A 2012 Retrospective

Before doing the 2013 round-up, it is always good to remind ourselves how everything changes with time. As someone who puts my thoughts out there on a blog, I’m painfully aware of how my opinions on music change over time. I imagine there are probably people out there that don’t grow or don’t spend enough time with music to come to a better appreciation of things that will have no idea what I’m talking about in this post.

I’ll start with my two biggest errors of last year. The first is Behold…The Arctopus’ album Horrorscension. This didn’t make my top 10. Now that I know what I know (namely that it is one of the only albums that still gets some listens this late into the next year) I feel ashamed. That album has the greatest re-listen value out of anything I reviewed last year. The complexity and brilliance of the writing still blows my mind.

Behold…The Arctopus actually writes their music out. They don’t just jam together and hope something cool will happen. They really sit down and carefully construct what they are doing. I wish I could get my hands on that sheet music (OK, just googled it to make sure it wasn’t sitting out there for me to look at). As a lover of music theory, I’d be ecstatic. Heck. I’d even put in the time to do some hardcore analysis and post it here for you all to read. As it stands now I can only get bits and pieces through listening alone. This might be why I didn’t think it was great last year. It was just too much for my puny brain to handle.

My second is Spawn of Possession’s Incurso. I only found this album because it appeared on so many people’s top 10 lists. It actually appeared as number one on most that I read. I really didn’t want to like it for this reason alone. It is silly, but I felt like I liked it just because everyone else did. Spawn of Possession is a little bit like Behold…The Arctopus in the following sense. If BTA is a metal band that plays early-mid 20th century art music (Boulez, Xenakis, etc) then SOP plays neo-classical music as a metal band.

There is something bizzarely amazing about it. If you look at the tonal structure, scalar patterns, and even articulation patterns it looks theoretically like some type of classical music. There are certainly very modern twists, but at it’s core it almost sounds and feels this way. It is very technical and dense like BTA as well, and for this same reason is rewarding upon many, many listens. I often find myself craving it, and pull it out for a listen. Again, this is quite strange that it has lasted this long into the next year because it didn’t make my year end list. More importantly, I didn’t even like it that much at first.

So those are my two big errors of what should have made my best albums of last year but didn’t. On the other side, I was quite wrong about whether or not the top 5 would have a lasting effect. I should know this by now. Essentially nothing is going to last very long in rotation. That’s just the way it goes when you listen to tons of stuff, and continually listen to new things to review. Albums barely come back into rotation when I’ve started the next album, so it would be absurd to think it would still be around six months or more down the line.

Suffice it to say, the only album of my top 5 that I still occasionally listen to is T.R.A.M.’s Lingua Franca. Darn that thing is one heck of a good album. I really hope that wasn’t just a once thing. I can’t find anything like it. Straight-up great standard jazz playing with a hard, metal edge to it. As for the honorable mentions, I have returned to the Meshuggah, 22, and Eagle Twin, so I’d say my top 5 should almost be swapped with the honorable mentions but add in those two mistakes above.

Just remember this when I do my halfway through 2013 post. I am quite aware that my opinions on these things will greatly change with time, so they should be thought of as temporary nonsense that you can take or leave.

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Rapid Reviews Part 1

I’ve been hunting through all the various best of the year lists to find some things that are common to the ones that seem good to me. I’ll do a few of these “rapid reviews” every time I get through three new albums found on these lists. In a sense, I’m reviewing your favorites. Of course, I’ve barely digested these albums, so my opinion will without a doubt change a ton as they settle in. These are more just initial impressions.

First, Panopticon’s Kentucky. Um, how did I miss this? This album takes the bizarre idea that Kentucky Bluegrass and Black Metal are cut from the same cloth. This idea fascinates me as a banjo player. The banjo is a very raw instrument that has the ability to add a deep sadness to any genre of music if used properly (see Copeland’s Beneath Medicine Tree or Sufjan Stevens for how indie rockers have succeeded in this). This seems a perfect combination.

I think there are songs on this album that really make this work. These are absolutely fantastic. Sometimes there are huge stretches of just standard BM that kind of turn me off. My favorite stuff on this album is actually their bluegrass writing where no metal appears. There seems to be this weird pro-mining union theme to the album which I also found quite strange. It unifies the songs, but serves as distraction to me otherwise.

Overall I think the idea is brilliant and lots of the album executes well. There is enough that I don’t like (right now) that I can’t bring myself to give it higher than a 6.5/10. I want more of this type of thing, so I hope some other bands try to experiment in this direction. My favorite on the album:

Next, Exotic Animal Petting Zoo’s Tree of Tongues is quite the experience. I’m not sure what to call them. There is a bit of mathcore, a bit of post-hardcore, a bit (can I really bring myself to say this?) Nu-metal. If you want to really rock out to something the first few tracks give you the chance. This might disappoint people looking for really abstract metal. There’s actually grooves without being djenty and fascinating harmonies underneath melodic singing.

On the one hand, I want to criticize the overly commercial formula of starting quiet and slow building to a huge emotional climax, but it is just so darned effective. I have goosebumps through the whole ending of Arcology every time I listen to the angry shouting “Left with no decision/ My body falls to the floor” as the narrator commits suicide thinking it is the absolute only option. Then after it is too late to back out (took pills maybe?) he realizes a way out. Maybe I’ve been too close to people in the past in this exact situation justifying their act with the phrase “I will suffer no more.”

I’m giving them a pass for having just enough mathcore thrown in periodically that it somehow negates any thoughts of commercialism. I’ll probably keep coming back to this one anytime time I’m in the mood for straightforward awesome rock that toys with my emotions. I’m giving it a 9/10 right now, but I could see that number dropping as the initial excitement wears off. Here’s a (not very representative) sample of the song I referred to earlier:

Lastly, I’ll end with Spawn of Possession’s Incurso. I’m not sure what I can say about this. They play something akin to blackened technical death metal. This is just way, way too complicated for me to make any sensible comments for a few more weeks. I’ll try just for giggles.

My initial reaction is that playing “technical music” should enhance the songs in a few ways. One is that it develops and embellishes musical ideas. Another is that there are tons of different ways to be technical (tonally, speed, articulation, time, rhythm, etc) and using these keeps things interesting. Spawn of Possesion does seems to understand this for a huge majority of the album, but…

My initial critique is that there are several parts that cause my eyes to glaze over because it seems to just be about playing super fast scales. That’s cool and all, but is the masturbatory aspect of tech-death that turns me off. It is technique that isn’t very interesting and doesn’t seem to enhance the music at all.

One critique is more of the genre than of this particular album. The double pedal for the bass drum has killed a lot of good drumming in the genre. Now, one great thing about this album is that Henrik Schönström actually avoids excessive use of this technique, and the overall sound of the bass drum seems to be dampened so that when it happens it doesn’t drown out everything the rest of the band is working hard to achieve (cough, freaking Born of Osiris, cough).

Overall, I’m not super excited about this album because of the aforementioned lack of variety in parts. On the other hand, every single listen I pick up tons and tons of new interesting things that contradict my initial view of there being too much fast scale playing. As of right now, I’m only going with a 7.5/10, but I fully intend to keep listening and my guess is this number will go way up. Here’s a song that without a doubt does not lack in variety: