Best Of 2019 – Dan Obstkrieg: This Is A List

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, strum of sharp string harpin twing whirl downaweigh

the Minstrells of Saints Iommi y Quorthon and all the wilde blastbeaten beasties bleat n raptap chug chchug chchug squeal fwoooooooom hoom barooom give ye respite e safe(ish) harbor in waters troubled, untrebled by High Faked Shrillness. and the World outthedoor and the dremWorld intheside yr noggs, nay shall they be Twinned save but for the rake’s soft hope (ever if it lasts) that passeth not understanding, t’wit: a Sound sounds a Sounding Thing, the Sound makes good th promisse of ein sadness that can steal away like when together it goes like if you saw it once but in look again – leftright but again now gone? – sadness can steal NO sadness a Sound can ai ai aiii aa can Soundings steal the sadness Sound away, when Shared.

Scratch: tSadn’s steal can away, just Share. its it’s Love – that what it is can steel seal t’steal awy sounds simplistick, b’t ‘struth, My sharp long learning from these 10 annum time malarkies? Sounds when shared, in sadness even sharp sadden strain, in sings-all sound, steal away to Strength.

& & & frens list! and folly lists! an Listing! Listing listed your Topf 7 Beste Yowled Malarkies but th’ still voyce sayed Yon bruits ne sont pas the Real th True n deeply Feeled foundations like t’great foundry of Olde Cantankerous Metall Whiche Sleepeth Not But Ifn Forgotted. Tha’ great Sleeper shookd off rubble and rebel sounds bc if on a winter’s night a Traveler ast for to “Hallo whar is Alld of the Riff noisings?” what did you would you thinkt to have say Yes? Hallo! Riffs Here i had seen some sum of them arc t’Beeg Bleu Uptheres.

But Who had done’t? How sweet did they Do’t? Nbrs fall one three twelvescore four and back Up but NO! Down then put THIS one ovr th’rail n THT one had to go dancing Up; allways Up is how the sounds want to make. Allways Up we striven should let us to’ve been shriven. The stale pulse of What Was’t To Alloths? Whomst and in how loud tworted friendslap e-farts found it Yellable About W/o Saying How The sounds Sounded? Allfall Falls to wrecked and unremememembered rust – like, What? Who Slap Sound? Not in Truth for Evertime singing, but for “true” Lookatmenow for Todayloud clikk clik clickers clacked in unrepent’t blovs.

If in rapture a rapt rapt’rous rupture in Thine Porches didnae make, if then, then The Law, laughing, sayest unto thou searchers seek sundered Soft flam slam swimmest but espied a breach in Thou’st Mofft fferious Viffage? Sleepers, awock! A T’mult of unresounded Joy is just, it’s just everyw—-.

Where the sounds you hear, where are they in the world, where they make the world, you hear the world the word the ooooooooopen and never clanging shutness allofevery sound. Didst you make it? Did it make, in unmaking, you? If sung, y’r a singer; dance, y’a dancer. Not in any of this are we they usthem anyofall lone or sole alone Not in any. The finders of these found sounds and makers of made sounds and lovers of sad loud mad made found sounds are one circle Sound breathing find a run joy Dance it even if sitting quiet or inthenoggs panick’d or loud laughing the tears to shadow they don’t have to hide here, not with allanyofthemUsallHere in the same temporary outrun of the cannae be outrunned we can know each oth and try for Love

ththThanks for all you do, dancing singing oilpan clang to dirtstreet moan and skylark aired from Zeus’s cramhammered O! Lympian forks, in eaglecraw yodel and smiled tooth trashtorque the Thing itself is in there. It’s in there, dancing singing & runnig ruunnnign rignung runnigng rung running out the fraids– it Leaps ot Lifes et Loves singing dancing

Thanks for, all, alldancing yes, yes i will say yes i say

LILY, THE CARETAKER’S DAUGHTER, WAS LITERALLY RUN OFF HER FEET

As in all the years where the ear and heart are open, there was such a surfeit of brilliance this year that 20 albums can hardly tell an adequate story. With all due respect and apology to the following, consider these unranked 21-50 selections each worthy of interrogation:

Atlantean Kodex, Big Brave, Ceremony Of Silence, Consummation, Crimson Moon, Cult Of Luna, Darkthrone, Dauþuz, Dead To A Dying World, Disentomb, Dream Theater, Equipoise, Funeral Storm, Infernal Conjuration, Leprous, The Lone Madman, Mirror, Mortiferum, Nasheim, The Neptune Power Federation, The Night Watch, Opeth, Orodruin, Profetus, Romasa, Saor, Tanith, Vastum, Véhémence, Weeping Sores.

PEOPLE, PERHAPS, WERE STANDING IN THE SNOW ON THE QUAY OUTSIDE, GAZING UP AT THE LIGHTED WINDOWS AND LISTENING TO THE WALTZ MUSIC

20. Iron Griffin – Curse of the Sky

A deceptively soft-touch production bathes these true steel missives in a live-from-the-practice-space immediacy. Oskari Räsänen’s instrumentation is every bit as classicist and inspired as his songwriting, and Maija Tiljander’s vocal performance is the most electrically impassioned of the year. Curse of the Sky sets its sights on the most heroically melancholy aspects of NWOBHM with a general tone that’s of a piece with Witchcraft’s (Swe) debut. Albums as short as this rarely feel so epic.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Dawn of Struggle”

19. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance

By reclaiming some of the red-eyed aggression of their first LP without short-changing the deft atmospherics of their second, Tomb Mold have improved upon the massive promise of both. Death metal has no particularly foundational purity, and yet Tomb Mold pursue with admirable fervor the only approximation of such: a deluge of riffs to water the riffless lands.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Accelerative Phenomenae”

18. Dreadnought – Emergence

Like SubRosa or Lotus Thief or even the last two Urfaust albums, Dreadnought’s Emergence is a very particular sort of triumph for a rich vein of feeling over genre orthodoxy. Each song carefully unspools a bed of sound so detailed and inviting that the inexorable logic of its composition hooks the brain after the heart has already committed. This album is a cathedral of awe-inspiring dark beauty.

• We Did Not Review This; We Are Probably Terrible
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Pestilent”

17. Grafvitnir – Venenum Scorpionis

Listen, bub, I love flowery bullshit, too. My heart flutters for dreamlike ambient and precious indie and maudlin doom/death and math dad prog and gothic chanteusery and every other thing. Truly. Urban Outfitters black metal? Yep, gimme some of that sauce too. And you know, maybe in their quiet moments some of the members of Sweden’s Grafvitnir curl up with a cup of rooibos tea and a copy of Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. But Grafvitnir as a band? Grafvitnir as a band just broke out into poisonous hives from halfway across the world because they could feel me typing such heinous wimpery. This is a band that eats fire and shits ice. In case you’re not following, Grafvitnir plays scything, serrated second wave black metal with the blazing hellfire conviction of a group of people more agitated than is necessary about the idea that anyone would dare attach any adjectives or qualifiers before “…black metal.” 

There’s no innovation, no futzing around, no hesitation or progression or smiling; the guitars sound like the flailing anger of downed power lines, the drums like a constant barrage of shrapnel against sheet metal, the vocals like someone whose botched attempt at using a Neti Pot has somehow resulted in fresh horseradish up the urethra. It’s like De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and a mostly keyboard-less In the Nightside Eclipse and Old Wainds and early Marduk and Tsjuder rented out a convention center and did a bunch of rudenesses sufficient to forfeit their dang security deposit. Venenum Scorpionis is as diametrically opposite to flowery bullshit as is conceivable. These stars of frozen track and field, they are beautiful people making horrible sounds.

• We Also Did Not Review This And Are Definitely Terrible
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Nocturnal Sun”

16. Candlemass – The Door to Doom

Yes, of course the return of Johan Längquist to the mic for the first LP since Candlemass’s classic debut Epicus gives The Door to Doom a ready-made, marquee narrative. As golden as Längquist’s vocals are throughout (check the chorus of “Black Trinity”!), the real draw is that Leif Edling’s songwriting and Lars Johansson’s leadwork are fired up again after the gradually diminishing returns of the Lowe albums. There were a lot of people writing about doom this year; too many of them forgot that Candlemass didn’t just write the book on it, but they’re still adding bulletproof chapters.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Death’s Wheel”

15. Turilli/Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity

I’m sure it’s possible to be unhappy while listening to Zero Gravity, but I rather think you’d have to make a good effort at it. The latest riposte in the ongoing dialogue between Luca Turilli and Fabio Leone is remarkably polished, even by the gleaming, squeaky clean standards of bombastic, symphonic Italian power metal. Patrice Guers’s bass thrups out a tastily knotty texture on the title track, and Alex Holzwarth’s drums handle the Renaissance influences with mathematical finesse, but the story as ever is spun by the pas de trois of Leone’s voice against the alternately searching and taut guitars of Turilli and Dominique Leurquin.

As I said (rather truculently) in my review of the album, Zero Gravity is “a big-hearted, democratic album. If you don’t like it, or if its exuberance sours you, or if it strikes you as somehow dishonest in comparison to all the supposedly brave truth-telling of the caustic sounds you prefer to saturate yourself with, then this is all well and good but I will repeat that the way we react to art nearly always says more about the audience than the author.” What do you want this to say about you?

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Multidimensional”

14. Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings

If ever you needed proof that writing about and attempting to rank music definitively is the pastime of mealy-mouthed dunderheads exclusively (hi, hello, how are you), consider this: in 2015, Obsequiae’s second album Aria of Vernal Tombs was my favorite album of the year. In the Year of Our Intransigence 2019, Obsequiae’s third album The Palms of Sorrowed Kings has landed in the number 14 slot, and yet I think it’s an unquestionable improvement on its predecessor. Look, just because it’s my brain doesn’t mean I can tell you exactly how it works. Obsequiae remains above all else an exercise in producing some of the most deliriously beautiful tones in all of heavy metal, as Tanner Anderson’s guitars rise from fog-chilled prairies to chime throughout eternity.

The animating spirit of classic melodic death metal and early Greek black metal are here, as well as a touch of the earthy contemplation of Anderson’s ambient funeral doom project Celestiial. A few choice vocal guest spots also broaden Obsequiae’s distinct palette even further and afford a glimpse of possible future investigation. Is this a shred album for the ghostly knighted dead? Is it a melodeath funeral rite? Is it somehow a clandestinely blackened and burnished retelling of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? Kindly go lick a cactus. Obsequiae is all and none of that, and better yet, they are here now for you to drink the endless goblet of their bounty.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Morrígan”

13. Doombringer – Walpurgis Fires

Every time you think you’ve pigeonholed Doombringer’s gleefully bilious second album, it nopes you so hard you look like the pope trying to officiate a gay wedding with tarot cards instead of good ol’ corpus christi. “Oh, it’s clattery lo-fi NWN stuff.” Nope, it’s recorded with brilliant grimy clarity. “Oh, it’s blasty war metal only.” Nope, it’s got riffs like a bear’s got a forest full of shit. “Oh, it’s all po-faced rehash of ritualist metal ov death nonsense.” Nope, it’s got first wave sass, doom swing, a sneakily phenomenal drum performance, surprisingly affective tremolo melodies, and an interlude called “Unnatural Acts of Flying.” Come the fuck on, y’all – get you brought some doom already.

• It Is Confirmed: We Are Terrible
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Stupor Infernal”

12. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal

This should be obvious bordering on trite, but nobody sings like John Arch. Even if by some bizarre happenstance someone could mimic the man’s skyscraping tone and range, the intangible magic of Arch’s singing inheres almost entirely in the way he composes his melodic lines, and is therefore unduplicable. Because, really, ask yourself seriously when was the last time (if ever) you’ve heard anyone in a progressive metal context whose vocal melodies are themselves so ranging and slippery that they become the generative force of the music’s progression? 

Winter Ethereal is an extraordinary success for at least several dozen reasons, but for me, the principal blessing of the album is that it affords another opportunity to listen to Arch and Jim Matheos, these lions of their trade, simply… play. The album never feels like an excuse for showboating, because every song is rooted in clear hooks and solid structure, but at the same time, the songs and structure fade to the background so readily that it also feels like sitting in on an intimate session on improvisation between two old friends. Of course Winter Ethereal isn’t a jazz album, but the deeper you sink into feeling Arch’s voice and Matheos’s leads and riffs circle around and across each other, the more it becomes apparent that they are speaking at least as much to each other as they are to us. This lends the album a warmth, an immediacy, and a frankness that makes it all the more inviting.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Pitch Black Prism”

11. Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites

Friends, have you ever taken Nile for granted? Have you ever put on a new Nile song and listened to its impossibly meticulous yet ferocious destructive power and thought, “Oh, hey, that’s what Nile sounds like”? These are crimes of convenience. By all rights, bands shouldn’t get to be as good as Nile for as long as Nile. Music as palpably violent and intemperate as this shouldn’t move with such a thoughtful elegance, but friends, the year is 2019, the band is South Carolina’s Nile, and the headline ought to be, “Shut Your Goddamned Mouth And Listen To Death Metal Lifers Continuing To Play Their Hearts Out And Have The Time Of Their Lives. Also: Mummies.”

Your favorite terrible chucklehead put it this way in last month’s review: “From start to finish, Vile Nilotic Rites is singularly focused on moving bodies, whether through hyperspeed fret-lashing, mid-paced swaggering, or earthquake-grade breakdowns. The pacing and sequencing of the album is remarkable, too, with the mostly frantic attack of the first two songs pulling ever so slightly back into the choppering grease-strut of the title track, which in turn leads into the jaw-droppingly epic “Seven Horns of War.” The cinematic break and spoken word recitation around the 5:30 mark of “Seven Horns of War” could have sapped its momentum, but the jackhammering, militaristically precise section that it ushers in is one of the most absurdly city-leveling passages Nile has put to record to date.”

The whole thing is like that: one insanely great thing followed by a different insanely great thing.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Snake Pit Mating Frenzy”

FAINTLY FALLING, LIKE THE DESCENT OF THEIR LAST END

10. GRIMA – WILL OF THE PRIMORDIAL

Sometimes I fervently wish for a plague on the house of whomever created the term “atmospheric black metal.” The twin brothers behind Russia’s Grima certainly ladle their black metal with heaps of atmosphere, but because of the distressingly haphazard use of language by a bevy of lazy writers, there’s already at least a 50% chance that you’ve got the wrong idea about what this band sounds like. See, you might be thinking of atmospheric black metal as basically Explosions in the Sky with yelling. This is more like… Moonsorrow but slower and sadder. It’s not really like that, I guess, but Grima shines in longer-form songs that find a particular mood and ride it out. There’s plenty of blasting and rasping, but also layers of acoustic guitars, accordion, chimes, and so forth. You wouldn’t be wrong in hearing bits of Drudkh or Saor or Selvans or Negura Bunget, but now on album number three, Grima have carved out a relatively idiosyncratic space for themselves. Mosey on over to the 5:12 mark of the opening track “Siberian Sorrow,” friend, and if your spirit remains unmoved, kindly keep on moseying by. As a writer, I spend a distressing amount of time trying to find the right words when really all I want to do is find the right feeling; Grima does not suffer this shortcoming. Will of the Primordial is a transportive experience.

• Are You Sensing A Theme Yet?
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Blizzard”

9. BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE

Does history matter? I’m not particularly talking about world-historical level geopolitics or teleologically Marxist predictions of the succession of modes of production or even the history of your bumbleflop town and when it opened its first factory. We aim to be about the music here – really, honestly – and so before any further lip-running, I’ll state the inescapable truth: Blood Incantation’s second album is flabbergastingly good. It does a whole heaping lot of different death metal things, and it does all of them with smarts, impeccable songwriting chops, and a beautifully plotted sense of contrast and dynamics. So why do I still feel a little pungent at the unending litany of encomia to Blood Incantation that you have likely already read, and will continue to read until your puny head is flattened by a pyramid dropped from somewhere in the thermosphere?

It’s because of history. Musical history and writing history. In nearly all things, more openness is better than less, so it is an unavoidable side effect of this attitude that when applied to writing about heavy metal – an enterprise we must admit is gruesomely inclined to elitism even as it pretends to turn its beaming face to populism – the net result is that you may just have to put up with a bunch of mark-ass busters. And it’s history we’re fighting about, even when we don’t know it or name it. It’s not just the history of the music itself, but the history of who gets to be seen as saying the right things about that music.

“But What Does This All Mean? A Cautionary Tale About Writing Mountains Of Nonsense”: Point is, there are two extremes here. Part of me is mad that some people are trying to write off Blood Incantation because they can see the band’s influences shine through. Another part of me is mad that some people are trying to pass off Blood Incantation as doing things in death metal that literally no one has done before. I would like to think that my motives are pure in both of those attitudes, but sisters and brothers, you and I both know they are not. We can’t just… enjoy things any more. Not really. But I’m trying. Blood Incantation is a good place to start, to start again.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “The Giza Power Planet”

8. BLUT AUS NORD – HALLUCINOGEN

To be completely honest, I haven’t been particularly bowled over by the ongoing series of Blut Aus Nord’s Memoria Vetusta albums. The first remains my favorite by far, and although the second is excellent and the third quite good, neither has shaken me by the shoulders and truly announced itself. Despite this, perhaps the best aspect of Blut Aus Nord is not just the band’s ceaseless shapeshifting – plenty of bands can do that – but the fact that in all that shapeshifting, it never seems as though Vindsval & co are trying to follow a single straight line into some unknown but pined-after future. Trying to attach a metanarrative to Blut Aus Nord’s musical development is doomed to fail, because there are so many different streams that branch from the main tributary, circle back on themselves, and sometimes disappear entirely.

The What Once Was series, the 777 series, the ongoing Memorias Vetusta: not one of these things can claim the title of “THIS Is What Blut Aus Nord Is Now.” Selfishly, this works out well for someone like myself who was sorely disappointed in both the last BAN album (Deez Salty Meats) and the Yeruselem project from early this year. I didn’t like either one, but I also wasn’t convinced that it mean Vindsval had committed entirely down a path I’d be less and less willing to walk. On Hallucinogen, those who trace similarities to the MV series are right, but those who find a fresh feeling even in these familiar moves are also right. Throughout this marvelously spindly album, BAN feels loose, relaxed, and significantly less mannered than they sometimes do when working in this stridently melodic mode. The soft, chiming outro of “Anthosmos”: this is new. Those bluesy guitar bends on “Nomos Nebuleam” and “Haallucinahlia”: those are new. How the drums on “Sybelius” nearly swing: this is new. (It can’t be overstated: the effect of the live drum performance on Hallucinogen is titanic.)

Truthfully, the beauty, intensity, and grandeur of “Mahagma” have struck me throughout the year as powerfully as Ulver’s major key triumph, “Hymne VI: Wolf and Passion.” That’s a high bar to clear for me. Think, as you enter these glittering neon darknesses – each a hymn in their own way – what might be your bar. Can these travels take you where you may not have realized you wanted to go?

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Mahagma”

7. ORGANECTOMY – EXISTENTIAL DISCONNECT

As with so many aspects of heavy metal that are inscrutable to most outside observers, it likely strains the credulity of most sensible people to imagine that the great fleshy universe of brutal/tech/slam/TINY/etc. death metal is actually a place of fairly significant musical diversity. Taking clear influence (as must virtually all brutal/tech death metal) from Suffocation, New Zealand’s Organectomy have now joined the absolute upper tier of a very particular type of highly polished and technical brutal death metal that is extremely modern and precise but which nonetheless brandishes its toilet gurgles and traction-inducing slams with the enormously smug certainty of an over-tanned woman sending back iced tea at a country club because it has too much ice. Alongside Russia’s Katalepsy, Organectomy knows exactly how to bring precisely the right amount of knife-sharp smarts into these songs to give their perfectly stupid slams and breakdowns the meat-making power they crave.

Ultimately, I don’t care if this kind of death metal is smart music played incredibly stupidly, or gloriously stupid music played defiantly smartly; I just want that garbage roar and truckslam riff and chopper beat and shudder stomp in my ears. This is the music to move bodies and move bodies.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Unending Regrowth”

6. ESOTERIC – A PYRRHIC EXISTENCE

Esoteric is my favorite funeral doom band, even if I’m not fully clear on whether that’s the case because of or despite the fact that Esoteric has never quite been just a funeral doom band. Cripplingly heavy, delicately melodic, brain-warpingly psychedelic, claustrophobic, expansive, sedated, agitated… Esoteric’s particular exploration of the extreme regions of doom has been marked by the not at all contradictory twin poles of restlessness and a glacial sense of patience.

On A Pyrrhic Existence, Esoteric allow themselves to stretch out even more than usual. Not only is the opening song 27 minutes long, but it spends it sweet damn time getting to where it wants to be. Nevertheless, when it builds to a swell right after the 13-minute mark and the lead guitar tunnels through a wailing background solo that goes for nearly two minutes? Gooooooooooood goddamned night, Irene. It’s almost a laughable truism that Esoteric never rushes anything, but it’s only really in these wide-frame canvases that the band can most effectively engineer the calculated psychological impact of pulling the listener from yearning melody to harrowing harshness to the pure experience of negative space that they wield in between their many notes and textures. There’s an even more plaintive solo in “Descent” that surfaces around the 19-minute mark, and it plays like a dialogue with its now-vanished peer from 6 minutes prior, like calling out across some black chasm after something you know will never return.

The first five minutes of the closing song “Sick and Tired” are some of the most beautiful the band has ever laid to tape. In the hands of most other bands, I would listen to that and think, “Well, now they have nowhere to go” and be glad of that transience. With Esoteric, though, I have a sense that each album is an intentional pursuit of exactly that kind of complete emotional exhaustion. What is the absolute limit we can dredge from within ourselves? The gift, then, is they do it again and again, stubbornly, selfishly, selflessly.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Descent”

5. RUNEMAGICK – INTO DESOLATE REALMS

Some friggin’ jagoff said this about Runemagick’s latest album back in October: “Into Desolate Realms picks up almost exactly where last year’s very good Evoked from Abysmal Sleep (itself the first album following a ten-year hiatus) left off, but improves on its predecessor by upping the stakes in both the memorability department and the grim beauty of the album as a singular arc. Although death/doom is by definition a hybrid proposition, over the course of their career, Runemagick have planted their flag firmly in the terrain of death metal played with doomed abandon (rather than doom played with death metal tones), and as such, they have few precise peers yet many fellow travelers. If you can picture a train car made of lead containing members of Asphyx, Incantation, Valborg, Coffins, Winter, Necros Christos, Celtic Frost, Hooded Menace, and even vintage Electric Wizard skidding off the rails and grinding the tracks into a shower of slow-motion sparks at a somehow inexplicably unstoppable 2 mph, you’ll get a sense of the patient, deliberately meted-out destruction that Runemagick offers.”

Death/doom is by its nature both a hybrid exercise and a somewhat nice appeal. Runemagick grasps clearly how to marry the beautiful with the ugly, the brute force with the light touch, the graceful phrase with the devoutly blocky hammering. This may not be a comparison the band would seek for themselves, but Into Desolate Realms is so perfectly crafted and so meticulously mathematical in its movement that it’s not a stretch to imagine the album as a singular suite of dance music for horrifying dream-creatures: a waltz for rock monsters, a minuet for ice serpents, a stately pavane for the disembodied fears of the millennia. Do you need it plainer? You must enter Runemagick’s realm. 5:54 of the title track: that’s the dinner bell; the usher opens the door to a resplendent underworld of song, and you shall eat.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “Into Desolate Realms”

4. SANHEDRIN – THE POISONER

On album number two, Brooklyn’s Sanhedrin are a band of contradictions. The outward trappings seem like those of a stoutly traditional metal encyclopedia, but there’s a sharper vein of almost gothic melancholy that glitters within. Erica Stoltz steers the trio’s ship on bass and vocals with a brash grittiness that would make Lemmy proud, but the songwriting’s overt simplicity masks a slight progressive touch as the album unfolds. All of this undersells the majesty of The Poisoner, which is precisely this: intensely blue-collar heavy metal played with a genuine fire and fierce realism.

Here you might think of Christian Mistress’s Agony & Opium, or there you might think of Tygers of Pan Tang falling under the spell of The Cure’s Pornography. Hopefully you won’t actually think either of those things, but the range of vintage electricities into which Sanhedrin breathes thrillingly current life is hard to overstate. Some music labors to take the listener into a completely other world through fantastical tales, immersive atmospheres, or performances so well-oiled as to erase the seams of their weaving; Sanhedrin’s labors are all directed towards immanence and the transformative magic of the quotidian struggle. If their songs take you outside of yourself, it’s only to put you in someone else’s broken-in boots and scuffed leather jacket. You can feel the dirt under your nail, the sweat on your brow, the fingers on strings and hands taping a mic cord. The Poisoner is the triumph of putting one foot in front of the other, and then doing it again.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “The Getaway”

3. AVANTASIA – MOONGLOW

Some jaw-flapping nincompoop wrote as follows of Moonglow back in March:

“Heavy metal needs maximalists, and whatever other claims one might level at him, one could hardly accuse Avantasia’s mastermind Tobias Sammet of an excess of subtlety. The Edguy singer has now released nearly as many albums with Avantasia as with his supposed ‘main’ concern, and each with the same animating principle: why do just one thing, when you could instead do all the things? Power metal by its nature harbors the boisterous, the dramatic, and the fanciful, but Sammet’s preoccupation in Avantasia seems to be injecting all the pomp and extravagance he can muster into every last second of sound. Here’s an even simpler way to put it: Avantasia makes big music and wants to make you feel big things.”

That’s a curious thing, isn’t it? Avantasia wants to make you feel big things. As far as I can reckon it, I still think that’s true, but it’s all the more curious that it makes me feel big things almost entirely with music. That is, I still have no earthly clue what Moonglow is about. I haven’t studied the lyrics or engaged enough to see if it has a concept. Does that mean I’ve failed the artists? Or does the fact that I can still feel myself moved so powerfully by a bunch of people I’ll never meet making over the top songs in about twelve different musical styles about ideas and stories I haven’t bothered to comprehend mean that the core of what music can convey is irreducible to language?

For this particular knucklehead, anytime you put words up against sounds, words will always come out the worse. The most cogent argument I can put forward in favor of Moonglow’s rapturous omnivorousness is simply to ask you to sit and listen to the 11-minute “Raven Child,” which plays Sammet against Hansi Kursch and Jorn Lande, but even more than that, which opens its arms to embrace the universe. Music often has to invoke some kind of closure in order to strengthen the core of its self-imposed limits; Avantasia is a monument to epistemic openness.

Last Rites Review
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• Song Qua Non More Black: “The Raven Child”

2. BORKNAGAR – TRUE NORTH

I realize the complete churlishness of the statement I’m about to make, but its undeniable truth goes a long way toward explaining how True North has rocketed itself so far up the list of this year’s best music: Truthfully, I never expected Borknagar to make another album as good as this. Along with the later career work of Vintersorg, Solefald, and a few others, Borknagar has for some time represented a particular progressive outgrowth of black metal that is always pleasant but rarely reaches the heights of its beginnings.

All the more impressive, then, that True North succeeds not because it tries to recreate the Olympian heights of The Olden Domain or Borknagar’s ferocious self-titled album, but because it finds a fully new path – a familiar one, to be sure, but True North feels like a fully formed sidestepping of the pleasant but somewhat unremarkable rut that Borknagar seemed stuck in with Universal/Urd/Winter Thrice. Øystein Brun’s songwriting and guitar chops are in outrageous form throughout this miraculous album, and the still mountain lake clarity of ICS Vortex’s vocals is the sort of thing to invite all manner of intemperate comparisons – listen to Vortex like you would listen to Marvin Gaye or Renee Fleming or Ella Fitzgerald or Jackie Wilson.

Without question, “Up North” is the finest song of this entire whiplash-drunk year. With each successive phrase and section of the song, it finds plateau after continually elevated plateau of such extraordinary musical richness – not just the sublime beauty of the chorus melody itself, but the tremolo and blasting digression, the Hammond-type organ swells from Lars Nedland, and quite honestly every single second otherwise. Does it overshadow the remaining songs? Pfft. Have you ever looked at K2 or Annapurna next to Everest and thought, “Eh, fuckin’ weak sauce”? Ever gazed up to the heavens and thought, “Show me the one that’s farthest away and to hell with all the rest”? Pipe down. Settle in. Listen up.

• We Are Just So Brazenly Terrible
YouTube
• Song Qua Non More Black: “Up North”

1. TANAGRA – MERIDIEM

A quick peep through the ol’ email inbox reports that I made my pledge to the campaign to fund Tanagra’s second album Meridiem in July of 2016. The band’s initial estimate was to deliver the finished album in February of 2017, which would put it just about exactly two years after their storming debut, None of This is Real. The calendar-inclined among you may rightly note that the current year is 2019. I mention all of this not to chide the band or moan about the extended interval, but rather to make a fairly straightforward point that nonetheless bears repeating: art takes time, goddamnit.

The fruits of that extended gestation are on full display across the epic scope and lovingly fussed-over details of Meridiem, which takes the slightly progressive-leaning power metal of Tanagra’s debut album and explodes it into a full-on progressive feast. Power metal is still the kernel of Tanagra’s sound, but the majority of the album spurns straight-ahead speed and flash in favor of something much more intricate, emotional, and heavily orchestrated. In lesser-skilled hands, the keys, choirs, acoustics, overdubs, strings, and other supplemental elements could have easily overwhelmed the songs and resulted in a pulpy mess of an album. Meridiem never feels weighed down, though, and all the additional sounds work to enhance the core drama and power of the songs, which are always carried by the supple riffing and leads of guitarists Josh Kay and Steven Soderberg and the frequently multitracked vocals of Tom Socia (who really shines here in a deeply resonant but restrained performance across his wide vocal range).

Meridium teems with so many moments of fist-clenching strength and impassioned beauty that it’s hard to keep a faithful chronicle, from the unexpectedly sprightly acoustic guitar and piano interlude that takes over at 5:21 in the opening title track to the sweeping arpeggios that open “Sydria,” and from the 1988 Blind Guardian opening of “The Hidden Hand” to that song’s vocal assist from Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. Rogers’s other band Caladan Brood may have provided some inspiration to Meridiem’s breathtaking final track, “Witness,” which feels spiritually indebted to the Brood’s “Book of the Fallen.” Across the 14-minute span of “Witness,” Tanagra reprises essentially every great thing they’ve already done in the preceding 50 minutes, and sends the album out on a truly magisterial note. The a capella opening chorus has been lodged in my head for the better part of nine months, and shows no signs of leaving anytime soon. The track also features some of the best and most steadfastly resolved work from bassist Erich Ulmer and drummer Christopher Stewart, who keep the rest of the band anchored even as they wander farther and farther afield.

The true and final crux of the album, however, comes almost at the end of “Witness,” as the full band mostly pulls back to allow Socia’s barest vocal turn around the 11-minute mark. Against a hushed backdrop of minimal symphonic accompaniment, he sings: “Wailing through the threnody, / One voice becomes a symphony.”

It’s a curious line, and certainly embedded in the greater storyline of the song and album, but it hits me in the gut every time, because it seems to find a truth outside of itself. One voice becomes a symphony: to me, that’s music. That’s the promise and payment of music, which offers us so much and asks so little. One person’s voice lifted in song, one band’s sweat and tears put to tape, one sound’s echo: each of these things is both retrospective proof and prospective affirmation that we are not alone. This song may not be your song, but any song can be every song, and every song can be everyone’s song. Music is a gift, no less to the listener than to the musician, and if we really turn our ears to the act of listening – really listening – we will find ourselves healed in the giving.

Last Rites Review
Bandcamp
• Song Qua Non More Black: “Witness”

SHORT THINGS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH JAMES JOYCE

These were my 10 favorites EPs/demos/short things this year, although believe it or not I have mostly exhausted my wordnesses.

1. Grabunhold – Unter Dem Banner Der Toten
2. Mortal Incarnation – Lunar Radiant Dawn
3. Gutvoid – Astral Bestiary
4. Suffering Hour – Dwell
5. Dold Vorde Ens Navn – Gjengangere i hjertets mørke
6. Denial Of God – The Shapeless Mass
7. Visigoth – Bells of Awakening
8. Wormed – Metaportal
9. Ripper – Sensory Stagnation
10. Alphanumeric – Condemnation of Memory

(MOSTLY) OLD THINGS THAT ALSO HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH JAMES JOYCE

Clearly, we spend a lot of time listening to new stuff. But we also spend a whole lot of time listening to old things. Like, a lot. We fight about it too! But mostly, we like to look for things. (Things to make us go.) These are my ten favorite reissues, compilations, remasters, new looks at old gems, &c., of the year.

1. Cradle Of Filth – Cruelty and the Beast Re-Mistressed
2. Prince – 1999 (Deluxe Reissue)
3. Autechre – Warp Tapes 89-93
4. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980​-​1990
5. Bvdub – At the Alter
6. Kompakt – Pop Ambient 2020
7. Hospital Records – Hospitality on the Beach
8. Madder Mortem – Mercury (20th Anniversary Reissue)
9. Kompakt – Total 19
10. Ethik – Music for Stock Exchange

STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD

The more widely you listen, you better you get at hearing. I think it makes you better at writing, too, but at the very least, the inexhaustible diversity of music should do one thing and one thing before all others: teach humility. No matter how much you listen, how widely you cast your net, how clawingly deep you dig your rabbit holes to infinity, there is always more. More music. More genres. More artists. More people who know more than you. This year I didn’t listen to as much new jazz as last year, but I listened to lots of ambient and lots of electronic music, and I still feel like I am nowhere near to scratching the surface of all the everything that’s out there. This is a healthy attitude to cultivate: I am always a student, and the world always has more to teach.

These are my 30 favorite non-metal albums of the year.

30. Purl – Violante (Lost In A Dream)

Gossamer-weight ambient with an extremely canny sense of when to simply sink into a synth pad and when to augment the gentle lilt with the chime and echo of delayed guitar, or an almost startling swell of strings. Spain’s Archives label is a trove of deeply felt sounds like this, and Violante is dedicated to the memory of Brian Young, who provided the gorgeously rendered photography that has graced so many of their album covers. Truly, these albums sound exactly like those images look.

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29. Matmos – Plastic Anniversary

Perhaps Matmos’s greatest asset is that no matter how heady the concept behind each of their albums, there’s no syllabus necessary to enjoy the brilliantly inventive sounds they bring to bear on alternately playful and surprisingly affecting songwriting. The sounds on Plastic Anniversary are primarily sourced from, well… plastic, and although the music evokes themes of police violence, environmental catastrophe, commodification and obsolescence, it also kinda sounds like it just wants you to get down. “Interior With Billiard Balls & Synthetic Fat” sounds kind of like full glitch-mode Oval being pursued by a runaway calliope.

Bandcamp

28. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana

Bandana is a wonderful sequel to Pinata, but it’s even more interesting for how it differs from the former. Madlib’s beats are pushed even more to abstract cut-ups here, and Gibbs’s storytelling is episodic, elliptical, but still both grounded and hilarious. Skyzoo and Pete Rock made a more classic-sounding MC/DJ record this year, but Gibbs and Madlib outstyled them.

“Crime Pays”

27. cv313 – Glass City Sessions

It has been some time since anything from the hallowed Echospace/Deepchord camp kicked with quite as straightforward a house thump and thwack as Glass City Sessions. This is still recognizably spawned from the Echospace camp, but it’s a much heavier thing than other recent outings such as Dimensional Space and Altering Illusions. You’re still not likely to run into these five songs on the dancefloor, but if you did, you’d welcome the almost sneaky disco dub thread that crops up.

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26. Penguin Cafe – Handfuls of Night

The simplest way to describe Handfuls of Night is that it’s a contemporary classical album. But really, that doesn’t quite cover it. Although wordless, the album conveys a pop music sensibility, even as it clearly ought to resonate with fans of Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Yann Tiersen, Olafur Arnalds, and any of the other figures who have straddled the lines between classical, experimental, electronic, and soundtrack music. That band leader Arthur Jeffes has carried on the torch of his late father Simon Jeffes’s music as Penguin Cafe Orchestra only makes these sweetly sad songs all the more affecting.

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25. Altstadt Echo – This Work Contains Lead

There’s a near-field tension to Altstadt Echo’s LP, as if each meticulous drum and ambient wash is held so close to the speakers that it forms a taut field only inches away from its source. There’s a bit too much shuffle and movement to recall the brainy hush of micro-house, and the droning ambient backdrop provides too much tension to make this a dub/techno immersion tank. What remains is a shadowy, endlessly engrossing album of careful texture and half-glimpsed danger.

Bandcamp

24. Stephan Micus – White Night

Stephan Micus is a longtime mainstay of the ECM stable, but his discography on the label is likely as diverse as any other artist. On White Night, his trademark reed work plays more of a support role as he works through a dazzling array of unusual instrumentation and percussion. In particular, his toolkit includes several types of African kalimba (thumb pianos), as well as an Armenian reed instrument called the ‘duduk’ which sounds a bit like a clarinet or oboe. Never quite jazz, never pure ambient, never staid “world music”; on White Night, Micus finds the pulse of the desert at night, the city at sleep, the people as one people.

“The Moon”

23. Nkisi – 7 Directions

Nkisi’s densely taut music never quite feels frenetic or overpowering, but it is a hypnotic, footwork-inspired blend. “IV” might be the best of the bunch on this seven-track collection, with its overdub whine that sounds almost like My Bloody Valentine guitar feedback, but on this track and throughout this thrilling LP, the focus is squarely on the intricate and unrelenting percussion – deep kicks, echoing toms, stick and rim clacks, and all other sounds to move the mind as the body.

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22. Comit – Remote Viewing

It might just be that I’m a sucker for these particular sounds, but Remote Viewing hits almost exactly all the sweet spots I didn’t know I was looking for. It’s a friendly, detailed, and overwhelmingly warm album that skirts through melodic IDM, skittering, glitchy breakbeats, ambient, and a restrained sort of almost drum and bass. Certainly a must for anyone who recalls with fondness The Flashbulb or Wisp, and recommended, er… viewing, for anyone with even a passing appreciation for IDM. It’s neither history nor pastiche, but a resplendent, recombinant adventure.

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21. Nerija – Blume

Blume is a riotous and joyful album, and essentially crammed full of exactly the sort of “jazz AND…” recordings that Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings empire has built itself up on. Yes, the core of this septet is very much jazz, but there are flashes of soul, funk, left-field hip-hop, and plenty else. Shirley Tetteh’s guitar on “Partner Girlfriend Lover,” for example, calls to mind the chill psych-twang of Texas’s heroes Khruangbin. As ever it should be, this is music that doesn’t give two good goddamns about borders of any kind.

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20. Coppice Halifax – Slow Earth Ritual

My word, what a glorious head-bath this one is. Coppice Halifax subscribes faithfully to the Deepchord model of dub/ambient techno, and the 75-minute Slow Earth Ritual is a love letter to the possibilities of analog equipment, deep atmosphere, and a desire to pursue bliss through aquatic tonality. The piece even gets an hour-long rework from one half of Echospace, Stephen Hitchell, operating here in his Variant alias, who gives the song a much hazier fog and buries the kick further in the mix, asking only that you swim through these layers to find where they lead.

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19. Deafkids – Metaprogramação

I’m not sure that Deafkids want you to like their music, exactly, but their agitpunk via industrial/no wave/prog metal/noise freakout is a fascinating, compelling, unnerving, and frankly masterful feat of composition and performance. Metaprogramação sounds like a disused factory with ghosts in every machine.

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18. Rafael Anton Irisarri – Solastalgia

The swells and shards of noise from Solastalgia seem almost overwhelming at a glance, but they sculpt an immensely powerful melancholy of ambient effect that finds an unlikely stasis in their almost frightfully jagged waveforms. Irisarri is an integral part of some of the richest and most satisfying electronic and ambient music as a producer, but his own music stands just as stridently on its own. This album glows with a deep resonance which makes it difficult to turn away from, even as the depth of its sorrow is difficult to process.

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17. Suumhow – Secuund

The specter of Autechre looms large throughout electronic music, even as the boys themselves continue apace on their decades’ long quest to the center of the computerized heart of the known universe. Suumhow’s deliciously tactile Secuund is as resounding an homage to Ae as I have ever heard. If that sounds dismissive, it’s instead intended as the highest of compliments. This album takes the exact point of Autechre’s career where the split between the melodic/ambient IDM of their early work started to loose its hold on the burgeoning abstraction of their later wanderings. This means that Suumhow feels like an alternate-universe rendering of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide, which means: heaven.

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16. Theon Cross – Fyah

Bass music, brass music, booty music. All and none of the above and more. Fyah is jazz and funk and Afrobeat, sure, but its most singular aspect is that it is F.U.N. Play this at a backyard barbeque. Blast it out of the tinny speakers of your minivan. Tape a Bluetooth speaker to a paper airplane and play this album on it while you throw it through the open window of an irascible neighbor. This is music for good-time togetherness while we’re all still alive, and there just can’t be too much of that to go around.

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15. London Elektricity – Building Better Worlds

Hospital Records boss Tony Colman dropped the best drum and bass LP of the year (with apologies to Lenzman and J Majik). In every sense this is classicist d ‘n b, with the notable exception of the outstanding opening track, “Final View from the Rooftops.” Despite its resounding kick/snare action, the tune is more like a symphonic, Morricone-inspired organic drum and bass anthem. It’s a truly remarkable piece, and thus all the more impressive that the album doesn’t suffer in its immediate return to slightly more standard (if no less inspired) fare.

“Build a Better World”

14. Prins Thomas – Ambitions

On Ambitions, the lofty reach and trance-hued arpeggios of the space disco scene are tempered and toned, leaving in place a suite of gently insistent set pieces, from the winking lounge funk of “Feel the Love” to the pastoral “XSB,” which might be a Hatchback song if not for the rubbery twang of that bassline. The centerpiece, though, is the 12-minute title track, a slow-building, slow-burning gem of a thing which burbles and glitches and stretches out into a Can-like krautrock odyssey eventually punctuated by a chattering sort of synth drone that rockets the listener to the outer reaches. Ambitions is a model of patience, restraint, and clarified vision.

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13. OHIO – Upwards, Broken, Always

Upwards, Broken, Always is an album that feels deeply rooted in mysterious earth and yet also feels broadly accessible. The duo of Taylor Deupree and Corey Fuller, each deeply talented and accomplished separately (Fuller’s Break from earlier this year is also excellent), have found a way to combine and magnify their strengths. Still pulling from a broad palette of contemporary ambient sounds, the album also draws more heavily on acoustic guitars, played relatively straight as well as delayed and manipulated. The vocal cover of Damien Jurado’s heartbreaking classic “Ohio” is more than a little suggestive, of course, but the wonderful thing is just how much the remainder of the album carries little imagined echoes of that song, as if Deupree and Fuller teased out the threads that made that song and ran each one out into its own free-standing lifeblood.

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12. Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet – Metamodal

ECM Records is such a longstanding and diverse force in music that no one sound or album could ever sum up either their approach or influence. However, Metamodal, the contemplative and impossibly beautiful new album from the Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet, makes a pretty good case. A pristinely recorded album of intimate and mostly hushed songs, the basic trio format gives the project the broad outlines of jazz, but Sinopoulos’s lyra playing lends the album an otherworldly tone, sometimes sounding like a violin, others like a bouzouki, but always with a sense of searching for some ungraspable truth. Pure magic.

“Transition” (Live)

11. VC-118A – Inside

Incredibly smooth, ambient-tinged electro/IDM that occasionally calls to mind B12 of Black Dog Productions. The acid lean of “Dither” smacks of Afx, while the ominous synth line of “FM” carries a slight hint of ‘90s EBM. Inside is an album of polished metal surfaces and right angles, like Warp’s pioneering Artificial Intelligence compilations relaxing in the quiet car of a gleaming bullet train.

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10. Hashshashin – Badakhshan

They say if you travel far enough, you’ll eventually meet someone yapping about how drone is the first music. On Hashshashin’s latest album, the reedily sonorous Badakhshan, drones are implied rather than attended to, almost like the background hum of the bagpipes. The group’s front-layer focus is instead on Middle Eastern scales and post-rock, progressive flourishes and math rock intensity (particularly in the drums), and a heat-haze trance as the guitar whips and swerves its patterns in high desert stone. Capacious and mesmerizing.

Bandcamp

9. Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom – Glitter Wolf

Glitter Wolf is handily the best jazz album of the year. Each of Miller’s compositions is a joyful thing, putting just as much movement in each melodic line as you might expect from such a painterly drummer. Myra Melford’s piano is a particular delight, but the real thrill of the album is the interplay between Ben Goldberg’s clarinet and Jenny Scheinman’s violin, which work in tandem sometimes as a reel, sometimes in klezmer tradition, and sometimes (with Miller’s rhythms at their snappiest) as at the front of a New Orleans second line fantasia.

Bandcamp

8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

Ghosteen is an outpouring of grief and hushed reflection so sharp and sustained that its relative quiet screams louder than any squall. Extending the trend of recent albums, the Bad Seeds here are themselves ghostly and almost vanished, but Cave needs their grounding – no matter how diaphonous – as he spins out his words and melodies with such raw tenderness that at times are almost unbearable. This is not an album that wallows, or that saturates the listener with stricken sentiments that are calculated to make you feel as deeply as he does. His falsetto on “Spinning Song” is one of the most simply eviscerating moments of the year: “Peace will come… in time / And time will come… for us.” It’s direct, plainspoken, sad, and generous. Ghosteen speaks a simple truth: there’s no great bravery or catharsis in carrying on after suffering profound loss. “Everybody’s always losing somebody.” What is profound is that we carry on nonetheless.

Full Youtube stream

7. Matias Aguayo – Support Alien Invasion

I’ve been a bit hit or miss with Aguayo in the past because I’m very picky about vocals in electronic music. On Support Alien Invasion, not only does he ditch the vocals, but he also throws about just about everything else I had expected, leaving behind a dense, disorienting, dark, psychedelic, demon-funk dance bacchanal. “We Have Seen Another World” throbs and threatens but throws up crosswise global rhythms in such a way that it sounds like Scorn or Godflesh lurching across the beaches in Rio de Janeiro. The title track sounds a little like Bjork’s “Human Behavior” tossed in a nightmare blender and thrown into a bottomless chasm. This album is sexy, sticky, dangerous, and disarmingly unique. Don’t miss it.

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6. Mono – Nowhere Now Here

The compositional surety of the very finest chamber-leaning post-rock bands is to treat the crescendo not as the inevitable destination but as one ingredient in a recipe that privileges texture and feeling over raw power or unidirectional narrative. Japan’s Mono have long since mastered their craft, such that Nowhere Now Here finds the band both quieter and more dynamic than ever. The title track alone is so luminous and intense that it achieves a very particular kind of erasure: when listening deeply, it is possible to forget where you are and what you are thinking, and to focus only on the nocturnal grandeur being built, brick by hand-picked brick, against the blank screen of your nightwalking mind.

Bandcamp

5. Holly Herndon – PROTO

Even without the AI-related backstory of the album, Holly Herndon’s Proto would be a stunning experience. For as heavily processed and electronic as most of the album’s components are, the omnipresence of the voice throughout almost makes Proto feel more like a thoroughly contemporary choral work than an electronic one. The vocal elements on the album bring to mind everything from Laurie Anderson to Bjork’s Medulla to shape note singing, and make all the more prominent (and poignant) the juxtaposition of the organic and the electronic, the unadorned and the manipulated, the bravery and the fear.

Bandcamp

4. Yosi Horikawa – Spaces

In my utterly sound experience, I have found that music built primarily on ‘found sound’ is… boring at best and cloyingly obnoxious at worst. Yosi Horikawa’s music never tries to present itself as found sound, thankfully, but his immaculate beat productions are almost always built from the ground up using hugely tactile samples of physical objects or other recognizable yet typical non-musical elements. “Moldy Vinyl,” for example, builds its atmosphere from the hiss and pop of beat-up records, while “In the Wind” lays its chiming melody in the background of unidentifiable but distinctly swishing and whistling ambient tones. His real success, though, is that listening to Spaces never feels like an academic exercise; these songs are sumptuous landscapes to sink into and be carried away with, whether or not your ear tries to follow the sounds back to their source.

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3. Ulver – Drone Activity

Let us wonder at (at least) two things: first, that Ulver followed up The Assassination of Julius Caesar, a dark synthpop masterstroke that saw these perpetual shapeshifters gain some of their greatest crossover appeal ever, with this sprawling document of a live drone/experimental performance that bears zero resemblance to almost any of their previous work. Second, let us simply marvel at that title: Drone Activity. Not only does it evoke a surveillance state menace which suits the tone of the album wonderfully, but it’s also a beautiful pun on its own, in as much as the musical drone is often seen as nearly the antithesis of activity. Fittingly, then, the album is far from an exercise in pure drone, and instead finds the band in tightly locked-in improvisational form, with each of the four side-long pieces exploring all the many shadings of a particular idea or groove, here with swells of noise and synth, there with almost shamanic percussion. It’s a dark, dense trip of an album, but it breathes remarkably openly for its thickness, and welcomes the listener in rather than constructing impassive barriers.

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2. bvdub – Explosions In Slow Motion

Brock van Wey, otherwise known as bvdub, is a seemingly inexhaustible source of majestic ambient music. Lately, his albums have evoked a certain formalism, as on Explosions in Slow Motion four nearly side-long pieces are followed by a brief “Ember” interlude. The glacial pace of the album belies its steady sense of internal movement, with string swells and loops and buried snippets of voices in song and exclamation. As a side-note, the record sleeve and colored vinyl is one of the more strikingly lovely physical release I’ve come across this year, and perfectly suited to the way in which bvdub’s music invites the quietly defiant act of sitting still, and still listening to its inner stillness.

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1. Konx-om-Pax – Ways Of Seeing

Here is an extraordinarily uninteresting thing about me: for as much as I love electronic music, I hate dancing. I have never been to a club or seen a DJ or been to a rave or any other stereotypical scene you might associate with electronic music. This means that while I don’t dislike electronic music that seems mostly aimed for the dancefloor, I need the music to offer something else alongside the club-friendly beat. Konx-om-Pax’s latest album, it should be said, is not obviously a set of club bangers. There’s a bit too much slipperiness, too much within-song variation, and too much strangeness for most of these tracks to hit the decks of all but the most adventurous DJs. But from start to end, Ways of Seeing is bathed in color, invention, and jaw-droppingly precise feats of programming and arranging.

“LA Melody” pairs a trunk-rattling beat almost out of the Warren G playbook with a Boards of Canada-type sunrise synth drone, while “Saule Acid” feels like it could have walked off the page of Selected Ambient Works 87-92. “Rez” is ambient trap with the pristine touch of someone like Four Tet. Maybe, after all, Konx-om-Pax really is chasing after a certain type of dance, just one that links arms with all boies and encircles in the universe in its unchained exhilaration. The song title “Optimism Over Despair” is as frank an aspirational mission statement as we could desire in these unsettled times, but it’s actually album closer “The Paleontologist” (easily my favorite electronic song of the year) that really brings it home. It’s a beatless piece, fuzzed and recursive, but the title makes it magical, because here is the idea of paleontology – of uncovering in raw earth and clay the true record of what has lived and left us – in musical form. It is stunning, warm-hearted, generous, sympathetic: just like this splendid album.

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Thanks for sticking with us, friends.

As a corollary to the point that art takes time, goddamnit, remember that art also takes resources, goddamnit. If and as you’re able, chip in to support the music that matters to you. Go to a show. Buy a record. Gift a CD to a friend. Toss a couple bucks more than the asking price on Bandcamp. Maybe we can’t turn music-making into the sustainable career it ought to be, but we can try to move the needle.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

  1. What an incredibly pleasant surprise it was to see Tanagra make your number one spot. Hyperbole would blush in embarrassment at all the ridiculous words I’ve used to describe that album. Your words ring very true. My work mates even asked me what it was because I played it so often. I have waxed lyrical about it ad nauseam. I have sent it to friends in the hope they will listen to it. And probably everyone is sick of me going on about how incredible it is. But at least I have discovered it. And know how much it fucking rocks!

    Reply

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