You don’t need us to tell you what kind of year 2020 has been. It’s not like this misery came out of nowhere, but 2020 upped the shit-ante like shit-Batman smashing the shit-vase.
With this in mind, we decided to change up our usual Thanksgiving approach. The past few years we’ve all picked on our turkey choices—those records that we hated, found extra embarrassing for the band, or were simply huge disappointments. That’s fun and all, but in a year when sad reacts outnumbered smile emojis by a factor of about 1,000, we thought we’d add a few of the latter. Hooray for the good shit and all.
So this year we’re each naming a band or album we’re thankful for in 2020. The catch: these can’t be records from 2020, but something from the past that surprised us and gave us some serious joy in these tough times. The reason for this catch is simple: we’ll soon be spending about 50,000 words on 2020 music, so this is a nice opportunity to showcase other goodness. Oh, and we couldn’t resist some food-related picks as well.
As always, chime in with your thanksgivings. Hugs and gluttony to you.
Virgin Steele ‒ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Parts I & II
One of my favorite weekend activities is creating things in my little workshop. While I’m working, I Iove to listen to heavy metal that I wouldn’t normally inflict upon the members of my family, whom I love. Most often that means death metal, especially the brutal kind. One day this summer, though, after several hours of slamming and blasting and gurgling and horking, I needed a palate cleanser but still wanted the heavy, so I queued up Manowar’s Hail to England and then let the streaming service’s autoplay take over when it finished. I don’t recall everything that followed, but it included Savatage and Helloween and then… something else.
The lead track from Virgin Steele’s The Marriage of Heaven and Earth, Part 2, called “Symphony of Steele,” opened with what could have been a Rick Wakeman mellotron piece and I was curious. After a slow build it erupted in an exultant swell of American power metal with all the dedicated pomposity of an opera and I was enticed. Then came galloping riffs and a thundering rhythm section supporting triumphant melodies and harmonies, an epic heavy metal song that echoed so many classic bands without aping any of them and I was hooked. I spent so much time listening to the Heaven and Hell trilogy (the two parts plus Invictus) in my shop this summer, my neighbors could probably sing along by now.
Virgin Steele’s Metal Archives page lists among its lyrical themes The Unconquerable Spirit and they nail that aspiration to a tee. It’s the sort of thing that gets a fella zipping the ol’ miter saw through white pine like Andúril through Orc hide with all the joyful enthusiasm of Rudy held aloft on a sea of shoulder pads.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Papa Shinsky’s Dirty Rice
The Thanksgiving food I love best is Papa Shinsky’s Dirty Rice. It’s not a stuffing but a side and is even hearty enough to be a light meal. It’s pretty simple: white rice, Jimmy Dean spicy sausage, green bell peppers, onions, chicken broth, and a not-so-secret blend of spices. Papa Shinsky was my wife’s grandfather, a WWII B-17 copilot/navigator and POW, and a wonderful man. He died a couple years ago at age 95. The true magic of the dirty rice tradition is that it’s Papa Shinsky’s. Making it fills the kitchen with a savory smell that reminds of those many holidays that he made it and having it on your plate between the turkey and the green bean casserole reminds you of his smiling face at the head of the table where he sat and quietly enjoyed the warmth of his family, which is, of course, what Thanksgiving is all about.
Obtest ‒ Auka Seniems Dievams
Sometimes small but delectable crumbs of thanks can be found in the cracks of tragedy. Sure, with this being 2020 I could find all kinds of depressing analogies to make, but instead we’re going to hop in the ol’ Wayback Machine and mosey on over to 1990. Imagine discovering heavy metal from taped radio broadcasts from across the Iron Curtain. When, under the oppressive gauntlet of the USSR, your own native tongue must be kept to a whisper, it’s not difficult to imagine just how dangerous it could be to even dabble in heavy metal. Every fourth-tier demo tape smuggled by your schoolmate’s cousin across the borders becomes a treasure. And then, the Curtain lifts, right before the second wave of black metal began catch ablaze.
A handful of bands in Lithuania rode the ripples of the black metal wave. Weaving with the reclaimed sovereign identity, the music was impassionately Lithuanian – taking influence not only from the language, but the structures of traditional war-historical songs. Obtest were one of the early acts in the country playing black metal, a style largely found in their demos. Their 1997 debut album introduced a bit more traditional heavy metal riffing buried within the band’s pagan black metal sound. The album’s followup, Auka Seniems Dievams, doubled down on these elements to craft something truly mighty. While the black metal elements are still present ‒ the blasts and tremolo picking segments certainly date it in a post-1992 metal climate ‒ they take the backburner to the epic metal riffs. While other countries (especially Greece) seemed to take inspiration from 80s US power metal, Obtest hammered their steel in a different fashion. The steel is crafted so well, in fact, it’s difficult to separate what’s drawn from the cultural elements and what’s drawn from heavy metal. Anthemic, powerful, energetic, and packed to the hilt with inspired riffs and furiously melodic leads, Auka Seniems Dievams is an extremely uplifting album that helped me power through the hellstorm of 2020. As much as I often joke that I was born approximately 20 years too late, I can’t help but feel thankful that metal has provided such a rich history of listening to still discover.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Cornbread
Okay, I’ll be straightforward here: cornbread isn’t really my all time favorite side dish. Hell, it isn’t even in my top five breads. However, at Thanksgiving, cornbread becomes more than just a moist, spongy southern delicacy. When properly consumed, a Thanksgiving dinner plate should leave all sorts of morsels, flavors, juices, crumbs, nibbles, bits, scraps, and tidbits. This is where the cornbread comes into play. See, even the most perfectly prepared of cornbreads leaves the palette wanting when served on its own. But take a nice fat square of the grainy sponge and drag it across the remains of a Thanksgiving dinner? Cornbread becomes a vessel for divine nourishment. Every highlight of the plate gets a corner, from the cranberry sauce to the gravy to the green bean juice to the last little crumbs of stuffing. And cornbread just sops those suckers up and enhances the finishing of the meal. While stuffing or gravy or various casseroles may be the obvious choices here, cornbread is the utilitarian’s choice, the silent hero of the Thanksgiving plate that brings it all together.
Unexpect ‒ Fables of the Sleepless Empire
Times being what they are, it’s understandable that some would prefer structure, or even calm, soothing familiarity. Others choose to revel in the pure, screaming chaos of the world, laughing maniacally as they fashion a crown out of motley, barbed wire, and human teeth. Canadian avant-garde septet Unexpect were, undoubtedly, the second kind of people, and judging by the amount of time their third and final album, Fables of the Sleepless Empire, has spent in my stereo this year, so must I be.
Ten years old this coming May, Fables is a 55 minute theme-park of insanity that somehow feels perfectly coherent. While I’ve heard some defend the rawer In A Flesh Aquarium as the superior listen, to my ears this was the peak of their craft. But what kind of music is it? Well, it’s intense music. It’s exciting music. It’s fast. It’s slow. It has beautiful melodies and shrieking dissonances. There are violins and calliopes. There are distorted guitars and heavy drums. There’s a custom-built nine-string bass that musical mastermind ChaotH had constructed long before the days of viral YouTube one-upmanship. But assigning a genre? It would be disservice. Instead, ruminate on this lyric from album opener “Unsolved Ideas of a Distorted Guest” and join me in making the chaos your eager servant.
“We are within the nonsense of a larger plan
Worthy of some salt pouring on a bloodied part
Merry, merry, joy, joy!
A nice and pleasant dip in an acid pool”
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Fresh Made Cranberry Sauce
Don’t buy that sad imitation of the true fruit of the bog. Cranberries, sugar, orange juice, a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. That’s all you need for seasonal deliciousness that you won’t even have to share with ingrates and scoffers.
The Band ‒ Music from Big Pink
Most people think that the Woodstock Music Festival took place in Woodstock, New York. It didn’t, you jackass. It was actually held in Bethel (not Beth-El like a synagogue) about 50 miles southwest of Woodstock, New York. But I have great news for Woodstock, New York (more accurately West Saugerties but whatever): the greatest band to ever grace the face of the earth (outside the jazz realm of course) recorded the two greatest pieces of Americana ever in that tiny artistic town. We are talking about the THE BAND. (Sounds awkward don’t it?) Four Canucks and one beautiful southern hick got together in a little pink house (following some tours as a backup band for Mr. Bob Dylan) and wrote (don’t ask them who wrote which ones unless you want to be party to a lawsuit) and recorded music that is, and was, inherently tied to the history of blood, sweat, tears and ash that made America what we know today. Their music remains relevant, evocative, provocative and altogether sexy. So, when I’m thinking about a holiday like Thanksgiving (and all the odd feelings that can end up tied into that) I have to reach for a record that makes me feel America the way it’s supposed to be experienced. Not that “I drive a big truck and own some guns and drink Bud Light Lime” horse shit. American music is blues-based and thus born of African traditionals, work songs and spirituals. The inevitable extension is that any music about the history of this great and troubled land must include that soul and vibrancy. It must have both the rhythm AND the blues. Simply no other band comes close. That’s probably why Muddy Waters spent a few summers at Big Pink (that’s what they decided to call the little pink house built in 1952 by Ottmar Gramms) recording with Levon Helm behind the production board. Well, that and the drugs.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Stuffing, the Oyster Variety
While we are talking about American history it’s a fun time to bring up that things like turkey (at least the large chicken-like thing you bought at the grocery) and sweet corn and marshmallows and casserole and vegetables and syrupy-sweet pies weren’t part of what we consider our own Last Supper-style feast. We’re talking about New England in late autumn. We’re talking about bang-wearing idiots in buckled shoes with doilies around their neck clomping around like it isn’t 1621. We’re talking about the Wampanoag tribe showing up with artisan-woven baskets full of locally sourced, organic berries. This meal would have inevitably focused around food from the sea including many of what we here in southeastern Connecticut like to call “sea bugs.” Lobsters, clams (whole belly and long neck), crabs, haddock, scup, tautog, cherrystones, waterfowl etc. And maybe, if they were so lucky, a huge, wicked tender leg of venison. These are mostly delicious foods pulled only from boot-sucking mud fields along the ocean at low tide. Thus, when making a stuffing (even when borrowing from the south and using stale cornbread as the base) it’s smart to throw some delicious, wet oysters into the mix and add a true hint of New England. While you’re at it why not go ahead and throw some clam chowder on the stove and some baked beans in the slow cooker? And while you’re at it get some hot, clarified butter and rub some sage in your eyes.
Boris ‒ Noise
I’ve long been a fan of Boris, but that fandom was limited to just a handful of their records: the classics Pink and Amplifier Worship, their great EP with Ian Astbury, and a few others. I meant to dig deeper for years, but a combination of limited time and the band’s insanely intimidating number of records, collaborations, and stylistic shifts left me not exactly knowing where to re-start.
Enter 2020 and way too much free time. With the help of one Mr. Obstkrieg, both Captain and I went on Boris kicks of epic proportions. Many more of their records found their way into my ears in recent months, and I realized that their stylistic unpredictability ‒ drone, stoner metal, post rock, dream pop, and everything in between ‒ didn’t make their catalog intimidating, but actually easier to digest. Listening to Boris for four hours straight wouldn’t be as fun if it was all droning doom, but follow it up with driftier, gorgeous melodies and you’ve got the makings of a long binge.
Within this huge kick, the album that hit me hardest was 2014’s Noise. The album pushes an hour even without its bonus material, but its scope, variation, and unforgettable songs means it never drags in the slightest. With big or small dashes monolithic and hazy drone/doom, dreamy post-rock and shoegaze, reverb-drenched soloing, and even hardcore punk, Noise runs the gamut of Boris’s various styles, sometimes blending them as seamlessly as any record in their vast catalog ‒ especially on longer songs like the unforgettable “Angel” ‒ and sometimes taking simpler detours. The whole thing is like a warm blanket that’s fuzzier than all the heft emerging from their amps, and in a year when I listened to a lot of this band, this was the record that made the deepest connection.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Stuffing, the Landlocked Variety
Carb-loaded, salty, herby, least-healthy-thing-on-the-plate STUFFING. And no, don’t actually cram it into the bird. Nothing cooks right like that (and you’re supposed to be spatchcocking anyway). And double no, don’t make it vegan; giblets are a must. And triple dog no, don’t use the instant, branded stuff (you know which one). Bonus if the stuffing is covered in gravy and has an Al Green moment with the garlic mashed taters.
Porcupine Tree ‒ In Absentia
I finally get out of the house after seven months only to have a pandemic send me right back in. Working from home is rife with distractions, so I have to really focus on work to get it done. Finding the right soundtrack has presented its own set of challenges, but if I’m trying to bear down, it’s usually going to be something in the progressive realm. In addition to finally getting to explore the discographies of Rush and Dixie Dregs, this has repeatedly led me back to Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia.
I’ve always liked the album, but had also always focused on three of the first six tracks: “Blackest Eyes,” “The Sound of Muzak,” and “Wedding Nails.” Everything else was just background noise. I can only begin to imagine how many times I’ve deprived myself of a good time because of this ignorance. (The same can be said for Rush, but I’ll be atoning for those sins separately.)
As enthralling as it is, it doesn’t demand your full attention to appreciate it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing, but being able to appreciate the nuanced beauty of “Gravity Eyelids” while maintaining intense focus on the work in front of you most definitely is. Following the sci-fi mini saga of “The Creator Has a Mastertape” without mindlessly typing out the lyrics is a gift from beyond. The groovy basslines and chugging chorus riff of “Strip the Soul” are perfect for giving you one last push to the finish line (if you time it right).
My current record is three consecutive spins while working on a particularly intense project. I can’t wait to listen to it just for fun again sometime. That’s gonna be a blast.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Stuffing, the Stove Top Variety
Growing up, my family rotated who hosted Thanksgiving dinner every year. Everybody looked forward to when my uncle hosted because he made the best stuffing out of anybody. Other family members tried to replicate it, and failed every time. They were afraid to ask him for the recipe because they didn’t want to admit that his stuffing was better than theirs. One year, I finally said “Fuck it” and called to ask him for it. He said he’d be happy to give it to me, but I’d have to come over, and couldn’t tell anybody…
So I headed over with pen and paper, ready for the big secret. I asked him, “OK, what is the first ingredient?”
“Stove Top Stuffing.”
I scribbled it down, realized what he had said, and replied, “Huh?”
“Go to the store and buy four boxes of Stove Top Stuffing.
More notes. “OK, then what?”
“Follow the directions on the package.”
Puzzled, I asked, “And then…?”
“There is no ‘and then.’ Buy the Stove Top Stuffing, follow the directions, and serve. That’s it. Don’t be adding any other spices or herbs or meats or anything. STOVE. TOP. STUFFING.”
At dinner that year, the family loved it, and they all said “Uh-oh, looks like the kid here has got your number!” We shared a wink, and each took another helping.
Look, you’re most likely only going to eat stuffing (at home) once a year, so make it count. You’ve got enough complicated food to prepare, here’s a way to make things a little easier and still satisfy your taste buds. Boil water, stir, done. Stove Top Stuffing. Thanks, Uncle!
Cult Leader ‒ Lightless Walk
“Someday that heavy heart will have its burden lifted. This is a lie. Nothing will get better.” – “The Sorrower”
Presumably, the rest of my co-writers are contributing blurbs on albums that are immediate mood fixers or otherwise uplifting; I’m going in a slightly different direction. There are times in life where those musical pick-me-ups just won’t do the trick and you need something that offers commiseration rather than positivity. Late 2016 was such a time for me. I was lucky enough to have friends and family who helped me out mentally, financially, and even physically when needed, but the worst moments when you’re trapped in your own head often require some self-therapy. Cult Leader’s Lightless Walk became the soundtrack buddy system to my inner misery. Their lyrics offer bleak hopelessness in a way that’s relieving, while the music is viscerally hostile creating an energetic catharsis. This past year has not dragged my personal life into the depths (a clear sign of privilege), but it is impossible to avoid fits of rage, or endless cycles of sadness, as I see the relentless mistreatment of others and the complete disregard for the value of human life on every single news story I see. So, 2020 has been another banner year for Cult Leader to act as a salve on my mental wounds and I hope they can offer you some cold comfort as well.
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Caesar Salad (or Mac and Cheese)
My uncle makes Caesar dressing from scratch for a salad that is often devoured so fast that he is forced back into the kitchen to make more before he has even assembled a plate of food for himself. For other Thanksgiving celebrations that don’t feature my Uncle Mike, I’m judging you based on the quality of your homemade mac and cheese. Forget the tryptophan; knock me out with a pound of cheese and noodles!
Unholy Grave ‒ BUNCHES
2020 was the year I finally caved to the vinyl resurgence. I’ve had a turntable for most of my life, although a friend had borrowed it for the past few years to replace his broken one. Now that he got a new one, I got my turntable back, and since I was stuck at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I decided to start picking up some of the vinyl releases I’d been denied by my years of CD-only collecting.
As a longtime grinder, the first band that came to mind when I started accumulating vinyl was Japan’s Unholy Grave. Since 1993, these noisy bastards have released a staggering amount of splits, EPs, and whatever the hell else, but almost all of it has been vinyl-only. So here I am now, eight months later, with a stack of about 30 Unholy Grave 7”s (and one 12”, and two CDs that slipped through), and more than just about any other band, Unholy Grave has defined my quarantine. (In a completely weird juxtaposition, the other band that I’ve been collecting and spinning obsessively on vinyl is… Fates Warning. I’m a weird son of a gun, yes.)
So, of my 30-ish Unholy Grave records, which is best? Who cares, really? They’re kind of all the same. This is raw, ugly, noisy, fun-as-hell grindcore, pure and unadulterated. It’s against terrorism, against racism, against land mines, against most people’s tastes, and it’s all the better for all of it. Each of these 7”s is a DIY affair, with killer old-school punk-styled artwork by mainman vocalist Takaho Komatsu, often recorded live or in the band’s rehearsal space (which is likely also live), and I’m sold, 100%. Bring on the other… what? 150 of these? Jesus. Guess I’d better head over to Discogs and start buying…
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Fried Okra
Good Southern boy that I am, I love me some fried okra, and specifically, the fried okra my great aunt used to bring to our family Thanksgiving every year. My great uncle had a huge garden, and the okra was always fresh. My great aunt used to lightly fry it, and the result was the best darn fried okra you’d ever have, not the over-fried crap peddled by every Southern-style restaurant on the planet. Unfortunately, we lost my great aunt last year, so the absence of fried okra in my 2020 Thanksgiving is even more depressing. I guess I’d better learn how to fry it myself. We miss you, Aunt Lena.
Soup ‒ Remedies
I’m really not sure what sort of box Trondheim, Norway’s Soup should get crammed into; a record like Remedies, their sixth and latest, is deserving of a never-ending procession of “modern rock” stamps that seem as helpful as they are grounds for wondering precisely when and why we began insisting on categorizing categories to the point where said categories become categorically and cataclysmically excessive. Post-rock? Definitely. Art rock? Sure, why not. Progressive rock? Throw it on in, Laramore. Dream pop? If you’re feeling sassy. Ambient rock? I’m sorry, what? Just plain ol’ rock? NOW THAT’S WHERE THE GD LINE GETS DRAWN.
Here’s what’s important to understand: If the idea of the dreamier side of Pink Floyd colliding with bands such as Sigur Rós, Múm and Mogwai sounds like something you’d be interested in, Soup’s Remedies should make a swift and graceful leap to the top of your list. The music here is drifting, swirling and certainly adventurous, and while an exceedingly elegant form of somberness permeates the full 40-plus minutes, an unmistakable and overwhelming sense of welcoming comfort conquers all, which is clearly something to be extremely thankful for when life & times continue to throw a wrench the size of John Travolta’s head into the works. Get this record into a great set of headphones and you will be adrift in no time.
Hey! Soup IS good food!
Thanksgiving Side Choice: Sweet Potato Casserole
Thanksgivings as a kid were always spent at my grandparents house in Anytown, USA in the very western part of Tennessee. There, my grandmother was in charge of everything, particularly on Turkey Day, and she was the sort of cook who kept a can of pork fat in the cupboard. Let that be your guide if you’re wondering whether or not “healthy” ever entered the picture when it came time to really hit the hell out of the ol’ feedbag. Again, I was a little kid, so my food habits were often dominated by finding new ways to beg for verboten sugar cereals, and Granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole was basically a green light to cram incalculable amounts of sugar into my bloodstream. My version today isn’t all that different compared to granny’s, but I choose to let the sweetness of the sweet potato rule the spotlight, so no additional sugar gets dumped in (beyond a sane portion of brown sugar for the crumble up top), which is why I now call it Cappy’s Perfectly Sweet Enough Sweet Potato Casserole. Sweet, but not so sweet that you’ll regret spending time with it an hour later. Just like me!