Exploratory, eclectic, weird, and dark are just the first of many words that might describe this Austin-based project. Fusing doom metal, electronics and dark underground music like The Swans, Pinkish Black takes a lot of chances on this record and it paid off by presenting a bold artistic statement. Not only is this album great, but it is adventurous enough that future releases are all but certain to be even more interesting. For all you fans of strange underground music, this album is a beacon for the future and the past to come together and blend in to a complex web while still retaining a level of expressionist emotional fervor.
Locrian and Mamiffer — Bless Them That Curse Us
It was hard to pick a Locrian record that would best sum up their uncanny ability to collaborate with other artists and end up with the final product being than either band could have accomplished individually. But the project they did with Mamifer on "Bless Them That Curse Us" is perhaps the most amazing because Mamifer is possibly the acoustic polar opposite to their usual guitar-soundscape sensibility. Noise dronescapes and clanking piano melodies interweave. Dark farmhouse echoes and buzzing feedback form midnight architectures. However, what really makes this record shine is it's conciseness. The songs are focused and highly-resolved in a way that more experimental recording artists could learn from. (Check out Locrian's Christoph Heeman collaboration for a mind-blowing, but very challenging listen on the inimitable Handmade Birds label.)
Completely strange yet engaging beats warp your head while dark wisdom stutters all around. This is easily Aesop Rock's most mature work to date, and the fulfillment of all of his abstract rap experiments since Labor Days. While dozens of underground hip-hop artists have come and gone during his tenure, the themes of this album show that Aesop's ability for self-criticism and self-reflection have kept him above fray and pushing himself to new and more uncanny places.
MGLA — With Hearts Toward None
It's the year after black metal went mainstream — As such, I didn't expect to find much this year that was interesting if just because there would be a flood of mediocre hipster crap on the market, but damn, this MGLA album leapt out ahead of the pack on the first listen with it's no frills, high quality, guitar-forward tracks. Dark, angry, filled with ringing distortion, it still manages to maintain a sense of melody that renders some of the tracks bordering on "catchy." Modern sounding (that is, with good, weighty recording) but still just as potent as it's nihilist predecessors.
Purity Ring — Shrines
If you had asked me at the beginning of the year if I would have added a post-witch-house album to my best of the year list, I would have laughed the beer I was drinking out of my nose. But Purity Ring absolutely floored me at FYF Fest this summer. Yes, they use a lot of stripped-down and lo-fi electronics in their work, but as musicians they resemble a modernist take on Portishead's soulful vocal tightness more than Salem's intentional/hipster sloppiness. Massive bass, simple synths serve as the foundation for the trippy, well-performed vocals softly speaking of creepy, morbid and erie subjects. Just take the car out for a pointless drive, turn this up and let it wash over you. Then listen really close and get a bit freaked out.
Horseback — Half Blood
I still don't really understand this album. But I say that in the best possible way. Listening to Half Blood from the perspective of metal must be somewhat similar to what seeing Cubism was to people used to Academy realist painters in the early 1900's. What makes this album so shocking in a world filled with mediocre drone bands who are content with nearly building an exterior perception of being "inaccessible" while relying on the same familiar core motifs, Horseback's layers, fragments, repetitions and shimmering sonic textures are the core of the album. Half Blood is reframing what metal and underground rock could sound like,and doing it all while working without a tightrope. Three paths seem like good inroads for the non-initiate to experience this music: 1) A lot of what's going on here sounds like early and mid-period Sonic Youth guitar texture experiments. (This realization came when I noticed that a track from Impale Golden Horn, their first album, sounds like Phillip Glass doing a cover of the first 4 bars of "Daydream Nation.") 2) This is the repetitive flatness of black metal taken to a hypnotic extreme. 3) The Americana-inflected instrumentation serves as a cue to attempt to read these tracks as being poetic ruminations about the specific kind of Southern Gothic psycho-geography.
Zelienople — The World Is A House On Fire
The World Is A House On Fire — aside from having a brilliant album name — may be the most overlooked album of the year. Combining minimal acoustic Americana artiness and lush studio production, Zelienople has made the quintessential 3AM album. Loss, longing, shadows, echoes, forgetfulness and melancholy are harnessed to craft a sonic geography populated by loops of specters made from mist with the dawn still a long way off. Great studio production and stellar work by a band functioning at their peak as a unit.
Tim Berne — Snake Oil
2012 was a brilliant year for jazz. So many young, amazingly talented, deeply committed and broadly inspired musicians are finding their voices in jazz. I think one of the places to watch in the musical underground is going to be how avant jazz integrates it's reach in to the rest of music in the coming years. For now, we should be glad we have such brilliant mature musicians like Berne leading groups of upcoming artists. Twisting but inevitable compositions, adventurous harmonic structures and a supernatural precision of execution mark these tracks. If you have any doubts about the whether or not this kind of music might be sought after as next wave after post-rock finishes fizzling out, it's indicative that the drummer for Xiu Xiu is the drummer on this album. The pinnacle of both intellect and energy fused in to one album.
Pallbearer – Sorrow And Extinction
At this point, it seems almost redundant to talk about this album, given it's perpetual placement at the top of many other year-end-lists. However, I want to use my statment to point out some of the more obtuse, but significant, threads that weave through this album. Yes, it sounds a lot like classic doom metal, but there are moments of melodic-cathartic brilliance in the compositions that have as much to Purity Ring as Electric Wizard— and there are moments of vast sonic-Americana-architecture that read more like Zelienople's late-night melancholy than any High On Fire album. It's the emotional range, spanning loss and redemption, moshing and mourning, (and one might say emotional "maturity" if that weren't a dirty word in the music world) that separates Pallbearer from their peers.
Al-Namrood — Kittab Al-Awtahn
I hate symphonic black metal. I nearly vomited because of the first track's MIDI synths on this album and shelved the album for another 6 months. Next time I listened, I skipped the first track and was met with an insane barrage of psychedelic Middle Eastern music and ferociously guttural black metal. Completely unique and brazen with curious polyrhythmic percussion and howling overdriven guitars. This is really jaw-drooping music, and doubly so that the band name means "the non-believer" and they are located in Saudi Arabia.
Oak Pantheon — From A Whisper
Another band that might fall in to the "post black metal" label if just because there isn't a great fit in any other genre, Oak Pantheon put out a fantastic short EP last year that got folks in the metal world talking. From A Whisper, far from a retread of the EP, is a massively forward-looking statement of an album. The spawning tracks that make savvy musical callbacks to themselves and other tracks. Epic guitar riffs, piano breakdowns, unsettling guttural monologues, shout-along choruses, stifling double kick drums, political content, fingerpicked acoustic guitars and more all resound together. With a heart of punk, the hands of prog rockers, their heads filled with cathartic movie soundtracks and their dark souls owned radiating black metal, this album is breathtaking. Sure there are a few indulgences and missteps, but it's one hell of a ride to listen to the whole album.
The Great Old Ones — Al Azif
If last year was the year black metal died a very public death, nothing was more disappointing than the inevitable rise of "post-black metal," which like most "post-" genres is pretty much like the original thing, but way more boring and less risky (the same with that genre tag "progressive"). However, being as wide of a net as the term is, it inevitably catches artists that don't fit in to another genre. Al Azif is one of those bands — Sporting a name from HP Lovecraft, and writing songs in the Cthulu mythos I wasn't expecting much, but these tracks are very sonically challenging and well-composed. Taking a cue from complex post-rock bands like And So I Watch You From Afar and post-metal (i.e. sludge) bands like NeurIsis and The Ocean, Al Azif fuses it all with the unsettling intensity of black metal. Arty but still extreme, this album is a brilliant meditation on alienation, inhumanity, and the horror of the unknown. Perfect music to be the soundtrack if the Mayans were right.
Willits + Sakamoto — Ancient Future
Charming is not a word that you see used much for minimal soundscape and ambient work, especially a work with an icy and crystalline bent, but the work crafted in Ancient Future by the interweaving, pausing and fading guitars and piano duet made me sigh with pleasure. This is subtle, slow-moving music perfect for contemplating the winter landscape. Many of the emotional overtones of this album remind me of the more pastoral moments in Miyazaki films. Charming without sacrificing it's sense of contemplating alone-ness.
Aksumite — Prideless Lions
I'll be up-front: I ganked this wholesale from Lars's NPR best metal list. I had never heard of the band or their label, but I managed to get a copy a few weeks before 2012 ended and I have listened to it a dozen times already. Reimagining the black metal / punk hybrid through the idiom of live 2" tape recordings and overwhelming walls of analog distortion, this two piece band will have you moshing (note: my first version had this autocorrected to "noshing") and pumping your fist in your bedroom every time you play it. Ferocious performances across the board make this blend of early black metal's rawness and hardcore punk's energy sound as massively potent as Venom must have sounded in their heyday without any hint of being "retro." "Instant classic" gets thrown around by lazy writers, but this 25 minute long album has that particular quality of inevitability which makes that term relevant.
Ikue Mori, Evan Parker, Bill Laswell, Mark Naeseef — Near Nadir
This album came out in December last year, but after most 2011 lists had been released so I'm including it here. This is the most tripped-out, sonically challenging jazz album I've heard in ages. Jittering electronics, saxophone screeches, walls of God-knows-what-pots-and-pans-percussion and eerie guitar drones weave through a twisting hyperspace of improvisation. Legitimately challenging in the intricate interplays happening at a break-neck pace , these pieces have a vibe of a deep space in a shattered far future — this is the soundtrack of the wreckage of fleets of warships to drift through the void for eternity, haunted only by the ghosts of their computers and the unheard howl of the solar wind racing through their punctured hulls.
Dodecahedron — Dodecahedron
From the initial skronky dissonant "riff" that opens the album, this album sets it's own anxious, inhuman corse through the shadow realms of blackened death metal. Spitting in the face of the low-end heavy djent explosion, the instrumentation of Dodecahedron has an emphasis on a razor thinness that reminds me of the notorious sonic aggression of the "treble attack" bands like Heroin, Cromtech and Arab On Radar. Angular is an adjective often used to describe music with obtuse guitar runs and curious drumming, but here the music tends toward a bleakness that is more like the outlines of shards of a fractured mirror than any prog-rock wanking. I'd highly recommend this album to any Dillenger Escape Plan, Converge or Car Bomb fans who are searching for something even more frighteningly chaotic.
Slugabed — Time Team
This is a trippy, silly but still banging electronic album filled with glitch cuts, fractured samples and oblique melodies. What separates Time Team it from the rest of the pack of post-IDM is that it has a wry sense of humor that stems from a deep macro-understanding of the interconnected sonic ecology of electric music's notoriously myopic genres. A single song might have asymmetrical funky drums, hyper-synthy kick hits, disco-y samples, some warped 8-bit meandering chimes, occasional spurts of distorted dub step bass that might immediately fades in to an electropop breakdowns then go off into the most shimmering complexity like late 90's IDM then dropping in to a post-downtempo tribal who chambers. Even if all that rambling doesn't mean anything to you, you'll still probably like it, since similar to Mount Kimbie or Burial, the handicraft of the music production process sits fairly far forward giving the whole swirling mess an improvised and organic feeling. Some serious ear candy.
Gigan — Quasi-Hallucinogenic Landscapes
Psychedelic + death-metal + hardcore = ???? This album continues my fixation this year on "weird." Swirling guitars punctuated by death metal growls, skittering guitar runs overlapping reverb-drenched synths all jammed in to massively sprawling break-neck song structures. This is at once the most intense but also most grin-inducing death metal album I heard this year. Sure to be polarizing, and more than a bit self-indulgent, Gigan's newest album ups the ante event further into the sheer-craze zone that was hinted at in their first release. This is an extremely unique, idiosyncratic rec-onception of death metal. Like the Dodecahedron album, "Quasi-Halluciongenic Landscapes" album will probably be more interesting to Dillenger Escape Plan fans than fans of Kreator. It's certainly way more interesting than the disappointing Car Bomb album from this year.
Janel and Anthony - Where Is Home
I had the opportunity to hear guitarist Anthony Pirog play in DC earlier in the year, but wasn't sure what to expect from the duo album he did with his equally talented wife, violist Janel Leppin. Both known for creating wide sonic palates with their respective instruments, the album wanders and unfolds to fully utilize their many modes of playing and composing. Some tracks are relatively straight forward romps through place-music, such as "Big Sur," while others, like "Where Will We Go" veer deep into sonic experimentation filled with electronic manipulations. All of the tracks are built in such a way that they feel lively and intimate even as they open up to reveal cinematic their impressions. Their humble use of space and sparse melody disguises deeply adventurous structures and improvisational phrasings which reward repeated listens.
Wildernessking - The Writing Of Gods In Sand
Clean, defined and mixed to sound like humans are actually playing the instruments this is an album that seems a bit unassuming on the first listen. But I came to love the combination that resulted from the direct-sounding recording and the winding structures of modern black metal on The Writing Of Gods In Sand. This is very modern sounding music that knows how to restrain itself from the mythopoetic and operatic tendencies of so much modern black metal. The sound of the instruments here is more akin to a live recording of a post-rock band than most metal. But what it lacks in flashiness it cashes in to reclaim metal's ability to act in an artistically directly way (which is where the punk influence really shines) in the modern world that is so obscured in the 2012 rise of "occult" and "retro" bullshit.
Bérangère Maximin - No One Is An Island
Pure, unapologetic bedroom experimental music. Arty and obtuse as hell, but it still has a sense of hazy coolness that makes it kin with some of My Bloody Valentine's more abstract recordings. These tracks all have a sense of nostalgia that is counter-balanced by a keen awareness of the wear and tear of the modern world. Sound-as-architecture conceptualism combines with direct use of instruments to comment on the poetics of internal spaces in such a way that the music is always intimate and inviting. It's strange to call an album of sound art "observed" but the hints of melodies and emotional resonance of the warm synth sounds and spoken phrases seem nearly diaristic. This album is a collection of almost unbearably rich, complex explorations of the ways that music constructs itself to interact with our emotions.
So that's the official list — There were a myriad of other amazing albums that I'm sure I missed, so I'd love to know what albums you were digging on this year!
I know it's a bit niche, but I'd also like to mention a few of my favorite vinyl re-releases this year since it's always nice to be able to snag a few of those rare records that have been long out of press. Blood Music deserves a special mention for their dedication to finding and releasing hidden gems of metal history, especially Elvenfris, which is one of the most unique death metal albums ever released.
Sutekh Hexen — Larvae
Agalloch — Faustian Echoes EP
Gojira — Le Infant Sauvage
Cloud Nothings — Attack On Memory
No Youth — Wreck And Reference
Anla Courtis, Okkyung Lee, C.Spencer Yeh, Jon Wesseltoft - Cold/Burn