Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Top Ten Songs Of 2016

We spend most of our time here talking about albums, and while I love the format of the album, both as a listening experience and a talking point, music exists in the form of songs. An album is a lucky or unlucky collection of tracks, but a great song is a great song regardless of the others that surround it. In that spirit, let's take the opportunity to look back at what were my favorite songs from this year. It's true that most of them come from my favorite albums, but that doesn't mean a few curves can't be thrown in along the way. Let's dive in.

10. Elton John - I've Got 2 Wings

It was a welcome development for Elton John to return to making more up-tempo music again this year, and this is easily the best song from what was a contender for a spot on my list of favorite albums. Telling the story of a guitar-singling evangelist, Elton reminds us that even at this stage in his career, few people have ever been as adept at spinning great melodies.

9. Jimmy Eat World - You Are Free

Jimmy Eat World's best material manages to blend bright optimism with a tinge of darkness. That's what this song does, sounding both like an effervecent pop song of the finest order, but carrying with it a sense of melancholy that keeps it grounded. Simultaneously uplifting and reflective, it's a phenomenal example of how pop music can indeed be more than we often give it credit for.

8. Volbeat - Goodbye Forever

Volbeat is not the same band they once were, but they've finally grown into their new identity. They are essentially a pop version of a metal band now, and this song is the best example of that yet. The hook is the kind of thing a crowd won't be able to help but sing along, and it's that anthemic even before the choir comes in to make the song even more epic after the bridge. If Volbeat can keep doing this, I won't mind that they aren't who they used to be.

7. Nordic Union - Hypocrisy

Nordic Union made the best pop/metal album in the last several years. It's practically flawless, and no song was as infuriatingly propulsive as this one. There's enough heft to the guitars to get you rocking, and then they drop in a chorus that fits Ronnie Atkins' voice like a glove, and makes it hard to fight the urge to sing along.

6. Avantasia - The Haunting

Tobias Sammet has a knack for making the oddest ideas work. Picking out Dee Snider to sing a creepy rock song wouldn't be anyone's first thought, but he turns out to be perfect for it. He nails the weary tone necessary to make the eerie atmosphere work, and Tobi gives him one hell of a hook to sing. It's an overly dramatic piece of cheese, for sure, but it's musical comfort food. It's just so good.

5. Neal Morse Band - Breath Of Angels

Neal Morse has written more than his share of great ballads over the years, and this gets added to that list. As the closer to disc one of a double album, it is the epic finale that actually overshadows the rest of the music to follow, that's how strong it is. Neal's spirituality shines through on these kinds of tracks, giving them a sincerity that extends beyond the already fabulous music. You can feel the song, which is a high compliment indeed.

4. Dilana - Maybe Just A Little

Dilana has been stripping her music down over the last few years, which I entirely support, but it's nice to be reminded every now and again that she's also a superb pop artist. This song is the most upbeat and bouncy she's done in a long while (yes, I know it's not technically new), and it's damn near perfect. It uses the conceit of the lyrics subverting the pop sound, which works once again. But it's the hook that sells the song, combined with Dilana's always remarkable vocals. A true highlight of the year.

3. The Spider Accomplice - Bromelaid

I will use the same example here I did when I reviewed the band's EP; "Bromelaid" sounds like The Smiths, if Morrissey wasn't a morose jerk. This is the alternate universe version of that band, where the jangly guitars are used to make a song that revels in the spirit of fun they call to. VK Lynne's ability to integrate the word 'photosynthesize' into a pop song is commendable, but it's the infectious nature of the song that makes it a winner. It's hard not to feel good listening to this song.

2. Shiverburn - Burned Alive

The best song from the best pop album of the year. Shiverburn is a band I found through happenstance, but I am so glad I did. The entire record is fantastic, but this song in particular is everything I love about what pop music can be. The guitars are not adornments, they are fully rock and roll, with a clear tone and heavy riffs. Then there's Sanne's vocals, which are sweet and sassy, singing a hook that is damn powerful and an anthem in the making. This song should have crossed over to this side of the Atlantic and stormed our charts. It's everything you could want.

1. Zakk Wylde - Lay Me Down

But the best song of the year is this one, which does something better than anything else did this year. It is this song that reminds us that music can be more than a fun diversion from the rest of life, it can be a spiritual experience. This song is a rock and roll hymn, the kind of song that reaches out a hand and reminds us that we're all in this crazy mess together. The Hammond organ is always an easy way to win me over, but it's the mix of plaintive melody and a searing guitar solo that make this a 70s rock version of Hozier's cry, "Take Me To Church", except even better. Maybe it isn't transformative, but it's the most effective emotional punch I heard all year, and the best song of 2016.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Worst Albums Of 2016

There are two things about being a music writer that make the job enjoyable. One of them is, quite obviously, when a great record comes along and I can't help but share my love for the music. That is what carries me through the dry periods, and makes the time put into this endeavor worth it. But there is also something to be said for music that is not just mediocre, but offensively bad. Records that pool the bile in me are thoroughly enjoyable to write about, in their own way. There isn't anything quite like an album that offends you to the point where words flow out of your mind in a torrent of bewildered anger.

This year had an abundance of those kinds of albums. I narrowed the list down to the five that sparked the harshest criticism from me, but others could have easily been included to make this list even longer. For instance, I would have easily thought The Jayhawks would be on this list, given my reaction to their troubling return from another hiatus, and I was sure that Weezer would make an unprecedented run at their third worst album of the year crown, but neither of those happened. The well was so deep they didn't even make the cut, despite not being remotely close to acceptable.

Here, then, are the five worst albums of the year:

5. Dream Theater - The Astonishing

Dream Theater has long been plagued by sub-standard lyrics, which is highlighted throughout this double sci-fi concept album. The story and the lyrics written by John Petrucci are so bland, trite, and simplistic that they could have come from a teenagers first attempt at fantasy writing. The themes are hammered into your head with blunt writing, and poor James Labrie is left to try to play half a dozen characters. His voice is not versatile enough to make them individual, so we get an incomprehensible mess of a record that tells a boring story in a format that makes it nearly impossible to follow along. Dream Theater had been on a nice run of making good records, after a small swoon, but now they find themselves, like Sisyphus, back at the bottom of the hill.

4. Operation:Mindcrime - Resurrection

I was the one fool who thought that “Frequency Unknown” was a pretty good record. But that didn't carry over to the first album of this trilogy, which was a hot mess, or this second outing, which is only slightly better. I will say that this time there are two damn good tracks on this record, both of which were previewed prior to the album's release. Those are also the only good songs on the record. After a sequencing error for the ages that starts the album with FOUR nonsense tracks before getting to the real music, the remaining songs are a weird mess of styles that are thrown together without a single melody to make them tolerable. Geoff Tate has a terrible reputation these days, and albums like this are why it's well deserved.

3. Headspace - All That You Fear Is Gone

This progressive metal band got widespread acclaim for their debut album, so I made sure to give this follow-up a chance. What I got, instead of great and challenging music, was a masterclass in how not to write songs. These songs jump from one section to the next, from sound to sound, with nary a transition nor explanation. It's the songwriting version of trying to build a wall out of multi-colored Legos. It's just too random, and too poorly written, to want to listen to. It's everything prog is thought of by people who aren't into prog.

2. Megadeth - Dystopia

I've never been a big Megadeth fan, but I can appreciate “Rust In Peace” as a great album, and I've always greatly enjoyed “The System Has Failed”. Since then, Dave Mustaine has been running on fumes, blatantly doing whatever it is he thinks will get him the most attention. Bouncing from thrash to radio rock, it's been shameless, and this latest turn back to thrash is no different. There's no bite to these songs, no snarl, and Dave's laughable lyrics and vocals are just one sub-standard piece of an album that has very little to offer besides guitar solos. Megadeth has been mostly dead for years, and this is not the shock to bring them back to life.

1. Meat Loaf - Braver Than We Are

The combination of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman should be music to my ears. They are among my first and more enduring musical heroes, yet this album filled me with nothing but dread. Steinman hasn't written any material in ages, and what has yet to be recorded are the scarps at the bottom of the barrel. Unfortunately, that's what we get here, with songs that were never intended to be released in this format being sung by a version of Meat Loaf who sounds positively ghastly. The decline in his voice is almost unbelievable, and on its own would prevent this album from being good. The songs themselves are nothing to write home about, and the few a devoted Steinman fan would have heard before were done better by others. If this is the end of the road for these two, it's a horrible epitaph.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Top Ten Albums Of 2016

Every year brings with it the hope of amazing possibilities, although not all of them will live up to our expectations. This year struck me as being one of those, a year where there was still plenty of good music, but less amazing music that made me stand up and take note. That leaves plenty of fodder for the worst of the year list (coming very soon), but it makes it harder to assemble a lineup of the best music. I always hope that at this time, I'll be agonizing over which albums to leave off the list, and not scrambling to find more to tack on.

This might not have been the best year for music that I've tracked, but there were still enough records that deserve the accolades to fill out a list without hesitation. These are the albums that I listened to, loved, and revisited on a near daily basis for long stretches of time. That makes them the best albums of 2016.

Honorable Mention: Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night

 Elton John has made a lot of great music since his last time on the charts, including one of my favorite albums ever. While I hated his last record, I was excited by the prospect of him making a more upbeat, lively album again. This is exactly what I was hoping for, an album that celebrates the joy of making and playing music. It's definitely a mature record, but I can hear how much Elton still loves making music, and his songwriting is still as sharp as ever. This record fits in beautifully with “Peachtree Road” and “The Captain & The Kid”, making three albums that I feel are as good as anything from the classic era.

10. Forever Still - Tied Down

Forever Still's series of EP's were a nice surprise in 2015, and the full album that is built from them doesn't disappoint. Modern rock is often the blandest guitar music in the world, but Forever Still knows how to do it well. In this brief album, the band hits hard with ten tracks that are heavy, moody, and feature great hooks and choruses from singer Maja Shining, who is the star of the show. Track after track, you get great songs that are fun to sing along with, and will remain in your head. This is a heck of a debut record, and hopefully a sign of impending greatness.

9. Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues

Jimmy Eat World is a band that is confounding. “Futures” is one of my top twenty albums of all time, but nothing else they have ever done speaks to me at all. So it was with low expectations that I gave this new album a shot, after hearing the melodic similarity between one of the singles and that previous album. “Integrity Blues” is the darkest album the band has made since then, and it's that darkness that keeps the sugary sound from becoming cloying. There is a lengthy experiment that barely holds together as a song, and brings the momentum to a crashing halt, but the rest of the album is the best material Jimmy Eat World has made in a long time. The short and heavy rockers bound with energy and big hooks, while the more emotional material is uplifting. A mistake can be forgiven, and “Integrity Blues” does more than enough with the remaining songs to prove itself as a fantastic effort from a band regaining their footing.

8. Volbeat - Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie

Volbeat started out as one of the most unique bands I've ever heard, with their mix of 50s rock and roll along with groove and thrash metal. But after a phenomenal start, they fell into mediocrity, as their songs became more and more geared for the radio audience that was embracing them. This album does not reverse their trajectory towards the mainstream, but it finds them mastering that art. This album is a shameless play for radio attention, but they have never written more pop-friendly choruses than they have here. This album will infuriate the metal die-hards, but it's a joyous treat for those of us who want to hear some cranked guitars and big melodies. Welcome back, Volbeat.

7. Neal Morse Band - The Similitude Of A Dream

This double concept album based on a centuries old Christian allegory is one of the tougher albums to judge this year. On the one hand, there are scores of magical moments and melodies throughout the more than one hundred minutes of music offered up. Songs like "City Of Destruction" and "So Far Gone" rank with Neal's best efforts, but there is a problem. The album is too long to maintain focus through, and disc two has about fifteen minutes of songs that add very little of note. It can't rank higher because of the difficulty in listening to it, but there's seventy-five minutes of amazing music here, which does make it one of the best albums of the year. When edited to a more manageable length, it's phenomenal.

6. Serious Black - Mirrorworld (Deluxe Edition)

Serious Black's first album was completely underwhelming, considering the talent on hand. Urban Breed has been part of two of my absolute favorite metal albums of the last decade, and he nearly does it again here. This is an album that escapes the power metal cliches, and turns in a set of songs that has metallic bite, but also melodic beauty. Urban is restrained throughout the record, but the hook he and the band give us more than make up for that. This is the sound of veterans who know how to write songs doing what they do best. Just be sure to pick up the deluxe edition. The regular edition omits four of the six best tracks from the album. The regular edition would not make this list, but the deluxe edition is phenomenal.

5. The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles: The Abduction [EP]

Last year, I missed hearing The Spider Accomplice's first EP when it came out. Had I done so, I would have named it the EP of the year. I did not make that mistake again. Part II of their trilogy continues in line with the first EP, giving us six songs of utterly fantastic modern pop/rock. They traverse different sounds and feelings, and use them to weave the narrative. They master jangly guitar pop, and throw in some punk energy just to show off. The band makes wonderfully layered and intricate pop music, topped off with VK Lynne's fantastic vocals and melodies. She is charming throughout, and with this group around her, they've made the best EP of the year two years in a row.

4. Avantasia - Ghostlights

While I've never lost my faith in Tobi, I was rather disappointed in the previous Avantasia album. It missed the mark, for me, and did invite some questions about where the project's sound was headed. Those worries were unfounded, as “Ghostlights” sees Avantasia not just returning to form, but possibly making their best record ever. There are moments that highly recall past Avantasia classics, but they're wrapped up in a set of songs that is as accomplished as any Tobi has ever written. Songs like “The Haunting” and “Master Of The Pendulum” should become modern classics, they're that good. A remarkable achievement that I feel has raised the bar for what we should expect from a power metal album. This is a landmark release.

3. Nordic Union - Nordic Union

The songwriter from Eclipse joins forces with the singer from Pretty Maids, and the result is magical. I was not very familiar with the past work of either man, but the combination here is nothing short of amazing. With this album, they produce a nearly flawless example of how pop and metal can be combined to form an addicting blend. These eleven tracks are some of the stickiest, hookiest heavy songs I've heard in ages. This is earworm after earworm, and an album that needs to come with a warning label cautioning you that it will be impossible not to smile and sing like an idiot during these 42 minutes.

2. Shiverburn - Road To Somewhere

It's no secret that I still have a soft spot in my heart for pop music. Unfortunately, the pop world refuses to give me what I want, so I don't get to express that sentiment very often. Shiverburn is exactly what I've been waiting for. “Road To Somewhere” is a heavy pop album, with shimmering melodies and muscular guitars. It's the perfect balance of soft and hard, beauty and the beast. Aside from one throwaway at the start, this album is nearly flawless pop/rock of the kind I grew up on, and serves as a stark reminder of how bankrupt the pop industry is. This is the music that should be all over the radio, because it's polished, smart, and almost annoying in how easily it gets stuck in your head. Records like this are why I continue listening to so much new music. When you find something so good, it redeems your faith in music.

1. Zakk Wylde - Book Of Shadows II

I have never been a fan of Zakk Wylde, either in his gig as Ozzy Osbourne's right-hand, or with his own Black Label Society. Suffice it to say, my expectations were low when I put this album on. After a few times through, I could hardly believe the transformation. Every criticism I ever had was dealt with, and the record opened up into a startlingly beautiful set of songs that I could hardly believe. Mellow and laid-back, this is the kind of music that slowly sinks into the very fiber of your being. Zakk has done a masterful job of writing songs that fit his particular strengths as a singer, conjuring organic sounds and stirring melodies. From the hymnal “Lay Me Down”, to the Southern rock of “Lost Prayer”, this record came out of nowhere and absolutely floored me.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Here It Is - The Best Albums of 2016

Okay, so this is the culmination of the musical year, the part everyone wants to read because it satiates our two great needs – subjective, arbitrary rankings of art and numbered lists.  If this were the internet (hey, wait…) I might be so inclined to toss in a “Number 7 will shock you!” but because I respect the intelligence of those reading this, I won’t stoop to such a facile attempt to patronize your greater sensibilities.

Not much in the way of introductions needed here, because first of all, the headline pretty much covers what you need to know going in and if you wanted a more in-depth, analytical look at the year at large, well, you’ve likely already read the extended exchange of intellectual diatribes between myself and my esteemed cohort, Chris.

So real quick, let’s blast through the rules.  Pretty easy, there’s basically only one.  To be eligible, an album must be composed of original studio material.  Which means no live albums, no re-releases, no compilations.  You follow?  Good.  On we go.

One quick preamble before we sojourn further (and I know I promised no lengthy introductions.) As the year progressed, I kept a running tally of albums that I thought might prove their mettle enough to be included on this list.  In the end, there were thirty contestants, all of which I enjoyed, so just because an album does not appear here does not diminish its value.  So, with a tip of the cap to Black Wizard, Surgical Meth Machine, Jinjer, Dark Forest, Red Tide Rising, Prong, Deadlock and a fistful of others, let’s get to the awards:

Honorable Mention – Gypsy Chief Goliath – Citizens of Nowhere
As if anybody had any doubt about the future of baseline, sludgy blues metal, here comes Gypsy Chief Goliath to put all those fear to bed.  A stunningly powerful and at times abrasive album, the band also weaves some classic rock style songwriting into their mix, creating a much fuller and more robust experience.

11 – The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – Keep It Greasy
As eclectic and bizarre as ever, The Shovell returns to the halls of this list having once previously submitted the album of the year.  There was an effort in between that one and this one that didn’t make the grade, but the gents return to form on this record, combining their…unique…themes and visions with their penchant for writing catchy, old-school riffs that undulate with that glorious distortive factor that so characterized the most memorable experiences of rock in the ‘70s.

10 – Devil to Pay – A Bend Through Space and Time 
This is as much a vote for the entire Devil to Pay catalogue as it is for this specific album.  Every DtP album is different from its predecessor, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, this one being no exception to that remarkable pattern.  As I look back over the list, it’s probably a reflection of personal preference that the first three albums we’ve talked about today are all muddy reproductions of rock-as-we-remember-it, plucked from the tree of Black Sabbath and given to take root in the furnace of modern metal.  Anyway, “A Bend Through Space and Time” keeps the gears churning with that Midwest flair that Devil to Pay trades so well in, crafting a rolling, roiling listen that never rests.

9 – Red Eleven – Collect Your Scars

C’mon people, let’s help this band out.  They deserve to be on a world tour immediately.  Sometimes you hear new music and you just know that a band has ‘it.’  Red Eleven is one of those bands.  This is one part European metal precision and one part pure American grunge design.  There are few bands operating now who seem to want to admit they took their inspiration from the ‘90s, but Red Eleven is in that company, and leading the charge.  “Collect Your Scars” showcases the band’s smooth songwriting and easy composition while juxtaposing that against their aural power.

8 – Blood Ceremony – Lord of Misrule
And of course, right after we make one trip to a band influenced by the ‘90s, we crash right back into bands that have a public love affair with the ‘70s.  Or in some cases on this album, the ’60s.  Even more than their previous efforts, Blood Ceremony goes to great efforts to craft an experience that synthesizes their intimate knowledge of flower rock with the dread and occult of traditional heavy metal.  Top all this off with the siren song of Alia O’Brien and it makes for a can’t miss experience.

7 – The Browning – Isolation
Finally, I break my own pattern by including a record that shares nearly nothing in common with any of the others records on this list.  A unique mix of hardcore and edm, this is the logical extension of industrial metal as we’ve long thought of it, a pure give into the depth of electronic music.  At the time of review I said that this album possessed distinct flaws, and nothing about that has changed, but this is one of those glorious moments where the insight and uniqueness of the product overshadows the shortcomings.  Whenever I wanted something different in my speakers this year, this is where I turned.

6 – Death Angel – The Evil Divide
Thrash, when done right, is still a genre of malice and power.  Many of the hallmark bands of the once proud genre have strayed from that message or forgotten it entirely, but Death Angel is still carrying the banner, standing on the precipice and shouting to all those who would hear that thrash is alive and well.  Yet for all the shredding riffs and glass-chewing tones, it’s the emotional affectation of “Lost” that helps separate the album from the rest of thrash’s contenders this year.

5 – Red Fang – Only Ghosts
Only Red Fang can simultaneously sound like six different bands and yet still sound exclusively like Red Fang.  That’s an incredibly hard balance to strike, but Red Fang continues to exist at the unlikely crossroads of Clutch, Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age.  One of the tricks of this album that makes it work so well is that no matter how far afield the songs get, there’s always a big chorus around the corner to bring everyone back into the fold.  It’s a critical talent, once that we’ll see again later on this list.

4 – Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Another record that works as a product of its emotional mix, “Delirium” sees Lacuna Coil tune down their radio-friendly metal chops and focus it into a sharp metal point that showcases fear, hope and anger in equal mix.  For the first time in a long time, the star of this album isn’t just Cristina Scabbia, but the play of her sanguine vocals laid against the harsh grunt of Andrea Ferro.  The return of that dynamic to the fore speaks louder than any other elements on this record, marking a new phase in Lacuna Coil’s already storied career.

3 – Texas Hippie Coalition – Dark Side of Black
As I talked about briefly in my discussion with Chris, some of what makes this album stand out is that I think THC fans were pretty sure we knew everything there was to know about the band’s musical acumen.  Then this album drops, taking their game to the next level both in ferocity and craftsmanship.  Big Dad Ritch confessed that the album was written and recorded quickly, an intentional effort by the band to release a record that shows some seams, while still showcasing the brilliance of Cord Pool, their guitarist who was finally involved in the writing of new material for the first time.  The band’s swagger is still ever-present, but there’s not genuine malice woven into the brew.

2 – PAIN – Coming Home
Heavy-handed proof that side projects need not be discarded.  All of PAIN’s records have been competitive against the established track record of Hypocrisy, but this one takes that game to a whole new level and challenges Peter Tägtgren’s main act to live up to this record.  “Coming Home” is a multi-faceted beast, one that showcases the power of rock, metal, weird samples, bizarre lyrics and straight-up tight songwriting.  The riffs, as ever for PAIN, remain the star.

1 – Destrage – A Means to No End
…and what else could it be?  The Italians top the list this year (after falling just short to Red Eleven a couple years back,) by bringing their full arsenal of musical mastery to the fore and combining all of the ingredients seamlessly before our eyes.  Destrage succeeds because they locate the sound they want, then acquire it, regardless of how far outside the bounds of what’s ‘metal’ they need to go.  Almost like a prog band, this group of artists can find and blend the best parts of rock, metal, hardcore, prog, grunge and maybe even some lounge material in such a skillful fashion that the listener never feels lost.  Much in the same vein as Red Fang, this is a band that knows how to craft a catchy chorus and always keeps one in the back pocket to bring everyone back together once the song has meandered too far.  Their talent is both undeniable and irresistible.  If you want to step outside the box a little, and really see what metal can do at the same time, there’s no better opportunity in 2016 than to hang out with Destrage’s new record.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Revisiting Past Year-End Top Tens

So a few months ago, Chris put the challenge to me to revisit the top ten lists we had done at the end of each year and evaluate how well they stood up, with particular attention to whether we still stand behind our #1 picks.  Naturally this gets more fluid as more years go by, but the argument in and of itself intrigued me as an exercise in introspection and judgement of the moment.  Life kept getting in the way and preventing me from taking on the task in a timely manner, but the end of the year seems as fitting a time as any.  Here we go – each year is marked by the countdown of my top ten from that year.

2011 – 
10) The Foo Fighters – “Wasting Light”
9) PAIN – “You Only Live Twice”
8) Red Fang – “Murder the Moutains”
7) Powerwolf – “Blood of the Saints”
6) Crowned By Fire – “Prone to Destroy”
5) Indestructible Noise Command – “Heaven Sent, Hellbound”
4) Children of Bodom – “Relentless, Reckless Forever”
3) Lazarus A.D. – “Black Rivers Flow”
2) Graveyard – “Hisingen Blues”
1) Turisas – “Stand Up and Fight"

Album That Got Underrated – Actually, none.  This was a really strong year, and while some of the numbers might jockey for minor changes in position, all of these albums deserve to be here.

Album That Got Overrated – As one might imagine, no changes here, either.

Does #1 Hold Up? – Unequivocally yes.  In a year of giants, “Stand Up and Fight” was a pure titan.  All the albums I had ranked from one through eight could have feasibly challenged for the title in any other year, but 2011 was that rare year when home runs seemed to be flying out of the ballparks at an alarming rate.  Nevertheless, the blend of metal, arena rock and rousing drinking anthems that Turisas brought to the table was king of the heap.

2012 – 
10) Goatwhote – “Blood for the Master”
9) The Sword – “Aprocryphon”
8) The Casualties – “Resistance”
7) Brendon Small’s Galaktikon
6) Cradle of Filth – “The Manticore and Other Horrors”
5) Meldrum – “Lifer”
4) Exumer – “Fire and Damnation”
3) Cancer Bats – “Dead Set on Living”
2) Graveyard – “Lights Out”
1) The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – “Don’t Hear It…Fear It!”

Album That Got Underrated – The Sword.  Looking back four years later, “Apocryphon” should have been at least #4.  I admit that that album took a little while to unfold for me, and it probably didn’t help that it was released not long after I had started a new job and moved to another state.  I probably never gave it the initial inspection it really deserved.

Album That Got Overrated – Exumer at #4?  My God, what the hell was I thinking?

Does #1 Hold Up? – Short answer, no.  As quirky and good as that album was, I screwed this one up.  You would think that means that I believe Graveyard should have been #1, and there’s an argument there, but that’s not where I’m going.  #3, Cancer Bats “Dead Set on Living” was the true #1, and of all the selections listed, it’s the one I’ve listened to the most often in the intervening years.

2013 – 
11) Vista Chino – “Peace”
10) Destruction – “Spiritual Genocide”
9) Warbringer – “Empires Collapse”
8) Monster Truck – “Furiosity”
7) Soilwork – “The Living Infinite”
6) Scorpion Child – “Scorpion Child”
5) Devil to Pay – “Fate is Your Muse”
4) Blood Ceremony – “The Eldritch Dark”
3) A Pale Horse Named Death – “Lay My Soul to Waste”
2) Finntroll – “Blodsvept”
1) Turisas – “Turisas2013”

Album That Got Underrated – Vista Chino probably should have been at 8, with the ones it would jump subsequently moving down at least one spot.

Album That Got Overrated – I liked Destruction’s record, but I honestly don’t know if I’ve listened to it since.  Without scouring through reams of unorganized reviews, I’m forced to believe that there may have been another record that could have claimed that spot.

Does #1 Hold Up – Oh, yes.  Turisas turned in two all-timers in consecutive albums, and “Turisas2013,” lame title aside, is the stronger between the two.  2013 was a strong year, but all of those other records, while great, were racing for second.  If I’m being candid, “Turisas2013” is probably my favorite album all time, which is doubly laudable for the fact that it wasn’t released until I was thirty years old.  How many people’s favorite album ever changes after age thirty?  Hell, after age twenty-five?

2014 – 
11) Nim Vind – “Saturday Night Séance Songs”
10) Cripper – “Hyena”
9) John Garcia – “John Garcia”
8) Emigrate – “Silent So Long”
7) Powerman 5000 – “Builders of the Future”
6) Red Dragon Cartel – “Red Dragon Cartel”
5) Lacuna Coil – “Broken Crown Halo”
4) John 5 – “Careful With That Axe”
3) Anti-Mortem – “New Southern”
2) Destrage – “Are You Kidding Me?  No.”
1) Red Eleven – “Round II”

Album That Got Underrated – Nim Vind.  Such a catchy record, so many bright but goth moments.  Which is a weird, unexpected juxtaposition, but a welcome one.  Great record.

Album That Got Overrated – Here’s the problem, though – this was the strongest year since 2011.  So how far up could Nim Vind really move?  One spot?  Two?  So, by definition, I guess Cripper’s record is mildly overrated, but I don’t even want to put that out there.  Basically, 2014 should have had a top four, then albums 5a, 5b, 5c and so on.

Does #1 Hold Up? – Whenever I contemplate this question, I sigh heavily.  In the original rough draft of my top ten for this year, I had Red Eleven and Destrage ranked as 1 and 1a, before I ultimately decided that I had to make a decision and declare one the winner.  And it wasn’t easy.  I probably didn’t feel I had cemented a selection until I hit ‘publish’ on the article, and maybe not even then.  They traded places about fifteen times in the final week before the article ran.  Right now, today, if you ask me if I had them in the right order, I think I would say no, but only by the barest of margins.  “Are You Kidding Me? No.” benefits from having a few more blind curves on its road map, which meant that there was some additional discovery for the listener upon subsequent listens.  That might be enough to give it a razor’s edge advantage over Red Eleven, but only because you’re asking me today.  Tomorrow the answer might be different.  And the next day different again.  Just know that I love both of these albums dearly and I can’t unilaterally marry myself to one of them as the #1 selection.

2015 – 
11) The Great Game – “The Great Game”
10) Annihilator – “Suicide Society”
9) Pentagram – “Curious Volume”
8) Children of Bodom – “I Worship Chaos”
7) 6:33 – “Deadly Scenes”
6) Cancer Bats – “Searching for Zero”
5) Midnight Ghost Train – “Cold Was The Ground”
4) Mountain of Wizard – “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances”
3) Powerwolf – “Blessed and Possessed”
2) Graveyard – “Innocence and Decadence”
1) Shawn James and the Shapeshifters – “The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters”

Album That Got Underrated – Maybe Annihilator by a spot or two, just because it’s so fun.  But nothing serious.

Album That Got Overrated – No one in particular; again, no significant changes.

Does #1 Hold Up? – Absolutely.  Which means it sucks to be Graveyard, because that means you still finish in second place three times on this list…but hey, two of those albums (“Lights Out” and “I&D”) were named consensus Albums of the Year between me and Chris, which is actually the only two times that’s happened.  So take that for what it’s worth.  As for Shawn James, I am almost never so enamored with a vocal performance as to call it the primary focal point for listening to an album, but I do in this case.  James’ voice is so authentic and bellowing that it feels like his independently released little-album-that-could was the most honest and captivating album of the past half-decade.  So I’m sticking to my guns here.

In conclusion, I've made some mistakes along the way, but by and large, I'm willing to put my stamp on this list as pretty solid.  Three and a half of five number one picks still hold, which is a way better rate than we've seen in recent NFL or NBA drafts (zing!)  Stay tuned for 2016!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Conversation: 2016 In Review, Part II

D.M: First things first - I am 1,000,000% with you on The Black Album.  If there was a sin committed, is certainly was not committed by Bob Rock alone.  Not only am I a Black Album defender, but I am an unabashed fan.  Many of the first handful of songs I ever learned on bass were off that album (along with Powerman 5000's "Car Crash," though that's not here nor there,) and it's an encyclopedia on how to make an album with big riffs and staying power.  We may never see that kind of radio domination over that lengthy a period again, which is made especially poignant by the fact that The Black Album arose during the critical mass of grunge, and was still companion to "Nevermind" and "Ten" and "Badmotorfinger."  Nevertheless, fanboy leanings aside, let's lay down a few (possibly controversial) facts; The Black Album is the single most successful metal album ever written.  Whether or not its the most important is up for debate, but it is easily the most successful.  While "Death Magnetic" certainly went great lengths in resurrecting the legacy of Metallica, there is precisely zero chance that Metallica makes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without it.  I suppose there are cynics out there who would suggest that their induction in and of itself is irrelevant and little more than a popularity vote among mainstream music press, but while I won't take the time to state any empirical facts as to why (yay, editorials!) that's frankly bullshit.  Anyway, whether or not you like it, the history of metal as a genre, and the apex of its popularity, can't be told without speaking of The Black Album.


Is there where you or I could make a lot of money as the Czar of Common Sense at a record label?  Like, who had the incredible idea to release a Katatonia record in the spring in the first place?  The calendar seems like an easy thing to get right, even as you release albums in parts of the world that might be experiencing different seasons at different times.  Let's be honest, the bulk of the metal community probably lives in the Northern Hemisphere (with all due respect to the large cadre of headbangers in South America who could have single-handedly monetized Iron Maiden for about a decade, never mind the fans around the rest of the world,) so why is this an issue?  I suppose the umbrella question here is whether or not the label's ignorance of the time of year for a release impacts their sales numbers or at least the critical reception that is receives?  I mean, the immediate reaction would be yes, but I suppose the counterpoint is that to release an album early in the year, or late in the year, means sacrificing the lucrative summer concert season, so perhaps the artist or label is damned if they do or don't?  Do Katatonia fans (sorry to keep picking on them, but that's where we started this question,) even leave their house in the summer, or do they wait for the dulled ambers of fall?  Am I overthinking this?

Speaking of album releases, and working backward in the conversation (there will be a quiz later,) let's consider 'older' bands for a moment.  How much of the impetus to release an album is just to have an excuse to hit the road and cash in on the back catalog?  Anecdotally, I went to see Boston this summer (love Boston, everyone can deal with it,) and yeah, they had a new record, but the locus of the tour was the fact that it was the fortieth anniversary of their iconic first album.  Now, I grant you, that's an extenuating circumstance, because that record is an all-timer, but it got me wondering if bands like Slayer punch out another record just so they can play "Raining Blood" some more.  I would like to think there's some artistic integrity that says that's not the case, and that the continual recitations of "Raining Blood," are to appease the gathered masses, but I do wonder.  Conversely, (and now I am definitely overthinking it,) is there a chance that the bands are truly releasing their best effort, but as their fans age they hold more closely on the music of their youth and only want to hear that, thus driving the nostalgia?  I can't tell you the number of people I've encountered who say things like "I used to be into metal, but I grew out of it/don't listen to it anymore." (Parenthetical, that's stupid,)  Let's take King Diamond as an example - sure, he's done a lot of top shelf stuff in the past fifteen years, but how many of his fans 'grew out of it' after "Don't Break the Oath" and now that's all they want to hear live, and it drives the King's decision making?  This is his living, after all.  Okay, now my brain hurts.

I don't know that there's another way for labels to promote these days, though I fundamentally agree with our point.  I think we both agree that the function of the record label in this modern era is to discern and filter out the good music for us, so the question is how best to draw attention to their effort?  With the easy exposure to bands of all stripes and sizes in the social media age, the labels may have no choice but to accommodate the new rules of engagement, so to speak

So, just to mix in our usual questions while these topics continue - what surprised and disappointed you this year?  What met your expectations?  What are you looking forward to in the next year?

Chris C: I'm glad to see some love being given to "The Black Album". It happens to be my favorite Metallica album, which you can take to mean whatever you choose, since I don't particularly love any of the others in full. You bring up an interesting point though, which will depend on where we draw the line between rock and metal. To me, absolutely, it is the most successful metal album of all time. But if you want to take the mainstream's view that bands like Guns N' Roses and AC/DC are actually 'metal', then there's an argument to be made. I don't buy that they are, so I'm with you. Not only is "The Black Album" the most successful metal album of all time, and not only is it indeed responsible for making Metallica the household name that they are, but it's also one of the most important metal albums of all time, but for a far different reason. Like it or not, the success of that record, and the legions of people who weren't fans but were still wearing Metallica shirts, changed the face of metal. 'True' metal bands didn't want any part of that mainstream audience (Megadeth sure as hell did, but that's another story), and they intentionally took metal down less accessible roads. That's a mistake of titanic proportions, I believe, but it's what happened. It makes no sense at all to me that the mainstream face of metal has gone from "The Black Album" to Lamb Of God.

What you deem 'common sense' is actually the intersection of business and art once again. Sure, it seems obvious that albums needing to rely on the darkness of our hearts shouldn't be released when we're sipping lemonade by the pool. However, I don't for a second think that a single fan of a band like Katatonia didn't buy the album because there wasn't three feet of snow on the ground. What I do think happens is that people who hear a song in passing, or pick up the record without being massive fans already, may find themselves having less of a connection to the music, which would only manifest itself in business terms down the line. It's sort of a question of the short-term versus the long game, and the way that business is going, not many can afford to play the long game. Of course, the converse to all of this is what happens if you wait. I know that I, for one, get annoyed if I know that a band has finished a record, only to hear from the label that the release is being pushed back months at a time. If it's done and you don't release it, even if it's not the right time, you lose interest that way as well.

I don't think we even have to ask the question about older bands and new music. The vast majority of those kinds of bands are absolutely only making records for the sake of having an excuse to tour. I don't doubt at all that if those rock and metal bands were bigger, they would give up completely on making records. For an example, let's look at Billy Joel. He hasn't written a song in twenty-two years, and yet he still sells out Madison Square Garden once a month. Do you honestly think that if Slayer could do that, they would still be churning out records even their fans don't care much about? All the evidence we need is to see how they handle the material live. If they play one song from a new record on tour, and then promptly never play any of it again, it's pretty clear that the record meant nothing to them. Like their new stuff or not, but Iron Maiden stands by the music they make. They continue to play their new stuff live, and even took the huge risk of playing "A Matter Of Life And Death" in its entirety. They are the exception.

Yes, we as fans are largely responsible for this. We're the ones who don't buy the new albums like we did the old. We're the ones who pine for the old days because of the memories we attach to them. We're the ones who gripe every time a band tries to play new material in place of the old favorites. After a certain number of records, when the fans are demanding you do nothing but play the same twenty songs for the rest of your career, there's no reason for these bands to care about being creative anymore. We invalidate the creative process when it doesn't fit in the little boxes we make for them. What amuses me is that the live market is where bands make their money these days, but concerts have in a way become like an iPod. Fans go to hear the same songs they've already heard a thousand times, and they want them played exactly the same way. It almost makes you wonder what the point is.

I won't claim to have all the answers. I don't know how labels are supposed to reverse these trends. All I can do, as I have been trained to, is see the flaws and point them out. Whether they can be fixed at all is up for discussion.

What surprised me this year is the amount of material in my Top Ten (no spoilers) that I would never have thought had a chance. There are a couple brand new bands, a couple that have taken multi-album hiatuses from my good graces, and one artist who has never produced a record before that I enjoyed. That upheaval surprised me. I suppose the only thing I was disappointed in was Dream Theater's two-disc abomination, "The Astonishing". Three records ago they made one I really enjoyed. Two records ago they made my album of the year. Their last album was still good. This one is so laughable I couldn't make it through the entire running time even once. It did surprise me that a group of men nearing fifty could write an album and a story as well-developed as an eighth-grader. Naming the nefarious villain of your story "Lord Nafaryus" is astonishing (pardon the pun) in its stupidity.

But the biggest disappointment of the year is the easy one to answer. As you well know, I am a huge Meat Loaf fan. I own more Meat Loaf albums than the average person knows exist, and Jim Steinman would be second or third on my list of musical heroes, depending on the day. I love music largely because of the two of them. So when they combined forces one last time before they hang up their hats, even my cynical nature couldn't have prepared me for how rotten the album would wind up. They took some awful tracks that had never been good enough to record before, tossed in more songs that had already been done or re-used in other songs, and then capped it off with Meat sounding like his voice already had one foot in the grave. If I wasn't a huge fan, I think it would have been a mildly entertaining record. But it was made for the fans, and that only made it worse. It was everything bad about the Meat/Steinman history thrown into one album. And in case you couldn't tell, no, I did not get myself a copy. I'm not a completest, so I have no desire to be reminded of it more than necessary.

As for next year, I'm not looking forward to much of anything at the moment. I don't know of all that many bands I like who are confirmed to be doing anything. There is still the Bad Salad album that was supposed to have come out this year, but I'm also burned out on lengthy concept albums, so we'll see. Otherwise, my horizon is empty. I've given up on saying that "this is the year!" my favorite band is finally going to come out of recording hibernation, although I did hear just before writing this response that Emerson Hart is working on a new solo album. Whether that gets done or not in time remains to be seen, but that's probably at the top of my anticipated list. And I suppose I'm curious to see if Jorn can carry over the mad genius of his Dracula album to his 'normal' music. As far as metal goes, I can't think of anything right now. I don't consider that a good omen for next year.

What about you, and your surprises and disappointments?

D.M: Okay, let me tackle my major disagreement with one thing you said first - the purpose of a concert, as a veteran of a lot of them, is that you want to see the musicians perform in their own element - you want to see what they look like, what they sound like, how they play, what their energy level is.  There's a certain amount of psychology involved, in seeing the manner of a band as they exert their effort into bringing fans their creation up close and personal.  Now, that may not work in necessarily the same vein at an arena show, where fans may be rows and rows of terrible or obstructed view away, but there is a certain kinship in the smaller clubs, a sense of art appreciation, if one can be grandiose about it.  That kinship extends not just to the musicians on stage, but to your fellow fans, particularly in an underground genre like metal where the pervasive feeling 'think about all those squares who haven't discovered this yet.'  It's almost like seeing a Broadway show on video.  Sure, it's nice, but to see it live is to bring to life the emotion and passion of those performing the art.  Recordings, regardless of their peerless digital fidelity, can't replicate that.

It's funny you mention the argument about who is metal and who isn't, because I think I'm the only person who judges this argument on a nebulous and completely arbitrary case by case basis.  Guns 'n' Roses?  Not metal.  AC/DC?  Metal (though I admit there's an arguable point here.)  Deep Purple?  Not metal.  Def Leppard?  Not metal.  Led Zeppelin?  Not metal.  Hair metal of all stripes?  Not metal.  That doesn't mean I don't like the bands I say are not metal, I really love Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in particular.  It just means that for whatever reason, the rationale that they somehow belong in metal doesn't mean much to me.  That said, even though I would classify AC/DC as metal, I would also say that The Black Album is the most successful metal album ever, despite the overwhelming sales numbers of "Back in Black."  Before you ask, I don't know why.  My life has larger concerns.

Citing Slayer as an example, the counterpoint I would make to your argument about how Billy Joel can still sell out MSG without new material is that Slayer can't do that WITH new material.  The only way Slayer could work a crowd like that is if they were opening for Billy Joel (hilarious.)  But I'm not coming down on Slayer for that, I guess what I'm saying is that Slayer can currently sell out PlayStation Theater in Manhattan (or whatever it's called this week,) while they're on tour for new material, or they can sell it out when they were playing the 20th anniversary tour of "Seasons in the Abyss."  Since Slayer is at that age when their fans, as we seem to agree, largely want to hear their older material, I don't think their ticket sales are all that impacted by the release of a new album.  Perhaps, perhaps, they tour slightly more often, but the overarching question is, if Slayer knows that (and they must,) then what's the impetus to keep working for new music, unless they're actually making enough in album sales to justify it?  (This seems unlikely, but not impossible, given the present marketplace.)  Now, Slayer may be a poor example in this case because it's easy to envision a scenario where a defiantly bitter Kerry King and Tom Araya are dead set on proving that they can still be Slayer without Dave Lombardo and Jeff Hanneman (spoiler - they can't,) and thus the continued push to crank out more music.

Hey, waitaminute.  All this talk about seasonal album listen and atmospheric music, and we haven't taken a single cheap shot at Sunn O)))!  We're off our game!  Didn't they make a yoga remix album?  (Not a joke - pretty sure they made some kind of yoga record in the last year or so.)  I guess Sunn O))) isn't culturally relevant enough to be part of our conversation this time (cheap shot #1!  Take it to the bank!)

The big surprise for me was the album from the Texas Hippie Coalition, not because it was great and I expected it not to be, but because it was great at a different level than we were accustomed to seeing from the band.  I and I think many of their fans thought that THC was an animal we knew, a known commodity.  For their record this year though, they raised their own standard a good deal, now with guitarist Cord Pool fully involved in the writing of material.  After four albums, it was a pleasant and unusual surprise to see the band reinvent themselves (within reason,) to produce their most effective album to date.

Secondly, while it won't make my top ten (spoiler,) I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Surgical Meth Machine.  For an album I expected to take no value from whatsoever based on its teasers and pre-hype, there were some cuts there that pop up occasionally in my playlist.  Well done.

Weird though this may sound, I managed to dodge a lot of potential major disappoints musically this year.  Some of this is that it was a decent year for music as we've already discussed, but I think a lot of it, and this isn't necessarily good for my journalistic integrity, is that anything I was overtly afraid would be disappointing I summarily evaded altogether.  Ignorance, regretfully, appears to be bliss.

I will add these points though - Scorpion Child's follow up to their hugely successful debut was not nearly at the level it could and should have been.  There was none of the pop and virility that characterized their first work, which was a shame.  The other thing I would note, and I'm hesitant because so much of the value of this album, as we discussed at length back in the summer, is tied into the listener's predilections, was Volbeat's "Seal the Deal & Let's Boogie."  I don't want to go too deep down that rabbit hole again, and listen, I totally get that there a lot of people who got exactly what they wanted from this record, but having such affection for "Beyond Hell/Above Heaven" meant that this record didn't deliver on the promise I was anticipating.  Not a bad record, but a letdown for me personally.

Right now, three things (well, four,) I'm looking forward to in 2017.  One, and least germane to our conversation, is the concept of the Raiders might still be playing football in January.  It's been a while.  Other than that, one thing on the radar right now - March is slated to see the release of an album from a band called Crystal Fairy, which is a supergroup of Melvins' Buzz Osborne, Le Butcherettes' Teri Gender Bender and At The Drive-In's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.  That could be great, and it could be awful, and I can't wait to find out which it is.  Also, Life of Agony is slated for an album in 2017, supposed to come early, but either way, I'm very curious to see how the circuitous route the band took to get here had altered their style, if at all.

Lastly, Paul Ablaze, now of Crimson Shadows, promised me that Blackguard's final album, "Storm" would be released in 2016.  It didn't happen.  So, I'm putting it on the list of things I want to see next year, and I will every year until either it happens or he tells me to shut up about it.

I will give you first crack at final thoughts

CHRIS C: I wasn't taking issue with the live experience. I was only opining about the bands that have played the exact same songs the exact same way for ten or twenty years. I'm not sure I get the appeal of hearing exactly the same thing over and over again if you frequent the same band. That being said, while I have never attended a show that was not a local band, one of the small hopes that I have is that Graveyard managed to have some professional cameras around to film one of their shows. We've both seen footage of them from the European festival circuit, and I for one would love to have a DVD documenting them doing their thing, since they never came close enough to me to even consider seeing them in person.

I don't disagree with your categorizations, except that I don't think AC/DC is particularly metal either. I think all of the bands listed are rock bands. But even if they are metal, the reason "The Black Album" would be the most successful metal album anyway is that it had more of an impact. No bands changed what they were doing because of "Back In Black". Metallica made people pick up instruments, they made metal bands write for the radio, they made the entire idea of The Big Four possible. Like the results or not, but everything about metal in the 90s was a reaction to Metallica.

Honestly, I think what keeps Slayer making records is simply Kerry King's own mouth. He has slagged on so many bands for so long about being nostalgia acts, or not giving the fans enough, that his already tarnished reputation would be shredded if Slayer became a touring nostalgia act. We already know Slayer is only in it for the money at this point, but we can at least pretend they aren't when there's still a new record in the offing (side note: I actually like "Christ Illusion"). If they shut that part down, they would be a business, and no one wants to go see IBM on tour.

I know completely what you mean about avoiding disappointments. There are plenty of albums, including by big names, I didn't even bother checking out this year, simply because I already knew I wasn't going to like them. What would be the point of me listening to another Meshuggah album, when all it's going to do is waste an hour of my life? I think it's perfectly normal that, at our age, we're weary of wasting our time on what is sure to be lackluster material from names we know, when that time could be better spent finding something new and exciting. No shame in that.

We already had the Volbeat discussion. I hold the weird opinion of agreeing in total with you that Volbeat is no longer the band we want them to be, but also finding this new record to be such well-written bubblegum metal that I love it anyway. How's that for cognitive dissonance?

To start wrapping things up, I think what I'm going to remember from 2016 is the profound sense of sadness that it was all about. There are the obvious non-musical reasons, but when you add on Lemmy's death (not that I'm a huge Motorhead fan), Graveyard's breakup, and the lack of truly amazing records, this year doesn't feel like it advanced the ball down the field. It was a bubble screen that got stopped at the line of scrimmage. You might fall forward for a yard, but you're behind the chains.

And yes, this last month or so has had less interesting music than any period I can recall. I'm now realizing just how much the quality of the music makes or breaks this job. I'm hoping that the new year will see more great and terrible records, so I have plenty to talk about. Mediocrity does not command my attention.

So I suppose this is where I say on to 2017, and on to a better year.

D.M: I'm pretty much on the same page here.  The quality of the music we get exposed to certainly outweighs the importance of the quantity of the music we get exposed to (which is considerable and if we're being honest, impossible to digest in its totality.)  I'm thinking next year might be a good year to spend some time in reflection of music for me - we've now spent so long doing this, so much time looking to the horizon for whatever the next thing might be that I know I missed something.  To paraphrase what Master Yoda told Luke, my mind was never on where I was, or what I was doing in the process of this all.  So I think a lot of my focus this coming year will be directed toward re-analyzing the conclusions I had drawn and seeing where there might be patterns that I missed.  Honestly, I'm looking forward to it.

That's all I got.

CHRIS C: On that reflective note, we will end the discussion here. We can think more about where we've already been, and wait for 2017 to surprise us, for a change.

Ever onward!

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Conversation: 2016 In Review, Part I

Chris C: Another year has passed us by, and with that recognition, we must abide by the ritual and assess where this particular trip 'round the sun has taken us. Since I have been formally tracking every album I listen to as a critic, it had seemed that each year was getting better and better, with more albums coming along each year that I either loved dearly, or at least liked a considerable amount. I have fickle tastes, so what started as a difficult task in finding ten albums at the end of a year I felt strongly enough about to even mention turned into a difficult task in cutting the list down and leaving some unawarded.

That stretch ended this year. For whatever reason, be it a confluence of bands hitting the gap in between albums, or my own personal life leaving me in a place where I was less receptive to new music, 2016 was a weaker year than the last few that we have covered together. There are absolutely those few records at the top of my list that I adore, but once we slide beyond them, the depth of quality simply isn't there. It could be that I have finally hit the point of being jaded to anything but greatness (Does there come a point where we are, for the sake of argument, saturated with music?), but I'm going to choose to stay optimistic and think that it was merely bad luck that the music world didn't deliver more knockouts.

To a degree, we knew this was bound to happen at some point, as the old guard both retires and dies off (which is happening at an alarming rate, it seems). Old bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, In Flames, and plenty more released middling to awful records this year. New bands needed to rise up to fill those spots, and by and large, they haven't managed to gain a foothold as consistent standout performers. I've noticed that over the last few years, there have been any number of great debut releases that have made me say a band was on the verge of doing something exceptional, and every single one of them has failed to live up to my own hype. The only band you and I can agree has done so is Graveyard, and this miserable year has taken them from us.

So I suppose I will start the conversation by asking a simple question; was 2016 a terrible year for music, and if so, what caused it?

D.M: Well, I think 'terrible' is a strong word to use.  As I look back at my 2016 in music, my running list of contenders for album of the year still runs twenty-five or so deep, so I'm definitely not grasping at straws to find ten albums (or eleven, as I usually do,) that have merit, and there have certainly been years when rounding up ten records is hard, so 2016 has that going for it.  I will say this, I agree that this year has fewer albums that I would really shout from the mountain top as being great records that are defensible against any argument.  There are two or three to be certain, but as I start to sketch the presumptive list in my head, albums 5-10(11) I feel are fairly interchangeable, and that's a distinct separation from the previous handful of years.  So I think this year has possessed some level of diminished good relative to its immediate forebears, but I also don't want to leap from precipice and regard diminished good as bad.  And you never know what can happen late - Niche's "Heading East" attached itself to the coattails of my list at the last possible moment for entry, so hey, who know?  There's a new Metallica album today which I haven't heard yet, so maybe there's something there.

Which dovetails nicely into your point about old bands hanging on too long.  I'm with you to an extent - I didn't even listen to the new Megadeth or Anthrax, because I didn't feel like there was any new real estate there for me.  Now, that's not an ageist argument, it's an indictment of those bands' recent works.  For all the nonsense and bullshit that surrounded the release of "Worship Music," second in that ignominious category only to "Chinese Democracy," it wasn't a very strong output.  Same goes for nearly every Megadeth album since "Rust in Peace," though I know I liked parts of "Endgame" and you defend one of the it "Risk?"  Forgive my shoddy memory.  By contrast, I am very interested in the new Metallica album, and let that be a tease for later on, because I want to finish my point before I move on.  There are two 'old' bands, who, spoiler alert, will likely land somewhere in the spectrum of my top albums from the year, Death Angel and Lacuna Coil (is Lacuna Coil old now?  What's the threshold here?  Who decides these things, and how do I get on the council?)  Now, Death Angel has some leeway in the age department because their career took such a prolonged hiatus right in the middle, so hearing new material from them is a little like the cliche of finding a classic, dormant Corvette in perfect working condition in your great-grandfather's garage.  Sure, it's old, but it's been untapped for so long, it literally has a lot of miles still to go.  Lacuna Coil, by contrast, has been working pretty steadily since the turn of the millennium, (sidebar apropos of nothing - we are one of the few lucky generations who will get to use the term 'turn of the millennium' WAY more than 'turn of the century.'  Not to be all John Madden about it, but that literally only happens every thousand years,) and they continue to produce robust content.  So what's making these bands fade?  Are they past their effectiveness, or are they just out of stories to tell, retreading the same old tunes over and over like Bruce Springsteen? (Boom!  Annual Springsteen Dig!  Got it out of the way early!)  Is that functionally the same thing?

I also firmly believe that we may never again see bands that dominate the marketplace, particularly one as fractured and preferential as music, ever again.  It's easy to point the tent poles of metal, but it's happening in nearly all genres.  As those bands age out and fade away, the market just doesn't seem to want to support that kind of singularity again.  There's too much variety that's too readily available, and too much social media targeted directly to narrow tastes to encourage cross-genre expansion or reception (I could write a term paper on why that's a bad thing, but I won't do it here.)  I mean, there's just never going to be another Beatles or Van Halen or Aerosmith.  That era is done.  Which isn't good or bad, but it's true.  I mean, who's even come close in the past twenty years?  Muse?  Coldplay?  Big, sure, successful, yes, but not in that strata, not with that same longevity.

Which brings me to Metallica.  Now, it's unfair to say they resurrected their career with "Death Magnetic," because they weren't suffering for popularity in the first place, but let's at least posit that they regained their street cred (thanks, Rick Rubin!) and were able to shelve much of the unnecessary drama surrounding the apologetically bad "St. Anger."

I am a Metallica fan (not all of their records, but a lot of them.)  Which I admit without shame or reservation.  The haters need to get over it.  Metallica, for better or worse, is the current standard by which all metal is judged, and only Black Sabbath shares that throne.  The other members of metal's Illuminati, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, whomever you put in there, are all one step below those two.  And I love many of those bands even more than I like Metallica, but it's irrefutable.  I'm not telling you anything you don't know, so don't feel like that's directed at you.  For all that though, there's another reason I'm interested in the Metallica record.

I have a theory (one of too many, let me assure you,) that says if you encountered someone from another planet or whatever, and had to define a band's entire career to that person, you could give them the complete story of that band's musical career in three albums or less.  Works for everybody.  Iron Maiden? "Killers," "Number of the Beast," "Brave New World" (and yes, I am consciously ignoring the Blaze Bayley years, because not to be harsh, but they added nothing to the band's legacy.)  AC/DC?  "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black."  Soundgarden? "Louder Than Love," and a dealer's choice between "Badmotorfinger" and "Superunknown."  Let's take on the Beatles: "Hard Day's Night," The White album, "Let it Be."  The list goes on and on.

Except, weirdly enough, for Metallica.  I grant you, you might not need every album to tell their story - you can probably lump "Kill 'em All" with "Ride the Lightning" and "Load" with "Reload," but other than that, you need every single one of those records, good and bad, to tell the complete story of Metallica and how they got here.  All those records are so different in production, style and reception that it's like a play in an unprecedented seven or eight acts.  To me, this is astonishing.  I can think of no other band who had produced such a different product at every iteration of their career, with predominately the same lineup, where each of every one of those personalities is an integral part of their history.  If Metallica were an article in a peer-reviewed journal, there'd be no point in writing an abstract, because you couldn't condense it.  I can't think of anyone else who fits that bill, you?

Chris C: I might have been a bit over the top when I said this has been a terrible year, but I think we're both saying the same thing here. For whatever reason, 2016 has not had as much cream rising to the top. And even among the solid albums that make up that second level, I would argue that there are fewer albums that are memorable for whatever reason. There is plenty of room to be good, not great, but in a way that you can easily remember long after the album has come and gone from the release cycle. I'm struggling to come up with as many of those kinds of albums. It has been a rather faceless year in music.

We've had this discussion before about old bands. They often don't have a chance when they release new music. First off, there are plenty of those bands whom no one actually cares to listen to new music from. For example, Elton John released a very nice record this year, and practically no one in the world cared in the slightest. I won a copy in a contest, because I was just about the only one who entered. But I think the bigger problem, as evidenced by my feelings on the new Metallica album, are that we can often hear when the bands don't care about making new music. That can largely be attributed to the previous point. Whether it's Slayer making the same record again and again, or Anthrax churning out music with a singer they spent a decade saying they never liked in the first place, or Megadeth using records as an excuse for Mustaine to comment on politics, so much of it is a band going through the motions. When you do hear something from a veteran group that you know is truly inspired and from the heart, which I would say Iron Maiden has been doing (whether you like it or not), it gives you hope. Or at least it gives me hope.

Oh, and while there was a time when I defended "Risk", the Megadeth album I defend whole-heartedly these days is "The System Has Failed". I do legitimately think it's a really good record.

You do bring up an interesting point. Seeing as how we are aging along with the bands, time comes and goes so quickly that it's hard to draw the line when they become 'old', because that means we are as well. This thought has been creeping up on me as I notice more and more of the records that defined my taste have his their twentieth anniversaries. It's hard not to call them old bands, in that case, even if I'm not ready to throw myself into that category. I'll use the easy way out, and say that any band older than my conscious memory qualifies as old. There are precious few of them that are still making worthwhile music. And few from the generation you're referring to either. There comes a certain point where you've heard enough from them that you have to be a hardcore fan to continue wanting to hear more of the same. Myself, I can't imagine many bands I would feel that way about.

No, there will never be a massive band again. Even in the world of pop, we see that the big stars are smaller than they used to be (aside from Adele - and no, that was not a weight joke). It used to be that even if you didn't pay close attention to the charts, you would hear the big hits in enough places that you would at least be casually familiar with them. That will never happen with The Chainsmokers or Rae Sremmurd (The latter being proof metal is not the only place for rampant stupidity. They give the orifice/fluid bands a run for their money. Ear drummers spelled backwards.... ugh). It goddamn better not. The downside to fracturing isn't just that no band can ever become cross-genre huge again, it's that there is a pressing urge to stick within the confines, which will only serve to make each genre increasingly stale. Sadly, other than Foo Fighters, the last band to reach the level of success you're talking about probably would be Oasis. Think about that...

Before Metallica takes over, let me just argue your Beatles example. While I do agree that you can largely cover their territory in three records, I would choose different ones. You can take any of their early records, but then I think you need "Rubber Soul", not just because it's my favorite, but because it exemplifies the shift when they became both drug users and experimental within their own context. Then I would cap it off with "Revolver", which is as diverse as "The White Album", but just a lot better. Point taken, however.

Metallica is where we diverge. While I respect their importance, they have never appealed to me as a fan. There isn't a single Metallica album that I ever want to sit through as a whole. I've never once thought that James and Lars are consistent enough in the quality of work they put out (or in their ability to know when their ideas are terrible and need to be cut). But you are right about one thing; Metallica has undergone as much evolution as any band I can think of during their career. I say band, because I would argue that Elvis Costello might have the most diverse career I've ever seen, but he's a topic for another time. You can view that adaptability however you want. Sometimes it's a virtue, other times it's a sin. What I think it means, at least the way I see it, is that even Metallica themselves don't know exactly what they are.

And that actually leads me to why I seldom like their records. For most of the last two decades, it always seems to me that they're doing what they think someone else wants them to. They made "Load" when they thought the radio was ready for Metallica to rule the airwaves. They made "St. Anger" when they thought they had to return to being as heavy as possible, and now they're making records that sound more like the old days, because the fans have been clamoring for exactly that. Megadeth has done the same thing. Every couple of albums, Mustaine writes a mostly pure thrash record, when the fans make it clear they're sick of whatever else he's trying to do. I find it a bit phony. That's a reason I have to be in a certain mood to listen to either of those bands.

Speaking of moods, we were scheduled to talk about a phenomenon I encountered specifically with Katatonia's record this year. As a depressing album released during the sunny part of the year, it struck me as a good record at first. It was only later on, when I was in a different state of mind, that I was able to wrap my head around the music and appreciate it more fully as the emotional ride it is. It was the clearest example yet of how both the weather and my mood can affect how I hear music. The same album will not have the same impact in the summer as the winter, when I'm optimistic as when I'm depressed. I broached this subject once before, and was met with puzzled looks. So I will ask you, am I alone in being so swayed by the chemicals swirling in my head?

D.M: I just want to touch on something you said at the tail end of your first thought before I venture too much farther down the rabbit hole.  You mentioned the large number of bands who put our debut records that show great promise but then fail to deliver on a follow up.  For me, this actually isn’t all that uncommon, disappointingly so as a matter of fact.  Still though, it is my entirely anecdotal opinion that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.  A band, once formed, spends all their best efforts on their first album.  It’s the album that gets them signed, the one they’ve been playing for years, where all their inspiration flows and tweaks and memorizes the minutia.  Once that wave has passed, all of that has to happen again now for a second album, and it’s incredibly difficult to conjure up that same kind of momentum again.

Recently, I had occasion to sift through my entire music collection and edit together a list of the best one hundred albums ever released (naturally, I settled on 101.)  What shocked me as I put the finishing touches on the list wasn’t the number of debut albums on the list, but rather the number of debut albums that were made by bands who either released only more album and then called it quits, or never released a sophomore at all.  I can’t think of analogous phenomenon anywhere else in our cultural experience, where the first effort can be historically great, only to never be followed up on at all.  I’m finally starting to understand those music fans I encounter of a certain age who talk about things like ‘yeah, Led Zeppelin was great, but there were these three other bands that never made it big…’

You mentioned Graveyard – what made Graveyard so interesting both as a fan and as a music academic was that it was their second effort that really showed their growth and potential, not their first.  And that’s sort of the unicorn in music, right?  Those rare bands that have real longevity in the medium are the ones who survive past the first iteration.  Which naturally makes it all the all more shocking and disappointing that the band called it quits at the height of their power.

Anyway, Metallica.  I feel like I say this whenever we have these conversations, but I think we have to be careful not to deny both options of the fork in Metallica’s road.  On one hand, we’ve both excoriated a hundred different bands for failing to adapt at all, and that’s how we come to more or less condemn Slayer at this point (and deservedly so.)  So I think we have to tread carefully in coming down hard on Metallica for going through some fairly dynamic musical changes, made all the more rare by the relative lack of movement in the band’s lineup.  Now, I also see the argument you’re making – that it’s not that Metallica keeps evolving, it’s that they keep evolving into whatever they think people want, rather than what they want, so the tail is wagging the dog, so to speak.  I get that, there’s validity to that argument.  It’s funny how when the band went back to trying to be as heavy as possible, they did so with the producer who made them a rock band and the whole thing spiraled out of control until Rick Rubin took us all back to basics (inside joke: salt is the Rick Rubin of spices, as we all know.)

So, to the question you actually asked – I don’t think you’re at all alone on the nature of your music appreciation being affected by, well, nature.  I think your problem is that you talked about the phenomenon with me, and I’m one of those rare weirdos who doesn’t engage in situational music listening (with the exception of when I’m going to play basketball, where I discovered years ago that if I listen to rap on the way there, I actually play worse, however paradoxical that may seem.)  So really, I’m the minority here.  Now, where I think the divergence may exist is that among the population who listens to music seasonally or emotionally, there’s probably a split between those who listen to music that reinforces their feeling versus those who listen to music to overcome their feeling.  That, as an outside observer, feels like where the Hatfield/McCoy battle lines could be drawn.  So, which are you?  Are you someone who listens to sad music while they’re sad, or happy music while they’re sad (pardon me for oversimplifying your emotional state.)  But let’s hit this deeper – do you think the calendar has an effect on how we receive music when we review it?

Last thought for now, I promise.  As we discuss this year as being of some degree of diminished quality, you mentioned something to me offline about compiling your favorite singles of the year, and that’s when it hit me.  I think some of my malaise about this crop of albums is that I can’t recall a bunch of really remarkable singles like I can in previous years.  As a perfect example, a handful of years ago Battlecross released “War of Wills” and the album was above average as a whole, but the single “Flesh and Bone” was the best song released that year.  Am I alone in this?  Is the problem a lack of singles?

Chris C: Yes, it is absolutely true that one of the main problems any band has is the shortening of the creative period for the second album. I can speak from my limited experience as a creative type, but having the ability to write and cultivate until you have an album's worth of material you have harvested from the mass of your work is certainly going to provide different results than specifically writing an amount of music to fill a record. That being said, there is something to be said for the pressure of writing to a deadline. It can also be a driving factor, if you have the right mindset for it to take hold. And though we may not want to admit it, we also have to factor in that the labels can exert some pressure on these bands to either change things up, or recreate what they have already done, to boost sales. There are any number of factors that could explain a slide in quality for album number two. Plus, I also hold the belief that everyone who is creative, regardless of the medium, only has so many ideas in them. That number will differ for everyone, but if you run through them too quickly, you're left with scarps to continue on with.

As you know, I have done that same project twice before. In fact, it might be time to update the listings once again. [Spoiler: coming to the site in 2017?] Back to the point; one of the things I find interesting is how when making such a list, I notice that's when you can clearly separate albums by even your favorite bands. Very few artists are able to repeatedly chart multiple albums on the hierarchy, no matter how much we otherwise assume their catalog in unimpeachable. At least that's how it works for me. As to the phenomenon you describe, Harper Lee comes to mind. "To Kill A Mockingbird" couldn't possibly have been followed up, which she seemed to know. A total one-and-done.

Most people don't even realize Graveyard had a first album. It was a bit less fleshed out than "Hisingen Blues", but you could tell from it that they had huge potential. You're right about growth. It isn't easy to find bands that are able to grow and expand their horizons and retain their audience. We have to realize that as fans, we don't actually want our bands to grow. When an audience groans as a new song is played at a show, what lesson are we supposed to learn? Slayer gets by because every album is relatively the same, so it doesn't matter to the casual fan which songs they play. It all sounds like Slayer to them, which is all they want.

I don't give Metallica grief because they changed. I give bands of all stripes a hard time when they do change, claim that it's because their heart is taking them in that direction, and then they turn around and ignore that entire chapter of their history. Metallica is a low-level offender. I would put Anthrax much higher on the list. I heard Scott Ian talk for a decade about how much he loves John Bush, never really liked Joey Belladonna, and the music they made in that second act was where they truly wanted to go. And now, they can't run away from that material fast enough. Or you have Testament, who essentially became a death metal band over the years, only to hop on the nostalgia train once they weren't selling tickets any longer. It's hard to take any change as honest when we've been burned so often.

And just to mention "The Black Album". Can we please stop giving Bob Rock hell over it? Metallica wrote every damn note of that record, and they were damn sure powerful enough to have not made that record if they didn't want to. All Bob Rock did was take Metallica's new direction, and make it into one of the best sounding records ever made. If you blame Bob Rock, you're saying Metallica are a bunch of weak-willed people who got pushed over. Does that really sound like them?

I'm not sure how to answer your question, because I don't exactly listen to music based on my mood. I'm one of those people who struggles to understand the appeal of miserable music. I certainly don't get the mechanics of misery making you feel better. When I hear something that is written to evoke the worst of our feelings, I always ask myself the same question; why would I want to put myself through that? It makes no sense to me to intentionally evoke the kinds of feelings that you would normally spend years in therapy trying to get rid of. So for me it isn't about matching my mood, per se. The bigger thing is what you mentioned about time. Yes, I believe the calendar is an underrated factor that labels get wrong all the time. For the sake of the example, let's go back to Katatonia. They made a melancholic album of reflective sorrow. It's both beautiful and emotional. And it came out in May, when the sun is shining and Spring is in full bloom. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to connect with the darkness as life is literally blossoming outside my window. Are Christmas movies as effective in June? Some people still watch them, but there does seem to be a preferable window to consume them.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think the way music is promoted now has definitely led to a shift in the way it is written. If every band on a decent-sized label knows that there are going to be three or so songs released in video format before the album comes out, there are two realities: 1) They will mostly play to the genre crowd, and 2) No one track is the focus. If there isn't a single track to focus the attention on to hype the record, the bands don't need to hone one track to the point of being able to cross boundaries. They can release three decent tracks that play to the crowd, prove the record is solid, and rely on them to pick up the rest. So it isn't that there's a lack of singles, it's actually that there are too many of them. We're so flooded by pre-release tracks that we don't get true singles anymore.

Oh, and to that point, can I just point how that I hate the way pre-release is done by certain labels? If you're going to put out several tracks, and have it up for pre-order on iTunes for a month, there's no reason to not release the samples of every track on the record. When they don't let me preview them all, it only makes me think they're trying to hide weak material and hope I buy it before I realize the record isn't very good. I know it sounds ridiculous to say, since we both grew up long before there was such a thing as previewing an album before release, but these days it seems like the best way to make people want to buy it. If it's good, I'll be more likely to make the purchase than if you hide it from me.

That was a large amount of text. Your turn.

Check back Wednesday for Part II!