Wednesday, December 28, 2011

David Gold, RIP

Last Thursday I checked my Twitter feed, same as I do every morning, to see the shocking, unbelievable news that David Gold of Woods of Ypres had been killed in a highway accident in Ontario the previous afternoon. He was 31.

It’s a cruel world. Achieving good things requires struggle and sacrifice. The bad stuff seemingly happens at random, arriving out of nowhere, immune to human intention. It’s sobering to realize that even someone like David couldn’t hold those dark forces back.

David achieved a hell of a lot with Woods of Ypres. Four self-released albums and several self-booked North American tours culminated in a contract with Earache Records. Their new album, Woods V: Grey Skies and Electric Light, was scheduled for a 2012 release. Now, his chance to promote his work and take the band to Europe (where they would have gone down a storm, I’m sure) is all gone, thanks to cruel fate.

I prefer to keep a degree of separation from the people whose work I write about, but that was difficult with David. We met through Unrestrained! magazine. Adrian Bromley was a big fan—I’ll always remember “The Energizer” playing me excerpts from Woods II over the phone, he was so excited about it. We put Woods of Ypres on the cover when Woods III: Deepest Roots and Darkest Blues came out. The issue featured an exceptional email interview with David (who was living in Korea at the time) by Tate Bengtson. Here at Difficult Music, writing about WoY albums was always a pleasure. David’s lyrics, loaded with soul-baring stanzas, Canadian references, and black humour, gave me plenty to ponder.

I introduced myself to David at Adrian’s memorial event in Toronto, which WoY headlined. When Woods tours started extending to the West Coast, we’d always say hi. Even though I’m not the most in-your-face person, he always remembered my name and would eagerly give me the lowdown on current and future Woods activities. He was a super nice guy and a superb spokesman for not just his band, but, as I witnessed at the 2009 Noctis Conference in Calgary, the Canadian music scene in general.

So, on the day of David’s memorial service, I wanted to send my condolences to David’s family and express my sorrow for the loss of such a fine, talented person.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pink Floyd—Music From the Film More (EMI)

Until now, this was the only Waters-era Pink Floyd album I’ve never owned. I’d been looking for it for a few years, after realizing that my favourite Pink Floyd era was that fiendishly productive and exploratory period between Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Dark Side of the Moon. I managed to pick up their other soundtrack album, Obscured by Clouds, on LP, but finding a decent copy of More was difficult. The recent Pink Floyd reissue campaign couldn’t have come soon enough. Suddenly the Floyd were everywhere, even in London Drugs, which got me feeling nostalgic, seeing as I bought a lot of my music at London Drugs as a kid. KISS albums, mostly. London Drugs doesn’t need my help though, so I picked my shiny new copy of More at the soon-to-be-empty edifice of HMV Downtown.

When you open the mini-gatefold LP sleeve, you can see a lady’s boobs, which makes up for the fact that there are no bonus tracks. There’s also a nice booklet with lyrics and stills from the movie. That’s it. If there were liner notes, they might go something like this: Music From the Film More was recorded between A Saucerful of Secrets and Ummagumma at Abbey Road. Director Barbet Schroeder paid each member of Pink Floyd 600 pounds apiece to put in the eight days’ work that produced this music: 13 songs and assorted jams and fragments; their various lengths dictated by the film, which was pretty much complete by the time the band started recording. In his book Inside Out, Nick Mason recalls, “A lot of the moods of the film…were ideally suited to some of the rumblings, squeaks and sound textures we produced on a regular basis night after night.”

Side one has the best songs, written by Waters and mainly sung by Gilmour. They held on to a few of them after the album’s release, with numbers like “Green Is the Colour” and “Cymbaline” showing up on BBC Sessions and other live sets. Nowadays, “The Nile Song” may be the best-known song on the album, having been covered by Voivod, Melvins, and others. For Pink Floyd, it’s practically garage rock, and they wouldn’t record anything so brash until maybe “Young Lust” or “Not Now John.” My personal favourite, though, is the opening track, “Cirrus Minor,” a slightly sinister wisp of a song that presages Waters’ “Grantchester Meadows” with its acoustic guitar picking, sleepy vocal lines, and dubbed-in birdsong.

Side two focuses on atmospheres. “Main Theme” is effectively eerie, with the bass and drum interplay foreshadowing the minimalist drone of OM by a couple decades. “Dramatic Theme” closes the album with a similar jam, with Gilmour playing a more prominent role. “Quicksilver,” the longest piece, sounds like what Schroeder was probably after in the first place, resembling “A Saucerful of Secrets” without the narrative thrust. “Ibiza Bar” is a cool variant on “The Nile Song”’s groove. “More Blues” is exactly as advertised—a straight up blues jam. You have to take the bad with the good, though. Fans often name “Seamus” off Meddle as their least favourite Pink Floyd track, but I’d nominate David Gilmour’s “A Spanish Piece” from More as another low point.

It would take Pink Floyd a few more albums to fully merge their two strengths—the songs and the atmospheres—into an even stronger whole, but just hearing them dabbling in the studio, finding their way in the absence of Syd Barrett’s erratic vision, is fascinating enough.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

YOB—Atma (Profound Lore)

2009’s The Great Cessation was a stern, angry album that signalled YOB’s tumultuous rebirth after a period of label-imposed strife for mainman Mike S. Although Atma is another forbidding record, the band sounds at relative peace. The songs don’t dip quite so deeply into the abyss and the riffs sing out a little more. While the “doom” tag fits, I think their music encompasses much more. To me, doom entails some connection to rock & roll and the blues—you know, Black Sabbath and stuff. YOB’s music doesn’t look backwards. It looks within. It’s grim and monolithic, residing closer to Neurosis than, say, Candlemass.

Mike S. is a one-man guitar army deploying an orchestrated barrage of tones. He’s one of the most accomplished and distinctive guitarists in metal. He can riff relentlessly, piling on variation after variation, as he does on the first seven minutes of “Before We Dreamed of Two” before a classic calm-before-the-storm section with guest Scott Kelly takes over. His guitar is also a punitive instrument, as on the title track, where imposing riffs lead to a long stretch of unaccompanied one-note palm muting from which the climactic riff erupts. The power coming off those tortured strings is intimidating.

There’s usually at least one song per YOB album that swings a bit, like “Quantum Mystic” from The Unreal Never Lived. It took a couple listens to pinpoint it on Atma. Opening track “Prepare the Ground” is the one, though. It swings inexorably; it's a testament to the band's discipline that they managed to hold back and avoid giving it more of a "boogie" feel. “Adrift in the Ocean”—my favourite song on the album—features the tranquil side of YOB, opening with two and a half minutes of atmospheric guitar picking before blasting off for 11 exhilarating minutes that blend crushing guitars and strong vocal melodies. Mike S. uses his upper register—a mutant Burke Shelley/Geddy Lee yowl that’s always been one of YOB’s most appealing elements to me—more than he has since Catharsis.

The production is hideous but effective. The guitars are smothered with pillows, while the drums are brittle and papery. It actually sounds better through earbuds than on my stereo at apartment volume. Cranking it to move some air would help, I’m sure. It’s got character though, and does not hinder the power of YOB one bit. As history has proved, nothing can stop this band. They possess enough inspiration and soul to prevail every time they head into the studio. The chorus of "Prepare the Ground" sums up their attitude (and it's a notion I need to apply to my own life): "Breathe in the power of no tomorrow."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Unsupervised—Elevator

I’ve seen The Unsupervised more than any other band over the last few years. It’s always a treat heading downtown on a Saturday night, dodging all the wannabe Snookis and quasi-Situations on Granville Street, and ducking down an alleyway to find a quiet room in which to see The Unsupervised rip it up in the company of five or six other fans.

Of all Jeff Younger’s projects—I’ve reviewed The Nudger and Devil Loops here—he’s been pushing The Unsupervised the hardest of late. As well he should; they’re a pretty complete package—an irreverent jazz band that can get funky and complex/proggy. Their approach reminds me of Led Bib, albeit a little more polite; Canadian, if you will. This recording, made to accompany their summer tour, collects their prime material. Although you really need to see The Unsupervised live, Elevator is a nice souvenir, with six action-packed pieces that stand up effortlessly away from the stage.

Although he’s The Unsupervised’s composer/supervisor, guitarist Younger hangs back for the most part, letting the rhythm section (Ben Brown, drums; Russell Sholberg, bass) and horns (Kristian Naso, trumpet; Colin Maskell, sax) duke it out.
He does turn it up on “Sandalfoot,” a funky tune with some heavy (for jazz) powerchord breakdowns and riffs avec distortion. Overall, the songs swing between freewheeling sections and composed, disciplined passages. There are enough tight, syncopated unison parts to keep any math rocker on his/her toes. How the band keeps on top of it all I’ll never know, but then again I’m not as musically edumacated as them.

Each track highlights a different strength or aspect of The Unsupervised’s approach. “Inches” is a stellar showcase for drummer Ben Brown, giving him lots of space to flit around as the rest of the band provides commentary in the form of unison stabs and swells overtop. “Kornatta Glanke,” the longest track, opens abstractly with the rhythm section scrabbling around the attic before being displaced by whimpering horns, then Younger takes a solo turn, gradually leading the band into the main theme five minutes into the 10-minute piece. There’s a staccato ensemble section, a lengthy sax solo over churning 5/4 chords before it all comes home with a staccato reprise. It sums up everything The Unsupervised are about—a jazzy cornucopia of heady goodness.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Vreid with Kampfar, Necronomicon and Scythia, Sept. 5 at the Rickshaw Theatre

This show felt a little “off” from the start. The advertised door time was 7:00, so I showed up at 7:20. I could hear Scythia soundchecking inside, and the doors were closed. I joined the half dozen fans behind the velvet rope gating the entrance to wait out the delay. It’s never dull outside the Rickshaw—there was a steady parade of lost souls on the Downtown Eastside that night, and one panhandler accused me of being “full of the devil”—but on the whole I’d rather have been getting my kicks inside the venue.

One thing’s for sure—Scythia aren’t shy. The second they took the stage, they were hell bent on putting on a proper show. Couple their motley medieval garb with some bold, galloping folk metal and you’ve got the complete Scythia package. Even their merch people looked like they came off the floor of an SF/fantasy convention. Musically they had a lot going on besides the requisite metal trappings, including prominent keyboard lines and Morgan Zentner’s "Oboe of Death." Soundman be praised, all the elements fared well in the unforgiving live environment. They were a good deal more loose than on their pristine new album ...of Exile, but in the go-for-the-gusto excitement of the live setting, it’s understandable that they might push the tempos a little. When the song called for it, they could back off the pace and execute mellow, mellifluous sections with grace.

After Scythia, it was time to stick on some frowns and get serious. Quebec trio Necronomicon were quite a spectacle as well, with their post-apocalyptic grey leather, corpsepaint and windmilling hair. I remember they released an Egyptian-themed album years ago, just as Nile was getting big, which was unfortunate. I hadn’t heard anything from them since. This time they reminded me of Behemoth, providing a satisfying mix of DM and BM. They were quite tight, powered by jackhammering snare blasts. Although they presented a fierce, professional image, they weren’t really my thing overall.

I’ll admit that Kampfar came out and killed it from the get-go. Presentation-wise the Norwegians were free of embellishments—no costumes, face paint, and not much hair either, save for the vocalist, who directed all his energy at the meagre, increasingly frenetic, crowd. Foot up on the monitors, he pounded his thigh with his fist while the other hand held the mic between his blond curtains of hair. They reminded me of a more straightlaced Impaled Nazarene. I prefer songs with “parts” and solos and stuff, but I couldn’t deny the impact that their set made.

Kyle Harcott pronounced that Kampfar would be a hard act to follow. I held out hope for Vreid, but he was right. The crowd tapered off and the Norwegian quartet couldn’t win them back, which was too bad because I felt they had some interesting things going on musically. The white noise that passed as tone coming out of their amps did them no favours. If you're going to play black 'n' roll, just plug straight into a Marshall and have done with it. It also didn’t help that they played their most immediately appealing song, the one that could have gotten everyone on board, last. It just wasn’t their night, but Vreid slogged it out, frustrated at trying to generate a frenzy amongst the 50 or fans that were left. The empty space stretching in front of them must have been a demoralizing sight.

I’ve noted before that the Vancouver scene has been surprisingly supportive of touring metal shows lately, but this show was a definite exception. Maybe these bands didn’t have the profile or the audience to warrant such a large venue, or perhaps the Rickshaw’s new (and hard-won) liquor license hurt the attendance, now that the under-19s are shut out. I never had any problem with shows being all-ages, and if it gets people into the building and buying merch to help the bands, all the better. Let’s hope more people come out when Enslaved and Napalm Death hit town next month.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Abriosis—Tattered and Bound

I try to keep my ear to the ground and my finger on the pulse, but things still slip through. Case in point, local tech-death band Abriosis, whom I first read about in Cosmo Lee’s Decibel demo column. I made a mental note to check them out, then didn’t follow up. I am a fool. I finally had a chance to catch Abriosis earlier this summer at the Riffs Not Riots show, where they knocked me on my ass. I could not believe that these guys weren’t from Quebec, Canada’s home for Advanced Metal Studies. Afterwards, I looked them up online and found that they were offering this new album as a free download. It’s ridiculous to me that this world-class work of art is being given away, so I promise to buy a t-shirt or some physical product next time I see them, all right?

Abriosis fuse the avant-garde discord of Voivod with the breakneck, off-time thrash of Atheist, along with more modern death metal influences. They’re vicious but cerebral. They wield their technical abilities with wisdom and taste. Dissonant as they are, they’re not deliberately perverse with it. The song structures make sense and every song offers a few accessible riffs for the listener to cling to amidst the mayhem. “Repudiate the Lies” is especially catchy, and has the added attractions of a brief bass solo followed by a guitar workout that unleashes some serious Holdsworth shit.

What stands out for me is the care with which each member of Abriosis crafts interlocking parts. They don’t simply duplicate each other; each musician contributes something audibly distinct in creating this huge wall of metal. It’s especially gratifying to hear their screaming, growling vocalist (now ex-vocalist) synching his lyrics to the flow of the music instead of ranting distractingly overtop of everything. (I hope his replacement follows suit.) As my neighbour Luke said to me after seeing their set, the band clearly listens to each other. Nobody’s caught up in their own trip; they all rule as one.

This near-flawless debut full-length will definitely help them build an audience—their summer tour to Halifax and back couldn't have hurt either—and I hope they can link up and tour with some more established bands to take their lockstep brutality worldwide.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Opium Cartel—Night Blooms (Termo)

After listening to the new White Willow track yesterday and seeing bandleader Jacob Holm-Lupo mentioning this "solo album of sorts" from 2009 in the accompanying interview, I decided that Night Blooms needed a proper review here. The timing is ideal in a seasonal sense, because it’s a perfect end-of-summer listen. Every clear, shining tone is tinged with melancholy. The Opium Cartel takes the timbres and instruments you’d hear on a White Willow album—especially the deftly plucked guitars and Lars Fredrick Froislie’s analog keyboard arsenal—and directs them towards an orchestral/indie rock style. The songs are more straightforward, avoiding the detours through dark instrumental passages that White Willow often takes. It’s breezy and mellow overall, and as detailed as the cover art.

Some of the more stern prog fans out there might blanch at the piano-driven duet of “Skinnydipping,” which captures the innocent, sensual pleasures of its title. If that doesn't appeal, then the languid strains of “By This River” (a Brian Eno cover from Before and After Science, a fantastic record I’ve just gotten into) certainly will, or perhaps “Three Sleepers,” a kind of lullaby/nursery rhyme given an elaborate arrangement, will impress. There's some bombast to be heard on "Beach House," which, after a quiet, Mellotron-swirled intro, enters heavier territory. Drummer Mattias Olsson (ex-Änglagård) hits particularly hard here.

Night Blooms highlights Holm-Lupo’s knack for crafting strong vocal lines and lyrics. He’s given his guest vocalists—including Rhys Marsh, Rachel Haden, Tim Bowness, and Sylvia Skjellestad—good material with which to work. "Honeybee" flirts with mainstream rock, describing an inappropriate, doomed romance that reminds me of some of Peter Hammill’s work, especially in the way it transitions from verses filled with specific names and details to choruses that make universal statements: “the things we do to ease our pain are the things that bring us down.” “Better Days Ahead” is like U2 forced through a Genesis and JG Ballard filter: spacey modern rock that strains to pierce a carbon-filled sky and see the stars, and sung with marvellous restraint by Rhys Marsh. Night Blooms is a wonderful album that deserves to step out of White Willow’s shadow and spend some time basking in the sunlight.

Better Days Ahead

The Opium Cartel | Myspace Music Videos

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nicklas Barker – El Último Fin De Semana

Reviewing a soundtrack is tricky because the music is meant to be part of a greater whole; not necessarily an experience unto itself. Without having seen the movie for which this music was made, I can’t comment on how it serves the visuals and storyline, which is the true criterion for a soundtrack’s success. However, as a prog head and fan of Anekdoten, Nicklas Barker’s primary band, I declare this music to be quite fantastic on its own.

It’s mostly hushed, eerie stuff. Given titles like “Night Ambience,” “Entering the Lost Village,” and “Confrontation/Doom,” I’d guess El Último… is a pretty creepy film. Barker—a guitarist in his main gig—piles on Mellotron, Hammond, and Theremin to create these ethereal snippets. An atmosphere of melancholy pervades everything; occupying a realm between Air and Morte Macabre (the beloved Anekdoten/Landberk collaborative one-off). Fans of vintage keyboard sounds will be in their element.

“Celestial Ghost” is the longest, most “rock” track on here. Once the drums and bass kick in beneath its hypnotic organ line, it’s clear that it’s descended from the Anekdoten family. “Chase/Purgatory” is structured like its title, starting with a driving rhythm just like one of Anekdoten’s peppier songs, then giving way to massed Mellotron choirs and buzzing synthesizers. Only the comparatively jaunty bossanova of “Beach Girls” pokes through the gloom—some light relief at the end of a series of little nightmares.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Primordial — Redemption at the Puritan's Hand (Metal Blade)

This is another masterpiece from Irish black/pagan stalwarts Primordial. You could argue that Opeth or Enslaved can stand alongside them in terms of consistency, although recent albums by both bands have plenty of detractors. I’ve never read anyone accusing Primordial of dropping a discographical turd. For me, Primordial’s main “problem” is their consistency—I don’t know if they have that one “Hall of Fame” album for the ages. Hence, I listen to each new album a lot then file it away till the next one (I’d hate to part with any of them, though). Maybe Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand will be the one. I have been playing it a lot lately. I’ve tried to get sick of it, but it refuses to get old for me.

When I get a new Primordial release, I worry that all the songs will fall into the same rhythmic rut. The rolling 6/8 feel is Primordial’s thing and I feel they’re a little too comfortable with it. I was happy to hear that they break out of it a couple times on Redemption… on “God’s Old Snake” and “The Puritan’s Hand.” “Lain With the Wolf” also stands out for its unique rhythm, a propulsive, ultra-fast triplet feel that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a metal song before. It sounds like it was a difficult song to record. The drums are right on the edge, but they always come back to hit hard on the “one” with the help of the locked-in bass line. The song generates huge momentum, and by the time it charges into the final frenetic 90 seconds you’re feeling as exhausted as the band must have been laying it down.

Singer (as opposed to vocalist, note) A.A. Nemtheanga is as articulate and passionate as ever here. He made last year’s Blood Revolt album a genuinely moving experience, and his work on Redemption… proves he can still go for the throat and the heart. “Bloodied Yet Unbowed” is the kind of song you want played at your funeral; a grim hymn to defiance and an instant classic that I’m sure Primordial will be playing live for the rest of their career. You can’t write a line like “Raise a glass, raise hell” without expecting people to respond in kind!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Obscura, Septicflesh, and The Devin Townsend Project, June 28 at the Commodore

2011 marks my 25th year of going to the Commodore. My first show at this grande dame of local venues was Marillion on the Misplaced Childhood tour. It’s still a great hall, but with most metal shows happening at the less ritzy Rickshaw Theatre these days, my trips to the Commodore have become increasingly rare.

Going to a show solely to see the opening acts can be risky. I’ve been burned in the past with tour lineups getting reshuffled or smaller bands getting turned back at the border, leaving me holding a ticket for a different gig than I’d hoped to see. This gig, however, went off as planned. Seeing as the three bands opening for Children of Bodom constituted a sort of mini Progressive Nation tour, I couldn’t miss out.

A decent crowd of keeners arrived early to catch Obscura, who were the main draw for me. I’ve been digging their last two albums and their Necrophagist/Cynic/Death-style shred death. Opening with “Septuagint,” they put on a slick half-hour show. My favourite section of “Vortex Ominium” got spoiled by some guy who wanted to take my picture because I reminded him of some dude he knew. This has been happening to me a lot when I'm out by myself lately. Guess I just have one of those faces.

My friend Chris claims the seven-string guitar is “an asshole’s instrument,” but in Obscura’s skilled hands they are weapons for tech-death domination. Dedicating “Ocean Gateways” to all the real Morbid Angel fans (fans of the pre-Illud Divinum Insanus Morbid Angel, I presumed) was a nice touch, seeing as that track is pure “Where the Slime Live” worship. Like I said, this was a polished performance. I was especially impressed with how Steffen Kummerer fit most of his stage raps into the songs themselves. There was even an extended jam section at the end of the set. Of the three openers, Obscura came across as the most solid, traditional metal band. I’m a bigger fan than ever now.

I was a Septicflesh (or Septic Flesh) fan around the time of Esoptron and The Ophidian Wheel, but only caught up with their recent work with their latest, The Great Mass. Their stage setup was more elaborate than Obscura’s, with twin backdrops and some kind of alien dragonfly bauble on Spiros Antoniou’s mike stand. Their set was rousing, all right, but it didn’t quite do it for me. While the new album skilfully balances classical orchestrations and metal, in concert this translated to very prominent backing tracks to recreate the sound. As a result, Septicflesh came across as more of an act than a band. Antoniou is a bassist in the Tom Araya mold, playing the most basic parts only occasionally. (He still needed to retune after the second song!) The crowd loved them, but I got tired by the sixth exhortation to go “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” as the backing track churned away.

Wow, what a transformation Devin Townsend’s undergone. His Strapping Young Lad persona could be summed up in the “buy a t-shirt and eat a dick!” sort of remarks he’d fire off at the crowd. The crotchety, skulleted DT has been replaced by a gleaming superbeing who wants only to spread joy through his music. He mugged and gurned up a storm for an adoring crowd, introducing the band as the evening’s “nerd contingent” and ordering the tough guys in the pit to “get happy, man!” I don’t have the money or free time to keep up with DT’s output—Ocean Machine, Terria, and Synchestra are enough for me to ponder for a lifetime—so the setlist was a mystery. I think he opened with something from Ziltoid. After tuning down to B mid-set, the sound turned into a horrible pudding and I couldn’t discern what was happening at all. I blame extreme downtuning as much as the iPhone for impeding my enjoyment of live music. You can still make cool music in standard tuning, you know. But whatever my preferences, it was still a triumphant display. As the crowd hailed him as the hometown hero he is, he promised he’d be back this fall.

Having seen what I paid for, I headed out before Children of Bodom. Three pro bands and a good night’s sleep for 40 bucks—not a bad deal at all.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Happy Canada Day

It's been a cool, cloudy summer here, so it's been hard to get into the seasonal swing of things. Jazz Fest is on—I actually got a sunburn watching The Unsupervised in Gastown last Sunday—and it's now Canada Day. It's summer all right, but we're not really feeling it.

I've just been hanging out at home all morning spinning records and killing time before I head downtown this afternoon. I started the day with what I consider Canada's rock National Anthem:

and have now moved on—via many songs/albums too nasty to mention here—to Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. is running their traditional Canada Day special. This year we were asked to pick a favourite Canadian metal song, or metal song about Canada. Pretty much everybody went with the former, and as always the crew made some excellent, original choices. I found this a tough assignment. I originally did 200 words on Sacred Blade's "Of the Sun + Moon" (the title track of the album I reviewed here) before changing my mind and picking a song a little outside the metal box. I had to go with my heart on this one. Check out the feature and feel the hoser love.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Gates of Slumber—The Wretch (Metal Blade/Rise Above)

With The Wretch, The Gates of Slumber have reached a new peak by trolling the depths of despondence. The Gates of Slumber are a doom metal institution by now, going from strength to strength with their no-nonsense lifer rock. The Wretch is especially free of frills. You won’t hear backup vocals, rhythm guitars or keyboards; only the sound of a trio trudging along a sorrowful path with their simple but devastating riffs.

The doldrums suit them. Guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon says as much in his liner notes: “We’ve made the ‘Conan Crushing Doom’ thing our niche…but in the end I think that our move from the fantastic to the personal was best for this album.” To say the least. Doom needs truth and it needs pain. It needs to point a finger. Chuck Eddy nailed it when he described Sabbath’s Paranoid as “extremely moral.” Honesty and moral righteousness underpin a lot of these songs, from “The Scourge ov Drunkenness” to “Coven of Cain” (an anti-coke tale) to the self-castigating title track.

Empty spaces dominate the album. Not just spaces between notes—tempos are generally slow, slow, slow—but in the arrangements. The guitar often drops out to let the rhythm section carry things. The light/shade structure of “Castle of the Devil” showcases the approach. The verses are in the gloomy folk-ballad mold of Sabbath’s “Solitude,” while the choruses erupt in power chords. Then comes a surprise in the form of a swinging solo break—with the drums striking up a minimal boogie, going it alone for a few bars—that’s about as jazzy as The Gates of Slumber are gonna get.

Simon delivers a great vocal performance that doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and melody. For a metal band, their arrangements are surprisingly sympathetic to vocals. “Day of Farewell,” for instance, is a genuinely affecting anti-life epic (“The fruit is bland/And the wine is dry/Why continue this lie?”) that ends with a one-note chug as Simon’s cries echo in the distance. The songs include the entire package—riffs, lyrics and melody—that more bands would do well to study. There’s a lot more to being heavy than crushing, downtuned sonics.

The Wretch is not an album that hit me immediately. I needed to play it through a few times to get in synch with its tempo and mood. Only then did I find myself getting stuck on it, discovering a new favourite track with each airing until the whole damn thing became indispensible.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Led Bib—Bring Your Own (Cuneiform)

To adapt a line from LA punk legends Fear, Led Bib’s alright if you like saxophones. Fortunately I do—I haven’t always, but I came around to them. As a staunch rockist, I regarded them as poisonous garnish (the sax on IQ’s Nomzamo in ’87 filled me with rage). All I needed to hear was saxophone being properly deployed. After Van der Graaf Generator opened the gateway, the sax and I were good to go. A bit of skronk is good for what ails ya.

Led Bib’s got two wild, battling saxophones capable of erecting walls of sound, then crashing right through them, raining blows down upon each other. The British quintet play jazz…of a sort. Their music marries the attack of rock with jazz’s freedom and exploration, which I admit reads like marketing copy, but that’s how I hear it. It’s two great tastes in one. The prominent Fender Rhodes tints everything with a bit of the’70s jazz-rock/Canterbury sound. It’s not ’70s-style fusion and it’s not techy like Zevious, for example.

They’ve made their own rules. They’re sometimes quite heavy, as on “Is That a Woodblock?”, where the bass growls away, or the menacing opening of “Little X”, one of the few tracks not composed by drummer Mark Holub. The tracks often start with an ultra-catchy head played at full-tilt. You can parp along with them, if you’re given to parping. But Led Bib don’t milk their themes; they get on with it. Where they’ll go after establishing the head is always open to question. On “Shapes and Sizes” the band races each other like a grid of F1 cars heading towards the first corner. They strike a more placid mood on the brief “Hollow Ponds,” or on the occasionally mournful “Winter.” Sometimes the whole endeavour collapses, and you’re left wondering how they’re going to claw themselves out of the pit they’ve fallen into, as on “Moth Dilemma.” But they always do.

Like their Mercury Prize-shortlisted Cuneiform debut Sensible Shoes, Bring Your Own brims with action and adventure. It’s a blast, in short. With duel-to-the-death saxes, great riffs, and crack musicianship in service of exciting, frequently weird, songs, what’s not to love? If you don’t like saxophones, well, grow up! You’re missing out on some stirring modern music.

Friday, May 20, 2011

25 Years of Powerchord

This Saturday we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Powerchord on CiTR with a gig at the Rickshaw Theatre. The bill includes Woods of Ypres, Titans Eve, Scissortooth and others. It should be quite a night.

Powerchord’s been on the air since 1985, always in the same Saturday afternoon 2-hour time slot (with one or two deviations). It speaks to the dedication of the local scene and CiTR staffers that it’s stayed on the air this long, moving through various hosts, the latest of whom are Geoff, Andy and the Mistress of Metal.

The first and most beloved Powerchord hosts were, of course, “Metal Ron” Singer and Gerald “Rattlehead” Yoshida. They deserve a lot of credit in building up the Vancouver scene from virtually nothing in the mid-’80s to the thriving scene we have today, with a huge number of bands toiling away in every sub-genre, and a handful of artists attaining genuine international prominence.

Vancouver was not a metal town at all in 1985. In fact, it was downright hostile to the genre. Ontario had Anvil, Razor, and Exciter; Quebec had Voivod and a zillion other bands. Toronto also had a more open-minded media, with CITY TV’s New Music and (later) Much Music regularly dedicating airtime to metal acts.

Here in Vancouver, our cutting-edge local community access video show, Soundproof, was a hive of snobbery, championing power pop and politico art/punk slop (basically anything on Zulu, MoDaMu, or Nettwerk) while sneering at anything suburban and scruffy. For example, Vancouver Province critic Tom Harrison reviewed records every week on Soundproof. Oh boy, it was a banner week when he pulled out Mercyful Fate’s Melissa and declared it the worst album he’d ever heard: the band couldn’t even play metal properly and the singer had a ridiculous falsetto. For months afterwards, records were gauged against the standard set by the “Melissa-Meter.” Metal provided no end of amusement and mockery amongst Tom and the Soundproof hosts, especially when Tom discovered Venom’s At War With Satan, a record he deemed even more of an insult to good taste. Thereafter, the Melissa-Meter became the Venometer, and the laughs at metal’s expense continued…

(Incidentally, both Venom and Mercyful Fate have had albums inducted into Decibel magazine’s Hall of Fame; Venom for Welcome to Hell, and Mercyful Fate for, of course, Melissa. It’s safe to say those albums have had a greater impact on the history of music than anything that, say, The Animal Slaves ever released.)

It was into this environment that Ron and Gerald arrived. It came as a surprise too, because CiTR seemed to be in the same anti-metal camp as Soundproof. I remember reading a profile of the station in the paper that discussed the station’s “anything goes” approach, except when it came to metal. “We’ve had someone approach us wanting to do a metal show,” said a spokesman (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but trust me, do I ever remember this stuff). “We showed him the door.” I’m not sure how Ron and Gerald cracked it, but there they were, bringing us the latest albums, demo tapes, gig listings, and metal news.

They made a good team. Neither of them were natural-born broadcasters. Gerald had (still has!) a nasal drawl and was prone to fits of giggles. Ron had a high, sort of reticent voice that occasionally sounded resigned against Gerald’s onslaught of babble. Their chemistry made them endearing and approachable. They were just two nerds, same as me but with better connections. Despite my shyness and hatred of phones, I’d sometimes ring Gerald during the show to ask about upcoming release dates or to make a request. He was never less than friendly and ultra-enthusiastic.

CiTR was powered by a hamster in a wheel back then, so there was no way I could tune it in at my parents’ house in Burnaby. However, CiTR was on cable too, so once I figured out how to rig a coaxial adapter to my boom box I was in the Powerchord club. The first show I caught was a revelation. These guys had the stuff! Things I’d seen mentioned or advertised in Kerrang! but never had a hope of hearing came blasting out of the radio. Hearing Megadeth for the first time (a demo of “Loved to Deth”) nearly popped my head clean off. Bands like Watchtower and Fates Warning fused metal and prog in ways that made me an instant fan. The Energetic Disassembly tape got a lot of play. “One of those bands that’s good if you’re into Rush and bands like that,” Gerald would say. Duly noted.

After a few weeks it became clear that each host had his own specialty. Ron was into what he called “class metal”—Helloween, Agent Steel and so on. Power metal before power metal sucked. Gerald was obsessed with “crossover” at the time. Any bands with three initials for a name got the nod. The day Speak English or Die arrived was like a dozen Christmases rolled into one for him.

If I could cue up a tape in time, I’d tape away; otherwise I'd make notes of what I liked, and hoped it would come out on Banzai Records soon. It was a good time for me, becoming aware of the local scene—bands like Genghis Khan, Karrion, Mission of Christ, and a few others—and realizing that there were other people in this city who cared about the same things I did. I can’t say I made new friends directly because of Powerchord, but I did eventually fall in with a crowd who were avid listeners. The show was just another thing we bonded over. What it did make me realize is that if you love something, no matter how strange or obscure it is or how much it marks you as a freak, you should let people know about it, just in case they find the same spark in it that you do.

Once the ’90s hit their stride right up to the present day, Vancouver’s been doing really well metal-wise. The old guard and the former tastemakers have faded away, and more open-minded folks have taken their place, to the point where all kinds of people mingle at metal shows now, and metalheads worry more about their scene being infiltrated by hipsters than about having a scene at all. Gerald and Ron, our unassuming metal gurus, led the charge. Thanks, guys, for helping my city open its ears, pull the stick out of its arse, and finally learn to rock.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mitochondrion—Parasignosis (Profound Lore)

Listening to this album is a hellish experience. That’s not a critique; that’s just how it is. Parasignosis is grim, oppressive, and gruelling, a torture chamber in which twisting tendrils of death metal slither, entwine and ultimately suffocate whatever sensibility you had when you entered. You’re compelled to explore this black pit of sonic horror just in case a sliver of light finds its way in, giving you a glimpse of its terrible mystery.

Victoria’s Mitochondrion are furthering the distance between metal and rock 'n' roll, extending the line drawn by Hellhammer’s primitive expulsions, Incantation’s abstract death metal, and Gorguts’ fractalized dischord. Every element seems designed to confuse. Riffs—so many relentless riffs—coagulate and break off, overlap, and mutate. Songs merge to form time-dilating expanses. Cyclic song structures are mostly absent, giving us few cues with which to orient ourselves. The production smothers details—vocals are subterranean gurgles, and reverb blurs any fine lines that might have existed. It’s a triumph of atmosphere over clarity, yet it works for their style.

However much Mitochondrion revel in metal’s inversion of values, there are genuinely outstanding elements to celebrate. The drumming, full of militant beats and blasting, has advanced quite a bit from their first album. K. Godard’s use of the entire kit is particularly striking; skittering under, over, and between the guitars. The packaging is a masterpiece of cryptic writing and symbolism. I know not what it all means, but it, like the music, is clearly the product of advanced thought and dedication. Having released this daunting work, it’s intriguing to consider where they might go next. If there’s a more depraved, extreme form of metal that lies beyond Parasignosis, then I’m sure Mitochondrion will be the band to find it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Six Organs of Admittance—Asleep on the Floodplain (Drag City)

It’s a credit to Ben Chasny’s abilities as a guitarist and songwriter that his work sounds so effortless. It has the flow and spontaneity of conversation, making the listener feel like a privileged eavesdropper. Listen to the exchange of phrases on the opening track “Above a Desert I've Never Seen”: tentative at first, then faster, as the discussion heats up, trills jabbing back and forth, then resolution and a calm parting of the ways. It’s surely the product of intense concentration on the part of the artist, but sounds easy as breathing.

Asleep on the Floodplain takes a more intimate, acoustic approach than recent Six Organs of Admittance albums such as Luminous Night or The Sun Awakens. Four of the tracks are solo guitar, with occasional harmonium overdubs. The combination works very well—the guitar paints a compelling line in the foreground; the harmonium provides the background element; that other dimension.

Sounds both placid and haunting dominate, like the low thrum that underpins “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us” or the synth that curls like smoke around the memorable “Hold But Let Go.” “S/Word and Leviathan,” the longest track, establishes an uneasy atmosphere, vibrating like a dozen hammers pounding on power cables for several minutes. A chord progression emerges, then some vocals, before an electric guitar slashes through and obliterates all the chatter. “A New Name on an Old Cement Bridge” follows, a bluesy guitar piece to balance the mood after its predecessor’s cloudburst.

The album abounds in water imagery, which suits the flowing qualities of the music on Asleep on the Floodplain. These are small-seeming songs that resonate much larger, like the chain of ripples forming behind a skipping stone.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

21 Tandem Repeats—One Little Dream (Canada Lynx)

Super Robertson is his own man, and he does what he does with no concern about what’s cool and what might "rock." We should all be so unencumbered by cultural baggage. If this makes him an outsider, never mind; he’s got larger concerns. He’s got kids to raise, a Supper Show to organize every week, a garden to tend, bee survival to worry about, and songs to write.

Dreams have become a theme in his work as 21 Tandem Repeats. On “Robertson’s Dream Orchard” (from No Junk Mail Please) he sang about a fantasy of small-town life amongst the trees and bees. He expresses the same urge to escape the city on “Bold Point Road,” where he once “went to learn about the farming life” on Quadra Island. “One Little Dream” is about having the spirit required to help that dream survive in the face of challenges to our creativity and growth—“You gotta be bad to be good.” As ever, Super’s got ideas and opinions packaged up in these dreams-turned-songs.

With his last album, I gave him some stick over what I thought were less-than-definitive versions of songs that I’d been enjoying live. Timid arrangements diminished the material, I thought. This time, he’s assembled a crack team that has injected a lot of style and personality into the album. Alvaro Rojas (Cortez the Killer, Big Buck, etc.) and Willingdon Black handle electric guitars, adding twang and raunch when required; Johnny Wildkat (Mongoose) plays bass; Shawn Killaly—an irrepressible showman and incredible musician—is on drums, cracking the whip and giving the songs a boot up the arse. The MVP trophy, though, might have to go to C.S. Rippin for his piano playing, always rollicking away in the background, providing bounce and some humour—do I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” licks in “The Last Honey and Toast”? Jesse Gander’s mix buffs it till it sparkles. It’s a great leap beyond 21 TR’s handmade origins.

Quirks and characters populate 21 TR’s folk music. A song about a photographer friend (“Moustache Man” ) leads to a tune musing on Robertson's own neighbhourhood notoriety (“Famous Person”), followed by a slice of road-trip life from Robertson’s Knocking Dog days (“I was thinking that this ought to be in a movie” he thinks, as they drive through “Saskatchewan”). A minor gardening accident inspires “Rage Hero Episode #37,” a rambling narrative that Genny Trigo sings with the rage-negating chipperness of a children’s entertainer. Best of all, though, is “Nothing is Heard” a protest song that reminds me of Neil Young whipping up a storm with Crazy Horse. This version far eclipses what I’ve heard on stage. Based on this song alone, I’d declare One Little Dream a success, but considering everything else—the fine playing, the production, and other songs like “The Recurring Hurrah” and the title track—it’s clearly the best 21TR effort yet.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Red Fang—Murder the Mountains (Relapse)

What’s the angle on Red Fang? Well, there’s the beer-fueled, Pythonesque hilarity of the “Prehistoric Dog” video. I got on board after catching that, I’ll admit. There’s the Portland angle. Who doesn’t like Portland? Place is awesome. There’s the “produced by a Decemberist” angle, but that’s hardly an angle. It’s not like Red Fang are suddenly writing fantastical folk songs to be savoured by NPR listeners (and me). They rock, and hard. How about the fact that they’re on Relapse Records, purveyors of fine grind? Nah, Relapse embraces all genres of fine music these days. Fact is, Red Fang don’t need an angle. You just gotta hear them. I’m feeling pretty evangelical about Murder the Mountains, similar to how I felt about Harvey Milk’s Life…The Best Game in Town. The resemblance is superficial—the two bands’ demeanours are quite different. Red Fang are more sociable than Harvey Milk, but in terms of big American rock with great riffs and unexpected, unabashed catchiness, I get the same feeling from both albums. Red Fang mainly operate in two modes, combining a thudding, Melvins-like approach and a breezier, QOTSA kind of feel. One mode often dominates a song. “Into the Eye” and “Throw Up” are two of the most bruising tracks, while “Wires” and “Number Thirteen” have the shuffle going on, and are massively catchy. The alternating styles mesh well, and give the album that most valuable, old-fashioned quality of being able to tell the damn songs apart. The best thing about these songs, however, is that they go interesting places. Although they follow a three- to five-minute verse/chorus format, there’s always a cunning segue into an instrumental break or other digression that wakes me up from my rock trance thinking, “Wait, how did we end up here?” The best example might be “Wires”—the scuffed-up glam stomp heads into the orchestra pit, where guest Jenny Conlee’s keyboards take over and we’re suddenly prog-rockin’ for a stretch until another colossal riff—the kind of riff that can only end a song because it cannot be topped—breaks out. Sure, Red Fang can write memorable riffs and vocal lines, but this drive to explore what can happen within a song provides the X factor that’s made this one of my favourite albums of 2011 so far. Beyond the bearded, beer-swilling trappings there lies the souls of true rock ‘n’ roll craftsmen. And I’ll hoist a tall can to that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Earth—Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 (Southern Lord)

The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (2008) was a shimmering, hypnotic set based around precision and repetition. Angels of Darkness… showcases a more relaxed approach, as though the band visited Neil Young’s Ragged Glory barn and took some pointers from Crazy Horse. (I often wonder if Neil Young has ever heard Earth, given his history of work in bleak guitar landscapes, from the Dead Man soundtrack to Le Noise.) If The Bees Made Honey… struck you as regimented, the untamed swirling of sounds here will be a pleasant surprise. It’s another refinement to the basic approach Dylan Carlson has taken since Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method—striving for a state of grace through repetition, deliberation, and space. Don’t call it drone. “Old Black” demonstrates the impact of small gestures in this environment. In the first half of the song, Carlson unspools a lengthy, slowly developing riff, punctuating each turnaround with a slight tug on the whammy bar. That minor quaver is enough to stir the soul. When the closing riff emerges, he steps on a wah pedal and everything liquefies. Superb. “Father Midnight” is mainly carried by bass and drums, as Carlson steps back and improvises around the slo-mo groove. Lori Goldston’s cello scuttles and churns underneath. “Descent into the Zenith” sounds like a sunrise, with a mood that fits Carlson’s “Miami Morning Coming Down” series. Only “Hell’s Winter” feels too typically Earth; overfamiliar and overlong. With a vision so strong, and a band so consistent—the same four players appear on all the tracks, and there are no guest musicians—the music pours freely on the title track’s 20 minutes of lolling oceanic improvisation, like an accompaniment to a humpback ballet. This is Earth untethered, gliding through air and water rather than scrabbling through scrub-brush. Angels are at play, yes, but so are demons, exerting gravity via the low notes at the end of a riff, or a downcast chord progression, or Adrienne Davies’ steadfast downbeat. It feels good to be caught amidst this quiet struggle. Let it play and hear it glow.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Creation’s End—A New Beginning (Sensory)

I looked up “Prog/Power” in the OED (it’s been added to the latest edition, I swear) and it said “See Creation’s End.” Which means (a) the OED knows its metal, and (b) if you want some fine prog/power metal, Creation’s End delivers it, straight-up, with no discordant King Crimson moves, no jazz fusion tangents, and no zany circus-music fluff (thank Christ for that). They take a stab at exoticism with some extra percussion in a couple spots, which doesn’t mesh well, but it’s harmless. Creation’s End are a project band assembled by guitarist Rudy Albert and drummer Dario Rodriguez. Everybody’s “ex” this band or “of” that band. They chose well, especially in the singer department. Mike Dimeo (ex-Masterplan, ex-Riot) has lungs of rawhide and brings some essential grit to the enterprise. Albert and Rodriguez put him through his paces, especially on “Hollow,” where a key change pushes him near the breaking point. You’re not sure he’ll get to the end, but he does. With such talent in place, it’s a relief that the songwriting is a cut above as well. Most of the songs begin by establishing quality choruses and effective hooks before they (inevitably) get all tech and paradiddly between minutes 4 and 7, only to have the catchy elements reappear towards the end as if to say “Remember us?” to which I reply, “I absolutely do—welcome back!” All the trappings of power/prog are present, including some way-OTT keyboard solos and songs about war, justice, and religious hypocrisy. It’s stern stuff, powered by brick-shithouse guitar tones and a Neil Kernon mix that’ll put hair on your chest. Everyone involved has obviously poured a lot of love and enthusiasm into A New Beginning. Nobody’s phoning it in. If there’s meat ‘n’ potatoes on the menu in prog metal’s opulent dining quarters, then Creation’s End will serve it up on a heaped platter. Tasty, if familiar, fare.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Electric Wizard—Black Masses (Rise Above)

Electric Wizard doesn’t want to be your friend, so don’t try to get all chummy. Keep your distance, give them their space, and everything’ll be cool. Still, you remember the good times; those hazy, lazy days that became nights that became days hanging out with Come My Fanatics, or maybe Dopethrone. Then things seemed to go bad for them and you lost touch. You thought it’d be best to leave Electric Wizard alone to let them sort through their hassles. That’s what being a friend is all about—knowing when to step away, but being there nevertheless, listening for clues as to when to get in touch again. On Witchcult Today, they almost sounded like they were ready to party again. A song like “Dunwich” was downright bouncy compared to a lot of their other stuff. The mid-range throb the album emanated made them quite presentable. Now, on Black Masses, they reek a bit. Everything, including the vocals, is caked in relentless distortion. It can’t be healthy. Once you’re accustomed to the grimy atmosphere, though, Black Masses makes sense. They throw us a decoy with “Venus In Furs,” but it’s an original tune; their Jess Franco obsession trumping any deference to the Velvet Underground's claim to the title. “Satyr IX” is somehow both crude and majestic. After its dying Mellotron makes you abandon all hope, the catchy psych of “Turn Off Your Mind” lets in some fresh air, but just a couple lungful’s worth; after all, mental obliteration is the priority here. That’s the genius of Electric Wizard—their elementary crash ‘n’ burn approach sounds like something anyone could pull off given a basic knowledge of power chords and a big enough amp. But trust me, you’d screw it up. You’d add at least one too many notes. You can’t channel their genius without living the life. It’s best to just give in to Black Masses and visit it as often as you can stomach. Contemplate the noise, the trudging tempos, the half-eaten, mouldering food, the freezer bag of weed spilling over the table, the kitchen sink full of “matter,” battered LPs and VHS tapes strewn all over… This is who they are, bless ’em. Don’t try to change them, man!

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Difficult 2010, 5 to 1

5. Ludicra—The Tenant (Profound Lore)

When I listen to The Tenant, I don't think "Hmm, I have determined that Ludicra has created the ideal blend of black, classic, and progressive metal." No, I'm too busy going, "METALLLL!" I've long considered Ludrica the awkward cousin to Bay-Area bands like Slough Feg and Hammers of Misfortune, but with The Tenant they've broken through and finally got my full attention. They have a lot in common with Enslaved, but this is a much better record than Axioma..., with a spartan, street-level approach and the perfect mix for this type of music: drums and bass up front, vocals howling down from the attic. The songwriting has an organic quality. Riffs and sections don't sound stitched together; instead each epic track flows with beauty and logic. My admiration for this record grows every time I listen to it.

4. Horseback—The Invisible Mountain (Relapse)

I bought this on pretty flimsy pretenses, having given one of my own pretend albums a very similar title (2009's Invisible Mountain Day). Of course the Relapse blurb got my attention as well: "An intensely heavy, psychedelic, post-metallic, kraut-rock journey..." Schwing! This record sucked me in. I can't listen to it in pieces; I gotta have all 38 minutes of this glorious black morass at once. The psychedelic/kraut-rock elements lie in the simple, driving fuzztone bass riffs and intense repetition. Keyboards (sounds like a Rhodes) swirl around the pulse while raspy vocals add menace to the atmosphere. The first three songs build the momentum, climaxing with the stridently melodic title track. The album ends with the 16-minute exhalation "Hatecloud Dissolving into Nothing"; the start-to-finish arc is is where the "journey" part comes in. In other hands, this could have added up to drone boredom. What makes the album transcendent is the powerful drumming. Not only does the kit sound fantastic, but the performance gives the songs dynamics, applying boots to ass with well-placed fills and crashes. Nothing else sounded like this in 2010. Proof that evil has no boundaries.

3. Rotting Christ—Aealo (Season of Mist)

I'd long been kind of/sort of a Rotting Christ fan, but Aealo's passionate, battle-ready approach got me on board last year. It seemed like every record on Century Media between '95 and '97 sounded like this...maybe it was only the Rotting Christ albums. Exotic and intense, it manages to rock in lock-step, mighty 'n' militant.

2. Blood Revolt—Indoctrine (Profound Lore)

I'm almost embarrassed by how many Profound Lore releases made my list this year. I think everyone will admit the label was on fire this year, though. For me, much of the inferno was sparked by this long-promised Irish-Canadian collaboration. Based on the talents involved, Indoctrine promised much, then delivered something unexpectedly dramatic and explosive.

1. UFOMAMMUT—Eve (Supernatural Cat)

One song. One huge song. One huge, heavy song. One huge, heavy, perfect song.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Difficult 2010, 10 to 6

10. Black Breath—Heavy Breathing (Southern Lord)

After their scorching debut EP, I wasn't sure that Black Breath could sustain the energy and interest over a full length. I shouldn't have doubted their abilities, as these Bellingham burnouts take to the album format with ease, with a raft of great punk/metal tunes and a surprise or two (most notably the blackened blues of "Unholy Virgin"). Kurt Ballou records them with the same fat tones as their debut. It's pure rock 'n' roll; so inspiring that yes, I will take them up on that offer to "Spit on the Cross" and then "Eat the Witch." Tasty.

9. Stargazer—A Great Work of Ages (Profound Lore)

Leave it to Profound Lore to unearth a tech-death band with a captivating twist. A Great Work of Ages has a severe, murky atmosphere, while showcasing great songwriting and serious chops (bass shredding abounds). It all works, at both an intellectual and a visceral level. Stargazer take great satisfaction in mucking up the sterile, cookie-cutter prog-metal aesthetic, marching forward with power and stern pride.

8. Agalloch—Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)

While you can debate whether this is Agalloch's best album, you can't deny that this album brought some interesting new elements to their sound. I think it's their best album from the point of view of start-to-finish flow. I'll remember Marrow of the Spirit for that flow, as well as the darkness that permeates the entire work.

7. Kylesa—Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist)

Kylesa, with their Static Tensions album, was a big discovery in 2009, and Spiral Shadow is a walloping follow-up. I'm willing to toe the party line on it. Yes, I do hear some indie/alternative rock influences in their still-weighty approach—some Sonic Youth here, some Superchunk there. That's not a bad thing, and a perfectly logical direction when a band's starting to craft such tuneful material. Phillip Cope's attention to tones (well-documented on the DVD included with my deluxe edition) makes this the most ear-pleasing album on my list. It almost gives me hope for modern production techniques.

6. Triptykon—Eparistera Daimones (Century Media)

The best thing T. Warrior's done since Into the Pandemonium? Perhaps.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Difficult 2010, 15 to 11

15. Wormrot—Abuse (Earache)

There's good to be found in all genres, and I like to find the best in everything during the course of a year. Wormrot's Abuse is my grind album of 2011. Sometimes I just want to experience pure rage through music, but it must also rock. Wormrot manage this again and again and again.

14. Neil Young—Le Noise (Reprise)

Quite a dark and haunting trip with Neil Young; these deceptively simple tunes performed solo then pushed through Daniel Lanois' filters of studio mystery. His production infests the album with ghosts. Is it a gimmick, an elaborate cloak for run-of-the-mill songs? I don't think so. The murky swirl of murmurs, rumble and thrum create a inviting soundworld, while Neil's voice and amplifier roar with anger and love.

13. Enslaved—Axioma Ethica Odoni (Nuclear Blast)

I thought Vertebrae was just okay. Their live set helped me discover a couple gems on it. Axioma Ethica Odoni (rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) is quite a bit better. In fact, the prevalence of proggy riffs reminds me of their Monumension and Below the Lights-era leaps into the post-BM beyond, making for a welcome reinvigoration of their sound. Only the everything-louder-than-everything-else mix detracts from my listening pleasure. I wish they'd do a stripped-down, live-in-the-studio recording sometime. It would destroy.

12. The Pineapple Thief—Someone Here is Missing (kscope)

We're back to the "best of everything" ethos here. This time we're in the realm of slick, mainstreamy semi-prog rock, and The Pineapple Thief. I'm glad I finally caught up with this band. They're quality.

11. Slough Feg—The Animal Spirits (Profound Lore)

You can't really go wrong with Slough Feg. Seeing them live in Vancouver was one of the highlights of the year. I'm sure they played a couple tracks from this album, but I'll be buggered if I can remember which ones. There's a great fistful of bangable songs here, from "Trick the Vicar" to "Materia Prima" (where Southern rock trades shots & pints with the NWOBHM) to "Free Market Barbarian" (a truly masterful hard rock song). If the album dips in the middle it's okay because they take it home with an Alan Parsons Project cover ("The Tell-Tale Heart") and the frantic "Tactical Air War." Brawn, brains, great tunes, and twin leads out the yin-yang—that's our Slough Feg.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Difficult 2010, 20 to 16

Here we go with my top 20...

20. Nachtmystium—Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. II (Century Media)

Based on Nachtmystium's ability to get purists all riled up, I sprung for the new album, only to be disappointed by the lack of anything truly radical. Remember 1997 and the Weirding of Norway? La Masquerade Infernale and Neonism represent the kind of stretch I'd like to hear Blake Judd make in the realm of NWOUSBM. If I shake off those hopes and expectations, I'll admit this is a pretty good rock album. The title track sounds like a charred BÖC (Black Oyster Cult?), although it's marred by a halfhearted ending. Other bits I like are the denouement of “Every Last Drop,” the tambourine on "Nightfall," and "No Funeral," with its Cars synth line. Those are moments when I go, "that’s cool, that’s somewhat brave." But there's a weird, unband-like vibe to it...maybe it's the direct-injection guitar tone (whether that's the method they used or not, that's what it sounds like). At least I can tell the songs apart, which is no small victory for me at this stage!

19. High on Fire—Snakes for the Divine (E1)

Blessed Black Wings made me a High on Fire fan. Death Is This Communion did a great job of building on its predecessor's relentless attack, adding some heaviness and perfecting the trio's chemistry. This new one rocks hard, but it doesn't take things over the top. "Bastard Samurai" and "How Dark We Pray" stand out as deep cuts that sustain the album after the opening duo of the title track and "Frost Hammer" kick things off with everything set at an unsustainable 11. High On Fire are one of the hardest working bands around; if it's possible to make a living playing metal these days, I hope they find a way to thrive.

18. Mares of Thrace—The Moulting (Arctopus)

I gotta say, Mares of Thrace didn't misrepresent themselves on their debut album. This is a raw, jolting record, sometimes almost too strict in its adherence to the single guitar/voice/drums format. I took this home after seeing them live, and yep, this kind of howling noise rock is what they're all about. If I had one wish, it'd be that they'd recorded these songs after honing them on their epic summer tour. As it stands, the album has some jagged edges that at least add an excitement you won't hear on 99% of records these days.

17. Algernon—Ghost Surveillance (Cuneiform)

Algernon are a crack outfit from Chicago who play a suitably spectral style of post-rock/prog on Ghost Surveillance. These instrumentals are based on strong rhythmic ideas, rich-sounding synths, and plenty of tuned percussion (vibraphone and glockenspiel). Great stuff that gets catchier every time I listen to it. Recommended if you like Tortoise; Ghost Surveillance makes a more stern, stately companion to Beacons of Ancestorship.

16. Worm Ouroboros—s/t (Profound Lore)

This album sounds like water to me—it surges, bubbles, and seeps into the corners of the patient listener's mind.