Not included in Best Records of 2012

Alt-J — An Awesome Wave

It’s rare for me to give up on an album half way. If something truly remarkable happens in the second half, I am very sorry. What was wrong with this record? Well, I was put onto it by the rave reviews and awards it received from numerous journalists and industry groups, praising it as some remarkable breakthrough in artistic pop music. One particularly hyperbolic reviewer described it as:

… a stunning and encompassing affair of both innovative and electrifying musicianship and exemplary song writing. Comparing Alt-J to contemporary artists or listing their influences is almost pointless. Each song blurs, stutters, and explodes across a tide of instruments and ideas, fresh and addictive.

To suggest that this is true of An Awesome Wave is frankly offensive to countless other musicians. To draw a few obvious examples, Everything Everything are touring right now. This record won the Mercury Prize over Plan B (see my earlier review) and Field Music. Kid A was released over ten years ago. It’s not that An Awesome Wave is a terrible record, but there is nothing about it to suggest that it deserves a place alongside music which is better crafted, less contrived and more moving. If you are a music reviewer and you gave this record 8/10 or more, please go to Camden Lock with a placard and find someone who will trade you their spare copy of Amnesiac for your job. It would be better for everyone.

 

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The absolute best records of 2012 (based on a very limited sample (Part II))

Katatonia — Dead End Kings (Deluxe Edition)

Dead End Kings (artwork)

Melodic doom metal. Maybe there’s something intimidating about the name? I really don’t understand why this band and genre don’t enjoy a much wider popularity. You get the power and darkness of metal in something much more accessible and more overtly ‘human’. Instead, people looking for this crossover seem to fall into Post-Hardcore and Emotional Hardcore, the brash punky cousins. I suspect a lot of people don’t know that they like Katatonia. In a word, Dead End Kings is “mature”; the lyrics still touch on cliches but are generally more sophisticated than their earlier work, and there is an air of subtlety and delicacy running over the whole record. It’s not very exciting, but it is quite nourishing; the folkish melodies and vocal ornaments really come through and supported by well-written vocal harmonies and strings. Dead End Kings is not too repetitive, not too exhausting; there is no attention-seeking virtuosity yet it never feels lazy. While not especially pioneering, this is a well-crafted piece of rich, accessible music. Recommended, with one caveat: you will need the deluxe edition. It includes a final acoustic track, The Act of Darkening, which winds down the album and sets a suitable mood for leaving the music behind. This track is essential — if you didn’t get it, you were ripped off. We are used to “bonus tracks” which ruin the structure of a record by running the ending into some lame demos and remixes. This is the opposite; it appears that the official main release was deliberately crippled. Not cool.

Behold The Arctopus — Horrorscension

horrorscension

There are really two reviews here: one for those who don’t know about Behold The Arctopus and one for those who do.

Behold The Arctopus play instrumental avant-garde metal, chanelling the best of 20th-century art music into distorted guitars and furious drumming. If you hate any of those things, this is probably not a band you will get along with. My recommendation is that you get into 20th-century art music because it is awesome. They have a wonderful balance between taking themselves very lightly (preposterous track names, playing games with the listeners expectations, playing music that has absolutely no chance of mainstream success) and taking their music very seriously (making the vast majority of “progressive” musicians look like clueless amateurs). There’s a lot of nonsense said about this band: to clear up any misconceptions, they are not jazz, their music is not “random” and they do know what they are doing. Frankly, if you think it sounds like pointless rubbish, you are the one at fault. Now, that is not to say that we can’t attempt a little criticism!

Compared to Skullgrid, their previous record, the production style has shifted slightly in favour of guitars; I’m not entirely happy about this as the bass end of the Warr Guitar (look it up) has a satisfying meaty quality that has largely been dropped and the drums also feel a little less full. Still, the mixing is excellent in that all the parts are crisply separated and exposed, making it fairly easy to track what is going on in these absurdly complex arrangements. We can also be grateful that they have not gone to the “bees in a tin can” aesthetic preferred by many of their influences.

A number of minor innovations and tweaks to the band’s sound and writing are on this record — I could spell them out but honestly it’s more fun to discover them for yourself. In general, the songwriting is more repetitive — this is not really a weakness when found in such erratic music, but it is noticeable especially in the drumming. The snare in particular is used repetitively for extended periods, which combined with a relatively low tom mix makes the drums feel less varied and, well, fun. One could link this to new drummer Weasel Walter but blaming personal drumming style doesn’t really fit the data — this is a band that composes on paper, and Walter has said in interviews that he has found the music challenging and had to adapt his technique. At the same time, he’s made a major contribution to the songwriting and seems to largely run the band’s online presence. An easy criticism to level would be that the album is very short at 28 mins, but actually I think this is a great strength; such exhausting music is best enjoyed in moderation. I suppose one might claim that the record represents poor value because of this, but I don’t think $10 is very much for a top-tier record in a niche genre. I actually pre-ordered the $25 cd + t-shirt bundle (and paid as much again in shipping and tax from the USA; a UK distributer would be nice!) The T-shirt is great, featuring a huge and vivid rendition of the album’s fearsome artwork, and as a reward for pre-ordering I received an audio download well before the release rate. In general, mail-ordering a CD and receiving a download ASAP is my favourite distribution method, truly the best of both worlds, and I’ve happily paid over the odds for it on multiple occasions…

To sum up; perhaps this was a little underwhelming, but only because my expectations were so high. Better than Skullgrid? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, this is easily some of the best composition going on in “popular music”, and the band really have a way of making everyone else look like ignorant slackers.

Between The Buried And Me — The Parallax II: Future Sequence

The Parallax II: Future Sequence (Artwork)

Some facts about this record:

  • The majority of the lyrics are unintelligible
  • The remaining lyrics are vague
  • There is little by way of obvious structure
  • The record is 72 mins long
  • The instruments are well-arranged and the melodies and rhythms are inspired
  • The level of technical playing and musicianship is outstanding

There is actually a very equivalent musical genre out there: Italian opera

It’s difficult to process the contrasting sections, cheeky interludes and furious chugging. WHY ARE YOU SO ANGRY. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE ANGRY. STOP SHOUTING. I really don’t have a problem with aggressive music and metal; the transitions are exhilarating and the resulting work feels more sincere and less contrived than, for example, Dream Theater’s work (which manages to be both more emotionally shallow and technically excessive). In principle, the scope is very similar: from the album name, artwork and rambling clean vocals about astral projection, they are clearly trying to communicate something deep. But they take 72 minutes of somewhat challenging music to explore… what? It’s difficult to enjoy the tracks simply as technical compositions – given the length, there are few rewards in the form of references and reprises. If you turn to the lyric booklet, things work a lot better as the music really does follow the story and there is some thought-provoking stuff there. But if you HAVE to use the booklet to enjoy this record then the booklet should have been printed on A4 with a clear font, durable binding and the words READ ME on the front. If you go to the opera these days you are provided with a plot summary, surtitles and live acting. I appreciate that an hour-long music video may be a bit over-budget, but this is essentially good music with incoherent presentation.