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Archive for May, 2010

This entry inaugurates my run through all the major releases of Devin Townsend’s solo career discography (though I am absenting myself from reviewing both Devlab and The Hummer, Townsend’s two completely ambient/drone releases).  Devin Townsend has long been one of the hardest working men in heavy metal, and absolutely one of the most talented, rating extremely highly in the categories of guitar playing, songwriting, singing, screaming, and producing; the fact that this, his first solo album (originally released under the name Ocean Machine with the album title Biomech), is so excellent is magnified approximately one million-fold when you stop to remember that 1997 was also the year in which Strapping Young Lad (Devin’s “proper” band, though now defunct) released their skullcrushing (and never topped, by themselves or any one else in industrial-tinged heavy fucking metal) beast of a sophomore album, City.  Dude’s pretty busy, I guess is what I’m saying.

Frankly shit cover art

As I already mentioned, although this eventually saw a reissue under Devin’s own name, it was originally released under the band name Ocean Machine.  This wouldn’t really matter much, except that the album actually sounds relatively different from most of Townsend’s other solo (or should we say solo-ish?) works.  To be fair, the differences are slight – it’s not like you’d throw this on and mistake it for Dream Theater, Malevolent Creation, or John Coltrane – but I think it’s still worth noting.  To my ears, the two biggest differences between Ocean Machine – Biomech and Devy’s other solo stuff are the songwriting and the placement of his vocals.  Though it doesn’t follow this outline perfectly, I’m going to suggest as a tentative argument that his solo works became gradually more intricate and complex over time, so that by the time we get to Synchestra, we’re hit with banjo breakdowns and tuba-led polka interludes.  Following this notion, then, it stands to reason that Ocean Machine – Biomech is among the simpler of Devin’s solo recordings; I will say that this is true, but that I don’t mean that by way of criticism.  This is, quite frankly, a tremendous album, and which I only hesitate to call astounding because it is exceeded in brilliance by a few of Townsend’s later solo albums (full discographic reviews to follow).

Much of this album is, as I’ve already suggested, relatively simple or straight-forward in comparison to later works; many of the songs (particularly from the album’s first two-thirds or so) are based around melodic yet rhythmic riff-figures (I wouldn’t quite call them “riffs,” per se) which are subsequently swathed in backing synths and multi-tracked choral vocals (most of which are provided by Devin himself).  One of the reasons this album stands apart from others by (or including) Townsend is that his vocals seem somewhat less upfront in the mix; they are still central, of course, but they blend in a bit more with the overall tone of the instrumentation than in other albums.  This tactic works extremely well in the context of this batch of songs, but because Devin’s vocals are one of the major attractions for me, I can’t help but prefer other albums in which the vocals are more centrally highlighted.

Of course it is a hopeless cliche when reviewing albums, but it really is true that the whole of Ocean Machine is much greater than the sum of its individual songs.  The effect that this music has, I would say, is less to impress with virtuosity or produce particular standout songs, and more to induce a particular mood of overwhelming calmness.  I know it seems counter-intuitive, because this IS a heavy metal album after all, but I think the overall tonal effect, which is furthermore amplified by the songwriting, is to induce a relatively sedate, nearly meditative state in the listener.  Because this is the case, I don’t feel that there are any tracks on here which absolutely jump out at the listener more than any others, although there are certainly moments that stand out.  I love the massively reverbed bass drum that carries the intro of album opener “Seventh Wave,” for example, and I particularly enjoy the overlapping of live drumming and programmed percussion on “Voices in the Fan,” which also features an outro featuring a choral chamber quartet singing what sounds like either sacred vespers or leftovers from some of Therion’s more recent studio shenanigans (Secret of the Runes – Lemuria/Sirius B, particularly).

The second track, “Life,” is a bit too bouncy, almost veering into a pop mawkishness, but this slight misstep soon fades from memory, given that the album’s first four tracks seem to function as a suite, each flowing smoothly into the next, and only really seeing closure with “Sister,” which surrounds its acoustic guitar in noisy harmonics and digital chatter.  In terms of notable songs, “Greetings” is really the first place to finally feature some truly epic, grandiose riffing and stirring chord progressions.  Think of these progressions as the polar opposite of the equally-stirring minor tri-tone riff which opens “Black Sabbath” (from Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath – gotta love it); maybe these chords are Devin’s attempt to stretch back a helping hand to Ozzy in 1970, rescuing him from existential dread (“Oh no, no, please God help me!”).  “Regulator” is probably the heaviest song here, but it stays pretty midpaced throughout, and Devin’s highest-pitched screams are fairly muted in the overall texture of the piece.

I wouldn’t quite call this a concept album, but it definitely maintains some continuities throughout, both in the frequent use of samples and narration which hover just under the noise at the start and end of several tracks, as well (and especially) in the overall tonality.  It is, of course, another cliche to describe music in visual terms, but the fact that this album was originally recorded under the name Ocean Machine is no accident – the riffs employed, and the actual texture and wide-screen mixing of the guitar tone seem to mimic the rhythm and structure of waves and tides, and to evoke an extremely oceanic mood.  Sampling some actual waves and seagulls towards the end of “Funeral” doesn’t hurt this case, of course, but even penultimate (on the reissue, at least) track “The Death of Music,” which eschews metallic elements altogether, is for me extremely evocative of flight across the vast expanse of the sea.  Devin’s vocals begin with whispers and eventually gain in strength as the clear synth tones swell beneath him; by around the ten-minute mark, his clear wailing seems to channel his inner Bono, but honestly, I kept being reminded of Moby’s track “God Moving Across the Face of the Waters.”  The songs sound very little alike, but they both produced similar imagined landscapes for me.

If you’re looking to this album for individual songs, you will of course prefer the first one-half to two-thirds of the album (all the way up to “Regulator”).  Without meaning to downplay the strength of many of those songs, I actually prefer the second half of the album, and especially the eighteen-minute stretch of “Funeral” and “Bastard.”  Each song has its own notable components, but work in tandem to produce in a seemingly more intentional fashion the sort of meditative suspension and tonal calm that I have been arguing the album as a whole creates.  The bonus track, “Things Beyond Things” could be removed without damaging the whole, although I do think the instrumental opening of the track is a nice release from the somewhat anticlimactic ending of “The Death of Music,” which would be fine if it had restricted itself to just fading out with the soft, programmed percussion and spare sound effects (which were, actually, somewhat reminiscent of early 1990s ambient/IDM such as The Orb, or especially The Future Sound of London’s excellent Lifeforms album); instead, we get some more dialogue (which may be idle band chatter, or may be sampled from somewhere, I couldn’t quite tell) about a driving range on the sea or some such nonsense.  Kind of killed the mood for me at the end (speaking of which, the very end of the bonus track is not so quiet as it might seem as it fades out – goes to show that Devin maintains a healthy sense of humor even in this, which seems in many ways to be one of his more serious and straightforward solo endeavors).

Bottom line: Much of this review has probably sounded like damning with faint praise, which is really only the case because I think Devin’s later solo works got even better.  On its own terms, though, this is a very strong progressive/heavy metal record, and manages the quite impressive feat of being both busy and simple, complex and contemplative, heavy metal and (arguably) ambient.  This is hardly the first, and will definitely not be the last time I say this: Devin Townsend is my favorite musician in heavy metal, and you could do a lot worse for yourself than buying up every last damn thing he has done.

Overall rating: 92% (I was originally pegging it as an 85% or so, but listening again to those chord progressions in “Greetings” and “Funeral” [especially just after the “Jesus was a poor boy” lines] sends beautiful fucking chills down the spine.)

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I may not be expert in many things, but I have, perhaps more than I should, quite a lot of experience in buying music online (that is, ordering physical products online, not digital music).  Wrapped up in all of this discussion is probably a fairly good entree into the debate over illegally downloading music.  Maybe a post for a later time, but for now, let it be said that although I don’t take a particularly hard line on downloading, I do think that if we honestly value the artistic contributions of independent and spirited musicians, we need to continue to contribute to an economy that supports these musicians.  I thought, therefore, that I might offer a little bit of advice to anyone out there looking for both a wide selection and a good value in their new or used heavy metal.  You can find many of these links on the sidebar of this blog’s main page, along with a brief description of the site.  Here I will try to offer a little more detail as to why (and for what) I would recommend these sites.

Silly but necessary disclaimer: I have no relationship to any of these retailers other than that of more or less occasional, and more or less satisfied, customer.  Another disclaimer: I basically buy only CDs, so if you’re looking for vinyl-specific advice, this is not be the best place.  However, many of these more independent outlets carry stock of vinyl releases (especially limited edition 7″s and the like) in addition to CDs, so if you’re looking for a genre that any of these distros specialize in, I would definitely explore further to see what sort of vinyl they carry.

Independent/Small Labels & Distros:

The End Records webstore:  This is probably one of the best and most reliable all-around heavy metal distros currently going.  They don’t really specialize in one genre over any others, so you are likely to find a little bit of just about everything, from death to doom to black to grind to hardcore to industrial to true heavy metal, and they’ve even recently begun branching out and carrying selected releases (particularly new releases) from some of the more “major” independent labels for indie and electronic musics; my most recent order (of just a few days ago) was a triple pre-order for the new Negura Bunget record (by the “new” Negura Bunget), the new Forest of Stars, and the reissue (finally!) of Gorguts’ From Wisdom to Hate, to give you a flavor of what you can find.  Shipping is free within the U.S., and what has proved especially satisfying lately is the ability to place an order for items which are in stock, available only for pre-order, AND items which are currently out of stock; their order fulfillment process has always worked really smoothly for me, especially when it comes to out-of-stock items, since they’ll put them on order for you, but still let you know if it looks doubtful that something will ever come in.  Basically, this is the only webstore I’ve come across that has this type of functionality, and I think it’s really great.  Prices are quite reasonable, as well, although for some of the more mainstream (and especially non-metal) stuff that I mentioned above, you might be better served going elsewhere (e.g., this was not my first stop when I wanted to preorder the recent Autechre or Black Keys records).  Still, you’ve gotta love supporting a super reliable independent player, so maybe that’s worth an extra dollar or so every now and then.

Century Media Records webstore: The Century Media distro, based out of California and connected to the record label, is somewhat similar to The End Records, though probably somewhat less exhaustive in scope; it still seems to carry a fair amount of pretty much any metal genre you could care to seek out, but I haven’t seen it branch out much into that mythical world of non-metal music.  So, feel free to take that either as a commendation or reproach.  I have primarily used this site as a source for some excellent pre-order package deals (something that Relapse Records – see below – has begun to offer more frequently as well), where you can pre-order upcoming albums along with t-shirts, hoodies, posters, and other merch for a price reduction.  The site is currently plugging the new Nachtmystium and Nevermore records, among others, for those who are interested.  One thing I will say is that they’ve recently undergone a bit of an aesthetic makeover, and I don’t much care for it; the site seems over-busy and a bit visually bloated.  Unlike The End, shipping is not free here, but they do have going for them a pretty excellent clearance section (currently just a shade under 1,000 items), where I have found a load of gems for the friendly price of $3 – $7.

Relapse Records: Relapse has a well-deserved reputation as one of the metal scene’s most prolific indie labels (think Neurosis, Mastodon, High On Fire, Baroness, Dillinger Escape Plan, Pig Destroyer, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Coalesce, Cephalic Carnage, Unearthly Trance, Minsk, Tombs, &c., &c…).  It just so happens that the Philadelphia-based label also runs a pretty decent metal distro.  As mentioned above, they have recently started offering a lot more in the way of t-shirt + CD pre-orders (as well as some 2-for-1-and-a-bit options; e.g., if you pre-order the second volume of the Scott Hull-organized This Comp Kills Fascists, you can add on the first volume for just a few bucks extra), and accordingly, I tend to order from Relapse primarily to buy items from their own artists, rather than as an all-purpose destination.  Still, prices are pretty decent (probably on average $12 or $13 for CD full-lengths), but again, shipping will cost you a bit extra (though maybe a hair less than at the CMDistro, if I recall, but don’t quote me on that one).

Profound Lore Records: Profound Lore is a relatively small concern when compared with the preceding sites; nevertheless, it is absolutely one of the best (and truly underground) indie metal labels going these days.  The primary draw for this site is tracking down the latest releases from Profound Lore’s artists (including, recently, Cobalt, Ludicra, Altar of Plagues, Coffinworm, Hooded Menace, WOLD, Saros, Portal, The Howling Wind, and so forth), which are offered at extremely good prices with free shipping to the U.S. (even though it’s a Canadian concern).  The webstore also carries a small but potent selection of fairly obscure or difficult-to-find (at least through many other venues in the States) titles; in this respect Profound Lore’s webstore is somewhat similar to that maintained by the Ajna Offensive, which I’m not reviewing here because I don’t frequent it enough, but which is notable for its depth of hard-to-find black metal as well as for being one of the main U.S. distributors for French orthodox BM powerhouse Norma Evangelium Diaboli (NoEvDia).  Check ’em all out.

Reckless Records: Reckless is an actual physical record store with three locations in Chicago: one in Lakeview, one in Wicker Park, and one right downtown in the Loop.  This is definitely not a metal-centric option, but each of their physical stores does stock a metal section with both a frequently rotating bunch of used material as well as a pretty decent selection of recent releases from most of the more major indie or underground metal labels (meaning, for example, that you’ll for sure be able to find all the most recent Relapse releases right away, and that they’ll probably eventually get in at least some titles from your Profound Lores, 20 Buck Spins, and the like).  If you’re in Chicago, Reckless is a great place to go kill a few hours; even if you’re not, though, don’t fret, because the entire inventory for all three stores is searchable through their website.  This also means, for Chicagoans, and to my occasional great shame, that if you’re browsing their stock online and find a bunch of items you want but which happen to be scattered across all three locations, you can pay the extra fees for shipping to get your order filled online rather than running all over town.  Think of it as a pretty dull ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story, in which none of the options end with you enslaved by aliens on Mars or washing a dragon’s genitals for eternity as punishment for angering Merlin.

Aquarius Records: This one is a bit of a wildcard, I suppose.  Aquarius is a small, independent record shop in San Francisco, and although I visited San Francisco back in March, I wasn’t able to make it to their physical location.  I’ve put in a few orders to Aquarius over the years, so although I don’t patronize them very often, I think they’re definitely worth looking into.  At the time I stumbled onto them, I think I was looking for some titles which were then almost impossible to find anywhere else; specifically, I ordered a copy of Mütiilation’s Vampires of Black Imperial Blood and Leviathan’s two-disc demos-and-rarities compilation Verräter.  Since that time, I feel like I’ve stumbled across both of those titles elsewhere (especially Verräter, which I feel like was reissued by tUMULt records, which, though I’d have to check to verify, I think may actually be somehow associated with Aquarius).  Regardless, Aquarius’ frontpage is a cool place to check out, because they keep a running editorial commentary on new items they get in stock, which definitely tend toward the extremely obscure (isolationist black metal, freak-psych-noise-rock, long forgotten ‘world’ musics, and all sorts of CD-Rs and other limited run things), so it’s a pretty fun list to browse through if you’re looking for something random you may never have heard before.

Moribund Records / Full Moon Productions / Red Stream Records / Blackmetal.com : So, I’ve grouped these four sites together because they are likely to have a good deal of overlap.  All four are based in the States (Washington state, for Moribund, California, for Bm.com, and somewhere in Florida for the other two), and all four tend to specialize in black metal.  Full Moon is probably the smallest of the three, but has also recently moved to a $8 rate for pretty much all CDs (plus a reasonably sizable $5/disc clearance section), so while you may not find everything you’re looking for, whatever you do come across is almost always a great deal.  Red Stream is a little more hit and miss for me, although their prices tend to be pretty fair, and (if memory serves) they also offer free Stateside shipping.  As a label, Moribund is probably the highest profile (with recent artists like Horna, Azaghal, Brown Jenkins, Arckanum, Avsky, etc.), and maintains a fairly sizable webstore.  Moribund’s everyday prices are only average (maybe even a bit on the pricey side of average), but they frequently offer sales which make things quite reasonable.  Blackmetal.com obviously got in on the webstore business nice and early to have cornered that domain, and run a small label in addition to a black metal (obviously) heavy webstore.  Prices here are also quite good, with frequent sales and clearanced items and a nice recommendations function when viewing a particular item.  I have had positive experiences shopping at all four places, so if you’re looking for something fairly obscure (and mostly black metal), you might give them all a quick look.

Deepsend Records: This Massachusetts-based label and distro is a fairly recent discovery for me, but a very quality one as well.  Whereas many of the previously mentioned sites specialize either in nothing or in black metal, Deepsend is a great spot to look for various contemporary permutations of death metal and grindcore (particularly tech death or brutal death metal, whatever you want to call it).  Again, this is not webstore with a massive inventory, but shipping is included in the pricing of individual items, and they have an ongoing deal whereby three full-priced CDs gets you a 4th free.  Pretty hot shit, if you ask me.

Candlelight Records: Now, I don’t have anything necessarily bad to say about Candlelight’s distro, but it’s really not so great compared to a lot of the others I’ve reviewed above.  Their inventory is quite small, doesn’t seem to change much, and apart from scanning through their sale items for anything of one-time interest, the only thing I’ve used the site for is pre-orders (earlier this year, for Ihsahn and Fear Factory, and maybe last year for Blut Aus Nord and Emperor’s killer Live Inferno).  Nothing wrong, really, but I’d definitely steer you to almost all of the above first, unless you’re looking for a Candlelight-specific title.

Non-Independent Retailers:

Amazon: Presumably Amazon.com requires no introduction, so I’m not even going to hyperlink it.  I’m sure there are all sorts of arguments to be made about how shopping at ‘e-big box’ places like Amazon (or buy.com, or overstock.com, or whatever) is poisonous to smaller, more independent retailers, and that’s fine.  I get it.  But the bottom line is, a lot of the time you can find better deals here.  Not all the time, and that, quite honestly, is why I’ll usually check the above-listed sites first when I’m trying to track something down or figure out who’s getting which new releases when; but I’d be completely full of shit if I told you that I didn’t then also check Amazon to compare prices.  Presumably you also know the deal: free shipping on orders over $25; but another option I’ve come across much more frequently lately is their price guarantee on pre-orders.  Basically, if you put in an order for an album yet-to-be-released for a certain price, but the price they offer goes down after you place your order but before the item is released, they will automatically give you the lower price (this literally just happened with Rosetta’s new album; when I placed my pre-order it was listed at $13.99, but when it shipped the price had been knocked down to $12.99, so that’s what I was charged).  I’m well aware that this may just be a sophisticated ploy on Amazon’s part to instill good will and fuzzy feelings in their shoppers.  All I can say to that is: keep it up.  Amazon is also a great place to check for used copies of your favorite metal needs.  I have absolutely never had any problems using Amazon as the facilitator for third-party transactions, which are just as often second-hand music and book stores as they are private citizens selling off their personal collections.  Be warned, though, that the $2.99 shipping per item adds up awfully quick (which is one reason you might first check out half.com first; see below for more).

eBay: Same as above.  You know the drill with eBay.  This is not usually my go-to spot, but if I’m looking for something crazy obscure or out-of-print, I’ll sometimes give it a whirl; you never know when you’ll stumble across an item being auctioned by someone a little out of the pricing loop, or when you’ll miraculously be the only bidder on a pristine condition copy of Swans’ long out-of-print and quite rare live release Real Love (hypothetically speaking…).

Half.com: This is a sister site to eBay, which just hosts straight-up sales rather than auctions.  The prices you’ll find for most used items will probably be quite comparable to those you would find browsing used stock at Amazon (and in fact, many larger sellers will have their items cross-posted on both sites).  The notable benefit to Half.com, then, is that if you order multiple used items from the same seller, shipping is $2.99 for the first item, but only $1.89 (or somewhere thereabouts) for each subsequent item.  So, shipping costs will definitely still add up way too quickly, but you’ll get a much better deal on shipping than if you were to find the exact same seller’s storefront on Amazon, where each used item ordered, even if multiples are ordered from the same third party, will cost you $2.99.  And just like shopping used on Amazon, you’re likely to run the gamut of independent booksellers and record shops to folks just like you and me, banging around the internet trying to make a living.

CD Universe: You know, this place ain’t half bad, either.  I mainly check this place out for pre-ordering new releases.  The prices are usually cheaper than Amazon’s, but shipping isn’t free, so more than a few times, I’ve figured out the items I want, put them in the shopping cart at both sites, and then figured out what the totals would be once CDUniverse adds on their shipping (which isn’t unreasonable, it’s just sometimes deceptive in that it makes you think their prices are lower than Amazon, when they may not actually be).  They also seem just about as likely as Amazon to stock obscure underground metal titles, so that’s definitely a plus.

Alright, folks.  That’s the advice I’ve got for you.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of the best places to shop for metal online, but these are the places I can vouch for personally.  Another generic piece of advice, I suppose, is that if you’re looking to buy a particular genre of metal, look up the website for a record label which supports artists of that genre; chances are pretty good they may have a webstore with items distributed from other labels, in addition to their own artists (this is how I came across Deepsend, and actually Willowtip, as well, which I didn’t mention above, but which has a similar type of webstore, specializing in similar genres).  I’m also happy to hear from any of you out there who have randomly stumbled across similarly worthwhile indie labels and distros; if there’s one thing the internet is good for, it’s for more efficiently connecting all of us to the shit-ton of awesome music out there in the ether, the better with which to smash in our faces.

Go forth and spend your money in a slightly less frivolous way than you might have done otherwise.  Cheers.

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Given that this current bout of ninety-plus degree weather has sapped me of all earthly energy, why not opt for the path of least resistance (namely, random iTunes game)?

1. Aphex Twin, “Come to Daddy (Little Lord Faulteroy Mix)” – Some creepy and understated electro from Mr. Richard D. James.  This track suffers incomparably, however, from appearing immediately before one of my favorite Aphex Twin tracks ever, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” which, apart from appearing on the Come to Daddy EP, also showed up on the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi alongside other mid-90s electronic greats such as Autechre, Massive Attack, Orbital, and the sometimes-maligned Banco de Gaia.  Anyway, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” makes fantastic percussive use out of what sound like ball bearings being dropped on a smooth concrete surface; those interested in weird musical coincidences might also check out Gnarls Barkley’s jaw-droppingly awesome track “Open Book” for a somewhat similar percussive production.

2. Today is the Day, “Flowers Made of Flesh.” – Well, goddamn it all if I didn’t try to get through all of Sadness Will Prevail a few times. I’ve pretty much decided that the sprawling double album was never intended to be sat through all at once – not because the band wanted each disc experienced separately as a self-contained experience, but rather that two-and-a-half hours of tripped-out ambience, disturbing samples, shrill, shrieking almost-grind, and droning cyber-death riffing were intended to beat the listener into submission and leave him or her huddled in the very same asylum corner pictured on the album cover; whether that speaks well or ill of the record, I’ll leave you be the judge.

3. At the Gates, “Neverwhere.” – At the Gates’ earlier records seem to get overlooked in favor of discussing the landmark Slaughter of the Soul, which makes sense, given that commentators are equally likely to single out that album as the greatest example of the concise brilliance of the Gothenburg style as they are to metaphorically vomit all over its reputation by arguing that without it, the reviled styles of ‘metalcore’ and ‘deathcore’ (I guess) would have been, if not completely forestalled, then at least staved up by a fair while.  I don’t much buy either position, and find it a fun, thrashy little album that never sticks with me much after it’s finished playing.  This track, from their debut album The Red in the Sky is Ours, is kind of cool, but the stuttering, intentionally awkward melodic phrases right at the start bum me out.

4. Tool, “The Pot.” – Tool fans are an odd bunch, right?  10,000 Days was a fairly divisive record, if I recall, and I’ve still never quite figured out my own feelings about it.  I think “Vicarious” worked quite effectively as a single, and the 17-minute, two-part “Wings for Marie”/”10,000 Days” suite ranks up there with the band’s best work.  On the other hand, this track does almost nothing for me, and I find the 11-minute plus running time of “Rosetta Stoned” unacceptably self-indulgent for a track which goes nowhere and features embarrassingly expletive-laden adolescent stomping exclusively.  Go figure.

5. The Stooges, “Not Right.” – Every now and then, the world forgets what rock and roll sounds like; in these dark times, all it takes is someone with a shitty set of speakers (the shittier the better, when it comes to The Stooges) and a ragged copy of Raw Power to roust the world from its shiny-overproduced-rock-music-induced somnolence. This track is from the self-titled album, for the record, but for my money, Raw Power is ALWAYS where it’s at for sheer rock fury – especially in fiery opener “Seek and Destroy” (seriously, YouTube that shit to see Iggy tearing up that track at any point over nearly FOUR decades) and the downright nasty “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell.”

6. Mistress, “Whiskey Tastes Better…” – Possibly the dirtiest band in dear old Blighty, and brought to you by the same lovely folks behind Anaal Nathrakh and Fukpig.  This track features some fairly grimy power metal squealing (think Iced Earth, but like everyone who gives two shits about Barlow or ‘Ripper’ Owens got on the wrong side of a bar fight with Jon Schafer’s Civil War reenactment buddies and ended up chewing on a broken bottle of Jack Daniels) all over the top of a close-but-not-quite-Sunlight riff-fest of sludge-caked grind.  In other words: awesome.

7. Sufjan Stevens, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” – Oh my, my, my; that is one ironic transition.  From the filthy misanthropy of Mistress to Sufjan’s fairly straight take on this sacred Christmas song.  Not too many indie artists could get away with Sufjan’s five-volume (and still counting, I believe) mini-albums for Christmas, but the dude knows just when to rock his straight-up EARNEST voice, and when to cut loose a little (see “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”).  Plus, the minor key mope-fest that is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was basically MADE for this kind of sad bastard music (apologies to Nick Hornby/Jack Black/Belle & Sebastian/etc.).

8. Swans, “Saved.” – O boy.  There is way too much to be said about Swans (which I may attempt in a later post).  This track is from the controversial album The Burning World, which was Swans’ first (and only) major label album.  Michael Gira (Swans’ principal songwriter, singer, and all-around Dude Of The Righteous Voice) has disavowed the album, primarily due to the pressures he feels the band faced from the label to clean up their sound, as well as the production job done by Bill Laswell.  If you ask me, the whole thing is a bit overblown; yeah, the album is a far cry from the nihilistic drone-stomp of their early 1980s work (Cop, Greed, Filth, Holy Money, etc.), and sure, it was a disappointing come-down to have been the follow-up to probably their all-around most consistently awesome full-length, Children of God, but it’s still got some pretty decent tunes (although, it ought to be said, this is not one of the best), especially “I Remember Who You Are,” “God Damn the Sun,” and opener “The River that Runs with Love Won’t Run Dry.”  Although the instrumental textures, which were really tidied up and smoothed over, may be the biggest change from their previous work, the thing I found most tough to swallow about The Burning World is the almost country-fied, honey sweet gloss given to Gira’s vocals (as opposed to the much gruffer, roots-ier country style occasionally employed by Gira later in his excellent work as Angels of Light – now defunct, with Swans back in action as of late last year).  All of this is mostly beside the point, as this record is one tough motherfucker to find, with most used copies selling online for $30 and up.

9. Drudkh, “Where Horizons End.” – This Ukrainian band is definitely on my list of “Metal Bands Whose Names I Will Try To Avoid Speaking In Public Because I’ve Got No Fucking Clue How To Pronounce Them” (also making the list: Amon Amarth [which looks deceptively easy, but how they hell are those vowels pronounced?], Kiuas, Mörk Gryning, and hundreds of others).  Disregarding the linguistic difficulties, these reclusive metallers have made some of the most mesmerizing and grimly melodic black metal of the past decade or so.  This track, from Estrangement, shares all of those wonderful songwriting characteristics, but, like the rest of the record, suffers, in my view, from an excessively treble-y production, both in the clean-ish lead guitar and the way-too-fuzzed-out distorted rhythm guitar.*  The bass sounds pretty great, but simply can’t match the extremely classy and even more up-front bass in their most recent (and much superior) album Microcosmos.

10. Black Breath, “Virus.” – Well, hell yes.  Black Breath’s debut full-length, out just earlier this year on Southern Lord, is a super-potent kick in the goddamned teeth.  Heavy Breathing features an excellent, compact Swedish death metal-style guitar tone, but mixes it up into a fierce cocktail of Disfear-esque metallic d-beat and seriously pissed-off half-time doom breakdowns.  Check out the completely wicked instrumental “Heavy Breathing” and the way it seamlessly breaks into the following track, “Children of the Horn.”  Crushing and dangerous stuff, and much too well-crafted for being their debut album (well-received three-track EP of last year notwithstanding); make sure your china is well-secured in its hutch, because these dudes have the potential to smash your pitiful little world down to shards and pixels if they get any better.

That’s all for now, friends; I’m off to break things.

*Apologies to your friend and mine, the comma, who is sure to be sorely overused whenever I get my grubby little hands on it.

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Son of a bitch, Isis

So, not only have Isis apparently just broken up (boo), but their farewell tour is skipping the Midwest entirely (BOO!).  And no, Tennessee for Bonnaroo does NOT count.  Also, does this mean metal journalists will no longer be able to lazily toss out the rarely helpful neologism (it hardly even seems worth dignifying this nonsense by dragging good ol’ logos into it) NeurIsis?  We should be so lucky, although I suppose we should be thankful for the relative economy of NeurIsis when compared to some of the other options: Cult Of Minsk-ing Sparowes?  Rosetta Mouth of Jesu?  PeliCallistOvermarsFlesh?

To reiterate: son of a bitch, Isis.

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***Another repost.  I haven’t thought too much about this topic since I originally penned this list, but I’m going to try to give it some more thought now, and will likely add some other albums.***

Many music snobs* will tell you that the best way to listen to your favorite music (although YOUR favorite music probably sucks, goes the Music Snob Party Line) is with a really good pair of headphones.  Or, better yet, on vinyl AND with headphones.  For myself, however, it’s not always that important; that is, if I’m listening to something along the lines of The Ramones, Cannibal Corpse, or Bruce Springsteen, I don’t find that using headphones adds all that much to my listening experience.

However, I will argue that there are some albums that can definitely be experienced more fully through headphones. I haven’t quite figured out why that is with some records, although certainly the more complex and layered an album is, the more it might warrant headphoned (?) investigation. Regardless of the reasons, I’ve assembled here a list of some of the albums I find myself listening to almost exclusively with good stereo headphones. I also welcome any suggestions any of you fine people out there might have for albums to spin with the good ol’ headphones.

– Fantômas, Delirium Cordia – This album is creepy enough on its own, but if you listen to it carefully enough, I swear it actually feels like you’re under anesthesia, surfacing periodically from bizarre narcotic dreams to the sounds of your own body being operated on. Terrifying genius.

– The Axis of Perdition, Deleted Scenes From The Transition Hospital – This is another truly demented album, perfectly narrating – at least aurally, as most of the lyrics are undecipherable – the psychological torment of someone waking up in an abandoned industrial hospital. The industrial black metal is fuzzy and furious, the vocals are maniacal, and the ambience is mesmerizing.  Last year’s follow-up, Urfe, is similarly demented, but I haven’t taken to it nearly as much, although it demands headphones just as much as (if not more than) Deleted Scenes, particularly on the first disc, which is entirely metal-free and instead consists of rich, deep film noir-style soundtrack elements serving as the backdrop for the narration of a 28 Days Later-esque horror screenplay.  Kind of.  Whatever; it’s fucked up.

– Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven – This entire album is Godspeed’s best work – except, perhaps, for “The Dead Flag Blues,” off the debut record – and its complexity perfectly lends itself to headphone listening. Pay particular attention to the layering of guitar tracks during the loud sections of this album: I’m pretty sure one of them is a guitar being played with a screwdriver.

– Set Fire to Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder – Another entry from the incestuous Montreal post-rock scene, this album demands headphones to listen not just to its details, but also to the spaciousness contained within and between the music. Recorded in an old condemned house, this album accurately reflects that sparseness.

– Broken Social Scene, Broken Social SceneYou Forgot It In People is a marvelous album as well, but the sheer density of this album’s layered recording demands headphones to sort through everything that’s going on.

– Autechre, Tri Repetae ++ – I love pretty much all of Autechre’s work, but this album strikes the perfect balance between the more gentle, ambient IDM of Incunabula and Amber and the colder, glitchier recordings of their later career. As such, this album is great for the sheer textures it creates and then inhabits. And please, please, please, don’t neglect the ++ part of this double disc rerelease, as it contains some of Autechre’s absolute best, particularly the stunning closer, “Vletrmix21.”

– John Coltrane, Ascension – This record may just be one of the most intense musical experiences ever put to tape. Absolutely chaotic, but retaining a certain sense of groove and complex melody/counter-melody, listen to it with headphones for total sensory assault.

– Converge, Jane Doe – This album works great without headphones as well, but I find that I’m better able to appreciate the striking sense of melodicism that underlies the shrieking, emotional hardcore when I use headphones. The same is true of You Fail Me, but to a very slightly lesser extent.  For reasons I’ve yet to quite figure out, No Heroes and, especially, last year’s killer Axe to Fall both seem to work better kicked out through speakers in the “real” world.

–  Blut Aus Nord, Thematic Emanation of Archetypal Multiplicity – Even more so than The Work Which Transforms God, this EP is fantastic to listen to with headphones. A perfect exercise in alternating density and spaciousness.  I think, for all our sakes, it’s a good thing that this EP never wound up on a split release with The Axis of Perdition’s Physical Illucinations… EP, as was originally intended, given that the combination of the two bands’ coruscating bleakness and dark brilliance likely would have produced such a volume of awesome that our world would have collapsed in on itself, leaving behind the very black hole from which both recordings seem to have issued in the first place.  In other words: I like it.

– Xasthur, Telepathic With The Deceased – Despite having read plenty of negative reviews of this album, for my money, this one is probably Malefic’s best (although Nocturnal Poisoning definitely gives it some stiff competition) , and it’s even bleaker with headphones. Especially striking is his excellent use of melodic guitar counterpoint.

– Max Richter, The Blue Notebooks – This gorgeous album drips with melancholy, and begs you to give it your full attention.  Though I haven’t put it to the test, I suspect Johann Johannsson’s IBM 1401: A User’s Manual album would be equally rewarding, and equally melancholy, with headphones.

– The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – I still can’t seem to get enough of its magnificent texture and atmosphere. Sounds great with or without headphones, but it’s a bit easier to keep track of all the nuance with the headphones.

– Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast – An album this bizarre, complex, and awesome needs to be listened to with headphones, friends, and probably libations.

– Massive Attack, Mezzanine – Great without headphones for your dinner parties, sure, but listen to it with them on, and you’ll experience its unique claustrophobia and urban paranoia to the maxxx!

– Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa – The music may be minimalistic, but you’ve got to give it your full attention in order to appreciate how it can be so simple and yet complex simultaneously.

– Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection Symphony) – Apart from the fact that I find classical music in general much easier to listen to with headphones, you absolutely MUST listen to the concluding sections of the Vth movement with headphones in order to get the full power of the chorus, plus the pure weight of the organ riding beneath the final moments.

Leave comments, disagreements, further recommendations, threats and imprecations below to your internet heart’s content.

*Of which I am certainly one, it’s just that I tend to focus my snobbishness in other ways.

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I’m not going to pretend that this is a fully thought-out list.  These ten albums are not even ranked in any sort of order.  Think of this, maybe, as a bit of a status update for 2010.  It’s been a pretty good year for metal so far, and we’re not even halfway through.  I have made no effort to select albums which are particularly obscure or underground, this is just a selection of some of the new metal albums that have been welcomed warmly into my home (and ears) this year.  Chances are, I’ll get around to posting reviews of some of these at some point.

– Darkthrone, Circle the Wagons

Ludicra, The Tenant

Twilight, Monument to Time End

Abigor, Time is the Sulphur in the Veins of the Saint

The Howling Wind, Into the Cryosphere

Nechochwen, Azimuths to the Otherworld

Immolation, Majesty and Decay

Orphaned Land, The Neverending Way of ORWarriOR

Howl, Full of Hell

1349, Demonoir

I’m still undecided on the new albums by The Ocean, Sigh, Xasthur, and Red Sparowes.  Biggest disappointment so far is probably the new album by Blacklisted, but I suspect this isn’t because it’s a disappointing album for them, and rather that I just don’t like their style at all (well, to be fair, it was primarily the monotone hardcore vocals that turned me waaaay off).  Plenty of other great records are out already, with many more to come.  I’m particularly excited about the new Anathema, Watain, Nevermore, and Pig Destroyer albums, as well as the sophomore album from A Forest Of Stars.  I also just found out that Deepsend Records is rereleasing Gorguts’ 2001 album From Wisdom to Hate pretty soon, which is fantastic news for anyone who loves Gorguts’ other records but didn’t quite want to pony up $20-30 on eBay for a used copy (let’s not even get started on what some people are charging for the also out-of-print milestone Obscura – I had the good fortune to randomly stumble across a brand new copy of it somewhere recently [I think it was either on eBay or Half.com] which had been labeled ‘Used’ and was being sold for around $20).

Oh, shit, let’s not forget FUCKING IRON MAIDEN.  Up the irons!

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***This is a repost of an entry I posted several years ago on my last.fm page.  It has been edited slightly, not to change any of the albums I selected for each season, but to excise some of my more nonsensical commentary.***

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which music can convey certain moods or vague feelings that are almost entirely separate from particular emotional or subject matter content. Now, obviously the feeling received will totally depend on the subjectivity of each individual listener, such that it’s entirely possible (and perhaps desirable) for one artist, one album, one song (one lyric, one note, &c…) to mean something very different to each person who listens.  Nevertheless, I’m pretty intrigued by we might call musical hermeneutics, especially as it pertains to the seasons. Therefore, I thought I might list a few albums that, at least to me, capture some aspect of the various seasons.  I hope, especially, that I can steer clear of the trap that many black metal fans seem to fall into, namely, associating anything trebley and tremelo-y with winter, frost, etc.  I will provisionally call this the “Abbath Fallacy.”

Feel free to offer your own lists, or perhaps suggestions of albums/artists you feel I might be interested in, based on the type of feeling I get from those albums listed below. This is largely an attempt to think about what music means, and how it comes to mean that, which, for me lately, has been much more about texture/timbre than lyrical or visual imagery.

Winter Albums:

– Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place – The guitar tone on this album seems somewhat wintry to me, especially on the first track, “First Breath After Coma.” When this album reaches its crescendos, it makes me think of early morning sunlight on vast Antarctic plains.
– Tenhi, Maaäet – It’s impossible for me to listen to this album and not hear dark, early winter nights.
– Set Fire to Flames, Telegraphs In Negative/Mouths Trapped In Static – I am thinking especially of the emotionally devastating final two tracks of disc two, “Mouths Trapped In Static” and “This Thing Between Us Is A Rickety Bridge Of Impossible Crossing/Bonfires For Nobody…”
– Red Sparowes, At The Soundless Dawn – Parts of this album are almost too noisy to make me think of winter, but there are flashes throughout this album that make me think about a large city under a heavy snow, that struggle between the insistence of nature and the petulance of our daily routines.
– Vinterriket, Der Letzte Winter – Der Ewigkeit Entgege – The howling, ambient, fuzzed-out, keyboard-drenched black metal of this fantastically-structured album absolutely screams ‘blizzard’ more so than ten thousand Pure Holocausts or Battles in the Norths every could. P.S. Don’t get me wrong, I love Immortal.

Honorable mentions:
– Tenebrae In Perpetuum, Antico Misticismo
– Autechre, Incunabula
– Agalloch, The Mantle

Spring Albums (though, to be fair, I’m mostly thinking about gray, rainy spring, and not flowers-in-bloom spring):

– Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue – Particularly the delightfully lugubrious “Blue In Green,” which makes me see a smoky, almost empty jazz club, and it’s raining out in the streets of the city.
– Beck, Sea Change – Listen to the strings on “Lonesome Tears” and tell me they wouldn’t blend in perfectly with a cascading rain.  Or don’t, whatever.
– Boards of Canada, Music Has The Right To Children – The analog-ish texture of this album is both perfectly clear and deliciously murky, perfect for a cold spring rain.
– Tom Waits, Alice – Throughout this album, Waits is at his absolute best. And holy crap, listen to the title track, the rattle on the snare and the soft attack of the saxophone; this is the song so quiet that the drummer’s brushes have tiny brushes attached to the ends of them.
– Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness – The first lyrics on this album are: “One day, I stood with my back to the wind, and a rain fell down…” and goddamn if the music doesn’t sound exactly like that.

Honorable mentions:
– My Dying Bride, The Dreadful Hours OR Turn Loose the Swans
– Portishead, Dummy
– Billie Holiday, Lady In Satin
– Nargaroth, Geliebte Des Regens

Summer Albums:

– Ulver, Nattens Madrigal – This is a perfect example of the trebly, tremelo-y fallacy; this album is about as raw and trebly as they come, yet it doesn’t remind me of winter in the slightest. In fact, the rawness has an organic feel, which, coupled with such stunning touches as the brief acoustic interlude in “Wolf and Fear” and the brilliantly triumphant opening riff of “Wolf and Passion,” creates a certain feeling of warmth, perhaps like the earthen floor of the forest in which this album was apocryphally recorded.
– Morgion, Cloaked By Ages, Crowned In Earth – Although I think Solinari is a better overall album, you can’t deny that this album, unfortunately Morgion’s last, has a very warm, organic tone, a feeling which pervades in the artwork, the song titles, the guitar tone, the clean vocals, &c…
– LTJ Bukem, Journey Inwards – The funky, mellow, jazzy drum and bass of this double album seems the perfect soundtrack to early summer mornings, bright and fresh without the tyranny of excessive heat and light/overstuffed and hyperactive drum and bass.
– Sleater-Kinney, The Woods – There is such a raw immediacy to this entire album that it’s hard to put into words exactly why it feels like summer. Maybe it would be best to listen to the last two tracks, the epic “Let’s Call It Love” and the beautiful come-down closer “Night Light” to realize just how warm and direct the entire album is. Oh, and you’ll also notice that these ladies know how to ROCK. THE. FUCK. OUT.
– Striborg, Spiritual Catharsis – To put it briefly: Sin-Nanna is demented. More specifically, this ultra-raw album sounds so mysterious, so distant, and so moist that it really does feel like you’re stuck in the middle of the rainforest. Listen to the eerie interlude of “Glorification of Mother Nature” or the bizarre keyboards floating above the chaos of “Within The Depths of Darkness and Sorrow.”

Honorable mentions:
– The Arcade Fire, Funeral
– Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On

Autumn Albums:

– Drudkh, Autumn Aurora – Seems too obvious, right? Well, yes, but Drudkh’s dense, warm black metal is tinged with just the right amount of sorrow to qualify it perfectly for autumn.
– A Silver Mt. Zion, Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward – This is easily ASMZ’s best album, though they are all fantastic. The strings and piano are wonderfully mournful, and Efrim’s vocals on “The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes” are both restrained and explosive. If this album doesn’t move you, chances are you’re a robot. A sad, dead-hearted robot.
– Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 3 – Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs – Two words: holy shit.
– Yann Tierse, Amélie Soundtrack – Accordians, piano, charming melodies, but underlying it all a rather Parisian melancholy, perfect for strolling along the Seine in October.
– Circle Takes the Square, As The Roots Undo – Bizarre and incredibly emotional post-hardcore. “In The Nervous Light Of Sunday” and “Interview at the Ruins” are perfect examples of music for the fall.

Honorable mentions:
– Enslaved, Isa
– Wolves in the Throne Room, Diadem of 12 Stars
– Deep Dish, Global Underground: Moscow

Comments, suggestions, opinions welcomed.

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