New Music I Loved in 2020, Abridged

I listen to music when I’m exercising, driving, working my day job, cooking, reading, eating, cleaning, dancing for my cats, and even sometimes when I’m working on other music (that last one doesn’t always work out so good). Given the relative lack of other sources of novelty since March, I consumed a disgusting amount of new music this year (not ashamed, just disgusted, there’s a difference). Much of the new music I got was from Bandcamp, which, other than live shows, is the best place to actually support artists (much better than Spotify or the bargain bin, my other main sources). So here’s some new 2020 releases I am recommending you shove in your Bandcamp shopping cart today if you want something to put on while you dance for your cat. This is certainly not a complete list of the new music I obtained and enjoyed in 2020, but it’s what’s available on Bandcamp.

Brown Whörnet at Empire Control room, January 2020

Brown Whörnet – Dr Dickle. Seems like forever ago, but Brown Whörnet played a show in January of 2020. Do you know Brown Whörnet? If yes, skip this sentence: Brown Whörnet is the greatest Austin band ever, playing literally every kind of music imaginable plus comedy – kind of like Mr Bungle with a better sense of humor and 10 times as many albums. Ok now that we’re all caught up, we can proceed together. I have worshipped this band since I moved to Austin in 2001. Since then, I have played in bands with a few Brown Whörnet folks over the years and got to hear most of the members in other musical settings. I even played a show with them in 2017 as 3rd guitarist which was super-great (I blogged my nerdification of the experience). Anyways, occasionally, I start to think “hey maybe i get it, they’re just good musicians with great ideas making solid entertaining albums”. Then they drop something like Dr. Dickle and I realize I will never get it. This band is packed to the gills with multiple individual musical geniuses, and still somehow manage to create art that is greater than the sum of its parts (and inside jokes that are even funnier when you don’t get them). After many recent shorter “from the vault” releases, their new full-length concept album Dr. Dickle blends manipulated spoken word, noise, evil grooves, beautiful tonal washes, startling moments of tranquilty, rowdy rock, exotica, and hip hop. It was something like 10 years in the making. It seems it must have taken longer. It goes nowhere and everywhere and you’re along for the ride even as you’re constantly flung from the vehicle. I don’t know how they did this, but I pooped my pants.

Aaron Parks – Parks and Wreck and Covid Countdowns V 1-8 

I’ve known Aaron tangentially over the years as a great Austin drummer, and he joined Stop Motion Orchestra in 2019 when our old drummer Charlie Duncan moved to Puerto Rico. Aaron has many other projects, mostly Jazz. His second album as a leader released Feb 2020, Parks and Wreck is top notch progressive modern jazz. This album features 2 drum-led combos containing Alto sax, keys, guitar, bass, and drums playing mathy and expansive compositions with spacious improvisation, recorded with clarity and warmth. Meanwhile, with the loss of his gigs to Covid, Aaron started releasing Covid Countdown albums every month (8 and counting!) and there is some really great stuff in those too. Mixing synth jazz with live drums, noise experiments, electro pop, and acoustic music, I’ve enjoyed all of them in their breadth quality and sophistication. Check out “March Forth” on Volume 1 and “Everything Around Me” on volume 6 to start. These are all chock full of creative experiments that satisfy, and you can pay pretty much pay what you want. Collect all 8+.

The Spectaclist – Our Days Are Multiplied

Great drummers don’t often share the title of great composer, but this list contains 2 in the same city (see Aaron Parks for exhibit A). David Hobizal is a generous and genius drummer, as anyone who has heard him with Lick Lick, Good Times Crisis Band, Eddie Hobizal, or my own stuff can tell you. This is his first album as a solo instrumental artist, primarily based around electric piano and drums. It’s stuffed with pristine sympathetic sonic architecture with a deference to mood and texture. Superficially it’s almost soothing, but there’s so many confusing grooves, clever production tricks, surprising sonic undercurrents, and sudden cliff-jumps that it rewards the close attention of disturbance-seekers like myself. In his own words, this album is intended to bring “peace, excitement or some other form of attendant positivity.” My favorite is “Coule Park ‘79” – maybe I just have a soft spot for the semi-sinister.

Transit Method – The Madness

This Austin prog rock band continues to deliver — Like the USPS but much much faster. In this case, your tracking number is a cerebral punk maelstrom with classic trash ambience. There’s a crisp and discordant outer layer to the catchy math-pop framework of these 11 songs. Matt LoCoco’s guitar has never sounded more punchy and demanding, nor his vocals more at home within to the music (and vaguely reminiscent of Perry Farrell). Danny Borja’s bass often weaves independent lines that keep the proceedings grounded without sacrificing the hyperactive frontiers of his instrument. And Mike LoCoco’s busy drum performance reminds me a bit of Brann Dailor’s work in Mastodon in the sense that it always propels the song but never stays on the same beat for too many bars. Also note with Erik Wofford’s production at Cocophony Recorders making everything somehow both urgent and distant. I would almost call this a cross between Mastodon and Jane’s Addiction. If that combination sounds good to you, your cat would like you to go get this album.

Perdition Temple – Sacraments of Descension

At the beginning of the pandemic, I expanded my already out-of-control habit of buying metal CDs online from stores that were doing discount deals. Beginning in March, I was discovering a lot of new bands this way, and Perdition Temple was one of the best (from the Hells Headbangers bin). I picked up and loved their earlier album The Tempter’s Victorious, and was pleased to discover they were about to release a new album this year. Boy howdy, this is a good one! I’d almost call it technical speed metal, but it’s more raw and filtered through a dirty Ohio blackened death metal cloth. This band plays frightening, majestic, confusing, and increasingly sophisticated music dominated by the constant flutter of tremolo picked riffs and/or motorcycle-engine double kick. Desolation Usurper is a standout track, but they all sound pretty similar. Each song rips your head off and the next song doesn’t even wait for your head to grow back when it starts ripping it off again. With this album, you’re faced with nothing short of a sheer slab of gouging, galloping, relentlessly immersive, and precise evil. I recommend it if you like Hate Eternal or Deeds of Flesh, but you wouldn’t mind if they tuned their guitars a bit higher and had been borne forth from even more misanthropic voids.

Abysmal Dawn at Come and Take it Live in February 2020

Abysmal Dawn – Phylogenesis

I got to see Abysmal Dawn with Vader in February, and met bandleader Charles Elliot. As I was buying a shirt and complimenting his set, I geeked out: “I listen to all your albums way too much”. To which he responded “Did you enjoy doing that?”. Yes, of course, I said. “Then it wasn’t too much”. Fair enough. Thing is, I listen to a ton of death metal. Quantity is important in this genre (and the genre certainly delivers there!). Sometimes an album sounds good at first but then gets old. There are many bands with something noticeably distinctive about their sound and even more bands with an extreme commitment to one particular defining instrument, technique, image, or mood. This extremophelia sure is great for a few spins, but but it can get old without solid songwriting. On the other hand, southern California’s Abysmal Dawn is not a band that appears to see any real use for being pioneers. They do stuff you’ve heard already: Moderate-to-fast tempo, modestly churning grooves, mildly complicated arrangements, reasonably dark ambience, minimally melodic solos, sensibly dense riffs. You’ve heard it all since the early 90s. Abysmal Dawn just do it way better than anyone else has. After years of being drawn to their first 4 albums far more often than their being “good example of death metal” would explain, I started to realize the subtle perfection of the songwriting careful use of groove and atmosphere, and the power of the barely-controlled aggression soaking each song. They never get old. Even with 50% new members (major respect to new drummer James Coppolino for subtly taking standard beats in interesting directions), this sounds remarkably similar in overall vibe to their previous 2014 album “Obsolesence.” Basically, Phylogenesis contains 10 additional songs, each a perfect example of why Abysmal Dawn is an essential band, and all of which would have sounded at home on their earlier releases. But 5 albums is 25% better than 4, so this is a triumph.

Rüstəm Quliyev – Azerbaijani Gitara

You ever wondered what the Ventures might have sounded like if they had grown up in the Soviet trans-caucasus central Asian Caspian sea area? Put this album on while you’re wondering that. Rüstəm Quliyev unfortunately left this world in 2005. But fortunately, he left us with several years of archival recordings and his family authorized their first international release this year. The percussion is mostly synthetic, but variations between songs keep it an engaging canvas for the duration of the album. Rüstəm’s gnarly semi-sour tone and fidgety playing almost seems like he never heard anyone else play guitar before and learned to play by listening to wind blowing over mountains. Wherever this is coming from (the war-torn Karbakh region and eventually the capital Baku, it turns out), he delivers a shocking breadth of expression over Afghani, disco, Bollywood, and of course more local traditional song styles. I really enjoy the balance of this set, and like all the best music, it simultaneously sets and defies your expectations. Definite pick for the soundtrack of you dancing for your cat.

Voivod – Lost Machine live

Voivod is a space-prog metal band formed in Montreal in the 80s. No one sounds like them. Off-kilter nasal but melodic bellows from Snake and twisty riffs that blend atonality with surf ambience and jazz harmonics. Since Denis “Chewy” Mongrain joined as their guitar player after the death of Piggy more than a decade ago, they’ve seen a new flowering of creativity. I especially enjoyed their last full-length, The Wake. This new live album, recording mostly in Quebec in 2018 draws heavily on some of my favorite albums of the band before the last decade, including the Outer Limits (the first recording of theirs I heard), Nothingface, and Angel Rat. I really like the stinky stinky bass and the shimmering guitar solos. As when I saw them live around 2016, you can tell they’re having a blast on stage while keeping it very tight.

Sharhabil Ahmed – The King of Sudanese Jazz

My wife Laura and I try to use Bandcamp no-fee days (first Friday of every month) to push ourselves to discover new stuff. And sometimes new-old stuff, like this one from the Habibi Funk label, which takes the hippest obscure music from the Arabic-speaking world of yore and provides context and warm-sounding reissues. This 2020 release is Sudanese guitar, vocal, and sax-based rock and pop from the 70s by Sharhabil Ahmed. They don’t mean the same thing by “jazz” in Sudan, but the the “king” part is no joke: he won a contest and a crown. Based on this recording, Sudanese “jazz” is pretty clearly influenced by both western rock and funk as well as Ethiopian, Arabic, and other African styles. This music is certainly strange and exotic to my American ears, but has enough familiar elements to compel rhythmic wiggling in most humans. If this much fun and cool atmosphere can be captured in Khartoum in the 70s, I have hope that we can probably manage something fun while stuck at home in Austin during a pandemic. So put this on and dance for your cat. It’s what the cool people do.

Mr Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo

If you’re reading my blog, you’re likely also a prog nerd and you know the story behind this album: Three original members of Mr. Bungle (the 90’s avant garde uber-gods) reformed in 2019 with founding members of Anthrax and Slayer to play Mr. Bungle’s pre-avant-garde demo tape from 1986. No one realized they really wanted this until now, but turns out we do. Somehow it’s both fresh and retro, with warm and punchy production and non-stop virtuosic fun. Most Bungle fans (myself included) had never heard the lo-fi original, so this is actually totally new. Mr. Bungle always surprises, and in this case the surprise is “no surprises dude, have some thrash”. The point here does not seem to be breaking new ground, but rather filling existing holes in the ground with joyful immature energy, even if it doesn’t quite fill the hole in my heart that wants more 90’s-style Bungle.

Next blog post: I think I’ll do sad post about what I was going to do in 2020 but couldn’t because of stupid dumb Covid. I didn’t experience real hardship myself, but I’m hoping that by cataloging what I missed, I’ll be more receptive to future opportunities if and when they are provided, and even more grateful for the beauty that life and its music managed to provide despite everything. The cats won’t tell you, but they are grateful too.

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