Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blacklist's Josh Strawn: Top Albums of 2009

As Blacklist's Midnight of the Century topped my list for albums of the year, I felt compelled to ask for singer Josh Strawn's 2009 compilation in return. As his sonic explorations have been quite dark as of late, what follows is a very black list indeed...


I should concede upfront: in one way, this is not a stylistically diverse list. Almost every single one of my top records of the year do fall, however loosely, into the category of metal. I heard the new records by Girls, Animal Collective, Bon Iver, and many others in the assorted pantheon of critical darlings. I can appreciate some of what those bands are doing right: there are some well-crafted songs, some interesting production, and some clever lyrics. But overall something about most of these records fails me at the level of viscera. Some of them can even be revolting. Because as much as we might talk about craft, lyrical panache, etc. there's also something to be said for the spirit of the art. What does it reflect about the era? And how do re-hashed psychedelia, Bjork soundalikes, and over-emotive, vulnerable literati figure as the ideal sonic accompaniment to this very odd, dark, disconcerting period in history?

In another way, this is a devastatingly diverse list. To listen to the earthen drones of Sunn O))), alongside the melodic wave of Amesoeurs, alongside the industrial death-dirge of Gnaw Their Tongues is to have traversed what once would have been thought of as multiple styles of music: from ambient/avant-garde, to alternative pop, to noise. But today it isn't purely a structure or a kind of instrumentation that defines metal. It's a shared attitude, it seems, that unites Nadja, Mayhem, and Bloody Panda under the same dark banner.

Though I was a pretty regular listener of Motorhead, Maiden, Priest, Sabbath, Pentagram, etc., I admittedly didn't come to the contemporary metal scene until 2009, so some of my enthusiasm has to be chalked up to the mere accident that this was the time I stumbled into it. On the other hand, I can't think of it all as accidental--in other words I think there's a reason it happened this year. As I've traced back, listening to older records by many of the bands on my list, I must say it does seem like 2009 was a special year.

Deena Weinstein's book Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture locates the origins of metal in a disillusion with flower power, a turn to the darker side of hippie mysticism and an aggressive pessimism about the future clashing with a vulnerable, romantic spirit. I think we're already in the era of Obama-disillusion, and themes of climate change, natural and man-made apocalypse, and disease pandemics are now more omnipresent than ever. And so, when we look back on 2009 for the sounds that sounded most like now, these are the records that, for me, fit the bill...

A Storm of Light - Forgive Us Our Trespasses...

Fitting to start with a record which I've heartily recommended to the queen bee of this blog as an exemplar of newer metal that's sexy. Sensual might be more like it, though not without an epic, beautiful sense of grandiose brutality that evokes both Americana and apocalypse, which are the two main lyrical themes of 'Forgive Us.' Guest vocals from both Jarboe and Lydia Lunch add drama and texture to an already sophisticated brew of droning guitars, electronics, and Swans-inflected drumming (naturally, since drummer Vinnie Signorelli was a Swan himself).

Amesoeurs - Amesoeurs

Speaking of black metal hybrids from France, there may be no auteur as adept at not only pure black metal but at hybridizing it as Neige. Already having given us one of the best shoegaze records in a decade via his Alcest project, Amesoeurs finds him collaborating to bring together a mixture of black metal and classic French coldwave that is, to be honest, about 90% coldwave. I ran the title track by New York's own guru of coldwave, Pieter Schoolwerth of Wierd, to enthusiastic approval. Nothing but the finest in Gallic melancholia.

Bloody Panda - Summon

Diamanda Galas may no longer give her semi-yearly concerts in New York, but for those feeling the void, you don't have to look much further than Bloody Panda. The legend of Bloody Panda is that Japanese art star Yoshiko Ohara decided to start a rock band, bought a boatload of gear and set off for New York not knowing yet how to play an instrument. Wikipedia calls it Yoko Ono + Black Sabbath. Bloody Panda isn't the only female-fronted drone doom band going--there's also Salome, Jex Thoth, Dark Castle, and my personal favorite, Monarch! from France--but they might be the most compelling.

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta: Dialogue with the Stars II

Blut Aus Nord's latest is what people mean when they talk about the unbelievable sophistication that has come to mark a considerable number of black metal bands. I've heard them referred to as avant-garde before, but I'm not sure they're as avant-garde as they are epically, intricately composed. Symphonic wouldn't be the right designation for this album either, but the lush (yes, lush) guitar textures and the movement from heavy blasts to clean-toned atmospheric passages is completely hypnotic and transportive.

Cobalt - Gin

In Europe, black metal bands shock with their right wing militant politics, and one could say Cobalt is the closest non-NSBM thing America has produced. Rather than extolling Aryan supremacy, Cobalt makes war metal for the real wars we're engaged in, as singer Phil McSorley spends more time serving time abroad in Iraq than making experimental extreme metal records: "This is where I belong, in another country with a gun in my hand." Cobalt isn't necessarily right or left wing, though--it's more of a war-as-the-state-of-nature thing for them. They've made consistently interesting records, and 'Gin' only finds them pushing new, more emotive boundaries (also with Jarboe on guest vocals.)

Gnaw Their Tongues - All The Dread Magnificence of Perversity

Song titles like, "Gazing At Me Through Tears of Urine" or "The Stench of Dead Horses On My Breath and the Vile of Existence in My Hands" would be funny if it didn't take require such a single-minded devotion to all that's disgusting, frightening, painful and ugly about existence to think them up. Such is the case with Holland's Gnaw Their Tongues, whose prolific output gives one pause to imagine how much pestilence could be lodged in the psyche of Mories still in need of release. Truly the aural equivalent of a ritual murder administered by a Satanic machine conjured by the fountainhead spirit of all that's sadistic in the universe. (p.s. - I'm submitting that as a song title for the next record....) One of the most amazing videos of the year:

Isis - Wavering Radiant

I have mixed feelings about Aaron Turner's poo-poohing of the sexy ladies in metal concept. Again referring to a conversation with Ms. Sollee and a point on which I agree with her, it does seem that there's not really enough sex in metal these days, politically correct or incorrect (though, on the 'incorrect' point, one might reference the insane video from Merrimack, "In the Halls of White Death.") Imagine the soft-loud Pixies concept expounded, going from from shimmering shoegazey layers of clean guitars to wicked death metal chugs and growls, all adding up to achieve a totally cinematic effect.

Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster

I've pondered whether my affection for Lady Gaga comes as an involuntary brain response: its attempt to counterbalance the aforementioned soundtracks to ritual murder and general constant flow of blackened sounds into my ears. Devil knows, I despise the Anglo-American directive to always temper one's solemnity and seriousness with proof of sense of humor and/or irony. Until 'Bad Romance,' I never paid her a lick of attention, nor could I even have even identified one of her songs. I held out judging what was really going on and just let myself enjoy. Weeks later and multiple plays of the entire record, I have to take a stand and say that, with the exception of the lame Beyonce duet 'Telephone,' it's one of the most enjoyable pop records I've heard in a long while. You know you're dealing with a formidable talent when, in the course of a worldwide Top 20 hit, the singer asks for backdoor action by way of a Hitchcock reference trifecta--Prince must be jealous.

Led Er Est - Dust On Common

I don't think it's by-assocationism that makes me think the debut from Blacklist label-mates Led Er Est is such a good record. There's as much darkness as vitality, as much melody as punk fury, as much that's soft as raw and unpolished for easy consumption. New York is playing host right now to a 2nd wave of coldwave, much as Norway did to metal when the Black Circle re-imagined Bathory and Venom with their own stamp. Led Er Est deserves their spot as one of the inner-circle pioneers of this exciting moment in minimal synth.

Lifelover - Dekadens

It's as if depressive black metal guys got their hands on the first Interpol LP -- which sounds like it should be terrible, but what results is a refreshing take on both black metal and contemporary dark indie music with a good deal of melody to carry you through the melodrama, and yet enough blackness to jar you out of indie rock complacency.

Liturgy - Renihilation

Catching wind of what these guys were doing with black metal after years of obstinately dismissing it as a momentary tabloid phenomenon of D&D and racism had no small impact on my decision to give it another chance. Plenty of people say that black metal is over, a 15-years-gone moment. That might be true in a sense, but the analogy of punk to post-punk seems fair. Nearly a decade separates The Sex Pistols from Wire's 'Snakedrill' but somehow postpunk rolled off the tongue and had more impact in a world not so inundated with the 'post' prefix, whereas post-black metal is a mouthful and also fails somehow to explain a band like Liturgy. Years away from the originary shriek, maybe, but it is still full of vitality. Call it what you like, argue about whether it is or isn't 'true' black metal; call it Mogwai on PCP -- just don't ignore it cause these guys aren't bullshitting when they use the word 'transcendental.'

Mastodon - Crack the Skye

Commonplace as it may be to always designate the underground darlings' big mainstream push as the watering down or beginning of the end, the truth is plenty of bands finally get all the money, the gear, and the top-tier producers and put it to brilliant use. Mastodon is one of those bands and 'Crack The Skye' frustrates nearly every attempt to detract. You might say the 'plot' involving wormholes, Rasputin, and Czars is too cheesy and proggy, but the 'Skye' of the album's title refers to drummer Brann Dailor's sister, who committed suicide years ago. Immanently bearded, Southern, and shredmasters though they may be, a serious consideration of Mastodon's lyrical and thematic savvy reveals a depth of emotion and an ambitious style of heavy metal poetics that proceeds from a moment of lived pain (the moment Dailor got the news) that 'could crack the sky' and freeze time, proceeding into a psychedelic universe where time and space break down. Scott Kelly of Neurosis appears on guest vocals to take it all to the cosmic extreme in the album's title track, screaming, 'Mama don't them take her/Please tell Lucifer he can't have this one/her spirit's too strong' in a moment that, while thematically woven into the album's fantastical plot, and sonically heavy-as-hell, is also surprisingly moving. This album is perfect, from the first note to the last.

Minsk - With Echoes in Movement of Stone...

Metal bands always spanned from the fun and hedonistic to the dark and serious, but the newer mutation is something that can only be called religious. Not religious in the sense of being of or about religion, but the artists themselves seem involved in the songs and the sounds in a way that evokes ritual as much as song. Minsk is one of the bands I always play for people who can't shake the notion of metal as a coarse affair for unsophisticated longhairs--my friends who think anything heavier than Killing Joke is automatically neanderthal music. In fact, Killing Joke is easily a strong influence on this band, since their bassist and prodigious producer, Sanford Parker, cites them as a favorite band. This record is metal as sonic literalization -- it's not so much that these guys utilize their instruments in a traditionally 'metal' way, it's that the sounds from the drums to the guitars, are so goddam heavy. Musically, they explore middle-eastern melodies and percussion as well as charging melodic heavy rock tunes. Though all the talk of heaviness and stone may evoke something static and lethargic, this is the sound of evolution.

Om - God Is Good

So repetitive it shouldn't work. Om's Myspace URL is 'varationsonatheme' and that theme would have to be 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun' + Black Sabbath. Om grew out of the seminal stoner doom outfit Sleep, but morphed into a unique entity that seems able to appeal both to the tatooed doom crowd as to psych-loving indie rockers. Even the monotone vocal delivery threatens to make Om a boring affair but the truly amazing thing is it's never boring. The trick is all in the nuance, the slight change up of the beat or drum fill, the rhythmic irregularities in the lyrics, the seemingly same bass riff droning on until you realize that, in almost every cycle, something has been subtly altered -- never in a mathy way, more in a tranced out way. Mark Twain said that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes" which is almost the best way of describing Om's music. Maybe that's why it feels like it should fit in any moment throughout history, from a Pharaoh's court to a Haight St. head shop in the late 60's, to your ipod headphones.

Oranssi Pazuzu - Muukalainen Puhuu

The Finns aren't about to be left behind as their geographical neighbors are pushing black metal into uncharted territory (fellow countrymen Ajattara almost made this list with their Comus-esque foray into acoustic black metal, 'Noitumaa') Before listening, you might ask yourself why the front cover has an astronaut on it. After listening, you won't ask. This is Ummagumma psychedelic spacerock, complete with lavish keyboard textures, bizarre proggy passages, and a full concentration on pure infernal atmosphere. There's even a good deal of dub influence here throughout, which is brought fully into focus by tracks like 'Dub Kuoleen Porton Muistolle.'

Peste Noire - Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor

Proof that being problematic can often heighten the degree of mystery and affection associated with a piece of music. As a pretty strident anti-fascist, I wrestled for a while with how instantly in love with this record I was. Peste Noire is, in the words of a friend, "one of those dodgy bands" -- as in they're way into ultra-right wing politics. In fact, lead singer Famine has gone so far as to say that left wing black metal like Wolves in the Throne Room is not only laughable, it's impossible. I can speak some French, but grim vocals in French are no easier to understand than they are in English, so I frankly haven't a clue what he's squealing about. I only know that this is one of the singularly most captivating pieces of music I've heard in a long while. Only a few records come along that make you romanticize the moment at which the songs were written, the room they were played in first. For me, Peste Noire's French nationalism (the album's title is a fuck-off to all the enemies of France) evokes some dark provincial forest-surrounded village and I hope they first played these weird black-metal-garage-rock-meets-French-military-hymn songs in some tiny basement club in that village. Imagination is key, but they unlock it (just be sure to deploy it in part to imagine they aren't the soundtrack to Europe's new ultra-right).

Religious To Damn - Falls Down Again

Since I'm technically not on this record, I'm allowed to include it. It's been about 30 or 40 years since artists managed to pack emotional depth, restraint, and bursting orchestrated largess into a song that was two minutes and change. While the B-side to this 7" boasts the celebrity of Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos, and is a a very gorgeous dark pop tune, it's the A-side and title track that is the main attraction. It's a wash of delicate, organic analog synthesizers and Jane Birkin-esque vocals, at once sexy and forlorn. Look for the full-length in early 2010 with yours truly contributing guitars, production, and a few backup vocals here and again.

Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions

I wonder if I had listened to Sunn O))) for the first time only on earbuds or laptop speakers, if I would have cared. Lucky for me I had some headphones with guts. I also wonder, if I had listened to 'Flight of the Behemoth' first, would I have been as bowled over as I was by 'Monoliths & Dimensions'? I confess, I may have heard Mayhem and Attila Csihar before this record, but I only first listened to Attila here. He is, unquestionably, on-par with Diamanda Galas and Scott Walker in the realms of stellar, bizarre vocal visionaries (if this weren't a 2009 list, Mayhem's 'Ordo Ad Chao' would land a top slot just for pure listening time). One listens to this album not like a pop or rock or metal record, but like they listen to John Cage or Xenakis. I'm sure that's why they're now getting write-ups in the NYT and the New Yorker, and, well, that is what it is. The intellectual world and the metal community will certainly love to debate this, to love and hate them, but in the meantime, this is one of the most unusual things to happen to music in a long while.

Tombs - Winter Hours

I was in love with this record from the first few bars of 'Gossamer.' Trying to explain Tombs to someone will tell you a lot about how unique the music is. It's a hybrid of so many things, but not in the way hip hybridizing can so often come off as a cheap means of trying to be contemporary. You can toss out genres, from hardcore to black metal, but truthfully this is just a record of gigantic, tough music that defies being pinned down.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Black Cascade

Allmusic writes that WITTR are Joy Division if they had appeared years later as a black metal band. Maybe that's why this and Ulver's David Sylvian-inflected 'Shadows of the Sun' played the dual lead roles in opening my coldwave heart to black metal. Although, this is a recurring theme: Nachtmystium is putting out records with Death In June covers, and Nadja recently covered Swans, The Cure, AND a-ha. It's hard to explain what about WITTR doesn't feel like 'typical' black metal. Part of it is the drum production and maybe even the drumming style--the pace is there, but less than a machine gun, it feels like an organic pulse. Melodically, the songs deserve their titles' references to such romantic sprawls as those painted by Caspar David Friedrich. But this is still a dark world. Gone are the 4AD-isms of 'Two Hunters' ('Cleansing' sounded like it came straight off of a This Mortal Coil record), but the epic kinesis of dark forces in nature--which seems to be a recurrent theme in black metal--here gets its hymnal par excellence.

Xeno & Oaklander - Sentinelle

I'm almost hesitant to discuss this album too much since I've been privy to so much of its lyrical and conceptual depth. Rather than embarking on a dangerous discursive diatribe that could drain the poem of it's poetry, it just needs to be said that this record will blow your mind. Up until this release, I had seen X&O far more live than listened to them recorded, and for as exciting and virtuoso as they are live, the recorded material does not disappoint. Their hardline analog purism does translate in clubs, but still, sound systems are not always capable of doing justice to the meticulously designed sounds on 'Sentinelle.' On headphones, though, it's a real lesson to everyone in the world of electronic music in the possibilities of texture, songcraft, and emotion that can be conveyed with synthesizers and the human voice.

Yob - The Great Cessation

What a delight it is to toss oneself into this realm of grim claustrophobia. The measured, brutal lethargy of early Swans plus the arty guitar atmospherics of Sunn's 'Black One' I guess makes this "blackened doom," but it's really something more like stoned out Throbbing Gristle with lots and lots of dark Sonic Youth guitars.

Yoga - Megafauna

Have you ever wished somebody would make a new movie in the spirit of Wicker Man and get it right? If so, you may also have wished somebody could make music in the spirit of Goblin and get it right. 'Megafauna' accomplishes the latter feat. It even has bits that remind me of The Royal Family & The Poor's ambient occult classic 'We Love The Moon.' It's so good I almost wish I were into the actual practicing of pagan rites. This record has a little something for both art school fans of Giallo, as well as for those who hang the baphomet from their walls. Some of the best cover art of the year, to boot.

Honorable Mention: Fever Ray - Fever Ray, Wolf Eyes - Always Wrong, Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe, Satyricon - The Age Of Nero, Zoroaster - Voice Of Saturn, Krallice - Dimensional Bleedthrough, Current 93 - Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain, Aluk Todolo - Finsternis, 1349 - Revelations of the Black Flame, Nightbringer - Death and the Black Work, Skagos - Ást, David Sylvian - Manafon, Heaven & Hell - The Devil You Know

Not from 2009, but still got a lot of attention: Ulver - Shadows of the Sun, Mayhem - Ordo Ad Chao, Shearwater - Rook, Sunn O))) - Black One, Mothlite - Flax of Reverie, Bathory - Bathory, Ulver - Bergtatt, Ulver - Kveldssanger, Mastodon - Blood Mountain, Neurosis - The Eye of Every Storm, Judas Priest - Sad Wings of Destiny, Black Sabbath - Master of Reality, Black Sabbath - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne - The Ultimate Sin, Lifelover - Erotik, Fleetwood Mac - Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham - Live at the Bass Performance Hall, Lindsey Buckingham - Under The Skin, Lindsey Buckingham - Gift of Screws, Fleetwood Mac - Say You Will, David Sylvian - Secrets of the Beehive, Satyricon - Now, Diabolical, Hawkwind - Warrior On The Edge of Time.

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