This week, on part three, I turn my attention to the best albums of the year. I seem to say it every year, but really – 2015 has been an extraordinary year for alternative music, you’ve just got to have been looking in the right places to find some of it. Not all of it has been what you might expect – one of the most interesting trends of late has been some cross-pollination of genres that is really resulting in some extraordinary music.
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
Not only that, but so many albums were really, really exceptional that picking the top ten was very, very hard.
More than anything, though, this list fairly accurately reflects my musical taste at the moment. I’ve always cast the net far wider than industrial, and that continues here – there are new artists, old artists, reformations and collaborations included. There is noise, alternative rock, extreme metal, post-punk, krautrock, even some jazz (and trumpets). My main desire is to find the music that moves me, that creates that mythical “connection”, that makes me want to hear more, to enjoy more.
So, with grateful thanks to those who write, produce and release all this great music. Those who offer me promo releases, who keep me up to date on new releases, those who send me interesting links, the other bloggers and websites covering these musical styles. You know who you are.
Finally, just a short word on this year’s list. 40-31 are listed, and are on the playlists, but I’ve actually written (a lot) about 30-01. All are worth obtaining, needless to say, and you can hear something from all of them in one form or another on the playlists or bandcamp links (come on bandcamp, allow us embeddable playlists, please!).
So, finally, after many years of waiting, there is a sign of life after all. The surprise EP of a couple of years back whetted our appetites, and all three of those stellar tracks re-appear here on the album, alongside many more songs hewn from the same cloth. In other words, not a lot has changed – this is still a winning combination of thoughtful electronic ballads and belting dancefloor synthpop, but even after all this time, why try and fix what isn’t broken?
Ok, so I’m going to say this now – it isn’t as good as The Methuselah Tree, but then, not much generally was last year (or this year) either. There is more experimentation here, and for me, more diluting of what makes Scott Fox’s project so great, but the good many moments that do work are absolutely stellar. Pummelling first single Stygian even brings in subtle, metal guitar squalls in amongst the thumping beats and Jamie Blacker’s growling vocals, while A Tale of Two Wolves is a skyscraping tribal-techno workout that wouldn’t be boring at double the length. Not all of the album is as thrilling – a few moments meander when they should go for the throat, but the remainder is still exceptional.
There has been a number of two-person bands over the past decade, as if suddenly many musicians realised that more could be done with less – and in Lightning Bolt’s case, it could be done much, much louder, too. Seriously – I have no fucking idea how they manage to be just a guitarist/vocalist and a (admittedly octopus-like) drummer, and absolutely batter your ears and brain like this. Part of it is down to the astonishingly technical drumming – a steady rhythm is provided by the kicks, and then there are all kinds of fills going on using everything else that leads to disorientating, dizzying songs – made all the heavier by the distorted guitars, vocal effects and what I can only imagine are the odd synths thrown in too. The intensity is something else, the result being something like so-called noise-rock taken to it’s logical, brutal extremes.
Not your average metal band – how many others started out as an improvisational jazz quartet? – but there were signs with this album that the band are continuing to make their sound more…approachable. OK, only signs – opener Admittance is pure free-jazz, as are a couple of tracks later on, and there are saxophone and drum solos galore – but if you dig a bit further, it seems Sean Beavan’s work as producer here has done a great job making jazz and industrial metal work together quite brilliantly. Some of the tracks here are like blasts of white heat, and Burn It All is particular is a gloriously angry hit of industrial-metal. The only band I can recall to have even dabbled in similar realms to these guys was Candiria (who melded jazz with hip-hop and bone-dry hardcore), and this is far less serious, and much more listenable.
A worthy compensation indeed – the first BB album in eight years has clearly been crafted with no detail missed – they even manage to make religious devotion sound like a good thing in the insanely catchy Anorexic World. Elsewhere, there are swooning ballads, punchy dancefloor tracks and the best song about a girl named Daisy (the glorious opener Daisy Cutter) I’ve ever heard. That futurepop revival that I was hoping for a few years back never quite happened, but the return of these guys is welcome all the same.
Encephalon’s first album (The Transhuman Condition) was a long time coming, and was very good indeed. The follow-up took a few years, too, and the result was an interesting one. It’s a concept album, for a start, and while it follows a similar stylistic approach to their debut, something about this one just makes it rather more difficult to get into, to begin with. That said, the band are tackling big ideas, and in songwriting terms they have aimed for a sonic scope to match, resulting in much to admire – from a band who seem to be doing their best to be different from the herd of other electro-industrial bands who create their sounds using the same cookie-cutters – with complex, multi-layered industrial works that retain a real sense of humanity in their use of melody in particular, the soaring, out-of-the-blue chorus of Starscorch being a prime example.
I couldn’t ever have imagined that the dark, insular electronics of MIAB could ever have become so popular. Their intricate story arc that has now sprawled over five of their six albums has held together, but as I’ve noted before, what makes the band so brilliant and affecting is their ability to make the songs stand alone as well as being part of a concept, as well as the almighty emotional hit that so many of their songs have. This album, perhaps more than any other since their first, took some getting into, and a good number of repeat listens to fully understand what was going on. This is a world to immerse yourself in, and is well worth the time taken to do so.
An album that has been a long time coming – a few of these songs first saw release some years ago – but that didn’t lessen the brilliance of the songs here. Yeah, so it’s rather short (nine songs that are done well within forty minutes), but there isn’t a song that I don’t like. Many of you will have seen my writing about this band many times before, but here’s a primer: a band influenced by shoegaze, industrial-pop like Garbage and Curve, and also artists like PJ Harvey, and their sound is a striking mix of all of them. Happily, though, almost all of the strongest songs written by the band (and especially, played live, which is where they should be experienced) are here, and while most were re-recorded for this, none lose their striking power. Pick of the songs, though, is still the gloomy restraint of Sunday Morning, perfectly articulating the fuzzy head and regret of the night before.
It’s become the norm to see someone, somewhere proclaim that the latest PL album is “their best since [insert your favourite PL album here]” over the last five or six years, as the band have gradually returned to their earlier sound, as if that “controversial” period where they experimented with electronics never happened. I’ve written at length my views on that, but for once, I really am going to say – this is their best album since One Second. So no, it isn’t as good as Draconian Times, either, but what it does have is a band comfortable with their sound once again – and while it has lots of Nick Holmes’s growling, doomy vocals and guitar riffs apparently played through thick sludge, and many songs see their tempos drop down low, there are still various wonderfully melodic moments – and many, many reminders of why Paradise Lost are still a vital force in extreme metal.
Very much a step forward from their debut last year, this doesn’t smooth out any ragged edges, in fact making those barbs even sharper. Chris Connelly is on fine form, spitting invectives at anyone who may have crossed his path, anywhere, ever, complete with much of the snarky humour that makes his lyrics so much fun, while Jason Novak conjures up a grimy, bass-heavy industrial soundtrack that is the perfect foil for Connelly’s ranting. Also of note – the appropriately odd cover of Severed Heads’ Harold & Cindy Hospital.
A wonderful surprise of an album that emerged at the start of the year, on the back of Fool – a witty destruction of men who look cool by their tattoos and their “edgy” music and literary choices (“I guessed your favourites one by one and all to your surprise/from damned Nick Cave to Kerouac they stood there side-by-side“) – but that song was no one-hit-wonder. The whole album is a sultry, darkened corners kind of album, with Shah’s smoky voice the only part of it that remains in the spotlight the whole way through – ironically, of course, her influences fairly clearly include Cave, but also Buckley and Harvey. So musically it perhaps isn’t too much of a new idea, but with a voice like this, it deserves to take the centre stage.
AGS are a band that I was aware of, but I’d not really dug into too much until I saw them live at BIMFest in Antwerp last December. An energetic, powerful live band, it shed a whole new light on the band for me – and latest album Alkimia suddenly made sense when it appeared. Heavily post-punk influenced industrial (ish), powered by strictly analogue electronics, it is an album full of bass-driven rhythms, but the band are no one-trick pony and when they push the tempo downwards things get even better, reaching a peak with the glorious closer Last Rites.
The Race for Space
Test Card Recordings
Not a one-trick pony at all – after all, there is a massive archive of old material to work through – the second album from the band who use the titular films to fill-in for vocals turned their attention to the space race. And the results were fascinating – by their own admission turning the spotlight in some cases to lesser-known subjects (Vostok 6 – which carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman into space, being of particular note), while even the obvious stuff, like the Apollo 11 Moon Landings instead turned the limelight over to Mission Control, with the spectacular result of Go! (never mind the glorious, uplifting Gagarin). It is also perhaps a little more reflective, with a number of slower songs reflecting the tension of heading out into the unknown – best shown by the extraordinary recreation of Apollo 8 in The Other Side, where the drama of seeing the Dark Side of the Moon is vividly done. Stirring stuff, and my only question now is what they explore next.
Mercury Rev’s first album in years, and in some respects, the time off from new material seems to have revitalised them. The first half of the album, anyway, has a sparkling of the wanderlust that permeated Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream, and contains songs easily equal of the best moments from them (last week’s list included The Queen of Swans, but also of note is the widescreen, neon-lit city-sickness of Central Park East), while the second half takes a slightly odd take into musical geekery, with euphoric quasi-garage rock songs celebrating the power of music itself. The band certainly are speaking from a position of knowledge there – their music continues to be a magical, beautiful experience.
One of the stars of Infest 2015, Bradley Bills’ CHANT are certainly an unusual beast – a heavily drum-based industrial project that clearly understand that beats and rhythm are not the only important element. In other words, there is a wealth of great drum-based songs on show here, and what we might call side-one of the album is absolutely bulletproof. Yeah, so it sags a bit in the latter half – not helped by a closing, rather histrionic ballad, and a “brave” (and vastly overlong – well beyond seven minutes) track laying into the music critic. I’m not one that is here to bury CHANT, that’s for sure, but with some trimming of fat, this album could easily have been a top five album this year or better.
Ok, I’ll admit that this is here because of past connections. The Dreaming have been Christopher Hall’s (ex-Stabbing Westward) band for a while, but with the addition of two other ex-SW members to the line-up for this album, this is a SW reunion in all but name, and it sounds it. At points it has the bruising, juddering power of their classic Ungod, and at other points heads into brighter territories, but all through it has a thundering, heavy rhythm section and all kinds of electronics to provide a suitably stormy backdrop (listen to it really loud, on headphones, for the best results) for Christopher Hall’s dramatic vocals, that at long last have taken a step out of navel-gazing and in some respects are all the better for it. One of those rare reunions that looks both backward and forward, and succeeds both ways. And if Hall ever writes another song as good as Kisses Taste Like Death (see last week), we’re going to be very lucky indeed.
Long since recognised as a phenomenal live band, they’ve never quite managed to translate to record well – until now. Suddenly the production has a gigantic, stadium-sized sweep, the guitars are pushed to the forefront, everything else including the kitchen sink has been chucked into the mix, and it sounds awesome. He Is sounds like a massive, life-affirming celebration of Satanism (it sure as hell [Ed: pun intended, sorry] isn’t celebrating Christianity), the opening three tracks are a reminder of why we were excited about this mysterious band in the first place, Mummy Dust sees them turn into a doom-prog band with astonishing results, while Deus in Absentia is a stupendous closer. It’s always great to see a band finally deliver on their promise, and while this band aren’t to all tastes, take their imagery and “devil-worshipping” with a pinch of salt, as the songs themselves are simply brilliant retro hard-rock.
Let us never say that Belgian electro-heads Metroland lack a sense of ambition. After a debut album (Mind The Gap) that was a love letter to urban transport (and in particular London Underground!), and a concept EP in conjunction with European train operator Thalys last year, they moved away from public transport for their second album and, quite remarkably, released a sprawling album around the Bauhaus movement. No, not the pioneering goths, but the German design movement that the Nazis so hated. The modernist beauty and clean lines of everything in Bauhaus translates surprisingly well to music, as it happens – thus form follows function; and the sleek electronics, multi-track movements and elegantly melodic songs invoke the whole concept absolutely. They didn’t totally let go of transport, though – the lead single was an appropriately lighter-than-air tribute to the Zeppelin.
A new band out of nowhere, and they arrived fully formed with a scorching album of Puppy-esque industrial mayhem, with a malevolent edge, some stunning, complex synth programming and some cracking songs. And as brilliant as Black Sustenance is, especially – no-one has come this close to resurrecting the chaotic brilliance and dancefloor warfare of Goettel-era Puppy until now – this isn’t really an album about individuals, be that people or songs – this is about a mindset, a cohesive sound, and this album is all of this for it’s entire running time. A follow-up is eagerly awaited and hoped-for, however long we have to wait.
So we thought previous Chelsea Wolfe albums were dark? They are nothing on this. Apparently inspired by the struggles Wolfe has had with Sleep Paralysis, this is a bleak, claustrophobic and utterly brilliant album from start to finish. While Pain is Beauty was far more electronic, this takes a turn back to a doomy, metallic sound that suits Wolfe’s voice far better. And while at points this goes full-on doom metal, the drowsy (frequently multi-tracked) vocals, swirling synths and slow pace are the important elements that make for such an oppressive atmosphere – this is Wolfe making the very idea of going to sleep a terrifying experience.
“Collaborations Don’t Work”, says the snide song near the end of the album, as if by this point through it that you hadn’t realised that both sides of the coin have their tongues deeply in their cheeks. This unexpectedly brilliant joint-venture between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks is, frankly, better than anything either have done in a long time, as if the work between them has ignited a blazing creative, er, spark. The album is absolutely stuffed with glorious pop songs from front to back, from Johnny Delusional‘s self-obsessed character sketch, to the wonderfully direct Piss Off, going past the clever wordplay of Call Girl, the snappy, arch Dictator’s Son (has there ever been a better pisstake of despotic regimes in song? Answers on a postcard), the jumpy, catchy-as-the-plague Man Without A Tan, I could go on all day. In future, anyone who dares say that collaborations don’t work will be simply directed back to this – never has the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” applied more than here.
EL have shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but here they knock it out of the park with flat-out their best album, period. Not a single moment wasted, this is a tour-de-force of exceptional darkwave/industrial-rock, with punchy rhythms, brilliant composition, and Donna Lynch’s phenomenal vocals. Steven Archer and Donna Lynch give it their all with every song, and a sweeping sense of the dramatic pervades. There are so many brilliant songs that picking out peaks is really bloody hard, but here’s a few – Darkness is glorious, driving industrial rock, New Legion is a striking call to arms, while the lush, orchestral closing title track is anything but overwrought.
Where MASTER took Teeth of the Sea to extraordinary, psychedelic heights, and was something of a sunburst of sound, this is the (pitch-)dark side of the moon equivalent. This is glowering, malevolent stuff, the album cover in shades of grey giving a clear idea of the moods within. The sheer expanse of styles ToTS are capable of co-opting and assimilating, though, is undiminished. There are elements of electro, krautrock, extreme metal, prog, post rock, industrial, and a lone trumpet once again weaving through the controlled chaos – and the whole album is again absolutely enthralling. I don’t know how they do it, but after four albums and more material besides, they remain unique and unclassifiable – and I’m sure they wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’m going to call this now – Lycia’s best album, full stop. Yes, even better than Cold, before you ask. It is, in the main, languid, ethereal goth, with Mike and Tara’s vocals intertwining on many songs to glorious effect – so nothing too new there. But what is amazing is how the album is structured. The first five or six songs follow the template laid out by Quiet Moments, but then, out of nowhere, it shifts gears into astonishing, bass-led gothic rock (seriously, The Rain is one of the best tracks of it’s kind I’ve ever heard), and lush, multi-layered epics that help complete such an astounding album.
CHVRCHES made such a splash with the spiky electro-pop of their first album The Bones of What You Believe that there was a part of me that wondered if they could possibly repeat the trick with their follow-up. Just one listen to first single Leave A Trace dispelled any doubts, frankly, and once the album dropped and I spent a couple of weeks just wanting to listen to it on repeat, it became very clear indeed that it is actually better than their debut. There is an astonishing, embarrassment of riches here – I reckon that there are seven, maybe eight, potential hit singles here, with those other three being maybe teeny disappointments (but only by the ridiculously high standards the band have set themselves). In particular, High Enough to Carry You Over, the one song where Lauren Mayberry doesn’t sing, is rather dreary in amongst such pop brilliance, but when you’ve got such great songs around it, I’ll give it a pass. Also, the best songs here are not the opening trio, as great as they are (or that out-of-the-blue change-up in Clearest Blue, a proper hands-in-the-air moment, that), skip to the one-two punch of Playing Dead and Bury It, where Lauren fully unleashes her fury, nothing held back. God knows what traumas she has been through in relationships in the past, and we have no right to ask, but in the meantime it is inspiring some incredible songs, and a second album even better than the first.
The Heart Is A Monster
INgrooves Music Group
Seventeen years after their masterpiece Fantastic Planet, it was good enough that I got the chance to (finally) see them live this year, never mind that they released an album very close to the equal of what came before. In many ways a companion to it’s predecessor – the segue tracks are numbered in a sequence that follows, there is still a spacey vibe, the production and attention to detail is extraordinary – but somehow this feels more direct, more easily accessible, and that is thanks to the glorious songwriting. Song after song here could and should be a radio hit (Hot Traveler and Counterfeit Sky already have been, A.M. Amnesia, The Focus and especially the bouncing joy of Atom City Queen should follow), there are hooks galore and a starry-eyed beauty that makes the whole, lengthy album absolutely fly by. After all these years, they got their due at last.
Not what I expected at all, in some respects – Matt Fanale of Caustic writing an entire album from a woman’s point of view, with Erica Mulkey providing a gloriously sultry vocal performance across the whole album. This is dark, dirty synth/trip-hop, that remarkably manages to create it’s own unique style rather than simply aping everyone else – although that isn’t to say that there aren’t nods to Massive Attack and Tricky here and there. Working far better than the concept has any right to, this has been on constant rotation on my stereo/iPod ever since it arrived, and as far as I’m concerned is the best music Fanale has ever put his name to.
Long since their first couple of albums – a six year gap that included the (apparently very lucrative) opportunity to soundtrack a Max Payne game – HEALTH finally returned this year with what is by a long chalk their best material yet. While it feels – and sounds – like a gigantic leap forward, when you examine a little closer there isn’t actually that much that has changed in their approach. At points, this is a scorchingly harsh noise album, with some frankly jaw-dropping drum work pummelling your ears (just check the sonic barrage of Men Today), but this is balanced out by some of the finest pop songs of this year – the NIN-stadium-industrial-meets-smooth-chart-pop of Stonefist is frankly fucking amazing, while Flesh World (UK) (that hook!) and Life (anthem-in-waiting with that chorus, that’s for sure) are not far behind – and more than anything is also of note for just how brilliantly they manage to make an album flow that flicks between noise and beauty so frequently. Partly assisted by The Haxan Cloak on a few tracks (which shows, too, in the swirling atmospheres), and also by the band themselves taking even more risks with their sound, they have ended up with an astoundingly good album that should have massive crossover potential.
High-Functioning Flesh promised much with their initial EP last year, and the their first full-length album delivered even more. The concept was broadly the same – mid-80s industrial filtered through the lens of the present day and a punkish-bark of a vocal delivery – but the songwriting and production was pushed up a few notches. Susan Subtract’s vocals are, maybe to start with, a little abrasive, but their striking style actually works very well with the aggressive electronic rhythms on display, and many songs go beyond the “great” to “thrilling”. That is closes off with the exceptional Mistakes Were Made (see last week) is something of a misnomer – no mistakes here, only near-perfection.
I really don’t know how Michael Holloway does it. Only his third album, and he’s already headed into realms absolutely no-one even remotely connected to industrial music is even considering. All The Way Down, as I noted in my review a month or so back, is an absolutely extraordinary album. It is beautifully produced, with an insane eye for detail that means multiple listens are essential to catch the various elements therein, songs run for as long as they need (at least one tops ten minutes), and there are no concessions to current trends. This is Holloway – again – building on his influences and his previous work, writing and producing his best-ever work, and inviting you to come and enter his world. It’s a dark one – this is an album about dying and the fear of dying, after all – but it is enthralling from start to finish. As he put it himself in the interview with amodelofcontrol.com back the summer:
“You find new corridors of sound. You find new ways to use the wealth of resources in front of you (I’m speaking of digital music technology) to make it sing with bizarre and scary new sounds. You find a concept outside the realm of music that you want to explore inside the realm of music…exploring old age, the fear of being old and alone, forgotten by the world. Industrial music is the perfect medium for exploring those feelings and those fears, just as it was for exploring memory and childhood on Rag Doll Blues.”
He’s certainly managed that (and some), that’s for sure. The result is the amodelofcontrol.com album of the year – and the first artist to win it twice.