Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Idol Threat's Top 20 Albums of 2014

It's time once again for Idol Threat's Top 20 Albums of the year!  2014 was a great year for music, even in the 'mainstream,' the area which we rarely cover.  Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World was one of our favorites reaching #3 on the Canadian Billboards.  Mastodon once again succeeded in impressing us with their Billboard Top 10 release Once More 'Round The Sun, and the 2014 Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers' album 'Dead' stayed in heavy rotation with us as well.  

But this blog has always been about the under-appreciated so forget those chart-toppers (although Snoop Dogg DID show up in our list TWICE somehow!)  Our list comes later than last year's but we hope we've made up for it by making it one of our longest written yet!  So without further ado, here are our Top 20 Albums of 2014 in no particular order (and as always, click on the "jump" to see the rest of the list):

DJ QBert– Extraterrestria

DJ QBert is a legend amongst DJs and turntablists. Besides winning many competitions and creating countless scratch techniques, both alone and with his crew the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, QBert also released the 1998 classic Wave Twisters (which was turned into an animated movie in 2001.) The highly innovative, all-scratch produced album was a huge change from the mixtapes and scratch practice sessions he has made before and after. Wavetwisters provided a structure and narrative to the turntable acrobatics while the scratch tapes he released merely featured DJs scratching for hours over bare drum and bass heavy beats. Extraterrestria lies somewhere in the middle of all that, falling short of perfection yet providing the composition and mass appeal that his scratch tapes lacked.

The world of scratching has had many greats discussed and argued about, but inevitably the conversation always leads to D-styles and QBert. Stylistically, Q has pretty much been John Coltrane to D’s Miles Davis. The scratching on this album has been less frenetic and shown more finesse than what can be found on Wave Twisters, proving how much influence the two has on each other much like Davis and Coltrane. The Trane comparison doesn’t just end there however, as there is a strong Indian influence that can be found throughout most of the samples (Coltrane was heavily influenced by Indian music towards the end of his career, and sought out tutelage from the famed musician Ravi Shankar before he died.)  It is apparent that Q shares Trane's relentless desire for exploration and self-improvement.

Qbert’s latest is more diverse yet less lush than his previous effort, but heavier, concise and more composed than his marathon-like bass & drum scratch tapes. Extraterrestria combines the worlds of scratching, Hip Hop and instrumental electronic music with the spirit of Jazz making something not quite as ground-breaking as its 16-year predecessor, but unique nonetheless.


Conan – Blood Eagle

A trio of victorious Vikings drags their fallen foe through the muddy battlefield, the long dredge punctuating the doom ahead. Set to his knees atop a sacrificial hill the one time messiah is anointed with a crown of talons, bloody and wrenched from birds of prey. Helpless the leader. The begotten savior's heart pumps faster as he imagines what is to come. The heathen followers of the trio rise and encircle them, their hoarse shouting echoing in reverb - “DO WHAT MUST BE DONE!” The total conquest of the fallen blankets grief upon the land.

In the distance the three's fellow Torche-bearers can be heard on horseback, the steady plod of the steeds slowly rumble the battlefield Floor as they approach. The victim's heart races to match the oncoming horde, his dread only interrupted by pain as a blade pierces his skin at the spine. The blood eagle begins. The disowned king is cut by the blade of the blackened, a feat more brutal and bludgeoning than surgical or precise. Once through, the three torturers rip him asunder and break his ribs outward one by one from the backbone down to his loins, taking care to move sluggishly lest they hasten his ending too soon.

Blood pumps steadfast and heavily from the great chasm in his back as the warriors nod their heads in unison to match their goading chants. Lungs are pulled out from within and set upon his back, existing only in pain he wishes to be dead at all costs. The unending spite of his newfound primitive masters refuses him a swift death. The now forgotten messiah's descent into the endless Sleep is prolonged as they salt the wounds, until his spirit finally escapes fast leaving his body upon an altar of grief.


Tobacco-Ultima II Massage

The year is 2069. Android pornpopstar Fec 2.0 grows weary of the stale future music scene. Calculating an algorithm to take him back in time, he travels 100 years into the past to 1969 to sculpt what would become porno groove into his own twisted genre. Creating a synth-sleaze masterpiece, he buries the recorded tape in mounds of dirt in an undisclosed location before escaping back to the future to avoid the Time Police. Decades pass until the tape is uncovered in present day Pittsburgh with the words “Ultima II Massage” scrawled upon it…

If Thomas Fec’s Black Moth Super Rainbow group is a folktronic, vocoder-filled tribute to the 60s, then Tobacco is Fec’s foray into the next decade with Ultima II Massage being his latest solo tribute. It incorporates elements of porn soundtrack funk, psychedelic tones and shades of Hip Hop blending them into experimental synthpop sludge. This album is about filth and decay, covered with digitized heavy breathing and sweetly dirty synth notes. This is the sound of over worn cassette burn, or the dance musical equivalent of that one really great scene in a VHS porno flick that has been rewound way too much.

Ultima is a weapon and spell in the Final Fantasy franchise, a popular role-playing video game created in the late 80s. It is considered to be Black Magic and so it’s a fitting subject to be used as a title to this album; which shares similarities to the melodies found in old 8-bit video games. Tobacco definitely delivers the goods with this record, and you can bet this magic massage will give you a happy ending.


Panopticon - Roads to the North

A.Lundr is a beast. Along with playing all the instruments (including the mandolin and a fucking banjo!) and doing the vocals for Panopticon; he plays guitar, cello, piano and does vocals for KY doom metal band Seidr. It’s no wonder that he is a highly sought after session musician in the Black Metal community. If you are unfamiliar with Lundr’s solo project you’re probably wondering about the aforementioned banjo. Over the course of the last few Panopticon albums, Lundr has started combining elements of bluegrass into his atmospheric black metal making heavy use of the Appalachian instrument.  To the casual observer, this instrument may seem like a strange bedfellow for a black metal album.

This seems less out of place when you take into consideration the fact that Black Metal has mixed with folk music in the past, even to the point that it has resulted in some sub-genres such as Viking Metal. Replacing the Nordic folk influence with Bluegrass seems pretty genius when that is taken into account, and almost rather appropriate considering his geography. In his previous album Kentucky the bluegrass interludes seemed too overpowering, and the integration with the metal aspects often too disjointed – almost as if it was tracks from two different albums mixed together. With 'Roads to the North' A.Lundr has managed to distill his process to make the combination more potent and cohesive.

This time around Panopticon decides to add some melodic death metal and classic-sounding heavy metal into the mix with some striking results. He even throws the occasional guitar solo in there too, and it all fucking works. Lundr has a talent for compounding genres and there seems to be no end to what he can integrate into his music. I struggle to use words like majestic, transcendent, epic or operatic at the risk of sounding contrived or insincere, but I can't think of any other words that describe this album better. 'Roads to the North' is one of the most cohesively varied metal albums to come out in a while.


Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

You're Dead!” According to a Fader Magazine interview that exclamatory statement started off as a playful title to a care-free double album between Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) and his longtime collaborator - bassist Thundercat. That soon changed to a more serious tone after some self-reflection from Ellison. The death of some friends and family, and his own recent brush with mortality, led him to focus his attention inward. That focus has reflected onto the record resulting in this compact single album.

It’s great to have such a wonderfully eclectic artist like Flying Lotus. Each of his records has been a chronicle of his journey, from his year of birth, to the city he calls home, then out to cosmos itself, and back deeper in himself into the dreamworlds of the subconscious. When choosing death as the subject of this new recording, one would think that this would be his final destination. “You’re Dead!” proves to be anything but that, and shows that FlyLo has no limits to where he can take his music.

His latest album may be less cosmic, less dancey, and less whimsical than its predecessors – but that doesn't mean its any less strange. Speed-Jazz fusion instrumentals gives way to shuffling synth-funk inflected slow jams, with vocalists & rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg making occasional appearances. In the past (and present) Hip Hop was made from samples of other music, which could be used as doorways to other genres if explored further. Today “You’re Dead!” takes you on a trip through Hip Hop, R&B, Jazz, Prog, Electronica, Ambient, Rock and Psychedelia without you ever having to leave the album. The doorway is now the universe.


Wrekmeister Harmonies - Then It All Came Down/You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me

Wrekmeister Harmonies mastermind J.R. Robinson has gathered 14 musicians for his latest record “Then It All Came Down.” The rotating group currently consists of members from Chicago bands Yakuza, Bloodiest, Bloodyminded and Indian as well as Pulse Programming, Codeine and others. The single-track piece was released by Thrill Jockey Records on CD along with his previous album “You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me” which was formerly only available on LP.

2013’s You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me began as a film project shot in various harsh environmental settings. Both that and their latest release Then It All Came Down are 30-40 minute single songs with basically the same structure.
These two monolithic tracks share many other similarities so it made sense to lump them together for this release. They begin with light passages; quietly throbbing drones and soft spoken horns that give way to slowly plucked strings, violins and chanting moans. Then It All Came Down starts off rather Angelic with voices singing ‘beautiful sun’ (which is Charles Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil’s last name translated into English.) Both slowly devolve into darkness with a mixture of blackened and funeral doom as multiple guitars roar around harsh noisemakers, feedback and thundering drums punctuated by shrieking howls that engulfs the other instruments. Once the dread, doom and distortion dissolves the pieces are left to breath until they fade away into violins and harps.

J.R. Robinson brings to mind a sort of half shaman/half composer when seen performing with his ensemble. The assembly plays and sounds like a sort of Godspeed You! Black Metal Emperor, pulling and pushing at the tensions building in each composition. They add versatility, depth and grandiose elegance to doom metal without sacrificing any of its menace or weight. In fact, the result is actually heavier because of the contrast. With performances in venues ranging from museums, a cemetery and cathedral Wrekmeister Harmonies shows a care for scenery that treats the music like the events they are.


Have a Nice Life - The Unnatural World

Have a Nice Life’s double album debut Deathconsciousness was a lo-fi masterpiece. It received so much praise that one could be forgiven if they were to assume it’s follow-up would fall short in the wake of such a shadow. While The Unnatural World isn’t itself a masterpiece, it is still a fine damn album and a worthy sophomore effort. Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have taken their signature blend of sonics and polished its edges and made it more succinct.

The Unnatural World is an evolution but it is gladly not too far removed from what was birthed more than 6 years ago. While their debut sounds like the echo of monstrous, cavernous caves that have no end or path, 'Unnatural World' sounds more like the echo in a large, empty hall. The hall just happens to be a dance hall, but a large one nonetheless. You can see the growth that they've had in this album when you compare both versions of Defenestration song with each other. The older version found in their compilation album VOIDS is a tame contrast to the more refined, lush version found in their new one.

At times the tracks on the album feel like they are swimming in a cloud of reverb, and at other times it feels like they're crowd surfing through the fog and smoke. It floats between menacing, ethereal, claustrophobic, expansive, noisy and driving with surprising ease and though the production level is stepped up it still retains its lo-fi aesthetic. On top of all this, the album is also catchy as fuck. 'The Unnatural World' is drone-drenched post punk excellence that celebrates gloom instead of merely wallowing in it.


Nazoranai ‎– The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already... ?

Nazoranai is a supergroup composed of experimental Japanese guitar god Keiji Haino, Australian ambient guru Oren Ambarchi, and Sunn O))) member and Southern Lord Records founder Stephen O’Malley. They came into existence in 2012 with their eponymous debut and a small string of live dates throughout the world, with O’Malley on bass, Ambarchi trading in his guitar pedals for drums, and Keiji Haino on…well, Keiji Haino. According to O’Malley in an interview with the New Yorker, Nazoranai relates to Japanese calligraphy, meaning “not to follow the exact movement of the teacher or the master, to not follow the line, but to develop some sort of individuality.

Individuality definitely abounds in this album. O’Malley’s droning sea of bass and Ambarchi’s calculated free-jazz drumming provides a great backdrop to the guitar freak-outs, air synth destruction, noisy contact mic concoctions and the yelps, hollers and moans of Haino. Ambarchi’s tribal drums seem to get swept away in the dirge of drones, tones and feedback rather than becoming the motivation behind them, as wails and screams give way to apocalyptic emergency sirens and cavernous, horn like sounds. Sparse spoken word echoes, minor passages of eerie low end and Spartan drum solos provide only a short respite from the madness found in this 4 track, hour-long psych behemoth. This is not music to hum to or follow; it is music to get lost to and to experience.

This release is surprisingly dynamic despite not containing any true songs or traditional structure. While improvisation is still the driving force behind the music, it would seem that the trio has left the jam-session urges to their self-titled release. Their debut is still a great album. The Most Painful... is a great journey.


Statik Selektah -  #WHATGOESAROUND

This may not only be one of the best albums of the year, but maybe even one of the best Hip Hop albums I've heard in a while. I don't know why this album isn't in more year-end lists. Statik Selektah is a DJ and producer from Massachusetts who I consider a spiritual successor to the likes of DJ Premier and Pete Rock. As the rumor goes, in 2010 Kanye West listened to one of Statik’s beats and said that “…it’s cool, but Jazz is dead,” and so supposedly “What Goes Around” was largely influenced by that comment. Though it didn’t need it, this album was definitely a worthy response to that claim.

The name ‘What Goes Around’ may be a gambling metaphor (it even has a nice cover of a turntable with a roulette wheel in place of vinyl) but it is the cyclical nature of music that should be the real reason behind the title. The type of hip hop that was popular around 20 years ago is now making a comeback, and this is the perfect example of that. Triumphant, jazzy horns, sparse piano lines and driving bass matches with hard-hitting drums to create beats that are both refreshing and nostalgic.

As is expected, there is a ton of guest MCs recruited to rap over these beats with Statik combining the best veterans with the vanguard of today, yet he still manages to maintain his overall sound despite the disparate contributors. He pairs new school talent like Joey Badass, Freddie Gibbs, Action Bronson and Ab-Soul with long-time greats such as Black Thought, Sheek Louch, Pharoahe Monch, Snoop and Royce Da 5'9". This album is the perfect synthesis of old and new -even the name shown with a hashtag on the cover is a testament to that. What Goes Around… is proof that classic Jazz still has a place in modern Hip Hop.


Godflesh - A World Lit Only by Fire

"Godflesh made a Godflesh album!" That is the statement a friend of mine relayed to me soon after the release of A World Lit Only by Fire, the duo’s first studio album of new material in 13 years. One would think that remark confusing or redundant, but sounding like your old self after over a decade long hiatus is no easy task -especially when you are talking about a band as seminal and sui generis as this.

Justin Broadrick’s post-Godflesh solo shoegaze project Jesu was a marked departure from the industrial-sludge of his past (and even further removed from his short stint as a member of grind godfathers Napalm Death.) No one would have even blinked if he returned sounding like a heavier version of Jesu, and that would have made a fine album if that was the case. Instead, Justin proves that the two projects are different entities and returns with an album (and EP slightly before that) that not only sounds exactly the way it should – but does so sounding closer to their classic early albums as opposed to their later, not as well-received experimental albums. What’s surprising is the fact that they can sound so much like "old" Godflesh without sounding dated or stale, which only further proves how pioneering their music was/is.

'A World Lit Only by Fire' is a pummeling and relentless affair produced with a level of clarity that only emphasizes every grind, grit, groan and crunch that heaves throughout the industrial metal machine that is Godflesh. Had this been the latest release of a group that never went on hiatus, it might have only been a minor increment of change from the possible other albums in-between. Since it is not it makes the leaps in evolution even more impressive, sounding as if the duo hasn't missed a beat since they've left us.

And the rest of the list (again in no particular order)


Wreck and Reference - Want

Cannibal Corpse - A Skeletal Domain
Electric Wizard - Time to Die
Young Widows - Easy Pain
Eyehategod - Eyehategod
Earth - Primitive and Deadly
Thou - Heathen
Floor - Oblation
Homeboy Sandman - Hallways
Skullflower - Draconis

Best Collaboration: The Body - I Shall Die Here [w/Haxan Cloak]
Best Live Album: John Coltrane - Offering: Live At Temple University
Best Covers Album: Brownout Presents - Black Sababath
Best Free Album: Run the Jewels - RTJ2

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