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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Nuclear Dog's Atomic List - Favorite LPs of 2013

It was, by all accounts, a great year for underground metal, for music with heft and edges. There were new releases from stalwart veterans that were met with great anticipation, as well as releases from the dark reaches of the unknown, generating surprise, excitement, and relish. There were top LPs and top EPs as well as favorite songs. There were even a few releases from the pioneers of stoner/doom rock, although none are listed here. For what it's worth these are the 2013 releases that I feel earned my respect as the very best representation of what I like to think of as TRUE rock, set up as three separate lists - Favorite LPs, Favorite EPs, Favorite Songs. It's a lot, I know, but it was a large year musically, the kind of year that maybe doesn't happen too often, so I felt inclined to be indulgent, effectively listing the top 40 albums of the year and then my favorite songs, which happen to number 26. Several great albums and songs aren't even listed. There are very few in my lists that bang up against those of my Heavy Planet brethren, so indulgent these lists may be, but at the same time they are all deserving of the spotlight, all worthy of your time, all worthwhile investments, all delivering supreme joy and deep satisfaction. I hope you can find either agreement or discovery in what follows.

The world of underground metal in the form of Stoner, Doom, Sludge, Psychedelica, Blues Rock, Desert Rock, Retro Rock, and the many fine conglomerations is unlike anything I've experienced in my five plus decades. There are thousands of quality bands releasing hundreds of quality albums each year, and while almost none of it is mainstream, it is a vital and healthy worldwide cultural phenomenon. The best of any given year is not always an obvious given, not because nothing is deserving, but because most of it is. Nonetheless, here are the 20 LPs I declare as the best of the calendar that has just passed us by.

20. Orchid - "The Mouths of Madness" - Nuclear Blast

One of the most prolific new bands of Stoner/Retro ilk is the magnificent Orchid who early in the year released an album of new, original material with "The Mouths of Madness", while the end of the year brought us "The Zodiac Sessions" consisting of newly remastered songs from their 2009 EP "Through the Devil's Doorway" together with their 2011 LP "Capricorn". The remastered songs on "The Zodiac Sessions" are incredible, clean, deep, and heavy. But, the new LP "The Mouths of Madness" showcase the band's highly evolved ability to craft and execute guitar driven melodies of high quality, continuing a standard they themselves have set and that is not easily matched.

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19. Devil to Pay - "Fate is Your Muse" - Ripple Music

The tagline on Devil to Pay's Facebook page is "It's all about the riffs, man." and this Indianapolis foursome deliver a beautifully low, heavy brand of riffs, combined with superb songcraft and complemented by vocals that are intiguingly unique.

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18. Kylesa - "Ultraviolet" - Season of Mist

Multifaceted and just flat out fun this treasure trove of fuzz and mind bending experiences exhilarates from beginning to end, filling the void with masterful melodies and deep, crunchy guitars. Kylesa are one of the veterans of heavy metal and continue to exhibit growth and adeptness in their ability to craft intelligent rock music.

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17. Luder - "Adelphophagia" - Small Stone Records

A Detroit foursome of members from other bands who come together to create uniqueness in the low tones and heavy rumble of stoner rock by applying the sublimity of deep riffs with the sweetness of what many call a shoegaze sound normally targeted for a more 'indie' audience. And it works mightily, as this collection of steady, stoner, steamrollers blow through on a wave of power and grace.

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16. Elevators to the Grateful Sky - "Cloud Eye" - Transubstans Records

Every year there is an album or two that seemingly come from out of nowhere, albums from bands I quite likely have never heard before, which for me is easy as I'm quite new to the treasures of underground fuzz. The disparity in most end of year lists speaks to the diversity and incredible quality of underground metal of the stoner/doom/retro species, so it seems natural that an album will fly under the radar from time to time. One such album is "Cloud Eye" from Palermo, Italy's Elevators to the Grateful Sky. It's full of varied yet consistent, insistent low tuned riffs, laser beam solos, pummeling drumwork, and groundshaking bass, all wrapped tightly around highly intelligent melodies and delivered with tons of energy and enthusiasm.

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15. All Them Witches - "Lightning at the Door" 

In all likelihood your list has this album much closer to number 1 than I do, but, regardless, All Them Witches have managed to release one of the year's best albums two years running. This year it's "Lightning at the Door" which is as apt a description of the contents as can be had in four words. The guitars in this album are, to understate it horribly, lively, exploding in blues rock power and reverberating in deep, gargantuan riffs of massive amplitude. There always seems to be something new each spin through on this album of intrigue and craft.

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14. Gozu - "Fury of a Patient Man" - Small Stone Records

Owner of the year's best album title, Gozu are quite an interesting study in their approach to the music of retro/stoner rock. The deep, low riffs are there in fuzzy spades, as deliver a double whammy of intriguingly unique vocals and brilliantly crafted melodies, setting Gozu apart as easily recognizable and instantly enjoyable.

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13. Arrowhead - "Atomsmasher" - Von Grimm Records

Arrowhead are a three member stoner band from Sydney, Australia who just flat out crank high energy, high voltage tunes on "Atomsmasher", brandishing lethal guitars, unrelenting stickwork, piledriving bass, and blue chip vocals on melodies that never tire or succumb to gimmicky repetitions. Spinning this album is an adrenaline rush of megawatt proportions.

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12. Kadavar - "Abra Kadavar" - Nuclear Blast

On the heels of their wildly successful debut album in 2012 Kadavar follow up with another ten incher, chock full of hard driving, guitar laden retro rock of the finest variety, heavy on well crafted melodies, haunting vocals, and those ever present, relentless guitars.

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11. Exporting White Elephants - "Organic Raw"

This unique two piece band from Santiago, Chile combine cleverly crafted songs, ragged, rich vocals, and ten tons of fuzz delivered through dual rhythm instrumentation of bass and drums, foregoing the standard six string guitars of almost every rock band that is or ever was . . . and it not only works but is impeccably delicious.

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The top ten albums, my favorites for the year, are all exceptional. More than half of these are interchangeable, meaning their placement isn't necessarily an indictment of their quality either way. The first four placings, though, represent the strength of my bond with those albums, placed carefully in the order of my internal importance. Some of these albums will appear much higher on other's lists, some won't appear at all. My tastes run to stoner fuzz and retro power, so doom and sludge are not represented much, while psychedelic tendencies tend to coincide with retro metal, and even occasionally on predominantly stoner collections.

There are 3 things that place these albums at the top of the list, all three being quite obvious tendencies we all look for in our music - super strong guitar ( always the starting point ), interesting vocals ( awe inspiring vocals will tend to place it higher ), and exceptional melody ( a must have ). But it goes much deeper. The guitar has to dominate. The vocals must inspire. The melodies must be timeless and endlessly fascinating. When it's all put together the result is an exceptional, phenomenal experience for the ages. Here are ten albums that do just that.

10.  Lint - "Existence"

A threepiece powerhouse from Wollongong, New South Wales, Oz who throw down fuzz laden riffs of intense psychedelic potency, focusing mostly on instrumental influences tempered by imaginative vocal interludes.

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9. Bionic Cavemen - "Predator"

Slipping in at the end of the year this foursome from Chicago have crafted nine exceptional melodies that both instantly hit the pleasure nerve and as well as provide depth for new discovery on each subsequent spin. More retro than stoner, the guitars deliver unyielding power and ragged enjoyment, just as the vocals provide depth and intrigue. Bionic Cavemen describe their music as vintage heavy. They've nailed it.

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8. Brimstone Coven - "II" - STB Records

Wheeling, West Virginia's Brimstone Coven, a fearsome foursome who have crafted ten massive power ballads of immense propensity by laying in deep and mighty riffs, mesmerizing solos, unrelenting bass tremble, and wicked, surreal vocals. Their music is beautiful and haunting, mesmerizing and deeply satisfying as they take us on journeys of darkness, trepidation, and sinful pleasures.

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7. Vista Chino - "Peace" - Napalm Records

Much has been written, and more will surely follow, about the members of this band and another, as they all happened to set the underground world on fire twenty years ago, a fire that continues to burn in many ways. One of those ways was the perseverance and incredible tenacity of Brant Bjork and John Garcia to overcome assholes and loopholes to finally . . . FINALLY . . . release original music in the vein of the sound they helped create in the high desert air of their early adulthood. With the inspired addition of heretofore unknown guitarist Bruno Fevery, who delivers the fuzz riff with aplomb, the sublime song writing chops of Bjork, and the incomparable vocals of Garcia, Vista Chino deliver a truly phenomenal rock experience that is both fresh and satisfyinglty reminscent of the glorious sounds penetrating the crystal clear air of the Mojave.

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6. Clutch - "Earth Rocker" - Weathermaker Music

Veteran rockers Clutch released the monster album "Earth Rocker" and then proceeded to tour the world three times over. They actually came through my home state of Oklahoma 4 times on this tour. 4 TIMES!! These guys are the epitome of rock n roll. They likely make decent coin on what they do, but their motivation remains creating and sharing exceptional music, something they have aways done and thankfully still do. With one of the top vocalists in the history of rock and a unique brand of melody that pops and moves in ways unexplained, "Earth Rocker" is an album for the ages.

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5. Bedroom Rehab Corporation - "Red Over Red"

Another twosome consisting of drum and bass. Incredible. Incredible that this toothsome twosome from New London, Connecticut can make such phenomenally massive music. Released very early in the year it has hung around the entire twelve months getting spin time on my iPod and in my car due to the gargantuan, mammoth riffs created by the lone stringed instrument as well as the energetic, forceful drumwork that by default joins center stage, executing a dance sublime from this duet of fuzz.

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4. Sasquatch - "IV" - Small Stone Records

Keith Gibbs is a rocker through and through. On his rock and roll journey through life he has been joined by two more incomparable rockers in Jason Casanova and Rick Ferrante. They are veterans of the underground having now released four albums. But they are more than just veterans as the music they have put on display with all four albums can quite rightly be considered some of the best rock on display anywhere at any time. Consistency is part and parcel of what they create, but ingenuity places their music a cut above as the melodies are superb and the riffs phenomenal. Album four, aptly titled "IV", brought with it an extreme amount of anticipation, and delivered in spades. Familiar yet fresh, "IV" is another one for the ages.

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3. Hollow Leg - "Abysmal" - Last Anthem

This album is the kind that is instantly recognizable as pretty damn good. So you listen, and you enjoy. And when it comes time to spin something on the ride to work you choose it again, and you find that it's even better than maybe you recalled. And each time you spin it you realize it's pretty damn good, incredible, phenomenal. This one snuck up on me and continued to do so again and again like some kind of deja vu ninja, walloping me upside the head each play through. Originally I wanted to dismiss it as I'm not much of a fan of the rumble/grumble affectations many metal bands employ, but it didn't take long to realize these vocals are not such an affectation, instead are a brilliantly crafted and delivered addition to the monster guitars and explosive drums this Florida foursome have unleashed on the unsuspecting populace on this debut release. Keep your guard down and let them smack you upside the head, because an attack from Hollow Leg is worth it.

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2. Iron Man - "South of the Earth" - Rise Above Records

Iron Man are veterans of rock, with emphasis on veteran. They have been around making exquisite rock in one guise or another since the 80s. As with numerous metal bands the lineup changes have been more than a few, but when the lineup for this latest iteration of Iron Man was solidified and an album produced, lightning struck in the form of "South of the Earth". While they might likely be classified as more retro than stoner, certainly with melodies that hearken back to the greatest metal of the seventies and eighties, a deep and abiding low tuned monster permeates throughout the songs of this psychedelic retrograde juggernaut.

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1. Hot Lunch - "Hot Lunch" - Tee Pee Records

And now for the best of the best. Released in March and jumping to the top of my list immediately, nothing has knocked them from that perch in the months since. Hot Lunch align themselves with the skating communities of California, and have crafted a unique set of supremely rocking songs on this, their only album to date. It's not easy finding it as it's not even as mainstream as the underground rock floating around the stoner/doom sites we all frequent, but in keeping with the main mission of Heavy Planet, the unknown, unsigned bands are our passion. Hot Lunch is on Tee Pee Records but a quick tour of their site will show the priority for this exceptional band is not as high as perhaps it should be . . . in my humble opinion. It should be much easier to champion their cause because music like this does not come around nearly often enough.

The instrumentation on this album is a megaton dose of edgy energy and instinctual execution, with sublimely raw vocals delivering jumpstart melodies and two stroke rampage, wrapped tightly in a package of fierceness and joy. Kudos to this San Francisco foursome who are ferocious and mighty and have given us the best album of an exceptionally great musical year. Hot Lunch, you are Nuclear Dog's Favorite Album of 2013

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