Presenting the final installment in this ongoing, self-obsessed series. A Spotify playlist featuring all available recommended tracks is being built daily alongside the list, and can be found by clicking here.
10. Killing Joke – ‘Killing Joke’ (2003)
When Killing Joke kicked out finally kicked out an album after a seven year hiatus that followed the sub-par ‘Democracy’, few expected it to hit with the raw passion and rage that it did. A violent burst of deathmarching industrial metal with a tribal vibe, it not only brought them back to the loving arms of their longterm fans but also bought them a whole new generation of followers who were foaming at the mouth to check out the ancestors of acts like Static-X and Fear Factory. As their second eponymous release, this could be seen as a reinvention of sorts. Yet all the old Killing Joke ingredients are still in the mix – Jaz Coleman’s apocalyptic howl, Geordie’s hypnotic guitars, Raven and Youth’s pulsing bass tremors. Yet all of these are turned defiantly up to 11 to produce their heaviest record before or since, adding yet another string to their bow that has in the past confidently fired arrows ranging from post-punk to goth to prog rock. A guest starring Dave Grohl on drums only served to further add fuel to the fire, with the revolving percussion acting as a driving instrument in a way that is ignored by many bands. Lyrically it’s all conspiracy theories and barely restrained moral outrage, the band setting themselves out as 21st century urban primitives crusading for the downfall of the enemies of mankind. For many other acts this would seem contrived. It’s a credit to the enduring power and honesty of Killing Joke that they pull it off flawlessly.
Recommended Tracks: “The Death & Resurrection Show”, “Asteroid”, “Loose Cannon”
When Godflesh were disbanded and Justin Broadrick moved on to field Jesu as a main project, it seemed natural that he would expand on the drone and shoegaze elements that had pervaded Godflesh releases for a number of years. With this eponymous debut release he managed to concentrate these aspects of his old band into an expansive yet focused post-metal sound. There’s a slow rolling thunder to many of the tracks on offer, like recordings of geological change sped up into coherency. Ancient slumbering gods turn over in their sleep under a black ocean, as drums pound out a slow rhythm with Broadrick’s vocals diving deep into the surface overhead. The decision on which Jesu album to include in this list was a difficult one, with this LP only just edging out 2007’s follow-up ‘Conqueror’ at the last second. In many ways I do prefer the latter – it takes the monolithic crush of this release and blends in an almost-pop element that gives way to a truly unique sound. But ‘Jesu’ is both more consistent and more coherent as an album – one you can spin any number of times and lose yourself in, sinking gently into Broadrick’s bittersweet dimension of intensely physical sound.
Recommended Tracks: “Friends Are Evil”, “Tired Of Me”, “Sun Day”
I have to confess to a certain amount of guilt that there are relatively few releases featuring female artists on this list. I’d like to think that this is down to a gender-biased music industry rather than any inherent sexism or preference on my part, but feel free to make your own judgements. Regardless, this is the highest entry for a solo female artist, and though the inevitable comparisons to the likes of Kate Bush and Tori Amos can be made (and unlike most muso clichés, it isn’t entirely inappropriate in this case), Natasha Khan constructs her own universe of shimmering glass and flickering stars to perform against. In ATCB’s opinion ‘Two Suns’ is far superior to her 2006 debut, largely down to a voluminous increase in range and imagination. Traditional instrumentation collides with the more obscure, all of it bounded by occasional stabs of synths and beats. It is eclectic, but never feels as though this was the intent. Rather, the images woven by Bat For Lashes made themselves known through certain sounds – and these just happened to be of a varied nature, while Khan’s voice comfortably transitions between a husky whisper and soothing angelic crescendos. The album as a whole feels like a strangely familiar folk tale told just out of reach of comprehension, a childhood story only half-remembered. It leaves you in an oddly melancholic state, softly smiling at memories left unfinished. And I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I find that is a beautiful place to be.
Recommended Tracks: “Glass”, “Daniel”, “Siren Song”
Proving themselves much more than a music video gone viral, the combination of acid-burbling electro wizard Dan le Sac and emotively musing MC Scroobius Pip in a full debut release made for an appealing prospect . Said debut ‘Angles’ showed a variety and innovation that wasn’t exactly absent from hip-hop in the ‘00s – but neither was it particularly prevalent. Rhymes on topics as varied as rambling esoteric dreams, self-harm, musical elitism and Tommy Cooper are perched studiously on top of equally varied beats and synthlines. It’s the synchronisation between the two that pushes the record up above the ramparts, defiantly giving you a friendly thousand-yard stare unless you sit down and pay some damn attention. The production feels raw and slightly unfinished, which swings between being slightly disappointing and strangely satisfying. It certainly brings an immediacy and urgency that was sadly lacking from 2010’s follow-up ‘The Logic Of Chance’. Nevertheless, ‘Angles’ for me proved to be an LP that came along just at the right time. It hit the hipster zeitgeist sideways with rocket-powered precision – a nod, wink and tweak of the beard that aims to make you laugh, cry and wave your hands in the air all in one go.
Recommended Tracks: “Look For The Woman”, “Angles”, “Thou Shalt Always Kill”
There’s not much to write about Combichrist that hasn’t already been said in the online world of alt. electro journalism. They’re a niche act who have managed to claw their way out of the scene and almost crack the alternative mainstream through sheer bloody-minded infectiousness. And those support slots with Rammstein probably helped too. Come to think of it, they’re probably the ONLY act of their kind to ever crack that chrome-strengthened glass ceiling. That they have done this all way after the release of ‘Everybody Hates You’ just shows how late the rest of the globe is to the party. Whatever you want to term them – aggrotech, industrial, harsh EBM – Combichrist are a sexualised (and undoubtedly sexist) injection of harsh beat-driven adrenalin mainlined right to the frontal cortex and this is undoubtedly their best work. Stripped down to the core necessities of looped crunches, bass kicks and occasional synthlines, the only humanity dripfed into the mix is a combination of female vocoder samples and Andy LaPlegua’s pseudo-metal roar. To say that this is an album packed with dancefloor fillers is both obvious and a potential understatement. For a period of several years I don’t think I went out to an alt. electro night without at least three tracks off this album turning the club into a heaving sea of cybergoths, freaks and rivetheads all mouthing along to sado-masochistic terms of endearment. Six years on it’s probably reduced to two tracks a night and ‘Everybody Hates You’ still dwarfs a flood of imitators (including, one could argue, Combichrist’s output since this), only stopping now and then to strap listeners down and thrash them bloody before fucking them in the most inappropriate way possible.
Recommended Tracks: “This Shit Will Fuck You Up”, “Today I Woke To The Rain Of Blood”, “Like To Thank My Buddies”
5. Biffy Clyro – ‘Puzzle’ (2007)
Selecting this album might lead me to being censured by the community of hardcore Biffy Clyro fans. Fortunately I find them as irritating as I find all groups centred primarily around nerdrage, so no loss there. When ‘Puzzle’ was released it showed a far more poppy direction than the band had taken previously, dialling down their obtuse time signatures and dynamic shifts (though not eliminating them entirely, as shown by album opener “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies”) and ramping up the catchy bubblegum guitar hooks and soaring yet surreal lyrics. It certainly worked for the band in terms of audience base and airplay, catapulting them from slightly underground odd indie rock darlings to one of the biggest current UK exports in alternative rock. It also worked musically, because they have a genuine knack for constructing pop songs that maintain a real biting edge – a common talent for bands in the ‘80s that has since fallen far by the wayside. ‘Puzzle’ is still quirky and innovative, but is also approachable and appreciable on a number of different levels – from the snorting indie hipster all the way down to the primary colour bracelet-and-eyeline teen punk wannabe. It’s a transition that makes so much sense in context of their wider career. While 2003’s ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’ was the quizzical pseudo-masterpiece that brought them much acclaim, 2004’s ‘Infinity Land’ was an also-ran follow-up that failed to ignite in the same innovative way. This LP is a response to that, a callback to simpler times and sounds that maintains the sparks of ingenuity that lifted them out of the crowd in the first place. It’s a record with a startling capacity to make me happy, and when you’re as grossly pessimistic and misanthropic as me that is something to hold on to.
Recommended Tracks: “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies”, “Saturday Superhouse”, “A Whole Child Ago”
A combination of an early released EP also named ‘Violet’ and re-recorded songs from their fuzzy fairytale 2002 debut ‘Nothing And Nowhere’, this album defies the usual gothic rock conventions by being fresh, personable and unbounded by genre cliché. The subculture-baiting and abstractly personal lyrics of Chibi are sung in a clear, unforced manner while electronic drums, fey twinkling keyboards and distorted-but-mostly-unheavy guitars play like rabbit-suited children in the background. Unless you are familiar with 21st century goth music, it’s difficult to express how much of a relief all of that is. It’s long been a sub-genre built around atmosphere rather than genuine talent, but The Birthday Massacre are blessed with a surfeit of both. Many blackclad creatures of the night would shudder in private horror to hear me suggest this, but I am convinced ‘Violet’ is the best unrecognised pop album on the whole damn planet. Every single track sounds like the closing credits of a nostalgically inspiring 1980s kids film about travelling to a magic land filled with cowardly bears who need to find their inner rage, and Victorian couples dancing waltzes over starlit meadows. Only y’know, that film was cancelled pre-production. And now all we have is the leftover soundtrack from The Birthday Massacre, discovered at the back of a dusty, empty antique store.
Recommended Tracks: “Play Dead”, “Blue”, “Nevermind”
3. Alkaline Trio – ‘Good Mourning’ (2003)
Alkaline Trio had been spinning pop-punk webs of bitter lost love, addiction and gothic flames long before the release of ‘Good Mourning’, but with this album I would argue that the ingredients all finally came together into a wickedly delightful witch’s brew. Both Matt Skiba and Dan Andriano’s songwriting contributions coalesce into a single flowing black and red stream, and where other bands would suffer from having alternating vocalists Alk3 seem to positively thrive on it – one taking over when emotional exhaustion sets in with the other. Most tracks feature complimentary vocal harmonies that pick up the central melody and dash forward while giggling maniacally. The music itself starts to favour a more mature rock feel than their punkier days of old, but there is still plenty of speeding bounce on a few tracks. It’s an album whispered sadly but wryly to the ceiling in a rotten room filled only with an old vinyl collection and a half-collapsed campbed, the other occupants long since left to set fire to abandoned houses. Many of the other artists on this list have succeeded in making music that is by turns funny, sad, happy and energetic. But ‘Good Mourning’ may be the best example of an LP that manages all these things all the way through, all at the same time. It’s one long barking and fatalistic laugh into the void, and that is definitely my favourite way to spend time.
Recommended Tracks: “This Could Be Love”, “Fatally Yours”, “Blue Carolina”
Previous Aereogramme records had a distinctive quiet/loud alt. indie aesthetic that bought them fans in all the right places – if by ‘right’ you mean critical acclaim but pretty much zero in the way of sales. For this, their final release, they focused almost exclusively on the quiet side of things. It’s a record which I struggle to describe in terms other than simplified adjectives of appreciation. Beautiful, gorgeous, lush, affecting. Lyrically it’s superlative, building imagery up in your mind’s eye before rendering it down again with a line that leaves you breathless and torn. It has a deep intensity in the gentlest way possible, lulling you with soft whispers before dropping you through clouds and treetops to an uncertain landing. Mostly utilising variations on a traditional rock setup, there are acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums aplenty but also piano, strings and keyboards. Each track feels like a specific project and design of its own accord, and frankly it’s a miracle that the album holds together as well as it does. But for reasons unbeknownst to the likes of me it does manage it. It’s a journey without a destination through bleak desert lands with a single flower erupting powerfully out of the grim road ahead of you, a dive into murky waters where your only guiding light is a shifting golden glow from a locked box on the ocean floor containing treasures unknown. I am having to use this language because nothing else works for me. That this comes in at #2 rather than the top spot is because of matters perhaps more intellectual than heartfelt. As an internalised expression of the ebb and flow of human emotion, no other album of my decade comes even close.
Recommended Tracks: “Exits”, “Trenches”, “Nightmares”
1. iLiKETRAiNS – ‘Elegies To Lessons Learnt’ (2007)
Here we are at last. I have been surprised how mentally exhausting yet stimulating this list would be to write, and I have to ask myself whether the end result has been worth the effort. Well, if the end result pushes anyone towards listening to ‘Elegies To Lessons Learnt’ then the answer is a resounding yes. Leeds post-rockers iLiKETRAiNS were primarily notable in their early years for the lyrical content. On top of their tidal guitars and insistent military drums, David Martin’s sonorous and somber tones told of historical people and events that have mostly slipped through the cracks of textbooks and general knowledge. A cast of martyrs, fools and deluded heroes are pitched together to produce a tapestry of humanity. That the overall sense one gains of this humanity is its inherent capacity for both hope and despair is telling. This release was their first LP, following 2006’s equally superlative EP ‘Progress, Reform’ in both spirit and style. It gives over a sense of both rambling travel between times and place and an internal consistency in theme and mood, painting sometimes miserabilist pictures of the folly and insanity of mankind. By no means an easy record to listen to or appreciate, it nevertheless builds and builds in the retelling until the lines blur and you find yourself as a deranged sailor giving way to his own hubris and delusion, a bitter assassin enraged by poorly aimed self-righteousness, a shattered and broken survivor reliving nightmares of slaughtered glory. iLiKETRAiNS place small carved stone idols of these individuals in front of you for your consideration and take a step backwards, daring you to claim you are any different. That you’re not one of them. That you wouldn’t, couldn’t do the same. Then when you collapse weeping and begging forgiveness for transgressions committed years before your birth they bend over, remove that piece and put the next in its place. That I have focused on the content and not the structure so far does not imply the latter is weaker. Guitars, bass, drums, brass and trumpet rush across your mind in foaming waves of purity and decay where every ebb is matched in kind by a new crashing swell of trembling strength. Don’t mistake me. This isn’t a record for everyone. It’s intense, unforgiving and at times coldly arch. It is not a happy record. But it is a record that moves beyond its state as a physical collection of songs recorded in a studio by men playing instruments. It is, dare I say it, art. It comments on, and therefore becomes part of, the human condition. In the face of that, the superb songcraft and musical innovation almost seem like afterthoughts.
“Death. It is the end. More or less.”
Recommended Tracks: “The Deception”, “Spencer Perceval”, “Death Is The End”
Many thanks to everyone who has sat through each and every one of these entries. And what the hell, thanks if you just clicked onto one of them from a random Google search for extremely specific pornography. ATCB will be following this up with a couple of similarly self-indulgent appendices as well as some fresh new articles and reviews over the New Year. I hope you enjoy them as much you bitterly tolerated this.