Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome to part 2 of 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s ten album slowcore primer.
In case you missed it, here’s part 1.

Low – I Could Live in Hope
(Vernon Yard Recordings, 1994)

low_liveinhopeIf Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were anything but lifer musicians, Low’s stardom may not have progressed past the status of the American slowcore poster child. At this point, however, after a dozen LPs, they have earned a well deserved global following. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the band perform three times in Vancouver over the span of a decade, and at the last show they opened with the song “Words,” a classic from I Could Live in Hope, before jumping into a set of newer material. The song brought about cheers from longtime fans who seemed in great abundance in the audience. It’s Incredible when a band can open a set with a song from twenty years ago and it not come across as outdated or disjointed from the rest of the set.

Consistency is an easy word to throw around when talking about Low. They are known for having a specific sound and only diverging from it to either slightly amp up their production (The Great Destroyer), or go a bit more experimental (Guns and Drums). The root of their sound was dug in deep on I Could Live in Hope, an album whose slow unfolding of dark imagery perfectly suited the band’s basic setup – guitar (Sparhawk), drums (Parker) and bass (John Nichols, who left the band shortly after). Many of the album’s songs seem built around a formula that allows for the guitar to cut through the mix like a knife, like on “Drag,” whose primary image sees Sparhawk at a point of giving up: “I’m sorry but I can’t hold on / It works much better if I let it drag me around.” It’s a testament to the album as a whole, a plea for the listener to not attempt to resist the gravity of this music. Hell, it’s a testament to the band as a whole, because slowcore would be nothing without Low, and I Could Live in Hope is where it all started. A quintessential release.

The American Analog Set –
The Golden Band
(Emperor Jones, 1999)

an_am_set_goldenbandThe American Analog Set (AmAnSet) might be one of the least offensive bands in history. They’re music never gets all that raw or noisy, nor does it ever get that loud or toss you much you wouldn’t expect. Andrew Kenny’s vocal delivery is so delicate it almost sounds prepubescent; meanwhile the rest of the band steadily churn out a sound somewhere between krautrock and smooth jazz. If Elliot Smith ever sang along to Kraftwerk songs it might have sounded something like AmAnSet. They were yet another band born of the vital Austin scene happening in and around the mid 90s, and though their whole catalog is worth hearing, the three or so years spanning The Golden Band to Know By Heart marked a highpoint in their history.

Ranking all six AmAnSet albums from best to worst would be very challenging. The first four are excellent and the last two are very good. The Golden Band happens to be a personal favourite, with the four part “New Drifters” that explores some of the band’s most varied and interesting instrumentals to date – the repeated guitar slide on “ii” is especially good. “The Wait” is about as nostalgic as it gets with the line: “through the nineties / we just got by,” which later became the title to a compilation of singles and unreleased material. But it’s the song “It’s All About Us” that really shines through with its brilliant mix of loud / quiet vitality. In its final minutes the piece develops a staggering post-kraut dynamism with the familiar guitar, organ, bass and percussive elements at their most interdependent.

Movietone – Day and Night
(Domino, 1997)

movietone_daynight

Before hearing even a second of Movietone’s music, I had read in a Dusted review that the band recorded at least part of an album on a beach. Curious, my digging led to the discovery that not only was some of the album The Sand and the Stars recorded in an ocean bay at night, but those sessions “involved the band carrying a double bass down a cliff.” None of this means their music was going to be any good, but I was nonetheless excited to check it out. Meanwhile, I had developed a level of respect for the Bristol band’s spirit for experimentation. Dating back to their second album, Day and Night, it’s apparent that that spirit was alive and well years before the release of The Sand and the Stars.

Day and Night is a peculiar album, thriving in but never exclusively tethered to a kind of drowsy psych-folk. “Night of the Acacias” could have easily worked as part of the Fear and Loathing soundtrack, which is to say it sounds more drug-induced than the rest of the album. Perhaps Rachel Coe’s stint in Flying Saucer Attack helped steer Movietone’s sound into more psychedelic realms, although any online mention of the band seems to also mention Flying Saucer Attack more as a convenient name drop than a worthwhile comparison. Sure, Movietone have taken cues from FSA, and I would say bands like Bowery Electric and Labradford as well, but they never existed in anyone’s shadow. Day and Night‘s energy and song structure does wane slightly in the second half, but the cohesion of songs like “Sun Drawing” and “Useless Landscape” solidify Movietone’s importance in the winding narrative of slow music.

Seam – Are You Driving Me Crazy? 
(City Slang / Touch and Go, 1995)

seam_drivingmecrazySeam formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1990. The band saw many line-up changes over the years, with Sooyoung Park (of Bitch Magnet fame) as its only core member. It’s evident that Park had a strong hold on the direction of Seam throughout the band’s existence, as ’95’s Are You Driving Me Crazy? was so consistent with the sound of ’93’s The Problem With Me, despite every member other than Park being replaced. Seam’s sound was unique to what was typically considered slowcore, ironically because their sound was so inextricably tied to the 90s than it was to any particular genre.

It’s easy to hear how Seam would appeal to post-hardcore fans, although a song like the moody “Rainy Season” might leave one or two scratching their heads wondering where the energy went. Seam wore a rock banner as a kind of facade, as Park seemed intent on keeping a thread of mellowness alive in his music. Are You Driving Me Crazy? is chalk full of songs that reach the brink of rocking out but retreat to quieter places instead. It’s this restraint that has often struck me as one of Seam’s best qualities, not to mention they also wrote some damn good hooks. In considering it’s place among the list, Are You Driving Me Crazy? helps to round out the pack with the necessary structure and energy to balance things out.

Tram – Heavy Black Frame
(Jetset / Piao!, 1999)

tram_heavyblackframe

I challenge anyone to come up with a better soundtrack to the overcast skies and concrete cityscapes that are so stereotypically depicted of London, England, then Tram’s Heavy Black Frame. And remember, we’re talking about shades of grey, not immutable depths of black. Tram were never so slow, or so depressing as to ever alienate themselves from their place of origin, and their progression toward a more varied, accessible sound over three albums didn’t hurt this fact either. Heavy Black Frame, the band’s debut, was their most soporific, which is probably why it makes for such a good “make-out” album, according to one pitchfork critic – whose review of the album is a strong contender for the website’s absolute worst (that hasn’t already been deleted).

Thanks to its long list of collaborators that brought to the album an array of strings, horns, and keys, Heavy Black Frame is chalk full of lush arrangements that so effortlessly compliment Paul Anderson’s vocals. Certainly, the band didn’t fall victim to the choppy production that seemed to plague the early releases of oh so many smalltime acts trying to play slowly. The result is an album with an unbroken flow from start to finish, probably diminishing its initial appeal for listeners wanting more to immediately grasp onto, but rewarding for those seeking a lasting relationship that starts with subsequent spins.

Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t love the term slowcore. I do, however, stand behind what I believe the term represents. Humans need to compartmentalize and categorize to make sense of the whole of life, and music does not fall outside of that. And although it’s easy to scoff at the fan and critic mentality to stick ‘core’ on the end and call it a day, I prefer to hold out a little hope in what I see as a byproduct of rational human behaviour. So what does slowcore represent other than a bunch of bands that play slowly? Slowness is part of it, as all the bands I’ve chosen to list below could be lumped into a group representative of music made up of slow tempos. But there is so much more.

Attached to the decision to play slowly is a kind of network of other less conscious decisions. Playing slowly means playing more deliberately, carefully and thoughtfully. Bands that play slowly also often play quietly – though there are plenty of exceptions to this, as this list attests – and with quietness there is always at least a notable level of vulnerability. Take a singer-songwriter performing with an acoustic guitar as example. With all other instrumentation stripped away beyond a voice and guitar there is little else to hide behind. The din of a band behind you can mask your imperfections, but in the songwriter scenario every mistake rings out like a pin drop. The difference is that everyone expects the delivery of the songwriter, but few walk into a rock show expecting the music played at a snail’s pace. Thus, slowcore bands are like rock music’s delegates of vulnerability. They are the raw, exposed nerve, the sensibility beneath a veil of noise, the pause in the constant stream of zealous stimulation.

As the name suggests, slowcore is not so much a musical movement but something that’s crept along, ever shifting and subtly evolving. Aside from it’s origins, it is tied to neither geography nor time. So-called slowcore bands came primarily from America, but there was also a significant presence of like minded acts spawning out of the UK (Hood, Tram) and Scandinavia (The White Birch). The German label, Glitterhouse, who partnered with Sub Pop until ’95, is to thank for getting American slowcore distributed abroad, and likewise assisted to the global awareness of European acts.

When considering bands that had an influence on the sound that’s come to define slowcore, Low is inevitably stuck at the top, with Red House Painters, Bedhead and Codeine close behind. Twenty years later and we’re still hearing the influence of these bands on more mainstream indie rock acts like Real Estate, Whitney, The XX, or even Beach House and Kurt Vile. It’s hard to say how many would actually site slowcore bands as influence, but the similarities are often undeniable. Aside from where slowcore has gone and where it continues to go, it’s beginnings are inextricably tied to the 90s, which then rippled into another smaller but significant wave in the early 2000s. For the next two weeks, The Alcohol Seed will look at ten albums from these eras of slowcore, presented and analyzed. So, let’s dive in…

Early Day Miners – Let Us Garlands Bring
(Secretly Canadian, 2002)

early_day_miners_let_us_garlands_bringSouthern Indiana based Early Day Miners have remained very low key since their humble beginnings in the late 90s. The band released 7 LPs, their last, Night People, surfacing in 2011. Since then the Miners have been mostly dormant, though members have been hinting at forthcoming activity for some time, but things remain uncertain. Early Day Miners (who, as of 2011 have gone by the shorthand EDM) seemed to draw from many wells of influence, including UK shoegaze and good ol’ Texan post-rock. The biggest statements in shoegaze had long left the pressing plants by the time of the Miners’ forming, but post-rockers like Godspeed and Mogwai were only just getting going. During the band’s nascent years, however, the Early Day Miners sound was unmistakably that of slowcore, apexing with 2002’s raw and sprawling Let Us Garlands Bring.

The band’s debut, 2000’s Placer Found, saw their sound a bit lost within ineffectual space. On Let Us Garlands Bring, the Miners fill in that space with just the right amount of additional instrumentation that never goes so far as to suffocate their sound. There is also an overall presence in the songs, a sense of deliberation and direction, that seemed lacking on the debut. Perhaps more than any other slowcore outfit, the Miners didn’t shy away from writing expansive music, bearing resemblance to Talk Talk’s later years. You can especially hear Laughing Stock in the song “Summer Ends,” with it’s languid unfolding of repetitive drums, clean guitars, and yes, harmonica. Experimental yet approachable, Let Us Garlands Bring was a vital late edition to the movement.

Codeine – Frigid Stars
(Glitterhouse / Sub Pop, 1990)

Codeine_Frigid_StarsIf there is a milestone slowcore album, then Codeine’s debut, Frigid Stars, is it. It is the oldest album on this list, and marks a subtle paradigm shift during a monumental time in modern music history, especially in regards to Pacific Northwest released music. Codeine was primarily a New York band, but Seattle based Sub Pop decided to release their debut at a time when grunge was all anyone was talking about. The label’s cofounder, Jonathan Poneman, has described the band’s music as “understated, elegant, forceful, and beautiful,” but also abhors the idea of Codeine as a pioneering slowcore band, and has referred to the so-called genre as a “made-up movement that reeks of critical contrivance.” Fair enough. We can at least both agree that the band’s music is beautiful.

Though they might immediately resemble a grunge or punk outfit, Codeine’s catalog, including Frigid Stars, sounds like nothing other than Codeine. One can only imagine the confusion of audiences walking into one of their shows, knowing that they were on Sub Pop and having no other information. I’m sure a lot people were shocked, and I only wish I could have been among the lot. As an album, Frigid Stars is pure, raw energy. Every note, every second of feedback has been greatly considered for its emotional impact. Whether it’s the massive slide guitar on “Pick-up Song,” the droning glacial riffs of “Second Chance,” or the acoustically driven and heartfelt “Pea,” Frigid Stars will remain nothing short of an understated classic.

Bedhead – WhatFunLifeWas
(Trance Syndicate, 1993)

bedhead_what_fun_life_was

Bedhead was the brainchild of Texan brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who released three albums throughout the 90s, all bearing a nearly identical sound and similar minimalist artwork. Over a seven year run Bedhead grew into one of the more reliable acts that consistently played at slower tempos but whose songs were very technical. Unfortunately, the band’s dynamic range makes for an unenjoyable listen in social and public settings – you have to turn up the quiet parts to hear them but turn the volume back down during the loud parts. In a similar vein, I imagine that Bedhead’s music was probably difficult to record. Their records are best suited for quiet settings, either with headphones on or played on your home stereo during a time when you’re able to sit down and soak in the details.

Considering Bedhead’s catalog, their second album, Bedhead’d, is probably their most accessible, while Transaction de Novo, their third and final LP, is probably their most experimental. WhatFunLifeWas sits somewhere in between. The album is both rock inclined, with the additions of tracks like “Haywire” and “Living Well,” yet makes room for Yo La Tengo like mellowness on “Bedside Table” and a bit of rockabilly twang on “To the Ground”. “Powder,” the album’s centerpiece (if one feels so inclined to single one out), unfurls slowly even for Bedhead’s standards, and whose closing minutes of instrumental relief is one of the band’s finest moments on record.

Red House Painters – Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
(4AD, 1993)
red_house_painters_rollercoaster

Listening to Red House Painters in 2017 is opening a time capsule to when the artistic expression of one man was still deeply embedded in the emotions that made his music great. From then until now, Mark Kozelek has come very far, probably even further then he could have imagined when he was plugging away at his sound with the Painters. Sure, long-time fans will tell you that at some point his vision became warped and his music insincere as a result. Could any fan, say 10 years ago, have predicted the audio equivalent to a dog’s breakfast that is Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood? Probably not. But, the silver lining is that people are still discovering Mark’s music these days, not so much for the quality, I suspect, but for the sheer fact that he keeps pumping it out into the world. He’s just gotten to a point where he can reach a much wider audience. I say good for him, but for what this critic’s opinion might be worth, the guy peaked in ’93, right here with Rollercoaster.

When I ranked the Painters’ albums around the time I started this site, I mentioned that when Koz gets pissed at people who request old songs at his shows, it’s usually ones from Rollercoaster he jokingly refers to. It’s no coincidence. This album is simply packed with the best Painters material. Whether it’s “Mistress”,”Grace Cathedral Park”,”Strawberry Hill”,”Katy Song” or “Things Mean a Lot,” there is at very least one song that remains timeless for fans. For me, it’s “New Jersey,” the first of the Painters songs I ever heard. The song discovered me (how I like to think of it) at a time when I was deeply seeking a new musical obsession, something meaningful that would lead me down a fulfilling path of discovery. Kozelek’s music was it, and to this day I’m still winding down that path.

Duster – Contemporary Movement
(Up Records, 2000)

duster_contemporary_movement

If Codeine redefined slowcore as punk then Duster were its ambassadors of Lo-fi. The band’s output was minimal, with Contemporary Movement being their second and final album (the follow-up to the spotty but interesting Stratosphere from ’98). Contemporary Movement saw the band effectively go from a two-piece to a three-piece, with more creative involvement of past part-time member Jason Albertini. As a result, Duster’s final album became a fleshed-out slowcore masterpiece.

Duster created music that was as gritty as it was soothing, as distant as it was right up next to you. Galaxie 500 might be a half-decent comparison to the band’s sound, but Contemporary Movement rarely gets dreamy, nor does it take you on any reverbed guitar journeys. Instead, the band plod along over the course of 13 concise songs, the music’s brilliance revealed over time as a cocktail of great guitar tone, punchy instrumentals, and songs that hook one’s head into a slow nod and leave one’s finger in search of the repeat button.

Catch you next Monday, March 20, for part 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s 10 album slowcore feature.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 2)

This is the second of a two part series documenting 20 albums as an introduction to the past 30 years of drone music. visit here for part one.

kevin_drumm_imperial_distortionKevin Drumm – Imperial Distortion
(Hospital Productions, 2008)

Kevin Drumm is certainly recognized more for bringing the noise than anything else, with his Mego debut, Sheer Hellish Miasma, opening the flood gates to a discography of now over 100 strong. Drumm’s noise work (from the ten or so albums I’ve heard) is interesting but not all that engaging. Imperial Distortion is another beast entirely, bringing to light a side of Drumm’s music that most fans likely didn’t know existed before its release.

Over a double-disc set, Imperial Distortion sees previous impulses toward more spastic tones curbed in favour of meditative drones. The music here is the sonic equivalent of the horizon at dusk, sun-doused as an already distant and bleary memory. To delve into this album is to open one’s ears to the quiet, rusted and weather beaten remnants of sound; it is the sound of decay. One can draw parallels here to the music of Jim Haynes or Lawrence English, but Imperial Distortion seems all the more nihilistic. A fine drone album, but be warned, do not attempt to fall asleep to this unless you want to be jarred awake by the blast of noise that graces the final minute.

jonathan_coleclough_periodJonathan Coleclough – Period
(Anomalous, 2001)

Jonathan Coleclough is no stranger to collaboration, but it’s in his solo work where his genius shines. Albums like his impeccable Windlass and 2004’s Makruna ・ Minya encapsulate the sounds of a drone artist in peak form. I would argue that Period, however, is Coleclough’s most realized, and therefore, best work. It also happens to be his darkest and probably his most unique album. Period’s particular use of unprocessed minor key piano is atypical of artists often affiliated with so-called lowercase minimalism and droning ambient. Part of what makes this album work as well as it does is this unflinching use of the piano, striking and cold as ice.

Putting aside the details for a moment, Period, on an unmistakable level, is made up of two paralleling distinctive tracks. The first track, that lives in the foreground, is made up of unprocessed piano. Notes are struck and left to ring out into silence, with sometimes one minute going by until the next note breaks through a swath of drones. It is this simmering layer of drone that makes up the second track, acting as a constant presence that fills the void between the sparingly played keys. When it is all put together, Period makes for an hypnotic and all around mesmerizing listen.

alio_die_ora_door_possibilitiesAlio Die & Ora – The Door of Possibilities
(Hic Sunt Leones, 1994)

Ora was the musical project of Darren Tate and Andrew Chalk, existing in a 10 year span from the early 90s to the early 2000s. On The Door of Possibilities the duo teamed up with Italian ambient-electronic composer Stefano Musso, aka Alio Die. In taking into account their respective styles, it’s no wonder these three decided to make an album together, as their tastes for organic soundscaping overlapped very well.

The Door of Possibilities is a bit more amped up then your typical Ora effort, where soft percussive elements grace many of the field-recording heavy tracks. I am not overly familiar with Alio Die’s catalog, but I can only infer that he was responsible for giving some of these songs their additional heft. A couple tracks almost veer into post-rock territory, albeit a very hushed, Middle-earth take on post-rock. “Bestiole Nascoste Tra Muschio E Le Alghe” is an obvious example and a standout track, leaning more heavily on traditional melodies than pure ambient bliss. And though there is plenty of bliss to go around, The Door of Possibilities is one of those albums where the artists involved were able to gracefully pivot their sound without tumbling off the track.

velvet_cacoon_atropineVelvet Cacoon – Atropine
(Full Moon Productions, 2009)

Operating in cloak-and-dagger form, Portland, Oregon’s Velvet Cacoon made a name for themselves in the extreme metal community before disbanding in 2012. The band came under some fire from fans and haters alike after an interview with an Italian publication revealed that many “claims” the band had made about their music and lifestyles were actually false. More accurately, the band simply did little to discredit rumours and once in a while enjoyed a little piss taking. Dubious claims aside, it’s clear that VC made music their top priority (even if in frequent conjunction with copious amounts of drugs).

A variation of black metal was for the most part the band’s musical focus, but on Atropine, that focus is shifted toward an exclusive use of rarified drones and swelling dark ambience. The album is only a slight deviation in the band’s typical feel, but gone is any semblance of recognizable instrumentation, replaced by music so obfuscated that it takes on an otherworldly quality. “Nightvines” is reminiscent of Andrew Chalk’s Vega, while the 36 minute “Dreaming in a Hemlock patch” has more in common with a humming radiator then anything typically categorized as music. As their final statement, Velvet Cacoon conjured up another baffling take on black metal, taking the form of a truly haunting drone work.

rolf_julius_distanceRolf Julius – Music for a Distance
(Western Vinyl, 2011 : composed between 2003-2009)

The German artist Rolf Julius was a through and through sound and visual artist. Throughout his life until his death in 2011, Julius produced work from a seemingly boundless well of inspiration. As a sound artist, Julius’s primary focus was on “small music,” a Cageian term “designat[ing] sounds so subtle they’re usually barely discernible,” according to Discogs. One might not immediately classify Julius’s music as ‘drone’, and although I do think it’s some of the most difficult music to describe, it does seem to rely heavily on the drone-like principles of length and repetition. A lot of the time it just sounds like a bunch of insects.

Music for a Distance was first conceived in 2003, after which Julius spent six or so years tweaking it in the studio. The version of the piece that I am familiar with – the Western Vinyl release from 2011 – is rather refined. Music for a Distance is 40 minutes of controlled chaos. Within its parameters there exists a cornucopia of buzzing, scraping, droning, twitching, and fizzling sonic elements, all buried next to each other and vying for attention. Within that cacophony Julius layers in gentle tone bursts at random intervals that unfold a little differently every time. While the arc of the piece is predictable, its specific unfolding is not. In the context of Rolf Julius’s catalogue, this is a good place to start. I also recommend the piece “Raining.”

lawrence_english_kiriLawrence English – Kiri No Oto
(Touch, 2008)

Lawrence English, the busy Australian intermedia artist, has worked his way through the musical ranks since the early 2000s to become a dependable figure on the experimental music world stage. His curatorial experience has seen him gracefully handle the endeavours of his Room40 label whilst juggling collaborations and his own sound and visual projects. English’s interest in music is multifaceted, evident not just by the diverse repertoire of artists throughout the Room40 catalogue, but also by way of his own work – his field recording library has grown considerably over the last few years. English is showing very little sign of slowing down, with the beginning of 2017 seeing the release of his new album, Cruel Optimism, while the remainder of the year looks quite promising for the Aussie.

English’s sole release for Touch in ’08 is also his most mystifying. Right from the title, which loosely translates to ‘sound of fog,’ we get the hint that no compass will help in navigating us through its deep wells and shifting atmospheres. The album art, too, – a small boat at sea in an endless blue-grey vista – beckons of the ill-fated confidence of so many chasers of the storm. Front to back, experiencing Kiri No Oto is like navigating the open ocean with little reference. And when reference points do surface, they soon become fading blips on a comet tail of decaying drones. In this ‘sound of fog,’ the best that any listener can hope for is to let go, get lost, and come out on the other side in one piece.

aeolian_string_ensemble_eclipseAeolian String Ensemble – Eclipse
(Robot Records, 2004)

Despite being dubbed an ensemble, Eclipse is the work of no more than one man. That man is David Kenny, and if that name seems familiar it’s because you may have read it in the linear notes of a Nurse with Wound or Current 93 album, where he would have been listed as a collaborator. For his solo work, Kenny doesn’t steer very far from the likes of either aforementioned project, but does take things in a more ethereal, spacey direction on Eclipse, the second of only two releases from the ASE.

Eclipse’s opener, “Espacios” sets the tone as a calming arrangement of elongated drones; like an epsom salt bath for the ears, the music verges on effervescent. “K1,” the second of the three pieces, doesn’t hide its source material as well, where elegiac harp strings are clearly heard, first plucked in a descending scale and then looped in a three or four note phrase. All the while a gentle feedback pulses throughout the song, gaining momentum and on a few occasions nearly escaping a comfortable volume threshold before getting abruptly cut off. “K1” is louder and more jarring but acts as a nice counterbalance to the more ethereal bookending pieces. The album ends on the title track that also happens to be the longest piece on Eclipse, where Kenny reigns in the sounds once again to nicely finish of this very solid release.

vikki_jackman_of_beautyVikki Jackman – Of Beauty Reminiscing
(Faraway Press, 2006)

For an artist who has produced as little work as Vikki Jackman, it is amazing how impactful her presence has been. Certainly her affiliation and occasional collaboration with Andrew Chalk helped in getting her name out there, but it is her own musical vision that has sustained her status alongside respected contemporaries.

It is Jackman’s understated methodology of the piano that is her strongest suit, arguably put to best practice on her debut album, Of Beauty Reminiscing. The difficulty in putting into words what it is that distinguishes Jackman’s work from other’s is part of what makes her music so noteworthy. There is a certain quality, a colouring of these sounds that is hard to pin down, but so recognizably her own. Piano notes are unearthed, never sounding whole to begin with, but exist as wisps of sound alongside fleeting drones. Of Beauty… instills a feeling of peace similar to the music of Kyle Bobby Dunn or Stars of the Lid, but with far less. In her case silence and the space between sounds becomes as important as the sounds themselves. Jackman understands this dance better than anyone.

thomas_koner_teimoThomas Köner – Teimo
(Barooni, 1991 : above cover art from 2010 Type reissue)

Often considered one of the masters of drone, Thomas Köner doesn’t need much of an introduction. His albums are a fascinating investigation into the principles of deep listening. Usually, a Köner album amounts to little on first listen, where one can only derive the basic architecture of any piece. Subsequent listens, however, reveal deep seeded nuances, rich textures crawl up from dark crevices and come alive. Köner’s musical talents are vast, stretching from the oh-so-minimal to the art club jams of Porter Ricks, his late 90s techno project with Andy Mellwig. The man has also had a long standing fascination with combining his sound with visual accompaniment. Of all his endeavours, it’s the music he has released under his own name that keep me coming back, especially his albums for Mille Plateaux and Barooni.

Teimo was the first Köner album I was exposed to, so it holds a place a bit closer to my heart than any of his other albums. I’ve chosen it for the list but any of the man’s early work – Permafrost, Nunatak, Daiken – would be fine in its place. The important thing – a no-brainer really – is that something of Köner’s had to be included among the lot. Teimo is still my personal favourite, and after countless listens I’m still noticing things that I’ve managed to miss before, like some nearly inaudible scrape or buzz that seems to manifest from the ether, as if the music is an organism that grows and changes over time. Absolutely essential drone music.

phill_niblock_just_record

Phill Niblock – Nothing to Look at Just a Record
(India Navigation, 1982)

I know what you’re thinking. I cheated. Yes, I admit it, Nothing to Look at Just a Record was not originally released within the last 30 years. Allow me to explain why it ended up here. I decided to include Phill Niblock’s debut, not as a desperate attempt to fill the 20th spot – any number of albums that didn’t quite make the cut could have easily slipped into the 20th position – but because it is, to this reviewer, too integral a stepping stone toward a wider critical acknowledgement of experimental music to not feature in this list. So, despite the math not quite adding up, Nothing to Look at… snuck its way in. After all, this is meant to be an introduction to drone music, and as anyone who is familiar with the artist will tell you, Niblock’s music is about as pure a musical representation one can find to the textbook definition of drone.

At just under 45 minutes, Nothing to Look at… is Niblock’s shortest solo album. The two tracks – to be later included in A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock – are both centred around the trombone. The pieces here meet at the intersection of recorded tape music and live performance, where a single ‘A’ note was played at various octaves, captured separately over eight recording channels and mixed down into two tracks (stereo) with breathing spaces removed. The finished works are ones that truly benefit from high volume playback, where overtones interlace to form a complex sculpture of sound. To date, this is still the most dynamic, lush, deceptively simple and most meticulously crafted drone music there is.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 1)

Before diving into the albums that make up this list, let’s briefly touch on the title: Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years. For starters, that’s a tall order. The summation of the last 30 years of drone music by way of a meagre 20 albums must be, almost by definition, taken with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that this list shouldn’t be seen as a valuable guide, or appropriate ‘starter pack’ for music fans looking to get into the genre. In fact, the initial thought of creating a sort of drone guide was central to the list’s eventual creation. Secondly, these 20 selections are not meant to define the genre, but are in this listener’s opinion important to its progression, either by being a glowing example of the style or a glowing example of how the style can be pushed into interesting and challenging directions.

The title begs the question: why the last 30 years? Much is known and written about the beginning of drone in the west. In the 60s, The Dream Syndicate, made up of La Monte Young, Jon Hassell, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and more, broke incredible ground into a new music consciousness. But where did it go from there? and what did musicians make who were influenced by the Syndicate, or musicians who were influenced by musician influenced by the Syndicate? These are the questions this guide attempts to explore. There is, however, no mandate to draw definitive conclusions, only to open doors for further exploration.

Lastly, one would be foolish to attempt a list as such without at least loosely defining the term drone. With any codifier, especially in regards to music, this can be a daunting task, especially when dealing with a genre whose distinction from ‘ambient’, ‘new age’, ‘dark ambient’ and ‘electronic’ can feel marginal and unimportant. La Monte Young defined drone as “the sustained tone branch of minimalism,” which is a fine definition except that it doesn’t seem to account for the music’s mood or effect on the listener. I would add that the mood of the best drone music tends to remain objective, or even moodless at times, differentiating it from ambient and dark ambient – the former often relying on melancholy while the latter tending to be more menacing. It’s a slim difference, but the understanding of that difference seems to grow as one discovers and absorbs this music passionately. Fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t much more to be said.

Now, in no particular order and with the necessary preamble out of the way, I present an honest attempt at distilling and organizing 30 years of drone music into 20 landmark albums. Enjoy, and drone on…

john_duncan_phantom_broadcastJohn Duncan – Phantom Broadcast
(Allquestions, 2002)

The prolific and nomadic artist John Duncan was primarily interested in performance in the 70s, responsible for pieces that dealt with challenging and difficult subject matter – his piece Scare saw him firing blanks from a real gun at preselected audience members while the remaining members watched in terror. In the early 80s he became engrossed with the musical potential of shortwave radio and began what would slowly become a long and meaningful relationship with sound.

Although this is only one among dozens of recordings Duncan released since his career started to ramp up in the 90s, it does seem to mark a kind of milestone in that journey. To do what Duncan is able to do with shortwave is to possess a gifted understanding of the power of nuance that is vital to, not just drone, but many forms of music. Phantom Broadcast showcases this intellect in the form of fluttering tones that simmer and decay over long arcs. The result is haunting, and as the piece gradually dissolves, you may find your reality dissolving with it.

mirror_eye_of_the_storm
Mirror – Eye of the Storm
(Streamline, 1999)

Mirror was the reticent music project of Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heemann, including contribution from Andreas Martin and Jim O’Rourke (or The Chameleon as I like to call him). The group was active during the early and mid 2000s but fizzled out in ’05. What’s striking about Mirror’s construction of the drone is how it’s creators feel almost completely removed. Their music takes on a fluidity to the extent that each album can feel like the aural representation of something that happens each and every second in the natural world: the gradual erosion of a river bank, or the movement of a plant leaf toward the sun.

Now consider the eye of a storm. Characteristically, the eye is peaceful, while all around it are turbulent winds and thrashing rain. To say this music is the aural representation of the eye of the storm as it occurs in nature is an understatement. The tones here are delicate, almost pastoral at times, but around them dark storm clouds loom. On close listen the music can be rather unsettling, but from a far it can fill a room and have a calming effect. The duality represented here is almost too obvious, but really it’s best not to overthink Eye of the Storm. After all, you wouldn’t want it passing you by.

stars_of_the_lid_ballasted_orchestra
Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra
(Kranky, 1997)

In the first decade of the 21st century Stars of the Lid set a new bar with two epics. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline have become benchmarks of modern ambient. Almost every contemporary drone or neoclassical outfit is compared to SOTL at some point in their career, and for good reason. Much is lauded of their albums from the 2000s, but the band had established their excellence prior to that time, notably with the release of The Ballasted Orchestra in ’97.

The Ballasted Orchestra has aged very well, and tends to be the SOTL album I return to the most. What would later become a sound tied to minimalist influences from the realm of piano centred compositional music – Satie, Part, Feldman, etc. – was all that much foreboding and mysterious on this release. This is SOTL at their droniest, and most spectral. Though Adam Wiltzie and Brian Mcbride remain busy to date, it doesn’t look like the world will be graced with anything quite like The Ballasted Orchestra any time soon (although, reportedly the duo have been working with Ben Frost on the new SOTL album). In any regard, this is an album to be cherished as one of the band’s greats and one of drone music’s finest.

pauline_oliveros_deep_listening
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis – Deep Listening
(New Albion, 1989)

The recent passing of Pauline Oliveros saw the death of one of ambient music’s true geniuses. Perhaps only second to the word ‘ambient’ itself, deep listening, coined by Oliveros, became a widely used term to describe a more refined, immersive way of experiencing our sonic world. It has become valuable to audiences and artists alike, imploring an aesthetic that can better connect an artist to improvisation, to environment, and can help hone their responses to music and sound.

This recording from 1989 by Oliveros, Dempster and Panaiotis is the first major recording by this trio (later to be renamed The Deep Listening Band) and is an absolutely essential drone album. Deep Listening saw the trio descend into a 14 foot cistern, where the four pieces that make up the album where performed and recorded. As anyone might guess, the highly reverberant space lends much to these recordings. Listening to the album, one really gets a sense of the architecture surrounding the sounds. The silence pocked throughout the recordings further accentuate the important role of the location, where voice, accordion, didgeridoo, trombone, and even a conch shell, feel all the more enveloping to the listener. As if choreographed, the trio were able to conjure an enormous sound from so little, in turn paving the way for the emergence of a new generation of minimalists, ambient purveyors, and drone worshipers.

earth_earth_2
Earth – Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version
(Sub Pop, 1993)

Any drone list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Earth 2. The shape of doom and drone metal would look significantly different if this album was never made. It was influential even enough to spawn Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s Sunn O))), who would become more popular than Earth themselves. Earth, however, would stay relevant, altering their sound to incorporate more folk, country and jazz elements.

Earth 2 doesn’t rank among the band’s best albums, but it was ahead of its time. To this day its tenacity is indisputable, and as the metal behemoth’s debut it was a bold statement, unrelenting in its guitar drone and distorted riffs that oozed from amplifiers like so much sludge. After its release the album could only be received as a statement that this band meant business, and that they did. Certainly, Earth 2 is a landmark drone album.

kyle_bobby_dunn_infinite_sadnessKyle Bobby Dunn – Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness
(Students of Decay, 2014)

In tracking the musical career of the Canadian born composer Kyle Bobby Dunn, it’s impressive how well he’s been able to float just below the radar for over a decade. I can only surmise that this is a comfortable place for the guy, that he’s not exactly one for the limelight. As a solo artist he’s had a steady output of albums on notable labels such as Low Point, Sedimental, and Desire Path, and critics have been very kind to his work over the years.

Dunn is able to coax drones from a guitar better than most, and one needn’t look further than his Students of Decay masterpiece (and I do not appreciate that word being tossed around) from 2014. Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness manages to retrace the best moments of Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn, while expanding on those ideas with patience and a vision to bring on a previously unheard lushness into the arrangements. The four-movement-spanning C side from the LP version is arguably the best 23 consecutive minutes of any recorded modern compositional music. Perhaps a broader circle of listeners could see …and the Infinite Sadness regarded as a guitar drone classic. To more than a few fans it likely already holds that honourable distinction.

pelt_-ayahuasca Pelt – Ayahuasca
(VHF Records, 2001)

The late 90s and early 2000s bred a strange and fascinating group of psychfolk and raga-centred drone bands, where it wouldn’t be unusual to see 8+ members perform at once, but hardly ever would a band perform with the same lineup twice. It was a time of rebirth for the ideas set into motion by The Dream Syndicate, giving way to a central nervous system of musicians who seemed perfectly suited to eat, breathe, and sleep minimalist free improv. ‘New Weird America’ was eventually coined for the movement, and as that seemed to perfectly suit bands like Sunburned Hand (of the man) and No-Neck Blues Band, it always felt a bit clunky for Pelt, who were more interested in their tapestry of drones than ever getting all that weird.

Ayahuasca is Pelt’s most robust work, and also happens to be their longest. It feels like the band’s focus was brought up a notch than on other efforts, with Jack Rose’s fast paced guitar playing having an amount of presence throughout that neither limits itself nor crowds the underlying ragas. Listening to this now, plucked from its weird America context, the album shines, with its arrangements of primitive guitar and bowed strings and bowls enveloping the body and mind like a warm bath. Ayahuasca is a must hear for any drone enthusiast.

chalk_coleclough_sumacJonathan Coleclough & Andrew Chalk – Sumac
(Robot, Siren Records, 1997)

Few artists know their way around a drone better than British stalwarts Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Chalk, so to have them together on a recording is quite the treat. Sumac – the extended one hour and eleven minute version in particular – is an absolute behemoth of modern UK minimalism. After twenty years this record still stands up, not only as a defining work from the time, but one that still holds precedence against much of the drone based music of today.

Nearly ten years ago, on a now defunct blog, I described Sumac as “[…] an album without ‘start’ or  ‘finish’. When you hit play you aren’t starting the album, you are simply given access to an eternal flow of sound that exists regardless if anyone is even listening.” This notion of an eternal flow is perhaps the most important reason why this piece works so well. On the surface, the musical elements all come together fine enough, but what’s really at play here is a keen understanding of temporality: its relationship to music and music’s relationship to it. Taking this in mind, what I hear as an eternal flow could also be interpreted as a stasis. Whether it’s heard as moving or standing still, Sumac remains timeless.

spiracle_ananta
Spiracle – Ananta
(Mystery Sea, 2006)

Brood for a moment on the concept of infinity. Infinity, in every potential context is beyond the grasp of the human mind. Sure, the word itself, like any other, is definable, but to truly grasp infinity is to step outside what is comprehendible for the human mind; impossibility and limitlessness are threaded into the word’s meaning, after all. Ananta is the Sanskrit word for infinity, and although the introduction to this review could be accepted as a deterrent for its use, there are few titles that would feel as fitting for this Spiracle album.

Spiracle is a recording alias of Japanese musician and painter Hitoshi Kojo. On Ananta, Kojo evokes the infinite by way of a complex tapestry of sound. The piece changes very little over the course of an hour, gently rolling along like an ocean wave that is thousands of kilometres from its break. The album’s pulse is purely mechanical, but it’s appendages are organic, as if sourced from water and wind. It could just be Kojo’s expertise but the two contrasting elements seem to come together rather naturally, though it takes a bit of time to adjust to all that’s unfolding before your ears. When one does adjust, the piece’s energy feels boundless.

nurse_with_wound_soliloquyNurse with Wound – Soliloquy for Lilith
(Idle Hole Records, 1988)

There are many words one could use to describe Nurse with Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith, but ‘digestible’ would probably not be one of them. At nearly 2.5 hours in length, this album is as massive an undertaking for the listener as it likely was for Steven Stapleton to create it – despite it coming to life as a fortunate accident of no input mixing. The shear magnitude is reminiscent of works like Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, where it’s not outrageous to think that people should be given an award just for getting through it all in one sitting. Even by the genre’s standards, Soliloquy demands much from its audience, but reveals an admirable restraint from the part of Stapleton, who built each of these eight pieces stoically, and with precision.

Although it’s difficult to differentiate these movements, one could argue that any single piece left on its own would seem somehow naked. There is a strange paradox at work here. As mechanical as these tonal arrangements sound, they also come across as living, breathing, entities; a pulse all the while running through the album’s core. Every piece here seems to be built around its own controlled feedback loop, gently rising and falling in undulation while an interplay of overtones and secondary feedback creeps in and out of the mix. In the ever growing monster that is the NWW catalogue, Soliloquy for Lilith stands as not only one of the band’s best efforts, but as one of the greatest drone albums of all time.

The Jesu EPs

The devil hates Justin Broadrick, as there are few people who suffer less from idle hands. The moment Broadrick has an idea for new music, it seems there isn’t a thing that can get in his way. Hell, why not just start a band for every new idea? At one point in his career it almost looked that way. The man has more bands to his name than most seasoned bands have albums. Sure, many were short-lived and hardly worth mentioning, but the likes of Napalm Death, Godflesh, Final, and God, would not exist without Broadrick.

Tucked neatly among Broadrick’s impressive list of projects is Jesu, a band seamlessly formed out of the ashes of Godflesh, and Broadrick’s longest standing outfit. In other words, Jesu is Broadrick’s baby, a project whose concept was cut and dry, whose creator reeled at the helm, in full understanding of the project’s boundaries and limitations. Ultimately, Broadrick would cross those boundaries, but not without acknowledging he had done so, and starting a new project, Pale Sketcher, to further explore music that veered from the Jesu ideology.

Jesu’s brilliance lies in Broadrick succumbing to his desires to go pop without ever actually going pop. To Godflesh, and Napalm Death, Jesu is pop. In reality the band’s sound lies somewhere between shoegaze and post-rock with an ever present tinge of Broadrick’s industrial roots. Jesu has released a considerable number of EPs over their decade-and-change existence, and it is the opinion of this writer–whether or not Broadrick himself believes it–that Jesu is served best in smaller doses. Whether it’s the sameness of Broadrick’s guitar or the sameness of his voice, it’s a much harder affair sinking one’s teeth into a Jesu full length (there are of course exceptions. See: Conquerer). However, give the band four or five song slots to fill and they’ll give you much to love before wearing you out.

Heartache

Heartache, 2004
(Dry Run Recordings)

If there was a release that was the clear divide between Godflesh and Jesu, Heartache wasn’t it. Such a release doesn’t exist, exactly. Instead, Heartache, and the self-titled full-length of the same year, were like transition points, allowing Broadrick the space to shift focus from one band to another.

On the one hand, Heartache is stoic and at times even cold. On the other, it’s one of the most emotionally charged releases in Jesu’s lifespan. The instrumental arrangements are precise, avoiding the sameness trap that would plague much of the band’s later work. Especially noteworthy are the drums and Braodrick’s vocals, which would both never again be left as unencumbered by lush instrumental arrangements as they were here, given space to breathe, naturally rising and falling into and out of existence.

Silver

Silver, 2006
(Conspiracy/Hydra Head)

There are few Jesu songs that hit as hard as the title track on Silver. The song is a perfect distillation of the “Jesu” sound: cinematic, hooky, and equal parts heavy and dreamy. How the arc of the song is encapsulated in less than seven minutes and doesn’t feel rushed is baffling. Broadrick is wise in letting the instruments do most of the talking here, the vocals sunk low in the mix until the words “silver’s just another gold” cut through and repeat for the final minute. It’s one of the finer moments of Broadrick’s extensive catalog.

As is typical in Broadrick’s recipe for a well-rounded EP, the track in the second slot picks up the energy level. “Star” is propulsive, with drum tracks that hammer away like in the Godflesh days, but with enough pretty guitar at work to trump any “industrial” pigeonholing. The guitar tricks continue into the closing track, “Dead Eyes,” where more studio is heard than on any of the previous songs. It’s a glimpse into what would eventually become a more hypnotic, electronic driven direction for Jesu. But it’s only a glimpse. On Silver, we get a taste of Broadrick’s genius, where, amidst the spectrum of everything Jesu was and would ever be, the pendulum hung in the perfect place.

Lifeline

Lifeline, 2007
(Hydra Head)

On the heels of Silver was Lifeline, a mere blip in a year that saw plenty of releases for Jesu, including two LPs. However, Lifeline is not to be overlooked, incorporating and expanding on much of the sound that shaped Silver. Later Jesu instrumentals had a tendency to sound rehashed, if not a little boring, but on Lifeline Broadrick was deep in his groove. Gone are the emotional peaks and valleys and hammering drums. In their place is a soup of drum machines and effect-laden guitars. The sound is murky but not sloppy.

The album’s pitfall lies in the third track, “Storm Comin’ On,” which would benefit a lot from the absence of Jarboe (ex-Swans vocalist). Her whisper-quiet verses work for the most part but her throaty delivery of the chorus is cringe inducing. The appropriately titled closer, “End of the Road” makes up for it. Bass-heavy drums break through the murk to start but are soon taken over by an ambient backdrop of looped synthesizer, pattering percussion and Broadrick’s intentionally half-present vocal delivery. For a good minute or two one might forget they weren’t listening to The American Analog Set.

WhyAreWeNotPerfect

Why Are We Not Perfect, 2008
(Hydra Head)

Whether he was appealing to Eluvium fans (the band on the other side of the split album in which these songs originally appeared) or substituting jack and coke with tranquilizer and sleepy-time tea, Why Are We Not Perfect is Broadrick’s most syrupy delivery of the Jesu sound yet. Though some would argue Broadrick set himself up for failure on this one, I’d argue that he got to further explore a side of Jesu that was present from the very beginning. And what format is better than the less comital extended play in order to tap into that facet of the band’s sound?

Vocals have never been Jesu’s strong point, often placed unassumingly in the mix. On these arrangements, which, in Broadrick’s songwriting spectrum are basically lullabies, there is less present noise to hide the voice. The result comes across as more lacklustre than subtle, floating in an awkward middle ground somewhere between post-rock, slowcore and the rainy day electronic indie haze of the Postal Service.

OpiateSun
Opiate Sun, 2009
(Caldo Verde/Aural Exploits)

What is it with Jesu consistently nailing the title track?  “Opiate Sun,” though an obvious parting of nuance for the band, is what I wish all rock music would sound like. That and the opener, “Losing Streak,” are as unobfuscated as they come for Broadrick. And yes, this is Broadrick working alone here, amazingly. “Losing Streak” and “Opiate Sun” compliment each other perfectly, while “Deflated” would be the closest thing here to outright metal had Broadrick passed along lead vocal responsibilities. The EP is a welcome shedding of layers from Why Are We Not Perfect, reigning back a sound closer to that which defined Jesu’s lauded earlier work.

Red House Painters Albums Ranked

It is impossible to tell the Red House Painters story without first paying respect to the band’s founder, frontman and beating heart: Mark Kozelek. The story of Kozelek is as interesting as it is long and arduous. At a certain point in digging into his past, it becomes painfully clear how much his work has mirrored the life he leads. Music is, and always will be Kozelek’s life’s calling, and, like anything that perpetually follows one around like a ghost, his life’s burden.

After the dissolve of Red House Painters in the late 90s, Kozelek hit what one might consider the soul-searching part of his career, releasing a few covers albums before forming Sun Kil Moon with members from RHP (notably, drummer Anthony Koutsos and guitarist Phil Carney). Currently, as Kozelek’s career tumbles forth, his song writing grows less and less cryptic, to the point where, on his most recent album, Universal Themes, his songs have taken the form of wordy – if not overly self-righteous – confessionary pieces.

The plus side to Koz’s confessions are that we really get to know him, at least, as much as one can know somebody without ever meeting them. Anyone versed well enough in his career will know that beneath his abrasive persona lies a deeply sensitive individual. His songs reveal a man who’s dealt with depression, existential crises, infidelity guilt, and enough death around him for five life times.

As prolific an artist as Kozelek is it can be difficult to take a step back to consider it all. As a fan, what isn’t difficult is seeing the importance of the Red House Painter’s years among that timeline. It was Down Colorful Hill that put Koz and his band into motion in 92, and over the next four years the Painters would produce some of the best emotionally introspective rock music in history, finely balancing the soft and the loud, the delicate and the harsh, the happy and the oh so sad.

Red House Painters were the best slowcore act of the 90s, and that’s in the illustrious company of bands like Bedhead, Low, and Codeine. Today, Alcohol the Seed takes on the difficult task of placing the six studio albums by the Red House Painters into some kind of logical order. The challenge is that there isn’t a dud among them, so, inevitably, the task becomes a game of playing favourites. However, if something, anything, in the process can be revealed of the band and their enigmatic place on the totem of American underground music, then perhaps it’s a challenge worth baiting.

Bridge

6. Red House Painters (Bridge)

Red House Painters released two self-titled albums nicknamed after the imagines depicted on their covers. Bridge is essentially the sister album to Rollercoaster, both released in the same year, and both featuring different versions of “New Jersey” (Bridge featuring the electric while Rollercoaster featuring the acoustic). Bridge hints at Koz’s mastery for covers, with his version of Paul Simon’s “I am a Rock” taking the third track slot, and the “Star Spangled Banner” capping off the record. Neither cover seems to embody the RHP’s lonerism ethos as well as “Bubble” or “Blindfold,” leaving the album feeling a bit fractured, conceptually.

Fortunately, the one-two of “New Jersey” and “Uncle Joe” make up for the album’s shortcomings. “New Jersey” is like your favourite Tom Petty song heard slightly slowed down right when the drugs start to wear off, while “Uncle Joe” is RHP’s pinnacle of wrought, tear-inducing emotion.

Songs of note: Bubble, New Jersey, Uncle Joe.

Songs_For_A_Blue_Guitar

5. Songs For a Blue Guitar

Songs For a Blue Guitar is the most varied RHP release, made up of melancholic love songs, instrumental-heavy epics and classic rock covers. It seems almost ridiculous that Koz and the band would expect the listener to tag along during their joy ride of emotional ups and downs from one song to the next. However, for reasons I can’t exactly pin down, it all seems to work.

The first half of Songs… shines brighter than the second, with the snowflake-gentle “Have You Forgotten” easing the listener in. “Make Like Paper” is everything one would want to love from a twelve minute, guitar-centric rock song, without ever feeling like it meanders too far from its core hooks. “Trailways” easily cracks the band’s top-ten best songs, with guitar work foreshadowing Koz’s mid-2000s records as Sun Kil Moon.

Songs of Note: Have You Forgotten, Song for a Blue Guitar, Make Like Paper, Trailways, Revelation Big Sur.

Old_Ramon

4. Old Ramon

After its completion, it took three years for the RHP’s final album, Old Ramon, to be released. The fizzling out of the band, their severance from 4AD, and late 90s major label mergers all contributed to the album’s state of limbo. Sub Pop eventually picked it up in 2001, but by then Kozelek had already formed his new band.

If Songs for a Blue Guitar was a precursor to Koz’s new direction in sound, then Old Ramon might as well be considered Sun Kil Moon’s debut. Overall, the sound production is cleaner then any other RHP album, and the songs more approachable to those unfamiliar with the band. Anyone remotely interested in the mellower side of rock would find it nearly impossible not to fall in love with this record, whether it’s the classic rock influenced “Between Days,” the intimacy of “Void” and “Smokey,” or the early summer evening trance of “Cruiser,” there is a lot here to keep one coming back.

Songs of note: Byrd Joel, Void, Cruiser, River, Smokey.

Ocean_Beach

3. Ocean Beach

What was perhaps the most difficult thing about compiling this list was figuring out where to place Ocean Beach. From my first proper front-to-back listen to this very moment I’ve remained torn by my feelings towards the record.

The album is the Painter’s prettiest offering, with string arrangements, piano and classical-inspired guitar making appearances throughout. Ultimately, this was a deciding factor in bumping the album down from the second slot to number three (though it was a difficult call). Simply put, the Painter’s were best at their most raw, and Ocean Beach isn’t it.

To the band’s credit little can be said to dismiss the potency of “San Geronimo“, “Brockwell Park,” and the absolutely heart-breakingDrop.” And with enough time spent with Ocean Beach, its saving grace is revealed through the ever-present quiver in Kozelek’s vocal delivery, at each turn echoing a yearning to make sense of life, love, and one’s place amongst it all.

Songs of Note: San Geronimo, Shadows, Brockwell Park, Drop.

Down_Colorful_Hill

2. Down Colorful Hill

Album art is not always telling of the music within, but the cover for RHP’s debut album, Down Colorful Hill, couldn’t be more perfect. The cover depicts a quilted bed, old and eerie looking, in a rather bleak room. The photo itself looks ancient, sepia-toned and worn, and despite the fact that the bed is made, the scene is about the least inviting thing imaginable. One can almost picture the decrepit remains of a person being removed from that very bed only hours before the photo was taken.

Then you hit play and the slow crawl of “24” only reaffirms your dread. Despite the almost upbeat tempo of “Lord Kill the Pain,” Down Colorful Hill is RHP’s darkest effort. The 10+ minute title track marches forward with Anthony Koutsos behind the drums, gaining momentum as Kozelek howls “bred for success” into the ether. The sullen “Michael” closes things out with Koz forlornly reminiscing about an old friend who he tried to hunt down and reconnect with. Ultimately, like any attempt to reconcile an inevitable parting of ways, his efforts are to no avail.

Songs of note: Down Colorful Hill, Japanese to English, Michael.

Rollercoaster

1. Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

As much as I hummed and hawed over the order of these records, from the beginning the number one spot was a no-brainer. Rollercoaster is RHP’s opus, and still Kozelek’s best album (yes, it’s better than Benji). Within seconds of the album’s opener, Grace Cathedral Park, the listener is swept into Kozelek’s intimate song world. It’s no coincidence that when Koz would later joke about his fans wanting to hear him play songs from the 90s during current tours, that it’s the songs from Rollercoaster he mentions.

The music of the Red House Painters possesses a strange hold over the listener that is difficult to come by and even harder to explain. It can almost be equated to the act of drowning, where an immediate attempt to understand pain and struggle is soon followed by a tranquility that comes from letting go. Rollercoaster best exemplifies that analogy, possessing some of the band’s most distressed music, which, if one allows, can seed itself inside you and grow into something beautiful.

Songs of note: Grace Cathedral Park, Katy Song, Mistress, Take Me Out, Strawberry Hill, Brown Eyes.

Caldo Verde