Just a wee bit delayed. 2009 was the year I finally realized there is no filter or time management processes that will permit me to take in all music I wish to. Even though journos now go the Twitter route for ADHD snippet reviews, I decided to make this list an extended one to make up for my 2008 abbreviated summary. Hence why it took four years of peck-ish writing.
I do find it absurd how every blog and music publication rushes year-end lists in mid-December, with upcoming releases still scheduled and the comparative qualities of autumn records still sinking in. I feel bad enough putting this list out now when my 2009 listening queue still has entries to follow up on. Even over the four year journey, I ended up removing at least ten releases that no longer resonate. But I am happy to report it’s 100% crabcore free.
I Blame You
When you’ve been part of awesome post-hardcore lineups like Drive Like Jehu, and Hot Snakes, it’s difficult to follow-up with a new project with different approaches. John Reis formed The Night Marchers (which I’d love if he’d stop singing) and Rick Froberg started Obits. Reis’ off-kilter riffs are replaced by two more traditional guitarists duking it out over a simple rhythm section. There aren’t any crazy drum fills or disjointed tempo shifts,; really more surf-infused rock and roll.
We are an Empire, My Dear
My enjoyment of east coast pop music doesn’t really extend past Hey Rosetta! and Wintersleep but Halifax’s In-Flight Safety managed to slip into that exclusive list. Their tunes have generated unavoidable comparisons to bands that channel the U2’s Eno-isms (Coldplay, Elbow, Doves) – straight-forward melodies containing effected guitars and swells of synths. With We are an Empire, My Dear, I feel like I get a mulligan for an against the grain selection where I’m attracted to musical qualities I usually deplore. Those plodding and middling characteristics turned it into my most guilty pleasure album of 2009, but I couldn’t look past how the band has become rhythmically tighter and utilize better vocal melodies (see: “Model Homes”, “Torches”). Even if you’ve had a bad day and hate The-fucking-Eagles, this is a perfect album for a hazy Sunday afternoon.
I seem to always note a token beatless instrumental record in my annual list and this album sticks with that theme. You know the ambient adjectives: hypnotic drones with a twinkle and deliberate chords, surrounded by washes of digitally manipulated panning. This lullaby quality is augmented by plucked acoustic guitar introduced twelve minutes into the title track opener. The six songs’ extended lengths have a busy stillness with nary a tempo switch; a change of pace from the instrumental valley/peak dichotomy I usually seek out (see: most post-rock bands.) It’s an album of pretty melodies that digs into your skull.
Their Blondie-via-Goldfrapp-like lead single “Uprising” continued the pop trajectory of Black Holes and Revelations, but the rest of this album seems to take the Muse template and blow it up to the n-th degree. Extolling prog-rock’s excesses has become their style. There are forays into uncharted genre exploration such as Depeche Mode-like beats and programming in “Undisclosed Desires”, but multi-track vocal harmonies of “United States of Eurasia” sets listeners right back in Queen-inspired territory (alongside a Chopin-inspired bit [guitar!]). Distorted bass riffs with solo guitar heroics, and classical piano arpeggios throughout lead into finale “Exogenesis”, a three part symphony suite that eclipses all Muse’s past works. The album is a mess of ideas that shouldn’t work but they do. Wank on, bros.
Infinity / Opiate Sun EP
Not content to take his time to hone ideas, Justin Broadrick again has 75 minutes of music for us in 2009. His frequency of releases may be related to the need to make a living solely as an independent musician and his results are still top notch. The 50 minute track Infinity reintroduces Godflesh elements, such as a crunchy riff at 9:11, growling vocals at 16:15, and drum machine in its first half. These juxtapose the softer edge Jesu has taken on compared to Justin’s past projects. At times it does come across as a survey of outtakes cut together, but there are some great moments in there.
Opiate Sun is his most pop work to date. Fans of doom metal and shoegaze can definitely get into these four mid-length tunes. He takes on a live approach with a full drum kit and appearance of lead guitar in sections. Like Conquerer, his heartfelt vocals express lyrics that lean toward hope, such as “Deflated”: “There’s only light here/You gave me reason”.
My favourite Jesu work has been found in his short EPs Heartache, Silver, and Why Are We Not Perfect? (an expansion of his Eluvium split LP side), and these tunes are no exception as Broadrick moves toward the pop spectrum is a more exciting prospect than any Godflesh reunion.
Them Crooked Vultures
Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Led Zeppelin’s John-Paul Jones. The only correct response is: Yes. Yes. Yes. (Yes, I know JPJ guested on Foo’s In Your Honor play piano and Mellotron.) With each member having already attained massive success with their respective bands, this supergroup’s mission is to meet raised expectations – fail and never live it down. Although you can always blame it on chemistry.
With Dave Grohl acting as session drummer on QoTSA’s 2002 album Songs for the Deaf and Homme on guitar/mic (Dave sneaks background vocals into “Mine Eraser, No Chaser”), it does create a situation where many rotations are required to concede this isn’t just another Queens album. Qualities are shared but a thicker rhythmic backbone sets it apart. Opener “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” dupes listeners with a by-the-numbers quietly-mixed Desert Sessions-like composition until its bridge where the bottom drops out and Spinal-Tap-to-11 riffs overtake. From there on out it’s business. Tight 4/4 Wah groove of “Gunman”, Physical Graffiti callback in “Scumbag Blues”, and unhinged outro jam of eight minute “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up”, you’re hearing three icons and how good is that?
Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
After a largely unremarkable and disappointing one-note sophomore You Could Have It So Much Better…, Scotland’s Franz have recovered with this follow-up. Pre-release murmurs of the band incorporating African pop found me fear the worst – another Vampire Weekend. Luckily such influence isn’t really found other than “Send Him Away” and the pre-release “Lucid Dreams (Album Version)” (whose 3:41 edit is completely different from the 7:56 Minimoog-extended cut on this album.) A concept album following the trajectory of partying overnight and the morning after, these dance-oriented songs add in synths with a reverb-heavy dub “Dream Again” and acoustic closer “Katherine Kiss Me” to finish off the morning. Hit “No You Girls” recreates the swagger of their breakout single “Take Me Out” and this is their strongest album from start to finish. If you’re into their take on dub, the loop-based Blood extra disc in the deluxe edition might be more to your fancy (I didn’t like it.)
A Mountain is a Mouth
Any music act with more than five members is automatically deemed a collective, so let’s label this Toronto act as such. Vocal choir harmonies, pounding percussion, and varied instrumentation allow them to carry paradoxical grandiose intimacy that few acts (such as The Arcade Fire) pull off. You’ll find chain-gangs with secular gospel-like anthems and old blues carried by that inevitable post-rock tag. If you’re thinking The Polyphonic Spree, this crew is without the whole happy-go-lucky creepy pop cult thing. Moods are balanced and the results may leave you deliriously satisfied.
Their 2001 debut Fahrenheit Fair Enough saw IDM meets post-rock and follow-up Map of What is Effortless integrated soul vocals into their brand of laptop glitch; both releases proving TTA possess a genuine sense of melody that few artists in the electronic field can claim. Continuing the trend of transforming their approach on each album, Immolate Yourself takes on hazy 80s nostalgia with modern production techniques recently popularized by acts such as Junior Boys by using analogue synthesizers characterizing more organic compositions compared to clever technical manipulations that cut to the heart of TTA’s early material. Songs are still off-kilter, but upbeat moments such as the triumphant chorus of “Helen of Troy” sees them exploring territory previously unknown.
Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Mono are your orchestral counterpart to the typical post-rock band. Crescendos reach higher highs that eventually diminish into drones and feedback. It’s modern classical music with a rock bottom end that’s built to push your emotional state to extremes. Guitar pedals are employed by both lead and rhythm to great effect with tremolo assaults up the wazoo. This time Mono have upgraded their all-instrumental approach to graduate to a full-blown chamber orchestra. Its Steve Albini-engineered raw live rock vibe joined by grandiose string arrangements. Not much to argue with there.
Billed as their version of an acoustic album, the latest Mars Volta definitely has its aggression scaled back but production depth isn’t. There are no ten minute-plus multi-suite epics with sudden tonal shifts and dub/noise experiments which makes this likely their most coherent album (musically; forget about trying to interpret those verbose lyrics) since debut Deloused at the Comatorium. Former Chili Pepper John Frusciante helps out but the paired down lineup is obviously a supporting cast for Omar Rodríguez-López’s songwriting vehicle. He manages to pull off slow jams with quiet guitar effects and ambient synths that permeate the album’s duration, but there are still frantic numbers thrown in like “Desperate Graves” and the Led Zeppelin-like “Cotopaxi”. And closer “Luciforms” contains the instrumental freakout you’ve been waiting for.
These Four Walls
I was lucky enough to catch these guys opening for The Twilight Sad and that performance alone sold me. The youthful Scots have a complex post-punk sound that is sure to move you with delay-pedal guitar, danceable 4/4 drums, and tension-filled build-ups. One of my favourite year debuts. And if it’s good enough for Scott Upshall, it’s good enough for you!
Sweden’s answer to Kyuss will fill the desert rock hole you didn’t know existed. While hazy mumbled singing sees them still skirting stoner rock territory, scaling back to one guitarist makes way for rhythmic gains in bassist/lead singer Oskar Cedermalm which drifts towards mainstream acceptance. Melodic guitar lines travel outside stoner rock restrictions but the main Truckfighters’ element still presents itself with regularity – amped distortion in hyperdrive. Opener “Last Curfew” tensely builds its verses for an eventual explosion and choral harmonies, setting in stone Mania‘s dynamic approach to songwriting. The hallmark is likely third track “The New High” with its subdued headbobbing, clap-along intro suddenly interrupted when fuzz-o-meter goes off the charts with massive distorted riffs. Sprawling 13 minute album centrepiece “Majestic” plays with tempos for its duration, highlighted by a disorienting trippy section at 10:30. Next up “Monster” unfortunately starts like a Days of the New acoustic number before an über-distorted bass hook kicks in to save it. With all the “fuzz” word usage and engine metaphors (truck is in the band name, yo!), these tunes stand out to inspire your next speeding ticket.
It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright
Neutral Milk Hotel-inspired acoustic guitar-based writing backed by multi-instrumentation including violin, trumpet, horns, and… tuba (“The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie”). Lyrics are storytelling through parables which borderline on worship, but expansions on Brother, Sister with richer orchestrations outweigh any possible cringe-worthy moments that outward Christian songs usually evoke.
Besides, songs like “Allah, Allah, Allah” still manages to confound Christians when the lyrics are simply about God being in everything and you should forgive your people for sleighting you. Good job on being Jesus-like on the interweb, you guys.
What We All Come to Need
Calling this album’s 2007 predecessor City of Echoes loose is an understatement. It was obvious those sessions weren’t the result of rigorous rehearsals and meticulous selection from a hundred takes. But the result wasn’t that worse off since those tunes were fresh compared to Pelican’s early doom metal approach. Luckily What We All Come to Need has the best of both worlds with its rolling instrumental rock tempo-shifting journey sounding tight as. Early material complaints of sloppy drumming are rectified and time spent to perfect recordings has made their monster guitar riffs more memorable. And surprise, closer “Final Breath” is their first with lead vocals from The Life and Times’ Allen Epley. And am I mad or is “The Creeper” intro a distorted homage to Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow”?
Prominently featuring Mark Lanegan on vocals, his broken man with spiritual longing approach backed by live instrumentation with a taste for the grande and cinematic, complimented by guest vocalists including Rosa Agostino (a female counterpart on four songs) and Mike Patton (“Unbalanced Pieces”.) There is a return to Ennio Morricone-inspired arrangements such as “Arizona Bay” from 2007’s It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. “Shadows Fall” is the most obvious track using spaghetti western as its point of reference, but my personal standout is the lonely cover of Palace Brothers/Will Oldham’s “You Will Miss Me When I Burn”. Another cover of Gene Clark’s eight minute “Some Misunderstanding” and a re-imagining of Lanegan’s “Praying Ground” from his 1998 solo album Scraps at Midnight are also worthy additions to the original material found on the album.
Toronto’s DMST return with four eponymously named compositions using extended suites that strengthen the template laid out by 2007’s You, You’re a History in Rust. More in the spirit of post-rock forebears Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis, their loose jazzy arrangement don’t make attempts at excessive melodrama, unlike many contemporary vocal-less rock groups. Traditional instrumentation is accentuated by brass and slide guitar with satisfying moments that grow into ecstatic releases of emotion without cliché. Akron/Family return to guest, this time relegated to background vocal duties on “Make”.
From a quirky Scottish band with three semi-obscure records on Beggars Banquet to opening Muse stadium tours, hiring orchestras, and getting covered on X-Factor. An OG of Biffy may scream foul of sellout but this second major label release is a new era that has created really great hook-laden songs. Standout five minute “Bubbles” (which includes a guest solo from Josh Homme) has a pre-chorus that’s likely the best slice of music the band has written. The rest are shortened to an easily digestible sub-four minute length that explores different points-of-view encountered in relationships. Each song has its own signature, big alt-rock riffs, and sing-along chorus that you ask for (see: lead single “Mountains”.) They’re not a band that rests on their laurels as original ideas are always on the horizon such as “That Golden Rule” outro harmonizing orchestral string hits with a distorted guitar riff countered by a bending bass line teetering back and forth. For all the gleamy elements they still maintain characteristics found on those exploratory Beggars releases: heavy, unpredictable (a background guitar on “Shock Shock” mimics a fucking theremin!), and serious lyrical strangeness. Mon the Biff.
Baroness’ first two EPs mastered metals meets hardcore punk with tempo changes; its Red Album follow-up contained two introductory songs “Rays On Pinion” and “The Birthing” that kinda fucking rule, but the remaining record was forgettable compared to those exhilarating opening moments. For a follow-up, the Blue Record focuses on progressive sludge metal meets classic southern rock with an indulgent barrage of genre-bending that contains little noddling. Short instrumental movements “Bullhead’s Psalm” and “Bullhead’s Lament” bookend a series of uptempo numbers with retro production that doesn’t allow kinetic drumming to overtake its aural space. Psychedelic guitar effects match the trippy cover art created by singer John Baizley and breakneck duelling solos are thrown in for good measure.
Night is the New Day
It seems a general rule for extreme metal bands: ideologically stay the course or mature by going melodic. Sweden’s Katatontia doom & death metal origins transformed down the latter path due to their singer’s voice getting destroyed by death metal growling. Instead of going borderline new age on us like Wales’ Anathema, they’ve embraced Damnation from fellow Swede’s Opeth. Each successive album has gripped tighter with an atmosphere of autumnal despair accentuated by synth pads and subtle Massive Attack-like dark electronics. Calm passages organically include down-tuned crunchy guitar riffs reminiscent of Tool and singer Jonas Renkse beautiful melodic delivery demands attention despite his sombre presence. It’s a melancholic record of moody atmospheres and strong songwriting that at this point almost falls outside any metal genre classification.
Forget the Night Ahead
After 2007’s Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters, the much-awaited sophomore album found hype strong with this one. Despite interweb saturation, I twice saw them this year (once opening for Mogwai) to confirm the band are excellent musicians with an original voice. This album feels live and less produced, with plenty of tension, wailing guitars, and serious vocals somewhere around shoegaze and post-rock without overdoing it in any genre. They also make an excellent interview. My standout song is “The Room”, which appeared in an alternate arrangement as “Untitled #27” on last year’s EP Killed My Parents and Hit the Road.
A Tool-esque guitar riff opens the album in “There’s No Secrets This Year”, which kicks into an up-tempo number with a kinetic energy not found on debut Carnavas. The song’s outro contains shimmering guitars seguing into an orchestral “The Royal We” (Dude!), with pretty moments intermittently interrupted by a dirty fuzz undercurrent. These background guitar distortions meeting plucked interweaving melodies bring about obvious shoegaze and grunge inspirations dating back more than a decade but it’s the production that stands out here over their first album. Unfortunately, over-compressed guitars on lead single “Panic Switch” don’t properly represent the marked improved the band has made with this new batch of songs. Nasally, ambiguously effeminate male vocals (It’s Pat!) and aforementioned genre references earn inevitable comparisons to The Smashing Pumpkins (yes, their breakout “Lazy Eye” single was a bit too similar to “1979”), but Silversun Pickups display restraint their forefathers lacked at times, so you won’t hear huge out-of-fashion elongated-note guitar solos that early Corgan was known for. The band gets a large amount of unfair shit as being a “Pumpkins tribute band”, but there are worse points of reference to choose.
Axe to Fall
Legends in the field, Converge’s blend of breakneck hardcore and metal has few peers of this calibre. There are plentiful displays of chops and intensity with two minute mathcore bursts, but the most fun is found in explorations of diverse genre collaborations with guest appearances from members of Cave In (“Effigy”) and Neurosis (“Cruel Bloom” saloon gutter-folk), amongst others. Closer “Wretched World” is a seven minute post-rock exploration containing at least a handful of outside contributors finding the band far outside their usual loose boundaries. This record also gave me heart palpitations.
Steven Wilson’s 2008 solo record Insurgentes allowed him to get some tension-filled, Scott Walker surrealism out of his system, giving way for a new Porcupine Tree release. If you’ve listened to PT since Wilson produced a few Opeth records, you’ll find the expected elements in these tight compositions: metal riffs, nuanced electronic elements, extended instrumental bridges, pretty parts, brutal parts, and an overall theme.
The album comes as one song in 14 parts; a progressive rock concept album containing few standalone or single-type tracks. The Incident refers to each track being tied together by the concept of tragic news stories as seen from the perspective of the victims’ families; with songs representing these fragments. Cheery stuff. Even with the prog-rock tag, these heady concepts are not focused on virtuoso, but rather the emotion of flowing moments. Drummer Gavin Harrison’s live stint in King Crimson may have influenced his best studio performance yet, highlighted by his stunning momentum-building “Drawing the Line” and free-spirited fills during the five minute instrumental middle-section of the twelve minute (ironically named?) “Time Flies”. Closer “I Drive the Hearse” is in the tradition of In Absentia’s “Collapse the Light Into Earth”, a quiet one to wind everything down the mood.
A separate disc with songs outside of the 14 song cycle are included and it’s more-or-less a B-side EP as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I really am being this dismissive. But the first disc is another strong inclusion in Porcupine Tree’s discography.
Despite already having three albums under their belt, I admit to having no knowledge of this unit until they toured with fellow Georgia state metalers Mastodon. Playing catch-up, I came to realize this was their most streamlined effort with none of the “hey guys, this is a bridge, watch this” moments as found on 2006 predecessor Time Will Fuse Its Worth. No intro, outro, segues, or structures to distract; just ten bangers with no loss of momentum. Their brand of psychedelic sludge metal/punk is indebted to Sabbath with the added brutality of distorted bass and two drummers who are synchronized in opposite channels. Static Tensions and Melvins’ latest Big Business incarnation make me believe every metal lineup requires at least two on skins. Keeping with the theme of twos, both guitarists trade male/female trade vocal leads as the roar of Phillip Cope is juxtaposed by Laura Pleasants’ distant haunt. Highlights include “Running Red” hit at 1:20 in by duelling riffs and thudding low-end (OK, it’s “Iron Man” modified) and two-step punk-supported guitar solo seeing “Perception” out. For people that believe Baroness’ First EP was their career highlight.
I’ve jokingly referred to Russian Circles as Pelican with a much better drummer but they’ve picked their game up to widen the gap from their Chicagoan instrumental metal colleagues. Bigger is better as they abandon a pure three-piece live setup for the addition of guest cello, violin, piano, and brass. New bassist Brian Hook of These Arms Are Snakes/Botch deepens their low-end and takes charge when required. Dynamic compositions flow track to track, such as the bombast of title track “Geneva” giving way to drum stick tapping and strings of “Melee” which continuously builds momentum for its duration. It’s all a tried-and-true post-rock formula but they’ve mastered how to juggle a will-they-or-won’t-they tension release that plays with listeners expectations. Each listen to this record I come across a point where a guitar riff or drum pattern kicks in to my immediately reaction, “this is awesome”.
The Century of Self
A band that will forever be doomed for not making another universally-acclaimed Source Tags & Codes, Trail of Dead soldiers on with another solid release that was more appreciated this time around. Instrumental opener “The Giants Causeway”, a shortened edit of “The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade” from preceding Festival Thyme EP, ramps up listeners to prepare them for high octane noise rock anthems that blow through the album’s first half up to “Fields of Coal”. The now commonplace usage of ‘epic’ is actually appropriate to describe this series of songs that take on piano, dual male vocal leads, choirs, and strings. The massive riff of lead single “Isis Unveiled” and The Who-like oscillating organ freakout outro found in “Bells of Creation” best exemplify the heights this approach reaches. The album’s second half slows for ballads and dramatic segues common of prog albums, closing with “Insatiable (Two)” singalong: “I’m the monster, and I exist/On this summit, I am lost/On its slopes I’ve seen/The world as she was meant to be seen.”
Planets of Old
After forays into space rock and a four year hiatus, Boston’s Cave-In got back together due to geographic convenience and returned to their former post-hardcore glory. 2005’s Perfect Pitch Back reintroduced growls and yells, but this intense four song EP (2009 vinyl-only, CD release in 2010) really exemplifies purposeful aggression Cave-In are capable of. Specifically check out “The Red Trail” for its raw 4/4 hardcore giving an indication you won’t find the band noodling forever in a studio. I’ve enjoyed all sides of Cave-In, but right now I’m interested in seeing their next full-length also following this path.
There is No Enemy
This is a more laid back (and at times) dreamlike affair (toe-tapper “Good Ol’ Boredom” and short/concise “Pat” excepted) whose pace is most comparable to 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future. I seem to be one of the few that really dig that album, but even still, There is No Enemy is a stronger collection of songs. As is expected of BTS, you come for the catchy interplay between guitarists – Doug Martsch & co. deliver. They take on the challenge with additional elements such as the cello and steel guitar on “Nowhere Lullaby”, a ‘la-la-la-la’ harmony in the chorus of “Life’s a Dream” (followed by its guitar jam climaxing with horns), and “Things Fall Apart” ambient organ interrupted by mariachi brass instruments. They again prove why they were one of the best 90s indie rock acts and also the most notable thing to come out of Boise, ID (I tried to discover a funny secondary act punchline but, seriously, nothing comes from that city.)
An indie rock album bookended by songs entitled “Prologue” and “Epilogue” usually sets of tackiness alarm bells but this one will catch you by surprise as its honesty prevents lyrics from becoming overblown. This concept album focuses on intense regret and grief sung in falsetto, backed by traditional rock instruments and complex (& sometimes unidentifiable) ambient noises. This atmospheric beauty overwhelms when juxtaposed against unease of the melancholic subject matter and building tension. Band leader Peter Silberman echoes Jeff Buckley’s low coos and heart-wrenching vocals that are even more pronounced during live performances. The triumphed middle “Bear” is a more traditional indie pop track, but the almost nine minute “Wake” (which closes with the repeated line, “don’t ever let anyone/tell you you deserve that”) and overall album arc showcase how Silberman and his collaborators have mastered a crescendo to emotional catharsis.
Darkness Come Alive
Most metal takes itself Dead Serious while small pockets try to find the light side of it to disastrous results. Boston’s Doomriders know the cliché but attain the correct balance of playing it off. Filling a void I wasn’t aware existing inside me, Doomriders are as if Thin Lizzy and Sabbath joined forces to make a hardcore record. Led by Converge bassist (and Old Man Gloom guitarist) Nate Newton, it’s all ragers to pump your fist to. Gutter metal with a classy finish, if such a final product were possible. See them in an amplified live setting as it all immediately clicks. Standouts: “Bear Witness”, “Lionized”, “Jealous God”. If you want to unleash your inner hesher, have at it.
Travels With Myself and Another
With their sophomore album, FOTL streamlined songs, keeping catchy chunks of Mclusky (yes, had to bring them up.) Twelve songs clock in an economical 33 minutes, highlighted by that signature distorted bass and oblique lyrical approach dripping with clever witticisms. Their snarling intelligence and hilarious stage banter make them a cut above other post-punk/hardcore bands. And “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” feels like being touched by a man in a toilet…
For 2007 and 2008’s ambitious The Alchemy Index, Thrice thematically split songs across four parts. The Alchemy Index II: Water was my preference in the set for its moody soundscapes and haunting songwriting. Some of those elements can be found here in standouts “Circles” and “Wood and Wire”, and overall this is really a more cohesive collection of emotional songs. The band has matured far beyond their Californian punk origins, retaining tightness while taking on a wide selection of genre influences outside Barkmarket.
Characterized by scorching riffs, tortured screams, and quiet meditative passages of pretty meets brutal, all taught by the school of Neurosis. With each subsequent release, Isis hasn’t quite softened, but have moved away from primal elements of hardcore in favour of grooves and complex instrumental interplay. Known as a metal(gaze?) band with ever-present electronics and keyboards, an addition of organ blends warmer tones to a heavy calculated sound. With no compromise to song runtimes, this finds the band’s songwriting at its most economical and dynamic. They take on many Tool touchstones such as the tabla found on “Stone to Wake a Serpent”, Adam Jones’ guest contribution to “Ghost Key”, and this record being produced by 10,000 Days engineer Joe Barresi. Aaron Harris’ maturation behind the kit also sees tribal drumming arrangements a far cry from the early Oceanic days. This ended up being their final album, going out at their creative peak as a well-oiled machine, proving Isis was one of the quintessential metal bands of the aughts. And I was lucky enough to attend their final concert in Montréal, although I originally purchased my ticket for the rare opportunity to see openers Cave In live!
Listening to Cog’s The New Normal on repeat for years caused the Last.FM recommendation algorithm to harass me into following up on Perth’s Karnivool. Their 2005 debut Themeta was an immediate sing-along, riff-oriented record that tapped into the primal act of headbanging. Four years later, its follow-up Sound Awake embraces atmosphere with rolling tom-tom and extended song lengths invoking comparisons to Tool. Their American counterparts are downright oppressive with constant drop-tuning so in comparison Karnivool’s lighter tone come across as celebratory, built for open-air summer festivals. This isn’t such a massive commercial departure as songs are deliberate but not long-winded and only the album’s closing two minutes do we find a moment of artistic indulgence.
Improved production and a focus on intricate instrumentation of their virtuoso rhythm section raises the band’s stature to that of cross-country colleagues Cog. Singer Ian Kenny’s Coldplay-like Birds of Tokyo project influences too, with soaring choruses and the right balance of masculine/feminine – not the usual alienating prog clichés. When “New Day” peaks after a seven minute climb, its emotional resonance is spine-tingling.
No more stories Are told today I’m sorry They washed away No more stories The world is grey I’m tired Let’s wash away
Never have I heard a band that so skilfully executes melodic pop with a progressive approach. Their playful mix of noises buck structural trends yet maintain memorable hooks you’ll be humming for days. The exception may be No More Stories… surreal opener “New Terrain” which uses backmasking to excess (and playing it backwards reveals hidden song “Nervous”.) Then previously released “Introducing Palace Players” and “Repeaterbeater” (personal pet peeve also directed at Killing Joke: pre-album EP containing exact recordings and mix as on resulting album.) The former starts a minute of off-time guitar plucks, trippy synths, and intermittent percussion interrupted by a stereo-test left-right transition sequence that introduces vocal chorus, bass, and re-timed drumming to make right what previously seemed broken. And like I said about its predecessor And the Glass Handed Kites, if you can enjoy singer Jonas Bjerre’s up-there falsetto, you’re in for a treat.
“Cartoons and Macramé Wounds” is likely the oddest one in the bunch, with the seven minute song immediately beginning at a crescendo and at 2:11 resetting to what seems like the traditional starting index, only to build back up again to an even taller peak which falls away to end side A of this journey. The overly-long album title is taken from lyrics to vocal/piano harmony segue track “Hawaii Dream” which introduces what I consider the highlight in “Hawaii”. Just when I thought the marimba-led composition couldn’t get any richer, another element would be added. Then throw in steel drums, sublime vocal chorus and a swirling atmosphere. It’s difficult to find another upbeat song that’s so complex. Another of note is lead out “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” which best exemplifies Mew’s prog tendencies, containing five starkly different parts of a) crashing cymbals/saxophone, b) dirty synth, c) children’s chorus, d) hand claps, and e) sad piano+synth outro. They’re one of the few acts that get away with such a juxtaposition of moods that somehow works. It seems off? But sounds so right?
Home & Minor
My manlove for Oceansize has been under way since 2003 and this 50 minute EP doesn’t sway that viewpoint. These four songs and two ambient segues are a calm counterpart to previous dynamic bombast. Such quiet compositions usually served their purpose in an album arc but here it’s a cohesive theme across the board. Clean tones and intricate notes, but this isn’t an acoustic recording. Distortion is kept to a minimum, more akin to a slightly hastier Stars of the Lid with drumming. The title track’s dream-like mood makes me think Gregor Samsa and a guest trumpeter on “Getting Where Water Cannot” is a welcome new element. Get around rainy day ‘Size.
The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion
Some people were disappointed by 2005’s Catch Without Arms, but I personally also found enjoyment in Dredg’s more concise pop direction. They took a good four years to meticulously record a follow-up, as documented by the in-studio leaflets, which blends aggressive guitars of Leitmotif, psych/prog arrangement of El Cielo, and Catch Without Arms‘ vocal-led melodic pop sensibilities. The sub-two minute “Stamp of Origin” instrumental jam segues are reminiscent of “Brushstroke” breakpoints on El Cielo, used effectively to branch disparate songs together. Gavin Hayes’ singing is light years beyond his almost nü metal screaming from debut Leitmotif. Conceptually, the songs are loosely based on the essay Imagine There Is No Heaven: A Letter to the Six Billionth Citizen, focused on questions of religion and morality. Dredg are a band still discovering their next phase and this is a stepping stone that distils their best qualities into a tight, but diverse, album. And hey, an acoustic live performance!
The Resurrectionists / Night Raider
Not every artist must kill their idols to stake a claim on creative independence. Rare is the occasion art can be made in a bubble as we all have a history of influences. It’s a matter of distilling selected elements and adding your own signature to form a coherent statement (or incoherent for Dadaists.) Crippled Black Phoenix are an underappreciated UK act perhaps dismissed as mopey white-guy post-rock or 70s psych revivalists. Sure there are nods to psychedelic, progressive, and space rock of old, but this is contemporary music that’s a trippy ride unlike any other in 2009.
This anthology of songs was put to tape in multiple recording sessions over 2007-2008 with some songwriting credits dating back earlier. Only two years since debut A Love of Shared Disasters, we are now recipients of a generous two hours over two albums bound together as a boxset. Core member Justin Greaves (Gonga, Electric Wizard) composed the tunes and recorded with a cast of instrumentalists including Mogwai bassist Dominic Aitchison and singer Joe Volk (whose 2006 acoustic Derwent Waters Saint is worth its own weight in gold.)
Cutting right to the chase, these dudes love mid-era Pink Floyd. Slowly shimmering synths opening The Resurrectionists‘ (sic) “Burnt Reynolds” will find you reflecting on multi-part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Its successor “Rise Up and Fight” kicks in with a heartbeat straight outta “One of These Days” from Meddle side A. The last half all-instrumental of Night Raider 19 minute opus “Time of Ye Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm of Narcoleptic Empire” gets off on an Animals‘ “Dogs” movement. Considering these moments make up a small percentage of this release, these homages aren’t merely hero worship.
Thirteen minute hallmark “Song For the Loved” will find post-rock aficionados in love with its extended cinematic journey. Introduced by actress Lindsay Duncan’s The Reflecting Skin monologue on the horror of human mortality, then Joe Volk’s piano-led folk transitions to foreboding Gregorian chants (think “Long Cold Summer” from their debut) overlaying tense drones and windy synths for multiple minutes before cello and rock instrumentation are blown apart by duelling guitar solos that will touch any David Gilmour fan.
“200 Tons of Bad Luck” is as if Broken Social Scene decided to go accordion folk with eerie background voices thrown in. The heaviest moments of this boxset comes from “444” and its cello/violin Middle Eastern motif complimenting stoner metal. The Resurrectionists closes out “Human Nature Dictates The Downfall of Humans”, an eight minute ballad in despair that wraps up by instead opening up to sunshine.
To Night Raider, many of these songs are dominated by instrumental sections across many styles. “Along Where the Wind Blows” gravel-voiced Matt Williams (the Beak> member credited as “tramp”) carries on a drunken saloon story over trombone, accordion, and banjo. An industrialized buzzsaw of engines on “A Lack of Common Sense” and mad Victoria circus-freaks-on-display “Onward Ever Downwards” intro sample (also found after “Burnt Reynolds”) paints pictures of mankind’s industrialization transition in years gone by. Western hymns and apocalyptic ballad genre explorations feel as a travelogue larger than the music itself. Instrumental finale “I Am Free, Today I Perished” is a downright pretty composition of simple piano, controlled feedback and drones.
Despite these downer tones, a theme carried across is that all is not lost as the hopeless too can become hopeful by not letting fear win. Key to this expression is an Evil Kenevil inspirational speech sampled to start Night Raider where he speaks of waking everyday with a mind focused on self-improvement. By using non-flashy recording techniques (this isn’t your compression-happy rock radio production), CBP is able to communicate nostalgic motifs that stay grounded, carrying the torch of majestic albums that once dominated popular music three decades ago.
- Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free – 02 – “River”
- Mew – No More Stories… – 09 – “Hawaii”
- Kent – Röd – 09 – “Ensamheten”
- Dredg – The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion – 06 – “Gathering Pebbles”
- Karnivool – Sound Awake – 03 – “New Day”
- Crippled Black Phoenix – The Resurrectionists – 02 – “Rise Up and Fight”
- Mastodon – Crack the Skye – 04 – “The Czar”
- Jesu – Opiate Sun EP – 03 – “Deflated”
- Porcupine Tree – The Incident (CD1) – 05 – “Drawing the Line”
- Soulsavers – Broken – 05 – “Some Misunderstanding”
- Kylesa – Static Tensions – 05 – “Running Red”
- Cave In – Planets of Old – 03 – “The Red Trail”
- Doomriders – Darkness Come Alive – 03 – “Bear Witness”
- Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another – 07 – “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You”
- We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls – 04 – “Conductor”
- Broken Records – Until the Earth Begins to Part – 05 – “Thoughts on a Picture (In a Paper, January 2009)”
- BLK JKS – After Robots – 04 – “Lakeside”
- The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead – 06 – “The Room”
- ISIS – Wavering Radiant – 02 – “Ghost Key”
- Dredg – The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion – 16 – “Quotes”
- Chevelle – Sci-Fi Crimes – 03 – “Shameful Metaphors”
- Clutch – Strange Cousins From the West – 09 – “Freakonomics”
- Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures – 12 – “Gunman”
- Apse – Climb Up – 02 – “3.1”
- The Antlers – Hospice – 09 – “Wake”
- Thrice – Beggars – 10 – “Beggars”
- Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions – 03 – “Bubbles”
- In-Flight Safety – We Are an Empire, My Dear – 05 – “Torches”
- Oceansize – Home & Minor – 04 – “Home & Minor”
- CBC Radio 2’s Great Canadian Song Quest – 01 – Hey Rosetta! – “Old Crow Black Night Stand Still”
- Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers – 08 – “Marlon J.D.”
- Pure Reason Revolution – Amor Vincit Omnia – 05 – “Deus Ex Machina”
- Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport – 07 – “Flight of the Feathered Serpent”
- Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – 01 – “Lisztomania”
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! – 01 – “Zero”
- Doomriders – Darkness Come Alive – 08 – “Lions”
- Truckfighters – Mania – 03 – “The New High”
- Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen – 02 – “From the Hips”
- Dark Was the Night (This Disc) – 06 – The National – “So Far Around the Bend”
- Tonight: Franz Ferdinand – 03 – “No You Girls”
- Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion – 04 – “Summertime Clothes”
- Dark Was the Night (This Disc) – 15 – Sufjan Stevens – “You Are the Blood”
- Sonic Youth – The Eternal – 02 – “Anti-Orgasm”
- Crippled Black Phoenix – The Resurrectionists – 07 – “Song for the Loved”
- Junius – The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist – 06 – “Stargazers & Gravediggers”
- Buried Inside – Spoils of Failure – 05 – “V”
- The Black Heart Procession – Six – 03 – “Witching Stone”
- And So I Watch You From Afar – And So I Watch You From Afar – 09 – “Don’t Waste Time Doing Things You Hate”
- Caspian – Tertia – 10 – “Sycamore”