Music in 2014

What a great year it has been for music. Last year it was tricky to find ten records to stand apart and highlight but this year, there’s an amazing smorgasbord of melodic and not so melodic delights. Oddly enough, running a weekly radio show has actually made it easier to pinpoint those records that have stood out over the course of the year. By having to listen to and research so much more to prepare a play list each week, the cream floats more easily to the top of the milk so to speak. So then, here are my highlights of the year.

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10

Angels and Devils Cover Soused Cover

The Bug : Angels & Devils | Scott Walker & Sunn0))) : Soused

There’s nothing I can do but start by mentioning two albums which will not leave my head. They are bold, startling and quite a pair.

Soused is pure theatre. Drone masters Sunn0))) scale back their enveloping wall of noise to allow additional ornamentation and produce a sparse but compelling stage at the behest of mastermind Scott Walker upon which he then reads, cajoles, screams, sings, and, most importantly, performs.

The Bug’s Angels and Devils takes the opposite approach with his beats and basslines enveloping his large roster of collaborators in ways sympathetic to the performance but remaining undeniably his music. Flowdan, Death Grips & Manga’s in-your-face emceeing is pushed to the limit while Liz Harris and Inga Copeland become yet more ethereal in the mix.

Maximum volume results in maximum results reads the text on Soused. The same must be said for Angels and Devils. Collaboration guys?

9

Tincian Cover

9Bach : Tincian

The fragile song has been dished up in many forms this year. Tune-Yards served Nikki Nack with their own brand of eccentricity and cosmopolitan left-turn to much acclaim, while Marissa Nadler took Lana Del Ray’s template for dark aloofness and honed to a finer point with July. Kishi Bashi adorned his warm wistful vocals with flighty and whimsical violin for a summer’s morning, day and evening, while The Barr Brothers took all the tropes of classic acoustic folk and sprinkled it lightly with electronica and reverb. All of them excellent.

But this year, its 9Bach’s sophomore album Tincian that takes top marks. That it is sung in Welsh is irrelevant. Each song is heartfelt; its intent clear as a bell. Lisa Jen’s voice is front and center, strong and attention seeking, Beth Gibbons with fewer cigarettes. Behind her, each arrangement is delicate and often sparse. Sometimes it verges into Portishead territory, sometimes it seeks core Welsh traditions - a Welsh male voice choir appears on Ffarwel - but ultimately it’s very much its own unique sound and for that 9Bach is lauded.

8

The Golden Grass Cover

The Golden Grass : The Golden Grass

The Golden Grass are a from who somehow have concocted the finest piece of seventies throwback rock of the year. A slice of Easy Rider & Steppenwolf with a soupçon of The Who. Even in a year with quality releases from Royal Blood, The Vintage Caravan, Killer Be Killed and Mastodon, this is the one to seek out.

7

Meshes of Voice Cover

Jenny Hval & Susanna : Meshes of Voice

Fragile, haunting, coruscating, pure. That’s how they all start, their sopranos entwined like the colours on a barber’s pole. And then they diverge into hope, desperation, confusion and death. God it’s pretty. Unlike the cover.

6

Ascending The Solar Throne Cover

Empire Auriga : Ascending The Solar Throne

Last year, Deafheaven’s Sunbather courted controversy of a sort because they dared to play walls of black noise in a major key. Frankly a storm in a teacup. The interest in doom drone is in how it can be subverted within its defined boundaries, be that by playing in a major key, adding Celtic \ folk \ unrelated genre influences to it (see now sadly defunct Altar of Plagues for reference), or in the case of Empire Auriga’s album taking it to the stars. It’s not as overtly an alien piece as Mica Levi’s soundtrack to Under The Skin is though; more a sci-fi novel of colonization in deep space.

5

A Treatise on Resurrection and the Afterlife Cover

Bog Oak : A Treatise on Resurrection and the Afterlife

Recent months have seen a trio of début EPs make their mark, three short bursts of three takes on classic black metal. Spider Kitten present their fun take on Viking stories in their downtime from the main musical projects, while Amelie Brunn’s one woman project Myrkur presents some interesting possibilities crossing pure soprano \ girl choir sensibilities with more traditional sounding Scandinavian fare. However, it’s Californian trio Bog Oak and their A Treatise on Resurrection and the Afterlife EP which I have to highlight. A hint of Stoner arrangement, singer Julie Seymour adjusting the level of wretchedness in her vocals as appropriate, there’s just something very right with these four tracks.

4

A U R O R A Cover

Ben Frost : A U R O R A

A few years ago I watched the Abel Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant. In it Harvey Keitel plays a corrupt cop sinking ever lower into depravity, one low leading to another in a spiral of self-disgust. There is no redemption, just an express trip through seven levels of mental hell. A U R O R A to me is the soundtrack to that mental journey - metallic, seething, broiling, the only way out is death.

3

Time Cover

Anthony Joseph : Time

I wish there was a second disc for this album which consisted purely of the instrumental parts which co-collaborator Meshell Ndegeocello has created for this album. On their own, they are wonderful. With Anthony Joseph’s warm open voice phrasing his poetry, timely, cutting, biting, story-telling, seemingly passing down an aural tradition from one generation to the next, Time is just sublime.

2

The Wreckage of Stars Cover

Black Crown Initiate : The Wreckage of Stars

Across the naughties, both Opeth and Mastodon have been high watermarks in the loosely defined Prog Metal genre. Mikael Akerfeldt’s group steadily morphed from a run of the mill black metal band in their first three albums into a powerhouse of epics with contrasting light and dark passages, clean and guttural vocals, beautiful melodies and brutal drums. The boys from Atlanta meanwhile produced three seminal concept albums with an equal mix and match of styles. Now they’ve gone their own way, Opeth to a lighter, more classical prog rock and Mastodon to a more conventional hard rock format, and there’s a gap. Pennsylvania-based quintet Black Crown Initiate have presented with their début album The Wreckage of Stars the first real claim to that gap as successors to two amazing bands.

1

The Joy of Motion Cover

Animals As Leaders : The Joy Of Motion

It was lovely to see a plethora of great instrumental albums released of the course of the year (and to discover many others that had been released last year too) and see them get recognition. Alison Balsom’s trumpet is soulful and vital in her homage to the classical works inspired by the French capital Paris, and Bill Frisell’s jazz arrangements of 60s surf and space pop tunes for his Guitar in the Space Age retain their awe and wonder at the possibilities of space travel and surfer dudes that created them. They just come with a twist of Bill’s own sparse playing as well. Lindsey Stirling meanwhile continued to prove the rule that Saturday night talent shows can unearth actual talent with several collaborations and her own album Shatter Me, a fusion of her violin, dubstep, and pop. Sounds odd, works brilliantly, even for four year olds. And then there seems to be a continuing rise in instrumental guitar albums which means that we’re not waiting with baited breath the new Joe Satriani or Steve Vai album any more. The phase of omnipresent shredding in the late eighties rightly blew itself out in its excitement and fretboard wizardry but that’s not to say that highly proficient guitar players ceased to exist. This year Alek Darson’s Panopticon and Polyphia’s Muse were highly impressive with the latter’s Champagne an insanely infectious and upbeat treat. However....

My favourite album of the year by quite some distance is Animals As Leaders’ album The Joy Of Motion. It has been such a good year for instrumental albums perhaps its appropriate that this is my favourite. The first album was more a demo for lead guitarist Tosin Abasi while the second saw AAL expand to a trio and learn how to write material as a band. With Matt Garstka installed as new drummer before writing began, this album has all the trademarks of a band that really works as one blending ideas & not being tied down by a lack of technique or pre-set boundaries. The shyness at the disco feel that covered second album Weightless has gone completely. In its place is an album of 12 genre-bending songs with nary a weakling to be seen. It’s disappointing to see AAL labelled as Djent, Tech-metal, or even Progressive Metal on the basis that they play 8 string guitars and drums. There are elements of that sure, but alongside Fusion, Funk, Rock, Jazz and more besides. This is a serious piece of work and if you’re even vaguely into playing a guitar, this is mandatory listening.

Tracks

And of course there are those single tracks which stand out on there own far above the clouded lands of the rest of their album…

  1. Architects : Colony Collapse
  2. Band Of Skulls : Himalayan
  3. Buried In Verona : Illuminate
  4. Butcher Babies : Magnolia Blvd
  5. Echoes : Honour Lost
  6. Crowbar : Walk With Knowledge Wisely
  7. Gil Scott-Heron : Alien (Hold on to Your Dreams)
  8. In Hearts Wake : Earthwalker
  9. Killswitch Engage : Holy Diver
  10. Marc Ford : In You
  11. Margaret Berger : Scream
  12. Monuments : Atlas
  13. Of Allies : Play Dead
  14. Paul Gilbert : Stone Pushing Uphill Man
  15. Love The Cook : Petroleum
  16. Polyphia : Champagne
  17. Prince & 3rdEyeGirl : PretzelBodyLogic
  18. Sunn 0))) & Ulver : Eternal Return
  19. Hudson Mohawke : Chimes
  20. Tycho : Awake
  21. Killer Be Killed : Wings Of Feather And Wax
  22. Red Racer : Put It Out
  23. SBTRKT : New Dorp. New York
  24. Taffy : Apple Days
  25. My Brightest Diamond : Lover Killer
  26. Collapse Under the Empire : Stairs to the Redemption
  27. The Bug vs Earth : Boa
  28. Memory9 : The Dodecahedron