Countdown: 2018: Albums

Onto week three of Countdown: 2018 on amodelofcontrol.com, and this week I’m looking at the best albums of the year. As I’m sure I’ve explained before, I treat the “year” as 01-December to 30-November, to allow me a cut-off point, and to allow this to be done and dusted before Christmas so that I can take the usual break from writing for a couple of week over the holiday period.

Countdown: 2018

27-Nov: Compilations and re-issues
04-Dec: Tracks
11-Dec: Albums
18-Dec: Gigs

Playlists

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Countdown: Albums

2017: Seeming – SOL
2016: KANGA – KANGA
2015: Dead When I Found Her – All The Way Down
2014: 3 TEETH – 3 TEETH
2013: Front Line Assembly – Echogenetic
2012: Dead When I Found Her – Rag Doll Blues
2011: This Morn’ Omina – L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
2010: Edge of Dawn – Anything That Gets You Through The Night
2009: Alice In Chains – Black Gives Way To Blue
2008: Aesthetic Perfection – A Violent Emotion
2007: Battles – Mirrored
2006: In Strict Confidence – Exile Paradise
2005: Cyanotic – Transhuman
2004: Rotersand – Truth Is Fanatic

2018 has been an interesting year in the music I listen to, once again. There has been returns from old names, amazing new artists arriving, and a whole lot more in between – across a whole variety of styles. Indeed there was so much to consider that a number of albums didn’t make the cut in the end, including releases from Author & Punisher, Cardinal Noire, Creep Show, GNOD, AlterRed, In Strict Confidence, Klammer, Lederman/De Meyer, Primordial and Rabbit Junk.

While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music, and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise, or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully something here will do that to you.

The other interesting thing that I realised once the list was in place? This has been a year of women making great music. Four of the top five, seven of the top ten, eleven of the top twenty are lead by women (and fifteen of the top twenty artists contain women in the wider groups) – and proof to me that there is no need for majority-male bills at festivals. There are lots of women making great music in many forms, they should not be excluded.

Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right.

Next week: Gigs


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ESA

That Beast
Negative Gain

Jamie Blacker’s experiments in industrial – and this is harsh music, just not in the “harsh industrial” sense that you might hear described elsewhere – have long been exercises in pushing the envelope. His background in extreme music generally – and especially his other work in extreme metal – have helped to shape a sound that is easily recognisable as his, with uses of dynamics in particular that owe much to that scene rather than industrial, but the uneasy darkness and well-chosen samples are tropes that go all the way back to pioneers like Throbbing Gristle. This, then, his seventh album under the ESA name, spends less time building atmospheres, and more time hammering out of your speakers. The title is well chosen, as this is very much a snarling Beast of an album.


Behemoth

I Loved You At Your Darkest
Nuclear Blast

Nearly thirty years (!) into their career, Behemoth have become one of the most respected, and most interesting, bands in the extreme metal arena. Partly because of their disinterest in being pigeonholed, but also by the way that they are constantly looking carefully at their sound and seeing how they can expand their horizons. That has certainly happened here – I wasn’t expecting the use of a children’s choir as a key part of opener Solve, for a start, and there are other parts of the album that stray a considerable distance from their iconic, blackened-death sound.

But what hasn’t changed is their vigourous, and aggressive, questioning of religion and its failings (a brave move in their conservatively, majority catholic, home country of Poland right now), which certainly make their songs interesting from a lyrical perspective. That said, though, this album exists in the gigantic shadow of its predecessor The Satanist, which in probably being the greatest extreme metal album of the past decade, something it can’t hope to match. So this is good, but…


W.A.S.T.E.

The Sodomy of Morality
Crunch Pod

A burst of releases in the first few years of W.A.S.T.E.’s existence has since slowed, with Shane and his cohorts only sporadically releasing music now, but I did wonder how he could possibly keep up the intensity of those earlier releases. An artist that remains outright banned from my stereo if my wife is in the house (after an incident where I didn’t warn her that I was going to drop the screaming aural violence of Suburban Crime Scene in a DJ set!), this album, even though it perhaps dials back the force a bit, isn’t going to change her mind one iota. Atmospherically and sonically, this is nasty stuff – and it’s meant to be. Few artists really stick with industrial noise anymore, but it is refreshing to know that Shane is still fully signed up to the cause.


The Breeders

All Nerve
4AD

Never exactly the world’s most prolific band – this is only their fifth album in twenty-eight years, and their first in ten – but in the years prior to this album, The Breeders had (some might say at last) gained something of a critical redemption. The exceptional, expanded re-issue and accompanying tour of Last Splash, which reminded everyone that there was far more to this band than the evergreen Cannonball, saw the “classic” line-up from that period reconvene, and this album sees that same line-up recording together again. OK, so there’s no equivalent to that song here – you don’t get lightning in a bottle a second time – but there’s no real need, either. There’s the same charming, shambling sound, though, as if things could fall apart at any moment, and the Deal sisters’ vocals entwine as sweetly as ever – and this is certainly a vastly better return than the godawful new output from her old band Pixies, that’s for sure.


Caustic

American Carrion
Negative Gain

Matt Fanale’s relentless release schedule – by his own reckoning he’s been involved in eleven releases, under five different artist names in 2018 alone – means that you could be forgiven for forgetting that he released an excellent new album under the Caustic name as the year began. It could be said that his work as Caustic has evolved over the years, and in its most recent incarnation there is a particular strain of politicisation on show. Being a father with two young children now, I wonder if Matt is increasingly looking at the world he surveys – and what future his children may be raised in – and is unleashing his fury at the situation as a result. The music here certainly reflects that – there is less humour on show, more harder-edged electronics (that as usual, flits across a few styles as needed) and a particularly bitter line in appropriate samples and vocals that are spat into the mic. This is an angry, necessary album, and is another solid release under the Caustic banner.


OutOut

Ridotto
Radio Valkyrie Records

Swan/Dive? was the first OutOut album in a long time, and was a searing, political release that had the distinct feeling of an artist trying to say as much as possible in as short a time as possible. It was enjoyable, yes – the first four songs especially being absolute belters – but I think I like this album better. Very different in tone, with the title (which nods to Fluke) providing a hint as to what direction the sound was going to go in. This is built almost as one continuous mix, with the heavy techno-influenced rhythms allowing songs to bleed into one another and also providing a solid base for interesting electronic experiments to occur above the waterline. Mark Alan Miller’s glowering vocals, too, suit this expansive sound well, and indeed they are dialled back somewhat to allow lengthy instrumental passages. This rather felt like it was released under the radar when it came out, so some might have missed it – genuinely, this is worth your time in picking up on it now.


Cesium_137

Rise To Conquer
Metropolis Records

I was overjoyed to find Cesium_137 unexpectedly return with their first new album in six years early in 2018 (I talked with Isaac from the band on Talk Show Host: 042, where the reasons for the lengthy absence were explained). Their heavily dance-influenced industrial – more uplifting trance at points than industrial dancefloor music – is a whole lot darker than the bright, upbeat synths first suggest, but their knack for sensational hooks and huge-sounding epic songs remains.


Freak Dream

Into The Sun
Artoffact Records

Artoffact have signed a number of intriguing artists this year, and Freak Dream were certainly one of the more attention-grabbing from the first tracks shared. This is an album that gives two fingers to the idea of genre, that’s for sure – going from industrial rock to noise to choral ambience to drilling electronics in just the opening track Bash Hop, for example (in under two minutes, too). What is more important, though, is that despite the wild stylistic changes within songs, there is a focus here that makes it work. Some might say it shouldn’t, but those that are, they aren’t listening hard enough.


Ancient Methods

The Jericho Records
Ancient Methods

Not many industrial techno artists – in fact, I suspect Ancient Methods are in a field of one here – have based their music around biblical themes. Ten years of singles and EPs has finally brought us to their debut, and based around The Battle of Jericho in the Bible (!), this is extraordinary stuff. Michael Wollenhaupt – for he is AM nowadays – goes all-out around the theme, with all kinds of nods and motifs running throughout the album, but what makes this album so good is that even without the themeatics, this would be an outstanding industrial techno album. It’s hard, heavy and clearly borne as the result of years of club play and working out what comes across best. There is much to love here, even if – as is the case with me – you have little interest in the detail of the biblical themes.


V▲LH▲LL

Grimoire
Artoffact Records

The shedding of their long-held anonymity (see more on Talk Show Host: 044) was perhaps a surprise, but a logical step as they began to play live more (where it would be ever-more difficult to keep the mystery). None of the mystery departed the Swedish group on their latest album, though, as they kept up the unsettling feeling of darkness and threat amid mellowed-out, languid beats and ghostly, ethereal vocals (and even repeating the lets-make-nursery-rhymes-fucking-terrifying on the title track – you’ll never hear Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the same way again).

That said, as their live show proved at Infest, they remain a divisive act that it is difficult to remain on the fence about, but I still like them a lot and this album was an interesting step forward in a slightly different direction, as the familiar sound was joined by the odd experiment here and there.


Ah Cama-Sotz

I Believe
HANDS Productions

I’ve long been fascinated by the quasi-tribal, religious and classical influences that pop up throughout Ah Cama-Sotz’s work, in some respects paralleling the tribal devotion and ecstasy of This Morn’ Omina, but fucking hell, this is darker. The devotion on display here is blood-drenched, but at points with those blood-drenched hands raised to the sky (as in the exceptional, delirious pounding dancefloor workout of I:Travel), and at other points hidden in the dark corners of drones and pitch-black ambience. Even the unexpected appearance of a cover of Warm Leatherette – played remarkably straight – doesn’t detract from the feel of the album, in fact the uneasy themes of that song fit neatly in here. Probably my favourite release from Ah Cama-Sotz in a long, long time.


Blume

Ashes
WTII Records

It’s been a while since Blume last graced us with their presence, but their knack for writing stately, darker-edged synthpop remains undimmed. This kind of sound may not be “fashionable” anymore, but who cares when it’s this good? A solid collection of well written songs, with great melodies and hooks – as there should be in this kind of sound – and like their debut, a distinct sense of resignation at the world they see, endure and comment upon.


Metroland

Men In A Frame
Alfa-Matrix

These Belgians have travelled a long way from their roots with Mind The Gap. Their intriguing insistence on conceptualising each release cycle remains (with fascinating results), they’ve just moved a long way from transport. This time around, they joined forces with a local photography collective, and built tracks around the ideas in photographs (and titles) that they were supplied. A lofty concept, frankly, but I think it’s one that works. The group call it “Pictures to Listen To”, and clearly it made them think long and hard about creating the music, as the punchy electronics on display here has the feel of being crafted, of being moulded into shape with great care. In some respects, though, this is Metroland through and through – highly intelligent, never anything short of elegant electronic musicians.


CONFORMCO

controlled.altered.deleted
Glitch Mode

After the tech-futurism of Cyanotic’s output, Sean Payne’s new project with Chris Harris (Project 44) and Charles Levi (TKK) is resolutely one looking back a bit. Something of a love-letter to old-school WaxTrax! Industrial, this is a groove-and-sample-laden, industrial funkathon that is obviously never taking itself too seriously. But even with the more light-hearted approach, nothing has been skimped on the detail – even with the image of the group as a business conglomerate in the “greed is good” era of the eighties – and all of the songs are a dense mesh of beats and electronics, even featuring a sax solo on one track that works better than it has any right to do so. Fifteen years or so into since Cyanotic first appeared, Sean Payne still is restlessly creative, and this is yet more proof of that being put to good use.


Ashbury Heights

The Victorian Wallflowers
Out of Line

OK, I wasn’t expecting this to be good, I must admit. Since their first album – and I know full well that I’m in stark disagreement with my friends at I Die: You Die over this – I’ve thought that Ashbury Heights have been fighting a serious case of diminishing returns, as their albums seemed to contain less and less of what made them great. So what’s this, and what’s happened? Clearly a rethink of sorts has gone on, as this album is stuffed with great songs, buzzes with life and they both actually sound engaged with their music again. It’s fantastic to hear them on such form once again.


Front Line Assembly

WarMech
Artoffact Records

The excellent AirMech is already a remarkable six years old, and after the success of that album (and the game that it soundtracked), perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a follow-up at some point. So it proved this year, with another sprawling, lengthy instrumental album that once again saw FLA exploring a side of the band that is rarely featured on their “main” albums. While there are more reflective moments on many FLA albums, the best songs usually have a palpable aggression to them, so the emotional depth on display here (much as on AirMech still surprises even now. It perhaps goes even deeper into the booming dubstep sound, too (the bass is amazing on good speakers), and the production is exquisite, even by FLA standards.


Autoclav1.1

Makeshift Splint
WTII Records

The remarkably prolific Tony Young returned with his eleventh solo album this year (not to mention remix albums and collaborations on top of that), and what’s more, he’s still evolving his sound. There is a little more urgency in these compositions, some interesting sonic diversions, and a general feeling of this being a better rounded, more satisfying album than he’s released for a while. This is intelligent electronic music, make no mistake, that makes great use of a mix that has a sense of cavernous space – not to mention some gloriously witty song titles that may only make sense if, like this writer and the artist, have spent enough time in West Yorkshire…


<PIG>

Risen
Metropolis Records

Raymond Watts has been remarkably active since PIG returned to regular service a few years back, and this year alone saw him release this album and two more EPs (one an unexpected cover with Sasha Grey, the second the Christmas EP that came out last Friday). A change of personnel this time – notably with Ben Christo on guitars rather than Günter Schulz – changes the emphasis of the sound a little, but really, this is PIG as we love them – oh-so-sleazy and dirty industrial rock, with glamour and more than a few prods at (and a lot of fun with) religious imagery – just check the spectacular cover art.

It is also a little slower-paced than The Gospel, but that’s no real issue – I couldn’t imagine that Watts really gives a fuck about the dancefloor anyway. I still can’t quite work out how Loud Lawless & Lost doesn’t have a credit for that Bowie hook, though…


John Grant

Love Is Magic
Bella Union

John Grant’s work has seen an ever-increasing experimentation with electronics, and this time around – following his excellent collaboration with Wrangler earlier in the year (also in this list) – he has once again worked with Benge of Wrangler, to create an at-times lush electronic album that very much sees off his earlier orchestral work. Ok, so I don’t love it as much as his previous albums, but then Grey Tickles, Black Pressure also took me an age to fully appreciate, so there’s time yet. But there are moments of sublime beauty here, juxtaposed with some great, amusing insults and sharp humour, it’s just that as an album it doesn’t hold together as perfectly as before. Perhaps, though, the bar has just been set so high…


Failure

In The Future Your Body Will Be The Furthest Thing From Your Mind
Failure Records

Failure approached their fifth album in a different way to the crowd-funded triumph that was The Heart Is A Monster a few years back. This time, they released a succession of EPs across 2018, and when the time came for the promised fourth one, the whole set was released as an album, with the lengthy title made up from the individual EP names. Failure were always about albums, too – the critical flow of their releases was always a whole far greater than the parts put together, and this album proves this yet again. The EPs, listened to individually, felt incomplete somehow, yet here the songs shine.

There is, though, a more reserved and overall melancholy sound to this album, as if the return to the public eye and recording new music again has been overwhelming. But the old space-rock, traveller’s curiosity reappears in flashes, such as the glorious, FX-pedal chaos and thumping groove of Distorted Fields – but the closing track is perhaps the most interesting of all. Failure have long been about matters of the heart, or in realms way beyond the earth, so the closing The Pineal Electorate is quite a shock, as it appears to – obliquely at least – offer some bitter comment on the Governments that we deserve.


Zeal and Ardor

Stranger Fruit
Mvka

Without a shadow of a doubt one of the more intriguing, striking albums of the year – a coming together of the most unlikely styles, of Blues, Gospel and Soul with varying degrees of Black Metal – it is genuinely remarkable quite how well this works. Manuel Gagneux’s powerful vocals lead the project, but that juxtaposition between his bluesy, gospel vocals and the brutal blastbeats that often back him are really quite shocking when you first hear it. It is a testament to his skill that this works, that’s for sure, and at points it is a moving album. Particularly in this climate of xenophobia, distrust and, frankly, racism – what could possibly be more subversive than a man of African-American origin singing spirituals over a musical backing that, to be blunt, has not exactly been great on the racial tolerance front at points in the past?


Uniform

The Long Walk
Sacred Bones

Uniform have been a fascinating band for some time, the initial duo having released their own, savage take on industrial-tinged noise rock since 2013, and this year they’ve made impressive steps ahead. First came a paint-strippingly intense collaboration with fellow experimentalists The Body on Mental Wounds Not Healing, and then there came, just two months later, this album. Expanded to a three-piece, with a drummer from the US black metal scene, they’ve lost none of their nasty, confrontational sound, and indeed it could be argued that this release is all the more extreme for the expansion. Apparently an album exploring vocalist Michael Berden’s relationship with his fluctuating faith and his Catholic upbringing – by no means a common subject in this form in extreme music – it is obvious that this inspires extreme emotions in his delivery. Very much a different beast to the excellent Wake In Fright, this beast is perhaps leaner, and baring even more teeth – but it is unexpectedly a thoughtful, contemplative album underneath the searing rage and heavy distortion.


Bodega

Endless Scroll
What’s Your Rupture?

I initially dismissed the lead single How Did This Happen?! as in thrall to LCD Soundsystem – their synth-augmented dance-punk certainly has some parallels – but the more I listened to it and then the rest of the album, the smarter it appeared. This is sharp, politically and self-aware music, full of angular edges and whip-smart lyrics that do a great job of walking the tightrope of the modern world. There are songs lamenting the constant upheaval and instability of City living (not to mention to cost of it, hilariously detailed in Can’t Knock The Hustle), there are other moments that tear into middle-class sensibilities and sofa-based “slacktivism” – all the while with an awareness that this band can’t do a lot themselves either (key line: “This machine you know it don’t kill fascists / This machine just softens what’s hard / This machine it killed the dream of the sixties / This machine you know it’s just a guitar“).

But like a good many other artists in this list this year, there is an increasing panic, perhaps, over the state of the world. Many artists, like Bodega, are asking the right questions, but the sad fact is that most appear to feel that they have no power in even suggesting answers. That powerlessness comes across in the melancholy evident in some of the songs, while elsewhere the band step up and sound ready for the fight. Where they go next could be interesting to watch, but in the meantime, this is one of the best albums out of NYC in the last few years.


Frank Turner

Be More Kind
Xtra-Mile Recordings

There have been suggestions before about Frank Turner’s political leanings, which as I recall caused some controversy in the past – but this album seems to put any ambiguity to bed once and for all, as Turner rages about apathy, right-wing politics, and the simple act of admitting you were wrong across an enjoyable, catchy album that saw him, at last, heading toward the mainstream (this album was in the top five on release).

Perhaps, understandably, his general sound has mellowed a little since the earlier days (I still think England Keep My Bones is his best overall release), but this album still has the odd moment where he bares his teeth and gets angry, and maybe he should do it more often, and those songs are by a distance the best on the album. As ever, though, his work is best enjoyed live and this album very much comes alive in the live environment.


Helix

Twin
Metropolis Records

Tom Shear, aside from his long-running Assemblage23 project, has dabbled in side-projects on a number of occasions in recent years, but this one with Mari Kattman is really quite striking. There is a distinct feeling of Shear moving out of his comfort zone in the sounds he creates (just check out the subtle tabla adding texture to opener Widescreen, for example), and that expansion of horizons provides a solid base for Kattman to weave her vocal magic across song-after-song. Sure, there is at points an element of harking back to nineties trip-hop, but you know what? With an album of songs this good, they can hark back to whatever they fucking well like.


Kælan Mikla

Nótt eftir nótt
Artoffact Records

Amid a hell of a year for this young Icelandic band – selected by Robert Smith to play at Meltdown, as well as a number of other high-profile live appearances elsewhere – their third album dropped late in the year and it’s a doozy. Rather less of the punk and more of the post-punk and goth – you can pretty much envision all of these songs being performed by a band shrouded in dry ice from the off – this is a collection of excellent songs that make great use of unusual synth sounds, driving rhythms and, despite being entirely in Icelandic, it remains a remarkably catchy album for the English speaker. Aim for 2019: actually make it to one of their live shows, that scheduling conflicts have so far stymied every time…


Pig Destroyer

Head Cage
Relapse Records

Pig Destroyer returned with their first album in six years this year, with a new expanded line-up – including someone on electronics and a bassist – and they’ve used that additional armoury wisely, as this album is fucking brutal. The album snaps and snarls, has riffs like whips, and grooves like a motherfucker. It’s rather amazing that bands are still finding ways to make Grindcore – a genre that we might have expected to have disappeared up a cul-de-sac some years ago, as let’s be honest it isn’t really one with a great deal of room to evolve – thrilling and fresh, but Pig Destroyer have managed exactly that here.


Daughters

You Won’t Get What You Want
Ipecac

Even Pig Destroyer, however, didn’t make an album quite as face-melting as this. It might start out slowly – or more accurately ominously – but as soon as you notice that the beats have been roughed-up and glitched somewhat, it’s rather obvious that this is not going to be an easy listening experience. It is broadly slower, heavier and altogether nastier than their previous material, with a raw, bare-bones production that makes you feel every kick-drum, and the taut guitars are often like nails being pull across the skin. Like so much lumped into the “noise rock” corner, it isn’t meant to be an easy listen, of course, but this makes things all the more challenging by how bitter and nihilistic the whole thing sounds. Which, oddly enough, is exactly how I like it.


Courtney Barnett

Tell Me How You Really Feel
Milk!

This endearingly frank and unadorned album has been on regular rotation on my stereo this year, as I began to love this album more and more with every listen. Weirdly, though, I’d barely paid attention to her music at all prior to this (aside from really disliking the collaboration with Kurt Vile last year) – but something here just clicked, and it may well have been her excellent live performances that sealed the deal. This, as my wife noted during a searing Nameless, Faceless at All Points East, owes at least something to nineties grunge – both in sound and look – but also has a straight-talking quality that means that Barnett doesn’t have complex melodies or words to get across, but why should she? This is great, enjoyable rock music that has a positive message – that you can have flaws and still be a good person – but also it absolutely tears into patriarchy and misogyny on a number of the best songs here.


Kite Base

Latent Whispers
Little Something

Two bassists and a ton of electronics, and this turned out to be a whole lot more appealing than the dry description suggests. The duo – Ayse Hassan (Savages) and Kendra Frost (once of this site favourites Blindness) – have taken these base ingredients and made an intriguing, quite wonderful album, with Frost’s forceful voice helping to drive songs into unexpected melodic corners. The music that backs her voice is fascinating, too, as it twists and turns through electronic rock, industrial and balladry, like a few other albums not giving a toss about genre boundaries and simply using whatever they need. They appear to be going places, too, as their short support stint with Nine Inch Nails in the US proved.


Cocksure

Be Rich
Metropolis Records

Both Chris Connelly and Jason Novak have been busy in recent times – the former in recording his own solo material again, while the latter has been expanding Cold Waves and touring with other bands – so god knows how they found time to record a new Cocksure album. But I’m glad they have, as this is by a nose the best album they’ve released yet under the name. As before, this is a punishing mix of bass-led groove and Connelly’s barked, often surreal lyrics, but crucially this album is sharper and full of really memorable songs – there are hooks aplenty here, even if they are sometimes sneaked in amid the extreme volume of some of the tracks. It’s albums like this that make me regret I’m not DJing modern industrial much anymore – if DJing at all – as this is exactly the kind of dancefloor industrial I’m looking for nowadays.


Borghesia

Proti kapitulacij
Moonlee Records

I featured the “lead” single from what became this album in 2017, and clearly the gestation of the album took rather longer than planned. No wonder, perhaps – adapting the modernist, complex poetry of Srečko Kosovel to a soundtrack of (broadly) industrial music cannot have been an easy task. But Borghesia have done an excellent job in doing so, that’s for sure, with a vastly more focussed album than And Man Created God, which had a handful of great songs and rather more filler than I would have liked. This album bristles with the fury that Kosovel’s poetry had, a century or so ago, and is also interesting in looking at how some of the political concerns of his work reflect now in the present day, too, as countries like Slovenia continue to find themselves a clear identity in Europe and the modern world.

Borghesia are a fascinating, clever band, and one of a number of artists from the old Eastern Europe who have an awful lot to say to their listeners, and have an awful lot to engage with. This all-Slovenian language album may be difficult to swallow for English speakers to start with, but get out Google Translate and dig into it. It’s worth your time.


Lycia

In Flickers
Projekt

The resurgence of Lycia in recent years has been something to celebrate – probably fairly quietly, mind – and that resurgence has continued this year with an unexpected return for the band to their spiritual home, that of Projekt Records, the American Darkwave titan that frankly helped create the first and last word in this style. Lycia were on the label for years, and interestingly in more recent years have widened their outlook a bit, and this album shows that experimentation brilliantly. There are still, granted, the mournful, muted epics graced by the vocals of Mike VanPortfleet and Tara VanFlower, but there are also intriguing, misty soundscapes that creep into dark ambient territory, and even a few up-tempo, gothic-electronic numbers that don’t feel out of place whatsoever. Granted, after thirty years and fifteen albums, they can do what the fuck they like, but few bands in their position would still be coming up with albums as glorious as this.


LOCKS

Skeletal Blues
Zen Ten

Murder ballads and death shanties have long been the description this band like to use, and their bluesy, Irish folk-influenced sound is certainly deliberately a lot darker than much of the “folk” music being peddled in the mainstream right now. But what’s worth bearing in mind is that folk music has often been shockingly dark and violent, as it has revelled in the macabre tales of murderers and vengeance, and what LOCKS are doing is to bring those into the modern age. Some of the songs here could easily be interpreted as about much more modern pursuits (the temptress in the marvellous Skin for example), but there is almost something of a supernatural in the delivery that removes the certainty of those potentially modern roots. What the band are brilliant at, though, is making enjoyable, almost fun songs about murder, death and booze that nonetheless retain an ever-present darkness – and this is an exceptional debut album.


Laibach

The Sound of Music
Mute

I’ve written an awful lot on Laibach in recent years – going into great depth around recent gigs and albums, because they are that kind of band. Absolutely nothing Laibach do can really be taken at face value, because there is always something else going on under the surface, some deeper meaning and comment on the subject that begs investigation. So it is here with their much-anticipated take on that famous musical, which gained them notoriety for playing at a concert in North Korea, of course. This material was chosen because it was, apparently, the one common musical link between the “western” world and that reclusive, insular state, but I suspect also that there was more to it than this.

Like all of their cover versions, songs gain whole new meanings or depths (two in particular here are The Lonely Goatherd – where in the video you get the sense that Laibach are inviting you in to join them in a joke – and Sixteen Going on Seventeen, which suddenly sounds very questionable indeed with just a tonal shift and a rather older vocalist), but also are used to make oblique comment (or in the case of Maria/Korea, make parallels with comtemporary politics). Laibach clearly know the source material extremely well – they wouldn’t have been able to make this album work if they didn’t – and even as someone who really can’t stand the film, this is an unexpectedly enjoyable album that is going to continue to have me thinking about it for some time to come.


Wire Spine

Bury Me Here
Negative Gain

I’d heard a great many things about this Vancouver band long before I got the chance to hear them – I Die: You Die being based in the same city meant that their shows or earlier work would get mentioned fairly regularly. I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing them live yet (not going to Cold Waves this year rather scuppered that plan), but I am rather fond of this debut album. There is a stark, economical feel to what they do – the beats and synths are never over-complex, and the vocals occasionally have effects, but there is little other adornment to their songs and it actually works in their favour. The thundering drums of Burn You, when they come in, across the anguished howls of the titular refrain, have a real menace about them, and much of the rest of the album is an equally striking, an album of depth and intrigue all the way through, topped off by the alien grooves of Hellraiser would be an interesting track to throw at the dancefloor.


Ganser

Odd Talk
No Trend Records

Regular readers of this site will know that I’ve been writing about this Chicago post-punk band for a while (and I was lucky enough to catch them live when in Chicago in 2016, too). They’ve come a long way since then, too, having released their debut album in the spring of this year, and the result was an uncompromising album that perhaps confounded expectations somewhat. There seems to be a view, at least from some quarters, that bands tagged as “post-punk” will worship at the altar of the forefathers of the genre, and in some respects that has meant (much like the related trad goth scene, actually) there has been little evolution of the sound. So thank the fucking lord (and quite a few other deities) for Ganser not giving a fuck about any of that, and finding their own path, which has resulted in unconventional song structures, and digging into other, noisier styles of guitar-based rock to create an enormously enjoyable – and frankly quite brave – album that sounded like absolutely nothing else released this year.


Anna Calvi

Hunter
Domino Records

Does anyone do “dramatic” in music quite like Anna Calvi? She certainly added a touch of drama and glamour in her songs on the radio this year, as we began to digest her excellent third album, which has been quite a long time in coming. Her extraordinary vocal range – and style – remains centre-stage in everything she does, as it should, really, dominating and elevating songs like Indies or Paradise or Alpha that would very much be a lesser song in less skilled hands. The flipside is the elegance and grace that she can display on more subtle tracks like the Jeff Buckley-nod of the gorgeous, swooning Swimming Pool.

Then there is the political and sociological undercurrent, as the album touches in a number of places on male dominance and gender definitions and fluidity – and how things could be much, much better – not to mention a frankness about sex and sexuality. Easily her best album yet.


ACTORS

It Will Come To You
Artoffact Records

This album really was the epitome of what the new wave of post-punk bands should be doing. Rather than just aping their forebears with endlessly recycled riffs, basslines and tunes in general (if I hear one more fucking band that want to look and sound like Joy Division…), ACTORS made a great job of doing more than this. The production is sharp and detailed – with a fair amount of electronic assistance to the traditional band set-up, which only enhances the power of their sound, frankly – and coupled with the exceptional song-writing made this an album that had a surprisingly wide appeal across the goth and industrial scenes, not to mention further afield too. Crossover success seems rare nowadays but ACTORS clearly hit the right notes in doing so.


Spiritualized

And Nothing Hurt
Bella Union

It has been a few years since the last Spiritualized album, and Jason Pierce has previously hinted that this could be the last one – and if so, he’s gone out on a hell of a high. The basic idea hasn’t exactly changed – why fuck with the right formula, or is that prescription – spaced-out, star-gazing psych-rock that sounds like no-one else whatsoever, but even though this was recorded on a smaller budget, it still sounds enormous. It is as if Pierce is incapable of working on a small-scale, and always thinks bigger – and the results here bring about the best Spiritualized album in twenty years.

Sure, the songs are a bit shorter, and the album overall is less than fifty minutes long (unusually short by his standards), but all that’s done is to ruthlessly hone this down to a glorious sheen. I’ll miss Spiritualized when Pierce finally does decide to stop recording, I really will.


The Soft Moon

Criminal
Sacred Bones

The Soft Moon have evolved impressively over their four albums, and this is by far their best album yet. The jagged, overwhelming sound remains – screaming, treated guitars and synths, moody basslines, thumping rhythms – but Luis Vasquez’s vocals are now higher in the mix, and things aren’t quite as dense. That doesn’t mean that the punishing impact of their material has been lessened, though. The whole album, even the calmer, more restrained moments like Give Something have an implied, ominous threat about them, while Like A Father barrels along like an EBM banger remixed by My Bloody Valentine. These different approaches make the album an entirely thrilling, fabulous listen. Who knew that there was a link point between industrial, shoegaze and post-punk that could be so brilliant?


HIDE

Castration Anxiety
DAIS Records

Aside from a few singles, my first exposure to HIDE proper was seeing them live at Cold Waves, on a pitch-black stage, as they delivered a half-hour set of grinding, experimental industrial that afterward rather divided opinion. No such problem with this excellent debut album, though, as here they manage to balance the songcraft with the experimentation, and deliver track-after-track of left-field industrial that kicks like a mule and has quite the bite, too. An unsettling listen by design, this is a refreshing retort to the machismo of the death throes of the masculine domination of industrial in recent years, and is likely better than anything from those kind of bands achieved, too.


Dubstar

One
Northern Writes

An often-rather underrated band that very much never got the critical and popular respect that they deserved at the time, the band returned five years ago for an exceptional Lexington show (Into the Pit: 167) that featured a couple of new songs, but with no further activity at the time, I rather thought that was that. So colour me surprised this summer when a new album was at last announced, and even more surprised at just how good it is. Like their previous material, this keeps to the same modus operandi with excellent results – lush, synth-based songs are given depth and a still-surprising darkness by Sarah Blackwood’s resigned, vulnerable vocals that at face value are simply pretty melodies.

But listen closer, and you hear tales of heartbreak, vicious revenge fantasies, loneliness, domestic coercion and control (the deceptively sunny, Northern Soul inflections of I Hold Your Heart are genuinely disturbing when you play close attention to the lyrics) and in the case of the gorgeous and unimaginably bleak Waltz No. 9, stark ruminations on ageing and waiting for death. Blackwood has clearly been to, or observed, some dark places, and on this album, we are taken on a riveting – and often challenging – journey to them with her.


Radioaktivists

Radioakt One
Dependent Records

I’ve been patiently awaiting an album from this “supergroup” for what feels like an age, and for once, this was worth the wait and more. A collaboration between three heavyweights of German electronic music (Frank Spinath, Daniel Myer and Krischan Wesenberg), as well as writer Sascha Lange, this absolutely feels like it has taken some years to perfect. This is a mix of sleek electronic, industrial music, gorgeous melodies and the usual, considered lyrics that I would expect from these artists – and there is not even remotely a middling song here, as everything has its place.

There are dark, questioning ballads, soaring dancefloor epics (Reach Out a particularly great example), and the distinct feel of Spinath putting in his best vocal performances in years – indeed, the glorious album highlight Lovers sounds for all the world like an Edge of Dawn song. Musically, though, it is clinical and clean, very much in the recent styles of Myer and Wesenberg, and it sounds great. There hasn’t been a great deal to shout about from the traditional “giants” of German industrial music in the past year, so thank god for this reminding that brilliance can still result from that scene.


Gazelle Twin

Pastoral
Anti-Ghost Moon Ray Records

There hasn’t been a single other album released by a British artist this year that has quite seethed in the way that this album does. Elizabeth Bernholz, in her Gazelle Twin alter-ego, has released an album that utterly rips into the Brexit fallacy and the Britain of today, and she is clearly utterly disgusted with what she sees. Particular elements and themes stand out – the rage at the older generation constantly harking back to a mythical past in the nagging, incessant Better In My Day, working class poverty and desperation in Dieu et Mon Droit, taking politicians and the press at face value in Little Lambs – but as a whole this is a thirty-seven minute protest at a future sold down the river, holding a mirror up to Britain’s inflated sense of self. It is a difficult, uncomfortable listen, with little hope for the future, but frankly – as I write no deal has been completed over Brexit – until that deal is done, it is difficult to have any hope. A necessary, brilliant album.


Janelle Monáe

Dirty Computer
Bad Boy

2018 has been a year for music masquerading as a State of the World Address – one look at the shitshow of politics pretty much anywhere and everywhere this year makes it clear as to why – and a number of them make it into this list (and indeed in the top ten). But Janelle Monáe, as might be expected, was doing things differently. Her address not only looked at things in terms of actions, but also love and lust. And specifically, whose fucking business it was what she did on those terms. Songs here looked at love, lust, relationships, sex, and perhaps more critically, personal choice.

Her own positions seemed to be hinted at in the songs (and in interviews, too), without ever spelling too much of it explicitly (ok, maybe aside from Pynk). But why should she? More importantly, this was the ArchAndroid revealing her human form, and like everyone else, it was preoccupied with getting through this life – but making sure there was fun to be had along the way, even when protesting against this shitty world. The fantastic songs (and accompanying film!) were just part of a wider whole, but what a whole.


IDLES

Joy As An Act of Resistance.
Partisan Records

I was – as ever, really – a bit late to the party with IDLES, only really appreciating their debut Brutalism some months after the event. But I was right on it with Joy…, partly because every song I heard before the release of the album was bulletproof. And broadly, so it was with the whole album, as the band tore into the various concerns of today (expectations and the toxicity of masculinity, Brexit, class snobbery, small-town violence, immigration, anti-fascism and more) in spectacular style, with witty lyrics and songs that could be terrace chants with little imagination.

This is an album that bristles with fury at the direction the country has taken, but also has a tenderness and willingness to listen, to understand, and critically, to change. It was lauded as one of the most important albums of the year by much of the music press, and for once, maybe this isn’t hyperbole. This is an essential listen, even if you don’t like the punk-edged music particularly, as it is a voice to hear. Not all of the working class voted for Brexit and toxicity, and here’s proof – a band offering up an opinion that more might share than they’d admit.


Kathryn Joseph

From When I Wake The Want Is
Rock Action

I only discovered Kathryn Joseph through her mesmerising set supporting Mogwai at Meltdown, and happily the album that followed (her second) very much lived up to the promise of that show. This is an avant-garde songstress at the peak of her powers – vocals that roam the scales and sound otherworldly, a lyrical delivery that often makes you work to tease out the exquisite detail of the songs, and a musical accompaniment that is broadly piano-based, and all-but deconstructs the instrument, with unusual sounds and treatments that are easily the conceptual equal of her astonishing voice. There is genuinely something special about this, and the more I listen to this album, the more I’m entwined by the unsettling beauty coming out of the speakers.


Anna Von Hausswolff

Dead Magic
City Slang

No album that has a credit for the pipe organ parts being recorded in Copenhagen’s Marmorkirken is going to be a quiet, retiring release. And so it proves here, with a staggering, five-piece album that ebbs and flows with mystery, drama and volume. Recorded with Sunn O))), Boris and Myrkur producer Randall Dunn, there are certainly elements of doomy menace on this record, but von Hausswolff, by the sheer force of her extraordinary voice, makes this album absolutely about her.

The songs drip with dread, darkness and overwhelming power, with elements only occasionally hitting home with shattering force, the sparing use of such tricks only emphasising the impact. Like when her voice suddenly gains a multi-tracked backing in the astounding opener The Truth, The Glow, The Fall, or when she unleashes all the howling fury from her body as The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra reaches it’s climax.

For so long, by the way, this was considered to be my dead-cert to be album of the year. But it has just been pipped by…


Promenade Cinema

Living Ghosts
Maori Music

New bands that excite me (and are loved both by me and my wife) are not all that common, it has to be said. I was passed a promo by them last year (the lead track of which was Spotlight), and while it took me a while to get ’round to listening to it, once I did I was immediately on-board. The debut album, when it arrived this spring, was a perfectly executed, and brilliantly conceptualized, release. A fog of mystery surrounds the wide-screen synthpop on display here, with clever arrangements that give songs an awful lot more sonic depth than they perhaps actually have, and a lyrical concept that neatly runs through the whole thing.

This is very much “cinematic synthpop” that evokes film in many ways, but especially film noir (My wife especially loved the line “You hold a cigarette, silhouette” in the glorious Cassette Conversations, because it is so, so evocative), and the band come across as one that know their film references. None of this would mean a great deal, however, if the songs were forgettable. Thankfully, the melodies, the choruses, the sing-a-long moments all deliver in spades, and frankly there isn’t even remotely a middling song here. A band that deserve to be heard by more, will be heard by more, and the latest band, too, to continue the long lineage of intelligent, electronic-based music from Sheffield, and they can be proudly named alongside the illustrious names that came before them.

And, thus, the amodelofcontrol.com album of the year 2018.

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