Jan 042012

(We’re blessed with yet another year-end list from one of The Number of the Blog’s writers — Gaia. The previous TNOTB lists have already evidenced the diversity of that site’s musical tastes, but this list makes the case conclusively.)

It’s sad when your favourite old band t-shirt is too tired to wear, the print on the front is cracked and faded, the black now lost it’s hue, for some it’s even ripped from rowdy gigs. But it’s refreshing when you get to buy a new one, the print’s cool, it’s a new recently discovered band, and the logo’s unreadable. Just what you wanted. It doesn’t quite replace that old favourite shirt that you can’t wear anymore, but you look forward to wearing this new one.

I’ll miss you TNOTB, but you’ll always be there. My first favourite.

Of course we’re here to discuss lists and whatnot, not tepid analogies of other things. I wholly enjoyed putting together this list. Previous years have showcased my ineptitude to narrow down my lists and so I hope this year’s at least shows a pretence of being discerning. I could never be so righteous and say these are the ‘best’ records of the year, but they are certainly my favourites.

Before said list, I will now cheekily highlight the honourable mentions and they are Six Organs of Admittance, Turbowolf, Memfis, Elvis Deluxe, At Devil Dirt, and Thorr-Axe, all deserving but had to be omitted from the list then lately annexed here. Oh, Master Musicians of Bukakke was another one. And Moab.

Enough prolixity here, lets ramble on.

20. Cloudkicker – ‘Let Yourself Be Huge’
[Self Released]

I believe what Ben Sharp is doing as Cloudkicker is the future. He has proven that you can self-produce a fantastic record -nigh discography- all on your own back. I believe we’re moving towards a hand-made culture, and Let Yourself Be Huge feels like only Ben could have made it. Much more laid back than previous outings, this record produces luscious tones and twinkling acoustic tunes, the music captures the sunset by the beach of its artwork. My favourite record by Cloudkicker so far.

Song: ‘Explore, Be Curious’

19. Foo Fighters – ‘Wasting Light’
[RCA/Capitol Records]

I think it is safe to say I will always be a fan of Foo Fighters; Dave Grohl was The Man when I was younger and he keeps on proving he’s cool. Wasting Light returned the Foos to my general rotation after being dropped since 2007’s awful Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, a stale record at best. At first I was surprised at how heavy Wasting Light was; I suppose I’d grown used to the radio-friendly hits, but it reminded me that the Foos were indeed a hard rock band and that’s where they belong. Great return to form.

Song: ‘Rope’

18. Sahara Surfers – ‘Sonar Pilot’
[Sound Zero Records]

There’s a technique in film to portray someone as mentally ill or paranoid, in which they see something or someone everywhere. In the mirror, on the street, when they close their eyes, in their personal space, down alleys. I have the same problem when I listen to Sahara Surfers. Listening to Sonar Pilot and I see the band playing everywhere I go. I see vocalist Julia Überbacher singing in the mirror, dextrous drummer Michael Steingress thumping away in a shop, Andreas Knapp slings his guitar and sand trickles in to my eyes, while Hans-Peter Ganner’s bass closes alleys and boxes me in. I worry for my mind but Sonar Pilot is so damn good it’s worth it.

Song: ‘Mass Crashing’

17. Hull – ‘Beyond The Lightless Sky’
[The End Records]

Hull’s sophomore record Beyond the Lightless Sky was a very late entry on this list. In fact, it was after I saw JJ Koczan’s list over at The Obelisk when I realized I’d forgotten Hull had a new record out. In all honesty, I was actually giving Hull a second chance as I found their debut Sole Lord to be quite boring, but man, am I glad I caught this record in time. The guitar work is phenomenal; proggy sludge has now been re-invented and should sound like this forever. The song writing has been pushed up a notch, too, with the light and shade aspect in accordance with the two-Mayan-brothers concept and it very much shines through. And very cool artwork to boot. This record shows what Hull can do, and I can’t wait to see how they grow from here.

Song: ‘Earth From Water’

16. True Widow – ‘As High As the Highest Heavens and from the Center to the Circumference of the Earth’
[Kemado Records]

Another late entry, however within two weeks it’s already into double figures on my iTunes library, which is almost unheard of. Over this year I’ve come to appreciate female vocals more and more; Sahara Surfers (above) are a precursor to this, and True Widow follows in step. I love the ethereal quality in bassist Nicole Estill’s vocals and the overall reclined nature Highest Heavens, making this 2011’s finest shoegaze record.

Song: ‘Skull Eyes’

15. Premonition 13 – ‘13’
[Volcom Entertainment]

Back on 4th December I saw Premonition 13 play live, and Wino stood playing probably only a metre from me. Watching him reminded me of the admiration of striking architecture, a building that is a piece of art unto itself. You can’t help but be impressed. Wino has been the producer of quality doom for over a quarter of a century now, and I may roam into heated debate, but I believe his best work is still ahead of him. He’s always been honest, but his latest output feels rawer and more stripped away than ever before. That manifests itself on 13, the result of Wino’s friendship with Jim Karrow and recent hardships in his personal life.

Song: ‘Clay Pigeons’

14. Opeth – ‘Heritage’
[Roadrunner Records]

I’ve always maintained that Opeth were at their most interesting when they were playing 70s progressive rock, and on Heritage they finally ditched their death metal roots for the better. Some have said this is the record Mikael Åkerfeldt has always wanted to make, yet I believe that is wrong: Heritage was probably the most obvious direction for Opeth to take. Intelligent and well-crafted, Opeth’s brand of dark and evil prog rock settles nicely into their back catalogue as the dominant elements on Heritage have always been there in Opeth’s music; it should not have surprised  anyone. I think it’s a masterpiece and it transfers so beautifully in a live setting.

Song: ‘Famine’

13. Devin Townsend Project – ‘Deconstruction’
[HevyDevy Records]

I don’t think anyone will ever fully ‘get’ this record. The layers upon layers of the hectic, the holistic, and the harebrained just chew the listener up and spit them back out in a tangle. Like a Betamax tape after you‘ve used it once. I think the biggest achievement of Deconstruction is the message Devin is trying to convey, a message that kind of subverts the general thinking within metal, in that metal does not have to be negative, it can also be a positive energy. Devin succeeds in conveying that message with Deconstruction; I don’t know what the fuck is going on in it, but I’m pretty fucking happy about it.

Song: ‘Sumeria’

12. KEN mode – ‘Venerable’
[Profound Lore Records]

We’ve seen two different kinds of ‘losing yourself’ in music on this list: Deconstruction, above, was more a redefining of self, whereas what KEN mode put forward on Venerable feels more destructive. An unravelling string comes to mind. Jesse Matthewson howls like a Stephen King character would, while lost in the ferocious noise of jagged dynamics that act as backdrop. You know the jagged precipices in Dan Seagrave’s artwork? Well Venerable is them in sonic form. This record knocked me over in its delivery and perfect production and was the first record that cemented its position on this list from my first listening. I’ve surprised myself by enjoying at least one hardcore oriented record each year, and I believe this is 2011’s hardcore/noise record for me.

Song: ‘Obeying the Iron Will…’

11. Junius – ‘Reports From The Threshold of Death’
[Prosthetic Records]

Man, was Ghost falling off that Enslaved tour the best thing to happen to Junius this year or what? Actually, wait, no, the best thing was that they released a fucking great record. Reports hit that melancholic sweet spot for me this year. Ironically enough, it’s a ghostly record. It holds this faded quality, the ambience and electronics that back the record along with the exorcising vocals of Joseph Martinez drawing out that haunted house sensibility. What I love, though, is that it’s not negative; it’s an uplifting record. The melodies soar, rather than wither, the lyrics contemplate the esoteric and arcane, yet at it’s core the album is a fire fuelled with hope. Love it.

Song: ‘A Universe Without Stars’

10. SubRosa – ‘No Help For The Mighty Ones’
[Profound Lore Records]

This record reminds me of the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan. The vocals on No Help For The Mighty Ones are solely female, with main duties handled by Kim Pack, yet the common perception amongst listeners is that female vocals portray innocence. I blame mediocre two-singer metalcore bands. SubRosa, like the character Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan, find the darker side. I actually go cold at the end of ‘The Inheritance’ when the repeated lyric ‘We in the shadow of a dying world’ fades with the musical box. Their colossal, bassy sludge shares little with the dextrous ballet in the film, but each conveys femininity’s dark side. There is nothing tender about this record; it’s completely punishing, massive walls of bass with murals of violins and ethereal vocals etched into the black sonic stone. SubRosa received wider attention this year, and so I hope they capitalise on it with their next record.

Song: ‘The Inheritance’

9. Mastodon – ‘The Hunter’
[Roadrunner Records]

I very much hope that there is a new positivity in metal in the forthcoming year. Devin’s had a go with his project, and it appears Mastodon has taken up the mantle with The Hunter, yet I find myself fighting that assertion. The Hunter feels positive, the craft of songwriting was at the forefront in the recording, and Mastodon kept things concise and everything in line. Lyrically, though, the record is melancholic. The Hunter is in fact named after Brent Hinds’ brother who was killed in a hunting accident. Lyrics like ‘Just close your eyes/And pretend everything is fine’ from ‘Dry Bone Valley’, and from the title track the words ‘Free from it all/ Breathe in the darkest fall’ feel desperate and tethered. While the riffs do shimmer and sparkle, the content is dark and sombre. People have called Mastodon out for dumbing down on The Hunter, but in reality I think they just didn’t comprehend the underlying complexity beneath this record.

Song: ‘Thickening’

8. Monkey3 – ‘Beyond The Black Sky’
[Stickman Records]

Although the context is cold space, Monkey3’s brand of spacey, psychedelic, instrumental, stoner rock, makes me recall the warmth of my duvet on a cold winter morning. Their tones are so luscious and sonorous, as a listener you can just dive in and feel the woven textures wrap around you. I’ve been digging more and more instrumental music. and to borrow a quote from a Doommantia interview with a Tank86 bass player: “As a listener there is a lot more room for your own interpretation since there’s no lyrics that tell you what the songs are about, so you can fill that in yourself. As musicians there’s greater freedom in writing. There’s no conventional song structures you have to conform to and it’s easier to incorporate different styles in your music”. I fully back the sentiment that there is greater freedom with instrumental music. I find some of the most inventive song writing in instrumental bands like Monkey3, and Beyond the Black Sky is intelligently crafted with bona fide instrumental riff-odysseys in ‘Black Maiden’ and ‘Through the Desert’.

Song: ‘Black Maiden’

7. Today Is The Day – ‘Pain Is A Warning’
[Black Market Activities]

I hold my hands up when I say that before I listened to Today is the Day, I thought they were a doom band. So imagine how surprised I was when Steve Austin tip-toed closer, whispered in my ear, then snapped my limbs out of their sockets. I had never heard TITD before, but I could tell I had become an addict. A paralysed addict at that. What strikes me most about Pain is a Warning is the juxtaposition of the beguiling hushed vocals and the raging storm of dissonance and serrated-edged riffs. It disarms the listener, as if Steve Austin is addressing the listener on a personal level. Of course, this doesn’t last, and sooner or later Austin is shrieking and berating through the metal storm that churns from his amplifier. A favourite record for when someone sits uncomfortably close on the bus.

Song: ‘Slave To Serenity’

6. Giant Squid – ‘Cenotes’
[Translation Loss Records]

I know I’m on the internet, but I’m going to have to confess now and say I’m not very geeky. I don’t like video games, have never read a comic nor ever been interested by their film adaptations (apart from Batman, but who doesn‘t like Batman?), I’m not very good with technology, I barely know my way around my mobile, and well, science fiction isn’t that great. So, not much of a stereotypical geek. But man, I geek out over Giant Squid. Aaron Gregory is a fantastic illustrator — check out that record artwork — and, not to forget, a phenomenal musician. And Cenotes is proof of that. Also, Cenotes surrenders the riff of the year; from 5:19 onwards on opener ‘Tongue Stones’, it has me lurching back and forth in what is probably quite a mental display of conviction. As Giant Squid’s ‘guitar album’ it sounds akin to SubRosa’s latest, yet it still maintains those progressive elements that make them that little bit more special.

Song: ‘Tongue Stones’

5. Red Fang – ‘Murder The Mountains’
[Relapse Records]

Murder The Mountains is a heavy record, yet Red Fang have never sounded cleaner. It’s refreshing how this record has proven heaviness and clarity aren’t mutually exclusive.Sometimes I think I can feel flecks of Bryan Giles’s spit as he barks out ‘That’s a trick’ on opener ‘Malverde’. Other times I can really appreciate the balls-out heaviness of the dual guitar attack, their interplay and wizardry on spectacle. Red Fang were brave to go with Chris Funk (of The Decemberists) as their producer, yet it’s pulled off fucking fantastically. MAN, just listen to that riff at the end of ‘Throw Up’, from 4:50 onwards.

Song: ‘Throw Up’

4. Earth – ‘Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Part I’
[Southern Lord Records]

I am fully aware one can’t exactly eat music, but one can consume it. One can experience it, but can’t exactly get in it. I believe this is why we attach a physicality to it. To make it something we can eat or get in, maybe not literally, but figuratively. Angels of Darkness, for me then, is a river of warm dark water that trickles and ebbs under the midday sun and flows and gushes in the face of the midnight moon. There are dark undercurrents that pose a sinister threat of drowning, while there are obstacles of eroding boulders that divert the river down different paths. Listening to Angels, I clasp this warm water in my hands and see the colours swirl with Dylan Carson’s notes and feel the strong undercurrent of Karl Blau’s bass. An achingly beautiful record that makes me want to pour my soul into its waters. Watch out for Part II in 2012.

Song: ‘Descent to the Zenith’

3. Elder – ‘Dead Roots Stirring’
[Meteor City Records]

Man, I love this record. Elder’s Sleep-centric self-titled debut never grabbed me the same way Dead Roots Stirring has; don’t get me wrong, their debut was the best record Sleep never made, but Dead Roots Stirring has Elder smoking from their own bowl, with new European heavy-psych flavours. Sharing tokes with Colour Haze and Kyuss, Elder have carved their way into new ground on Dead Roots Stirring, leaving behind the swamps of Sleep. They jam out with riffs that waver and shimmer, yet still keep that bite they learnt from the life in the swamp, allowing guitarist Nick DiSalvo to lurch and bellow. They execute this new style so well, they hypnotize and mesmerize and leave me gawping.

The Guitar Record of the Year.

Song: Full Record Stream

2. YOB – ‘Atma’
[Profound Lore Records]

It was said in an interview with Invisible Oranges, I believe, that when talking to Mike Scheidt you notice he has those kind of eyes that pierce right through you. That Thousand Yard Stare that makes you realise he’s operating on an entirely different level than everyone else. YOB is certainly the manifestation of that. There’s something Herzogian about them. Each pioneer the difficult and challenging frontiers of knowledge and understanding. Each confront and delve into and inhabit what they are discovering. And Atma is a further extension of that. Sonically, YOB are as punishing as ever; the riff on the latter half of the title track brings forth the image of bodies falling on gravel. As always, there is the cosmic in their doom, too, and ‘Upon the Sight of the Other Shore’ and ‘Adift in the Ocean’ are class all the way through, each cut visited by Scott Kelly lending his sinewy vocals to powerful effect. Atma is a stunning record, and I am so glad we have YOB back. They won’t have their constellation just yet.

Song: ‘Atma’

1. Sungrazer – ‘Mirador’
[Elektrohasch Records]

You may have noticed that a lot of my analysis depends on the feel of the record and how it affects me. I’m not sure why, I suppose it’s just the most compelling way to write. Well, where Atma was celestial and Dead Roots Stirring was hypnotizing, Mirador, Sungrazer’s second record on Elektrohasch, made me feel fucking good. Like really fucking good.

I remember when I first heard Sungrazer, initially introduced to them by the always stellar The Obelisk, and I was struck by how laid back and cool and groovy their stoner rock was. A year on, and their sound has evolved into their own on Mirador; on the self-titled debut they played with promise and on Mirador they delivered in spades: Tweaking with extraordinary songwriting capabilities and variety in their structures, playing with interesting progressive elements and extended instrumental segments. They’re still laid back and cool and groovy, but they now stand out and they have produced my favourite record of this year. It feels like Mirador was made purposely for me. Everything just adds up to a perfect equation, and I feel fucking great every time I play it.

Songs: ‘Octo’, ‘Behind’

There are quite a few interesting records due in twentytwelve, so here is a concise list of ten of what I’m looking forward to, just for a heads up:

Colour Haze
Saint Vitus
Crippled Black Phoenix

Okay, that’s actually eleven. Wait, add High on Fire and Gojira, that makes thirteen.


My thanks go to Islander for bearing with me.

  15 Responses to “GAIA’S TOP 20 OF 2011”

  1. “Prolixity”? “Herzogian”? I think I’m in love with your writing. And no, not the platonic kind.

  2. I love this list, Gaia. My fav I’ve read all month(s)!

  3. Looks like one missed out on Sungrazer. One actually expected YOB’s “Atma” to be at the top of this list. This seems to be the first time one has heard of Sungrazer. [Although, you probably mentioned them in one of your posts…]

    One has heard of most of the record on this list, but only listened to about 7 of them. “Stupid brain, Y U NO listen to more of Gaia’s recommendations?!” It might be that one’s own tastes seem to align more with groverXIII’s, that one doesn’t take many of your recommendations seriously. One apologizes for that.
    But, one should also thank you for turn one’s tastes towards stoner rock and doom metal with YOB and Sahara Surfers (their previous records to be more specific). One also seems to associate you with one’s discovery and acquired taste of Esoteric – one wonders if you are to blame for that as well…

  4. Great list! Keep pushing Elder! Fucking love that album so much!
    Good to see Sungrazer in there too.

  5. Hull! I liked their debut but the new record just goes so far beyond it. One of my absolute favorites of the year. I really have to get on listening to Elder too. And new Colour Haze next year? Yes please.

  6. Nice list. Not a lot of surprises, although Sungrazer being #1 caught me off guard. Great album.

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