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Where 2007 was my love-affair year with free jazz, 2008 saw my affections turn to extreme metal in all its varied forms. The sad departure of Transparent Productions meant a dearth of interesting avant-garde jazz in the District, and I replaced concertgoing expeditions to Sangha (RIP) and Twins Jazz with rather different expeditions to places like Jaxx and various smaller venues booking the more underground kinds of metal. My passion for music tracks closely with what I’m seeing in the live setting, so it makes sense that my 2008 list is dominated by the heavy, evil stuff. (My friends—and especially housemates—didn’t appreciate this so much.)
Be it metal, jazz, electronic music, free improvisation, or whatever, I’ve been convinced for a few years now that, industry woes aside, we’re living in a renaissance period with fascinating new music being made at an unprecedented clip. Granted, I have absolutely no empirical basis for this claim, but I present the following 10 recordings as examples of the freshness of today’s music-making scene…
1. One With Filth, Crowpath (Willowtip)
Pundits can quibble over whether or not “avant-garde metal” is really avant-garde in any meaningful sense, but the latest album from Swedish band Crowpath is an undeniably experimental and edgy slab of death metal. Compared to the band’s two earlier releases, it’s downright catchy and accessible, striking a perfect balance between challenging and immediately rewarding, but it’s still impossibly punishing. “Thinking man’s metal” is an overused phrase and too often refers to dry exercises in technicality, but it’s a perfect term for this recording.
Crowpath, “Cleansed In Chlorine”:
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2. Doombringer, Nasum (Relapse)
A more than welcome posthumous live release from these grindcore greats. Although Doombringer clocks in at a mere 23 minutes, the 16 tracks here are meatier than most albums twice the length or more. Brutal and unrelenting from start to finish, like getting punched in the face repeatedly, by a guy wearing spiked brass knuckles. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.
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3. (duck), Buffalo Collision (Screwgun)
A collaboration between two members of the Bad Plus (piano and drums) and older free-jazzers Tim Berne (sax) and Hank Roberts (cello), Buffalo Collision straddles the line between groovy jazz and boisterous free improv. Comprised of three long, almost incomprehensible twisting pieces, this project bears Berne’s distinctive stamp, but the Bad Plus members add a wonderfully melodic tilt to the proceedings.
Buffalo Collision, “2nd of 4”:
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4. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, Earth (Southern Lord)
Classic drone metal band meets renowned jazz/Americana guitarist Bill Frisell… and the results are gorgeous. There’s little vestige of Earth’s doomy past to be found here; the new version of the band is obsessed with painting desolate pictures of rural America using extremely sparse, twangy, still heavy guitar notes. Frisell contributes a few lonely, windblown solos that take the album from good solidly into the realm of great.
Earth, “Engine of Ruin”:
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5. Salome, Salome (Vendetta)
The D.C. area’s best doom metal band, Salome is a simple guitar-drums-vocal band, but that lone guitarist sounds like three downtuned guitarists and a bassist all combined. The band has just about the biggest sound imaginable from a mere trio, and vocalist Kat’s memorable growls and shrieks just add to the stark, evil atmosphere.
Salome, “Black Tides”:
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6. Keio Line, Richard Pinhas and Merzbow (Cuneiform)
Ambient music at its best, Keio Line is a meeting of two very different but equally brilliant minds: a French guitarist and a legend of Japanese noise. The result is more than the sum of the parts, music that blends well into the background but still manages to reveal layer upon fascinating layer under a close listen.
Richard Pinhas & Merzbow, “Shibuya AKS”:
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7. Secular Works, Extra Life (Planaria)
What happens when you mash up rhythmically complex avant-rock with the stark, monochromatic vocal melodies of early Western music? Guitarist Charlie Looker, formerly of Zs, explores the possibilities with this new band. The album never quite lives up to the promise of its explosive opening track, but the sheer freshness of Looker’s ideas makes any of his work worth a close listen.
Extra Life, “Blackmail Blues”:
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8. Oneiromantical War, Wrnlrd (FSS)
Listening to this D.C.-area one-man atmospheric metal band’s latest album is akin to falling endlessly through a dark, damp abyss in slow motion. Oneiromantical War is as ugly and lo-fi as any early-’90s DIY Norwegian black metal record; “wall of sound” might be a good descriptor, but only if one imagines walls covered in sandpaper and sharp edges. Yet the overtly evil stuff is often hidden away in long, ambient drones, giving the album a nuance that the vast majority of metal recordings lack.
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9. Belle Ville, Townhouse Orchestra (Clean Feed)
Second album by this all-star European quartet, led by Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and featuring legendary British saxophonist Evan Parker. Belle Ville consists of two 45-minute long collective improvisations. Listening to it is a bit like wandering through a corn maze: you’re never quite sure what comes next, you can’t quite remember all the twists and turns, and eventually you emerge out at the end, a bit unsure of what you just went through but feeling a certain sense of satisfaction nevertheless.
Townhouse Orchestra, “Belle Ville”:
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10. Pitom, Yoshie Fruchter (Tzadik)
I found much of this year’s output from John Zorn’s Tzadik label a bit disappointing, but Pitom was a pleasant surprise. Imagine the loping, heavy prog of 70s-era King Crimson meets Zorn’s free-jazz group Masada, with a dash of Sonic Youth for good measure. Melody, chaos, noise, whimsy, fun.
Yoshie Fruchter, “The Dregs”:
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11. Twenty honorable mentions:
Holon, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (ECM)
Studio 1, Box (Rune Grammofon)
Carried to Dust, Calexico (Quarterstick)
Traced in Air, Cynic (Season of Mist)
Incendio, Los Dorados & Cuong Vu (Intolerancia)
Hello, Voyager, Evangelista (Constellation)
V1.1, Fessenden (Other Electricities)
To Sail, To Sail, Fred Frith (Tzadik)
Street Horrrsing, Fuck Buttons (ATP)
Disgorge Mexico, Fuck the Facts (Relapse)
The Way of All Flesh, Gojira (Prosthetic)
Stockholm & Göteborg, Henry Cow (ReR)
Krallice, Krallice (Profound Lore)
Teeth, Little Women (SocketsCDR)
ObZen, Meshuggah (Nuclear Blast)
River Mouth Echoes, Maja Ratkje (Tzadik)
This Is It…, Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars)
Now and Forever, The Thing (Smalltown Superjazzz)
Beat Reader, The Vandermark 5 (Atavistic)
Oud Bass Piano Trio, Yitzhak Yedid (Between the Lines)