My favorite ten of the year, #1 being the pinnacle of what I heard in 2015. It was a good year and as usual, I didn’t even get to hear everything I wanted to yet.
10) Antemasque – Antemasque: Antemasque’s debut album probably had the strangest path to ending up on this list. Mr. Brown gave me this album back in August while I was home visiting Chicago. At that point I knew nothing about Antemasque, other than the fact that I liked the name they chose very much. Travel didn’t allow time for a listen so the disc went into my car when I returned to LA, where it took a few weeks for me to even remember I had it. One afternoon while stuck in traffic I found it, put it on, and was immediately overtaken with a strange fascination with the music that followed. As each song played through I was at a loss to place who the vocalist reminded me of, despite the fact that it seemed so obvious (it was). As for the music, over the course of ten tracks I grew increasingly invested as it gloriously stretched between the often-frenetic small label rock of the 90’s to the moody, atmospherics of post-punk to, of all things, a hint of the vocal melody stylings of long-forgotten, archetypal hair metal anthems. Of course when I arrived home and consulted google I was floored to find that Antemasque was the new band from Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, formerly of The Mars Volta and At the Drive In. Upon my next listen, which was immediate, this fact became obvious. However, for the duration of that first listen I had been assailed by a bizarre musical fugue wherein the sense of confusion and expectancy that resulted was absolutely exhilarating. And even though the mystique of those involved was solved in short order, the album itself has continued to resonance with that dreamy obliviousness from that first listen. Maybe it’s because there’s something very ‘between’ about the compositions on Antemasque, not a surprise when you look at the aforementioned artists’ pedigree. And despite fusing a lot of disparate angles into their music, Antemasque manages to sound nothing like Messrs. Lopez and Zavala’s aforementioned previous bands. This despite, as a whole, the fact that this album holds to those same bands’ hard-work and left- of-center mission statements laid down over the previous two decades. I am very excited to see where Lopez, Zavala and their new collaborators go from here.
9) Myrkur – M: It’s hard to know what exactly to say about a piece of music like “M”. Created and performed by the one woman band Myrkur, AKA Amalie Bruun, “M” is the second album under the Mrykur moniker and, well, it just throbs with creativity, power and intensity. Ms. Bruun’s voice is beautiful both in the melodic sense and the brutal sense; her black metal guttural fury is among the best, especially when skillfully juxtaposed with soft, multi-part harmonies she is also capable of, a trait that immediately invoked one of my favorite bands of times past, Katherine Blake’s Miranda Sex Garden (my how I miss them). This is Black Metal taken so seriously it transcends the confines of its own expectations; Bruun is more interested in painting a picture and conveying an otherworldly sonic tableau than just jackhammering aggression into the listener’s ears or breaking that up with enough loud-quiet-loud to fake dexterity. No, “M” is a nether region, a dark place both internal and external, and one that’s a little scary. The album cover says it all – Bruun’s masterpiece to date sounds like a trepidatious trek through the foggy, rain-soaked nightscapes of some isolated town in the countryside, where unidentifiable figures appear and disappear in the distance, watching. Waiting. Listen with your eyes closed and headphones on and you might actually meet one of those figures. But don’t say she didn’t warn you.
8) Ghost – Meliora: In some ways I love this record more than 2013’s Infestissumam and in some ways it comes in just a notch below it for me. Either way, taken as a whole Meliora is a solid piece of music that sees Ghost continue to exploit the past to create their future. You can most easily see this aesthetic applied in the artists Ghost chooses to cover: Roky Erickson, Abba, The Beatles. If you’re new to Ghost or doubting their legitimacy because of their *ahem* satanic theatricality, my suggestion is to go back and start again with the band. Listen to these covers first (most of which are on the If You Have Ghost e.p. – The Beatles one is a live clip on youtube). Once you do that I’m betting you’ll have a better understanding of what’s at work beneath all those awesome costumes, and you’ll probably also have a much different experience when you listen to their three proper albums.
Ghost’s evolution has been steady and consistent over the course of their albums, exhibiting the kind of evolutionary strides many great bands experience: the more straight ahead rock/metal of their debut, 2010’s Opus Eponymous, transforms when they receive some more money and recognition on subsequent albums, giving them a greater ability to realize bigger ideas, ideas I would argue were always in the DNA of the band, waiting to come out.
Both aforementioned sophomore release Infestissumam and this year’s Meliora see Ghost adorning their ‘rock’ sound with the aural equivalent of the pageantry they apply to their persona, although I should add that this penchant for showmanship does not come at the detriment of their ability to incite large rooms of fans from throwing the horns in the air and banging their heads wildly. My elevator pitch for them is always “Merciful Fate fucked Andrew Lloyd Weber and Ghost is the baby” and I think that’s never been more accurate than on Meliora, which is grandiose, fist-pumping and fun. It also features my favorite song of the year – Circe. Watch the awesome video here and if you dig it you’ll dig the entire album too.
7) Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth: I don’t know much about this band and it’s a late entry to this list, but A Raw Youth sent my head spinning upon first listen and I’ve kinda been unable to go more than a day without listening to it since. There’s a really unique approach to the way Teri Gender Bender and her band construct their music and it fits me like a glove; A Raw Youth sates those musical appetites I stoked back in the 90s with groups like Brainiac, Cibo Matto and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; it slams at times, plays sneaky at times and just generally gets me thinking about the music while I’m listening to it, which seems like a no-brainer but really isn’t. It also has some of the most interesting instrumentation – both ‘live’ and electronic – that I’ve heard in some time. Other than that I’m having a touch of trouble figuring out how to describe it so if you’re looking for something you’ve probably not heard before this might be the next record you should buy.
6) Windhand – Grief’s Eternal Flower: If I were to arrange this list in the order of what I’ve played the most this year, the new one from Windhand would be #1. I literally can’t listen to this record once without it starting a jag that lasts for days. The thick, plodding riffs feel like hooks in a way riffs haven’t felt like hooks since Badmotorfinger or Ozzy-era Sabbath. And the gentle, revealing vocals embedded in those riffs convey a rather frightening vulnerability; a not-necessarily-healthy predilection for nurturing that feels eternal, like a Lovecraft cult’s devotion to their dark god. This starry-eyed cosmic haze saturates every element of the compositions on Grief’s Eternal Flower, the same way the production feels like it exudes the kind of pot smoke stench that was stuck to your favorite jean jacket in high school. Windhand has become the natural successor to my “The one metal band I have to run right the fuck out now and buy their new album the day it comes out” moniker, a position passed to them from High on Fire (still love HOF though). Ideal first listen: smoke one and listen to Grief’s Eternal Flower on headphones, the same way your friend’s older brother had you experience Black Sabbath Vol. 4 the first time. It’ll take you on a trip into the aeons of dark cosmic night, a trip you’ll not want to come back from.
5) Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy: I gave absolutely no mind to T.A. when three different friends – all of whose musical taste I respect and adore – made me copies of The Monitor in 2010. This past August Mr. Brown – one of those aforementioned three – ripped a bunch of discs onto my computer while I was home in Chicago. The Most Lamentable Tragedy was one of them and like Antemasque it took me several months to get around to this one, primarily because I didn’t think I would care. Boy was I wrong. Tragedy is a big, fat slice of modern American life as witnessed by someone suffering from the kind of overly introspective hell that media, cell phones and the internet all propagate inside our heads, some more than others. We’re all voyeurs now, in one way or another, and we’re all a little (or a lot) more narcissistic than we were ten years ago. Is that good? Is it bad? Have we lost our minds? Maybe, but as Tragedy pontificates, haven’t we lost our minds before? Many times? Over and over again as we batter and break ourselves on the rocks of the world we’ve made for ourselves? Well, if that is the case – and I suspect it is – it sounds pretty good here. A little unwieldy, a little scary, like life, but also kind of amazing. And that’s Titus Adronicus’s rock opera in a nutshell: kind of amazing.
Now I need to re-visit The Monitor.
4) Faith No More – Sol Invictus: Full disclosure: the first new FNM record in almost twenty years was going to be on this list regardless of what it sounded like. That said, with Sol Invictus the band prove that my predilection is not a blind one – if you dig Faith then you’re correct in your automatic assumption that anything they do will be grand. Because Sol Invictus is quite grand. And although my interpretation of it began as a little bit of a disappointment, that what we essentially received was another ‘anthological’ style Faith record, much like The Real Thing or Album of the year, as oppose to the tight, essential flow of their masterpieces Angel Dust and King for a Day, the band’s Album albums. With Sol though, that interpretation has begun to mutate, so that it no longer sounds like an unrelated procession of songs to me, but a new entry into the living, breathing sound that makes up the best eras of this awesome, awesome band. There’s something more than just a sonic thread that pulls the laces so tightly on this record; songs like Separation Anxiety, Cone of Shame and Rise of the Fall have begun to feel like working parts of the same machine, a machine that bookends nicely with the titular album opener that explores the transcendence requested or rebuked in closer From the Dead. The whole record actually feels like a microcosm of the band’s entire career, with, for example, Superhero having a bit of a Real Thing or even pre-Patton feel to the music, that titular opener evoking Angel Dust with the use of the air raid siren, Black Friday‘s acoustic guitar progression feeling a bit like something from the second side of KFAD and Motherfucker having the kind of stoic girth that Helpless added to Album of the Year.
Am I reading too much into this? Nope. Know why? ‘Cuz it’s Faith No More. ‘Nuff said.
3) FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) – FFS: It’s theatrical, absurd, fun and a little sad at times. I’ll admit that I’ve never really given a chance to anything that Franz Ferdinand did after their first record – which I whole-heartedly LOVE – and other than the two songs Sparks did with FNM back in the late 90s I’m largely unfamiliar with their enormous body of work – something I’ve sworn to finally correct in light of how much I love this album – but FFS just won me over pretty much instantaneously. It’s a particular headspace, this record, but it’s also one that’s more easily accessible than other records I know that require “a particular headspace”. That may be because a lot of the rest of this list is pretty heavy or severe and, you know, we can’t be dark and brooding ALL the time. All I know is every time I put FFS in, whether in the middle of a metal jag or not, it takes over my mood, gets me smiling and singing along and just generally elevates my mood. Very powerful thing for an album to do in 2015. There’s not a lot of groups that can pull this Zappa-esque theatricality off, especially when observing the often trite ‘foibles’ of modern life. FFS do it very well.
2) Ghost Bath – Moonlover: There’s pain, there’s agony, and then there’s the special rust-coated grandeur of a safe place corrupted. Ghost Bath takes Black Metal, runs it through a dark, western filter (ironic since everyone thought they were from China for a while) and gives us a confession in 41 minutes and 52 seconds. Moonlover is a stark, emotional soundscape created by what sounds to me like the actual vomiting of pain and disturbance from the band’s psyche.
This feels real, honest and vulnerable in a way a lot Black Metal can’t because, well, it’s Black Metal. Maybe that’s an outdated way of thinking though – as a lot of the more forward-thinking, interesting bands that fall under the B.M. umbrella have begun to search for a new way to be labeled. Hence why you see bands like Ghost Bath tagged ‘Atmospheric Black Metal”, whether by themselves or their fans. That’s the stuff I’m more interested in, the groups that are more interested in creating a particular tone, using sound or drone to convey consumable patterns that, whether they operate in a traditional structure or not, we still choose to refer to as ‘songs’. Ghost Bath accomplishes this maybe better than anyone else I’ve heard and they do it with an aural arsenal that utilizes the sonic possibilities of their instruments more than the instruments themselves. Piano passages that drift and lilt in mansion-sized reverberations; guitars that shred and tear you like the passage of years, and the voice. Oh man, the vocals are what really make this album resonate with me. They perfectly convey the trauma, pain and horror that life can sometimes deal us. Bleak and beautiful, this record is one for the ages.
1) Algiers – Algiers: There’s some spooky, spooky stuff going on in this record, but not the kind of spooky stuff happening elsewhere on this list (Ghost Bath I’m looking at you). Algiers’s self-titled debut is a fists-raised-and-shaking, god-be-damned-if-I’ma-let-you-forgive-me, tent revival, modern ministry soaked in as much Pretty Hate Machine as T.L. Barrett. This album gets me moving and turns the reflective lens within, which makes for an interesting listen. Kinda like being trapped beneath the dilapidated roof of an abandoned mill out in the middle of nowhere during a thunderstorm the likes of which scares you a little bit. Nothing to do but think and quake in your boots a little when the thunder tears the sky wide open. But don’t it feel good to be scared – humbled – before the might of something you can put your finger on? That’s this record right here – a testament to the powerful catharsis that comes with humbling yourself before something greater.
Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.