Well folks, it’s that time once again: Album of the Year content is just ahead of us and the list-making engines have already been watered with the blood of magazines and blogs who think the year ends in November. As for us, we’re only getting things arranged and calculated out. In the meantime, we have plenty of pre-list madness for you to get through; remember, 2019 is not just the end of the decade, it’s also the ten years anniversary for Heavy Blog is Heavy! 2009 was also the year other blogs were started, like our good friends over at No Clean Singing, and, honestly, when you look at what a year 2009 was for metal, it’s no wonder.
It’d be a bit anachronistic to say that metal blogs started flowering in 2009 because metal and music in general were having a banner but it certainly helped. Imagine you’re starting a fledgling blog and you survey the field for content to find Agoraphobic Nosebleed, The Great Misdirect, Crack the Skye, Karnivool and so much more. What better way to get those creative juices flowing and that heart to keep pumping out more words? In a way, this is also fitting since 2019 was such a fantastic year. Is it coincidence? Is there some deeper force at work? It’s probably just that something in the long cycle of decades just captures our attention, hungry for narratives as it always is.
Regardless of any over-arching theories or ramblings, 2009 was just undeniably amazing for music and saw several albums released which would define the decade to come. Whole sub-genres got their first big kick during this year (alt-metal, for example, with Sound Awake and progressive stoner with Crack the Skye). They were around before but 2009 saw the release of seminal albums in those sub-genres, “seminal” here meant in the literal manifestation of the word. It was a moment of genesis for many sounds and, even where it wasn’t, towering takes on many genres were released. So, a few weeks before we start diving into the just-as-amazing 2019, let’s look back ten years ago and remember how the previous decade closed. With a bang, not a whimper.
Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
Despite being an influence to many acts that followed their inception, there aren’t any bands out there like Agoraphobic Nosebleed. AnB, spearheaded by Pig Destroyer rifflord Scott Hull, is one of the only bands that came out of the fledgling cybergrind movement that truly mattered long-term. Their early material was noisy and grotesque, an experiment in industrial gonzo-grind, with sub-minute songs about violence, drugs, and sex. You know, like 90’s grindcore, but with drum machines!
All that messy early stuff was neat and all, but Agorapocalypse was truly the band’s crowning achievement. The noisy grind became infused with groove metal and speed metal, and Hull began taking production and songwriting more seriously for the project. The band adopted three vocalists for this release; Jay Randall, Richard Johnson, and Katherine Katz, all of whom provide incredible performances. As with any Hull release, there are riffs for days, complete with the odd wailing and shredding solo. There’s even a ridiculous programmed drum solo on “Question of Integrity.” Agorapocalypse is a practice in reveling in the excess of self-indulgence and pushing extreme metal to its most ridiculous reaches. These elements come together for what happens to be one of the most fascinating grind albums out there, even if the lyrical content rarely amounts to little more than shit and dick jokes.
Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue
Who could have seen this one coming? Although AC/DC set a presumedly unrepeatable precedent for death-defying comeback records with Back in Black (1980), what Alice in Chains achieved with Black Gives Way to Blue is arguably even more impressive. While Bon Scott’s character was stamped all over AC/DC, Lane Staley’s soul is baked into Alice in Chains. Staley’s relationship with his music was much more personal and intimate than not only Scott’s, but than almost any other frontman you care to name. Add to that a seven-year hiatus and fourteen years between studio records—during which the entire grunge/alternative scene disintegrated—and you’ve got yourself one of the most impressive feats in music’s history.
Black Gives Way to Blue isn’t just a good Alice in Chains album; it might actually be their best. Dirt (1992) will always be the band’s classic and definitive release, but their comeback album is every bit its equal. It’s a masterclass in everything that was ever great about the band, produced while they’re operating at peak performance. “All Secrets Known” begins the record with a suitably melodramatic and mournful dirge, that feels like it picks up exactly where tracks like “Sludge Factory” and “Again” left off—it’s opening lines: “Hope, a new beginning / Time, time to start living / Just like just before we died / There’s no going back to the dreams we started from” paying knowing homage to the past while continuing to plough defiantly forward.
…And then “Check My Brain” kicks in with the best bend in the history of heavy music. And that’s it: the entire riff is just one bend drawn out, more and more, over and over, capped off by—wait for it—another bend! It’s one of the coolest riffs ever and the band manage to communicate more power and emotion in that single (repeated) bend than any (other) musical mastermind(s) you care to name have ever managed with any amount of tricks at their disposal. For a band who write songs almost exclusively about dying of heroin overdoses while stuck in muddy holes, Alice in Chains’ music has always worked remarkably well in the sunlight at an outdoor festival, but “Check my Brain” is the moment they went from unparalleled grunge crooners to indisputable rock stars, with guitarist-come-mainman Jerry Cantrell rebranding himself as a modern-day Billy Gibbons.
Yet, despite Black Gives Way to Blue containing some of Alice in Chain’s most excessive compositions since Facelift (1990), it’s the softer moments that shine brightest. “Check My Brain” is joined by other phenomenal hard-hitters like “Last of My Kind”, which would signal the sleazy, slippery direction the band would take on the underappreciated The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013), the upbeat hangover-anthem “Lesson Learned” and the thundering “A Looking in View”, which perhaps remains the heaviest song in their repertoire. As good a heavy band as Alice in Chains are, however, they’re an even better softer one, and it’s the minimalist “Your Decision” which emerges as both the best song on the record and the best of the band’s more acoustically inclined material outside of the Jar of Flies EP (1994). The performance of William Duval (ex-Comes With the Fall) is almost indistinguishable from Staley, though it never feels like an imitation and, as the album rounds out with its sombre title track, it’s impossible to imagine a more fitting tribute.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
2009 saw, in my mind, the twilight of the most successful era of indie rock. Seminal releases from Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, The Antlers, Girls, Dirty Projectors, and a host of others capped off a decade replete with incredible music, and my burgeoning musical self couldn’t get enough. Of all the fantastic records unleashed upon music fans that year, few had the cultural impact of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. The new birth of a band known for its bizarre, idiosyncratic, and borderline inaccessible music as an avant-pop icon was one of the more strange and fascinating happenings of the decade, and critics and audiences alike ate it up with an almost obnoxious glee. Ten years later, the impact that this album had on the music world is felt less intensely than one might imagine based on its titanic success, but it nevertheless remains one of the most unique and thoroughly adventurous indie rock releases of that (or any other) decade.
Completing an arc of increasingly accessible records starting with 2005’s Feels, MPP kicks off with the euphoric “In the Flowers”, which feels like an acid trip gone incredibly right. That description could honestly be used on the rest of the album. “My Girls” is an anthem that to this day exemplifies all that independent music was ever capable of accomplishing. Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) in particular shines throughout, using his finely honed skills as a producer, musician, and Beach Boys-worshipping vocalist to add transcendent weight to “Summertime Clothes” and “Brother Sport”. But the biggest change that MPP brought to Animal Collective’s previously established sound was the focusing of David Portner (Avey Tare) from frenetic, unpredictable wild man into an equally engaging partner in the band’s opus, offering a ballad-worthy, emotionally resonant turn in “Bluish” and lending a bouncy weirdness to “Lion In A Coma”, keeping the proceedings just the right amount of on the rails. Front to back, the album is an entertaining and enlivening experience that I revisit regularly to this day, though the rest of the rock world may have relegated it to the bargain bin.
Without question, MPP is one of my favorite records I’ve ever heard. There’s little to it that is less than excellent, and I am genuinely surprised by how little obvious influence it had on the rock music scene at large. But, in a way, I feel that’s part of its indelible charm. There’s no other record like it, and as a capper to one of the most fertile and adventurous decades in rock music’s storied history, it serves as a thrilling example of all that independent music is capable of. Here’s to another one of these bad boys this upcoming decade.
Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect
For many, 2009’s The Great Misdirect may be an odd man out in the BTBAM discography. Not only did it have the unenviable task of following the band’s opus Colors (2007), but it was also tucked between two seamlessly composed records, the second being The Parallax II: Future Sequence (2012). The Great Misdirect feels more like Alaska (2005) as an album in retrospect, with the added benefit of the band’s improved composition, production, and songwriting. But like Alaska, Misdirect has some certified classics.
The one-two combo of “Mirrors” and “Obfuscation” hears the band take on new tones, from the melancholic rock instrumental of “Mirrors” to the psychedelic take on Megadeth on “Obfuscation.” “Disease, Injury, Madness” is archetypal BTBAM, with shades of death metal coming and going between jazz and post-rock influenced instrumental passages before the song climaxes in larger-than-life southern rock.
At the time, The Great Misdirect offered the most avant-garde and progressive material to date, with the band pushing their boundaries beyond the playbook heard on Colors. “Fossil Genera” is an extreme-metal take on Danny Elfman that offers the most involved keyboard work heard from the band up until that point. The band dipped into country and folk with the acoustic duet between guitarist Paul Waggoner and Tommy Rogers with “Desert of Song,” an experiment the band has yet to attempt to duplicate. Finally, the band’s prog metal opus, “Swim to the Moon,” their longest song to date at 18 minutes, featuring the band’s first drum solo and only keyboard solo.
It is a turning point for Between the Buried and Me: A proving ground after an explosive breakthrough; their final album for Victory Records; more flirtation with avant-garde influences; further reliance on keyboards. By all measures, it’s a success, despite its weird place in the narrative of BTBAM. Revisiting it these days is comforting and familiar, made all the more relevant by the new remix and remaster. Be sure to give it a spin.
Converge – Axe to Fall
I’ve already talked about one seemingly impossible feat with Alice in Chains’ Black Gives Way to Blue. Yet Converge also achieved a less-unlikely though comparably impressive feat with Axe to Fall. To this day, the band are yet to produce a bad record and were already on a hot streak in 2009—coming, as they were, off the back of the outstanding You Fail Me (2004) and No Heroes (2006). Both of those albums would be the best in most other band’s discographies by a wide margin. Nevertheless, the idea that the Massachusetts quartet would ever top Jane Doe (2001) seemed an unassailable feat, even for them. Then Axe to Fall happened.
I’m not sure whether Axe to Fall is a better record than Jane Doe, but the fact that I’m even asking that question speaks volumes. Jane Doe has history and timing behind it—not to mention a boatload of unadulterated (and arguably misguided) fury behind it. However, when it comes to scope and technical achievement, it’s hard to argue against Axe to Fall. From the moment the record takes off amid the stampeding flurry of “Dark Horse”, it continually builds—adding more and more elements to its tapestry. By the time it climaxes in the solemn, drawn-out “Cruel Bloom” and “Wretched World”, it’s as though the ravenous hardcore band of the album (and the band’s) beginnings have been replaced entirely. At no point along the way, however, does the transition feel anything other than natural.
Axe to Fall is a tribute to transcendence. Although Converge remain reverent of their hardcore heritage, since Jane Doe, they haven’t properly fit that or any other genre description you care to throw at them. With guest spots from members of Cave In, Neurosis, Genghis Tron, Entombed, Disfear and even Hatebreed among others, Axe to Fall is a celebration of artists who share similar beginnings, but who have all branched off and pushed the limits of hardcore and heavy music in different directions, to the point that they often require a rethinking of such definitions entirely. That’s not to say Converge can’t still go harder than the rest of them. Axe to Fall also contains some of the band’s most ruthless material. Primary among its more volatile offerings is “Cutter”—an almost-thrash metal offering that (I am pleased to discover) features none other than Himsa’s John Pettibone on guest vocals.
It is said that to dabble in all art forms is to be a master of none. Converge, however, have never been confined by convention, and Axe to Fall proves that they are perfectly capable of pulling off feats other artists would find utterly impossible. In a year already packed with more definitive classics than can be mentioned here, Axe to Fall might just be the best and most impressive of them all.
Devin Townsend Project – Ki
There are many potential ways of subdividing Devin Townsend’s vast discography into eras. One could certainly take the easy way out and bisect the timeline into the Strapping Young Lad and Devin Townsend Project, but there of course remain other periods in and around those two major eras, such as the days of The Devin Townsend Band and his current status as a solo artist without a moniker past that. Regardless of your choice of categorization, however, 2009’s Ki doubtless stands at a critical juncture in the Townsend timeline, and is an album of many firsts: the first album of the then-four-album Devin Townsend Project series, the first to feature now-frequent Townsend collaborator Che Aimee Dorval, and perhaps most importantly, the first major release of his that openly did away with a metal theme altogether.
Ki stood in stark contrast to most of Townsend’s works then, and still does now, a decade on. Where Townsend was famously known for his explosive wall-of-sound approach to progressive metal and extreme metal alike, Ki is a much more dialed-back affair with roots in blues and country. Here, Townsend puts on a masterclass in tension and release; often making no secret of the seething rage underneath the album’s exterior, but still maintaining a veneer of restraint all the same. This veneer shows cracks in the first half of the album (“Disruptr”, “Gato”) before the absolutely furious “Heaven’s End” splits it wide open for several glorious minutes, its nine-minute runtime repeatedly capped off with a frenetic refrain from Dorval. Once the rage has subsided, however, Ki becomes an exercise in quiet, bluesy introspection from there on out. Townsend complements this shift with a near-perfect vocal performance throughout, often opting for a much more reserved delivery and periodically trading off with Dorval’s vocals effortlessly.
While it’s been perhaps overshadowed by the catchier and less challenging Addicted!, which was released the same year, Ki is to me one of Townsend’s most personal and powerful albums, and would perhaps even be vying for the top spot in my opinion of his post-Strapping Young Lad work if not for Casualties of Cool (2014), the spiritual successor to this record. Despite the sharp left turn from his earlier work, the album is still very much a Townsend record in its own unique way, albeit one that demands more careful attention than many of his other releases.
An hour and six minutes later, Ki ends how it starts: with a single gentle clean guitar track, echoing in otherwise empty sonic space. To hear an artist completely strip down his sound and lay his heart bare like we see Townsend do on Ki is not something one sees often in our corner of the musical world. It’s notable enough for kicking off a universally acclaimed new era for one of metal’s most prolific and beloved musicians, but Ki also stands as a powerful statement on its own, and remains one of Townsend’s most expressive and cathartic records. It’s also an important reminder that our community is lucky to have a musician like Devin in it.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
2009 stands as perhaps the most important inflection point in what is commonly referred to as “indie rock.” For one, it was just a banner year for big and significant releases. Aside from the album I’ll be going into further in a moment, there were career highpoint or at least crest releases from the likes of The xx (xx), Dirty Projectors (Bitte Orca), Animal Collective (Merriweather Post Pavilion), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz!), and Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix). There were also lower-profile or acclaimed albums from ascendent but still relatively obscure artists like St. Vincent (Actor), The Antlers (Hospice), and Cymbals Eat Guitars (Why There Are Mountains). More importantly, however, 2009 became the year that the concept of “indie” as a collection of cultural touchstones that could be packaged and commodified to a wider audience — a trend that had been bubbling up throughout the decade — came into full fruition and hit a point of no return. And at the epicenter of this phenomenon and ensuing debate fell Grizzly Bear and their album Veckatimest, in which we got to see in real time a band open themselves up to the possibilities of commercialization and clearly feel conflicted by the meaning of it.
Veckatimest as an album sits as a bit of an odd outlier in the Grizzly Bear discography in spite of clearly being the link between the band’s quieter, more introspective folk rock beginnings and grander technicolor prog-adjacent rock that they’ve settled into since. Where their breakout album Yellow House (of which I have many feelings and emotions over) was decidedly lo-fi and focused as much on atmosphere and mood as the songs themselves, Veckatimest was the band’s attempt to craft a kind of sonic perfection. It was the band’s Sgt. Pepper, an album that attempted to delicately balance lush production filled with layers of guitars, woodwinds, synths, strings, and even a children’s chorus with a decidedly more pop-leaning bent that could break through into potential radio play and beyond.
Perhaps nothing signified this weird juxtaposition more than when the band released the seminal single “While You Wait For The Others” with a b-side version subbing in Michael McDonald and his infamous velvety yacht rock pipes. It was an album that could swing wildly from sunny Beach Boys harmonized pop to dark, knotty jams to soulful, contemplative ballads, to whatever you would call “I Live With You.” It attempted to bring together so much, and somehow the band managed to hold it all together into a cohesive piece. Even while acknowledging that it’s far from my favorite GB album overall, I can safely say that it was the band’s most aspirational and ambitious album.
What makes Veckatimest so important in understanding the direction of indie at the end of the 00’s though was a single song and TV commercial. The album’s biggest single, “Two Weeks” featured prominently in a Volkswagen Superbowl ad, which almost certainly was the greatest public exposure the band has ever received. Grizzly Bear by that point were far from the first indie band to license their music for TV ads, and the debate over “selling out” and going mainstream is one that formed the central tension of indie’s identity throughout the 90s into early aughts, with the likes of Modest Mouse truly breaking the seal into the notion of indie/pop crossover becoming a simple matter of life. And yet there was something different about this instance, not least of which because at first blush GB’s music is one that so naturally resists that kind of easy public digestion. And yet as they continued to play and grow, they became must-see artists, with the most infamous incident being a waterfront show in NYC attended by Jay-Z and Beyonce, in which the former called them “an incredible band.” It was genuinely surprising to see the band suddenly thrust into this position, and all indications are that the band were equally as surprised and uncomfortable with the ramifications of it.
By the time the band released their follow-up to that album, 2012’s Shields, the band had largely retreated from the spotlight while not-so-subtly hinting that the mechanics of the modern music industry (along with the still-nascent streaming industry that was just starting to bloom into ubiquity) and rising cost of living in music hubs like NYC and LA were making it impossible for bands even as seemingly “successful” as them to actually live off of their music. This would come to a head in a New York Magazine cover story that painted the band as being stuck in a purgatory of not-quite-starving artists but still not exactly living comfortably despite selling out shows at Radio City. The sad truth though is that by then the conversation around indie and music in general had already changed. The lines between art, pop, accessibility, and marketability would continue to blur into what would become the dominating trend of this decade we’re closing out in “poptimism.” This is the trend that would see the biggest stars in indie over the past decade like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, collaborate with the likes of Kanye and produce top-selling albums in pop, r&b, and beyond.
What would have once been derided as “selling out” by Gen X’ers and older millennials would become commonplace and downright embraced by the next generation. An album like Veckatimest and a band like Grizzly Bear would decidedly stand out of place today as paragons of cool and cultural cache. Rock and pop are far more racially diverse and dominated by the continual evolution of hip-hop and r&b, and the industry as a whole has become even more insular and consolidated around certain trends of accessibility and marketability as they have to fight harder and harder for listeners’ attention and money. 2009 was perhaps the last year it felt like indie rock “mattered,” and in that brief moment in time, Grizzly Bear were kings.
Karnivool – Sound Awake
Sound Awake is still, after so much time and spins, an album I can listen to it whenever it comes on. Whether the gods of Random grace me with its appearance or whether an unseen hand causes me to put it on myself, it just never hits wrong. That’s probably because it’s such a rich and textured album, containing emotions as diverse as fear, anger, pain, love, loss, anxiety, hope, failure, and melancholy. Conveyed through the absolutely massive sound which Karnivool were able to achieve on this album (bass production of the decade, probably), these emotions thoroughly drown the listener in wave after wave of distinct imagery (“How do we all sleep with a dying sun?” or “We should have known better not to drink this wine we swallow”). The result is an album you can revisit a seemingly endless number of times, always finding some new meaning or path of approach to coax from within its notes.
Within this unfolding masterpiece, there lies a couplet of tracks which I’ve always viewed as a mini-album, “Deadman” and “Change”. Driven by more than the fact that they close the album, both these tracks are like their own world within the maze of Sound Awake, containing their own musical and thematic language which sets them apart from the rest of the album. Both of them deal with death, anxiety, and existential questions, although the first one focuses more on personal anxiety while the latter broadens the canvas to more general questions. Both of them use noise, silence, and electronica in interesting ways, with the intro to “Deadman” filled with a somber sort of silence and heaviness and the famous closing moments of “Change” echoing those ideas with a soul-crushingly sparse and electronically backed drum solo.
Put these two together, and the millions of musical ideas which I can’t dive into here that are contained within their run-times, and you have your masterpiece right there, all by itself. The fact that they are preceded by Karnivool taking a darker, deeper, and heavier take on their earlier sound (Themata is an amazingly underrated album by the way) cements Sound Awake as one of the best albums to come out of the “alternative” metal scene, one of the best albums to be made in Australia, and just one of the best albums ever, period.
Mastodon – Crack the Skye
It says a lot that I can safely say that every single person reading this list probably expected Crack the Skye to be on it. Certainly, the album has its detractors (some of them are even members of Heavy Blog, as much as it pains me to say) but I don’t think anyone can argue that it isn’t Mastodon’s most popular and well-known album. Lying on the stitch between Mastodon earlier career, of which Leviathan was the peak, and their later career, marked by a shift in style and tone, Crack the Skye is Mastodon’s most progressive and ambitious effort to date. It’s this ambition, of a concept album that took the band’s literary themes and their musical themes to the extreme, that undoubtedly launched Crack the Skye into mythology, a foundation for an entire genre which certainly existed before Crack the Skye but would become infinitely more popular after it.
Speaking of which, Crack the Skye also has the advantage/disadvantage of still being listened to and very much relevant even after “progressive stoner” has reached the sheer mass of releases which it has today. Funnily enough, it both stands the test of the sub-genre it has spawned and completely defies it; listen to Crack the Skye today and then any of the many bands which it has influenced. It doesn’t really sound the same does it? I mean, the comparison is certainly valid but there’s some sort of quality, mostly in the unique vocal styles (and guest spots) on Crack the Skye that just sets it apart from anything that came after it.
This difference also echoes in the production; is it really a stoner album? Accepted wisdom says yes but there’s something different in the tones of the album, at least on parts of it, like the opening track, something that perhaps marries it more to post-metal. This is especially clear when you compare it to acts like The Ocean, who were also about to make their mark on progressive metal with Heliocentric and Anthropocentric (2010). Crack the Skye has this otherworldly quality to it that has stood the test of time, setting it apart in Mastodon’s own discography (chock full of great releases as it is) and within the sub-genre’s “future” catalog. This quality, hard to pinpoint, makes sure that the album still sounds as fresh, a decade after its release, and boldly asserts that Crack the Skye, perhaps more than any other Mastodon album, will go down in the annals of history as a classic.
maudlin of the Well – Part the Second
Describing any of Toby Driver’s albums as “unique” is a bit self-evident at this point. He’s covered seemingly every corner of the experimental rock spectrum throughout his career and continues to reinvent himself with a host of collaborators. Yet, Part the Second still stands out over a decade after its release. How the album fits into maudlin of the Well’s career, both musically and contextually, helped make it one of the most memorable albums that the band and Driver have produced.
For starters, Part the Second falls somewhere between a swansong and comeback album. It marked the end of a hiatus following maudlin of the Well’s seminal avant-garde metal records Bath (2001) and Leaving Your Body Map (2001), as well as the underrated My Fruit Psychobells…A Seed Combustible (1999). The band’s style was essentially proto-BTBAM with heavy influence from Pan.Thy.Monium, offering plenty of odd song structures and genre excursions woven into a late ’90s/early ’00s metalcore foundation. Driver would expand and contort this formula with his solo work, as well as bands like Tartar Limb and (of course) Kayo Dot.
Yet, Part the Second wasn’t truly a ”comeback” album per se, given that it’s bookended by 5-year hiatus and 10 years of silence (and counting). More specifically, the album bears little resemblance to maudlin of the Well’s formative years, particularly when it comes to the “metal” part of the band’s sound. They clearly wanted to do everything on their own terms with Part the Second, as evidenced by the album being crowd-funded and available for free download.
So what did longtime fans of the band’s cult classics receive after years of waiting? Put simply, maudlin of the Well’s greatest achievement. That might seem blasphemous to say given how revered Bath and Leaving Your Body Map are in certain circles. But from start to finish, Part the Second contains maudlin of the Well’s most complete, seamless vision of what they seemingly always wanted to achieve with their songwriting. By amplifying the “avant-garde” and turning down the “metal” in their sound, Driver and Co. created one of the most subtle, beautiful, and expertly crafted experimental rock releases of the decade.
In this pursuit, maudlin of the Well fleshed out their sound with heavy elements of chamber music and art rock, especially when it comes to the additional instrumentation incorporated on the album. There was always a clarinet here or a trumpet there on the band’s previous albums, but it never reached the scope of sounds employed across Part the Second. Every track includes some added instrumentation, courtesy of violin, cello, flute, alto sax, baritone sax, piano, organ, synths, and “orchestral percussion.” The results are lush and dynamic, matching the impact and execution of Driver’s Tzadik Records releases and mid-career Kayo Dot.
The band also accomplish more with less. Whereas the bands first three albums were all at least an hour-long, Part the Second clocks in at 45 minutes and feels perfectly paced and accomplished by the time it concludes. Driver and Co. don’t waste a minute of the album’s run time, as they explore new, engaging directions only after developing the ideas they’ve already presented. In the process, they create something for every type of experimental rock fan: orchestral-driven sections, mathy art rock riffing, avant-prog weirdness, pensive post-rock passages, and so on.
I’ll say it again with no hesitation: Part the Second is maudlin of the Well’s best album, and arguably one of the top three releases Driver has even worked on. It’s an all-encompassing experience that’s impeccably written, performed, and produced, offering everything you could ever want from an album under the “experimental rock” banner.
The Red Chord – Fed Through the Teeth Machine
Let it not be forgotten how important The Red Chord were in the development of deathcore. Before the genre was a thing, The Red Chord were straddling the lines of metalcore, death metal, and grind, and when you break it down, isn’t that what deathcore is supposed to be? It’s all in the name!
While the band’s last album Fed Through the Teeth Machine doesn’t share many hallmarks that define the genre a decade later, it no doubt set the stage for bands we’re obsessed with today, like Fit For An Autopsy. Along with BTBAM’s earliest work, The Red Chord offered a different take on the metalcore / death metal fusion than a series of breakdowns. The band’s earlier work is more or less the best riff salad around, but the game changed on Fed Through the Teeth Machine.
This swansong saw the band introducing more melodic guitar flourishes that soared over the intense riffing. The brutality still there, but the songs are more structured. There’s a confident groove and swagger to The Red Chord that is a rare find in the genre, before or since. It’s heavy as hell, but there’s a sophistication about it beyond knuckle-dragging and head-banging riffs. Fed Through The Teeth Machine is wall-to-wall bangers, and it’s a shame that the band couldn’t survive beyond this outing.
Russian Circles – Geneva
If you were to take a poll of all Russian Circles fans on what they think the band’s best album is, my guess is that a plurality — if not full-on majority — would rank the band’s fourth album, Empros, at the top. For myself though it’s a no-brainer. Geneva, their third album, serves as a hard demarcation in the band’s career from their early material to what they represent now. In fact, listening to the band’s first three albums now creates a strange sensation of hearing a completely different group. Because while Empros is for sure a great album, it also became the point at which Russian Circles became a band concerned first and foremost with being heavy and crafting heavy instrumental music rather than great instrumental music that happened to be heavy much of the time.
Don’t get me wrong. Geneva is a heavy post-metal album, almost certainly the heaviest the band had put out at the time. Tracks like the title track and “Malko” are grippingly dark and focused sonic explosions led by Brian Cook’s buzzsaw bass riffs, Mike Sullivan’s cutting guitar, and Dave Turncrantz’s usual drum insanity. But there is also just so much more nuance to the aural assault. “Melee” packs a ton of emotion with strings and affecting melodies into a song whose levity is weighed down by subterranean bass before building into a controlled demolition. “Hexed All” in its heart-wrenching string motif reminiscent of yndi halda is the kind of quiet, understated track that was more prominent in the early stage of the band’s career and has since largely disappeared. Then there’s “When The Mountain Comes To Muhammad,” a kind of pendulous, eerie song unlike just about anything else in the band’s catalog. Based on a deceptively simple but captivating melody and a couple of archival soundbites from an early nuclear bomb test, the song carries a kind of deeply moving and heavy weight that cannot be replicated simply by the intensity of playing.
I think more importantly though, Geneva feels like a 3-dimensional album. Each song feels fully crafted with a definite purpose and the kind of compositional depth that keeps it interesting and engaging throughout. There’s more focus on distinctive guitar and bass riffs to propel songs, as well as more focus on creating the kind of dark/light contrasts that this kind of music sustains itself on like oxygen to fire. Sure, the production isn’t as raw or gut-punchingly heavy as what would come, but I’d trade that for the more nuanced songwriting present here any day. Geneva is the pinnacle of Russian Circles when they combined heavy playing with heavy emotion and heart, and it’s a combination I wish I could say they’ve nailed more since.
Wolves in the Throne Room – Black Cascade
While Two Hunters is my personal favorite Wolves in the Throne Room record, there’s really no way that you can debate one WITTR record over another. Some of them stick out, sure, but it’s such a consistently solid catalog that all of their records are incredible. As I was thinking about 2009, my first thought was Black Cascade. There may have been more widely acclaimed records that year, there’s no question in my mind that Black Cascade might be the most artful of the year. It’s Wolves’ most melodic record to me and has some truly memorable music that will stick with you long after you put away the headphones.
The Weaver brothers didn’t let making a modern black metal classic pressure them into an immense follow-up. The two, along with guitarist Will Lindsay, just kept chugging along doing what they’ve become widely known for: heady atmospheric black metal focused on nature that reflects the dark and cold and immensity of nature’s grandeur. It’s a constant sound that is consistent in its drama, size, and skill. The then-trio followed up a true great work with another. The only difference is that Black Cascade is more of a series of nature sketches while Two Hunters is more a consistent single work. All these songs clearly go together with a singular voice. The melodies are more varied on Black Cascade while Two Hunters had refrains repeated throughout. That is the only difference between these two incredible works.
To paraphrase a quote from Rabbi Lionel Blue, Black Cascade is just like Two Hunters, only more so. These progressive tracks create a true atmosphere that you just sit in and let envelope you. It is a true goal of music to be able to evoke ideas in listeners, and Black Cascade does that. Tracks evoke strong images of landscapes and feelings. These tracks make me think of foggy woods or rolling clouds. There is an air of mystery that is consistent throughout the record regardless of the track. If you had even the whiff of a doubt about Wolves’ ability to follow up in this manner, those doubts were dashed in 2009. Much like arguing over which Wolves album is greatest, you couldn’t pick out a standout track here. It’s all incredible, and it’s equally incredible that the band continues to grow their legend with each release.