Tis The Season: Part Three

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I’ve had some fantastic end of year picks sent my way for Six Noises’ Tis the Season list mayhem. And here’s another. This one is courtesy of stalwart heavy metal fan, and my brother from another mother, Owain Smolović Jones.

Owain not only sent me his top picks for 2014, but he also provided a great overview of his year in metal fandom. It’s a real honour to have Owain contribute here at Six Noises. He’s a lecturer in management at The Open University (UK), and an enthusiastic social media orator, noted for his spirited opinions on all things metal.

Also upcoming from Owain at Six Noises is a feature article entitled, The Hysteric in Metal Criticism: Or, navigating the decaying, depraved depths of your vacant, vacuous and vaporised soul (insert more grimy adjectives at your discretion). You’ll want to keep an eye out for that, because Owain dissects the metal media with some ruthless cuts, and a lot of good-natured humour besides. I’ll be posting The Hysteric in Metal Criticism when this list season madness tapers off a little.

A hearty hail goes out to Owain, and here is his first—of what I hope will be many—contributions for Six Noises.

Tis the Season: Part Three  Owain Smolović Jones.

I love Christmas – just everything about it. My better half and I just soak it all in, our little rituals. The rest, the serenity. How we get to express love for others via imaginative cards and gifts. The lights and decorations. Spending time with family. The good times. And of course the end-of-year lists. I love going through them, disagreeing, agreeing, debating with pals and trying out some things I’ve missed. This year I thought I would take a crack myself.

This is a fan’s list, based on what I was interested enough to buy and so inevitably favours my favourite sub-genres: mostly metalpunk and doomy stuff, with splashes of black here and there. I refuse to pirate music and so what I listen to is based on what I can afford from my own limited resources. As a result, I am sure there was plenty of other stuff that was great this year but most of it passed me by.

Reflecting on the year overall, it has been the strongest for metal since 2010 (the most recent golden year). Remember 2010 gave us the first Triptykon, the defining Enslaved album and a strong Electric Wizard record amongst other delights. You just don’t mess with that kind of year. It’s so great to be a metal fan right now – so many cool bands, gigs and ace writing about the scene.

Before moving on to the music, some important hails to my favourite writing and writers of the year.

Bloody hell. Let’s face it, my favourite metal magazine Terrorizer had gone a bit rubbish post-Louise Brown. Tom Dare reinvented it (made it more metal, for want of a better phrase) and it was a fun, informative read again (even better than the Louise days in many ways). Those issues based around Swedish death metal, doom and yes, even Finnish folk metal, were ace. I liked the way the mag was going with the up-front editorial discussions too. Best of luck Tom – a very smart, fun and decent bloke. Tez is an important part of my everyday life, a couple of weeks a month where I find a quiet moment with a cuppa and get through a couple of features, a real escape from the demands of teaching and research. Hoping that the magazine continues on its upwards Dare-trajectory is a genuine seasonal wish.

Elsewhere on the writing front, I have always enjoyed Jose Carlos Santos’ stuff in Tez, Kim Kelly’s writing in general and that of Adrien Begrand. This year I discovered Jonathan Dick’s Steel for Brains stuff. Last Rites offers something a bit different and fresh. Rob McAuslan’s writing at Thrash Hits is energetic and informed. Dean Brown’s Quietus material has been very strong. Kez Whelan’s taste in music is so spot-on for me and his stuff via Tez has been wonderful. The new site Echoes and Dust looks very promising and I look forward to reading much more next year.

And not least … My #metalteatime bros (check out the hashtag on Twitter). Matt Hinch continues to be a writer who combines professionalism with the enthusiasm of total, absorbed fandom.

Ok the young scamp has written less this year but Craig Hayes still offers a depth of analysis and maturity, combined with self-effacing and knowing humour in his writing that is more often than not absent elsewhere. I’m looking forward to this very blog kicking ass in 2015. He’s broken through into radio this year and his shows have been magic. I hope that continues.

I should also mention gigs. I’ve been to tonnes this year – one of the benefits of living close to London for the first time. This time last year I was moshing merrily to Nails and Blind to Faith. Behemoth’s performance at the Forum was immense. Primordial’s whopping (insert extra adjectives here) 120-minute album launch set in Dublin was a privilege. Pretenders – to the sword! Conan’s tour was everything you would want it to be. Yob are an impressive live outfit, eh.

I just lost it completely to Amenra’s show at Beyond the Redshift (preceded by Syndrome) – and I followed this up by seeing Oathbreaker later in the year (also a great experience) with my Welsh comrades Bastions in support. Cult of Luna were also incredible at Beyond the Redshift and I’ll be waiting patiently for them when they return from hiatus. As I write this, it is the morning after Triptykon played London, in support of At the Gates. It is the first time I have been able to catch Tom G live and what a privilege it is to do so. Just the best band. Morbus Chron were also in support and are blossoming into something a bit special too. They’re even better live than on tape.

I got to see Sabbath again this year, which was a joy. The new stuff is better than terrible live, at least. Oranssi Pazuzu are a very strong live act. And I’ve still got Kreator and Godflesh to go. Hopefully next year I’ll finally get to see Napalm Death and Enslaved live – we keep missing each other. I already have 11Paranoias and Primordial (again) in the diary. Oh and of course there’s Temples Festival – saddle up O)))wain.

On the reissue front, in addition to great new releases this year from Southern Lord, the Brotherhood, Offenders and Excel reissues were gold. The reissues elsewhere of God Macabre and Final Conflict also deserve mention and attention. I loved the remastering of Amebix’s Arise too. Monitoring the tone and chatter on Stig and Rob’s respective Facebook pages is hopeful. Once they release some solo stuff, it would be great if they could build on the growing positivity between them and give Amebix one last (and hopefully longer) blast. Fingers crossed everyone. In terms of shorter releases this year, the Blind to Faith e.p. was a continuation of everything this uncompromising band is becoming known for and the Process of Guilt/Rorcal split was great.

Next year I will probably buy very little new music and just wait to see what people settle on by the end of the year (but then again I say that every year). Still, there are new Napalm Death and Enslaved records coming early in the new year, so that should occupy me for some months.

Finally, underground metal often conjures up and plays with interpretations of death and morbidity. This is dead healthy (sorry) in some ways, as it enables us to come to terms with our own mortality and hopefully pushes us to make the most of the limited time we have left on this planet. But one of the highlights of 2014 was that moment a couple of songs into Behemoth’s set in London when Nergal roared to the crowd: “London, it’s great to be alive!” We in turn roared back. It was a unifying moment that moved and reminded everyone what it is about this metal community that is so positive and life-affirming.

Nergal, you’re my hero. Metal fans, musicians, industry professionals and scribes have their differences and there’s a tonne of nonsense that surrounds the scene. But in the end it’s all background noise. We’re all in it together. In solidarity, brothers and sisters \m/

Anyway, for those who care or who are just sat on the loo or in the bath, this is my top 25 of 2014. It’s a mix of metal, metalpunk and the simply heavy. One of my strongest criterion here is whether I will actually be listening to this stuff in years to come. So I just stopped where it felt right to stop. I still haven’t had a chance to properly listen to the new Meth Drinker, Full of Hell/Merzbow, Vallenfyre, or Blut Aus Nord … So here’s to some delicious treats over the holidays.

(25) Atriarch – An Unending Pathway

I’m beginning to think that Craig Hayes hates me. He made me listen. Now I can’t stop. And it’s all just so hard. Make the voices stop. An occasional but powerful listen for me.

(24) Thou – Heathen

I’ve kept coming back to this record for all my sludge needs.

(23) Ancst – In Turmoil

The ones to watch in the world of crust, no doubt. And they’re a collective. As it should be.

(22) Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare

It’s a fine album by Mayhem.

(21) The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-Li

I’m still mourning Altar of Plagues and I think this might lie behind my real reluctance to listen to much of any black metal nowadays. Just what’s the point anymore? I made an exception with this record. Drawn out, indulgent songs, which go something like this: whispery French bit, swirliness, heaviness, growly growly, swirliness, whispery French bit. Ace.

(20) Eyehategod – S/T

It’s a fine album by Eyehategod.

(19) Obliterations – Poison Everything

Yeah well I suppose this isn’t metal really, although it is mighty heavy. Ripping crusty punk at its best. If we poison everything we love, feed me more of that poison. Also, “Shame” is the best Amebix album track released since the last Amebix album.

(18) Miasmal – Cursed Redeemer

Caught hovering in some perfect hinterland between death metal and crust punk. The tension in this duality is held together so well.

(17) Earth – Primitive and Deadly

I’m new to Earth. Therefore, greetings earthlings. I will return.

(16) Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen

They’re back and for want of a better statement, it’s more of the same rousing stuff. Albeit … Some of the trad influences creep in a little more, to good effect. Although one notable thing about this record is how the band seem more prepared to let the melancholy jamming breathe. It’s smoky blues bar stuff in places, except metal (if that makes sense).

(15) 11Paranoias – Stealing Fire from Heaven

This is a cracking record on its own merits – swirly psychedelic doom. But I’m dead excited to hear what they come up with next.

(14) Conan – Blood Eagle

Rampaging and top-notch. Let it all hang out.

(13) Inter Arma – The Cavern

I come to Inter Arma late and had to miss the London show with being stuck at work. The record is still in its early listening phase with me. Given a few more weeks and it would probably be higher up the list. That full, massive song swings on by in crunchy riffs, growly perfection, catchiness and oh, oh, oh, that guitar soloing. Oh no … time to find more space on my favourite bands list.

(12) Baptists – Bloodmines

Bloomin great hardcore album with strong elements of metal. I loved Bushcraft and this hit the same buttons. Obviously this is brutal and so what would be the point coming up with an adjective to say so: this is hardcore, silly. It engages with alienation and the political in a neat way that draws the listener in.

(11) Morbus Chron – Sweven

I was obsessed with Tribulation’s record last year and so it took me a while to get out of that thing where listening to one record makes you want to switch to another. But left to sit for a while, on its own merits, this is an adventurous and fresh sound. It was great to see them live, all tight and captivating. It will be a pleasure to track these guys over the years to come.

(10) Gust – S/T

Catchy, savage metal/punk that speaks directly to my politics. No apologies; no compromise.

(9) Yob – Clearing the Path to Ascend

Ha! Everyone’s already spilled the superlatives about this record. I didn’t get Yob for a while, mostly because I found them via Atma, which I still don’t like that much. But I confess, this record grew on me so much.

(8) Behemoth – The Satanist

Tom Dare described this record in Terrorizer as inducing the feeling that you’re invincible enough to juggle cars. How right. Nergal is still my hero. “London, it’s great to be alive” and that magnificent London Forum performance still ring in my ears. O Father O Satan O-wain. O if only Nergal really sang that.

(7) Nux Vomica – S/T

This was my 2014 Agrimonia. If you don’t get the cross-referencing, please correct your course. This is a life intervention.

(6) Fistula – Vermin Prolificus

Nelsie, mom, dad, Craig… The metal is more important than you. The metal is more important than everyone. If you don’t get the reference, go and listen to the record if you’re brave enough and then we’ll speak. They’re trying to get to the UK in 2015 –so please, if any smart promoter is reading this: make it so. This album still gives me the willies and I have to be fortified before listening. In fact, as I write this I have just got up and put it on the Walkman. Yikes, need more coffee, it’s too early for this.

(5) Trap Them – Blissfucker

Like I’ve already said, really this is such a strong record that’s been an almost daily listen for months and months. Like Triptykon (see below), it’s that opening that pulls me in every time. It’s like their thought process goes something like this: “Yeah yeah we know Entombed aren’t cool any more and that we’re both better than them and at risk of being the next fashion piled on the discarded heap, but we’re really not bothered. So here, please accept a massive fat dollop of the best Entombed riff you’re going to hear for the next few years, dumped right at the beginning of the very first song – obscenely and unapologetically.” And it goes on from there. Habitland is massive. There’s the trademark fingernails down a blackboard bits, contrasted with the crust-fury that Trap Them are the masters of. The songs are more developed than Darker Handcraft. The fashion might be leaving Trap Them behind but they’re stronger than ever, so who cares.

Honestly, I hope these guys bring a tonne of merch to Temples because I’m taking my wheelbarrow along.

(4) Sunn O)))/Ulver – Terrestials

It’s been such a good year for my absolute totally utterly favourite bands releasing stuff. Sunn O))) has become a dominant feature on my playlist really over the past 18 months. And I have been spoilt for choice with Sunn this year. This is my go-to zone-out album, for what that’s worth. I mean zone-out in the best possible way of just getting lost in the poetry of the drone. The far-off and far-out twiddly jazz of Let There be Light. Western Horn is a little bit more menacing, a bit like a dream of being freaked out in fog, yet not really knowing what it is you’re being freaked out by. Then there are shimmers of beauty – but then you’re back to the disorientation. Eternal Return is the most Ulver-y of the three tracks and it strangely evokes frontiers and the wild west, albeit with a sci-fi edge. Does any of this make sense? I’m not even sure any more and maybe that’s the point. Only in Sunn-world. Then the singing: It’s about liminal creatures and listening to the history of deserts. I think.

(3) Electric Wizard – Time to Die

Right, now listen here you lot and listen good. This is a really strong Wiz album, nastier than anything they have done for a while. Ergo, as one of my absolute favourite bands, for me it’s one of the year’s best. I dragged myself out of a near-death-flu-state a few years ago to catch one of their rare gigs and I’d do so again. I know the stuff surrounding the band has been unpleasant and off-putting. I wasn’t at Temples, thankfully, to witness that apparently horrible show. One of the downsides of Electric Wizard is that as they don’t do that many shows, so they can’t as easily play out the memory.

Black Masses was hyped at the time as the best Wiz record since Dopethrone. It wasn’t. It was just different. As is Time to Die; although stylistically it’s closer to the earlier, gnarlier stuff. I love nearly all of it and just pick up whatever I’m in the mood to listen to. All I can say with Time to Die is that I’ve been singing the riffs and choruses constantly for months and listen to the album most days. Funnily enough, Sadio Witch was the single and my least favourite song on the record. The band could play a whole set of this material and it would be great.

(2) Scott O))) – Soused

I confess that when I first heard this record I was actually angry. What on earth is this stuff? Will someone please knock that warbler over the head with something heavy? But then I remembered that I felt similar anger when I first heard Sunn O))). So I gave the record another chance and sure enough, I’m hooked. Totally and utterly compelled. I don’t regard much in life as weird – but this is weird. Spooky and disorientating as you like, but also utterly beautiful in parts. It’s hard to simultaneously spook and move a listener but Scott O))) pulls it off. Not metal? Maybe, but then again I’m not really sure what to call it. Avant garde art-rock-drone? It doesn’t matter in the end. Now to decipher those lyrics …

(1) Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

Again, one of my absolute favourite bands and in my view the stronger of the two albums. I get that Triptykon is a tough listen. It’s depression on tape. I confess I wasn’t brave enough to pick the album up until a couple of months after it was released. Nothing major – I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it. But as soon as I pressed play for the first time, that was it. Hooked.

I think what summarises Triptykon up for me is that they played a 45-minute set in London recently and – as enthralling as it was – fans left chattering away on Twitter about all the stuff they wanted to hear from the new record that was left out of the setlist. The fact that Tom G is still pumping out the strongest songs in contemporary metal just says it all.

I love albums where the artist is so completely in command of not only the music but really the whole genre and so the opening song of an album acts as a sort of a massive celebratory sonic hug. “Oh hi everyone – we’re kind of showing off now (you know it, we know it) but we’re loving every minute of it”. It was like that with the Ethica Odini and so it is, in a very different way, with Tree of Suffocating Souls. Big duelling guitar solo? Nah. Let’s just pop a guitar-sitar duel in there instead. Ha! Why not? Then that simple (for Triptykon) fuzz-heavy riff of Boleskin House, deformed and adapted for the remainder of the song. That riff in Breathing. Oh I could witter on about the melancholy Aurorae, the snarl of Demon Pact. Is that ‘Emily’ Big Tom is howling in In the Sleep of Death? I hope so and haven’t bothered to look up the lyric. I’ve just built up this image of Tom worshipping a demented she-demon called Emily. Don’t take that away from me, please. Oops, I wittered on. Ok, now sing it everyone: “Black Snooooowwww”.