Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008: #18. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath

Note: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

For the past five years, the group started by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala has come to dominate progressive rock, breaking into the mainstream consciousness despite their experimental nature and lack of traditional song lengths and structures. But it is this desire to experiment beyond the traditional limits of commercial music, and more importantly, the band’s success in doing so that has come to define them; their ability to remain offbeat yet accessible has given the Mars Volta a surprising mass appeal, one that would threaten to belie their technical disposition were it not an already accepted fact.

However, the release of Amputechture in 2006 revealed a downside to this experimental approach, as the album often forwent listenability for jam band-style arrangements that rarely showed the Mars Volta at their energetic best. On The Bedlam in Goliath, the group goes in the exact opposite direction, trying their hand at a more straight-forward rock album, without all the clumsy peripheral dickering that held Amputechture back. The result is an improvement over their previous album, as Omar and Cedric provide a heavier focus on creating the lively funk-inspired tunes that got them noticed in the first place, but ultimately it fails to match up to the grandiosity of De-Loused in the Comatorium, or the epic ambitiousness of Frances the Mute. There is plenty of excellent material here, no doubt - the ardent and spastic "Aberinkula", the horn-laced crescendo of "Wax Simulacra", the catchy and expansive "Cavalettas" - all of which can live up to the Mars Volta's best work. But in the end, simply not enough of the material presented lives up to the band's high water mark, and The Bedlam in Goliath appears simply content to be a pretty good release by a band which has done better.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best of 2008: #19. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

Note: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

John Darnielle is a busy man.

Ignoring for a second the bevy of albums he’s released in his seventeen years as the singer/songwriter behind The Mountain Goats, and the hundreds of songs he’s written during that time, 2008 saw Darnielle release his fifteenth (really?) full-length album, Heretic Pride, as well as a free EP release, Satanic Messiah, which you can download here. How the man can find time for all of this is beyond me; I struggle finishing even the basest of tasks (like, say, this Best of 2008 list) even with no other responsibilities to tend to.

On Heretic Pride, Darnielle takes yet another step away from the lo-fi folk sounds of his earlier records, furnishing his songs with lush pianos, horns and string arrangements. All of this works in creating a very warm and comfortable atmosphere that’s perfect for immersion. Darnielle’s song-writing skills are also again up to task, as his erudite lyrics reveal the story of each individual song through layers of allusions and metaphors. This can all be quite daunting, and rightfully so, but the fact that such craft is put into the lyrics trumps any immediate sense of deterrence, allowing you to slowly delve into the rich tapestry of the song-writer’s vision.

I guess the only criticism I can levy here is that it’s been done before and better at that. Darnielle doesn’t really cover any new ground here or bring any new elements to the table that weren’t already apparent in the brilliant The Sunset Tree. Instead, his songs carry with them the sense of familiarity; which isn’t bad in of itself, only in that it reminds you of a superior work. But arguing that the artist set the bar too high is one of the more positive criticisms one can impose. Indeed, for what it is, Heretic Pride is still a great album in its own right. Warm, intelligent and emotional, this is yet another strong release from one of the best song-writers around.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Best of 2008: #20. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

Note: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

This pick is due almost solely to my latent NIN-fanboyism. Trent Reznor's 7th studio album, and his second of the year after the entirely instrumental Ghosts I-IV, was released for free on his website to no warning or antecedent fanfare, a refreshing gesture, if not quite as an anomalous one as it was presented by the media. On The Slip, Reznor continues his long-standing fascination with electronics, incorporating both the disparate soundscapes of Ghosts and the dance-laden industrial pop of Year Zero into the album, with the result being a fun, if not necessarily ground-breaking release.

Yet despite the fact that most everything Reznor has done here has been done before by him (and better), The Slip still manages to feel like a comprehensive and self-contained album. The dark, eerie electronic vibes that open "999,999" still feel at home next to the jumpy, discordant "Discipline", even though the two songs could easily be placed into separate NIN albums without any trouble (Ghosts and With Teeth, respectively). Never does this feel like an assorted collection of B-sides, despite the fact that it very well could be, considering that Reznor only planned on releasing it as an EP, and that it was written and recorded in a span of two months. As a result, the average song quality isn't quite up to the par for NIN; "Letting You" sounds noisy for the sake of noisiness, and "Corona Radiata" is a seven plus minute instrumental track that never goes anywhere at all. But despite these faults, The Slip still manages to be enjoyable of its own regard. No, it's not the temperamental masterpiece that was The Fragile, but then again, it never tries to be. This is just Reznor having fun recording and giving back to his fans in the process. That the result is even more fun for the listener should be considered a bonus, a symbol that the relationship between artist and fan can still thrive in spite of a recording industry that seems intent on waging war between the two.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008: From #30 to #21 (and then eventually to #1)

Now that Christmas is over, and now that no one still cares, I figured it was as good a time as any to post my obligatory Best Albums of 2008 list. Over the next few days/weeks/however long I choose to draw this out for, I'll be counting down the 20 best albums released in the past year with an individual post containing a mini-review pertaining to each. But first, and in the interest of covering as much ground as possible, I'll first count down the top ten albums that didn't make the cut, as well as the most disappointing albums of the year and the best non-full length releases.

Note: Due to the density of albums here, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums seen here, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

Biggest Disappointments:

It's worth noting that I don't consider any of the following albums bad, merely disappointing for one reason or another, be it due to hype or my own personal expectations.

Cynic - Traced in Air

I'm probably alone in this one, but I don't really care. After the paradigm-shifting record that was Focus, this just feels empty by comparison.

Foxy Shazam - Introducing...

After the madcap zaniness of The Flamingo Trigger, it was disappointing to see the Cincinnati natives move away from their earlier hardcore-leaning sounds to more keyboard-focused music. And yet, on songs like "Ghost Animals" and "Introducing Foxy", the focus works incredibly well, coming off like piano rock on acid. So what's the problem? While half of this album sounds like the ravings of a demented Billy Joel (I mean this as a compliment), the other half falters, coming off as anywhere from contrived to just plain irritating.

Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

There was a lot of good hardcore music released this year. This wasn't even in my top ten.

Murder By Death - Red of Tooth and Claw

With their fourth album, Murder By Death stick with the Old West stylings and story-telling motifs that have made past releases so strong, but forget to include enough musical variety to keep it interesting. The album peaks after the first song ("Coming Home"), and the song quality, not to mention the quality of singer Adam Turla's incessant Johnny Cash impersonation/homage, goes downhill from there.

Subtle - ExitingARM

Pitchfork called this "Subtle's pop album", and as far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty accurate descriptor. Unlike Pitchfork however, I'm not sure I can consider this a positive development. ExitingARM sees Subtle move away from the already estranged hip-hop they originated with, further showcasing the side of the group that likes swirling melodies and electronic sounds. The idea is sound, considering this was never a group to confine themselves within conventions anyway, but there are a few problems in the execution. For one, there is an unnecessary level of polish on display in places, occasionally obscuring the voice of its most distinctive vocalist, Dose One (it almost feels like he's on auto-tune). Subtle still manages to pull off a strong pop song on occasion, but they do so with a lower rate of success than before, making long-time fans more likely to just listen to A New White for their fix.

Best Extended Plays (EP's, Splits, etc.)

65daysofstatic - The Distant And Mechanised Glow Of Eastern European Dance Parties

65daysofstatic are post-rock band from the United Kingdom, known primarily for their blending of electronic influences with guitar-heavy build-ups and crescendos. But on The Distant and Mechanised Glow of Eastern European Dance Parties, the group shows off their electronica influences, creating a collection of songs that sounds like a house mix at a high-scale rave. The result is a swirling, infectious concoction that stands up to, and possibly surpasses anything else 65daysofstatic has done. Here's hoping that the dance influences remain apparent on their next release.

Andrew Jackson Jihad - Only God Can Judge Me

This will get its own post soon. These guys were one of my favourite discoveries from this year.

BATS - Cruel Sea Scientist

See Here.

Envy/Jesu Split

This is actually more than long enough to qualify as a full-length, but I'm putting it here so that I can give it its proper due. With Envy, by now you know what you're getting, so you either like it or don't, but Jesu's side features some of Justin Broadrick's best work this side of Godflesh. Broadrick's dense, lengthy, metal-tinged shoegaze is at its strongest here, making this the best of Envy's many EP releases from the past year.

Fire Team Charlie - ...And Everything Will Be Undone 10"

Solid band reminiscent of Daniel Striped Tiger makes intricate and noisy emotive post-hardcore.

The Gaslight Anthem - Senor and the Queen

In the aftermath of The '59 Sound, I had almost forgot about this. These four songs, totaling just over eleven minutes in all, act as the stopgap between the band's first and second albums, with songs like "Say I Won't (Recognize)" showing where they've been and "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?" signifying where they were going.

The Mountain Goats - Satanic Messiah

Fantastic free release courtesy of John Darnielle. More on him later.

Red Sparowes - Aphorisms

On this EP, the Red Sparowes create guitar-driven post-rock that burn with intensity. The climaxes are booming, the build-ups are superb, and the song titles are never longer than twelve words, all of which suggests that the band is headed in the right direction. Here's hoping that their next album is the one to finally capture this group's massive potential.

Wingnut Dishwashers Union/James K. Polk and the Family of Friends Split 7"

James K. Polk’s side is delicate folk music which ends up marred by lyrics that make the Andrew Jackson Jihad look like Paul Baribeau, a juxtaposition which makes their two songs very hard to get into. But they're ultimately irrelevant to my enjoyment of this split, because the other side of the split features some of Pat the Bunny’s best work yet. “Free and Alone” is a song about the loneliness and weariness that results from the singer’s state of constant travel, and “Fuck Shit Up (Wha-Na-Na)” is a song that almost manages to be beautiful in spite of its self, showcasing the introspective punk ethos that Wingnut Dishwashers Union exemplifies so perfectly.


And now, the best albums of the year, starting with #30.

30. United Nations - United Nations

I am not a fan of Glassjaw or Converge. Glassjaw either bores me or does nothing for me and Converge is just too much for me. As for Thursday... well, that's better left unsaid. Suffice then to say that I was not one of the many fanboys heavily anticipating the so-called grindcore/power-violence (really, that's exaggerating it) release from this super-group, featuring Daryl Palumbo of Glassjaw, Geoff Rickley of Thursday, and Ben Koller of Converge. But I ended up checking it out regardless, and I'm glad that I did, because once you get past the deliberate attempt at inaccessibility made by the band, you find an uproarious hardcore release that's far more progressive than it lets on. Is it worth the hype, well, no, not entirely, but it's still a strong album with some vicious commentary that more than matches the belligerent tone of the music. "Say Goodbye to the General Figment of the USS Imagination" deserves special mention for its fantastic use of a saxophone solo drenched in feedback and distortion, the ultimate fall-out after such a relentless onslaught.

29. Black Ships - Omens

Have you ever wondered what sludge metal would sound like if it was sped up to 80 mph? Wonder no more. Straight out of Montreal comes some of the dirtiest hardcore you will ever hear, featuring densely layered guitars tuned all the way down and an angry, throaty roar that perfectly matches the din of noise surrounding it. Or, to put it in layman's terms: This. Fucking. Rips.

28. The Riot Before - Fists Buried in Pockets

Folk-punk generally takes one of two directions (an over-simplification, but bear with me): there is the more folk-sounding, but punk-inspired bands that you'll see on the Plan-It-X roster, and then there's the more true-to-the-name amalgamation of punk and folk, which generally utilizes both acoustic and electric guitars in their application of punk. This is of the latter. On their debut album, Fists Buried in Pockets, The Riot Before create an angry, literate punk album for every Orgcore kid looking for something new. "5 to 9" is a highlight here, telling the tale of a Mexican man who crosses the borders looking for work to support his family. The message isn't subtle in the least, but the song kicks too much ass to fault it for its overtness. The Riot Before balance these political songs with more introspective turns, such as "Words Written Over Coffee" wherein the singer presents an analysis of himself and his choices in life, eventually concluding that the path he has embarked on was the necessary one. Recommended for anyone who liked The Falcon or Chuck Ragan's solo turn.

27. pg.lost - It's Not Me, It's You

2008 was a very strong year for post-rock, and few albums were better than pg.lost's debut album, It's Not Me, It's You. Featuring soaring peaks and searing crescendos, this is the kind of aggressive, treble-heavy post-rock not seen since How Lonely Sits the City!, albeit not quite up to the level of that album. When the band climaxes, the results are often spectacular; the rest of the time, however, their music often reaches a lull, unsure of what to do when not building to a finish. Regardless, pg.lost are better more often than not, and the impression they leave is one of a delicate balance between intensity and nothingness, a prime example of crescendo-core done right (ew, now I feel all dirty).

26. Mesa Verde - The Old Road

What is most impressive about Mesa Verde is their ability utilize a number of techniques of band's that came before them and apply those influences into their music while still sounding like a breath of fresh air in an over-exposed genre. Mesa Verde manages to encompass both extremes of what you would expect from European screamo at the same time, switching back and forth between glistening post-rock build-ups (“A Deep Sleep Without Dreams”), and unkempt bursts of raw energy (“Return to Victories”), never content to rely solely on one or the other. At their most progressive, they sound like an even more post-rock leaning version of Sed Non Satiata, and at their most violent, they border on a more abrasive La Quiete.

25. Killing the Dream - Fractures

Killing the Dream are a hardcore band from Sacramento that utilizes the heaviness of metal with the musical harmonies of melodic hardcore. Fractures is the band's third full-length album, taking the formula from their past outings and refining it through the course of twelve superb bursts of forceful, energetic hardcore. The result is one of the year's best hardcore releases, one that manages to be both progressive in focus and aggressive in practice (Fucked Up, take notes).

24. Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling

Mogwai, though long considered a benchmark for post-rock, have never been a band that has thrilled me. Their so-called opus, Young Team, feels terribly overrated to me, albeit definitely different when presented with the stereotypical example of post-rock, and my other experiences with the band have left me even more apathetic. But The Hawk is Howling changed that for me. While it was met with lukewarm hype by most, to me it showcases a band that never tries to do too much, and as a result never manages to completely blow the listener away, but instead focuses on churning out interesting melodies and captivating riffs. Unlike on Young Team, where Mogwai's emphasis is on volume, The Hawk is Howling shows a lot more variety to the band; the trippy synesthesia of "The Sun Smells Too Loud", the haunting piano of "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead", the gentle yet ominous progression of "I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School"... all great songs, all of which show different musical emphases by the band. The Hawk is Howling may not have much in peaks, but it more than makes up for that in its absorbing and refreshing manners of progression.

23. ...Who Calls So Loud - ...Who Calls So Loud

Taking their name from Dickens and their pedigree from Funeral Diner, ...Who Calls So Loud have created some of the best and most varied emotive hardcore of 2008 with their self-titled debut. Through the course of this album, the California four-piece works its way through some of the most intensely passionate epics since, well... Funeral Diner.

Hey, did I say they were ex-Funeral Diner? I did? Alright, just making sure. I wouldn't want to violate a statute of limitations or anything.

However, while the comparisons to their former group are inevitable, it's not like ...Who Calls So Loud don't deviate from their parent group, as the band makes a point of showing more variety to their assault than Funeral Diner ever did. For example, "Assume the Power Focus" begins with a delicate country lick that comes off as beautifully emotional without a word being uttered, a far cry from the dark, dense, and viciously aggressive approach of The Underdark. The result of this more varied approach is that ...Who Calls So Loud ends up feeling more refreshing than redone, making it one of the year's strongest releases.

22. Baader Brains - The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers

Mike Kirsch is back, and with yet another band. The former member of Please Inform the Captain... and Bread and Circuits has returned with The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers, the first full-length album by Baader Brains. Baader Brains was formed back in 2005 by Kirsch and former Swing Kids/Bread and Circuits member Jose Palafox, with their name acting both as a play on Bad Brains, as well as a tribute to the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group. They play a relentless, heavy and revolutionary brand of hardcore that could be very aptly compared to the members' former band, Bread and Circuits. Like in previous Kirsch bands, sampling is used prominently, breaking up the fiercely defiant anthems with sarcastic educational film clips and the like. Angry, pointed, and resistant to the end, The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers is another chapter in the life of a musical revolutionary.

21. Made Out of Babies - The Ruiner

Noisy, tumultuous, and occasionally terrifying, The Ruiner is the third album of New York noise metal band, Made Out of Babies. Featuring members of Red Sparowes and Battle of Mice, Made Out of Babies take the deafening guitars of the former and the ominous post-metal temperament of the latter, combine them, and then add a lot of noise for good measure. Where it works is in the incredible atmosphere created, much in part due to the vocals of singer Julie Christmas, who may or may not be a banshee (I haven't confirmed it). Christmas sings much like the secretly evil child in a horror movie talks - you know, the one who insists upon saying everything in a really unsettling voice as the music around him suddenly builds to an operatic tension, just so you know that he's fucking evil. When surrounded with the kind of unholy racket the rest of the band puts up here - as emphasized by some stellar guitar work courtesy of Brendan Tobin and Eric Cooper - Christmas sounds like she might just be the anti-christ.

Additional entries will be posted in the days to come.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lifetime - Tinnitus EP

Lifetime - Tinnitus

This EP was part of a supremely awesome Zen post, so you can check that out and/or download it here.

Lifetime was a melodic hardcore/pop-punk band from New Jersey, formed by Ari Katz and Dan Yemin (who would later go on to play in Kid Dynamite and Paint It Black) in 1991. Before breaking up (for the first time) in 1997, the group was heralded as one of the strongest acts to come out of the New Jersey punk scene, a pop-punk band that was just underground enough to be cool to like. The Tinnitus 7” was released in 1994, and features a brasher, more aggressive sound than the poppy, streamlined approach shown in their later, more famous works. It would eventually be collected in The Seven Inches collection a couple of years later, along with other early EP’s released by the band.

“Isae Aldy Beausoleil” begins the record with a screeching riff, and immediately transitions into an aggressively fast-paced track, showing the band’s superb ability to seamlessly change pace. Much of the credit belongs to Yemin, who weaves an endless loop of riffs in stream-like fashion, only breaking to build tension. The next song, “Ferret”, shows more of the same, with the highlight coming just over two minutes in when the band completely tears it up coming out of a solitary bass line. “Starsixtynine” brings with it a heaving instrumental combination right off the bat, reaching calamitous levels of energy as the throaty yelp of the title track brings the end to another break. This capability for building momentum out of nothing is a huge strength of the band, and it’s exhibited to perfection throughout Tinnitus. The last song, “Ampersand”, is possibly the most cathartic of all, starting off slowly as the guitar and bass intertwine, working together to some leisurely yet interesting melodies. Eventually, the band breaks yet again (Are you noticing a pattern yet?), with the drums and guitars eventually bringing the pace to a frantic rate as Katz screams his heart out in confronting yet another faceless oppressor. The emotion and sentiment come off as even more real thanks to the production, which has a rawness to it that really makes these songs unique in the spectrum of pop-punk, showing that layers of polish are anything but necessary in crafting intricate punk gems.

This is angry, passionate punk music full of throaty, cathartic gasps and some great fucking melodies. In other words, it’s what I’ve been told every other Lifetime release is. Except Tinnitus actually lives up to the reputation.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

now that's reporting!

Too apathetic/busy to post anything of substance, so here:

from the 'great moments in journalism' file

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Circles - Demo (2008); Plus Contempt! Derision! Scorn!

As the year comes to a close, tradition has it that you will find egregious list after list ranking the best albums of the past year, churned out in a fashion befitting the craftsmanship of an assembly line, by blogs and magazines everywhere; all of them joyfully eager to get their opinions out before people stop caring about where exactly each individual journalist gave placement to one 'Lil Wayne' and move on to more interesting list-related activities, like People's upcoming countdown of the "10 Funniest Drug-Related Addictions Celebrities Faced This Year". And so too, as tradition has mandated it, will I indulge in an eventual year-end list, regardless of whether or not I (unlike the magazines I have so callously derided) have an audience that readily gives a fuck.



Anyhoo, I figured in keeping up with the theme of 2008, I have decided to share with you one of my favourite finds from the past year, a 4-song demo released this year by In Circles. I couldn't tell you anything about them, or even where I found this (I forgot). Checking out their Lastfm page reveals nothing about the band, except that they have a grand total of 27 listeners (and a healthy portion of free downloads that don't appear on this demo). So in lieu of any real background information, I will just assume that they took their name from the Sunny Day Real Estate song of the same name. There. I said it on the internet, so now it's true.

In Circles play a jumpy kind of post-hardcore, merging the raw explosiveness of hardcore with a gentler, SDRE-tinged sense of melody. On this demo, they focus mainly on the former, to surprisingly stellar results. Opener "Echo" begins with a furious energy reminiscent of a less progressive City of Caterpillar, as the singer screams out-of-breathedly how he was "gasping for air" over the frenzied burst of the guitars. It is this continued energy, shown both in the voiced frustrations of the vocals as well as the constantly changing and progressing guitar lines, that makes this demo exceptional. The band has all the rawness and enthusiasm of a garage band, with an instrumental prowess and sense for composition far beyond what would be expected of them. What you have on this demo is just over 10 minutes of dynamic and intense post-hardcore that takes an established structure and plays the hell out of it.

Here's hoping that now, with my substantial endorsement, we can get that total up to 30 listeners.

In Circles - Demo

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pat The Bunny at the Brooklyn Tea Party

I was going through youtube and found this show, done about a year ago, and thought I'd post it, as it's an excellent performance by one of my favourite current artists. Pat The Bunny, for those who don't know, is an acoustic punk artist, formerly of Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains (a post on which is almost certainly to come), and currently putting out music under the name of the Wingnut Dishwashers Union through his own Spare Change label. The songs below are all from the Wingnut Dishwashers Union side of his discography. If you like what you hear, you can find his website here, where all his songs are free to download on a by-donation basis.