Wednesday, December 27, 2023

best of 2023, pt. 1: prelude and overall top 10 (+1)

[This is part 1 of 5 of the DFSBP 2023 rundown; find the other parts here.]

Thank you as always if you've found your way to this obscure corner of the web. Obviously this is not exactly an active blog, but I keep it up and running so as to provide an open forum for (extremely) occasional posts like the following. I deeply appreciate any attention you've seen fit to bestow. Before we proceed further, a quick note that I am posting a fair amount on Instagram these days, after having mostly put my Twitter account on ice. Find me there if so inclined!

Just to get right to the point here, the most impactful music of 2023, for me, arrived via an album and a live show, and if you take away nothing else from the below, I'd urge you to make note of these.

First, Inman, a new release by the Alberta singer-songwriter Richard Inman. I can't remember exactly where I first stumbled across Inman's name, several years back, but I'm pretty sure it was in a year-end list on a metal blog, which makes sense since Inman has ties to the heavy-music underground. (Michigan label Bindrune Recordings recently reissued his first two albums, with artwork by Austin Lunn, the mastermind of renowned black-metal outfit Panopticon, and I think it may have been a Lunn-list that originally tipped me off.)

Anyway, Inman is not a metal artist; he's a singer-songwriter, in a mode that could be called country, though that maybe ought to just be called classic. I can't really overstate the degree to which these songs have arrested me, left me stunned with their bleak beauty, their plainspoken poetry, their harsh truth. This is ancient-feeling balladeer kind of stuff, one man with a guitar and his guileless yet richly expressive voice, a mountain of regrets and a closet full of demons. The themes of intemperance, lost love, the rambling life are ageless, but the details fixed in a specific time and place (see the way the narrator in opening track "Nothing More Than Nothing" describes a harrowing life spent "driving tow truck for the county"). Hard to say how much of this is autobiographical, though Inman gave a hint when he released this album, exclusively via Bandcamp, back in March. "This is a limited digital release available for the month of March 2023!" he wrote at the time. "These songs range from 6 or 7 years to a few months old.  I don't remember a lot of them and a lot are just to [sic] personal to play live. Fill your boots while you can folks!" 

True to his word, Inman pulled the album down afterward, for a period of months, before recently making it available again. During the time that it was unavailable (i.e., to anyone who hadn't purchased it during the initial offering), I made a point of sending the songs to a few close friends. It was a constant frustration that the music wasn't streaming, because I wanted to tip off a lot of other folks as well. Anyway, all I can say is, be grateful it's back, and, if the above sounds at all intriguing to you, I urge you to buy it immediately before it vanishes again. Inman put out two other releases this year, a "proper" album, streaming and all, called Life Without Your Love and an EP called Hell of Daydream, and I very much enjoy both, as I've enjoyed the past couple Inman full-lengths, but there is something special about Inman. I'm no expert in country music, or I might have an apt comparison closer at hand (I did throw out Townes Van Zandt and Springsteen's Nebraska as touchstones when recommending the album to friends), but the truth is that this is some of the most resonant singer-songwriter music I've ever heard. It feels like these songs have always been there. I've been learning to sing and play a couple of them in recent weeks (on piano, in simplified form) and I may just continue through the whole album — nothing fancy, just a few chords, cyclical forms, but there is so, so much here. This isn't going to be a record you throw on in the background — believe me, I've tried, and more than a few times found myself choking up. This is the real stuff.

Second, a live set by Botch at New York's Webster Hall back in October. I've said it before in various places, but I unreservedly celebrate the ongoing wave of band reunions sweeping the underground. (Can't wait for Orchid in May!) One big reason is that I missed a lot of these bands completely the first time around, or simply didn't give them their proper due. I had heard We Are the Romans, Botch's final and most celebrated full-length, a few times over the years. I liked it, but I honestly didn't think much of it. But my interest was re-piqued when the Seattle quartet reemerged last year with their first new song in 20 years, and the metal/hardcore/etc. community went absolutely berserk. So when they announced a reunion tour earlier this year, after having initially stipulated that they would *not be officially reviving the band, I decided to grab myself a ticket and see what the fuss was about. 

It turns out that the fuss was about one of the most intense and inventive heavy bands of our time. As I wrote after the show, I'm honestly not sure I've ever witnessed a tighter band. An absolutely staggering show, and I had their records on repeat for weeks after. It turns out that their 1998 debut, America Nervoso, is as good if not better than Romans. These guys were/are absolute surgeons of controlled chaos — surely akin to contemporaries and fellow innovators like Dillinger Escape Plan, but with a gravity and grace that I'd also liken to Meshuggah. (Could it be that Botch are actually a better band than either of these other two, all factors considered? I'm not making any proclamations, but a case could be made...) I'm honestly a little embarrassed that I wasn't familiar enough with them at the time to properly situate them in my personal math-rock pantheon, as compiled here back in 2010, but hey, you assimilate knowledge as you're able. I'm really not sure what the future holds for Botch, who recently wrapped a string of U.S. dates, but if you get the chance to see them at any point in the future, you must seize it. And I would say the same of Deadguy, a roughly contemporary band currently gigging regularly here and abroad as part of their own recent-ish reunion. I likewise missed them completely during their initial run but have since come to understand why their lone LP, 1995's Fixation on a Co-Worker, is likewise considered a classic of deranged hardcore-adjacent heaviness. 


And with those marquee mentions out of the way, on to some more celebration and acknowledgement of the music that mattered to me this year, with a few caveats attached. I won't belabor the point, but as I disclaimer-ed here two years ago, keeping up with new music in an orderly way during the past 12 months has been, for me, impossible, amid other commitments, priorities and endeavors, including but not limited to a new full-time job and a move upstate. I sometimes agonize over this shortcoming, mainly because I don't take it for granted that various parties (labels, publicists and artists themselves) still go out of their way to share new music with me. For that I say THANK YOU. I will always want to stay as current as I can, and though I'm never going to be able to make time for everything, I remain as attentive as I can be. By now my zones of taste and preference are pretty well established on the record, so I make no claim to anything remotely resembling comprehensiveness. I check out what I check out, along with the generous amount of older music that I'm constantly making my way through. (This year I've had meaningful sustained moments with, among others, Lungfish, Cave In — Heavy Pendulum, goddamn! Jupiter, goddamn!! — Hammerhead/Vaz — speaking of, don't sleep on this very cool quasi-archival Gaswar release, a recently augmented '90s recording that pairs the Vaz brotherhood with former Melvins/Cows bassist Kevin Rutmanis — the Fucking Champs and veteran prog-doom power trio Stinking Lizaveta, who have a new album out, Anthems and Phantoms, that's as gritty, primal, tough, imaginative and straight-up life-affirming as anything they've ever put out; strongly recommended, along with every other record in their robust catalog.) And some of the new music makes its way through and actually achieves some sort escape velocity, transitioning in the rarest of cases from "I'm digging this in the moment" to "Wow, this is actually becoming part of the regular rotation..." Often, this year, live music was where it was at for me this year (more on that below), not to mention playing music myself, both alone and with new collaborators. But there were exceptions. So here's a rundown (and see above for the table of contents, which will guide you to the various components of this survey), with Bandcamp links where applicable. Hope you find something you dig in here! See you again here same time next year if not sooner.


overall top 10 (+1)*

1. Richard Inman, Inman (self-released)
2. Scream, DC Special (Dischord)
3. Foo Fighters, But Here We Are (Roswell)
4. Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman… (Matador)
5. Mendoza Hoff Revels, Echolocation (AUM Fidelity)
6. Khanate, To Be Cruel (Sacred Bones)
7. Jeromes Dream, The Gray in Between (Iodine)
8. John Zorn, Full Fathom Five (Tzadik)
9. James Brandon Lewis, Eye of I (Anti-)
10. Tomb Mold, The Enduring Spirit (20 Buck Spin)

 (*After revisiting it this week, I've decided that Metallica's 72 Seasons deserves a place among this top tier, so I'm bumping it up from its original spot on the honorable mentions list and expanding this list to 11. See blurb below.)

Hopefully I've already made an ample case for the Inman. Beyond that:

The Scream album was a real surprise. They've always been a band I've been more aware of than actually familiar with. But during a recent Dischord catalog dive, undertaken for this survey I was honored to put together for Shfl and also related to purely-for-pleasure listening, this one hit me hard. My friend and consummate Dischord scholar Joe aptly called this a sort of Hackney Diamonds for the D.C./Dischord scene, and I think what he was getting at is this idea of a celebration/summation of a certain set of musical values, undertaken by scene vets with the help of old compatriots. While the Stones album — which I also really dug!— only features a handful of guests, DC Special is a true ensemble-cast effort, teaming the classic Scream lineup of Pete and Franz Stahl, Skeeter Thompson and drummer Kent Stax (who sadly died of cancer a couple months before the album's release) with a bunch of their pals from the Dischord community. What really sells the whole concept, though, is the strength and variety of the material, which roams from hardcore to reggae to straight-up anthemic rock & roll in a charmingly care-free way. It's a great-sounding record too, and no surprise, since it's one of the last to be recorded at the longtime Arlington, VA, location of Dischord's own sonic temple, Inner Ear, by the great Don Zientara. Just a terrific listen, with high replay value.

Interestingly, one of the aforementioned guests on DC Special is none other than Dave Grohl, whose brief stint in Scream would help launch him to eventual omnipresent rock stardom. I haven't always vibed with the Foo Fighters, but that's changed in a major way in recent years. At this point, I completely get why they're as big as they are, and celebrate them as one of the great rock bands of the era. This record, clearly informed by the shocking and sudden 2022 death of Taylor Hawkins (and the lesser-publicized passing of Grohl's mom), stands with the best of the back catalog. These songs just effortlessly work, both in terms of emotional punch and shout-along catchiness. 

Another band Dave Grohl has collaborated with over the years comes in at #3. There's really nothing especially new going on here, but I've been a huge QOTSA fan for years, and this record only sustains and amplifies my conviction that they too are among the best we have. This one took a sec to grow on me but really clicked into place after I caught them live over the summer. No one writes rock songs as stylish, sexy and stealthily devastating as Josh Homme, and there are, I think, some future classics here, including "Paper Machete," "Emotion Sickness" and "Carnavoyeur."

The Mendoza Hoff Revels album is like catnip for me, a disciple of the far-reaching, ahem, Heavy Metal Bebop aesthetic. But beyond my natural disposition to love a record that combines stomping, distorted crunch with anything-goes improv, this is just extremely well done, with memorable compositions balancing out gloriously unbridled blowing, and highlighted by what may be the production job of the year (by Jim Clouse at Brooklyn's Park West Studios): warm, massive and gritty as hell. I'm sure that, like me, if you've been following these extremely accomplished and prolific players during the past 10/15 years or so, you weren't surprised in the least that Ava Mendoza, Devin Hoff, Ches Smith (note that Smith and Hoff's long-running duo Good for Cows feels like a key antecedent of this project; check 2010's Audumla especially) and James Brandon Lewis came up with something this awesome. Note: Caught a killer live set by the Revels earlier this month, and you'll have another chance at Winter Jazzfest in Jan!

Ah, Khanate... Think of their surprise return this way: A new installment of a classic horror-movie franchise drops out of nowhere, and manages to scare the shit out of you all over again despite the fact that you basically know exactly what's coming. This band is simply one of the great extreme art projects of our time, in any medium, and we're so lucky they're back at it. 

All the screamo masters are reuniting, and I am, as they say, here for it. As with Botch above, it's been a thrill to catch all these bands within the past few years (Saetia, City of Caterpillar, Gospel, pg. 99, etc.) and finally grasp what the fuss was all about. Jeromes Dream are the ones leading the pack for me, not least because I think their new music is excellent. The Gray in Between is, simply, a symphony of euphoric harshness, not to mention genuinely effective songcraft, that demonstrates why JD are one of the most revered acts in their wing of the underground. Kudos to them for really anteing up with their reunion and meaningfully adding to their formidable legacy. Note: Caught them for the second time this year, with the demented and arresting Elizabeth Colour Wheel, and they're a monumentally heavy, near-overwhelming live presence. See them on their 2024 run if you can! 

Like many, I'm still reeling from the Great Tzadik Streaming Drop of 2023, which really felt major, in the sense of reminding us all just how much there is to savor in that enormous catalog. You could obviously spend years sifting through the John Zorn offerings alone, but amid the flood, don't sleep on the new releases. Full Fathom Five is one of three new full-lengths this year by the band known as Incerto (featuring guitarist Julian Lage and bassist Jorge Roeder from the current Masada lineup, as well as pianist Brian Marsella and drummer Ches Smith, making his second appearance on this here top 10 — check him out as well on the ass-kicking latest from Ceramic Dog, Connection, which, as I belatedly catch up to it now, I'm realizing may be something of an avant-rock masterpiece…), and it's just masterful — a real mood, as they say, a sort of mystical chamber-prog-postbop hybrid inspired by the night imagery found in Shakespeare's plays. Lovely and mysterious and at times sumptuously spooky, with plenty of room for these virtuosos to let loose.

Keeping up with James Brandon Lewis' output is likewise a full-time pursuit these days, and it seems like every year, one or more of his records, whether as leader or sideman, ends up in strong contention for me. Obviously he's a huge asset to Echolocation above, and of his two major leader statements of the year (the other being his Mahalia Jackson tribute For Mahalia, With Love), this one also hit me hard. JBL has led too many noteworthy power trios to catalog (for example, the one with Luke Stewart and Trae Crudup featured on 2016's No Filter, or the one with Josh Werner and Chad Taylor that I caught this past spring as part of a perfectly matched double bill with the Messthetics), and here comes another one on his Anti- debut, with Christopher Hoffman on cello and Max Jaffe on drums. While the other JBL three-pieces I've heard have focused more on funky drive, this one achieves a deep cyclical flow that works just as well in or out of metric time. But without slighting the vital contributions of the supporting players here — Hoffman, Jaffe, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and on the roof-raising finale, the Messthetics themselves, i.e., Fugazi brothers-in-rhythm Joe Lally and Brendan Canty and polymathic shredder Anthony Pirog — it's the focus and directness of JBL's writing/bandleading here that makes the album great. His compositions have the strength and conviction of mantras and the stickiness of great folk songs, potent enough to gather steam over the duration of pieces like "Within You Are Answers" and "The Blues Still Blossoms," where the band keeps passing the themes around, lifting them higher and higher (with the same being true of the covers here, most notably a stirring version of Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free"). As with the Inman album at the top of this list, many of the tracks here feel like instant canon to me.

As anyone with even a passing interest in extreme metal knows, we're in the midst of a death-metal renaissance, and for me (and I'm hardly alone!), Tomb Mold are one of a handful of bands who are really leading the charge. Their evolution from a more stripped-down, meat-and-potatoes sound to something more high-tech across their first three albums is well-documented, but they really took a quantum leap on The Enduring Spirit. I honestly wasn't sure how much I liked the change during my early spins of this record (honestly I missed what guitarist Derrick Vella once called "the more ignorant sections of our repertoire," referring to their early penchant for bludgeoning riffs that slammed you around like some kind of Cro-Magnon wrestler). But I quickly realized I needed to cut loose the baggage of my expectations because these guys were so clearly on a mission. Yes, this album is relentless fussy and detail-packed but when it wants to be, it's simultaneously as aggressive as anything they've done before. This is not one I'm throwing on every day, but every time I do, I'm sort of shocked and delighted that a genre I've been following for 30+ years just keeps hurtling onward into the future. IMO, kind of impossible to sit with this one and not come away with the notion that death metal is one of the great musical frontiers of our time, where some of the brightest minds are dreaming up boundless worlds of wonder. Inspiring as hell.

I am and will always be a Metallica die-hard, and I love the old and new stuff alike. I really think they've been on a roll of late, and this one might be even better than 2016's Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, which I loved. I didn't return to this one quite as much as I thought I would throughout the year, which is really the only reason it didn't originally find its way to my top 10, but now that I'm revisiting it, I'm realizing that it absolutely deserves mention among my other favorites of the year. There are some truly great, worthy Metallica songs on this thing ("You Must Burn!," "Shadows Follow," the title track) and at this point in their career, that's really saying something. 

To elaborate a little more on what I love about this album: As with Hardwired and Death Magnetic, the arrangements here can sometimes feel overstuffed, the songs creeping up around (or past) the six-minute mark when four minutes might have sufficed, but I'm starting to see that move back toward …And Justice for All–ish maximalism after the leaner style of the Black Album and Load/ReLoad as a real asset. What I hear in that tendency now is a reflection of the band's sheer joy in songwriting at this stage in their career. They just love stacking up riffs and parts and creating these massive Erector-set constructions that while sometimes a little unwieldy, always find some kind of center in a big chorus hook or fist-pumping riff. Metallica absolutely do not need to making new music at all, let alone putting this much care and effort into their songwriting. Even if I disagree with them completely, I obviously understand on some level why many purists have long ago written this band off, but as a fan of 30+ years, it's almost impossible for me to imagine hearing 72 Seasons and not feeling the presence of some of that old magic. To drill down a little: for me, this record is really the best of both Metallica worlds — the catchiness of the Black Album plus the complexity of the baroque thrash years. Not to mention the fact that I think James Hetfield is singing as well as he has on record since the early '90s. There's really not one song I don't dig (right now feeling the mid-album twofer of "Crown of Barbed Wire" and "Chasing Light). Looking forward to many more spins of this one!

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