An Alternative Top 15

While I haven’t exactly listened to all the major albums of 2014, so can’t give an objective and comprehensive overview of the year’s best music, of the lesser-known artists I’ve found myself listening to there have been some truly incredible releases that deserve all the attention they can get. I’m predominantly interested in ‘rock’ music so you’ll find some complete bias towards that genre. Nevertheless, these albums are absolutely worth your time – contrary to popular belief, there is still a great deal of innovation and fresh ideas being injected into these well-worn sounds.

1. Anubis – Hitchhiking To Byzantium (10/10)

The word “neo-progressive” might send many running to the hills with the allusions to the Genesis rip-offs of the 80s and 90s and an utter lack of innovation associated with many of the bands of this genre, stuck in the tired prog-rock sounds their dads used to play to them when they were wee nippers.

Despite the lush, streamlined sounds of their atmospheric keyboards and clean guitars being rooted in that of their forefathers Marillion and Pink Floyd, Anubis are anything but derivative. Hitchhiking To Byzantium is a vast 78-minute opus with every instrument played to virtuoso levels transcending many of their more popular peers, while the band also maintains an intense level of emotion throughout without ever falling into the wankery that plagues prog as a genre. The title track demonstrates the album’s masterful subtlety that takes multiple listens to reveal, with Steven Eaton’s drums and Douglas Skene’s guitar gradually building to a heartrending climax that still somehow manages to get better every time. Skene’s style is not overly technical but has a relentless ability to tug on your heartstrings; acoustic heartbreak song Tightening of the Screws also features perhaps one of the best guitar solos of the decade.

http://anubismusic.bandcamp.com/album/hitchhiking-to-byzantium

2. Gazpacho – Demon (9.8/10)

Gazpacho have countlessly proved themselves to be one of the forerunners of the art-rock or “post-progressive” movement with a string of stunning and diverse albums. Demon marks the 5th in a row of creative peaks for the band and is yet again different from 2012’s streamlined, folk-influenced ‘March of Ghosts’ and 2012’s more familiar, conceptual ‘Missa Atropos.’

Featuring only 4 songs, with one a short accordion-solo break, the album is a unique, sometimes dark and always moving piece of work, based on the madly scrawled ramblings of a man who claimed to encounter the devil. At times the band even slip into avant-garde territory, as seen in the dense 18-minute closer Death Room which has no conventional climax and proves Gazpacho’s seemingly endless wealth of creativity and variation.

http://www.kscopemusic.com/2014/03/18/gazpachos-new-studio-album-demon-now-2/

3. Motorpsycho – Behind The Sun (9.4/10)

Not meaning to repeat myself, but here is another Norwegian band continuing an epic creative peak. Motorpsycho have had an ever-shifting style in their 20 years of existence, moving from extreme metal to indie rock to jazz, currently settling in a style of psychedelic, progressive rock. Only two years after they redefined the genre with the sprawling ‘Death Defying Unicorn’ that made use of a jazz orchestra, the band have returned with a near-perfect rock album. The level of musicianship here is simply incredible, evidence of a band who have had years to refine their sound and chemistry. Centrepiece Hell, part 4-6 perhaps best encapsulates this, but due to its diversity the album should be taken as a whole.

4. Messenger – Illusory Blues (8.9/10)

Perfectly combining that modern ‘post-progressive’ rock sound with ethereal folk guitar and vocals, plus a touch of the psychedelic, Messenger have created an instantly distinctive sound on their debut album, which is possibly one of the most impressive of its kind this year. What stands out most is Jaime Gomez Arellano’s drumwork. never using a conventional, boring drum pattern and giving every song a special kind of intensity. The epic 9-minute Midnight is one of the songs of the year.

https://svartrecords.bandcamp.com/album/illusory-blues

5. Schizoid Lloyd – The Last Note In God’s Magnum Opus (8.8/10)

Possibly the most insane album of the year. Working from their core of progressive metal recalling Haken and of course Dream Theater in their use of crisp yet heavy guitars and cyclical guitar riffs, the band absorb countless other styles including the harmonies and grandiose of Queen, the madness of Mr Bungle and even the atmospheres and delicacies of Anathema. From here we have a batshit-crazy, constantly evolving beast that is also one of the year’s most refreshing and entertaining.

https://blood-music.bandcamp.com/album/the-last-note-in-gods-magnum-opus

6. Ethereal Riffian – Aeonian (8.7/10)

Slightly ridiculous name aside, this is an extremely well-crafted stoner-rock/metal album, essentially flowing as one long song over four tracks and successfully conveying a spiritual, meditatory atmosphere akin to bands like Om. Not a single riff feels forced or out of place, the progressive-leaning elements of each song working a charm to give new life to a stagnant genre and leading ER on their way to becoming one of the best recognised purveyors of stoner-rock, or as a Sleep fan would have it, true Maruajinauts.

http://etherealriffian.bandcamp.com/

7. Dwellers – Pagan Fruit (8.6/10)

That astonishing artwork is perfectly reflected in the album’s lush guitar tones and vocals, making for a distinctive blues-rock album in an overpopulated crowd. While the guitar-playing isn’t anything unique or outstanding when compared to something like Anubis or Motorpsycho, the band compensate with tight song structures and atmosphere, creating a lot of promise for the future as they become more experienced.

https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/pagan-fruit

8. Seven That Spells – The Death and Resurrection of Krautrock: IO (8.4/10)

Guitarist Niko Babić said that they set out aiming to capture what “modern psychedelic music should sound like” and this Croatian band have done exactly that with IO, the second in their album trilogy. Having released a crazy kraut/jazz/noise album almost every year since 2003, 7tS tightened up their sound for the ‘…Krautrock’ trilogy to a cleaner, more progressive sound. Featuring a massive choir singing Eastern religious mantras, ridiculous time signatures and Niko hypnotically charming his guitar like a snake, I feel a magnum opus around the corner. Yes, this band are not just good because every single one of their covers features at least one naked damsel.

https://seventhatspells.bandcamp.com/album/the-death-and-resurrection-of-krautrock-io

9. The Grand Astoria – The Body Limits (8.4/10)

While this is technically from a split-EP with the band Montenegro, The Grand Astoria’s epic 30-minute song takes their psychedelic stoner-rock sound to new limits. Starting with a gentle clean guitar and the sound of a river flowing, the song builds up so slowly and hypnotically you barely notice until you are hit with a barrage of gratifying riffs. What makes the song even more impressive is that both of the band’s guitarists are given their own channel of the mix, making their interplay even more prominent. One can only hope that their next LP will live up to this promise.

https://thegrandastoria.bandcamp.com/album/the-body-limits

10. Colour Haze – To The Highest Gods We Know (8.3/10)

Now this was a surprise. Colour Haze, being at one with nature and the music and all, do not engage with social media which meant their latest LP after 2012’s excellent ‘She Said’ managed to slip out with barely anyone noticing. And though I haven’t had much time to listen, it’s immediately obvious that they’ve proved once again how consistently brilliant their music is, and what an unique and incredible guitarist Stefan Koglek is. Most interesting it the title track, which runs 11 minutes without ever slipping into the band’s usually bluesy fuzz, instead experimenting with Eastern-influenced acoustic guitars and ambience. This is only a good thing, showing that Colour Haze are trying to avoid the pitfalls of becoming formulaic and unoriginal.

(streaming on Spotify)

11. Dream The Electric Sleep – Heretics (8.3/10)

Merging a shoegaze-y alternative rock sound with progressive leanings (which can never be a bad thing), DtES describe their music as “concept rock,” and while the concept of Heretics is not immediately obvious, the quality of the song-writing is. Shifting and changing over the album’s 73-minute runtime and contrasting between thundering heaviness and moments of mellowness, the album does not have a stale or half-baked moment and you’ll barely notice that time go by. This is what the idea of an ‘album’ is for.

https://dtes.bandcamp.com/album/heretics

12. Lionize – Jetpack Soundtrack (8.2/10)

Hard rock is another genre that attracts boos and hisses, which makes it all the more impressive to find a band carving out their own style. While unfairly overshadowed by their contemporaries Clutch, whom they have undeniably tried to emulate to a degree on this album, Lionize know exactly how to marry extremely catchy vocals, clever lyrics and energetic guitar riffs to create countless replay value. Sadly, they have dropped the funk/reggae influences that made their previous album ‘Superczar and the Vulture’ their magnum opus, apart from on closer Sea of Tranquillity which could be their best song to date. Its spacey, somewhat psychedelic reggae vibe and excellent use of studio production and editing will leave you in a state of euphoria, marijuana aside.

http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Jetpack+Soundtrack/9709133

13. Methadone Skies – Eclectic Electric (8.2/10)

More proof that there can still be innovation in stoner rock. Infusing their sound with folk instruments like a mandola and saz baglama as well as a healthy dose of post-rock and guest vocalists, Methadone Skies have continued carving out their own space in the genre on their sophomore LP. Dreamy opener Mirra and massive centrepiece Tatabong create one hell of an atmosphere.

https://methadoneskies.bandcamp.com/album/eclectic-electric

14. IQ – The Road of Bones (8.2/10)

IQ are one of the oldest and most respected neo-prog bands, and are still managing to make albums as powerful and relevant as in their 80s prime. I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the genre, but there are certain bands who transcend their cheesy roots, IQ being one of the best examples with the spine-tingling darkness and melancholy that propels their music. The title track is a perfect example of this, with a chilling cinematic atmosphere that could make it part of a modern film score, rather than a sci-fi TV show of the 80s.

http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/The+Road+Of+Bones+CD1/9675044

15. Somali Yacht Club – The Sun (8.1/10)

The Sun is one of the year’s most promising releases from a band falling into the category encompassing such styles as stoner, psychedelic and hard rock. The band’s greatest strength is their blending of fresh and unexpected influences and sounds within that familiar, tired format. From the opening sitar ambience of Loom, to the reggae-esque middle section of Sightwaster to the epic tremolo-picked crescendo of Signals, each song on the album is distinguished, showing the band’s impressively competent song-writing skills. Should they develop their musicianship, we’ll have another album to add to our next end of year lists… or at least I will.

https://somaliyachtclub.bandcamp.com/album/the-sun

The Best of the Rest:

The Visit – Between Worlds

A 15-minute song comprising entirely of a single cello and wordless vocals. Heartrending stuff.

https://thevisit1.bandcamp.com/track/between-worlds

All Them Witches – Effervescent

A 25-minute long blues-rock jam that is an atmospheric journey through a dark and murky swamp on a warm summer’s night.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSOaDxdhED8

Tumbleweed Dealer – Western Horror (stoner rock) / Wo Fat – The Conjuring (stoner rock) / Greenleaf – Trails and Passes (hard rock) / Mars Red Sky – Stranded In Arcadia (stoner rock) / El Paramo – El Paramo (stoner/psychedelic) / Electric Six – Human Zoo / Villagers of Ioannina City – Riza (stoner/folk rock) / Wishbone Ash – Blue Horizon (prog/blues rock)

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