#2: Colin Marston
Ok, so, I cheated here. The #2 spot is four albums. So this is really like the top 30 of 2016. But that just happens on these big lists, at least for me. More and more releases keep getting heard.
Krallice released multiple albums, a band that Marston plays bass for, who are somewhere between contemporary black metal and technical death metal, or let's just call them avant metal for now. Dysrthythmia released arguably the best math rock album of the year and maybe the best of their career (outside of perhaps, 'Psychic Maps'). Gorguts released a new EP, which for me was even better than the full length album with the new lineup including 2/3 of Dysrhythmia. And let us not forget the gnarly beast that is Behold... the Arctopus who ALSO released an album.... which was their first release in years!
So to say that Colin Marston had an eventful 2016 would be an understatement, to say the least. Before moving along, I think it should be stated that this guy has been in 9 different bands, many at the same time. And that he is also busy as a producer and recording engineer. Often for his own projects, but also for many others. The dude is a goddamn wizard. Or demigod. Or what have you. Add to that the fact that he plays multiple instruments: 6 string bass in Dysrhythmia; Warr guitar (12 strings!) in Behold... the Arctopus; guitar in Krallice; and presumably something more normal on bass in Gorguts... his place in underground metal history is indisputable. And his energy is indefatigable.
Here is a list of all 5 major rock releases he was on last year:
Plus one under his Indricothere moniker which is presumably also good, but I have never heard it.
And to top it all off, here is the website of his recording studio. The dude absolutely slayed 2016. Quality + quantity and in rare form.
#3: Deathspell Omega - 'The Synarchy of Molten Bones'
Well, 2016 was a year of death and change, so who better to represent that than black metal French musicians Deathspell Omega? This was a bit of a comeback album for them, and it is faster than just about anything you could imagine... but it is complete with slower midtempo breakdowns that give it a lot of depth. The production quality is top notch, as is the material.
The only drawback is this is perhaps an EP length effort... but the 4 songs are packed with so much energy and impact that it doesn't matter. In under 30 minutes the band gets its full message across in less time than just about anybody. Metal or not, this is premium quality delivered at breakneck speeds directly to your door without hesitation. Their attention to detail and quality is second to none, and their efficiency is deadly... and creative.
If you thought track 1, the title track, was brought at breakneck speed, you would be mistaken. "Famished for Breath" is one of the fastest things I've ever heard, like quicksilver in audio form. It is this expediency which brings this album to you, and rises it to #3 in 2016. It is insanely quick. The drummer sounds as if on another level of achievement and focus. Rarely am I taken aback by such charms, but this drummer has it.
This album is a lovely entry into the world of heavy metal. And punk music. And any counterculture music. It is difficult to sum up in words, but this album will hit and you and propel you forward. Track 3 continues to move you. When you think the drumming cannot be perceivably faster, it happens and it is imperceivably fast. Really... I cannot tell the difference between the drums part at this point, it is just an intense but clear blur, uncountable.
As one of the most well produced, executed, and most concise underground rock albums of all time, I simply must include this towards the top of the list. Not only are they at the top of their own musical game, they have surpassed just about everyone else. It is lonely at the top, and this is a band that don't seem to be too concerned with the outside world, letting their work speak for itself. And it does... they need little promotion, and that is something to be celebrated in this world as it is currently.
#4: Autechre - 'Elseq 1-5'
The 21 track quintuple album stutters out of the gates, a multi-textured technorganic beast, resembling the fragments of humanity that created it. Reminding ourselves of what is left of our old customs and ways in an increasingly technology dominated planet. Autechre is all about novelty, and this album is no exception... the novelty of a quintuple album that is only released online is, well, more interesting than the next packaged music release.
Whatever form that package is, I am not sure if that is particularly of import at this time. Autechre instill some many textural reference points on this release, and it is so well produced that it mimics different forms of both analog and digital musics. It is this mimicking of music that drives the Autechre machine, whether it is mimicking electronic music, hiphop, ambient music, or more fractured referential points which are difficult to talk about.
It just has that feeling that everything is there, present, but something is different... like everything has been dismantled, blown apart, dissected; and put back together again. Unlike the Autechre releases of 10 or 15 years ago, there is some kind of human quality to the music; but it is presented in the most fucked up prism imaginable, inside a hall of mirros containing an echo chamber. In that order?
To call 'Elseq 1-5' endurance music is an understatement, and perhaps missing the point: a computer does not care for human limitations. And that is probably what you are listening to it on. This new Autechre album: track 1. The compositions tend to try your patience, until you get used to its playing and alien musical language... which has been called architectural, among other things. Just to illustrate the point of endurance music: 25 minutes or so go by before you get through the first two tracks of the album.
But here's the deal: there are 3 tracks well over 20 minutes, and plenty more 12-minuters. This thing is enormous, like a whole new world to explore. If you have synaesthesia, this will be a pilgrimage back to your home world. And it really is a fantastic place.
Track one, or "Feed 1" for those keeping score, sort of lays the groundwork for this monstrosity of colossal brainwork... it shows you most of the bulk of the album in one track, references their past few releases as well. It gets twice as interesting with track 2 though, or "c16 deep tread" which just so happens to be one of my favorite Autechre tracks at the moment. There are quite many now, since 21 new tracks were released as a quintuple album. I like saying quintuple album.
After the first two tracks of plodding madness, it feels as if you have been abducted and probed a few times, maybe there is a whole new virtual realm somewhere extracted from your dna... the horror. This new machine realm is nothing to trifle with, whether it is made by aliens or morlocks or what have you (a duo of Englishmen??). Like I said, after only two of the twenty-one tracks they have made it clear that they want to fuck with your perceptions in just about every manner.
"13x0" is almost recognizable as rave dance music, but it has been discombobulated and presented in a new form that is somewhat analogous to what came before. It has a much more ambient sound in the 21st century, however. And the attention span is gone. But still, this bastard is almost 9 minutes long. The music is interesting enough you put up with its aimless meandering, because you wonder where the hell it is going to go next, kind of like your actual life. Anyways, by the time "13x0" is over, your life is changed. End of story.
By track 4 they have moved beyond sort of referencing late 80's or early 90's rave music to sounding a bit more like what they themselves sounded like in the late 90's, but it also is more ambient than that in parts. "Pendulu hv moda" is a wild ride. The textures both very smooth and rougher overall. To visit so many timbres and all make them sound like they are all part of an Autechre pallet is an achievement unto itself. Their attention to sound design is where they really shine. But also, at times Autechre throw some nice shiny melodies at you, and this is one of those moments. Which ultimately, feels even more futuristic than their more sterile sounding work.
The final track of the first album of the quintuple suite, "curvcaten", again sounds a bit different to its predecessors and serving for a different reference point entirely. This one seems more focused and engaging, the quickest tempo of the group. By this point, this track could already get lost in the overarching universe of 'Elseqs', but if you listen to each part of 1-5 individually this might stick out as a brilliant ender. In some ways it almost sounds a bit normal for Autechre, but it has a lot of strange stereo tracks and intermittent broken melodies provided by a strange artificial intelligence? All the while maybe some kind of Star Trek Enterprise bridge samples are happening in the background.
It helps to understand this album more if you listen to it way too often, which I did last year. Part of the reason it is ranked so highly, at #4, is that it came to be a soundtrack for my life at the time. It came up often on my random play alls, since there are 21 tracks (and sometimes the track would take over my whole listening experience even by themselves). To become familiar with this album, it takes TIME. So if you've got it, put it into 'Elseqs'. It won't harm you, and might just help you get your self to the future.
Well, that's just one part of the album, I think that should give you an idea of if you would like to listen to it or not. Personally, I highly recommend it, even though it is not for everyone, keep an open mind and you will see...
#5: Meshuggah - 'The Violent Sleep of Reason'
I really had no intention of rating a 2016 Meshuggah album in a top 20, let alone a top 5, but the band even in its advanced age form probably dropped its best album yet. After hearing the first track, I thought it was just more of the same type of stuff they have been oozing out for years... but 'The Violent Sleep of Reason' does everything they are good at and exemplifies each aspect of their unique heavy metal sound.
It is bolstered by a more live sounding, organic production style which allowed the band to shine and be as real as they possibly can be. And I am hoping that the reality they are reporting on is not this one. The lyrics are more ridiculous than ever, darker and more violent while being fully nihilistic and offputting. But the lyrics are sort of an afterthought when the music is this interesting and captivating. They have made super weird and abrupt sounding timing super catchy on this one, hook laden while still confounding the listener at every opportune moment. But the big surprise is all the hooky riffs and chops, which keep you coming back for more metallic punishments.
This is a very epic sounding album and you can hear all the clockwork-like layers working together. But what really sells it all are the otherworldly solos, which are not only alien sounding, but are coming at you from a weird backwards parallel dimension. The first two tracks chew you apart, then you are left a discombobulated blob awaiting the rest of the album. You simply must see the album opener "Clockworks" drum playthrough.
"Monstrocity" brings forth a more uplifting, bursting guitar line that will make your booty move. When it finally reaches a crescendo, a devilish guitar solo emerges while the riffs start to dance with you on a plateau above the clouds. It then gets super tight with obsidian black riffs while the solos then morph into stars shining down on your high rise rooftop trip. It then comes crashing down with some genius descending riffery that keeps going back up for more only to come down again. It then revisits the uplifting bursting guitar insanity.
So not only are the riffs top notch, and memorable, the songwriting is perhaps better than ever for this band. Tracks like "By The Ton" are some of the heaviest shit you will ever hear. The title track is one of the best things they have ever written, a fully mechanical beast of brilliance. It is worth hearing just for the intro section! "Ivory Tower" gets a bit weirder, proggier. But still rather catchy. It doesn't get super weird and dissonant until you get bashed over the head with the "Stifled" riff... you'll know it when you hear it! This album is full of demonic glee. What a weird, crushing riff which ends in a super odd zigzag of hammerons and off time strangeness. The song then gives you an outro of crushingly beautiful ambient passages, like the northern lights going out after some form of nuclear war.
After that little interlude of pretty music, the album comes back swinging with the absolutely demolishing "Nostrum". Link to lyric video here. Or maybe you want another drum playthrough with the legendary Tomas Haake? Nostrum contains fast mind bending solos and the full force of Meshuggah's sonic arsenal. It all weaves together nicely, even though they are very atonal on this particular track, leaving behind any worshipers of melody.
The album then closes with a couple more tracks but the damage has already been done... and remembered, unlike many technical death metal albums, this one is full of memorable and interesting riffs and solos. They play enough with pacing and space, and interesting guitar effects and sound design, all the while playing this mind bending shit live in the studio, it is all very impressive and will leave you with a sore neck from headbanging to this off kilter beast. As one friend once put it, Meshuggah just dropped an album that makes everyone else look bad. You can stop your heavy metal band now. Meshuggah are the best. Especially when they end an album with "Into Decay". We're doomed!
#6: Omar Rodriguez Lopez - Various Albums released in 2016
Back in July of 2016, Omar Rodriguez Lopez began releasing new albums every other week. To be clear, most of them he had been sitting on for years, recorded in the past...
But they had never been released before, except for some repurposed and remixed snippets. For the most part, this was all new material to the world. It all started with one of the best of his hoarded material: 'Sworn Virgins'. When all was said and done, ORL had released thirteen albums worth of material in 2016. And at least half of the albums were really damn good, totally original and unique. He has always been super prolific since Mars Volta was around, but eventually he got burned out on releasing so much material... but he kept going. And 2016 saw the opportunity to flood the world with his eponymous music stylings that had been sitting around on hard drives, because he found the right guy to mix and master it all.
And it does sound great, and worth the wait. There is just SO MUCH of it. And it continued into 2017, going all the way up to July, but not quite as often. It is just a ton of material and I haven't even gotten to most of the 2017 stuff yet. Still digesting the best of 2016! Yikes, this is late.
But with so much material just from ONE PERSON and whoever he found to jam with, it took a long time to figure out where it belonged, and #6 just feels right I guess. Besides 'Sworn Virgins', my favorites are (in no particular order other than alphabetial) 'Blind Worms, Pious Swine', 'Cell Phone Bikini', 'Infinity Drips', 'Nom De Guerre Cabal', 'Some Need It Lonely', 'Umbrella Mistress', and 'Zapopan'. Now I will attempt to differentiate each of these 8 albums from each other. All tied for #6 on my list I guess:
#7: Rev Rev Rev - 'Des Fleurs Magiques Bourdonnaient'
hear you go... Rev Rev Rev bandcamp: vinyl, cds, etc for sale!
This album opens with a curious whining sound that sounds similar to a cross between a bee, a kazoo, and a strange flying contraption. Which then blasts the listener right away into psychedelic shoegazer land by way of Italy. This first track works as a theme setter for the album, an anthem for what is to come.
'Des Fleurs Magiques Bourdonnaient' sticks to the tried and true first wave shoegaze formula of ebb and flow of energy, big sounding guitars, and moments of high energy and noise interspersed with intense mind boggling sound effects. It is this channeling of and nod to My Bloody Valentine/Jesus and Mary Chain/early shoegazer sound that works so well for that expansive and brain expanding affect, while they also put their own imprint on that classic sound.
The album both sounds like a classic upon first listen, but also grows on you. Over time it will become one of your favorites, like any memorably well-executed album by many bands. Rev Rev Rev also sound so exciting because they sound like they are holding back at times, and have room for improvement... but they aren't rushing their evolution, or stretching too far too quickly.
This results in a very mature sound, and some strong songwriting skills to go along with the beautifully warped music. There are pop sensibilities here as well as the know-how to make otherworldly sounds while keeping them under control, adding to the songs rather than masking them. And they do tend to keep piling on those sounds, if you listen closely. It may be subtle at times, but it is moving.
"Nightwine", "Traveling Westbound", and "We Can But Dream" take you on a night on the town in the summertime, each song blending into the next and creating fun. Then "Caffè" really turns things up and gives the listener something to hold onto, a destination of transcendency and beauty. "Je Est Un Autre" then shifts the album into a different direction, with lots of stuttering tremolo and a more mellow approach to end what is probably side 1 of the album.
It will be exciting to hear what this band does next, being that as good as it sounds, the music is so rich with texture and detail that a higher end production could reveal even more nuances. Everything is timed out so well that the album can fly by and hypnotize the listener at times, like on "A Ring Without An End". Things get a bit darker and even more intense on "Ripples". At least to my ear, this track sounds a bit more like another shoegaze pioneer, Loop, who offered a more plodding, bass heavy sound and tribal drumming. Plenty of tremolo here, too, have no doubt.
"Plymouth Morning" keeps the ever climbing feel of this album going, perhaps the heaviest and most psychedelic track yet. Another thing that makes this album so so so good is that it is perfectly sequenced and there are no filler tracks or anything, just good compositions and better yet, really cool sounds and effects, and even some synths. "Plymouth Morning" is a very hazy and twisting song above all the heavy psyche rock propelling it, quite the captivating track.
And yes, it gets even noisier and intense with track 10, "Blame", which is also one of the more classically catchy songs. Its fuzzed out glory recalls the first Jucifer album, which is a very high compliment. Midway through the song locks into a groove and almost sounds like an entirely different track, but still in key... and then it switches right back to the jagged buzz sounds and microwaves of the main parts of the song. Then, on "Just A Spot", the album levels off onto a plateau, and recalls all of what had just come before it, meanwhile employing the use of reverse reverb to beautiful effect.
Eventually even sitar sounds seep out of this superbly crafted album, which is both a work of brilliant rock and roll, and an exotic sounding alternative to the usual fodder you might hear on the radio. And then on the closing song, "Aloft", the band finally reaches its fully enlightened state. The guitars by this point sound like sonically manifested aurora borealis if they could be seen with the most gorgeous sunset in history. The rhythm section finally takes a break and just lets the sitars continue, the drums more in the background as the album rides out.
I would really like to rank this even higher than #7 but there are some albums coming up higher that had ridiculous amounts of work put into them, or prolific artists who released more than one album, as well as an even more out there but catchy shoegaze album that really grabbed me because of its over-the-topness... but it is good to have Rev Rev Rev around to show you how it is really done. They may not have quite the utterly insane levels of effects of some other nu-gaze bands, but they use what they have in very interesting and powerful ways, if a bit more subliminally than others.
So in closing, while this is a perfect collection of songs and a fine document of the band, I feel that it could have had an even more vivid and powerful production to capture the band's vision, and that they have the talent to be even more inventive and creative in the future by pushing their craft even further off the deep end. There are a few truly great shoegaze bands making music still, and this is definitely one of them. Cheers to Rev Rev Rev!
#8: Fis - 'From Patterns To Details'
hear this album now
So, there might be better albums than this that I already wrote about, but none of them are quite on this level of sonic ear candy. This album is phenomenally produced, revealing probably too much detail, creating a novelty. I stumbled upon this album whilst concocting this list and was pretty blown away by it. It works really well as a whole if you have the time to sit around and be carried away by a whole album of material these days.
What makes me hesitate on whether or not this is actually as good as #8, is, well, self doubt, having not heard it enough or as much as most of the other albums... and difficulty picking out favorite tracks makes me wonder if it really is all that good; but here it is, sitting in the 8 spot. And it is an interesting release by a relatively unknown artist found on bandcamp.
'From Patterns To Details' is just as much of a sonic sculpture as it is an ambient drone piece. But it also throws a few beats at you and other familiarities that makes the album difficult to define. Its enigmatic nature is also a reason it is ranked so high, since it is on the cusp of a new style of music only a few are really dabbling in. One could just as much classify it as a new form of electronica as experimental ambient drone. A genre which I have been getting more and more into as I get older.
But this release by Fis is stinking fresh and new, throwing huge glowing piles of sound at you when it winds up and becoming dark and soundtrack like at times as well. The element of surprise is what really makes this album, since everything comes at you unexpectedly and not being too predictable like most music is. So in conclusion, it is at the very least well worth checking out to see what is at the cutting edge of sound design and technology and production, even if it is just something interesting for the ears to hear and take your brain to weird places.
#9: Kayo Dot - 'Plastic House On Base of Sky'
Hear the track titled "Magnetism"
It helps to know what you are getting into with Kayo Dot's latest, 'Plastic House On Base of Sky', because this doesn't sound like any other Kayo Dot album, nor any other album in particular. Kayo Dot, if anything, was more known for prog-rock and mathy metal meanderings peppered with other styles on songs to break up the monotony of a heavy metal onslaught, which some have appreciated over the years. Things could get weird, things could get heavy, things could get screamy, things could sound pretty. So they would have a bit of variety on each album for the most part, but on the last one 'Coffins On Io', they hinted at some new directions, one of which was a synth heavy almost new wave sound.
Well on 'Plastic House', Toby Driver and crew have meandered down that singular path and have created a whole album of that type of material. And it works, for the most part. But the twist here is that at times, the combination of prog rock and new wave ends up sounding like a slightly more advanced version of 80s Rush, but with new wave vocals. It is this strange hybrid that propels the album. There are plenty of lush analog synthesizers, and layers of other more traditional stringed instrumentation. The drums sound almost like a drum machine, or midi kit of some kind, perhaps even of 80s origin.
But whatever he did, he made a whole new aesthetic that sounds very familiar but never quite as high reaching as some of the moments of 'Base of Sky'. This album shows that a band with an ever growing discography can still reinvent themselves. It also makes one wonder if they will continue this more "refined and sensual" approach, as the band puts it, or perhaps continue down a path of a more myopic vision with less variety and more focus on the overall aesthetic of one album. With this release, the band proves that they are unpredictable, so who knows what will be their next creative endeavor. At this time, it appears that they will be touring this year.
I must say, I was thinking I wasn't going to like this album as much as I did. What really put it over the top is the production sounds amazing and envelopes one in beautiful washes of sound. And the album grows on you over time, so by the time I wrote this, I ended up liking it quite a bit! Temporal anomalies aside, the only drawback of this album is that it kind of wimpers out at the end, the second to last track dragging a bit (albeit still a great track) into the final track which is more tame and somber than the rest of the album. It does feel more like some of Kayo Dot's past work, more on the sorrowful and less metal side, even though it is still heavy material, it may not be listened to as the first 3 or 4 tracks.
What is at surface value an album with lengthy songs ends up being only 5 tracks, but there is a lot of great material here which fits onto a vinyl pressing nicely (got it in the mail the other day, sounds killer). If you like visionary, great sounding production, and future-retro stylings, you must check this out. It feels both forward thinking and nostalgic and is if nothing else a unique hybrid of genres that most would not think of how to stitch together, but by having an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Toby Driver has become quite proficient at songwriting over the years.
It is getting harder and harder to decide which album is better at this point, it is all subjective and of course what you want to hear the most at the time. This album in particular seems to work on multiple levels, great headphone listen but also sounds great in an open room and could be an attention getter for a lot of different types of people. There are some weird beats here, however, so I suppose that might drive some away; and perhaps some long time fans might be yawning at this material, but who knows. It just proves that this project can be taken in just about any direction and still be a bit futuristic and ahead of the pack in so many different ways.
Kayo Dot website
#10: Ecferus - multiple releases in 2016
clicky--> Go check it out! Go! <--clicky
Back from vacation! I cannot believe it has been nearly 2 weeks since writing about #11, but it is finally time to move on to the Top 10! What you will probably notice in the top 10 is that if an artist was prolific AND each release was of great quality, that artist made the Top 10. 2016 seemed to be a year of many things, but it was also a year of proclivitous prolificness.
At this point, might as well admit, the Top 25 Releases is really much more than that, if you count each and every album on this list. It sounded good though. But here on out, it is going to be a bit of a stretch. Nowadays musicians and sound artists have become rather unpredictable. The capability exists to release entire collections of music without warning. Or release one great album and then surprise us with another one later in the year. One of these musicians (who also had a top notch black metal album release just last year) is known simply as Ecferus.
Ecferus is a one man force of black metal fury. He does it all. In 2016, he released the 'Pangaea' concept album, which I was going to include in at least the top 20. But while compiling this list, I discovered that he actually had not one or two, but THREE releases in 2016, and all of them were quite good. 'Shadow Projection' showed a more raw and in the moment side, while 'Shamaniacal Essence' is listed as an EP and perhaps hints at the next full length. But let's start with 'Pangaea' (and oh yeah, he also released a split with Jute Gyte!).
What I referred to as a concept album, 'Pangaea' was released about a year ago now, in February 2016. So I had this album longer than the other and I know it much more in depth. And I call it a concept album because, well, this is what Ecferus has listed on the album's bandcamp page:
"Pangaea" uses a mythological point-of-view to tell the story of a planet at war with its occupants. The tortured main character, Pangaea, is ripped apart into separate continents by Earth so as to prevent the begetting of creatures with potential too powerful to be trusted. Acting out of spite, Pangaea nurtures humanity's rise to power until their passive occupation mutates into indefensible planetary malice. Using wide dynamic shifts and changes in meter, with “Pangaea” ECFERUS creates the musical equivalent of an accelerated planetary evolution, depicting the fury of the elements and an Earth painfully coming to life.
That seems quite conceptual, does it not? Whatever the case, this album sounds really focused and refined compared to a lot of black metal, even his own work. It sounds a bit more progressive rock at times as well, for some reason. What's more important though is that this album is packed full of riffs and intensity as it tells its sad tale. There are even some synths going on. There are many shifts and turns on this album, perhaps not as many on say a Krallice album but in the same ballpark. The album closes out with "Storms Continue On", one of the albums strongest offerings, which starts out at a slower pace and continues developing as it goes.
More could be said of 'Pangaea', but there were two more Ecferus releases from 2016 that sounded a bit different than the high conceptual ideas and focus on detail. In July, 'Shadow Projections' was released, and it possessed a more fuzzy and raw rock sound. It is faster and less proggy, focusing more on energy and movement in more familiar and dark black metal realms. I honestly cannot decide which one I like better, it is a mood thing. If you need a wakeup call and to feel more energized, 'Shadow Projections' works perfectly well. It is a bit less highly original, but sometimes you don't need concept albums, you need a good ass kicking, and 'Shadow Projections' definitely delivers the metal-clad feet needed.
The album is a bit more classic sounding and memorable in parts, especially on the moving "Howling Canyons in the Sulcus". While I lean more towards the ferociousness of 'Shadow', 'Pangaea' was also quite memorable and I have been hearing it longer. They are just quite a bit different, which makes Ecferus' 2016 all the more impressive. But wait, there's more...
'Shamaniacal Essence' was also released. While it is not another LP, an EP, it is still impressive, along with the knowledge that a split with Jute Gyte was also released. Prolific! While 'Shadow Projections' was more a tale of an individual breaking down into "cosmic primitivity" (check out the album closer "Reduced to Cosmic Shreds"), 'Shamaniacal Essence' breaks it down to the primal animal level through induced psychosis, according to the artist. This last EP which was released in November 2016 sounds the most unhinged, which made for an interesting plot to follow, going from the most focused release he had ever made at the beginning of 2016 and devolving into chaos to finish the year out. Sounds about right for 2016.
#11: Tortoise - 'The Catastrophist'
listen to the whole thing on YouTube
Ok, so you probably either love or hate this group, and perhaps it is a little obvious, but here it is, another Tortoise album. First off, it had been a while since the erstwhile Chicago group dropped something, a document of their signature sound. So that is of note, entering what is probably the latter phase of the band, however long it might be. Their previous release was years ago, and not one of their best. But now that they are back, they are recalling their peak years in the early to mid aughts, as well as giving some nods back to their '90s selves when they made their name and put the words "post-rock" out there, which advertently or inadvertently, spawned a whole "thing".
On 'The Catastrophist', Tortoise mine old territory as well as introduce some new attributes to their repertoire. There are more vocals on this album, and they have never sounded so clear and so much a unit. You can tell they took their time on this one and let everything sink in to their musical cores. The title track gets things rolling right away. At first it sounds as if they are going to throw all of their vintage electronic gear at you with nostalgic drum machines and synths, but then the live version of the band sweeps things away with some beautiful Jeff Parker guitar parts and an overall wash of gorgeous production.
This album is on here because it sounds so damn good, and it is an album that received some of the most listening time in 2016 in my collection. It doesn't get old, as each song has enough parts in it that it takes you on a new journey each time, depending on how close you listen to it. It works just as well as great background music at work as it does on headphones or at a party. The arrangements are superb and it flows nicely compositionally too.
Positives aside, the album cover is extremely annoying, as is the cover song (which I deleted... it makes the album much better, try it). Also, the band don't really tread too much new territory, you can tell exactly what this is, it is a Tortoise album. As a younger person, I used to think this band was boring and overrated. I don't think they will be winning over too many new fans with this, as it sounds like most of their songs.
But the fact remains this is an all occasion, extremely well produced and composed album full of interesting sounds, if you are prepared to listen and contemplate it. And there is enough variety here to keep everything interesting and real. They can pull all of this stuff off live and are masters of incorporating electronic music into their sound pretty seamlessly, especially on their records.
In these times, which tend to be pretty high paced and stressful, this is a nice breather of a listen. The band does flirt with the heavy on "Shake Hands With Danger", which is darker than the rest of the album. The track is not one of the better tracks but it gives variety and something to compare the rest of the songs to. It gets more droney and dissonant at times, has a dark funk to it, and it has a more plodding feel. The album has its more introspective moments too, such as on "The Clearing Fills".
It is in this middle portion of the album where the band stretches out a bit and pays homage to some of their influences. They sound as if they are trying to expand their sound a bit and reaching a bit, but in a good way. Arpeggios and repetition take over on "Gesceap", which just so happens to be the longest song on 'The Catastrophist'. You also hear Tortoise branch out into vocal territory with a surreal almost David Lynchian track, "Yonder Blue", a lost '60s-ish love song.
But this album is really about songs like the title track, "Ox Duke", "Hot Coffee", and "Tesseract", where they show off their genre defining sound with utmost clarity of vision on these entertaining singles. Tortoise feel like they are treating each track like its own little world, and rightly so in this digital age of playlists and shuffle all. Check it out if you need a break from the grind. To come back years after their last lackluster album with some of their very best songs yet is inspiring and welcome.