Sunday, 27 January 2013

Those pleasing sounds of 2012, in full and unabridged

I know, I know. Year-end roundup season has long since passed. This blog is late. Late late late. Oh so very late. For reasons that will become apparent.

Not that I post very often anyway. Indolence is the watchword of Onions for Eyeballs.

Best get to the point, then – below are my ten favourite albums of 2012, in reverse order.  

First, some honourable mentions. Great albums one and all. Any one of these could have been in my top 10 had I compiled it on a different day, in a different mood, with a different level of caffeine or cheese in my bloodstream.  
  •  Kayo Dot – Gamma Knife
  •  Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus – Didymoi Dreams    
  •  Bong – Mana-Yood-Sashai    
  •  Divorce – Divorce
  • Ictus Ensemble & Mike Patton – Laborintus II     
  •  Converge – All we Love we Leave Behind      
  • Volcano the Bear – Golden Rhythm/Ink Music 
  • Melvins Lite – Freak Puke 
  • Asva & Philippe Petit – Empires Will Burn
  • Thumpermonkey - Sleep Furiously 
  • Getatchew Mekuria + The Ex + Friends – Y'Anbessaw Tezeta 
  • Neurosis – Honor Found in Decay
  • Man Forever - Pansophical Contract

Right, now the list proper. Onward!

(Spotify playlist here)


A last-minute entry, this. I clearly had my bulbous bonce under a sizeable rocky outcropping for the first 11-and-a-half months of 2012, given that this double-disc collection of tunes seemingly custom-built to give me telepathically injected joywibbles went previously unnoticed until mid-December. Heavy, heavy kraut-psych? Chunky, tricksy riffs? Middle-Eastern modes? Prog up, within and out the wazoo? Colossal ambition and sheer joy in the possibilities of sound? All these things and more. Had I heard this earlier and more often before compiling this bloody stupid list, I’ve a feeling The Death Defying Unicorn would be higher placed. As it is, it’ll no doubt be a fixture during 2013.


It's a rare Onions for Eyeballs best-of list that doesn't feature at least a tiny smidgen of Mike Patton – this time, in his capacity as ultra-throat for John Zorn’s Moonchild project. Templars is the sixth outing of this ensemble, and arguably, the most subtle and melodic yet. That’s not suggest it’s a dream-pop ballad collection though. Rather, it’s full of stop-start bass/drum interplay courtesy of Trevor Dunn and Joey Baron, with unearthly screams, guttural growls and manic demonspeak from Patton, layered with John Medeski’s shimmering keys. It’s a great suite, beautifully composed by Zorn and performed with considerable occult vigour. Not quite up there with the lean first album or the unfeasibly fiendish Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, but more than smart and fierce enough.


Even within the outré world of progressive rock, Thinking Plague’s music is decidedly strange. Extremely technical to the point of perfectly sculpted formlessness, it’s full of outrageously nimble, often discordant guitar lines, brawny, discombobulating cross-rhythms and the scale-vaulting, almost atonal, stream-of-consciousness approach to melody of Elaine Di Falco. Some may find it pretentious, perhaps dry and clinical, but it has an aggressive physicality, love of noise and a sinister edge that will appeal to those who like their weirdness rough, unpredictable and in several time signatures at once. This is only Thinking Plague’s sixth studio album, but also marks their 30th anniversary. Even though the band now has only one original member (guitarist/composer Mike Johnson), it retains its extremely singular, inventive and uncompromising aesthetic – if anything, they’ve only become stronger (and weirder) with time. Decline and Fall is precisely not what its title implies but is, like Thinking Plague’s entire (if modest) back catalogue, utterly essential.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)



Now on their seventh album, the One Ensemble are led by Daniel Padden of cult experimentalists Volcano the Bear, and feature members of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and equally wayward Pickled Egg label mates Tattie Toes. Given the extra-curricular activities of its members, the Ensemble’s sound is unsurprisingly difficult to pin down – somewhere between Eastern European traditional music, modern classical, free improvisation, rural folk ditties and a math-rock band reborn as a chamber quartet. It’s music of contrasts, equally comfortable with the luscious and the wilfully discordant, switching styles on a whim, blending musical signifiers of high cultural seriousness with mischief, e.g. the local news headline ‘MEAT JOBS AXED’ reconfigured into meaningless phonetic garble, or the surreal ritual of ‘Chicken on a Raft’. It’s superb stuff – entirely unique and wildly experimental, but at the same time unpretentious and inviting.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)


Must admit, years ago I’d pretty much written off Bang on a Can before I ever heard a note they played. Something about them suggested the smug, beige, coffee table end of NYC contemporary music. I’d like to state clearly that I’m sorry. I was a fool. An utterly wrong fool that deserves barabaric punishment. I first encountered them live, at a free concert in Tramway, Glasgow, part of the city’s ongoing and excellent Minimal festival. They played several of the compositions that appear on this album, and were absolutely stunning. Bold, exploratory, dynamic and exciting – and, in places, extremely fucking heavy. The next day they played again, this time including a mesmerising version of Philip Glass’s ‘Two Pages’ that was so intense that I’m still not sure I survived it.

But to the point – Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary is Bang on a Can’s 25th-anniversary album (I interviewed them about this and more for the Feb/March 2012 issue of Muso magazine – read online here), but is full of fresh material, ranging from interpretations of unplayable Conlon Nancarrow compositions to new music from Louis Andriessen and Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth. The best pieces, for me at least, are by BOAC’s founder members, particularly Julia Wolfe’s imposing title track and David Lang’s astonishing ‘Sunray’, which transitions from hazy beauty to relentless algebraic heaviness reminiscent of late-period King Crimson. A superb collection, which has been on constant rotation all year.


Someone – I forget who, but all credit to said anonymous individual – once described Meshuggah as a band with one song, which they constantly refine. That’s fine by me. Koloss is a groovier, more straightforward piece than ObZen, which still might be my favourite Shugalbum, but their song is as irresistible as ever. Favourite moment? The way ‘Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave it Motion’s tense, spacey intro half glides, half explodes into the collapsing mountain of the main riff… man alive. Even swallowing an iceberg doesn’t produce chills like that.


Works such as Theater of Mineral NADEs, Sweetness of Sickness and last year’s Visible Breath testify to Eyvind Kang’s proficiency at creating evocative, well-considered and at times extreme experimental music. However, some of his strongest work has been his prettiest and most approachable. The Narrow Garden, then, feels like the culmination of his work to date, bringing together his pricklier side with the rich, romantic melodicism that characterised the likes of Live Low to the Earth…, The Story of Iceland and Virginal Co-ordinates.

The painstakingly crafted Arabesques of ‘Forest Sama’i’ and ‘Mineralia’ will delight admirers of Kang’s stint as Secret Chiefs 3’s viola vizier, though these are far more meditative compositions than the heady, manic fusion of Spruance & co. ‘Pure Nothing’, initially pitched somewhere between Christmas carol and English folk ballad before heading eastward, is given an eerie feel by Jessika Kenney’s sublimely detached, spectral vocals. ‘Usnea’ and the title track are more abstract, drone-based, informed by Middle Eastern modes and Ligeti-like dissonance, respectively. And the closing track brings these disparate strands together in spectacular fashion. Over nine-and-a-half glorious minutes, its Sultanate stomp and honeyed melody swell into an uncharacteristically cataclysmic finale of blazing horns and flayed strings­ ­– possibly the most thrillingly visceral music of Kang’s career.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)




Much as the live sets around My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky were astoundingly good, the album didn’t do that much for me beyond the opening track (itself a pale shadow of the twice-as-long live version). I was therefore intrigued but not overly enthused by the prospect of a new album, especially as it was two hours long and one or two of the mooted guest musicians were not exactly my favourites… [/diplomacy]

However, in what appears to be a recurring theme in this blog post, I was wrong. Oh so very wrong. The wrongest wrong of all the wrongs in all of wrongland. In advance of Swans playing the Arches in Glasgow, I finally got around to listening to The Seer. And it was good. Very good. But way too much to take in in one gulp. The subsequent gig was astonishing – a relentless two-hour assault on brain and body alike, harder, louder, harder, louder. By far the greatest set of the year, no question.

In the wake of that punishment, The Seer made so much more sense. Everything about it defies the obvious, avoids cliché (even Swans clichés) and exudes contradiction. It’s brittle and invulnerable at the same time. It’s deeply psychedelic without hinting at any cultural references associated with that term. It’s bleached-bones stark and lavishly opulent. It’s brutal and tender. Even for an album reliant on a loosely standard guitar-rock sonic template, it sounds like nothing else on Earth. Consider me floored.

THEATRE IS EVIL                                            

Those who haven’t been living in a cave on a diet of scolopendra and rock sweat will have noticed the vast number of Tweets and blogposts about Amanda Palmer in recent months. Some gushing, some vitriolic. What with the kerfuffle about artist responsibility and new business paradigms, you’d be forgiven for missing the point – that she writes really clever, honest, funny and moving songs. Produced by John Congleton (of The Paper Chase), Theatre is Evil offers big, fiery glam-rock stompers, ’80s synthpop infusions and post-New Wave FM anthems, and a couple of those unbearably poignant confessional piano ballads at which Palmer excels, all delivered with characteristically anaerobic verbiage and unfeasibly vast choruses. And in 'The Grand Theft Intermission', we have a superbly incongruous stomping instrumental that recalls, of all things, the titanic majesty of Ex Orkest. Generally noisier, rawer and more gutsy than its predecessor (Who Killed Amanda Palmer?), this is also hookier, more immediate, and confirms that, like it or not, we’ll all be hearing a lot more about AFP for a long time yet.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)


Given that Scott rarely puts a cloven hoof wrong as far as I’m concerned, it’s no surprise that this should be no. 1. Even though it came out late in the year, I knew from first listen that it was something special, even in the wake of its extraordinary predecessor, The Drift.

In fact, my choice of Scott in the top slot is the principal reason for the disgusting tardiness of this post. I’ve reviewed it twice in print – once for Rock-a-Rolla, once for The List ­– but neither were satisfactory. Bish Bosch is so extraordinary, so vast, so ingenious, so ridiculous, so bizarre, so powerful, so breath-taking, that it can’t even vaguely be encapsulated in a short review. So I felt I had no choice but to write a new, more thorough one for this blog. But I knew it’d have to be at least 5,000 words to do it justice. And, other, much better writers – Frances Morgan in The Wire, Joe Kennedy on The Quietus – had written about Bish Bosch with a clarity of vision, depth of insight and beauty of phrase that I can’t possibly approach. So I put it off. And put it off. And then put it off again. And here we are, well into 2013.

Long story short: I’m chickening out. And I have no shame about that. Well, a bit.

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