Monday, April 16, 2012

A Difficult 2011, 10 to 6

Can I just have done with this? My sick joke of a year-end list drags on.

10. YOB—Atma (Profound Lore)
YOB become more important with each release. By now I think they’ve transcended the “doom” tag and moved alongside Neurosis in the realm of consciousness-raising heavy music. On Atma, YOB don’t really add anything new to their sound, and it' s not like they needed to. Like the last couple Electric Wizard albums, the recording sounds odd, almost off-putting at first, but you’re inevitably pulled into possibly the best collection of YOB songs yet.

9. Anathema—We’re Here Because We’re Here (The End)
This is an absolutely terrifying record, bordering on emotional abuse. It batters me with feelings of hope and loss and mortality couched in 10 almost unendurably beautiful songs. I’m a person who likes to think he’s in control of any given situation in life and work, although the futility of this outlook becomes clearer every year. Still, old habits die hard, and confronting an album like this that screams “YOU’RE WRONG, YOU’RE WRONG, YOU’RE WRONG!” is a profound experience. We’re Here Because We’re Here tears me apart.

It’s significant that the front and back cover depict the horizon—a destination that you can see but can never reach. The songs themselves are about the limits you perceive and the limits that don’t exist. “It ain't about yourself/Get out of yourself” as the chorus demands in “Get Off Get Out.” They lay it on thick—big ballads, strings, female vocals, spoken word passages—but Steven Wilson’s mix places every element just so, streamlining these songs so that they plunge directly into the core of my being. Originally released in 2010 and issued domestically in 2011, I think this is the best Anathema album since Alternative 4. I’m in awe of its power.

8. Ghost—Opus Eponymous (Metal Blade)
Ghost strikes me as a lark that quickly got out of hand. Fenriz puts in a good word and suddenly they’re touring the world and their Nameless Ghoul vocalist is wondering if he’ll be wearing that Satanic Pope hat for the rest of his life. What hath they wrought? Honestly, putting aside the “hype” (what constitutes hype now anyways? A pull-quote off a blog? An ad?), this album caught on because Ghost has amazing material. I think the metal audience is smart enough not to get sucked in by image. No one’s impressed by anyone’s OTT black metal photo shoot. Morbid Angel can plant their feet just over a shoulder’s width apart and frown at us real hard, but we’re still not gonna buy Illud Divinum whatever. So yeah, Ghost had the best tunes and that’s why they’re in the top 10.

Another thing in Ghosts’s favour was that they themselves owned up to it all: "Naysayers will accuse us of being pretentious, which we are, or gimmicky, which we are." That conspiratorial wink I can hear in their music is intentional, apparently, but in the end, who cares? This short, punchy album will be over by the time you're done pondering matters of authenticity, "coolness," etc. Maybe they did actually melt down a bunch of Roky Erickson, Mercyful Fate, and BÖC LPs, have the resulting blob blessed by Satan, then used it to press their own work. Whether by diabolical accident or infernal design, you can hear all these things coming together on Opus Eponymous. The simple arrangements, wonderfully unspectacular recording, and unabashed yet diabolical tunefulness produce a time-warp effect, to the point where I half expect/half hope to be able to search up vintage footage of "Stand By Him" on Top of the Pops, complete with girls swaying awkwardly in their crocheted ponchos and yellow flares.

7. Steven Wilson—Grace for Drowning (K-Scope)
Mr. Wilson had a hand in two other albums in this post, but this one’s his own baby. After finding Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet rather stale and passing on The Incident (I did enjoy Wilson's previous solo album Insurgentes, though), I took a hint from the advance PR for this album and snapped it up at HMV ($10.99 for a double album!) the minute I saw it. What I heard was astounding, starting from the moment “Sectarian” kicked into high gear. It may be the best thing Wilson has ever put out. On this release he lets go of everything and gathers up fresh strands in the form of new musicians, sounds, and song forms. I don’t know what kind of therapy/meditation/substances he embraced before starting this project, but I think I want some. Grace For Drowning’s feeling of creative renewal puts it in the same realm as Opeth’s Heritage for me, although I don’t think Wilson caught as much flak from his fanbase for his good work.

Grace For Drowning is a trip through the darker side of prog that recalls King Crimson prior to their 1974 hiatus. Blasts of Mellotron choir signal imminent doom while saxophones rage in protest. Storms roil, clouds part. The epic songs are really epic, while some of the shorter numbers (“Index” and “Postcard”) are tackled with a simplicity that might elude a Porcupine Tree production. In fact there’s a stripped-down, elemental feel to the whole thing. “Remainder the Black Dog” and “Raider II” are big statements drawn in clear, broad strokes. It’s a sign of the material’s quality that you or I could walk up to a piano and most likely pick out the notes. There’s some jazz, too, adding to the album’s unpredictability and air of mystery. The influence is not as pronounced as others may claim; the jazz enters in some free passages where the sax or flute gets to have a blow, as well as in (brilliant) drummer Theo Travis’s in-the-pocket style. By picking away at the crust of post-everything modernity and revisiting old values in earnest, Steve Wilson’s recorded his most radical work.

6. Opeth—Heritage (Roadrunner)
I'm the guy who still really, really likes Opeth. I’ve never reviewed one of their albums here, mainly because most of the critical dialogue regarding Opeth fills me with rage. Why even contribute? Opeth tends to bring out the worst in both metalheads and prog fans. To the willfully obscurist metal messageboard warrior, Homopet's weak sauce is the perfect cure for insomnia. Girlfriend metal, pretty much. For the archetypal prog fan, he of a certain age and delicate demeanour, Opeth might be listenable if it weren’t for those Cookie Monster vocals. And here's me, caught in the crossfire, thinking, "Yeah, but—" before deciding that nothing's worth wading into either discussion.

But here’s how I feel. As a lifelong metal and progressive rock fan, Opeth have been a gift. I can’t imagine a better band to have followed from their debut album. It was a great day when I first found Orchid in the miscellaneous “O” bin at Sam the Record Man. Their streak of quality releases and their graceful progression from progressive death metal to progressive rock has been amazing. I thought they’d take a left turn much earlier than they actually did. When Still Life, their fourth album, came out, I remember being surprised that they were staying the course, polishing and refining the death/prog mix instead of pursuing one style in earnest. Their last album, Watershed, had some blatantly eccentric moments that signaled an album like Heritage was on the horizon.

It’s an odd record for sure, with a stream of consciousness flow that shucks off most of Opeth’s previous formula, if that’s what you want to call it. There are more songs in more styles, with some new sounds brought in. Listening to the album at Scrape Records on release day, I thought that it sounded like the Änglagård album of Michael Akerfeldt’s dreams, and I still hear a vein of classic Swedish prog deep within. The rocking moments are more isolated, perhaps a little more self-conscious, as with “Slither,” their tribute to Dio-era Rainbow. At the other end of the scale is a song like “Häxprocess,” a drifting, shifting seven-minute fever-dream.

That elusive quality is one of Heritage's best features. It’s not a bunch of long songs with heavy parts alternating with pretty parts. It’s a much more sophisticated mixture, one that unfortunately tasted of shit sandwich to many of their fans, judging by the bitter comments I've read on Facebook and the many, many long faces on display after their show at the Commodore last year. Oh well. Seeing as my one of my favourite heavy metal bands has finally become one of my favourite progressive rock bands, I will not be joining in the backlash.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

OSI—Fire Make Thunder (Metal Blade)

Listening to music has become a private affair. Music is shared anonymously and usually consumed alone, spat out of tiny devices directly into our ears. We left the megawatt stereo behind in our parents’ rec-room when we moved out. Now, roommates are trying to sleep; the neighbours and landlord are just on the other side of those walls. Best to keep it down. OSI are a band for this era. Their music is crisp, detailed, and intimate, and it sounds great through my 20-dollar earbuds.

Conceived around the time when a new generation of prog supergroups emerged—guitarist Jim Matheos was originally tipped for Transatlantic before Roine Stolt got involved—OSI have developed their own inimitable style of progressive/ electronic rock over four albums. OSI’s core team is long-distance collaborators Matheos and keyboardist Kevin Moore (ex-Dream Theater, Chroma Key), along with a changing cast of drummers and guests over the years (Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison lays down the beats on Fire Make Thunder).

Like previous OSI records, especially Free, this one slowly gets under the skin. Their approach is cool, yet it lures you in as you acclimatize to it. OSI are a studio creation; they have never played live. The musicians recorded their parts separately, and the end results don’t try to conceal this fact. The production draws attention to itself by design. Rhythmic synth pulses, blips, and st-st-st-stuttering beats mix with hefty, off-kilter riffs from Matheos. While the aesthetic may offend those who cling to the sacred ideal of live performance and the rehearsal-room chemistry of a gigging band, the gentlemen of OSI execute this style with undeniable control and taste. It never tips over into techno tackiness.

The first thing that draws you in is Moore’s voice. His exacting performance lobs melodies into the air that, after many listens, can begin to haunt your day. The other key ingredient is the songs. The OSI sound is flexible enough to encompass some surprising treatments and textures, such as the acoustic guitar-based lament “Indian Curse” and the unabashed prog metal instrumental “Enemy Prayer,” which reveals that three musicians working remotely can bridge the distance and rock out a little. “Big Chief” has a groovy, almost Clutch-like flow. “For Nothing” is as simple and pretty as U2's best work, while possessing a melancholy that only OSI can inhabit. It’s difficult to piece together every detail of the album’s concept, but the theme seems to have to have something to do with the plight of Native Americans. On the album’s best track, “Wind Won’t Howl,” Moore ruefully croons “We were already down before/we were already down on the floor”* as the song soars towards its climax.

Fire Make Thunder’s odd-yet-assured fusion of processed sonics and fragile humanity confirms that not only does OSI own this particular corner of the progressive metal galaxy, but—to borrow a phrase—that all this machinery making modern music can still be open hearted.

*Probably. Ain't got a lyric sheet.