Cloudkicker – Let Yourself Be Huge [2011]

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Let Yourself Be Huge was a big step for Cloudkicker when it was first released in 2011. Up to that point, Ben Sharp had built his audience with his own brand of djent-tinged progressive metal, relying on heavy guitars, technical leads, and shifting time signatures to create his sound. However, after Beacons, he was ready to step outside of his comfort zone, and this EP is the result of that.

Entirely devoid of anything that might be deemed “heavy”, Let Yourself Be Huge is largely built around acoustic and clean guitars, light drum work, and moodiness. While the playing still sounds distinctly like Cloudkicker, the timbre is different, and the overall tone of the project feels like it’s the soundtrack to the aftermath of some huge disaster (which is fitting – his previous release, Beacons, took its song titles from the last sentence of various aircrash black box recordings). It’s peaceful yet droning, melancholy but not downtrodden, and it doesn’t feel the need to suddenly and dramatically shift gears like his prior work. In fact, much of the material here is pared down relentlessly, which few tracks bothering to even crack the two minute mark. Instead of creating full songs, the music here instead sounds like little vignettes, painting small little evocative pictures instead of grandiose statements. And despite the EP’s short length, the mood created by it is so powerful and so consistent that it almost feels like a complete album anyway. Let Yourself Be Huge may be short, but it’s a beautiful piece of music, and one of the best collections of music Ben Sharp has put together to date.

As always, you can download Cloudkicker’s music for free over at cloudkickermusic.com.

Top 20 of 2013

2013 was a great year for new music, at least personally, and since I like to review my favorite albums I slowly put together a top 20 through the year. Past my top 5 or so, the rankings don’t mean a lot since it’s hard to put different kinds of music above or below one another, but whatever. Call me a nerd or tell me I have too much time on my hands, here’s my top 20.

1. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer

I knew this was probably going to be my album of the year after the 2nd listen. I may have listened to other albums more, or for longer, but One of Us is the Killer was special for me. If you’ve ever heard Dillinger before, you know what to expect from one of their albums (that being tightly-wound, frenetic mathcore with an experimental slant). That being said, this album actually distills a lot of the ground they’ve covered into a more coherent, straight forward attack compared to previous efforts. But the reason this album was special was that it came at a time when I needed something angry and aggressive to kick me out of a funk, and it did the trick marvelously.

Top Tracks: Prancer, One of Us is the Killer, Paranoia Shields

2. Cloudkicker – Subsume

On the other side of heavy things, this year Cloudkicker delivered what’s possibly Ben Sharp’s best work to date. Inspired by the novel 1Q84 (which is a great read in and of itself), Subsume is an ambitious record that jumps back and forth between the djent-influenced riffing of his past and the more introspective, quieter side of his present without ever sounding disjointed. From start to finish Subsume feels like a journey, starting off gently and then rocketing through layers of sound until reaching it’s fuzz-drenched climax during ‘You could laugh forever but never end up happy’.

Top Tracks: A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time, You could laugh forever but never end up happy.

3. Protest the Hero – Volition

For all the music I listened to this year, my top three wound up being all metal albums.

Protest made waves when they decided to forego a label’s backing and crowd fund their new album, and their fans responded in kind by giving them more than twice the amount they needed. The result is their best album since 2008’s Fortress.

I have to admit, their last album before Volition lost me a little. The lyrics were pretty cringe-worthy for a band that used to write thought-provoking concept albums, and some of the songs just didn’t feel very inspired. That’s all changed with Volition, though – Rody’s stepped up his game lyrically, and with Chris Adler filling in on drums, they sound heavier and faster than they have in a while. Stylistically, things haven’t changed much, but the one thing I have to commend most is the themes tackled in the lyrics. It takes guts to write songs about bigotry and rape culture on a metal album (with metal not being the most open-minded fanbase out there), and it’s even better when it doesn’t feel like they’re pandering or talking down. All in all, Volition shows Protest at the top of their game.

Top Tracks: Skies, Clarity, Animal Bones, Plato’s Tripartite

4. NK – Nothing to Be Gained Here

I’ve been following NK since they were called North Korea, and this year they finally released their debut album. They’ve softened a bit since their first two EPs, but their sound still features a unique blend of grungey riffs, Radiohead-esque soundscapes, and a rhythm section that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Top Tracks: Set A Fire, Shoulder Gorilla, Vacation Days

5. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

The second half of their double album, The Afterman, lives up to it’s predecessor and continues to deliver Coheed’s trademark sound. While front-loaded with some of the bands heaviest and most progressive songs in years (Gravity’s Union being the first Coheed song recorded on an 8 string guitar), it starts to tail off towards the end into more sentimental, poppy sounds. Away We Go sounds like the eighties’ idea of a pop-punk love song, and 2’s My Favorite 1 is straight up cheese, in the best way. This works best when paired with it’s other half, Ascension, as it serves as a sort of come-down to the 18 track whole. Overall, while it could’ve been tracklisted a bit better, Descension is still a great album.

Top Tracks: Gravity’s Union, Sentry the Defiant, Dark Side of Me,  2’s My Favorite 1

6. Death Grips – Government Plates

Government Plates is experimental even for Death Grips, eschewing most song structure and even vocals in favor of a more free-form, electronic approach. For a band that managed to somehow cram hooks into music that rightfully shouldn’t on their first three albums, Government Plates is a disorienting listen, but one that’s all the better for it once it finally clicks.

Top Tracks: You might think he loves you…, Birds, Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

7. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

I checked out Fuck Buttons solely because I needed to know what a band with a name like that even sounded like. The answer? An electronic band whose music is structured like a post rock band playing noise music. They’re aggressive and trance-inducing at the same time.

Top Tracks: Brainfreeze, Hidden Xs, Stalker

8. Danny Brown – Old

Half street music and half club music, Old is a concept album about the struggles of growing up the ghetto and not letting it define his entire life at the same . Combine that with Danny Brown’s wicked sense of humor, and you get one of my favorite rap albums of 2013.

Top Tracks: Side A (Old), 25 Bucks, Way Up Here

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

For all the things that could be said about Kanye, the one thing you can’t take away from him is his music. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a grandiose ‘I’m sorry for being Kanye West’, then Yeezus is the exact opposite, shoving his arrogance in the face of the world. Nothing in his discography could’ve predicted the sound of Yeezus, its being laced with dark, almost industrial synth lines and minimalist beats, and as a result it has more bite than much of his work could ever hope to have. For an artist as mainstream as Kanye to release an album like this takes courage, and it mostly proves itself. However, some of the lyrics are certainly pretty cringe-worthy, and it takes a bit of a dip in the second half, so I can’t call it one of my absolute favorites. Either way, Kanye has proved himself as an artist by taking this chance.

Top Tracks: New Slaves, Black Skinhead, Blood on the Leaves

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather

Sunbather took me a bit by surprise. I usually don’t like black metal, or anything that sounds like it, but I had to make an exception for this record. Deafheaven takes the vocal approach of black metal (the shrieking, screamed vocals) and pairs it with a sound that’s more akin to My Bloody Valentine moving to Scandinavia and playing metal. With most of its songs going well over the ten minute mark, the music takes on a nearly hypnotic effect as it swells and crescendos, only stopping for the three interludes after each main track. While admittedly, their vocalist doesn’t have a lot of range (he has two speeds – AHHH and AHHHHHH) and threatens to bring the band’s unique sound down at times, I still think it’s a great album.

11. Nice Hooves – Nice Hooves

Featuring members of my other favorite hardcore band, The Armed, Nice Hooves deliver a more punk take on thrashy, noisy metal. Their album is free to download at http://nicehooves.bandcamp.com/ and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in any of that.

12. Palms – Palms

Palms is a supergroup made of of members of Isis and fronted by Chino Moreno of Deftones. While some of the songwriting could certainly be stronger, the atmosphere the album delivers alone makes of for it, delving into dreamy, shoegaze influenced post-rock that neither Isis or Deftones truly explored.

Top Tracks: Mission Sunset, Future Warrior, Antarctic Handshake

13. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

…Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s first album in 6 years, and as you’d expect from that big of a gap, it sounds pretty different than any other album of theirs. Stripping away most of their ‘stoner rock’ sound, Like Clockwork finds the band focusing more on straightforward rock numbers, and surprisingly, piano ballads. While this could have been disastrous for a band like Queens, by drawing on Josh Homme’s near-death experience, they infuse the songs with real meaning and atmosphere that give it a unique character from start to finish.

Top Tracks: I Appear Missing, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By The Ocean, My God Is The Sun

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I’ll be honest, I’m totally biased when it comes to Eminem. I grew up on his music so I’m a lot more lenient on his newer stuff. But even though the guy basically gets a free pass from me, MMLP2 is actually really goddamn good, even if it can never touch the original MMLP. Em revisits Stan on Bad Guy, shows an insane level of technical skill on Rap God, apologizes to his mother on Headlights, and kills it on a hilarious track with Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a start to finish masterpiece, and it’d be great if he’d stop shouting so damn much, but MMLP2 proves that Eminem is still the same old Shady.

Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Love Game, Rap God, Headlights, The Monster

Other Favorites:

15. Lorde – Pure Heroine
16. O’Brother – Disillusion
17. Clutch – Earth Rocker
18. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
19. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
20. J. Cole – Born Sinner

Top 20-ish of 2012

 1. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

 I have to say, Coheed has made me really, really happy to be a fan this year. This is the first album by them I’ve gotten to wait for by them since I’ve been a fan, and it was a bit of a wild ride. Mic Todd left the band after a run in with the law, and Chris Pennie quit shortly after due to creative differences. I thought the band was about to break up when they started dropping cryptic videos on YouTube. Instead, it turned out that drummer Josh Eppard, who had originally been kicked out in 2005, was rejoining the band – something totally unexpected, and honestly, the only right choice. Then we get introduced to the new bassist, Zach “Super Dooper” Cooper, who blended right into the band’s sound flawlessly.

 And finally, Coheed announced their new album. Free of a record label, they were finally able to write and record however and whatever they wanted – and this time that meant a double record. Ascension is the first part, a 40 minute ride that travels through mellow piano intros, a twisting 8 minute lead single, classic bouncy Coheed pop rock, and gentle electronics. It’s seriously crazy that they managed to pack so much into such a short album, but that’s one of it’s defining features. It’s short, to the point, and begs to be listened to again as soon as the last notes of Subtraction ring out. If Descension is even half as good when it drops in February, the album as a whole has serious potential to rank as their best. Hats off to the ‘Heed.

 2. Deftones – Koi No Yokan

 Deftones’ previous album, Diamond Eyes, was a beast that kicked ass from start to finish. It saw them reaching insane new highs 15 years after their first album, which is no easy feat for any band. So naturally, Koi No Yokan was my most anticipated album of the year.

 The result is an expansive album that expands on what Diamond Eyes did in terms of texture and sonic landscapes. Diving into it with a good pair of headphones is a must, because it’s the most sonically expansive and lushly textured album of their career. Eleven years after White Pony, Deftones has finally made good on the promise that record held, and have unarguably hit their stride.*However, that being so, it’s not as immediate as it’s predecessor. Several songs stand out immediately, like the monster Leathers, the spiraling dream pop of Entombed, the otherworldly Tempest. The highs are up there in the stratosphere with their best work, but that very quality is also something of a curse. At times it feels as if things are blending together, and a fair few of the songs took me a lot longer to get into and remember than some of the ones I named.

 That said, the “blending together” is also a good thing – each song flows into and complements the next so well that it doesn’t feel like almost an hour has passed by the time ‘What Happened to You?’ closes it out. Few albums dare to work so well as a whole in this era of singles and one-hit wonders, and the total package ends up being pure ear candy.

 3. Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal

 Periphery’s first album was definitely not one of my favorites. I liked some of it, but I just couldn’t really get into them. I liked the singing, but the screaming just wasn’t up to par. I loved the riffing, but it got too repetitive over a whole album. I felt like they could really be a great band though, and I decided to give them another chance when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Man, was I surprised – everything I hadn’t liked about the first record was gone. Spencer’s screams were absolutely throat shattering, the songwriting was leaps and bounds ahead of PI, and really, they just finally felt like a band (the first album had been written and recorded over a few years and with a few line up changes, so it wasn’t as cohesive as it could’ve been). It’s a fun record, insofar as djent can be fun. The choruses soar and stick in your head, the heavy parts make you feel like you could just walk through a brick wall, the drumming pummels you into submission (or at least into a complex toe tapping session).  It’s a record I can put on and jam to with no pretense, and one that has finally made me a fan of Periphery.

 4. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here

 On the other hand, I’ve pretty much always loved P.O.S. I’ve heard few artists fuse such disparate genres as punk rock and rap into something that works so well, hits so hard, and never feels forced or cliched. You only need to listen to ‘Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)’ to know what he’s about.*So go figure that my favorite album of his comes in the form of his least punk, most ‘club’ album yet. WDELH rips the floor out from underneath his punk experimentation and replaces it with a slick, futuristic sound, worthy of clubs around the world. Most other artists would be getting shouted down as sell outs for this, me probably being one of the shouters, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work perfectly here.And that’s because P.O.S’ core message hasn’t changed. At heart, his lyrics are still the same brutally honest and subversive ones he’s best at, it’s just the instrumentation that’s changed. And this sound even allows him to take that one step further – ‘Get Down’ is a scathing indictment of vapid club songs that manages to also be one a damn fine club song itself, and ‘Fuck Your Stuff’ pokes and prods at the materialistic pop culture that’s dominated the media the past decade. Honestly, this album is so packed with great songs, it’s all one giant stand out.

5. Circa Survive – Violent Waves

I found this album totally on chance. I always passed over these guys because I’d somehow lumped them in with a million other generic scene-y bands. But after seeing a lot of hype for Violent Waves, and finding a way to, ahem, acquire it, I figured it couldn’t hurt. And damn – right from the seven minute opening track I knew I was totally wrong about them the whole time. Violent Waves is spacey, progressive rock at it’s finest.

 Honorable Mention:

 6. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

 I hadn’t even known Big Boi was putting out a new album this year, so VLaDR came totally out of the blue when Spotify recommended it to me. If it had come out sooner it would probably be higher on my list, but I haven’t had much time to listen to it yet. And yet, in the week it’s been out, it’s quickly rocketed up to being one of my absolute favorites this year. It’s right on par with Sir Luscious Left Foot, with tons of experimentation, plenty of hooks, and some straight out wacky guest appearances (Wavves, anyone?).

 And now, in no particular order, here’s the rest of the stuff I liked this year.

 Cloudkicker – Fade

Ben Sharp can really do no wrong, and Fade continues to prove that. Strangely, he’s taken on a sound that’s in part reminiscent of alternative mixed in with the more atmospheric stuff he’s been doing lately, which is far removed from his old djent style, but is still just as good.

 Japandroids – Celebration Rock

You seriously don’t find a rock record more fun than this one. It’s perfect summer music.

 Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Mark Lanegan’s voice is untouchable. He’s one of the most distinctive singers I’ve ever heard, and his voice alone sounds like it could tell a few stories. Plus, the album is really, really good. It’s bluesly and electronic at the same time, which is actually a lot better than it sounds.

 Soundgarden – King Animal

I had really, really low hopes for a new Soundgarden record, but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. It’s still not a shade on their earlier stuff, but it’s new fucking Soundgarden music in 2012. Who would’ve thought?

 Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

Even though it’s just Billy Corgan with some other dudes these days, Oceania still has some really classic Pumpkins-sounding stuff on it. Plus, bringing back that classic Siamese Dream guitar fuzz is a dream come true.

 Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods

I wanted to like this album more, but it just didn’t stick with me as much as Carnavas or Swoon. Still, it’s got a lot of really good songs on it, and hearing their more electronic influenced side is cool, too.

 Say Anything – Anarchy, My Dear

I think I actually like this band better when they sound as laid back as they do on this album. Burn A Miracle, The Stephen Hawking, and Say Anything are all great songs.

 Muse – The 2nd Law

Having been massively disappointed in their last album, I was surprised that The 2nd Law was actually pretty damn solid (seriously, Panic Station is fucking funky) – even if it’s sorely lacking in their trademark guitar theatrics.

 Linkin Park – Living Things

I only actually started listening to these guys back when A Thousand Suns came out, so I’ve never been totally partial to the old nu-metal sound. This album takes the best parts of that style (most lyrically and song-structure wise) and combines it with the new electronic style they’ve been going for the past few years, with a ton of catchy songs.

 The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

I like long songs, and progressive music, but I usually can’t stand TMV. They tend to suffer a lot from audio wankery that stretches their songs out way past their welcome. However, Noctourniquet actually pares the song lengths down and focuses much more on songwriting than what I’ve heard from them in the past, and I think that makes for a much more enjoyable experience with this album.

 Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence

I wish I could’ve put this album in my top five, but either I’m just not feeling BTBAM as much these days, or they’re getting a bit boring. While it does get a bit repetitive over the full hour+ run time, there’s still a lot of great riffs and songs in there – they’re just a bit…buried.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Simply put, AWLWLB is Converge delivering yet again. The modern-day hardcore pioneers continue to thrash harder than bands half their age, and show no signs of stopping.

 Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

This guy has one hell of a voice, and channel ORANGE is smooth and soulful as fuck.

 Jack White – Blunderbuss

It’s a bit of a departure from the White Stripes and Dead Weather stuff, but hearing a bluesy, countrified album like this is a refreshing change once in a while. Sixteen Saltines and Love Interruption are two of my favorite songs from this year.

 Rush – Clockwork Angels

And here’s another band that’s still better than guys half their age, despite having been around for the better part of thirty years. It’s their first full concept album, and probably one of their heaviest records, too.

The Prize Fighter Inferno – Half Measures

It’s only an EP, but it was actually one of my highlights this year. PFI is Claudio Sanchez’s (Coheed and Cambria singer/guitarist) side project, which has a lot more of an indie/electronic feel to it. It’s really cool to hear such a different side to his music, and to hear him branch away from the concept album thing as well.

The Armed – Spreading Joy

Clocking in at only 9 minutes, I don’t think it could even be called an EP. But Spreading Joy is the angriest, heaviest, most intense 9 minutes you’ll hear all year.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allalujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

I actually didn’t get into these guys until very, very recently. The two drone tracks aren’t really anything special, but the two twenty minute beasts that are Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire are masterpieces.