Sunday, January 04, 2015

Fat's best HEAVY TUNES of 2014

0. TL;DR List + Links Only

I. Meandering Introductionalizing

Looking back at the year in the light of the full list, I realize that 2014 was a musical year of...a bit of a rut, honestly. "Retrenchment" is probably the nicest word to use, but what I spent my year listening to was pretty much loud guitars and male voices and that was it.

I will have to make a point of greater variety next year.

II. The Long Version, the Real Relationships

My 2014 began much as 2013 ended—with Shooting Guns' rolling-truck rumblings, loud, heavy, and moving hard, if not fast. Almost all of what I liked best this year was what the great Erik Highter called "low-altitude space rock", the kind of music that remembers that rocket ships are just hot rods in another dimension. Which brings us to:

Solar Halos
Probably 2014's most common "just listened to this, I'll just listen to it again right now" experience. The four-song demo was outstanding, the six-song record is basically perfect, and I listened to both again and again and again. No record I listened to this year was sequenced as well as Solar Halos—the build to the final song, "Resonance", essentially eight minutes of continual pummeling explosions, or a strong crashing surf pulling you under, was unmatched and made for enormously satisfying listening.

Check out their twitter: the band was really good in January about aggregating all their reviews—numerous and rapturous—but the album now seems forgotten here at the end of the year. Which is bullshit: by a wide margin one of the best records of the year. Buy it and introduce yourself to them. Every song is great and the album as a whole is even better.

Earthless
My pal Abe the Professor recommended these guys a few times before it sunk in—but finally they popped up enough on one of my Pandora stations for me to fall completely in love with them. Very good swaggering rhythms around which spectacular guitar solos solo and solo and solo—these are side-long songs mostly with solos the entire time. Much of the year's best getting-work-done music. I like Sonic Prayer best, but Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky is, as Pete Beatty pointed out to me, also super.

Holy Mount
A late-in-the-year discovery (again from the rad-as-hell Erik Higher) this Canadian hard psych outfit scratched the hell out of my Hawkwind itch, with John Carpenter synths and long guitar odysseys that never got boring. Absolutely terrific. I listened to everything they had on Bandcamp and picked Alpic, but recent days' listenings have suggested strongly that the newer Vol might be one of 2014's finest and loveliest releases. I'll investigate further and report back.

Hawkwind!
Why so much Hawkwind? Well, three reasons. First, I've been there before. Second, they're great. Third, I saw them (or anyway a version of them) this summer with my dude Abe, and it was as good a show as I've ever seen. Old dudes trying, and succeeding, to blow the roof off the venue so that the levitating crowd can transcend. Band of my year, in that what they did was what I spent the year looking and listening for.

Jesu
Speaking of transcending, I finally discovered Jesu this year. (Thanks to David Raposa!) Very emo metallic shoegaze, or something, this Godflesh spinoff is exceptionally sensitive and powerful music for lone bodies trying for anything more. "We All Falter" is the entire album conveniently distilled into one longish track, a trek encompassing what I once saw called "tragedy ecstasy doom and so on" but with crushing guitars and beautiful textures that envelop without smothering. Sounds so loud, even when you play it quiet, that it always verges on the sublime. Always makes me a little weepy, to be honest.

MC5
This year I finally picked up a copy of Back in the USA, which is the worst-produced important album ever: you can barely hear the (nearly perfect) songs through the clock-radio-speaker production values. Basically all you can hear on this record is just snare drums, vocals, and trebly guitars, but that works well when the vocals are as piercingly wonderful as Robin Tyner's "I'm sooooooory, I'm soooooooooooooory" in "human being lawnmower". This record is hard to listen to, but easy to love. And I do love it: it's the (perfect) pop exponent of a normally noisy band's attempts to make everything okay through purely sonic means. Or, as Greil Marcus said, to:
create a young community of spirit, affection, excitement, and self-consciousness
Fuckin' A, brothers.

Comes legitimately close to working, too.

Bongripper
But you can't always be trying to create a community of spirit, affection, excitement, and self-consciousness. Sometimes you just want to get down into the king-hell bummerism that pervades: it is, after all, the 70s. That's where Bongripper comes in. Bongripper's barely relieved grim / grind / semi-sleaze works more thoroughly for me than I'm stoked about, on records like Satan Worshipping Doom, Hippie Killer, and Hate Ashbury. But the puns do suggest a tiny glimmer of humor, which lets in a little light, as do the song titles, as on Miserable, where they run "Endless", "Descent" and "Into Ruin". But nothing I've heard matches their 80-minute single-song "great barrier reefer", which matches its drug-humor title with occasional grunge chords that lighten up the proceedings a bit and keep things from just being one detuned sludge chord for an hour or so. Not that there's anything wrong with one detuned sludge chord for an hour or so: if you'd prefer that vibe, I can definitely vouch for Miserable, and it's not at all unlikely that I'll buy everything else on their Bandcamp this year.

Parliament
Oh, man, Mothership Connection. This record is so god damned good. Irrepressible. I listened to its bubbling, throbbing humanity dozens of times this year, but only ever in one circumstance: bummed the fuck out, exhausted, maybe hungover, and at my desk at work. And, every single time, it helped, at least a little. It's not hard to feel better when you're hearing unstoppable funk grooves under odes to interstellar escape. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I bet.

Captain Beyond
My pal Ian turned me onto the band, and this song-cycle album was one of the year's most versatile. From bike rides to writing to trying to crash, this one spun under it all. It was a foursquare reminder that, even sodden and miserable under an overwhelming onslaught of bummer vibes, there's still good times to be had, experiments to be made, and boundary lines to ignore the fuck out of. Whether that reminder makes you scream HANDS UP DON'T SHOOT or scatter parts of a song across an entire album side, it's a good lesson. And this is a good record!

I'm just sad that the flaccid mopes at 33 1/3 turned down his book pitch: I'd love to read what he had to say about the roiling "Raging River of Fear" and "Frozen Over", where you can hear half of the next 40 (!) years of heavy metal, or his can-actually-play-his-fucking-instrument insights into the proto-technical "Dancing Madly Backwards (on a Sea of Air") and the bullet-spraying breakdown towards the end of "I Can't Feel Nothin' (Part 1)"—to say nothing of how much I'd like to hear him come up with an explanation for the relationship between song parts, lyrics, and titles here. Why does the phrase "dancing madly backwards" appear in "Myopic Void" but not in "Dancing Madly Backwards", one wonders. Where exactly is the divide between "I Can't Feel Nothin'" and "As the Moon Speaks"? Why are there two listed two-part songs when other songs seem to share as much or more while being listed as distinct? No matter, probably: just slurp down another sugar cube and turn the fucker up and lie down and close your eyes, a person, on this planet, loved. When "Armworth" turns into "Myopic Void", going from post-Berry choked guitar chirps under pre-Priest dual lead melodies straight (in) to space, all reverb and "aaaaaaaaaah"s you smile, and you think about possibility, and you smile more. And the spoken-word pieces in "As the Moon Speaks (To the Waves of the Sea)" will work for me forever. Even if I won't listen to it in public, so nobody will catch me grooving on what could very easily be mistaken for the second-best Jethro Tull jams ever. (Note: if you ever liked that one Beta Band song in High Fidelity—I did—, you will 100% dig "Myopic Void", as it's a straight rip job.)

Side two is definitely just one long multi-part song. Fuck the haters: I know I'm right.

Dead Moon
The positive side of my year's familiarity/retrenchment is that I spent so much of my time with lifers. No lifers are purer, more committed and inspiring, or better than Fred and Toody Cole, and no band is better than Dead Moon and no songs are better than their songs.

If you can listen to "in the waiting" or "I won't be the one" and not want somebody to sing you a song that loving, or if you can listen to "diamonds in the rough" or "running out of time" and not find your entire life, hope and age and weakness and doom and resistance in there, then you can just get the fuck away from me. Probably the best American band ever.

Bad Daddies
Speaking of couples, and of lifers. One of the most important things I learned this year was that I could learn a lot from some vegan homeowners who started their band as a hobby. Because not only did Bad Daddies have a hell of a lot of interesting—even wise—things to say when I interviewed them for Negative Fun Records, they put out a couple of the year's undisputed best songs: "You Ain't Right", their Negative Fun Singles Club release will, I think, have a long life on comps, and in the bedrooms of miserable rebels: it's one of those evergreen punk songs that fits into you the first time you hear it like you've always known it but satisfies you like you've only just now stopped being incomplete. (The song is love, in other words.)

Their other big release this year, a split with Hard Left, shows a band moving—fast! "War" is a traditional Bad Daddies song: 22 seconds long, with noisy, dissonant guitar blankets over a wrestling match backbeat, Camylle's unmatched scratchy scream, and a feedback outro. It's a great song. "Festering Brine" stacks huge guitar hooks and a classic Matt solo with some of the band's most dynamic loud/soft—or maybe loud/slightly-less-loud—changes yet, and it's also a great song. And "We Never Will" is a lost New Wave hit, with Camylle's keening, poppy vocals carrying an unforgettable melody and Matt's guitar mostly cleaned up but occasionally splattering noise-magma all over the song structure: it's an absolutely thrilling song by anybody. In the context of this band's established louder/faster/shorter/noisier aesthetic, it's revolutionary. They're extending and deepening their approach farther and faster than seems possible. (The Captain Beefheart effect: there's so much noise, and it's so well-chosen and -inflicted, that everything fits.)

The core of the band is the power of no: the characteristic Bad Daddies song lyric is a negation (I don't, you ain't right, we never will). But the melodies, whether in Camylle's torn vocals or Matt's surging spatters of guitar, build something else up against that negation. The songs aren't an opposition, but a knot, made of threads of passion, negativity, beauty, the whole thing. These may seem like big claims for barely-three-minute snot-punk screeds—unless you've heard the songs, anyway.

What 2014 requires you to believe, because it's self-evidently true, is that a late-starting band of suburban teachers can make some of the year's most powerful punk records, can make vital, necessary art. That alone makes it a better year than a lot of us thought it was.

Shellac
More lifers! New Shellac! Finally I got authentic fucking information about the song titles of the songs I heard like three years ago. This record is inconsistent, but great, just like Shellac themselves, and the title song is perfect and contains one of the year's most bizarrely saddening lyrics:
some of us are tired
of where we are
in this cul-de-sac
fuck that, let's go, we can always eat along the way

Screaming Females
This New Jersey trio was by far my year's most breathtaking discovery. Guitarist / frontwoman Marissa Paternoster is probably the best guitar player on the planet—or at least the most consistently thrilling. Sylvia Juncosa's lead-like rhythm playing, Bill Carter's lunatic spasms, J. Mascis' throat-closing, heart-gripping solos. The songs are wonderful, and even the lyrics hold up. I got hooked by "leave it all up to me" off of the live record, and spent most of the year having my blood well and truly whipped by the series of tunes from "crow's nest" to "doom 84". Listen to everything Screaming Females does. Buy everything they put out. Buy them fizzy water and fruit when they come to your town and let them crash at your pad.

Mark Lanegan
I started the year listening a lot to the very-stripped-down and incredibly rad Black Pudding LP. Mostly just Lanegan's vocals with English fingerstyle acoustic guitar, this record really did it for me, especially late at night when the rains wouldn't come and the mezcaleros' work was done.

Black Pudding was particularly pleasing at the time as against the one before that, Blues Funeral, which I'd picked up in the summer of 2012. That year, I found Blues Funeral alienating and half-assed: the electronic drums seemed to be playing boring and meaningless beats, and the cold synth textures were jarring and out of place around Lanegan's unrelentingly organic vocals, lyrics, and worldview—at least that's how it felt when I bought the record. Even in February, when I made my pal a Lanegan primer, I was still even calling Blues Funeral "the only one I don't like". But after I saw his intense and excellent November set, I went back to revisit that record in the light of what I'd seen and heard.

Originally I had heard the new Phantom Radio and especially its accompanying preorder EP No Bells on Sunday as huge leaps forward for Lanegan's interest in integrating electronics. The ticking noises like devices breaking in "dry iced" worked perfectly under Lanegan's understated "I'm sorry" refrain, and the quiet little-kid-picks-out-a-melody under synth washes of "no bells on Sunday" worked like good New Order with a better singer. And my introduction to the whole thing, "sad lover", couldn't've been better fit for me: a Thin White Rope lyric over (what Mojo tells me is called) a Krautrock-style motorik beat? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP. And they did sign me up, and took my credit card number, and sent me some records. It was awesome.

Later, I revisited Blues Funeral after spending significant time with No Bells on Sunday and a little time with Phantom Radio. That time around, I found the execution great, the songs wonderful and varied, and the production immediate and engaging. I don't know what my fucking problem was: Blues Funeral, Phantom Radio and No Bells on Sunday are all great. So is Black Pudding. Lanegan rules okay.

Bonus self-promotional material: I got to interview Lanegan and he was a hell of a nice guy. Super-fun to talk to about basketball.

Charles Mingus
Every year, I make an attempt at the beginning of the year to learn about jazz. This year, I was lucky, and what I ended up with was Charles Mingus' epochal Pithecanthropus Erectus and some fantastic emails explaining it and other jazz from the great J. D. Hatings.

I didn't get much farther than this record this year, but this was one of 2014's's most revelatory and consistent pieces of work: heavy without being loud, consistent without being monotonous, and exciting without being rock. With the new year coming, I look forward to another attempt to learn about the genre.

Courtney Barnett
As 2014 slumped toward its grave, I happened to hear the song "avant gardener" on KALX and fell instantly under its spell. Apparently it's already well exposed: it's been on TV and whatnot, Pitchfork was all over it a couple years ago, etc. But it was new to me and I found it inspiring, heartening, and refreshing beyond belief, probably partly because it's so good, and partly because my year had had so much bassy guitar and howling men. After so much oppressive weight, it did me great good to hear uptempo if not upbeat bouncing songs with major lyrical variation and cool, rising melodies bubbling everywhere. Within an hour of hearing the song on the radio, I'd listened to a couple of her EPs and bought "how to carve a carrot into a rose", and it's basically been on repeat ever since. Particular favorites include "don't apply compression gently" and "history eraser". This is great shit. I really like the weird curls of Australian accent and the conversational, colloquial, witty lyrics that somehow always still fit the tune and the music. It's kind of like a likeable, charismatic, competent Craig Finn, but with a better backing band and a lot more to say.

No Other
Best song-about-work of the year, "Option C". Angry and bitterly observed, this is a song for anybody who ever had to punch a clock and keep themselves from punching a boss.

III. The Quickies

Russian Circles
Took me a while, but @jefcanuk finally wore me down and convinced me that these guys had (a lot of) (great) moments. It continually catches me off-guard that this drony, amiable outfit shares a nervous system with previous HEAVY TUNE fave-purveyors Botch. Anyway, this is instrumental metal with lots of sprinkly emo/chimey-sparkle parts, and it's extremely my shit, especially if Red Sparowes are going to continue to not exist.

Russian Circles have a ton of records. I ended up with Memorial, which is pretty good, but which passes by mostly forgettably for long stretches, until the dependably pretty/sad "Ethel" towards the end.

Run the Jewels
This one didn't do it for me quite like last year's did: the beats were slower, for one, and I didn't hear quite as many completely great long lines like El-P's "With the pull of a pin a grenade / Get a crowd to they feet and a soul to its options / I'm a fool for the win I been made" and it keeps going like that for a while. Also this record sounded like shit through my el cheapo earbuds, which is, sadly, one of my primary listening vectors. All that negativity nuance aside, the good songs here are superb, and no lyrics meant more to me in this season of Ferguson than Killer Mike's:
Where my thuggers and my cripples and my blooders and my brothers?
When you niggas gon' unite and kill the police, mothafuckas?
And take over a jail, give them COs hell
The burnin' of the sulfur, goddamn I love the smell
Now get to pillow torchin', where the fuck the warden?
And when you find him, we don't kill him, we just waterboard him
We killin' them for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom
And even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord'll sort 'em

El-P
In the aftermath of Abe selling me on Run the Jewels, he managed to hook me up with El-P's previous solo album, which spent a solid month on repeat in my ears. I loved almost all of it, but I couldn't possibly love anything more than the sad Metroid noises that closed the album. If I'd known one record could have both samples from Metroid and the line "fuck your droid noise, void boys / 'nnoyed ploy / oi oi! / I'll fuckin kick the shit outcha groin, boy / oy vey!" I would have bought this on release day.

Big Business
Kind of the flipside of the Parliament record, I turned to this one mostly when I was down and wanted to stay there: the songs on this record didn't get into me like so many of the earlier ones did, but "lonely Lyle" nailed me instantly, smiling-sad barbs that won't come out without ruining what they hit. A melancholy slow burn, perfect for a decade in full retreat. This record had plenty of other highlights, too, even if it wasn't a year-defining release like Here Come the Waterworks or Mind the Drift. "Chump Chance" had the year's most urgent vocal melody, and "Doomsday, Today!" was one of 2014's best pummelings. It's good shit: you should buy it.

The Men
It's been all downhill for these guys since 2011, but I did spent easily three weeks listening to this on heavy repeat. Odd that I can't now conjure up a note of it to memory. I suspect the problem is that they were, like the historians they are, trying to ape the MC5's triumph-over-bad-production move—because this is one incredibly badly produced album, with everything sounding like it was recorded in different circumstances—but the songs weren't world-defining. The best example is "Another Night" which was audibly shooting for Early Bruce Springsteen and instead ended up at Second-Tier Eddie Money, totally exhausted on the album. But the band did work these tunes beautifully when I saw them last: one of the year's best dance parties by a mile. So I'm chalking this up to a great band trying to pull off a degree-of-difficulty move and failing, slightly, and I'm looking forward to the next record and I'm really looking forward to the next time they come to town. Let's go see 'em!

IV. Past Loads of Fat's HEAVY TUNES OF THE YEAR

  1. 2013
  2. 2012
  3. 2011

V. Disclaimers

Relationship Disclaimers

I get paid to write catalog copy and similar stuff for Negative Fun Records, and I probably wouldn't've heard any Negative Fun bands unless I did so: that said, I paid for every note of Bad Daddies I heard this year, including a couple of shows I saw, and the dough I made writing about them had nothing to do with the esteem I hold them, and their music, in. Same goes for No Other! Except I would inevitably have heard them through the great Paul Bruno's great Unblinking Ear podcast, and on his new label's indispensable Serious Rockers mixtape.

Financial Disclaimers

I bought everything on this list, with the exception of the El-P record, which Abe gave me.

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