupidly, never tried to manufacture an excuse to stop by the studio to check things out. I didn’t know Windhand at the time, and so I had no awareness that, twelve minutes from my place, they and Jack were creating a seismic, continental plate-shifting doom masterpiece.
Wow. This record makes me feel like a looney tunes character who gets flattened by a steamroller, is helped gently to his feet by Arwen from Lord of the Rings, then gets stomped into the earth by fucking Galactus.
All things being equal, I’m a vocals guy. If I have to choose between a band with an earth-shaking, foundation-quaking guitar sound but a lousy singer, or one with a truly engaging frontperson atop kinda thin or too-trebly fretwork, I usually tend toward the latter. Example? I love Weedeater’s sound, the monstrous, destructive instrumental power, but I can only roll with Dixie Dave’s rasping growl for so long. Much more often, I find myself listening to a band like Wild Throne, whose inventive, chaotic song structures and charismatic singer always maintain my interest, even though their guitar sound is naggingly, embarrassingly empty of balls.
Windhand: thank you for preventing me from having to make this choice in your case. Your rumbling, resonating volume quakes the earth around me, your monolithic power makes my brain hum, but then your soothing vocal melodies coast in to lift you above even the best bands in a familiar category, i.e. crushing doom bands with forgettable singers. Wow. I can’t stop listening to “Kingfisher,” and that’s saying a lot when the song you’re playing over and over again is more than fourteen minutes long.
I have to thank the Doom Charts for this one. I have a hard time discovering new heavy rock that I really dig because a lot of it is so goddamn derivative, so the only reliable approach I’ve found is to scour webzines and mags to compile a list of stuff that’s been well-reviewed or positively referenced by real, non-jaded listeners, and then go on Bandcamp and Spotify to check out their stuff. That quickly whittles my list down from 10 or 12 prospects to maybe 1 new band or album a month that I’ll listen to in an ongoing way. Yeah, it’s time-consuming. But my last bout of research through the Doom Charts yielded both Uncle Acid and Golden Void, and I consider two brilliant finds in one session a towering success.
I like to make cinematic connections when I talk about music, rather than just describing what it sounds like. Maybe you’ve noticed. That’s not gonna be a useful approach for everybody, but I figure there are a small handful of people who’ll hear me reference Bill Pullman in Zero Effect or the lightning guy from Big Trouble in Little China in conjunction with a particular band and go, “I totally get that!” So, for them:
One of the things I really dug about the movie Almost Famous was the fictional band Stillwater. We didn’t hear complete songs in the film, but what we did hear was this perfect encapsulation of a hardworking ‘70s rock band coming up in the wake of Zeppelin and Woodstock, merging arena riffs and soaring vocals with elements of soul, groove, and folk. They were a band you totally would’ve been into in 1973 if you’d been alive and old enough to buy their record… and if they were real.
Yes, the movie band was loosely based on The Allman Brothers. Yes, the original songs for the film were written by Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton. True, none of those touchstones makes me go, “hell yes!” But in spite of the connections to the Allmans, Wilson and Frampton not really moving me, the vibe was right. I watched that flick and wished Stillwater was real. And Golden Void sounds, to me, like Stillwater would if they actually were real. Which is pretty awesome to have discovered, because it’s something else I didn’t realize my life was missing until it showed up.
This Golden Void record is the kind of rock that the phrase “classic rock” was invented for; not because it sounds old, but because it sounds heartfelt, meaningful and timeless. It’s real rock god stuff that emanates earnestness and authenticity—think “Simple Man” or “Bad Company.” Remember when it seemed like Kings of Leon were the saviors of real rock? Remember when people said the same thing about The Black Keys? I’m putting my stamp on Golden Void as the band worth hanging the “here to save real rock” sign on. And if I ever jump off a roof screaming “I am a golden god!” into a swimming pool, I want “I’ve Been Down” from Berkana blasting in the background.
Usually, in my experience, an album that spans nearly an hour with just a half-dozen tracks tends to come from a doom band, a post-rock outfit, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Which is why I always think there’s something remarkable when a heavy rock band—that is, a group who utilizes traditional song elements like hummable riffs, melodic verses, singable choruses, and ripping leads—manages to produce one. But goddamn if Sergeant Thunderhoof, the foursome from Bath, U.K., haven’t done it. And goddamn again if the hour doesn’t fly by in a blink while you’re shouting along.
I only discovered this band a week into December, and within three listens to Ride of The Hoof, they’d completely displaced several bands on my carefully thought-out year-end top 10. Back to the drawing board… but worth it!
I often (some might say too often) project back to times when either I wasn’t alive, or at least wasn’t musically mature yet, and imagine what it might’ve been like to be one of the first individuals to hear a certain artist for the first time. One such instance that I’ve played out mentally more than a few times is how it must have been to hear Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio when their debut LP arrived. I think about that first Rainbow record in 1975 and what it would’ve been like to be one of the first people ever to hear Dio, this guy who wasn’t really even in a truly big band before, launch into “Man on the Silver Mountain.” I imagine listening to his confidence, the assuredness with which he belts out one enrapturing vocal hook after another, and thinking, “who the hell does this guy think he is?”
I love feeling that way about a new band. It’s too easy these days for anyone to make a record on their computer, and it’s too easy to get 50 or 100 people to like and share it, even if it’s not that developed, not that original, or just simply not that good. Which makes it that much more satisfying to hear a band come out of the virtual woodwork and make me ask who the hell they think they are, swaggering through an infectious nine-minute opening tune that rocks like they’ve been at their craft for decades.
Sergeant Thunderhoof is the logical evolution of what metal-tinged epic stoner rock can be. Their sound is just so commanding, so fully-formed, and so effortless, that I can’t help thinking of Dio-era Rainbow. Soaring vocals, dramatic changes, raw energy, unexpected shifts from pummeling to delicate and high-velocity to a plodding stomp. Sometimes a band just makes you question why others even bother to pick up instruments. Well done and hell yes, Sergeant. I’m sure I’ll be riding the hoof for a while.
Let me get right to it: I know this album came out in 2014. I don’t fucking care. I discovered it in 2015, spent all year listening to it, and it played a fair role in re-energizing me to seek out new heavy bands throughout the year. So yes, they’re number fucking two on my top goddamn ten of 2015.
A lot of heavy rock scenesters know that this is the band founded by Tommi Holappa of Dozer. Originally, Greenleaf was a side project while Dozer was still his main focus, but as the years passed and Dozer drifted to an eventual hiatus, Tommi activated Greenleaf full-time by transforming it from a revolving cast of guests to a solid lineup that includes three other full-time members, including Arvid Jonsson, the most distinctive and natural singer ever to lay his vocalizations on one of Tommi’s many, many recordings (with apologies to Fredrik Nordin of Dozer).
I’ve been listening to Tommi’s music for nearly two decades. My old label released one of Dozer’s first songs, “Supersoul,” on our first compilation, Welcome to MeteorCity, in 1998, and then we paired Dozer with John Garcia’s Unida for a pretty killer eight-song double EP split. My first band Spiritu was also an opening act alongside Dozer in 2003 on the Monstergroove tour with Clutch and Spiritual Beggars. Hell, before any of that, Tommi and I were two of the original ten collectors listed on Jay Pigot’s Kyuss fan page in 1996, trading bootlegs (when they were still hard to get) and bragging about the rare Kyuss memorabilia in our respective collections.
I offer all this personal insight as background on Tommi; he has been at this for a while, and if there’s one thing he’s learned in all these years hearing, playing, collecting and performing heavy rock, it’s how to construct a great song. His modus operandi is essentially the same as it was with Dozer: three to five minute tunes with traditional song structures that build and release, often up-tempo, but always featuring hooky riffs, blistering leads, and a perfectly crunchy guitar sound that’s been growing richer and more dialed-in for as long as the internet has been in existence.
Now add to that a vocalist of Arvid Jonsson’s caliber, and everything gets elevated. Again, sorry to Fredrik, but the obvious comparison to make is to Dozer. Unlike in Tommi’s previous band, the vocals don’t sound like they’re reverberating across the top of everything. On Trails & Passes, Arvid’s contributions weave in and around the other instruments. His vocal lines are massively contagious, but they infect the listener not through sheer power, but with pure, unforced charisma. This guy knows when to lay back, when to let it rip, and when to shut up.
It’s so rewarding to hear Tommi teamed up with the right musical partner at this point in his career. Who knows if I’m right, but I feel like everything he did and learned in Dozer was leading up to this. And, presumably, I’m not the only one who feels that way, because the band got a new record deal this year with Napalm Records, which means 2016 will see Tommi and Greenleaf’s next slab coming out on the same imprint that counts Monster Magnet and Vista Chino on its roster. About time the world gave Tommi his due. If you haven’t already heard Trails & Passes, don’t hesitate to listen before the new one drops in Feb ’16 and you really get behind on something great.
I once heard a quote about Kyuss from producer Chris Goss, about how when he found out that they’d never really been fans of Black Sabbath, he realized that their unique brand of massive, swinging heaviness wasn’t a regurgitation of their influences, but was coming from them.
That was in the early 1990s. These days, it’s naïve to think that artists can take shape and find their vibe without at least some influence from other bands, mainly because of the sheer quantity of music out there and the instantaneous global availability of all of it. Almost everyone sounds at least a little bit like someone else.
Be that as it may, when I hear We Hunt Buffalo, all I can think is that they sound removed from the obvious touchstones. Yes, they’re loud, and they’re heavy, and their guitars are thick. Sure, they’ve heard some metal and probably some stoner rock. But the riffs never dominate, so this isn’t typical amp-worship. They sing, scream, and harmonize, and rip through searing solos and stratospheric choruses, but none of it in a way that sounds derivative of any specific metal sub-genre or implies that they favor one specific component of what they’re doing over another. The songs are shot through with unapologetic keyboards, further distancing them from anything easy to pin down in the heavy rock realm. It’s not about shaking the earth, or showcasing technical prowess, or highlighting some overly contrived message; it’s about whatever serves the songs best.
Their influences are so obscured, so untraceable, that I have to assume, must believe, that what they’re doing is, at least to some degree, coming from them.
You know who that makes me think of? Bands like Pink Floyd. 16 Horsepower. Led Zeppelin. Queens of the Stone Age. Murder by Death. Groups with a sound, sure, but who also elude any possibility of being pigeonholed. It was never about being the loudest, or the smartest, or the heaviest, or the prettiest band, not for any of them. It was about writing and recording albums that resonated beyond who wrote them or what they had in mind when they did… and that’s what made them transcendent.
Take the song “The Barrens” from Living Ghosts. For me, this song is the compact, five-minute soundtrack to a man’s quest to find some vital missing part of himself. And when I notice that a song sounds like a story, rather than like a band, then the band who wrote it enters a whole different musical strata.
Look, I don’t even feel like I can do justice to this record by writing about it. Perhaps someone else could piece together the right combination of words to communicate how this album actually lifts up not just the listener, but music in general. How we’re all better off with Living Ghosts in the world, and how it positively impacts those of us who put it on, as well as anyone out there who’s thinking of picking up a guitar. Records like this help reassert what a good thing it is that bands exist, which is something we need at a time when so many artists seem driven not by the need to create, but out of a desire for fame and recognition.
The penultimate compliment I can offer We Hunt Buffalo is that I always want this record on. Always. Working, driving, writing, reading, running, or just ruminating on life and how I ended up where I am today. I’ve heard a hell of a lot of albums in my lifetime, but there are only a tiny handful that always have something to add to whatever situation I’m in, always seem to have bearing no matter where I’m at. It’s been a while since I was able to add another one to the list, and I’m grateful to We Hunt Buffalo for putting it into the world.