Top Albums of 2017 — John Dziuban
Well, 2017 happened, and there’s no evidence that a fresh calendar will do much to heal the collective wounds we all suffered for it, but what the hell… there was no dearth of loud records to soundtrack our descent into a RoboCop 2-style dystopia. Some of the following albums acknowledge and deal with that descent from various, intelligent points of view, and some of them provide a much-needed escape from it. There’s an unintentional theme in this list and it’s the production work of Kurt Ballou, whose name appears in some role or another in the credits of more than half of these records, and with good reason: dude knows how to make a band sound like they’re delivering the most urgent message on Earth. Imagine a Death Star laser beam emanating from GodCity, Massachusetts, pointed at the center of your forehead, uploading a sustained squelch of dissident data straight into the mainframe of your brain. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve survived the global shitshow through another year and earned the right to live it all over again. Congratulations!
Supreme goofball and purveyor of "soft shred" Myrone is a fountain of guitar music reminiscent of a time (the 1980s) when a standalone guitar player (Satriani/Malmsteen/Gilbert) could carry a career on their own sweep-picking, finger-tapping merits. The solo producer/shredder releases countless albums, EPs, singles, and videos per year, and “Humanity,” one of two full-lengths Myrone put out in 2017, is up there with his best, balancing ironic humor fit for the montage scene in a Disney movie about extreme sports with a seriousness of purpose and a dedication to guitar for guitars’ sake that’s pretty scarce these days. This music surely isn’t for everyone, but the someones it is for get the joke and jump on board right away.
(Spinefarm Records, USA)
A subtractive approach to musical composition is not one that many bands under the heavy metal umbrella take, but the instrumentalists of Royal Thunder know that the notes they don’t play are just as, if not more, important than the notes that they do play. It’s refreshing as fuck to listen to a band that’s confident enough in their tastes and sensibilities to be comfortable leaning against the wall, leaving the floor open for their stunningly talented vocalist. The shapeshifting vocals of Mlny Parsonz, capable of putting one in mind of everyone from Janis Joplin to Chris Robinson, occupy the space usually reserved for guitar riffs, and this simple yet brilliant twist makes Wick one of the most rewarding listens of any year.
(Relapse Records, USA)
Does the never-ending barrage of bad news make you want to throw your hands up and chug a few dozen cans of Keystone Ice while the whole shithouse goes up in flames? Me too. You dig Anthrax? Same, dude. You skate?
(Ipecac Recordings, USA)
Any time constant weirdo Mike Patton wants to stand in front of a microphone and make fucked-up noises with his face, I’ll fork over the dough to check it out. I’d say the same thing about Dave Lombardo playing the drums. Put the two together and it’s almost unfair to every other band; a Michael Jordan posterizing Patrick Ewing slam dunk.
(Learning Curve Records, USA)
Being a huge nerd for audio production doesn’t necessarily mean looking down your nose at lo-fi albums. Sometimes a used four-track can be a more effective vessel for a sound than a state of the art facility peopled by "professionals." Anxiety Driven Nervous Worship, the debut record from Philadelphia’s Plaque Marks, sounds perfectly like shit. Production value was just one bold choice in a series of them, made consciously to support a dark vision of blight and corrosion.
After all these years and all these albums, Converge continuing to function at this high of a level is a goddamn gift to all of us who love heavy music. They explode genres and glue them back together however they damn well please, sometimes more than once within the same song. Seeing their battered logo on a t-shirt in a crowd can insight feelings of reverence. While The Dusk In Us might not be quite as artistically elevated or through-and-through great as Jane Doe (well, nothing is as artistically elevated or as great as Jane Doe.), Converge in 2017 is only slightly less great than Converge in 2001, and that’s still better than just about everything else.
Some bands write songs that drag on endlessly because that’s what their chosen genre dictates; Elder writes songs that often approach and eclipse the ten-minute mark while somehow managing to feel downright thrifty in their approach. Whether they’re working at their full pitch like on album-opener “Sanctuary” or the more chilled-out, krautrock-ish “Sonntag,” every guitar marathon note seems essential and every tone is crafted with care. Man, I fucking hate the word "artisanal," but sometimes a stupid word works best. This is the kind of record that requires multiple listens just to process the individual beauty of every single sound, then ten more to appreciate the quality of the songs.
Yeah, this record is tops on the list of just about every giant media outlet that recognizes metal, hardcore, etc. Yeah, they’re Grammy-nominated. And you know what? Code Orange deserve every last shred of praise they’re getting. This is the greatness and historical importance of Jane Doe-era Converge unfolding right now. Much of the heavy music world will spend years trying to catch up to this record, but probably never will.
(Sargent House, USA)
Hiss Spun is like the score to a skin-crawlingly slow horror film I wish existed. Wolfe’s dirges simmer and bubble with mystery and fear, but never boil over into jump scares and cheap thrills, electing instead to take up residence in the unsettling world just below the surface. Contributions from like-minded luminaries Aaron Turner, Troy Van Leeuwen, and Kurt Ballou lend perfectly damaged moments of sonic color to Wolfe’s dark vision, a nightmare you don’t want to end.
(Nuclear War Now!, USA)
Sometimes a record combines so many things you love that when you see/hear/learn about it, all you can do is kick yourself in the ass for not thinking of it first. This is one of those records. I didn’t know I needed it until it I heard it, then I wondered where it had been all this time. Like a refugee from an automated future hell with a half-burned copy of Neuromancer and a melted Voivod record, Endless Computer is as close to a signature Kurt Ballou recording job as we’ve seen, combining many of the elements he’s known for, but twisted to assimilate to Expander’s fucked-up vision.
The punched-in feedback sounds like a glitching modem. The buzzsaw guitars are mechanically stamped onto robot arms, hovering just above an unceasing conveyor belt of fractured noise the overlords have strapped you to. Call it "cyber thrash punk," because tacking "cyber" in front of anything makes it sound more futuristic.
As we all become exponentially more addicted to the black hole of screens that offered so much promise, but have locked us into a recursive loop of pre-apocalyptic news, it’s easier to imagine Expander’s vision as our actual future. Automation leaving humans obsolete. Toxified air giving birth to new cancers and wildfires raging on a dehydrated landscape. Above it all, oligarchs looming, taking away your rights and health and even your freedom to look at what you want to on this goddamn Internet. Listen up while you’re still allowed.