Jeff’s Favorite Non-Metal Albums of 2018!

It’s my birthday! I thought I’d give my faithful readers a gift — the gift of obscure music, of course. I don’t only listen to metal, synthwave, and random things on Bandcamp (although, admittedly, that makes up the bulk of my listening). Seeing as I’ve somehow wound up on mailing lists for albums that don’t fall into those two categories, I thought I’d put together a list of things I loved this year that fit outside the narrow confines of what people will pay me to write about.

Bixiga 70 – Quebra Cabeça

Apparently, this year I joined the ranks of music critics who get way into afrobeat. I’m not sure I’m quite at Christgau levels yet, but Bixiga 70’s brassy Afro-Brazilian melange could convince even the most devout skeptic to get up and shake their booty to this vibrant jigsaw puzzle.

Brandon Coleman – Resistance

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t listen to a lot of modern soul/R&B, but someone wants to create an unabashed tribute to late 70s-early 80s electro-funk as popularized by Zapp & Roger and Stevie Wonder? And that person is a frequent collaborator of Kamasi Washington? I am so in.

Randall Dunn – Beloved

It’s possible that a producer who manned the boards for Sunn O))), Tim Hecker, and Six Organs of Admittance wouldn’t make his debut solo release a collection of ambient and avant-garde soundscapes — but also incredibly unlikely. At different times recalling Brian Reitzell’s disturbing score to Hannibal, Peter Murphy-like space-goth, and Tangerine Dream, it’ll hit the spot (as long as the spot is in the middle of a lightless void).

Fotocrime – Principle of Pain

I loved the last couple Coliseum records, when they ditched the (admittedly well-done) hardcore and went for post-punk grandeur. Clearly, that stylistic change caused some musical disagreements, so the band broke up and frontman Ryan Patterson formed his own darkwave group. His first full-length leaves me with no complaints.

Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples

If you’re at all a fan of psych rock and haven’t listened to Kikagaku Moyo, start here. The Japanese collective has toured with Earthless and Mono, but their music is more delicate than the heavy blues of Earthless and more dynamic than Mono. It’s a careful blend of psychedelia from the 60s to today, and it’s a real treat.

Miracle – The Strife of Love in a Dream

I’m a sucker for anything by the guys from Zombi, and Steve Moore’s darkened synthpop outfit is certainly no exception. “Parsifal Gate” is an indelible opener, with its Blade Runner-inspired synths and oppressive darkness. The group’s lushly-rendered take on 80s Depeche Mode-style microgoth makes me want to put on my Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and tune in, turn off, and burn out.

Tess Parks & Anton Newcombe – S/T

A Canadian chanteuse and the main perpetrator of the Brian Jonestown Massacre team up to create this ethereal, hazed-out portrait of foggy mornings spent on the beach, isolated rays of sunshine breaking through the gray clouds. It’s a lovely shore to spend your time.

Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

Music for a darkened room, Emma Ruth Rundle’s gothic alt rock appeals to metalheads without actually being metal at all. This is chamber pop, sure, but it’s also pop loaded into a chamber and aimed directly at your heart.

ST37 – ST37

The 300th or so release from these Texas space rock weirdos sprawls across two hours of insanity, and it covers a lot of ground. Basically a bunch of guys who grew up with punk rock deciding that Hawkwind was a little too grounded for them, this is as good a place to start with their discography. At the very least, it’s never boring!

Tusmørke – Fjernsyn i farver

You never know quite what to expect from this Norwegian coven, and their sixth full-length in as many years continues to cast illusory cantrips. It’s still based in their infectious folk-prog style, but this time there’s heavy organ and electronic augmentation that take their rituals into the forgotten future.

Gary War – Gaz Forth

I’m not familiar with Gary War’s earlier work, but I understand he’s been involved with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, so I’m guessing it’s on the stranger side. While this synth-y, psych-y little gem certainly has its idiosyncrasies, the Beatles-esque melodies help keep things more rounded. I’m against most wars, but I’m definitely pro-Gary War.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Dirt

This might be cheating, since there are metal elements, but the brilliance of YT//ST comes from their dismissal of genres altogether. This anime-inspired concept record defies easy description. Prog, maybe? They blend so many different styles together into a twisted chimera that should turn out like Tetsuo at the end of Akira, but somehow it holds together and doesn’t explode into fleshy chunks.

Bandcamp Crate Excavations 2018

Hey everyone! Sorry for the radio silence the past month or so — I got married on December 9, so that occupied a lot of my time. That’s over now, though. Everything went wonderfully and I slept for the past two days, so time to get back at it!

I haven’t been entirely absent from the internet. If you’re interested in learning what my favorite metal-ish albums of the year were, check out my list over at MetalSucks. I may do a few of these EOY-type things before the end of the year, but seeing as Bandcamp has their top list going, I thought I’d write a little about some of my favorite BC discoveries from this year that I haven’t covered elsewhere (sorry, Carpenter Brut!). In no real order:

Dallas Campbell – The Seven Sisters and the Serpent

I’m obviously familiar with Mr. Campbell from his work with Ogre and his own previous ambient journeys, but TSSS takes things to the next level. An all-enveloping homage to classic electronic music, it sucks you into its distant world and keeps you there as its neon glitz washes over you. His mastery of different forms (there are dub excursions, beat-heavy synth pop, and Berlin School experimentation, among others) puts him at the top of the analog synthesizer pack.

Galácteos – Galácteos

As of this writing, I’m the only one to own this album, and it’s a goddamn travesty. If you love upbeat, disco-influenced electropop with heavy Krautrock influences, this is your jam. If you didn’t understand a word in the last sentence, it’s still your jam. Fans of Justice, Rockets, and Devo shouldn’t overlook this infectious Argentinian delight.

Scavenger – Battlefields

I love me some mutant metal, and these 30 minutes are some of the finest throwback Viking raids you’ll hear all year. The rough production, the giant riffs, the buff barbarian dude and metal bikini lady on the cover — these Belgians are going for a very specific aesthetic, and it’s rad. Sure, there’ve been hundreds of these bands, but Scavenger have it where it counts — the songs.

Marijannah – Til Marijannah

Turns out the fine folks in Wormrot can do doom as well as they can do grindcore. Marijannah is a real treat for the ears, a fuzz-soaked, slow-paced march beyond the walls of sleep. The Singaporeans know how to construct a mesmeric jam, the stoner metal rumble scratching that itch between your chakras that you can never quite reach.

Deep Space Destructors – Visions from the Void

Speaking of sweet spots, it shouldn’t be much surprise that I’d love a Finnish act that takes the very best aspects of Hawkwind and Maserati and creates a hypnotic space rock masterpiece. There’s even sax! Visions from the Void took me by total surprise, but allow me to forewarn you: this’ll launch you as high as Sputnik.

Rough Spells – Modern Kicks for the Solitary Witch

Screw the bigots – if it made all occult rock sound as good as this, every band should have trans members. Modern Kicks has a kind of Rush-meets-Maiden-meets-Blood Ceremony thing going, and it kicks serious ass. They have the looks that kill and riffs that’ll bury your corpse six feet deep.

Holy Fawn – Death Spells

Post-rock usually bores the Slint out of me, but this black-clad quartet incorporates shoegaze, black metal, and indie touches into a cohesive statement. The way they nimbly balance the pretty and the ugly reminds me of Deafheaven and Astronoid, but in their own unique way. While a lot of the albums on this list admittedly look to the past for inspiration, Holy Fawn show how to take those influences and point them towards the future.

Gloom Influx – Voyageur

Gloom Influx reached out to me over Facebook, which is usually a quick trip to the trash pile, but it’s hard to ignore something this fun. In a year that saw a lot of metal-influenced synthwave, this stood out. With nods to Ministry, Megadeth, and Justice, this one-man Canadian wrecking crew combines his love of loud guitars and overdriven samplers into one headbanging package.

Trevor Something – Ultraparanoia

A trippy electronic journey through one man’s mental struggles, Trevor Something’s latest full-length is a culmination of the different styles he’s played with over his career. Mixing in breakbeats, ambient, synthpop, futuristic R&B, and weird interstitials, it’s a unique, cathartic work from an artist unwilling to stay nailed to one genre. It’s certainly better than electroshock therapy.

Sergeant Thunderhoof – Terra Solus

The band is called Sergeant Thunderhoof, so you can probably guess this ain’t gonna be twee. They don’t have deserts in England (as far as I know), but if they did, the Sarge would dwell there, surrounded by their nomadic caravan of amplifier worshippers and hash dealers. Make sure to stop at this oasis.

Chapel of Disease – .​.​.​And As We Have Seen The Storm, We Have Embraced The Eye

Don’t let the Billy Corgan-level album titling put you off. While this may be tagged under “death metal,”  it spins the genre on its ear by refusing to conform to the more boring parts of its dogma. It feels… freeing. There’s the usual shredding and shrieking, but also also crazy fusion-y riffs, virtuoso blues solos, and, most importantly, tunes that don’t get buried under a barrage of BWARRGH. It’s a plague worth catching.


It’s Thanksgiving, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about things I’m grateful for this year. I know it would be super easy to post something cynical like “4000 puppies were kicked to death this year. Happy Thanksgiving.” I’m going to try the path that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole.

First and foremost, I’m thankful for my soon-to-be-wife, Gilliane. She helps center me, and her love and support (and teasing) keeps me going. I’m not sure where I would be without her, and I don’t want to know. I’m incredibly grateful to be marrying her in less than three weeks’ time.

I’m also thankful for my parents. They’ve been very supportive of my terrible life choices, and I appreciate it — even if I don’t say it enough.

My friends are all wonderful people, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by a group of generous, funny, fun folks. The relationships you forge in life are incredibly important, and I’ve been very fortunate to have made some great connections.

I’m grateful to Man of Action for giving me the opportunity to achieve one of my childhood dreams and write kid’s shows for them, and especially to Steve Seagle for his continued mentorship (and for officiating my wedding).

I’m grateful to Bandcamp for both paying me and providing me with loads of great music. I’m thankful that Decibel and MetalSucks keep allowing me to post dumb stuff in/on their pages. I’m grateful to all the synthwave, psych rock, and metal acts that have brought me so much joy.

I know how lucky I am to have a wonderful house, and how lucky I am that it didn’t burn down in the horrible wildfires — and that many others weren’t as fortunate.

I’m thankful the Democrats have taken back the House so maybe the next two years will be filled with fewer anxiety attacks.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Hopefully I’ll have even more this time next year.

ALBUM REVIEW: Smashing Pumpkins “Shiny and Oh So Bright etc. etc.”


I somehow wound up with a promo of the new Smashing Pumpkins album in my inbox (I guess he’s releasing it through a label mostly known for second-tier power metal, oh how the mighty-ish have fallen), so screw it, since the world is a vampire sent to drain anyway, here are my thoughts. I have a complicated relationship with Billy Corgan — actually, that’s a lie. I don’t. My buddy E has a complicated relationship with Billy Corgan, so I know a lot more about the Bald One than I really had desire to. I like the band okay. Siamese Dream is a great album, and they have some phenomenal singles — “Zero,” “The Everlasting Gaze,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” belong up with Alice In Chains’ best in the grunge/metal crossover category, and “Disarm” hits the same emotional peaks and valleys as the best showtunes. Their videos from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (god, I can’t even write their album titles without my eyes rolling back into my head) certainly left scars on my developing brain back when MTV used to show music videos.

Since then, of course, William C. has made it his mission in life to self-immolate in public. Between feuds with his bandmates, ill-advised synthpop and acoustic solo albums, buying a wrestling promotion, going full InfoWars, and reuniting with said former bandmates in a desperate grasp for relevance, he hasn’t done as good a job of maintaining his reputation as, say, Academy Award winner Trent Reznor. I saw him live on the Oceania tour and remember basically nothing. So, what’s Billy up to in the year 2018 besides failing to sell out stadiums on his reunion tour?

SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT, VOL. 1 / LP: NO PAST. NO FUTURE. NO SUN. (fuck you, Billy) follows what I’m told is Bilbo’s post-reformation M.O.: terrible singles and pretty decent album cuts. This time he has two of his original co-conspirators (Jameses Iha and Chamberlain) backing up his terrible life choices, so there are expectations. The good news: it’s an improvement! E made me check out his previous effort, Monuments to an Elegy, and at least the shitty songs on this one are actively shitty. Monuments somehow squeezes an eternity into its 33 minutes. It’s the sound of an artist giving up and just trying to make his listeners feel as miserable as he does. The guy’s an incredible songwriter, but as E points out, he constantly ruins his delicate little baby birds by strangling them to death with terrible production choices. This time around, the decision to hire Rick Rubin as producer and the return of musicians who actually challenge Corgan do make him feel more vibrant and alive than he has in years — even if he doesn’t look it in the press photos.

TSP_Foto_Photo Credit Linda Strawberry.jpg
Photo credit: Linda Strawberry

The bad news: that angel on the cover is doing a facepalm for a reason. Corgan is like a villain in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, constantly stepping on the same rakes and smacking himself in the face. The three singles aren’t great representations of the album as a whole. “Knights of Malta” has a nice soul choir and real strings, but boy does he not sell riding a rainbow as well as Ronnie James Dio. It’s a bizarre choice for an opener — it’s super cheerful and of a totally different tone than everything else here. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” is a pleasant little throwaway, but he can’t quite pull off the chorus. “Solara” is pretty embarrassing, a clear attempt to ape his Mellon Collie glory days (not helped by the self-referential video). It just feels cynical and inauthentic to where he is as an artist.

On the other hand, “Travel” is a lovely little singalong, intimate and in Corgan’s comfort zone. If you watch videos of some of the acoustic performances of the Monuments songs, he looks so happy just playing the simplified, heartfelt versions of the tunes. This comes closest to capturing that vibe. Whatever Rubin’s contributions to the production, they make a huge difference, canning the shitty synths from the album’s predecessor and replacing them with organic instruments that complement the band’s music much better. “Alienation” works because of that — even though there’s a more robust wall of sound, it retains that intimacy. “Marchin’ On” is the best rocker on the record, with an almost Queens of the Stone Age vibe, despite the somewhat perplexing lyrical refrain of “She kills the empty clock.” Iha’s inimitable guitar tone feels very welcome here. Although “With Sympathy” is named after the best Ministry record, it’s a sunny little number, pleasant and enjoyable. “Seek and You Shall Destroy” is Corgo’s attempt at writing pop-punk, and it turns out he’s pretty good at that as well. It does make for an abrupt ending to an already-short record, though.

So, Smashing Pumpkins in 2018? Not as bad as you’d expect. A lot of the same issues as previous releases, but overall more good than bad. If only he’d take the advice of his album title and stop chasing long-gone glory days…

Shiny and Oh So Long A Title will be available Nov. 16 from Martha’s Music/Napalm. You can preorder it here.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) Part 3-D

It’s Halloween, indisputably the best day of the year! I’ve been posting all month about my love of horror movies, and since I cranked out a thousand-word appreciation on the new Halloween for the Deciblog yesterday, I figured I’d take it easy, eat some candy, and spam you guys with some of the articles I’ve done about Samhain and its attendant festivities.

First off, the aforementioned review of the new Halloween movie (spoiler: I liked it a lot). That’s actually my second movie review for the site this month — it turns out that I enjoy writing about the field I was trained in. Earlier in October, I posted my thoughts on Lords of Chaos. Not technically a horror film but with a lot of horror iconography (and horrific things happening), it’s a look at Norway’s infamous Black Circle in a way that’s friendly for folks not involved in the metal scene.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for some suggestions for background music while throwing candy at trick-or-treaters, I got you covered. Here’s a list I did for Bandcamp of scary synth records. My similarly-themed list of imaginary soundtracks isn’t entirely horror, but there’s a fair deal of spook show sounds. And, if you feel like playing an appropriately-themed game, you have a few choices: the brutal role-playing game Xas Irkalla or the fun monster fighting card game Exceed: Seventh Cross.

I know that every day is Halloween, but today is actually Halloween, so have fun, be safe, and don’t get diabetes!

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (Part 2: The Revenge)

Last week I went over some of my obvious favorite horror flicks. This week, I thought I’d share some of my favorites that don’t get as much love. It’s honestly hard for me to tell what’s obscure anymore –between years of immersing myself in garbage, the good folks at Scream Factory and Arrow digging up esoteric corpses left and right, and the Internet’s love of critical reappraisal, any of these are ripe for rediscovery at any time. Still, probably some of you aren’t as deep into the weird world of horror as I am, so hopefully this’ll be useful for you.  Here are some ideas for your Halloween viewing pleasure.

PHANTASM II (1988, dir. Don Coscarelli)

How many times have you watched a horror sequel and thought that the best part was the last act, when the feckless protagonists FINALLY decide to hunt down their particular Boogeyman and fuck him up? Well, Phantasm II is an entire movie of that. The survivors of the first film decide to hunt down the Tall Man (played by the great Angus Scrimm) and shove a four-barreled shotgun up his ass. Part road trip movie, part revenge flick, part surrealist nightmare, this is everything you didn’t know you wanted from a fear franchise in one gore-soaked package.

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968, dir. Terence Fisher)

THE great overlooked masterpiece to come out of England’s Hammer House of Horror, The Devil Rides Out was adapted from a novel by conservative reactionary Dennis Wheatley by the brilliant Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Legend of Hell House) and features Christopher Lee as an actual good guy. It’s one of the few Satanic panic films that actually succeeds in making the devil feel like a threat. It’s still Hammer, so there’s a lot of British people talking in parlors, but how many films put you on the edge of your seat for an extended sequence of four people lying inside a chalk circle?

DEMONS (1985, dir. Lamberto Bava)

When you think of Italian horror, you think of Argento or Fulci or (Mario) Bava. And while those directors made some great flicks (ok, maybe not Fulci), they were never quite as insane as promised. Demons, on the other hand, is completely batshit nuts from the word go. Produced by Dario Argento, directed by Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son), and with a script by hackmeister ‎Dardano Sacchetti, this is the rare effort from a supergroup that doesn’t suck. The plot doesn’t make any sense, there’s no main character, and the scenarists didn’t really worry about a consistently logical world. That said, the scene where a guy rides through the movie theater on a dirt bike chopping up demons with a samurai sword to Accept’s “Fast as a Shark” may be the most metal thing ever put to film.

THE ORPHANAGE (2007, dir. J.A. Bayona)

This Spanish-language film wasn’t directed by Guillermo del Toro (although it was produced by him), so not many people paid attention to it at the time. I’ve only seen it once, around when it first came out, but I still remember the emotional devastation it wrought on me — that’s how effective it was in telling the story of a mother’s desperation and grief. It has all the requisite scares, sure. Those aren’t what stay with you.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964. dir. Roger Corman)

I know what you’re thinking (because I’m psychic) but an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation directed by Roger Corman himself doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good time. Add in some amazing production design and a virtuoso performance from Vincent Price, however, and you have a delicious technicolor delight (and I think I lost the metaphor somewhere in one of the labyrinthine rooms of the costume ball).

STAGEFRIGHT AQUARIUS (1987, dir. Michele Soavi)

I love Italian horror movies, if you couldn’t tell — I don’t have to turn off my screenwriter brain when I’m watching them because most don’t make any goddamn sense to begin with. I can just sit back and enjoy the madness and surreal visuals. Stagefright Aquarius has about a million names, but it’s the only slasher movie I can think of where the killer wears an owl head. This is pure style, but who cares when it’s this stylish?

PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987, dir. John Carpenter)

Yeah, okay, it’s a John Carpenter movie, how obscure can it be? People do tend to forget about this one — mostly because it’s really damn weird. How many other movies combine quantum physics with demonology, or have an incarnation of Satan that’s glowing green goo in a can? It uses the Assault on Precinct 13 “trapped in a building” model to great effect as scientists and priests combine forces to prevent Armageddon. Costarring Alice Cooper as a homeless person/zombie!

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991, dir. Wes Craven)

Another one from a well-known director that tends to get overlooked, this early 90’s shocker from Wes Craven has a really weird structure. Basically, it’s an extremely fucked up, violent, horrifying kid’s film. The man character is a kid, the bad guys are cartoonish, the whole thing feels like a really dark fairy tale — and that’s what makes it so effective. Craven hides its extremely sharp social commentary in this outlandish scenario so that at the end, when our hero stands in the middle of a room filled with gold and money hoarded away by the crazy white landlords for generation and says “No wonder there’s no money in the ghetto,” you realize it’s been our world all along.

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (Part 1)

I love horror movies. I know, that’s pretty obvious. But they’re a blast — the good ones, the bad ones (especially the bad ones). I don’t even find a lot of them scary, although it’s always nice when one sets up a gripping atmosphere or makes you think. I just love the iconography, the world where cool creepy things lurk around every corner and logic can’t save you. A lot of that probably dates back to my late friend Aaron, who introduced me to the World of Darkness roleplaying games, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his dad’s extensive laserdisc collection (lol 90s). I had been terrified of horror movies as a child, wouldn’t watch them, wouldn’t even like to look at the posters. But then I saw Scream at his house, and for some reason everything clicked. Maybe it was because I was finally old enough, maybe it’s because that film broke down the mechanics of the genre while still being a fine example of the style itself. I then went home and watched Wes Craven’s New Nightmare on TNT’s MonsterVision with the great critic/host Joe Bob Briggs. I was hooked. It’s funny that I discovered the meta stuff first and worked my way back, but there you have it. Thanks Wes!

I have preferences, of course. I don’t find exorcism movies (with the obvious exception) very engaging — probably because they always try to pass themselves off as true stories but if you’re Jewish like me it’s pretty hard to buy into the theology. Greasy grimy post-J-horror American flicks like Insidious and such don’t do anything for me. And torture porn can go torture someone else. I tend to lean towards the 70s/80s/early 90s stuff. 50s and 60s flicks are mostly really slow and boring, more recent ones too slick.

Anyway, the impetus behind this article was my buddy Sean Aitchison of the Influenca podcast asking me to name my three favorite horror subgenres and my three favorite movies in those genres. I’m not gonna do that, but I am going to list my favorite horror films (most of which are pretty obvious and have had plenty of ink spilled about them already) and then next week give you guys a rundown of some great flicks that you might not have seen. So here we go!

JEFF’S FAVORITE HORROR FLICKS (In no particular order)

  • THE THING (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
  • SUSPIRIA (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
  • THE HAUNTING (1963, dir. Robert Wise)
  • EVIL DEAD 2 (1987, dir. Sam Raimi)
  • THE SHINING (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
  • HELLRAISER (1987, dir. Clive Barker)
  • A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS (1987, dir. Chuck Russell)
  • PHANTASM II (1988, dir. Don Coscarelli)
  • THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
  • THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935, dir. James Whale)

Like I said, obvious (great is great). Tune in next time for some of my favorite obscurities.

Synthwave Starter Kit

I went to see the Protomen last night, who did a fine job of performing their Mega Man fan fiction for an eager crowd of nostalgia junkies. Makeup + Vanity Set opened, and one of the friends I went with — who was there for the Protomen — asked me about synthwave and how to tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff. I decided to write up a quick primer of where to start with the genre, some of the best albums and artists. I’m not gonna focus much on the bad stuff. You know it when you hear it: chintzy production, generic songs, a sense of having heard it all before. So, avoid that. This isn’t intended to be comprehensive at all, but here are some of my personal favorites to help you know where to start:

I’ve said this many times before, but Perturbator is the apex of the genre, and Uncanny Valley his most fully realized venture into the darksynth genre. Layers upon layers of instrumentation bring his dystopian future into pulsing reality. It’s hard not to get lost in his world.

Gost took a turn into blackened industrial with his most recent release, but Non Paradisi is his most hard-hitting synthwave entry. A terrifying descent into the hell of one man’s making, it’s Satanic synths at their finest.

Carpenter Brut appear poised to become the breakout stars of the scene (unless you count S U R V I V E, who I find interminably boring). This live release perfectly illustrates why. High-energy interpretations of tunes from their three EPs could get a corpse onto the dance floor.

Makeup + Vanity Set is the work of one man, but he’s incredibly prolific — and he doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Wilderness is his finest full-length to date, an ambitious set of soundscapes that envelop the listener in their darkness.

One of the more nostalgia-centered acts in a genre based around nostalgia, The Midnight do a fantastic job of transporting the listener to a very specific time and place. The vocals help provide an easy way in for pop fans, but it helps that they’re over lovely tunes.

The Turbo Kid film was an ultraviolent ode to post-apocalyptic BMX flicks of the 80s. The soundtrack, by Le Matos, functions as both an album from the French Canadian duo and a score to the movie. “No Tomorrow feat. Pawws” is a shimmering delight, one of the finest songs to come out of the whole scene.

Two of the finest artists in the synth scene, OGRE and Dallas Campbell, combined forces to create this imaginary horror movie soundtrack. These Carpenter-esque compositions sound so sinister they’ll creep you out even during broad daylight.

Delightful shredwave from Irish producer Bart Graft, Universe makes for a perfect summertime listen. The guitar pyrotechnics and chill synth backing tracks interweave beautifully.

Let me know if you have any favorites you think would be good entry points to the genre!

All Apologies

Hitting pause on the “favorite bands” thing for this week. I’ve had a lot on my mind with everything going on with the presumptive next Supreme Court justice, specifically the idea of atonement. Yom Kippur just passed, an important holiday for the Jewish faith, in which you fast for a day and reflect upon your mistakes the past year. You also approach people you feel you’ve wronged and apologize to them — the idea being that it’s not enough to ask forgiveness from God. He’ll forgive you, but you also need to ask forgiveness from the community. Show you genuinely feel bad and want to do better.

One of the arguments supporting the “Honorable” Judge Kavanaugh is that, even if he did sexually assault a woman when he was 17, that was 36 years ago and we should let it be water under the bridge. There’s one situation where that would be acceptable: if he had admitted his mistake, expressed regret, and tried to do better. That clearly didn’t happen. The same goes for all these #metoo guys trying to mount a comeback. Contrition is the first step towards forgiveness. Time isn’t enough.

Which got me thinking: I’ve made mistakes in my past, and I realize the error of my ways and have been trying to do better. But have I ever actually expressed remorse for them outside the echoing cavern of my own skull? I don’t think I have. So here goes.

Caveat: I have never done anything nearly as remotely awful as sexual harassment or assault. It never even occurred to me. I’m sure I’ve been awkward in social situations, and I’ve definitely been an asshole to people (men and women alike), but my conscience is clear on that front. I have said a lot of stupid shit, though, and words can harm.

First off — and something that’s stuck with me for a while — over a decade ago, in the context of a discussion about shoebox-sized apartments being built in downtown LA, I made a dumb joke on a public message board under my own name about apartments in Japan being small because Japanese people are small. I intended it ironically, but it didn’t land at all, and when I was called out on it, I doubled down because I was young and stupid. Which isn’t an excuse — I still should’ve known better. I’ve regretted it ever since, but I don’t think I’ve ever publicly apologized. So I’m sorry. It was ill-advised and I’ve learned that that particular kind of humor isn’t an appropriate part of any kind of discourse. I was wrong.

I once defended a Nazi band called Nocturnal Fear in the pages of Decibel because I didn’t properly do my research. Fuck those guys and their music. I was wrong.

I’ve been guilty of sexist language in a fair amount of my music writing. Specifically, I referred to Dark Castle/Taurus singer/guitarist Stevie Floyd as a “sweetheart” in several pieces on her bands. I’d met her at Scion Rock Fest, and she was really cool to me, but that’s a shitty thing to describe a kick-ass musician as — I would probably not have described a dude that way. I’m sure there were other instances, especially early on in my career, but that’s the one that stuck with me. So I’m sorry, Stevie (and any other female musician I referred to in a similar manner). I was wrong.

The other elephant in the room, for me, is my long-running Decibel column, Girly, Black, and Pretty, which covers symphonic/gothic metal bands with woman singers (a problematic genre to begin with, certainly). The title was a play on J. Bennett’s old column, Grim, Black, and Ugly, but since that hasn’t appeared in eons, it no longer has that context, so the title of my column just seems ugly. If I do more pieces of that sort, I’ll definitely find a new title. Upon review of the columns themselves, I actually do treat the music even-handedly, so I don’t feel bad about that. I DO feel bad about using the term “girly metal” forever. I thought it was funny. It was not. It was insulting. I switched to “corset metal” since the singers (and a lot of the backing musicians) usually wear frilly clothing. That’s probably also a shitty term, and I’m creative enough to find something better. I still love the genre, and I’d like to find a way to continue covering it, but my approach in the past has used gross terminology, and I’m sorry. I was wrong.

Same goes for any script in which I referred immediately to a woman character’s looks. Same goes for my frequent use of the term “female-fronted.” Same goes for anything I’ve said or written that comes across as racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. I’ll try to do better in the future. I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

Playing Favorites (Part 2)

Last week, I promised a look at some of my current faves. Well, as John Matrix (portrayed memorably by Arnold Schwarzenegger) quips before dropping Sully (played by David Patrick Kelly from The Warriors) off a cliff in the classic film Commando (1985, dir. Mark L. Lester), I lied. I’ve decided to go back and take a look at some of the formative favorites I mentioned last week. They’re key to understanding my history with music and why I love what I do, so I felt that they were worth revisiting. Without further ado:

The first CD I bought was Metallica’s self-titled 1991 release, known colloquially as The Black Album. I remember going on a trip to Greece and Italy with my parents, and on that trip was a family from Mexico City with a few boys around my age (I wonder what happened to them; I lost touch with them almost immediately, even though we were great friends for those few weeks). They had a CD player, and among the discs they had with them were Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and, yes, the Black Album. The cover of Appetite was too scary for me, so I never listened to it, but what’s scary about a black background with a flag snake on it? I purchased it when I got home, and I listened to that thing over and over and over again. I won’t make excuses for young me; even though I didn’t love every song on the album, it certainly captured my imagination with their ability to combine heaviness, darkness, and crazy hooks. I then had a slight detour into attempting to impress my middle school classmates by listening to Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band, but Metallica always stayed in the rotation. It was an on-and-off relationship — I distinctly remember being really confused and disappointed the first time I saw the video for “Until It Sleeps.” Once I got older and more clued in by my high school buddy Ted, I grabbed Ride the Lightning (still my favorite of the studio records) and Master of Puppets, both of which I dug — but I had a special place in my heart for the Black Album, and I always will. There’s something about the sheer grandeur and mythology of Metallica that will always stick with me, no matter how much they embarrass themselves with ill-advised Lou Reed collaborations or therapy-based documentaries.

I floundered for a while through middle school and early high school, listening to radio rock bullshit and whatever played on MTV. None of it really satisfied me. That all changed the first time I heard AC/DC’s Back In Black. I’d heard “You Shook Me All Night Long” ambiently, of course, but never in album context. When one of my classmates posted a sale ad on the school’s intranet for a copy of Back In Black he’d received through Columbia House and didn’t want (dumbass), I decided to buy it from him and check it out. I distinctly recall the first time I listened to it, because it was in my dean’s office as I waited there to find out the fallout from some dumb act of teenage rebellion I’d committed. She had a CD player, so I popped in my newly-purchased disc, plugged in headphones, and hit play. It was one of those before/after moments — as soon as the titular bells started tolling at the beginning of “Hells Bells,” shivers went down my spine. I was hooked. AC/DC were the first concert I ever saw (on the Stiff Upper Lip tour, with Slash’s Snakepit opening) at the First Union Spectrum on May 5, 2001 with my friend Ben Carlin. That show, incidentally, is also the reason I always wear earplugs at shows — I couldn’t hear for two days after. I listened to their catalog extensively, and even now I’ll revisit some of the Bon Scott-era stuff (the Tropical Prison live bootleg a particular favorite). No matter how overplayed they may get, I’ll always rock out to their three chords.

Eventually I got over my fear of the Appetite for Destruction cover, and once I did, I fell in love with Guns ‘N’ Roses. Scratch that — I was obsessed. This was during the period when they were basically inactive — outside of the bizarre industrial track “Oh My God” on the End of Days soundtrack, and you can bet I had that. I would scour the fan sites frequently for any news of Chinese Democracy‘s imminent release (thankfully, that album proved to be the world-changing masterpiece everyone hoped for when it eventually came out years later). Keep in mind that I had no idea what any of their songs were actually about — I took them at face value. When I went back and listened to the Appetite reissue this year, I realized just how obvious all the drug and sex imagery was, but back then I had no idea. Anyway, their urgent intensity feels utterly genuine and gripping, a band on the edge. There’s a reason it’s a classic. I also listened to the Use Your Illusion discs a lot; I preferred part 2, but upon revisiting those I realized just how many filler tracks I would skip over during the 40-50 minute ride to school. It’s much tighter when you jump over the bullshit! At the height of my obsession with the group, at a summer gifted program, I even performed as Axl Rose in a lip-sync of “Paradise City” at a talent show/performance thing. I finally got to see them in Vegas a couple years ago at the first “reunion” arena show, and while Axl’s voice died about halfway through, it still capped off a lifelong love affair.

The Osbournes put a bullet in my love of Ozzy Osbourne once and for all, portraying him as a doddering old fool (and thus shattering the careful mystique around him I’d built up in my head), but in high school I listened to a lot of Ozzy. A lot. Blizzard of Ozz was the first CD of his I got, and the combination of creepy atmosphere, Randy Rhoads’ inimitable neoclassical guitar work, and Ozzy’s enthusiasm won me over immediately. I absorbed all his albums (No More Tears a particular favorite of mine), went to Ozzfest to see him with Black Sabbath in 2001 (probably the July 21 show in Camden, New Jersey; boy, was that a garbage bill), even quoted him in my page in my high school yearbook (I went to a private school, there were maybe 60 people in my class). He was key to my high school rebellion. It took me longer to come around to Black Sabbath themselves; my first exposure was the original CD pressing of We Sold Our Soul For Rock N’ Roll, which did not quite capture their majesty… at all. It wasn’t until I obtained the reissues of their albums that I grew to love them. Unfortunately, between the aforementioned reality show and some really crap performances from him at later Ozzfests and the Sunset Strip Music Festival, his star fell irrevocably for me. Still great songs, though.

Dio maybe doesn’t belong in this category — I still listen to him pretty frequently, whether with Rainbow, Sabbath, or his solo work. I remember trading a copy of the Bloodhound Gang’s One Fierce Beer Coaster to my friend Ted for his copy of The Last In Line (still my favorite of his solo records). I mean, how could you not be fascinated by that ominous image of the translucent jackal hovering ominously over futuristic space Egypt? Since this was around the time of nu-metal, I had a mental picture of Ronnie James as this big, buff bald dude, which turned out to be somewhat inaccurate. I saw him live multiple times, even getting to meet him at a meet-and-greet when he played the Greek Theater with Deep Purple and The Scorpions (I missed most of Deep Purple, but whatever). He was genuinely a sweet dude — gave me a hug, signed a bunch of stuff for my college radio station. That just made me love his vivid imagery and passionate delivery even more. There will never be another like him. I wrote his obituary for Decibel when he passed, but I kinda regret the tone — it was a little too strident, a little too confrontational for the occasion, trying to get across his importance and everything he meant to a nerdy outcast who found solace in his tales of rainbows and diamonds and tigers.

Goddammit, Nightwish, why did you have to shit the bed so spectacularly? I discovered this band thanks to a Finnish friend in a roleplaying (nerdy kind, not sexy kind) chatroom and the wonders of Napster. They were unlike any band I’d ever heard before, combining the big, glorious emotional peaks of opera and musicals with kick-ass heavy metal. I got all their albums as soon as they became available in the US (even made my weight-lifting class listen to Wishmaster the day I got it, much to their chagrin). I even got some of them before they were available here — I had my parents bring me back a copy of Century Child from a trip to Europe. I was lucky enough to see them live on the one US tour they did with Tarja Turunen, skipped a class in college to drive down to Anaheim to catch them. No regrets. Then the band and Turunen parted ways, the band hired a shitty replacement singer, and that was that. It all left a gross taste in my mouth. They’re a little much for me to listen to these days, but I still have my favorites permanently etched into my brain — at their best, they had a transcendental beauty I’ve never been able to find again.

That’s enough for this week — next week will either be current favorites or more nostalgia. Tune in to find out!