Above: Max and Greg Puciato, DEP Basement Rock Show at Saint Vitus Bar, July 2014
Quick confession: although I love every album on this list, all of my favorite albums this year were actually not metal (keep an eye out for that list, coming soon…). But as a deep thinker and concerned consumer of basement metal music, I of course kept my ears to the underground to keep up with new basement music. So, as your butthurt seeps in, keep in mind that my favorite album this year was New Zealand pop star Kimbra’s The Golden Echo.
Without further ado, let’s dive in! Let me know your thoughts in the comment section. Did you love these records, did you hate them, what do you think I missed?
10) Obliterations – Poison Everything
We live in a world where the pop culture media-industrial-giant loves, among other silly stuff, two things: idolizing premature, precocious talent, and talking about how “guitar music” is dead.
And here’s Obliterations. A supergroup of sorts, featuring members of bands like Saviors, Black Mountain, and Night Horse. A band made up of older dudes, some of whom could be your dad, playing pretty straightforward d-beat hardcore, which they recorded at one dad’s studio (Dave Grohl’s Studio 606), mixed by another dad (Kurt Ballou’s GodCity Studios), and mastered by a third dad (Brad Boatright’s Audiosiege Studios). It’s just like, a winning formula: good tunes being run through some of the best technical facilities available to rock music. It’s gross, and it’s unpretentious. Catchy choruses, short n’ sweet tunes, ripping production, with some nice dabblings in Napalm Death-style thrashings and sludgy beatdowns.
I don’t really want to say much more. I hate defending bands like this to people – especially to butthurt oldschool hardcore enthusiasts who bemoan modern production. Poison Everything has great songs, an attitude and ethos I can get behind, and an explosive sound.
9) Trioscapes – Digital Dream Sequence
When I first heard Trioscapes, the project led by renowned Between the Buried and Me bassist Dan Briggs, I was more excited about them in theory than I was in practice. A band that’s only bass, drums, and saxophone? Why the hell wouldn’t that rule?
I know that people liked Separate Realities, but to me that release didn’t quite do it for me – the lines felt forced at times, the band seemed to favor forcing polyrhythms and purposefully strange lines to playing together, bringing the best out of one another creatively, and making their songs match their level of talent. Pushing too many round objects into square pegs; throwing too many wrenches into the machine’s cogs, etc. Like one of their key influences, Mahavishnu Orchestra, I felt like these guys were all exceptionally talented musicians who got together to write music that often favored doing something weird to turning something weird into something that is musically exciting.
So we’re at their second go-round, Digital Dream Sequence. This release isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty goddamn great. The band feels leagues more in touch with one another as players, they’re exploring some interesting tones and sounds across songs, and the lines and grooves gel far more than they did before. Tracks like “Stab Wounds” – which features one of my favorite moments in music of the year in its flute solo and fuzz-bass breakdown – and the second half of “Hysteria” show the true potential that this band has: to be one of the rare progressive bands in 2014 that actually sounds unique.
8) Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
When I got a chance to see Pallbearer play an intimate club earlier this year, I was blown away by how much the band had grown in the year since I’d last seen them play. Although they were punishing live from the start, there was a newfound, not-quite-quantifiable edge. I can point to things like the splitting up of vocal duties to include bassist Joseph Rowland and guitarist Devin Holt, adding welcome texture to lead crooner Brett Campbell’s creepily gorgeous Ozzy-via-Brent Hinds-via-Cathedral melodies. I can point to their rigs. I can guess at experience on the road, making the band a more cohesive and dynamic unit. Or maybe its just swag.
Whatever it is, it’s working. I don’t think Foundations of Burden is a perfect record, but it’s a great release by a band that seems poised to continue to grow. Like their underground-breakthrough Sorrow & Extinction, it sounds utterly unlike any other metal band that follows a similar stylistic path. Even with its missteps – the songs can tend to blend together, it’s a bit too long – Pallbearer are a band full of character. I’m always excited to hear about what this band is up to. If they can continue to embrace the elements that made this album more enjoyable as a complete listen than the debut, like the use of a wider variety of tones, songwriting shifts, and left-field breaks like “Ashes,” then who knows what they’ll be capable of.
7) Gridlink – Longhena
This album is one of the critical darlings of the year, which makes sense, given not only its content but also the talent behind it (this is a grindcore supergroup of sorts, featuring members of Burnt by the Sun, Discordance Axis, Human Remains, and more), and the story.
In addition to being a pretty phenomenal, unique sounding grind record, Grindlink’s Longhena is a swansong that comes with a tragedy: earlier this year, guitarist/songwriter Takafumi Matsubara was hospitalized with inflammation of the brain, and although he miraculously survived, he lost significant dexterity and control of his left hand, including paralysis of his middle fingers. Although there is a chance that Matsubara can recover through rehabilitation and medical treatment (hey, it’s been done before, by no less than Pat Martino and Dave Mustaine), it is highly unlikely that he will ever play guitar again.
I have faith in modern medicine, but even if Matsubara never writes another riff, Longhena is about as big of a blaze of glory that you can go out in. It’s the kind of record that most guitar players, in and out of the major leagues, dream of writing, but rarely achieve. Dynamic, melodic, beautiful and brutal all at the same time, it’s a record that after repeated listens, I’ve found no way to digest. I suspect I’ll be taking it apart and enjoying it for years to come, like many others.
6) Artificial Brain – Labyrinth Constellation
I’ve been a huge fan of the material that Revocation guitarist Dan Gargiulo has been producing for his main band – he provides a welcome weird, untheoretical black and progressive metal vibe to Dave Davidson’s more calculated “rawk” – so I was curious to hear how his playing would translate on the debut album of Artificial Brain, a self-described sci-fi death metal outfit that incorporates as many influences from the extreme metal spectrum as it does from the progressive. Untethered from the relatively stringent aesthetics of Revocation, Gargiulo & company really rip.
This record is strange. The riffs are super unique: weird, unsettling, and unlike most metal writing I’ve heard in recent times – comparisons to the Brain’s influences like Gorguts and black metal on the more progressive side like Blut Aus Nord, or their peers in Krallice and Mutilation Rites, go a way towards explaining the sound of this music, but this really is an album that you have to hear to believe. Engineer Colin Marston really did an oustanding job on this record, managing to make extremely convoluted, layered, and oftentimes inhuman sounding music have a very organic heart. Sci-fi death metal. Far out, man.
5) Mutilation Rites – Harbinger
I usually hate saying something like this, but Mutilation Rites may be the most punk band out there right now. They’re frightening live, they kinda look like they crawled out of a swamp, and their music is absolutely disgusting. These are dudes who really just seem to not give a fuck, as opposed to the old George Carlin line, about “people who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.” That’s usually the first thought that comes to my mind when I see young American black metal or hardcore bands or crust-in-my-black-whatever-core bands play a basement show somewhere on the East Coast. Those kids could learn a thing or two from a band who really care about music – a band like Mutilation Rites.
Tracked live and recorded to tape with longtime engineer Kevin Bernsten at Developing Nations Recording Studio (read our interview with Kevin about the making of this album and more from earlier this year here), Harbinger is one of the most disgustingly human metal albums that came out this year. Unlike many of their peers who exist more on the Pitchfork end of the spectrum, who just can’t seem to pull it off live, or rely on sheer blasting power, Mutilation Rites actually sound like a cohesive unit who know how to adopt their sound to a room. They are a band with dynamics buried in the details; musicians who carefully craft a thick wall of sound from the bottom up, as opposed to just turning up the volume on their amplifiers, or the shoe on their gaze.
Harbinger also shows a band vastly improving in the art of songcraft, a trait often overlooked by Mutilation Rites’s peers. Tracks like “Gravitational Collapse,” “Contaminate,” and caustic opener “Black Pyramid” show that the Rites are tightening up the gears on their structures and passages, making for a more entertaining listen all the way through.
To paraphrase Michael Caine, Mutilation Rites aren’t the band that this generation deserves; they’re the one it needs.
4) Revocation – Deathless
Speaking of prog-leaning bands that actually sound unique…
Although I’ve adored this band since Chaos of Forms, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Revocation’s self-titled release from last year – it felt a bit too Revocation-by-numbers, and fell flat for me following the Teratogenesis EP, which I thought was a really stunning step forward for the band. I’m also usually skeptical when bands add a string to their guitars and say that their next release is going to be their “heaviest yet.”
I’ve read a lot of critics who have talked about Dave Davidson & company’s new album Deathless as another step in the development of Revocation into Revocation. That the band is continuing to grow and sound like themselves. I agree with that. I’d also go a step further, and say that gradually – surely, but gradually – Revocation are growing into the big boy shoes previously worn by bands like Lamb of God, Pantera, etc., in the current metal landscape. They feel like flag-fliers. Don’t they?
We’re now almost a decade removed from Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and metal’s power-player record labels’ subsequent mopping up of every classic thrash and old school metal band that had ever played a show with Warbringer. Catchy, fun, slightly over-the-top oldschool metal was the game plan, but it was a plan more for the first half than it was for four quarters. Nowadays, only the strongest, and most unique bands – like Havok, Muni Waste, newcomers like Noisem, etc. – are still kicking.
But Revocation always seemed to be apart from even the top of that heap – IMHO due in no small part to their unique chemistry, tight live show, and Davidson’s refreshing writing and playing style, as opposed to their ability to ape classic death, thrash, grind, black, and etc. tropes. It’s also telling that we expect so much out of this band, that they are held to such a high standard. That not only do we want A, B, C, D things out of their records, we also want them to be weird. We want curve balls. We want them to do something that makes us smile uncontrollably. That’s cool – I don’t know how many bands you can really say that about these days.
Although the middle tracks on this album feel a bit monotonous, that’s only because they are sandwiched between an untouchable opening four-punch of “A Debt Owed to the Grave” through “Madness Opus” and the exciting K.O. of instrumental “Apex” and blackened thrasher “Witch Trials.” Five full lengths into their career, Revocation feel as youthful, excitable, and curious as ever on Deathless.
3) Trap Them – Blissfucker
I love bands who stick to their guns, and its hard to think of an American band working today who is more committed to their vision than Trap Them. They’ve also gone and made the best metal album title of all time. Because unlike the braggadocio and false fortitude that masks sensitive-musicians-who-make-metal music’s work, this thing actually does fuck my bliss.
Like Longhena, Blissfucker also comes with a bit of a tragedy. Frontman, lyricist, and creative leader Ryan McKenney, who seems to have gone through just about the worst year anyone can go through, piling up debt, broken relationships, and medical woes, was recently diagnosed with advanced post-concussion syndrome after years of putting his body through violent, intense live performances. His injury will confine the band into being an almost exclusively studio project, with only occasional shows and small tours that can accommodate McKenney’s health. I was lucky enough to catch one of those gigs earlier this summer in New York – although they were absolutely punishing, and McKenney left the stage covered in his own blood as per the norm, there was a definite battle-fatigue vibe.
So, surrounding quite possibly the darkest, ugliest band in metal, is a period of insane stress and hardship. Out of that comes Blissfucker.
There’s not too much to say about this record. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could listen to this record all the way through, because of the sheer ugliness. My ears get tired of the ugly guitar tone – which sound to this young man-turned-critic’s ears like Kurt Ballou’s finest application of Boss HM-2’s through Emperor cabs yet – like, three songs in. Guitarist Brian Izzi is scorching on this one, taking McKenney’s titles, lyrics, and ideas, and turning them into the most bitter, salty guitar riffs that anyone wrote this year. And while the brutality, greyness, and unpalatability are in full effect, standouts like opener “Salted Crypts,” raw burners like “Lungrunners,” and groovers like “Organic Infernal” show Trap Them not only an an ugly high, but a songwriting one too.
This album is ugly, desperate, and raw. Whatever it’s faults, I have to commend a band for consistently sticking to and realizing their vision, and for continually walking the walk. In a time of post-YouTube bands who know how to dress the part, Trap Them, and Blissfucker, are a breath of fresh air. A breath of fresh poison Matrix-air, sure, but at least they’re breathing at all.
2) Full of Hell & Merzbow – Full of Hell & Merzbow
Speaking of ugly…
Full of Hell are a band that, like Trap Them, I wasn’t completely sold on. Then they went and made the most fucked-up album of the year.
It’s kinda cute; this album is basically as experimental as it is straightforward. And I like that. Just the facts, and pass the bucket. The album title translates directly to what you’re getting: a hardcore-grindcore-whatever-core band playing absolutely crushing metal music over the top of gross, psychotic noise music provided by Japanese pioneer Merzbow.
The marriage is not necessarily the biggest risk anyone’s ever taken artistically, like, let’s be real, it’s a grindcore band and a noise dude, but it’s pretty darn up there for their genre kin. When a legend like Merzbow sends you a batch of sounds over which you are to write and perform a companion piece – that pressure’s on, man. You can’t suck when Merzbow writes music for you.
That pressure was not just on the band, but on the engineer charged with making this gross pile of mess work, Kevin Bernsten, who I think really needs to be commended for one of the finest pieces of metal production this year. Tracks like “Thrum in the Deep,” “High Fells,” and disgusting opener “Burst Synapse” carry a depth not often seen in albums on this end of the metal spectrum. And although the majority of this music is pretty straightforward bam n’ slam, the songs and production surprisingly…really flourish as the album progresses. As if these guys are painting in different shades of black. Like who would think you could get darker than a song like “Burst Synapse”? Wait til you get to the end.
Lucky for them, it doesn’t suck. The biggest risk in metal taken this year is one of the best records of the year.
1) Baptists – Bloodmines
I want to say something: with his performance on Bloodmines, Baptists’ drummer Nick Yacyshyn has established himself as nothing short of the great new drummer in metal, and maybe otherwise. It’s not that his technique is absolutely absurd, or that his fills are so good they make you smile, like a Polish soda. It’s not because “Calling” is the best drum performance of the year. It’s also not because Dave Grohl says so. No, it’s because I f#%*ing said so, and I’m the person whose list you’re reading right now.
OK, now that I’ve said that, I want to say some other things. Bloodmines is very nearly a perfect record. The songs are short and sweet enough that although they satisfy, they don’t beat you over the head with repetition of their their curiously weird riffs. Even with Yacyshyn’s standout performance, no member of the band really dominates over another that much. Vocalist Andrew Drury sits comfortably in the mix with his aggressive shouting about corruption and evil, as though he’s just another instrument, jutting out only when necessary, to provide the shout-alongs in “String Up” and “Harm Induction,” and “Calling.” Guitarist Danny Marshall is everywhere – sludgy and heavy, staccato-y and attack-y, noisey and ambient – serving whatever is in the best interest of the song. Bassist Sean (“Seanky Kong”) locks in with Yacyshyn to form one of the most formidable rhythm sections out there, but his all-distortion tone also provides a solid sonic mattress for Marshall and Drury’s madness to lay in.
It’s hard to talk about this band without giving a nod to a great mix and production from Kurt Ballou, but as Ballou himself would attest, it’s just as important to acknowledge how tight of a unit Baptists are, and how much that matters when recording. This is a band who sounds like they write songs that come from one anothers’ skills and personalities. Like a bunch of dudes got in a room and played their instruments. In other words, this is a band with personality. This is a band with dynamics. God damn it, is that a rarity these days.
Although I enjoyed most of the metal albums I heard this year (and as I said above, most of my favorites weren’t metal whatsoever), Bloodmines was the one that felt the freshest, that felt the most urgent, that felt the most human, that felt the most heavy.