Discovering the musty, macabre thrill-show of Blood Lust late in 2012 certainly got me primed for the arrival of Uncle Acid’s next collection of debauchery. Mind Control is less ramshackle than Blood Lust—it sounds as though everyone had learned the material before turning up at the studio, which lends certain songs (“Poison Apple”, “Mind Crawler”) the kind of punch that Blood Lust achieved, I suspect, only through happy accident. Overall, though, it’s a little less urgent than its predecessor, a little more sunburnt if not desiccated, which suits its Manson family/California nightmare theme perfectly. As with Manson, psychedelics and The Beatles enter the picture as well, especially during the “Blue Jay Way” strains of “Death Valley Blues”, which is where the album peaks for me. Sometimes they’re unfocused, sometimes songs drive towards endings that turn out to be just a mirage and they wind up wandering aimlessly across the desert. But I have to trust whoever’s in charge because the whole thing simply works for me, the songs occasionally achieving a grimy sort of grandeur, as on “Desert Ceremony.” I’m game to follow Uncle Acid and crew off whatever artistic cliff they’re racing towards next.
Blood Ceremony—The Eldritch Dark (Rise Above)
Toronto’s own minstrels in the gallery triumphed this year with The Eldritch Dark, a witchy, hooked-filled delight. What stands out most is their unpretentious celebration of a good tune and a solid riff. They're a refreshingly down-to-Earth four-piece band with spare arrangements that still made room for detailed, elegant songs like “Drawing Down the Moon” and should-be-a-hit “Goodbye Gemini.” They don’t just blindly worship at the church of Sabbath; I wouldn’t doubt they're down with Fairport Convention too. In a year when I took a wrong turn or two when it came to stoner-y stuff (man, I did not get along with that Orchid album at all), Blood Ceremony delivered in terms of originality and personality. Seeing them on tour across the country with Kylesa and White Hills this year proved that they’re for real. I’ve been curious about this band for a while, and I’m glad I picked this album to join them on.
Purson—The Circle and the Blue Door (Rise Above)
Rise Above are finding the greatest bands these days. Purson’s debut album is sheer class, confidently occupying its own loftspace somewhere in the neighbourhood of prog and stoner rock. They’re a bit like Curved Air in that they don’t swing hard in one direction or the other; they simply make a hell of a pleasing sound—maybe a little too elaborate for the mainstream, but at their core they rock hard enough for the jean jacket crowd. Singer/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham has a similar “don’t mess with me” tone to the mighty Sonja Kristina. Note that the only band on Rosalie’s thank-you list is The Beatles, so she’s clearly been inspired, songwriting-wise, by the masters. It’s worrying to see that the band that recorded the album and the current group have completely different lineups (aside from Cunningham), but here’s hoping that they can make this a going concern. Anyway, the Purson you hear on The Circle and the Blue Door are a band with a haughty allure, with songs that rock with carnivalesque abandon and defy you to write them off as merely “promising.”
Anciients—Heart of Oak (Season of Mist)
From my blurb for Hellbound’s year-end roundup: It was a thrill to watch Anciients on the rise throughout 2013. From tours with TesseracT, Death (Official), and Lamb of God to an invitation to play Roadburn in 2014, it was clear that the Vancouver quartet had arrived. Their calling card, of course, was their magnificent debut album. Heart of Oak sings with style and confidence. Each of its nine tracks reveals an innate understanding of how epic metal songwriting works, while never resorting to formula. It’s fun to imagine them in a makeshift lab in some desolate Quonset hut feverishly distilling their sound from casks labeled “Opeth,” “Mahavishnu,” “Celtic Frost,” and “Thin Lizzy,” but the truth is, there are no simple recipes for successful heavy metal. Anciients had the inter-band chemistry, taste, and, most of all, the work ethic to lay this record down, get it right the first time, and proceed to take on the world.
Steven Wilson—The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (k-Scope)
Wilson’s previous solo work (that is, the solo work released under his own name, not the early one-man-band Porcupine Tree albums) was, in the context of latter-day Porcupine Tree, a little experimental and reticent. Insurgentes was full of new ideas and interesting treatments. 2011’s Grace for Drowning was diverse and expansive, taking on classic progressive rock tropes and owning them. That double album often brought the hammer down, but not in the way The Raven That Refused to Sing does. The Raven… reduces the palette compared to the often jazzy textures on Grace…, and delivers six masterful songs. Out of all the “Steven Wilson” releases so far, doesn’t feel like a solo album at all. You can tell he poured his heart into this, as songs like “The Raven That Refused to Sing” make an emotional impact equal to their musical muscle. Lyrically, he makes a welcome break from the topical, contemporary themes of Porcupine Tree, and instead tells stories in each of the songs (although there’s surely social commentary within the sad tale of “The Holy Drinker”). Much as I like cheering for the underdog and championing certain music for its endearing imperfections, I do love this almost ruthlessly impeccable album, and have no problem putting it at the top of my Best of 2013 list.