Monday, February 13, 2012

The Best of 2011 - in recorded form, that is!

I have definitely taken my sweet time getting this one out there - god this time of the year is busy! But there's no way in hell that I wasn't going to post this, as it's something I've always loved doing and so, because this thing is well overdue, let's get it started... with the TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2011, AND THEY ARE, IN MY HUMBLE LITTLE OPINION:

10. Noel Gallgher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
It's fair to say I was pleasantly surprised by this one! But then again, it was always something I needed to give at least a few listens to, given my past musical affinity with Gallagher, or to be more precise some band he used to be in called Oasis. Anyway, as we all know Noel finally left Oasis in 2009, finding himself no longer to put up with the constant war with his dear brother Liam; this would eventually see the Oasis name retired, with the remaining members continuing as Beady Eye, and Noel putting out a stellar album under this moniker. Not too far removed from the Oasis sound, there's plenty of upbeat guitar-driven material with some great hooks, balanced out with a few more reflective slower-paced numbers. Again, a surprisingly good release!
LISTEN TO: The Death of You and Me, AKA...What a Life!, Dream On

9. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
One of the earliest releases from 2011, it's nonetheless obviously made an impression as it's managed to carry itself through the year and have its high quality music stand up alongside all the other brilliant tunes that came along after it. Colin Meloy and his troupe of alt-folk-rocking friends have decided to simplify a bit on this album, cutting back on the lengthy songs and longwinded (but enjoyable!) concepts that have been a noteable feature of the two previous Decemberists albums The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife. It's all still a very enjoyable listen; Meloy clearly hasn't lost his lyrical eloquence, nor his amazing voice, as he tells those stories as only he can in the form of song.
LISTEN TO: This is Why We Fight, Down By the Water, Dear Avery, June Hymn

8. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events

Who would've thought that losing their drummer of 25 years could actually inspire a band to release one of their best albums in quite some time?! With the departure of Mike Portnoy, drummer and one of the two major creative forces behind Dream Theater, in late 2010, many were sceptical of how the band would recover from such a blow. That, coupled with the fact that Dream Theater have arguably been on musical autopilot over the past few albums they've released, meant that many fans of the band were going to treat this album with caution. However, once the new album arrived, there was a genuine sense of surprise in the air that Dream Theater had managed to shake off such a loss and still create an album that sounded fresh and inspired. Though nobody would deny that Dream Theater have slipped comfortably into their sound over their career and that this album is certainly going to sound familiar, on this particular album the ideas seem to be flowing a lot more than than on some of their previous albums. It's a solid album for a band that perhaps some were starting to give up on! I know I wasn't expecting to give this one a top 10 spot here!
LISTEN TO: Build Me Up, Break Me Down, Bridges in the Sky, Outcry

7. A Lonely Crowd - User Hostile

Here's a band I would never have been expecting to place in this countdown, as they're still a relatively underground group from my hometown of Melbourne, and one would think that their material just wouldn't have demanded the same attention as releases from other, more established, acts. However, I've thoroughly enjoyed the handful of live performances I've seen this extremely talent four-piece do, and when this album was released, I thought it might be something I'd enjoy - but not this freakin' much! A Lonely Crowd is the brainchild of the two Ancell brothers, Luke on guitar and Scott on drums, who have been going since 2008 with a variety of musicians getting involved in the lineup at various points. They've finally settled on the immensely talented David Morkunas on bass and keys and Xen Pow on vocals and flute. This album contains recordings from across their career however, so you still get to hear former band members Leah Ceff and Shane Lieber popping up on various tracks, as well as some handy guest vocals from Ennis Tola mainman Tomas Fitzgerald on one track! The band describes themselves as "experimental progressive-acidmath", which despite sounding a little ridiculous, is a good way of describing a sound that has many twists and turns - steadily rocking one minute, gentle the next, absolutely all-out thrashing metal madness the next! Recent live sets have featured a whole lot of new tracks, and the Crowd are currently recording their second album - who knows where they're going to go after this one!
LISTEN TO: Bipolar Bear, ADJustify, Barbed Haywire, Tyranny of Dissonance

6. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life

Ah yes, we are now truly in the business end of things, with an album that received almost unanimous critical praise and earned the Canadian hardcore group a whole new audience. Despite being a pretty sonically abrasive act in the past (and with a ridiculously intense live show to match), on this album Fucked Up try their hand at some new, slightly more accessible ideas - and it's all presented in the form of a concept album, a love story between David and Veronica. You'd never know a band with a name like that could create something so catchy, so melodic and yet still retaining plenty of the intensity that the group have been previously known for. It really was the album that put the boys and girl on the musical map last year, and Australia was blessed to have them tour here twice!
LISTEN TO: The Other Shoe, Turn the Season, Running on Nothing

5. Fair to Midland - Arrows & Anchors

I was a bit late in getting this one; despite persistent recommendations/reminders from a great friend of mine whose musical opinion is ALWAYS one I value, it just didn't make its way into my collection until the very end of the year. Nevertheless, as you can see it's made quite an impression! The progressive rock/metal sound is one that always pleases my ears, and with Fair to Midland, it's nice to see them throwing some new ideas into the mix, including some folk-ish experimentation and some truly varied and impressive vocals (Rikki Tikki Tavi anyone?). Considering I hold bands such as Dream Theater, Karnivool and Dead Letter Circus very dear to my musical heart, this just seemed like a band I should have gotten into years ago! And they've JUST announced an Australian tour, count me in!
LISTEN TO: Short Haired Tornado, A Loophole in Limbo, Rikki Tikki Tavi, Golden Parachutes

4. Floating Me - Floating Me

Ah yes, a band that I've given quite a bit of attention on this blog (and my contributions to Fan Made Recordings as well), and with good reason, given that the five blokes involved with Floating Me have all made themselves a name with other musical endeavours that I've enjoyed in the past. Namely, the musical recipe that is Floating Me is made of three parts Scary Mother, one part Karnivool and one part Cog! Tasty! After a good response to first single Sugar, released in late 2010, 2011 was the year when Floating Me really began to take off in their own right, as they began the year touring with the likes of Shihad and Dead Letter Circus, then released their debut album and headed off on a few very successful headlining ventures! The album itself is quite a mixed bag of sounds; there's plenty of dark and brooding atmosphere present on the likes of Deathless and Xtoto, while upbeat numbers such as Narke and Breaking to Breathe show off this band's incredible rhythm section of Jon Stockman (Karnivool) on bass and Lucius Borich (ex-Cog) on drums! Throwing off the ties to their other work, this album and the live shows they performed throughout the year really showed that Floating Me just might be one of the most exciting acts to come out of this Aussie heavy/prog/rock scene in some time!
LISTEN TO: Narke, Bezhumous, Breaking to Breathe, Across the Gulf

3. Gotye - Making Mirrors

If you have ANY interest in music whatsoever, and live in Australia, then Gotye is a name you probably heard quite a bit in the year 2011, no matter how much you tried to avoid/deny it. It was a mammoth year for the man known to his parents as Wally de Backer, as the second single from his third album, Somebody That I Used to Know, propelled him to far greater heights of fame than he'd previously reached. Well, other than that particular song, the album served as a worthy follow-up to the critically-acclaimed (but not quite as commercially successful, let's not deny it!) Like Drawing Blood. With a five-year gap between albums, it was going to be interesting to see what Wally delivered this time, but his idiosyncratic cut-and-paste style of sample-based composition remained firmly intact on this recording! Yep, on here you can find plenty of musical ground covered, from the smooth jazzy groove of Smoke and Mirrors, to the outrageous 60s-esque pop of I Feel Better, to the outright bizarre sample-driven State of the Art - which just happens to be a song entirely about an organ! Ahh, Mr de Backer, Wally, Gotye, whatever, where will you go next?!
LISTEN TO: State of the Art, I Feel Better, Eyes Wide Open, Bronte

2. Battles - Gloss Drop

Battles' last album Mirrored was one that I enjoyed a HELL of a lot. I enjoyed it so much that when it got to the end of the year 2007 and the time came for me to do my beloved end-of-year chart, I placed that particular disc at POSITION NUMERO UNO. Not like my opinion actually counts for anything, but yeah, in that year I just thought that album particularly ruled (and it had one hell of a competitor in a certain prog-rock/metal album...). Anyway, fast-forward four years and well what do you know, Battles have released their long-awaited second album! But there's been one pretty big change happen in the band - vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton left during the recording of this follow-up, deciding for whatever reason that Battles just wasn't the band for him anymore. Fair enough. Nevertheless, Ian Williams (guitars/keys), Dave Konopka (bass/guitar) and John Stanier (drums) decided that Battles was still the band for them, and kept on keeping on to finish this longplayer. And I think we can safely say thank God they did, for this album is sheer brilliance! It's really the kind of album you would have expected them to make; it's a perfectly natural follow-up to Mirrored, with plenty of their trademark mathy noodling and electronic-ish loopy experimentalism present and accounted for. They've even managed to keep vocals present, although not quite in the band - outside help was called for, and Matias Aguayo, Gary Numan, Kazu Makino and Yamantaka Eye responded! All in all, there was a pretty high level of anticipation and expectation for this one in the music community, but Battles managed to deliver and then some!
LISTEN TO: Sundome, My Machines, Futura, Wall Street

It's now time for the big one, and from the moment it was released somewhere in the middle of the year, I knew that it'd take something pretty special to dethrone this one from its position at the top - unsurprisingly, nothing did. But what was it, you ask...

1. sleepmakeswaves - ...and so we destroyed everything
Holy mother of God, what an album. The Sydney post-rocking foursome have been doing their thing and doing it very well since their inception in 2006, but it's been a slow ride in terms of studio releases up until now. There's been a demo, an EP and a split with Tangled Thoughts of Leaving. But it's certainly been quality over quantity and the group have won themselves many fans and lots of positive feedback - and it all resulted in quite a lot of anticipation for this, sleepmakeswaves very first full length album. It's been a long time coming, but my goodness it has been worth it; post-rock is becoming a little overdone for some people, but then again, they probably just haven't heard albums like this. A very large part of post-rock is the extreme variance in dynamics, and sleepmakeswaves certainly know what they're doing in this department. Opener to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest (one of many delightful titles on this here album) begins with almost inaudible synth sounds before, without warning, a shrill burst of rapid fire musical mayhem EXPLODES out of nowhere, and then things settle down again, and then things get louder - and so on, and so forth. Elsewhere, the band's command of electronics and glitches are also given a healthy workout here - see the beautiful interlude-ish piece our time is short but your watch is slow for that - and when the album finally reaches it breathtaking conclusion in the title track, there's even vocals. Is there anything this album cannot do?!
LISTEN TO: a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest, ...and so we destroyed everything

SO. It took quite a while, but we finally fucking got there! 2011 was a bit of a slow year for me in terms of discovering new music, but as you can certainly see, there were still a few quality releases that pleased my ears immensely. And as always, not everything can make the top 10! Here is, in no particular order, a list of honourable mentions!
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Tao of the Dead
Absu - Abzu
Alarum - Natural Causes
Art vs Science - The Experiment
Black Devil Yard Boss - Black Devil Rising
Frenzal Rhomb - Smoko at the Pet Food Factory
Geamala - Forking Paths
La Dispute - Wildlife
Laura - Twelve Hundred Times
Mastodon - The Hunter
Meniscus - War of Currents
Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning
TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage
Whew! There was quite a few of those. Maybe I need to do a top 20 next year? We shall see!

Moving along then, to the top five EPs of 2011! They were...
5. The Khyber Belt - The Khyber Belt
4. I Am Duckeye - Die
3. Heirs - Hunter
2. Solkyri - No House
1. [Me] - Naked
(Again, all Australian acts!)

Top five songs of the year:
5. Fair to Midland - Short Haired Tornado
4. Battles - Sundome
3. [Me] - Like a Fox
2. sleepmakeswaves - a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun
1. Sheriff - What You Want
(because I can!)

Best live release:
Engine Three Seven - Becoming Atmosphere DVD

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"People won't be people when they hear this sound" - Battles, Forum Theatre, 28/01/2012

New York math-rock experimentalists Battles have certainly found a solid footing in Australia, touring this country on several occasions prior to this year and selling out many of their shows. The group were last on our shores in 2009 as part of the Vivid Festival in Sydney, but since then, a few important events have taken place within the Battles world. Perhaps the most notable of these was the departure of founding vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Tyondai Braxton, who wanted to take a bit of a break from the band, and so amicably departed during the recording sessions for their sophomore album. But the remaining members – Ian Williams, Dave Konopka and John Stanier – pressed on as a trio, and in 2011 released an absolute beauty of an album entitled Gloss Drop. In Braxton’s absence, the group kept the album mostly instrumental, but for a few songs called upon the talents of a rather impressive cast of guest vocalists – Matias Aguayo, Gary Numan, Kazu Makino and Yamantaka Eye no less! Now, with a returning slot on the 2012 Big Day Out lineup, Williams, Konopka and Stanier dropped by the Forum on a Saturday night to treat their Melbournian fans to something a little more intimate and longer!

Up first on the bill was Melbourne electronic performer Mathew Watson, under the moniker Other Places. On stage left, Williams took care of the synthesizers and electronic-based side of things, while his friend Dave Williams proved himself to be quite handy with the drumkit in the centre of the stage. It was a real shame that Other Places suffered the typical “opening act” effect – that is, there was hardly anyone in the room while they were performing, and those that were there didn’t seem like they were too fazed or affected in any way by the music coming from the stage and PA. However, Watson’s sounds proved very enjoyable, as he delivered a short but sweet set of glitchy electronica that certainly didn’t seem out of place on the bill considering the headlining act. The sound of the PA was absolutely massive too, with some of the heavier frequencies being heard and felt in equal measures. This guy has the potential to go places (pun slightly intended).

There seems to be quite a few people singing the praises of Melbournians Witch Hats at the moment, which was perhaps how they got themselves noticed and got the honour of supporting Battles. However, they didn’t really seem to be the ideal band suited to this particular occasion, and they too received a polite but mostly lukewarm response from the growing crowd. It would be foolish and indeed, blatantly incorrect to say that the band aren’t talented, but their indie/garage sounds just didn’t match the band they were opening for, and it all sounded a little same-old same-old, given that the headlining act for the evening have made a name for themselves for being sonically groundbreaking and a little bit “out there”. This is one band that would definitely be better enjoyed on a boozy weekend night with a lineup of likeminded acts at a venue such as, say, the Tote or the Workers, rather than opening for an international math-rock band at the Forum. But to their credit, they took to the occasion with enthusiasm and vigour, delivering a solid set that gradually got more interesting, but still not interesting enough. For their last song, there was a quick set-up of a keyboard on one side of the stage, which was then played by a previously unseen guest. This all seemed a bit pointless really for only one song, but then again, a few people in the crowd were probably secretly glad that the set had finally come to an end and the focus could finally shift to the headlining act.

Two video screens sandwiched between a wall of amps flickered into life, and the crowd reacted suitably, as three blokes made their way to the rather impressive array of instruments in the centre of stage. With a familiar loop making its way into the mix, it was Gloss Drop opener Africastle that opened the set tonight, and right from the word go it became obvious that Battles were well on their game tonight and were easily going to live up to the expectations that the crowd were placing upon them due to their previous reputation. Williams and Konopka looked suitably busy even in just the opening minutes – in Williams’ case he’d be playing away on his guitar one minute, before abruptly throwing it behind his back to juggle various keyboard and electronic duties. On the other side of the stage, Konopka spent a large portion of the set on the floor playing with pedals, as well as switching between guitar and bass even in mid-song.

Obviously the band are unable to tour everywhere with the Gloss Drop guest vocalists, but as Africastle gave way to Sweetie & Shag, the crowd was introduced to Battles’ simple yet effective way of making sure the vocalists’ presences were still felt in the live situation. Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino appeared on the video screens in pre-recorded form, delivering her vocal lines to the song in perfect accompaniment to the trio who were recreating the song on stage. The band would use this trick a few more times throughout the evening – namely with Matias Aguayo on Ice Cream, and Gary Numan on My Machines. It’s always fun to see a band perform songs a little differently onstage than they did on their album, and Sweetie & Shag and Ice Cream had some very interesting extended outros. And of course, in Braxton’s absence, the pair of older songs that made it into the set were given something of a sonic makeover. An early rendition of Atlas, which saw the crowd understandably lose their shit as soon as those recognisable riffs made their way into the mix over Stanier’s unrelenting metronomic assault, saw Braxton’s pitch-shifted vocal wackiness replaced with what sounded like a children’s choir. Though this new approach to the song was a bit unexpected, for the most part it still sounded like the song that the fans know and love from the group’s immensely popular debut album Mirrored, and it got probably the biggest reaction on the night. Another popular track from Mirrored, Tonto, was stripped-back and not performed to its full studio length, however unlike Atlas it was debatable whether this new version of the track worked well with the crowd.

All through the night, there seemed to be absolutely no faulting the performance of the three people onstage – at some points of the set, it wasn’t clear whether those were indeed humans up there, as their musicianship frequently reached robot-like levels, especially in the case of Stanier. No matter how complex the loops got, no matter how many layers of sound were layered upon other layers of sound, Battles just refused to fuck up. Finally though, as Gary Numan appeared on the video screen to sing My Machines, it was technical difficulties that threatened to derail an otherwise flawless performance. Williams struggled furiously with his pair of keyboards, but during most of the song, it seemed that he could not get any sound out of them and at one point a technician had to quickly dash onstage to attempt to fix the problem – which he apparently did. By the end of the song though, it seemed all was rectified, and the trio brought it home with a solid rendition of Futura, the video screens featuring a clever animated display of the pink mess that adorns the Gloss Drop album cover.

An encore at this point seemed a little unnecessary, but the crowd certainly weren’t complaining about the chance to have more Battles in their life, and Williams and Konopka kicked it all off with a feedback-drenched introduction to the concluding track on Gloss Drop, the sonic behemoth that is Sundome, before being rejoined by Stanier after a few minutes (no doubt he needed a bit of extra time to recover!) Though unfortunately this particular track would not feature the vocalist-on-the-screen technique (a real shame, as this song features the amazing Yamantaka Eye from Boredoms), it was still a stellar way to conclude the evening, as the band delivered a delightfully wacky extended version of what’s already a slightly longer than average track! At last, it was all over, and as the band departed the stage, the rapturous crowd farewelled the band in the usual fashion, but there was an added sense of stunned amazement at what those three blokes from New York had just done.
Sweetie & Shag
Dominican Fade
Wall Street
Ice Cream
My Machines