Maybe it's my obnoxiously catholic taste in music, but narrowing my favorites of 2012 down to a mere 10 was a Herculean task. The past year was filled with sounds that threw me sideways, broke my brain, or had me reaching for the heavens out of sheer bliss. The list I've been keeping since January of my favorites seemed to grow exponentially by the week.
So, when thinking about compiling a top 10 for Outer Worlds, I had to narrow my focus considerably, sticking only with local artists and bands. Even then, I had much to choose from, and was sadly forced to leave a number of fantastic releases out in the cold.
After much hand-wringing and internal debate, I was able to finally chip it down to these 10 amazing releases from 2012. Do take some time to dip into the sound clips I've embedded with each one. I hope that you will become as inspired and engaged by the music as I continue to be. And as an added bonus, I've also included a short interview I did with the creators of my top pick.
I'd also quickly like to thank you for reading my humble little column and hope that you'll continue to do so in 2013. I'm already scheming on what I'm going to cover for the first couple of months, and am excited to shine on a spotlight on them here.
1. The Slaves - Spirit of the Sun (Digitalis) You will hear shades of the band's influences prickling at the edges of these four songs—the early 4AD catalog, eerie pop 45s, the ambient experiments of Brian Eno. Those only serve to electrify what this duo brings to life on its 2012 release; signposts to help you navigate this unmapped ground created using layer upon layer of synth, voices, and feedback from a microphone sent through a Vocoder. But once you get further lost within the folds of what the Slaves have constructed here, the happier you will be to simply let go and peacefully drink in the colorful, lustrous landscape.
A Q&A with Birch Cooper and Barbara Kinzle of The Slaves
You both grew up in Forest Grove, which while close enough to Portland was far enough away that a lot of the experimental bands and happenings didn't reach you. How were you able to learn about music like that?
BK: By inventing it. For me, I lived outside of Forest Grove so I was pretty isolated. I didn't have anywhere to go and there wasn't a lot of opportunity to learn about music. So I would listen to new age music because it was weirder than anything I was listening to at that time. That feeling carries over to what I do now.
BC: We got to catch a lot of the cultural garbage of the '90s. A lot of interesting people became pop stars and were interested in cool music. So rural and suburban kids now could hear weird music.
Once you found each other, how did the sound of the Slaves come to be?
BC: We were just jamming a bunch of noise and drone and new age at the time. I went to a show and I had this idea: let's do a band that's drone but '50s pop. That was the initial structure of what we're trying to do. The '50s pop faded but you can still see how it led to [Spirits of the Sun].
How then did the music on Spirits come about?
BK: This time, we weren't writing stuff down and didn't take time playing our songs live for a while before we recorded them. It's more of a studio album worked out one song at a time.
BC: Our last album [Ocean on Ocean] was a leap for us in that we started using techniques like multi-tracking to four-track cassette. I think that's a big part of our sound now.
BK: In our earlier stuff, we definitely used digital processes more. Even effects. I think you can hear the difference very strongly. It's much more hissy now. I like the feel of it.
I wanted to ask about a couple of the songs on the album that really stood out for me. What can you tell me about "The Field"?
BK: It all came from the synth part. And in our earlier stuff we were very poppy, and I wanted to get more textural. We've also never done an album without singing on all the songs. I wanted to try an instrumental. I like thinking of it as a breather, something to change the direction of the album.
What about "The River"?
BK: That came from just jamming out. The funny thing about that one is that I felt the least confident about that song. I didn't want to have it on the album. We spent a lot of time away from it. At least a year. In coming back to it, it grew on me. I think it's actually the hit on the album now.
You've said that the title of the song comes from the lyrics, but to my ears, I can't hear what you're singing on it.
BK: I realize most people can't hear them. But it means a lot to me and they are meaningful to me. If people can get a hint of it, that's fine. It helps me at least to give me a feeling to go to when I'm singing it.
BC: Songs are spells.
BK: Yeah, they are. I'm not sure that I can say what the song is really about in a simple way. Basically it's about the sun rise and sun set, but it's a little more involved than that.
Birch, you drew all the pieces used for the album art. What was your vision for the artwork?
BC: I think I've always had a specific graphic vision for The Slaves. We look at a lot of metal album covers when we're brainstorming for album art ideas. It's really based in that world. We always want it to be very stark and stoic, particularly with Spirits, the black on white was a breakthrough. I've been drawing a lot of portals and that's what the cover is.
2. Agalloch - Faustian Echoes (Dammerung Arts) Epic doesn't begin to cover what this black metal colossus achieves on this brooding interpretation of Goethe's masterwork. The 20 minute song unfurls like tendrils of smoke, building with intensity and fury as it goes. The flames end up licking at your feet by the time the track finally reaches its dramatic conclusion.