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Following quickly on the heels of the Ocean Machine – Biomech album of 1997, Infinity is the first album which was originally released by Devin Townsend as a solo project under his own name.  As remarkable as the Ocean Machine project was, it is really on this first ‘proper’ solo project that Devin’s twisted genius for epic, progressive metal bears full fruit.  Sure, we can all agree that Strapping Young Lad knew how to bring it in terms of utterly intense prog-tinged metal, but SYL always tilted towards the more aggressive and industrial side of things; it’s the solo Townsend, I think, which displays a much wider textural range and more varied songwriting.  Lest I deserve a swift bout of pummeling, I should hasten to add that Infinity features the monstrously-talented drumming of fellow Strapping Young Lad (har-har) Gene Hoglan, and thus has somewhat of a leg up on Ocean Machine from the start.

Not the handsomest man in metal

The album kicks off in fine form with “Truth,” a massively epic and overstuffed instrumental intro which, when it breaks the building tension at the end by jumping a fifth (I think) and holding that stringed synth tone over a cymbal roll, reminds me of nothing more than Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis.  Yeah, that’s right – fuckin’ Yanni, and it kicks ass, so step off (like I’m the only one who ever watched PBS in the 90s…).   The first proper song “Christeen” is quite a bit reminiscent of “Life” from the Ocean Machine album, in that it is one hundred percent a classically-structured pop song.  Both tracks also run perilously close to the cheesy (especially “Christeen”s Phantom of the Opera-quoting chorus), but “Christeen” redeems itself somewhat with that nice intense bridge and lead-in to the final go-around of the chorus.

Though the tendency was already somewhat evident in the Ocean Machine album, I find that it’s on Infinity where I really start to pick up on the duality of Devin’s musical personality.  On the one hand, the dude knows how to craft well-constructed songs – the old verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc-etc shtick – not all of which suffer from the overly pop-leaning sounds of the above-mentioned tracks.  On the other hand, he has a real knack for breaking up an album into more straightforward tracks and more experimental tracks – and moreover, that experimentation can just as easily take the form of ambient, gradually-building, and almost modal hymns (Devin Townsend’s Kind of Blue period, we could call it) as it can take the form of smashing as many disparate musical styles, instruments, and sounds into one rambunctious whole.

On the more straightforward tip, then, I’ve already mentioned “Christeen,” but “War” and “Soul-Driven Cadillac” fall somewhat into this camp as well.  The intro to “War” goes on far too long for my taste, but both tracks stomp along in this groove of modal suspension and form a solid backbone for some of the more experimental material that peppers the rest of the album – particularly “Bad Devil,” “Ants,” and “Wild Colonial Boy.”  I suspect that for many fans of Devin’s solo work, these extremely busy and chaotic songs are the primary draw, and I absolutely agree, except with the caveat that were it not for the counterpoint provided by some of the more straightforward (but no worse off for being so) songs, these insanely diverse tracks wouldn’t seem quite so batshit crazy.  As it is, though, “Bad Devil” picks up the slack dropped by “Christeen” in a MAJOR FUCKING WAY, featuring some awfully punchy riffing (in contrast to the diffused tone of a lot of the riffing on the rest of this album and many of Devy’s others) and some wicked horror theme synths (think The Munsters or The Addams Family).  Even better is when the track drops into a shuffling swing rhythm and highlights some jazz trombone and an almost rockabilly upright bass section.  Killer stuff.

“Ants” is another balls-out wacky song, which can only really be described as sounding like Dream Theater and Behold…The Arctopus jamming on a cover of “Hava Nagila,” so feel free to take that for what you will.  “Wild Colonial Boy” is another track somewhat in the model of “Bad Devil,” in that it oscillates between more straightforward metal components and distinctly non-metal genre sections.  In particular, “Wild Colonial Boy” careens between a quite catchy polka section and some of the most earnest-sounding vocal melodies of the entire record.  On this track, Devin’s vocals walk that absolutely perfect tightrope between soaring melodicism and winking melodrama, which will be one of the most winning features of his entire musical approach.

Regardless of what type of song he’s playing, part of the charm of Devy’s solo material is that, as is so often the case, these songs work so splendidly by manufacturing an overload – because Devin is an excellent producer, all of the individual layers of the sound remain distinguishable, but in most of these tracks, there is just so much going on that eventually the listener says, more or less, “Fuck it,” and decides to surrender to the waves upon waves of gorgeous noise.  The real trick, and one of the least replicable aspects of Townsend’s genius, is that this overload doesn’t feel confrontational (as in most actual noise music – Skullflower, I’m looking at you, you crazy fuck), but rather warm and inviting, like wandering into a thick forest in the middle of a thunderstorm – sure, you get a bit wet, but there’s shelter in there, and a real feeling of almost existential density.

For my money, the album peaks exactly where it should, with the final two tracks.  “Life is All Dynamics” is absolutely one of the best songs on here, and features some of Devin’s most heart-rendingly intense vocals.  I mean, seriously: Put on this song just about as loudly as you can handle, and I fucking dare you to not find yourself stomping around your house like a goddamned flesh-hungry velociraptor (or even a stegosaurus on a serious trip of plant withdrawal) in time to Devin’s hollering “LIFE! IS! ALL! DY-! -NAMICS!!!”  Science will soon prove it impossible.  The transition into the closing track, “Unity,” is also extremely classy; given the tension-building suspended outro of the preceding track (remember? You’ve just stopped thrashing [your dinosaur tail around] like a maniac [Jurassic Metallica – shit, I’ve just invented a crossover children’s cartoon & heavy metal hit]), the rich and mellow tones of this song are a perfect come-down.  Plus, I think there’s a nice bit of commentary done by book-ending the album with tracks called “Infinity” and “Unity,” which seems to be reflective of the type of worldview Devin often represents in his solo works (though here I’m especially thinking of “Triumph” from Synchestra, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is probably the best song that has ever been written).

The bonus tracks on the version of Infinity that I own, I don’t know, I could pretty much take them or leave them.  The track “Noisy Pink Bubbles” (which may or may not be Devin’s tribute to Helloween’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape – I prefer to think not…) is especially odd, with some child chorus vocals sounding straight out of Annie or some such musical, and clean electric guitar strumming over an almost “Lust for Life” drumbeat.  Also included are live acoustic versions of “Sister” and “Hide Nowhere” from the Ocean Machine album, which are nice for a change of pace, but although the latter especially features some nice vocals from a very closely-mic’ed Devin, it also drags a bit as an all-acoustic number.  There’s also an early band demo of a track called “Man” on here, which sounds, well, like a demo – decent enough, but kind of like an unfinished thought.  These bonus tracks, then, are mostly interesting curios for the true Townsend fanatic (which, truth be told, is me), but although this album thrives based on its disparate moods and sounds, I really think it is perfectly capped by “Unity,” so I typically end it there.

In comparing Infinity to Ocean Machine – Biomech, it seems pretty clear that Infinity explores a much broader range of sounds and moods, and does so in a much shorter running time.  Which one you prefer may just depend on what you’re looking for, although I find that Infinity edges out Ocean Machine by a non-trivial margin, and undoubtedly established Devin Townsend as one of metal’s most outstanding and relentlessly creative musicians.

Overall rating: 94%.  I STILL haven’t stopped crashing around my house to “Life is All Dynamics.”  Devin Townsend: Metal Genius Extraordinaire & Inducer of Perpetual Motion.  Take that, physics.

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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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