2018: A few of my favourite things
Confession: My 2018 in Music was sponsored by Big Dick Energy. Which is pretty much the exact opposite of last year: the music – songs, albums, concerts, etc. — that most inspired or entertained or provoked me in 2017 was almost exclusively women artists. That’s not so unusual, for me to be most attracted to and affected by work made by women, and last year’s was particularly powerful. Now, looking back at the past year, I realize what really stuck with me was decidedly masculine. Which surprised me a tad, considering how infuriating and depressing “bro” culture in general has been of late. But I guess it is important to note my definition of “masculine” is pretty broad and includes dudes who wear tights and make-up.
This list probably has much to do with my full-time job as a producer of BangerTV – an all-metal YouTube channel. In 2018, our channel had great growth and success, which meant I had less time for freelance writing about other music. And the fact is, despite inroads by women players, metal remains a hyper-masculine genre. So while I still consider myself very much a generalist in my taste and expertise, this year I share the distinctly heavier, and heavily male, personal Favourite Musical Things of 2018.
“Come unto me Bartzabel By the spear, the sword, the spell Come unto me Bartzabel By the word that openeth Hell!”
My favourite song of 2018 is a bombastic paean to an obscure demon by Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth, from their album I Loved You at Your Darkest.
Behemoth is one of my fave metal bands in general, even though I just joined the bandwagon with 2009’s Evangelion – more than 10 years after they started making music. My metal colleagues will point out this newer stuff is practically pop for the genre. But in the more mainstream realm they now work in, it’s still transgressive music. Plus, I don’t need brutality and blastbeats – I want melodramatic, melodic, heavy, dark, atmospheric shit. That I can dance to, even. This track hits the bullseye.
The video is also beautifully blasphemous, nudity juxtaposed with religious dress, singer Nergal in his bejewelled Papal mitre growling his incantations carrying a skull, and, uh, bloodletting, suspension, and inverted crosses. Is it cheesy? A bit. But it’s also erotic, something frankly lacking in most metal I listen to. If the song captivated me, the video downright seduced me.
I got to see Behemoth live three times in 2018. The first, a truncated opening set sandwiched between blistering thrash bands at an open-air amphitheatre, was amusing for its combination of the band’s fake blood theatrics, serious Satanic posturing, and daylight. Later, I was fortunate enough to squeeze into Behemoth’s private, corpsepaint-mandatory living room show taping at House of Strombo. Jammed into a dark corner behind the drum kit, I could feel the raw physicality of "Bartzabel," which is so rhythmically muscular, and fell even deeper under its spell.
Behemoth's headlining set at the Danforth Music Hall was probably my fave gig of the year, notwithstanding Saint Nick Cave (we’ll get to that). A full-on metal spectacle, with costume changes, set design and creative use of smoke that is clearly meant to elevate the band to arena status. (I can’t wait to see what they’ll do in venues that allow pyro.) While the set threatened to drag on into self-parody at times, and you do have to get behind the whole unironic “Hail Satan” thing, this level of ambition, executed perfectly, cannot be denied.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
Live from on Stage at Scotiabank Theatre
Did I wear a red dress on purpose? Yes. I did. I had seen the new Nick Cave concert film, Distant Sky, in which he brought fans on stage as part of the act. I didn’t know for sure it would happen in Toronto, and I didn’t know how those people were picked, but I thought if there’s a chance I get up there, I want to be able to see myself in the crowd in photos later. That was my dream. And then, it happened.
On stage. With Nick Cave. Singing Stagger Lee. Well, shouting it. A call-and-response, live and in person, with one of the best performers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, doing one of his absolute best songs, at the height of his power. Watching him work an arena crowd into a frenzy, feeding off them as much as they do him — from his point of view, and within touching distance of Warren Ellis and the other Bad Seeds, so close you could hear their hands on their instruments, no less. It’s as exhilarating and surreal as it sounds. Time is both stopped and racing. You’re trying not to take any photos because you want to be fully in the moment, but you also can’t not take a picture because this view is once-in-a-lifetime, unless you are planning to join the Bad Seeds which of course since they do not require a bad amateur tambourine player I am not.
I have a very hard time writing about Nick Cave. He’s my favourite living male singer/songwriter. His music and concerts literally give me life. But I’ve long had a rule that I keep this for pure fandom, I don’t try to explain it. A woman named Emily Flake did a bang-up job in this essay for The New Yorker about the transformative experience of his concerts.
I’ll just add this: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds concerts keep getting better and better. If you don’t understand the hype, just go to a show. Yes, even if it costs $100+ and is in an arena. It’s a high unlike any other.
Meanwhile, some of the best writing I read all year was Nick’s new newsletter, The Red Hand Files, where he responds to fan queries. And at the top of this new year, with all our creative aspirations still fresh and full of hope, but the old usual anxieties never far behind, I am pleased to spread this particular message from Nick: "Sit down. Be yourself. Be prepared. Be attentive. Defy the voices. Be the thing you want to be. Write. Be playful. Be reckless. Remember that you are uniquely designed for the idea that is moving toward you. You are good enough. The idea is about to arrive."
TRIBULATION Down Below
This year’s candidate for “the gothiest band that isn’t actually a goth band” is Sweden’s Tribulation. I know this makes me sound older but I don’t underground how the “kids” are drawn to shitty electropop in branded goth clothing instead of actual gothic rock, or metal even. These guys may belong to the metal scene but are also GAF. It’s like as if Fields of the Nephilim was born in Sweden but then moved to LA – a mix of old school UK-style songwriting, Scandinavian death metal vocals/accents and Hollywood glam swagger. They sing about vampires, dress like vampires, and when I saw them live could easily pass for a house band at Anne Rice’s Theatre des Vampires. It’s not super sophisticated, but it’s very fun. See for yourself.
Like Behemoth, I’ve discovered this band pretty late, I know. Their new album, Down Below, is their fourth. But I’m still on board earlier than most of my friends because their show at Lee’s Palace was all metal dudes and no goth folk. So if you’re reading this, make it up to me, will you? Get Down Below.
Live at the Opera House
I’m bored of Bauhaus. There, I said it. I’ve seen their reunion shows, and enough Peter Murphy and David J solo gigs. All great but I’ve got my “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” ya-yas out. What I really want is more Love and Rockets. It’s been 10 years since Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and David J played Coachella and Lollapalooza, and another 20 more (!!) since they've been around here. I miss those songs. So I’ll take PopTone – a new project for Ash and Haskins and Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompé, playing songs from Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail.
Ash was one of the most underrated guitarists in the 1980s. Super creative, diverse, and probably the only “psychedelic” player in my record library. Oh, he’s also just ridiculously cool. He walked out onto the Opera House stage in black and white striped pants, his own band shirt (sleeves cut off), white shades and a Mohawk. (This is where I point out he's 61.) More importantly, within 10 minutes he was playing “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” which dare I say rivals “Bela” as the gothiest song that ever gothed. It made me so happy to hear it. The whole set classics, hits and beloved deep cuts both. I even set aside my usual prejudice against “my kid’s in the band now” line-up. Because I got to hear Tones on Tail’s “Movement of Fear.” Live sax included. And watch Daniel Ash be Daniel Ash.
Shame about the band name. I know dozens of people who read my review for NOW and said they’d have gone but didn’t know what “Poptone” really was. Although I consciously try to limit the amount of “nostalgia” gigs I go to vs. new bands, this was fun times and I am still hoping we’ll get a proper L&R show someday.
Live at 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise
It’s about 3 in the morning. You’ve been up for more than 24 hours, to get from Toronto to somewhere in the Caribbean sea on your first cruise. It’s an all-metal cruise, which you are working. At this point you’ve seen about 20 bands already and just want to crash. No, that’s not what you need at all. You need to wander into one more gig and find a tall man in a suit and white face paint bellowing “Nosferatuuuuuuuuuuu” over thrash riffs while a circle pit of people who’ve been up and drinking for 24 hours turn a crappy cruise ship bar called the Pyramid Lounge with low ceilings and no vantage points into a sweaty after-hours rager. This was my introduction to Witchery, another of my new Swedish metal favourites. For the raw energy yes, and the vampire song, but also that element of surprise, which is too rare in my music-going life, this was my gig highlight of the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, which itself was a highlight of the year.
DEAD CAN DANCE Dionysus
The first new Dead Can Dance album in six years is a concept record in two extended acts dedicated to the Greek God Dionysus, and the various festivals and rituals that surround his cult. Like past DCD work, it’s both secular and spiritual, based in folk music traditions but modern in their signature fashion. There’s a party vibe going on here, built from field recordings, instruments from around the world, animal calls and extended tribal rhythms that put you in a trance. Notable is the relative lack of Lisa Gerrard — she does sing on 2 of the 7 tracks, but for all intents and purposes this is a Brendan Perry record. For 35 years, no other group has managed to sound like Dead Can Dance, and even if I'm not sure how often I'll come back to this one, I’m grateful they are still making music.
Live at the Opera House
It’s important to have “new” favourite artists that get me as excited as my longtime faves. Sólstafir is one of those bands. They are a so-called post-metal band that sings in Icelandic and makes my go-to bedtime reading/drifting to sleep albums, which then come to life on stage as epic rock jams. I had seen them twice in Iceland now they finally made it here in support of 2017’s Berdreyminn album. Toronto crowds are a lot tougher, and they were the opening act on a Thanksgiving Sunday night. But they know how to work it. In a lot of ways, Sólstafir is (heart and) soul music, and you don’t need to know the words to want to sing along. And while the atmospherics and performative aspects of their shows are compelling enough to recommend, there are also great riffs. I've tried to convince people to come see them with me using "Imagine Killing Joke + Judas Priest + Sigur Ros" but few believe me. It might be a while before they come back so between now and then you have time to get up to speed.
Live at Lee's Palace
Had I ever seen Godflesh live? I couldn’t remember. I polled my friends. Consensus was nope. Justin Broadrick and co. hadn’t been by here much. So I went because I felt I should. And was rewarded with a rather mesmerizing set of industrial noise that was groovier than it had any right to be. Also I’m kind of a sucker for acts that play in near darkness. Proper headbanging music this was, no extras needed.
Honorable Mention that has nothing to do with Music: Edvard Munch
So I went to Oslo, Norway for the weekend to see A-ha (yes, really, and it was great) and discovered I love the paintings of Edvard Munch. Not just the the Scream and the Vampire but all his sad ladies, the sick ones, the dancing ones, the sexy ones, the dying ones. The actual Munch museum was closed between installations but there was enough in Norway's national gallery to devour, and remind me that one of the key reasons I travel is to learn about art. And I'm making a resolution for 2019 that I do more of that.