The fifth and last entry of this protracted series. I've already done my Best of 2013 list, but writing it up and fleshing it out will probably take me another full year again.
Ancestors—In Dreams and Time (Tee Pee)
It was apparent from their previous two albums that Ancestors were working up to something big. In Dreams and Time is definitely it. My god. Stretching across six immense, ever developing songs, it’s no less than an incandescent collision between Meddle and Times of Grace. The Californian quintet sounds utterly in command as they alternately soar and roar, riding on waves of fuzzed-out guitar, regal keyboards, and nuanced vocals. The piano-led “The Last Return” is sombre and ominous, while “On the Wind” features a jam that’d do Crazy Horse proud. The album culminates in the 19-minute “First Light,” a guitar-solo-powered drift across the heavens that saves their most triumphant riff for last. Nothing sounds forced or hurried; everything is delivered with patience, confident that they’re giving the listener the heaviest trip possible.
Woods of Ypres—Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light (Earache)
This is a tough one. Woods 5 slipped out in the pall of David Gold’s sudden, shocking death late in 2011. I couldn’t deal with getting Earache’s authorized online leak—doing so would have felt ghoulish to me; it was too soon. Even after the CD appeared early in 2012, I could barely confront the pallid, orphaned thing. I wasn’t looking forward to hearing a dead man sing to me. Listening to it was not a relief. The songs are obsessed with death, failure, and contemplating one’s legacy, tinged with not quite enough grim humour to dilute the despondence. It doesn’t mess around with trivial issues. Reminiscent of Sentenced and Amorphis, it’s very Scandinavian in its mid-paced, melodic gravity. Relentless catchiness renders the whole thing almost intolerably bittersweet. A dismal epic like “Kiss My Ashes (Goodbye)” comes complete with a chorus perfect for a Wacken Fest singalong. Recorded as a duo, Gold and Joel Violette’s collaboration shows a real spark, especially on the album’s centrepiece, “Silver” (where losing at love equates to losing at life: “When you’re silver, you never come first / when you’re silver, the truth always hurts”). The messages are confused and contradictory at times. Gold’s ruminations on dark nights and bad times feel like they could be unravelled and decoded forever. It’s an album for mourning a major Canadian songwriting talent and for celebrating his last, and some of his best, work.
Astra—The Black Chord (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
This album blazes from start to finish, like a psychedelic meteor shower of blazing Mellotrons, intricate drum fills, and guitar solos. I’m 15 years old again, leafing through an Arthur C. Clarke paperback and listening to Fragile when “Heart of the Sunrise” comes on, flipping the switch that sends me in pursuit of similarly powerful, majestic music to this day. The Weirding, Astra’s first album, had a couple essential tracks and a pleasing retro sound, but The Black Chord outdoes it in material, production and overall energy. The music reaches an ecstatic state during the opening instrumental “Cocoon” and pretty much stays there for the rest of the record. As with the Ancestors album, the vocals are just as well executed as the music. Note the stunning buildup of melodies and sections leading from the verse to the chorus of the title track—that’s not a case of just throwing in some words because they had to be there; that’s some inspired songsmithery. Feel free to argue that contemporary music can’t be “progressive” if it sounds like something Eddie Offord recorded in 1972. To my ears, Astra have the best tones and the best tunes.
Horseback—Half Blood (Relapse)
I like that Horseback doesn’t do just one thing on Half Blood, or across its discography in general. The hypnotic, charred grooves on Half Blood constitute the user-friendly side of Horseback’s sound. Not to discount the other stuff that Jenks Miller puts out, because I do find even his most “bitter pill” material fascinating and inspiring, but this is my favourite Horseback style—Part Rust Never Sleeps, part Neu!, part Spiderland and part…I don’t know, The Shadowthrone. The conciseness and flow of this album reflects a discipline that is rare amongst others who work in this experimental terrain, making it a downright enjoyable experience. I reviewed it for Hellbound earlier this year.
Rush—Clockwork Angels (Anthem)
I decided not to assign numbered rankings to my list this time, but I have no problem telling you that Clockwork Angels is my number one album of 2012. After years of fairly pedestrian albums (including a couple that I didn’t bother to buy), this Rush fan needed a jolt to reconnect with his first major musical obsession. Rush just seemed ordinary in their advanced years; another band who had lost their way. The Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary provided a spark, but Clockwork Angels lit the flame. I was back on their side again. Had 2012 Rush changed, or had I changed? I think co-producer Nick Raskulinecz has helped them rediscover their innate “Rushness” and pushed them to write more interesting material. The result was Rush’s first true concept album (I’ve never counted 2112 as a concept LP) with a nearly flawless selection of well-sequenced songs. What I’ll remember most about Clockwork Angels was the excitement of listening to the album for the first few times. The experience matched almost exactly how I used to hear new Rush albums when I was younger—that feeling of discovery and enjoyable disorientation, the sense that I was being issued a challenge; that unravelling the twists and transitions, lyrics, riffs and drum fills would be the reward, and that there was never any danger that familiarity would lead to boredom. Writing this in late 2013, I still haven’t grown tired of Clockwork Angels.