ALBANY — Welcome to the Entertainer’s second annual year-end list, compiled as always with great care and even greater anxiety.
There’s little I fear more than encapsulating 365 days of subjective joy into a summary that won’t overwhelm my in-box with outrage. Yet it’s in my job description (“Applicant must torture himself into hopeless insomnia sometime in the fourth fiscal quarter, preferably over something he might otherwise enjoy”); therefore, it must be done.
Readers may notice a slight change this year. Because the mid-valley teems with such talent in abundance, I’ve altered its emphasis from national to local acts, with exceptions made for acts with community roots. After all, shouldn’t the bulk of our pulp recognize those hard-working outfits duking it out in neighborhood clubs and studios? I agree. Honestly, does anyone care what I thought of this year’s snoozy Wilco? I sure don’t.
Also, I was warned by management that if I published my overall Top 10, I’d have to finance counseling for every septuagenarian traumatized by Tom Waits, The Twilight Singers, Earth, Thurz, The Roots and David Lynch.
At this point, I’m obligated to add that vital caveat everyone will overlook: What follows this text is in no way definitive, and I do not claim that it is. “The Year in Spin” reflects my music-geek habits and patterns. This represents what I was hearing in 2011, sometimes for stories, sometimes for pleasure, usually for both. Your aural mileage may vary.
But whether we agree to disagree or meet at ten paces in Monteith Riverpark, I ask that you, no matter your palate, support your local noise. And bring me some Pepto Bismol.
Abolitionist, “It Used to Rain” — From Dustin Herron’s fertile bean came a concept album about a parched population battling for water in the harshest drought this side of Armageddon. But the hooks pour as hard and fierce as the weapon-wielding gentleman keeping careful watch over his coveted tank in “My AK” (Jeff Carey’s aggressive bass pulses under authoritative Herron guitar and savage Ross Savage drums) or that diabolical Bucket Brigade, whose members have discovered a novel way to both dispose of dissenters and refill those empty wells.
The album has a somewhat happy denouement (“The Rain Falls on Friday”), but the damage to humanity is done. Sides are drawn, trust has evaporated. And as we’ve discovered even in recent history — an allegedly more enlightened time — the line between civility and chaos is always tenuous.
It was a prolific year for Abolitionist: they not only released “Rain,” but also successfully financed via Kickstarter the stirring “At the Level of the Ear” 7-inch EP, the proceeds of which went to Partners in Health. Punk and activism/altruism have always gone hand-in-hand; it’s wonderful to see that tradition continue. (www.abolitionist1859.com or http://abolitionist.bandcamp.com)
Ambush Party, “You Are Not Safe Without Us” — Nearly a year has passed since “Safe” first shaved a laser, yet here we are in December, still a devoted AP brood. My tabby, Whiskers Tomaino, just celebrated his sweet 16, forgoing his weight in kibble for a signed Denny Jackson door poster. A week without the Andy Jameson-narrated “Devil’s Den,” colored by the stalwart blood union of Jesse and Joe Tomaino on bass and wham-bam, respectively — not to mention Jackson’s record-wide six-string aerodynamics (he’s restored my faith in the solo’s durability; squeedle on, Archduke) — is no week at all, as well as a ridiculously long sentence.
But that’s what Ambush Party does to you: they make you bleed superlatives from every pore, and to hell with structure, grace and pants. If you’ve yet to purchase this platter, I’m not accountable for your alarming lack of character. (http://ambushparty.net)
Angries/Hooray for Everything (split 7-inch EP) — “Let me arrange your face!” Caitlin Garets explodes on “Arrange Your Face,” but it’s no mere cosmetic suggestion. She’s seconds from throwing down, mitts clenched and drawn, shouting across fellow Angries Robb Vancil’s game bass grumble, Justin Groft’s come-and-get-some guitar and Mike Thomas’ jackrabbit drums. “Face” is just one of two storms the Corvallis quartet whipped across vinyl with Oakland, Calif.’s Hooray for Everything (featuring former zip-coder/Lazyboy legend Pete Deegan, the fetching snarl of Faith Gardner and that most-excellent dive-bomb, “Solipsist”). All four songs are suitable for sending spindles into breathless punk lathers. They’re fast, they’re hard, and they’ll clear your ear-ways like buzzsaws through butter. (http://angries.net or http://hoorayforeverything1.bandcamp.com/album/angries-hooray-for-everything-split-ep)
Another Musician, “Into the Fire” — Craig Bidiman made this record by stripping himself to the heart, then casting its scars into purifying flames. It’s an honest self-examination almost completely unadorned of anything but an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a voice with nowhere to hide. Bidiman explores relationships both physical and spiritual, candidly confronting tragedy and the doubts that gnaw at his conscience. The album is also refreshingly flawed: mistakes are bravely retained (missed notes, emotional cracks), preserved on record forever, along with various ambient sounds. “Ah, it’s done,” Bidiman exhales after delivering the title track, standing to leave and allowing an empty space to quaff of your own contemplation. (http://anotherpoormusician.bandcamp.com)
Santino Cadiz, “Soteria” — The word is Greek for “deliverance” or “salvation,” and it’s a pretty apt description of “Soteria’s” gentle sounds. This airy testimonial exposes yet another side of the man who kept dance floors a-hoppin’ with the reggae-inflected Sar Shalom (although with guest shots from bandmates, plus the shuffling sunsplash of “My Feet Upon the Rock” and “Rise Up and Walk,” Cadiz can still move listeners in more ways than one).
There’s a genuine serenity throughout, expressing mortal and immortal devotion, equally effusive whether directed at a force divine or flesh-and-blood perfection (the gorgeous “Show Me Love Dear”). “Why does this love have to be so beautiful?” Cadiz asks in “Amen (So Be It),” caressing his honeyed-hush timbre with soft drops of ivory in a light acoustic clinch. “Why does this space have to be so powerful?” There are no answers to these questions, of course — just acceptance and gratitude that they’re true. May all of our journeys be this fulfilling. (www.facebook.com/#!/santinocadizmusicpage or www.reverbnation.com/santinocadiz)
Casey Hurt, “Mended Souls” — If e’er there’s an album to cure what ails you so, “Mended Souls” is it. Hurt may have moved south to charm Angeleno hearts, but he does return to us, and his is an always welcome voice. Its warmth and soul remind me of home.
What a treat this was to revisit in the grips of a winter’s doldrums. “I’ll be near, I’ll be right here,” he assures on opener “I’ll Be Near” and it’s a promise he keeps to the end and beyond: the title track, which, over ethereal guitar and acoustic certainty, promises comfort, peace and harmony everlasting. Life on an earthly plane, it says, is but prelude to a richer reward. Thanks again, Casey, and come back soon. (www.caseyhurtmusic.com)
Loaded for Bear, “The Exit Carnival” — Announced on a wind of twilight ivories, phantom keys and hot, toothsome guitars, the Loaded for Bear carnival arrives to set up in the darkness at the edge of town. “Come in from the cold,” Kyle and Ella Jones sing on “Widow Maker,” the former’s vocals washed in a mournful come-hither like a beckoning addiction. The album envelops you in its narcotic beauty, cradles you in the harmonies that send “NW Passage” on its sonic bon voyage (one can’t help but salute Ella’s sumptuously stringed farewells). Adam Harney’s Western guitar parts the curtains for “The Exit Carnival II,” an ominous sideshow of shadows and last acts that won’t have an encore, at least not in this realm. The band, however, does: “The Exit Carnival” is joined by “The Cloak Room,” a five-track EP that’s just as essential. (www.loadedforbearmusic.com)
Norska, “Norska” (EP) — I gave this Albany-based battalion “two horns up” in March, but I’ve since amended that appraisal to 666 pairs of hands. This was absolutely one of my favorite 2011 releases, period. It hammers, saws and levels, then stomps with aplomb the quivering mess that’s left. This slab’s so hefty I’m not quite sure how the volcano-throated Jim Lowder (guitar), Dustin Rieseberg (guitar), Aaron Rieseberg (bass) and Jason Oswald (drums) still have working limbs. “They Mostly Come at Night,” a multilayered 13-minute masterpiece of mandible-chucking mayhem and epic churning brutality, has never left my rotation. Right on for the darkness. (http://norska.bandcamp.com)
Old Age, “The Whale” (EP) — “It’s not broken,” Matthew Ulm assures the congregation on “Not Broken,” but don’t you believe it for a second. (If Ulm — and the rest of Old Age, for that matter — looks familiar, it’s because he, bassist Dustin Daniels and drummer Adam Brown once comprised the fabled Meriwether Lewis and Clark.) “The Whale,” however, is magnificently whole, housed in a sweet Jesse Crawford sleeve. Its heart beats with tales of salvation, woe, redemption and recovery. The harmonies that wail “Only Hope” to heartbreak are pushed by Matt Radtke’s duct-cutting viola. “Long Road” rises from its pew to summon a rousing conclusion. But that’s not all: an additional track, “Once in Ten Years,” comes gratis, a sonic bargain at any price. (http://oldagemusic.bandcamp.com)
Orquesta Monte Calvo, “Orquesta Monte Calvo” — No matter the tempo, Orquesta Monte Calvo’s (“Bald Hill Orchestra” to friends and lovers alike) percussion crew of Otto Gygax, Joel Hirsch and Adam Crateau is working overtime to keep your body movin’. Their self-titled tour of Afro-Peruvian scorchers simmers with mystery and swelters like a summer lost in the prettiest eyes to ever return your gaze. By the time you’ve survived the sultriness of “Sonido Amazonico,” executed earlier this year at Squirrel’s Tavern and smoldered to playable bits for posterity (dig Mark Schurman’s shadowy six-string psychedeli-funk and Greg Klein’s alley-creeper bass percolating against Dave Trenkel’s late-night keyboard strut), you’ll be hopelessly in love.
Earlier this year I wrote that Gygax was leaving the fold. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. Viva Orquesta — long may they burn. (www.orquestamontecalvo.com)
Brian Smith, “Bloody Twins: Songs for the Separation of the Soul Longing for Life After Death” — Before my review was published last week, an editor commented that the album sounded depressing. That impression is a failure on my part as a writer, because I didn’t find “Bloody Twins” depressing at all. As a work, I thought it extraordinary. The music is marvelous (all of it written and performed by Smith himself; “The Other Side,” “To Make It Up to You” and “Thirst for Compassion” are like precision surges for the spirit), the lyrics perfect, and it absolutely captures the pain and confusion one feels in the wake of lost love. But it made me more reflective than sad, thankful for my experiences, no matter how awful they felt at the time.
Much like Craig Bidiman, I admire Brian Smith for documenting the trip and emerging to tell the tale. “Bloody Twins” won’t depress you, but it may articulate those feelings for which words do not exist, making the path you walk seem less treacherous and thorny. (www.facebook.com/bloodybloodytwins)
Space Neighbors, “Escape Pod” - We’ve at last made contact with a universe beyond our own, and according to scientists, its atmosphere is fonkay. “Let me take you to a place, a special place that’s like no other,” Jenna “Jennatronix” Summer Smith beckons on “Shake It Off,” transmitting from a planet beyond space and time, where roof-shifters with names like Yohan Solo (John Navarro), Rigel 7 (Rigel Woodside) and Milky Jay (Jason Yaich) drop science as fashioned by George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Parliament and all who’ve made that mothership connection.
By the by, the Neighbors are due to be activated for New Year’s Eve, sending Bombs Away’s lucky inhabitants into a stone groove born as 2012. That’s the future, baby; you must not tarry. So grab the keys to your cosmic chort and get yourself galactic. (www.spaceneighbors.com)
Striking Matches, “From the Wreckage” — I copped this disc nearly a year ago, but I can recite from memory “I tried to make a point of it, but I couldn’t dodge the punch / When my black eye heals, I’ll take you out to lunch” (“Listen to the Snake”), and no matter how often I’ve heard it, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the electric Dustin Stallings ache that comes to upend “When the Dust Settles.” “Short Fuse,” with its fat threads of Joel Gustafson bass tugs, Lance Lacey drum tumbles and drives of Stallings bludgeon-and-scramble, still makes it rain on the dance floor. I remain moved by “In a Flash” and its lingering tribute to a lost comrade. But most of all, I await illumination from the next struck match. (http://strikingmatches.bandcamp.com)
Target for Tomorrow, “The Devastator, Volume One” — A pugilistic brass battery, aptly christened the Horns of Destruction (that’s tenor sax man Michael Bode, trumpeter Brian Fitzsimmons and trombonist Orin Clark gone nuclear), punctuates a hard-smokin’ fracas orchestrated by vocalist/guitarist Aaron Broussard, bassist Ryan Lund (dig his dexterous climbs on “Code Names”) and drummer Charley McGowan. These seven pieces skillfully partake of every noise imaginable, from the hot-damn charge of “Won’t You” to the reverent “Sacred,” in which ruminative piano, wistful sax and somber trumpet gracefully step back for an explosive exchange between Broussard and Joanna Rightmer. “Waking,” with its resplendent Fitzsimmons soliloquy, is stunning, and “Collections” leads listeners off the map completely, down cobblestone pathways into a ’round-the-world flavor bomb. McGowan recently left the lineup, but the band’ll be back to devastate anew. (http://targetfortomorrow.com)
Tirade, “Barely-in-Tune Pop Gems” — God bless the lady (Kristana Burt) and gentlemen (Messrs. Callan Sullivan, Mike Miller and Randall Knight) of Tirade. If there was a more vivacious disc this year than “Barely-in-Tune Pop Gems,” I’ll eat every consonant right off this keyboard. First of all, forget that self-mocking title: the album’s an overflowing bouillabaisse of styles brilliantly executed by a band willing and eager to travel wherever their muse dares drag ’em. Anyone who trails inspiration into the scrumptious lunatic chatter of “Weaving Elves Issue from the Wall,” then throws down the rock ’n’ roll hammer in astro-rave-ups like “Manta” and bathes in the skyline luminosity of “Pleiades,” deserves our slavish worship. Second of all where else y’gonna find a phrase as awesome as “The Filtronic Shamantizer”? Third of all, buy this record or no more kisses for you. (www.reverbnation.com/tiradecorvallis, http://tirade.bandcamp.com)
Witch Mountain, “South of Salem” — Devastation finds a voice in Uta Plotkin’s bewitchingly supernatural range (though like drummer Nate Carson, she was raised in Corvallis, which most geologists agree exists on a physical plane). Witch Mountain fuels her pipes with one of the most feral, voracious swaggers to crawl from that gloriously punishing metallic quagmire.
“South of Salem” was the band’s first release in 10 years (and their first with Plotkin), but the players themselves had collected no dust. Their reunion blasts the grit off your woofers and the shine off your brainpan. Rob Wrong’s guitar hails Tony Iommi infernos and Dave Hoopaugh’s bass draws low-gut demon blood. You will kneel in submission.
I am assured there’ll be no such gaps between salvos in the future. And thank God for that. I don’t think I could take another decade without a blast of that fine “South” sugar. (http://witchmountain.bandcamp.com)
The Wobblies, “Demolition” — With riffs on loan from a flurry of knuckle-led retorts, The Wobblies (vocalist/guitarist A.J., bassist/vocalist Pope Charles, drummer/vocalist Ty and new six-string assassin Bootsy Mayhem) bruise in the illustrious punk tradition: all sinew, no B.S., cuff-clutching points aimed straight at the gut. “Demolition,” the band’s fifth record, is 25 minutes of white-hot war with choruses that clobber and lyrics that lead with the brain. You’ll find yourself raising a boisterous stein to a fallen hero (“The Ballad of Frank Little”) and cheering hard-charging lethal hooks (“Something in the Tone,” “The Castles in the Breakers”) to the finish line. Their moves are massive, their messages urgent. Silence them at your peril. (www.wobbliesmusic.com)
Yob, “Atma” — When it comes to metal, there’s something to be said for the majestic unfold. If it’s done well — or, in Yob’s case, exquisitely — you’re locked into jaw-drop, transfixed by its hypnotic drive. “Adrift in the Ocean” builds like a hell-bent rider advancing from a distance across a body-strewn battlefield; the effect is so mesmerizing it’s positively transcendent. The assault itself doesn’t arrive until 4 minutes, 15 seconds in, and there’s still another nine glorious minutes of exploration left. Bassist Aaron Rieseberg (yes, of Norska) keeps the rhythms relentlessly thick, drummer Travis Foster cuffs them with rib-rattling thunder and guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt pounds an all-consuming fire across an already damned earth. Heaviness, man — it’s a beautiful thing. (www.profoundlorerecords.com