Saturday, December 5, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2014

I don't always listen to albums when they're released. It's not that I don't get around to it - it's just that most times a flavor is best savored for a certain time of the year. Moons align, winds change, seasons whither - everything has it's soundtrack. In turn, sometimes that leaves a two year window for which to satisfy my sonic palette, especially when a record is released just after it's most appropriately designated epoch. So consider this a list in arrears. These are my favorite ten albums that were released in 2014:

10. Big Wreck - Ghosts

It wouldn't take much for Big Wreck to become a ridiculously annoying mainstream rock radio act, ala their Canadian country-mates Nickelback, prob. just a right place right time sort of scenario; I can only assume the career long tenure of intelligent riffs and eclectic influences taints the almost sickening catchiness of some of the melodies singer/songwriter Ian Thornley has been spinning since 1997's 10/10 In Loving Memory Of. B-dub's fourth magnum opus (and I mean that as Ghosts clocks in at an hour and ten minutes) hands that equation over in spades. Ghosts does a fantastic job of incorporating a little bit of everything they've done in their discography thus far, as well as exploring new territory - a fantastic formula for fans who have been listening since their inception (me), and were still thirsty for more after the 13 year hiatus breaker Albatross. I have a soft spot for Big Wreck; so while most may feel Ghosts is a bit uneven and hit-or-miss I blame nostalgia and a lack of similar acts in my collection for my sway.  The "heavier" songs groove in all the right places and soar in their melodic chorus', so much so that the sugar would be almost too sweet in spots if it wasn't peppered along the way with more exploratory, sometimes near-brooding journeys that remind you why you haven't seen them play on the Super Bowl Halftime show - because despite the ridiculous radio catchiness in places, Big Wreck never dial back in lengths, or experimentation just off-the-mark enough to keep them off of the radar of impatient FM drifters.

9. Down - Down IV Part 2

The second EP in the four part series that will total Down IV is the least likely of anything they've done to win over any new fans. That being said, it gathers both it's strength and it's appeal from the group's back catalogue as both this EP and the one that preceded it seem an animal all their own, yet a fitting piece in the evolving totality of the body of work; as any seasoned Down fan will testify, as is each release, but Down IV Part 2 is easily the most raw and visceral of it's bretheren. It's the sound of a band that's completely stripped itself of the bells and whistles, there is a grainy salt to it that isn't easy to rub against; especially for the close-minded Douche-lords still clinging to NOLA as a work unrivaled. This is Down weathered and beaten, showcasing the seasoned veterans they've become, and the pioneers of a sound they've evolved from since emerging as a third-generation Black Sabbath influence, plugging in and just fucking going for it - and the album does an amazing job of capturing that vibe. It's dark, groovy and as heavy as a really heavy thing. At  near 40 minutes long this feels less like an EP and more of exactly what it's supposed to be, another cog in the damn wheel of the big machine; listeners would be crumbling under the weight of both EP's as one album like Atlas if they released them more traditionally. Yet Down IV Part 2 ends it's marshy tread in a warm and hazy acoustic passage that feels like a proper closing to a first half, an intimation of clearer paths ahead, and perhaps a promise to be fulfilled in the form of the unplugged record Down has been talking about for nearly twenty years.

8. Pallbearer - Foundations Of Burden

Foundations Of Burden is a fucking mammoth of an album, this low-tuned slab of Candlemass-like doom is like a slow moving leviathan laying waste to landscapes as it slowly treads forth, and yet in places in grooves...interesting. I typically limit myself in most of the more sub-sub genres of heavy metal so as not to water down what I already enjoy, at the risk of sounding too much like a Mountain Dew commercial, I typically gravitate to the more extreme of these; which means I like my doom weepy with church bells and at 0.5 beats per minute. While Pallbearer sounds more like a direct descendant of Warning, or dare I say a great, great grandchild of Black Sabbath, it still delivers right where it's supposed to every time. 'Watcher In The Dark' makes you move when it starts to roll - whether you want to or not, the latter half of 'Foundations' ties your heartstrings to an anvil before kicking it over into a chasm, and I've never heard a better, cooler or more subtle riff transition than the 5 to 7 minute mark of the fantastic 'Worlds Apart'. Not to mention the new dimension of sound that  'Ashes' exhibits, never previously heard from Pallbearer, for to which I'd love for them to expound upon in future endeavors.

7. Gridlink - Longhena

While most modern more moderate to major label (budget) Grind bands like to power forth like a jet-fueled bulldozer through a landmine field, Gridlink harnesses their art like a swarm of carnivorous locusts swirling high above and collectively dive bombing their target audience in a high-end, flesh-lacerating assault. Gridlink had announced that Longhena would be their final effort whilst they were hashing it out - thusly making it's initial digestions upon release an almost religious experience to their rabid fan base, myself included. While both of this album's predecessors, Amber Grey and Orphan were fantastically frenzied fits of pure-Grind-blurring madness - the second showing an impressive progression from the first - the pattern continues and unfortunately ends with Longhena. Almost longer than the first two albums combined, at 23 minutes Longhena's penchant for injecting an almost uplifting foundation amongst the trademark six-string hurricane fury makes the album feel like an exhausting Grindcore epic. Sans the blueprint-defying violin heavy third track 'Thirst Watcher' (which adds incredible scope to the album rather than breaking it's momentum), Longhena's remaining 13 tracks pin you helplessly against the wall like a giant centrifuge and pulls you along for the ride. Kudos to Jon Chang for also recruiting Joey Molinaro to contribute, who's violin cover of Chang's previous band Discordance Axis' The Inalienable Dreamless was one of the coolest tributes to have ever made it's way to day.

6. Beck - Morning Phase

Sea Change was one of those albums that just came along at the right time under the right circumstances and bore itself into my spirit and left a scar. A phenomena that seems to happen a whole lot more when you're a twenty something borderline alcoholic shut-in, living alone with questionable social anxiety disorder. The only other thing I own from Beck is the Loser single because I thought the B-side 'Fume' was goddamn dope - and I may have downloaded 'Chemtrails' somewhere down the line. The point is that while I totally respect the guy's Ween-like ability to do whatever he wants I'm not a huge fan. So it was always a hard pill to swallow that Sea Change very well could have been a once in a career kind of album for him. Enter Morning Phase; a reunion of the Sea Change session musicians and an unofficial sequel to that album. Morning Phase harkens back to it's kin strongest in songs with strong and slightly morose string arrangements, 'Cycle', 'Wave' and 'Phase' could easily be placed anywhere on Sea Change's tracklist and only have made that album stronger than it already was. The other songs all bear the obvious resemblance: heavily acoustic songs with southern twinges, the subtle electronic flourishes that peppered Sea Change are not exactly glaringly absent, but noticeable to a guy who played the shit out of it. The comparison is always going to be there, I can't talk about one without the other as I consider Sea Change to be one of the best albums I own, and even the artwork of Morning Phase strikes a resemblance - so this can indeed be construed as a sequel, if not sibling. Unfortunately head to head Morning Phase is slightly more than disappointing - but mind you I only said slightly, which means it's still a damn good album. Despite the stellar songwriting on here I can't help but feel that some of the emotion feels a bit manufactured, but Morning Phase is also a more uplifting effort than it's better half - of course I'm also a very different person than I was which leads me to wonder how I would have felt about it if this was the year 2003.

5. This Will Destroy You - Another Language

This Will Destroy You's 2011 album Tunnel Blanket was the first time in the band's career that they didn't sound like they were trying to be Explosions In The Sky. The second rate formula of climactic inspirational guitar movements was abandoned for ebow heavy, keyboard laden ambience that really didn't stress itself out if it didn't go anywhere - and it was awesome, because I'm kind of really into that sort of thing if it's done right. 2014's Another Language injects that formless beauty into their previous more traditional songwriting thus creating a congealed and atmospheric record that is grandiose and cinematic in it's scope. Each track brandishing new sounds between beautifully understated melodies gives every cut it's own character and chapter place. I enjoyed Tunnel Blanket more than this record, but with Explosions In The Sky busy wasting their time collaborating on movie soundtracks there is a gap in my collection that TWDY is slowly beginning to fill with their ballsy and improved upon experimentations in sound.

4. Cloud Rat - Blind River

On Blind River, Cloud Rat dilute their dark, claustrophobic grind with desperate melodies that hint of hope beyond the glimmer of light so far away that is the surface of normalcy. That filthy feeling of raging disgust in the face of relapse and withdrawl in a home that lets in no light. It's a formula that doesn't stray far from what the band has always done, but with each effort Cloud Rat seem to be chiseling down the shapeless effigy into something more beautiful despite it's hardened and bitter mold. The strict confines of the Grindcore genre always prove a challenging channel to navigate and be original in without losing ones vision or identity or just sounding like you're trying too hard. The emotive and vitriolic purge of Blind River builds intersections and options in that channel - all the while maintaining the minimalistic simplicity of the plug-in-and-play sound.

3. Life And Times - Lost Bees

After the not-as-good-as-the-rest-of-their-records 2012 release of No One Loves You Like I Do, Life and Times return to the front waving the bright and honorable banner of new-millennial space grunge colored to the same shade as their phenomenal mini-opus (EP) The Magician. Forgive the god-awful pop-culture reference here, but Lost Bees is all about dat bass. With a tone that cuts through butter, and dialed in to the mix so goddamn perfectly, it is the groovy-as-fuck anchor that keeps the songs moving along whilst vocalist/lead guitarist Alan Epps finger dances up and down the frets and punches in and out of different effects pedals creating high-end audio explosions of colorful sonic confetti that rain down upon the core until everything occasionally locks into a rhythm. This formula serves to amplify the sonic wallop you may be expecting in a crescendo but are never prepared for (i.e. the chorus of 'Again' and 'Passion Pit') even after the first couple of listens. It's like a handjob to the ears. Ever since the perfection of the all-too-short Magician EP, I've been longing for Life and Times to do something as similar and consistently awesome; a difficult feat for an LP - but Lost Bees comes very close to that notion. Extracting the five best tracks from this album: 'Again', 'Ice Cream Eyes', 'Bored To Death', 'Passion Pit', and 'King of the Hive'; to go toe to toe with the 22 minutes of alt-rock glory that is The Magician may result in a controversial split decision in the end. Add to that the fact that Lost Bees is indeed a full LP with arguably no filler (maybe 'Eyes and Teeth') and gives us five additional tracks on top of those may be cause to tip the scale in it's favor. That's not to take anything away from the rest of their discography, as it's all very good - it's just nice to experience a selfish desire come to fruition. And truth is there is no competition here, in the end Lost Bees is just a stop at a wonderfully cohesive and rockin' oasis in the Life and Times musical journey.

2. Opeth - Pale Communion

Pale Communion is everything you'd expect from modern day Opeth, which means you're not quite sure what to expect at all other than something cleverly progressive, which includes all of the trademarks that Pale Communion nails on the mark: eclectic instrumentation, organic sound and phenomenal songwriting. Everything else is the journey that this album feels like from the first song to the last. The pensive groove of 'Moon Above Sun Below' that takes a turn for the sinister in the latter half. The playful 'Goblin', which sounds as though it was directly inspired by the (specifically Roller-era) 70's/80's Italian progressive rock ensemble of the same name that scored such classic horror films as Suspiria, Zombi and the European version of Dawn Of The Dead.  The soaking-in-rain sadness of 'Elysian Woes', the surprisingly uplifting 'River' (which sounds like it could have been on a Foo Fighters album - in a good way), and the bleak and wintery 'Faith In Others' are all valleys, mountains, and deserts to cross. I've always said that Opeth sounds like what a Death Metal band would have sounded like in the 70's had Death Metal existed in the 70's (especially 2002's spectacular Deliverance). They may have completely abandoned their Death Metal roots, but their new straight-forward progressive approach isn't something as out-of-the blue as the jean jacketed long-haired hard-ons stuck in that phase whine about (hello? Damnation?). Both Pale Communion and it's predecessor Heritage pull from that era's progressive bands as influence, most notably old Genesis and the aforementioned Goblin. This is actually the best album on this list, however - it's not my favorite - so....

1. Lantlos - Melting Sun

What is it with pink albums from bands with Black Metal roots always making my #1? Produced to the nines, volume pushed to the tens, layered, layered, layered and lush, lush, lush - Melting Sun is an atmospheric Black Metal band gone beautiful and bombastic. Towing a line somewhere between Hum, Isis (the band) and Jesu, we're presented here with six giant bejeweled movements that damn near sound like the Summer time version of Type O Negative's October Rust (in atmosphere and overall vibe specific to the season, not baritone or style - nevermind). Unafraid to develop slowly, or not develop at all - such as the droning of 'Oneironaut' and the simplicity of closer 'Golden Mind' - we're allowed to go for the ride and sonically soar with gigantically beautiful birds of prey - and by that I'm inferring to the big shiny brilliant melodies here - as they fly too close to the sun and actually evolve from it. Honestly there is nothing really new happening here, and it's all so cosmetic. Strip this fucker down to four or five instrument tracks, and give it a way more modest production value and I can't really say that it would be as impressive to me, but that's not the way it is. It still tweaks and combines those Post-Metal and Shoegaze traits enough to present the listener with something fresh and never quite heard before. Just like it's chromatically gloaming pre-twilight packaging, this album is as sweet as candy.