• 2014 Favorites

    Dic 25 2014, 16:11

    I'm convinced that there are so many talented musicians out there making exceptional music that I don't need to worry about finding quality music -- it's everywhere, even on the radio (sometimes). The trouble is finding artists that actually say something to you instead of just entertaining you with their catchy melodies. But catchy melodies are OK, too. We operate on many different levels. Some of the albums below spoke to me deeply; others merely titillated my eardrums -- but all of them deserve to be on this list. It is, after all, my list and I make up the rules.

    1. Dornenreich : Freiheit

    Dornenreich is the only band I know that plays poetry. It's not black metal, it's not neofolk, it's not ambient--it's not just music, see. I run the risk of sounding pretentious when I say something like that, but there's no other way to say it and get it right. Every song is a communication, but it's not a telephone dialog: every word has two meanings instead of one. Isn't that what poetry is, anyway? But--and this is why I love this band so much--there's no deliberate obfuscation here, no complicated syntax, no highbrow allusions, no overwrought word-strings of convoluted poetspeak. This is life distilled into symbols easy to know: sun, water, birds, trees. See? When I say it, it sounds dumb and trite. But it's not. You have to listen to it--with a free mind.

    I listened to this in late spring and throughout the young summer months. One time in particular: under an apple tree watching a phoebe catch insects above a fresh-mowed lawn. Little spiders crawling over my fingers. Warm sun.

    2. Pallbearer : Foundations Of Burden

    I slept on this band's debut album a couple years ago. I remember the hype but it never sounded like something I would care much about. To be fair, I'm not sure if "Foundations" is an album that I will care about a couple years from now, but I did play the hell out of it this year, so that must mean I liked it for some reason. Actually, I think there were two reasons: good riffs, and a couple of memorable vocal lines. The trick to writing long songs? Fold your best ideas into the middle or latter parts of your composition and people will keep listening just to hear those short, sweet little bits--but keep those bits short, that's the key: always keep people wanting more, but don't ever give them enough to satisfy. A constant desire for more, that's what this album is.

    I listened to this album almost nonstop from late summer to early autumn. On one day in particular: driving up a steep hill under a dismal gray autumn sky after an equally dismal day at work, playing "Worlds Apart" loudly and singing along, mostly making up the words because I didn't care about the words.

    3. Anaïs Mitchell : Xoa

    Basically a "fans only" collection of acoustic re-workings of her older songs. I initially thought I would pass on this one, but it has since revealed itself to be a little gem, maybe my favorite release from her. As I get older, my attention span for long and ornately detailed compositions has waned as I find more pleasure in simple words, simple songs-- a voice and a guitar: one soul expressing itself without adornments. Mitchell has a genuinely quirky voice that perfectly suits her playfully sharp lyrics and nimble guitar pickings.

    I bought this in October and I'm still playing it. Favorite memory: I saw her perform these songs live in a Cleveland bar to a small crowd of hipsters, art teachers, craft-beer-drinking yuppies (they arrived late), and, surprisingly, a gaggle of elderly folks (is there a proper collective term for this yet?), from which one man called out for her to play a cover of an old Irish ballad of some sort, I couldn't hear what he said. He wore a hat, I think. Or maybe he didn't and his hair was straight and white. I can't remember. Anyway, after her set was over, Anaïs walked past me on her way back to her merch table. We looked at each other as I continued to clap. Her eyes were darker than I expected and she looked very tired.

    Another memory: every night driving home in the dark listening to "Cosmic American" on repeat.

    4. Alcest : Shelter

    How did I become such a big Alcest fan? I honestly don't know. I completely disowned this band earlier in their career and somehow came around to liking them all over again. Nothing has changed appreciably, really. Neige is still a dream-kook and his music is still the prettiest blackfluff you'll find, but I respect his dedication to his vision, and instead I've decided to disown all the snarky internet critics who like to poke fun at Neige's expense. See, you have to understand that you are made out of dreamcolors and so am I, which makes us kind of the same thing, you know? And if we're actually just colors, then this world is kind of like our rainbow and all we have to do is arch our backs and stare at the sun through the falling rain. It's easy, really-- we just have to see it without pretending we see it. /// I remember watching Neige perform on stage last year and there was this one bliss-out moment when he surveyed the crowd as he stood playing his guitar and I'll never forget his half-lidded gaze as he calmly tilted his head back and forth. He was looking at us but he wasn't really looking at us. I wish I could've seen what he was looking at.

    I played this album through the cold winter months of January and February. The sun was out but it didn't warm a damn thing.


    Best new band discovery of the year. I'm a sucker for slow, heavy guitars and clean vocals. Downbeat without being dramatic or drifting into gothic posing. The easiest touchstone for me is In The Woods..., although they don't really sound like them much. Same itch, different scratch, as they say. (Does anyone say that?)

    I played this throughout November when the heavy gray hours seemed to outweigh the sunlit ones.

    6. Chevelle : La Gárgola

    What? Chevelle? Isn't that some crappy radio nu-metal band? That's what I always thought, anyway. When my car's CD player stopped working due to the the cold weather earlier this year (it miraculously started working again when the warm weather returned), I was forced to listen to the radio for long stretches of time. I discovered that the reports were indeed true: radio really does suck, but "Take Out The Gunman" was a pleasant surprise amid all the dross. Maybe it sounded better precisely because it was amid all the dross, but whatever: I bought "La Gárgola" anyway, and then I picked up "Hats Off to the Bull", too. That's about as far as I'm willing to go, though. Call me a tentative Chevelle fan at best, but the guys seem like they're down-to-earth and cool, so it's all good.

    I listened to this album a lot during spring and sporadically through the summer months.

    7. Whirr/Nothing : split EP

    The best shoegaze confection released this year. I'll probably forget these songs even existed three years from now, but shoegaze is all about pleasure anyway; there's no substance.

    8. Steven R. Smith : Spiral Horns, Black Onions, et al., Byzantium Crow

    Of course, Steven R. Smith is on this list. He can do no wrong to my ears. This year he didn't release anything new under his name proper, but instead under the Ulaan Markhor and Ulaan Passerine monikers. No matter. I know it's him. And they're both good. "Spiral Horns" is the better of the two.

    9. Cloakroom : Lossed Over 7" single

    A two song 7" makes the list? Yep. I'm only ingesting music in small bites these days. Plus, I love this band. I can't wait to get my hands on the double LP planned for release next year. But what about these songs? This is actually a roundabout way to say I rediscovered how good the band Hum is/was thanks to "Dream Warden", which features Matt Talbott on vocals.

    10. Kazuki Tomokawa : Vengeance Bourbon

    Japan's answer to Tom Waits strikes again. My complete inability to relate to the sound of the Japanese language is always a barrier here, but Tomokawa is able to transcend language through his unhinged vocals and guitar playing. His albums always sound like an explosion of fauve colors and unbridled human passions, but behind all of this there's a serene oriental equanimity that underpins the poetry of his compositions. This sort of music could only come to fruition through the strange electric blender of his mind, and that's what I like about it. "Vengeance Bourbon" is not an album I played a lot this year, but it is worthy.


    Other stuff I liked:

    Lykke Li - I Never Learn
    Spectral Lore - III
    Empyrium - The Turn of the Tides
    The Gloaming - self titled
    Lantlôs - Melting Sun
    Tori Amos - Unrepentant Geraldines


    Favorite Tracks:

    1. Dornenreich - "Traumestraum"

    Far and away the most important track for me this year. The compassion at the root of this song just overwhelms me ... Both the album version and the alternate take with Thomas Helm on vocals are beautiful.

    2. Pallbearer - "Worlds Apart"

    I love the way the riffs fit together in this song. And then that little vocal melody on the final line of the song -- probably my favorite moment in music this year.

    3. Anaïs Mitchell - "Cosmic American"

    Probably my most played track of the year. Amazing performance live as well.

    4. Chevelle - "Take Out the Gunman"

    Heard it a lot this year; I think I'm sick of it now. But it deserves to be mentioned here.

    5. Nothing - "Chloroform"

    The best shoegaze track since Loveless.

    6. Kari Rueslåtten - "Only you know"

    Just a nice song from a rather forgettable album.

    7. Lykke Li - "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone"

    Pop music? Really? Who am I anymore? But no, this is stripped down stuff, which is what I like.

    8. Cloakroom - Dream Warden

    9. Rome - "The Ballad of the Red Flame Lily"

    The only track on the new album I liked.

    10. Ulaan Markhor - "Rolling"

    See you later, 2014.


  • 2013 Favorites

    Dic 25 2013, 18:05

    I feel like this was an off year for new music. While I like all the records on this list, I can't say I consider any of them to be particularly ground-breaking or "classic" in any sense. Maybe they don't have to be. Nevertheless, I feel this is an accurate account of what I've listened to this year, and once again my top spot goes to a band that came out of nowhere for me -- it was stuck in my car's CD player for weeks.

    1. Cloakroom - Infinity

    As I said above, this was probably my most-played album of the year. And it's just an EP (!). You know when you feel like an album was made just for you? This is one of those albums for me. The mix of styles this band employs is almost perfectly tailored to my personal tastes. It's sometimes heavy, sometimes beautiful, a little bit sloppy and unfocused in places, but really just a lot of fun to listen to. The riff on "Sedimentary" has permanently taken up residence in my brain and I don't mind at all.

    2. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

    Very nearly edged Cloakroom for the top spot as my most-played album this year. Well, honestly, I think I listened to this one a little more. But I'm penalizing The National for being a little too smart and polished for their own good. I like sloppier bands. And the hooks on this album? They're slow to catch on, almost too demure, but they're all firmly lodged in my brain by now. I sing along every time.

    3. Caladan Brood - Echoes of Battle

    Yes, I'm putting this album ahead of the new Summoning album. Why? Well, because I liked it more. Even as I listen to it now, I fully concede that Caladan Brood is inferior to Summoning in songwriting acumen, but I just don't care. There are moments on this album that simply hit the spot. The clean vocals at 1:12 in "Wild Autumn Wind", for instance -- that's sublime. And one thing Summoning never had enough of? Solos. "Echoes of Battle" has solos.

    4. True Widow - Circumambulation

    I've always wished Low would've made a full album in the style of the song "Born By the Wires" -- repetitive, dead-slow, and riff-less. Something about True Widow's sound fulfills that wish in me, though I can't explain why. The guitars are scuzzy and loud, the riffs are lethargic and lusterless, and the drums pound and plod monotonously. And I mean all of that as the highest compliment.

    5. SubRosa - More Constant Than The Gods

    I ignored this band even through the critical acclaim of "No Help For the Mighty Ones", but I've finally been converted. There's plenty of heavy guitars here (I'm sensing a theme), but it was "No Safe Harbor" that sealed the deal for me: the multi-tracked vocals on the line "But the truth is, there is no safe harbor anymore" with that descending voice on the last word -- it's devastating, and it was one of the most memorable moments in music for me this year.

    6. Mark Kozelek & Desertshore - Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

    I took a road trip through rural southern Ohio during my vacation week this past year and this album got a lot of playtime in my car. It makes it on my list for this reason alone -- a lot of poignant memories here, not to mention good songs. Easily some of Kozelek's best work in a long time. There needs to be another collaboration, guys!

    7. Zomes - Time Was

    Most of my favorite music has some element of repetition. Repetition is Zomes' raison d'etre. But it's the vocals of Hanna Olivegren, especially the peculiar near-glossolalia in the song "Monk Bag", that takes the music to another plane.

    8. Summoning - Old Mornings Dawn

    I sure do hope this isn't the band's swansong, but if it is, then so be it. It's a good album -- but nowhere near their best -- and fully preserves their undisputed status as supreme practitioners of epic music.

    9. Kayo Dot - Hubardo

    Toby Driver's music has become nearly inscrutable to me over the years since maudlin of the Well disbanded, but I've always firmly believed that he is among the most brilliant (and criminally unknown) composers working today. His latest opus is dense and complex as usual, and I still struggle with it, but there's no denying how unique it is. No one else is writing stuff like this because no one else can. Truly visionary.

    10. Dark Tranquillity - Construct

    I was frankly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. DT have always had my respect even when my musical tastes drifted far from their chosen style. Yes, they still play melodic death metal. But it's good. I think the reason they are still relevant is that they were always smarter than their now-forgotten colleagues-- they were always trying to communicate something. As is true with most innovators, their style has not wavered because they haven't lost conviction in their own vision.

    Other stuff I liked, in no order:

    Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat
    Vaura - The Missing
    Steven R. Smith - Ending/Returning, Ulaan Passerine
    Nocte Obducta - Umbriel (Das Schweigen zwischen den Sternen)
    Rokia Traoré - Beautiful Africa
    Keiji Haino, Jim O'Rourke, Oren Ambarchi - Now While It's Still Warm Let Us Pour In The Mystery
    Anneke van Giersbergen - Drive

    Top Songs:

    1. The National - I Should Live in Salt

    If there was one song this year that made me instantly excited when I first heard it, it was this one. It has everything to do with the chorus, I won't lie. How does Matt come up with this stuff?

    2. The Gathering - Afterwords

    No offense to Silje, but The Gathering should never have replaced Anneke with another female singer. Comparison is inevitable and Anneke is simply inimitable. But THIS track, this is the direction the band should have gone. Amazing song, it made me excited about this band again.

    3. Soap&Skin - Me and the Devil

    "Hello Satan, I believe it is time to go."

    Just that line and the delivery. No one else can pull off a line like that.

    4. Cloakroom - Sedimentary

    As stated above.... that riff.

    5. True Widow - Four Teeth

    In my mind, this is pop song perfection.

    6. Grouper - Living Room

    This encapsulates my entire year (and maybe my entire life) in 2:22 minutes.

    Goodbye 2013.

    , ,
  • 2012 Favorites

    Dic 21 2012, 1:59

    Another year of great music; I missed a lot of it--I always do--but this list is a fairly accurate document of what I was listening to, and what really moved me, this year. Along with old standbys (Ilyas Ahmed, Katatonia, Evan Caminiti), there's a few pleasant surprises from bands I had followed only casually in the past; if anything, for me this year was about reconsidering old opinions and forming new ones: my top spot goes to the album that surprised me the most (for the better)...

    1. Zelienople - The World Is A House On Fire

    I think I first realized it when the bleary murk of "Colored" began to dissolve and those soft, warm tones crept in along with Matt Christensen's weary-sounding voice: "Enough, enough, it's all I can take for now" -- yeah, that was when I realized this was a great album. I had heard Zelienople before ,and I knew they were a great band, but I simply wasn't expecting how good this album would be. Seriously, who is making music like this right now? Brilliant, brilliant... in a quiet way.

    2. Ilyas Ahmed - With Endless Fire

    I like to take walks late in the day: I stay out til I can smell night coming in, til the shadows in the ravines are blue-black. As I'm driving home in the dark, I listen to this album. It fits.

    3. Anaïs Mitchell - Young Man In America

    Best new artist discovery of the year. Move over Joanna Newsom, there's a better folk lyricist in town.

    4. Katatonia -Dead End Kings

    Probably my most-played album this year. Unfortunately, I admit I kept listening so intently because I was convinced there was a grand statement trying to be made here. There isn't one. Call it a disappointment, I guess--but don't get me wrong: I still enjoy it; it's a good album.

    5. Alcest - Les Voyages De L'âme

    I bought "Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde" when it came out and was completely disenchanted by the cheapness of the whole black metal/shoegaze sound. I sold it shortly thereafter. I didn't listen to the band again until I saw the video for the title track and began to understand what Neige was trying to accomplish. I appreciate it, and I like "Les Voyages...", more than I thought I ever would.

    6. Evan Caminiti

    A prolific year for Caminiti. I enjoyed both "Night Dust" and "Dreamless Sleep" as well as his release Not Here Not There under the Painted Caves moniker. He probably released another 27 LPs/EPs/collaborations that I missed somehow, but it's hard to keep up...

    7. Deftones - Koi No Yokan

    Shit, I haven't been excited about a new Deftones album in over a decade. Not that they quit producing great music--they never did--but my interests strayed over the years. However, recently I've rediscovered their music (I hadn't listened to them since they released "Around the Fur"!) and when I heard their teaser song "Leathers", I actually felt excitement for the upcoming album. "Koi No Yokan" proves this band is still motivated and inspired.

    8. Lunar Aurora - Hoagascht

    Seems there's always one outstanding black metal release each year that deserves recognition. This year, it's Lunar Aurora's swansong. The first three tracks are the best black metal I've heard since last year's Dornenreich album.

    9. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

    Yeah, yeah, I liked "Criminal" when it came out, but beyond that, I never actually expected to like a Fiona Apple album as much as I like this one. She has undeniable talent, and this set of raw, spartan, yet carefully composed songs is more to my liking than any of her past efforts.

    10. Greg Haines - Digressions

    Max Richter has a challenger to the classical/ambient throne. "Digressions" is a sublime work.

    Other pleasures:

    Steve Peters + Steve Roden - Not A Leaf Remains As It Was
    Vaura -Selenelion
    Soap&Skin - Narrow
    Aluk Todolo - Occult Rock
    Orcas - self-titled album
    Richard Skelton - Verse of Birds

    Favorite tracks:

    1. "Colored" - Zelienople

    Most memorable moment in music for me this year.

    2. "Ambitions" - Katatonia

    If the rest of the album was as good as this, "Dead End Kings" would have been a masterpiece.

    3. "Tailor" - Anaïs Mitchell

    Most talented folk lyricist, Exhibit "A".

    4. "Jonathan" - Fiona Apple

    "But I like watching you live" is my choice for best vocal line of the year. I love the way she delivers it. Inimitable.

    5. "Leathers" - Deftones

    The ultimate tease. I loved this song the instant I heard it.

    6. "Voyage Voyage" - Soap&Skin

    My choice for best vocal performance. Man, this girl can sing -- melancholy, resolute, and sultry all at once. Marry me, please.

  • 2011 Favorites

    Dic 30 2011, 16:20

    Many of my favorite artists released albums this year, and as expected, they were all very good; some lived up to expectations better than others. Nevertheless, I gave the top spot to a musician that came out of nowhere for me, it was the best surprise of 2011 and a great record...

    1. Charles-Eric Charrier, "Silver"
    with special mention of "Oldman," also released this year.

    2. Dornenreich, "Flammentriebe"
    A real evolution.

    3. Tenhi, "Saivo"
    Did not disappoint. It was a long wait.

    4. Barn Owl, "Lost in the Glare"

    5. *AR, "Wolf Notes"
    Released on January 1, 2011. It set the bar very high. A sublime collaboration between two respected artists.

    6. Evan Caminiti, "When California Falls Into The Sea"
    After Steven R. Smith, no one does this type of music better. Love it.

    7. Universe217, "Familiar Places"
    Still a messy band, but in my eyes they have great potential.

    8. Low, "C'mon"
    Not their best, or even their second, third, fourth or whatever best, but it's still Low and no one sounds like them.

    9. The Skull Defekts, "Peer Amid"
    Daniel Higgs steals the show and the band puts up a good fight!

    10. Hoven Droven, "Rost"
    Self described "coolest folk rock band in Sweden"...... of course they are right.

    A handful of smaller treasures:

    Fovea Hex, "Here Is Where We Used to Sing"
    Altar of Plagues, "Mammal"
    Dustin O'Halloran, "Lumiere"
    Ignatz, "I Hate This City"

    Favorite Tracks:

    1. Bon Iver - Holocene
    Undeniably addictive, dare to call this a classic... it was the only song I liked on the new album!

    2. Ilyas Ahmed - Ignored the End
    New album "With Endless Fire" seems to have been delayed until next year or whenever (it is so imprecise), but this song I played a lot this year and will continue to play. Released as 7" inch split with Steve Gunn.

    3. Dornenreich - Erst deine Träne löscht den Brand
    Among their best songs.

    4. Low - Witches
    Humor, good riff, catchy lines... sometimes there's nothing to explain.

    5. The National - Think You Can Wait
    Just a song recorded for a movie I never saw, but it's better than that...

    6. Evan Caminiti - Heavy Whisper
    It's two minutes long.

    7. Tenhi - Siniset Runot
    The most haunting lyrics of 2011......
  • Flammentriebe: The End and Beginning

    Feb 28 2011, 1:02

    My admiration for Eviga’s poetry and the music of Dornenreich began nearly 10 years ago (yikes!) after the release of Her von welken Nächten, an album I still regard as the band’s best work and masterpiece, my absolute favorite record of all time. When speaking of “life-changing” albums, Her… is exactly that sort of album for me; I can still recall the incredible rush I felt when I first listened to it. Even though I couldn’t understand a word of German back then, I knew Eviga was trying to express something unique and profound. My hunch proved to be correct when English translations of the lyrics were finally posted on the band’s website, and ever since then I’ve been following Eviga’s poetry through each of Dornenreich’s subsequent albums, never to be disappointed.

    However, over the years I’ve sometimes questioned if Eviga’s inward-looking lyrics could be construed as a veiled form of egotism. I would argue that a certain interest in the self is useful—even necessary—but it’s important not to become too cloistered. After all, as they say, no one lives in a vacuum.

    In truth, Eviga has addressed this same concern on previous albums (Durch den Traum, for instance), but with Flammentriebe he has dramatically expanded upon his usual themes to deliver a broader social, even political, message, albeit one informed and underpinned by self-knowledge.

    Of course, Flammentriebe does not overtly propagandize; Eviga is too smart to “choose sides” and shout slogans at us (he wouldn’t demean us like that). Instead, he has chosen to drive straight at the root of social problems by challenging us through ourselves. This is a smart approach because society is fundamentally based on a tacit agreement between individuals to interact and cooperate; thus, if any meaningful change is to come about in a society, it must first come about in the individuals themselves: From one to many, et e pluribus unum.

    In the song, “Der wunde Trieb,” he makes his first direct attack:

    “Greed and fear spark thee/And thou hast wounded me…
    Greed and fear, they bind thee/And sorely thou hast carried me/
    Man of flame, living for himself”

    (English translation*)

    I’ve often thought that the measure of a good writer is in his ability to give heavy words their full weight. “Greed” and “fear” are what I term “heavy words” because, when used correctly, they command an impressive force: To say, “I am afraid”, for instance, can absolutely level you—it’s a devastating admission, one most of us aren’t willing to make. So sure, you could toss around words like “fear” and “greed” and people might hear you, but you have to dig into the urges beneath those words, wrestle with them and rein them in, before you can control them. Words wielded thus have the power to make people shut up take notice. Eviga has this ability because when he indicts the unnamed “thou” in the song, he is really addressing mankind itself, of which he is part. By keeping himself within the throng, he acknowledges the burden of these weighty desires and drives within himself as well as in others. He speaks as one looking through from the other side of a tunnel; he has gone through the ordeal and calls us to awaken and follow.

    While he may have willingly faced these ugly truths, others are less prepared to do so. In “Tief im Land,” he warns us of the consequences of such neglect:

    “Denial was your advice/ Denial and lies – your seed/ Now receive your work”

    A hellish scene ensues as shards of white-hot guitar lash out at us like flames amid the thunderous pounding of Gilvan’s drums—it’s a hellish glimpse at the consequence of our willful ignorance and misguided actions. Interestingly, this can be interpreted on a personal or societal level, or both. Yet whatever its form, denial exacts its toll in the end.

    But hope is offered to the patient and contrite. In “Wandel Geschehe,” Eviga remonstrates, “Thy heart beats…yet it only takes,” then later assures us that, “the beauty within…shall free you as soon as you free it.” When so often people look to condemn others for perceived wrongdoings, it’s refreshing to hear someone offer compassionate encouragement after a stern rebuke (imagine looking into an enemy’s eyes and repeating those same words!). The visceral, swirling motion of the music in the song serves to heighten the need for action before our perdition threatens to smother us.

    Yet how does one do that, how does one answer that most vexing question, “How do I act?”? One must first look within, says Eviga. In the song “Fährte der Nacht,” he tells us:

    “A day chaotically creates/if it’s not dreamed by the night”

    A common device in Eviga’s lyrics is the use of night/darkness as a metaphor for the subconscious or fundamental self, a theme he used to perfection in the album Her von welken Nächten. To seek answers within oneself is to stand up against darkness and confront it, something that typically fills us with anxiety. Only by defeating this fear do we open ourselves to the possibility of self-knowledge. In a poetic sense, this is like lucid "dreaming," a navigation of the “night”. Thus, Eviga’s message to us becomes clear: Seek first to understand yourself before you seek to steer your course. This is nothing more than a reiteration of the oft-heard maxim “Know thyself”, but it wouldn’t be repeated so often if it wasn’t so easy to overlook!

    All of this advice might come off as preachy or pretentious if it wasn’t for Eviga’s patient attention to providing some idea of how to realize such lofty aims. To do so, he uses the idea of the circle, a recurrent theme on past albums, as a symbol of the universal mystery of life. It’s a beautiful way to interpret existence because it takes away the distraction of making judgments (one of our favorite things to do). To perceive oneself as being a part of the circle is to simultaneously recognize oneself as being equal to all parts of the circle at once. Without beginning or end, the circle has no “first” point, no second; likewise, comparisons of what is “lower” and what is “higher” cannot be made: All points are intrinsically unified. If a man could see himself in this way, what would he need of greed, hate, fear? How could he carelessly take for himself, knowing that by doing so others would be left without? How could he rank himself against others? How could he kill or destroy without need? An individual speaks and acts for himself, but he does not exist for himself.

    “Plant – Animal – Human – Being
    Earth – Water – Air – Fire…

    In allem weben”

    It is hard, then, to describe why we are left with a tear in our hand at the end of the song, “Erst Deine Träne Löscht Den Brand” (“Only Thy Tear Douses the Fire”). The mix of emotions, I imagine, is different for every person. Having seen our base selves and a vision of what we might become, perhaps we are overcome by feelings of shame or regret; perhaps we are scared to let go; or, perhaps, we cry out of pity. I like to think of this tear as one that springs from hope—not a blind, expectant hope, but a hope synonymous with a certain confidence that whatever comes our way, we are open to accept it, even death. A fire consumes until nothing remains to fuel it, and so it dies. It is itself part of a fundamental cycle, but alone it acts without balance. Instead of passively watching ourselves burn away thus, we have the power to determine the manner of our death/rebirth; the tear, like greed or fear, is ours to command. And so we capitulate at last: We extinguish…

    Yet we do not look to the charred remains for a phoenix, but instead to the tender green shoots of newly sprouted seeds rising from the cradling ash:

    “Es blüht und welkt, dies’ weise Land”


    I believe it’s significant that Dornenreich chose to return to a black metal sound to convey this message. From the very outset, black metal was at its core an expression of the tension between the self and the world, as well as between the self and the Unknown, or whatever you call it. Dornenreich has realized this and lived it, and throughout their career they’ve chased after some sort of resolution, a way to bridge the dissonance. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that they saw black metal as uniquely suited to representing the struggle of an individual out of balance with himself, or, more broadly, individuals out of balance with their environment. Black metal is not the answer, but it embodies very well the search for the answer. With Flammentriebe, Dornenreich has managed to deliver on the hidden potential black metal began with, and in doing so, I believe they have taken it to its logical, enlightened (oxymoron?) end. When they say that this will be their last metal album, I have no doubt that they really mean it, for what else is there to be done? Black metal is over.

    *English (and French) translations of all lyrics are generously provided by the band on their website.

    Dornenreich,,Prophecy Productions
  • Marrow of the Spirit: An Interpretation

    Dic 30 2010, 16:49

    When I first listened to Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, I didn’t like it very much. But long after the music had ended I found myself still thinking about it. So I kept on listening, trying to come to grips with the band’s new direction and purpose. I think I have listened enough times now to make some conclusions, some guesses towards that aim. I offer them here on the off chance that someone out there might find them interesting…

    <They Escaped The Weight of Darkness>The album begins with the sound of a flowing stream. Is this a cold mountain spring, its untainted waters flowing down to join the great rivers that empty into vast oceans—or towards a certain Black Lake, perhaps? A cello plays, mournful and foreboding. <Into the Painted Grey> This feels like a song of destruction. The jarring opening is unusual for Agalloch because it has a “disordered” quality. I’ve come to expect a certain measured, logical approach to arranging music from this band, and this bit of chaos is surprising to me—much more so than the overt aggression. Next, an interesting section follows in which three melodic lines weave around each other in what sounds like a nod to classical counterpoint. The way these melodies seem to “orbit” each other reminds me of the opening scene of the film Werckmeister Harmonies in which three drunken men are made to impersonate the sun, earth, and moon in a clumsy reenactment of a solar eclipse. Moreover, this flirtation with counterpoint—an orderly way of harmonizing independent musical lines—echoes a point in the movie where one of the characters criticizes the theory and calls for a new way of establishing harmony. It’s funny that this brief interlude in the song never feels like it is going to go anywhere; the guys in the band must think so too, as it’s quickly cast aside with the flick of a hand (or, rather, the strum of a distorted chord).
    Aha—but the image of hands is important to this song, too. They are doing two things here: one, they are involved in a selfless sacrifice; and two, in destruction. The owner of these hands remains shadowy, but my guess would be the Earth, Nature, or some abstract concept of it. This Nature-figure tells of an original sacrifice made “to the storms of life” by the ritual-like cutting of its hands, but also threatens destruction by the upheaval of the oceans (“to vertical depths”), again by the act of its hands alone. Here Nature is given the role of life-giver and life-taker, but it’s interesting to note its exclusively elemental force: its defining features or powers are in water, rock and fire (“magma”), not in organic life, towards which it seems to be indifferent, even hostile.
    The final lines of the song proclaim, “These are my hands…so it is done,” and with these ominous words we are made to realize that the cataclysmic event that was hinted at earlier has now come to pass as a chaotic section recalling the one at the beginning of the song is repeated a final time to great effect. If the first moments of the song were a representation of a mythical “primordial chaos”, then this final section is the sound of chaos once again reclaiming all: It is Ragnarök; the cycle has come full circle. We listen in awe. <The Watcher’s Monolith> Fittingly, the following song is one of healing. John Haughm has said that this song was inspired by a particular night spent at a pagan site in Europe while convalescing from a serious illness. Haughm describes a communion with the spirit-imbued stone and regains health, but one line in particular, “a new age of rebirth lights the dawn”, sticks out the most to me here because it seems to relate directly to the destructive end of the previous song, and so continues the narrative. It seems to imply that this cycle of chaos is not a once-around kind of thing, but instead constantly revolving, a continuous rite-of-passage encompassing individuals, ages, and even gods—to each one a cycle commensurate to its permanence: circles within circles. Could the cure for illness involve an alignment of the self within a sort of “healing cycle,” perhaps created by the ancient runes carved into the stone? In the Norse myths, Odin himself received the art of runes only after enduring physical suffering…
    A field recording of a summer night follows. The profusion of summer life and warmth is unexpected and welcome, but brief. A contemplative piano piece dampens the mood somewhat and we are ready to plunge into…
    <Black Lake Niðstång> Ancient northern pagan peoples would erect a wooden pole called a niðstång for the purpose of cursing an enemy. A horse’s head was placed on top of the pole and sometimes curse-runes would be carved into the wood. As this song is the centerpiece of the album, so also is the image of the niðstång central to the album’s concept; it is like the axis around which all the aforementioned cycles revolve. It is the center of darkness, the unknown: the curse of existence to which all of us are subject. It stands above an abyssal black lake that entombs the accursed souls who have tasted of the “solemn water.” There is an incredible moment in the song when Haughm assumes the role of the voice of the niðstång itself and the music swirls around his inhuman howls as though in slow-motion. In this moment, I can imagine myself as one of the nameless faces in the water staring upwards in awe and fear at the black silhouette of the ghastly niðstång, a pillar around which a thousand thousand stars glimmer in a wheeling night sky… Okay, sorry. So…
    ...So how does one incur this terrible curse, anyway? Two symbols are given, that of the crane and the stag, which serve as clues. Cranes are used variously in myths as symbols of immortality, solitude, and grace; in Greek and Celtic myths, cranes were associated with the deities of the underworld; in Norse myth, the god Hoenir was identified with the image of a crane or stork. Some sources say he is credited with giving the gift of spirit to humans, other say he gave reason/intelligence/wisdom instead. Interestingly, Hoenir is among the few who survive Ragnarök. The other symbol, the stag, also has multiple meanings. Two of these I find especially noteworthy (quoted from wikipedia): “Celts believed that the white stag would appear when one was transgressing a taboo…Arthurian legend states that the creature has a perennial ability to evade capture; and that the pursuit of the animal represents mankind's spiritual quest.”
    Both symbols seem to convey concepts of spirituality and death. In the song, both fall victim to the curse of the black lake. It would be easy to conclude that the lake is therefore like an underworld, a world of the dead, but I am not sure; it’s important to note that “gods” are also among the “faces below the ripples.” If even gods are condemned to this lake, then perhaps all concepts of a deity—hence, all religions and cults—are subject to this curse. And by extension, all spiritual endeavor is subject to it too; if we push too far too brazenly, we too will arrive at this primeval nothingness, falter, and go under. But there’s a shard of hope, I think. The curse seems to punish only those who commit some sort of violation, as in “those who corrupt these sacred woods”, but what if one treads those sacred woods reverently instead? Perhaps the difference lies in intention. Can I transgress something that I know to already be a part of myself? <Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires> The next song is refreshingly upbeat and begins with a warm guitar tone. The lyrics speak of spirits (ghosts) and gods that exist everywhere around us, either as the residues of the past or as the products of creation. But strangely the refrain proclaims, “…there are no ghosts here…there are no gods here.” Where is “here”? Is it the cleansed consciousness of a purified soul, disabused of all clouding thought and dogma? Or have we slid back in time to the dawn of man before his mind became filled with the dreams of gods? Is there a difference? I don’t know. The lyrics also toy with the opposing themes of cold (darkness) and fire (spirit). When they entwine, they illuminate “the fields”. Come to think of it, at the end of the song we are given an amusing metaphor for humankind: we really are nothing but spirit enrobed in smoke…<To Drown> Quoting Werckmeister Harmonies, Haughm whispers, “They escaped the weight of darkness…”, but sadly “they” didn’t truly escape, for, as he says later: “They chose to drown...in another [darkness].” Trading emptiness for emptiness. They looked to gods to fill the void in their hearts, but the gods themselves were void. Or rather, they turned from the void of gods to search for truth within the heart, itself void. This is circular…
    …And is that the joke, the finale to our age-old question? The sinister-triumphant march at the end of the song seems to mock our distress. What choice did we have after all? To drown, to drown… But as the notes fade away like the sound of a band playing on the deck of a sinking Titanic, a miraculous thing happens: We hear water again. But this is not the cold spring water we heard in the first song, nor is it the drone of a mid-sea expanse; this is the sound of waves lapping at our feet. We stand on the shore of a wide lake, an ocean; this is where all streams end. “They” may have drowned, but we, the listeners, have not. We are on the shore…We have seen the curse and escaped it…We have stepped outside the circle—if only for a brief moment—fully aware of our freedom to choose:

    To drown. Or to swim.

    "A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns...

    The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up."

  • 2010 Favorites

    Dic 25 2010, 17:26

    Pausing to recall 10 memorable releases this year…

    1. Joanna Newsom : Have One on Me

    You would think three discs worth of songs about love would make for a tiresome listen, but somehow “Have One On Me” never falls short of captivating. Much of the album’s success is due to Newsom’s growing skill as a storyteller: her tales spring to life with an exuberant array of all sorts of vibrant images—just take a look at the cover art, for example. I love words, and you can tell that Newsom loves them too, but perhaps even more than this, you can tell she loves each and every thing her words represent. And this inevitably brings us back around to the central subject of love: it’s everywhere on this record, proving that there truly is no other subject so manifold, so universal, and so deserving of endless devotion.

    2. Clouwbeck : From Which the River Rises

    Clouwbeck is but one of the many guises of the English ambient composer Richard Skelton. While I have enjoyed his past works, this is the record that turned me into an ardent admirer. At last I have found an artist capable of orchestrating the essence of a natural environment convincingly without relying on field recordings or samples. From Which The River Rises is an incredible achievement.

    3. The National : High Violet
    I like to sing. Trouble is, I’m not very good at it; my voice is rather too deep and my range too limited to follow note-for-note with most singers. Thankfully, Matt Berninger has found a way to make a career out of these same limitations. I could not be more appreciative.

    4. Kim Doo Soo : Evening River

    Not technically an album of new material but rather a collection of re-recordings of previously released songs. No matter. The more subdued instrumentation here only enhances the meditative and otherworldly aspect of his voice. A reflective, soulful album by an singular artist.

    5. Gabriel Araújo : Ludismo

    And the award for best head trip of the year goes to this unheralded Brazilian musician. Araújo’s musical palette is seemingly kaleidoscopic, yet miraculously he is able to pull together diverse influences without sacrificing a point of view that is unmistakably his very own. Ludismo is at turns disorienting, psychedelic, beautiful, alien, and familiar: it’s a veritable treasure trove for anyone who loves sound.

    6. Sun Kil Moon : Admiral Fell Promises

    Mark Kozelek said he just wanted to write beautiful music with his guitar. And so he did. But the kind of beauty captured here has its roots in sorrow and seasoned wisdom. It is the kind of beauty that reaches deep into the heart.

    7. Rafael Anton Irisarri : The North Bend, Reverie EP

    This was an especially good year for Irisarri. Not only did he release a full-length album and an EP under his own name, but he released an album under the moniker THE SIGHT BELOW as well. All of them are outstanding works of ambient music. His cover of Arvö Part’s “Für Alina” is sublime.

    8. Agalloch : Marrow of the Spirit

    It was certainly clever of the guys in Agalloch to lace their new album with allusions to Werckmeister Harmonies, the poignant film by Bela Tarr. The reference helps to add weight and intrigue to what I had at first considered to be a forgettable album. Instead, I’ve become gradually enthralled by the ambition on display here. This may be the band's most mature work to date.

    9. Evan Caminiti : West Winds

    Caminiti uses his guitar to create haunting abstract pieces that drift somewhere between ambient, drone and psychedelic music. While that mix of genres alone would be enough to earn my praise, it’s Caminiti’s restraint, his trust in intuition, and his respect for silence that have made me a fan of his work.

    10. Celer : Dying Star

    Listening to this album is an oddly therapeutic experience. The austere yet gentle drones form a soft hum that borders on subliminal.

    And a handful of smaller treasures:

    Greg Haines - Until the Point of Hushed Support
    Scott Tuma – Dandelion
    Seaworthy + Matt Rösner – Two Lakes
    Max Richter – Infra
    Gareth Davis & Steven R. Smith – The Line Across
    Isihia – Stihiri
    Rökkurró – Í Annan Heim
    Cosa Brava – Ragged Atlas

    Favorite Tracks:

    1.Joanna Newsom – “On a Good Day”
    2.Clouwbeck - “Come the Aegir”
    3.The National – “Terrible Love”
    4.Agalloch – “Black Lake Niðstång”
    5.Sun Kil Moon – “Ålesund”