2012 Wrap Up: Christopher Altenburg (contributing writer)

Christopher Altenburg

Name & Position: Christopher Altenburg, contributing writer
Best Album: Swans – The Seer?I’ve never been comfortable labeling one album as the “best” of the year, because it’s usually like comparing apples and knife hits (they both have their appeals for very different reasons).  But while 2012 had its share of successes (both Death Grips releases for example), I don’t feel like I encountered a more masterful effort this year than the latest release by Swans.  Described as an accumulation of the various directions and styles explored over frontman, Michael Gira’s, 3-decade career in the music industry, The Seer incorporates the brutal thumping impact and sustained drone exhibited with the early industrial Swans output and powerful dynamics and post-rock crescendos of their Soundtracks for the Blind pre-hiatus work with the more melodic, experimental, western-tinged doom-folk of Angels and Light and the further stripped down acoustic, songwriting elements of Gira’s solo work.  Maintaining his incredibly strong lyrical ability and intimidatingly direct vocals, everything merges perfectly on this release.  While it’s been easy enough for those that may have heard only a few Swans tracks, without ever taking any real the time to fully delve into his extensive catalog, to assume that Gira is simply a noisy fuck-off who carelessly clacks sound around, or simply sits on one blanket tone indefinitely for experiments sake, The Seer proves, once and for all, how much those experiments have yielded and how much knowledge Gira has truly accumulated over the years.  It’s powerful stuff and, while the enthusiasm of experimentation remains, Swans know exactly how to create the soundscapes that they intend to and how to maneuver and fine tune them, understanding exactly what effect each minor tweak is going to possess.  The whole thing is finely orchestrated with outside contributors being brought in at the perfect, select moments, including longtime Swan, Jarboe; former Angels of Light, Akron/Family, and slowcore pioneers, Low.  When I saw Gira perform solo at the beginning of the year, he played “Song For A Warrior,” stating that it would be on the “upcoming” Swans album, but that it was “too good” for him to sing himself.  It turns out that he knew exactly what he was doing and, when I finally heard Karen O (someone that I’m not typically a fan of) on the track, I didn’t even recognize her.  Pushing the 2hr mark at 119 minutes and 13 seconds, The Seer is not only as good as anything else that I’ve heard all year, but it’s also twice as long.
Best New Artist: Joey Bada$$ ?At only 17 years old, Flatbush New York’s Jo-Vaughn Virginie was born at, what is widely considered to be, the tail end of “the golden era of rap.”  That means that for the majority of his life, many of us have somewhat regularly listened to and/or partaken in discussions about if there would be, and who might be, the new savior(s) of the genre to finally make a large enough impact to set it back on course for good.  Sure, there have been plenty of solid artists within that time frame, but it seems to remain a topic of interest and speculation—“This guy is gonna revolutionize the industry!  He’s the new golden boy!  Enough of this Hollywood bullshit!” etc.  If there’s been one artist convincing enough to bring lyricism, craftsmanship, and credibility back to the game in the last decade, Joey, most certainty could be the one to do it.  He may be the face of a new movement, but what’s equally impressive as his individual skills, are the abilities of his cohorts in his Progressive Era collective, as showcased via their cameos on his mixtape, 1999.  Wu-Tang made their impact as one unified force of ridiculously talented individuals, themselves, and Pro Era is already displaying signs that they might be able to follow suit.  They’re a close knit mob in similar fashion as OFWGKTA, but with far more substance, hustler mentalities, and complex lyricism, who have yet to expose any real weak spots within their ranks.  It’s easy to refer to Joey and his crew as golden era revivalists, trained in the ways of the boom bap, who take cues from such pioneers as The Wu, Das EFX, Big L, Notorious B.I.G., KMD, etc.  In fact, it’s hard not to make such comparisons, but if they are “revivalists” they are revivalists in much the same way that Daptone Records are revivalists of deep soul; you can feel the authenticity behind it and nothing sounds forced.  Some of the stuff that we’re hearing now was actually recorded when Joey was as young as 15, so the sky could be the limit for him, if he doesn’t sell out his talent to rap about cars and “bitches.” He may seem young, but remember, NAS was around the same age when his first material dropped.  Keep an eye on this kid.??? 
Best Underappreciated Album: of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl) / Rangda- Formerly Extinct (Drag City).  ?Ever since Kevin Barnes chronicled his bout with severe depression, time in Norway, and personal turmoil on the concept album, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? In 2007, it’s been a double-edged sword for the of Montreal mastermind.  Like the psych-pop equivalent of GZA’s Liquid Swords, no subsequent albums will ever compare in the minds of fans and critics who are stubbornly waiting for Hissing Fauna part 2.  Paralytic Stalks, in some ways, is a return to the first half of Hissing Fauna, moving away from Barnes’ black she-male alter-ego, Georgie Fruit, that was introduced on the second half of that release and continued through the 2 full-lengths that followed it.  More importantly, however, is the fact that the songs on this new album are actually really solid compositions that both broaden and fit right at home in the oM catalog.  Of course, few people really gave it a chance or were able to view it as its own separate entity.  Fortunately, Barnes continues to push himself, regardless of public opinion, and there are still plenty of people willing to follow him through that progression.  As far as I’m concerned, Paralytic Stalks is a fitting addition to an already prolific career.??Rangda’s Formerly Extinct is an incredibly solid record that was, unfortunately, overshadowed by Ben Chasny reuniting with his Comets on Fire bandmates to release his latest Six Organs of Admittance album, the shrieking space-guitar triumph, Ascent (also on Drag City).  It’s easy enough to blindly write Rangda off as being talented, but not particularly inspired, like the typical “supergroup”—the trio further consists of 2nd guitarist, Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls) and the free jazz leaning Chris Corsano (Bjork, Thurston Moore, Jandek, etc) on drums—but, with Formerly Extinct, they have noticeably morphed into a very different and substantially more cohesive animal than the one that appeared on their previous effort.  While I actually enjoyed the grating chaos presented on their debut, False Flag, which sounded like a swarm of locusts were devouring a village and its fear-stricken residents whole, their new album truly showcases Rangda as a unified band; a collective sound mirroring their collective talents.  The loose improvisation of feeling out each other’s abilities have all but dissipated, leaving the material much more focused, and it’s clear that they’ve really locked into how their individual skillsets operate best with one another.  It’s a welcomed revelation with intricate, interweaving Eastern-inspired guitar lines that often make it difficult to discern where Chasny and Bishop begin or end.  Meanwhile, Corsano whips up percussive tornados, levitating the tracks off of the ground, before dropping them back onto the desert floor, or sending them swirling in various directions like a scattered sandstorm.  It’s a good one.
Best Reissue: The Books – A Dot in Time (Temporary Residence).  ?For over a decade, the experimental duo of Nick Zammuto (vocals, guitar) and Paul de Jong (cello), put out some of the most genre defying and forward thinking music around, often incorporating random audio samples (clips from self-help tapes, golf videos, etc) into their strikingly original compositions and sound collages.  Throughout that time, they ventured into territories that ranged from folktronica to full on monk-like chanting, released 4 full-length albums, and were even commissioned to create music for a French elevator (literally).  It’s disappointing that The Books recently chose to call it quits, but A Dot in Time isn’t a terrible consolation.  This vinyl boxset includes remastered reissues of all 4 of their studio albums, as well as the previously unreleased double album, Music For A French Elevator and Other Oddities.  Collectively, this release consists of 95 songs spread out over 7 vinyl records.  The Books’ live performances are well known for their visual elements and this collection not only includes a 52 page booklet, but a 2hr DVD, presenting every video that the group has ever made, including the material that was previously only shown live in concert, as well.  In fact, A Dot In Time contains every single piece of video or audio that The Books ever created, and includes a cassette tape-shaped USB drive that holds high quality MP3s of every one of their tracks, providing the versatility of a digital copy to accompany the vinyl.  Due to the nature of the release (it has a limited run of only 1,000 copies) it’s a little on the pricier end, but they weren’t fucking around when they assembled this thing.  It’s a monster.
Best Live Band: This year I saw some truly impressive, surprising, and visually arresting performances from the likes of such artists as Amon Tobin, Grizzly Bear, of Montreal, and more, but, if I have to narrow it down to the “best” live band(s) of the year, I would have to choose the two most emotionally evocative shows that I caught in 2012, which, in many ways, were polar opposites of each other:  the inspirational deep soul revivalists, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires and Michael Gira’s indefinable, experimental legends, Swans.  ??I saw Bradley during this year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival, among really tremendous and unforgettable sets by acts like St Vincent and Spiritualized, but he still put on the most powerful display of the 4-day weekend.  Stuck performing on the mainstage at around 1pm to a bunch of typically cynical teenagers, the 64 year old former James Brown impersonator dumped his guts all over the stage, making believers out of everyone in attendance and even leaving an 18 year old girl in tears.  It was mind blowing.  ??Swans, who take a very different approach, are no less effective at physically connecting with their audience.  What’s most impressive about the reformed 6-piece is the way that they so effectively utilize the collective knowledge that they’ve accumulated over the last 30 or so years to harness, redirect and generally “control” sound at a level that is unmatched by anything or anyone that I’ve ever witnessed before.  They’re not just some experimental group throwing in discordant skronks here and there for the sake of the avant garde; every single pluck, strum, drone, and shimmering rattle helps to build and shift each track forward and expand its dimensionality.  Swans created a pressure cooker that felt like I was dying in outer space—lungs collapsing; inability to breathe (or at least remember to); my soul magnetized, slowly merging with the atmosphere and being drawn outside of my physical vessel.  They played for almost 2hrs straight and, when they finally ended, Gira explained the reasoning: he felt that we had all “had enough.”  Nobody complained.
Best Live Audience: Thee Oh Sees.  ?Maybe it’s John Dwyer lifting Coronas with his teeth and chugging back full bottles, while chopping away at his guitar neck and stomping around the stage that he’s constantly hacking puddles of spit onto, or simply the driving rhythm being pushed out by the San Francisco outfit collectively, but something makes people lose their goddam minds at a Thee Oh Sees show.  I recently watched that old documentary Hype! and there’s a section where they refer to the uniqueness of the Seattle scene during the grunge period being partially reliant on how rowdy crowds would get, as opposed to other cities which they claimed would just self-consciously stand with their arms folded or hands in their pockets.  I don’t know what’s happened since, but the hipster Seattle crowds that I’ve experienced over the last decade plus are much more akin to the latter.  Thee Oh Sees managed to get the audience up and moving again, stage diving, and going apeshit crazy, which is a true accomplishment and a rarity these days.  I’ve missed that kind of enthusiasm.  (Unrelated question: Does “Oh Sees” stand for oxycontin?)
Favorite Interview: EL-P.?I did a few interviews in 2012, but my favorite had to be the one that I conducted with NY rapper/producer Jaime “El Producto” Meline.  As a founding member of doomy rap pioneers, Company Flow, an often unsung factor behind the enormous success of Rawkus Records in the nineties, and a CEO/founder/producer/artist with his label Definitive Jux throughout the following decade, EL-P is arguably one of the most—if not thee most—important figures in independent hip hop over the last 20 years, period. The best interviews are the ones where you can just slip into a conversation and transition from one topic to the next with someone so effortlessly that you feel like you’ve casually known them for years.    Being a longtime admirer of his accomplishments, I had plenty of assumptions about EL-P’s motivations, intentions, and process regarding his work, simply based off of how I connected to it personally, so it was great to have a lot of that validated and expounded upon.  EL is extremely passionate and meticulous about his art and its creation, which lends itself to both his enthusiasm and humility in discussing such topics.  I could elaborate, but you’d be better off just picking up a copy of Ghettoblaster issue #32, with the Aesop Rock cover, to really see how it turned out for yourself.
Best TV show: Game of Thrones / American Horror Story.?HBO is brilliant.  I found that out when I was offered a free 3 month trial (They’ve still never removed the on-demand feature for the station).  My main intention was to watch the last season of Eastbound and Down, but I would always catch a little bit of the shows that preceded or followed it (Girls).  HBO often airs their seasons by having rotating shows begin and end in the middle of the seasons of the shows that surround it.  This makes it easy to get swept up in the other programs and to be dragged along with them, like a river current.  I caught pieces of Game of Thrones occasionally, when I would tune in especially early, but it seemed like I was way too late in the game to jump in or know what was going on.  Once I decided to check out the first episode via on-demand, allowing me to form a basis for all of the separate storylines, it all finally clicked into place.  This program works on so many levels, with really terrific, engaging character development and a surprising amount of unpredictability.  It became the only show that I made an effort to keep up on each week, giving me and the lady something to watch together while the baby was asleep.  Now we have to wait until next year to see what happens next and pathetically anticipating it.  [Side note: True Blood is fucking terrible.]  ??I’m not big on following TV shows, but American Horror Story is the one and only other program that has genuinely sucked me into its hedonistic folds, while I await the return of Game of Thrones.  Consequently, it’s the one other show that the lady and I make a routine out of watching together, which adds to its appeal.  When the debut season ended, the first thing that I said was that I didn’t want to see another season unless the storyline, characters, and setting were entirely different.  That first season was like one huge film that wrapped itself up perfectly in the end, without any loose ends.  Any misstep that appeared to be taken during its progression was always validated and patched up before the show got too of course.  This time around, they did exactly what they needed to; scrapping the characters, and even the time period that they relied on the first time around, they developed an entirely new set of circumstances and characters to engage with.  Even with a handful of the same actors returning, their performances are convincing enough to make you completely forget about and overlook elaborate backstories that they had established as completely different characters as recently as last year.  Instead of ghosts roaming around everywhere, this season has bitten off what could easily have been way too much, with alien abductions, the angel of death, demonic possessions, Nazi war criminals, Ed Gein-style serial killing, vehicular homicide, and genetically engineered cannibalistic monsters, all set around an archaic, corrupt mental institution.  In fact, by all accounts, this show is so over the top that it really shouldn’t work at all.  But it does work, and it does so by activating the same triggers that induce anxiety attacks, in much the same way that I’m so mesmerized by artists like Venetian Snares, simply based on their ability to stimulate such physical responses with their work, uncomfortable or otherwise.  Plus, Jessica Lange is still one of the most consistently powerful and intense actors around and there’s something really twisted about seeing James Cromwell be such a miserable, heartless piece of shit.  That’ll do pig.
Best A Good Book: Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince Billy” – by Alan Licht?I can’t claim to have read very much current literature, but I’m in the middle of this 400 page release written by Oldham’s friend and colleague, the avant-garde composer/musician, Alan Licht, and it’s pretty good.  Compiled out of transcripts taken from a series of conversations between Alan and Will, the text is presented directly as one long interview, divulging every aspect of the prolific songwriter’s career, from his inspirations, roots as an actor, and associations with fellow Louisville musicians like SLINT (for whom he shot the now-infamous Spiderland album cover), to his very specific approaches and viewpoints regarding the creation process and music in general.  Oldham is notorious for being less than enthusiastic about interviews, but if you meet him in person under less “official” circumstances, he presents himself as open and interested in engaging in thoughtful, candid conversation as anyone that you’re ever likely to come across.  He’s a scholar of life whose own very defined sense of self makes him equally as fascinated in discovering the viewpoints of others and the possibilities in the world at large.  Licht’s book strips away the formalities to offer an extremely casual read that allows Oldham to simply spill it all on the table.  Beyond that, it’s intended to be the end all be all, definitive Oldham interview to end all interviews—a somewhat literal attempt to avoid too many future interviews, because it’s already all been said.
Biggest Surprise (Good): Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Puget Sound mini-tour.  ?The first surprise came with the announcement that Will Oldham would be embarking on a mini-tour throughout the Puget Sound area of Washington state.  Over a handful of consecutive dates, he would appear at select locations to perform shows as a solo acoustic act, a stripped down setup that he hasn’t employed in quite some time.  The shows were very relaxed occasions, with Will fielding questions from attendees, as well as taking requests for tracks that spanned his entire catalog, from his very first Palace Brothers release to his more current work under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker.  Each appearance was completely free of charge—he didn’t even bring any merchandise to sell—and involved varied and unique takes on all of his material.  The first show was held at a wolf sanctuary in Tenino and the following day saw him popping up for an in-store at Rainy Day records, a shop that I used to frequent daily in my old stomping grounds of Olympia (home of K records).  Clearly, there is a personal connection that aided in my enthusiasm for these stops, but the real surprise came on the third day when Oldham took part in an in-store at Rocket Records in Tacoma at 3pm on a Monday.  When he was first introduced, there were only about 8 people in attendance and, at most, that number may have grown to a total of 30 by the end.  More than a surprise, most of us were in absolute shock regarding the low turnout and our good fortune at being present for such an intimate performance.  Afterwards, Bonnie stuck around and spoke in depth with whoever wanted to speak with him, before racing up to Seattle to knock out another in-store, which turned out to be conversely packed.  Later, many of the people that I spoke with stated that they didn’t come out to the Tacoma show for fear that it would be over attended.  If you’re one of those that were in that camp, you made a huge mistake.
Biggest Surprise (Bad): The WEEN break up.?One of the most versatile and enduring rock bands of all time recently disbanded, but who am I to complain?  When Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman made the announcement in an interview earlier this year, it was just as big, and an substantially worse, of a surprise to the other members of the group as it was to the rest of us whose livelihoods weren’t directly affected by it.