Here are some other things that I really enjoyed in 2015. Some of them (the movies) you can easily track down. Others (the shows) you’ll have to work a little harder to replicate.
I saw at least 85 movies this year, roughly half in the theater & the rest at home. Here are my fifteen favorites from among the ones I saw in the theater:
I’m just old enough to remember Evel Knievel as a cultural force, but young enough to not really know that much about him, or exactly why he was so huge. After watching this documentary, I know a lot more about some of those things, although his celebrity still kind of baffles me.
This should pretty much always be watched as a double feature with JC Chandor’s Margin Call, so make sure you plan your day accordingly.
Unless you’re already a scholar of 20th-century Black Revolutionary thought, this movie will completely change your understanding of the Black Panthers, and the massive governmental effort to discredit them.
Weird, hilarious, loose; an intentional cross between House Party and Boyz N the Hood, with a little bit of Scott Pilgrim thrown in for good measure.
An all-access-granted documentary of Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s during his farewell tour. Hugely affecting even if you don’t acknowledge Campbell’s brilliance as a musician.
I have an enormous weakness for documentaries about phenomenally fashionable old ladies who tell it like it is (see also: Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel; Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me). This also has the (unhappy) distinction of being the last film Albert Maysles finished before he died.
When you’re done watching this profoundly spooky (and brilliant) movie, go ahead & watch director David Robert Mitchell’s previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, which is a quietly funny end-of-summer story set in the same suburban Detroit milieu as It Follows.
I’m aware that there are some people who don’t care for the Beach Boys, or Pet Sounds. If I had to guess, I’d guess that those people would probably also not care for this movie, in part because of all the wonderful time it spends recreating the recording sessions for so much of that brilliant music.
It is a remarkable thing, 100+ years into the history of motion pictures as an industry, to be able to say that the greatest action movie ever made just came out last year.
Director JC Chandor has made exactly three feature films, all within the past 5 years: Margin Call, an incredibly tense movie about the exact moment of the 2008 financial meltdown; All Is Lost, an almost entirely dialogue-free movie featuring 76-year-old Robert Redford alone on a slowly sinking sailboat in the middle of the ocean.
And this one, an early-80s period piece about one man’s struggle to keep his heating-oil business out of the hands of the mafia. All three of these movies are utterly gripping & completely brilliant. We are so blessed that thus far, Hollywood has continued to allow him to make the movies he wants to make, instead of the next Avengers movie.
2014 was a good year, movie-wise, but that still doesn’t excuse the award nominations snub that this movie received. David Oyelowo, in particular, was robbed.
I have this sense that nobody went to see this movie, which is a pity, because it was hilarious and good-natured and intermittently batshit crazy. Stream this one. Seriously.
The other day I was thinking about this movie and realized that it’s kind of the absolute polar opposite of The Hateful Eight. Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, stars mostly black transwomen, and is 100000x better than Tarantino’s piece of racist, misogynist trash.
Tragedy, frustration & pain have always bubbled just below the surface of Nina Simone’s music. This documentary starts to unpack all of the reasons why that is.
Just . . . just watch it. Budget a couple of hours & free yr mind & just watch it. Preferably without reading anything else about it before you do.
I don’t go out to shows as often as I used to, and nowadays when I do, they’re somewhat more likely to be seated shows, with start times closer to 7:30 than 10:30. This list definitely reflects that reality. I saw a lot more than this in 2015 (8 or 9 theatrical things, roughly 80 bands), but these are the things that stuck with me.
Alabama Shakes @ Koka Booth Amphitheatre
I knew going into this, academically, that Alabama Shakes were a great band with a phenomenal frontwoman in Brittany Howard. Now I KNOW it, know it.
Maria Bamford @ Carolina Theatre
Maria Bamford is a hero for life. The best comedy has always been about fearless self-exposure, but Maria takes it to a whole new level.
Ian William Craig @ Hopscotch
I just sat in the dark and cried for half an hour.
Davidians @ Duke Coffeehouse
Within five minutes of the start of their set, I had a new favorite Triangle guitarist in Colin Swanson-White, who fearlessly applies wacked-out chorus and other heretofore verboten effects to punkrock.
Frazey Ford with Phil Cook @ Duke Gardens
I didn’t hear Frazey Ford’s 2014 album Indian Ocean until sometime in the spring of 2015 (thanks to this brilliant video for the amazing “Done”), which is the only reason it wasn’t at the top of my 2014 list. I guess if I weren’t such a stickler, I’d have put it near the top of my 2015 list.
Anyway. Going into this show, I assumed that I had come late to the party, and that everyone else at this show was there, like me, to see Frazey. Turns out I was wrong — I was actually slightly ahead of the curve in being only 8 months behind. It was wonderful to hear Frazey — backed by Phil Cook & his Guitarheels — play her amazing music, and equally wonderful to feel everyone in the audience rocked back on their heels at the same time.
Fun Home @ Circle in the Square, NYC
Somehow, despite not being musical theatre people, we keep going to Broadway musicals. We can probably stop now, however, because nothing’s going to top this beautiful thing.
Sarah Louise @ Hopscotch
I wrote about this over on my favorite albums of the year list.
Cecile McLorin Salvant @ Baldwin Auditorium
This was the best show I saw in 2015. Everything they say about Cecile McLorin Salvant is true: her voice is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, her song selections range from the dirty blues of Bessie Smith to the high art of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes, plus a lot of golden-era vocal classics. But I was completely unprepared for her stage presence, and for her inside-out ownership of her material. She could sing it straight, or she could interpret the hell out of it, and it all Just Worked. Incredibly well. And she’s just 26.
Kamasi Washington @ MotorCo
What a crazy evening. Kamasi Washington is the name on the marquee, and on the cover of the massive 3-hour album, The Epic, that got all the attention this year. But he’s the polar opposite of the Jazz Autocrat. He took great pains to make it clear that the folks onstage were his posse, and that they all had albums in the works, like the Wu-Tang Clan of west-coast jazz funk. Everybody in the band played at least one song of their own, and Kamasi at times seemed more like the emcee than the nominal bandleader.
Kamasi’s stuff was the best, though.
Yo La Tengo @ Carolina Theatre
Still the champions. To be honest, I didn’t spend all that much time with their new album — it felt like Fakebook outtakes, or something. But this show was magical, due in large part to Dave Schramm’s guitar. YLT are still the greatest power trio of the modern era, but this classic quartet configuration was something else.
OK! Here are my top 20 albums/EPs of 2015, plus another 35 albums/EPs that are tied for 21st on the list.
20. Just Jess: The Break-Up EP
Jessica Caesar plays drums for Pink Flag, and has sat in on drums in a variety of other local bands. She has also worked the door at the Pinhook off & on practically since they opened.
At no point did I ever have the slightest inkling that she was sitting on this batch of great songs, or that she’s such a great singer. This is weird, raw soul album, dominated by bass guitar, kickdrum, and Jess’s vocals, but with lots of neat little percussion, keyboard & guitar flourishes. It’s called “The Break-Up EP” and that’s 100% accurate — this is raw emotion, without much distance. It’s remarkable to hear an album this full of soul & pain, but recorded in this kind of immediate, mid-fi, non-slick/overproduced way. Give it a spin with open ears & open mind.
19. Chrch: Unanswered Hymns
Chrch (formerly Church) are a west-coast doom band whose low-n-slow songs differentiate themselves in large part via the buried but still distinct & haunting vocals of Eva Holland.
18. Crypt Vapor: Tombe Della Citta
Are you a huge John Carpenter fan? Do you sit around obsessively refreshing his IMDB page, hoping to see a new “in production” direction credit added to his list? Or do you just love weird/classic 70s/80s action/horror soundtracks (not just John Carpenter, but other titans of the genre like Goblin)?
Well, so does a mysterious Italian? Australian? named The Death. Crypt Vapor is his (or her) band; this is their first full-length release. The song titles do a pretty good job of setting up the tone/mood of each track — the intention is clearly for us to interpret these as soundtracks to [imaginary] horror/action movies.
17. Buck Owens: When Buck Came Back, Live San Francisco 1989
By the late 80s, Buck Owens was in semi-retirement, having quit Hee Haw in 1986 (and quit making serious music years before that). But then Dwight Yoakam cajoled him into recording a duet of Buck’s “Streets of Bakersfield” for Dwight’s second album in 1988, and the song went to #1. Thoroughly rejuvenated, Buck cut an album, “Hot Dog,” and hit the road.
This live album was recorded in January of the following year at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco — his first show in the city since 1967(!!). It takes the band 3-4 songs to get into the groove, but at around the 15 minute mark, things just take off. The material is 90% vintage Buck classics, performed in crackerjack style, but the best part is actually hearing the awestruck gratitude in Buck’s voice as he thanks the crowd.
16. Boulevards: Boulevards EP
Boulevards is a dude from Raleigh named Jamil Rashad, who seems to have an improbable direct mental line to the 70s/80s funk wellspring originally tapped by Chic, Rick James, Cameo et al.
Boulevards was the breakout star of this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival, and he’s clearly bound for bigger stages.
15. Kamasi Washington: The Epic
You’ve probably read a lot about this album by now — west-coast sax player Washington did time as a sideman (sax for Chaka Khan!) as well as an arranger (chunks of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly). And then suddenly he dropped this 3-hour debut album of majestic jazz. It’s kind of all over the place — some cooking mid-size ensemble work, some more “out” material, some weird vocal pieces a la Sun Ra. The overall impression is of a genius exploding onto the scene, so full of ideas that filtering/editing would have been impossible.
14. Un: The Tomb of All Things
Un singer/guitarist Monte McCleery was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2014. He’s in remission now, but based on what I have read, there’s little question that his confrontation with mortality fed into the creation of this album. It’s almost impossible to understand what he’s singing, but there are lyrics posted online, and they’re literally all about the journey towards death.
Musically, this is low-and-slow funeral doom of the highest order. Obviously heavily influenced by their Pacific Northwest forebears Earth and sunn o))), the guitars here just sustain & sustain on endless ultra-heavy chords, and the drums, where present, are nearly as slow and controlled as Earth’s Adrienne Davies. But Monte’s hoarse, bellowed, nearly unintelligible vocals set this apart — those bands are more about transcendence and space, whereas Un are about pain, sorrow, and death.
13. Sarah Louise: Field Guide
Sarah Louise Nelson lives in the woods in the mountains of NC, about an hour outside of Asheville. She plays absolutely mesmerizing fingerstyle 12-string guitar. She happily identifies with the American Primitive tradition, although based on her interviews she’s also a highly curious & wide-ranging listener to all kinds of music, and has actually apparently been woodshedding with a 4-piece band to put together some extended psych jams based on her songs.
Sarah’s writing process starts with her making up a new tuning, and then she sees where her fingers take her. She has spoken in interviews about the power of the drone, and its relation to natural sounds, so her tunings tend to take advantage of the opportunities presented by 12 strings to build up resonances & let them hang in the air between the notes.
She absolutely blew me away at Hopscotch 2015, and I was kicking myself for not having heard of her sooner, especially since this album was released on Scissor Tail, the same label that released the most recent Chuck Johnson album. This one was just a limited-edition cassette, though, which sold out in 2 weeks.
Interestingly, the original demo of this album had vocals on some of the tracks, but Sarah went back and re-recorded them without vocals because Scissor Tail specializes in instrumental music & she wanted to fit their aesthetic. At Hopscotch she sang on several numbers, and I’ll be excited to hear recordings of those songs when/if they’re released.
12. Daniel Bachman: River
Always a treat to get a new one from Daniel Bachman. This is Daniel’s first album recorded in a “real” studio, but to be honest, although there’s a tad bit more clarity, his other records always sounded good to me, and so does this one.
The opening track is 14+ minutes long, and it’s a step forward for Daniel. It starts out slower & more open/brooding than is usual for him, and then when it kicks in, his right thumb is going nuts, whacking the shit out of the lower strings — it’s a more forceful attack than I’m used to from Daniel. The tune goes a lot of places in 14 minutes & it’s well worth your time. There’s also a 4:45 reprise of the same piece at the end, which is less intense.
Elsewhere, there are a heavy-feeling slide blues, a mix of shorter & longer experimental pieces, and a more straightforward piedmont blues.
11. Cantwell Gomez and Jordan: Half-Finished Bobcat
First new material from the mighty CG+J since their half of a [too-brief] split cassette back in 2012. Back in the 90s people talked about “post-rock” to describe bands using rock instruments in somewhat less-rock ways. At this point I’d rather call CG+J “free rock” inasmuch as they’re fully capable of locking into an insanely tight groove, but they also spend a lot of time going in three distinct directions at once. Or four, if you count Anne’s vocals. (David’s vocals are more likely to mirror closely his guitar melodies).
These folks are just about my favorite band ever, and also just about my favorite people ever. Their music is endlessly inventive & endlessly amusing, in the best way.
10. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
Near as I can tell (from the Internet, as well as a certain amount of teasing I’ve gotten from younger friends), it’s apparently maybe not “cool” to like Alabama Shakes? Thankfully I’m much too old to care about what’s cool. This record sounds huge, and when they came through the Triangle this past summer, the band sounded even bigger.
9. Sagan Youth: Cela
For their second album, Chapel Hill live-organic-electronic duo Sagan Youth swung for the fences and connected, solidly. This is a concept album about landing on a moon of Saturn (OR IS IT???) — gorgeous stuff, some of it heavily beat-driven, others more spaced-out. All instrumental, although there are some apt sci-fi movie dialogue samples here & there.
8. Dødheimsgard: A Umbra Omega
Holy crap this is completely insane. Musically it’s intricate black metal, although the interludes of piano & sax kind of explode any sense of black metal orthodoxy. But far more bizarre than the music are the vocals of Aldrahn, which are like strange soliloquies by the insane villain from a Hammer Horror movie. Taken all together, it’s the strangest metal album in a year of strange metal albums, and I can’t stop listening to it.
7. Ryley Walker: Primrose Green
Did Pitchfork kill this album’s momentum, or did people just forget about it? (Or, as my friend Grayson would have it, is it simply not the album that Ryley could and should have made?)
No way for me to know; I still think it’s amazing. Of course, I’m coming at it as someone who spent a lot of his teenage years listening to the classic late-60s/early-70s Van Morrison albums, which are the clearest sonic antecedents to this record. If you don’t like Astral Weeks & Veedon Fleece, you’re probably gonna hate this album. And I guess even if you do like those albums, you may or may not be ready for some kid from Chicago to take a stab at replicating their sound.
6. Joanna Newsom: Divers
If you already know you don’t like Joanna Newsom, then I feel bad for you, but I’m not going to try to change your mind. And neither will this album. It’s part continued evolution, part distillation of the insane brilliant sprawl of Have One On Me into a more concise form. It’s a phenomenal piece of work, and could certainly garner Joanna new fans — but probably not from those people who’ve already heard her voice & decided to hate it.
5. Des Ark: Everything Dies
Third full-length studio album from Des Ark, her best yet, and the first since 2011’s “Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker.” Aimee has been busy in those four years, some with music, some with other important stuff in her life. That split is apparent when you realize that over half of these songs appeared in raw acoustic demo form on her 2011 WXDU live session (subsequently released by Paramnesia & then Lovitt as WXDU Vol. 3). Those songs are recognizable here, but the meticulous arrangements, including layer upon layer upon layer of backing vocals, are decidedly new.
The other big shift here is lyrical, particularly on tracks 7+8, which together make up the emotional center of the album. For the first time on those two songs we hear a fully emotionally vulnerable Aimee Argote, one who is deep in love and is in some ways happy about it, even as she recognizes the weird effect(s) it has had on her feelings & her self-confidence. Given how much she used to flaunt her love-em-and-leave-em persona, this is kinda unprecedented. I’ll be really interested to hear more new material — stay tuned at some point for a WXDU Vol. 4 demo session.
I love all these songs & I’m fascinated to see Aimee continue to evolve her sound. Piano was her first instrument as a child, but it’s only on this album that it has emerged as a major instrument in Des Ark. This is also her most collaborative work, with contributions from members of Appleseed Cast, plus Jonathan Fuller of Engine Down, Thor Harris of Swans, and Andy Lemaster of Now It’s Overhead & Bright Eyes.
4. Body Games: Local Love Vol 1
By now we were supposed to have a Body Games full-length, but it apparently takes Dax a long time to get to where he’s fully satisfied with his own material. So to distract (us/themselves), they quickly pulled together this EP of covers of local bands. Which is of course more brilliant than most other things I’ve heard so far this year.
The Body Games sound falls squarely into the Postal Service / Hot Chip sector of electronic pop — a little chilly, a little melancholy, vulnerable, but impeccable. Add to that a fondness for well-placed (and heavily manipulated) samples, both musical and movie dialogue, and some excellent source material, and you’ve got the Jams of the Summer.
3. VHOL: Deeper Than Sky
VHOL are a northwest metal supergroup: John Cobbett & Aesop Dekker from Ludicra; Sigrid Sheie from Hammers of Misfortune; Mike Scheidt from YOB. (OK, John is also in Hammers of Misfortune & Aesop is in Agalloch, too). Their self-titled debut was my favorite album of 2013.
As with the first one, the primary program here is a thoroughly & gloriously indulgent exploration of their mutual affection for thrash, speed & hardcore crossover metal. This time around there are fewer moments of blackened guitar, although the unearthly choirs of strum do make an appearance here & there. Also new this time around: some mid-album goofiness as University of San Francisco piano instructor Sigrid Sheie goes nuts on the piano on “Paino.”
Everyone here turns in top-notch performances on their respective instruments, and they’re all clearly having a blast as well. Mike Scheidt splits his time between hardcore/thrash barking & his gorgeous high unearthly singing. Lately my favorite metal is that which blurs genre boundaries most effectively, and VHOL blur them right out of existence.
2. Bell Witch: Four Phantoms
Bell Witch are a bass/drums funeral doom duo from the Pacific Northwest; this is my favorite metal album of 2015. I determined this organically, by realizing that I had various riffs & melodies from it repeating in my brain off & on all the time, even if I hadn’t listened to the album in a week or two. It’s gorgeous and elegiac and brutal and sad and lovely. I absolutely cannot wait until they come through on tour in a couple of months.
1. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Today (January 1, 2016) I went back through all my blog posts from 2015. It was gratifying and a little hilarious to see how many times I made a point of saying “still listening to the new Sleater-Kinney; still confident it will be my number 1 album of the year.”
I made this list (this one here, the one where this album is #1) a couple of days ago, and I had honestly forgotten about all those blog posts. But I hadn’t forgotten about this album — it’s unforgettable.
I will also say that, for once, my enjoyment of a record was enhanced by learning more about the band; in this case, via Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.”
35-way Tie for 21st:
Aevangelist: Enthrall to the Void of Bliss
Aevangelist make “New Oblivion Gospel Music” — one of them currently lives in Portland, and the other in Chicago, but they still manage to release at least one full-length and one or two EPs a year. This music is nominally blackened death metal, but that doesn’t come anywhere near describing it. This is as close as you’re going to get to a soundtrack to hell, or at least a soundtrack to someone’s really vivid nightmares of hell. Yes, there are (programmed) blast beats, and yes, there are guitars, but there’s also some kind of zither or autoharp in the right speaker, being played intermittently & kind of tunelessly, throughout the entire album. Vocalist Ascaris (aka Chicago improv sax player Val Dorr) produces a profoundly unholy range of guttural noises (including an extended choking-to-death thing at the start of #6), but also sings in a pleasant deep voice on #2. And sort of raps, briefly, on the short interstitial black metal trip-hop #4.
Basically, everything here is designed very carefully to fuck with your head. Apparently, at their comparatively rare live shows, there are a lot of masks, weird body paint, genderfuck clothing, saxophone, and a bunch of other things that reportedly drive the black/death metal traditionalists up the wall, which is totally awesome. And totally intentional, based on the interviews I have read. Metal desperately needs more of this.
This is some kind of miracle — the first new Bandway album in something like 11 years. Bandway are Bo Taylor (Motocaster, Dish, Tonk) and Brooks Carter (Jack O Nuts) making dead-on parody 70s/80s mullet-rock. They’re way funnier than Tenacious D, and this album is their funniest work yet.
Several songs here seem to be inspired by movies and/or by the butt-rock that often appeared on the soundtracks of 80s action movies. “Indecent Proposal” is actually a straight retelling of the plot of the movie of the same name. I’m told that another song was inspired by the movie ‘FM’ but it has been too long since I saw it to be able to tell.
Birds of Avalon: Disappearance
The first completely new music from Raleigh’s Birds of Avalon in several years — Paul and Cheetie took some significant time off to build out & open Garland, Cheetie’s amazing Indian-fusion restaurant that occupies the ground floor of the Kings/Neptunes building.
The last time we heard from the Birds, they had lost vocalist Craig Tilley, but had a full album in the can that they had recorded with him, so they went ahead & released it. It was actually their best work up to that point, and it was pretty cool to see them play gigs after its release & hear them take turns taking over all the vocals that Craig had sung.
This, then, is their first all-new effort without Craig. Bassist David Mueller and guitarist Cheetie Kumar share vocal duties. Between David’s vocal prominence and the addition of more synth textures (and even some sequenced beats/basslines), the line between BoA and David’s own band Heads on Sticks becomes increasingly blurred, sound-wise. Nevertheless, this is still emphatically Birds of Avalon, and all you need to hear is the extended psych guitar workouts on nearly every song to bring that point home.
The Charming Youngsters: Middleweights
Saw these folks at a Hopscotch day party, thanks to a weather-related scheduling snafu. It was the best surprise of this year’s festival. My favorite thing about indie-rock is how it’s more ramshackle & taped-together than regular-rock — and thankfully there will always be bands who wind up working in that mode, whether by choice or by accident.
Daddy Issues: Fuck Marry Kill
In which our heroes finally match their musical chops to their lyrical & thematic ambitions, and then immediately break up. This is such a great nutty filthy amazing silly heartfelt record.
Davidians: Night Terrors 7″
This is the first installment in a new all-NC 7″ series on Sorry State, which makes me very excited. Also exciting: Davidians keep getting better & better. The guitars here are so crazed, with what sounds like a little bit of chorus on there to make them all slippery & strange & non-hardcore.
I don’t know anything about this record, other than that it was released by a local label, and appears to be the work of a local artist. And that it’s insane, in the best possible way.
Debut album from the artists formerly known as Bonglestar [Galactabong]. Kinda bummed they changed the name, but it’s probably for the best. This album fits squarely in with a lot of the other heavily sample-based electronic music that has come out in the Triangle over the past year — artists such as Blursome, Hanz, and Laso Halo. Lots and lots of samples, sliced & diced & thoroughly hashed together, sometimes in the service of a beat, sometimes more ambient, sometimes going for wall-of-irritation. It’s all good stuff, whether you’re going for the more straightforward & danceable or the fucked-up glitch.
Eldritch Horror: Untouched By the Sun
Eldritch Horror were quite possibly the only death metal band in Raleigh when they were originally active, from 1989-1993. I moved here in 1992 and I remember there being a lot of sludge & post-industrial & some hair metal, but Eldritch Horror definitely stood out.
They dissolved around ’93-’94, but reunited once in 2006, and again in 2014. This time it seems to have stuck. What you’re hearing here is an ALL NEW recording (2014-2015) of their original set of material from ’89-’93. And it’s REALLY good. Total oldschool death metal, tempered (as was more often the case back then) with hefty doses of thrash & power metal. Singer David Price has an awesome growl, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he took 20 years off from using it.
Huge riffs, some pretty nutty solos, and live-sounding (but fast as heck) drums. Good stuff.
Escher: The Ground is Missing
Tech death / math metal from Raleigh, with screechy vox that veer into metalcore territory. They’ve got an intermittent sax player, and they’re prone to drop in mid-song breakdowns where everybody plays clean & the time signatures get weird. In other words, they’re doing interesting stuff to mix things up, and I’m into it.
Fake Swedish: Truce
They’re back. Fake Swedish were a weirdo Chapel Hill band of New Jersey transplants who wore their obsession with those early Scott Walker solo albums proudly on their sleeves (and in their Jacques Brel covers). Their originals were excellent, and the more baroque they got, the better they were.
So of course they had to break up. Guitarist Eric Haugen gigged around in various bands, while singer Joe Romeo moved back & forth between here & New Jersey, and made a country-rock album with his band the Orange County Volunteers.
Fake Swedish reappeared in 2014, quietly, gigging around Chapel Hill. This is their first recording since their 2005 debut, “Get Correct,” and it’s a doozy. 70s rock/artrock tropes + Joe Romeo’s baroque lyrical tendencies.
Genocide Shrines: Manipura Imperial Deathevokovil (Scriptures Of Reversed Puraana Dharmurder)
Yep: “anti-Dharmic” death metal from Colombo, Sri Lanka. In an interview with “Grim Kim” Kelly, singer Chathuranga Fonseka says “This was an unmistakable cleansing ritual for us. We poured demented amounts of energy to ensure the stability of the continuity of a pounding fist of madness. To ensure the message of the absolute NOTHING, demonstrated by a desecration ritual transmitted as an audial offering.”
That just about sums it up, really. This whole thing sounds like it was recorded in a cavern — it’s so drenched in dark reverb that you can’t really make out anything distinctly (except, weirdly, the ride cymbal, which is crystal-clear). Drummer BlasphemousWarGoat is just an endless rumbling roar, the vox are just roaring & growling & hissing, the guitar is more a suggestion than anything else. It’s pretty awesome.
GNØER: Tethers Down
GNØER are the same three guys who make up the excellent Raleigh indie-rock band Goner. For the past couple of years they’ve been playing around with keyboards and drum machines (though it should be noted that they’ve always been a keyboard band — their standard lineup was keyboard/bass/drums/vocals). Now they’ve got a 5-song album that’s all-electronic (well, nearly — there’s electric bass on a couple of songs) & with the new sound comes a newish name.
Given that they were already a keyboard-heavy band, this is more an evolution than a revolution — you can tell they’ve had a lot of fun reimagining their sound using their new toys, but structurally these are mostly still longish anthemic songs with a lot of words about the lives of small-town post-college people. Which is good, because that’s what these guys do best.
Nathan Golub + Wood Ear: Nothing in Return
Nathan Golub takes his place among the first rank of Triangle guitarists with his solo track on this three-song split, the 12+ minute “Liberty Drive In.”
Malcolm Holcombe – The RCA Sessions
All I really know about Malcolm Holcombe is that he’s from Asheville, he’s a brilliant songwriter, and his voice is a croak so wizened and idiosyncratic that to call it an acquired taste would do a disservice to the whole concept of acquisition. This brilliant album is a survey of material from across his long career, re-recorded with some ace backing musicians at RCA studios in Nashville.
Hooded Menace: Darkness Drips Forth
Hilariously awesome & highly cinematic doomy death metal. It’s fun & riffy & slow & heavy and kind of profoundly silly but in a completely straight-faced way.
Howls of Ebb: The Marrow Veil
Absolute chaos. Total low-budget horror soundtrack music, if your low-budget horror movie requires a mix of spooky tones, echoes, and crazy satanic death metal.
Magpie Feast: The Atlas of Lost Hearts
This is something of a step forward for Raleigh’s Magpie Feast, who continue to hone their kinda-ramshackle country-rock sound. This is a little more straightforward than their last EP, but no less satisfying. The instrumentation is solidified as gtr/bass/drums/fiddle + male+female vocals, often sung in unison. There’s a sense of confident authority here that was less evident on their earlier releases. The rhythm section, in particular, is locked in but not lockstep.
If you recall the Asheville musician Seth Kauffman & his band Floating Action, back before they got a little too slick, this is in that same laid-back rattletrap country/rock/soul mode. It’s good summertime North Carolina music.
MAKE: The Golden Veil
Been a while for MAKE — they got kinda burnt out & had to regroup, rethink, etc. The result, this, their second full-length album, isn’t really a new direction for them — it’s more just a huge evolutionary leap forward. Everything that made them great before, amplified & purified. Epic transcendental blackened space metal, more or less.
The Malpass Brothers: The Malpass Brothers
Two brothers from Goldsboro who decided that the right thing to do was to pretend that it’s the early 60s and straight hardcore honky-tonk country music is still a thing that people play. This album is as remarkable for its sheer existence as it is for how good it is.
Midnight Plus One: Unlearn Everything
This is the second full-length from Midnight Plus One, and their last as a 5-piece. Given that they’ve been a three-piece for a while now, you can probably surmise that they weren’t even sure if these recordings would see the light of day — but then Chris DeFusco of Negative Fun basically insisted.
The current gtr/drums/vox trio is pretty in-yr-face aggro, and the songs here that are in that vein are my favorites. The slower/longer cuts can sometimes get lost in the midtempo doldrums.
Jenks Miller + Rose Cross NC: Live September 11, 2015
This was one of my favorite sets at Hopscotch, and my friend Jonas Blank of NYCTaper did such a great job with the recording that it has wound up one of my favorite releases of the year as well. Jenks & his band have been pretty fearless these past couple of years. Specifically: Nearly every set consists of the same 3 or 4 songs, but stretched, teased apart, expanded & reconstructed. It has been a fascinating process to watch.
Monologue Bombs: Eighties Night b/w The Nightingale Routine
Monologue Bombs are the solo side-project of Goner keyboardist Scott Phillips. They started out as Scott mostly playing accordion and singing, but they’ve clearly evolved since then, to the point that one might mistake these for demos from some upcoming Goner release.
Scott has always had a gift for concise, vivid description, and an ear for narrative detail, and these two songs are proof that he’s continuing to hone his talents. These are affecting & gripping songs & they remind me, again, that I can’t wait to hear more from Scott.
Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ
Here it is: The Mountain Goats wrestling concept album. I never watched wrestling as a kid, so I don’t have that hook to hang this on. But I love people and drama and human emotions and stuff like that, and that’s what this album is all about.
But so we’re clear: These songs are seriously really all about professional wrestling.
My quibbles with it have more to do with the sonics than the content — there’s a certain kind of bippy-boppy upbeat rounded-off anodyne mode that they get into sometimes that I wish they’d avoid. Overall, though, the high points definitely outweigh the lower points. I know it’s not how he works, and probably not good for business besides, but I’m increasingly thirsty for an entire Mountain Goats album of slow songs with John solo at the piano.
Naked Gods: Naked Gods
Third album from this exceptionally good Boone-based southern psych-rock outfit. There’s a southern twang throughout, and some great guitar work, but there are also organs & drones, heavy fuzz attacks, moments of pop clarity & moments of heavy psych. It all fits together remarkably well, particularly given how short most of the songs are — you feel like you’ve had a solid workout in 3-4 minutes.
No Love: Dogs//Wolves 7″
The second release in that Sorry State NC singles series. Another pair of super-catchy numbers from No Love, who manage to be abrasive & not remotely “pop” and yet still hooky as shit.
Patois Counselors: Patois Counselors 7″
Killer new “postpunk” from the ever-shifting Charlotte universe — that’s Bo White (Calabi Yau, Yardwork, various solo stuff) on vocals, and Nick Goode (Brain F≠, Joint D≠), plus other folks I may or may not know (it’s all pseudonyms on their Bandcamp).
Since the rumors of Whatever Brains’ demise have proven to be true, at least we’ll have Patois Counselors to step into the gap they leave — and they may be uniquely suited to do so, given how restless Bo has always been, musically. This is wicked good.
See Gulls: You Can’t See Me
Long-awaited debut from See Gulls. These folks got so good so fast — and garnered so much attention at Hopscotch 2014 — that it was an honest surprise to discover that their debut would be this comparatively brief 5-song EP. Sarah Fuller is really coming into her own as a songwriter & frontperson, so I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Silent Lunch: Silent Lunch
Two new ones from Durham trio Silent Lunch, matched up with the three songs from their original (out-of-print) EP, and destined to be the entirety of their recorded output. Sigh.
The two new songs are both much stronger than the material on Late to Bloom — they’re better recorded, the instruments do more interesting things, they’re tighter, and the vocals are unsettling in their intensity. Both songs are about the fine line between love & lust, and they repeatedly cross over from urgency to desperation (and back again). Given that, it’s profoundly depressing that they broke up more or less simultaneously with releasing this.
Suppressive Fire: Hellwraith
Suppressive Fire are a thrash band from Raleigh. They call themselves “blackened thrash” but it’s really just high-quality post-Slayer thrash. I love how raw this sounds (it was recorded by Greg Klaiber of the Pinhook). Track #2 is a fairly straight transcription of the climactic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, because why not? This is all kind of silly and totally ripping.
Terrace Heater: Harris Teeter
Terrace Heater is (was) Graham Cox (ex-Brainbows) and other people from bands like Fruit, Plankton Feast and Santana. I never saw them so I honestly don’t know, and now I’m told this is their first and last album. Trivia: Two of the songs on here were originally released as singles on Bandcamp with a price tag of $1000 per song. I’ll have to ask Graham if he sold any.
This is punk/postpunk with a jittery early-80s feel — some Minutemen, some Feelies, some early Joy Division in there somewhere as well. Stuff I really like, which is why I’m so irritated at myself for never seeing them. At least we have this record.
Wes Tirey: Journeyer/Forward, Melancholy Dream
Wes Tirey is from somewhere up near Asheville — he’s part of a loose affiliation of folks up there (Sarah Louise, Tashi Dorji) who use traditional music forms as points of departure for someplace decidedly weirder.
Wes is a guitarist, but the first three of these tracks lean more heavily on the organ than the guitar. The common denominator throughout is Wes’s creaky talk/sung vocals. He’s not quite as grizzled sounding as neighbor Malcolm Holcombe, but his voice does seem to come from an older, darker universe.
Wes is a prolific guy, and has a ton of stuff up on his Bandcamp — you can buy his entire discography there for like $17, which I strongly suggest you do.
Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp
I wasn’t sure I needed this record — great, more breezy well-written well-played well-recorded indie-pop-rock — but after bits & pieces of it kept getting lodged in my head, I was forced to conclude that I absolutely needed it.
The Wigg Report: Everyday Revolution
It has been a few years since the last album from Durham’s Wigg Report, the band who travel to all their gigs via bicycle. They’re all about making what ppl in the 90s called Temporary Autonomous Zones in which they can live their lives. The quote on the back is a good one: “revolution is not the overthrow of the existing system but the setting up alongside of a better one.” They work as teachers & computer nerds & make music for their friends & neighbors.
Instruments: guitar (acoustic but amplified & distorted), minimalist drumkit, saxophone, voice. New this album: bass, from a guy named Charles Latham, who moved away to Philly for quite a while but is back now. He’s a pretty great antifolk singer in his own right.
This was recorded live in minimal takes & it sounds just like what the Wigg Report sound like, which is a good thing, because they are joyous & smart & compassionate & funny & both cynical & idealistic at the same time.
The Wyrms: At Wizard Island
Last year there was a kind of sunny indie-pop band from Carrboro called Rogue Band of Youth. One day, according to the email they sent me, they went out & bought a bunch of fuzz pedals, changed their name to The Wyrms, and wrote a ton of amazing garage/psych/fuzz/pop tunes about vampires and other horror/fantasy movie tropes. This is the result. It is amazing, primarily because they still remember how to write pop hooks & they’re not afraid to throw in little “oooh oooh” parts. Seriously, if you listen to this enough you start to realize that if you cut out all the fuzz & added some tambourine, these songs would work wonderfully as sunny indie-pop. Or the Partridge Family.
THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING. This is the party/driving/housecleaning/anything album of the late-summer/early-fall.