5. Merchandise – After the End
After being a “on the fence” fan of Merchandise for quite some time, it is safe to say that I had quite the amount of anticipation for this release. For years I enjoyed the idea of their band more than I did a majority of their catalogue and was hoping for the final push in one direction or the other. I followed most of their previous “harder” projects and loved the turn and development into a polar opposite band, but never got into the songs. It was like I knew what they were trying to achieve, but never felt it executed to it’s best until After the End.
Gone are the drum-machine backed, eight minute plus songs and born are more concentrated, all real-band written, dare I say, hits. Every song, rather it be a radio worthy post-punky single (“Enemy”) or ballad (“After the End”) is rich in melody, catchiness and a balance of instrumentation. Merchandise have taken cues from The Smiths and generations of worldwide-born pop and independent rock music, crafting something nostalgic, yet uniquely their own.
Charismatic lead singer Carson Cox adds even more to this release with his delicate acoustic strums and now mastered vocal delivery and stylings. Watching the band perform live, it is obvious how full of energy and love for their music they truly are- but their is a true charm that comes from their modesty. For a band that got signed to a more major label finally (4AD), they still recorded and wrote this album at their home in Tampa, Florida…primarily in a closet. Yes, a bedroom closet.
This is truly the pinnacle of what “bedroom pop,” that has become so popular in the past few years, can strive to be when it grows up and grows out.
4. Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love
Another release that was very polarizing for my pallet this year was Danish punk band Iceage’s Plowing Into the Field of Love. I first discovered the band a few years ago when I looked into many of the similar projects from their home country, many on the label Posh Isolation (which I will dive into in some future reviews) and many sharing the same band members. I saw Iceage live about two years ago and didn’t love it…thought their album from 2013, You’re Nothing, was okay but nothing that blew me away.
It was when they decided to push a little less on the punk button with this release that I was really taken back by their songwriting abilities.
The best production value they have seen to date still offers the slightly overdriven, shimmering guitars, round bass and driving drums coupled with vocalist Elias’ introspective, sexual and sometimes religious touched shouts and, well, moans. But to progress, what Iceage did was bring in a good heaping spoonful of extra instrumentation that supports all the original four members in the best way possible.
I feel It is often a pitfall when a band pulls in a full set of strings and brass and piano to write a more “complete” album…for when it comes to reinterpreting it live- it just does not do the recording justice. After seeing these songs played live, however, it is apparent these extra voices in the songs are just a supplement to the already well written tunes and their extraction does not detriment the experience, just gives it a more raw sound. Which, it’s live…so that’s what we want anyway, right? The listener still gets a balance of edgy post-punk vibes alongside some slower, experimental and even country/folk rock-esque songs, just with a little extra to push the sonic range of what we are used to.
I enjoy a release that challenges not only my own perceptions of a band, but also one that can do so for an entire genre or style. Iceage accomplished these goals while keeping me listening the past few months, pretty nonstop, to this well balanced collection.
3. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Speaking of an album that pushes boundaries- I can not remember one in recent times that pushes not only a band’s definition, but also that of a social issue more than Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Unless living underneath some sort of “rolling stone,” you would know Laura Jane Graces’ transformation from Tom Gabel has been well documented across multiple outlets over the last few years.
It seems since then, magazines, websites, television programs and more have started to show and deal with more frequently the struggle of transgender individuals and their incredible strides they make to become their truest form of self.
What Against Me! does with this release is celebrate that coming of self in the most loud and forefront way possible. They looked at the homophobes and bigots and haters, grabbed them by the throat and gave them the finger. All whilst maintaining and balancing this mindset with close, personal storytelling. The material, besides it’s undeniably heartfelt content is also, in my opinion, the best written and sounding songs the band has put out in years. They still stick close to their folk-punk upbringing but give us power-pop choruses and hooks alongside the driving verses and shouts we have come to know all too well.
I saw the band twice this year and they are hitting just as hard, if not harder, than ever before. You can truly sense just from Laura’s smiles and attitude on stage how better of a place she is in now.
I would like to think that with some help of this release, alongside one hell of a charismatic and dedicated front-woman, more attention than ever before, followed more acceptance than ever before will be given to the LGBT community.
It’s what they deserve, it’s what we all deserve- because we’re all just people in the end.
2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything
Many will know and identify this band as just a “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” side project. While that is a fair first peer into the situation, it just barely cracks the surface of what this band brings to the table versus the other. Sonically, sure, some of the strings and post-rock vibes are still there…but besides that and members shared, the similarities stop there. Here, Thee Silver Mt. Zion (or whatever name they chose to release under this time) gives the listener their seventh full length album, first in four years and it is just…powerful, to say the least.
A majority songs (all six of them total) last over ten minutes and feature several different movements and voices, both that of the six members throats and their respected instruments. Efrim’s mesmerizing guitar weaves leads and melodies, section into section, alongside distorted bass, shrilling violins, and percussion balancing groove and drive. All these factors create a controlled chaos that comes together and crescendos with amazing harmonies and deep, captivating lyrics and themes. More experimental, ambient pieces and some samples break up, as well as begin and end the album’s more epic “rock song” comparable, driving moments.
The collectives stances on various socio and political issues are well documented and definitely still have a strong footing here thematically, but also you can feel a new level of love interlaced into the chantings that are brought forth. Without a doubt the relationship between members Efrim and Jessica and their becoming of parents together (which is documented in the film Come Worry With Us!) makes a huge influence on the material. Song’s like “What We Loved Was Not Enough” voice their concern for what a future will hold for their child…
“And the days come when we no longer feel
There’ll be war in our cities
And riots at the mall
There’ll be blood on our doorsteps
And panics at the ball
All our cities gonna burn
All our bridges gonna crack
All our pennies gonna rot
There’ll be mud across our tracks
All our children gonna die”
and maybe for all of us in a bleak, yet honest portrayal.
This album came out in early January and stuck with me the entire year. Despite some of the song’s long play times, the balance the band achieves in all of it’s expertly played instruments and dedication you can just feel by listening makes this a memorable monument indeed.
1. Swans – To Be Kind
What more can be said about Michael Gira’s Swans that hasn’t been said before? These guys are powerhouses…juggernauts of industrial, post-rock, post-punk, whatever genre or title you want to give them. With To Be Kind, a follow up to the amazing 2012’s The Seer, Gira and company show that time has done nothing to slow them down. They may in large be what some call “old guys” but they pound harder, more accurately, creatively and ferociously than any band out there right now…and they have been doing it for SO much longer.
The trance inducing repetition, with pulsing percussion, explosive transitions and long form compositions coupled with Gira’s haunting vocals are all still here. What I feel more than ever in this album, however, is a lot more groove and even some “pop” sensibilities in small doses. Take “A Little God in My Hands,” a song which has a beat that could be sampled easily for a radio hit, is momentarily obliterated by monolithic noise surges, throwing the listener completely off kilter, only to be brought back into the round with even more catchy (toy piano sounding) melodies.
Despite a riff or beat being repeated (or seemingly repeated) for five minutes at a time, you really never know what is around the corner in any song, making it all the more of an enticing listen. I compare listening to this album over and over to watching a movie you have seen too many times, but that you still love. You think you know every scene so well and then, WAH-LAH, you find nuances, new little details in every visit that make you appreciate it even more. Headphones and full immersion into this material are highly recommended for the full stereo experience, to get the most of every little meticulously designed note ringing true to your ears.
But let’s be honest- Swans are not for everyone. This is loud music meant to be played loud. It’s very complex, polyrhythmic, full of depth, abrasive. And some listeners, well, simply can not digest that. However, I feel even if you can’t relate to the material or even stand it, you have to appreciate it. Because amongst these ambient swells, homemade instrument pluckings, drones and chants we experience during this two hour sermon, one most remember the most impressive detail- most of this album was recorded live in studio. That’s right…very little overdubbing was done in completion of this opus of modern experimental music. All those voices coalescing were worked out and doted over thousands of times and committed to tape with all six men at once- a true achievement for teamwork as a creative unit, i.e. a band and the recording/production process.
Summing up, what makes this my number one album of 2014?
Well, I am what some would describe an atheist… but seeing Swans this past year…that was a religious experience that I can’t wait to have again this March. Swans is a temple I could visit and hear the teachings of how “To Be Kind” to thy neighbor everyday… even though my hearing might be completely shot to hell before I even get to taste the wine.