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Lay Down (With) Your Armor
The Best of 2009
For yet another year I have lived two musical lives, one ever deeper into obscure mazes of metal, one out in the sunshine and warm air. Nothing feels contradictory about this: I'd live three or four more musical lives at once if I had the time. I'd happily live parallel lives in other aspects of my existence if there were ways. Life is short, so of course we want it to be wider.
But what I realize, really only as I compile these lists, is that my metal and non-metal lives are not so much parallel as perpendicular. My metal top-10 this year has 7 bands I'd never heard of before 2009, two more I knew and disliked, and just one band that has ever made one of these lists before. For a temperamentally obsessive emotional completist who still basically loves everything I've loved since I was 12 or so, this is borderline dumbfounding. Hopefully it's a combined testament to my own openness and the way the web has mostly eliminated any necessary logistical distinction between "heard of them" and "heard them". If I'd had to buy CDs to hear these bands, I'd have found one or two of them, or quite possibly none. And without them, I'd still have had no trouble making a list I felt just as strongly about, but there's no way to unlove, or at least no way I know or want to. I have always been convinced that there is more music I would love, farther in every direction I have looked, but I'm not sure I've ever felt as empirically justified in this belief.
And meanwhile, away from metal, I've also had a great listening year in which I could easily make a replacement top-10 if everything on this one mysteriously vanished. But almost nothing on either list was new to me. One band I'd forgotten about, one I hadn't previously loved. Basically, I heard lots of great music that wasn't metal this year, but I didn't discover much. That thread of my year was receptive and curious, but mostly not exploratory. And so there is probably music I didn't hear that I would have loved as much as some of these records.
But that, of course, was always the case. I have found the time to love these things. I have found these sounds to be worthy of my time, which is a finite resource, and my love, whose boundaries I have occasionally thought I'd distantly seen, and always been wrong.
Albums (Metal)
Madder Mortem: Eight Ways
Genres are vectors, not shapes. They do not, at least the living ones, draw delineations between what is and what isn't, but rather trajectories towards and away. There are guitar timbres and cadences that are correlated with metal, but also songs with those features that no more belong to Metal than I was Estonian for three days in Tallinn. And bands with a hundred other influences and inclinations that I can instantly recognize as part of my version of this elusive idea.
And thus my favorite metal album, this year, coalesces out of a dozen different shadows, Fugazi minimalism wound tensely around Rush's expansive confidence, or Vernon Reid's buzzsaw guitar skittering off the jump-cut fractures of Chicks on Speed, or Janis Joplin and Tommy Iommi hijacking Life Without Buildings, or frost giants with the dexterity of Pixies. I hear Cynic playing Cowboy Junkies, and Enslaved backing Mecca Normal, and then a sudden vision of how Crimson would fare with a queen.
For moments, Eight Ways follows all these lines and others, and then always moments later Agnete Kirkevaag tears them diving away again, into gypsy tailspin or fight-song fervor or gnashing fractals of defiance. For an hour, it seems almost painfully clear to me that everything I've ever loved leads to this, and there's some chaos topology in which terrifyingly straight lines run from Ray Charles to Kate Bush to FSOL to some tiny seam on the back of my skull through which invisible wires patch directly into my sense of besieged humanity. For an hour at a time, repeated as often as I can bear, I remember precisely what draws me here, metal not as fantasy or escape, but as a relentless grip on writhing truth, and a celebration of irreducible complexity tantamount to sacred ritual.
Secrets of the Moon: Privilegivm
It is an essential component of the ingenious insularity of metal, and I do not mean this in any way glibly, that a lot of it seems wildly ridiculous. In an increasingly connectedly claustrophobic world, with vanishing latency between rebellion and commodification, alienating people is pretty much the only reliable way to block out any aesthetic breathing space. The difficult second-order trick, of course, is alienating people without becoming defined by them in the process. Thus the migration from the confrontational forms of speed- and thrash- and death-metal into the threateningly occult. If you can't shock people into being afraid of what you'll do to them, you might still be able to scare them into fearing what you'll convince them to do to themselves.
So the cheerfully pointless orthographic substitution of "v" for "u", and the luminously hollow apple on the black cover of Privilegivm, and the solemn half-intelligible liturgical intonations of "chop down the tree of life" and "the gods will know your name" all aspire to the provoke, I think, the same puzzled shudders once engendered by the garish underbrush of Black Sabbath. There's no easy violence to explain this as reaction or hyperbole. Whatever secrets the moon has, surely airlessness renders them moot. Surely. But in a year when Sabbath themselves were stomping around in gleaming uniforms, however relogoed, Secrets of the Moon were again, for me, truer heirs to their original spirit of wakeful darkness. I owe my life in metal to Iommi and Dio as much as I owe anything to anybody I've never met, but The Devil You Know is self-declaratively complacent, metal as a template theme, not a philosophy.
And not that I can quote verses of literal inspiration from Secrets of the Moon, either. I doubt I could produce a page of coherent lyrical transcription from memory from all these albums put together, honestly, even allowing that some of them are in languages I don't speak. But the hollow apple is there to suggest that the tree of knowledge was never more than a convenient pretext for layoffs, anyway. The great insight instantiated in the idea of evil, and in all this music that flaunts nominal lineage from darkness and doubt, is that there is no such divide. There are no forbidden secrets, in the moon or anywhere else. These anti-temples and beautiful ominous monuments are erected on the sites of myths to say that we are free to inhabit what we are supposed to fear.
Thy Catafalque: Róka Hasa Rádió
Or else we cling to the idea of a dark side because we need so badly for there to be somewhere other than this. Thus the appeal of Avatar, obviously, a movie that desperately needed to better understand the component of alienation in "alien". I loved the experience of being taken to Pandora for 162 minutes, but I hated that by the end there was nothing shocking about taking off the glasses again. So much exquisite imagination of the physical detail of another place, so much canned exaltation of souls, and yet so little depth of either humanity or non-humanity, and so little empathy for any idea that there could be souls in other forms that there might as well have been no characters at all. In fact, excise the humans and the Na'vi both, right from the first draft of the script, and Avatar might have grown into something worth, to us as a society, the absurd sums we retroactively spent on it. It would challenge and nourish us to be transported into a different world, with a logic of its own. Instead, we get our own dopiest mannerisms texture-mapped onto perfunctory aliens like moral graffiti, a monumental void of inspiration and procedurally inexplicable failure of courage.
And part of what we do with music, and why music is an element where movies are an industry, is let ourselves be taken elsewhere. I don't know how much time and money went into the making of Róka Hasa Rádió, but I could easily believe it was done by two Hungarians in their spare time from day jobs cleaning trains, on balky second-hand laptops in rooms with faded posters of Xenakis slowly crumbling onto the dusty tops of once-preciously-illegal shortwave consoles. And yet, with all the money on all the planets, Avatar would never have been any better than this. Here, unless you spend your days cleaning those same trains and this is actually what they sound like, is your voyage to an elsewhere, done in a medium qualitatively better suited for it. Here, in an album about which I know essentially nothing beyond its name, and ran across in a single random sentence somebody wrote somewhere about some other band entirely, is an effortless explosion of texture and flow and transport and altered perspective, spinning filaments of folk metal and carillon and Vangelis and Zoolook and radio static and alien loudspeaker announcements into an entire involuted universe. We are already standing on the roots of our Tree of Life. We are already the strangest creatures we can imagine, and this is not the limit of our imagination, but its origin.
Antigua y Barbuda: Try Future
I listen to so much metal whose lyrics I can't understand, and often aren't even meant to, but remain ironically sensitive to particular micro-nuances of vocal personality. Or perhaps this actually makes sense: I have absorbed the text into the coherent indivisibility of the music, and so it becomes necessarily critical how it's delivered. Either way, it was the careening vocals, closer to Sunny Day Real Estate's Jeremy Enigk than any metal referent I can think of, that initially arrested another of my random scans on Antigua y Barbuda, a band so obscure I had to add them to the Encyclopaedia Metallum myself. Months later they still have no EM ratings, which is as stark a demonstration as anything of what you must accept as possible when you agree to make art. It may not matter how good it is. Or, at least, it may not immediately matter. Try Future is the album I wanted all those Trans Am records to be, a boiling, sputtering epic of restlessness, flung between post-math and tech-something and Seventh-Rule vehemence. In a less fearful world, AyB would be the new Muse.
Funeral Mist: Maranatha
"It's the blood!" wails a voice, frantically, repeatedly, and after that it gets scarier. It's not always obvious from written descriptions that Black Metal is a good idea for a subgenre: strangled muttering as the defining vocal style, drums so fast that you skip headbanging and go straight to migraines, the production fidelity of portraiture via charcoal-on-newsprint left out in hailstorms, blustering Satanism as sacramental obscurism more often than gnostic rebuttal. As with any constructed form, treat it as formula and you'll get branded mediocrity. But subgenres arise on common ground, and there's usually some reason people were coming there before being there was its own excuse. Maranatha is as comprehensive an explication of the aesthetic's potential as anything I know: a Dantean maelstrom-descent in search of the root of contemptuously conventional religious spirituality for the express and singular purpose of ripping it out of bedrock with your own teeth.
Absu: Absu
Bleak extreme metal emanates temperamentally from frozen northern wastes. Absu are from Plano. When I was in high school in Dallas, and Plano were our archrivals, the place was at least a little wastelike, and it was a bit north of us, but the metro sprawl of Dallas has long since absorbed it into the vast homogeneity, and by now if Odin lived there he'd have an Arby's franchise and a two-year-old Blackberry. But then Metallica weren't from Norway, either, and Absu have maybe come as close as anybody in a couple decades to translating the frenetic domination of Master of Puppets into a new idiom. And if I had to reduce the year in metal to a single word, it would be Absu howling "Annihilate!"
Wardruna: Runaljod - Gap Var Ginnunga
In one sense metal only by affiliation (Kvitrafn and Gaahl were both in Gorgoroth for a while), Wardruna is a conceptual experiment in adapting runic texts to acoustic ambient ritualism, doing for hidden forest glades, perhaps, what plainsong did for stone monasteries. By rights this should be little more than a 52-minute sourcebook for those murmuring 1:15 intros to drinking-metal albums that are hoping to pass off indiscipline as paganism. It's spare and slow, driven unhurriedly by pattering hand-drums, near-subvocal chanting and some sproingy thing that sounds unnervingly like the kid behind you in homeroom playing his retainer-elastic with a Bic pen-cap. But if you can accept the idea of metal as as a textural system, subject to transliteration into different levels of elaboration, then this and Funeral Mist may be practical isomorphs. Ambient Metal used to be my joke genre, but here it is, real. If Avatar was transport by force, this is isolation by removal, a sound map for the hidden vales of quiet lost magic trapped inside us.
Lifelover: Dekadens
What HIM might sound like with nihilism substituted for love, and thus an intriguing argument that maybe ultimately they're the same.
Amorphis: Skyforger
I'd given up on Amorphis years ago, so I don't know why I even bothered listening to this. But I'd manage to miss that three albums ago they got a new singer and found, either consequently or coincidentally, a whole new focus. Skyforger is the best album of unapologetic metal songs I heard this year, and maybe a singlehanded revival of the lead-hook as melodic rapturism.
Cantata Sangui: On Rituals and Correspondence in Constructed Realities
The standard advice, impossible to argue with in generality, is that you have to focus. Do fewer things, so you can do them better. But the problem with this reasonable humility is that it's reasonable, or maybe it's that it's humble. It's defensive paranoia imported from civil engineering or pulmonary surgery or something, a recipe for turning adequate competence into recognizable inoffensiveness. It's foolproofing for people who have tried to substitute dignity for inspiration, and thus forgotten the critical detail that failure is relative where silence is absolute. Foolishness is a gift, not a disease. Fearlessly foolish straight from their ridiculous debut-album title to their preposterous combination of opera-gothic solemnity and rubberband pop glee, Cantata Sangui are yet another perpendicular justification for metal. Declare yourself outcast and you have escaped.
Albums (Non-Metal)
Manic Street Preachers: Journal for Plague Lovers demos + album + remixes
Two of my Desert-Island-Disc-level favorite artists had new albums this year, and they're my #1 and #2. This wasn't quite inevitable (both have made albums I haven't liked this much), but it's hardly shocking, and I'd feel self-conscious about it if they weren't such inarguable choices.
It was the Manic Street Preachers' year, for me. The album is good enough to be here, by itself, as taut and yearning a set of rock songs as anything they've done since Gold Against the Soul. Filling a whole record with words from the facing pages of deceased lyricist Richey Edwards' notebooks is the kind of patently terrible idea the Manics turn into supremely flawed greatness. They thrive on contradictions. No, more than that. They exist through contradictions. Intense political conviction clashes against strident immaturity (being dead or missing for 14 years hasn't made Edwards' writing any more sophisticated), plangent arcs of vehemence get snapped into halves and thirds to fit into song-meter, melodies soar over conjunctions and adverbs, even the titles seem engineered to be misquoted. Little wonder they were never huge in America, where Meat Loaf proved that most people can't even parse a sentiment spread out over more than one sentence.
But Journal for Plague Lovers isn't just an album, and if you believe that flaws can be integral to greatness, hearing it expand into a whole aesthetic system is like seeing souls become visible in the air above people's heads. The cycle starts with the demos, released complete as a bonus, and I could go back and forth between the versions almost indefinitely. They're nominally sketches and then pictures, but in many cases the process seems far more like derivation than polishing.
And they came to the US, after all, this band I have loved for 18 years and had never seen. They'd played in Boston only once, on some weekday in 1996 or so when I was horrifiedly out of town, and by the time they got here, this time, on the last night of the tour, James' voice was so shot he had to let the crowd take Traci's parts on "Little Baby Nothing". But they made it, and I made it, and for a short while a lot of years of my life and theirs telescoped into a both heartbreakingly and preciously small club. Standing on a balcony, watching people I've never met singing along with songs I can play in my head, I believe again that a small, near-solipsistic bit of human frailty can contain an internal universe big enough to nurture all our hopes.
But believing this is one thing, and hearing it happen is another. There's an album of remixes. At least half of my favorite remixes were already Manic Street Preachers songs, anyway, but this is now my vote for the greatest remix album so far in history, and the most compact defense yet of the whole form. The songs change moods, speeds, genders, cadences, conclusions, conditions. In places the remixes focus the original songs by contrast, in others they carve spaces around the boundaries of what the compositions dream. Now I want to hear the band play these songs, and then let them be reremixed, and then repeat. I'm pretty sure the cycle could go around four or five more times, at least, before the returns started even marginally diminishing. And this is what we embrace as possible in order to participate in art. That we do not make it, we just give it somewhere to begin.
Tori Amos: Midwinter Graces and Abnormally Attracted to Sin
Tori Amos had another studio album this year, as well. It, too, is tantamount to an ecosystem in itself, an episodic, resolutely self-contained, idiom-neological collage of energies and personas and confessions and smirks. I don't honestly think humans get any more talented than this.
And then there's a Christmas album. As far as I'm concerned there had previously only ever been two Christmas albums worth noting as standalone artworks, Loreena McKennitt's To Drive the Cold Winter Away and Low's Christmas. Tori's well-known religious issues made the idea at least superficially provocative, but I wasn't sure I actually wanted to find out whether I could bear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" via "Happy Phantom".
But it's only after Midwinter Graces that I understand what I really think about Abnormally Attracted to Sin. What the "real" album is missing is the sound of Tori surprising herself. Those songs don't always sound like Tori knew all along where they were going, but they sound like she knew how she was going to find out. Midwinter Graces is a conversely breathtaking leap into the terrifying unknown, a glittering hymn to the realization that facing your angels is always far harder than facing your demons. With demons, if you can't understand them, you're allowed to fight them. No such alternative if the only recourse is forgiveness. In a way this is the stylistic and moral synthesis of McKennitt's scholarly distance and Low's deconstructed faith, as if maybe it isn't arbitrary that those are the two Christmas records I am drawn to, after all. And if Loreena offered me a way to appreciate something I didn't endorse, and Low showed a path towards something else I could schedule in its place, Midwinter Graces shows that both of these evasive impulses are ultimately fighting in polite disguise. You don't defeat things you fear, that only preserves and postpones them. If you want to be free of them, you have to understand them better than they understand themselves. Enemies can only ever disappear inside of you.
Idlewild: Post Electric Blues
I once said that Idlewild were the best rock band in the world, and then they promptly made a couple albums that weren't why, presumably not to spite me. My guess was that they were trying too hard to be something they thought somebody wanted them to be, which is never a great way to live, and the kind of people you fool this way make terrible friends. For Post Electric Blues Idlewild deliberately abandoned the record industry (or deliberately accepted having been abandoned by the record industry, I'm not sure and don't care which), and sound to me exactly as reinvigorated as a moral agenda could hope. They were always one of my favorite b-side bands, and here for really the first time a whole album has the energy they used to sublimate when they thought they were being graded, bouncy and uncluttered and unforced, more melancholy than roaring, more twang and chirp than slash and burn. It's neither post-electric nor blues, but then I guess I was as much to blame for mislistening as anybody; this is not an album by the world's greatest rock band. But this is its serenity, not its curse. This is the sound of a band not failing to be something else, but finding their own way again.
It Bites: The Tall Ships
Progressive rock is difficult, but progressive pop is hard. Marillion pulled it off on Misplaced Childhood, and maybe even more precisely on Holidays in Eden, but have long since sloughed into other moods. IQ made two more of my defining examples, Nomzamo and Are You Sitting Comfortably?, and had a new album this year themselves, but the one that sounded even more thrillingly like a late-80s IQ album was this surprise return by It Bites, an IQ peer last heard from when Are You Sitting Comfortably? was still new. An album for anybody who ever felt that there must be something good that Asia was a bad version of.
Bat for Lashes: Two Suns
Maybe the most deliberately ambitious record of the year, or at least the one with the surest sense of its own swirly aesthetic, and an argument that Avatar could have been done with hand-painted puppets, too. Kate Bush + Björk + Fleetwood Mac, or perhaps to Tori what Tori was to Kate.
Wheat: White Ink Black Ink
The band I would happily trade a Pazz & Jop of dull indie for, heirs at once of Big Star and Tom Petty and the Replacements and They Might Be Giants and Sloan.
Stars of Track and Field: A Time for Lions
There are lots of bands who sound like they're trying to sound like the 80s, but far too few that feel like they're trying to feel like that music made me feel.
Tegan & Sara: Sainthood
And so pop twists in wires,
Metric: Fantasies
and simmers in generator hum,
Maxïmo Park: Quicken the Heart
and corkscrews off the walls in pointy shoes, dancing with or without you.
Other Songs
Shakira: "Mon Amour" (from She Wolf)
La Quinta Estación: "Sin Salida" (from Sin Frenos)
So point the guitars outward and hold the lines,
Nargaroth: "Frühling" (from Jahreszeiten)
Eluveitie: "The Cauldron of Renascence" (from Evocation I - The Arcane Dominion)
and know that darkness is the truce between firelight and stars.
Dear Leader: "The Blue Print" (from Stay Epic)
The Sounds: "No One Sleeps When I'm Awake" (from Crossing the Rubicon)
Stand up, stand up; it matters what for, but only eventually. Stand up first.
In This Moment: "Sailing Away" (bonus track from The Dream limited edition)
Jesu: "Losing Streak" (from Opiate Sun)
We have engines of redemption, we should fear no silence.
Saros: "Acrid Plains" (from Acrid Plains)
Urna: "Sefira Malkuth" (from Iter Ad Lucem)
We have engines of intricate excavation, we should tolerate no simple lie.
David Bisbal: "Dame Tu Amor" (from Sin Mirar Atrás)
K'naan: "Fatima" (from Troubadour)
Joy and devastation are each other's shadows, and we stand between them,
Vienna Teng: "Augustine" (from Inland Territory)
Sleeping at Last: "Timelapse" (from Storyboards)
but in either direction, retreat is less a tactic of surrender than a dance move to clear some floor.
Sunn O))): "Big Church" (from Monoliths & Dimensions)
L'Acéphale: "Stahlhartes Gehäuse" (from Stahlhartes Gehäuse)
And as we flow, back again and always, into these emptied spaces like ambushing wolves,
Jewel: "Sov Gott (Sleep Well)" (from Lullaby)
The Swell Season: "I Have Loved You Wrong" (from Strict Joy)
there is always somewhere in the center to stand, and hold our hearts above us for light,
Kelly Clarkson: "I Do Not Hook Up" (from All I Ever Wanted)
OLIVIA: "Sailing free" (single)
and gather up the strands of chaos like reins, and send ourselves out again to begin.
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