Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Difficult 2011, 15 to 11

15. Mastodon—The Hunter (Reprise)

Yes, The Hunter saw Mastodon abandon the concept album and present a plain-old collection of songs this time out. It’s the same difference, really. There’s the same ratio of great to good to forgettable songs as on any Mastodon album. Some heard this as selling out, as if that’s really a viable option these days. I listened to some mainstream radio this year, and I didn’t hear anything resembling Mastodon. I will admit that I can only hack CFOX or whatever for 10 minutes before a song based around a Neil Young sample makes me punch the OFF button, but I still think I did enough research to exempt Mastodon from “sell out” status. I love the drum sound and the Scott Kelly cameo. I especially love “The Creature Lives.” The cover would have worked better as one of those 3D postcard-style pictures.

14. White Willow—Terminal Twilight (Laser’s Edge)

A new White Willow album is always a treat—a chance to lose oneself in the swirl of lush analog tones, crazy Moog solos, and Mellotrons. Sometimes there’s too much of a good thing, moments where the production distracts from the song. The moments when the band latches onto a riff are the best, though, as on the closing minute of “Hawks Circle the Mountain.” Jacob Holm-Lupo’s JG Ballard-inspired themes are to the fore, which is logical when you consider Ballard’s work gets less science fictional and closer to reality every year. Yet when these doomy scenarios are given voice by Sylvia Erichsen, the prospect of meteorological disaster or dystopian anarchy sounds downright enticing. “Floor 67” is a favourite track, where lovers contemplate the view from their derelict high-rise: wolves prowl the swimming pool, and “raggedy children” play in abandoned cars. The chipper melody and Erichsen’s voice sound downright cosy, while the band’s stormy passages between verses embody the threats that lurk outside.

13. Obscura—Omnivium (Relapse)

Omnivium is the most polished, professional tech death imaginable, yet it also has real metal spirit coursing through its circuitry. You can hear its roots in Watchtower, Cynic, and Atheist. There are moments of pure comedy: the guitar solo on “Velocity” where the shredding gets so fast that the notes apparently combust into pure electronic bleeping, as if revealing the supercomputer that is actually playing the music; or the funk section in “Vortex Ominivium” where the drummer works up a cool funk beat until he can stand it no longer and just starts blasting. I imagine him in rehearsal: “I couldn’t help it, man!” They’re Metallica-style traditionalists, though, with an acoustic album intro recalling “Battery” or “Fight Fire with Fire” and an instrumental showpiece near the end of the album (the absolutely ripping “A Transcendental Serenade”) and the oddball, change-of-pace track—here, the slow-grinding “Ocean Gateways” is a possible nod to Morbid Angel. Their previous album, Cosmogenesis, was really good, but this one takes it over the top with more melody, more technicality, more everything. And now I probably never need to hear another note of their music so long as I live.

12. Wolves in the Throne Room—Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)

One of the things that intrigued me upon rediscovering black metal in ’95 was that it had become this beautiful music made by mysterious, evil people. Albums like In the Nightside Eclipse, The Shadowthrone, and Bergtatt incorporated strains of classical and folk music, a fusion that made for some scathingly majestic sounds. But black metal has become a more conservative enterprise over the years. Hardly anyone talks about Emperor anymore. Everything’s set to maximum grimness. I hear Wolves in the Throne Room as part of the '93 to '96 wave of BM in that their music aims for grandeur in its evocation of nature. Celestial Lineage is their most complete album, I think. The long tracks and short interludes include female vocals, chanting, nature sounds, and synthesizers amongst the relentless drum blasts and trebly, tremolo-picked guitars. The emphasis is always on atmosphere and melody, and if that gets them writeups in the mainstream press and dismissed by the troo-est, then so be it. I just think it’s excellent music.

11. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake (Island)

There’s no use saying “this album marks a real departure for PJ Harvey,” because every PJ Harvey album is a departure. That’s precisely why she’s so brilliant. Let England Shake is a modern album with an old soul. A lot of her work has revolved around sex and assorted relationship torment, especially her early albums. Let England Shake also focuses below the belt, but even further down, to the land of a country that still resounds from feet that marched off to war. It may be her most heartwrenching album. Images like “Unburied ghosts hanging in the wire” hit hard. On many songs, she uses the auto-harp, a humble, egalitarian instrument—we had them in elementary school music class—that imposes its own musical rationing scheme and provides a haunting backdrop to her reverb-heavy vocal treatments. What’s consistent between the last few PJ Harvey albums is that there’s not a wasted moment on them—not a filler track, not a vague lyric, no musical repetition. However this music was made—and I have no doubt there was much trial and error, experimentation, and happy accident involved—it comes across as pure intention. It’s high art that cuts to the quick.

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