BNU’s Best of 2015
Year-end best-of lists are subjective, self-indulgent, and pointless, and so are the critics who write them. This was the main thrust of a recent Facebook debate I became involved in. After reflecting on this line of thought for a time, it made me change my mind about a decision I’d made to not do a list-type feature on the music I most enjoyed during 2015 for BNU.
I feel a perverse need to stick up for the oft-mocked music critic, that stereotypical black-framed-glasses-wearing, plaid-clad beardo earnestly tapping away on an iMac in an inner-city cafe. Making lists is fun. Musing about the top 10 songs to play at one’s own funeral is fun. Picking arbitrary criteria and clickwheeling through the music library in your brain to find and rank the songs that fit is a profitable use of time.
Obviously, choosing the best 10 pieces of art in any category is an impossible task, especially music. Nobody has heard all music everywhere and there is no objective way to measure the quality of one piece against another. I also think rating an album with “stars” is unnecessary, and really only of use when a reader is swimming in pages of reviews and in need of a quick way to find the gold.
How does Pitchfork justify giving an EP a rating of 7.2 instead of, I don’t know, 7.3?
But is there really a need to elevate or condemn a piece of work in the readers’ eyes with a score? A TLDR that can, in an instant, consign months or years of an artist’s work to the trashcan? How does Pitchfork justify giving an EP a rating of 7.2 instead of, I don’t know, 7.3? Should the prog-rock record that scored 6.7 be passed over for the folk album with an 8.2?
That’s where a lot of the scorn for critics originates, both from musicians and for listeners: behold! Here sits the languid Critic on his Throne of Judgment, hand poised to bestow a star or taketh a star away… even fractions of stars if it cometh to that.
Record-shop staff picks can be highly rewarding—I recommend subscribing to the Norman Record shop’s twitter feed for their reviews—but again, it’s easy to be persuaded by your peers that something is genius just because everyone says so.
Ultimately, as with any art, the quality of the music comes down to what you get out of it. It’s OK to like popular mainstream music, it’s OK to not like the current “it” band, and it’s OK to like that record that empties the room at a party. It’s not the full story, but it’s most of it.
The critic’s job is to guide, and not lecture. Listeners do not need to be told by NME what is acceptable to listen to anymore. But on the other hand, the immediate availability of high-quality music is so bewilderingly vast, it’s invaluable to have someone give you a map. Where common enthusiasm exists for a scene, communities spring up around them online, and within them are writers and commentators who parse and organize and interpret. It’s been that way since the punk zine, it’s cool, and it can be art. A good blog is like the DIY zines they had in record shops way before the Internet: if the music enthusiast has a gift for communication, they’re pure gold and worth any amount of university undergraduates with a thesaurus, a gig at The Quietus, and something to prove.
In the rush of endorphins you’re filled with respect and admiration for the artist
The blog opened floodgates to a world of music from forgotten times and forgotten places. Records were found and digitized. Thanks to the kids digitizing old thrift-shop records and posting them on their blogs for free download — and in effect, rescuing many from total oblivion — vinyl sales recovered as people started wanting to listen to and own the real thing. To find their own crates to dig in.
A good music writer, a well-crafted playlist, a well-curated blog—it can open up doors in your mind and lay out areas of music yet to be explored. And that thrill, that prickle of excitement when you find something that sounds like it came from another planet—or at least has flipped something you already love around so that you experience it in a totally new way—that’s what we all live for. It’s also nice just to listen to more of what you already like.
I live for those songs that, at first listen, are repellant, disturbing: you turn it off but they won’t leave you alone. They taunt you. Frustrated, perhaps a little excited, you listen again. And again.
And then the light comes on; in the rush of endorphins you’re filled with respect and admiration for the artist who created this moment for you and you alone.
Last year I didn’t listen to anywhere near as much new music that I have in previous years, and the stuff I have been digging has largely been bands I’ve been reporting on for BNU: Japanese and Australian underground hardcore, experimental rock, psychedelic rock, and metal.
In conclusion: yes, lists are stupid. Yes, the opinions of critics are increasingly irrelevant. But like the elderly—although slow, and dangerous behind the wheel—we can still serve a purpose. The hard part is finding a voice or a place where your tastes intersect with your guide’s. The interest and excitement lies in the spaces in between.
Here’s some stuff that blew my mind last year—most are artists I had the chance to talk to, others not yet, but all of these songs are worth your time, and if you dig what your hear, your money. So strap in, and let’s take a listen.
Suishou No Fune
When You Wish Upon a Star [P.S.F. Records]
It is a truly remarkable and inspiring thing when a band releases their best work a quarter-century after they first started performing. So it with Tokyo’s Suishou No Fune, an improvisational two-piece with a flexible lineup of supporting musicians and collaborators. Any attempt to capture the atmosphere of a straight live-stage-recording is a hit-and-miss affair; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. On When You Wish Upon a Star — two songs recorded at Tokyo venue Showboat, another at Kuroneko Sado — it works emphatically.
Blending two songs together, the 23-minute opener Gathering Stars / Becoming A Flower “bends time”. You simply get washed away in it, you lose track of reality, drifting in and out of seasons, rays of light, cloud shadows, the black gust of a sudden storm… all summoned and released by the guitars of Kageo and partner Pirako, whose voice is at once earthy and pure.
The formula seems so simple, but so many bands of this kind just don’t have it: it’s a mystery how Suishou No Fune has the power to move with such gentle yet primal force. Like the natural world it evokes, the music can nourish and caress or terrify and destroy. It’s dangerous and immediate, and that’s part of what makes it so fucking brilliant.
The band has a released a pretty steady stream of albums over the years, but if you’re wondering where to start, here it is.
Natural Information Society & Bitchin’ Bajas
Automaginary [Drag City]
I found this record while trying to secure an interview with Cooper Crain about his krautrock band CAVE. While the interview fell through, I did get the opportunity to discover this low-key collaboration between his experimental drone band Bitchin Bajas and a collective of musicians known as Natural Information Society.
It’s very beautiful, lush, and textured improvisational album and essential listening for fans of this kind of music. Varied instrumentation and spacious recording leaves room to surprise amid the drone. An outstanding release.
Dødens Likvid [Darker Than Black]
Definitely one of the strangest and spookiest albums I had the good fortune to encounter, Grudom are another obscure, anonymous collective of musicians letting the occult speak through their music. Strange, clanky, vaguely nightmarish… I love this record and think that a couple of bars of it contains more of interest than an entire year of MTV programming. Not that is much of a recommendation, but I urge you to try it. It’s very seductive.
Spider Goat Canyon
Always the Heavy [Bro Fidelity]
Kind of a bookend album from a Melbourne band whose eclecticism and passion attracted a scene around them like metal filings to a magnet: a scene that morphed with similar ones in Japan and the US and the UK. Spider Goat Canyon has always been at the center of that, but they’ve yet to release a record that provides a really comprehensive snapshot of what the band is about, something that describes their improvisational skill and the depth of emotion they are able to summon.
With guitarist Steve exiting the band, SGC collected studio pieces from a 10-year period, and reworked and reshaped them where necessary into a kind of compilation called Always the Heavy that, nonetheless, feels like a cohesive and comprehensive statement of intent. For any fan of heavy improvisational rock, this record is worth the modest investment, and with the band now a dynamic two-piece, a new chapter begins…
Frid [Rocket Recordings]
This, in my opinion, was not only the best psychedelic rock album released in 2015 but is also emblematic of a moment, a time and place in music when a new generation of bands celebrated and reinterpreted the wild inventiveness of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bands like International Harvester, Brast Burn, CAN… it seems like musicians from all over the world have been surfing this wave of rediscovery for the last decade or so.
This album—so far anyway—is that revival’s high-water mark, but it’s not like it’s even a tribute to that original genius of 40 years ago. There are new, rich, and exotic flavors to be enjoyed, new ideas expertly executed. Evocative, refreshing, exciting, vital… there aren’t enough superlatives.
Self-titled [GuruGuruBrain Records]
The Japanese are great at absorbing elements of other cultures into their own, and passing them through a unique filter, keeping the essence but ending up with something completely different and exciting and cool. Sometimes it improves on the original—case in point: this debut album by masters of organic motorik Minami Deutsch—and sometimes the results are not as gratifying (Japanese “pizza” with corn, anyone?). In any case, if you like your 70s kraut ala NEU!, you’ll dig this record a lot, I guarantee it.
Litourgiya [Witching Hour Productions]
I don’t know what we did before Facebook and Twitter, but these days stellar music routinely fills my feed, from record labels or from bands I like. Captivated by the cover art of this black metal band from Poland (who are apparently a super-group, but naturally, all their identities are secret, etc. etc.) I took a listen. Anyway, it’s a revelation. Mixing Orthodox ritual chanting and high-energy black metal, the result is spectacular and best enjoyed at maximum volume.
Arena Negra [Beyond Beyond is Beyond]
The Myrrors are from Arizona in the USA. Any interaction with this band personally or professionally quickly reveals their deep and infectious passion for the experimental and avant garde. They guide you through the world-music influences that inform their own sound, and on Arena Negra, they do it beautifully—but make no mistake, the Arizona desert air permeates every note of this wonderful album.
It’s a gem, a real trip, and will be a great treasure for some kid digging through a thrift-shop record crate in 50 years time.
Eternity [Till Your Death Records]
The amount of time, determination, and passion this band has invested in their music is evident in every note of Tokyo hardcore band Redsheer’s debut. Without suggesting it sounds polished or clinical in any way, it’s a cut above the crop production-wise when these songs blast out your speakers. This band is super-tight, the songs are super-tight, and it’s just an album I keep putting on because it sounds fucking terrific.
Rigen [Osmose Productions]
A band whose persistence and focused control of a raw and unique talent has led to the release of one of the best Japanese heavy albums last year, RIGEN. It’s one that builds, sustains, and releases tension from start to finish. Each track drops its payload right on target, whether in brooding malice or cathartic howls of despair. It’s not so much that Rigen has changed the face of blackened hardcore metal; it’s just a really solid, enjoyable album that you want to keep playing again and again.
I don’t like prog, or at least the prog where there are any more than two tiers of keyboards or more than two waistcoats/pirate-sleeved shirts per band. The 20-minute solos. The songs that sound like every musician is busting their balls to impress the School of Music examiners at an audition, but all playing a different song at the same time.
I do like the prog that describes an extension or exploration of an established style. Melbourne’s TTTDC falls into the latter category. Their music is a heavy, groovy, fuzzy 70s rock as per your Sabbath or your Mountain or your Pentagram, but there’s a kind of earthy soulfulness from all three members that really makes this music satisfying to listen to.
Singer/guitarist Gerasimos’s vocal hooks stick like a burr in a sock. Add a dash of exotic Mediterranean flavor here and there, and this debut record is a real keeper. Great riffs, good melodies, loads of fuzz, loads of fun, but they are pushing it here, too, they sound unique.
So much great music came out of Melbourne last year: this LP is near the top of the pile.
Out to Sea [Captcha Records]
Veteran musicians with a vast and eclectic musical knowledge, a youthful curiosity, and a headful of something good venture from their geodesic dome studio and into a new space with Trans Am’s Phil Manley to record Out to Sea.
Where a lot of improv psych rock can lose sight of the bigger picture in a quest for the ultimate guitar tone, or feel flimsy and insubstantial in its desire for minimalism, Out to Sea wastes no time finding the zone, throws it back a gear, and plants a foot on the floor to outer space.
The sounds are richly textured, the songs freewheel but still know where they’re going, and there’s a really nice flow between the spacey and reflective numbers and those with big chunks of meat on the bone. Arguably their best album yet, and a great place to start your Carlton Melton trip.
Luonnon harmonia ja vihreä liekki [Svart Records]
Crazy bastards from Finland. A couple of guys in a garage writing sick riffs, one of whom, Lauri, performs and records all the instruments himself, shaping each part into punk-drenched black metal. There was a period last year where all I listened to was this album. Sated, I will probably pass over it for a few months until one day it will pop up again, and it will thrill me anew. It’s one of those albums with the special sauce, the secret mojo. It’s a keeper.
Hibinokoto [Keep & Walk Records]
A hardcore band from Tokyo, this album is just… punishing. Huge ambition, raw emotion, and an incredible feat to capture music as vital and intense as this on CD for people around the world to enjoy. This record is amazing because it will not allow you to ignore it, if you turn your attention away it’ll grab it back with forefinger and thumb on your cheeks, forcing you to stare into its eyes. A lightning turn-around, a sudden burst of blast-beat. It’s an intense, excellent experience, I listen to this record almost weekly.
Absolutely worth buying as a physical copy, get it shipped, own it, love it.
Sundays & Cybele
Heaven [Beyond Beyond is Beyond]
I have been cheering for Sundays & Cybele since their second album years ago, and sharing it with anyone who will listen.
This band, led by the talented Kazuo Tsubuchi, is at their peak. Their most recent album for New York’s Beyond Beyond is Beyond is about as perfect a psychedelic rock album as you could ask for: gorgeous melodies swimming in deep pools of delay and wah, cruising beats, basslines up and down the fretboard; there’s heavy fuzzy songs, and gentle folk.
It’s all here, and although a couple of their earlier works hold the fondest place in my heart, this is right where it’s at for Japanese psych at the moment. You can venture into more experimental waters with Kikagaku Moyo, but sometimes you just need a record that hits in the sweet spot, and this is it.