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Archive for December, 2010

Alright, friends – things are starting to get a bit heavy around here as we continue counting down the year’s best metal albums.  Spinal Tapdance presents here, for your viewing (dis)pleasure, the second of three installments ticking off the 30 best records from across the vast universe of heavy metal.  Let us know where we’ve nailed it, and where we’ve completely fucked up and made you embarrassed to have ever even considered directing your web browser to this sad, shabby piece of disagreeable trash we call a blog.
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20.  StarGazer, A Great Work Of Ages/A Work Of Great Ages

In my review of StarGazer‘s sophomore album, I called A Great Work Of Ages “a seething, lurching, yet surprisingly sprightly beast of a musical journey that assaults the unsuspecting passer-by with dauntingly technical instrumentation that nevertheless resolves into a measured, artfully-meted out accounting of chaos.”  Thing is, that mouthful of overwrought prose makes this album sound like a chore to listen to, which it most definitely (and defiantly) is not.  There’s plenty of off-kilter structure and inventive musicianship to admire and analyze throughout this progressive/technical death metal head-trip, but first and foremost, this is an album to put on, sit back, and just enjoy.  You won’t be singing any choruses or humming along to a repeated bridge, but you will be amazed at the ability of these Aussies to play the shit out of their instruments without overwhelming the listener in a blitzkrieg of claustrophobic production and impenetrable gestures.

19.  Intronaut, Valley Of Smoke

Something about Intronaut had never quite jived with me until this album, but boy does Valley Of Smoke set me right and kick me in my ass for doubting it.  These songs are fluid compositions with impressive range, and despite the increasing prominence of clean vocals and smoothed-out texture, this ain’t no soft-ball half-metal nonsense.  It’s all about finding the right groove and sucking you down into its beguiling depths, down into that great colorful panorama of the album’s cover – whether you are the skeleton, or the iguana, or the loftily-soaring eagles is your own concern.  Valley Of Smoke injects jazz-fusion into rumbly post-metal’s environs, and comes out the other side smelling of roses and roses and roses.

18.  Kvelertak, Kvelertak

Kvelertak’s self-titled debut album is the 2010 equivalent of last year’s phenomenal Darkness Come Alive by Doomriders.  Meaning, this is a gnarly collision of all sorts of ass-kicking, party-inducing music.  You can quibble all you like about whether it’s punk, hardcore, black metal, garage rock, and anything else, but the undeniable fact is that this is just music for an all-around good time.  I simply cannot fathom the ridiculous backlash against this band, because every time I throw on this album, I just want to drink some beers and jump around in a forest on a pogo stick.  I mean, come ON, doesn’t that sound fucking awesome?  Sure, the dudes have got a jokey take on Scandinavian mythology, but honestly, if you’re sitting in a library poring over your Eddas and Kalevalas and waxing poetic about Yggdrasil while frowning at the hooligans making noise in the corridor…  Well, friend, maybe it’s time to hand in your heavy metal ID card.

17.  Nechochwen, Azimuths To The Otherworld

This Nechochwen album was one of the most pleasant surprises I had all year.  Apparently they’ve got one other album besides this one which leans more toward the neo-folk side of things, but Azimuths to the Otherworld, apart from having one of the coolest album titles of the year, strikes a satisfying balance between folky acoustic bits and rich, driving black metal.  The fact that the band pays tribute to the beliefs and histories of American Indians is a refreshing aesthetic, and makes for some different types musical influence showing themselves throughout the album, much like on Tomahawk’s Anonymous album.  The out-and-out metal sections are still relatively few and far between, but the album is all about mood, and the insistent drumming and beautiful acoustic guitar work throughout sustains a very contemplative atmosphere.  Don’t miss out on this one.

16.  Triptykon, Eparistera Daimones

So intense has been the drama surrounding Celtic Frost’s demise, and rebirth, and subsequent re-burial, that one could be forgiven for worrying that the next project of these metal giants would perish under the weight of self-doubt and ridiculous expectations.  But have no fear, friends, for Eparistera Daimones is more than ample proof that Tom G. Warrior is one of heavy metal’s original, and still greatest, alchemists, transmuting sturdy, solid riffs into tortured tales of harrowing emotional journeys.  Just as was Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, Triptykon’s debut is a dark, exhausting listen, but one from which the listener emerges feeling revitalized, having survived the trial by fire of some of the bleakest, most Gothic moments the Warrior has yet thrown her way.

15.  Atlantean Kodex, The Golden Bough

Everything about this album screams ‘epic’.  Perhaps the best thing about Atlantean Kodex’s long-awaited debut album is that one can approach it from a wide range of starting points: from the epic trad metal of Manowar, from the triumphant Viking era of Bathory, from the pagan/black wizardry of Primordial, or from the true doom of Reverend Bizarre.  Take any of these avenues of approach, and you’ll find The Golden Bough waiting for you, patient, resolute, and steadfast.  These are songs in no hurry to get you anywhere other than right in the midst of their stately riffing and clear-voiced hymns to the myths from which we all spring.

14.  Unearthly Trance, V

Unearthly Trance’s fifth album (V, get it?) is another of those that took its time with me.  Far less direct than the band’s previous two (and decidedly more Frost-y) albums, V is an all-encompassing listen that honestly sounds like a planet being slowly torn apart by silent electric storms.  Sounds pretty great, right?  The dual vocal attack of longtime bandleader Ryan Lipynsky and drummer Darren Verni drags bile up from the depths of a city’s fetid sewer system, while riffs lumber in and decay just as soon as they’ve announced themselves.  A much more abstract style of nihilistic doom, which actually gels rather neatly with the occult slant of the lyrics.  Take your time with this album, or it will take its time devouring you.  Or will do so either way.  Whatever; doom on.

13.  Slough Feg, The Animal Spirits

If I had the luxury of titling this album myself, I probably would have called it “So Many Smiles.”  Because, honestly, it’s hard to imagine any fan of classic heavy metal not hearing this album and getting a giant, daffy grin plastered all over her face.  I don’t mean to say that this album is lightweight and unserious, but it knows how to be serious without taking itself seriously, if that makes any sense.  If that doesn’t make sense, well, there’s a whole fistful of songs here to make all the sense that my stupid words can’t: “The 95 Thesis,” “Kon-Tiki,” “Free Market Barbarian,” “Ask the Casket” – these are honestly some of the best, most memorable, and freshest sounding heavy metal songs I’ve come across in ages.  So, seriously, whatchu waiting for?  Get your Slough Feg on, and get your smiles on.  Sooooooo many smiles.

12.  The Meads Of Asphodel, The Murder Of Jesus The Jew

Okay, now here’s a band that probably takes itself too seriously.  Sorry, dudes, but it’s the truth.  Have you read Metatron’s 60,000-word codex?  Have I?  I think we all know the answer to both those questions, friends.  Thing is, no matter how seriously these English blokes take the lyrical subject matter of this concept album which purports to set the historical record straight, mercifully their music is every bit as chaotic and mind-exploding as ever.  Perhaps more so, if it comes down to it.  There’s a little bit of everything thrown in here, though the main strands remain a peculiarly English-smelling bit of crusty punkiness, Hawkwind psych and Floydian prog, plus symphonic black metal with a capital Sigh.  Sounds like a mess, innit?  Well, it works.  At times beautifully.  If you ain’t know the Meads, you ain’t know shit about freak-folk’s distant cousin in medieval black metal played by dudes in chainmail.

11.  Deathspell Omega, Paracletus


Speaking of dudes taking themselves too seriously…  Well, it actually doesn’t bother me with Deathspell Omega.  Completing a supposed trilogy of Lord knows what esoteric and orthodox black metal themes, all that’s ever mattered about this band, to this listener, is the music.  And on that score, I’m chuffed as all shit to report that Paracletus may even best Fas…, if not quite ascending to the madness-provoking heights of DsO’s breakthrough album, Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice.    Paracletus whittles the excesses of previous albums down to a concise 40-ish minutes, over the course of which the listener is plunged into a disorienting maelstorm of churning riffage and refracted shards of black prismatic light.  The guitars are clean and razor-sharp, but what really stood out to me in this album is the great diversity of vocal styles by whoever the fuck in this band does vocals.  There’s the traditional black groan/shriek, but also some clean vocals tossed in, as well as some more gut-level bellowing.  Oof.  Great, powerful, genre-damning stuff.  Stare into their abyss, ye who dare.

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I can hear you all out there, licking your chops for the third and final installment of Spinal Tapdance’s extravagant end of 2010 recitations.  Be patient, gentlefolk, and while you’re at it, how am I doing so far?  Anything egregiously left off the list so far?  Any predictions for the top ten?  Anyone out there find their way to this site, thinking it was some snarky alternative-style tapdancing academy, and now becoming more and more enraged at the incessant talk of things like “riffs” and “metal” and “things and people being taken not enough or too seriously”?  I can hear you too, you shiny, clackety-shoed mouthbreathers.

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After last week’s 25 Honorable Mentions (in haiku!), Spinal Tapdance will now begin counting down the Top 30 Metal Albums of 2010 in three cheeky installments.

30.  Immolation, Majesty & Decay

A pitch-perfect production job (after two great albums somewhat marred by odd, muddy sound) casts the perfect spotlight on some of the sturdiest, most sideways riffs these New York death dealers have spewed forth in their entire career.  Further proof, perhaps, that the greatest heavy metal often comes from the sincerity and hardworking ethos of blue collar, down-to-earth dudes getting together and howling (or grunting, as appropriate) at the moon.  This is truly the sound of giants among us, and if you haven’t hopped on the Immolation train at this point, I’m not sure there’s much else we can say to each other.  Immolation’s craft is patient and deliberate, but will crush you beneath slabs of sparkling granite just the same.

29.  Shining, Blackjazz

Blackjazz was by far one of the gnarliest records of 2010, coming across like nothing less than an invasion by a hostile race of noise-mongering aliens.  2010 may have been a great year for saxophone in metal (Yakuza, Ihsahn, In Lingua Mortua – the latter two acts featuring guest turns by Shining’s own Jørgen Munkeby), but nowhere did that instrument come across as foreign and antisocial as on this album.  It’s not often that extreme metal finds areas of tonality and experimentalism previously unexplored, but Blackjazz may just be that year zero of a brand-new sound.  Open your mind to the cacophony, and bow down to your new woodwind overlords.

28.  Woe, Quietly, Undramatically


It took me a good while to come around to this album, but when it finally clicked – holy shit.  Melodically inventive, excellently structured black metal that frees itself from the generic strictures of its Scandinavian heritage, without needing to wander off into all sorts of widdly faux-avant-garde-isms.  Tack on to these superbly classy songs the satisfying tormented screams of frontman Chris Grigg, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for real excellence and innovation in American black metal.  “A Treatise On Control” is without question one of best songs to claw its way into the world of metal this year.

27.  Melechesh, The Epigenesis

I keep reading and hearing about how people are all sorts of disappointed with The Epigenesis, in response to which I can only assume that said grumblers have somehow misplaced their ears up their asses.  The masters of Eastern-influence thrashing black madness have queued up another disc full of caustic, biting riffage and esoteric tales of magick and doom.  The way that Melechesh grafts some of the traditionalism of black/thrash onto the less common rhythmic patterns of Turkish music is brilliant, and I am absolutely unashamed to report that I have found myself simultaneously belly-dancing and headbanging to this album.  If I hear you complain that it’s too slow, I will slap you in your ridiculous face with a sack of cantaloupes, and then turn up the record and play it over and over until you are forced to agree that the album is not about pure, unadulterated aggression, but about finding that perfect hypnotic groove, that devilish trancing sweet-spot.  You think, once they get you there, they’ll just let go?  Fuck off.

26.  Fukpig, Belief is the Death of Intelligence

If I were trying to be a pithy little asshole about it, I’d just call this Fukpig record Extreme Noise Nathrakh, and call it a day.  Thing is, that description’s not wrong, but if you’ve missed out on this severely pissed-off album of short, sharp blasts of nihilistic fury, then maybe I deserve to be a pithy little asshole at you.  Whatever – these filthy Britons take the grinding black melodicism of Anaal Nathrakh (with whom members are shared) and marry it to crusty, bulldozing grind in the tradition of Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, old Bolt Thrower, and anything else you like.  Song titles like “Britain’s Got Fucking AIDS,” “Sadism in the Name of God,” and the classic “All of You are Cunts and I Hope You Die” should steer you in the right direction, which is, to whichever bastard record store would dare carry this.

25.  Ihsahn, After

Both of Ihsahn’s previous solo outings were excellent in their own terms, though each came off a bit hesitant.  And with good reason: sloughing off the tremendous mantle of “ex-Emperor” was assuredly no small task (perhaps complicated by Emperor’s reforming to do the festival circuit).  From the first melancholy note of “From Barren Lands,” though, After is all self-confidence, all the time, striking a riveting balance between the unshakable traces of black metal (understandable, as the dude’s got one of the most distinctive voices in extreme metal) and clear progressive intentions.  The guest spots by metal-saxophonist supreme Jørgen Munkeby are probably the easiest aspect to focus on, but the entire album flows smoothly from one triumphant riff to another.  As such, this is the first of Ihsahn’s solo albums to seem ballasted only by itself, freed of that imperial weight.

24.  Darkthrone, Circle the Wagons

Modern-day Darkthrone records are a treasure and a gift to heavy metal at large, and the frequency and tossed-off nature of these recordings should not for one minute lead us to take Mssrs Culto and Fenriz for granted.  Metal gods of single-minded regression, they are, and with Circle The Wagons they’ve delivered up another collection of furiously catchy black/punk gems, this time borrowing even more heavily (or paying more reverent homage to, depending on one’s perspective) from traditional heavy metal.  “Those Treasures Will Never Befall You” and the title track are unparalleled sing-a-long nuggets, while “I Am The Graves of the 80s” will surely serve as a rallying cry to all denim-and-leather diehards who refuse to admit anything has happened since 1987.  And fucking good on ’em.

23.  Sabbath Assembly, Restored To One


The most brilliant thing about this Sabbath Assembly record is that one needn’t even know a thing about the bizarre cult-ish back story to get seriously creeped out and enthralled by the occult rock on display.  Jex Thoth’s vocals are mellow and just a little rough in all the right spots, with the band eventually sounding like we’ve taken some contemporary orthodox black metal fans and set them down in 1967 San Francisco to play praise songs.  This is one of those “This shouldn’t work but hot jumping shit does it ever!” kind of albums, and one that sounds like total rubbish when described, but is pure dark rock magic when heard.  “Hymn of Consecration” gives me goosebumps every single time.

22.  Black Breath, Heavy Breathing

2010 was a great year for all manner of that volatile cocktail of death metal, grindcore, crust, d-beat, and all other types of general nastiness.  Witness phenomenal albums from Early Graves, The Secret, Nails, and the like – still, none of them cut this particular listener quite as sharply as the debut full-length from Black Breath.  By far the most Stockholm sounding of the lot, the songwriting nevertheless remains a dangerously careening blend of teeth-gnashing d-beat and grind fury, yet with a sense of melody seen in all the best of black and death metal’s first waves.  Sort of like if Disfear and Entombed circa Clandestine had a kid, and fed that kid nothing but Murder City Devils and Doomriders.  I don’t know, fuck you – it doesn’t sound like any of that; instead, it sounds like it wants to hunt you down and drink your blood.  So let it, yeah?

21.  Krieg, The Isolationist


In which one of U.S. black metal’s long-running concerns returned after a lackluster (and supposedly final) album – Blue Miasma – only to dive headlong into even deeper waters of nihilistic howling and claustrophobic, psychedelic black metal droning.  This is a seriously impressive album, with perhaps no factor more welcome than Imperial’s devastatingly intense, gut-destroying vocals.  Leviathan’s Wrest sits in to provide some gloriously thick bass, and Woe’s Chris Grigg provides the drumming, so it’s really a family affair.  The Isolationist is both straight-forward and unconventional, with just enough flourishes of oppressive noise and ambient flirtations to keep the listener disoriented and humbled before the almighty hammer of an American band at the absolute top of its game.
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That’s it for the bottom third of Spinal Tapdance’s Top 30 of the year.  Be sure to stay tuned for the rest of the best, and be well, friends.

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Forgive me, friends, just a brief indulgence into the realm of self-promotion.  If you’re not following me on Twitter (@SpinalTapdance, for the record), then you may have missed the news that in addition to my role as sole curator and writer for Spinal Tapdance, I will now be joining the team of learnèd scribes over at MetalReview.  Exciting times we live in, you and I.  In fact, not only have I joined the team, but my first three reviews are currently up, which I highly recommend for their erudition, cussing, and all-around me-ness.  They are as follows (with links, conveniently!):

1.  Dukatalon – Saved By Fear

This is loads better than the original album art (see M-A for proof)

2.  Disiplin – Radikale Randgruppe

Who doesn't love a bit of flirtatious fascism?

3.  Royal Thunder – Royal Thunder (EP)

A nice Star of Antlers for your post-Hannukkah merriment

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If you’re feeling entirely too lazy to be bothered to go and read the damn things, I can summarize them for you like so: 1. Mostly ‘meh’; 2. Impressively ear-damaging; and 3. Daaaaaaamn! But, y’know, maybe check out the real things for all the witty wordplay and exhausting verbiage you’ve come to know and love despise deal with.

Another friendly reminder from me to you: Spinal Tapdance is also up on Facebook, so why not come find us, friend us, stalk us?

Thanks for your time, and make sure to check this space tomorrow, when the first installment of Spinal Tapdance’s Top 30 Metal Albums of 2010 goes live with albums #30 through #21.  Don’t miss it!  Or, y’know, do.  Whatever.
– dhok

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So, although Spinal Tapdance’s Top 30 Metal Albums of 2010 will post in three installments over the next few weeks (in addition to the Top 20 also appearing at MetalReview), this was such an excellent year for heavy metal that I just couldn’t bear calling it quits at 30.  So, perhaps to whet your appetite for the Real, Official Top 30, I present Spinal Tapdance’s 25-album strong Honorable Mentions list.  This list is only somewhat loosely organized, and in lieu of the traditional straight description of why the album smokes one’s face off, I will instead be penning a haiku for each contender.

The astonishing caliber of heavy metal represented on this list should be some indication of the strength of this year’s output, so read on, and take heart – there’s more yet to come!
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1.  Alcest, Écailles de Lune


Shoegaze and jangly
black metal is so soothing;
why am I crying?

2.  Horseback, The Invisible Mountain

Slow songs, long songs; songs
ride one groove forever, but
are fucking awesome.

3.  God Dethroned, Under the Sign of the Iron Cross

Faster than last one,
less epic but still rad, Re:
War to end all Wars.

4.  Early Graves, Goner

Fast, short, furious
grinding madness breaks your face –
Hail, fallen comrade.

5.  Ehnahre, Taming the Cannibals

Alien noise and
modem vocals make this one
venomous and odd.

6.  Black Anvil, Triumvirate

No nonsense metal
that gives no shit ’bout genres;
bang your goddamn head.

7.  The Howling Wind, Into the Cryosphere

Ex-Thralldom guru
makes a grim ascent to the
ceiling of the world.

8.  Weapon, From the Devil’s Tomb

So many riffs, so
little time to catch my breath
from so many riffs.

9.  The Secret, Solve et Coagula

Grind and black and doom
and ambient noise from the
most boot-like nation.

10.  Winterfylleth, The Mercian Sphere

Epic black metal
by nationalists, but hey!,
they are from England.

11.  Salome, Terminal

“Let’s play some slow riffs,
then put a tiny demon
on the mic – shit yeah!”

12.  Kylesa, Spiral Shadow


“Hey, ‘member the 90s?”
“Fuck you, this is still metal.”
“‘kay, let’s jam some more!”

13.  Electric Wizard, Black Masses

Like that time you got
stoned and joined a cult but then
fucked and played some doom.

14.  Celestiial, Where Life Springs Eternal

Funeral doom is
more like ambient when it’s
this fuzzed, nature-y.

15.  Vasaeleth, Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin

You like death metal,
right? So, go live in a swamp
and kick ass at it.

16.  Aborym, Psychogrotesque

Classy shit, even
though the cover art is the
worst thing ever, yo.

17.  Sailors with Wax Wings, Sailors with Wax Wings

Pyramids dude, how
did you get these sweet people
to jam with your band?

18.  In Lingua Mortua, Salon des Refuses

Jittery and black
and smooth (with sax); better than
Vulture Industries.

19.  Cough, Ritual Abuse

A better ‘lectric
Wizard album than ‘lectric
Wizard did for years.

20.  Twilight, Monument to Time End

Call this the Atlas
Leviathan, if you want –
texture, ‘pocalypse.

21.  Coffinworm, When All Become None

Such a mean-sounding
band, but in all the right ways
(not a vagina).

22.  Anathema, We’re Here Because We’re Here


Twinkly emo songs,
or the truest sad music
your dumb ears can take?

23.  Father Befouled, Morbid Destitution of Covenant

Incantation, plus
Immolation, plus choirs and
other shit is boss.

24.  Cephalic Carnage, Misled By Certainty

Make death/grind, add your
own sound effects, then try to
keep count: you will fail.

25.  Void of Silence, Grave of Civilization


Dude from Axis Of
Perdition sings like Roman
God; plus, epic doom.

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Stay tuned for more end-of-year coverage from your pal here at Spinal Tapdance.  Cheers!

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Hot off the heels of last week’s inaugural entry into Spinal Tapdance’s ‘Listening Arc’ series, I was challenged to a new listening arc by all-around awesome dude Josh Haun of That’s How Kids Die.  The challenge: Get from Johnny Cash’s ass-walloping live album At San Quentin to Darkthrone’s third album, the ultra-grim Under A Funeral Moon.  As you’ll see in the comments section of that first arc, I was pretty confident I could make easy work of the challenge by way of Metallica’s St. Anger, owing to the fact that the video for the title track was filmed (unless I’m much mistaken) at the very same San Quentin Prison.

Two problems presented themselves, however: First, it made for a pretty easy out, generally bypassing the contortions necessary to get from outlaw country to black metal; and second, it would have required me to suggest that all you fine readers spend some 70-odd minutes of your life listening to St. Anger, and that shit just ain’t happening.  Thus, I present to you Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #2: From Cash To Culto (in five moves) which completely disregards and papers over the Metallica Singularity.
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1. Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (1969)


The Man in Black has rarely been as imposing as on this rollicking live document from San Quentin Prison.  I constantly go back and forth as to whether I prefer this or the previous year’s At Folsom Prison, but basically, you can’t go wrong with either one.  Cash covers a wide range of styles on this album (for the record, the disc I’ve got is the so-called “Complete Live At San Quentin,” which cobbles together all 18 tracks, rather than the original 10 of the LP release), from crime and punishment barnburners to country-ish standards to straight-faced spirituals.  What I’m really going to pick up on here, however, to allow me to move forward with the listening arc, is the fact that the prison space itself becomes a crucial element in listening to this album.  That is to say, this is a fantastic album on most all counts – Cash is in fine form, tearing through his ‘hits’ at breakneck speed and letting loose deranged wolf howls when appropriate, his wife June Carter has a pitch-perfect sloppy Appalachian croon, and his backing band is on fire.

But what really makes this record stand out is the atmosphere.  Obviously, Cash revels in playing to the audience of inmates – he provokes a wild chorus of boos anytime he mentions the guards or the warden, and he even penned a tune called “San Quentin,” which he runs through twice to rapturous reception (“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall, and may I live to tell,” etc.).  Listening closely to this album, then, reveals that the space itself is an instrument, and I’m not just talking about the typical aural component of a live album.  This is a live album played to prisoners, and you can literally feel the electricity running through the audience as Cash tears through these outlaw tunes.  The concert was also filmed and broadcast for television, and while I’ve never seen the visuals, I almost don’t need to.  The audience noise swells and falls, and at times, you can tell there’s some commotion going on out in the audience that’s essentially unconnected to what’s going on onstage.  It makes for a crackling, dangerous sound, but more than that, it communicates a sense of the prison as a lived space and a living space, which is precisely how we transition into the rest of the listening arc.

2. Set Fire To Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (2001)


Musically, this debut album from this collective composed of members of the Canadian post-rock elite (Godspeed You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, Hanged Up, etc., etc.) shares very little ground with Johnny Cash.  This is a generally sparse, experimental album, featuring found sound snippets, ambient space, and flashes of chamber-esque classicism.  Here’s the connection, though: This album was recorded in a dilapidated house, and you can literally hear the house itself contributing to the sounds of the album.  Floors creak, strings echo, snatches of conversation are caught through hallways and around corners, police sirens pass in the street.  This house becomes as much another musical instrument as the brushed drum kit or the keening violin.  This is desolate, desperate music for slow urban collapse, with only the faintest shred of hope blossoming.

3. The Gault, Even As All Before Us (2005)


Heartbreakingly, this is the only album The Gault ever produced, and it is probably one of the most criminally underrated albums in all of metal.   I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like it, and the atmosphere of unpretentious sorrow it evokes is absolutely unparalleled.  So, not a cheerful album, this.  I suppose it’s somewhat generally in the style of drone-soaked doom, but the wailing vocals are entirely their own beast, and the slow trudging pace and increasingly epic scope of the songs throughout the album bespeak a sepia-hued Americana that may just as well be the fog-drenched London of late 19th century industrial blight.  This album takes the last few shreds of hope from Set Fire To Flames and, well, burns them on the pyre of its unrelenting realism.

4. Weakling, Dead As Dreams (2000)


The Gault was a project that eventually grew out of the demise of a previous San Francisco band, Weaking, who also – tragically – only ever produced one album.  But what an album it is. Dead As Dreams is a true landmark recording in American black metal, taking the speed and grim intensity of all them damn Scandinavians at face value, but shooting it through with a touch of avant-garde melodicism and structural experimentalism.  Or, let’s put it a different way, shall we?  Wolves In The Throne Room would straight-up NOT EXIST if it weren’t for this album.  And again, unlike the forest-dancing escapism of their Northern European ‘peers’, this album has a much grittier feel, a grounding in the real lived experience of a major American metropolis.  This album defines epic black metal in a way that most folk-besotted frotteurs can only grasp in their wettest of wet dreams, and it really signified that American black metal need not bow to the aesthetic conventions of the genre’s originators.

5. Demoncy, Joined In Darkness (1999)


As we’re just about wrapping up this listening arc, we’re going to keep it in the American family.  Demoncy are a decidedly less experimental outfit than Weakling, but Joined In Darkness is nevertheless another landmark recording in the annals of American black metal.  It’s regressive and atavistic in all those primally satisfying ways, and the thing blasts ahead like a great hulking beast dragging the bones of devoured animals down into the deepest recesses of a lightless cavern.  This is reverb used not to intensify and kick around the shrill howls of a vocalist, but rather to sound a great black lake.  While not quite as primitive as true American black metal instigators like Von or Havohej, Demoncy is, to these ears, infinitely more satisfying.  And, beyond the sound of a phantom bulldozer plowing through a field of ghostly birch trees, the reason this stacks up as the perfect transition into Darkthrone is due to a nice sequencing coincidence: the penultimate track on this Demoncy album, “The Dawn of Eternal Damnation,” follows the same basic model of the final track on Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon, “Crossing the Triangle of Flames”: it starts out brisk and blasting, twists its way around some gnarled-root riffs, and then settles into a stubborn, plodding death march to close out the album in a true dark dirge.

6. Darkthrone, Under A Funeral Moon (1993)


From the brittle, vampiric opening shot of “Natassja In Eternal Sleep,” to the aforementioned infinite-march-toward-a-corroded-horizon of “Crossing the Triangle of Flames,” Under A Funeral Moon is a bona fide classic.  The fact that is maybe my least favorite of Darkthrone’s absolutely untouchable black metal quadrilogy (A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Panzerfaust) says less about the weakness of this album (of which there is none) than about the strength of those albums that surround it.  Nevertheless, this is probably Darkthrone at their most white-knuckled, wide-eyed straight-ahead black metal dogmatism.  Sure, Transilvanian Hunger is arguably more ‘straight-ahead’ in certain ways, but it accomplished that feeling through a far more peculiar, almost avant-garde sense of repetition and minimalist melody than Under A Funeral Moon is a better analogue for such early black metal classics as Bathory’s Under (coincidence?) The Sign Of The Black Mark.  The closing sludge of this album, featuring a tolling bell crumbling and collapsing in quarter-time, should draw your mind back to the closing of Demoncy’s album, and back through other American landmarks, with a quick detour up to the Frozen North, and then back down, screaming through aeons of memory and tradition, to the true American outlaw, the true Black of the sorely-missed Johnny Cash.
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Okay, friends.  The first Reader Challenge has been answered, but it’s up to you to let me know if it’s been answered successfully.  Did I lose the plot at any point throughout this Arc?  Feel like calling me on any bullshit choices?  Pipe up, then; it’s hard to hear you over all this racket.  Thanks to Josh for a very worthy Listening Arc challenge.

So, then, you – yeah, you out there, with the soft voice and big thoughts and eager fingers: What’s next?  What’s your Listening Arc challenge?  Bring it on, the lot of you.

Cheers,
DHOK

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So, everybody loves mixtapes, right?  I will assume that your silence indicates agreement.  Anybody who’s spent any time agonizing over just the right track to follow this other one, or trying to match tempos between songs, or create a mix that serves as a meditation on the theme of ‘the pterodactyl’ surely knows that making a just-so mix is nothing to sneeze at (Just-So Mix ain’t nuttin’ to fuck wit’, etc.).  Or, maybe you just fell asleep watching High Fidelity one time, and so you’ve still got a pretty good idea about how sackless losers the world over get themselves exercised over the most ridiculous things.

All this got me to thinking, though: What if, instead of making a mix of songs, one instead tried to put together a mix of albums?  Sure, it wouldn’t be a physical product any longer, but o! just think of the mood-setting (not to mention time-wasting) possibilities!

So, don’t call it a mixtape.  Instead, think of this as Spinal Tapdance’s inaugural entry into a feature that I hope to make a somewhat regular occurrence: the Listening Arc!  Note that this is a much different beast than the Listening Ark, into which one piles ones Beatles and Mountain Goats albums, two by two.

The idea behind the Listening Arc is essentially the same as that behind a traditional mixtape: To arrange different musics side by side in a fashion that nevertheless makes sense, whether sonically, aesthetically, lyrically, emotionally, or whatever else you like.  Another way is to think of it as the musical equivalent of Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (it’s a joke, asshole).  That is, given a starting record and an ending record that may be vastly dissimilar, how do we arrange a movement from one to the other than never seems abrupt or without rationale?

I thus present Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #1, in which, if you so choose to listen along (assuming you have or can, ahem, acquire, the albums involved), I shall attempt to get you from a lush, naturalistic album of shoegaze-y black metal preciousness to a cold, burnt-out hulk of a sullenly industrial soundtrack to an amnesiac’s wandering throughout an urban wasteland in five albums.  Neat, huh?
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1. Alcest, Écailles De Lune (2010)


Our dude Neige is perhaps one of the busier Frenchmen since Napoleon, having been involved in a myriad of frankly awesome black metal acts, from Peste Noire to Lantlôs to Amesoeurs.  Alcest is perhaps his highest profile project, and on this, his second full-length, he continues down the path of somewhat post-rockish, definitely shoegaze-inspired metal that’s notionally descended from black metal, but has dropped essentially all the aesthetic and lyrical concerns which first animated the lurching zombie corpus of said genre.  Importantly for this listening arc, though the album is intensely melodic, it’s not ever so much about the melodies as it is about the melodicism.  People who can’t stand this kind of stuff use that point to suggest the lack of riffs, or balls, or some such nonsense, but this album is entirely about mood.  And that mood, it ought to be said, is warm and lush and awesome.

2. Eluvium, Copia (2007)


When it comes to my favorite Eluvium album, it’s typically down to this one or the previous one, Talk Amongst The Trees.  That latter album, however, isn’t quite right to transition between Alcest and the next album in our arc, so Copia gets the nod this time.  This is essentially an indie drone album, but flirts with classical music’s minimalists, with great heaping spoonfuls of pathos.  This ought to appeal to fans of Stars of the Lid, Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and any number of other like-minded musicians and composers.  It follows Alcest’s record wonderfully, though, because Copia is all about heart-expanding, chest-bursting warmth.  Yes, this is drone, but achingly beautiful, forward-moving, and occasionally crushingly suspended drone.  And just like Alcest, it’s never so much about specific melodies, but rather about the meditative beauty that is sustained and occasionally punctuated with dramatic chord and key changes.  An album for daydreaming, if ever there was one.

3. Tim Hecker, Harmony In Ultraviolet (2006)


The ambient/drone/noise washes of Tim Hecker’s best album are a transitional match from Eluvium not because of their tone or mood, but rather because of their structure.  The two men seem to conceive of their albums in whole arcs, where pieces are proportioned and arranged in very particular ways, to lead the listener from one place to another (just like this listening arc itself).  Where Eluvium is all about the warm, full-throated clean drone, however, Tim Hecker is all about creating light and contrast with different strands of static.  This album may well be a noise album for people who don’t like noise, because despite the fact that the music’s constituent elements are primarily harsh and atonal, they are arranged in dramatic and, to be honest, perfectly lovely ways.

4. Sleep Research Facility, Deep Frieze (2007)


While Tim Hecker’s static washes combined to produce an array of color and texture, Sleep Research Facility’s genius album Deep Frieze is all shades of white and grey and howling, arctic winds.  Nominally a dark ambient/drone album, few records are as evocative of their subject matter as this; each song is titled after a different set of geographical coordinates in Antarctica (e.g., “82ºS 62ºE”).  This is a dark, cold, spooky record, but it is also full of haunting beauty and, in spite of all its noise and bluster (which never aims to overpower the listener, for the record), suggests silence and vast distance more than anything else.  The best thing to do when listening to this album is to read H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.  Maybe keep the light on, though.

5. Blut Aus Nord, Thematic Emanation of Archetypal Multiplicity EP (2005)


And now, an utterly disconsolate endpoint.  Take a look at that cover art.  That is exactly what the album sounds like.  A monochrome landscape of urban blight, bloated and sodden with a rain that can neither cleanse nor kill that which sickens it.  The beauty and warmth which had lingered, though in gradually decreasing quantity, through Eluvium, Tim Hecker, and Sleep Research Facility, are now completely absent.  This brief little mini-album is a soul-sucking black hole of slow, twisted, not-quite-metal industrial plodding, shot through with swaths of dark ambient creaking and croaking and half-glimpsed faces fleeing through jagged alleyways where the wind blows and the sky is darker than the night which never ends and you cannot wake up and you will not leave.

All of which is to say, it’s pretty fucking great.  It’s also not a particularly cheerful way to conclude this listening arc, but I think you’ll find, if you’ve played each of these albums through in order, that you got from Alcest’s Eden-esque naturalism to Blut Aus Nord’s light-draining pit of nihilism without ever being jarred too noticeably.  If you ever felt like you heard the gears cranking, though, or saw the oily, sinewy outline of the strings being pulled, let me know where I’ve erred.  Listening is always more of a collective act than we generally think it to be.  Or, at least it should be.
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This concludes my first stab at a Listening Arc.  If you’ve got suggestions for a theme for a future arc, please do let me know, as I’d like to make this a regular feature at Spinal Tapdance.  You could also think of it as a challenge, trying to find two records so disparate in sound, theme, age, or whatever, that connecting them seems nigh on impossible.  I may end up failing, but hopefully in interesting ways.

Cheers!
– DHOK / ST

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Friends, this is just a quick toss-off post to let you know that I’ve finally – for Lord knows what reason – motivated myself to create a Facebook page for this here blog.  Because, apparently, for these modern times we live in, things on the internet don’t really count until you’ve duplicated them in three or four or twelve places.

The internet is a force multiplier

So, come one, come all to see Spinal Tapdance at Facebook.  Like it, “like” it, or tell me to fuck off – The Choice…Is Yours!

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