MacDara Conroy surveys the latest season’s heavier offerings, and offers up his belated end-of-year favourites from 2013 With the end of the year comes the realisation of all the music I missed out on. Why, for instance, did I leave it so late to check out the skin-crawling latest From the Bogs of Aughiska? Even the new one from Polvo passed me by completely. With slip-ups like that it’s nigh on impossible to compile any comprehensive list of the year’s best heavy records. So I’m sticking to my favourites of those releases I did get to spend quality time with in 2013 (more on those later). At the same time, there’s no sense worrying about the stuff yet to be explored when there’s so much in my listening pile that I have heard. Come wade through the muck with me and let’s see if we turn up some brass…
Noisy duos are becoming a thing again, long after the likes of Karp, godheadSilo and Lightning Bolt set the standard for what can be achieved with just two people, a guitar and some drums. Sadly I missed a few – like Swiss duo Bölzer – but I did hear Germany’s Beehoover, who inhabit the tighter, tidier end of that spectrum with The Devil And His Footmen (Exile on Mainstream), 11 tracks of stoner jams that’ll get heads nodding at the rocker bar, though its sameness wears as a whole-album listen; they’re probably better live. On the other end of the scale, Texas duo Cara Neir have really made something special with their third LP – and first to get a label release – in Portals to a Better, Dead World (Halo of Flies/Broken Limbs). The title, logo and cover art scream black metal, but the foundation of their sound is solidly punk: seven servings of D-beat and blast-driven blackened riff monsters and bewitching vocal howls that sprawl but never drawl. It’s a fresh take on an often exhausted sound, even better coming from two skinny dudes who’d barely swat a fly.
Another year, another Melvins album; hell, Tres Cabrones (Ipecac) is their second of 2013, after the diverting but disappointing covers set Everybody Loves Sausages. Notable about this one is the return of the band’s original drummer Mike Dillard after 30 years. And that’s about it: 12 tracks with a few silly covers that make for a fun, rocking good time, but are basically inessential. One for the Melvins completists and few others. Chalk up another one in the disappointment column with grind/metal/punk supergroup Mutation‘s debut Error 500 (Ipecac), a self-consciously quirky mishmash of ideas that aims for the same genre-hopping heights of Melt-Banana but falls far short of the mark. And I was looking forward to it and all.
I wasn’t much enthused by the prospect of Lumbar, a doom project conceived by former Southern Lord art director Aaron Edge and featuring vocals from Mike Schedit (of Yob, who I don’t much care for) and Tad Doyle (of the mighty TAD, but more lately of the underwhelming Brothers of the Sonic Cloth). But one listen to The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord) blew those doubts away. Written and performed by Edge and inspired by his daily struggles with multiple sclerosis, it’s an epic canvas of art-damaged sludge that cuts right to the heart of his distress, and is all the more powerful for its brevity (seven tracks in barely 25 minutes).
Windhand‘s Soma (Relapse) seems like it’s going somewhere good, with a thick, sludgy guitar tone that’s to die for, but they don’t half go on – indeed the pace slows considerably as the track lengths increase – and they’ve used up their good ideas long before the 30-minute closer ‘Boleskine’, which ends with a field recording of a frostbitten, windswept landscape that’s far more interesting than the music that precedes it. Their labelmates Wolvserpent are a similar proposition – another heavier-than-thou sludge/doom band with a gorgeous crunchy guitar sound on Perigaea Antahkarana, like Kim Thayil’s set-up on BadMotorFinger – but I just don’t have the patience for songs stretched this thin (lengths range from 16 to 22 minutes) without the hooks to deserve my indulgence. Both pale in comparison to the uncompromising, misanthropic agenda of Primitive Man‘s Scorn, by far Relapse’s best doom release of 2013. While they can match the others for track lengths – this one’s got a near 12-minute opener – they attack with a unique hammer-blow intensity that destroys all concept of time. After all, who checks their watch when they’re busy running from the beast?
From doom to death metal: it’s been a fantastic year for the latter, with the more technical and other-worldly combos really floating my boat. Some more than others, however; I expected to be dazzled by Gorguts‘ big comeback Colored Sands (Season of Mist) – especially with the likes of Dysrhythmia/Behold… The Arctopus riff wizard Colin Marston involved – but it left me cold. I was more impressed by the kaiju sci-fi prog-death weirdness of Gigan‘s Multi-Dimensional Fractal Sorcery and Super Science (Willowtip), the product of a trio who make enough noise to fill one of Iain M Banks’ generation ships. Closer to earth, and inhabiting the blackest pits, there’s nothing technical about Malthusian, an Irish project that’s been in gestation for a few years now but only recently released its first demo, MMXIII (Invictus Productions): breathtaking transcendent death metal in the vein of Portal and Ulcerate that’ll threaten to strip the flesh from your bones. It’s just getting its second cassette pressing, with a CD on the way, so have at it.
Pelican‘s Forever Becoming (Southern Lord) takes a different tack from that expected after the previous year’s more sonically explorative EP Ataraxia/Taraxis, all but abandoning that record’s electronic atmospherics for a comparatively more vanilla rock-out session that seems intended to combine the best bits of their last two albums, 2007’s indie-rock-infused City of Echoes (my favourite of theirs, incidentally) and 2009’s more sombre post-rock opus What We All Come To Need. What we get is more direct like the former, but lacking its hooks, and with the flatter production of the latter which saps some of its strength. Still, with a title like that even they know they can always do better in future.
Sisters Of… is a new instrumetal (mostly) band from one-time Appleseed Cast drummer Aaron Coker, but you won’t find much of that band’s emo stylings on their well-produced, if a little antiseptic debut Follow Me As A Ghost (Crowquill). Think a more indie-rock Isis and you’re in closer territory: slabs of riffs aside more delicate passages and ambient/noise interludes across these five tracks on what’s being sold as an EP but at nearly 40 minutes is really an album. If you dig post-metal you’ll get a kick out of this. I got a bigger kick out of Nonagon‘s The Last Hydronaut (Controlled Burn), a six-track EP that’s really a mini-album (whatever happened to those, eh?) and will scratch the itch of anyone who loves that dissonant, scrappy post-hardcore from the 1990s that people once called emo.
Into more esoteric territory: Ken Camden‘s main gig is as co-songwriter/guitarist in Chicago drone-rock quartet Implodes, but under his own name he works out his dreamier instrumental leanings. On his latest solo effort Space Mirror (Kranky) Camden offers 40 minutes of spaced-out guitar washes over hunt-and-peck synth melodies that might look pretty basic on paper, but build up in layer upon layer into monumental sci-fi ragas that sound truly mesmerising through my headphones. Much better than this year’s Implodes album (even though I liked that one, too).
Dublin’s own guitar primitivist Cian Nugent teamed up with guitar-drum duo Steve Gunn and John Truscinski under the name Desert Heat for the appropriately rollicking mesa blues epic Cat Mask at Huggie Temple (MIE), a vinyl double-hander (also available digitally, natch) that starts off loosey-goosey – the eponymous first half stumbles awkwardly in the opening bars – but swiftly tightens as the players lock into the groove and jam their hearts out, going on to transcend Americana with a subcontinental vibe on the shimmering second half ‘Chimay Blues’.
When Alan Dublin’s bewitching screams are the least unsettling part on your record, you know you’ve got really got something weird – that’s certainly the case with Abisso, the latest LP from Italian avant/rock/noise duo OvO (Supernatural Cat). Erstwhile Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich is also among the guests contributing to a 10-cut collection that’s the definition of a difficult listen, though drummer Bruno Dorella rarely shies away from laying down an accessible stomping groove beneath Stefania Pedretti’s inhuman cackling and sludgy noise-making.
Far less confrontational but no less beguiling is Pantaleimon, the nom de plume of English neo-folk artist Andria Degens, whose new album The Butterfly Ate The Pearl (Grass Girl Music) boasts its own cast of guests, from Will Oldham to James Blackshaw, contributing to this nine-track suite of pastoral psychedelia. It’s pretty on the surface – almost too pretty, with on first impression a bland production that smooths out the edges – but there’s a darker streak here that rewards on closer listening. Definitely a grower, this one.
Four months ago I could’ve sworn Deafheaven’s Sunbather was a sure thing for my year-end favourites (they still made my favourite shoegaze record of 2013; yes, I liked it more than My Bloody Valentine’s comeback) but they’ve been supplanted in my affections by Brooklyn hybridists Vaura, whose intense second album The Missing (Profound Lore) fearlessly fuses post-punk with blastbeats yet goes for hooks over atmosphere overall, although there’s plenty of the latter. Post-punk in metal (and vice versa) was something of a theme this year, what with new records from In Solitude and Beastmilk taking their cues from the dark wave, though I didn’t get much time with either of those.
Southern Lord’s Poison Idea reissue campaign continues with Kings of Punk, probably their least essential material (the fact it’s padded out with live cuts – not even counting the for-diehards-only bonus live sets included in this edition – speaks volumes) but the resolutely mid-’80s crossover sound hits the spot for anyone partial to that kind of thing. Anarcho-post-punks Rudimentary Peni are the subject of their own reissue campaign thanks to Southern Records, with two recent chapters being Cacophony and Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric: the former the band’s 1989 comeback LP of sorts, and supposedly a concept album based on the life and work of HP Lovecraft, 30 restless chapters in 45 minutes with a proudly shitty production and gleefully hopping genre between crusty noise, melodic punk and whatever in between; the latter, as the story goes, written by frontman Nick Blinko during a spell in psychiatric hospital and sewn through with an unsetting Latin invocation looping beneath every track. Look for the reissue of the group’s classic Death Church coming early this year.
I’ve never got splits – how do you file them in your collection, or find them in the shop? – but I’ve recently been privy to a few, and haven’t been disappointed. Grind freaks will want to pick up the Six Brew Bantha/Suffering Mind split on Halo of Flies. Side A has five tracks of fury from the latter who hail from Poland, easily Eastern Europe’s blastbeat capital. It’s also surely no accident that their name rhymes with ‘punishing grind’. The other four blasts come from a trio of Canadian nutters with all the looseness of powerviolence and velocity of fastcore – plus a killer dry guitar tone, and that paint-can snare sound the kids seem to love these days (lucky for them, in this case it works). In a similar vein, Full Of Hell offer up four new tracks on their split with Poland’s Calm The Fire (A389 Recordings) that improve on this year’s beautifully noisy LP Rudiments Of Mutilation with a tighter arrangement and less shrill production, but still raw as all hell. The Poles, meanwhile, hold up their end (no pun intended) with their two takes of steamrolling, bone-rattling hardcore.
Elsewhere, Bay Area sludge/doom legends Noothgrush teamed up with Japanese counterparts Coffins for a split LP on Southern Lord that serves as a handy intro to their respective brands of downtuned riffage and syrup-thick heaviness (the latter band especially do the death-doom thing far better than the inexplicably lauded Hooded Menace). Still sludgy but with a very different sensibility are Helms Alee, who contribute just the one track to their split single with Philadelphia’s Ladder Devils on Brutal Panda. But what a track: ‘Not Dot’ is a beautiful taster for their fusion of fuzzed-out sludge-pop and Slowdive-indebted shoegaze, and bodes well for new album Sleepwalking Sailors due in February on Sargent House. The other side’s two servings of shouty grunge make me wonder why Ladder Devils aren’t a better known entity; maybe they need to record an album first. They should hurry up with that.
Back to the grind: Weekend Nachos‘ Still (Relapse) is anything but – another blistering collection of short, sharp shocks that’s over before it gets too boring, which is a good job too as they’ve rebalanced their melting-pot mix of blitzkrieg grind and meathead hardcore more in favour of the latter (I personally don’t get the powerviolence tag with this lot; they’re not sloppy enough). Slower but no less grinding are Pacific Northwest noise-rock trio Great Falls. They’ve issued their debut LP Accidents Grotesque via Irish label Hell Comes Home and its a brutal affair, eight servings of defiantly obtuse dissonant hardcore that’ll put you in a bad mood. I just wish I liked it more than I do; it lacks that certain something. Toronto’s Pretty Mouth have it, though, and it’s amazing to me that they haven’t been snapped up by a bigger label, as the beautifully twisted ‘chaotic hardcore’ of their debut LP Fears – recently released on the tiny Bonesaw Records, just in time for Hallowe’en – does way more for me than the feted likes of KEN Mode. Remember when Daughters signed to Hydra Head and morphed from a weird grindcore band into a weird noise rock act? This is much better than that.
Another great Toronto band are Pyres, whose accomplished, effortless blend of sludgy mathcore and seventies hard rock (plus a smidgen of TAD worship, if I’m not mistaken) would have been perfect for Hydra Head if that label hadn’t all but closed up shop. But Hydra Head’s loss is Granite House’s gain, as the band’s debut long-player Year of Sleep – issued in a gorgeous vinyl edition that makes the most of the stunning artwork – is one of the year’s standouts for me. In fact, it’s one of my top 13 releases of 2013 (forgive me, I couldn’t stop at just 10).
As for the rest? Canadian tech-thrash veterans Voivod just about pipped Carcass to the post with their comeback record of the year, Target Earth (Century Media). Like Jeff, Bill and company, it would’ve been enough if they didn’t embarrass themselves, but they clearly thought: why go through the motions when you can add to your legacy? Further up the list, my opinions on LPs from True Widow, Melt Banana and the now sadly defunct Dethscalator haven’t changed. Ruined Families‘ caustic blackened hardcore is more vital than ever as their homeland Greece toils in the socio-economic doldrums. And Cork’s progressive instrumental titans Rest made their defining statement with the monumental double-LP I Hold The Wolf. You should go out your way to hear them.
Ditto making time in your life for Hung on Sunday by Pelt Part Wild Gate (MIE), the audible results of a hazy Sunday morning at 2012’s Tusk Festival in Newcastle when drone artists Pelt, Gate and Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides collaborated as an improvised gamelan ensemble. As astounding as it is understated, Hung on Sunday is a sublime experience, hitting the triple point of tumult, rapture and peace. One could say similar things about the idiosyncratic four-string guitar work of Bill Orcutt, which lies far from the inaccessible abrasiveness of his former band Harry Pussy but loses none of its intensity. On his third solo album A History Of Every One (Editions Mego), Orcutt takes on the Great (and not so Great) American Songbook in typically dissonant fashion, not so much deconstructing tunes like ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘White Christmas’ as imbuing them with a more vivid sense of the historical times in which they were birthed, like a guitar-wielding Howard Zinn or something.
I came late to Alone In The Grave, the first full-length from Olympia, Washington’s Bone Sickness (20 Buck Spin) and I’m still kicking myself for not discovering their blistering Bolt Thrower worship sooner. In contrast, I’ve been familiar with BL’AST! for many years; their 1987 LP for SST, It’s In My Blood!, is one of my desert island discs, and its reissue as Blood!, with a restored second guitar track and a hefty remix and remaster by fan Dave Grohl, was all but guaranteed a place in my year-end selection. So was Vexovoid by Portal (Profound Lore), a disturbing window into The Beyond from these masters of occult cosmic-horror death metal from the land of Oz, though they faced stuff a stiff challenge from fellow antipodeans Ulcerate; the New Zealand group stepped up a level on the stunning Vermis (Relapse) and add credence to the notion that there’s something weird in the water down under.
Dutch sax-drums duo Dead Neanderthals also claimed their spot early with the incredible Polaris (Utech), where they fully embraced free jazz, transmuting their grindcore traits into the ‘fire music’ of Rashied Ali, Coltrane, Ayler et al. If there is a top spot, however, Cloud Rat clinched it with Moksha, hands down the best grindcore record of 2013 and a true benchmark-setter for the genre. You can play your guitar as noisy as you please and whack your drums as fast as you want, but can you do with with as much feeling? I’ll be waiting it to hear it if you do.