2011 was an annoying year. Ignorance and pettiness thrived. Stephen Harper and his creepy, Crispin Gloverish grin wouldn't go away—came back stronger and more insipid than ever, in fact. Good people died, friends moved away, living got more expensive. Belligerence abounded: attack the CBC, attack the poor, attack anyone who dares fight to maintain a living wage. As long as we have the oil sands and a resilient real estate bubble, we're all right, Jack. Who needs a plan beyond that?
Musically, I didn’t try very hard to keep up in 2011. I sought out music that would provide more comfort than challenge. I’ve gotten more depressed and baffled by the idea of music as a free commodity. Being a metal fan insulates me from that reality somewhat. Metalheads still talk in terms of albums. Record labels and album art/packaging are still regarded as important. We’re all getting older, though, and these attitudes will get drowned out eventually. I'm bracing myself for the end by getting used to downloading more music. Bandcamp is a great resource for this, making it simple to sample, download, and pay for new music. I'm also trying to downsize the collection by ripping CDs to the computer and storing them away. Going alphabetically, I'm up to "F" and I've still got 800 GB of space left on this baby. I hope to have a few GB left to play with when I'm done. Or maybe my iMac's CD drive will have crapped out before then...
Anyway, here we go. I'll do a top 25 this time (in five installments), which represents the bulk of what I bought this year. There are a few stragglers and neglected items that I may mention once I'm done, if I have any brain left.
25. Gigan—Quasi Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes (Willowtip)
We’re in the deep end immediately with this vortex of cosmic tech death. Gigan attack their chosen genre with the barbarity of early Kataklysm and the dissonance of Voivod. Really, these Chicagoans should be honorary Canadians, such is their commitment to weird metal. Revisiting this after a few months, I’m struck by how catchy all the squeaks, screeches, and squalls are. Guitarist/composer Eric Hersemann’s pedal board is like another member of the band, such is its presence in the music—no signal goes unprocessed, it seems. When they played at the Biltmore this summer as part of the Grave tour, I got to stand unimpeded at the front of the stage while they did their thing. A good portion of the crowd, who’d been happily slamming to Pathology earlier, retreated to the bar. Their loss.
24. Barn Owl—Lost in the Glare (Thrill Jockey)
Barn Owl’s emanations are solemn and expansive, often catching that moment when the brightest sunlight casts the darkest shadows. Mysterious devices drone; guitars ring out, feed back, fall apart, and fade away. Although their music has a lot in common with Six Organs of Admittance and Earth, Barn Owl’s take on psychedelic Americana is more loosely structured and flits from mood to mood between tracks more readily. “The Darkest Night Since 1683” is a deep sea of power chords. “Midnight Tide” conjures visions of a distant desert caravan shimmering in the heat haze. Barn Owl sound like they want to be anywhere but here. Don’t we all from time to time?
23. 40 Watt Sun—The Inside Room (Metal Blade)
I had no problem connecting with The Inside Room on an emotional level. Patrick Walker’s voice and lyrics carry a longing that'll resonate with anyone who has squandered love or loved to no avail. The music’s plodding rhythms and sheets of distortion pound the sorrow right through your skin. This didn’t rate higher because I’m just now starting to shake off the impression that this short album is still overlong, and that none of the songs surpass the opening track, “Restless.” I can now hear that the album’s five tracks have some real depth—each has a lyric or chord progression that hits me hard—but I can sympathize with those who didn’t “get” this album. Many labeled it doom, probably because of Walker’s previous band Warning. In 40 Watt Sun’s case, the label is a bit misleading. Doom requires riffs, I think, and there aren’t any here. Instead, 40 Watt Sun fit alongside Jesu with their overamped, crawling melancholy, or (if you can imagine the distortion rolled off almost entirely) even bands like Codeine and Seam. However you want to categorize it, this was a brave debut.
22. Mitochondrion—Parasignosis (Profound Lore)
To outsiders, the Pacific Northwest must look like nothing but sea for sailing, mountains for skiing, and teeming with hip, multicultural urbanites, lululemoned and goretexed from Ugg boots to ponytail (both girls and guys). In reality, this region pulsates with murder, drugs, and a history of religious cults and intolerance. Not everyone came here for the sushi. Many came here with the desire to be left the hell alone to do what they wilt behind a curtain of rain and forest. I know nothing about Mitochondrion as people, but their twisted, murky death metal embodies the hermetic aspect of the Pacific Northwest. It does not budge from the mossy cave it occupies. It doesn’t react well to light, so it’s best just to stand back and experience its awesome rumblings from a safe distance.
21. Zombi—Escape Velocity (Relapse)
Zombi’s work had been getting increasingly symphonic up till Escape Velocity, which saw them retreating a bit, stripping the music down, focusing on rhythm and repetition. I thought it was an interesting diversion into Logan’s Run “Space Disco” territory, where future generations had feathered hair and wore polyester tunics. I was bummed to hear they stopped doing Laser Zeppelin at the Planetarium last weekend; Laser Zombi will never come to pass, I’m afraid.