My Top 15 Albums of 2017


Hi! Still existing and loving my family, hope the same goes for all of you. I may be retired from all else in the music world, but the year end list is eternal.

Sample size: I have 83 albums released in 2017 at the time of writing this. Can’t promise I actually listened to all of them.

Surgeon General’s Warning: Ranking music is silly and I generally discourage it.  (But I do it once a year anyway…….)

15. Chinese Man – Shikantaza

trip hop/hip hop

Sample track: Liar

fun French hip hop/trip hop album that seems to have gotten overlooked a lot. I listened to it a ton earlier this year. It’s not something I’ll remember years down the road, but it certainly earned a spot for as much as I played it.


14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

stoner prog

Sample track: Sanctuary

For me personally, this is probably the most unorthodox pick on my list, because it is heavily rock-centric in all the ways that typically turn me off. God but something about rock and roll has always felt absolutely soulless to me in a way that few genres can match at their worst. But Elder just do what they do so damn well that it’s impossible to hate this opus. An endless onslaught of prog ingenuity with a nice stoner rock crunch that keeps it driving from start to finish. It’s 64 straight minutes of ear candy without a dull note in the mix, and I have a world of respect for how flawlessly these guys accomplished what they set out to do.


13. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

post-black metal

Sample track: This Forest For Which We Have Killed

Krallice are responsible for a lot of the best music to come out this decade, and in 2017 they pumped out two new ones (both painfully late into the year for a band that requires a lot of repetition to fully appreciate). While I haven’t actually read anything about either of these yet, the distinctly different styles between them have me pretty convinced that Mick Barr wrote the bulk of this one and Colin Marston took charge on the other. Go Be Forgotten gets off to a glorious start with its opening track, but the remainder has so far failed to really captivate me to the extent that most of their previous works did. It doesn’t raise the bar (or if it does, it hasn’t sunk in yet), but it’s still a fascinating exploration of highly complex soundscapes that few other artists have the technical precision to delve. And god that opening riff is sick. Krallice will be a perpetual year end contender as long they keep doing what they do.


12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

folk rock

Sample track: When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay

I have mixed feelings about this album, and my inclination is to point out the negative; suffice to say, it’s not lacking in universal praise. It wouldn’t be on my list if I didn’t love it. The reason it’s not higher is that, as I see it, Tillman too often defaults to rather throw-away lines. That’s not inherently problematic (see: my #1 pick), but I think it clashes with the more refined, theatrical vibe of the sound around them. Simple case in point: Total Entertainment Forever kicks off with an absolutely delicious line–Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift–and follows it up with something so generic that I feel it only exists to achieve a rhyme–after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes. Sometimes gentle flaws make a work all the more endearing, but Pure Comedy goes too big and refined to get away with it for me. I feel like he aimed extraordinarily high and almost got there.


11. Tchornobog – Tchornobog

blackened death metal

Sample track: II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)

A landscape album as only blackened death metal can paint one. Tchornobog takes you on a 64 minute journey across an entirely unpleasant and stomach-turning waste of all purpose ugliness that really reflected how I’ve felt about the world this year any time I let my attention range beyond my immediate household. We’re talking death metal aesthetics here so yes, that can be a compliment. And while the visions are certainly exotic, there’s not much surrealism of the lofty, artistic sort you find on say, a Blut Aus Nord album. It’s just leaves you feeling kind of dirty. It hit a note I could appreciate while maintaining enough melody and progression to avoid succumbing to redundancy.


10. Hell – Hell

doom sludge

Sample track: Machitikos

Ridiculously heavy slow-rolled sludge that shouldn’t require any genre appreciation to crush your skull. At its peek on “Machitikos”, the quality of this album is unreal. Unfortunately I was pretty late to the ballgame, and their more ambient moments are going to take more than a sporadic month to leave a lasting impression or definitively fail to. Nowhere to move but further up the charts for this one.


9. Nokturnal Mortum – Істина

pagan metal

Sample track: Дика Вира

We’ve certainly come a long way from Knjaz Varggoth screaming hateful nonsense to crackling cassette recordings of Dollar General synth, and as endearing as Nokturnal Mortum’s early works may be, you can’t deny that he has matured (both musically and intellectually) substantially over the years. This album thoroughly lacks the trademark Eastern European folk metal execution that Knjaz inspired more than perhaps anyone else: brutally hammered folk jingles lashing out violently from beneath a wall of modern noise. Істина is a lot more even keel, to such an extent that its metal elements almost feel unnecessary at times. It fully embraces the more cerebral, orchestral sound we began to hear on Weltanschauung and leaves most else behind, achieving a new height in terms of orchestration. I do miss Knjaz’s more passionate explosions, but I don’t consider that a flaw. The real down side to the album for me stems from the studio. For all of its grand instrumental diversity, the complete package is a bit washed out. Everything feels like it’s playing in the background as a supporting element to a non-existent centerpiece. It’s something I’m certainly used to–Nokturnal Mortum have always struggled a bit on the finer finishing touches of sound production–but it’s still a fault that’s hard to ignore. An incredibly solid album that could have been even better.


8. Riivaus – Lyoden Taudein Ja Kirouksin

black metal

Sample track: Vihan Temppeli

This is probably the most unknown album on my list. It’s just straight-up black metal. No frills. No novelties. Really it’s the sort of thing I rarely listen to these days, because most great bm artists have moved on to more experimental fronts. But this is tight as fuck. The riffs are great and it’s got a nice punchy pace and a crisp tone that suits the mood perfectly. Outstanding debut from an unheard of artist. Hoping he sticks around for many years to come.


7. Thundercat – Drunk

funk/jazz

Sample track: Bus in These Streets

A tongue-in-cheek dreamfunk fantasy. Artists who can let a cheesy sound be cheesy often accidentally stumble into brilliance. This guy makes some of the goofiest sounds that funk and jazz have ever imagined somehow feel endearing. I’m also pretty impressed by how distinct his sound is. I mean, considering how radically uninformed on this sort of style I am, it kind of blew my mind that I could instantly go “this guy must have wrote the bass lines to Wesley’s Theory“. I think Drunk is an incredibly well-craft work masked behind a delicious veil of comedy. And it’s given us such eloquent 21st century mottos as “thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”


6. Krallice – Loüm

post-black metal

Sample track: Etemenanki

If Go Be Forgotten offered Krallice’s most deranged opening melody to date, Loüm might take the prize for their heaviest boot in the ass. Etemenanki hammers down all the brutality of a headbanger’s wet dream from the first note without budging an inch on Krallice’s classic eclectic tremolo noodling. I don’t think I’ve wanted to just open my mouth and shout “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” to a Krallice song this bad since Inhume. As with Go Be Forgotten, there’s a serious question of whether the album as a whole is really that great or if the opening song just carries it, and that’s not to knock the rest so much as to say that by Krallice’s ridiculously high standards I think it might have some mediocrity. You can never really tell with most Krallice songs until you’ve heard them four dozen times. It’s complicated, intricate shit that your brain doesn’t instinctively unravel. My gut tells me that Loüm will keep on growing on me in a way that Go Be Forgotten may struggle to, and I was right about that with Prelapsarian’s incredibly late release last year. (Yes, it is amazing.) The only lasting down point about Loüm for me is, surprisingly, the addition of Dave Edwardson (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) on vocals. He does a killer job, but I am shamelessly in love with Nick McMaster’s vox and can’t help but miss them.


5. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

folk

Sample track: Crow

Phil Elverum’s wife died last year, and he wrote this album. It’s artistically significant for reasons that are pointless to explain, because I think you will either already get it or it will fundamentally conflict with whatever life coping mechanism you personally subscribe to, and both are fine. It matters to me more than other albums about death because we appear to share roughly the same world view. It isn’t my favorite album of the year because it can’t be.


4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

post-rock

Sample track: Bosses Hang

I somehow managed to ignore the rebirth of GY!BE in spite of being entirely aware of it, and this is the first album I’ve listened to by them since Yanqui U.X.O. fifteen years ago. In the meantime, I’ve become an avid consumer of Silver Mt Zion, and after that long of a break it’s easy to forget just how different the two projects were. I’m at a loss for words to properly describe how I feel about Luciferian Towers because I have nothing remotely current and similar to compare it to. “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem For No State” are both absolutely mind blowing, and I usually skip the first and third tracks and don’t even care. This is the greatest band in post-rock being exactly that.


3. Kendrick Lamar – Damn

hip hop

Sample track: DNA

Every time I saw this album top another year-end list, I wanted to move it further down mine. It doesn’t move me on an emotional level like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not Kendrick’s greatest work. Can it really be the best of 2017? But every time I revised my year-end list, it just kept moving up instead. Everything he touches has a subtle finesse to it. I love the sound of his voice. I love the way he weaves it into the instrumentation flawlessly. I love how every aspect of each song seems painstakingly tailored to suit the intended vibe. I can just really get into this from start to finish time after time with zero effort. It was my 2017 fallback the grand bulk of the times I wasn’t in the mood for something dark or heavy. This album makes me feel empowered every time I put it on with no cheap sense of escapism attached, and god did I need something like that.


2. Boris – Dear

drone/doom/psych/post-rock

Sample track: Dystopia (Vanishing Point)

Wow. This is 16th year that I’ve compiled a year-end list. For the grand majority of that time, I would have named Boris in my top 5 favorite bands if you asked me. During that time, they’ve put out 53 releases just that I have managed to acquire. And not one has earned my #1 slot. Smile came so close. So close. And now I’m saying it again. I almost feel guilty leaving Dear at #2. It was never dropping any lower. But if you’re at all familiar with it, this might sound generous. Dear is nowhere near their most well-received album. It is absolutely nowhere near their most accessible. Doom and drone at its core, it’s a slow drip grind that will leave all but the most steadfast fans bored out of their minds on first encounter. Yet I somehow managed to listen to it close to 50 freaking times. It wasn’t that I liked it at first. I kind of didn’t. But the mood was right. It hit that sweet spot between ambience and melody that made it never quite dull enough to bore inherently but never quite memorable enough to bore through familiarity. It was dark but it wasn’t morbid. It was just the right sort of fuzz to make me feel more alert without distracting me. And it was through that extremely passive but relentless pattern of listening that its finest moments slowly revealed themselves to me, raising the bar higher and higher, until now it blows my mind that a track like Dystopia (Vanishing Point) could have failed to sweep me off my feet on first encounter. It certainly manages to every time now, on take number one hundred and god knows what. This isn’t my favorite Boris album, but I suspect it’s much higher up there for me than for most fans, and after a very great deal of consideration it only failed to take the title by a fraction of a hair. Oh, I also got to watch them play it live in its entirety. 😀


1. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood

Americana

Sample track: Lone Star

The grand prize goes to Sun Kil Moon. I think this might be for me what Pure Comedy has been for a lot of other people this year. It just speaks to so much I’ve been feeling in 2017 in a way I can completely relate to. Mark Kozelek takes half of the stuff I’ve been making enemies spouting all year and sets it to solid American folk music. He has a blue collar political perspective that offers no compromise for our “total fucking asshole” President but takes far more cutting hits at liberal America’s zero-attention-span reaction-click-and-move-on culture for allowing the country to fall into this state. The album is a two hours and ten minutes meandering disjointed travel through personal stories and monologues that reach all over the place, but underneath it all is a consistent love and appreciation for the bonds we share in our meager little lives, and an intense compassion for those who have permanently lost them. If he comes across as cranky, he’s just pissed at how many Americans have lost sight of this.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

My Top 10 Albums of 2016


*taps the mic*

This thing still work?

Hi! Yeah, I exist. It’s been a busy year.

For one thing, the lovely Ms. Phoebe Lucille was born on June 29th. 🙂

A two year old and a six month old do not make for many leisurely afternoons exploring new music, and besides that, my competing addictions to Forum Mafia and Overwatch have consumed virtually all of what little free time I have. Suffice to say, I’m not exactly well informed on music in 2016. In fact, I can’t name 10 metal albums that came out last year off the top of my head, so my traditional top metal list just isn’t going to happen.

But I’ve been posting some sort of year-end music list every year since 2002, and I’ll be damned if I let ignorance stop me. So here goes nothing:

10. Krallice – Prelapsarian

Prelapsarian was released on December 21st. I didn’t find out about its existence until quite recently, and like every Krallice albums, it’s going to take a good 30 listens to fully appreciate. But after a few early spins I can confidently say that it’s good, and because it’s Krallice, that probably means I’ll be kicking myself half a year from now for not giving it my #1 slot. My initial take-away is that the band has continued to pursue the more mathy/avant-garde approach they took on Ygg Huur in place of the progressive opuses of their first four albums, and while that might not make for the same degree of eternal replay value, they’re still the best in the business at what they do. I could argue that I liked the Hyperion EP released earlier this year more, but that’s hardly fair given the amount of time I’ve had to listen to Prelapsarian. I’m going to err on the side of reason here and say this album will be firmly cemented in my top 10 of 2016 a month from now.

9. Martröð – Transmutation of Wounds

Is it another cop out to include a 16 minute EP in my year end list? Maybe. Whatever the play time limits, Transmutation of Wounds takes me on a pretty diverse and chaotic ride. In a lot of ways it felt like a more complete work to me than many full length black metal albums I heard this year, because it’s always going somewhere. The destinations aren’t particularly inviting, but they’re consistently fascinating. A solid debut from a band that could really kill it if they put together a full length album.

8. Skáphe – Skáphe²

This one is a brilliantly discordant and meandering take on black metal. It borders on unlistenable for all the right reasons, and leaves me feeling a little sick to my stomach every time I give it a spin. I suppose that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it’s an artistic accomplishment that really very few bands out there can pull off. I mutually adore and abhor it. On an amusing note, I just realized as I was writing this that the line-up includes members of Misþyrming and Martröð. Misþyrming’s Söngvar elds og óreiðu would have easily made my 2015 list if I hadn’t only discovered it this past January, and I placed Martröð one slot up, so at least my tastes are consistent. <_<

7. Sumac – What One Becomes

I need to get off my ass and buy a physical copy of this album. Post-metal god Aaron Turner finally found a worthy follow-up to Isis when he joined forces in 2015 with Nick Yacyshyn and Brian Cook to create The Deal, a sludgy masterpiece that might be what Isis would have sounded like had they tied a brick to every guitar string. The Deal has been my go-to album for car rides for quite a while now, and it’s hard for me to compare its quality to What One Becomes because I’ve only ever listened to the latter at home. But I’ve heard it enough to know it’s excellent, and it’s only going to keep on growing on me in years to come.

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I don’t suppose this needs much explanation. Half a year ago, I might have considered it for my top choice of the year. Sitting here right now, I can’t honest remember any of the songs besides “Burn the Witch” and the absolutely beautiful revision of “True Love Waits” without putting the album on to remind myself. That’s been the simple difference for me between post-Hail to the Thief Radiohead and all that came before. I love it when I’m experiencing it; I can’t really remember it a few weeks removed. But it’s more a testimony to Thom and company’s longevity that the music they released in 2016 still earns an easy placement in my top 10 of the year.

5. Run the Jewels – 3

This is where my list is going to start getting a little unconventional to people who’ve known me for a long time. I was really into Anticon back in the early 2000s (I gave Buck 65’s Secret House Against the World my #1 slot in 2005), but by and large hip hop has remained one of those genres I massively respected but never really got around to expansively engaging. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 hit me hard enough to affect a more lasting change in my listening habits. I listened to more hip hop than metal in 2016. So there’s the preface.

When I say I don’t know hip hop though, I mean it. El-P and Killer Mike were nothing to me but names I’d heard people mention a million times before I picked up this album. I can’t compare this to their past albums. I can’t speak from experience. I can’t even talk about its appeal over time, because this album just dropped on Christmas Eve. But it hit me for all the reasons I was digging Aesop Rock this time 15 years ago, and in a year when hip hop was my go-to genre it was the perfect album to close things out.

4. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

That was the easy part. Now it gets hard. The rest of these could go in any order. They’re so mutually different that I don’t really know where to begin in ranking them. So I’m going to do the stupid thing and put the album I’m most likely to love longest at the bottom of the pile.

Is this the most intelligent album of 2016? Probably. I don’t have to be well versed in a genre to recognize a piece of art when I see it. Atrocity Exhibition shows extreme attention to lyrical and musical detail in crafting its grim cautionary descent into drug abuse and street violence. Brown pulled together a collection of sounds that projected his vision in astoundingly visual ways. No one should ever realistically be able to rap to this, but he managed to lay his eccentric and expressive voice over top of it anyway. It’s one of those packages that takes extreme care to ensure that it’s barely holding itself together at any given moment. If I was strictly picking the “best” album of 2016, Brown would be my boy, but what good is a year end list if I can’t kick myself for how stupid my ordering was afterwards?

3. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones

Besides, metal has always hit closest to home for me. It’s the sound I find easiest to embrace, whatever its abrasiveness, and once again France has served as the source of its finest cuts. For better than a decade, friends whose tastes I trust have been praising Deathspell Omega, but I could never quite catch the hype. That changed this year. Far and away my favorite metal album of 2016, The Synarchy of Molten Bones is a complex and captivating black metal masterpiece that’s really perfectly mixed to bring out the robustness of their sound in a full and fleshy way. The song progression is delightfully abstract without ever teetering into the abyss of wankery. A lot of its success stands on their ability to remain relentlessly aggressive no matter how far they delve into experimentation. Too obscure for me to ever fully wrap my head around, I’ve put it on more than 50 times expecting the sort of bore that excessively abstract metal tends to convey on me, and every time I’m just immediately swept away, not fully cognizant of what my ears are hearing but thoroughly in love. These guys crafted an exceptional album on their own, but they owe their studio staff a lot of respect for delicious production too.

2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

From here I’ve got to vote with my heart, and that begins with the 34 minute heartbreak that is 22, A Million. This album reminds me more of Lost in Translation than of any particular album. It’s packed with disjointed vignettes that don’t serve an apparent purpose towards progressing the album. They often start or end abruptly. It almost comes off as a compilation of half-finished works that got mashed together in an abbreviated 34 minute package with all the meat left behind, but I think it works well that way. Fleeting moments of digital indie folk that always manage to feel simultaneously depressed and comforting–the end result is something beautiful. I put my kids to sleep with it at night.

1. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

I’ve been trying my hardest to overplay this album for ten months now, but it just won’t grow old. I don’t know if past artists have incorporated gospel into hip hop to this extent or not, but if they’re half as effective at it, lead the way. I don’t have to share Chance’s religious beliefs to find this album entirely uplifting from start to finish. It beams positivity from end to end without any of the pop sunshine and flowers that turn me off to the vast majority of “happy” music. Chance is at his best when he’s passionately and arrogantly busting out religious lines (and he kills it just as hard on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”, whatever I think of the rest of that album). That’s the focus for the grand bulk of this work. It’s not perfect by a long shot. Where he diverts to more worldly themes, he’s often shallow and cliche. “All Night” for instance is really fun to jam along to but leaves me feeling more than modestly cheated on the lyrical front.

But I don’t really care. I fell in love with the spirituality of this album right from the get-go, and close to a year later it still brightens me up every time I put it on. It won’t go down among my top albums of all time, but it earned its place as my favorite of 2016.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015

Previous Entries In The Best of 2016:

  1. TFG’s 2016 Comics Year In Review : Top Tens, Worsts, And Everything In Between
  2. Anime of the Year: 2016
  3. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems I Saw In 2016
  4. 2016 in Review: The Best of SyFy
  5. 2016 in Review: The Best of Lifetime
  6. 2016 in Review: Lisa Picks the 16 Worst Films of 2016!

Review: Ghost Bath – Moonlover


Gimmicks don’t always work out as intended. When I heard that Ghost Bath were not, as they once claimed, Chinamen from Chongqing Municipality, but rather well-mustached American hipsters, I believe my first question was “who?” But if this band’s efforts to fool fans before they actually had any comes off a bit less clever than stupid, my negative points end there. Moonlover is a pretty interesting work from its cover all the way to the closing track. Hailing from the far more obscure and frostbitten wasteland of North Dakota, Ghost Bath have forged a really solid sophomore LP that should stand among the better metal albums we hear this year.

Track: “Golden Number

After a brief, haunting intro track that definitely lends credence to their name, Moonlover makes an awkward but forgivable transition into a really uplifting number that has everyone on the internet comparing them to Deafheaven. With one of those explosions of emotional, half-heartbroken half-triumphant post-black metal glory that sounds more familiar every year, followed by a kind of punk lick underlined by passionate, poppy drumming straight off Amesoeurs’ Ruines Humaines and unearthly vocal shrieks, “Golden Number” is certainly in line with the trend of the day. It kind of feels like someone drug Woods of Desolation out of their basement and shoved them into a top-notch recording studio, and yes, the comparisons to Sunbather have their merit too. But if Ghost Bath are not necessarily pioneers, they are definitely refining the machine.

Much like post-rock, where you had a whole bunch of totally distinct bands making waves while everyone else ripped off Mono–and we could hardly complain about that–post-black metal is definitely developing a “standard” sound. “Golden Number” is that sound to a T, and I absolutely love the clarity with which Ghost Bath pull it off. This is a genre born of static noise. It was the realization that you could invoke a lot of emotion by hiding something pretty in an aural cesspool that really kicked off the scene, and even Deafheaven’s “Dream House”, for all its ability to swoon foreign audiences, was really heavily distorted. The noise carried the passion, but it was also limiting. Moonlover is a surprisingly clean album, and because of it the band can do subtle things that I don’t often hear. The tremolo at the beginning of “Golden Number”, for instance, is complemented by a second, barely audible guitar that’s tapping instead of picking. Maybe post-bm has gone that route before, but if so I never noticed it. The clarity on this song, at least relative to its genre, allows me to detect these things, and the end product feels so much more full of life for it.

“Ghost Number” ends with two minutes of piano, and “Happyhouse” picks the metal back up with a totally different feel from the song before it. Three minutes of melancholy plodding lead into a fresh vision of that ghostly guitar we heard in the intro track, and Dennis Mikula treats us to more of his otherworldly screams. Amesoeurs again comes to mind, and I have to believe Neige was an inspiration on this band in more ways than one, but to me Mikula’s vocals sound most reminiscent of Ygg, a short-lived but brilliant Ukrainian trio featuring former members of Nokturnal Mortum and Helg from Khors. “Happyhouse” erupts into black metal for only a passing burst of intensity before returning to its moody plod. Post-rock guitar ultimately defines the song’s direction, while Mikula’s outstanding vocal performance brings the depth. “Happyhouse” could be a cookie-cutter bore, but the band’s keen execution and knack for making their short repeated phrases consistently catchy turns it into something I can really embrace.

10 minutes go by before you hear another ounce of metal, but I would hardly call it a wait. “Beneath the Shade Tree” and “The Silver Flower pt. 1” are both dreamy guitar-driven visions of forests and streams, feeling perhaps a cross between Agalloch and Alcest. The nature effects on the latter track especially brought to mind the intro and outro to Alcest’s “Le Secret”, though I’m sure you could name a dozen other bands that might have played an influential hand here. The origins are quite irrelevant; these two songs only beg identification because they are so vivid and beautiful. The sound is ultimately the band’s own.

Track: “The Silver Flower pt. 2

When Moonlover‘s heavier half does return, it feels infused with the spirit of the instrumental tracks before it. “The Silver Flower pt. 2” floats along with no edge to speak of beyond the first minute, drifting on the dream that came before. If it weren’t for Mikula’s persistently tormented vocals–a bit out of place now, I must admit–it could pass as a moody but up-tempo rock song. The style feels strikingly familiar, yet I can’t put a finger on it. It’s sort of equivalent to how Katatonia were playing around with the metal sounds of their day in the late 90s, and it calls the whole “black metal” label for this band into question. Moonlover incorporates so much more, riding a dozen different stylistic approaches to take us on a journey. We started out with a burst of passion–a sense of fulfillment and life–on “Golden Number”, then road down a path into depression with “Happyhouse”. The commune with nature in “Beneath the Shade Tree” and “The Silver Flower pt. 1” revitalizes, moving the album from positive and negative extremes to an even-keel, smooth ride on “The Silver Flower pt. 2”. The final track, “Death and the Maiden”, sort of brings us around in a circle. The equilibrium of “pt. 2” picks up its pace here, growing in excitement until the return of a black metal sound breaks it. We’re back to highs and lows, and we end on the latter. The album trickles out in a dark depressing grind back into the haunting sounds of the introduction, and that opening melody repeats, now made even more ghostly through a synth whistling tone.

I like it. Moonlover feels like a complete package, flushing out a musical narrative that consistently develops from track to track. It might not match up precisely to the picture it painted in my mind, but a progression is definitely there. Ghost Bath refuse to restrict themselves to one genre, incorporating a wide array of styles into a really coherent whole. The drums are tight, the guitarists can pull off some neat noodling but know when to keep it simple, and the album is book-ended by its two best tracks. I don’t think it would have hurt Dennis Mikula to chill out on the screaming for a bit on “The Silver Flower pt. 2”, but over all I love his vocals. There’s not much I can complain about. And since I want to start making a point to link where you can purchase the albums I ramble about: go adopt a moon on Bandcamp.

Review: Liturgy – The Ark Work


You know those last thirty seconds or so of a rock concert, when the guitarists start grinding tremolo on the final note while the drummer pummels out a solo? Then the instruments all coalesce and everyone hits two triplets together, declaring “the end” triumphant into your ears? Yeah, then you have a basic idea of what Liturgy sounded like four years ago. Aesthethica reveled defiant on the brink of collapse, a Dionysian exploration of adrenaline that twitched and sputtered in vibrant light. We may still be a long ways from “black metal” conjuring to mind anything but corpse paint and Satan to the average music fan, but the gales of a paradigm shift have tossed this genre into such a frenzy that even the novelties of 2011 can seem ancient today.

(Liturgy’s record label, Thrill Jockey, has rather bizarrely opted to remove all but two tracks from Youtube, as if silence sells an album. You can still listen to The Ark Work on NPR at this link, thankfully, and I recommend checking out the first three tracks/13 minutes–Fanfare, Follow, and Kel Valhaal–followed by Reign Array to get a good feel of the album.)

An assessment of this album could go off on a hundred tangents, and I don’t think that the band would be averse to discussing any one of them. The most standard response seems to be instant revulsion. A lot of big name critics have given it abysmal ratings of 2 or 3 out of 10–slightly lower than Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus–following a brief write-off of the album as an attempt to troll us. A few others will point out how the band’s music has managed to ruffle a lot of feathers, and then leave it to the listener to hash out. Both are valid cop-outs that don’t really provide the slightest bit of context for the oddity before your ears.

In a review a few years ago, I wrote off L’Ordure à l’état Pur by Peste Noire as a “troll” album. With its chicken clucks, farts, belch beats, and sound samples of scat pornography, I was not completely off the mark. But I missed the context: a critique of modern-day France that was at once scathing and brimming over with nationalism, embracing and mocking the same things from subtly different angles. The music was actually quite excellent, as Famine’s compositions always are, and it took a special sort of intelligence to bring together revolting sounds into an appealing musical narrative. But the quality was not spoon fed to you. You had to want to find it.

There is nothing quite so blunt in The Ark Work, but the album definitely produces sounds that your ear will not initially be prepared to assimilate. “Fanfare” leads up to “Follow” in a development similar to the introduction to “High Gold” on Aesthethica, but here the sound of a guitar pick scratching above the fretboard has been replaced by an unorthodox merger of MIDI and real trumpets. Visions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor lifting skinny fists like antennas to heaven break to bells, and an electronic power surge suddenly propels you into a brainfuck of noise that seems to streak through your head in a ball of flame, the tremolo guitar and blast beat drums pulsating at light speed as the bells and glitch tones dissolve into nonsense all around you. The drum machine hangs in space above the dashing guitar, accelerating to drive itself back into Greg Fox’s real drums to a roar like a Roman coliseum. The cavalcade of sound is, for better or worse, something you have never heard the likes of before. And as the spectators cull blood into “Kel Valhaal”, the album moves from its raucous birth to the trance of combat. Arguably my favorite song on the album, “Kel Valhaal” is cryptic in its brutality. The perpetually repeating drum and trumpet beat crush you on every note without the slightest sign of distortion, while entrancing you in a wash of bells and glitches and folk instrumentation that I can’t put a finger on–surely that I am not supposed to be able to put a finger on. When Hunter’s vocals come in, trading off “Follow”‘s croons for rap, the album reaches a height of command you won’t hear again until “Reign Array” towards the end. I don’t understand half of what he’s saying, but my brain tricks me into thinking it is surely paramount–some threshold of enlightenment I must reach for with all of my might.

Or you might just hear noise. I did, the first time I listened to it. Jaded is the listener who can take all of The Ark Work in on first encounter. But I wanted to hear it again, and mull it over. What I had that I think a lot of reviewers lacked was proper context. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix earned a world of derision following Aesthethica when he proceeded to discuss his ideas behind the album. The guy appeared to most of the world as a sort of fascinating clown–a feminine child so high on his own farts that he would presume to declare his music its own unique style worthy of genrefication: “transcendental black metal”. He published a brief philosophical treatise on how transcendental black metal offered a higher state of music than its predecessors, and well, you get the idea. Did I mention he looks kind of like a girl? The alternative label of “trap metal” has been thrown around, and his previous band’s name was Birthday Boyz. Liturgy is a metal band, mind you. Their default audience has never been particularly noted for tolerance.

So most people reviewing The Ark Work probably either never heard Liturgy previously or thought of Hunter as an accident waiting to happen. Or maybe a troll. His pre-existing image was pretty hard to swallow. The Ark Work, moreover, claims to enhance “transcendental black metal” with “cross-fertilized hardstyle beats, glitched re-sampling of IDM, and occult-orientated rap”. …yeah… You can imagine why people have struggled on many levels to take The Ark Work seriously. People who aren’t familiar with the band turn to reviews for an explanation of what their ears fail at first to compute, and they’re told “troll” at best, given some metal meathead’s rant about insults to manliness just as likely.

But Aesthethica was not inaccessible in the sense of The Ark Work, and no amount of self-mockery negated the fact that tracks like “Harmonia”, “Sun of Light”, and “High Gold” were delightful on first listen. If you actually bother to read what Hunter wrote about “transcendental” black metal, moreover, you can see a clear connection to the music. It roughly paralleled a lot of thoughts that had been floating around in my own head since at least Alcest’s Le Secret in 2005, and the fact that Hunter Hunt-Hendrix was willing to discuss metal’s new frontier while actually pioneering its exploration told me, if anything, that he had a lot more potential than even Aesthethica let on. That album was a sort of burst of passion. I would wager that the band did not devote particularly excruciating time to its finer details, and the result was still one of my favorite albums of 2011. Through separate mediums, Hunter showed the raw capacity for great song writing and the level of reflection necessary for fine-tuning an album to perfection. Merge the two, and you have, well, The Ark Work.

Within the first few seconds of “Follow”, I was pretty convinced that The Ark Work had the potential to be breathtaking. My context for this album placed Liturgy near the top of a wealth of new bands committed to employing black metal towards post-rock ends. I expected that Hunter had crafted every last second of it with painstaking care to achieve his visions. When you listen to something in that light, it’s a totally different experience. Take the vocals. Hunter delved very little into clean vocals on Aesthethica, and where he did–“Glass Earth” for instance–the results were weak. His voice, like his appearance, came off a bit childish, and I think he just ignored that fact rather than putting it to work for him. In the spirit of that album, I can picture a rebellious attitude of affirmation: “This is what I sound like.” On The Ark Work, there’s a more intelligent design. Hunter commits to not screaming once from start to finish, and the voice he’s left to work with is in not at all appealing in any conventional sort of way. But if a central idea behind the album is to barely yet perpetually hold cohesive on the cusp of nonsense, his voice naturally caters to it. He seems to intentionally integrate that notion, controlling in each instance the extent to which we hear his voice exposed. He employs a lot of rap, and the rhythmic flow of his lyrics provide the glue around which his marshmallow mouth forms another tipping point into that abyss of absurdity. On “Kel Valhaal” he manages to project the rhythm with such force that he sounds downright commanding. On “Reign Array” he starts out reminiscent of Thom Yorke (many elements of that song inexplicably remind me of Radiohead), while as the vocal style changes in the triumphal conclusion he remains careful to continue to layer his voice just enough to avoid spoiling the exhilaration.

On “Vitriol”, easily the most divisive track on the album, Hunter exposes everything. The song merges the Aesthethica style of “Glass Earth” with a chanting rap and a fascinating combination of minimalistic percussion and sub-bass. You can understand every word he says, and a lot of the lines are so awkwardly groomed to feed the trolls that you can’t help but think he’s doing it intentionally. “Soon the ADHD kids will quiet down respectfully,” “All the girls will get into art school,” a reference to “primordial gender”… In a way, the song is a caricature of everything critics have accused Hunter of being, followed by the refrain “I turn your ashes to gold, you repay me with vitriol,” as if to say “look how much I’ve entertained you, and you have the nerve to criticize me. Psssh.” I would really like to think the idea crossed Hunter’s mind with a bit of a devilish grin while he wrote it. Yet that, if intended at all, is only a bit of an Easter egg in a song that has nothing to do with it. “Vitriol” is actually pretty cryptic and compelling. I can’t piece it together into a cohesive whole, yet each individual line seems to find a fitting notch in the puzzle. A part of me wants to believe that that is the extent of it, and the accomplishment is to leave you with this unstable understanding that feels like a cohesive message yet contradicts itself. For me at least, “Vitriol” accomplishes lyrically what the rest of the album does musically.

The attention to detail extends beyond vocals and lyrics, of course. The instrumentation is vast, delving into dozens of different sources effectively. Hunter’s electronic repertoire both destabilizes and enhances the real instruments that it frequently parallels. Greg Fox, one of the greatest drummers of this era, returns to the band to offer his brilliance, and the drum machine ties together with him nicely. I wish Thrill Jockey had not made it so difficult to share tracks, but suffice to say I highly recommend this album. It is easily the most intelligent and compelling collection of songs I have heard since Peste Noire’s 2013 self-titled, and most of the reviewers shitting all over it fully intended to before they ever heard it. Its apparent madness only strengthened their resolve. But if ever you begin to have doubts, switch to “Reign Array” and ask yourself whether a song like this can arise by accident. On The Ark Work, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix proves himself to be the musical genius that Aesthethica hinted at. And like Jimmy Chamberlin to Billy Corgan, Greg Fox completes him. So long as those two stick together, Liturgy will remain among the most elite bands in metal for a long time to come.