SEWERS OF MARS Best of 2008

SEWERS OF MARS Best of 2008
Mar 30, 2009, 07:05

Tim McGraw and the Cro-Mags pretty much exclusively. They all kinda melt together in my dreams—Harley Flanagan at a disco with a cowboy hat and fu-manchu trying to read me his poetry: “Brucies thoughts / Pretty streamers! / Guess this world / Needs its dreamers / May they never wake up!” he screams. I run, but I'm on a treadmill and…well, never mind, I'll save it for the couch. Let's get on with this so I can get back to the black nog* and you can get back to whatever mundane shit you're doing. I present to you, my best of 2008:Â

10. THE GOSLINGS - Occasion (Not Not Fun)

The Goslings are a husband and wife duo from Florida who specialize in crushing, blissful drone metal. They differ from their ever-growing list of shoegaze contemporaries because their tunes are at once mightier and poppier. No other band has quite mastered this exact mix of hefty metal sludge, stoner fuzz and twee pop. Occasion is everything (previous album) Grandeur of Hair was and more—a manifesto of uncompromising single-mindedness, a burrowing assault on the senses that pummels and lulls in equal measure. Even the drums are distorted! Hard to imagine them topping this one, but then, that's what I said about their last one.

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (Bonus Track Version)

I've seen some ninjas hating on the s/t debut by Crystal Castles, but they're probably wetting themselves over Fleet Foxes, so consider the source. Crystal Castles is like a budget version of The Knife, and while the co-ed duo's highly sexualized electro pop doesn't really come close to matching that band's overall atmosphere, there is enough here for anyone who counts Silent Shout as one of the decade's best records. Songs like “Courtship Dating” are a must for closet disco goths who think Portishead take themselves a tad too seriously, while the Nintendo-as-nostalgia creeps will love the 8-bit sounds of “Alice Practice,” a song featuring a vocal that began as a microphone check. The fabulously named Ethan Fawn and Alice Glass outrageously claim to not have any musical influences whatsoever, which would be absurd even if a ton of these tracks didn't sound like a cross between Kate Bush, Atari Teenage Riot, and The Human League. But I can forgive them their braggadocio—if they want to pretend they've never heard of Flexipop, that's none of my business. The band has clearly done their homework, and this record rules all the same.

8. THE HOWLING HEX Earth Junk (Drag City)

The Howling Hex - Earth Junk

Earth Junk is Neil Michael Hagerty's most sonically experimental and self-consciously ‘avant garde' release, featuring only electric piano, organ, synthesizer, guitar and vocals. No bass, no drums. The bio's description of the music as “Mexican polka” is surprisingly spot on, as Hagerty channels Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm more than Keith Richards or Johnny Thunders. For those keeping score, Earth Junk most closely resembles Hagerty's first, s/t solo album, with the guitar, a instrument on which Hagerty is gifted, provided more as an afterthought here. Though the instrumentation is largely, stubbornly unvaried throughout, that isn't to say there aren't some surprises. On opener “Big Chief Big Wheel” and the almost country-blues “The Arrows,” Hagerty's gift for hooks transcends the decidedly pop-hostile arrangement, and gives way to a subversive sort of Western rock structure rendered in the most unlikely ways, ie lyrics like ‘ramma jamma, jamma / la la la la la.” The obtuse narratives on “Blood and Dust” and “Faithful Sister” recall Hagerty's literary work, with characters confronting the mundane, while the cutely titled “Coffin Up Cash” is a noisy detour of double tracked acoustic guitar, haunted house sounds, mumbled vocals and disembodied conversation snippets which eventually dissolves to reveal sweet harmony vocals and a twinkling Fender Rhodes. If you were really nerdy about it, you could see this track as an abbreviated synopsis of Hagerty's career-long journey from the singular Twin Infinitives to his recent quest for the New Border Sound. Earth Junk ends on a strange note—strange because it isn't strange. “O Why, Sports Coat?” is a brief, plaintive acoustic tune that punctuates the album with a question mark—and a ‘to be continued.'  There is little precedent for this intrepid work—possibly Destroyer's befuddling adventures in MIDI and some of Fiery Furnaces' less showtune-y offerings come close—but Hagerty remins in a class by himself. The CD ‘booklet' doubles as a series of postcards, painted by Hagerty, each bearing the album's title on the bottom right hand corner, so you can pick your favorite cover, a la Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.

7. WOLD Stratification (Left Hand Path)

 Wold - Stratification

Saskatchewan's Wold are on a very short list of my favorite metal bands of the past ten years, and their latest, Stratification, is, in their own words, their ‘most strict release,' and I'd have to agree. While 2007's Screech Owl edges it out by a nose—I mean, Screech Owlis just about the best album ever if you're keeping score—Wold (Fortress Crookedjaw contributes voices, guitars, electronics, devices and poetry while Obey handles “scourge guitar”) reduces their particular brand of metal to its basic ingredients—scorched earth white noise, and dry, shrieking vocals that sound as if they're being transmitted from an EVP sample captured on an outer space radio. Gone are the melodic textures of past releases (which occasionally sounded like black metal's answer to The Disintegration Loops) and most of the structure that went with them. “Wintertime,” for instance, is little more than the sound of a cavalry of horses stampeding closer and closer over snow while someone sharpens a machete in the near distance. This track is nearly seven-minutes long. Like most of Stratification, this track has more in common with modern noiseniks like Prurient and Hive Mind than it does with Mayhem or Emperor. While the winter-themed album (one song is titled “Sleigh Ride”) conforms to Wold's noise nihilist aesthetic, it is also informed by a new interest in 19th century opera (most evident on “Elektra” and Woman Without A Shadow”). Elsewhere, ethereal songs about the ‘wrath of winter' shove up against songs like the propulsive “The Frozen Field,” which sets an overblown Casio beat against storming percussion and desperate vocals. This music is not merely depressive—it is depression incarnate. Free of gimmicks, free of corpse paint—they even have short hair fer goodness sakes—Wold continue to make the most imaginative, genre-defying and adventurous dark music in the world. Fuck shoegaze and shitgaze—help yourself to some HELLGAZE!!

6. PORTAL Outre (Profound Lore)

Portal - Outre

It takes a lot to frighten me. When I was barely old enough to talk, instead of encouraging me to take part in sports, my father would challenge me to watch his favorite horror films. I vividly remember having nightmares about the twins from The Shining for years. A little later, during my full-blown adolescence-long obsession with metal, my pals and I would drop acid and listen to King Diamond in the dark. So I know scary, okay? But Outre, the new album by Australian band Portal, is one of the downright scariest metal albums I've ever heard. Online footage reveals the band to be a sort of metal Caroliner, all costumes and giant floppy hats, truly ominous in their what-the-fuckness. No goofy corpse paint here, just dudes that actually look like they could very well sneak into your house under the cloak of night and murder you with dull daggers and ropes. As for the music itself, this is atmospheric death metal of the highest caliber. Like Wold, Portal render things like riffs (played on 7-string guitars) and vocals into one large blur, crafting a vociferous assault on the senses. The guttural, almost whispered vocals are high in the mix, and a glance at the lyric sheet reveals lines like “Souse in ichor / the clique transfuse / volute the swarth / trawl betwixt phonotic.” What? Every song is top-notch, and the booklet—a gatefold digipak which holds a mock-leather booklet featuring lyrics and more scary photos—is gorgeous.

5. INDIAN JEWELRY Free Gold (We Are Free)

Indian Jewelry - Free Gold!

I'd say this Texas troop of rock iconoclasts is the future of rock music, but sadly, people aren't that smart. The future of rock music is a kiosk with a USB port in a bar bathroom. No, Indian Jewelry is the future of something greater, something less ethereal, some thing more slippery. The band has made some exciting records, but Free Gold is their best. For the uninitiated, these are rock tunes, but augmented by drowsy synthesizers and junk electronics. No wonder Kid606 digs 'em. The album opens with “Swans,” which updates the formula set forth by Spacemen 3 (perhaps their most obvious influence—there's even a song called “Walking On The Water”), and also recalls the sorely underappreciated Flux Information Sciences. Elsewhere, slow motion guitar and junkyard beats are joined by a seasick synthesizer on “Temporary Famine Ship,” while overdriven guitars clash and bash on the Glenn Branca-esque “Bird Is Broke (Won't Sing).” Then there are the curveballs. Oh, the curveballs. “Pompeii” sounds like Brain Jonestown Massacre at their most tuneful and sublime, and is also the closest a modern band has come to capturing the woozy, narcotic spirit of the first Velvets album in years. “Everyday” is a beautiful tune that comes out of nowhere featuring acoustic guitar and multi-layered harmony vocals. “Hello Africa” begins by sounding like the band is about to launch into a cover of Blue Oyster Cult's “Godzilla,” but instead detours into a driving synth jam with disembodied vocals delayed to mesmerizing, almost demonic effect. This is what Primal Scream thought XTRMNTR sounded like. If only. Despite the reliance on otherworldly textures and sounds, Indian Jewelry is never impersonal or detached, which itself is a feat beyond the grasp of their immediate noisenik peers. Haunted by the long gone ghosts of junkie pretenders and true life leaf-eaters alike, Indian Jewelry have created an inspired, twisted masterpiece here, one that deserves far more accolades than it is likely to receive.

4. D CHARLES SPEER AND THE HELIXAfter Hours (Black Dirt)

Speer and his Helix offer up the kind of psychedelic Bakersfield stew you always hope you'll be lucky enough to procure from one of our nation's truck stops, though ol' Red Sovine never sang lyrics like “Don't ever say man I'll never' / Lest I mark your back with my braided leather.” The Helix, for their part, is a backing band worthy of envy, their dustbowl gallop the perfect accompaniment to Speer's surrealist trucker boogie. The band is consistently tasteful, even with lap steel, piano, and organ all vying for attention in the mix. They never do too much or too little, but color each song with a superb stoniness, creating the listening equivalent of those fuzzy Grand Funk album covers that made you feel high even if you hadn't smoked. Constant local gigging in New York City has rendered the band tighter than a bull's ass during fly season, and on After Hours, they exhibit all the spunk and confidence of a Muscle Shoals family reunion. Not bad for a bunch of city boys. Still, Speers is clearly the star here. In his strong but easy voice, he sounds like a young Jerry Jeff Walker, singing about heads decaying in deer bellies and feasts of puna butter (whatever the hell that is). Speer's baritone belies a stoic sort of ‘seen it all' weariness not found on many records produced north of the bible belt or more recently than the Nixon administration. “Guns in the Hills” conjures Nashville Skyline-era Dylan, while “Sit Right There” is perhaps the loveliest serenade ever played on a bouzouki. The lyrics are fantastic throughout, populated by colorfully named characters like Uncle Ernie, Cheese Frog and Warden San Martino. A macrophage of madness, indeed.

3. RTX JJ Got Live RaTX (Drag City)

RTX - JJ Got Live RaTX

Jennifer Herrema has always made most male rockers look like goofy posers. Even during her time in Royal Trux—still the greatest rock band America has ever produced—Herrema managed to wrench more righteous rebellion from a single guttural sound than Sebastian Bach did in an entire career. On her band RTX's latest, the confusingly titled JJ Got Live RaTX, Herrema continues to move ever closer to rock royalty. Nothing on JJ Got Live RaTX is understated. Every song is presented in all caps, bold print, and ends with exclamation points. You know, like Exile on Main Street, Appetite For Destruction, and every single Who and AC/DC record ever made, for starters. For someone who spent a good part of her adult life involved in a band who counted Ornette Coleman as a primary influence, the fact that Herrema is able to wrench these songs out of her band is evidence alone of her sublime talent. As for the production, gone are most of the treatments and murk that made previous outings impenetrable for some. This clarity signifies a newfound confidence, which is well deserved. Sure, there are still vocoders and treated vocals, and the Jan Hammer-conjuring outro to "Mr Wall" is some real deal bizarre even for someone with Twin Infinitives on her resume, but the sheen of these songs reveal exactly what a great writer Heremma actually is beyond the image of her as a self-styled animal pelt-wearing surf-hesher. This is, after all, the gal who wrote “Waterpark,” for goodness sakes. Show some goddamn respect.

2. THE HOSPITALSstrong>Hairdryer Peace (self-released)

Hairdryer Peace will rightfully rank alongside Harsh 70s Reality, Ride A Dove, and Put The Music In Its Coffin as a bona fide underground classic and barometer by which all inevitable imitators shall forever be judged. Previous releases have been awe-inspiring rackets of garage noise deconstruction, but Hairdryer Peace is something of a reinvention for a band that didn't really even need one. Nevertheless, the duo of Adam Stonehouse and Rod Meyer are aided and abetted here by Rob Enbom (of Eat Skull) and Chris Gunn, and the resulting album is chock full of killer riffs, acid-fried, nightmarish vocals mixed uncomfortably high, hallucinatory snippets of found audio, cracked acoustic blues, and dissonant pop, all wound together into one mighty, heaping, black, psychedelic nightmare. The brilliant, confessional lyrics belie a tragic, paranoid early adulthood, the kind of pathos that simply cannot be faked (see also: Pink Reason). Dig this: “I'm stressing out / I can't control /The patterns on the tile floor.” Genius.

1. GANG GANG DANCE Saint Dymphna (Social Registry)

Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna

Sometimes good bands take such strides over the course of a single album that they somehow become great, by honing in on their strengths, amplifying and embellishing them, and transcending whatever ghetto genre the myopic, boring underground music media had previously thrust upon them. Gang Gang Dance is such a band. The New York City band has always been inscrutably unique and refreshingly distinctive in a sea of hipster pretenders, but their latest, Saint Dymphna, is a triumph, reaching production heights that albums just, well, don't anymore. Sounding like a hybrid of Siouxie, My Bloody Valentine, dubstep, Italian disco, and something you'd hear on a Sublime Frequencies compilation, Saint Dymphna never takes wrong turn. The album is beautifully sequenced, providing a drowsy, kaleidoscopic effect, moving effortlessly from tribal trance to sublime dancefloor pop, often within a few bars, and never waivers in its mission to be both stubbornly avant garde and fearlessly accessible. Even the potentially time-stamping “Pinches,” featuring grime MC Tinchy Stryder, is, at worst, an incredibly guilty pleasure, and kudos to the band for going that extra mile at the risk of overplaying their hand. Album of the year, crossover album of the decade.

It should also be noted that the single greatest musical triumph of 2008 is Lil Wayne's “A Milli.” Take everything Forced Exposure is selling right now and put it together, and that shit still ain't nearly as avant / fucked / progressive / genius as this very ‘real people' minimalist jam right here. Over an incessant, monotonous Shabba Ranks sample and little else, Lil Wayne proceeds to drop such chestnuts as “I don't O U like two vowels” and “OK, you're a goon / but what's a goon to a goblin?” The fact that this song was a single—even with its barely-there chorus of “Motherfucker, I'm ill”—is a testament to pop music's increasing progress. Maybe it won't be long until we're hearing Bongo Joe and Arthur Doyle alongside Mariah and Rihanna? I won't hold my breath, and neither should you. But “A Milli” is still my most listened to song of 2008, and easily the most inventive and exciting hip hop single since “Grindin'.” A masterpiece you oughta recognize.


NAKED ON THE VAGUE The Blood Pressure Sessions (Siltbreeze) BLACK DIAMOND HEAVIES A Touch Of Someone Else's Class (Alive) TK WEBB & THE VISIONS a href="">Ancestor (Kemado) SILVER JEWS Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City) WHITE MAGIC Dark Stars EP (Drag City) THOMAS FUNCTIONCelebration! (Alive) PORTISHEAD Third(Mercury / Island) SIC ALPS US EZ (Siltbreeze) VizUSA s/t (Seres) JERUSALEM AND THE STARBASKETS - The Howling (Radio Fonico)
*two parts egg nog, one part Jim Beam Black, serve over ice

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