[EDITOR’S NOTE: Our regular contributor BadWolf has one more 2010 list. To show how broad-minded we are, we’re posting it. It’s not about our usual music, but it’s worth considering. And below this post is the third installment in our list of the year’s most infectious extreme metal songs.]
So it’s the end of 2010, and finally the unstoppable torrent of mostly useless end-of-year lists is beginning to come to a close. As always, finding some consensus within the metal community isn’t that difficult—the same albums show up on lots of lists in different places over and over again to remind readers that yes, they should probably go pick up that new Deathspell Omega album and now’s as great a time as ever to get into deathcore or post-sludge or whichever genre those readers have not indulged in yet . . .
But aren’t we all missing something?
It’s been my personal experiences that metalheads as a whole can be slow to appreciate some genres outside our collective approximate comfort zone. I can be that way, at least. Fortunately for me, I have friends and fellow music lovers who expose me to tons of great not-metal records.
There are entire worlds of other genres of music that we haven’t even touched upon. And normally we would continue to not touch upon them, but it’s the end of the year and a great time to add just one more album to your download list in the interest of trying something new and exciting.
So, just for the sake of variety, this is my list of 10 unranked not-metal records that deserve a little love from our community. Every one of these is a good album, but they all have something or other that as a metalhead I find very compelling—a post-punk/dance band with grim, frostbit symphonic arrangements, a tremendous slice of guitar loving hardcore-influenced prog, the most brutal lyricist I’ve ever heard, and so much more await below. (after the jump . . .)
Special thanks to my friend Michelle who countered every black metal record I got her into with some underground/hipster tunes that made me headbang.
So without further ado, this is Badwolf’s 10 most metal not-metal records of 2010 list.
Circa Survive – Blue Sky Noise
Circa Survive is the posthardcore/prog passion project of Anthony Green, formerly the lead singer of crap-tastic screamo band Saosin. It’s better off for everyone that he left that band and started CS, because this, their third album, rips. After hearing Blue Sky Noise I think of Circa Survive alongside Brand New, Coheed and Cambria, and Thrice as bands that carry the flame of everything good about metalcore now that the genre’s become a commercialized cesspool of terrible bands.
The guitars are bright and shimmering like the edges of knives slicing deftly through shifting tempo and time with shocking fluidity. Green’s vocals are definitely an acquired taste—the man’s like the screamo Geddy Lee—but the soaring brittle quality of them works so well with the discomforting-yet-harmonious music on the disc that I can’t help but admire the man. His range is so ridiculously high on the register that this music could easily fall into camp, but Circa Survive play it dead serious, all the more to our benefit as listeners.
The melodies are often so far from traditional western music that listening to Blue Sky Noise front-to-back is every bit as challenging and rewarding as listening to something by middle-era Dillinger Escape Plan or more modern Mastodon. Most importantly in a genre like post-hardcore, the emotional content is legitimately compelling, alternating self-destructive lament with tormented aggression constantly through the filter of Green’s excellent grasp of lyrical image.
Circa Survive: Get Out
(this is a video link; we’re not able to embed the video in the post)
Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II
This album, which is already a critical darling in the more mainstream music community, is fucking cold. Producer Ethan Kath, half of Canadian electronic duo Crystal Castles, recorded the album during frigid winter and says when he listens to it he can hear his teeth chatter. It shows.
They say Crystal Castles is spearheading a new electronic music subgenre—some call it chipcore, but I call this record the 8-bit apocalypse, because it sounds like the world crumbling away into a frigid nothing. Forget smooth, easily danceable, friendly electronic music—the sound of Crystal Castles’ second self-titled record is a harsh, jagged conglomeration of samples and videogame-type sonic grenades detonating in front of deterministic and pummeling dance beats. The whole thing is morose, noisy, and deeply fucked-up.
Add to that poetically-named vocalist Alice Glass (her voice sounds like rusty nails on glass, in the best way), who spends as much time shrieking as singing, and you have what may be the birth of extreme electropop. Robert Smith of classic goth-rockers The Cure lends his voice to a tune as well, adding to the fragile balance between moments of serenity and barely-restrained chaos that make this record unique. Crystal Castles are absolutely worthy of metalhead attention as a band with two nearly-perfect extremist records who also put on notoriously rowdy and violent live shows. Circle pit 4 chipcore > mosh 4 christ.
Fang Island – Fang Island
Oh boy, an indie record…
I’ve always thought indie rock and metal, superficially, have a lot of the same central conceits at their respective hearts (individualism, anticommercial music, a rejection of cultural norms) and a lot of the same community problems (preoccupation with stupid fashion trends, elitism) yet for the longest time I had trouble listening to indie music. I realize now that this is because more often than not indie is afraid to RAWK. Jangly guitar melodies and folk harmonies are all well and good, but I like a band that knows when to kick it up a notch!
Ladies and gentlemen, Fang Island is one indie band that knows how to rock and when to kick it up a notch. They may love their major chords and boys-choir vocal melodies, but they also worship at the altar of riff. I would describe their music as the White Stripes at their best . . . while getting banged by Deep Purple. Fang Island, like Whitechapel and Kvelertak, think that three guitars are better than two, especially when every member of the band has an army of retro organs to back them up and one of said guitar players moonlights in noise rock band Daughters. Add to that a love of prog rhythms and a double-bass friendly drummer and you have 45 minutes of a raucous good time. Fang Island play indie with guts, swagger, and the chops to back it up—in short they kick ass and thrash, but do so while sounding all happy and hipster-like.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
In all likelihood even if you are not familiar with (mostly) instrumental hip-hop artist Steve Ellison AKA Flying Lotus, you have heard his music. FlyLo was once most well known for the creator of the bumper music heard before and after commercials during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program. But this record makes those track samples look like ringtones, when Cosmogramma is an opera. To be objective, this is probably the best album of 2010 cross-genre.
Ellison and his motley crew of guest contributors (including Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the most depressed non-black metal musician in the world) have created a piece of work that is lush, intense and deep in the same way prog-metal, post-metal and djent can be. This is the sort of record that takes you places, sober or not (but if you want to try it any other way than sober . . . you’ll probably like it even more).
This game-changing album blends Detroit-style trip-hop (think sadly deceased mastermind J-Dilla) with jazz-fusion sounds (FlyLo is the descendant of jazz legend John Coltrane) and creates a sort of space-rock symphony out of it, if that makes any kind of sense. If FlyLo ever did a song with Paul Masvidal I might die of sheer joy (if either of you read this—MAKE IT HAPPEN! IT WOULD BE SO GOOD!). Dark, introspective and completely unique — I cannot recommend Cosmogramma enough, to anyone.
HotChaCha – Fantastic Static EP
I’ve written about HotChaCha on my personal blog (here) because I feel like there’s a raw energy and force behind HotChaCha’s music. Fantastic Static is their most hyperactive and immersive slice of arty psychedelic noise rock yet, as well as by far the most independent release on this list.
If anyone out there is a fan of The Black Angels or Black Mountain, HotChaCha will scratch that itch with a little less sophistication but twice the vigor. Because I’ve written aobut them in depth, I don’t feel like expanding—if you’re curious about these four extremely talented young women (who put on a brutal live show and are great people to share a brew with) just click the link.
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
If anyone ever tells you that they can’t listen to metal because of the vocals, but still like Joanna Newsom—hit them for being hypocites, as hard as you can. In my years of listening to extreme music, I have almost never heard anything as unsettling and abrasive as psych-folk harp musician Joanna Newsom’s voice. She is the only non-metal musician I have ever heard of needing emergency vocal chord surgery for how unhealthy her singing style is. If she had a child with Tom Waits, the earth would shiver whenever it opened its mouth.
None of that is meant to be insulting, because Joanna Newsom is an incredible musician—a complete mistress of the harp and piano, she makes off-kilter progressive folk songs with a twisted and esoteric bent, with massively lush orchestral accompaniment (explaining the incredibly long gaps between her album releases). Every metal band that’s ever even begun to think of adding a string section—or even one string instrument—would do well to listen to Newsom’s work.
That may be difficult because not only are her individual songs incredibly challenging, but this album is three hours long . . . yeah, a triple album. I can listen to hours of avant-garde black metal but I cannot sit through Have One On Me, even though it’s fantastic. As a matter of fact, it’s SO challenging I’m going to recommend that anyone reading this start of with her last album, 2006’s prog-folk-symphony epic Ys, which is just as challenging but perhaps a bit more tidy and only one hour long.
Sleigh Bells – Treats
More than any other album on this list, Treats has a metallic pedigree. Sleigh Bells is the union of female vocalist Alexis Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller. If that second name is familiar to you, it may be because Miller was once a guitarist in seminal metallic hardcore band Poison The Well, and he surely brings the unholy guitar fury on this record. This record is full of riffs, some of them cementing Miller’s intention of being a solo-less guitar hero, some of them imitating animals and machines. This is really Miller’s project and when I listen to it I don’t miss Poison the Well at all, even if Sleigh Bells is an altogether different animal.
Describing Sleigh Bells is difficult because although the elements of their sound are very abrasive, the overall effect is absolutely jubilant. From the first ‘chugga-chugga VROOM VROOM’ riff of opener ‘Tell Em,’ Treats is a nonstop, feel-good, high-octane party record, but one that incorporates many metallic elements: grindcore-short songs, monster riffs, hardcore gang shouts (albeit done by cheerleaders) and huge pounding Godflesh-style drum machines. If I were pressed I would call Sleigh Bells high fructose pop-industrial music.
Krauss sticks mainly to cleans with very repetitive super-simplistic lyrics, but displays a powerful vocal talent and, if video footage is any indication, is a spectacular performer. Whereas most industrial grinds the listener to dust with mechanical precision, Sleigh Bells is all about the joy of being part of a machine—the music feels larger-than-life and invites the listener to get swept up in its pulsating sugar rush of happy fury.
(yeah, I thought you’d like that)
These New Puritans – Hidden
I’ve thought for years that the first artist to successfully blend Norwegian black metal with the atmosphere of Wu Tang Clan’s debut Enter the 36 Chambers would instantly become one of the best musical artists of all time. Until then, These New Puritans are as close as we’re gonna get.
The basis of their sound is not metal but post-punk, in the vein of 70’s/80’s gothy art rock bands like The Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division (so the next best thing). Their album is through-composed, so unlike most contemporary music it makes for a seemless listening experience where themes and motifs from earlier songs will return later, re-imagined. What makes them unique and incredible is their use of horns and other organic instrumental sounds to give everything an unstoppable rolling darkness to the sound. Attention Cradle of Filth/Dimmu Borgir/Abigail Williams/Winds of Plague/every other band trying to go for the ‘evil empire’ vibe: Stop. Listen to this, because a bunch of depressed British kids are making you look like toddlers.
Even their song titles are more metal than most metal bands can muster: “We Want War,” “Attack Music,” “Fire-Power,” “Orion.” OK, OK, so that last one is not fair, but still; I haven’t heard songs this well-titled since Mastodon’s Remission album.
Hidden is their second record, and is 45 minutes of straight-up crushing, cryptic darkness with a command of mood and atmosphere nearly unrivaled in contemporary music of any kind—thanks for the find Michelle!!! Some genius needs to hook these guys up on a US tour with Jesu. Now.
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Ok, this one’s going to be a harder sell.
Normally, I would never jump on the bandwagon of a typical Pitchfork-hype band, but every so often the eternally incestuous and corrupt American indie press actually does rake a gem out of the bullshit, and this band is Exhibit A.
Titus Andronicus’ sophomore effort is a colossal record of long, narrative-driven songs that deal in strong choruses and stronger riffs. Even though the influence here is a bit more Bruce Springsteen than Bruce Dickinson, the sheer quality of the work is dwarfed only by the ambition in the music. Consider this: The Monitor, named after one of the first ironclad warships, is a concept record about the American Civil War, ending in a nearly 10-minute ballad about the final naval battle of The Monitor. If that doesn’t sound like something right out of Mastodon’s playbook I don’t know what is. For an indie band, these buys have intense musical chops and have a knack for shifting easily between mellow passages, anthemic choruses, and heavy headbang-worthy riffs with an ease many metal bands with years more experience can’t feign.
Tyler the Creator – Bastard
I love death metal. I really do. But I feel the genre’s misguided in some ways. The entire point of death metal, to me, is to celebrate the value of human life by pointing out just how fragile it is, how easily destroyed and set awry it is. Fortunately for me, zombie plagues and serial killers are not high on my list of likely ways that I will die—this is one of the reasons I find certain strains of hardcore/deathcore appealing: they deal with real life issues such as the police, drugs and sexually transmitted disease
But none of them can write about it like Tyler the Creator. Tyler is a hardcore rapper from Los Angeles, and a member of hip hop crew OFWGKTA—but his most recent solo record is a singular entity seemingly with a life of its own. And that life is extremely messed up . . . and set to some pretty sick beats. I can say with some certainty that this is the most brutal hip hop record I have ever heard, and every bit as visceral and uncompromising as Cannibal Corpse’s best work. If this record had the riffs from Kill behind it, people would be clamoring for rap metal to make a revival in the most ecstatically brutal way. Gore hounds, this is the Holy Grail; he even takes a few shots at god while he’s at it.