The Last Roundup


This is not about the 1929 movie where Denver Dixon of Bar-D Ranch tracked down former cowhand “Mile-Away” Hardy who set fire to the ranch, rustled the cattle and kidnapped the schoolmarm. But in a way these albums are kind of errant cattle or sheep that wandered off and need to be rounded up and accounted for.

It won’t be my final word on 2015 releases, of course. Year-end lists have just started trickling out, and will soon be piling out in an avalanche. I’ll typically struggle with the temptation to listen to another 400 albums. For my sanity, sleep schedule and health, I’ll try to keep it to a more manageable 50 or so this year. We’ll see how that goes. I’ve rated about 380 albums so far, and last year’s list has more than 750. Yikes! I realize no one cares what albums I think are the 700th best of the year. But I have to sort through the so-so ones to find the gems. Continue reading

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What Last Minute Goodies Will Krampus Pull from His Black Bag?

rihanna-baronessAs the year-end best album lists start coming out the holiday season, there’s always a few artists who either transcend critical influence, or are so under the radar it doesn’t matter, and they drop an album in December with little or no notice. In the former case, Beyonce did this effectively on December 20, 2013, and ended up selling quite well as a last-minute stocking stuffer. Then she released a Platinum Edition in a re-issue the next year. Last year, after a 15 year wait, D’Angelo dropped Black Messiah, and even made some lists from those who were able to hear it before their deadlines.  On the other end of the spectrum, German psych legends Colour Haze came out of nowhere with To The Highest Gods We Know on December 23. Their hardcore following took notice in the stoner/psych blog world, but not beyond that.

mia-bordersThere’s a number of high profile artists who we know have been working on something that have not announced a release yet, including PJ Harvey, Radiohead, M.I.A., Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Metallica, No Doubt and Rihanna among many others. Will any of them surprise us with an album in December with little or no pre-release hype? With these big names, of course, the hype is out there whether they do anything to stoke the fires or not. PJ Harvey turned the creation of her album into performance art, allowing people to watch the process. Metallica likes to yap about how awesome the recording progress is going. Rihanna shared the title and cover art of Anti, but no date. Frank Ocean announced a title, Boys Don’t Cry, and July release date, but it’s new release date has not been mentioned. Kanye West has been hyping So Help Me God for over a year, but no release on the horizon yet. Will he be the one to pop? Or M.I.A., who has no release date for Matahdatah, but has released the single “Borders.” Others keep fairly silent. Continue reading

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Magic Circle – Journey Blind (20 Buck Spin)

Magic Circle - Journey (20 Buck Spin, 2015)It’s hard to believe that in just two weeks, year-end album lists will start rolling out. Anyone who covers hard rock and metal who’s working on their list now better have listened to Magic Circle’s second album, which isn’t officially out until Nov. 20th, or they will have no credibility in my book. It all comes down to a matter of taste, but Magic Circle hits that sweet spot where doom, rock ‘n’ roll and garage grit intersect. There’s a lot of bands that claim the same influences (Sabbath, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Trouble, Pagan Altar, Hour Of 13), but none that celebrate them so thoroughly and convincingly, bejeweled goblets raised to the heavens, as Magic Circle. Continue reading

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Progasms: A Progressive Rock Rundown


Prog has come a long way since the seventies, when it was blamed for being responsible for everything that was wrong with music. Since then, many punks came out of the closet as fans of progressive rock, and its influence on post-punk has become clear in hindsight. While it remained a wallflower in the 80s, there have been a good number of bands that have been proudly flying the banner since the 90s. Traffic, Genesis and Rush are now in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, with Yes and Deep Purple likely to be inducted soon. Opeth, Mastodon, Enslaved, Katatonia and Anathema are all metal bands that have released progtastic albums, most of them in fact have likely fallen deep into the prog rabbit hole never to return to their roots. For many long-running bands like Rush, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, their roots are prog, with all three releasing proggy albums in recent years. Many more have explored a more seamless fusion of metal and prog, with large devoted audiences. Continue reading

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Sunder – Sunder (Crusher/Tee Pee)

Sunder - Sunder (Crusher/Tee Pee, 2015)Early last year, French rockers The Socks released an excellent debut on Small Stone. Their hard rock mixed a touch of 70s groove and psych along the lines of Sweden’s Graveyard and Germany’s Kadavar. Just over a year later, the band, consisting of the same lineup, re-emerged with a better name, on new labels Crusher in Europe and Tee Pee in the U.S. They have also retooled their sound into more organ-heavy, 60s psychedelic rock. It seems as if it could be a regression, but it’s not. They’re more complex, progressive and engaging, thanks to a big step up in songwriting, an improvement that Crusher labelmates Vidunder and Horisont have also recently made. Julien Méret has changed his approach to singing, leaving behind garage rock yelling for more nuanced harmonies. While they already used organs as The Socks, it’s both more prominent and diverse, even using mellotron, an instrument popular with prog groups, on “Bleeding Trees.”

Their stylistic shift doesn’t mean they gave up the hard rock. Opener “Deadly Flower” is brimming with energy and drive, reminding me of some of the friskier moments from California psych rockers Wand. Méret’s guitar playing has also reached a new level. His new rhythmic confidence is particularly showcased on the scorching “Cursed Wolf,” and the virtuosic intro to “Wings Of The Sun,” partly kneeling at the altar of Hendrix, but also with a flair and tone that reminds me of one of my favorite guitarists, John Kimbrough, who I witnessed in dozens of jaw-dropping performances throughout the 90s in Walt Mink (and who also happens to be playing a rare reunion show in Minneapolis tonight). His six string adds significant fire to “Daughter Of The Snows,” “Eye Catcher” and “Bleeding Trees.” The melodic hook in the latter’s chorus surpasses anything Tame Impala has done.

The atmosphere gets smokier and heavier on “Thunder And Storm,” with ascending minor key vocals and some furious drumming by Jessy Ensenat. The darkness descends even more on “Don’t Leave It Behind,” that perfectly balances the tension between melancholy and menace that is basically crack for the part of my brain that’s rooted in my Viking ancestors’ bloodlust and remorse. Few bands have satisfied that hunger — the aforementioned Graveyard, Troubled Horse, Golden Void and now Sunder.

It’s hard to imagine being starved for any kind of music nowadays, but just ten years ago, Witchcraft was essentially the only band that satisfied my symbolic urge to drink from the skulls of my enemies (you know, with music, not literally) while lamenting lost loves. Now it seems there’s an explosion of this kind of heavy psych and hard rock, and I’m far from sick of it, especially when even a band can masterfully carve out their own little niche like Sunder, and they’re not even Scandinavian! Skål, mates!

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Who Had the Best Six Album Run?

On the next episode of Sound Opinions this Friday, they’ll discuss who had the best four album runs, “the best grand slams in pop history.” In 2015, there are no shortage of bands who now have catalogs of ten, twenty, even thirty albums. It doesn’t seem hard to think of a lot of bands who had four consecutive great albums. Unless you’re a punk fan, then you’d be kind of hard pressed, as most broke up before releasing four albums, let alone four great ones (The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, Wire, The Ruts). Those that didn’t, often have their run broken up by a dud, like The Damned with Music For Pleasure (1977).

Inevitably, classic rock becomes the default in these discussions, which could get boring. In a popular poll, no one would likely touch The Beatles, with Dylan, the Stones and perhaps Led Zeppelin fighting it out for second. Of course I can’t resist weighing in. I was born for this task, seeing as I’ve kept up a list of all my favorite albums since I was about eight! Back then, it was a no-brainer, as Electric Light Orchestra and Queen were the only bands I owned four or more of their records. The Beatles would factor in if I counted my mom’s albums. ELO is still in my top 40, but someone has managed to beat out the Beatles, as far as I’m concerned. Ozzy Osbourne, a huge Beatles fan, would probably be horrified by this assertion, but I’m not saying Black Sabbath were a better band than the Beatles. Just that they had a slightly greater consecutive run of classic albums that I continue to enjoy and listen to more, which also influenced a ton of other music that I love.

Dylan and the Stones do follow closely after Sabbath and the Beatles. How could they not? While The Clash would be a top punk choice for many, mine is The Birthday Party at #14, unless you count The Jam as punk, then them at #12. However the fifth spot is taken up by a metal band. No, not Metallica. Iron Maiden! Followed by The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Thin Lizzy. My highest ranked recent band would be the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at #13, TV On The Radio at 15 and Witchcraft at 16. Graveyard could be close, however they only just released their fourth album a couple weeks ago so it’s too soon to judge.


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Fuzz – II (In The Red)

Fuzz - II (In The Red, 2015)All hail the Fuzz. What happens when you holler as loud as you can? Unless you’re a trained opera singer, your voice distorts. It was inevitable in rock ‘n’ roll that the Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone (FZ-1) pedal and Red Rhodes fuzz box were invented in 1962, so that the guitar could simulate similar heights of emotion, passion, ecstasy and anger. So why would we want to stop? It’s not like screams and shouts will ever go out of fashion — they always have their place. And so does the fuzz. And if a band has to name themselves Fuzz to remind everyone of that, well, let’s just be glad the name was chosen by someone as talented as Ty Segall (on drums and vocals) and his childhood buds Charlie Moothart (guitar) and Chad Ubovich (bass) of the Meatbodies.

On their concise 2013 debut, the band paid homage to Blue Cheer (and their Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal), Black Sabbath (Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster), the Groundhogs and the riff. While it’s a truly collaborative group effort, Moothart and his guitar certainly gets the majority of the spotlight. II is nearly twice as long, with more of pretty much everything – volume, riffs, dynamics, and even some proggy solos. The guitar fuzz still reigns supreme, and is even further up front in the mix than before, though Segall’s voice ably cuts through the mix. His nasally whine at times sounds like what may have happened had John Lennon sang with Sabbath, especially on “Let It Live” and “Say Hello.”  While that’s arguably the entire m.o. of Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, this particular sound is pretty unique to Fuzz, though I can’t see how one wouldn’t be fans of both. I love the prog elements stacked on the psychedelia, such as the violin on the latter third of “Let It Live,” the ambitious changes in opener “Time Collapse II/The 7th Terror,” and the extended intro to “Jack The Maggot.”

The band obviously excels at full-tilt boogie rockers like “Rat Race” and “Pipe,” but with their history and pedigree, it’s to be expected, and honestly they could write those in their sleep, and probably have. Heavy psych and proto-metal are well represented styles in recent years, but they present some of the catchiest moments on the album. Yet it’s when they stretch out and explore on “Silent Sits The Dust Bowl” and “II,” when the excitement level goes up, probably because you’re not sure what will happen from one section to the next. This unpredictability keeps things fresh, and looking forward to their tour and the next album. The fuzz is well represented with this band.

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Post-Punk/Garage Noir: Protomartyr, Hand Of Dust & Kill West

Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)

Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art, 2015)Protomartyr are a difficult band to get into. You can’t just absorb them in the background, as Joe Casey’s unmelodic monotone reinforces the grey grimness of their Detroit post-punk garage noir, which threatens to blur into undefined shadows unless you focus.  Shine a light on them and the music becomes bolder where others would retreat, with Casey’s brainy but dark lyrics inspiring reviewers to break out the thesaurus to analyze and heap praise. Others have written about death and illness in Casey’s personal life with uncomfortable detail. I think the songs can tell the stories without the help of a press release. Balancing out the intense emotions and stories are moments of delicate beauty, such as the chiming lead guitar in “Pontiac 87,” and “Clandestine Time,” where Casey surprisingly clamps down on a quite lovely vocal melody. So he can sing, but chooses not to. The romance of “Ellen” would be greatly enhanced by stronger melodies. So far his approach generally meshes well with the music, but still, they remain easy to admire but difficult to love. For those who find thrills in deep despair and regret, there is much to wallow in here, along with some fine artistry to provide solace in a crumbling world.

Hand Of Dust – Like Breath Beneath A Veil (Avant!)

In Denmark, Hand Of Dust drop the subtlety and turn up the overwrought, seething vibe into overdrive. In general, this can be very entertaining, like early Birthday Party, though admittedly without the macabre humor. But rather than slip down a sinkhole of gothic bluster, they inject a potent dose of Western noir Americana, like Gun Club meets Sixteen Horsepower and Black Heart Ensemble. Case in point, “Roses In The Sawmill.” The twang, the pain! The atmosphere may only change shape slightly like smoke from dying embers from menacing to eerie, but it’s well done, charred to near perfection.

Kill West – Smoke Beach (Crang)

Down in Argentina, Kill West’s Smoke Beach suggests an affinity for the previous two bands just from the name and title. However, the post-punk content is negligible, with much more emphasis on psychedelic and shoegaze with a touch of garage noir, but not enough for it to fit in my Psych Noir piece. Their aesthetic is way too cool to be left unmentioned. Operating in a thick haze of reverb and wah-wah, an eerie fog that swallowed a beach party whole, switching to horror movie mode and getting at the true vibe of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Kill Surf City.” On “Signs,” they hit the road for some fun fun fun on the autobahn, the motorik riddim filtered through Suicide lens. With a promising EP last year, they’re just getting going, and show great promise along with similar minded psych noir bands like 10 000 Russos, Sonic Jesus, Devil Worshipper and Dead Skeletons. Ideal for a dark autumn playlist.

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Psych Prog in the Hall Of Fame


When the nominees for the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week, voting was also opened to the public. While millions of people will vote for a top 5 ballot that will only count for one vote among approximately 600 ballots, it seems that other voters pay attention, as some otherwise unlikely bands got inducted in recent years, Kiss (2014) and Rush (2013). Both bands have had their rough patches with critics, but also enjoy massively dedicated and loyal fanbases. I definitely agree that Rush are worthy, but I also love the fact that Kiss made it, as long as Alice Cooper got in first (2011). Even though 80% of their songs are turds, they add some colorful, populist fun to the Hall. I also wonder if we don’t have the single-mindedness of Eddie Trunk bitching about it through a decade of That Metal Show to thank. Perhaps he’ll gift us with Thin Lizzy or UFO next? Continue reading

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September’s Lucky 13


September was so loaded with highly anticipated releases, I couldn’t keep up with the full-length reviews. So far, half of my top 20 favorite albums of the year were released in September. I figured I should at least give a nod to the others in a top 13 rundown.

1. Christian Mistress – To Your Death (Relapse) | Full Review
2. Golden Void – Berkana (Thrill Jockey) | Full Review
3. Graveyard – Innocence & Decadence (Nuclear Blast) | Full Review

This trio of awesome rock bands all released their previous albums in 2012, where they all made Fester’s Lucky 13. The past three years were well spent, as all three have exceeded expectations and are currently hogging the top three spots of the year in my list. Christian Mistress currently has the edge (possibly because my appreciation of the album was enhanced by seeing them live a few days before it’s release?), but it won’t be final until December. Continue reading

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