This year, all the best work in the land of metal, noise, avant rock, out-there jazz, and in-there experimental could be found where I usually find it: in ditches, underneath floorboards, hiding behind a forgotten jar of honey in the cupboard, on the other side of midnight, behind the closed door of an abandoned cabin in the woods. But as my late therapist Tom used to say, “Better to be lost in the forest than to follow a map made by a tourist.” RIP and amen. Those words refer not only to this list, but also to the precipice n on which we find ourselves. Hold tight, kids, as we cross the border. We’ve all got a long way to go.
1. Skin Crime: Case Studies in Early Taxidermy Techniques
20-CD set, Hospital Productions
For the most part, you could take the rest of this list, move the selections around in the rankings, and I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. But not this one. Skin Crime stays on top. The face-ripping, body-goring, skull-thwacking noise of Skin Crime has been with us for over 20 years, and here it is, celebrated, in a perfectly constructed room. So tidy. Don’t worry: things get messy once you open the box. This is the “Merzbau” on a murder spree. Skin Crime has always been a reliable hole into which you might crawl, but to feel the weight of so much of its catalogue in one place — well, you’re going to be underneath it for a while. Everything is ending, and this is what it sounds like. Call the guys with the shovels. This is your new American anthem.
2. Amon: Sacrificial/Feasting the Beast
LP, Buried by Time and Dust Records
Well, here was some hell that had been waiting for us. The frightfully consistent Buried by Time and Dust label reissued, on one LP, two demos from the Floridian death metal band Amon — which went on to become the Christ-killin’ icons Deicide. The later of the two demos, Sacrificial, from 1989, inhabits the A-side. It’s a kick to hear producer Scott Burns on the boards so early in his career, working out the Morrisound sound that would soon have bands from all over flying in to endure the swamp rot of Tampa. The door opens, and, without warning, you get hit with the fist that was intended for Christ’s kisser. The blast beats and battery hold out until the last groove. Side B contains the earlier demo, Feasting the Beast, from 1987. Just because Amon were less developed as musicians and songwriters then doesn’t mean they weren’t developed at all. Yes, a few old metal clichés slip out from behind the abdominal wall, but it’s clear the beast will soon be coming to term, and walking and stabbing on its own. The only bad news by the end of side B is that that ain’t Jesus’ head on a stick; it’s yours.
3. Mary Halvorson Octet: Away With You
CD, Firehouse 12 Records
Any project involving guitarist Mary Halvorson is a good one, but when she’s leading the charge, it’s even better. One of the most inventive guitarists and composers working right now, Halvorson makes music that suggests running up and down a battery of staircases, sometimes with scissors. Her work with composer Anthony Braxton taught her that you don’t need to be on just one set of stairs at a time. Sometimes Halvorson is racing up, while her octet is on their way down. Sometimes the opposite. Sometimes the stairs break loose from their foundations and are suspended in the air for a bit, while Halvorson leaps from one set to another with her hollow-body guitar swinging along. But she’s no spotlight hog; Halvorson is generous with solos for other members of her octet. Saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock rage especially hard. The interplay between Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn is the tie that binds throughout. What a thrilling release. People ask me where to start with Halvorson’s work. The answer is easy: listen to (and buy) the first thing you see. Go from there. Buy the next thing you see. Keep running. Keep listening. Fall down the stairs.
4. variant: vortexual [element seven] bvdub’s ghosts of a broken october
Bvdub’s reshaping of variant’s vortexual is the best work I’ve heard from Brock Van Wey in years. Van Wey has a deft touch with melody, so I’m not sure if the ones on this album are his own, or if he’s pulled them to the surface from under the cloud of variant’s original. Either way, it’s stunning work, one 60-minute piece that goes by in the bat of a possibly moist eye. Yes. You might be crying for 60 minutes from the sheer beauty and sadness of this thing, but it never feels overdone, just accurate. The heavy weight of humidity associated with so many echospace releases holds everything down. bvdub’s ghosts of a broken october was a great way to end another amazing year for echospace.
5. Howard Stelzer: Normal Bias
6-cassette set, Ballast
Some say they miss the earlier, more frantic bent to Howard Stelzer’s work. I’m not sure why. Not because it wasn’t great — it was — but because that doesn’t seem to be where Stelzer is right now. Currently, he’s taking his time, and thankfully, the tiny but mighty Ballast label lets him do so over six cassettes. I haven’t been this excited about the exploitation of tape as an instrument since Francisco López’s Paris Hiss cassette. Sometimes it’s just the pure pleasure of decaying sound or the wow of the flutter. But over the expanse of Normal Bias, Stelzer weaves layers of ambient sound into the tale of the tape, the figurative peeking out from amid the layers of mechanical abstraction. It’s a long walk Stelzer is taking the listener on here, not the mad dash of his earlier work. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less engrossing, or that there’s less of a reason to whistle your way through this glorious graveyard of tape. You’re just not running now.
6. black tape for a blue girl: these fleeting moments
CD, projekt records
A return to form, of sorts, for goth/darkwave group black tape for a blue girl. With its texture and music, this release feels the closest to 1993’s this lush garden within that black tape has been in a long time. As good as the intervening albums were, none of them felt quite as satisfying. So, it’s a joy to hear not only that old sound again, but also bandleader Sam Rosenthal adding new elements and colors to his arsenal — there are even a couple of effective Moog workouts! Reflecting the new/old angle is Oscar Herrera’s return to the fold; he helmed the group’s lead vocals for the first five albums. Rosenthal also brought Herrera’s daughter, Dani, on board to add her own vocal touches. Herrera’s singing has always been a little too much, but that’s why it’s always been so effective as well — a wake-up call to shock you into what’s happening in the rest of the song. Dani’s vocals are a strong, more traditional counterpoint. The harmonies throughout remind me of John Doe and Exene’s not-quite-right, but ultimately wildly effective way of paralleling the human voice. As similar as these fleeting moments feels to lush garden, the song structures and arrangements that Rosenthal’s been working out over the course of the intervening albums are on full display here. Without such previous albums as halo star or 10 neurotics, there would be no these fleeting moments. Whatever it took, black tape for a blue girl has made it back to where they began, and the garden they found is more lush and vibrant than ever. Play it again, Sam.
7. Jeff Conklin: The Avant Ghetto
Radio show, WFMU
Working too many late Sunday nights into Monday mornings was helpful in the bill-paying department, but more importantly, it led to my finally being able to properly listen to Jeff Conklin’s weekly radio show on WFMU, The Avant Ghetto. I met Conklin via noise music channels on Twitter, but soon found out that his tastes were much wider than the sound and the fury. I also learned that they were pretty impeccable. The show fills the airtime with noise, avant jazz, psych jazz, psych rock, psych folk, folk, solo acoustic guitar, new age, and of course, the occasional jam from Conklin’s beloved Grateful Dead. Every week is an education and a lift on the cusp of a new week. We need a miracle every day, or at least every Sunday night. In 2016, Conklin provided that in spades.
8. Frans de Waard: This Is Supposed to Be a Record Label
Book, Timeless Editions
This book was just as bananas and cranky as I’d hoped it would be. In the ’90s, de Waard worked for the influential experimental Amsterdam record label and shop Staalplaat. The label’s unorthodox approach, in that sounds and visuals usually came before profit, led to many adventures. It was a fine setup for those of us who were either creating and listening; it was a stressful situation for anybody trying to make a go of it as a sustainable business. Yet they did, and now we have the snarks of endearment and the music to show for it. Although familiar with his work in sound and music, I hadn’t had the chance to hear de Waard’s writer voice until I came across his long-running music review newsletter, Vital Weekly. The matter-of-factness reflects the brutal honesty of his assessments. A dry, wicked sense of humor is always close to the surface. De Waard’s keen observational eye made This Is Supposed to Be a Record Label a must-read for anybody interested in underground sounds. If you’d like to see how the sausage gets made when the butchers take their lessons from Mekanik Kommando, well then, there’s no better place to start.
9. Tor Lundvall: Nature Laughs As Time Slips By
5-CD box set, Dais Records
There were plenty of opportunities to be somber this year, and painter and musician Tor Lundvall’s five-CD box set on Dais Records helped me navigate my way through many of them. This is Lundvall’s third box set for Dais, a sprawling collection of gray skies and muted tones. Lundvall’s music can always be counted on to deliver the cold and the warmth simultaneously, in equal parts. On Ronnie Wood’s solo album Gimme Some Neck, there’s a series of drawings that make up the inner sleeve. One of them shows Keith Richards in what can only be described as junkie repose, leaning away from the world and into a pillow. The music in this set feels like that, but without the harm to body or relationships. The not-here — and the warm distance it can provide — wasn’t a bad place to spend time every once in awhile this year.
10. Chips & Beer Magazine #10
Suzi Quatro on a cover drawn by the Hand of Beaver? Are you kidding me? That’s a top-10 move if there ever was one. So many metal magazines fail when they do a “women in…” issue because they either focus on the artists’ hottest-ness or spend half the time patting themselves on the back for not focusing on that. The crew at Chips & Beer do what they always do: write about the people — both newcomers and vets, the famous and the obscure — who have grabbed them by the throat most firmly. Yeah, they were interested in Suzi Quatro’s stories from back in the day, but they were just as interested in her plans for kicking our asses in the present. You’ll read Lita Ford’s hilarious tale of getting crabs from Dee Dee Ramone, but you’ll also get to catch up with unsung metal hero Catherine “Leather” Leone of Chastain — plus bands Rock Goddess, Plasmatics, Vixen, Derketa, Bolt Thrower, Nuclear Death, and, of course, Girlschool and Warlock. The list of influential bands with women to whom Chips & Beer gives props and gratitude goes on. Read. Learn. Rock.
Last-Minute Honorable Mention
Mac McCaughan, “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again)”
Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan spent his Christmas Eve writing and recording this gem of a song. If you need a good laugh, cry, or hug as you mourn 2016 and get on with the work of 2017, this is the place to start. Hang in there, hearts!