Mark Hunt-Bryden’s Top 10 Albums Of 2014
Over the course of the last year I have racked up a fair few reviews for The Sleeping Shaman to the point where it has become nearly impossible to document the year in chronological order as I have done in the past. So this time out I decided to cherry pick my favourite musical moments of the year as, with one exception, they have been a result of bands that have been promoted on here in the form of a top ten list.
Disclaimer – at the time of writing I have not listened to the new At The Gates or AC/DC albums I cannot claim to have any authority here…
So without any fanfare, let’s go:
Number Ten: H A R K ‘Crystalline’
So how to you make up for the loss of one of your favourite British bands of the past decade (Taint)? Simple you wait for the primary song writer behind the departed Welsh power trio, Jimbob Isaac, to emerge as the primary song writer behind… a Welsh power trio.
H A R K launched the salvo of Mythopoeia as a teaser ahead of the album, it was clear that if you liked the previous incarnation then you would love H A R K. Taking all the good bits of Taint and turning them up to 11, Crystalline is a delicious slice of sludge that looks to go toe to toe with the likes of Baroness, Mastodon and Red Fang as Math Rock, Punk attitude, Nu Metal and Stoner collide over the course of ten intelligent tracks of modern rock music.
Slightly more sonically arresting than before, Jimbob brings angular riffing, odd time signatures and lashings of melody that help craft an album of top notch lyrics and music that grabs your attention from the opening track Palendromeda to the epic closing number Clear Light Of….
Produced with a superb, crisp clear sound by Kurt Ballou of Converge fame Crystalline was delight from beginning to end. Having a guest appearance from the one and only Neil Fallon doesn’t hurt either.
Number Nine: Stoneburner ‘Life Drawing’
The second album from Portland, Oregon’s Stoneburner rang out like only an artist on Neurot Recordings can. Having shared the stage with the likes of EyeHateGod, Yob, Neurosis etc should give some indication that this band are not for the faint hearted as they hit you will wave after wave of grime and fuzzed out sludge. Over the course of seventy minutes the band hammers you into submission as they add in hardcore flavours to the dense grind.
Full of painfully wrought emotion this album manages to conjure dense feelings of despair and hopelessness but also shine moments of beauty into the visceral proceedings. Make no mistake this is a long and hard record to listen to. It is unlikely to find many repeat plays on the stereo and it would easily clear the room at parties but the crushing riffing and downbeat themes are merely scratching the surface of this complex record.
Featuring cathartic moments like An Apology To A Friend and the epic 18 minute final track The Phoenix this is an album of rich layers and manages to combine heavy, slow and brooding with melody and psychedelia that is beautiful, creepy and terrifying in turns. This is a special record but it is one that in my opinion can be an exhausting journey or else it would have finished higher.
Number Eight: Crowbar ‘Symmetry In Black’
It speaks volumes about the quality of releases this year that one of Crowbar’s best albums in recent times should only come in at number eight. Having tired of phoning it in with the increasingly unproductive and mediocre Down, the Riff Lord Kirk Windstein return to the band he made his name with for the 25th anniversary of their existence.
As heavy as ever and featuring some deft turns of melody Symmetry In Black has massive walls of sound like Walk With Knowledge Wisely and Shaman Of Belief and yet sees him sounding better than ever on melodic tracks like Amaranthine and The Foreboding. For a band 25 years old, Crowbar sound fresher and more hungry on this album than they have in years and batter and caress the listener in turn with the strongest complete set of songs since 1998’s Odd Fellows Rest.
Windstien seems to have benefitted massively from returning to his roots and getting back to being the focal point; writing the way he wants and breathing life back into his project. Despite losing bassist Pat Bruders to Down, he has assembled a great cast of backing musicians alongside long time collaborator Matthew Brunson and handling the production duties himself means this project feels incredibly personal and seems like a rebirth for Crowbar. Personal and emotional, yet crushing as ever, Symmetry In Black would have finished way higher in any other year.
Number Seven: Grifter ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren’
What can I say about Grifter that I haven’t already done before? Probably nothing to be honest as I hands down love the band both on a personal level and a musical one. Their much delayed second album for Ripple Music has been a staple on my playlist for nearly a year before it got its official release and as such it actually seems strange for me to talk about it as a 2014 release.
Taking the evolutional bedrock they established with The Simplicity Of The Riff Is Key and their eponymous Ripple debut, on their sophomore album they simply honed it and made it better. With songs like Princess Lea and Bow Down To The Monkey they added huge great sing-a-longs that will get crowds pumping their fists and dancing like crazy and on numbers like Braggards Boast and Black Gold, they penned great speed rush fuelled headbangers that owe a debt to all that is great from the last 50 years of rock with touches of Sabbath, Zeppelin, ZZ Top and AC/DC.
Grifter deserve all the success they get for just making great music with no pretentions – they want to make memorable, catchy rock and roll that they can play in a live setting and watch people go nuts. It’s not rocket science, it’s not about being clever or the next big thing, its about making fun music that they enjoy and can see people enjoy back. You could almost list every song as a high point on this album such is the quality and thanks to Rich Robinson it sounds better than a lot of major label bands. I may be struck with bias on this, but you don’t need to ask me if Grifter are great, go listen to them yourself to find out.
Number Six: John Garcia ‘John Garcia’
John Garcia has been an influence on my musical tastes for half my life and sadly I wasn’t born yesterday. This year he got to release his long awaited solo album and I was lucky enough to not only get to review it, but to interview the man himself and see him live and it is nice to be able to say that one of my heroes did not disappoint.
The album itself is made up of songs that he has collected along the way throughout his career and now found the right moment to express them with the vision and delivery that he wanted. As such songs like 5000 Miles (written for John by Danko Jones), Saddleback (previously Cactus Jumper by Unida) and Rolling Stoned (Black Mastiff cover) find themselves sat along side tracks that are ably deployed by faithful guitar player Eric Groben and a cast of great musicians, including Jones and Nick Oliveri, on an album that makes Garcia sound better and more passionate than he has done in years.
I had this album on repeat for nearly a month such was the outstanding quality of it. We all know who John Garcia is and what he has done before this point and so the pressure must have been huge to deliver something that kept up his legacy. Thankfully it absolutely does from start to finish making many stops along the way but none more cool than having The Doors legend Robbie Krieger play the mandolin on Her Bullets Energy.This album makes me think of the glorious summer we actually had this year, driving around with this up lifting album and chatting to the man himself with a glass of wine.
Number Five: EyeHateGod ‘EyeHateGod’
2013/2014 saw legendary sludge lords EyeHateGod move back from their almost mythological status to one that was very real and in your face. Freed from various monkeys on their backs and with a renewed sense of purpose, not even the tragic death of drummer Joey LaCaze could derail the New Orleans misanthrope merchants from making their long overdue studio comeback.
Despite it being some 13 years since they released an original set of songs, their Self-Titled album was a spite laced punch in the face to any pretenders to their throne. Featuring a band as fired up and as focused as they were when they recorded 1993’s Take As Needed For Pain, the result was 11 tracks of classic EyeHateGod that detonates like a roadside IED and impales itself deep into your consciousness. Mike XI Williams leads the listener through a nightmarish dissection of modern life with a blues heavy mash up of punk, hardcore and metal that swaggers with the confidence of a band that knows what they are good at and don’t even care if you don’t like them.
Despite consolidating their legacy they have also managed to expand on their sound; from Mike Williams IX dabbling with members of Neurosis for the Corrections House album or the balls out Punk start to Agitation! Propaganda! there are additional layers to the music that were either masked before or they have simply added them to their arsenal.
This band exist despite hurricanes, jail, death and crippling addictions; they are here through sheer force of spite and a need to exist and this album is a fitting tribute to LaCaze as well as marking some of his finest moments. After an absence of far too long Eyehategod have reclaimed their crown of thorns.
Number Four: Godflesh ‘A World Lit Only By Fire’
Another comeback after a long term absence was Justin K Broadrick and GC Green reuniting in the studio as Godflesh for the first time since 2001’s seminal Hymns album. As other worldly and as savage as ever, A World Lit Only By Fire stomped its way over the horizon and flattened all competition by turning the clock back to the classic era of Streetcleaner and Pure to produce an album that proved they were ahead of the curve then and are still ahead of the curve now.
Minor tweaks mean this album is as progressive as Hymns in terms of production, has nods to the experimentation in dub sounds that raised their head on Us And Them but ultimately has refined Godflesh to a sleek killing machine that dissects the despair of modern life, bringing prophecies of a dystopian future and exposing the bleak, futile path we are heading down. Despite these weighty concepts Broadrick steers the band with a deft hand adding in touches of mournful melody that were honed in those years spent exploring shoe gaze worth Jesu. What this adds to the bands sound is a melody that offers the listener some respite from the pummelling march of the relentless heavier passages and makes them even more devastating when they return.
The return of Godflesh sees them have a plaintive human voice and soul behind the brutality and cold hearted mechanical stomp that adds a greater depth to their sound. Couple that with moments that are almost catchy and danceable, this is one of the most satisfying comeback albums since Carcass penned Surgical Steel.
Number Three: Machine Head ‘Bloodstone & Diamonds’
Okay so you probably spotted the exception a mile off. I love Machine Head – one of the first bands I got into in my formative musical years that was mine, not already established like Iron Maiden or Metallica and ever since I heard Burn My Eyes in 1994 I have been a massive fan. Sure there are arguments for bandwagoneering, Supercharger, no matter what I say is still a dodgy album and there is no excuse for that red jumpsuit/blond spiky hair combo Robb Flynn sported either, but by the time they had released The Blackening all was forgiven and in the mainstream of metal, there are so few good bands that I have always given them a little more leeway that most.
Finally freed from Roadrunner they have followed Monte Conner and Co to Nuclear Blast and seem to have found the freedom to explore and make heavy music the way they want to again. Unto The Locust was an incredibly commercial sounding album that had some great moments however Bloodstone & Diamonds just cranks that up from the string intro of Now We Die until the final drum stop on Take Me Through The Fire. Along the way the band crunch and groove their way through pit anthems like Eyes Of The Dead, Beneath The Silt and In Comes The Flood whilst dabbling in dark brooding melody on Sail Into The Black.
It is the most varied Machine Head album in years and they positively blister on Game Over, a savage rant directed at departed bassist Adam Duce. Sure they may be a ‘gateway metal band for the kids’ but at heart the kid in me was hoping they would deliver and thankfully Flynn and the boys haven’t let me down.
Number Two: Pallbearer ‘The Foundations Of Burden’
Pallbearer’s second album will find itself sat at the top of many end of year polls this winter for the simple reason that it is phenomenal. It is honestly hard to express how much an album can change your perspective on things and there will be plenty of people throwing out superlatives about this album, but from a personal stand point I completely missed 2012’s Sorrow & Extinction altogether and as a result The Foundations Of Burden was a complete revelation. Crammed with melody and weighty music, Brett Campbell’s voice is ethereal and reminiscent of a younger (and better) Ozzy Osbourne as he emotes mournful, yet uplifting tales of sorrow.
For an album in the Doom genre it has been described as ‘triumphant’ and it truly is; it has been a long time since a song stopped me in my tracks and made me marvel at the sheer emotion and beauty of the music and on tracks like Worlds Apart and the epic Ghost I Used To Be, Pallbearer simply blew my mind.
Over the course of an hour the band conjure six tracks of densely layered, intricate sounds that have helped turn the Doom genre on its head and thrown down the gauntlet to their peers. Yes it’s great to play slow, grind Sabbath riffs and bellow over them, but look, look what can be done. Simply magnificent.
Number One: Yob ‘Clearing The Path To Ascend’
So after that impossibly glowing review what could honestly top that this year? Simple. The band that asked Pallbearer to support them. Mike Scheidt’s crew have been gaining momentum ever since returning from hiatus and the follow up to 2011’s Atma sees them blow all the competition out of the water. Whilst some corners of the Doom genre may be obsessed with Satan and drugs, Yob have looked to meditative, eastern philosophy for inspiration and have created music to pry open the third eye in a collision of psychedelic, stoner, blues and ambient rock.
Comprising of just four tracks Clearing The Path To Ascend runs the gamete from anvil heavy roaring and stop start dynamics, to moments of tender and transcendental melody that stretch the listener and ask you to indulge their ten minute songs, to think about the message of philosopher Alan Watts and surrender yourself unconditionally.
Of course if that sounds like a load of wank, then this will not be the album for you; but if you are willing then Yob will take you on a journey that encompasses delicate ambient passages with Scheidt’s almost nasal wail soothing and then dragging you back with bull like roars as the music dances back and forth along with it.
The fact is that as good as In Our Blood, Nothing To Win and Unmasking The Spectre are, Clearing The Path to Ascend tops this list for the final track alone. The proceeding three are incredible and great in their own right but the 18 minute Marrow is simply one of the most beautiful things that I have heard. Ever. Not this year, not this decade. Ever.
It isn’t very often that I am so moved emotionally by music I am on the verge of tears, but as the song works through its first, second and third acts, Yob just leave all their competition light years behind. If Pallbearer were a revelation, Clearing The Path To Ascend was a game changer, for me, for the genre. Albums like this don’t come along often and when they do, they should be cherished.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden