Thursday, 1 January 2015

OF BABIES, BELLS & BLUES – a 2014 best-of thingy

2014 snuck up on me. I spent much of the year thinking it was quite a poor one for music. However, when compiling a list of aural goodnesses that have pleased me greatly, there were two or three times as many than in most years. My final list was nearly 70 albums long… in most years, I don’t even hear that many albums, let alone that many good ones.

Anyway, there follows my top 20, most of which is in no particular order. As we reach the top five, some rankings will come into play. Outside of this list, there are dozens of excellent albums, with particularly honourable mentions to Triptykon, The Cosmic Dead, RM Hubbert, Prescott, Godflesh, Thin Privilege, Innercity Ensemble, Christina Vantzou, Swans, The Unsemble, Sound of Yell…

Obake – Mutations

A second outing and a new lineup for Obake, with Porcupine Tree/Metallic Taste of Blood’s Colin Edwin taking over from now-departed Massimo Pupillo on bass. There’s little change in the band’s aesthetic though – planet-smashing mid-to-sloth-paced sludge, with occasional detours into pretty and/or eerie ambience providing some tonal contrast. However, this is on the whole vastly more focused and confident-sounding than its predecessor – bigger, tighter, harder (to list but three sexually suggestive adjectives). Aside from one weirdly aberrant bit of overly slick neo-psychedelic soft-prog/post-rock at the mid-point, this is a relentless and aggressively assured collection. Whereas the first album at times had the feel of experimental noise jams rooted in doom-metal tropes and textures, Mutations finds Obake blossoming into a sharp-fanged and gloriously brutal metallic unit with just enough experimental leanings to keep things unpredictable.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Nisennenmondai – N

Three tracks of extended, spiky, minimalist groove. Super-lean and scarily efficient. Most thrilling of all, it sounds like they took the choppy chukka-chukka guitar lick from ‘Bootylicious’ and constructed a whole album out of it. 

Tētēma – Geocidal

In his latest attempt to assuage a pathological fear of not making music, Mike Patton finds himself recruited by electroacoustic composer Anthony Pateras for this new duo. Seasoned Pattonites will hear elements of some of his more fringe projects here, from the unsettling swathes of Maldoror to the rude rhythms of General Patton and the brooding atmospheres of the soundtracks. But tētēma, largely conceived by Pateras, has a curiously moreish flavour all its own. Recorded in several different locations, it has the feel of a travelogue through a quasi-fictional land, rendered as bristling misinterpretations of traditional ritual, devotional music and forgotten noir cinema, taking in scenes of dystopian dread and modernist composers festering beneath mosquito nets. Pateras’ compositions span vast stylistic and emotional terrain, and Patton gleefully pushes his throat into painful new areas in response. Heavy on both beats and abstraction, it’s instantly accessible yet deeply strange and indefinable too.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

Can it be that Deerhoof have really been around for 20 years? Yes, it can. At first, their 13th album seems to consist of typical examples of their slightly more restrained and hugely welcoming, but still offbeat latterday aesthetic. But with ‘Doom’s mid-section wall of bristly guitar and the discordant stomp of ‘Last Fad’, the band’s wilder leanings begin to dominate. By the time we reach ‘Exit Only’s uber-fuzzy into-the-red garage-punk and ‘Big House Waltz’s dubstep-meets-Afropop reprisal of the riff from Sepultura’s ‘Roots Bloody Roots’, all rationality is lost in a giddy whirl of good-natured but raucous possibilities. It’s a gluttonous feast of beautiful and ridiculous and sweet and silly and outrageously clever ideas packed into 31 all-too-swift minutes. Can it be that Deerhoof have really delivered their best album 20 years into their existence? Well, just maybe.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Earth – Primitive and Deadly

Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies return with the eighth Earth (that’s difficult to say) album, sounding beefier and more aggressive than they have since the turning point of Hex. Still full of space and contemplation, but with a rockier, more aggressive edge. The vocal tracks (from Mark Lanegan and others) didn’t really work for me, but the instrumentals are among Earth’s finest.

Olga Bell – Krai

An enticing and unique melding of electronica, Eastern European/Russian folk music and post-rock, though far less precious and much more immediate than that genre-mash description might imply. Singular, fun and beautiful.

Slomatics – Estron

One of the best relentlessly heavy albums I’ve heard all year. Ugly, brutal riffs, dripping with foul ichor, complemented by incongruously spectral vocals. Gorgeous Moebius-style cover artwork, too.
Knifeworld – The Unravelling

In the five years since the last Knifeworld full-length, Kavus Torabi has hardly been idle, releasing two Knifeworld EPs, playing with Gong, Guapo and the Medieval Baebes, orchestrating the Exquisite Corpse Game project, running his label Believers Roast and hosting a prog-rock radio show with snooker champ Steve Davis. Somehow, he found time to record these eight lavish tracks, brimming with imagination. More concise and focused than 2009’s Buried Alone, this finds Torabi exploring bold new areas – like ‘The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown their Eyes’ eerie manual imitation of electronica, or the eerie abstraction of ‘This Room Was Once Alive’. Yet, for all its forays into way-out psychedelic prog curiousness – and there are many – at the heart of The Unravelling is Torabi’s warm and welcoming pop sensibility, which eases the unsuspecting listener through a theoretically imposing world of intricate time changes, sputtering horns and spiralling riffs.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Howie Reeve – We Are in Repair

Since the dissolution of his former outfit Tattie Toes, Howie Reeve has been pioneering the use of acoustic bass as a solo instrument. Although he’s an extraordinary player, this is no noodly, self-pleasuring wankfest. Rather, his songs are snare-tight, startlingly original compositions, rooted in post-punk, but much more exploratory and personal. A unique aesthetic, both nakedly intimate and giddily visceral, with lyrics crammed full of everyday yet profound observation.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Bad Aura – Bad Aura

Superbly greasy and sleazy Glaswegian noise-rock quartet, full of diseased groove and good-natured confrontation. One of the best live bands I saw all year.

Melvins – Hold it In

Old Man Gloom – The Ape of God

Promotional gimmickry and false-leak shenanigans aside, this is a superbly upsetting collection from OMG, with barbed sounds, bantha-sized riffs and oppression to spare.
OOIOO – Gamel

As these words spill forth, dear reader, the sun is doing its best to bake any and all puny human flesh that falls beneath its gaze. And it turns out OOIOO’s Gamel, their first in five years, is an absolutely perfect soundtrack for a scorcher of a day. As you might guess from the album’s name, Yoshimi P-We and her psychedelic ritual/post-punk/trance-rock ensemble have turned their attention toward the traditional sounds of Bali for their fifth full-length release. Both in terms of composition and instrumentation, these 11 tracks draw heavily on the chiming, tinkling, rhythmically complex music of gamelan, and in doing so create something that fair sparkles with uplifting energy. They make for a gloriously bright and euphoric confection of glittering cross-rhythms, pulsing krautrock-style thrust and giddy vocal chants, with occasional bursts of splattershot guitar. The unmistakable citrusy fractal tang of Yoshimi’s day job as Boredoms drummer can be detected at times, but this is less monolithically pounding than their current incarnation, more protean, playful and fun. It’s beautifully euphoric and joyous, with an appealing lightness of touch, even fragile and delicate when it needs to be – the sound of liquid summer being piped directly into your lugholes.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Zeus! – Opera

Whether it’s the packaging, the name or the two intense-looking bearded Italian blokes, something about Zeus! suggests stoner sludge-doom. It is, then, a source of extreme and giddy delight to find that this band are far weirder and more interesting than all that. Theirs is a largely instrumental bass+ drums hyper-prog, its manic energy, mischievous sensibility and super-intricate composition most likely inspired by the Tatsuya Yoshida school of impossible musics, but with added caustic metallicisms redolent of Fantômas or classic-era Slayer. As an added treat, the titles are awash with delicious and terrible puns (of which the best/worst is opener ‘Lucy in the Sky with King Diamond’). As heavy as it is clever, as ridiculous as it is utterly, magnificently brilliant. 

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Xylouris White – Goats

5.  Merkabah – Moloch

It only came to my attention via the Quietus’s end of year list, but Merkabah’s third album was an instant hit. Stunning, visceral noise rock with a heavy dose of King Crimson threading through its intricately interwoven physicality.

4.  Richard Pinhas & Oren Ambarchi – Tikkun

Tikkun […] brings the fire. While Pinhas and Ambarchi get the spine credit, they’re joined on these three tracks by Masami Akita, Duncan Pinhas, and twin drummers Eric Borelva and Joe Talia. Driven by an unrelentingly sexy 6/8 bassline, ‘Washington DC’ sets the tone, piling on layers of lavish noise and savage beats, while ‘Tokyo’ is steadier but more imposing. But closer ‘San Francisco’ is the peak, a torrent of drums and joyfully busy noise that achieves the kind of irresistible, ecstatic cosmic-psych solar flares of 21st-century Boredoms.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

3.  Music Blues – Things Haven’t Gone Well

Anyone who’s seen Harvey Milk live will know that bassist Stephen Tanner seems like the happiest man on Earth. Even through the sometimes overwhelming darkness of their music, he remains a radiant transmitter of bonhomie and good vibes. It’s therefore painful to hear that this an illusion. Recorded in the wake of personal tragedy, Things Haven’t Gone Well is a reflective and harrowing autobiography in instrumental form, the titles a timeline of his life from difficult birth to adult depression. These 12 tracks were originally ideas for a new Harvey Milk album, and it shows. It’s the sludgiest, dirgiest moments of Courtesy and Goodwill or My Love…, minus Creston Spiers’ ursine howl, plus an ocean of despair. However, in true perverse Harvey Milk fashion, there’s potent beauty in there too – as much as ‘It’s Not Going to Get Better’ could crush tanks, it’s soulful, yearning and painfully human too. On the face of it, Music Blues seems like a poor name for a project – so vague and bland as to be meaningless. Yet in context, it makes perfect sense. This is not blues as genre, but as simple, honest, direct statement. A stunning piece of work, as viscerally invincible as it is emotionally vulnerable.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

2.  Richard Dawson – Nothing Important

1.  Babymetal – Babymetal

They’ve been unavoidable in 2014, for good reasons or ill, drawing equal amounts of adoration and ire, but I for one bloody love Babymetal. Their debut has been, by some margin, my most-played album of 2014.  

Like most people, I first encountered them via ‘Gimme Choko!’. Given my fondness for brutal metal, cheesy pop and many aspects of Japanese culture, they seemed to be tailor-made for me. However, had the fairly silly ‘Gimme Choko’ been entirely representative of Babymetal, that might have been the end of my affinity. Luckily, there’s a lot more to them than singing about chocolate. They transcend novelty and gimmickry. Their debut album is a whirlwind exploration of myriad metal styles, from death, thrash and punk to power and prog, djent, industrial and nu-. And it’s all done with remarkable conviction and intensity (as you’d expect, given that the backing band/songwriting team includes Takeshi Ueda of Mad Capsule Markets). 

The juxtaposition of actually really-bloody-good and super-heavy metal tracks with ultra-sweet and poppy female vocals is supremely exciting. I generally prefer female voices over male, and the uber-macho vocals on ‘proper’ metal can be a bit wearing. So this is made for me. It has an element of extreme tonal contrast that’s really compelling and addictive – it’s the salted caramel of music. Aside from one track that’s a little too close for comfort to Limp Bizkit, the entire album is really solid. It’s surprisingly diverse too, each track with its own distinct identity. Highlights abound, but here are the top three: ‘Megitsune’, which combines more traditional Japanese music with face-booting riffs, and even includes a heavy breakdown based on the old tune ‘Sakura’ (also referenced by Martin Denny and Bon Jovi, as it happens); the arty, obtuse ‘Akumu No Rinbukyoku’, which sounds like the hybrid of Bjork and Meshuggah that has previously only existed in my dreams; and ‘Akatsuki’, an unbelievably sweet and gorgeous ballad offset by full-force metal assault. When Su-Metal sings that sublime chorus backed by all the heavy metal thunder you could ask for… goosebumps the size of golf balls. Pure bloody pop/metal genius.

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