It's list season. If you follow the arts in any manner, you've probably seen a multitude of lists of the best movies, music, video games, etc. of the year. While I enjoy quickly glancing through them trying to see if any of the major publications share the same tastes as me, I mostly just treat it as scrolling through box scores in the back of a newspaper; it's cool to see who got a triple-double and who fouled out in the first quarter. But in terms of actual discovery, not to sound utterly pretentious, most of them aren't telling me anything I don't already know.
That's why, throughout the year, I decided to do these quarterly(-ish) recaps. While I'd love to write a newsletter every single month, and I do strive for that, this year has been far from a great one. Life has often gotten in the way, and I've spent a lot of time working on a new project that has nothing to do with writing, so this has often been pushed to the side in service of those things. Also, the elephant in the room is the literal genocide occurring in Palestine—or what should be called Palestine. There are many people smarter than I who have written about the subject, but if for some reason you disagree with that above statement, feel free to email me and we can discuss it. But the larger point here is this: doing this type of work felt indulgent at a time when we had much more pressing matters to attend to. But I also know that, in the face of such moments, music is what I turn to and what provides me both levity and connection when I need it most.
To close out the year, I'm not doing any ranked list, as I'll be highlighting great releases from this last quarter of the year. Below that, I will note five records that, if you haven't already, I'd urge you to check out. Are they my top five albums of the year? In a sense, yes, as they are the ones I've listened to the most. Though they don't share much in a sonic sense, I think they have a great deal in common on a deeper level. I'll get into it down there, so hold on tight.
Let's start with the obvious: Bad History Month is a terrible band name. It always has been, and it always will be. That said, Sean Sprecher has used the moniker effectively, allowing the garish name to grab attention and invite you into a world full of odd characters and uncomfortable confessions. 2020's Old Blues was a great album, one that caught me immediately after the somewhat muddled Dead And Loving It, but I find God Is Luck to be the most accessible record Sean's ever released. It's still full of lengthy, knotty songs that don't follow a traditional verse-chorus format, but it feels like a vision completely realized. Seeing these songs played live, stripped down just to an acoustic guitar and vocals, it grounded me in the fact that Sean is a songwriter capable of building worlds with the most rudimentary tools. If you're looking for an indie-rock record steeped in folk and avant-garde constructions, no one has done it better this year.
The second full-length from Vancouver's Chain Whip, at first, felt like a bit of a step backward. It wasn't bad, but I found their debut album 14 Lashes and the follow-up EP Two Step To Hell to be so immediate, I was a little bummed when Call Of The Knife didn't instantly bowl me over. When it comes to this style of hardcore punk—both terms are completely here—immediacy is crucial to the whole thing. You don't get to basement shows to stand and theoretically discuss the merits of song construction, you're looking for riffs that make you want to crouch low, swing your arms, and run side to side. Call Of The Knife didn't do this for me at first blush, but it does now. I don't know what kept that wall up for me, but I'm glad it's been torn down. This is trend-averse hardcore done incredibly well, and that's something the world needs a lot more of right now.
Where do the Venn diagrams of black metal and classic heavy metal overlap? Mostly in Eastern Europe. Anyone who has done a cursory dive in the private press metal records released in places like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia during the late '80s and early '90s (and haven't we all?) it was clear that, while the Americas were quick to toss out classic metal sounds in favor of thrash and death metal, these countries were still innovating on those classic forms. The result is records that sound simultaneously behind the times and also ahead of them, as it took the essence of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, added in a helping of Mercyful Fate, and then played it all like Venom. In the case of Malokarpatan, the Slovakian band started with a bit more of a lo-fi black metal focus and now is serving as an updated take on the kind of sounds that stayed locked behind the Iron Curtain. The band's fourth album Vertumnus Caesar takes all these component parts and finds a way to make this sound feel relevant instead of retro. This thing is dark, hooky, and a whole lot of fun. And if you've been clamoring for an album whose lyrical focus is on Emperor Rudolf II, boy do I have great news for you!
The first time I saw the band C.H.E.W., they became my favorite local band. When they broke up, it wasn't long before the Stress Positions started, which saw C.H.E.W.'s musical backbone (guitarist Ben Rudolph, bassist Russell Harrison, and drummer Jonathan Giralt) push forward behind the raw fury of Stephanie Brooks. While it's easy to see the similarities between the two—Ben's absurdly quick riffing, Jonathan's lighting-fast fills, Russell's stoic, tightwire bass playing—they do feel like different entities to me, and that's not just because of Stephanie's vocals. On Harsh Reality, the band takes all those elements and transfers them into a sound that feels less nervy and more pointed. Where before I could hear C.H.E.W.'s punk influence more clearly, there are times that Stress Positions feels bigger and more lumbering. The album's closing track "Ode To Aphrodite," is a prime example of the band being able to try something completely new, allowing the song to expand outward, taking the more rapid-fire fury they were known for and adapting it into a much more towering beast.
I've always found it hard to write about ambient music with any authority. It's not that I don't listen to it, but I find that most of the stuff I read about it seems more focused on musical modes and specific gearhead wankery that I just do not give a single fuck about. That's why I've always loved TALsounds, the project of Natalie Chami because while I know how intentional she is with her music, her compositions always hit me on a purely emotional level. When I listen to Shift, I hear experimental, synth-driven music made with a profoundly human touch. These songs ground me in not just her expressions, but my own experiences, allowing me to feel like I'm communing with a friend and leaving with a better understanding of my place in the world. It's profoundly beautiful music that grabs you and pulls you deeper with each passing moment.
Oh, how I miss compilations. When I was a kid getting into punk and hardcore, I devoured these things, as they let me try out a ton of bands all in one go. I understand why they've been abandoned in the streaming age since playlists essentially do the same job, but Bunker Punks Discs & Tapes brought us Screaming Death, a comp featuring four great bands from three different countries, all offering up their take on D-beat. Structured in a way that allows each band to essentially put together an EP's worth of material—the best format for bands of this ilk—there is no clear winner here. Though I have an overall preference for Destruct, I found myself jamming the Scarecrow, Dissekerad, and Rat Cage songs just as much. Though punk and hardcore now exist in the modern world, it doesn't mean the genre's traditional formats have lost their value.
Five Records I'd Urge You To Check Out If You're So Inclined
Of all these records down here, this one is probably going to be the toughest sell purely because of Will Smith's (no, not that one, you absolute dorks) vocals. When I was first exposed to Afterbirth, that was largely my take, as the subgenres of brutal death metal and slam have rarely been my favorite. That said, Afterbirth is a band that takes those core forms and pushes them forward in ways that always avoid coming off as trite or contrived. On the third album since their reunion, the Long Island band offers up their most ambitious record yet, all without losing the kind of heavy, pummeling touch that genre purists crave.
What I love about this band, and this album specifically, is it doesn't fall victim to the traps that so many bands do when they decide they want to take some steps outside their established sound. They didn't fully abandon their roots but, more importantly to me, they didn't decide to shit on the scene that spawned them because they wanted to appeal to more consensus tastemakers. Afterbirth is still a brutal death metal band, but they can bring in elements that feel like they've been pulled from a prog album or a '90s post-hardcore LP without diminishing the sound that got them where they are.
Genres are only as structured as we make them. When I see a band decide that they are somehow above death metal, hardcore, emo, or whatever, all it says to me is that they aren't making music for themselves. They're trying to prove something to someone else and they don't actually know how to make interesting music. If you think I'm taking a shot at someone specifically here, you're right.
I've raved about Brand New Soul since I first heard it, and I still feel just as inspired by this record now as I did then. I've seen detractors compare songs unfavorably to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and all that tells me this is a person who doesn't have a background in the Bad Brains, Big Boys (ironic juxtaposition, I know), or the Minutemen trying to get a dig in. They're the same people who called Turnstile a 311 clone and then two years later couldn't shut up about them. Don't listen to these fools. Anyway, this is a record that's like if I Against I was made by Beck. I don't even like Beck, he fucking sucks, but that's the kind of '90s alternative-rock being channeled here, all by way of the breakdown in "Big Take Over." I like this very aggressive music.
Sheesh, I got a little aggressive in those last couple of blurbs there, I should probably chill out a bit. Well, that's not going to happen here.
I wrote about Black Medium Current a bit earlier in the year, and it's probably the album I've thought about the most throughout 2023. People talk constantly about how, with so much music being released all the time, it's hard to go back and spend time with something that doesn't immediately connect with them. I said it then, but Black Medium Current is an album that left me cold on the first listen but only grew in esteem the more time I spent with it. Even now, I'm not sure if every single moment works for me because Dødheimsgard takes some big swings, but every time they don't connect, a week or so later, it all comes into focus again. I love a record that feels situational in that way, where it's meant for certain frames of mind, making me revisit it when I'm in a particular space to fully appreciate it. That's rare these days, and while it may not be perfect, it's artistically adventurous in a way that puts it above so much other genre-bending music being made.
Though I published a very lengthy interview with Fiddlehead vocalist Pat Flynn a few months ago, I never really wrote about Death Is Nothing To Us in any meaningful way. After this album was announced, I heard some chatter from folks about how they were over Pat's whole deal with Fiddlehead. I can sympathize with feeling like specific subject matter has gotten a bit tired, but I also think it's the right of an artist to tell us whatever they want, regardless of how the audience feels.
In the case of Death Is Nothing To Us, while Pat is still exploring the themes he has the entire time Fiddlehead has been a band—loss, grief, fatherhood, and love—I find Death Is Nothing To Us to be the rare third act of a trilogy that fully warrants its existence. Musically, I think Fiddlehead is at their very best here. While I initially found the mix to be lacking, when I got my record in the mail and played it loud at home, the entire thing opened up. It felt like a live record, where I could close my eyes and see the stage dives coming, one after the next. In many ways, this album feels like a celebration, the kind that I wrote about just a few weeks ago. It's an acknowledgment of all that's changed and everything you've lost but with a deep, abiding appreciation for that journey. I'll be thinking about this album for the rest of my life. As dramatic as it sounds, I just know it to be true.
Closing out this list is the album that took me most by surprise this year. Having been ambivalent about Horrendous prior to this record, I don't know what exactly made me check out their fifth album, but I'm so glad I did. Similar to, well, basically all these albums on this short list, it's one that pushes back against the perception of what a death metal band should be doing. It's got plenty of people championing it, but also a fair share of haters, and I get it. It's proggy, there's clean singing, it's not the kind of death metal the band was making a decade ago, but like all of these albums, it's a genuine distillation of the artistic spirit.
With music, there are no boundaries. At least, there shouldn't be. After spending most of my life with music playing, there's very little I've not heard, or at least precious little music that I've not been able to at least contextualize on a first pass. While I love a band that says "We're going to do this specific thing and do it very well," I also love a band that tires of that and says, "Actually, we still like that, but we also want to try some shit." That's what I hear on Ontological Mysterium, and I think it's what I hear on all of these albums. I'm glad they're what I chose to spend my year with.
That's it! We're done! Yes, last year I wrote about the best shows I saw, I think maybe some movies or books? I don't remember. Yes, I could go click a link and confirm, but I don't want to. The point is that I don't believe in having to do things any certain way. That's why I started this newsletter, to just tell you how I felt in that specific moment. That's proven to be the less marketable way to do this but, again, I do not care.
The first week of January I'll be back with an interview and then your regularly scheduled programming. Shoot me an email if you want to chat about stuff. I'm around.
As always, thanks for reading.