Zola Jesus – Conatus
There has always been something almost subliminally idol-killing about the Zola Jesus project, and it really comes into focus here. Danilova’s childhood opera aspirations are subverted into something nearly opposite. Opera singing is narrative and flows smoothly from deep within. Danilova is more allusive and tortuous. Her voice keeps getting caught in her throat, where it’s stressed and twisted by transient emotional surges. Though the theatricality and the epic-pop trappings may evoke artists like Dead Can Dance, the vocals have the passion of blues singing. Danilova is equally iconoclastic when it comes to industrial influences like Throbbing Gristle, finding ways to make abrasion as musical as possible without sacrificing tension. Her touchstones have been digested into a personal style that is much more substance than reference. Read the full review on Pitchfork
Mastodon – The Hunter
The Hunter sees Mastodon taking a much more riff-heavy approach — shorter songs, more bombast — without compromising their epic feel. A purist raised on the literary universes encompassed on the band’s last three albums (Leviathan, 2004; Blood Mountain, 2006; and Crack the Skye, 2009) could pine for the 13-minute cosmic journey, but The Hunter is just as expansive as any of Mastodon’s earlier efforts, despite the lack of Hawkwind-style noodling. Having a pop radio producer at the helm seems not to have diminished the band’s determination to push boundaries, but rather to have made that desire more concise, more focused, and somehow more powerful. The shine given to The Hunter is definitely worthy of Warner Bros. (the parent of Reprise), and a measure of rock-radio friendliness hasn’t been a barrier to metal bands in the past. Read the full review on Tiny Mix Tapes
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Describing Annie Clark’s work as St. Vincent comes down to a toss-up between cinematic and clever. Both in the studio and in her videos, Clark is captivating, expansive, and yet undemanding. She slyly earns your attention with bombastic hooks, witty turns of phrase, or by mentoring a kid who just got a merit badge for “mind sandwich” (all done together in the video for “Jesus Saves, I Spend”), and then she reels you in further. She convinces you to take another step closer to the difficult subjects she intends to work out. Many were drawn in by the title track of her debut, Marry Me, for its cute power, the smoky vocals, the pretty girl singing directly to you with stark emotion. But what sticks in the end are her clever twists (“Let’s do what Mary and Joseph did… without the kid”) and the huge scope of such a simple song. Read the full review on Consequence of Sound
This is it. The pinnacle. The heights of what rock music from whence it was birthed has reached and shall be measured. Comets On Fire‘s 2002 sophomore record, Field Records From the Sun, is the album that obliterates the bar for which high energy music is set. You can stack all the metal, punk, noise, hardcore, noise punk, grindcore, free jazz, free jazzcore, and on and on and none if it can touch the astronomically chaotic universe found within this record’s thirty-seven minutes. Nothing even comes close. It’s thirty-seven minutes of cosmic evisceration and psychedelic carnage that somehow remains wholly listenable without putting on the airs maybe found in any one of those aforementioned genres (save perhaps whatever the phrase “trippy, dude” gets you). Which is an achievement in itself. This record is built from influences that certainly front energy as a priority, if not its main priority (Hawkwind, MC5, The Stooges), but none of those have (arguably) stood the test of time, in terms of intensity, when confronted with three decades of rock and metal and everything else. And Field Recordings’ penitent for bombast isn’t really built on anything that’s come before–classical music maybe? Jazz? That simultaneously gives it way too much credit and undermines its power, found in the human impulse given to create choas. But there’s a point I’m getting at, which is Field Recordings exists completely on its own as a statement of universal creation in the form of blistering sonic destruction.
It’s very possible most of society and rock music itself, has moved on from being concerned with how heavy and raw and destructive music is and can be. Those descriptors in themselves denote anger and angst and tension and even self-indulgence relegated, once again, to genre-based music. Field Recordings never even approaches an engagement in the emotions of anger. If anything it’s celebratory, even as it destroys. But found on the record is an instant argument for the relevance of heaviness and destruction. It’s one of those records that overcomes limitations in music in order to express itself. If an artist’s objective is to create a feeling of loneliness in his or her songs, they can do so in a number of ways–stripped down melodies, minimal arrangements, softly damaged vocals, etc etc. That’s just one way. Perhaps it’s too much to assume Comets On Fire’s primary goal was to create feelings that conjure what it must have felt like when the universe was created, but this record feels like that was the primary intention. Secondary is the intention of forming a psychedelic rock band and making some killer tunes, dude. That’s a dynamic not discussed enough in music–what’s the best way to express a particular emotion prior to the arrangement. None of those genres I mentioned above are in it for anything other than rocking the genre (which is fine), but what we get with Field Recordings is an album that skips over the limitations of genres and gives us a statement that makes us forget its psychedelic rock with some Hawkwind and MC5 influences. Field Recordings is totally singular in that regard. Maybe I’m infusing it with more pretension than it actually deserves, but, regardless, it exists outside of those claims.
I first heard the album in 2007, quite a while after it was released, and I’m in no way surprised it was lost in the shuffle and dwarfed by Comets On Fire’s 2004 followup, Blue Cathedral. BC is a better record in the traditional sense. It has a more varied tone and more varied song structures. It’s not all just amps-to-11 and search-and-destroy-everything-in-our-path-all-the-time-forever. There’s some folky numbers and some more strung out jams and some tighter display of reserve. It’s certainly the record that got them some attention. It does have the sonic workouts in tracks “The Bee and The Cracking Egg” and “The Antlers of the Midnight Sun,” which does a good job matching the intensity on the previous outing. The record’s great, but it remains a psychedelic record. And after a hundred listens of each, BC feels a bit more glossed over in comparison.
So that’s a lot of talk about nebulous shit–what does Field Recordings actually do musically? Comets On Fire get a rap for piling on the guitars to the absolute breaking point, but in reality, they may get one or two overdubs in over the duel riffing of Ethan Miller and Six Organs of Admittance‘s Ben Chasny. They definitely do a lot of point breaking with what’s there, letting the fuzz grind into the earth and the feedback ring to the stratosphere in all its abrasive glory. But the record’s success is found in its miscellaneous players, its pretty intricate arrangement of the madness, and the holy-fucking-christ drumming of Utrillo Kushner.
Noel von Harmonson who is credited as “electronics” is responsible for the group’s live vocal treatment. When the Comets played live the dude stood on stage, armed with an Echoplex placed on a stool and he mangled vocalist/guitarist Ethan Miller’s voice by whipping the echo device’s tape back and forth. Sounds gimmicky, but damn, do they push it, and on the record it comes in at some pretty key moments, turning the vocals into an instrument of stuttering abrasion. He also gets mistaken as guitarist much of the time as he’s often just creating feedback and noise to linger like exploding stars all over the mix. His job really is to create texture and by doing so he adds an extra layer that pushes its way into the corners of the stereo-field, alluding to a grander more astral-bound timelessness.
I remember reading somewhere Utrillo Kushner called “two Keith Moons.” It sounds pretty good. It might be hyperbole, Moon might have packed a little more subtlety beneath the flash, but it’s not far off. Kushner’s drumming is fill-heavy enough for it to sound like he’s just wildly soloing along with the mass of monolithic noise at times, though he’s obviously driving it. He doesn’t stay in one place for long, and his chops are only trumped by his energy, which in many cases is a point of reference for the listener and their perception of the colossal freak-out.
Tim Green is the man behind the boards. He recorded and mixed Field Recordings and it’s not exaggeration to say the album’s success in the transcendent department might be owed solely to him. On first listen, the record might sound like the aural equivalent to the shear clusterfuck of a nuclear bomb detonating, but on repeated listens, the mixing and production reveals itself to be downright meticulous in its placement of every single noise squall. Green doesn’t obscure everything in reverb either, but arranges things on multiple levels of clarity, communicating the sensation (I would imagine) of listening to spacebound dogfights looping in on each other.
Then of course there’s just the song craft owed to Comets’ leader, Ethan Miller. The riffs are mountainous and they don’t linger. Hooks pop up here and there, but most of the time the band is dead set on heading, light speed, straight for the sun. Every single change in course is huge and sweeping beyond anything most rock groups can muster and it’s all guitars and all three-chord attack. The songs fall in between six and nine minutes, but as a certain punk legend once said, “we play slow songs really fast,” and the Comets pack the conception and destruction of whole worlds into each track. Opener, “Beneath The Ice Age” begins with layers of feedback wafting gently over some sporadic tribally percussion that soon gets steamrolled by the oncoming army of noise. It’s hard to even keep track of the directions and sonic destinations the song takes, but it somehow ends up with drums and guitars randomly firing canon bombasts and the whole band chanting in unison. There are only five tracks to speak of–one of which is an acoustic interlude–so it’s a pretty quick ride, all said, but it ends with a pretty satisfying climax. My original claim is exemplified two-fold in the ten-minute closer, “The Black Poodle,” which has the most diabolical riff I’ve ever heard and it hits with the force of a death-from-above apocalypse (you know–like the one that killed the dinosaurs). Not to mention the epileptic saxophone freak out and Kushner’s non stop fill rhythm. But it’s when Ethan Miller screams one long wordless note over the whole thing that it becomes something transitory.
If Comets On Fire did anything right on Field Records From the Sun, it was to find a balance in which all the other elements discussed followed. The group balance intricate and contained spontaneity with carefully crafted sonic annihilation and it creates a whole that I find hard to believe will ever be matched in intensity. Musically, it’s the success of never letting the listener not be battered by something new and bombastic. Nothing ever repeats itself in the orchestrated barrage of noise missiles. It all adds up to a dense uncomprehendingly deep whole that does what it sets out to do from go and builds into a transcendent almost spiritual experience that never compromises its apocalyptic vision. This isn’t a record of long range improvisational meltdown like the Acid Mother’s Temple do and it isn’t a record of free range noise making (though it gets there); it’s an album of exceptional craft with a specific focus in mind: when destruction becomes creation.
Field Recordings isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It’s a record that quite loudly and violently demands the listener match its energy, which, understandably, not everyone is willing to do. But there is a record here that contains something truly wonderful and unmatched in all of music. It’s the ultimate end of a singular emotion. One that rock was arguably born from and has been reaching for since its conception.
The cool thing about music is the good shit never stops. First some speculative picks:
Okkervil River is due for a new one after a decent turn as Roky Erikson‘s backing band on last year’s True Love Cast Out All Evil. They’re still hanging on a high note with 2008’s The Stand Ins. While great, it didn’t quite stack up to the masterpiece that is Black Sheep Boy or its superb followup The Stage Names.
Another speculative release, more than overdue, is from dubstep’s catalyst, Burial. Okay, it’s only been three years, but after his contribution to the 2009 Hyperdub compilation 5, it’s hard to sustain patience for a followup to the watershed record, Untrue. I say a prayer before I turn in each night that said followup might grace our ears in 2011.
Here’s the stuff that’s all but officially announced if not already been so:
10. The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts
Nothing out of this camp is ever going to match the eclectic madness of Thunder, Lighting, Strike, but 2007’s Proof of Youth certainly wasn’t a dud. It gave us the manic roller coaster track “Keys to the City” if nothing else. From what I’ve heard, Rolling Blackouts more than keeps pace with its predecessor and there’s still something about double-dutch chants mashed up with car-chase-horn-bombast that doesn’t get old.
9. Panda Bear – Tomboy
Full disclosure: I haven’t heard any of the singles from this one yet, and I have been a little disappointed that Panda is apparently moving away from his signature sample sound found on Person Pitch. It makes sense though, as more than a few have ripped the style from top to bottom. Despite the text descriptions, it’s still Panda Bear.
8. Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine
I was way late to last year’s Causers Of This. Late enough that Underneath The Pine is only a few months following to these ears. That said, goddammit, I can’t get enough of the young producer’s blurred-80s-sleaze-meets-J Dilla aesthetic and the man still seems to be on the sharp upward arc in his career.
7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
The 2009 debut did a more than satisfactory job at distilling the best aspects of late 80s, early 90s dream pop and shoegaze into a consistently rad long player. My only concern is the group, which previously recorded with barely any budget, has seemed to have gone the glossy high production route. We’ll see how reserved they’re able to remain with the final product.
6. MillionYoung – Replicants
I may have already heard most of this album, but the potential of a long player from one of 2010’s best sleeper acts is pretty exciting. MillionYoung is still pretty grounded in the chilliest of chillwave, but there’s just a little bit more reverb here and just a little bit more subtlety there that hooks me into the unabashedly bedroom-based output. Also, the album is titled Replicants.
5. James Blake – James Blake
The UK producer absolutely annihilated last year and now has the chance to be a potential dubstep crossover hitter with this LP. Grandeur aside, James Blake just makes damn good music and I’m super excited to see how he shapes a full-length.
4. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
In Ghost Colors, in my humble opinion, is one of the best dance pop albums ever crafted. It sets itself up for greatness every single track and just delivers ten-fold at every pivotal point. I absolutely cannot wait to see what the Aussie trio has in store for a followup.
3. Radiohead – TBA
2. M83 – TBA
Other than the lackluster debut, everything M83 has done feels as if its been pried straight from my wildest musical dreams. 2008’s Saturdays = Youth is a spacey John Hughes film score–in all it’s over-dramatic and angsty glory. 2005’s Before The Dawn Heals Us especially ignited my aural pleasure centers, conjuring one of the sign posts of my imagination, Blade Runner, with it’s cityscape cover art and it’s Vangelis synth textures. The good news is, Gonzales is returning to Dawn‘s dramatic soundtrack-styling flair, as he told Pitchfork late last year. I’m so goddamn excited.
1. The Avalanches – TBA
It’s probably disingenuous of me to put this on the list as this record has been supposed to come out for the last four years or so, yet still doesn’t even have a title. The group has been apparently clearing samples or something in the interim. My expectations for this one are so high that they’ve somehow lapped themselves back into cynicism. 2000’s Since I Left You is one of the best, most ambitious, and technically profound electronic records ever created. It was a sound collage that somehow worked as a dance mix. Seriously. Let’s hope they’ve used the last eleven years to make the followup worthy.
Those are my picks. Keep in mind, that most of these are scheduled for the earlier part of the year. In reality, I’m most excited about the surprises that come in the form of late announcements and little indie darlings.
So what are the patrons of Pure Pop looking forward to in 2011?