Hooray! Here we are at the end of another year, which means its time for another year end music column! If you are here, you’ve probably read one of these before, so welcome back! If you are new it means I met you in the last year and thought you were cool enough to let know this exists! Double hooray!
So let’s talk about 2015. Its always hard for me to separate the music that meant something to me from the experiences I had throughout the year. This year we moved into a new house, did a full remodel, tried working at a game company again, released a pretty good record with some pretty cool folks and met new friends in Petaluma. Lots of change for me as life slows down from the pace of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. I’m still not totally settled into it and find myself wishing for the city life here and there. But the allure of country living is strong. Sitting back and just letting things take a little longer teaches patience and appreciation. I think the dichotomy of wishing for the fast pace, but accepting the slowed down nature of my life is represented in my selections this year.
Oh! I made a new thing for this year’s edition. Its a continuous mix of standout songs across a variety of genres from things I really enjoyed. Some are from the albums mentioned below, but most are not. See if anything stands out to you.
Abyss is just an album in the same way that The Shining is just a movie or The Stand is just a book. Chelsea Wolfe has managed to fill this record with as much gloom, sadness and horror as those seminal works and basically pioneer the ‘Doom Folk’ genre at the same time. She tours with metal bands and has tons of indie cred from getting name dropped by important musician types. She totally deserves all of it. Carrion Flowers, Iron Moon and After the Fall are all outstanding songs that I have listened to many times this year. They are all expemplary of the style that Wolfe is going for. Big dramatic haunted house soundtracks featuring bizarre instrumentation and arrangements that keep the listener on edge. Her voice is angelic and demonic at the same time, conjuring all kinds of ghostly images and makes the hair on my arms stand up. Smaller, quieter tracks like Crazy Love and Survive provide a respite from all the doom and gloom while not feeling unnecessary or inconsequential. You need those songs to get a gasp of air before being sucked back down into her bizarre, tortured world. My favorite album of the year.
I mean look at that cover art. What the hell is that? Folds of skin overlapping each other and creating creases and seams you aren’t sure are supposed to be there. Is that an actual body part? The music on this album makes you ask the same types of questions. There are so many layers of noise, vocals, synths, and god knows what else happening all the time, that you can never be sure of what you are hearing. Is that a person or a synth? Drums or a vocal sample? Benjamin Powers from Fuck Buttons is the only member of Blanck Mass and he uses the side project to explore a darker, more industrial realm than his main gig. These songs don’t follow any kind of preset format, but like Fuck Buttons, he someone manages to hit crescendos on top of crescendos. You think the song is at its absolute peak and then he reveals a whole other level you didn’t think possible. In songs like Cruel Sport and Detritus its absolutely staggering. The fact that he also released a rescore of an obscure Italian horror film and put out the totally insane Great Confuso this year as well just means the guy has reams of material still to come. Headphones required for this album. Probably drugs too.
No matter what you think about Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, the fact that he got an amazing score from The Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel is undeniable. This monster clocks in at 37 tracks and almost 2 hours of music, the movie was almost wall to wall music. There are classic 80s style synth songs like Yes (Theme song to Lost River) in here as well as oddities like Deep Purple and Cool Water so the record covers a lot of ground, however it never overstays its welcome. Like the film, the soundtrack is determined to take you through its emotional highs and lows and uses lots of dialogue samples from the film to weave its own particular version of it. Johnny Jewel is really emerging as a master film composer and I cannot wait to see what he does in the future. Now release the new Chromatics record already!!
2015 was the year of the 90s band reunion and personally, I found the feeling similar to when they released those stupid Star Wars Enhanced versions. Why are you ruining my childhood?! Watching these old bands come back for one more go round was like watching a train wreck in slow motion over and over. Refused reformed and made a terrible record. Smashing Pumpkins had their worst album ever. Even goddamn Third Eye Blind has a record this year. Ugh. The only one that worked, was the long long awaited album from Failure, a band whose last album was 17 years ago. That’s a really long wait but I think it was worth it. Fantastic Planet came out in the late 90s and was immediately hailed as a classic. The songwriting and energy was impeccable. They seemed like a band on the verge of something huge, so of course they broke up. 15 years later the record has taken its place as a cult classic and an inspiration to tons of bands that followed. So what do you do as a follow up a decade and a half later? You don’t fuck with it. Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards stuck to the same types of songs they were writing back in the day and deliver them with gusto. The space guitar effects, the lazy tempos and drugged out soundscapes all seem totally appropriate again in the retro 90s music scene that’s popular now, but with the gift of maturity they can write songs about something other than getting stoned. The best song on the record, ‘I Can See Houses’, analyzes the irrational fear of flying in an airplane as it takes off. Its such a simple sentiment but coming from a band who has already had a career it takes on new meanings and I’m glad to be able to peek into that world.
A couple Swedish guys I never heard of made the best post-rock record of the year and they did it with a very simple setup. Take some guitars, drums and piano and use vocals at the right time and you can make something powerfully emotional. These songs trace a story about a criminal who gets run through the justice system and comes out changed. The lyrics are all about loss and pain and the music reflects this in long passages of brutal heaviness, using repetition to really drive home the concepts that the album seeks to explore. ‘These Depths Were Always Meant For Both Of Us’ is a standout track at the end of the album which finally comes full circle and reveals that only with another person can you make it through the hard times that life has in store for you. This whole album plays like a meditation on that simple theme. Powerful stuff.
On the surface Death Magic is a one song album. Every tune has a similar sound and feel. Benjamin Miller’s lyrics explore drugs, sex and death exclusively, often times using the exact same phrase in multiple songs and honestly, in a different context could easily be mistaken for Avril Lavigne outtakes. However, HEALTH are not a band to be taken lightly and every move seems thought out and purposeful. The album flows from one song to another, bouncing between upbeat, dance-able tunes before shifting into the percussion driven noise rock that got them started. This creates a really hypnotic feel that sucks me in. I feel like I am lost in Los Angeles at night. Driving on some freeway, stoned to the gills trying to remember whats so great about being alive.
Pentatones are another band that I knew nothing about, but managed to surprise me with a really solid record of songs. Hailing from Berlin and incorporating influences from The Knife, 80s songs and found sound, they manage to turn out one great song after another. Franziska Grohmann has an amazing voice that can take many forms, an important asset in these songs since sometimes they want to be playful, sometimes dark and creepy and sometimes just beautiful. Albrecht Ziepert‘s writing and production also deserve kudos since he is the only real member of the band and every song hits lots of the right emotional spots without coming across as rehashed. Pretty sure I could tour NoNight with this band and it would be an awesome double bill. Someone set that up for me.
This was a Bandcamp find that I made one day searching for 80s synth music and boy did it deliver. This is a compilation from the NYC based record label NewRetroWave and features a bunch of their artists, however it’s not the scattershot hodge podge you expect from a comp. Instead this feels almost like one band making an album, a testament to the genre and to the musicians and songs chosen to be featured on it. 80s retro synth tunes are really popular, and for good reason. For 30 somethings like me, these tunes conjure memories of our childhood, while younger kids can listen to this and imagine what they missed. Check out this label and all their releases, most of them are rock solid.
Ryan Lee West is the main guy behind this project, and as a guitar player turned composer, he uses his old instrument to inform many of his pieces. You hear echoes of it in the songs Looming and Walls, but its his beat making and sample choice which really make these songs stand out. He uses very little to communicate mood, instead relying on space and silence to help carve out his sonic territory. Howl moves like a piece of modern classical music, tracks blurring into each other with only a vague sense of breaks between songs. What you are left with is the emotional resonance of the piece as a whole, somewhere between sadness and longing.
Better known as a video game composer, Disasterpeace turned in a really outstanding score for this phenomenal film. Its main title was in my head for weeks and if I sing it or play it for Katie she immediately wants me to stop because she is afraid some demon is walking up behind her. Its not easy to stand out in the current field of composers for film and tv, but nothing else sounds like this right now. Can’t wait to hear what he does next.