I wanted to write about some of my musical favorites of 2015 before we venture into a new year.
By my count, I went to 26 shows this year. These were the highlights:
Savages (Aug 26th, Great American Music Hall, SF)
Despite the success of their debut album Silence Yourself (2013), I was on the fence about seeing Savages live. I am extremely glad I did, because I was blown away. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth took hold of the audience from the very start and the other three women supported her powerful presence with a captivating mix of post-punk atmosphere / fury. This band is so good and they’re just getting started.
Melt-Banana (Aug 1st, Oakland Metro Operahouse)
The Japanese noise punk legends took the stage as a duo — guitarist Agata (with an army of pedals) and vocalist Onuki (with her high-pitched yelp fed through some sort of handheld vocal processor). Drums were handled by a machine, but it worked. There isn’t any other band that manages to blend hardcore, noise, metal, electronica and pop so effectively. And they’re still going at 100mph after 20+ years.
Lightning Bolt + Liturgy (May 2nd, Leo’s, Oakland)
Liturgy opened with their modern take on blackened metal. Alas, there was no orchestra present to perform the more eccentric parts (horn, string bagpipes, etc) from their latest album The Ark Work, but bandleader Hunt-Hendrix handled laptop, vocal, and guitar duty effortlessly. The highlight for me was seeing drummer Greg Fox obliterating behind the skins. The precision with which they executed their cacophony was impressive.
The last time I saw Lightning Bolt was on the floor of a loft in Chicago in 2003. They’ve still got it. Frenetic, distorted, metallic bass lines (that often sound like guitar) combine with the contact mic-ed vocalizations and maniacal drumming of the masked Brian Chippendale to create the band’s distinctive sound. It was pure energy — I left with the sweat-soaked T-shirt to prove it.
Holly Herndon (Aug 8th, The Chapel, SF)
Somehow, this was my first show at the Chapel and what a lovely venue it was to host this supremely talented artist. I often find it hard to engage with laptop performances of electronic music. Herndon’s art extends beyond music, however. Her live show included visuals ranging from abstract art to primitive 3D renderings of rooms filled with everyday objects. In place of the usual stage banter, she talked to audience via a projection of a TextEdit window. At one point she even encouraged the audience to send her text messages with questions or comments. All this combined with the wondrous sounds she brought into the room made for one of the best live performances of the year for me. More on her music below.
I still believe in the album. These were my favorites:
Holly Herndon — Platform
The opening track “Interference” begins with static, a train-like whoosh rushing from left to right and back, and what sounds like liquid being poured onto electronic equipment. Layers of vocals slowly enter the mix, along with fractured beats, and a bass line begins to construct the skeleton of a song. Holly’s music is incredibly dense and thought-provoking. I have yet to fully parse it (and I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics, which explore topics ranging from government surveillance to relationships). What struck me the most about this album is how it danced in the space between the avant-garde and pop. While it largely leans toward the former, when it pokes out into the latter it crystallizes into a breathtaking-future-sound.
Hop Along — Painted Shut
I spent a few of my formative musical years obsessed with emo hardcore (think Rites of Spring and City of Caterpillar) and its cracked, affected vocal stylings. While I would definitely not file Hop Along in that genre (they’re more aligned with Saddle-Creek-style indie rock), I can draw a parallel upon hearing the vocals of singer Frances Quinlan — the real centerpiece of this album and band. She has incredible control of her vocal cords and the rest of the band are no slackers, doing a fine job supporting with angular, playful, emotional guitar-driven rock.
Joanna Newsom — Divers
It took a few listens before I fully grasped its greatness, but this is easily my favorite of Joanna’s albums. In the follow-up to her sprawling 3-part record Have One on Me she’s able to condense the harp-driven whimsy of her songs into more easily digestible tunes. Divers is full of gorgeous melodies and poetry that takes some digging into, so set aside some time to just sit and actively listen to it. This woman is a phenomenal musician, writer, and composer, creating music uniquely her own. The epic climax, “Time, As a Symptom”, starts with the sounds of doves cooing and solo piano and builds up to a crescendo of horns, strings, crashing drums, and songbirds — a magical arrangement of sound that left me stunned.
P.S. Let me know if you’re in the Bay Area and you want to start a metal band.