Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Favorite Albums of 2014

I don't think 2014 was exactly a mind-blowing year for music, but it was better than last year and did have some great moments. My jaded nature led me to miss out on a few established bands' new releases but I did also take the time to check a few out that I previously hadn't gotten around to. It seemed like a particularly good year for slower music as a steady stream of releases from Crowbar, Eyehategod, and the Melvins among others has led me to dub it as the "Summer of Sludge." And lastly, things are getting solid here in Indianapolis as our bands seem to be getting a bit more attention and more underground acts are deciding that this city might be a nice place to stop by while touring. So without further ado, let's take a gander at this year's cream of the crop starting with our honorable mentions!

-Primitive and Deadly by Earth
The latest album by Seattle's former drone legends may have been one of this year's biggest curve balls. While it falls in line with past albums, it is their first in decades to actually feature vocalists accompanying Dylan Carlson's western movie ambiance. The inclusion of the equally legendary Mark Lenegan on two tracks was what initially caught my interest but Rabia Shaheen Qazi's awe-inspiring performance on "From the Zodiacal Light" was what really won me over. I really hope they keep this idea going on future efforts as it is an experimental move for them that really paid off.

-John Garcia by John Garcia
While many artists who release solo albums tend to do it out of a desire to write more or to pursue a sound they ordinarily can't, there is also a risk of just releasing a watered down version of their main band. Kyuss/Vista Chino frontman John Garcia's solo debut dances right along that line but does so in a way that is quite enjoyable. Songs like "The Blvd" and "5000 Miles" are surprisingly riffy for an album meant to show off a vocalist, but they work well and Garcia himself fits in with the variety on display. Still clamoring for a Vista Chino followup (or a Kyuss reunion) but this'll do.

-Catacombs of the Black Vatican by Black Label Society
I may lose some underground metal cred for having Black Label Society's latest opus on my list at all, let alone as an honorable mention, but I have to admit that this album is a pretty fun listen. A few songs still feel rather tacked on and Zakk Wylde's vocals are as processed as ever, but you'll find great grooves on "Believe" and "Beyond the Down" while "Angel of Mercy" and "Shades of Grey" prove to be his most sincere ballads in a good while. I also have to give props to "Empty Promises" as it may be the doomiest song he has ever put together. That in itself may be worth checking out, even if this sort of thing doesn't do it for ya.

-Blood In Blood Out by Exodus
I can't tell if it's the state of the scene or just my personal taste, but it doesn't seem like there were too many appealing thrash albums out this year. While Exodus's tenth album isn't on the same level as Bonded by Blood or even Tempo of the Damned, it has rectified a few of the band's most recent flaws as classic vocalist Steve Sousa is back in and the songs aren't trying as hard to be epic for the sake of it. They even manage to get some guests in on the fun as "BTK" features some solid backing roars by Testament's Chuck Billy while "Salt The Wound" has a solo courtesy of former guitarist Kirk Hammett. Think he's getting tired of his day job yet?

-IV.I.VIII. by Coffinworm
 Coffinworm's second full-length is an excellent slice of blackened sludge though I admit that it's one of my more overlooked highlights this year. It is an overwhelmingly oppressive release and definitely takes a number of listens to get a feel for, but it showcases a lot of different moods and tempos over its six song run. "Lust Vs. Vengeance" is probably the most memorable track of the lot thanks to its contrasts between harsh vocal punctuations and catchy melodic flourishes though "Instant Death Syndrome" has a haunting waltz and "Black Tears" rides a powerful dirge throughout. I do wish they played live more often but they're definitely in a position where they can pick and choose from the best offers out there.

10) Bled White by Novembers Doom
Novembers Doom has always been that band whose albums I consistently enjoy but seem to get overshadowed by other bands in their genre when it comes to putting these lists together. This album has a few more songs than usual but there aren't really any filler tracks to be found. In addition, it manages to keep their emotional angles in tact as "Just Breathe" and "The Memory Room" have their distinct somber edge while the lyrics on "Heartfelt" manage to be incredibly pissed off while still retaining their sense of class.

9) To Be Kind by Swans
As a musician and music listener, I am both impressed and terrified by Michael Gira. To follow 2012's The Seer, a monolithic double album, with yet another monolithic double album is an incredibly ballsy move that wouldn't have worked in anyone else's hands but I just might like this one more. To Be Kind is a bit more straightforward than its predecessor if the riff-driven songs such as "A Little God In my Hands" and "Oxygen" are anything to go by, but the ambient drones are still prominent and unsettling as ever. Like The Seer before it, it can be pretty self-indulgent at times (Did "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" really need to be thirty-four minutes long?) but it shows that Mr. Gira still has a lot to prove in the late stage of his career.

8) Once More 'Round the Sun by Mastodon
After spending a good five albums trying out several different sounds, it seems like Mastodon just may have found their comfort zone. While The Hunter offered plenty of excellent moments, Once More 'Round the Sun feels like the true followup to Crack the Skye with its heavier guitar tone, more unified songwriting, and trickier arrangements. Of course, it still manages to be pretty damn catchy and the vocals, which were once the band's biggest shortcoming in their early days, really make the choruses on "Tread Lightly," "Ember City," and the twerk-tastic "The Motherload" that much stronger. Let's just see how much longer they hold out before the cries of selling out start pouring in...

7) For Those Which Are Asleep by The Skull
 I have a confession to make that may result in me having to turn in my doom card: I have never listened to a Trouble album. I really like what I've recently heard off Psalm 9 but I seemed to overlook them as a band while I was getting into the genre in favor of their fellow forerunners. Thankfully, I can attempt to rectify this by stating that The Skull, a new group that is basically just Trouble with a couple different guitarists, truly delivers the Trouble sound on their debut effort. It has a good mix of heaviness and melancholy and the songs on the second half such as "Send Judas Down" and the title track are particularly awesome. All in all, a great album that probably would've been even higher if I'd heard it earlier in the year and if the track listing had been switched around a bit more.

6) Pale Communion by Opeth
A lot of Opeth fans were put off by 2011's Heritage because it signified the band's ultimate abandonment of their death metal past in favor of prog rock; I was put off because the songwriting just wasn't that good. I wanted them to embrace their prog side for years but Mikael Akerfeldt's tendency to just shove random motifs together in hopes of getting a decent song just didn't seem to match his aspirations. Thankfully, Pale Communion is a dramatic improvement that shows the band making up for previous flaws. "Moon Above, Sun Below" and "River" encounter some tangents, but songs like "Eternal Rains Will Come" and "Goblin" show much more care being put into their compositions and they even got a catchy hook in "Cusp Of Eternity." Easily the best thing Opeth has done since Ghost Reveries, if not Damnation.

5) Slaves to the Grave by Rigor Mortis
Texas's own Rigor Mortis has easily been one of the biggest underdogs in thrash, if not the entire metal community. They reunited in the mid-2000s and were poised to make a comeback, only to have guitarist Mike Scaccia tragically pass away in 2012 shortly after finishing their first album in over twenty years. Thank the gods they managed to find the right support for this thing to see the light of day as it is one of the best thrash comebacks in this decade. While it doesn't have the same camp appeal or band dynamic as their essential debut, the band plays harder than the fellas half their age and there isn't a single Pantera-ism to be found amongst this fast paced onslaught. It's a shame Rigor Mortis's comeback turned out to be their swan song; I'll be hoping for good things if they decide to keep going as the Wizards of Gore.

4) Uno Dose by The Heavy Company
With only four original songs and live versions of songs from 2013's Midwest Electric, it might be questionable how much Uno Dose counts for this list. Either way, the Lafayette, Indiana trio puts on an excellent show that I feel bad for having not previously acknowledged before this year. Their brand of Lynyrd Skynyrd stoner rock is a joy to behold as the grit of the studio tracks actually don't make them sound too different from their live counterparts. I'd recommend giving "State Flag Blues" a listen as it shows just why this band is one of the strongest to come from the Crossroads of America in recent years.

3) Blood Eagle by Conan
Combining the bottom heavy crawl of Electric Wizard with the barbarism of High On Fire, Conan just might be the quintessential doom band today. With a name meant to imply the best of Robert E. Howard savagery, the band's approach is appropriately boneheaded as songs like "Crown of Talons" match drawn out riffs and minimalist shouts with a raw production job. Of course, they do show off a decent amount of variety as "Foehammer" is a borderline thrasher while "Gravity Chasm" and "Horns for Teeth" go in a more upbeat direction. I'm not sure if there will be much appeal for this outside of the doom community but you can't deny that it's heavy as all hell and makes for some dumb fun.

2) Of Woe and Wounds by Apostle of Solitude
With the unfortunate dissolution of The Gates of Slumber, I think that the title for best metal band in Indiana has been passed on to Apostle of Solitude. The group's third full-length album is a great demonstration of their talents as it offers some new elements while staying true to their classic doom roots. "Whore's Wings" and "This Mania" are some of the group's most upbeat songs to date, the addition of Devil to Pay's Steve Janiak leads to expanded vocal trade-offs, and you'd be hard pressed to find hooks in doom metal today that are catchier than those on "Good Riddance" and "Die Vicar Die." It felt like a long wait to get this out there but I think it was worth it and hope they get even more attention from the metal scene at large.

1) Melana Chasmata by Triptykon
I've noticed that every year I do these countdowns, I usually find my favorite at the beginning of the year and then see how everything that comes out after it will compare. While my experience with the greatness of Tom G Warrior is mostly limited to the earliest exploits of Celtic Frost, Triptykon's second album is not only the best album of 2014 but also one of the best I've ever heard. It has something for nearly every kind of metal fan as "Tree of Suffocating Souls" and "Breathing" offer death metal tempos, "Boleskine House" and "Altar of Deceit" deliver Candlemass-inspired doom, and "Aurorae" consists of a brooding goth rock jam. I also strongly recommend giving "Demon Pact" a listen as it is a legitimately spooky track that sounds like a horror movie scored by Michael Gira in the midst of a fever dream. I definitely need to explore this man's past works more extensively and hope to see even more greatness in the future. That said, I hope he also manages to get himself some decent therapy...

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Look Back at Rebel Meets Rebel

Consisting of country legend David Allan Coe alongside the instrumentalists from Pantera, Rebel Meets Rebel is an example of a project that should've gotten more attention from its creators as well as from its fans. Recorded shortly after the Reinventing the Steel sessions and seemingly forgotten until its 2006 release, their sole studio album is one of the rare examples I've seen of a band attempting to combine heavy metal with old school country music. It may not be a timeless masterpiece but it does show a group of musicians bringing the best out of one another in a promising environment.

If there's one thing I've noticed about the guys in Pantera, it's that they've always catered their sound to whoever was singing for them. They played hair metal with original frontman Terry Glaze, their famous run with Phil Anselmo saw influences from sludge and hardcore overtake their sound, and even the song they recorded with Rob Halford on the mic just sounds more like a Fight outtake with Dimebag Darrell's guitar tone than anything off of Vulgar Display of Power. While these chameleon-like tendencies may have led some to call their integrity into question, it seems to especially work in their favor when this collaboration is concerned.

Coe may have only provided lyrics and vocals to the Abbott brothers' musical compositions but his presence definitely leads to the musicians approaching their instruments from different angles while still keeping true to their core elements. Dimebag's guitar leads often have a noticeable twang, his riffs have a bright tone even when they provide their signature crunch, Rex's Brown bass stands out a little more than before, Vinnie Paul trades his heavy double bass in for more traditional drum beats, and flourishes of piano, fiddle, and acoustic guitar lend the songs a sense of credibility that you don't see as much in your typical southern metal band. As expected, Coe's vocals definitely aren't a source of technical prowess in their old age but his unwavering howl does give the songs a sense of structure that they wouldn't have had under the command of Anselmo's often directionless ranting.

Speaking of structure, the songwriting on this album is also at a different level than the band members' past projects and successfully combines their natural heaviness with a sense of accessibility. The album starts off on its fastest note as "Nothin' to Lose" features some great guitar/vocal contrasts set to an unwavering drum beat, the title track and "One Night Stands" are rock romps in the vein of Motorhead and ZZ Top with the former's trade-offs between Coe and Dimebag emulating "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers," songs like "Cowboys Do More Dope" and "Get Outta My Life" bring in mid-tempo attitudes, and you'll find even slower tempos and more melodic flourishes on "Heart Worn Highway" and "Arizona Rivers." Unfortunately, the album does dip a bit in quality after the tribal stomp of "Cherokee Cry" with "N.Y.C. Streets" in particular sounding like it was put together at the last minute.

Sometimes I wonder what things would be like now if Rebel Meets Rebel had been the group on tour in 2004 instead of Damageplan. This album may have a couple fillers towards the end, but it is a really fun listen that never sounds too forced and leaves a lot of room for potential that was sadly never realized. It would've been great to see these guys get more comfortable with each other on further installments and perhaps even take deeper dives into traditional country and blues structures. I get the feeling that it'd be a lot less awkward than the southern tripe that Vinnie Paul has been coasting on with Hellyeah...

R.I.P. Dimebag.

"Nothin' to Lose"
"Rebel Meets Rebel"
"Cowboys Do More Dope"
"One Night Stands"
"Cherokee Cry"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review of King Buzzo's This Machine Kills Artists

Apparently not content with just revamping the Melvins every year, guitarist/vocalist Buzz "King Buzzo" Osborne has finally gotten around to releasing the first solo album of his thirty-year career. Being the main writer for the gods of sludge metal weirdness, he has put out an entirely acoustic release as his first step. It's a predictably odd result but also proves to be an enjoyable venture.

On a superficial level, This Machine Kills Artists is about as far removed as you can get from the Melvins. The acoustic guitar is the sole instrument that accompanies Buzzo's most melodic vocals to date and the short song lengths mean there isn't too much for any weird shit to happen. But looking deeper, one will notice that the lyrics are still Buzzo's indecipherable nonsense and the guitar playing is driven by the same start-stop rhythms that define his main band. In fact, the barrage of shorter songs actually reminds me of the Melvins' early punk-influenced material, albeit done in a folk fashion.

This method does result in a rather unique folk experience it does falter by having a few too many songs and for missing the genre's number one rule: the importance of lyrical content. Being a technically minimal genre, folk tends to live or die by an artist's lyrics and the mood that is created by the music and words working together. In contrast, Buzzo has never been one for lyrics, resulting in an album where everything runs together and the mood is undetermined. We don't need to hear him sing about lost women or whatever but it'd be great to get some insights that we wouldn't otherwise.

Fortunately, the music is pretty laid back and his signature riffing style translates surprisingly well to the acoustic style. "Dark Brown Teeth" features some especially intricate strumming while the slower riffs on "New River" and "The Vulgar Joke" are about as heavy as the format can get. It also helps that the titles still manage to be pretty amusing, leading one to wonder what stories are behind such monikers as "Drunken Baby" or "How I Became Offensive."

King Buzzo's folk album is a good example of the man's refusal to play by the rules, even when there's a reason for those rules being there. His riffing is welcome in any format and the approach is unique compared to most of the folk I've heard, but the songs' tendency to sound alike may be a turn-off for some. It'd be interesting to see his main band try this out or if he were able to work with someone who has more crossover experience. You know, an acoustic team-up with Scott Kelly or Wino could be pretty awesome...

"Dark Brown Teeth"
"Rough Democracy"
"Vaulting Over A Microphone"
"New River'
"The Vulgar Joke"

Monday, December 1, 2014

Review of Earth's Primitive and Deadly

It's been a good couple decades since Earth left the drone metal they pioneered behind but they've made a decent niche out of crafting scores for western movies that will never be made. But having run the risk of their desert rock formula sounding stale, their eighth studio album has a more conventional approach than usual. Guest musicians were recruited and vocalists were brought in for the first time in nearly twenty years. The results are refreshing yet manage to feel familiar.

The integration of vocals and extra instruments does make Earth more accessible but every element is utilized for the sole purpose of working towards their usual atmosphere. The sparse drum beats and drawn out guitar strums still serve as the band's power source while the leads that pop up opt for melancholic support instead of showing off. The vocals also have an instrumental quality, delivering their esoteric poetry in a way that won't exactly inspire any traditional singalongs.

While the inclusion of the legendary Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan was what caught my interest but the performance on "From the Zodiacal Light" by Rabia Shaheen Qazi is the album's shining moment. Her voice is almost hopeful and rises above the material in a way that that makes one long for further collaborations. The two songs featuring Lanegan are also pretty cool, especially the ominous "There Is A Serpent Coming," and the two instrumentals also find ways to stand out. The trudging riffs on "Torn by The Fox of the Crescent Moon" serve as an excellent opening even if the piece probably could've been dressed up a bit more.

With that, there is still a bit of untapped potential regarding the new elements at hand. The songs are more varied than before but some moments still feel limited by the repetitive structures and the single sluggish tempo that is used through the album. I also miss the cello that appeared on the last couple efforts and feel as if Qazi was slightly underused since she's only on one song. Perhaps they should be a full-length collaboration in the future...

Overall, Primitive and Deadly isn't on the same level as Hex or The Bees Made Honey in The Lion's Skull but it does offer some revamps that make Earth's core sound that much more satisfying. It isn't exactly a "catchy" album but it is easy to get a feel for and worth recommending to listeners who have previously overlooked the band. I hope to see further development but may have explore their back catalog a bit more in the meantime.

"Torn By The Fox Of The Crescent Moon"
'There Is A Serpent Coming"
"From the Zodiacal Light'