Needless to say, no one on the planet heard every release that came out in 2012, and I am no exception to that rule. I also know better than most how vibrant the small-label/self-releasing community is, which makes the task an order of magnitude more difficult; with the rise of bandcamp and other sites along those lines, you’re now talking about dozens, maybe even hundreds, of non-commercial releases for every album that gets released on a major label. It’s a ridiculous aspiration to listen to even one percent of what comes out every year.
Which makes the following statement, when I think about it, kind of obvious: as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been keeping a Best Albums of [X] list since 1979 (if you don’t feel like doing the math, this is the thirty-fourth year I have done so. 1979’s Album of the year: Styx’s Cornerstone). This has been, hands down, the most difficult year to come up with a list like this, which is one reason I ended up basically giving you thirty albums, with the 10-songs and honorable mention lists. I’ll usually start with a stable of thirty or forty albums that have a chance of making the list. This year, when I sat down at the beginning of November with my longlist, I found myself able to make a case for over one hundred releases–and that’s not counting those which I ended up not finding out about until later in the year. (One of those, Murderous Vision’s Black Hellebore, was on the honorable mention list; two of them made this one.) 2012 has been, in my estimation, the strongest year for music in my lifetime. There was so much going on this year, and so much of it was so good, that I ended up with four titles competing for Album of the Year, and they kept shifting right up until December 31. I also ended up not getting my hands on a few hotly-anticipated 2012 releases until early in 2013. I ended up not allowing myself to consider them; after all, were it not for my extended convalescence, this list would have been published by the time I got them. And they would have made an already-muddled picture even more difficult. (I will tell you, though: you need to go get a copy of the Freak Hallucinations split by Merzbow and Actuary. Right now. Go on, I’ll wait.)
And so, keeping all that in mind, the ten best albums I heard during 2012:
There was a period of time during the last decade when no Ten Best list I put out was complete without at least one Prurient disc, from 2003 (Album of the Year Shipwrecker’s Diary) to 2007 (And Still, Wanting). After that, it seemed, Dominick Fernow’s side-projects and other activities started bleeding into the Prurient sound. And the releases started sounding, well, not like Prurient (viz. Time’s Arrow, which may as well be a Vatican Shadow album). So Oxidation was even more of a surprise, a return to the blistering powerelectronic assault to be found on classic Prurient releases like Fossil and Troubled Sleep. Prurient remains, along with Wolf Eyes, one of the only American noise acts to maintain a media presence in the more “traditional” media outlets (e.g., the Village Voice), so this return to form is welcome indeed.
Prurient in the good old days–I saw the Cleveland show on this same tour and was blown away.
I’ve been a fan of Bill Laswell’s since I don’t know how long. And over the many years I’ve been following his music, he has revealed many different faces; the impresario, the producer, the man who invented dubstep, the ambient wizard, dozens more. But Means of Deliverance is something entirely unexpected; it sounds like a guy with a bass sitting around in his basement coming up with catchy little tunes and recording them directly to a four-track. It’s by far the simplest, easiest, most accessible album Laswell has released in decades, and it’s absolute genius.
8. Cunting Daughters, Tempest
d.Cun. topped last year’s list with their debut release, Gone, and their follow-up, a one-track EP produced for WCSB’s annual fundraiser this year, is a worthy one indeed. It may only be sixteen minutes long, but if you’re familiar with the bleak, searing ritual ambient these lovely ladies produce, you already know they’re sixteen of the best minutes you’ll spend this year. If you missed Gone, which was released in a painfully limited edition–I can’t remember if it was 33 or 50–this isn’t going to help you, as I believe only five copies of Torrent were made, and they were all sold during the fundraiser. So, um, sorry, but you’ll have to trust me on this one.
Since it’s nowhere online (yet), here’s a piece fom Gone I uploaded a while back (with Pauline’s permission).
7. Plague Mother/Skin Graft, Kingsbury Ruin
Do I actually need to tell you anything other than the cover does? It’s Plague Mother collaborating with Skin Graft. You’re talking about Cleveland noise perfection. More ambient than the solo work of either band, but with more than enough brutality for even the least discriminating noise fan, Kingsbury Ruin is an extended meditation (a C60 and a CD-R in the same box) on the Torso killings (the name, for those not up on their serial killer history, is a play on Kingsbury Run, one of the Torso killer’s favored body-dump locations). There’s no way this and Sowell, the Skin Graft release that came out around the same time (see below), did not inform one another in the best of ways.
You’ve already had both artists performing live. Have a bonus video on me. (This comes up when you do a youtube search on “Kingsbury Ruin.” I have no idea why.)
Skin Graft has always been one of Cleveland’s most reliable bands… you buy a Skin Graft release and it shreds your ears. both live and in the studio, Skin Graft’s modus operandi has been “blow the listener against the back wall and pummel with sonics.” Which makes Sowell, a cassette inspired by Cleveland’s most recent high-profile serial killer, something of an anomaly in the Skin Graft catalog. While portions of it certainly reach that traditional Skin Graft sound, this is by far the most dynamic SG release in my collection (and I have a whole lot of ’em). A lot of the sound here is almost ambient–brooding, finely-textured, ominous, ready to pounce. And pounce it does indeed. If you are somehow new to Skin Graft, which you shouldn’t be if you’ve been listening to me go on about how great this stuff is for the past half-decade, then this is an excellent starting point. And if you’re not, well, this is my favorite Skin Graft release. Ever. And that’s saying something (to give you an idea, Skin Graft’s first release in 2013, Medic, is already on the short shelf for consideration for inclusion in this same list next year.)
Skin Graft live at Now That’s Class!, 2012
One of the many, many fine releases put out by the Compulsion Rites label in 2012, Linger is the sound of one of the new dogs on the block marking his territory. If you’re familiar with harsh noise, there’s nothing here that’s going to shock you–this is a fine assault on the senses–but there are some very interesting dynamics and shifting textures going on inside all that contact-mic abuse and static; more than once this cassette put me in mind of 1996 Album of the Year Akasha Gulva, by Merzbow–and that is not a comparison I make lightly. A very strong early release from a project with endless promise.
The cassette was limited to 25 and is now sold out, but digital copies can be had for name-your-price at bandcamp.
The first of the four releases to drop out of Album of the Year contention was Pray for Teeth’s first demo, and I dropped it for the completely arbitrary reason that unlike the other three releases, this is a five-song EP rather than a feature-length release. But what a five-song EP it is. Pray for Teeth come from that school of hardcore informed by the Victory Records roster of the mid-nineties (Integrity, Hatebreed, Earth Crisis, et al.) who mixed up the faster-than-you clean-vocal style of traditional eighties hardcore with slower, sludgier, more experimental bands. There’s been an explosion in that sort of thing recently, and a lot of it is very good. Pray for Teeth, however, stand head and shoulders above the crowd. “Puritan Eyes” is the single best song of 2012, at least of those that came across my desk.
They look like such nice boys…
For eight months of 2012, I was convinced I knew what my Album of the Year was going to be. I knew it from the moment I cracked the plastic on Author and Punisher’s third disc, Ursus Americanus, popped it into the player, and heard the opening notes of “Terrorbird.” It takes a great deal of hubris to create a band that sounds like an unholy mixture of Swans and Godflesh, if Bile lead singer Krztoff had stopped in to lay down some rhymes. But it is an abomination against nature to have such a band be good enough to stand up to any of the aforementioned, and Tristan Shone, the sole member of Author and Punisher, has done just that. Ursus Americanus continues the A&P combination of industrial metal, though this album is more industrial and less metal than Shone’s last effort, Drone Machines. This will pound you into dust and make you beg for more.
2. Mailbomb Solution, F. C.
Another side-project from Plague Mother frontman Roman J Leyva (Strangled Cop, Torso, Retch, etc.), Mailbomb Solution is a possibly-one-off exploration of the philosophy of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. A beautifully-packaged three-cassette set that shows a great deal of thought as to every aspect of its construction, both physically and sonically, F. C. is the kind of noise/powerelectronics release you can (and should) be using to explain to your non-avant-garde-listening friends what it is about this stuff that’s so compelling. Somewhat more sample-heavy than recent Plague Mother releases, but that goes to the thoughtfulness of the thing. Other than the album that finally topped the list, once I started sketching things out, this spent more time in the prospective #1 position than anything else. Arguably the best piece of straight-up powerelectronics since Whitehouse released New Britain thirty years ago.
Mailbomb Solution live 2012
and Album of the Year goes to…
[note: this is the first traditional-music album in twenty years, since 1993–Slowdive’s Souvlaki–to be named Album of the Year at Goat Central.]
The combination of Within Temptation’s underwhelming The Unforgiving in 2011 and Delain’s absolutely perfect We Are the Others in 2012 finally broke the barrier between Delain being “that Within Temptation spinoff band” and “Martijn Westerholt has a brother who makes music, too?” They’ve always been fantastic, from the decade-old Amenity demo on, but We Are the Others–and I say this as one of the world’s biggest fans of the band’s 2009 release, April Rain–shows Delain pushing through what would have been a plateau for any other band, especially a band working in as oversaturated a field as symphonic metal, and doing something interesting, relevant, and superior in ways that their contemporaries in the genre have either not thought about or not found a way to realize yet. The cover’s retro feel should tip you off that Delain haven’t made your typical symphonic-metal album, and while some tracks here do fall into that category (opener “Mother Machine”, especially), the band embrace their roots both lyrically (the obvious nod to Pat Benatar in “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”–which is not a cover) and musically (Delain hop on the “duet with a metal guy” bandwagon, and we’ll not think about Fear Factory frontman Burt Bell being old enough to be Charlotte Wessels’ dad), and it’s a fantastic move that could break a stagnating genre free of its current tar pit. Then, of course, you have the story angle–at least half the songs here, including the title track, were inspired by the murder of Sophie Lancaster, a British tragedy which has resulted in an outpouring of work from artists in various media, goth or no. It may seem callous to still be applying critical faculties to such a flood (one must keep Oscar Wilde’s truism that “all bad poetry is sincere” in mind at all times), but it’s made much easier when the disc in question is of exceptional caliber–and We Are the Others is exceptional indeed. While the decision between the four albums at the top of this list was the most difficult I’ve come across in three and a half decades, that just means that this album is the most deserving to hold the title in the time I’ve been listening to, and ranking, music.
“Hit Me with Your Best Shot”.