My Top 30 Albums of the 2000s

January 31st, 2010

I don’t think I’ve managed to make a "best of the year" list for any year this decade, but somehow I was able to put together a "best of the decade list". For no particular reason, I limited it to one album per band, and if everything else was equal, sided with the more "landmark" or "decade-defining" album.

The list ended up heavily skewed towards the beginning of the decade. That could be because I own a lot more music from that period, because that stuff has had more time to settle, or because there was simply better music. More stats in the wrapup.

Amon Amarth – Versus the World (2002)

For most bands that keep the exact same style from album to album, you figure by the time they get to their fourth album, they’re just going through the motions and putting out crappier versions of songs you’ve already heard. Instead, Amon Amarth defies the curse of the genre-band and crafts nine songs of deliberate melodic death metal that are exactly what you’d expect, but somehow, better in every way. More powerful ("Versus the World"), epic ("…and Soon the World Will Cease to Be"), and headbangingly-delicious ("Death in Fire"). Craftsmanship like this can make me think "genre" isn’t a bad word after all.

Arcturus – The Sham Mirrors (2002)

Largely given up for dead after 1997’s "La Masquerade Infernale", Arcturus makes a sudden and unexpected return five years later. Just when we were thinking we’d never hear Garm doing metal again, or even singing at all, he bursts out with the most freewheeling performance of his career. "La Masquerade Infernale" was one of the defining albums of the previous decade; Sverd and his crew are prevented from repeating that feat in this decade because the style remains largely the same, but since no one else was creating this form of dark-space-prog-metal, much less at this level, it’s still a standout of the aughts.

Blind Guardian – A Night at the Opera (2002)

A long wait, many delays, and a truckload of hype about how many layers were required to construct this album. But the hype was justified, as Blind Guardian produced an album unlike anything we’d heard before. Initially the layers of sound were overwhelming, but over time it began to feel more natural, and the songs revealed themselves. And it ends up being the songs that make this album great; the basic melodies, rhythms, and song structures are at least as innovative and unique as the sound wrapped around them. One of the most amazing features of the album is the constant, simultaneous coexistence of independent lead guitar and lead vocal melodies, a trick almost no other metal band has even attempted. So it’s this core that holds the gold; if you stripped away all the layers and orchestration, we’d still have an album 95% as good as the one we got.

Chingon – Mexican Spaghetti Western (2004)

The album title promises something I didn’t even know I wanted so badly: a Latin take on Morricone-inspired spaghetti-Western soundtrack music. Perhaps only two of the songs fulfill that promise, but the rest of the album is even better. Birthed from the soundtracks to his films, Robert Rodriguez joins his searing electric guitar solos with the flamenco-inspired Latin rock from the band Del Castillo. Salma Hayek (who sings on one track) and Quentin Tarantino (who used a track in "Kill Bill") can’t be wrong. Pure rocking joy.

Cursive – (2006)

Once called an emo band, Cursive in 2006 made a brilliant record of angular prog-rock. With a horn section frequently blasting out and adding to the unsettling discord, each song still manages to be catchy-as-hell, and almost every one could stand on its own as a single (only one track breaks the 4 minute mark). But they’re also all linked together, wrapped with prologue and epilogue songs, telling vignettes from life in an unremarkable and undesirable mid-American town. With a special focus on religious hypocrisy, they’re the stories the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want you to know about.

Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design (2001)

Blackheim’s (w/ Dan Swano!) three previous albums of melodic black metal were all very good (and amazingly different from his work in Katatonia), but despite various unique quirks, by and large they were fairly conventional. ‘Death’s Design’, in contrast, takes an entirely new approach to music composition. The 43 minute, 61-track album is a continuous piece of music, but it is divided into 20 "movements". Each movement is further divided into 1-5 "parts". This means that each part averages around 40 seconds, which is just enough time to get across one musical idea before moving on to the next one. The overall effect is as if 61 complete songs were originally written (or stolen), and then each one was whittled down to its core, removing all the boring repetitive stuff and simply keeping the best hook. It’s like getting 61 dollops of sour cream without having to eat any of the baked potato. But at the same time, the parts of each movement are thematically linked, even if they don’t quite form conventional "songs". And then the movements all flow together as an uninterrupted composition. Maybe it’s still ahead of its time, because nine years later I still don’t know of anyone who has done anything similar.

Elvenking – Heathenreel (2001)

A power-metal band with some folk influence releasing their debut album in 2001? It’s a genre that one would expect to have been long played out, but Elvenking is naive enough to think they can make a classic for the new decade, and partially because of that naivete, they do. In an era where templates and formulas were becoming increasingly important, Elvenking managed a production that’s almost amateur. It seems no one told them not to throw in those random death growls, no one told them not to hop from one idea to the next so recklessly, and no one told them their guitars didn’t have sufficient balls-n-chunk. So luckily, we ended up with this album brimming with life, spirit, and energy, and the exciting feeling that the whole thing could go flying off the rails at any second.

Disillusion – Gloria (2006)

If not for this album, 2004’s "Back to Times of Splendor" would have made it on this list. So to almost completely abandon that successful style and forge something entirely new was quite a risk. But it paid off, for with "Gloria", they created an even more decade-defining album than they had with BtToS. The album has a completely unfamiliar yet cohesive style, so the sound is clearly built out of a unique and well-defined vision, rather than by throwing random shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Cold yet melodic, crushingly heavy yet danceable, with a pervasive East German paranoia. Their third album, if it ever comes, has been my most-anticipated release for four years now.

Empyrium – Weiland (2002)

At first I thought ‘Weiland’ was merely an annoyingly-packaged 3-disc retread of ‘Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays’, which itself was a copy of Ulver’s ‘Kveldssanger’. Acoustic evening songs that make you fear the forest that lies beyond the light of the campfire. Though the style is the same, in execution, it goes well beyond its inspirations. Using only acoustic instruments and few words, they’re able to generate the tension and terror of the most frightening and uncensored stories from the Brothers Grimm. But there is also wonder and beauty to be found. Technically, the night forest is only the inspiration for part 2. Part 1 is songs from the moor, and part 3 is the water spirits (evoked by addition of piano). But all envelop you in the feeling of being alone in the dark natural world. ‘Weiland’ is proof that mimicking can be but the first step in the student exceeding the master.

Enslaved – Mardraum: Beyond the Within (2000)

Enslaved did a whole lot of things right in this decade, but they did a lot of things right in the previous decade too. This is their nexus album. It currently sits right near the middle of their nearly 20-year career, and forms the crossroads of their stylistic evolution. ‘Mardraum’ is the only album which combines the cold, brittle, and decapitating black-metal guitar tones of their first decade with the psychedelic and prog leanings of their second decade. Really, the sound of the album is something truly special. There’s great sonic separation between the rumbling and pounding rhythm section and the penetrating guitars that ride atop, but both combine to create a mystical whirlwind of fury that’s somehow incredibly clear and well-defined. And the songs are pretty great too.

Estradasphere – It’s Understood (2000)

As the first 30 seconds of the first song on the first album from Estradasphere come whirling about you like a dervish, you instantly sit up and take notice. "This may be a band to be reckoned with!" This suspicion is strongly confirmed by fact that the tour-de-force continues for another 19 minutes, particularly as they effortlessly cross from gypsy music to bluegrass to straight jazz to lounge funk to death metal. Like a national tragedy (but better!), I still remember where I was when I first heard this. The rest of the album continues much the same, while adding additional oddities such as Nintendo music and new-age-ambient. This scattered approach means that some stuff hits the target better than others, but when they get the drums/bass/guitar/violin/saxophone rollicking along in synchrony, there are few bands than can touch them.

Forgotten Silence – Kro Ni Ka (2006)

After their elaborate, layered, epic-prog-death masterpiece ‘Senyaan’, Forgotten Silence first peeled away the keyboards (on ‘Ka Ba Ach’), then most of the growled vocals and the the drums (on ‘Bya Bamahe Neem’, which answers the question "what does drumless death metal sound like?"). On ‘Kro Ni Ka’ the female vocals finally went by the wayside, but drums and keyboards returned in exchange. So we ended up with epic-length 4-piece instrumental prog-rock, yet another unpredicted twist in Forgotten Silence’s career. If I listened more to this kind of music, I’d know what 70s bands they’re ripping off and wouldn’t like it nearly as much, but my mind still associates it with the mystical Forgotten Silence magic.

Gotan Project – La Revancha del Tango (2001)

‘La Revancha del Tango’ does such a beautiful job of mixing tango music and electronic rhythms that it seems a wonder we had to wait until 2001 for this merger to happen. Shouldn’t it have been obvious? A bunch of bands were quick to follow, and giving birth to a new subgenre always makes for good award-bait. Sultry, smoky, and sophisticated, this is an album that gave atmosphere to many a late night this decade.

Green Carnation – Light of Day, Day of Darkness (2002)

Tchort’s hour-long, single-song, epic-metal masterwork. It’s the most impressive execution of an artistic vision that I’ve ever seen. The only thing I’m aware of that’s on the same level is Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of "Lord of the Rings". For both, the resume was so thin, the goal was so high, the challenges were so great, and the opportunities for failure were myriad. So when they not only failed to fail, but actually succeeded so brilliantly, the success seems further magnified by the memory of the risks they overcame. If this was a ranked list, this album would probably be #1.

In The Woods… – Live At The Caledonien Hall (2003)

Maybe it’s cheating to include a live album on a list like this, but I’m doing it anyway. Because this is a pretty unique live album from a great band. Both band and audience knew that it was the final thing In the Woods… would do together, so it’s truly a document of a monumental event. They put together this special show where they played most of their discography, roughly in chronological order. With the four download-only tracks I added to my "special edition", it comes to nearly three hours of music, including their masterwork ‘Omnio’ played in its entirety. Most of the renditions are fairly similar to the studio versions (which is a feat in itself, given In the Woods…’s lush and textured sound), but it’s often these versions that I reach for now when I need my In the Woods… fix.

Isis – Oceanic – (2002)

This is another album where, if it gave birth to a new subgenre (post-metal, in this case), it must be pretty good. Even better, seven years later this album is still at the top of the heap. It sounds like it could be the finely-tuned end result of years of post-metal trial-and-error, rather than the first experiment. Sure, there were influences, but post-metal as we know it today was largely defined by this album. Everything about it, from the layered instrumental construction, to the expansive but propulsive song structures, to the loud but enveloping sound, came out fully-formed and just right.

maudlin of the Well – Bath / Leaving Your Body Map (2001)

Ok, this is two albums, but they go together. I could write a pages-long description of this band’s sound (and I have!), talking about the wide range of musical styles, the bizarre changes, the variety of instrumentation, etc., but that wouldn’t tell you a thing about why these albums are on this list. To be sure, the style and the weirdness are one of the things I really like, and it’s what first drew me into the band. But to me, all that is just a means to an end. This is in stark contrast to a lot of other "kitchen sink" bands, who seem to throw in everything but the kitchen sink just because they’re able to. maudlin of the Well does it for a purpose. They are able to conjure up a very complex, very specific, yet very undefinable mood, feeling, and atmosphere, and communicate it all to the listener. Whether anyone else feels the same thing, or whether what I feel is anywhere near what the band intended, I have no idea. I also have no answer to the question of how the band was able to figure out the bizarre formula that would produce such an unexpected result. I could never reverse-engineer it in a million years.

Mayhem – Grand Declaration of War (2000)

In the 90s, I never figured I’d like a Mayhem album, much less have one end up as one of my favorites of the 00s. But then, this isn’t really a Mayhem album; it’s a Rune Eriksen (Blasphemer) solo album, where he simply hijacked the Mayhem name for marketing purposes. Amazingly, it’s still black metal, even though it sounds very little like any type of black metal we’d ever heard before. The sonic mess of the original Mayhem is replaced with surgical, razor-sharp guitar playing, and Hellhammer’s clinical and martial V-drums. A completely new approach to coldness and grimness.

Naervaer – Skiftninger (2000)

Kristiansand, Norway (pop. 80,000) must have the highest density of musical geniuses in the world. Tchort from Green Carnation, the mysterious Botteri twins from In the Woods…, and heck, throw in the Solefald guys too. And then we add Terje Sagen, the man behind Naervaer. To execute his vision of "pure mood music", he brings in a bunch of the In the Woods… crew to help out, most notably ItW vocalist Jan-Kenneth Transeth (ok, it’s his 3rd appearance on this list, add him to the musical geniuses too). It’s largely acoustic, sometimes there are "songs", sometimes it’s more soundscapes, though it’s too persistent to ever become "ambient". Whatever it takes to evoke a mood. I’ve loved it for nearly a decade now, but camping at night this year on the high desert plateau of the American Southwest, it blew my mind wide open.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds spent the 90s getting softer and quieter, and then, improbably, spent the 00s getting harder and louder. On their way back up near the middle of the decade, for their 13th album, they produced this out-of-nowhere masterpiece. With some exceptions, ‘Abattoir Blues’ captures the loud and boisterous side, while ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’ covers the quiet and atmospheric side. However, neither side is a retread of past work; choirs and piles of instruments give either a power or a depth that the Bad Seeds had never reached before, but none of those additions have any chance of burying a re-lit Nick Cave, the not-exactly-religious preacher leading his carnival congregation.

Novembre – Novembrine Waltz (2001)

In the mid-90s, a band named Opeth released a couple of brilliant albums. The had invented a riff-less form of metal, led instead by intertwined melodic guitar leads, overlaid with a mix of clean and growled vocals. It was melodic death metal, without being Melodic Death Metal. The pace was more relaxed, the atmospheres deeper, and the journey more free-form. In short, it was genius. But by the end of that decade, Opeth had thrown that all away. Luckily, Novembre, a contemporary of Opeth’s from the early 90s, smoothly stepped in to take up the fallen mantle. From the Mediterranean rather than the Baltic, their sound is necessarily warmer and more Romantic than Opeth’s, and the songs more concise. An Opeth clone would not make this list, and Novembre is clearly not that; instead, they created an alternate vision from similar influences, and ‘Novembrine Waltz’ captures that emotional resonance I’d been waiting for.

Orphaned Land – Mabool (2004)

In 1994, as a small group of bands in Sweden were experimenting with a new sound that would come to be known as "melodic death metal", a band from Israel, Orphaned Land, had already invented their own regional version of the same on their debut record, ‘Sahara’. Two years later on ‘El Norra Alila’, they advanced that sound considerably and released perhaps the most complete synthesis of metal and local cultural influence ever put to tape. After such an auspicious and groundbreaking beginning, the expectations for their third album were unreasonably high from the start, and only grew as the years dragged on, to the point where ‘Mabool’, if ever released, would have no hope of matching them. But against all odds, it did. A whole new sound for the third time (smoother and more rounded, with an increased keyboard emphasis, and bigger hooks), but the core remains the same: "oriental" riffs and melodies on the guitars, seamlessly intertwined with local instrumentation, and the most explicit synthesis of the Abrahamic religions thus far, as the three are tied together with the myth of The Flood.

Primordial – Spirit The Earth Aflame (2000)

Though drawing heavily from melodic black metal, Primordial’s overall sound is so unique and characteristic that they could almost be credited with creating a new subgenre themselves, if only other bands had the ability to follow them. It starts with the guitars, where instead of distinct metal riffs, we get a huge, swirling, droning sound full of harmonics playing off each other. Add Nemtheanga’s impassioned declarations, exhortations, and tribulations, and you have some of the most powerful and evocative "folk metal" you’ll ever hear, without ever needing a fiddle or tin whistle. Primordial had been creating this same music in previous decade, and continued throughout the 00s, but this album was the first that matched pain and suffering with the strength of iron and the blaze of fire.

Secret Chiefs 3 – Book M (2001)

On ‘Book M’, Secret Chiefs 3 took a trip that started at the eastern edge of Europe, and pushed on towards The Orient, picking up musical ideas and instruments along the way. Back home in California, they fused the ancient sounds and melodies with the modern western world, augmenting them with dense electronics, unsettling glitchy rhythms, and metallic storms of distortion. You could call it folk metal if you wanted to, but make sure the person you’re talking to has an expansive mind, for it comes from a completely different pedigree than Skyclad or Orphaned Land.

Sentenced – The Funeral Album (2005)

After 15 years evolutionary life, Sentenced made a conscious decision to end it. However, unlike nearly every other band-breakup in the history of rock music, their end was marked not by an unceremonious press release or quiet fadeout, but by a carefully-planned funeral album. Though the melodic, radio-metal style is largely the same as the one they had finally settled on for their last few albums, it’s that external circumstance that makes this album incredibly unique. Always fascinated with topics of death and suicide, ‘The Funeral Album’ gives these topics the extra depth that can only come as a response to real life. It seems that the tendency would be to freeze up in the face of such self-consciousness, but somehow Sentenced turns it into an extraordinary advantage. Nowhere is this effect stronger than their final song, "End of the Road". Feeling the pressure to say something dramatic and meaningful for your final words would seem to lead to either an overwrought mess or complete denial of the situation, but instead, Miika Tenkula’s 2-minute mournful-but-uplifting guitar solo ends Sentenced’s life as perfectly as you could possibly imagine.

Sólstafir – Masterpiece of Bitterness (2005)

‘Masterpiece of Bitterness’ is an album that could only come from this decade. It needed to be preceded by the development of black metal and forays into the epic and experimental by metal bands of the 90s, and be of an era where it was even conceivable to synthesize those sounds with that of post-rock, psychedelic-rock, and even garage-rock. This diversity of influence allows an incredible dynamic range, even though the final synthesis is distilled to a simple and cohesive guitars/bass/drums sound, adorned only by the full-throated melodic screams. Opener "I Myself the Visionary Head" captures the full extent of that range, with its title and 20-minute length referencing the epic and pretentious, while the 15 minute repeated riff, led by a dirty and distorted bass guitar, references the rest. A unique vision discovered when I thought metal was running out of such things.

The Dresden Dolls – The Dresden Dolls (2003)

Amanda Palmer is such a gifted singer/songwriter that she likely would have made it on her own, but when she found drummer Brian Viglione and they formed a duo and named it ‘The Dresden Dolls’, it basically guaranteed their success. Mostly dark and brooding, but with occasional bursts of pop sunniness, the range covered by piano, voice, and drums makes you wonder what other bands need all those instruments for. Lyrics are endlessly clever and shockingly personal, and cover an even greater emotional range than the music. From this DIY debut, to Roadrunner Records (who released the technically superior ‘Yes, Virginia’), to the red carpet at The Golden Globes, with lots of excellent live performances in between, The Dresden Dolls are probably my band-of-the-decade.

The Gathering – Souvenirs (2003)

In 1995, The Gathering released ‘Mandylion’, which invented female-fronted metal as we know it today. That’s worthy of a prize in itself, but by the end of that decade they had left that domain to their followers and created their second landmark album, the sprawling modern epic, ‘How to Measure a Planet?’ The uninspired, conventional follow-up (‘If_Then_Else’) led me to believe that two masterpieces was more than we really ought to expect out of a band anyhow, but then they shocked with ‘Souvenirs’. How can a former metal band release the darkest album of their entire career as their seventh album? The final track, a stunning duet between Anneke and Ulver’s Garm, seems obvious in retrospect, as ‘Souvenirs’ is a clear atmospheric relative to Ulver’s ‘Perdition City’: The Gathering’s trip-rock is still more conventional than Ulver’s ambiances, but both are music for the 3am streets of modern Europa.

Thirdmoon – Sworn Enemy: Heaven (2004)

Melodic death metal may have peaked in Sweden by the turn of the century, but in an unknown corner of Austria, Thirdmoon was just getting good. Sonically, they’re quite independent from Gothenburg or any other band, I think mostly due to their pummeling rhythmic density. It takes some excellent songwriting skill to integrate that level of heaviness without making it sound unnecessarily brutal, but Thirdmoon is up to the task. Occasionally incorporating acoustic guitars that play right along with blasting metal is another trick they use to add texture. Their previous two albums are also excellent, but ‘Sworn Enemy: Heaven’ has their most diverse stream of neverending hooks and riffs, all stitched together in a way that seems natural and not-at-all "prog". In fact, the sense of identity and focus from Wolfgang Rothbauer’s songwriting seems so strong, it feels as if Thirdmoon may have found their way here even if Sweden had never existed.

Ulver – Perdition City (2002)

This is Ulver’s fifth album, and the fifth complete re-invention of their sound. By now, you figure they must have some serious skills. The first three, you could dissemble and say they were all somehow related to "black metal", and then on their fourth, anyone has a chance of getting lucky when going whacked-out experimental. But ‘Perdition City’ proves that there’s a lot more than luck at work. Capturing the atmosphere of a dark forest at night and turning it into sound (on ‘Kveldssanger’) was impressive enough, a feat that would cause most bands to either rest on their laurels or retire immediately. But for the same band to invert that feat four years later, capturing a cold city as sound, the atmospheric opposite of the natural forest, seems almost impossible. To be fair, Kristoffer ‘Garm’ Rygg was the only common link between the two efforts, so maybe he’s simply a good manager of the musical talent of others, rather than a musical genius himself. But given that this is his third appearance on this list (tying Mista Transit), I’m thinking a ‘musical genius’ tag might be well-deserved.

What I Listened To In 2007

January 27th, 2008

Overall I listened to 19178 tracks in 2007, which is back up near my 2005 number, after being down to 15988 in 2006.

Then, two lists. First, the list of 2007 releases that I listened to, cut off at 5 listens to match my arbitrary cut-off from last year. It could be used as a rough approximation of my “Best of 2007” list, but only as a last resort, since even pro-rated play-count for the year is still only one part of the “best” equation.

That gives me a list of only 17 albums, ranging from 4 to 12.5 listens. Last year, I had 31 albums, ranging from 4 to 17.7 listens. So for some reason I spent a LOT more time last year listening to current-year releases than I did this year. Especially when you factor in that I had more overall listens this year.

This point is emphasized by my second list, which is the list of non-2007 releases that I listened to. This year, the first item on List 2 would be #1 on List 1, whereas last year, my top List 2 release would have been #11 on List 1. In other words, my most-listened-to album in 2007 was a 2006 album, whereas that wasn’t even close to happening in 2006.

I guess that must be saying that 2007 was a “bad year” for me. Or, 2006 was an exceptionally good year.

On the other hand, List 2 contained 37 albums 2006, but only 21 this year. The relative shortness of both lists this year makes it seem like I just listened to less music overall, even though the total numbers contradict that. The only explanation I can come up with is that I spent a lot of time at work this year listening to music on “Shuffle By Album”. If I’m consciously picking albums, I probably tend to think of albums that I’ve listened to recently, so that means my listens get concentrated on a relatively small subset of my collection. But if I let iTunes choose from my collection randomly, that means a lot of my listening time goes to the deeper and older parts of my collection, and it ends up being spread out more. So I probably had a lot more albums this year with 1 or 2 listens than I did last year. But I should probably run a report to check that, to make sure these anomalies aren’t just an error in my scripts somewhere.

Listens to 2007 Albums
Grinderman – Grinderman – 12.5
Agua de Annique – Air – 10.8
Rotting Christ – Theogonia – 9.4
Nightwish – Dark Passion Play – 9.2
Novembre – The Blue – 8.8
Mael Mórdha – Gealtacht Mael Mórdha – 6.3
Alcest – Souvenirs d’un autre Monde – 6.3
Baroness – Red Album – 6.1
Aesma Daeva – Dawn of the New Athens – 6.1
Yearning – Merging Into Landscapes – 6.1
Thurisaz – Circadian Rhythm – 5.9
Primordial – To The Nameless Dead – 5.4
Iced Earth – Framing Armageddon – 4.9
In Vain – The Latter Rain – 4.5
Therion – Gothic Kabbalah – 4.3
Tomahawk – Anonymous – 4.2
Helloween – Gambling With The Devil – 4

Listens to non-2007 Albums
Disillusion – Gloria – 14.6
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela – 11.9
Gotan Project – Lunático – 10.6
Aghora – Formless – 10.2
Shearwater – Palo Santo – 9.6
Estradasphere – Palace of Mirrors – 9.1
Califone – Heron King Blues – 8.9
Cursive – Happy Hollow – 8.7
Red Sparowes – Every Red Heart Shines Towards the Red Sun – 8
Tyr – Eric The Red – 7.9
Aterciopelados – Oye – 7.8
Disillusion – Back To Times Of Splendor – 7.2
Arcturus – Sideshow Symphonies – 6.7
The Gathering – Souvenirs – 6.5
Isis – Oceanic – 6.2
I – Between Two Worlds – 6.1
Chingon – Mexican Spaghetti Western – 6
Saturnus – Veronika Decides To Die – 6
Negura Bunget – OM – 6
The Dresden Dolls – Yes, Virginia – 5.9
Calexico – Feast Of Wire – 5.9
Hammers Of Misfortune – The Locust Years – 5.8
Dengue Fever – Escape From Dragon House – 5.7
Solefald – Red For Fire – An Icelandic Odyssey Part I – 5
Blind Guardian – A Twist In The Myth – 5
Silent Stream Of Godless Elegy – Relic Dances – 5
Novembre – Dreams d’Azur – 5
Kultur Shock – We Came To Take Your Jobs Away – 5
Noumena – Absence – 5
Ours – Distorted Lullabies – 5
Maudlin Of The Well – Bath – 5
In The Woods… – Omnio – 5
Dir en grey – Withering To Death. – 4.9
Tabla Beat Science – Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove – 4.9
Grey Skies Fallen – The Fate Of Angels – 4.9
Del Castillo – Brotherhood – 4.9
Compilation – Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 – 4.9
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus – 4.9
Peeping Tom – Peeping Tom – 4.9
Dredg – Catch Without Arms – 4.8
Orphaned Land – Mabool – 4.4
The Old Dead Tree – The Perpetual Motion – 4.4
Ambulette – The Lottery – 4.4
Helloween – Chameleon – 4.4
On Thorns I Lay – Orama – 4.3
Novembre – Materia – 4.3
Sigh – Gallows Gallery – 4.3
Enid – Seelenspiegel – 4.2
Gamma Ray – Sigh No More – 4.2
Novembre – Classica – 4.1
Oceansize – Effloresce – 4.1
Rotting Christ – Triarchy Of The Lost Lovers – 4.1
Enslaved – Blodhemn – 4
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads – 4
Rage – Black In Mind – 4
Dead Silent Slumber – Entombed In The Midnight Hour – 4
Demonoid – Riders of the Apocalypse – 4
Skyclad – A Semblance Of Normality – 4
Gamma Ray – Insanity And Genius – 4
Alice In Chains – MTV Unplugged – 4
Skyclad – The Answer Machine? – 4
Primordial – Storm Before Calm – 4
Helloween – Pink Bubbles Go Ape – 4
Novembre – Novembrine Waltz – 4
Intronaut – Void – 4
Rotting Christ – A Dead Poem – 4
Searing Meadow – Corroding from Inside – 4
Agalloch – Pale Folklore – 4

My new music-listening system

May 26th, 2004

In an effort to practice what I preach, I designed and built a new music-listening system for myself around the beginning of the year. It’s been in use for a while now, so I thought I’d post a report on it, particularly in light of my other posts today. The overall goal is to wean myself off physical CDs.

First, I’ll describe my old system. There are basically three places that I listen to music: my house, at work, and in my car. I don’t use headphones in my house, and only rarely carry music portably.

My House: I have a fairly standard home stereo system (floor-standing speakers, 5-disc CD changer) in the main room of my house, which has an open floor plan. Whether I’m in the “living room” or the kitchen, that’s what I use to listen to music at home. At the side of the room I have my 2 CD racks holding approximately 800 CDs. Like most people, when I wanted to listen to music, I’d pull something off the rack and put it in the CD player and listen. I’d rarely use the CD-changer capability.

At Work: I have a small stereo system on my desk in the office, and am lucky enough to be able to listen to music all day. Every morning, I would choose ten CDs from my rack at home and carry them into work, listen to them throughout the day, and then bring them home.

In the car: I don’t drive all that much or that far, so I just grab a CD or two off the rack whenever I know I’m going to be out for a while.

Now, to the new system.

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“It’s All About Expectations”, or “I’m a Moron”

May 5th, 2004

Take your pick for the topic of this post once you read the whole thing.

I recently got three new DVD-Audio discs, which contain 5.1-channel surround-sound mixes. They are:

Porcupine Tree – “In Absentia”
Bruce Dickinson – “Balls to Picasso”
Megadeth – “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?”

I had read that the Porcupine Tree represented a new reference standard in high-definition surround-sound audio, so I was really looking forward to that. I hadn’t been able to find any opinions about the other two, so I had no idea what to expect from them.

I listened to all three of them in their entirety. I thought the Porcupine Tree sounded amazing, both in fidelity, and in the multi-channel mixing. It was everything I expected it to be.

The Dickinson sounded rather strange, the sound quality was worse than the CD, but it was kind of interesting because it was something different, and really gave a new tone to the album. The surround mix seemed decent if not as adventurous as the PT, although I thought it was strange that the guitar solos were put in the left front speaker. I might expect that with Maiden and their two-guitar attack, but it seemed weird here. None of that surprised me though, because it wasn’t mixed by a known surround-sound mixer, and I figured it was just crapped out in a hurry because Sanctuary wanted to get a bunch of DVD-Audios out.

I’d never really heard the Megadeth on CD before, but it sounded about exactly what I’d expect a 1986 recording to sound like.

So last night I was messing with my DVD player, and I discovered something interesting. I had the 6-channel connections between the player and my receiver completely mixed up! The rear surround speakers were fine. The front center and front left were switched, and much worse, the right front speaker and subwoofer were switched!

And I still thought the Porcupine Tree sounded great. Yikes! Was it because I was expecting it to sound great, because I’m a moron? I’m guessing it’s the former, but then I’m probably a bit biased. Or was it because it actually did sound great even with everything messed up?

I listened to a bit of the Dickinson with the connections fixed, and it sounded a LOT better. I haven’t re-listened to the others yet, but I’ll give a better review when I do that.

Dredg – El Cielo (+ iTunes)

April 19th, 2004

After reading about this several times here and thus having on my list for a long time, I finally got around to buying it. It was an iTunes purchase, and it worked out really nicely. I was sitting around yesterday trying to decide what I wanted to listen to next, and was thinking of something sort of modern-ish and new-Anathema-like, but I didn’t want to listen to Anathema. So I suddenly remembered that I’d seen “El Cielo” put in that category of music, I hopped to the iTunes store and was listening to the album probably less than a minute later as it started downloading. It was $9.99 for the album, and I think that’s an instant kind of service that’s pretty hard to beat any other way. Even downloading it from an illegal source would have taken a good bit longer and been more work.

Anyway, I only listened to it once, but it sounds pretty cool. If I was to compare unexpected major-label pseudo-prog-rock releases, I think I’ll probably end up liking this one more than The Mars Volta.

The one thing that surprised me though is that I’ve never seen anyone compare the album to Katatonia (and I checked the archive!) To me, it sounds quite similar to “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, although it does seem to have more tonal variety across the album. I can certainly hear the modern-Anathema comparisions too, which is a good thing. iTunes also has “A Natural Disaster” available, I’m still deciding if I should take the chance on that one.

Dredg – El Cielo (+ iTunes)

April 19th, 2004

After reading about this several times here and thus having on my list for a long time, I finally got around to buying it. It was an iTunes purchase, and it worked out really nicely. I was sitting around yesterday trying to decide what I wanted to listen to next, and was thinking of something sort of modern-ish and new-Anathema-like, but I didn’t want to listen to Anathema. So I suddenly remembered that I’d seen “El Cielo” put in that category of music, I hopped to the iTunes store and was listening to the album probably less than a minute later as it started downloading. It was $9.99 for the album, and I think that’s an instant kind of service that’s pretty hard to beat any other way. Even downloading it from an illegal source would have taken a good bit longer and been more work.

Anyway, I only listened to it once, but it sounds pretty cool. If I was to compare unexpected major-label pseudo-prog-rock releases, I think I’ll probably end up liking this one more than The Mars Volta.

The one thing that surprised me though is that I’ve never seen anyone compare the album to Katatonia (and I checked the archive!) To me, it sounds quite similar to “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, although it does seem to have more tonal variety across the album. I can certainly hear the modern-Anathema comparisions too, which is a good thing. iTunes also has “A Natural Disaster” available, I’m still deciding if I should take the chance on that one.

Grey Skies Fallen – The Fate Of Angels

March 16th, 2004

I’ve had this album for years, and listened to it infrequently over that time. I always thought it had one or two really good songs, but the whole thing kinda bored me.

But damn, I just had a hell of a listening experience with it. What a powerful and epic sound, and that’s just the singer’s voice! Epic doom metal would be the word for it I guess, with a bit of death thrown in there. Some even reminded me a bit of Opeth, although not too much. And the closing title track….simply beautiful.

With this, November’s Doom, and While Heaven Wept, maybe I’m *finally* learning to appreciate doom after all these years. Although I just listened to Solitude Aeturnus’s “Through the Darkest Hour”, and that still bored the crap out of me…..

Iron Maiden Dream Concert

November 5th, 2002

Just a goofy dream (in the most literal sense) that I had:

Iron Maiden was playing at some sort of college auditorium. Not an arena-sized place, but it could probably hold at least 5000 people. It was pretty packed, and I got there kinda late (I believe I had been looking for a class I was supposed to be attending), so my spot wasn’t that great. Maiden came out and started kicking ass, but almost immediately, people started getting bored and flooding out of the place. Me and my friends took the opportunity to go right up to the front of the stage, which was much closer than you could normally get at a Maiden show these days. By that time, there were probably about 15 people left, all in a single row at the front of the stage, but half of them were looking pretty bored too. Maiden was still giving their all though. Apparently Maiden was opening for Iced Earth (?), so I remember wondering if everyone was just unimpressed by the opening act, and if they’d all come back for the headliner. I never got to find out, because after about another song, I got bored too, and decided to leave. As I was riding away on my bike and winding through campus, I could clearly hear them start to play Bruce Dickinson’s “Gypsy Road”. That’s one of my favorite songs from Bruce, so I was pretty pissed that I had left and couldn’t go back. Plus, if Maiden was playing Bruce Dickinson songs, who knew what other kind of cool shit they’d have in the setlist? Luckily, I had no problem hearing the entire song, even though I continued riding away from the venue. At one point, I passed a guy who was walking and singing along to the song, but he had some of the lyrics wrong, so I corrected him.

Yep, that was about it!

2001 Music Year in Review

January 22nd, 2002

Instead of just listing my top 20 albums of 2001, I’m going to list all the 2001 albums I’ve bought up until now. It turns out I bought 47 CDs from 2001 (which is down from previous years) and if forced to rank them in some order, this is how I’d do it.

I’m starting with my least favorite albums at the top, and will continue until I get to my most favorite albums at the bottom. So if you just want to hear about the albums I really like (which is probably the more useful endeavor), feel free to scroll straight to the end. As usual, there’s nothing set-in-stone about this list, and if you asked me to remake the list today, the same album could easily differ by five places or more. I wrote some comments about each album, but they generally aren’t very descriptive in nature; they’re more in the form of comparisons to other works, or simply semi-related ramblings that popped into my head. So if you have any questions about any of the bands/albums, feel free to ask!

Ok, on with it!

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Four Reviews

November 16th, 2001

Anathema – A Fine Day to Exit: At first listen, I recognized the first track (“Pressure”) from the Milwaukee Metalfest; it’s an excellent song, and the rest of the album sounded pretty blah compared to it. After a few more listens, I really started to like the final track (A Temporary Peace) as well, making for an album of blah sandwiched between two great songs. But I kept listening, and the greatness of the bookends bled in towards the middle, and now I think the whole thing is a very fine album. Definitely very relaxed and very un-metal, the only uptempo and heavy song is really more punk than metal. It probably won’t top Judgement, but it makes an extremely strong set of three consecutive albums from Anathema.

Evereve – E-Mania: Finally got my hands on this Massacre Records title. It’s fairly similar to their previous album (Regret), which means it’s again quite a bit different than their first two. But I think it’s a definite improvement over Regret. In a nutshell, it’s rather heavy yet danceable goth-metal. It’s mainly “goth” just because of the clean, low-to-midrange vocals, which come from a “new” singer (the band’s keyboard player and founding member) who sounds remarkably similar to their previous singer. Musically, it’s quite a bit more ambitious than the “goth” label suggests. Not necessarily in structure, but in instrumental flavor. Every instrument plays an important role, with keyboards and guitars especially adding constant blasts of color into the basic mix, blasts of ever-changing tone and style. Drumming is also unexpectedly complex, and the bass provides a fat bottom end. I’d say if you’re curious what Samael’s Eternal might sound like with different vocals, this is for you.

Sleepless – Winds Blow Higher: Here’s a band from Israel, but they don’t sound like Orphaned Land, and they aren’t even really metal. They’re definitely dark though, and The End’s “Tiamat, Ulver, and Pink Floyd” comparison is pretty much dead on. That would be Perdition City-era Ulver, in case you’re wondering. However, there’s a more direct, if much more obscure comparison: the band is surprisingly similar to Maudlin of the Well, if you take out all their heavy parts. The arrangements are generally very sparse, but surprisingly musical. And they manage to pack in a lot of different instrumentation when you aren’t looking. One of the main highlights is a lot of lead bass playing, much of it fretless. There isn’t a lot of guitar, but there is some sax, flute, classical guitar, and a good bit of synth electronics, although the album maintains a very organic feel. There are a couple parts where the music suddenly becomes heavier, and even though it’s still somewhat subdued, the juxtaposition makes the effect very intense. Cool stuff.

Borknagar – Empiricism: It’s so crazy how this band started off as a “supergroup”, and now, with completely new members from it’s original days, it’s probably the most “super” metal band ever. Look at all the bands just one degree away: Vintersorg, Otyg, Havayoth, Solefald, Emperor, Satyricon, Spiral Architect, Enslavement of Beauty, Dodheimsgard, and probably some more I’m forgetting. Anyway, Borknagar continue their tradition of putting one amazing song on each album that greatly overshadows all the rest. Previously they were “The Dawn of the End”, “Ad Noctum”, and “The Presence is Ominous”; this time it’s “Genesis Torn”. However, this time the shadow cast might not be as dark as before. The rest of the album seems filled with pretty good songs, the music is probably the most ambitious they’ve done so far, the sound is considerably more open than Quintessence, and I have a hard time deciding which of Vintersorg’s vocal styles (clean or growled) are more impressive. So that’s good.