Sorry I’ve been away for a while. Due to holidays and some burnout I’ve been helping to hold down the fort at my other job over at Nine Circles, where I took over our weekly playlist and started my annual series of posts wrapping up my favorite metal albums of the year. And while my primary focus for 2021 has been digging deeper into the nooks and crannies of the music that made me a rock and roll addict for over 40 years, I still managed to find my way to a number of new releases that fired the synapses and gave way to the euphoric bliss of being able to turn away the ever-growing anxiety and depression. So before we jump back into the waters of yesteryear (Christmas yielded a bevy of vinyl treasures I can’t wait to talk about) let’s spend a little bit of time talking about some new music that kept my head, heart, and soul afloat this year.
– – –
Long Live Live Music
As a rule I normally don’t include live releases in my end of year lists, particularly archive releases, but this year live music not only surprised and sustained me, it elevated the way I interact with music.
That was certainly the case with A Love Supreme Live in Seattle, the newly discovered recording of the classic album with an expanded ensemble headed by the genius of John Coltrane. One of my favorite albums of all time, I was familiar with the more traditionally executed recording in Paris in July of 1965. This recording came a few months later in October, featuring an expanded lineup including Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward on sax, as well as Donald Garrett on double bass. It’s a vastly different take on the material, one that more directly points to the kind of interstellar overdrive Coltrane would pursue on his next few albums, and a revelation to me on how the by now hardwired melodies could be interpreted by the next wave of musicians.
Similar in surprise was the release of Live in Stuttgart 1975 by the inimitable Can. Can are one of those bands you can listen to for lifetime and still be shocked and surprised: I’ve been knee deep in the triptych of albums featuring Damo Suzuki on vocals (Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days) for years and feel no closer to understanding what it is that embeds itself so deep in my brain. I know I love it, though. Live in Stuttgart (and Live in Brighton 1975, for that matter) show a band untethered, having lost Suzuki and working as a four-piece literally finding their way on stage in a series of improvised jams. It’s mesmerizing, searching and seeking in drawn out melodies and sedate rhythms that I’ve been using alternately as a hypnotic focus when working and as a blissed out release when I just needed to let go and wander.
I’ve been familiar with the Levitation Sessions for a while, following some of my favorite psych rock bands like the Osees (or however they’re currently known) and Boogarins. This year was a treasure trove of releases, not least of which was another killer set by Osees, as well as garage rock favorite Ty Segall, his Sabbath stomp rock side project Fuzz, and the truly beautiful psych rock leanings of Kikagaku Moyo, to date the last band I saw live before the pandemic. Live albums can usually be a bit of a mixed bag, but the Levitation Sessions, released by the Reverberation Appreciation Society, are uniformly excellent, having been previously known as the Austin Psych Fest. Over the past few years I’ve fallen hard for this kind of DIY, dirty riff driven music, and I’ve come to realize you can dip your toe anywhere in this collection of outstanding live recordings and find some gold.
– – –
All Hail the Prog
It’s no secret if you’ve read any of the past year’s posts about my love of progressive rock music. Although I’ve been spending much of my time in the 70s, there have been plenty of amazing prog rock albums that came out this year to satisfy your need to for symphonic interludes, odd time signatures, and copious amounts of keyboards.
First among them is the excellent Allium Una Storia by Tillison Reingold Tiranti. It’s a fever dream of an older man (in this case Andy Tillison of Tangent) who recalls hearing an incredible band back in his youth traveling abroad to Italy. Allium Una Storia is an attempt to recreate as faithfully as possible the spirit of the music Tillison remembered as a child, and by employing Jonas Reingold of the Flower Kings on bass and Roberto Tiranti of Labyrinth on vocals he creates a stunning homage to 70s Italian prog that is at once modern and vintage in its feel, its production, and its utter groove. As a bonus, the CD has both the traditional original mix as well as a respectful but more modern “2021 mix” by Jonas Reingold if that’s more your speed. Both are fantastic, though I prefer the more traditional mix.
Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy have had a hell of a year. Since leaving Dream Theater (who also had a great 2021 with A View From the Top of the World) Portnoy has been leaping from one project to another, but it’s when he aligned to Neal Morse that the magic for me is truly back. Innocence & Danger continues the incredibly vibrant renaissance of there Neal Morse Band, with a set of songs that live outside of any concept (a rarity for Morse) except for how varied they are, and how Morse hasn’t lost any of his chops crafting an incredible chorus: when opener “Do It All Again” launches into its vocal hook I am compelled to sing along at top volume. That happens again and again throughout the album, even when it delightfully goes into 80s Billy Joel territory on “Another Story To Tell.”
If that wasn’t enough, Morse and Portnoy once again joined forces with Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings and Pete Trewavas of Marillion to release The Absolute Universe, the first Transatlantic album in seven years. “Ambitious” seems to be the word here, as there are two distinct versions of the album: the full steam ahead 90-minute version overseen by Stolt and an “abridged” 60-minute version overseen by Morse. But rather than simply cut the album down, the band went in and completely reworked it, changing lyrics, singers, and song titles to where each version now feels like a sense memory of the other. Right now I prefer Morse’s abridged version, but that’s changed before and can change again…kind of the beauty of this type of music.
– – –
What Even Are You, Man?
One of the things I rail about over on Nine Circles is the ridiculousness of genre. Beyond a general kind of sign-post to help people get a sense of the framework a band may be employing for their music (and for labels and such to market/sell it) I have little use for it. If it’s got guitar and it’s rocking? It’s rock, baby. And when bands come and blur those lines a bit? Even better. You can call these albums rock, indie, alternative, progressive…to quote Billy Joel – who’s getting more real estate on this post that I thought – it’s still rock and roll to me.
I had just recorded an end of year podcast for non-metal albums with my buddy Dan Kaplan for Nine Circles when I came across the music of Nolan Potter. To make matters even worse, it was when I was ordering a completely different album from Castle Face records (the equally unclassifiable Gong Splat record) . After one listen not only did I add Music is Dead to my order, I became obsessed, listening over and over again. This is my non-metal album of the year. Written, recorded, and mixed at home during the pandemic by Potter, Music is Dead feels like the dream baby of someone who took all the right lessons from early Zappa and brewed in some majestic prog and garage rock to create an essential piece of music, something that speaks to everything I love: it’s loose but epic in its composition. There are killer guitar riffs and workouts – check out “Stubborn Bubble” – as well as 60s psychedelia executed to perfection – get lost in opener “One Eye Flees Aquapolis” or the subdued and echoing wash of “Gregorian Chance.” “Holy Scroller” moves in space age AM soft rock grooves if they were composed by King Crimson and “Preeminent Minds” is straight out of the Zappa handbook – homage that borders on outright theft. And I love it to pieces.
Slightly more challenging to my brain is Cavalcade, the sophomore album from twitchy, glitchy rock outfit black midi. Moving from the post-hardcore attack of “John L” to the subdued lounge of “Marlene Dietrich” to the straight up 70s prog of “Chondromalacia Patella” all happens in the first 15 minutes of the album. The band refuse to be pinned down to a classification, and their musical proficiency is startling – all the more-so when you realize these kids just got out of high school a few years ago. Drummer Morgan Simpson might be one of the most exciting drummers playing right now, and every song is a marvel of percussion: watching him play live is even more exciting. And guitarist/frontman Geordie Greep, while admittedly a bit of a handful, is a commanding presence that anchors the band together. Two albums into their career they’ve become one of the most striking bands out right now, and Cavalcade continues to challenge me each time I put it on in all the best ways.
I would have said a year ago that Ryley Walker was indeed pretty classifiable: he was one of those singer/songwriters who wallowed in the acoustic folk rivers forged by Nick Drake decades ago. And that music was perfectly fine; really good, even. But something happened with Course in Fable: Walker let his inner prog nerd out and fleshed out his songs with layers of effects, leaving behind simple verse/chorus arrangements in favor of more complex, meandering passages that take the listener on a much more engaging journey that anything he’s put out before.
In a way Walker’s taken on some of the progressive reins previously carried by Sufjan Stevens, who returns with A Beginner’s Mind, a collaboration with Angelo De Augustine that is a loose concept where each song is inspired by a specific film. You in no way need to know that ignorer to appreciate Steven’s ability to craft gorgeous harmonies and melodies that sway gentle in the air, although it is fun to realize that the films range from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (“Reach Out”) and All About Eve (“Lady Macbeth in Chains”) to more fun fare like Hellraiser (“Pillar of Souls”) and Clash of the Titans (“Olympus”). Throughout it all Stevens and De Augustine’s voices are delicate threads, holding the sparse arrangements together.
Neither album though can take me to a dreamscape quite like Promises, the collaboration between electronic artist Sam Shepard, aka Floating Points, working with the London Symphony Orchestra and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The nine-movement suite is an ambient wave, cresting and falling slowly with a repeated melodic phrase that is carried and interpreted by the orchestra. It’s beautiful on its own, but when Sanders adds his tenor saxophone it becomes a masterpiece. Or his voice, as he does on Movement 4. Wonderfully understated but mesmerizing in its power, it’s caused me to dig deeper into the man’s catalog. As I mentioned earlier he’s present on Coltrane’s Live in Seattle recording, but if I were writing about my favorite music I discovered in 2021, there would be a large place for his work with Alice Coltrane as well. Just goes to show you it’s never too late to discover something.
– – –
A Little Distortion Never Hurt Nobody
I don’t focus as much on metal here simply because I have another space to play in for that. But despite growing less and less enchanted with the majority of new extreme music that comes out year after year, I still found plenty of loud, aggressive music that took a hold and refused to let go, including my overall album of the year. You can head over to Nine Circles and see my full list here, but in the meantime I wanted to call out a few albums in particular.
The more Mastodon swerve into 70s classic and progressive rock, the more I grow to love them. They’re one of the few hard rock/metal bands I connect with on an emotional level, which may say something more than it should since so many of their records deal with the pain and sorrow of death. Hushed and Grim, their first “proper” double album is no exception: the loss of their friend and manager Nick John looms over every track. That loss makes for a more somber, introspective set of songs – in that way this feels like a refinement of what the band did on Emperor of Sand which turned away from the shorter, more accessible songs of the previous two albums. Everything is layered with keyboards, ambient vocals and harmonies – this is by far the best vocal work to come from anyone in the band – and, of course, massive amounts of guitars. From the crushing opening of both “Pain With An Anchor” and “The Crux” to more subdued moments like “Skeleton of Splendor” and “Had It All” the way the guitar stands out of provides texturing shades is always dominant, no matter how many washes of electronics color the songs. No album this year better reflected the pain I’ve been feeling for what seems like forever, and no album offered the hope to eventually pull out of it. For that and a thousand others reasons there could be no other album of the year – regardless of genre – other than Hushed and Grim.
Iron Maiden “fans” need to let go: since Bruce and Adrien came back in 2000 the band has been happy to stretch out and explore their shaggier, proggier side and the surprise release of Senjutsu just further cements that the boys have little to no interest in revisiting the past. I think the curve ball of “The Writing on the Wall” made for a HELL of a single, and the boys have upped their soloing to a ridiculous degree. Are there qualms? Sure, a few: I wish “Stratego” didn’t have that weird guitar lick in the verses that sounds so cheesy and thin. I kind of wish the last three tracks weren’t a half hour of Steve Harris overload. But this is Iron Maiden, a band I’ve been ride or die for since getting The Number of the Beast on cassette in 1982, and when you have tracks like “The Time Machine” “Hell On Earth” and the title track among others there’s no denying Maiden are still on top of their game.
I fell for Thy Catafalque, the creation of Hungarian artist Tamás with last yer’s Naiv, and album that made my end of year Top 10 list. New album Vadak feels like the heavier, angrier brother of Naiv. The industrial-tinged chugging of “Gömböc” intersects with overt electronic music and dare I dare dance pop that’s equally indebted to Tamás’s native Hungary that it creates its own unique style I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. There are still moments of wonder that have nothing to do with metal: take for example the cinematic jazz-pomp of “A kupolaváros titka” with its dialog and piano breaks – it shouldn’t work (although it’s lovely) but in the context of the entire album it works beautifully as it partners with the more experimental “Kiscsikó (Irénke dala)”. Vadak is an album filled with so many twists and turns I still don’t feel like I’ve plumbed all its depths yet.
Little surprise that yet another hard rock/progressive album finds its way on my list, but there’s something about The Burden of Restlessness from Rochester NY’s King Buffalo make their songs slither into my consciousness and simultaneously track my body and relax me at the same time. I get completely lost in the repetitive riffing of “Burning” and the odd 90s alternative inflections of “Silverfish” in a way that feels like hypnosis. Snippets of melody repeat through songs and the intonations of vocalist/guitarist Sean McVay put me in the best possible trance to get away from the insanity of the world.
Unto Others (formerly Idle Hands) were a household favorite when their debut Mana arrived in 2019 – my son would ask for it religiously whenever we would drive, and he learned all the words. The name may have changed in the intervening years but if anything the music on sophomore effort Strength is even more laser focused. Opener “Heroin” is a monster, leading with a massive chugging attack that had me wondering what it was I had put on. Gabriel Franco’s vocals channel some serious Tom G. Warrior before descending back from the metal heavens with his signature voice and it sets the stage for the rest of the record. The aggression is very much back, but so are the hooks that refuse to leave your brain for days: the vocal harmonies in “Downtown,” the whole of “No Children Laughing Now” and the whopper surprise of covering Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children.” If covering Pat Benatar isn’t metal, I don’t know what is.
– – –
It’s Only Rock & Roll (And I Like It)
We’re creeping up on 3000 words so I’m wrapping up with three incredible albums that are definitively rock and roll…except one is punk, one is firmly rooted in the desert blues Taureg style of Northern Africa, and one features J. Mascis and wife is convinced is Pearl Jam whenever I play it. So make of that what you will – they’re all stellar.
There is definitely something in the water in Australia…time and again I’ve been delighted by the music coming out of there, whether it’s discovering older rock like Beasts of Bourbon, the new wave or psych/prog/whatever they want to do of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, or the in your face punk of Amyl and the Sniffers. The promise of their debut is fully realized on sophomore album Comfort to Me: 13 tracks of gnarly, no-frills garage punk that is elevated by the incredible presence of Amy Taylor on vocals. The mix of old school hardcore and punk is ferocious and fun – no better combination.
After discovering the guitar wonder that is Mdou Moctar through his incredible Ilana: the Creator I was worried that anything new would lose some of the sheen from having expectations. Those concerns were safely put aside with Afrique Victime arrived. If anything I was more enthralled as the Nigerian guitarist and his band present a looser, more rocking set of songs that veer from exuberant rock explosions to more somber, hypnotic numbers. Each song is a marvel of technique; hearing the licks and solos Mdou Moctar executes through the album remind me of listening to people like Eddie Van Halen and wondering how they could ever pull those sounds off. If you’ve never seen him, this 12-minute video interview with Dweezil Zappa will whet your appetite.
Finally, since their reunion back in 2005 Dinosaur, jr. have become one of my favorite rock bands. For a band that has been such a rock institution, I rarely go back to their earlier catalog, preferring everything from Farm foreword. Sweep It Into Space is no exception; it’s a softer, more mellow album overall but J Mascis’s playing and songwriting has never been in finer form. The production from Kurt Vile gives everything a relaxed, fun vibe, and once again the tracks led by Lou Barlow are fantastic both on their own and as an complement to Mascis’s signature style.
– – –
Time to sleep. Time to settle in with some good tunes and plan for how to survive another year with a little more knowledge about myself than before. Be safe, everyone. See you in 2022.