Heavy Metal Rundown: Best of 2016

2016-metal-rundown

Every few years I hear talk that there is a revival of traditional heavy metal. This cycle of going in and out of fashion has churned it’s gears since it became a genre that more bands than just Judas Priest self-identified as a heavy metal band 40 years ago. I’ve been guilty of using unwieldy terms such as the NOWOTHM (New Old Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal) or NRWOTHM. And to hell with calling to “trve metal,” that’s just fascist. I appreciate many varieties and subgenres. This is just what I enjoy seeing performed live and listening to the most often, and I think it’s okay now just to call it heavy metal.  There’s no point to call it a revival or wave when it never went away. Yes, metal had been spliced into dozens of subgenres by the late 80s, adding to the early variations like NWOBHM, doom and power metal. But every year there’s always at least a handful of very good to great heavy metal albums. This year was no exception, although for a while it was unclear if 2016 could come up with something to rival last year’s epic Magic Circle and Christian Mistress albums, until the second Khemmis album was released.

That it topped the Decibel year-end list is encouraging, but at the moment, attention is drawn toward the elephant in the room, or perhaps the dinosaur squashing the house — Metallica. It’s amusing to read the reactions to the band’s eleventh album. To a vast number of mainstream listeners, Metallica might be the only metal band they still listen to, while hardcore metal fans dismiss it as garbage. Both extremes are wrong. It’s a very good album, and I’ll get to it soon. But there’s a bunch of albums that deserve attention first.

1. Khemmis – Hunted (20 Buck Spin)

Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin, 2016)

Only a year ago, this Denver doom metal band came out with their promising debut, Absolution. Now with their second album they’ve ascended from an underground traditional heavy metal band to one of the best bands of any of metal’s infinite subgenres. It’s refreshing to see a band not participating in the extremity wars get some attention. While both Zach and Ben have experience playing death and black metal, they bonded over their love of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy, and worked to create their own signature rock ‘n’ doom sound.

“The first time it really started to click in that way was when we were writing “Antediluvian.” We got to that middle section, and were just calling it the Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, this rules. So by the time we were writing “Ash, Cinder, Smoke”, it was all Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, yeah, always this!” — Ben Hutcherson, Metal Sucks

With Phil (Criminology) and Ben (Cultural Sociology) working on their Ph.D.s, Zach a head brewer and Dan an engineer who builds bridges, Khemmis are unable to be road warriors. Which makes their January stop at Reggies in Chicago in January all the more a special event. | Full Review


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Wolf People – Ruins (Jagjaguwar)

Wolf People - Ruins (Jagjaguwar, 2016)Those who consider Wolf People as following the British folk tradition only have a fraction of the picture. Perhaps it’s the nature imagery and themes that make them out to be folky hippies frolicking in the woods. But to be fair, on Ruins there is no frolicking, because there are no people. It’s more of a post-apocalyptic, post-human landscape where life goes on but some living things, but not all. What once might be considered exceptionally grim can all too easily be considered inevitable now.

Growing up in Bedfordshire playing in bands during the Britpop era, Jack Sharp and Tom Watt sought to do something different by crate digging to assemble beats for a potential path in hip-hop production. They ended up enamored with the obscure British blues, folk, psych and proto-metal records they found, and began the path that lead to Wolf People. There are still moments throughout their third album where Watt’s drums sound like sampled hip-hop beats, such as on “Kingfisher Reprise” and at the end of “Belong.” The product of their explorations is a deep and wide variety of inspirations. Along with Pentangle and Fairport Convention, there’s a bit of Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac, Captain Beefheart, Comus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, Trees, Dark, Affinity, Black Sabbath, Scottish Sabbath-era proto-metal peers Iron Claw, and The Groundhogs, and band with a remarkable trajectory that started as one of the premier British blues bands in 1963 and ended up creating some radical hybrids of psych prog and proto-metal.  Add in the post-psychedelic dual lead guitars of Television and contemporaries Dungen, you begin to get a better understanding of the three Wolf People albums, plus the scrappy compilation of early demos in Tidings. The dark, murky atmosphere also brings to mind my favorite R.E.M. album Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985), which was produced by Fairport’s Joe Boyd. They share some influences with fellow British psych proggers Syd Arthur, who are the main competition with Wolf People for my album of the year. But while Syd Arthur’s music has become lighter and more tuneful, Wolf People have gotten heavier with sharp corners and gnarled roots. They have moved from folk to a harder rocking sound.

The band also wears their literary influences on their sleeves to the point where they recruited novelist Ben Myers, who’s third novel Pig Iron (2012) was an inspiration during the making of of Ruins, to write the band’s press release bio. In Myers’ folky crime-noir, the English countryside, moors, dales and bogs plays an important role, as it does in 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man and Iain Banks’ dread and violence in The Wasp Factory (1984). I’ll be reading Myers’ new book Turning Blue, which looks like it will also mix well with Ruins, if you’re able to tune out the lyrics while reading like I do. But while lyrics are often a weak point for many bands, because let’s face it, no one besides Dylan (and possibly Leonard Cohen) will ever be up for any literary prizes ever again, Wolf People are at least a step above most their peers. The album opens with “Ninth Night,” which quotes from ancient folklore an incantation used by thieves seeking magical protection from the pickled hand of a hanged man installed with a candle made from human fat — “Oh Hand of Glory shed thy light, direct us to our spoils tonight.” Despite it’s release as a single on Halloween, “Night Witch” is not a spooky horror pastiche, but rather a powerful tale about the Nachthexen, the female Soviet aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment who terrorized the Nazis in WW II. The Germans nicknamed them the “Night Witches” because their  Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes would glide in idling toward the bomb release point, with only the sound of wind to give them away, sounding like broomsticks.

“Rhine Sagas,” “Thistles,” and “Kingfisher” are breathtaking evocations of nature’s vengeance, the music finely honed into an eerie, earthy, dark psychedelia that unifies brittle dueling guitars, synths, flutes and funky drums into a unique, modern signature sound that comedian Stewart Lee affectionately called “peat bog superfuzz sphagnum moss sludge.” Like Steeple (2010) and Fain (2013), Ruins is not easily digested in the first sitting. It’s like getting lost in the woods and overwhelmed by all the strange noises in the dark. It’s unsettling, but rewards repeated listenings by gradually unlocking its mysterious gifts, drawing us into a strange world that may be grim, but also alluring. Fans of Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things and the various Nordic Noir TV series would argue that the entertainment form of Television is an all-time artistic peak. Wolf People is about as close as you’re going to get to the musical equivalent in 2016.


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Asteroid – III (Fuzzorama)

Asteroid - III (Fuzzorama, 2016)I’m surprised to find an album that actually takes the edge off Graveyard’s recent breakup for me. Not to say that these Swedish bands are interchangeable, though there is some similarity in “Them Calling” and some of their bluesy moments. If anything, Asteroid influenced the younger band, having formed in 2003 at the tail end of the initial fertile stoner wave in Sweden that included Blind Dog, Numbah Ten, Dozer, Lowrider, Terra Firma, Truckfighters and Mammoth Volume.

The band has used their time wisely since their highly regarded second album II (2010), honing their musicianship and taking their time to create some rich textures. You can just about hear Johannes Nilsson’s fingers on the bass strings in the moody opener to “Pale Moon.” Like All Them Witches, they revel in the natural sounds of their instruments, letting the bass and drum (with new drummer immi Kohlscheen) interplay flow with a virtuosic groove that has more in common with the most accomplished classic rock than scruffy underground fuzz heads. They sparingly unleash the fuzz effects, such as at the end of “Pale Moon,” and most notably on “Wolf & Snake,” giving me a fond flashback to Sungrazer.

Robin Hirse’s vocals have also matured nicely beyond his initial influences from John Garcia and the late Layne Staley have into his own style. This is also the band’s most consistent, keeping the songwriting quality high on all seven tracks. “Til’ Dawn” begins with the kind of jangly western sound that Troubled Horse does so well with before turning up the juice. “Silver & Gold” is the most instrumentally spare, with an eerie noir vibe. The album ends with a bang with “Mr. Strange,” chock full of changes from guitar harmonies to space jams and “whoa whoa” vocals. III should seal Asteroid’s spot in the top tier of heavy rock bands not just in Sweden, but the world.

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Halloween Nasties

halloween-nasties-2016

I need to give the most wonderful time of the year and the best holiday a nod today. Whether it’s fond childhood memories of favorite trick-or-treat costumes, gorging on candy, creating construction paper monsters, jack-o-lanterns, haunted houses, or having the bejeezus scared out of you by the Exorcist or Salem’s Lot to the point where you develop new phobias, Halloween is a hell of a lot of fun. Here’s a few new things worth mentioning.

The Exorcist (Fox, 2016)The Exorcist (2016 TV Series, Fox)

Oddly there wasn’t a new episode this week, but it’s a great chance to catch up on the first five episodes. I was skeptical that they could pull off a horror series based on the classic movie, and I could not get into The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. iZombie, based on the comic, was disappointing, but the first season of the French zombie series The Returned was okay, though I have not yet been motivated to watch the second season. So far The Exorcist is more than okay, with a strong cast, including Geena Davis, Alan Ruck (remember him from Ferris Bueller), Alfonso Herrera as Father Tomas and Ben Daniels as the badass gun-toting but haunted Father Marcus. There’s even a nice tie-in with the original movie. Given it’s a series, the terrifying bits have to be spread out amidst the story and drama, but it’s well done so far. Taking place in Chicago, it puts forth a most interesting theory as to the cause of the increased violence and shootings. Definitely worth checking out. Continue reading

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Madder Mortem – Red In Tooth And Claw (Dark Essence/Karisma)

Madder Mortem - Red In Tooth And Claw (Karisma, 2016)Seven years since their last album, many might understandably mistake Madder Mortem for a new band. An extremely accomplished one for sure, that started 23 years ago in Norway, toiling under the radar initially as Mystery Tribe. By their debut as Madder Mortem, Mercury (1999), they had worked out their signature style of avant prog and doom metal (plus extra witchy goth), anchored by the powerful voice of Agnete M. Kirkevaag. Their unique sound may not have helped their popularity, as they were too raw to appeal to most prog fans, too weird to connect with fans of commercial giants like Evanescence, and too diverse for meat and potatoes doom metalheads.

However, a lot has changed since their fifth album Eight Ways (2009) was released. A bunch of bands have picked up on elements that Madder Mortem has pioneered and run with it, perhaps not to huge record sales, but at least to consistently sold out clubs and a growing number of festivals in Europe. Bands like (the now defunct) Devil’s Blood, Jex Thoth, Blood Ceremony, Jess & The Ancient Ones and Purson are hardly copyists — they all had unique psych noir-leaning takes on the prog, proto-metal and doom — but listening to Red In Tooth And Claw reminded me how indebted some of them are to Madder Mortem. Continue reading

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Khemmis – Hunted (20 Buck Spin)

Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin, 2016)“It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow…”
— Snorri Sturluson, Völuspá, The Poetic Edda, ca. 1220

If someone were to give the Norse Ragnarök saga a Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, Fire And Ice) treatment, Khemmis would definitely need to be on the soundtrack. Their music is properly epic, spinning colorful imagery not far off from their fabulous album art. The Denver band’s debut just last year, Absolution, established their credentials as top notch doom scholars, paying tribute to the mighty Sabbath, Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, along with Sleep and early High On Fire. On their second album Hunted they nailed that sweet spot between heaviness (with a bit less reliance on thick stoner grooves), and accessible, memorable tunes that reflect rock and roll influence like Thin Lizzy and early Iron Maiden. Continue reading

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Syd Arthur – Apricity (Harvest/Communion)

Syd Arthur - Apricity (Harvest/Communion, 2016)Syd Arthur are a psych prog band from Canterbury, England. Given their name, one might assume the band partake in complicated, extended prog jams with inscrutable lyrics along the lines of perhaps Gong and Caravan. Despite what it’s title seems to indicate, even their first album On And On (2012), has an average song length of just over three minutes. Brothers Liam, Joel and Josh Magill and multi-instrumentalist Raven Bush (yes his auntie is THE Kate Bush) came from a background of forest party raves. They are equally comfortable with technology, bucolic elemental mysticism, otherworldly musicianship, jazz inspired improvisation and disciplined songwriting. This is all evident in sharp focus on their third album, Apricity, an archaic word which means the feel of the warm sun on your skin in the winter that sparks a yearning for Aprilness, the early days of spring. Yearning for warmer days, a better past or future, is an ongoing theme, from the first album’s “Ode To The Summer” to “Garden Of Time” on Sound Mirror (2014) to “Sun Rays” and “Apricity.” Their music has a dreamy, wistful quality that took a while to take hold, but once it got under my skin with Sound Mirror, it was stuck there, and I’ve been craving more ever since. Apricity doesn’t disappoint. Continue reading

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2017 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Nominees

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees - My Ballot

Like most people I like to rant a bit about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. However I wouldn’t go so far as to say the whole thing is jacked or irrelevant. Every year there’s usually a good number of artists nominated to choose from, even if there’s always at least one dubious choice (ahem, Chicago).  But Cheap Trick, Deep Purple and N.W.A. were fine choices. Now artists who’s recording debut was 1991 are eligible. The number of questionable choices that could be nominated just increased exponentially, especially in the context of the dozens of overlooked 70s artists who are far more deserving before we start considering bands like Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction.

Well, the nominees were announced this morning and those two bands are indeed on the ballot. But there’s also some really important ones nominated, like MC5, Kraftwerk, The Zombies and Bad Brains. Yes were nominated last year and didn’t get voted in, and they’ll get my vote too. Their first couple albums features some really interesting psych prog, and even their less celebrated Going For The One (1977) is pretty awesome.

Vote for your top 5 here.

I feel like nothing needs to be said to justify the massive influence and importance of MC5, Kraftwerk and Bad Brains. They all were groundbreaking pioneers, mixing free jazz with high energy rock and proto-punk, creating the template of electro and synth pop and techno, and hardcore punk mixed with reggae.

I’m tempted to vote for ELO out of nostalgia, but The Zombies definitely deserve it more (though I’d pick The Pretty Things over them). I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone voting for Chaka Khan, Chic, Joe Tex, Steppenwolf, The Cars or Tupac Shakur, but these are my picks. The only major WTF on this year’s ballot is Journey. I’m not a fan of J. Geils Band either but eh. Compared to the artists below, they’re pretty weak sauce.

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, Judas Priest, The Pretty Things, Big Star, Buzzcocks, The Damned, XTC, The Jam, Television, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Soft Machine & Robert Wyatt, T.Rex, Wire, Gang Of Four, Thin Lizzy, Nick Drake, Scorpions, King Crimson, UFO, New York Dolls, Motörhead, The Stranglers, X, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minutemen, Public Image Ltd., The Specials, Madness, Devo, Iron Maiden! Can, Neu!, Pere Ubu, Hawkwind, Suicide, Chrome, Wishbone Ash, Flower Travellin’ Band, Family, The Groundhogs, Pink Fairies, The Saints, Stray, Amon Düül II, Magazine, This Heat, The Raincoats, The Feelies, The Slits, Radio Birdman, Killing Joke, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Harmonia, Guru Guru, Gong, Magma, Heldon, Van Der Graaf Generator, Khan, Captain Beyond, Caravan,T2, Comus, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Uriah Heep, Atomic Rooster, November, Speed, Glue & Shinki , Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Hall of Fame Explorer

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Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation – Mirage (Rocket)

Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation - Mirage (Rocket, 2016)Last year’s debut from Swedish kosmische psych group Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, Horse Dance, was a pleasant surprise, despite the fact that there’s already more than a handful of artists exploring this sound, including labelmates Les Big Byrd, Moon Duo, Minami Deutsch, Föllakzoid, Sundays & Cybele, Flavor Crystals, Eat Lights Become Lights, Camera, Papir, Electric Orange, Sungod, Fujiya & Miyagi, Peaking Lights and Cave among others. Anyone who thinks the psych scene is staid has their head far up their ass. Listen to all these bands on random in a playlist, and they sparkle and glow like neon sugary treats, representing a scintillating array of flavors and textures. Those lucky enough to be at fests like Roskilde Festival and Eindhoven Psych Lab got a sneak preview of the band, but word caught fairly quickly, as the album snuck onto a few year-end lists. Continue reading

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Bent, Melted & Rusted Metal: Anciients, 40 Watt Sun, The Well

Over a decade after metal’s resurgence, it seems to be stronger than ever, thanks to loyal followers of it’s many diverse mutations, resisting the patterns of other popular music to fall out of fashion. Sure, metal continues to ebb and flow in and out of favor of the mainstream in its nearly 50 year history, and certain subgenres sell better than others. For the kind of bands I follow, it’s a good sign when just a single day sees the release of several heavy albums worth hearing.

Anciients – Voice Of The Void (Season Of Mist)

Anciients - Voice Of The Void (Season Of Mist, 2016)On the Vancouver-based band’s promising debut, Heart Of Oak (2013), it was fairly easy to spot influences such as early Mastodon, Baroness, High On Fire and mid-period Opeth. Paying homage to some of my favorite metal bands certainly grabbed my attention, and for a debut, still had just enough of their own signature prog sludge sound. While all three of those bands have drifted away from their harder edged metal roots in recent years, Anciients have actually gotten heavier on their second album, a somewhat rare event. The band’s core inspirations remain the same, but they have made progress in bending the bars to form their own niche. The diversity of their styles are often packed within a single song, such as the changes in “Buried In Sand,” including a ferocious instrumental and vocal roar, switching off with clean vocals and an atmospheric psychedelic interlude and tricky prog time signatures. It’s no surprise that it’s also the longest track at 10:46. With two other tracks at nearly ten minutes, the album stretches out to well over an hour and six minutes, but does a good job in holding my interest with plenty of great riffs such as on “Pentacle,” and progged out solos worth of Tool on “Ibex Eye.” “Worshipper” gets nasty and sludgy, and “Serpents” has a subdued doomy atmosphere. The album closes with “Incantations,” peaking with another impressive burst of energy and riffage. When any variation of style can be compared to many of the thousands of bands out there, it’s hard to expect any band to always blaze new trails. Anciients offer a fresh updated bent on styles that many miss in their favorite bands.

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