Sunday, February 18, 2018

New Music Sundays: 2/18/18


Russell Haswell: Respondent

The queasy, toxic synth sounds coming from Russel Haswell's new 'mini LP' Respondent remind me of the weird Los Angeles Free Music Society LPs my parents had in my youth, records like Darker Scratcher whose covers freaked me the hell out. Four of the five minimal pieces on Respondent are all uncomfortable and repetitive, John Carpenter synth and gross drum machines, Bizarro World techno that seems to have been designed to give raver kids a seriously bad trip at the end of the night. Techno is a style of music that I'm sure has merit, but I myself have never been able to get into the typical four-on-the-floor fare; Respondent is a nice bridge between bog standard techno and more weird and uncomfortable genres, like a DJ being devoured by something unspeakable in the middle of his set. And then there's the gem hidden in this pile of rust: track four, 'Special Long Version (Demo)', which marries 10 minutes of Haswell's discordant half-techno to the guileless, adorable, effortlessly lovely vocals of visual artist Sue Tompkins. Tompkins' voice brings a naive tenderness to the otherwise ugly, standoffish music of the LP, and really elevate an already interesting album into something sublime. Come for 'Special Long Version', let it convince you of Haswell's unique vision, and then absorb the rest of the LP. It's pretty tremendous stuff.

Ezra Furman: Transangelic Exodus
Now this is something truly amazing. Like Russell Haswell, Ezra Furman's record Transangelic Exodus is something special, something unique. The best way to describe it that I can think of would be a punk rock Neil Young fronting a combination of late period Velvet Underground and Depeche Mode. Synths and drum machines wheeze, guitars shine, and Furman's gorgeous voice, one of the best I've heard in a long time, tie everything together absolutely perfectly. The album seems to be autobiographical, with Furman recounting adventures stories from a young gay or bisexual life in a way that's charming and clever and impossible to put down. 'Driving Down to L.A.' manages to sound windswept and anthemic so effortlessly, even with a fairly limited sonic palette, while closer 'I Lost my Innocence' bounces along like some magical lost showtune. Furman's songs are impossibly catchy while still being smart, blending his influences into something that somehow sounds like nothing before it. Do what you can to listen to this record, it deserves to be heard.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

New Music Sundays: 2/4/18


Ty Segall: Freedom's Goblin

Ty Segall is the hardest-working man in rock, putting out at least one album a year, upwards of two or three on a good year. And yet, while one would think keeping such a pace would lead to stagnation, Freedom's Goblin proves that Ty's in no danger of slowing down; a double LP with 19 songs pushing past the 70 minute mark, Goblin is Ty's longest album yet, and it might be his best. Ty's been getting more Lennonesque with each album, and Freedom's Goblin is his White Album, a stunning, schizophrenic mess that shouldn't work, but is so much better because it does. Ty does his typical noisy punk, he does his John Lennon ballads, he does a surprising amount of T. Rex glammy funk, and it never feels stale or incongruous. We're only a month in to 2018, but already Freedom's Goblin is one of those special albums that only come along once in a long while. Absolutely essential.

Bitchin Bajas: Bajas Fresh

First things first: Bitchin Bajas' third album, Bajas Fresh, has to be in some kind of contendership for dumbest album title award, in a neck-and-neck race with some of the more egregious Little Feat albums. But that's good! There's nothing wrong with an experimental group being self-consciously dumb at times, it breaks up the tedium of dour-faced experimental auteurs whose music demands SERIOUS respect. And once you get into the stunning, shimmering loops of Bajas Fresh, you'll find that there's nothing insincere about the music contained within. Bajas Fresh wears the Terry Riley influence of previous Bitchin Bajas records, and it's great to see a band work in a minimalist framework you don't see too often outside of, say, the more experimental Sonic Youth cuts. In addition, Bajas Fresh has a certain jazziness that wasn't as evident on the group's previous albums, so that you're almost listening to Riley conducting The Necks. Bajas Fresh is a beautiful, soothing, fascinating record that stretches repetition just far enough, giving the listener something to contemplate without becoming dull. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Music Mondays: 1/22/18


Ergo Phizmiz PLC: Nibiru!

Ergo Phizmiz, sometimes also known as Dominic Robertson, is one of those musical chameleons who straddles the line between poppy and really, really weird. His newest offering, a psuedo-radioplay about the end of the world called Nibiru!, is definitely in the latter camp. Part spoken word, part sound collage, with  several samples from YouTube conspiracy theorists, somehow Nibiru! is a magnitude stranger than Phizmiz's legendary 15-hour The Faust Cycle. Nibiru! is dense and inscrutable, an album that demands your full attention, and one that keeps revealing layers the further down the rabbit hole you go. We're in strange times, and Phizmiz may be the facilitator we need to worm our way through the flotsam of real life.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith commands a shocking array of synthesizers, and she has used them to make a cosmic soup in The Kid. Similar to Radiohead's masterful (and similarly-named) Kid A, The Kid dabbles in no small amount of naivete, with passages that recall nothing so much as incidental music for rotting '70s classroom programming. Smith's synths bubble and shimmer and her sweet voice belies a certain innocence, a lack of range that enhances her art rather than detracts from it. Smith's melodies are hidden by her innocence, but with repeated listens they raise up from the richness of the instrumentation and she shows herself to be a much stronger tunesmith than you may have realized at first.

Monday, January 8, 2018

New Music Mondays: 1/8/18



Welcome to the bi-weekly New Music Mondays, where I use a little of my barely-disposable income to buy a couple new records every paycheck. See if you can find your new favorite band.

Yossarians: Fabric of Time


Yossarian's self-released Fabric of Time starts off with two arresting art-punk beauties in the near-motorik "I Have Eyes" and the snarling, vicious "Suffer Me", which together almost sound like a new Birthday Party. The album starts really showing its chops afterward though, subtly mutating and giving us moments of surprisingly sublime beauty, exemplified in the near-ballad of "No Closer" and a cover of Angels of Light's "Rose of Los Angeles". A smart find that shows how many gems there are in the world of self-released music.

Riddlore: Afromutations


And now for something completely different, with Los Angeles emcee and DJ Riddlore providing beats and reworkings to African field recordings. I've always loved world music, and this is a fascinating spin on traditional folk music that could probably turn a lot of new listeners on to music they wouldn't normally be obliged to check out. Riddlore modernizes the field recordings without pandering and creates something bright and new while at the same time traditional and reverent. If you're a fan of hip hop or electronic production, Afromutations could be something you've never heard before.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

All Unexpected, All Surprising: The Ten Best Albums of 2017


I don't know about you, dear reader, but for me, it hasn't been a very good year. Things are dark and confused and chaotic, and it's sometimes tough to see where exactly we go from here. But in bad times, one thing that never fails to step up is the quality of music being released, and it's no different in 2017 than it was in 1982. There's an embarrassment of riches to be had, and my own personal top 10 won't even scratch the surface of what's available. But it brings me happiness, dear reader, and with any luck it will do the same for you.

10. Chelsea Wolfe - Hiss Spun


Another year gone by, another year without a release from crushing husband-and-wife metal titans Jucifer. And yet we have still been heard, and Chelsea Wolfe arises from the blackened depths to pummel our minds into a fine mist. Hiss Spun is simultaneously lovely and punishing, feminine and bestial, sensuous and jagged. Its more rhythmic than you expect, with Ms Wolfe able to accomplish the vocal gymnastics you expect out of someone like Jarboe, going from sweet to terrifying all in the course of a single song. 2017 is a year that inspired a lot of anger, and artists like Chelsea Wolfe harness that rage to stunning effect.

9. Oddisee - The Iceberg


One of the most positive developments in music in the past five or so years is a closer marrying of hip hop and jazz. Albums like Flying Lotus' You're Dead! and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly become musical kaleidoscopes with Bitches Brew era fusion, while Brooklyn MC and producer Oddisee mines from earlier Miles to give his raps depth and nostalgia. Like Lamar's record, Oddisee's music is explicitly political; it's hard not to be these days, and The Iceberg tackles the crises facing young black America with a tragedy and poignancy. If you're interested in what a complex production, married with complex lyrics, can do to make hip hop accessible and urgent, The Iceberg is a perfect experience.

8. Nadine Shah - Holiday Destination


Half-Pakistani Brit Nadine Shah knows a thing or two about stigma, a topic revisited countless times on Holiday Destination. Shah and producer Ben Hillier give the record over to the beat, and throughout its course the rhythm is addictive. All the while, Shah sings of the trials faced throughout our time in these bodies, but it's a joyous record, a celebration of life rather than a condemnation of close-mindedness. Holiday Destination is erudite while also being monstrously catchy at the same time; this is an easy record to dance to. Politically necessary while simultaneously sexy and swingin', Holiday Destination is an easy record to like, and an important record to listen to.

7. Re-TROS - Before the Applause


No album came completely out of nowhere for me like the sophomore album by Beijing post-punk trio Re-TROS, which apparently stands for 'Rebuilding the Rights of Statues'. I had never heard of the group before reading a positive review, and decided to give them a try; about 2 minutes in to the astonishing 'HAILING DRUMS' and I was hooked. It's post-punk, it's krautrock/kosmiche, it has a healthy dose of four-on-the-floor techno, and it shows me that I've been totally missing what sounds like am incredibly fertile music scene out of China. I've never heard Re-TROS' first album, but Before the Applause is fully-formed, totally unique, not at all derivative even with its myriad influences. If you're ready for a style of music at once comfortingly familiar and radically new, Re-TROS are far more than the sum of their wonderful parts.

6. Ty Segall - Ty Segall


Musical omnivore Ty Segall has dialed back his releases to a mere one a year these days, down from two or three a year in the past. In 2017 he's given us a second self-titled album, which both treads familiar ground and shoots off into the stratosphere.Ty's usual fuzzed-out guitar explosions are well-represented and still manage to sound fresh after nearly 10 years of amplifier worship, and his acoustic numbers like the arresting 'Orange Color Queen' have a Beatlesesque majesty to them that just show how effortlessly he's mastered the song form. The big surprise, though, is the suite of 'Freedom' and 'Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)' in which a punchy punk rock song mutates into a jazz-fusion behemoth, like nothing Ty's ever done before. Does this represent a new direction, crowned by this starting over with a self-titled album? Only Ty knows for sure, but Ty Segall shows that no matter which way he jumps next, it's going to be fantastic.

5. The Granite Shore - Suspended Second


Unlike many of the schizophrenic genre-hoppers I have represented on this list, The Granite Shore are of singular purpose: working in the '70s British mold of John Cale, Brian Eno, and Kevin Ayers, Mr. Nick Halliwell and his brothers-in-arms give us nine slices of beautiful, sad, stiff pop music. The production is deep and inviting, like a bar band at the end of time, the lyrics are tragic hymns to growling old and bitter. The perfect album for feeling sorry for yourself on a rainy day, Suspended Second revels in its intelligence.

4. Gnod - Just Say No to the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine


No joke, Gnod may be my favorite band. Every album they release is so different, and so, so good, the next generation's Nurse With Wound in more ways than one. Last Year's The Mirror was a Swans/PiL influenced slice of ugliness, a rage and reaction at the Brexit and the continuing British descent into fascism, and since 2016 things have only gotten worse, for Britain, America, and just about everywhere else in the world. So this year, Gnod ups the ante and manages to press pure righteous fury to record like nobody has ever managed before; Just Say No is a beautiful, pop-art monster, motorik punk rock as a whirlwind of anger. From the absolutely stunning 'Bodies for Money' which blows your hair back and never lets up, to the dubby rage of 'Stick in the Wheel', Just Say No is violent and necessary.

3. Nadah El Shazly - Ahwar


Like Re-TROS, Nadah El Shazly seems to come from nowhere in a musical scene I wasn't even really aware of, in this case Cairo, Egypt. And like Before the Applause, El Shazly's Ahwar sounds like absolutely nothing I've ever heard before, while still being made of recognizable parts. El Shazly's voice is gorgeous; dark, rich, viscous honey sliding over the haunting, psychedelic landscapes of her music. Some songs are mind-bendingly strange ('Afqid Al-Dhakira') while others are sublimely beautiful (Ana' Ishiqt') but it all feels as a piece with the album, everything is sequenced perfectly and is so arrestingly new that it all makes perfect sense.

2. Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology


Jane Weaver and her army of synths collide in the masterpiece that is Modern Kosmology, a fantastically-produced motorik odyssey that you can get lost in. The album sounds so thick you could drown in it, reverb washing over you all while the insistent rhythms keep the beat of your heart. This is an album to get lost in, with the beat and Weaver's beautiful vocals the only thing keeping it anchored in this reality. Modern Kosmology is your window into another world, and is an excellent escape perhaps rivaled only by Coil's Time Machines when the world has beaten you down enough; let it cocoon you and enjoy your time away for as long as you can.

1. The Moonlandingz - Interplanetary Class Classics
(Sadly, The Moonlandingz don't seem to be on Bandcamp. So, enjoy this wonderful video and then go get it on iTunes!)


And here we are, at number one. And really, for this listener at least, there's no choice for album of the year but The Moonlandingz and their astonishing debut Interplanetary Class Classics. Produced by Sean Lennon, of all people, The Moonlandingz are Saul and Lias from the always-wonderful Fat White Family and Adrian and Dean from the Eccentronic Research Council, making the dirtiest, sleaziest, most wonderful glam rock you've ever heard. It's Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Sparks at their absolute, uncomfortable nastiest, a trait Fat White Family are of course intimately accustomed to. And it's good. Oh, how it's good. From beginning to end, Interplanetary Class Classics staples a smile on your face with its scuzzy irreverence, all sacred cows rapidly turned into hamburger for the teeming millions. There's not a wasted second on the album, everything is immediate and wonderful, and Lennon is a surprisingly steady hand on the till, giving the record just enough of a '70s sheen while letting its members be as unpleasant as possible. Interplanetary Class Classics is pure rock'n'roll, the type I didn't think they made anymore and with good reason; when you see the gross, misogynist scandals guys like Gene Simmons keep getting into, you think that kind of group is dead and buried. But The Moonlandingz know what they're doing, hell, The Fat Whites have been doing it for years now and now they're finally getting the recognition they deserve. In dark times, we need albums like Interplanetary Class Classics, and there's no question that it's the best album of the year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Good in Everyone: Daniel Byran and the Human Condition



            On April 6, 2014, Bryan Danielson, better known by his stage name Daniel Bryan, won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship by forcing Dave Batista to submit to his signature YES! Lock at Wrestlemania XXX. To some readers this might seem like a petty accomplishment; after all, professional wrestling is now well-known to be a scripted event, more like a performance than a legitimate athletic contest. And yet, as Bryan sat crying in the ring, showered with adoration from the assembled packed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it wasn’t because of a performance well-acted (though it was certainly that, too); it was a victory for all of us, the fans. Our guy, the guy who should have slipped through the cracks, made it to the top of the mountain. His victory, which we helped facilitate, belonged to all of us.
            Daniel Bryan never should have been champion. He is maybe five-foot-eight and slightly pudgy, and in the world of pro wrestling, packed as it is with six-foot-ten Adonises, this is the kiss of death. Though we’re no longer in the steroid grip of the ‘80s, the WWE is in the business of selling a spectacle, and said spectacle revolves around larger-than-life walking gods. And yet, this very physical dissonance played a role in Bryan’s ascension in the hearts of fans. This was no musclebound ape in the style of John Cena or Brock Lesnar. Instead, Bryan channeled the common man out of his element, and the common man triumphing over adversity is a salient storyline that sells tickets.
            Another tool in Bryan’s arsenal is his implacable, overpowering charisma. The curious reader would do well to find a video online of Bryan’s entrance down the ramp to the ring for nearly any of his matches, and it would be a legitimate surprise if you don’t come away from it without some appreciation of the man. Daniel Bryan, a short, bearded, average-looking man, somehow packs within himself the ability to win an audience to his side without saying a word. It happened to me the very first time I saw him standing on the entrance ramp, as Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blasted through the PA system and the crowd chanted his simple, catchy, and exciting catchphrase, “YES…YES…YES!” On one hand, it’s all so hokey and stupid, it shouldn’t work at all, and yet, it all fits together perfectly that the air becomes electric and you can’t help but get swept up in the ritual and chant along with everyone else. Bryan isn’t a particularly good talker, really, but his nonverbal skills are astounding, not just in the world of wrestling, but in entertainment at large. Daniel Bryan is bottled excitement.
            Bryan’s relatability and his charisma alone would have made him a moneymaker regardless of what else happened, and we were all watching for him to get his time in the sun, to conquer his naysayers and allow the viewer to live vicariously through his victory. And yet he didn’t, not at first anyway. Daniel Bryan lost, and lost, and lost again. It’s never a sure thing to take anything at face value is pro wrestling; the difference between a ‘work’ (that is to say, a storyline) and a ‘shoot’ (that is to say, real life divorced from storytelling) can sometimes be surprisingly subtle. When The Undertaker is trapped in a coffin and ascends to heaven, the viewer can probably be sure that a man hasn’t really died live on TV. But when the storytellers conspire to keep down a beloved performer for two agonizing years, are we looking at a masterclass of storytelling and audience manipulation, or are we looking at writers so set in their ways that they can’t recognize the sure-fire hit they have on their hands because he doesn’t fit into their typical model? In the end, there’s no real way for us to know for sure, only the boys in the back know, and it’s doubtful they’d admit they misread the situation even if they had. The only thing we can know is that, starting at Wrestlemania XXVIII in 2012, Daniel Bryan was made to be humiliated or marginalized time and time again, while audience support built up to the boiling point.
At ‘Mania XXVIII, Bryan lost his match in 18 seconds. The people still cheered for him. He was then turned heel (that is to say, made a villain) so people would stop cheering and instead boo. The people still cheered for him. He was teamed up with another wrestler in an odd couple tag team, to take him out of singles matches. The people still cheered for him. He was given a concession and briefly won a championship belt, only to lose it literally minutes later against another opponent. The people still cheered for him. He was turned heel again, and placed into a group where he was told to do little but stand in the back and not do anything remotely charismatic. The people still cheered for him. The crowd lusted for Daniel Bryan to come out on top, to beat these clearly insurmountable odds, and it seemed like everyone knew it but the ones writing the storylines. All of this lead up to the Royal Rumble in January 2014, a multi-man match where the last wrestler standing got a shot for the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. There was no question that this was Bryan’s moment; he would outlast everyone and go on to finally claim the prize that he had worked so hard for.
Daniel Bryan wasn’t even in the Royal Rumble.
Instead, the powers that be had Bryan lose handily in a preliminary match about two hours before the Rumble itself. The audience, both watching on TV and in person at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, had finally had enough. Boos and chants of ‘Daniel Bryan’ rained down from the stands throughout the Rumble match, especially when it became clear that the fans last hope, that maybe Bryan would be a surprise entrant at the last minute, wasn’t going to happen. The audience hatred intensified when it became clear that the winner was almost certainly going to be Dave Batista, a wrestler-turned-actor who was brought in on a big money contract just six days before the Rumble as some celebrity star power (and who has subsequently become a big-name actor thanks to his performance in Guardians of the Galaxy). Fans proceeded to hijack WWE events, chanting unceasingly for Bryan and showering Batista with hatred whenever he dared show his face. WWE had its back against the wall; there had never been a rejection of a storyline so complete and total. With Wrestlemania XXX just a few months away, there was nothing the writers could do to placate the fans.
Almost nothing.
On March 10, less than a month before Wrestlemania XXX, Daniel Bryan and several actors dressed as fans hijacked WWE’s flagship TV show Raw. The group channeled actual fan dissatisfaction over how their guy was being used, and the real fans in the seats chanted along with Bryan and the actors in the ring. After every other possibility failed, and unwilling to risk a total fan rejection of the product, the writers backstage cast themselves as the villains in the story. Those in the ring modeled themselves after the Occupy Wall Street protesters (perhaps a year or two behind the time), and refused to leave the ring until Bryan was inserted into the championship match. Both in storyline and in real life, the writers had been beaten by fan outcry, so after a month and a half of very real near-revolt, Daniel Bryan was added to the main event of Wrestlemania XXX. There, on the biggest stage of the sport, he was able to make the hated Batista tap out and finally give a happy ending to this twisting, turning, heart-stopping story. Bryan’s celebration, on his knees with his new championship while confetti fell through the Superdome and fans were beside themselves with cheers and adulation, went on uninterrupted for 5 minutes and 36 seconds, and this writer was at home right there with them.
Among the cheering fans was 8 year old Connor Michalek, a boy who considered Bryan his personal hero. At the time, Michalek was 22 days away from his death, caused by brain and spine cancer. After winning the championship, Michalek was the first person Bryan hugged. Michalek’s story brings so many conflicting emotions into my body all at once, but mainly I think of how cruel life can be, and how it is up to us to prop each other up when we are able, and to really work as hard as we can to make not only our own lives, but the lives of others as pleasant as can be. The world isn’t fair, no story that ends in the death of a young boy could ever be fair. But through Bryan, Connor and his story was able to touch me, and touch anyone else watching, and hopefully anyone reading this essay. Connor’s life was cut too short, pointlessly so, a pointlessness I still can’t understand and never will. But at that moment, his hero had achieved everything he had set out to. It was perfection, and if nothing else, at least Connor was there front row to experience it. Daniel Bryan’s victory was more than just the hero in a scripted story finally overcoming adversity. It was all of us: me, you, Connor, Daniel, and everyone else, achieving against odds that are rarely fair or make sense. It didn’t matter where Daniel and his championship went after this. Even if it was just for now, we had made it.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the title change and the happiness it afforded fans were two snapshots of pure, salient beauty. First was the moment itself, where Batista tapped to the YES! Lock. There’s an impossibly brief, infinitesimal moment between Batista tapping and the victory bell ringing, where the audience realizes what’s just happened and what it means: for Bryan, for the storyline, and for their own hopes and dreams. The swell of cheers that arises in that fraction of a second before the bell, the music, and the pageantry is probably the most singular, unique, utterly real moment in the long, storied history of pro wrestling. And second, the opening to the episode of Raw the day after Wrestlemania. In an industry that prides itself on bombast, on spectacle, on being larger than life, like Bryan himself, the moment is amazingly understated and direct. No announcers, no music, no anything except the cameras moving over the sold-out crowd chanting in unison, as one mind, a purely positive emotion made flesh:

“YES! YES! YES!”

Friday, December 30, 2016

Such a Sumptuous Table We Set: The Ten Best Albums of 2016


Well, this long, bizarre, confounding year is nearly at a close. We lost some of the greats, and we gained those we didn't want. But through it all, we had our usual heavy splendour: 2016 has given us another fine feast in the world of music. Here's hoping to a better 2017, and days filled with songs strange and beautiful.

Grumbling Fur - Furfour

As I have said many times before, I have a great fondness for the intersection of pop and strangeness. Some of my favorite records take pretty, simple popular melodies and meld them with quirks that only serve to make their hooks hit harder. Grumbling Fur has tempered the experimental electronica of Glynnestra with a heavy dose of Eno/Cale for Furfour. Like Arp's More, a more cynical listener could call the sound derivative, but like More, that would be reductive; outside of Alexander Tucker's and Daniel O'Sullivan's Eno-esque vocals, the music itself is much more digital and layered than Eno's more stark ambiance. Grumbling Fur manage to sound rich and deep and a certain beauty shines through that we could use at the end of this year.

Melanie De Biasio - Blackened Cities

When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal, she was pegged as the next big thing in the world of jazz singers, her voice strong, clear, and beautiful. This year she turned sharply to the left with the release of Blackened Cities, in which her voice is just as lovely and powerful, but couched in haunting, industrial found sounds, like something out of Eraserhead. Armed with her piano, De Biasio reigns as queen over both a Necks-ish jazz combo and a hellish whorl of clattering strangeness that would fit well in the soundtrack of Silent Hill. It's a stunning combination, and I am impressed with De Biasio's dedication to her art and willingness to experiment. The work ebbs and flows from gorgeous to terrifying, and De Biasio is the anchor that makes it all work.

Ulver - ATGCLVLSSCAP

Ulver has always been a musical chameleon, from twisted lo-fi black metal to achingly produced European folk to electronic-spiked chamber music, but in the last few years they have shown a love of '60s and '70s exploratory jamming which comes to full force in ATGCLVLSSCAP, culled from improvisations during live shows and stitched together into coherent pieces. The album feels a bit like the live performances of Swans circa The Seer, that perfect balance of each instrument and the comfort between players to really allow the improvisation to flourish. Everything gels into such an amazingly cohesive whole, like a rock version of one of Miles Davis' improvs. If you want to spend an hour and a half inside a very elaborate headspace, you could do a lot worse than Ulver as a guide.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed - Arc

Another stunning turnaround, Agoraphobic Nosebleed's Arc finds the ultra-fast grindcore band slowing down...way, WAY down. At only three songs, the shortest of which hitting 7 minutes, the longest of which hitting almost 12, some of Arc's songs are longer than their previous whole albums. Kat Katz's vocals are pure, righteous black metal, but they are set within the unholy marriage of sludgy doom riffs and strutting, AC/DC-style arena rock. I'm always down for another doom metal album, and this strange trinity of hard rock styles works amazingly well. Despite the length of the songs, the album went by far too quickly for me, and I would love to see Agoraphobic Nosebleed do something similar in the future.

Terminal Cheesecake - Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients

Despite 22 years between 2016's Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients and their last outing, 1994's massive and glorious King of all Spaceheads, it doesn't feel like Terminal Cheesecake her missed a minute in-between. And even more impressively, this isn't a simple nostalgia record; Dandelion Sauce doesn't really sound like anything they had done before. This is Cheesecake's Hendrix album, pure amplifier worship grounded heavily with brain-melting guitar work. Neither the Butthole Surfers fried psych of Johnny Town-Mouse nor the enormous trippy dub of King of all Spaceheads is much in effect, as if Cheesecake knew that had already covered that ground and it was time to shoot into the stratosphere. The kings of UK psych have been missed, but 2016 finds them sitting the throne quite comfortably.

Comet Control - Center of the Maze

On their first album, Comet Control were a pure, immediate, necessary garage blast, seemingly coming out of nowhere and humbling every other band to strap on a fuzzbox in their path. Center of the Maze finds the band slowing way, way down and letting their freak flag fly high; while there are still the first album's muscular guitar workouts, even the heaviest tracks are absolutely bathed in psychedelic trappings. The mix is stew-thick, and the album just gets weirder and headier as it goes on, culminating in the enormous, fuzzed-out 20 minute suite of "Sick in Space" and "Artificial Light". On Center of the Maze, Comet Control out-Floyds Floyd, and we're better off for having them in our midst.

Black Mountain - IV

Any year that Black Mountain puts out an album can't be all bad. Like Comet Control, IV is the sound of a band stretching way out; compared to 2010's heavy Zep-fest Wilderness Heart, IV drips with psych sludge. The album is metal goddess Amber Webber's time to shine; while she got an occasional lead vocal on Black Mountain's previous efforts, her role in IV is much more pronounced, and her powerful, beautiful, terrifying wailing gives the album a pomp that Stephen McBean's windswept wanderer vocals couldn't quite achieve on previous albums. Black Mountain are still our generation's Zeppelin, but they're getting further and further from the source material with each album, evolving into something new, strange, and massive.

Gnod - The Mirror

A new Gnod release fills me with joy in the same way that Nurse With Wound's albums once did: opening a new Gnod album is like Christmas day, you never know what it is you'll be getting into. Just as the US is in the middle of our own uncomfortable brush with fascism, so has the UK been experiencing something similar, and after 2015's easy album of the year, the monumental 3-disc Infinity Machines, Gnod took their rage at the politics of their country and birthed us The Mirror. The exact opposite of Infinity Machines, a 3-song, 40-minute blast of righteous fury in the vein of Swans' seminal Cop, all thudding, industrial clatter, with vocals howling in anger, trying in vain to compete with the enormity of the music around it. The Mirror is almost insustainably tense, and by the end of the 20-minute closer "Sodom & Gomorrah" it feels like the Infinity Machine is devouring itself. It's easy to be mad about where 2016 has taken us, and The Mirror is your soundtrack to that anger.

Marissa Nadler - Strangers


After the beastly devastation of acts like Gnod and Black Mountain, Marissa Nadler's Strangers is a perfect antidote; a work of such simple, rich beauty that can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynic. Each song's instrumentation is so different, anchored by Nadler's astonishingly beautiful voice, and it's that variety, matched with the familiarity of said voice, that makes Strangers such a treat. This is an album to listen to in the dark during the rain, a sensuous lullaby that can make sense of even the most confusing situations. Marissa Nadler has given us one of the best albums of the year, resplendent in its simplicity even as it changes its conventions with each song.

David Bowie - Blackstar

Bowie does latter-day Scott Walker. Brilliant! Even before Mr. Bowie's absolutely gut-wrenching passing, which in retrospect was the harbinger of everything that has happened since, I knew that Blackstar had to be on my list. And when all has been said and done, no album is more worthy of topping this list. Recklessly experiemental, as cutting-edge as he ever was, David Bowie's swan song is strange and hideous and heartbreaking and oh so, so gorgeous. While nothing tops the arch-experimentalism of the title track, there is not a wasted moment on the whole of Blackstar. Like Infinity Machines, or You're Dead!, or More, or The Seer before it, Blackstar has a sense of infinite possibility to it, an album that will stand the test of time and reveal new pleasures with each listen off into the deep future. Bowie might be gone, but the legacy he left with us is staggering, and it's perfectly encapsulated within the strange, shifting confines of Blackstar. There's no better choice for album of the year.