MacDara Conroy surveys the landscape of heavy, noisy and interesting music over the past 12 months

Has it been a year already? Whoops, my bad. Probably a good idea to skip the pleasantries and get down to business, yeah? Let’s start with the locals, and a confession: I didn’t listen to enough Irish records in the past year, to my shame. Only Wild Rocket got an airing from me here. But I can recommend Pessimist, the new one from Abaddon Incarnate, as my pick of the bunch. These death-grind legends have a high-profile new home on Candlelight from which to spread their filthy hatred, and it’s a place they deserve after more than two decades of hustle, especially since they’ve spewed forth their best material since 2001’s Nadir. Works great in the live setting, too, as they closed out October’s Siege of Limerick with a blistering half-hour set.

Setting the stage for them, and another standout act at that fest, were Dublin’s ZOM, who have a debut record in the shape of Flesh Assimilation (Invictus) that captures most of their frenetic, atmospheric death-beat (that’s D-beat crossed with death metal, just to be sure). Elsewhere, Galway math-metal mob Ilenkus caused a bit of a stir on Shop Street with their video to promote their latest, self-released album The Crossing. The record itself is full of the progged-out ‘Dillinger Escape Plan with Botch-ulism’ metalcore worship they do so well, though it does pale in comparison to their bolder, more frenetic live show. More grit, less sheen will do them wonders going forward.

Speaking of grit, the eagerly awaited demo from Dublin-based old-school death metal crew Vircolac came out in November, and Codex Perfida is indeed a cracker, bridging the gap between the before-they-went-black blasts of Soulside Journey and the transcendental death metal purveyed by Portal, Ulcerate, Impetuous Ritual and the like. Incidentally, the latter put out a stupendous record earlier this year on Profound Lore called – deep breath now – Unholy Congregation Of Hypocritical Ambivalence. The music lives up to the title.

When you talk death metal, you can’t ignore Cannibal Corpse, whose latest splatter platter A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade) is what it is, no more, no less. And that’s totally fine. If you love the Corpse, you’ll love it. Not a patch on The Bleeding, mind. Still, there are more exciting things out there. I’d never heard of Pyrrhon till a year ago and that’s probably for the best, as their previous run-of-the-mill tech death offerings hold little appeal for me. But their third album The Mother Of Virtues (Relapse) marks a tremendous leap forward for the Brooklyn-based ensemble, bursting out in a mess of swirling, snarling guitars and contorted rhythms before trapping you in its creeping, slowly tightening tendrils of doom-laden, techno-organic riffage. It’s dense despite the standard LP running time, but deeply rewarding, and highly recommended.

Similarly heady tech death is the stock in trade of Artificial Brain, who share members with Pyrrhon and Revocation but are perhaps closer in sound and spirit to the spaced-out intensity of Gigan, going by their immense debut Labyrinth Constellation (Profound Lore). Lots of intricate melodies going on here amid the swarming Lovecraftian chaos, maybe best exemplified by ‘Absorbing Black Ignition’ though all 10 tracks share the same twisted DNA.

Profound Lore closed out the year with a new one from Hydra Head supergroup Old Man Gloom that I still haven’t heard yet because of the fake promo shenanigans (I get why they’d want to prank the album leakers, but screwing with everyone else in the process was a dumb move) and a great quick-fire blast of insanity courtesy of Full Of Hell and Merzbow, comprising a self-titled noisy grind disc documenting the former sounding tighter than ever, and a bonus noise platter called Sister Fawn that plays much better to Masami Akita’s strengths.

Other than that one, grindcore in 2014 meant two records for me: GridLink’s superlative swan song Longhena, which I reviewed back in February, and the self-titled debut EP from Brutal Blues, a duo comprising Parlamentarisk Sodomi/Psudoku mastermind Steinar and Anders Hana of skronk-rock twosome MoHa! that trades in bewilderingly complex blasts somewhere on the opposite end of the grind-jazz continuum to that of early Dead Neanderthals. It might be short but it’s so very, very sweet.

There was plenty of other grind throughout the year, of course, but those were the two that stuck with me. I wanted to like Corrupt Moral Altar’s debut Mechanical Tides (Season of Mist) more than I did, though I’m sure they’d melt my face off live. Ravenous Solemnity, from Greece’s Dephosphorus (Handshake Inc), spread its ideas too thin over a ponderous 45-minutes of dense death metal with the occasional smattering of grind. The Drip’s quicker six-track blast A Presentation of Gruesome Poetics (Relapse) seems to have attracted some critical acclaim but sounded too generic to my ears. Blastbeat, breakdown, repeat. Yawn.

Neither were anywhere as interesting as the self-titled debut from Danish noise terrorists Piss Vortex (Indisciplinarian). I mean, fuck, even that name alone. But the music echoes the disgust that appellation hints at – not to mention the filth-strewn cover art – across 14 tracks rotten with knotty rhythms and time signatures, dissonant riffs and heart-pounding drums. Honourable mentions must go to the burly, transgressive death-grind of Cretin’s Stranger (Relapse) and the ferocious, noisy queer-grind crew PYKA and their absolute destruction of preconceived notions on Too Femme Too Furious (self-released). Okay, and maybe Human Cull’s Stillborn Nation (WOOAAARGH) and its relentless old-school churn.

From the extremes of metal to the outer reaches of rock: avant-garde composer Arnold Dreyblatt collaborates with North Carolina psych rockers Megafaun on Appalachian Extraction (Northern Spy), a four-track exploration that runs the gamut from Meat Puppets-style cow-punk jamming (the rollicking opener ‘Home Hat Placement’) to post-punk minimalism (‘Recurrence Plot’), amorphous drone (‘Edge Observation’) and points between (‘Radiator’, with its Don Cab guitar lines and solid motorik beats). I’m sorry I sat on this one for so long (it came out at the tail end of 2013) as it’s quite excellent.

In a similar bent, but with far shittier fidelity, Long Beach noise rock stalwarts Gang Wizard bash out some new ones on their umpteenth record Important Picnic (MIE). They’ve got a pretty basic blueprint – chain a couple of chords together, yell over the top, play till done – and it makes for some pretty exhilarating music throughout the relatively economical first half, textured with energetically strummed no-wave guitar and driven by some deliciously gelatinous, Minutemen-funky bass lines. After five tracks, though, the songs stretch out too much and the record gets dirgy and samey and, worst of all, boring, which is a real shame as I was quite enjoying till then.

Sticking to the no-fi trend, Total Funeral (Southern Lord) collects the recorded output of Swedish D-beat gutter punks Electric Funeral – 53 tracks, most clocking under two minutes apiece, all marked by trebly buzzsaw guitars, reverb-drenched vocals and ear-piercing feedback. If you can face an hour-and-a-half of that, this is the record for you.

There was only one doom record for me this year: Serpentine Path’s second full-length Emanations (Relapse). The doom metal supergroup expanded on their live jam feel of their superlative 2012 debut with a muscular studio presence, and more inventive song structures to keep things interesting. I’ll keep this one; everyone else can have Pallbearer, who topped near everyone’s year-end lists with Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore), a record that did nothing for me.

Of the rest I’ve spent time with, Portland quartet Stoneburner served up a 70-minute blackened stoner doom whopper in their second album Life Drawing (Neurot) but I have to say, it’s a bit too drawn out for my tastes. Pity, as they’ve got a killer sound, and when they get going they really get going: take the opener ‘Some Can’, which morphs into a cracking stomper from its sludgy beginnings, and the four minutes of rolling thunder that comprise ‘You Are The Worst’. But more often they settle for meandering, overlong mid-to-low-tempo jams that had me reaching for the skip button.

As did the sludgy post-metal split on Halo of Flies between San Francisco’s Monuments Collapse and Seattle’s Breag Naofa (I know, with a name like that you’d think they’d be Irish) although that’s only because my patience for this style has worn out over the years; if you dig that Isis thing, there’s plenty here for you to love. I wasn’t so tempted to skip any of the three lengthy tracks on Toll of the Wound, the latest EP (at 30 minutes, it’s really a full-length) by Edinburgh’s Of Spire & Throne released last December – like, last December – on Broken Limbs. Yeah, it’s been that long, but I couldn’t let it go without mention.

It was a good year for scuzzy noise rock. Riot Season brought us Hungry Dogs Eat Dirty Puddings, the debut from West Country dirtbags Henry Blacker – a sleazy half-hour affair, starting off with grimy raunch that would make the perfect soundtrack to a barroom brawl, before descending into filth-dripping, gutter-crawling sludge, the real meat of the matter. They’ve got a follow-up coming out shortly so you should keep a black eye out for that one. On a similar tip, there’s Detroit’s Beige Eagle Boys. Not an inspiring name, to be sure, but their debut You’re Gonna Get Yours (Reptilian) sounds dragged from the same stinking pit that vomited up Unsane (and it’s got a boss drum sound).

Speaking of Unsane, there’s Dissent, the new one from The Cutthroats 9 (Reptilian) – think frontman Chris Spencer’s other band with the metallic, hardcore edge dialled down for a stronger emphasis on bluesy swing and swagger, plus oodles of grinding bass and distorted slide guitar. Baltimore’s Dope Body also know their way around a pedal board, and must have used a trunk-load of ’em on Lifer (Drag City), a record that careens between stomping singalong affairs and ’70s Stones-nodding, Scratch Acid-tripping ragers. It makes a great contrast to their labelmates Dead Rider.

Were Split/Red named after the Minutemen song? The Philadelphia band don’t sound anything like the Minutemen but that’s okay, because they do sound like an unholy marriage of Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard, as demonstrated on their debut EP/mini-album/whatever Serious Heft (New Atlantis). The label cites SST as a touchstone, but I’d say more like the AmRep roster, with a whiff of Rye Coalition. And producer Colin Marston handles their din with precision, such that you can actually tell this mess of instruments and hollerings apart. He’s quite good at that (cf his work on the latest – and best in years – Origin record Omnipresent). If that floats your boat, you’ll probably get a kick out of French noiseniks Pord, who channel the spirit of Cleveland’s finest Craw on Wild (Solar Flare).

Philly jazz-rock trio Many Arms stepped up their game with Suspended Definition (Tzadik), a collaboration with saxophonist Colin Fisher that brings to mind John Zorn’s screaming reeds with Blind Idiot God but even more untamed. As the title suggests, you’ll have to suspend your definitions of what constitutes genre or song or even beginnings or endings when you press play on this beastly beauty.

Another trio that’s shown a marked improvement is Nazoranai, Keiji Haino’s improv rock troika with drummer Oren Ambarchi and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley on bass. Their first release in 2012 was more a Haino solo effort than anything else, his rhythm section sounding too in awe of their master to squeak much space for themselves. I was left wanting for more of their talents – and I got it on their second record the most painful time happens only once has it arrived already..? (Ideologic Organ), on which Nazoranai sound like a proper power trio for the first time, each member standing their own ground as they pull together as a battle-hardened unit. It makes for a far bolder and more rewarding experience.

O’Malley had a hand in two other remarkable records in 2014, namely Sunn O)))’s collaborations with Ulver (the dream-like swathes of Terrestrials on Southern Lord) and of course their tag team with the legendary Scott Walker on Soused (4AD). Both display different facets of O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s drone worship, from the former’s richly textured drift to the latter’s non-Euclidean calculations of sonic melodrama.

I’m a fan of Pacific North-West rabble-rousers Helms Alee, whose 2011 album Weatherhead (Hydra Head) blended the swarm and stomp of guitarist Ben Verellen’s previous band, the oft-ignored Harkonen, with shoegaze textures (I know, I know) and a more melodic approach to songwriting, mixing up harsh vocals and harmonies from Verellen and his bandmates, bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis. It’s a hodgepodge assembly that doesn’t work on paper, but certainly does on record.

I was hoping for more of the like from their third LP, Sleepwalking Sailors, released in February on their new label home Sargent House, but it’s a much less satisfying experience, too cleaned-up in sound and monotonous in pace, with Verellen’s holler dominating throughout, and the bulk of those sweet-cutting-the-sour harmonies sequestered to late in the second half when it’s already too late to save things. They’re still a great band, though, and I hope they won’t leave it another three years (their split with Young Widows from the summer already shows better promise). In the meantime, there’s Breeder from Austin psych-rock experimentalists Boyfrndz (Brutal Panda), which scratches some of those places Sleepwalking Sailors can’t quite reach.

One-time black metal shoegazers Alcest have stripped out all the black and all the metal, if their latest Shelter (Prophesy Productions) is anything to go by. Now they sound like Envy between the crunchy loud screamo parts, especially since Neige’s singing in French sounds a lot like garbled Japanese. I’ve seen comparisons to Slowdive (almost, not quite) and My Bloody Valentine (not even close) but they’re too pretty and composed and impeccably produced, more like Ride: a band I’ve wanted to like, but I can’t get over the slightly feeble, antiseptic tinge to their tunes. Actually, that’s being too harsh; Shelter is better than anything Ride ever did in my book, for that gorgeous guitar tone alone.

Also lumped under the shoegaze banner is Nothing, a project by Philadelphian punk Dominic Palermo that pairs the breathy vocals of Slowdive and MBV with dirty overdriven guitars and heaps of reverb. But beneath those red herrings, the song structures on debut album Guilty of Everything (Relapse) owe far more to the likes of Pinebender, who were doing this kind of voluminous post-rock noise pop more than a decade ago. The shoegaze label doesn’t really stick, if you define it by that woozy, hazy glide guitar sound.

Actually, if you crave those looser, gliding moments, Black Dirt Oak’s Wawayanda Patent (MIE) has a few woven throughout its genre-hopping psych-folk fabric: no surprise given the pedigree of the this collective, based around the venerable Black Dirt Studio that’s recorded everyone from the No Neck Blues Band to Charalambides and the late Jack Rose. Think Indian ragas, American primitivism and late night noir funk and you’re halfway there.

There’s nothing funky about the music of Dylan Carlson – he plays far too slow for that – but it is gloriously psychedelic drone Americana. The obvious choice is his long-time band Earth’s most recent offering Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord) but I’d direct you to Gold, his latest solo record under the monicker Drcarlsonalbion. Its 24 mostly short tracks comprise the incidental score to a black-and-white German indie western of the same name, And to take them individually, they appear as vague sketches of riffs or other constructive elements for more substantive songs. But really, it’s meant as a whole piece to be played straight through; put it on while you’re doing something else and let its shifting moods colour your perception.

Secret Pyramid‘s Movements of Night (Students of Decay) is a beautiful 40-minute drone suite in eight movements that captures the liminal space between feedback-drenched noise and ethereal ambience. The same label also released John DavisAsk the Dust, which blends crackling electronics, organ drones and short piano figures in a heady hypnagogic stew.

Bohren & der Club of Gore brought us another smouldering soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist with Piano Nights (Ipecac), an album that wears its film noir and Arvo Pärt influences on its lengthy sleeve. Too long, in fact, for a record that comes across a tad one-note, and isn’t one I’m dying to put on again. Labelmates The Unsemble – teaming members of The Jesus Lizard and Einstürzende Neubauten – do better with their self-titled collection of would-be scores to Lynchian nightmares, leaping between lounge jazz and concrète noise and even a Dif Juz riff on the shimmering ‘Neon’, though again, it’s not a record I’d be reaching out for very often.

Sometimes you just need some tunes in your life, y’know? And I can think of three decent examples. The Afghan Whigs returned with Do To The Beast (Sup Pop); that title’s infuriating grammar aside, it picks up where 1965 left off with another seductive suite of ’60s Motown soul filtered through ‘70s rock excess and modern R&B sensibilities. Positive vibes abound. As such, it’s lacking the hate and ennui and edge of their real classics Congregation and Gentlemen, but can we really hold that against Greg Dulli and company? In the alley between those sides of the Whigs, you might find ex-Calla frontman Aurelio Valle, whose first solo record Acme Power Transmission (Nuevo Leon) echoes the 3am chill-out vibe of his former band but injects a bit more liveliness in its skipping beats and even guest vocals from The Cardigans’ Nina Persson.

I wouldn’t overlook Wild Beasts, either. Sure, the Cumbrian dandies let me down after releasing the deliciously idiosyncratic Limbo, Panto and the more direct Two Dancers with the icier, monochrome, ultimately empty void of Smother. But they’ve got the colour back in their sound with Present Tense (Domino), a far more joyous collection of synthpop-inflected tunes that recalls at least the tangible enthusiasm for music and songcraft of their debut, if not its aesthetic abandon.

What’s the scariest record I’ve heard in the last year? A few months ago I might have said it was From All Purity by Chicago blackened noise rock miscreants Indian (Relapse), with its 40 minutes of mind-numbing, atonal aural catharsis. Dutch fearmongers Nihill made a good stab of it, too, with their latest document of harrowing evil, Verferf (Burning World).

But the title really has to go to Hexis for their terrifying debut album Abalam. It’s incredible what these Danes achieved with such a basic sound, when you get down to it: there’s barely any change in vocal style, guitar tone, rhythm or pacing across its 13 tracks. They’ve got one trick, and that’s playing severely blackened hardcore. But they do it with such arresting ferocity, none of that matters. The buzzsaw riffs fall in like black sheets of torrential rain. The drums pound ominously like the intro to Slayer’s ‘Criminally Insane’ repeated ad nauseam. The atmosphere they create is so all-consuming it’s almost too much of a good thing.

And that was my 2014 in heavy music. Not quite a ‘best of’ selection from me, as I can only think of the records, like SwansTo Be Kind (Young God) and Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden (Sacred Bones), that I still haven’t heard yet, or the others I need to spend more time with: Godflesh’s bass-tastic A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche) looms large on that list. Always behind, always looking forward; either way it’s a hell of a ride.

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