Thursday, June 7, 2012


"It is a pop album, but nobody gets that.  Nightmare pop." - William Fowler Collins

William Fowler Collins produces some of the deepest music being made today, and by deep I am referring to the philosophy of "deep listening" that experimental legend Pauline Oliveros has dedicated her life toward, which is basically the act of taking the time to put a pause on all the extraneous bullshit in life long enough to immerse yourself into the soundworld being created by a given artist. It's kind of like sonic meditation, and Collins' music deserves to heard under those circumstances to be fully appreciated. As academic as that may sound, his music is also incredibly visceral, calling to mind your most unsettling moment, your worst nightmare or some primal collective memory. Personally, I love to put on his music when I have to drive through rural Indiana, as it casts a blackened grip over the heartland in a way that makes "Children Of the Corn" look quaint. 

His last two records, "Perdition Hill Radio" and "The Resurrections Unseen," both available on Type Records, are two of the finest experimental records of the new millennium. Invoking the terrestrial space of haunted dark country roads as well as the blackest depths of the cosmos, his music is both primal and cosmic, resembling György Ligeti more so than Tim Hecker.  William was gracious enough to talk with me about his music, as well as books, film, growing up in rural Massachusetts, the difference between intent and interpretation in art, and why the gap between the two isn't such a bad thing.

JB: In listening to your last couple of records there seems to be an internal narrative at work running through each album that makes each piece a part of a greater whole, rather than the records being a simple collection of individual songs. Is that intentional, or is it an example of the listener piecing together a meaning or purpose that isn't actually there?

WFC: There is no specific story, but the individual pieces are ultimately part of a whole, yes. Each piece develops on its own, and then when I have a complete body of work I'll spend a good deal of time arranging the tracks in an order that conveys some sort of abstract narrative form. I have my own personal ideas about what is happening in each album. Others will ideally have their own interpretations. There's no meaning or purpose to miss.

JB: To that end, a lot of people, self included, found a parallel between "Perdition Hill Radio" and works like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," yet you had never read "The Road" until after some reviewers mentioned it, is that right?

WFC: That's right, I hadn't read it. I can see why people would feel that way, although I think there's more to my albums than just darkness. I enjoy McCarthy's work quite a bit.

JB: Are there particularly things that you do draw inspiration from that informs your music?

WFC: I'm a bit of a cinephile. I'm constantly watching films. I find books inspirational as well. Film and literature are certainly inspiring but it would hard to pinpoint how much direct influence they have on my music. I suppose there are parallels between the way chapters or scenes are edited and they way in which I'm editing my music.

JB: What are some of your favorite films and books?

WFC: There are many, but off the top of my head it would be Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O'Connor, Jerzy Kosinski, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, David Lynch, Hitchcock...

JB:What about the desert? You currently live in Albuquerque, and I know that gets brought into discussion sometimes about your music, in terms of the desolation of the desert having some impact on your sound. Having lived there myself, I always felt that the landscape was like a borderline between life and death. It can be very ominous and powerful to experience. Do you think there is a direct link between your geographical surroundings and the type of music you produce? Or is it just happenstance that you are living out there while producing this kind of blasted desolate music?

WFC: The landscape certainly has an impact, but it may not always be at the forefront of my mind when I'm working new material. It may have more of a subconscious influence. What I'm working on could just as easily trigger thoughts of my childhood in rural Massachusetts. But the sparse population, the ghost towns... the landscape is vast and beautiful. As you know, Albuquerque is the high desert. I live at 6,000 feet above sea level. We have snow, mountains, things that those unfamiliar with the location may not think of when they're writing about people dying a slow, solitary death in the hot desert.

JB: True, Albuquerque is in an area that has a lot more geographical diversity than people realize. When I was out there the joke was 'we don't have a winter, except from October to April.' But let's talk about growing in rural Massachusetts. I grew up in rural Indiana, and, of course, there wasn't much to do. My friends and I got into punk and metal beginning in high school and once we got our driver's licenses we would just drive around out in the country and listen to things like the Dead Kennedys and Metallica. Looking back, what strikes me about that was that we were playing this really heavy dark stuff in the land of God, mom and apple pie. It was like our vision of our surroundings simply didn't comport with the idealized version of country life, instead it was in inversion. Rather than a friendly farmer hanging out just around the corner of that barn on the horizon, it could very well be a bigot, a child molester or a killer. Even the woods took on a dark characteristic for us as we imagined hidden satanic cults and hauntings taking place within them as we wound around those country roads at night. I bring all of this up because when I first heard "Perdition Hill Radio," I had a visceral response to it that brought back those memories of unsettling dark feelings centered around growing up in a rural community. There certainly seems to be a rural flavor to that record, and I wonder if that is a result of growing up in that environment, and if you had a similar experience in terms of the music you listened to and the way you eventually came to view your surroundings then that might affect your music now? Sorry for the incredibly long question.

WFC: My childhood in the country was actually great. There wasn't any fear of God or any of that crap. Up until age 14 I lived on a farm. Over one hundred acres and no neighbors close by. The land where I lived is now protected against any development. The woods were a magical place where my brother and friends would play. Halloween was certainly scarier with all the old farmhouses and covered bridges, but there was no fear of satanic cults or anything. Until I'd seen horror movies, I didn't have any reason to be scared of my environment. Once you see films like that then you can project all kinds of scary scenarios onto your surroundings. You can let your imagination get out of hand. Driving, as you know, was one of the things to do in a small town. There are, of course, miles of country roads, many of them dirt. Night driving, moonlit pastures and the silhouettes of hills and mountains came to mind when I was working on "Perdition Hill Radio". Eden Trail was the road I lived on when we're on the farm. I'm not certain that I'm answering your question. To me it touches on the idea that place, environment, and personal history can play a role, consciously and subconsciously, in the making of music or art.

Lots of people get the darkness, and there is darkness for sure. But then there might be some light as well. There's always someone who has the opposite experience of the writer/listener who was terrified by the albums or at least describes them as being somewhat terrifying. I think that's important. There's intention in the work that I make, no question about that. I don't want to influence how people will interpret the music here. 

JB:  No that is a great response and a prime example of the ultimate rift between listener and artist and what is projected onto the art and what is intended. Let’s talk about the light then. As you said a lot of people have focused on the darkness in your records, but there is always some part that is lighter, as if there is a resolution in the narrative, so to speak. How important is that to you?

WFC: Since things are abstract, the narrative could potentially change with each person and perhaps even each listen. It is always nice when people such as yourself listen through and can hear that. That takes listening to the entire album and all these people are whining about the album format being dead, so I'm not sure how often that happens these days. Maybe that's too cynical and most people don't feel that way, but I've read it more than once. An album could absolutely be a collection of unrelated songs or pieces of music. But it doesn't have to be. About the lighter parts: I don't necessarily think happiness or joy make the cut, but with "Perdition Hill Radio" I felt there was some sort of peaceful resolve at the end. Could be peace found through death, or just some kind of melancholy end to a frightening journey. "The Resurrections Unseen" doesn't necessarily have much light at all. For all those who find the music to be bleak or completely dark there are always some who have the opposite experience. Maybe my intention isn't "light" but rather a bit more range and/or depth of emotion.

JB: I want to talk about "The Resurrections Unseen" in a minute, but you bring up an interesting point about the alleged death of the album, which has seen more than its fair share of "think pieces" over the past few years. It strikes me that experimental music and metal, for the most part, are the two genres that are somewhat impervious to this issue. It's easy for disposable rock and pop to be reduced to what are basically sound bites in the form of MP3s, but experimental and metal seems to require patient deep listening more often than not. They both lend themselves toward a much more immersive experience than what can be reduced to a three minute song. Yet both are seemingly deemed to be on the "fringe" of music, which is odd since each could arguably be considered more serious in approach and execution than what passes for music these days. There does seem to be a difference between the way music is produced and consumed between genres as well as the kind of fans that are able to appreciate what is arguably more serious music than whatever single of the week Pitchfork is pushing at a given time. Admittedly, it's hard to formulate an exact question about this particular issue, because it could give way to a vast discussion, I'll try to focus it, but please respond however you want to this issue. As a starting point though, what is your opinion, as an artist, about the current state of music in the context of the "death of the album," as well as the advent of things like mp3s and file sharing? Do you think it as dire as some make it out to be, or does it simply delineate between artists and fans who take music seriously and those who have always been casual about it, regardless of the technology?

WFC: I'm fortunate that people will buy the limited releases of my music, and fortunate that there are labels interested in the work. And those that do buy it aren't likely into it for 3 minute pieces that are easy to digest. I guess I think of my albums more like films in that I wouldn't want to watch just a scene in a film, I want to see the whole thing. The narrative doesn't have to be clear or linear. When I watch a Tarkovsky film I don't just watch one chapter on the DVD, I watch the whole film. One has to actively watch or, in my case, listen. Having the option to not buy has hurt labels and artists alike, obviously. The idea that it should all be free is bullshit. No money back into labels and artists means no money to produce the work, period. As for mp3s, the sound quality is obviously compromised even if they are convenient. I personally make more money from sales of physical media than mp3s. iTunes and eMusic type take a nice big chunk out of each sale. For a compressed, digital file and no artwork. Think about that. Anyway, this could blow up into something much bigger and more complex. Maybe we should discuss genres and their failures or successes...  from a writer's standpoint that could be interesting for you. It is difficult to write well about music. When someone asks me what kind of music I make I am still at a total loss for words. I hesitate to use the terminology we read so often in contemporary music journalism.

JB: What do you usually say to someone who has not heard your work?

WFC: I'm still at a loss when trying to describe it. Even trying to use genres which are generally useless will fail if the person has knowledge of these genres to begin with. I will most likely describe it as "cinematic", or a combination of various genres. Then they'll usually ask me what instrument I play and I'll tell them guitar and electronics. Boomkat puts my releases in their Dark Ambient/Drone/Metal section and the combination of those 3 isn't unfair. Although, I don't find it to be very ambient because, to me anyway, ambient music implies some sort of passive participation on the listener's part. I feel the music needs an active listener. John Twells called "The Resurrections Unseen" a black metal album without any of the typical elements of black metal. Keith Fullerton Whitman said that the album has absolutely nothing to do with black metal whatsoever. So there you have it.

JB: And I'll add my two cents and say that I would compare it to György Ligeti or similar modern composition. You make a great point about ambient vs. active listening. Do you ever have concerns about making demands on the listener? I realize that is an odd question, but I agree that your music requires the listener's full attention to truly appreciate. At the same time it seems that, and I realize I am generalizing here, the listening public's attention span seems to be shortening. Do you have concerns about that, or do you feel that this particular type of music is always going to have an audience that is used to the "deep listening" experience?

WFC: Thanks, that's a generous comparison! I don't concern myself with being too demanding. As soon as you start making music for an audience, you're fucked. The music will, hopefully, always have an audience that is willing to take the time to listen. It's likely true that attention spans are shortened but that's not my problem and can never be. Think of a Tarkovsky film. Those take a lot of time and attention, but they are ultimately so rewarding. If I'm in a difficult place with a mix I may watch a Tarkovsky film, or listen to some Scelsi. It usually renews my inspiration and reinforces the idea that it is okay to make quiet pieces, to use silence, to take one's time.

JB: The Tarkovsky parallel is apt, particularly on "The Resurrections Unseen" which calls to mind "Solaris" to me when I listen to it. I want to talk about that record and what I notice as a slight shift in direction from "Perdition Hill Radio." To me "Perdition Hill" was 'of the earth,' so to speak, full of rural and rustic imagery. "The Resurrections Unseen," on the other hand, is a much more cosmic album, for lack of a better word. There is a depth to the music that recalls, for me at least, the deepest reaches of the cosmos, or, conversely, depths far below the earth. There is such a subterranean feel to it at times, like tectonic plates shifting. Part of that is because there is some serious lo-end bass sounds throughout the record that will shake the hell out your car windows better than any rap song ever could. Did you make a concerted effort to change things up between the two records? Or was it simply a product of natural musical evolution?

WFC: With "Perdition Hill Radio" there were certainly some references to rural and rustic places. I’m talking about actual places where I grew up. It's interesting that you get a more "cosmic" feel with "The Resurrections Unseen". When I turned the finished mixes into Type, I told John that it felt vaguely like a cross between The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Earthly terror. The deep silence of outer space. I think it is a natural evolution. Where "Perdition Hill Radio" had more raw, impenetrable aspects, "The Resurrections Unseen" has more depth of space for me. Using the deep, low frequencies implies a sort of subterranean darkness. The sounds are felt more than they are heard.

JB: Indeed. That all makes sense. Since finishing "Resurrections Unseen" what have you been working on?

WFC: Right after "The Resurrections Unseen" came out I went up to the Pacific Northwest to work on an album with Aaron Turner. We spent a few days getting hours of material recorded and we’ve started working on that. I'm working toward finishing an album for Handmade Birds. I’m working on a collaborative album with Horseback. I'm also waiting to receive tracks from a French black metal mastermind (by way of R. Loren) so I can add my parts to the next Pyramids album. There are other things lingering but these on my plate at the moment.

JB: you've been a part of collaborations before, most notably with Gog. How do your collaborations typically come about?

WFC: They come about naturally, I'd say. Generally, it's through conversations with people by way of a mutual respect for each others work. There are others out there on the horizon, but some are further out.  We are all so busy.

JB:  Thanks for doing this.  And now a final question, anything you want to add?

WFC: Thank you, Jason! I don’t have anything to add.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

EARTH - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II (Southern Lord)

When reviewing Earth's "Angels Of Darkness, Demons of Light I" last year I wrote:

The album ends with the titular track, which is the most experimental on the record. The twenty minute piece begins with a dark hazy guitar drift reminiscent of Loren MazzaCane Connors. As with Connors' work, the results are hypnotic. One can easily imagine one's self drifting afloat into the horizon on the last piece of ice left before the spring's sun melts it away entirely while listening to the track. As the piece progresses, bass and cello join Carlson until eventually it expands to include drums while still maintaining it's languid pace. The piece morphs ever so slowly throughout, touching on psych and ambient and changing in tone from light to dark like a cloudy day where the sun fights to break through, on occasion winning. The track ends with a dark shimmering almost drone-like epilogue that points to something else entirely.

Little did I know at the time that part two of "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light" would pick up pretty much right where part one left off; in a formless haze open to all possibilities.

Before proceeding further though, a few things about the sessions that produced both "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light" parts 1 & 2. To begin with both albums were recorded during the same two-week session when Carlson was coping with a life-threatening condition (something that thankfully has become somewhat manageable through medication). He has said in interviews that at the time he realized these could be his last recordings, which adds an air of solemnity to these releases. Secondly, Carlson was deeply influenced by British folk-acts Pentangle and Fairport Convention prior to the recording of these albums, and has constantly cited them in interviews as a source of inspiration for both records. Finally there is this, taken from an interview with the UK publication The Skinny:

I’ve been reading a lot of fairy stories, like, Scottish, Welsh, Irish fairy stories so that’s my obsession right now. That’s where the album title "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light" comes from; the angels of darkness would be the angels and demons from monotheism whereas the demons of light would be the fairy folk.

I mention all of this, because I think each element adds a greater appreciation to what overall is one of Carlson's greatest works to date. There is a whimsy present throughout these recording - particularly part two - that recalls, in part, the fairy folk, while also sounding like a man at the end of his road looking back with sorrow, grace, wonder and joy. Both albums owe their power to the conditions of their origin, and while it is a no-brainer that "Earth 2" and "Hex: Printing in the Infernal Method" are some of the most important doom albums of all time, both volumes of "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light," while not necessarily doom, are the most expansive and beautiful of Carlson's esteemed discography.

Part two opens with what is Carlson's most gorgeous moment to date. "Sigil of Brass" again recalls the hazy guitar drift of Loren MazzaCane Connors, but there is a transparency and light present that I have never heard in Connors' work. Cellist Lori Goldston, percussionist Andrienne Davies, and bassist Karl Blau provide minimal, but crucial, accompaniment to Carlson's quietly consistent guitar motif that in the end sounds more victorious than what a thousand Sunn amps turned to 11 could ever produce. The piece barely breaks the three minute and thirty second mark, but it's spacious beauty slows down time enough to fit an entire lifespan between its seemingly simple notes.

“His Teeth Old Brightly Shine” introduces a semblance of solid form as a bassline slowly chugs away as Carlson’s guitar slithers and slinks atop it.  The effect of the more earthbound bass played underneath Carlson’s untethered guitars creates a sonic tension, as if the album’s titular angels and demons are in a dance with one another, vying for influence.

“A Multiplicity of Doors” finds Earth returning to the country-folk doom that has become the band’s hallmark since “Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method.” The piece is more languid than previous Earth recordings, yet it maintains every ounce of menace that one would expect from a doomy Carlson number.  If anything there is an added edge of discomfort present in the piece as a result of its leaden tone.  It sounds of the last acts of violence from a dying beast; who, nearly drained of all life, has just enough left in him to remain dangerous.   

“The Corascene Dog” follows and is achingly beautiful.  It is neither doom, nor light, neither drift, nor solid ground.  It is somewhere in between all of these things and bears within it a heart of sorrow and contemplation.  It is the album’s most powerful piece and one that I will say no more of, as words simply cannot do this track justice.

The record closes with “The Rakehell,” a bluesy, slightly psychedelic number that is still characterized by the hazy drift that runs throughout “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2.”  It sounds less solemn and more assured than what has come before.  It is as if the conflict between angels and demons, life and death, light and dark, has been resolved for now and Carlson sounds ready to move onto the next chapter in Earth’s evolution.

Taken as a whole, “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 & 2” sound like Carlson taking stock, and in the process leaving behind his most haunting and thoughtful music to date.  Both albums are untouchable, as you would hope any record by a talent such as Carlson would be.  Earth has had many imitators over the years, but every one of them would be hard pressed to be able to summons the depth and emotion that runs though these deeply personal sounding records.  In the end, this is the kind of music that makes Dylan Carlson the legend that he is, and places him eternally above those who would be nothing without his legacy to draw on.  Let us hope that legacy remains largely unwritten still.

"The Corascene Dog"

Sunday, March 4, 2012

LOCRIAN & MAMIFFER - Bless Them That Curse You (Profound Lore/Sige/Utech)

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of the much anticipated Locrian and Mamiffer collaboration. Deciding to take a much needed two-month sabbatical from anything to do with music criticism, I listened to the record as a fan only, enjoying it as it should be enjoyed, instead of pouring over it to the point of frustration in an attempt to capture its essence in mere words. At the same time, I knew that this eventually would be the first review I wrote once I ended my self-imposed silence. How could it not be? Locrian have been a personal favorite ever since I heard their masterful "The Crystal World" in 2010. Every release subsequent has found me heaping continual praise on the Chicago trio, and I am hardly alone. Blogs as small as this one to the denizens of taste at Pitchfork have been buzzing about this record ever since the release the album's opening number "In Fulminic Blaze" back in January. The strength of that song coupled with Locrian and Mamiffer's excellent track records makes the build-up surrounding this record feel well-earned and legitimate, unlike the usual blogger buzz that leaves it its wake a thousand forgotten flavors of the month. Little did I realize, though, just how big that buzz had gotten until tragedy nearly struck last week.

I am not one to simply take digital handouts from artists and be content (although they are surely much appreciated). If I personally love a record, I won't rest until I am able to own it on vinyl. It's not enough to have it on my iPod, I need to experience that album on a proper stereo as all great albums should be experienced. So I have been waiting for "Bless Them That Curse You" to finally get a vinyl pre-order release ever since falling in love with the record a couple of months back. The problem was that the day it rolled out on the Utech site I was buried at work, finishing up a long and arduous task, and virtually cut-off from the outside world entirely. At some point in the day I checked Twitter and saw the announcement that the record was for sale, but returning to the fray I had to file that information in the back of my head and proceeded onward toward what would eventually be a hard-earned major professional victory. After the dust had settled, a little over a day latter, I went to the Utech site as part of my post-work celebrations, only to see the words "SOLD OUT" in bold. My heart sunk. I was fucking devastated. This was the one record I had been waiting for since late last fall when I first got word of it. I was suddenly reminded, at that moment, for the first time in a couple of months, of how important great music really is to me, even when I am taking a breather from analyzing every note. Thankfully the story has a happy ending, since eventually Steven Hess posted that there were a few remaining copies left at Sige, and I was able to jump on one immediately. For a while there, though, my world sort of turned inside-out, and even my day-prior professional victory could not sooth me. The point behind this story is two fold: first, this collaboration really does deserve to be called the most anticipated record of 2012 to date, and second, clearly I think this is a fucking amazing record to be so distraught over the threat of not being able to own it on vinyl.

What is so great about this album? To begin with it is a seamless and perfect combination of Mamiffer's haunting piano-based experimentation with Locrian's blackened post-rock. I've rarely heard a collaboration where both artists' individual voices remain intact, yet both are able to work together and create something wholly unique that neither sounds like the other, nor sounds entirely distinct. There is just enough give and take here to make for a record that stands on its own apart from both bands' individual works. This is not a Locrian album, nor is it a Mamiffer album. It can only be approached as an equal combination of both that creates something new in the process.

As already mentioned, the album opens with the epic "In Fulminic Blaze." Beginning with a singular chant that sounds like a long lost Norse eulogy, the piece immediately invokes pine-covered snow-swept mountains before giving way to a dark dance between André Foisy's acoustic guitar and Faith Coloccia's piano that turns into a march toward battle at the behest of Hess' drums. Eventually the battle is met as the piece explodes into an onslaught of drums, guitar and effects. The song is so powerful that it is hard to imagine what will be done to top it. Rather than move toward an increasingly expanding horizon that would be untenable after a while, the pieces that follow are instead smaller, more introspective and minimal.

The album's titular track is a hypnotic, but disquieting, subterranean drone that swirls inside the head like the undue influence of a poisonous evil. "Corpus Luteum," begins with piano and harpsichord, before falling into an increasingly deconstructed world of shadows courtesy of Terence Hannum's blackened effects. "Second Burial" finds that shadow world complete, as echoes ring out, and things fall apart all around the listener. Specters of sound enter and exist the piece like ghosts before leaving behind a single distant drone. "Lechatelierite" completes the album's inner journey with a simple, but haunting, piano and effects piece.

The record closes out with the same sort of bombast that bookended it's beginning. "Metis/Amaranthine/The Emperor" is a nineteen minute monster that returns the listener to the snow-covered battle-field, where blood colors the ice in a dark noxious red. Beginning with ethereal female vocals and a deliberate piano motif, the piece sounds immediately like it could take off at any second, but Locrian and Mamiffer take their time with the slow build, as eventually drums, effects and electric guitar begins to materialize out in the distance. Yet rather than explode into the expected post-rock crescendo, the piece implodes into feedback. Eventually out of the chaos the song reforms itself into a plodding, drunken, snarling doom workout reminiscent of Khanate. It's a heavy ass ending to an incredibly diverse, yet consistent record.

That combination of diversity and consistency is what makes this record better with every listen. The danger of any collaboration is that it will sound like patchwork in the end, but "Bless Them That Curse You" is the sound of each individual working together to create a greater whole. In the end, it plays like the soundtrack to a very dark saga where the action is both internal and external. There are quite moments and there are moments of great calamity, but the members of Locrian and Mamiffer play each perfectly, creating something entirely new for both artists' catalogs.

"In Fulminic Blaze"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"THE BEST" OF 2011

It’s that time of year again, when music nerds huddle in their bunkers to determine what records they deem worthy of being named “The Best Of” the year. This is done in earnest as if such designations matter and as if these lists were holy writ carved in stone, simply because they were handed down by vastly superior beings; i.e. music critics. I used to live for this time of the year, because a) I’m a music nerd, and b) I’m a male, which means I am predisposed to categorize and rank everything in my world.

As I age, though, I see the absolute arbitrariness and meaninglessness of these lists. To begin with, everyone has different tastes in music, and even if we can agree on a few particular records, it isn’t often that we will agree on all, or even the majority of albums that deserve to be recognized as superior in a given twelve month period. So my list is going to be different from yours, and hence what follows is completely arbitrarily based on my tastes and opinions. Of course, this means your list is just as arbitrary as mine, so at least we share that in common.

Then there is the issue of the sheer number of releases in a given year. It is almost impossible to estimate how many releases there are due to the advent of the self-released record, made easier to accomplish thanks to the internet, but most figures fall somewhere between 75,000 to 100,000. That’s a hell of a lot of records to listen to. I averaged listening to approximately five to six new albums each week throughout 2011. That means at most I listened to 312 new records this year, which is daunting enough. It also means that I have not listened to at least 74,688 records that were released this year, and who is to say that one of those records isn’t actually the best album of 2011?

Finally, with the exception of a small handful of records (very small, in fact, as it accounts for only .006% of that 75,000), there were a lot of records that I loved this year, but can’t really say are better in any way than a lot of the other records I loved this year. On any given day I could love, say, Yob better than Tyler, The Creator, but on the next day the opposite may be true. So, depending on my mood, Yob could be the sixth best record of 2011, or Tyler, The Creator could. In the end it becomes abundantly clear that ranking records, say from 1 to 50, is completely meaningless because over time one’s appreciation for a particular record will change and what was once number 49 is now number 9.

Having said that, I do think there were a few albums that were undeniably the best of the best, and I have decided to rank the five albums that I found to be deserving of extra special recognition (although, in truth, isn’t any record that makes the cut on a “best of” list deserving of extra special recognition?). So this year I have picked my Top 30 records, listing the top five numerically and listing the rest without numbers, because, as already discussed, each of these next 25 could be my number 6 on any given day. Over the next few days I’ll roll out that list, as well as my honorable mentions for 2011 (I initially had a list of my 55 top records, but realized it would take forever for me to do that many records), and the top 5 eps of the year, as well as my dubious award for the worst of 2011. My hope is that at least this might turn you onto something you haven’t listened to before, as that is all these lists are really good for in the end.

Best of 2011 (albums) #1 WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM - Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)

This is the one album of 2011 that I consider an absolute masterpiece. My original review follows...

There is something intimidating about reviewing the new Wolves in the Throne Room record. For one, "Celestial Lineage" is the final cumulative installment in the band's trilogy that started with the much loved "Two Hunters" and continued with the brutal but anthematic "Black Cascade." That fact alone is not what makes approaching the album so daunting, but doing justice to the unique world that WITTR have created over the course of these records is no small task. Part of that is because in many ways this is religious music, as much as it is an exceptional black metal release. For those who don't know already, WITTR live on an organic farm outside of Olympia, Washington where they focus on sustainable growing practices informed to some degree by pagan lore. Their interest in ecology and nature-based spirituality is well documented, and their music is a reflection of both. Their lyrics have focused on pagan primitivism, humankind's connection to nature and man's destruction of himself in losing that connection. While the trilogy's first two records focused on the feral naturalistic side of things, "Celestial Lineage" is a more stately vision of the nature-based spirituality that has always been present in the band's work as it evolves into something more ritualized and refined. In that context the band also explores the contradiction between the order of religion and the chaos of nature, and by extension the tension between civilization and primalism, making for a record that alternates between ethereal beauty and grim darkness. There is really no way I can do justice to everything that is going on throughout "Celestial Lineage," it is an epic record that marks the end of an even grander trilogy, and one that could very well act as holy art for a new world beyond our crumbling one. In fact, you would do better to just read Amy Miller's excellent interview with drummer Aaron Weaver and then go lose yourself in the band's trilogy than read anything I have to say about this record. Yet, I can't help myself but to say something to try and capture that which is ultimately inexplicable, which is the essence of this great work.

Unlike the more straightforward "Black Cascade," "Celestial Lineage" sees the return of heralded classical vocalist Jessika Kenney. Her ethereal voice introduces the record, giving it the air of religious ceremony before the band breaks loose with the grandiose atmospheric black metal that has become their trademark. Yet, there is something more massive in the band's sound and approach here than anything they have done before, which is really saying something for a band who has never sounded anything less than epic. Part of that is due to the marrying of the supernal with the grimness of the cold earth and forest simultaneously. While there are distinct moments of beauty and ugliness present on the record, much of it is spent blending the two, as if to reflect the contradictions, and possible dissolution of tensions, between the rawness of nature and the organization of society and ceremony. For instance, the second-half of opener "Thuja Magus Imperium" sounds a bit like Popol Vuh if they were a black metal band. This seamless blending of disparate tensions is found even more so on "Subterranean Initiation" and "Astral Blood," arguably the band's two most cumulative pieces, running the gamut from Xasthur-like blackened atmospherics to muscular metal to transcendental cascades of sound, all often played out simultaneously. One cannot help but be enraptured by the profound and brilliant execution of the band's ideas throughout "Celestial Lineage," but these tracks in particular are the perfect distillation of everything WITTR has been working toward.

Elsewhere the band focuses on ambient interludes, such as "Permanent Changes in Consciousness" and "Rainbow Illness," the former which sounds like metal being sharpened for a ritual and calls to mind the naturalistic experimentalism of the Bay Area's Thuja, while the later sounds like a kosmische interpretation of technology in decline. Then there is "Woodland Cathedral," a doomy and stately vehicle for Kenney's voice. There is an inescapable religious feel to the piece, making for WITTR's most refined production to date.

The record ends with "Prayer of Transformation," a piece that finds the band branching out in new directions and mining a sound that is more majestic than grim. There is both a victorious and elegiac quality to the number, as well as a overwhelming sense of finality. It is a fitting end not only for the record, but the trilogy as a whole. It is the sound of culmination and transformation, containing within it the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth. There has been much speculation as to whether this is not only the final album in the trilogy, but the final album by Wolves In The Throne Room entirely. From what I have read that does not appear to be the case. Instead it seems that the band will be moving on from black metal to create something new. Intentional or not, "Prayer of Transformation" seems like the perfect bridge toward a new sound for the band, and one that holds much promise. Whether it is or not, it is a perfect ending for one of modern music's most auspicious body of work.

"Thuja Magus Imperium"

Best of 2011 (albums) #2 STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Mirror Traffic

If you are of a certain age and maintained a proclivity toward independent music in the 1990s then chances are that Pavement are the most important band in the world to you. I don't mean to say that they are objectively the most important band musically to emerge from the 90s (although the argument can certainly be made), what I mean is that Pavement, far more than any other band, has soundtracked a good part of yours and my life. As Stephen Malkmus rightly noted in a recent interview, "a certain strata of middle-class hipsters share Pavement." I would only add to that quote that those "hipsters" are not only middle-class, but have presently either arrived at, or are approaching, middle-age. The days of listening to "Range Life" on long road trips with college friends in-between bars has faded into the rear-view mirror, and Malkmus' core audience is now more likely to be jamming "Cut Your Hair" in the family vehicle while their children sing along.

Of course, Pavement called it quits right as the century was turning, calling an end to the decade that they helped define, but that hasn't stopped fans from playing their records religiously, or traveling long distances to catch them live on their recent reunion tour. While fans have not necessarily wanted to accept that Pavement is no longer, Pavement's members, particularly Malkmus, have clearly moved on. Over the last ten years Malkmus has looked more forward than backward, releasing five albums with his new set of bandmates the Jicks. While nearly each release has been worthwhile, particularly "Pig Lib" and "Real Emotional Trash," nothing has come close to the magic of Pavement-era Malkmus that is until now. Simply put, "Mirror Traffic" is Malkmus' best work since Pavement's "Brighten The Corners."

What makes this record so excellent is that it sounds as relaxed as Pavement once did while maintaining a focus unlike anything before. Gone are the long beefy jams of "Real Emotional Trash," the bizzaro experimental rock of "Face the Truth," and the moody prog of "Pig Lib." In their place is a distillation of the best parts of all of the above coupled with the most inspired pop of Malkmus' career since "Shady Lane." Lyrically and musically Malkmus is switched to the "on" position throughout the Beck-produced "Mirror Trash." Opener "Tigers" is exactly the kind of catchy, sunny tune that made Pavement legends. It is no surprise that my two young daughters picked up on the song's jangly little hooks immediately, requesting that I play it over and over again, which I was able to do without losing my mind - no small reward for any aged "hipster" stuck carting around their respective broods. Even as I write this review I hear one of them off in the distance singing the chorus "We are the tigers, we need separate rooms, we are so divided, let us in." For my part, though, I am partial to the opening line, "I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks, a scary thought in the 2Ks," a rather choice lyric that announces that Malkmus' wry wit and humor is in effect for much of "Mirror Traffic," which should put a smile on any Pavement fan's face.

"No One Is (As I Are Be)" follows "Tigers" and finds Malkmus at his most relaxed on the record, with a mellow acoustic strummer that is elevated by the addition of french horns midway through. More than any other track, Beck's hand as a producer is evident here, but only as a complement to Malkmus. In fact, with the exception of this song, it is easy to forget that Beck had anything to do with the record. Rather than impose himself of Malkmus' singular talent, Beck focuses solely on making Malkmus and the Jicks sound better than ever, which he succeeds at wildly. The entire record is absolutely pitch-perfect in terms of production, not too much, not too little. Beck's production allows Malkmus to take all of the tightness that has characterized his most recent work with the Jicks and marry it with the easy feel of his earlier career. It all comes off like the most concise and tightest Pavement record never recorded.

Then there are the songs themselves. These 15 tracks are - sorry, but I have to say it - "all killer, no filler." Certainly some tracks are better than others, but each and everyone of these pieces are superb in their own right. Not every song can be as deliriously perfect as the punchy "Senator" or the bombastic "Forever 28," but I'll be damned if I don't to lose myself to the "Wowee Zowee"-like swing of "Long Hard Book" every time it comes on. For my money though, the beautifully melancholic "Asking Price" followed by the elevating "Stick Figures In Love," as well as the epic and emotional "Share The Red" are the album's real sleepers. Yet, the joy in discovering all of the large and small gems throughout "Mirror Traffic" is half the fun of the record, so I won't spoil it any further.

Maybe there will be a few other records that come before this on my best of the year list, or maybe not, but one thing is for certain; there is no other record this year that I will listen to more. That isn't for nostalgia's sake either. "Mirror Traffic" is not a "return to form" or an attempt to recapture youth from twenty-years ago. As Heraclitus said, "you can't step in the same river twice." That is just one of life's many bittersweet truths, and Malkmus is not pretending otherwise. Instead, over the years his music has become timeless, as all great music does. As a result, "Mirror Traffic" will sound just as good on a long road trip with your college friends as it will taking your kids to school and aging. Of all the indie-rock records I've heard this year, this is the one that I'll remember and listen to twenty more years down the road.


Best of 2011 (albums) #3 KRALLICE - Diotima (Profound Lore)

I’ve always liked the idea of Krallice, more than I have actually liked Krallice. Held in suspicion by purists as hipster “boutique” black metal from Brooklyn, the band found more favor among alt-celebrities like Ryan Adams and the members of My Morning Jacket than they did the insular and often overly-judgmental metal underground. As a metalhead who has always had mixed feelings about other metalheads, I loved that Krallice’s debut album made it onto Adam’s Top Ten List in 2008, further pissing off purists, more than I actually liked that record. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid record with some incredible tracks, but there is a certain monotony that eats away at the overall quality of the album. More than anything, their debut stoked the fires of anticipation for their sophomore release “Dimensional Bleedthrough.” Unfortunately, for me, that record ended up being the biggest musical disappointment of 2009. The album was marred by an over-emphasis on the band’s extreme technical prowess, which completely overshadowed everything else. In the end, it sounded like the black metal equivalent of Yngwie Malmsteen; all chops and no soul. It was bad enough that for me Krallice quickly went from being ‘the next big thing’ to an ‘also ran’ in my book.

When the track “The Clearing,” from the band’s third album “Diotima,” debuted on Stereogum in January it was with reluctance that I clicked the play button. Surprisingly the piece was more focused and more vicious than anything the group had previously produced, enough so to reignite the flames of interest in me. As the late April date of the album’s release drew closer, early positive buzz was building, almost to heights that I thought would be impossible for the band to meet, particularly given my spotty history with the group’s catalog. My skepticism was unfounded though, because this time around Krallice the band is even better than Krallice the idea.

“Diotima” is the most purposeful record that Krallice has ever made. As noted earlier, the band’s immense technical skills have come off as wankery in the past, but no longer. When the band does show off its abilities it is in the service of a larger whole, and not just to showcase individual members’ chops. As a result the group has never sounded as emotive or as intense as they do here. This is black metal exploded to cinematic heights and it is deliriously glorious.

Take “The Clearing," after tearing through six minutes of brutal ascension, the track starts to break down into a martial rhythm pattern that most bands would choose to end on, but not Krallice, with Krallice the battle has only reached its half-way point, and what goes up must come down. The latter half of the song sounds like buildings toppling in on themselves and castles burning to the ground, even as the band turns in one of its most melodic chord progressions to date. It’s an insanely tight epic that never wears out its welcome and could probably play on into eternity without slack. It is also the first of four back-to-back tracks that break the twelve minute mark.

The album’s titular track is one of those mammoth numbers, and easily one of the most intense mid-tempo metal songs ever recorded. Foregoing blast beats for most of the song, the band instead focuses on crafting a seething atmosphere fronted by bassist/vocalist Nick McMaster. In the past guitarist Mick Barr’s black metal banshee screech has tracked most Krallice numbers, but “Diotima” features McMaster’s death growl to greater effect. The end result is a more muscular sound, and on tracks like “Diotima” his vocal contributions are downright devastating.

It isn’t just McMaster’s vocals that add a tougher feel to “Diotima,” the band’s jettison of extraneous individual instrumentation in exchange for a more unified and cohesive approach makes for a deeper and darker record, as on the face-melting “Litany or Regrets.” If anyone doubted these guys' authenticity, one listen to the crushingly brutal “Litany” will set them straight once and for all. The track’s concussive blast beat sucks the air right out of the song, making for a relentlessly heavy listen. It’s like listening to the nastiest and most degraded Paysage D’Hiver tape ever made, where everything is in the red and completely disorienting, except it’s way heavier than any of Paysage D’Hiver’s experiments in black metal.

With "Diotima" Krallice have not only made up for past transgressions, but they have established themselves as one of the elite among the current metal horde, and not just for black metal, but metal in general. Being one of the few groups that truly transcends metal's many subgenres by incorporating elements of thrash, death and grindcore into their particular brand of experimental black metal, Krallice have created something that should appeal to fans of all things heavy. Furthermore, their willingness to disregard boundaries while crafting such an intensely visceral record, easily makes "Diotima" a one of the best metal albums of the year, as well as one of the top albums of the year in general.

"The Clearing"

Best of 2011 (albums) #4 REAL ESTATE - Days (Domino)

Toward the end of 2009 Real Estate shuffled onto the indie rock scene with their effortlessly brilliant self-titled Lp. Despite its mid-November release and lack of deafening hype, the album managed to work its way into more than a few year-end lists. Following in the vein of Pavement at their most lackadaisical the record made for perfect lazy day music to be enjoyed alone or with friends, at home or on the lake, in the dead of winter or in the full blaze of summer. It was the ideal soundtrack for those moments when life was about living and nothing more. The band followed up their debut with a whole lot of touring. Over the past 18 months, I personally ended up seeing them on four separate occasions, and while always a great live band, each subsequent show found them sounding tighter and bigger than the one before. I mention this because all of that touring seems to be partially responsible for the more expansive sound of "Days," the band's much anticipated sophomore album.

While some bands expand their sound by piling on more instrumentation or experimenting with song structure, Real Estate stick to the same basic template as their previous record. This time around, though, their performance is more precise and layered making for a grander sounding record than their relatively lo-fi debut. Whereas previously the band drew comparisons to early R.E.M., the point of reference here is the band that influenced Athens' finest to begin with - The Byrds. Choruses hum with layered harmonies, and guitars shimmer and swell much like the forefathers of jangle rock at the height of their power. It is surely no coincidence that "Days" contains a song called "Younger Than Yesterday," the same title of The Byrds classic fourth album. Also no real coincidence that the hazy dark track recalls everyone from The Byrds to fellow travelers Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young. The net result of this development is that there is a timelessness to these tracks that is sorely lacking from most modern artists' work. There is no doubt that "Days" will sound as spectacular decades from now as it does today.

Another variation in the band's approach this time out is that while everything felt so relaxed and carefree on their debut, here there is a world wariness that seeps into many of the record's tracks. Songs like "Green Aisles" and "Out Of Tune" bare the stamp of resignation, and more than just a little melancholy around the edges of each track. The songs' initial laid-back vibe is deceptive, as closer listens reveals something sounding more like the kind of exhaustion that sets in after life has had its way with you. Of course, some songs maintain their buoyancy against the rising tide of discontent. Tracks like "Easy" and "It's Real" bounce along like the Feelies playing a late-80s house party.

Two of the most interesting songs on the album, "Municipality" and "Three Blocks," find the group pushing themselves in a slightly different direction. "Municipality" is a syncopated rock song (or at least as much rock as Real Estate is capable of) that expresses a longing for an idealized utopia of new houses with well-maintained gardens and freshly-cut lawns where lovers share their lives together. When lead singer Martin Courtney says "that's not anything like my reality," it cuts to the core even as Matthew Mondanile's hypnotic guitar playing soothes. This dichotomy between contentment and sadness runs throughout the album, making for one of the most intriguing musical balancing acts I've heard in some time. "Three Blocks" maintains that tension between light and dark. While the track almost sounds like a romantic waltz, the lyrics reveal something more existential and ponderous: "All those people all around me, were they strangers or was it me, figure out what I want to be."

With "Days," Real Estate have met and exceeded the expectations facing them in the wake of their perfect debut record. Granted there are a couple of extraneous tracks here, like the instrumental "Kinder Blumen," which adds nothing to the band's catalog, but when all is said and done, it is easy to overlook such minor missteps given the strength of the rest of the record. What is most compelling about this album is that even during its most relaxed moments, there is a restless and discontented heart that beats throughout. Given the growth already apparent here, I can't wait to hear what the band does with that restlessness next time out. For now though, I'm more than happy than to lose myself in the sun and rain of "Days."

"It's Real"

Best of 2011 (albums) #5 PANDA BEAR - Tomboy (Paw Tracks)

I am not even going to pretend to be objective about my feelings toward Animal Collective and member Panda Bear’s solo output. I have not been interested in either for some time. Yes, I know that Animal Collective are oft considered the best band of a generation, and that Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch” helped redefine indie rock over the past five years and that many think it’s one of the top three albums of the aughts. I am just not one of those people. I liked Animal Collective enough when they first emerged as Avey Tare and Panda Bear with the incredibly forward-thinking “Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished.” I almost became a true believer around the time “Feels” dropped, and after seeing them perform live I was open to the possibility that they really were the best band on earth. I even enjoyed the majority of “Strawberry Jam.” But then came the much heralded “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which left me wondering 'what the fuck?'. I personally detested that record. Aside for a few tracks, I thought it was a half-baked, meandering mess. The words I used to describe it were "a bad jam band playing music for a rave." I felt pretty much the same about “Person Pitch,” an album that has done nothing but bore me to tears every time I attempt to give it a second, third, fourth chance. I realize this puts me on the wrong side of indie-rock history and I realize that both albums are important as historical documents, having influenced more than a few musicians and records, nevertheless my opinion has not budged and I will take it with me to the grave.

So imagine my surprise when I sampled the “Tomboy” single last year and kind of lost my mind over it in a good way. That single was the first in a series of 7”s that would eventually come to comprise a good portion of the “Tomboy” LP. To my own astonishment I found myself seeking out and snatching up every single that Panda Bear released in the lead up to the release of "Tomboy," often paying top price to get my hands on what were essentially limited-edition previews. If someone had told me at the end of 2009 that I would be stalking Panda Bear with such voracity, I would have laughed in their face. And if someone had told me that I would call “Tomboy” a shoe-in for Album Of The Year in 2011, I would have told them they were fucking crazy. I would have also have been completely and utterly wrong, because from where I am standing “Tomboy” is a game-changing classic.

Although “You Can Count On Me” opens the record with the kind of hallucinatory expansiveness that characterized “Person Pitch,” the sound quickly becomes colder and more insular on the title track that follows. “Tomboy,” the song, has more in common with Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” than it does “Person Pitch,” it’s also better than anything on either of those records. It’s a dense number featuring claustrophobic guitar and synth effects built on the kind of steady pulsating tribal beat that Animal Collective used to be known for. There is an urgency to “Tomboy” that is entirely foreign to Panda Bear’s solo output heretofore. Things grow even bleaker and better on “Slow Motion.” Originally appearing as the b-side on the “Tomboy” 7”, last year this song rooted itself inside my brain, repeatedly playing as part of my internal soundtrack. To this day it continues to mesmerize me. There is a M.C. Escher quality to the track which is built on ascending and descending reverbed effects that slowly, but surely, hypnotizes. Panda Bear's vocals float dreamily over the music giving the track an otherworldly quality, even as it threatens to pull you down toward darkness. Yet, just as Panda Bear threatens to jump into the abyss, he changes things up with the sparkling anthematic “Surfer’s Hymn.” The track recalls the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass if either composer took copious amounts of amphetamines and sequenced a synthesizer piece. It’s hyper, shiny and immediate, and one of the best songs I've hear this year.

While there is certainly an increased heart rate that beats throughout “Tomboy,” Panda Bear does take time out for the languid “Last Night At The Jetty” and minimalist numbers like “Drone” and “Sheherazade,” both of which are deeply indebted to 20th century experimentalism. Each track is a nice departure, but ultimately it’s songs like the chilly pulsating “Alsatian Darn” and downright frantic “Afterburner” that makes the record so spectacular.

Apparently not everyone agrees. Some long-time fans have been put off by the shift in focus here, and by that I mean there exists an actual focus here. I personally think that Panda Bear, and Animal Collective, operate best when there is more, and not less, structure to their songs. I am a huge fan of formless experimental music, but Panda Bear and Animal Collective's failure in this realm is proof that it takes a special kind of talent to successfully produce such music. With "Tomboy" there is a structure and tightness that has been missing from previous Panda Bear efforts that resembles pop music, even though this is hardly a pop record. Unlike “Person Pitch,” this probably won’t be soundtracking anybody’s summer parties, but that is only because it is far more substantive and cerebral. I would even go so far as to say it is the most successful experimental indie-rock recording since Radiohead’s “Kid A,” an album that also challenged expectations when it was released, but is now recognized for the masterpiece that it is.

So yes, I’m calling Panda Bear’s “Tomboy” a shoe-in for Album of the Year. Fans looking for "Person Pitch 2" be damned. For once Panda Bear sounds like he is living up to his potential, and not just painting impressionistic sound worlds for cool kids wanting to chill on a vibe. This record has even renewed my interest in Animal Collective, hopefully they will follow suit and create something as innovative, engaging and rewarding as "Tomboy."

"Slow Motion"

Best of 2011 (albums) WILLIAM FOWLER COLLINS - The Resurrections Unseen (Type)

William Fowler Collins is the modern György Ligeti. He creates the kind of drones that emit from "2001's" black obelisks. He produces some of the deepest music being made today, and by deep I am referring to the philosophy of "deep listening" that experimental legend Pauline Oliveros has dedicated her life toward, which is basically the act of taking the time to put a pause on all the extraneous bullshit in life long enough to immerse yourself into the soundworld being created by a given artist. It's kind of like sonic meditation, and Collins' music deserves to heard under those circumstances to be fully appreciated. As academic as that may sound, his music is also incredibly visceral, calling to mind your most unsettling moment, your worst nightmare or some primal collective memory. Personally, I love to put on his music when I have to drive through rural Indiana, as it casts a blackened grip over the heartland in a way that makes "Children Of the Corn" look quaint.

On "The Resurrections Unseen" Collins moves away from the blasted rural soundscape of the phenomenal "Perdition Hill Radio" for something deeper, more cosmic and more primal. This is an album that takes place in either deep space or far below the Earth's surface, depending on your prospective. Canyon sized drones burn across this record and sink the listener into a place that is both harrowing and familiar. If the evolution of the universe had a soundtrack, this would be it. I can't shake how massive this record is, how entirely beyond our individual moment in time it sounds. It's more like a transmission from the origins of the cosmos than the work of a lone individual living here and now. Although one could easily call this dark experimental music, it is bigger than that; it's a sound beyond the distinction of light and dark. The only other act that I can think of making music this expansive, this primitive and this spectacular are Sunn 0))). With "The Resurrections Unseen," Collins has solidified himself as one of the premier artists on the experimental scene. This record should be in every single serious music fan's collection, it is nothing short of astonishing.


William Fowler Collins - Abattoir from John Twells on Vimeo.

Best of 2011 (albums) VIVIAN GIRLS - Share the Joy (Polyvinyl)

The appeal of the Vivian Girls has always been that they play like they are going for broke, with little regard for fashionable affectation. There is a purity to their sound that simply no one else has.

That purity is evident throughout "Share The Joy," even as the Girls tighten and diversify their sound. While, the darkly-hued "I Heard You Say" is a more subdued version of the band's garage punk, what stands out as the song progresses is lead singer Cassie Ramone's emotional vocal work toward the end that soars above the band's trademark harmonies. It's to the bone stuff that joyfully betrays any restraint musically. Album highlight "Lake House" finds the band blasting their way through the track like a proper punk band, but the song's melodicism and the Girl's deft control of harmonies and instrumentation elevate the number far beyond yet another two minute garage song. Then there is the darker, but rollicking, "Trying To Pretend." As Ramone sings "I'm not the one trying to pretend," although her words may be directed to a lover, they could easily be taken as the band's raison d'être. Each song contains the raw strength of their earlier work, but is slightly more polished, toughened-up and taut as a result of natural progression, and not because of the over-reaching or re-invention that some bands succumb to at this stage in their career, often to disastrous effect.

Throughout, the Girls sound more relaxed and confident than ever as they turn in a collection of melodic and diverse tracks that mix in elements of 60s girl-group, the spooky garage rock of Dead Moon, and even a bit of humour as evident on the wink wink, nudge nudge of "Take It As It Comes." Epic closer "Light In Your Eyes," perfectly combines all of the elements the band cultivates throughout "Share The Joy." It's dark, punky, melodic, spacious and pretty much perfect. When it's over it's hard not to flip the record over and begin the journey again. And it is a journey, but one that you don't realize you've been on until you come to the end of the record. That is because there is a sort of buzzy transcendence that gradually builds from song to song that finally culminates on "Light In Your Eyes." Although every track stands completely on its own, once you step back from the individual pieces and view the album as a whole, you notice an undeniable arc to "Share The Joy," that makes it even greater than the sum of its parts.

"I Heard You Say"

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Best of 2011 (albums) LOCRIAN - The Clearing (Fan Death Records)

Locrain are at the top of the dark experimental music heap these days. Although their songs lack traditional form and structure, there a visceral quality to their music that recalls some of the most potent and powerful metal and post-rock. Last year's stunning genre-smashing "The Crystal World" made Locrian the band to pay attention to, while raising the bar for everyone else. As a result, "The Clearing" became one of this year's more anticipated releases. Even without hearing the whole thing, upon its release this was already an immediate 'must have' album among discerning music fans. Not surprisingly, "The Clearing" not only lives up to expectations, but exceeds them to an extreme.

As amazing as "The Crystal World" was, the addition of drummer Steven Hess sounded at times like a guest player. A superb guest player, no doubt, but someone who seemed to be brought in to flesh out the sound of the album. Since that record, though, the trio of Hess, André Foisy and Terence Hannum have clearly coalesced as a group. "The Clearing" is their first long-form statement as the incredibly balanced band that they have become. Each member is essential here, and the success of the album's sound can be traced to the ability of each musician to play off of each other.

What is so stunning about "The Clearing" is how diverse the album is overall, even as it all sounds a part of a whole. The band explores a variety of approaches throughout, each successfully casting a consistent mood that leaves the listener feeling like they have taken a singular journey by record's end. If "The Crystal World" announced the presence of Locrian as the band to pay attention to, "The Clearing" solidifies their position as a powerhouse. Locrian is THE band that matters right now, and if you didn't know that already, "The Clearing" makes damn sure you do.

Best of 2011 (albums) LITURGY - Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey)

Liturgy is easily the most divisive band in the black metal world, which is pretty damn sad. For a scene that tolerates and makes excuses for racists, homophobes, murderers, and possible rapists, to finally throw a hissy fit because someone wants to create something positive out of black metal is fucking pathetic. Yeah, I get that black metal is about nihilism and nonemoreblack, believe me I do, particularly since most days I would agree with that worldview. But, If I can still talk glowingly about Burzum's music, while recognizing him as the utter piece of shit that he is as a human being, then surely I can give passage to Liturgy's well-meaning and amazingly talented Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. Almost out of spite I went and saw Liturgy play a rather amazing show earlier this year. Afterwards I had Hunt-Hendrix sign a copy of his infamous "Transcendental Black Metal" manifesto. And you know what? He was a really nice and humble guy that I enjoyed talking with. Given all the slings and arrows he has suffered in the scene, having a good conversation with him almost felt more transgressive than stabbing someone 21 times and burning down a church. So damn the haters (and really what could be more black metal than a black metal fan damning other black metal fans), this is a phenomenal record. Frankly, I can't quite condense this one into a mini-review, so I'm going to direct you over to my original full length review as to why this is easily one of the best records of 2011.

"Sun of Light"

Best of 2011 (albums) THE ROOTS - Undun (Def Jam)

Anyone that knows me, knows that I love this album so much that it is kind of embarrassing, so much so that I've been toying with naming it the number one record of the year, and had it come out sooner, I very well just might have. "Undun" is a concept album about Redford Stephens, an all too common street thug, whose struggle to escape the streets ends in a life of crime and his eventual demise. Concept or not, this is the truest record of the year about a reality that most of us don't want to think about any longer now that the novelty of acts like N.W.A. and Wu-Tang Clan have worn. I've read some ridiculous reviews that claimed the subject matter is too generic, which says more to me about the critic than The Roots' pitch perfect album. At this point I'm going to pull the "my day job is a criminal defense attorney and I deal with an endless permutation of Redford Stephens on a daily basis" card to exclaim that there isn't a note on this record that doesn't ring true, unlike the oft celebrated bravado of rappers who pretend that drug dealing and crime is a pathway to anything but premature death or incarceration. I wish I could agree with those writers who find this subject passé, but unfortunately there is nothing generic about "Undun," other than insulated white critics pretending that this is anything but the reality of the streets even at this late date in our nation's history.

Musically The Roots has never sounded more expansive or focused. At this point in their career the band has perfected the eclectic organic approach that made albums like "Phrenology" so captivating. It's an incredibly diverse record, yet entirely consistent. If anyone still wonders why The Roots is such a highly regarded band instrumentally, they need look no further than "Undun." Shades of light and dark ripple throughout these songs, and although this is the exact opposite of a party album, the band grooves even as hell is realized. The moving orchestrated finale is a perfect denouement. Recalling Duke Ellington's gorgeous meditative solo piano pieces, "The Redford Suite" calls upon the mystic chords of our collective memory, universalizing the character of Redford as any American born into a mythological land of infinite horizons and opportunity that will soon find out that the American Dream is as much a fairy tale as the stories that our parents used to read to us at bed time.

If there is one record I could make everyone listen to this year, it would be "Undun."

Best of 2011 (albums) YOB - Atma (Profound Lore)

I've always really wanted to love Yob. Ever since I became a doom freak upon hearing Sunn 0)))'s "White" records for the first time I thought that Buddhism (a philosophy that I am a horrible practitioner of) and the plodding slabs of heaviness roaring out of so many sunn amps went together like bread and butter. Listen to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet (or better yet, the Monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery) and listen to a top of the line doom album and you will find much in common. They both share a singularity of focus through repition meant to bring about the eventual cessation of the listener's ego as it dissolves into the sound field of the recording. Southern Lord described it best while promoting a Sunn 0))) live aktion in 2009: "It will be a return to...primal origins, an approach respecting a zen concept of shoshin." So when I discovered some years back that Yob drew a whole lot of influence from eastern philosophy I was ready to find a new favorite band. Unfortunately I was somewhat underwhelmed by what I heard from them. I liked it, but I wasn't blown away.

A couple of years ago, when I had all but forgotten about the band, I started hearing rumblings again about Yob and their superb 2009 release "The Great Cessation." I eventually gave them another chance and was floored by what I heard. Yob may have had some growing pains, but they have emerged as one of the tightest, heaviest and most effective bands in metal today. "Atma" is their absolute masterpiece that deserves to sit near the top of every "Best Of" list of 2011. Whether it is the razor-sharp riffage of the titular track or the progressive pummeling of "Adrift In The Ocean" the band are at the height of their power, sounding like a far more adventurous and disciplined Sleep.

"Adrift In The Ocean"

Best of 2011 (albums) PYRAMIDS/HORSEBACK - A Throne Without a King (Hydra Head)

An album unlike any other this year, even within the borderless wilds of dark experimental music. Layers and layers of sounds pile on top of one another to make for a bleak and enthralling whole during this collaboration between Horseback's Jenks Miller and Pyramids. It's like Thuja playing with Tim Hecker playing with Kevin Drumm. Some moments are bone-rattlingly noisy, while others are relatively calm. No matter where the volume is, though, this record is always menacing. There is a dread that runs throughout "A Throne Without a King" that recalls Philip Glass' opening theme to "Koyaanisqatsi," or the finale, when literally everything falls apart, which is more than fitting.

What is most compelling about the record is the pitch perfect mixture of organic instrumentation with electronics. Organ, percussion and electronics comprise the record's backbone, and each contribution is as compelling as the next. Certainly the quality of this record isn't too surprising given the caliber of talent involved, but at the same time, it sort of is. Collaborations, more often than not, miss their mark, but in the case of "A Throne Without a King," both Horseback and Pyramids have turned in a work that is just as good, if not in some ways better, than their work apart.

Pyramids and Horseback - "A Throne Without A King"

Best of 2011 (albums) KATE BUSH - 50 Words For Snow (Anti-)

"50 Words For Snow," is hands down Kate Bush's best record since the classic "Hounds Of Love." It is the perfect medium for Bush's vision comprised of minimal compositions built on piano that grow gradually over time into quite epics that are as effecting as anything she has produced. I was stunned on the first listen of this record, and as I explore it I am consistently overwhelmed by what I hear. Yes, there is a duet with Elton John on this record, and yes, it is one of the best songs on the album. If one needed proof that our elder statesmen and women can craft much better music than the youth of today, "Snowed In At Wheeler Street" will provide every Rolling Stone critic with enough ammunition to last a lifetime. For my money, though, "Misty" is the song I want to get lost in forever. A beautiful piano melody plays over slight jazz drums and stings working itself into a subtle climax that recalls all that was great about 80s art rock. It's like Talk Talk backing up Kate Bush, and really that is all I need to say.