ALARM’s 50 (+5) Favorite Songs of 2012

Last month ALARM presented its 50 favorite albums of 2012, an eclectic, rock-heavy selection of discs that were in steady rotation in our downtown-Chicago premises. Now, to give some love to tunes that were left out but that hold major water on their own, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.

(Text by the ALARM crew. Presented in chronological order.)

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MP3 Premiere: Family’s “Daddy Wronglegs”

Family: PortraitFamily: Portrait (Pelagic, 10/30/12)

“Daddy Wronglegs”

Family: “Daddy Wronglegs”

Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, metallic quartet Family makes its debut this month with Portrait, mixing the low-end heft and beastliness of Unsane and other noise-metal giants with classic-, straight-ahead, southern-, and even post-rock elements.

“Daddy Wronglegs” is propelled by a groove and a lurch — not to mention some nifty fret work by guest guitarist John Lamacchia (Candiria, Spylacopa, Julie Christmas). Dig.

Pre-order Portrait, to be released by Pelagic, on Family’s Bandcamp page.

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Morrow vs. Hajduch: Beastwars

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

BeastwarsBeastwars: s/t (5/9/11)

Beastwars: “Damn the Sky”

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Morrow: Hailing from New Zealand, Beastwars is a four-piece stoner/sludge-metal outfit that specializes in down-tuned guitars, deep grooves, and gruff wailing. The group remains unsigned for now, but after hearing this self-titled album (which you can do for free at Beastwars’ Bandcamp page), it’s only a matter of time before an indie label picks them up. (Hello, Tee Pee?)

The music isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a fist-pumping, head-banging good time — part Unsane, part old-school Soundgarden, and part High on Fire.

Hajduch: There is a major, major grunge influence at work here. “Lake of Fire” sounds a whole lot like a burlier “School” by Nirvana. The way the vocals interact with these huge riffs carries a definite Pacific Northwest influence. There’s also something about the riffs that remind me of Undertow-era Tool but with more of a classic-metal gallop to them.

I’m definitely shocked at how little exposure this band has gotten. This is a really solid stoner-metal album that should appeal to everybody who even slightly likes this kind of thing.

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Jarboe: Howling Artistry Born of Swans

Jarboe: MahakaliJarboeMahakali (The End, 10/14/08)

Jarboe: “The House Of Void”

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It’s mid-August, and it’s cold in Denver. It’s been raining for something like 34 hours straight. I spent the bulk of that time locked in my condo, listening to Jarboe and her myriad projects, incarnations, and collaborations with buddies and underground metal all-stars such as Swans, Justin K. Broadrick of Jesu, and Neurosis.

My mood has been affected accordingly. The creaks in my house have taken on a menacing air; there’s intelligence in the light around me; I’m seeing colors; I’m remote-viewing back to weird, old-world landscapes; I just awoke from a dream about choking, and I’m deep in the throes of a particularly penetrating sweat. I need to get out of here. I think that my neighbors will be the largest beneficiaries of that move; my walls are thick, but they’re not Jarboe thick.

Jarboe

Following this kind of strangeness, it helps to think on some touchstones that are grounded in the commonality of it all. It’s 2008, and the Olympics are on; the Democratic National Convention will be rolling into town soon; war is not yet obsolete; mankind is still uncovering new ways to hate our differences with medieval aplomb; Jarboe is right back in the thick of a wicked, resurgent metal scene.

The avant-garde songstress says, with palpable excitement in her voice, that “throwing myself into the void, pushing myself hard, pushing myself to exhaustion — that’s what drives me. That’s why I like loud, aggressive music. That’s how I’m wired!”

She is a woman who seems hyperactively aware of those moment-to-moment changes that shape her consciousness, which extend past her art and music. She is straight-edge, practices extreme boxing, and her hands are callused from carrying her own equipment. She has refused to accept the role of novelty act in the very masculine world of metal.

“My artistic base is grounded in Swans. It’s how I was refined; it’s how I adjusted; it’s how I developed. It was such a big part of my life. I could never turn my back on that.”

But perhaps most telling are the actions that led her into the grips of the early ’80s New York no-wave scene. Upon hearing Michael Gira’s band, Swans, she set out for New York City with the sole intention of joining the band. Gira started her off on bass, but she was quickly recognized as an artistic force, and with vocal, keyboard, and songwriting contributions, she helped to shape the unique, heavy sound in one of that era’s most important underground metal acts.

Gira and Jarboe closed shop on Swans over a decade ago, but Jarboe remains lightning-eyed and howling. Her sounds are best not described from any clinical standpoint, as one could get lost in a string of descriptive words that don’t necessarily do justice to the tactility of her work (Old Testament-informed post-industrial dirge, a cross between yodeling and church-worship chorusing, etc.).

Jarboe’s works are temporal, as heavily influenced by current experience as they are informed by her Swans days. As such, it’s better to swoop in from above with general ideas about what she’s doing in the present that continues to drive her towards the extreme ends of multimedia art and music.

Jarboe

The physical representation of her sound is a good place to start; Jarboe has a history of intense cover art and intimidating album names. Her 2004 release, Anhedoniac, featured edgy, limited-edition, Wal-Mart-repellent nudes taken by Richard Kern. The most accessible of these depicts her naked and devoid of pigment, holed up in a cell and clawing at the bars on a window. As she explains, “It’s what I’ve done as a performance artist that led to my work with audio experimentations, feedback, and multi-track delays. It cracked me open to hear sounds in a different way; it shifted things to where I didn’t need a traditional melody.”

Her second release of 2008, Mahakali (following J2, a collaboration with Broadrick), continues in this vein, although the concept contributes heavily to the depth of the album. The cover is an animation-enhanced photo of Jarboe posing in a particularly threatening portrayal of the Hindu goddess Mahakali. Though traditional portraits show the goddess with a lolling tongue, Jarboe assured me that every muscle in her head contributed to the considerable tongue length in that shot, quipping through her faded Southern drawl that “it definitely gives you a greater appreciation for the talents of Gene Simmons.”

Mahakali herself lends a weighty contextual element to the sound of the album. The goddess is associated with the dichotomies of annihilation and creation, time and change. For Jarboe, this is an apt symbol for the state of the planet — politically, environmentally, and otherwise. It’s alternately a tragic concession of what needs to happen to move forward and a condemnation of those events that got us here. The goddess is often depicted as having many faces — a concept that flows volcanically through Jarboe’s work and life.

She uses the term “flexible reality” to describe the different phases, faces, and personas of her post-Swans act as The Living Jarboe. Sonically, she seems to toe the line of every diagnosable personality disorder as she weaves easily digested harmonies, Swans-esque industrial churn, a string section, and most notably, an arc of rangy vocals into her unique vision of black metal (“rangy” is perhaps not the word here, but I defy you to tell me what that word is).

Jarboe

Like some Wiccan version of Tom Waits, she uses her voice as an instrument that can be bent across the full spectrum of sound and style. The opening track on Mahakali, “Mahakali, of Terrifying Countenance,” has a techno-erotic paganism that bares no resemblance to the smoky sound that opens “The House of Void.” Somewhere in that track, her voice cuts sharply through the fog, only to become indistinguishable from what could be either a squealing guitar or her own manic shriek.

This awareness of her multifaceted personae is a condition that might explain her propensity to collaborate. As a serial collaborator, her sound tends to ricochet as it bumps up against the experiences of other artists. On Mahakali, Jarboe has recruited an impressive roster of talent to help shape the different faces of the album.

In a manner completely opposite of the across-the-ocean, file-sharing collaboration with Broadrick, she brought into the studio members of Dysrhythmia, Neurosis, Antony and the Johnsons (not Antony), Unsane, Amber Asylum, former Swans drummer Vinny Signorelli, Attila Csihar of Mayhem, and most strikingly, Phil Anselmo of Pantera.

She had the idea to insert Anselmo into an environment that is seemingly caustic to his black-metal personae. It works. His vocals on “Overthrown” are the howling, emotional core of the album. Anselmo’s voice here is as raw as red meat, but a cello is layered underneath, and a soulful harmony surfaces from beneath his otherwise tough sound. Backed by some aggressive acoustic bullying, the track is a rugged, Southern-gothic roar.

For all her faces, Jarboe remains existentially rooted in those days spent pioneering with Swans. In fact, Child of Swans was the working title for this new album. “The Swans were my education,” she says. “It altered the way I hear sound permanently. My artistic base is grounded in Swans. It’s how I was refined; it’s how I adjusted; it’s how I developed. It was such a big part of my life. I could never turn my back on that.”

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The Metal Examiner: A Storm Of Light’s As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade

Every Friday, The Metal Examiner delves metal’s endless depths to present the genre’s most important and exciting albums.

A Storm of Light: As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories FadeA Storm Of Light: As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade (Profound Lore, 5/17/11)

A Storm Of Light: “Destroyer”

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Since its inception, Josh Graham’s A Storm Of Light has adopted a model that’s based squarely on collective evolution, be it in something as complex as its musical aspirations or something as simple as its personnel. With its fourth release, As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade, the group seemingly moves a little further from its loose “project” designation yet seemingly keeps the “band” label at arm’s length.

With its sound rooted firmly in no-frills rock, Valley’s style could best be described as “talk metal” or, barring that, “verbal doom.” Graham’s vocals tend to avoid conventional melody, or at least anything too advanced, instead coming off more as pitched declarations of ideology over the anvil attack of bassist Dominic Seita and newcomer drummer B.J. Graves. Though the obvious comparisons to contemporaries Neurosis or Unsane will make sense, Valley really borrows more heavily from mid-1990s hard rock — the half-spoken, hard-truth heaviness of Rollins Band, or the sludgy Sabbath nods of Soundgarden (fittingly, guitarist Kim Thayil pops in for a pair of guest spots: “Missing” and “Black Wolves”). The chugging “Collapse” evokes a less tom-reliant form of Tool, and the environmentalist-turned-existentialist “Destroyer” finally explains what a Queensrÿche / Alice in Chains / Rage Against the Machine collaboration might have sounded like.

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Record Review: Trap Them’s Darker Handcraft

Trap Them: Darker HandcraftTrap Them: Darker Handcraft (Prosthetic, 3/18/11)

Trap Them: “The Facts”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Trap-Them-The-Facts.mp3|titles=Trap Them: “The Facts”]

To appreciate Trap Them‘s new album, Darker Handcraft, it helps to start with the Filth Rations EP from 2010.  Trap Them has consistently charged its hardcore side into a collision with metal that refuses to get dragged down in grime.

The four songs on Filth Rations give as sure a sign as ever that the band’s craft and tightness can always match its sheer impatience. The third track, “Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds,” keeps up a gimpy, stumbling trudge as the drums gradually thud harder, and vocalist Ryan McKenney bellows himself up to a pitch that invokes scalding tears and unforgivable injuries. There’s a sense that Trap Them is in a desperate frenzy to repeatedly overload their songs, lest a single McKenney roar or screech of feedback from the guitar go unused. Even the cramped handwriting of the lyrics in the EP’s liner notes looks more like a dozen rows of snaggled teeth than a sequence of words.

In retrospect, it’s as if the band that made Filth Rations was gearing up to achieve a height of directness and focus. Darker Handcraft is a plenty accurate introduction to Trap Them; it once again captures a sonic force that’s both furiously commanding and remains bitterly hurt no matter how feverishly it tries to expiate its demons. This time, though, that force resolutely says, “Look, one fucking thing at a time.”

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Unsane kicks off Scattered, Smothered & Covered US Tour, plays entire album live

Influential alt-metal group Unsane has announced super-special summer US tour dates. The trio will perform its classic 1995 album Scattered, Smothered & Covered from start to finish. The tour started last night, August 5, at NYC’s Santos Party House.

The announcement of the special Unsane live shows coincides with the 25th anniversary of Amphetamine Reptile Records, once home to the band. Unsane will perform alongside the Melvins, Boss Hog, and more as one of the featured artists at the AmRep 25th Anniversary Bash, set to take place August 27 and 28 in Minneapolis, MN.

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Akimbo: Historical Sharks

“We got to carry the cake on stage,” boasts Akimbo drummer Nat Damm. The Seattle three-piece is making its way home through a mountainous stretch of highway after playing Jello Biafra’s fiftieth birthday party in San Francisco. Although a few generations younger than the punk legend, Akimbo has reached a milestone of its own: its tenth anniversary as a band.

In that time, the group has become known for its hybrid of hardcore, metal, and rock’n’roll, a heavy combination carrying the torch of luminaries such as the Jesus Lizard, Unsane, and the Melvins. After three albums, beginning with Harshing Your Mellow (Dopamine/Seventh Rule) in 2001, Akimbo signed to Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles and released Forging Steel and Laying Stone in January 2006 before immediately heading back into the studio. Armed with then-new guitarist Aaron Walters and recording engineer/Lords’ front man Chris Owens, Akimbo came out victorious with not one, but two, stellar full-lengths.

Damm calls the double recording session “an awesome moment for us,” but that’s putting it mildly. When Navigating the Bronze (Alternative Tentacles) was released in August 2007, it was arguably the group’s best and heaviest album to date. The second record (Akimbo’s sixth altogether), Jersey Shores, wouldn’t arrive until over a year later, via Neurot Records.

Jersey Shores is a concept record based of a real-life horror story. “The concept,” explains the band via its website, “is that ‘nature will fuck you up.’ The theme is ‘sharks, in particular, will totally fuck you up.’” The album is rooted in the events surrounding a series of unprovoked shark attacks that occurred along the New Jersey coastline in the summer of 1916. The shark (or sharks — no one knows for sure) claimed the lives of four people and severely maimed a fifth. In their time, the attacks caused unparalleled mass hysteria. Later on, they provided the inspiration for Jaws.

Akimbo bassist/singer Jon Weisnewski’s taste for mythological references and storytelling had long been apparent in the band’s catalog, evidenced by songs like Elephantine’s “Bitten from the Thigh of Zeus” and Navigating’s “Wizard van Wizard.” It is unsurprising that he had been toying with the idea of a concept album for a long time.

“When we were writing the music, I was naturally playing with thematic elements. It seemed like some good material to base a concept record around. I’ve always been like a little kid. You know how kids get into dinosaurs and shit? I was reading a book called Twelve Days of Terror by Richard Fernicola (the full title is Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks), and it kind of blew me away.”

Starting out with a few scenes and ideas, he recalls, “Once I really started writing Jersey Shores, I had it all in my head, and it was just a matter of figuring out the kinks.” Weisnewski centered the lyrics on what he considered to be the most profound moment in the story. During the third and final shark attack, a child named Lester Stillwell was attacked and killed, along with his would-be rescuer. Another boy was bitten upstream just minutes later. When word got out, all hell broke loose.

Music based on shark attacks must be inherently dramatic, but much of the tension found on Jersey Shores derives from the intense reaction of the public, heightened by a media circus in the wake of the attacks. Weisnewski points out, “You have to keep in mind that there was nothing about marine biology. Nobody knew about ocean creatures. You know that scene in Jaws when they go out searching for the shark? The same thing happened there. They were dynamiting the water. I found these crazy photos of carcasses upon carcasses of sharks. It was also during World War I, and people wondered if the sharks were some sort of secret weapon from the Germans.”

In six tracks, clocking in at forty-eight minutes, Akimbo paints descriptive images despite Weisnewski’s occasionally indecipherable (but awesome) screams. It is easy to follow the story as guitar and bass riffs ebb and flow like ocean tides, and scenes seamlessly run from one to the next. “Matawan,” named for the small, working town where Stillwell was killed, sets the story in motion. All is calm, but a sense of uneasiness becomes more and more pervasive. Stories of the first two victims circulate (“Bruder Vansant”). Tension has already mounted by the time the town suffers its own casualties and people begin to take matters into their own hands.

The plodding bass line on “Rogue” is reminiscent of a heartbeat ringing in the ears of someone who is scared out of his or her mind. Twelve-minute instrumental closer “Jersey Shores” revisits earlier themes and sees a return to daily life, but following the attacks’ bloody aftermath, the sound of rolling waves hardly feels tranquil.

The story of the New Jersey shark attacks may be nearly one hundred years old, but the sensationalistic media coverage and resultant public outcry surrounding such a tragic event sounds eerily familiar. Damm says that the album isn’t a comment on anything happening in the current world, but he admits, “There are definitely parallels, like with color coding for terrorism levels. But we don’t really mix politics with the band. It’s not something that has interested us.”

Even more impressive than successfully conquering a hardcore concept album is the fact that Akimbo somehow managed to not play it for anyone outside its circle in the last year. If you’ve ever killed a man in cold blood and need to get the guilt off your chest, tell these guys; they obviously know how to keep a secret. The band will finally debut Jersey Shores live in its entirety this September, and its members can’t wait. Weisnewski says that he is particularly proud of the album. “For me personally, it’s a really exciting record,” he says. “I have a lot of attachment to it. Every time I play it at practice, it’s an experience. I’m excited.”

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