Your Heart Will Do the Rest
509 · 19 January 08
The Best of 2007
Last year's defining moment in music, for me, was the birth of my daughter. This was also the defining moment for me in literature, cinema, food, sports, ballet, internet marketing, plate tectonics, shoe repair and punctuation, at least. Nothing else has ever been remotely as metacategorical. There is the time before she was born, and then there is me. Not quite every thing in my life now pertains to her, but they are all affected. I saw exactly one movie in a movie theater during the eight months of 2007 after her birth (and it was the one of the book from which her name comes). My reading and running and writing all paused, and resumed at vastly reduced rates under radically (albeit cheerfully) reduced expectations. I embarked upon no large technology projects for which I'm not being paid. My kayak had its winter tarp merely re-tightened at the end of the summer.
And I listened to a lot of metal. I've come back to metal every few years, ever since I first heard The Mob Rules and thought "See, I knew there was something heavier than 'Hold the Line' and 'You May Be Right'", so in some abstract sense it's possible that this is not a reaction to having a child. I inhaled a lot of Bathory and Emperor a few years ago during an extremely scattered period in which I was trying to understand way too many things at once, so I was way overdue to follow up on the related leads more attentively.
But the logistical reality is this: in my house, these days, there is usually a baby and two new parents, and much of the time at least two of those three people are operating on sleep deficits, strained senses of self-identity, tenuous napping or other conditions requiring mindfulness and/or calming distraction. Home music-selection is thus subject to newly numerous and varying constraints. But three days a week, I go to work. I kiss my constantly-amazing wife and daily-more-beautiful daughter, carefully detach my heart from their voices and discoveries, and walk the block and a half to my office. And for eight hours, more or less, I think about the semantic web and the structure of human knowledge and how to make something useful that I can explain without using the word "ontology". And I listen to metal. And I think about the semantic structure of metal discographies, and the algorithms for inferring similarity among metal bands, and the modeling implications of the interrelations of subgenres, and the proofreading nuances of the titles of metal albums, and the pseudonymous onomastics of Norwegian Satanists. And I definitely hope these things turn out to be good examples of the kinds of universal information problems that we have to solve to solve the climate crisis and world inequity and human ignorance, but those are real problems, and if I had to test my new tools on them, I'd never know when the tools are done. Whereas when we screw up the track overlaps on Cradle of Filth albums, I can explain what the answers are supposed to be, and maybe figure out how to tell a machine to reach them.
In deference, then, to my profoundly bifurcated 2007 listening (and not incidentally to the fact that I vote in two year-end music polls but know I'll be using the software from my professional life to collate them), this year I made two lists, split by genre. The old me would have said this is cheating, and would have spent hours finding subtle ways of rationalizing an interleaved unification. The new me would rather spend that time running circles around my living room with my daughter on my shoulders shrieking and pounding on the top of my head. She can learn to bang her head later.
Nightwish: Dark Passion Play
Metal is a single genre in at least some sense, as I can pretty easily tell what I think is in or out of it, but it subsumes essentially a complete emotional sub-spectrum. Slice music's genre-space by existential aesthetics, instead of guitar timbre, and Nightwish would be in with Runrig and Roxette. Dark Passion Play is a doomed proposition in ebullience, the album on which a band inextricably defined by the irreplaceable voice of the singer they fired are forced to be some new themselves. And incredibly, bravely, brilliantly, they do not lose Tarja's ice-precise technique, they let it go. In its place, they have a singer. A good singer, but one who is probably not deferring an opera career. One who won't be able to sing the old songs so they sound like they used to.
But she sings the new songs like a life-force. More crucially, Anette sings them like a part of the band's life-force. Tarja's voice had to be framed. I know why they said they fired Tarja, but this is why they should have fired her. They must have known, must have at least sensed what was possible. And given the chance to start over, they pour into this record everything they have, and then, for good measure, what sounds like most of the rest of Finland. The chorus of "Amaranth" is the closest I heard music come this year to reproducing my own personal euphoria, and the rest of the album swells and crashes around it like a storm of origin. This may be overblown genre music, but it also may be the greatest evocation of musical maximalism since Beethoven's Ninth. A very primal part of me does not understand why this music does not make every human who hears it feel specifically and individually invited to living transcendence.
Deathspell Omega: Fas - Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum
If Nightwish are boundlessly life-affirming, Deathspell Omega are way out near, at least superficially, the opposite end of the rapturist/nihilist spectrum. If I am perversely sure that really everyone should love Nightwish if they were honest with themselves, I'm correspondingly almost completely mystified as to why anybody would enjoy Deathspell Omega. The music is arrhythmically churning, obliquely cacophonic and paced like a complex eternal torment whose anti-redemptive plan is so far-reaching that your inability to fathom it may be the most excruciating and enduring part of the torture. The vocals are done in a mutated monster growl that sounds less "I'm going to chew off your eyes" and more "I already ate you and your entire worldview, and now I'm going to patiently convince you that it was objectively necessary to do so." This album is not aggressive or rousing, it's methodical and certain. It took me a couple weeks of borderline-morbid dedication to feel like I was beginning to hear it as music, rather than just smashing into it and then walking around confused and blank for a while. I think this is actually the correct, and maybe inevitable, experience of it. It is an obelisk against gaudier idols. "Enjoy" isn't the word. I do invite these sounds into my life, repeatedly, and I feel like something important is slowly being molded into a rougher, simpler, more powerful shape inside me as a result of listening to it. "Enjoy" is more trivial than that.
Rotting Christ: Theogonia
"Rotting Christ" is a bad name for a band. Bad enough that I'd long assumed it represented rank stupidity attempting to proactively offend people in order to avoid having to challenge them with anything substantive. So: 2007 was the year I finally bothered to go listen to a whole bunch of bands I'd inanely written off based on their idiotic names. And thus the year when I realized how much time I've missed when I could have been listening to, especially, Rotting Christ and Cradle of Filth. CoF's Thornography should clearly have been on my 2006 list, but I can only make amends forward. Theogonia is like a Sisters of Mercy album born not of comic-book goth drama but the original mythological malediction from which modern bombastic gloom is distantly derived, or the album Zamfir had to make when the devils called in the debt he owed for his Mastery, or the gleeful marching songs to which the hosts of Hell will issue triumphantly forth from their opened fortress gates.
In This Moment: Beautiful Tragedy
I spent much of the year feeling like I was catching up with (or vainly pursuing) things, but at least I can claim one discovery, one debut album I spotted on a new-release list and, knowing nothing but its name, spent the :30 to see what it sounded like. Discoveries should all have this character: surprise, shock, awe, devotion. In This Moment are frantic, gnashing and explosively anthemic, like the furious evil spirit missing from the later Berlin and Missing Persons albums, locked up somewhere since then getting more pissed off and stronger by the year.
Dir en grey: THE MARROW OF A BONE
The Japanese do, in fact, draw the genre-lines differently, and Dir en grey are usually considered to be part of Visual Kei, which translates to "glam" in only the kind of pointless form-literalism with which you might say that The Simpsons are Anime. Piecewise they're sort of a jazz-less progressive-metal band with frequent thrash-punk impulses, but no Western band assigned those instructions would ever come up with something that feels like you're being propelled through the future by a righteously-vindictive escaped Dance Dance Revolution robot kicking you repeatedly in the head.
Wolves in the Throne Room: Two Hunters
Death metal re-imagined as a druid liturgy against, or maybe for, the volcanic Earth purging its surfaces.
Jesu: Conqueror + Lifeline
Dream-metal, and the rare understanding that sleep is unsentimental.
Asrai: Pearls in Dirt
Change nothing but the production and guitar-processing and you could probably make Asrai sound like In Tua Nua or Scandal or Garbage. But change nothing at all and you can hear why a band with the craft to be pop stars might opt for something with greater ambition and grander scope. "Sour Ground" could be a 25th-anniversary homage to "Harvest Home", and I've been trying to teach my daughter, while she's still young enough that I don't yet have to explain in anything but movements, how something can be unbearably sad and exquisitely wonderful at once.
Secrets of the Moon: Antithesis
A lot has changed in metal since Paranoid, but Secrets of the Moon come the closest, to me, to relocating the wandering centerpoint of metal, where it's still more heavy than fast or violent or doomed, and where Evil is mostly a defiant way to say "awake".
Dark Tranquillity: Fiction
I loved the new Dream Theater and new Dimmu Borgir albums, but Dark Tranquillity trumped them both by combining them, Dream Theater's inexhaustible energy and melodic sweep with Dimmu Borgir's pulverizing concision and obliterative roar.
But take away my metal half-life and there's more than enough left for a whole life. Take away all my technology and dreams of connected data, and I have a baby who smiles when she sees me. Take away my metal records and obsessions and I have a year in which I found fewer new artists that moved me more than the ones I already knew, but so many great new records by old favorites that I'm not totally sure which is cause and which is effect.
Tori Amos: American Doll Posse
I feel vaguely bad about saying, for about the eighty-third time, that Tori Amos has once again made the best album of the year, but beyond repeatedly raising my own expectations to hopelessly unrealistic levels by a program of relentless hyperbolic praise of each of her records in turn, I don't really see what else I can do to keep from being overwhelmed by each new one. I already said that Scarlet's Walk, which isn't even most people's favorite Tori record, is the greatest album ever, so everything else has to pale in comparison, you'd think. But then she makes a 23-song album sung from five different character-perspectives I can't hear as anything but Tori, and here we are. American Doll Posse is basically 69 Love Songs rewritten, in a third of the length, from the survivors' point of view. Genres are donned and trashed and recycled into hats. Songs spin away and snap off and sneer and smirk and suddenly are inside my self. Every new album I start off thinking that she's finally resorted to faking her private-language evasiveness in some cheap form hasn't really had its rules worked out, and then something clicks and I realize for the eighty-fourth time that it's still our same half-assed, heart-wounded, spirit-lost language she's speaking, and it's painfully telling that when you pour enough truths into it it invariably begins sounding like code. But this is how we break its bad rules to find out how to say what we most desperately need to understand.
Low: Drums and Guns
More noises and more instruments and more words, and yet every record gets Low even closer to the perfect fury of silence. There was no more chilling moment for me in last year's music, or maybe any year's, than listening to "Murderer" on headphones, loud, in the dark, and hearing Alan tell God "I've seen you pound your fist into the earth" in only my right ear. Stereo may never have mattered more. And it's only one more rotation to get to the elusive third channel that goes straight through us without ever being heard.
Runrig: Everything You See
28 years in, and past the point where I was even thinking there'd be more, and then Runrig make maybe their most straightforwardly buoyant record of all, and maybe the only one that truly manages to recreate, in the studio, the effortless joy that Once in a Lifetime recorded live beside Loch Lomond. (Including, as if that wasn't enough, a paean to weekend amateur curling that I suspect is the truest and greatest ever song about sports.)
Manic Street Preachers: Send Away the Tigers
The magnificent, uncluttered, open-hearted, long-delayed and circuitously-returned-to sequel to Gold Against the Soul, and maybe enough that they are once again my nomination for the world's best rock band.
Jimmy Eat World: Chase This Light
Manic Street Preachers have history and loss over Jimmy Eat World, but Jimmy Eat World would be my current alternates. Chase This Light is a shimmery marvel, a record of night walks through Pyrrhic freedom towards distant lights, trophies for partial victories, and dance-songs for tantalizingly lingering loneliness.
Maxïmo Park: Our Earthly Pleasures
If Blur or Oasis had sounded like this, I'd have understood why people cared.
Parts & Labor: Mapmaker
It's still generally a pretty good idea to find out whether a robot is epileptic before inviting it to join your band.
Radiohead: In Rainbows
The brilliant idea wasn't letting fans decide what to pay, it was letting Thom Yorke go make a solo album and then reincorporating everything he learned and unlearned back into an iteratively fragile and mesmerized and human recursion of the band. Tantalizingly close to a Spirit of Eden for the brokenly linear and hummingly indoor.
What you get from the inspired misunderstanding that conducting music is the same process as conducting laboratory research, with the same cadences and ends.
OLIVIA: "Stars shining out" (from The Cloudy Dreamer)
Damone: "Revolution!" (MLS promotional track)
I guess I'm casting an implicit vote for music-distribution progress by counting In Rainbows as a 2007 release, but everything else on my album list I bought on plastic discs, just like my ancestors did in the homeland. I don't know if I can keep record stores alive long enough for my daughter to see what it used to be like, but I'm no longer even sure how much longer I will bother to try. My two favorite stray hyperpop gems of the year were a low-fi listen-to-this download of a song by a singer famous for anime credits music and fronting Jean Michel Jarre's ghastly France 98 theme, and the New England entry in Adidas' inexplicable genre-gazetteer soccer-promo series. Even the music that's killing music makes me happy, so I guess it really doesn't matter. And anyway, I only listened to my parents' music until I realized I could go find my own, and if my daughter doesn't have to send away to Japan to hear what it sounds like on the other side of the planet, maybe it means her world will be larger than mine.
L'Arc~en~Ciel: "Seventh Heaven" (from KISS)
FINE LINES: "Spin Into Love" (from substratosphere)
But a part of me fears that I'll be telling her dull old stories not of how it used to be different than it is, but of how there used to be difference at all. It still doesn't quite sound the same on the other side of the planet, but I can't ever be entirely sure whether I'm cherishing the remaining differences for their stubborn magnitude or their vanishing speed.
Manic Street Preachers: "Boxes & Lists" (from Your Love Alone Is Not Enough single)
Editors: "Bones" (from An End Has a Start)
But if we love everything we ever loved, it must be possible to start over from any moment,
Epica: "Fools of Damnation (The Embrace That Smothers, Part IX)" (from The Divine Conspiracy)
Eyes of Eden: "Sleeping Minds" (from Faith)
or to find something perfect in any flaw.
Bat for Lashes: "Prescilla" (from Fur and Gold)
Camera Obscura: "Alaska" (from If Looks Could Kill single)
I will show her how to dance to quiet.
Sigur Rós: "Hliómalind" (from Hvarf/Heim)
Amon Tobin: "The Killer's Vanilla" (from Foley Room)
I will take her to shatter frozen shapes, and then teach her to leave them whole.
Candlemass: "Clearsight" (from King of the Grey Islands)
Dimmu Borgir: "The Conspiracy Unfolds" (from In Sorte Diaboli)
I will forgive her her judgment of my brutality.
Diary of Dreams: "hypo)crypticK(al" (from Nekrolog 43)
Ulrich Schnauss: "Medusa" (from Goodbye)
Some days nothing terrifies me more than not knowing how to make sure she hears her music. But then, I don't really have methods for finding my own, and somehow I always manage to come across it more or less everywhere.
Samael: "Suspended Time" (from Solar Soul)
Sirenia: "Sundown" (from Nine Destinies and a Downfall)
But we don't have to prove we're happy to be happy, and we don't, ultimately, have to defend our loves by any rational standard.
Tarja: "Die Alive" (from My Winter Storm)
Helloween: "As Long As I Fall" (from Gambling With the Devil)
We just have to cultivate our own foolishnesses until we're proud of it.
Life Without Buildings: Live at the Annandale Hotel
And then remember why.