I started to listen to these things called podcasts in 2014, and it was during Sid Smith’s Podcast from the YellowRoom that I first heard A Formal Horse. “I Lean” was the tune, and I immediately drove over to the British five-piece’s Bandcamp page to get their five-song EP. They combine metal, jazz, and prog rock into appealing songs that are complex, yet compact, full of shock dynamics and interesting diversions. The EP features three vocal songs and two brief instrumentals that highlight the band’s musicianship and restless, meticulous approach. “I Lean” is still the standout track for me, lurching as it does between an eeriness that reminds me of Thinking Plague at their most accessible and sections that attack with prog-metal fervour. And because I rarely hear vocalists who impress me nowadays, it’s worth noting that the band have someone special in Francesca Lewis. Her precisely sung, unaffected style is one of their biggest assets. Just to be able to apply gravitas to lines like “No-smoking signs on a sex booth/lackeys cooking cats on a tin roof” is no small feat. Based on the 20 minutes of material on hand here, A Formal Horse get 2014’s most promising newcomer award.
HORSEBACK—Piedmont Apocrypha (Three-Lobed)
The tension between black metal and Krautrock and post-rock in Horseback’s music is mostly gone now, yet Piedmont Apocrypha remains a compelling listen. Horseback sounds more grounded and comfortable. If I’ve read the liner notes correctly, Jenks Miller credits the musical direction to moving to the country “closer to the trees than to other people” and to the sight lines from his back porch. His approach focuses more on clean guitars and the lonely rural twang…reminiscent of mist hanging over barren fields. The spirits of Neil Young and Gastr del Sol lurk in the title track and “Consecration Blues.” The album embraces everything sparse and airy until the last track, the 17-minute “Chanting Out the Low Shadow,” where vocals get growly and guitars get dissonant and things get heavy in a primitive blues way, building up to a bombastic climax. Another fine example of American art rock, and maybe Horseback’s most distinctive work yet.
LED BIB—The People in Your Neighbourhood (Cuneiform)
I’ve been ladling praise over this hard-riffing British jazz quintet for a few years now, and I’ll continue to do so, because The People in Your Neighbourhood is another excellent release (they also put out a live record this year). There’s little to choose between this album and their last couple—they all deliver a walloping. Maybe they venture out further this time—the detours away from the head of each song are more severe. These excursions can range far and wide, but the tenor sax team of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams always snap you back to attention with their piercing attack.
ARTIFICIAL BRAIN—Labyrinth Constellation (Profound Lore)
Some of the best cover art this side of Effigy of the Forgotten is the first clue that this is pretty crucial tech death. In an attempt to describe their sound, I’d say Artificial Brain occasionally come off as a more accessible Gorguts. Their songs have dissonant and spacey parts, yet the structures are compact and anchored by powerful down-to-earth riffs. The recording is a little murky but still punishing, with vocals mixed low enough to complement, not annoy. Many thanks for their show (part of a surreal bill with Gigan and Pyrrhon) at the Red Room here in Vancouver, with a guest vocalist who apparently flew in for a single gig because their regular singer couldn’t cross the border. That’s dedication to the cause.
HEDWIG MOLLESTAD TRIO—Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammofon)
Headliners on an excellent day at the 2014 Jazz Fest, the Hedwig Mollestad Trio laid down pretty much what I later heard on this album: hard-rocking jazz fusion based around heavy riffs, a solid rhythm section, and Mollestad’s versatile guitar work. They get comparisons to Black Sabbath—fair enough, given their penchant for covering the Sabs—but mostly they remind me of the Dixie Dregs in their solos and song structures. If the riffs first get the head nodding, then what the band explores after the main themes provides the real substance and excitement.