It’s not hard to feel sorry for musicians plying their trade in 2011. While there were never actually that many rock stars who got to share a gold plated Jacuzzi with an octopus, a pipe of opium and the freshly shaved Brazilian mixed volleyball team, time was when quite a lot of groups could get by ok on the money they earned from record sales. While cash was quite a powerful driving force in the music industry in years gone by, luckily we are still spoiled rotten by the number of artists creating fantastical, mind expanding music, despite knowing that they’re not really going to earn much or even any money. Here are just some of the few albums this rich year has had to offer.
If there is any justice in the world, some of them will be seen widely as essential artefacts in years to come because none of them have sold that many copies.
First up I must tip my hat to and be thankful for Årabrot whose effervescent ‘Solar Anus’ has illuminated the whole year.
The Norwegian duo have taken the distressed pig-fuck rock of Jesus Lizard, Melvins and Birthday Party and applied it to a nightmarish vision of ancient mythology and surrealist literature. And once you throw a vintage modular synth into the mix, you really have a special alchemical album, dedicated to transforming the shit of everyday life into interstellar gold.
Elsewhere on a venerable punk trip are the mighty Amebix who have returned to the fray for the first time in 25 years after being pioneers in the field of successfully melding punk with metal and going on to inspire such bands as Neurosis and Sepultura. Their new album ‘Sonic Mass’ has seen them successfully reclaim some of the vast swathe of music they invented as their own.
Original orchestral soundtrack must go to former Faith No More singer Mike Patton whose arrangements for ‘The Solitude Of Prime Numbers’ speak of someone who is obsessed with Italian music, specifically the early work of Ennio Morricone. But as well as the Maestro, Patton has been paying attention to minimalist composer Michael Nyman on the track ’19 – Radius Of Convergence’ which has been given a rigid dubsteb throb.
Making dance music on careworn analogue equipment is nothing new and everyone from LCD Soundsystem to SMD have been at it recently but nailing it in ’11 has been Detroit born Laurel Halo. That she comes from the Motor City shouldn’t come as a surprise when you can hear the future sound of techno in her lush arrangements on ‘Hour Logic’, despite the sounds being coaxed from antiquated instruments.
One album that has cult classic written all over it is ‘Dorwytch’ by Alexander Tucker, an affable stoner and multi-instrumentalist who makes music that is part psychedelic folk, part experimental pop in the style of Brian Eno and part far-out freakoid sound experiment. Apart from featuring tracks about Skeletor and Swamp Thing, this long player also contains the mighty ‘His Arm Has Grown Long’, which builds up loops of cello into a cosmic crescendo.
Tucker also appears on Grumbling Fur’s debut ‘Furrier’. Other members of the collective include Daniel O’Sullivan, auxiliary member of The Big Pink and SunnO))) as well as the brains and looks behind Mothlite and Jussi Lethisalo of the mighty Finnish motorik metallers Circle. Just one play of the outstanding ‘The Orb Of The Woods’ lets you know you’re listening to something special with its nod to Harmonia’s ‘Watussi’ and the angelic/demonic vocal composition of György Ligeti as applied to Pink Floyd and The Flaming Lips.
It seems like some of the best hip hop and RnB artists were giving their shit away for free this year. Number 41 in NME’s albums of the year was a free download of ‘ExMilitary’ by San Franciscan madmen Death Grips.
Elsewhere deciding that you’ve been nice not naughty is Elzhi a Detroit born MC, formerly of Slum Village, who has remade Nas’ 1994 classic ‘Illmatic’ as ‘Elmatic’ with the help of live funk band Will Sessions, Royce da 5’9” and Pete Rock. And if that sounds a bit mad, like The Paddingtons covering all of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ – it really isn’t. Anyway, you can check yourself pretty easily.
Despite early hype, Tyler, The Creator delivered a dud with ‘Goblin’, leaving Frank Ocean from Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All to show how it was done on his ‘Nostalgia/Ultra’ mix tape but the best RnB cost cash money however and was delivered by B Bravo in the form of the slick Prince and Chicago house referencing ‘Kiss N Tell’ EP.
Looking at some end of year lists you could be forgiven for thinking that the only metal album released in ‘11 was the diseased cock in a stale bap of ‘Lulu’ by Metallica and Lou Reed. But let’s have it straight, this is the equivalent of listening to your constipated dad on the toilet reading out clues from the Financial Times Cryptic Crossword while outside in the garden shed, Crème Brule relearn how to play their instruments after a series of crippling brain injuries. This is obviously a shame seeing as elsewhere Mastodon (‘The Hunter’) and Machine Head (‘Unto The Locust’) have turned in some of their finest work to date. On a less well known tip, Black Metal was twisted into ever more strange shapes, especially over in America. Completing a trilogy with ‘Celestial Lineage’, Wolves In The Throne Room have proved conclusively that you don’t need to burn down a church, praise Satan, be a Nazi, kill your friend, make jewellery out of someone’s skull or even wear make-up to make good BM. In fact they’ve proved that you can be righteous socialist dudes living on a farm and still whip up a sonic maelstrom that sounds like the Earth getting sucked into a black hole.
Best doom metal nod must go to Yob’s ‘Atma’. This Portland Oregon trio are adept at mixing the classic vocal stylings of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath with sonic references to (slightly) newer groups such as Sleep and Electric Wizard. But all you really need to know is that it’s about the unity of existence and it’s heavy enough to blow the giant brass balls off a giant brass bantha. For those wanting to step further into the outer reaches though, try the self-titled album by Obake. Featuring members of Italian death metal/jazz outfit Zu, it's heavy on opera singing, electronics and bowel-prolapsing guitar and vocal emanations.
There are joint winners in the ‘Why did you let me take that acid, please call me an ambulance and give me some Syndol’ award for 2011. It doesn’t matter what colour tabs are on offer, UK noise rock ensemble Hey Colossus always opt for the brown, but this year on ‘RRR’, they have embellished their pungent and head crushing mix of EyeHateGod, The Butthole Surfers and Killdozer with some warm electronics and groovy Germanic beats.
Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats occupy a twisted version of the late 1960s where murderous cult leader Charles Manson went on to join The Beatles after hearing Helter Skelter, dragging the Fab Four down into a nightmarish world of psych rock, bad fidelity, bad LSD and even worse vibes. Their new lysergically enhanced album ‘Blood Lust’ is sheer evil pleasure.
Pushing outwards towards the perimeters, Anglo Serbian musician/soundscape artist Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak produced a staggering self-titled album, which almost defies description. Sitting somewhere between SunnO)))’s ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’, Wardruna’s ‘Gap Var Ginnunga’ and the rain blasted burial service of Piltdown Man, this is still truly sui generis.
Colin Stetson, meanwhile, may well be a saxophonist for the likes of Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, TVOTR, LCD Soundsystem and Bon Iver but none of those names will prepare you for his spectacular solo album ‘New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges’. Stetson plays a giant bass saxophone and records tracks in one take with no overdubs but he gets a massive sound out of his horn due to the use of contact microphones placed all over the instrument, his body and the reflective walls inside and outside the room. The mix was then used to control the volume of different channels, creating a bewildering amount of source noise to mould into different beautiful shapes.
But perhaps you’d like something a little more tuneful and uplifting? Things didn’t get much more positively enjoyable this year than Azari & III’s self-titled debut of warm, Chicago house inspired dance music. Classic jacking acid, diva disco and ecstatic electro all go to make up this killer LP.
While, musically they couldn’t be any different, I get the same warm feeling in the cockles of my ventricles listening to Tamikrest as I do listening to Azari & III. These rock musicians may well come from Mali but they have little to do with the likes of kora player Toumani Djabate and pop group Amadou and Mariam (both of whom have worked with Damon Albarn), given that they come from the North East of the country which is deep into the heart of the Sahara Desert. Instead, they (and fellow Tuareg musicians Tinariwen) play a warm blues inspired desert rock utilizing a standard Western line up supplemented with youyous, djembe and other traditional forms of African percussion.
Music has long been the lingua franca of an international conversation that has been taking place for decades and it’s good to see bands in the West receiving influence as well. The abominably-named Americans Master Musicians Of Bukkake draw inspiration from the desert blues of the Sahara, as well as Eastern drones and Indian ragas, for their ‘Totem Three’ album, which, while undeniably exotic, is essentially a psychedelic rock record.
Catherine AD released an understated but beautiful mini-album ‘Communion’ this year. The Welsh pianist/singer backed with unobtrusive strings reveals a melancholy talent for song writing as well as a killer cover of Lady Gaga’s 'Telephone'.
Tim Hecker, finally, uses piano in a completely different way, producing sepulchral, ambient noise. ‘Rave Death 1972’, like another great album this year, PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, was recorded in a church (albeit one in Iceland) and likewise, the location seems to have brought out the very best in the artist.
John Doran is Editor of The Quietus