Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Handsome B. Wonderful's Thirty-Fourth Annual List of the Top Ten Rock Albums of the Year!

Thirteen, actually. Why? Because ten is never enough of anything - save neocons, perhaps - not of bowls of homemade Chex Mix, not of love sonnets, nor kisses, getting extremely busy and sweaty in the most enjoyable way possible in every conceivable position and location, Super Bowl trophies, and certainly not an end-of-the-year collection. In addition, thirteen is oh so spooky! Further, and perhaps most important, it's always fun to correct the mistakes of others through your own tedious pop culture list. I mean, the audacity of some to have different tastes than you! What hubris, diabolically masquerading as the purported love of a particular art form! I'd scream the most terrifying banshee wail imaginable as my sweet, sweet revenge, but this mediocre blog doesn't have an audio component. And I don't have a criminally cool voice like Barry White, Clint Eastwood or James Earl Jones. So consider yourself mercifully spared of any such pain.

Caveat: quite a few CDs have been released this year that I've only heard snippets of, or not at all (and I had to stop at a reasonable number because I'm not clever enough to write more than what you see here). Thus, since my wife likes gas in the car and parading around the boudoir in sexy lingerie and my kids have this strange love of eating food and staying warm in the winter, more purchases will have to wait. And frankly, it's disingenuous to review a piece of music from sound samples or even a few spins. You have to absorb the sound, allow it to mingle with your emotional DNA. Et si c'est un poison à votre âme, rejetez-la. Si non, aimez-la toujours.

Caveat deux: the rankings that follow are for all intents and purposes, arbitrary. Yes, I judge art the same as every other human with working senses - I have things I love and things I loathe - but each of these albums is nearly equal in stature in the mind, heart and soul of yours truly. I listen to a particular piece based on my preexisting mood at any given time, or the mood I wish to summon forth, not some artificially-assigned number. You can't quantify art, which is why I'm slightly embarrassed that my town has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Leave the Hall of Fame part out and you've got a deal. It's fucking art. "Think Jasper Johns will get enough votes this year for the Painters Hall of Fame?" Fuck off. Oh yeah, the list.

Now, motherfuckers, let's (occasionally) rock. BYOB+B.

1. Moonsorrow, Viides Luku: Hävitetty. It's not merely melodic death, it's not just Viking, but it IS epic and it IS from Finland. Easily this band's finest hour, almost literally, it consists of two 25+ minute songs that are a masterclass in dynamics and instrumentation. Serene folk elements conjuring up images of primeval forests slowly manipulate the tension, building into monolithic, hypnotic riffs that bludgeon with intelligence, captivating the listener with ease. And you don't even need to know Finnish as the band have generously provided English translations of the lyrics which sing of fire and destruction, of cataclysm, of oblivion, of the end of all things. Ragnarok and Roll. How appropriate, no?

2. High on Fire, Death Is This Communion. You have to understand something, motherfucker: it's ALL about The Riff. Chuck Berry taught us that, and Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Lemmy Kilmister and James Hetfield amongst other celebrated acolytes continued preaching the master's gospel. With instrumental flourishes and colors to augment said icon that sits on a shoulder-crushing pedestal, Matt Pike and his power trio from hell further the homage to those legendary and always misty days of yore begun once upon a haze with crack stoner-y doomish outfit Sleep, now deceased. But this album throbs, it kicks you in the ass, grabs you by the throat and demands that you air guitar with digit-breaking rapidity. And don't forget to snap your neck to the sheer intensity of it all.

3. Electric Wizard, Witchcult Today. Sweet fucking Satan, does it get any better than bong-rattling, heaven-shattering, hell-erupting slabs of hope-eating doom? After the monumentally classic Dopethrone, the band took a hiatus, vocalist/guitarist Jus Osborn returning with a new lineup - including his lovely wife Liz Buckingham on second guitar - with 2004's We Live. The new platter doesn't up the ante as much as pummel it into submission. These wizards are supreme masters of pacing and spacing, their murky compositions, their dark paeans to the obscure and wicked bringing more joy than a thousand chocolate ice cream cakes. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to light up and hang out with those of questionable character.

4. Neurosis, Given to the Rising. Apocalyptic density. Heavy as a really heavy thing. A bit less psychedelia and a bit more (well, a lot more) wall-of-water washing over the world around you, leaving behind in the upturned sands countless defleshed bones to be picked at by armies of carrion-hungry birds, Neurosis forges ahead with an uncompromising, epic songcraft. It shouldn't need to be said, but heaviness comprises so much more than the downtuning of your 7-string and trying to channel Rasputin through the dime-a-dozen metalcore persona that's so prevalent these days. So put on your headphones, turn off the lights and let the musical violence pull you away from the mundane, quotidian world that endlessly threatens to put out the fire of your soul. Did I mention that this is heavy?

5. Dwelling, Ainda É Noite. Gods, what beautiful, ethereal melancholia. The classical guitar expertise that these Portuguese have shown up until now remains in pleasant abundance while the influence of the strings is thickened to create a slightly more lush sound. The lovely vocals of Catarina Raposo float above the bed of dark chords and lilting violin to enchant the listener and lure him or her further into the darkness. I won't say that this has topped Humana, as it's far too early to make such a concrete statement - gotta get drunk and write some bad poetry to this a few more times, methinks - but it wouldn't surprise me to be making that claim in time. Stunning.

6. Ataraxia, Paris Spleen. I know this was officially released in late 2006, but I didn't pick it up until the stateside shop I patronize got it in stock this calendar year, and since it's my list...though they have since released Kremasta Nera. Stop being so fucking prolific! Anyway, the sound of a macabre cabaret right in your living room is reason enough to plop down your hard-earned or embezzled cash. The trademark medieval stylings are less prominent this time around, the sound here infused with an absinthe-fueled musique de la rue most at home in fin-de-siècle Europe and in the hearts of anyone who shares an affinity for the atmosphere of those heady days.

7. Amorphis, Silent Waters. There's nothing silent about these Finns, who've moved from the legendary dark/death-metal masterpiece Tales From the Thousand Lakes, through the Kalevala-inspired Elegy, up to the moody, Katatonia-esque rock of Far From the Sun. With one album under his belt, 'new' vocalist Tomi Joutsen comes into his own with a deft mix of clean and harsh vocals that wonderfully join with the band's heaviest - yet supremely melodic - guitar sound in years. Weaving a tale of Lemminkäinen’s search for the Swan of Tuonela, Amorphis blast with literary dexterity through both darkness and light.

8. The White Stripes, Icky Thump. Speaking of retro - huh? - no mainstream act gets more rotten vegetables thrown at them for precisely that than this dynamic duo. Fuck rehashing that crap. You love 'em, or you hate 'em. I love 'em because they write catchy tunes, can be happy, sad, despondent, schizophrenic and can riff like a monster rock outfit when necessary. There's a little hint of extra strangeness in the varied styles the band tosses in their bubbling cauldron of rock, yet the focus is a bit more laser, a bit more clear whilst the edges remain gleefully blurred. Oh fuck, that nearly ventured into pretentious Pitchfork territory, didn't it. My fucking Satan, I apologize from the bottom of my blackened heart. Chicks and dudes, rock the fuck on.

9. Dark Tranquillity, Fiction. These unabashed torch-bearers for the heyday of the NWOSDM continue to push the melodically brutal boundaries on their eighth full-length, threading heavy, sophisticated riffs, subtle electronics, pulsating keys and not-so-cookie cutter, er, cookie monster vocal stylings into a sharp, society-eviscerating soup that's so catchy that you'll die from overdosing on the broth, leaving behind a poisoned, yet smiling corpse. No matter though, this is the kind of music you'll hear over the elevator speakers in hell. You want the vapid Muzak of the critical flavor-of-the-month? Go behave yourself.

10. Phazm, Antebellum Death 'n' Roll. Death metal and southern rock are sitting around a dying campfire, having downed one-too-many brews and smoked one-too-many joints while spending the hours laughing, fighting, pining for something more, all to the sound of Ozzy-era Sabbath blaring on the box and decide, as the first rays of the goddamn sun creep over the horizon, to start a band. After Entombed switched gears what seems like years ago from evil Scandinavian metal to a deathy Motorhead boogie with the classic Wolverine Blues, so many other acts tried to wear this style and failed with disturbing frequency. Phazm triumphs with devil horns ablaze, Mister Berry wearing a shit-faced grin as he watches from the side of the stage, tapping his foot, and giving the horns back. Whiskey not included. And the Francophile in me is pleased as well. The origin of these swampy, horror movie nods to zombiedom? La belle France. [editor's note: this was released in late 2006 as well, but hey, close enough, time is all relative, plus it's my fucking blog]

11. Witchcraft, The Alchemist. These guys sound like they recorded this in 1975. Retro in the best sense of the word, the psychedelia-tinged doom of these Swedes captivate with a solid Sabbath/Pentagram base while moving ever so forcefully away from those metallic Mt. Rushmore acts to propulsively carve their own niche in spirit and bone. Never aimlessly hammering, the band lulls you to drop your guard with a warm, yet unsettling fuzz that would surely be amped a bit with just one more hit. Pure stoner rock this ain't though, folks, simply a crafted-with-care homage to all those shadows we encounter in life.

12. Primordial, To the Nameless Dead. The pagan Irish death folk doomsters - how's that for a bullshit-sounding, yet-entirely-accurate label? - return with a ridiculous slab of molten heathen metal, arguably their best platter yet, and that's saying something. The raw, despondent emotion that filters through the wall of near-black metal guitars is beyond palpable: it seethes, and you will fucking feel it. With everything underscored by an unbreakable feeling of a long, inevitable defeat, the inviting darkness is a potent elixir for those who prefer to brood with the lights off.

13. Alcest, Souvenirs d'un autre monde. No longer black metal, still very French, the shoegazer quality of the music is immediate, and very intimate. Layered, wall-of-sound guitars and judicious use of time and tempo conjure grainy images of temporal sadness and memories thought long gone. Not so much a collection of songs as one long, beautiful aural poem, one-man-band Neige (ooh, black metal-y! stagehand! corpsepaint! now!) somehow manages to make depression welcoming. Fuck, I can feel that in my sleep I know, but he could even make you share in it, yes you, happy-go-lucky bastard.

Oh, what the hell. Extra bonus evil, just 'cause I can! Muahahahaha.

14. Wolves in the Throne Room, Two Hunters. Hailing from the forbidding landscape of Olympia, Washington, these introverted fellows have crafted a masterpiece of black metal violence that firmly worships at the altar of Mother Nature. No sir, no Satanic cheese here, simply bleak, epic hymns to man's communion with the elements, with the flora and fauna, the animal natures that form the basis of the primordial images sleeping within the deepest recesses of our soul. The symphonic flourishes, coupled with excellent use of beautiful female vocals, enshrine the album with an aura of oneness, of all archetypes coming to the surface.


Mary Ellen said...

Holy crap, you scare me sometimes! These "album" covers are enough to give me nightmares, I can't imagine what the music would do to me.'.old!

b said...

Okay, I don't think I've heard any of these. But considering that I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Katatonia and thank you every time I get in the car and crank them, do you think I would like any of these? I do like rock but the rock that is closer to alternative than to heavy rock, I think.

By the way, it is your blog and that entitles you to make a top ten list, then qualify that it will actually be a top thirteen list and then include a fourteenth!! :)

Rock on.

Randal Graves said...

ME, "turn it down! Turn it down!" ;-) You may be old, but you're still the hottest nun around, so don't feel too bad.

b, um, Alcest is probably the closest to Katatonia in terms of heaviness. Dwelling and Ataraxia aren't close to metal, nearly neo-classical. The White Stripes, I'm sure you've heard some of their stuff before. Witchcraft is hard rock, but not brutal. You'd probably dig them. Everything else is pretty goddamn crushing. ;-)

Candace said...

Hey, you should go pro and do music reviews! Seriously!

Distributorcap said...

creaks and pains and never hearing of any of those albums

i am OLD...........

nothing by Britney?

happy holidays my friend

FranIAm said...

What ME and what DCap said! Yikes I feel old and suddenly "afeared" of album art!

OK, I do know the White Stripes, so I am not dead yet. Am I?

Happy post holiday time to you! Yay it is done!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I'll take your word that these were the best of the year. I'll stick to the stuff I like though.

Anonymous said...

One of my many managers looked at my pile of cd's on my desk. He proceeded to comment based on the covers. They were a mix of French rap, classical, blues and madrigal. He likes classical so borrowed one of the cd's based on the cover which showed 4 dudes with cellos. About 10 min later he brought back the cd saying that dudes playing were CRAZY. He was listening to Apocalyptica which, granted, are crazy Finnish dudes with cellos.

So my fine feathered friend, thank you for the cd recommendations.

b said...

Thanks for the lowdown. Haha... pretty goddamn crushing, eh? Hilarious!!

Betty C. said...

I agree that the album covers don't exactly put a song in my heart and a spring in my step, but hey, number 14 is from Oly WA! I'll have to look into that...

Randal Graves said...

Candace, oh hell no, I just about hit the limit on my word count with these!

dcap, are you kidding? The new Britney is so stupendously wonderful, why even waste a post talking about it when it's as evident as the sun rising and setting each day?

Fran, I feel old at home because of my kids, and young on the internets. Thanks everyone! ;-)

Dr. Monkey, those are the exact words I choose when I look at everyone else's list. :)

Colleen, heh heh, one would certainly get caught off guard listening to those guys for the first time.

b, you might not want to try driving while blasting High on Fire. You'll just end up speeding all over the place!

betty c, I would be flabbergasted if you came even remotely close to liking them, but stranger things have happened. :)

FranIAm said...

It is my aged pleasure to serve you in this way!

Tom Harper said...

Damn! How do you know about all these groups that I've never heard of? Radio sucks; all they do is play the same four songs over and over, no matter what format they call themselves. I listen to a lot of music on YouTube (I'll probably check out some of these groups), but I have to know about the group in order to search for it.

I know there's a lot of dynamite music out there that I just don't know about it.

Who Hijacked Our Country

The Cunning Runt said...

There's just too much music in the world. Period.

I kinda lost my fire for metal when Gwar hung it up. Guess I'm not seeing the sense of humor in the more modern stuff. And just getting The Boys crushed doesn't do it for me.

But then, I haven't heard most of what's on your list, so clue me if any of it is clever.

Randal Graves said...

Fran, I can get used to being pleasurably served! ;-)

Tom, I don't use anything more than simple incantations from the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Actually, just check out some online zines: Chronicles of Chaos, Decibel Magazine, etc. There's a lot of good stuff out there.

TCR, true, but the more the merrier! Um, in terms of GWAR-style humor, Phazm is probably the only one in their ballpark. Their lyrics make me think of that old late 80s comic, Deadworld.