20 April, 2012

The Top 30 (or so) Records/EP's etc. of 2011, Part 6: 5-1

More things got in the way to make this an incredibly delayed final installment: a sudden move, a family emergency, a death in the family, etc. But never fear, dear readers (all 25 of you), I have returned with the much-agonized-over Top 5 Records of 2011.

Let's get started.

5. Pygmy Shrews - You People Can All Go Straight To Hell (Jack Shack)

First, the dual vocals that gave the band so much character are, for the most part, missing on this album. This is a slight disappointment, because it was such an enjoyable component of the band's sound. Tia Vincent's hilariously girlish sneering is barely anywhere on the record, and though Ben Greenberg's regular-guy, skinny-voiced punk shout is more than adequate and gets the job done, I deeply missed Vincent's vocal presence. It should tell you how good this record is when I tell you that the lack of Vincent's voice on most of these songs really doesn't matter very much in the end. No song on this album is quite at the level of sheer bilious genius that "Please Brain Drugs," off 2009's brilliant The Egyptian, so thoroughly embodied. But the breathtaking impact of the two openers, "No Supplies" and "AM Breakout," makes for the best stretch of Pygmy Shrews music ever, and the first side maintains a startlingly high level of quality. From flat-out great punk riffs ("Snake Eyes") to re-purposed leftovers ("Total Bowl" is a retooled version of the pre-Shrews band Cutter's song "Cruises," and it's nearly as good as that song was), to 47-second-long hardcore shouters, it's like a distilled lesson in how to rock. Jeremy Villalobos' drumming is absolutely incredible throughout the album. Side B, in contrast, is one long 12-minute jam. It would almost be a prog move if it wasn't so brutal, because no noise-punk instrumental this year hit harder than “Fuck The Law.” Their confidence in performance, which was already enormous, only got stronger on this album, and they pound away here with the impact of a train wreck and the precision of surgeons. Sadly, the band is no more, but in all fairness they left a great final statement to go out on. Long live Pygmy Shrews. 

4. Death Grips - Exmilitary (self-released)

This is an album that musically combines the overwhelmingly bleak, noise-ridden power of Dälek with the mind-bending, ear-catching factor of prime Bomb Squad productions, and MC Ride's incessant, gut-wrenching roar calls to mind early RZA in its' intensity and unrelenting anger. RZA was never the world's greatest MC, but on the early Wu-Tang releases, he quite literally sounded like he wanted to kill you. Ride's vocal approach doesn't have the same sense of diabolical spite, but his furious bellow is even more powerful. But, even more than Ride, the crazed production is the reason to pick this up. Nerve-wracking digitized noise violates your ears while the beats slam away with ruthless, howitzer-like force - and many unexpected samples are strewn throughout the record. From Jane's Addiction to Link Wray, it's like the producers raided your uncle's record collection and made it work. So, if it's this good - and for the most part, it really is - why is it ranked at No. 4? The single "Guillotine (It Goes Yah)" is not interesting or intelligent (in contrast to the rest of the material), and the instrumentals feel unfinished and insubstantial. But the cynic in me also thinks it's a little too successful at times. When I listen to this, a small, nasty part of me ends up wondering how much of this was precisely tailored to get indie rock kids listening to it. Part of me says I shouldn't hold this against the record, but I also wonder if I'm being manipulated. For example, if you think about it, it's too easy to get white indie rock and punk fans to like your music when you put a vicious, Black Flag-sampling anti-cop rant on your album. I bumped it down a notch or two for all of those reasons, but this album is very much worth your time. MC Ride may well become a star someday off the power of this record, which would be poetic justice in today's pop landscape.

3. Leather - Wretch EP (Fan Death)

There are few bands today who understand how to put out a 7-inch hardcore punk EP with four songs on it. Leather are high practitioners of this art. Wretch sees Leather solidify their artistic dominance as one of the two best hardcore bands around today. Alex Agran's approach to singing, an extremely aggressive but melodic wounded-dog howl, has slightly changed on this record. He's added another vocal approach to his arsenal here - an odd, tuneful, funny but utterly contemptuous drone that sounds like nothing so much as what Sammytown from Fang would have sounded like if he'd taken a few singing lessons and hadn't completely forgotten what made him a great punk singer halfway through the sessions for Where The Wild Things Are. These songs feature strange, hilarious and catchy vocal hooks, and the band's playing is even tighter than it was before. Sometimes, I don't know how this band plays so well. No one player stands out, but they manage to generate a level of force together comparable to a battering ram. With Agran's magnificent, Philadelphia-accented yell on top, the result is extraordinarily high-quality and wonderfully sardonic hardcore. The only problem is that they still haven't found a production job that does true justice to their sound.

2. White Suns - Waking In The Reservoir (ugEXPLODE)

You might think that you have no time for aggressively noisy and feral no wave in your life, but you would be wrong. This record is astonishing. Nothing here resembles a tune, but all of the pieces - because really, you can't call them songs, not in the verse-chorus-verse sense - are immaculately structured. I saw the band perform even the most abstracted piece included here, the title track, exactly as it sounds on the record. All of the bizarre parts in every track repeat, demonstrating their preplanned nature, and they do end up flowing into each other with carefully preordained logic. I really have no idea how a band could even write, much less rehearse a record like this, because almost all rules of conventional songwriting are thrown completely out the window. Almost no one could make a record like this. This is a written, intelligently composed record that happens to have utterly destructive noise as the primary component instead of melody. It's a mind-melting squall of hideous feedback, indescribably damaged guitar playing, Kevin Barry's disturbing, tortured screeching, extremely spastic, brutally pummeling rhythms and corroded, mindless electronics. There are a rash of rock bands around these days without bassists, and as a result, most of them sound powerless. But this band really has no room for bass in their sound. White Suns' entire aesthetic is screaming, mutilated, blistering treble - literally the sonic equivalent of scorched earth. This record could level small villages.

1. Hoax - Hoax (2nd EP) (Katorga Works/Youth Attack)

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I've probably listened to this EP nearly a hundred times since I first got it near the end of 2011. It is a quantum leap over anything Hoax has released previously. Lyrically, the songs are the kind of end-of-rope, 3:00 AM musings that you really only dwell on when there is absolutely nothing in your life that can sustain you in any way. Topics include joining the army specifically to get shot in battle, the self-explanatory "Suicide Pact," and not being able to sleep horrible memories off, and that's only the stuff I understand. Musically, the EP is filled with the kind of riffs hardcore bands would have sacrificed goats for in the '80's. Spectacular drumming, crushing guitars, and raving vocals all contribute to a negative chemistry so strong and frightening that it is absolutely impossible to ignore their music while it is playing. This band is probably a very acquired taste, but that doesn't matter. They are the best hardcore band in the US right now, and this is the best hardcore record I've heard in years. These songs are absolutely horrifying, and I mean that as the highest form of praise. It speaks to a condition not many people reach on their own.

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