Life Melters 2013

Words: Kevin Stebner

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Once again, I’m coming late to the game for the best jams of the year. But, as always, I needed that extra month to let things stew, lest we lose all music that came out in December (like the Self Defense Family LP, for instance). I like to choose songs over albums, and am prone to find a jam and listen to it over and over. Why let a perfect song get lost just because an album is uneven? That said, were I to make a best of albums list, a great many of these would top it as well. But I just wanted to share my favourite jams of 2013 with you.

~ Love, Kevin

Self Defense Family – “Aletta”
From: Try Me (Deathwish Inc.)

~ This is truth: Self Defense Family are the most exciting thing in punk right now — whether measured in terms of ethic, output schedule, band structure, no-fucks-given outspoken confidence, lyrical character, whim-taking, or even just song quality. They have no contemporaries, their shit is just better. And in 2013, SDF put out a ton of releases, each one filled with jams. If I can’t pick the one I released, then I’ll pick my second favourite: With “Aletta” they wrote the best love song by ripping apart the love song. Tear it down to bring it up.

Lucid 44 – “Torture Film”
From: Sweep/Sweep (Tonto is Jesus/Isolated Now Waves)

~ Easily one of the best (and certainly the most underrated) songwriters in Calgary, Markus Overland dropped a grumbly and understated monster with Sweep/Sweep from his Lucid 44 project. Fidelity-wise, this is his most assured release, to coincide with the level of writing. “Torture Film” is a re-recording of an old song with a harrowing vocal timbre and slow groove into impromptu jam, done with the confidence of following a decade-long labour of love.

Endless Rope – “Deterritoralise This”
From: Negi Surf (Self-Released/Common Thread)

~ This is a killer tape from the UK, and somehow related to Facel Vega, so I had to have it. Utterly snotty-nosed vocal styles growl over ripping guitars that are aptly described by the tape title: Negi Surf. It’s got Rev. Summer charge, UK post-punk and goth cool. Not since “Moon Over Marin” has this kind of thing sounded so pissed and rad.

Dasher – “Sodium”
From: Yeah, I Know (Self-Released)

~ Another unknown and killer punk tape. Dasher do that thing — fuzzed out guitars, shouted vocals, semi-grunge throwback — that’s hot with the kidlets and totally ruling the underground now, but Dasher do it better. “Sodium” has a sailing, pedal-laden lead matched with totally badass androgo-vocal bark. It’s got all the pieces that a thousand other bands have, but Dasher know how to correctly put ’em together.

Fiver – “Undertaker”
From: Lost the Plot (Triple Crown Recordings)

~ Were I forced to pick an Album of the Year, Lost the Plot is undeniably the one. Simone Schmidt actually released TWO of the best albums of 2013, and I could have easily picked “Widow” from the Highest Order LP, which came as a close second as favourite Schmidt jammer. For slow, smoke-ridden, deep-voiced, country/folk, Lost the Plot is perfect. Pick any song, they’re all jams. But for me, the record’s closer “Undertaker” possibly hits hardest. Two chords plodding along, poetess in-chanting, ending with a Dirty Three-like violin wail. Must grip.

Shahman – “Like an Old Friend”
From: Sounds That Look Like Us (Revolution Winter)

~ I’m too close, but that’s only because I had no choice. I don’t care. In my opinion, Shahman created the finest hardcore statement in this country in 2013. It’s astounding to me how little people have picked up on this record. Shahman run the gamut between quiet and loud, introspective and hard, all done by just two boys. Is it hardcore, sludge, post-rock, what? All I know is that it’s beautiful, and so singular in vision, with the assumed psychic interplay between the brothers Johnson. Put a spell on me.

The Courtneys – “90210”
From: The Courtneys (Hockey Dad)

~ Cousins gave us the theme song for summer with “Thunder” last year, and the Courtneys provided it for 2013. “90210” is astonishing in its simplicity: upbeat melody, memorable vocal hook, four-on-the-floor the whole way. Sonic Youth were at their best when they were having fun. This is like that. These ladies brought the soundtrack to chill evenings and biking through flood-tides.

Roboctopus – “Disco.txt”
From: Disco.txt (Cheap Beats)

~ No question about it, Endless Fantasy is dope, but Roboctopus put out the best chiptune release of 2013. This song has a totally funky shuffle, fun melody, unreal LSDJ instument use, pounding kicks, and the sneakiest drop a minute in. I listen to a lot of chiptune, and in a genre easily mired in same-y-ness, trust me: “Disco.txt” is THE chip jam.

Raein – “Amore e Morte”
From: Loma Prieta/Raein split 7″ (Deathwish Inc.)

~ When it’s juxtaposed like this, it becomes apparent that American hardcore has taken the wrong turn. Because placed alongside the inventiveness of Raein, the angle North America has taken, even by the masters at the moment, pales. Raein take that Italian chaotic thing and have honed it, bettered it, slowed it, added melody and dash, kept the noodles in check, and ultimately run circles around their contemporaries.

Lab Coast – “Recognize I’m Wrong”
From: Walking on Ayr (Mammoth Cave Recording Co.)

~ I suppose the GBV comparison is obvious, if apropos. The thing is, Lab Coast have bettered anything Pollard & co. have released in the last 15 years. Only after 40 listens do you even realize the intricacy of these songs. Everything appears as simple pop, yet changes so swiftly and deftly. You don’t realize anything repeats, you don’t know you just listened to a perfect indie rock song — but you did.

Life Melters 2011

Words: Kevin Stebner

2011: The year of the Castle? (photo: Landon Speers)

Funny how the only thing that truly marks the passage of the year are year-end Top 10 lists.

Well, once again, major media failed me. All the true life melters flew under the radar; all the true life melters had to come from active digging. Every record that moved me and was actually worth staying on the turntable longer than a listen or two were, once again, divided into two camps: either Country or Hardcore — those two most blessed of genres able to distil emotion into minute little gems. Sure, there were a few other alright things that crossed my path, but they don’t need my help.

So let’s just be subjective!

Raein – Sulla linea dell’orizzonte fra questa mia vita e quella di tutti gli altri (self-released)

Needless to say, I’ve had to spend a pretty penny on international mail-order to really keep up on all the new stuff coming out of Europe. If any proof is needed that the best skramz (if we dare start to use that term) is coming out of Europe, one need not look any farther than this record. Italy’s Raein released an utterly astounding record (THE BEST record of the year in my humble estimation), one that, while still firmly and definitively hardcore, nevertheless defies strict genre classification: screaming full-bore, yet following its own melodic course; bits of post-rock played fast; time changes that defy all logic. Even after a slew of really strong output prior to this, nothing even comes close to the strength of Sulla linea… The truly amazing thing about this record is exactly how perfectly everything is wed, so fast and aggressive and utterly breathtaking in its beauty. Must jam.

Enablers – Blown Realms and Stalled Explosions (Lancashire & Somerset)

After last year’s somewhat disappointing Tundra, it is a blessing that Enablers have returned with a record so absolutely stunning. Pete Simonelli’s spoken vocals are at their most heady, dare I say even out-Slinting Slint with dark humour, unsettling candour and sheer poetic cadence. The double-guitar-and-drums attack of the rest of the band is of one mind, often ethereal and morose, and at other times crushingly hard hitting. In a world where arty noise-rock has fallen out of vogue, such a concentrated statement as Blown Realms comes to remind us that bands can still actually rock, that it isn’t all lightweight lo-fi meaninglessness, and of the sheer power a single band can yield.

One Hundred Dollars – Songs of Man (Outside)

This was easily the most listened to recording of our cross-Canada tour. When radio fails and iPods die, how thankful was I to have Songs of Man on the drive. Once again, One Hundred Dollars have delivered the best country album of the year, so assured, so jam-packed with wailing country licks, campfire acoustics and poetic serenades. Just seeing a band like this open for another so much their junior in terms of weight and merit proves the world is an unjust place. “Where the Sparrows Drop” is an absolute blessing distilled into song (and very likely the most listened to song of my year). And the piano lines on “Brother”… I defy any eye to remain un-misty after listening to that. Simone Schmidt’s voice could likely be the most powerful voice ever to set down a country drawl. I would propose marriage just to be able to hear that voice every day. I guess this record will have to do until then.

Jennifer Castle – Castlemusic (Flemish Eye)
Castlemusic // Wyrd Visions – “My Boat” b/w “Voice of God” (Blue Fog)
Deloro – s/t (idée fixe)

I managed to catch two sets from Jennifer Castle when she came through Alberta both times this year. With just a guitar and her wonderful vibrato, her sets were absolutely crushing in their honesty, absolutely unsettling in their nakedness. Her full-length is nearly perfect, whether with the Joni Mitchell-like waver on “Neverride” all the way to the jaunty, psychy trem of “Poor as Him;” it’s got country steel, melodies that bore like ear worms, understated guitar work — just a truly memorable collection of moody folk jams. On the split with Wyrd Visions she presents one seriously haunting dirge, one that rests uneasily in ones consciousness for days after hearing it. Deloro, then, is something of a super group, featuring members of One Hundred Dollars and Constantines (among others), as well as Jennifer fronting a few of the tracks. The unevenness of the record is almost one of its biggest appeals — the grab-bag of songs and styles, ranging all the way from Rick White-styled freezing cold psychedelia to unashamed pop smashes. Powerful, varied, haunting. Everything Jennifer Castle did this year killed. 2011 could have been the year of the Castle.

Slates – Prairie Fires (Handsome Dan)

I can think of no other Canadian band who has worked as hard as Slates have (touring Cuba AND Eastern Europe in the last while!) and yet remains so unjustly underrated on their home turf. Slates once again forge out one major punk rock record, and it is punk rock, almost in the classic sense. I’m speaking in the Wipers, no screwin’ around, every song is a jammer-sense; the Springsteen, I’m talking about you, everyman-sense. Prairie Fires is chock full of some of the most memorable punk rock to have come around in forever, with riffs that Greg Sage would envy, and such a universal appeal. This record could be the one to unite all scenes. Not throwback — classic.

Daniel Striped Tiger – No Difference (Clean Plate)

I’ve written about this record before, but allow me to reiterate: No Difference is an incredible collection of post-hardore rippers. The guitar are clean, the songs super inventive. Daniel Striped Tiger have simply gotten way better; all the old trappings that can mire hardcore records — gone. Even the meanderings sound like excited blasts. Also, easily the best album cover of the year, without question.

Baton Rouge – Fragments D’eux Mêmes (Bakery Outlet)

France’s Baton Rouge has members of Daitro and 12XU, and that’s almost exactly how it sounds: a combination of the best elements of both of those two bands. It’s got pieces of Daitro’s smart post-hardcore, and 12XU’s dry rock, but without the trapping that bogged down those bands. All the senseless meanderings and jarring vocal takes have been stripped, while everything else has been blended into some seriously genre-riding, hooky rockers. I only wish my French was better so I could sing along.

*If I may take a moment to be nepotistic, allow me to say that the record I listened to most this year was something that I put out: Town Ship’s Future Confusion. In my mind, it’s the grossest, most thrilling, most ripping record. Town Ship are my jam, so I had to get as close as possible. May next year rip even harder.