As the year that was 2015 draws to a close, every music mag worth its salt begins to thrust their end of year lists at its bewildered readership. I for one welcome the influx; best albums of the year rundowns are a great way to select listening choices during those grim, grey days of January and (shudder) February. Yet the December list deluge will often mean that a few lower-key gems can get unjustly forgotten.
In an attempt to pre-empt and redress this, what follows is my selection of albums from the last 12 months that deserve a bit more love, and certainly deserve your aural attention. You’ll have to trust me on these…
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
Photo (c) Shaina Hedlund
Chelsea Wolfe knows all about long dark nights of the soul. Reputedly a sufferer of sleep paralysis, Californian native Wolfe explores the deep recesses of the human condition on ‘Abyss’. This is one of those records that almost entirely engulfs the listener during its 55 minutes. Previous to this record, Wolfe could be found ploughing a furrow of folksy, gothic, industrial-leaning rock, best exemplified in 2013’s ‘Pain Is Beauty’. That record had its fair share of haunting, guitar-led epics, but nothing could prepare us for the bone-crushing intensity that is ‘Abyss’. Enlisting guitarist Mike Sullivan from label mates Russian Circles, ‘Abyss’ shows Wolfe embracing the more nuanced end of the post-metal spectrum; deep thrumming bass and fuzzed out buzz saw guitars play off against ghostly synth lines and whirring industrial electronic flourishes.
Initial listens may give the impression that ‘Abyss’ is somewhat greyscale, but repeated spins bring out the details and variety on offer here
Lyrically Wolfe takes on the big issues; fear, death, love, violence. Such tortured themes as these could easily end up dragging a lesser record down into the mire, but Wolfe’s vocal delivery is often startlingly beautiful, full of sincerity without any of the posturing that all too often pushes so-called “goth” influenced music into pastiche. Theres never any doubt that Wolfe means every word and feels every note of this album. And the music itself doesn’t let the side down. Initial listens may give the impression that ‘Abyss’ is somewhat greyscale, but repeated spins bring out the details and variety on offer here. Gorgeous, tender acoustic ballads sit alongside huge Earth-inspired droning dirges.
The beauty of the album is its ability to surprise. ‘After The Fall’ starts off like a particularly gnarled Portishead, before the guitars kick in at the chorus for a searing descending melody line. Yet the rug is then pulled out from under you with an off-kilter middle section of bleeping electronics straight out of a Holly Herndon techno workout. Simply put, Wolfe nails it on ‘Abyss’, and her star is only on the rise.
Check out ‘Carrion Flowers’ right here:
Torres – Sprinter
Photo (c) Torres
Torres is in fact U.S., Georgia-born Mackenzie Scott, whose second full length ‘Sprinter’ came completely out of nowhere for this writer. I’d heard a few tracks from her self-titled debut and was impressed but not blown away by the Americana rooted indie rock on display. Quite what life events occurred to Scott between that record and the creation of ‘Sprinter’ is hard to say, but the result is a tightly focused, mature, yet fresh record that I can only compare to early PJ Harvey; the warmest of compliments.
‘Sprinter’ sounds like a record crafted by someone in love with the often unfairly maligned era of early 90’s alt-rock. This is an antsy, venomous record full of crunching guitars and loud/quiet set-pieces. What sets ‘Sprinter’ apart, and propels it into this article, is the impressive variety of emotions on display throughout its runtime. Kicking off the record with the ‘The Bends’-era Radiohead punch of ‘Strange Hellos’ is a great start.
The masterstroke comes in the final two minutes, which is straight up some of the most cathartic, life-affirming music I‘ve come across in recent times
But the opener only sets us up for what immediately follows, ‘New Skin’, this writers favourite track of the year. A gently pulsing bass drum underpins twinkling picked guitar lines, before settling into a satisfying chug for the second verse and chorus. All while Scott sings of the struggles of religious guilt with typically cryptic wordplay. The masterstroke comes in the final two minutes, which is straight up some of the most cathartic, life-affirming music I‘ve come across in recent times. With ecstatic abandon Scott pierces through a squalling wall of sound, the vocal mantra; “…if you’ve never known the darkness, Then you’re the one who fears the most”.
Yet ‘Sprinter’ is no one-hit album, and key to this is that it is expertly judged in terms of track order and pacing. And Scott’s remarkable, versatile voice is also one of the key draws, able to move from a passionate snarl to honeyed Jeff Buckley-style tones of intimacy in a heartbeat. Indeed some of ‘Sprinter’s’ finest moments are when the band dials it down, in particular on lyrically heart-breaking final track ‘The Exchange’. Simply Scott’s voice with gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment, sounding more vulnerable than ever, her tremulous, wavering vocals entirely untreated for the first time, emotionally stripped bare. A devastating ending, and an album to cherish.
Check out ‘New Skin’ right here:
Anna Von Hausswolff – The Miraculous
Photo (c) City Slang
Apparently something of a household name in her native Sweden, Anna Von Hausswolff was another new discovery to these ears in 2015. And what a joy her third full length album ‘The Miraculous’ is. Whilst on paper an album of organ-led post-rock soundscapes, with multipart arrangements and prog-rock elements may sound faintly ridiculous, in Von Hausswolff’s expert hands it culminates into one truly epic whole. Certainly this isn’t a record for the fainthearted; no doubt some will see it as pompous, overblown, a bit “Lord of the Rings”, as it were. Perhaps understandably so.
This is music that you must fully give yourself over to, and if you do, your reward is an expansive, enveloping and transportive listening experience. An album that describes the feeling of being rendered dumbstruck with awe in the face of raw, untamed nature. With Scandinavian artists it is all too easy to revert to the touchstones of Sigur Ros and/or Bjork, and the aforementioned are to some degree appropriate here. But to Von Hausswolff’s credit there is way more going on in this instance. Dense, ominous organ drones give way to sky-scraping Led Zeppelin-esque riffs, medieval sounding keyboard melodies flittering above, as if emanating from some distant, archaic pagan ritual.
An album that describes the feeling of being rendered dumbstruck with awe in the face of raw, untamed nature
This is what you might call “Big Music”. However ‘The Miraculous’ isn’t all monolithic choruses of celestial voices. Dig deeper and one finds the influence of film soundtrack legend Ennio Morricone in the twanging guitars, or metronomic drum patterns that could have waltzed straight out of Mogwai’s ‘Come On Die Young’. Picking out tracks seems pointless for such a cinematic work as this, but one early highlight is ‘Pomperipossa’. A terrifying organ melody emerges from a harem of screeching banshee-like wails, like stumbling upon Dracula’s castle by accident. And then Von Hausswolff announces her presence with a full throated vocal turn brimming with gothic romance.
The overall impression is of the slow motion, weightless sensation brought about by a particularly dicey aeroplane take off
The effect is quite sublime for those with a love of the theatrical. ‘Evocation’ meanwhile does away with any pretence of a slow build whatsoever, instead simply grabbing you by the jugular from the start with a striking guttural howl from Von Hausswolff, amid galaxy-sized organ chords. The overall impression is of the slow motion, weightless sensation brought about by a particularly dicey aeroplane take off.
‘The Miraculous’ then; a record that leaves you breathless in its ambition and scope; a soundtrack to the wonder that is the brute, physical world. Heaven knows where Anna Von Hausswolff will go from here.
Check out ‘Evocation’ right here: