Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Album Index 10-1

10. The Baltic Sea - Period Piece
(ambient progressive rock)
This album/band honestly came in at the 11th hour, as 3 weeks ago I'd never even heard of them. But a user on the dredg fans forum suggested them as their best discovery of 2011. I've listened to this album probably 6 or 7 times already and each time enjoyed it more. Other than about a 3 minute section of the last nearly 13 minute track "The All Consumers", this album is more or less flawless.

Their style is of the college-prog vein, using a lot of odd time signatures, textures and varying styles. Their drummer especially  is notice-able throughout. Specifically on songs like "Foss" and "Heavy is the Coast." Extremely quick fills ala Neil Peart, Gavin Harrison., or others.

I guess if compared them to 1 band specifically, it might be the highly talented, yet still unknown Sound & Shape. Maybe their vocalist sounding rather similar is part of that. The moods and dynamics work incredibly on this album. Even many ambient or post-rock sections add to my enjoyment of it.

While I feel odd placing a record so new to me this high, I am pretty certain I'm going to love this album a lot in the coming years, it seems worth doing. And also their previous record Through Scenic Heights and Days Regrets which like this album, is also in its entirety, available to stream on their bandcamp page.

Maybe they could do a tour with Sound & Shape or another, seemingly-appealing band. I guess they're from Portland, ME, and not Spain, which I thought I'd originally read and posted recently in this blog. I'd certainly be up for seeing them play this stuff live. Maybe soon.

9. Three - The Ghost You Gave to Me
(heavy art/progressive rock)
The initial posting Joey Eppard of Three made, said he felt they made the best record of their career. And I had pretty high hopes for it, even before that message. But after reading that and hearing the 1st song/video "Numbers" I was starting to think it may be.

And I can't lie, this album did impress me a ton the 1st couple of times I heard it. Although since it hasn't been all that long that it came out, and partially due to a lack of time, I probably haven't listened to it as much as I initially listened to Wakepig or The End is Begun. At the same time, when I heard it, I couldn't find anything I didn't like. It's filled with catchy hooks (like "React," and "High Times" "Afterglows"and "Pretty" among them), technical sections, and even some music that without question is the heaviest the band has ever been (at least the guitar riffs on "Numbers" and "Sparrows" "It's Alive" specifically).

The biggest highlight, among many, is the epic track "Only Child." I love the gradual build and the way that song takes me on a journey. Each section really works, from the vocals and lyrics, to the changing dynamics that go back and forth. From some of the string arrangements to the subtle drums with brushes stand out. And the outro is just haunting with interplay between power chords and simple yet very effective piano texture.

I would say this album is at least on par composition wise with those last 2 proper full-lengths, and production-wise it's a step-up. And based on that, it may eventually become my favorite of theirs, even surpassing the incredible mostly live record Half Life. Time will of course tell, but for now, I am enjoying taking it in more each time.

8. Mercies - Three Thousand Days
(jangley power-pop/rock)
This is/was like Erick Serna's The Killing Floor, a project that came about after The Dear Hunter moved back home to Southern California, and touring members Josh Rheault, Sammy and Luke Dent, Nate Patterson and among others, the aforementioned Erick Serna. I guess Josh Rheault may be the biggest driving force behind this band, but it does seem largely like a collaborative effort.

When this album came out, I was definitely interested to hear it, but I had no expectation that it would be half as good as it is. This record is tremendous, from song to song. It's folk or jangle-ish  power-pop of a sort. Each song really carries something great about it, so much so, picking one or two as the best is rather hard.

I do love dearly, the final track "Call or Write" and it's echoing chorus that stays with me

"We'll call we'll write, we'll call we'll write, we'll call we'll write, if you want us to.
We'll call we'll write. we'll call write, we'll stay the night, if you want us to"

I suppose lyrically some of the songs are about the typical relationships, and being that I began one not that long before this album came out, this record spoke to me even beyond a musical level.

Scanning the track list, I enjoy things about every song. The vocal harmonies, the piano, the acoustic guitar, the dreamy nature of a lot of it. I think this album is one of the most consistent, accessible, mature, less-is-more, memorable albums from this year, or even to come out in the last 5 or 10 years. I'm not sure if these guys have always been this good at songwriting, or if Casey Crescenzo and The Dear Hunter's influence rubbed off on them to make an album this good. Nate Patterson is involved, and given he also is/was a member of The Receiving of End of Sirens, however much involvement he had, wouldn't surprise me as that band was filled with talent, even beyond Casey.

I really hope this is just the beginning for them, and we'll see more music, more touring (they have done a little in the Northeast I recall reading about), and an increase of visibility, as like a lot of bands I tend to latch on to, they could reach a much wider audience if they were given the exposure. Will it happen? I guess I can't help but just ask the rhetorical, what has happened to so many others like them? They need to get the folks who represent Warpaint and Local Natives helping them out I guess, since on they have the whole 2 ratings right now.

7. Battle Circus - Battle Circus
(modern/symphonic college progressive rock)
On the Ours fans forum, a friend of mine recommended this Australian band back in late 2008. She like myself, is a pretty big fan of Muse, which was the biggest thing I associated with them up until finally hearing this album. Given how much they reminded me of Muse, I wasn't exactly expecting this to be incredible or even that addictive. But it came out like Muse (in a good way), and a lot of others styles in a good.way.

They make a Wall-of-sound Cabaret style of progressive rock; at least which might be one way to describe them and this album. There's a lot of big, pounding guitar riffs, along with almost vintage piano. Their singer uses falsetto in a rather melodramatic or operatic way, much like Matt Bellamy or some others. A number of the tracks on this album start slowly, and crescendo into a lot of layers.

This album was one I enjoyed and was impressed with more than I expected, really from the point I 1st heard it back in June. While other albums didn't remain high, it did, and I suppose the biggest reason for that is it's consistency from song to song. There's not a song I ever skip, nor have I felt I wore it out. They have enough things going on in their music, from the pounding drums, to the dreamy lyrics, that I always felt it offered something with each listen.

The 14 minute "Much Like Mescaline" and it's multi-part composition, and the 9 minutes-plus "Flying Machine" are maybe still my go-to songs. The latter has this almost cinematic piano part towards the end, that while it is all in a major key, really hooks my ear every time I listen to it.

This record would be Battle Circus's last album sadly, as not that long after it was released, and moving from Australia to New Jersey, the band announced their breakup. The biggest reasons, I'm not sure, only that lack of interest, sales, and the move to America turned out to be more difficult than they anticipated. But for a Swan Song of sorts, this was a very big way to go out.

6. East of the Wall - The Apologist
(progressive/technical metalcore)
I became a fan of this band towards the end of 2008 with their 1st album Farmer's Almanac, which is an all-instrumental album. Then in 2010, their follow-up Ressentiment they added vocals, but at the same time it was all older material composed primarily under the Biclops name. But the biggest thing about that album from last year was how horrendous the cymbals clipped. I labored to listen to it maybe 3 times, and unfortunately could not bring myself to again.

And as a result, I really didn't expect a lot from this album. But as it turns out, I was extremely happy to be surprised almost beyond belief how good it turned out. There is next-to-no problems with the cymbals sounding like tambourines. And the flow and compositions are outstanding. This is one, extremely heavy, riffy, smash-your-face-in, balls-to-the-wall technical metalcore album.

The whole thing flows extremely well, with the vocals working wonderfully. Some clean with harmonies at times, and an extensive amount screaming that really fit. Punchy lead bass lines, jazzy poly-rhythms from the guitars and the drums really show off how much skill this group has.

As I wrote a few months ago on, I think this may be the best Metal album I've heard since  Burst's Lazarus Bird from 2008. It's really a statement record, and one where I sense they are now truly a "band" (and not a hybrid collaboration of the members other projects like The Postman Syndrome, Day Without Dawn and Biclops) and have found "their sound:" so to speak.

The Apologist is a record I put on and listen to, and afterwards I can't help but think to myself, "damn that was something." I'm really in awe of it, so much so, I probably look forward to playing it a fair amount more just to discover so many of the intricate sections even better. And also as I wrote on earlier this Fall, it seems like one of the most overlooked metal albums of 2011. Perhaps more time and touring will help, as the show I finally got to see them this past Fall, was nearly as impressive.

5. Between the Buried and Me - The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues [Mini Album/EP]
(avant-garde technical/progressive metalcore)
This is the first part of a multi-part series this band are taking on. I was pretty let down by their last record, 2009's The Great Misdirect, but I'd say this is more than a return to form. Three tracks, all in the 8-11 minute range, really seem to work in a less-is-more way. Which for this band, and considering their last release, is pretty impressive.

It's almost a tease in a way, believe it or not, as they do bring-in a lot of sections that seem almost too short. Stylistically, it doesn't vary incredibly from their traditional sound, with the unorthodox shifts in dynamics and sections that pound heavily, into a silly or quiet part, and then back and forth again.

Do any of the 3 tracks stand out over the others? I guess I never found that to be the case, as I listened to this thing almost every time, all at once, and saw it as 1 30 minute or so piece. A bit like 2007's Colors I suppose.

4. The Dear Hunter - The Color Spectrum
(conceptual progressive rock) 
Ever since hearing about this idea 3 or 4 years ago, it sounded extremely intriguing. Casey Crescenzo and The Dear Hunter were going to make a series of EPs based on all different colors. An ambitious idea, that he obviously thought about how to do it, a fair amount. And I sense has and will benefit him and the band long-term as songwriters. Casey wanted to do this, partially just as a way to challenge himself as a songwriter. And I think overall, the result has been a success.

It is 9 EPs of course, and all-together amounts to about 2 1/2 hours worth of music, and thus, it didn't become something I ended up listening to all-at-once extremely often. At the same time, each EP has songs that really stand out as being favorites, while others fit the sound (or color) of that EP. To make a list of specific favorites:

Indigo: What Time Taught Us, Mandala, Therma
Green: The Inheritance, The Canopy
Yellow: Misplaced Devotion, She's Always Singing
Blue: The Collapse of the Great Tide Cliffs, Trapdoor
Orange: Echo, But There's Wolves?, Stuck on a Wire
Violet: Mr.Mallum, Look Away
White: Lost But Not All Gone, Home
Black: Filth and Squalor, This Body
Red: I Couldn't Do it Alone

Indigo from the get go, was my favorite, and still is. Ironically, that is the one EP Casey and the band did for the most part all on their own, at home. I just love it when Casey uses an electronic element, at least on that EP, as it almost reminds me of some of how those Ms. Leading Demos sound. I think the track "Mandala" alone makes that EP tremendous. It has that gradual build I love, and a vocal melody+phrasing that is inspiring. I feel both sad and yet happy when I listen to it. It's one of the best songs of 2011 and certainly one of The Dear Hunter's best or one of my favorites at least.

But said favorite songs I posted above range from Post Rock (Blue) to Folk (Green) to electronic/industrial (Black), to very inspiring/uplifting lyrically (White), to majestic/cabaret (Violet), to poppy and almost Western (Yellow), to Blues Rock (Orange). I'd say the goal of exploring the emotional side of each color ended up working with the varied styles. But more importantly, the songs I highlighted above stand out due to how well written they are, within said style.

This project was a huge task that it seems Casey and the band managed to pull off. It very easily could be a key part in their history, as everything with the Acts seems to be of less significance for Casey now. But all for the better I would hope. This collection of EPs, while I'm not certain will go down historically as the most significant, influential idea, even this decade, I wouldn't be surprised will only grow more interest with time. Personally, perhaps as well, because I'd be lying if I claimed I loved every song on here. And it might have had a shot at taking the crown this year had I. But it still belongs this high due to far too much good music on it.

3. Arch/Matheos - Sympathetic Resonance
(modern/lyrical progressive metal)
I could not have been more excited, enticed, fanboy-ish, etc about this album. Or perhaps just the prospect of another album with Jim Matheos working with original lead singer of Fates Warning, John Arch. I adored Arch's 2003 2-song 27-minute EP A Twist of Fate . It's one of the greatest works in progressive metal, without a doubt. But it always left me and others with the huge desire/hope that John would do something again.

So, this is that something again, with his old Fates band mate Jim Matheos, and actually the rest of the current lineup of Fates Warning in Frank Aresti (guitar), Joey Vera (bass) and recently joined drummer Bobby Jarzombek.

This is more or less how good progressive metal, in the traditional sense, can get. The epic songs with frequent time changes, poly-rhythms, layers of vocals, etc. And where John and Jim standout at times, is the cohesiveness and flow. This record has that, but it also has so much going on, it offers a lot of new things to notice each time. And while I have enjoyed this a lot, I am still taking-it-in to the point of knowing what parts, melodies, etc really are to look forward to.

John's vocals are pretty crazy here. I know a lot of people don't care for them, or at least have had to have them grow on them at best. Me, of course, that's never been an issue. But I think John really experimented well with phrasing, rhyming and rhythm with regards to what is going on with the music. I think in some ways, that is the biggest different with this album, compared to his solo EP. And this was much more collaborative with Jim.

I enjoy every song on here pretty equally, it's not so easy to pinpoint so many things over others. The production is really exceptional. The drum work could not have been better, as much as I love Mark Zonder, Jarzombek is a technician-and-a-half. The ending of "Incense and Myrrh" with the gradual crescendo and sad, wailing from Arch and the guitar does stand out in a lot of respects. It kind of brings a tear to my eyes to be honest, sort of in a fuck you to all the haters, and THIS is what PROGRESSIVE METAL is about and JOHN ARCH is MY GUY! Also in a nostalgic way, as I felt somewhat the same seeing Fates Warning at ProgPowerUSA in 2009, feeling an identity with them, and all the years I have been a fan. Stuck with them, etc. It's amazing not only how older music can bring those memories and feelings back, but sometimes just hearing musicians again from that period can invoke those levels of joy, happiness and extreme sadness for longing for the past.

Also just with Arch, and that EP being so great, the doubt that anything more would ever come. This album was almost a disbelief in coming true, a little like the Soundscape album Grave New World in 2009. I had the mindset of thinking, "a new album from Jim Matheos with John Arch? really?, I don't believe it! I'll only believe it when I see it. "

And in the interview with Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records about the album, it was confirmed there will be more. I'm kind of overjoyed and in Fates Warning fan-heaven of sorts. I guess that's why I owe it to myself, to keep going back to this album in the next few years. I suspect when that next work is made, I'll probably know this one even better.

2. Kimbra - Vows
(soulful, layered, retro, eclectic, vocal-driven pop)
Like many people outside of Australia and New Zealand presumably, I was first introduced to Kimbra from the Gotye song "Somebody That I Used To Know." And after reading more about Gotye and who this female singer he got to sing on that song, I was rather intrigued. I think with my background of enjoying artsy female singer/songwriter's over the last few years, namely Imogen Heap, St.Vincent and just last year Janelle Monáe, the interest in Kimbra's music was not that surprising.

What was surprising was how young she is, being only 21, to make a record of this quality. And this is her debut album, although it was many years in the making. Very similar to Janelle Monáe's The Archandroid's many years of buildup and anticipation, until being released in 2010.

I instantly liked this album, and not too long after I realized how while Gotye's Making Mirrors was good, this was breathtaking. It is/was very addictive as the songs had these incredible ear worms that took hours to leave my head. The pop sensibility, the energy, the production, the twists and segues many of them have. Especially vocally. Kimbra has an incredible voice, with range, heart and soul.

To name off favorites is kind of silly, because every song on here is great, but I guess the strongest ear worms for me would be parts of  "Cameo Lover" "Settle Down" and 'Two Way Street." But songs like "Good Intent" "Call Me" and Kimbra's take on Nina Simone's "Plain Gold Ring" really stand out as well. She has this sass and pizazz about her. The retro jazzy pop and soul side really comes out on them. Then there's the incredible ballad "Wandering Limbs" featuring the Daniel Johns-like singer Sam Lawrence. And then the closing epic of sorts "Withdraw" into "Build Up," Kimbra really extends herself vocally with these multi-part emotional harmonies.

This is such an exceptional record, I wonder how she'll ever be able to top it. I also wonder if in the longterm I might consider it among 2011 albums, my favorite or at least it may be the record I'll listen more in the future. The songs are just so addictive and infectious. The energy is so upbeat at times, and there's so much going on, in pretty much every song, that I find myself looking forward to hearing them.

Not to mention, she's rather easy on the eyes, which my girlfriend isn't all that thrilled with me saying, but given she became a fan as well, she may not be able to avoid hearing it from me. She actually is probably the 1st artist, at least newer/modern musician her and I like pretty close to equally, which says a lot about the accessibility and talent of Kimbra and this album.

That also suggests the near future, specifically in 2012 when Vows is released in the US (along with Gotye's Making Mirrors as well actually), she may blow up so much, she may become a hipster darling. I hope if that does happen, at least she'll not get pigeon-holed like so many others. But her interest/influence from the new drummer of The Mars Volta, Deantoni Parks along with The Mars Volta in general, may get some of those hipsters to not ruin how she's introduced.

1. Hotel of the Laughing Tree - Terror and Everything After
(modern/heavy college-progressive rock)
I was all ready to go ahead and review this album in the Fall of 2010, until the point some members of the band got in touch with me to hold off until it officially was released. It was supposed to be released in September of 2010, but as circumstances arose, they found it more beneficial to wait until February 2011. Much like Kaddisfly's Set Sail the Prairie in 2006, in more than one way.

By pushing it back, I was able to hear it even more, and they added one of the best tracks on it, in "Weather Maps for Nikolai." Along with re-ordering the track list (the album was originally intended to start with the song "Sanctuary" but after re-ordering the track list, it begins with the song "Barnaby's Bison Blind"). I honestly still have a love of the original order of songs, but ultimately, it doesn't impact how good this album is.

Why I find it so good, and it finished as my #1 album for 2011, there are a number of reasons. For one, it was my favorite or it took the #1 spot before the year even began, and nothing seemed to ever challenge it. A traditional story it seems with many years. It held up all year, and still does, as I have never had any feelings about it that detracted how good it is.

Another reason simply is how good each song is. Every track on this album is big in some way. From the guitar riffs, the dynamics, the horn parts, the mandolin, the gang vocals. They really explore a plethora of styles, from blues rock, to chamber, to folk-rock, to post-rock, to even a big classic rock influence. It's one of those albums that varies a ton, yet the songwriting is without a dud. And it also is very much "an album lovers" album in that it is best heard all-at-once.

"Weather Maps for Nikolai" is a rocker. A very tight, riffy tune that I look forward to hearing every time I play it. "Gunpowder Falls" has this great repeatedly pounding riff with a preachy vocal part that I love each time. It leads to this dreamy yet big keyboard part that is really epic. "Bad Canterbury" is one of the best songs of 2011, without question. It has that happy, catchy style to it, so much so, it could have reached a much larger audience. Much like Emanuel & the Fear's "Jimmie's Song" or some others in recent years, it's a song I hear every time and think, this song is just too damn good to not be known by more people.

"Noah" has this big vocal chorus that just never leaves my head. "Everybody wants to throw a party for me, everybody wants to throw a part for me." The horn section on it also just works so well, there's nothing they could do to make it better. The title track is a epic of sorts that features themes, led by very clean guitar, which I always think of dredg's Mark Engles. It's one of those songs, the more you hear it, the more you get sucked in.

This is a debut album, but it clearly is a band who put a lot into their 1st full-length. It has stood the test of time, as I probably like it even more now than when I 1st got to hear it. And it came somewhat unexpectedly, given their 1st EP I was only luke warm about. But I've seen it happen in the past, where a band sort of makes a breakthrough record. So much so, it does make me wonder what they can do to top this. But I'll certainly be paying attention no matter how good their next work may be.

It is kind of sad, as last year at this time, I knew this album was a record I loved and made sense to be #1 going in to the year. Now, at the end of 2011, is there an album I can say that about? not yet, although there's some potentials like the new House of Fools album. But I'll admit, for 2011, this album held a great sense of security in that if nothing great came out the rest of the year, at least I could hold on to the fact this was a great, as-it-became 5-star album. Every year I look for at least one of those, and at the start of 2011 I had one in this record. Right now for 2012, I don't have one yet. So this was a rare case of offering an album of top-tier status during the entire year.

How much others caught on to this album, is a whole other story. They did not. And I told everyone I could about it pretty much. Which speaks less to me, and more to people's time, taste and maybe how circulated it became. I guess like some other examples such as Karnivool or even Kaddisfly and Apes and Androids, the years after the release, this album may reach a lot more people. It certainly deserves that. But only time will tell. I suppose in 2013 or 2014, it will be nice to look back on this and remember if it did.

And so that's it for the 2011 Album Index. However, I have a long Turkey/Non-2011 Album Index blog to include soon in here. Hopefully this weekend, or by next week sometime. There's definitely a fair amount of recollecting to do, and statements to make about other music, and the year 2011 in general. Once that comes, and a diarrhea-of-the-mouth podcast, I will hopefully put 2011 to bed and start to focus on the potential big year that will be 2012.