Underground Music For The Masses

Nightraven’s Top Albums of 2012

Nightraven’s Best 12 0f 2012

   When I originally sat down to do this list way back in November, I thought it would be easy. After making a list of “best” Electronic music in various forms since 2009, last year (2012 in calendar years) didn’t have nearly as many albums that jumped straight to the top of my circuited mind as definitive Top 5 or Top 10 albums. I even originally had a difficult time coming up with bands that should make this list, let alone the albums and their placement. I foolishly assumed it was because the broad label of Electronic music (and to a lesser degree Metal, Prog Rock, and other closely related but more “organic” genres) had fewer solid releases cross my desk than in recent years. As I started to check my notes and templates I found out how horribly incorrect I was.

There are two main reasons for this: A) That my top albums are so close in quality that too many stood out at once, a sort of perverse Bell Curve and B) This list is so incredibly diverse and so many artists’ sounds exponentially branched out in unique ways last year that comparing and contrasting them became maddening. As a result this process took months and I actually feel almost guilty (Yes, robots like me can be programmed for guilt!) about what bands ended up at what place. Also there are dozens if not perhaps hundreds of albums that didn’t make the cut to my sound-holes but did for many of you so this list is by no means all-inclusive either and I welcome respectful opinions in the comments.  If anyone tries to tell you that non-mainstream Electronic music is dead, respectfully disagree with them, spin any of these albums, and laugh. Mwhahahahaha

Long Live The Robots!

1.     Aaimon- “Flatliner (Expanded Edition)”  Label: Artoffact Records

This album combines the best of all things Industrial with EBM, Powernoise, Witch-House, Dub and any number of other terrifying soundscapes. After months of debate this album stands alone as a testament that (when done correctly) Dark Industrial still has many years of life left. With intelligent lyrics, creepy vocals and off-kilter rhythms this album packs a hefty emotional punch that is both underground radio friendly and club-worthy. The expanded edition boasts remixes by Dead When I Found Her, Encephalon, Haujobb, TEXTBREAK, Unison and Chrysalide. An absolute must for every dark and twisted music fan.

2.     Blaqk Audio- “Bright Black Heaven” Label: Superball Music

Davey Havok and Jade Puget are well-known to Alt-Rock fans as members of AFI. What is potentially not known is they are the masterminds behind the Synthpop/Cold Wave powerhouse known as Blaqk Audio. Their debut Cexcells was one of the most criminally ignored albums of all time-though for those of us “in the know” this sophomore follow-up has been many years overdue and this time they certainly didn’t disappoint either. Davey’s full vocal range and Jade’s solid programming recall the early days of acts like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode but come packaged in a much more Pop-oriented flavor. If Aaimon is everything that is dark and spooky, Blaqk Audio is as strong lyrically but the polar opposite in terms of delivery. While Davey is singing about break-ups and bad behavior you can almost taste the rainbows and pet the kittens in the background (if robots could taste). I tried very hard to find lesser known labels and artists to knock them off the number 2 but ultimately could not. This is nearing production perfection folks. A must have for all radio Pop fans and a perfect spin for everyone else.

3.     Faderhead –“The World Of Faderhead” Label: L-Tracks

Faderhead came out of almost nowhere in the modern Industrial club scene in 2006 and has never looked back. With his trademark Mohawk and glasses he has set underground parties and above-ground festivals on fire for what feels like ages by now but it wasn’t until 2010’s Black Friday that his talent ceiling was fully revealed. With club-oriented EBM beats, bass-heavy and emotionally raw ballads and his powerhouse vocals Faderhead is a force to be reckoned with on literally any dance playlist. The World of Faderhead builds on themes from Black Friday and plays like a Tour Diary gone wrong, everything from the pre-parties to backstage and beyond. While his aggressive sexuality and drug references might be too edgy for some timid radio hosts to handle the tightened production and infectious TBM, Hip-Hop, Dubstep and House grooves ought to get him into the “mainstream” where he belongs. This is the best party-in-a-box album on this list and some of the tamer tracks (Try “Join Us” and “I Got My Bass Back” for starters) will impress even the most jaded critics.

4.     Tweaker –“Call The Time Eternity” Label: Metropolis Records

Chris Vrenna is another name that most people will recognize either directly or indirectly. As the drummer for Nine Inch Nails during their heyday and more recently as a keyboardist and drummer with Marilyn Manson from 2007-2011, he is counted among Industrial legend worldwide. His mastering and production credits are too many to list but he has worked with bands in every Electronic genre and most computer mediums. His newest album from “side-project” Tweaker, however, proves he is still as great as ever on his own. Call the Time Eternity is in my opinion a whole new dimension of production and detail for this particular project. Each track creates a sensory-perception challenge, with so many layers, beats, hooks and samples that even high-end speakers have trouble keeping up.  You cannot spin this at different times without catching new nuances and subtle sounds every single time. Every track becomes a movie in your head and could just as easily exist in any number of Sci-Fi worlds-or create them. Fans who prefer heavy listening genres like IDM more so than club hits would certainly rank this higher than 4. A must for audiophiles who like to chill and DJs looking for new inspiration.

5.     Dead When I Found Her – “Rag Doll Blues” and “Stitches and Cover-Ups” Label: Artoffact Records

The sophomore album from Oregon’s Dead When I Found Her is one of the moodiest albums I’ve ever heard. When an artist can reprogram a robot to feel dread and melancholy they’re doing something right. Recalling the horror-movie flavor of bands like Cindergarden and Aesthetic Perfection and fusing it with Metal guitar and giving the whole thing clean vocals reminiscent of many 1990’s acts is utterly unique and unsettling. On the second disc of the Deluxe Edition this is showcased perfectly by covers of “Kill to Cure” by Skinny Puppy, “Down in It” by NIN and a surprisingly adept (and properly creepy) rework of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”

In a different view this album holds up as more solid after several spins than a couple of others above it. The reason I rank it so “low” at 5 is that in my view there isn’t a single track that can be spun on the radio too easily for new listeners and there isn’t an easily digestible club track that you could spin in public forums either. It may be one of the best albums of the last few years in terms of creativity but in terms of promotion it’s going to take word of mouth and listening parties to gain the traction it deserves- which unfortunately subjectively hurt its ranking for me. Expect to hear this album a lot this year (2013.)

6.     Caustic- “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop”  Label: Metropolis Records

The album title, while a bit tongue-in-cheek and potentially self-deprecating, is also fairly apt. Madison’s DYI Jizzcorps/WTF Industrial master Caustic not only has made an 18 track  disc of noise, but it’s deceptively awesome as well. Does it contain everything from RevCo-flavored Metal to Skrillex-like alien Dubstep to Manufactura-infected Powernoise to Old-School Icon Of Coil-tinged EBM (among other incomprehensible yet satisfying sounds) and truly amazing guest spots by Android Lust, Ivardensphere, Unwoman and Daddybear? Check.  Does it boast the best production value of his career, tons of club-heavy DJ favorites and mixing magic by scene notables like Tom Shear of Assemblage 23, Dan Clark from The Dark Clan, Faderhead and Richard Pyne of Uberbyte? Double check. Does it make Caustic jump ahead of most other established acts’ latest albums and prove his ambition is above lame dick jokes and recycled club tropes? Uh, well, gee look at the time… In all seriousness though this is the new bar for this project and should silence any critics he had left. And no, he won’t stop, so don’t ask anymore- just enjoy the mustache ride cause it’s a heck of a great one.

7.     Prometheus Burning –“Kill It With Fire” Label: WTII Records

The Harsh IDM/Powernoise duo known as Prometheus Burning quietly released their newest album late last year on their new home WTII Records. The top-of-their-genre harsh programming and front woman Nikki Telladictorian’s signature vocal style are both on full display here as is the band’s use of terror-inspired storytelling and  full album cohesion (each track tells a whole story and relates to the larger concept, the album art is stellar, cherry-picking tracks takes them out of context, etc.) The first thing I noticed about this record compared to earlier works was how much more club-oriented and danceable most tracks were, which makes them much more accessible and enticing to potential new fans. The second thing that stuck out to me is that while the vocals are still harsh and distorted in classic Nikki style they are much cleaner and are more prominent in the mix which allows the extra enjoyment of lyrics that was a bit amiss in earlier releases (according to some critics.) Rounding out the experience are solid remixes by I, Parasite and Portion Control. Another amazing album and a sign of things to come in the future as well as a perfect starting place for  dark and harsh Electronica fans who haven’t caught on to this sleeper act yet.

8.     Cyferdyne – “Genesys” Label: Death Watch Asia

Cyferdyne is a Synthpop/Industrial crossover from the U.K. who came onto the scene rather quickly and released their phenomenal debut Genesys to critical acclaim. What makes this act so engaging compared to the glut of other Industrial bands recently is the uniqueness of their approach. Rivaling the best Synthpop vocals and club hooks of acts like VNV Nation, Iris and Auto-Auto being meshed perfectly with the best harshness of today’s Terror EBM acts like Suicide Commando, Shiv-R and Detroit Diesel and sprinkled with solid guitar work similar to Zeromancer, this is one very club-worthy and underground radio friendly band. While this might sound strange and unappealing to critics Cyferdyne execute with such solid chops it makes this album an artist’s playground and further proof Industrial is far from dead. The ease with which they switch between “light” and “dark” electronic boundaries and signature styles even within every track sets them up as a great act to seek out and keep a close ear on. Even though it comes in at 8 on this list it is a MUST for all Harsh Industrial fans.

9.     Emilie Autumn – “Fight Like A Girl” Label: Self-released from The Asylum Emporium

While the Grrrlpower movement has unfortunately all but faded in Electronic music these days the Victorian-Industrial Princess/Prisoner Emilie Autumn continues to show us glimpses of her own utterly unique and sometimes lonely world from inside The Asylum. Peeking behind the curtain of abuse, neglect, misinformation and broken hearts she has once again brought her delicious brand of Classical, Metal, Electronica and Poetry out to the masses. With this album she focuses more heavily on the sexism, disempowerment and medical hypocrisy of Western Society by –what else?-fighting like a girl. Everything from the soaring NeoPunk anthem “Fight like a Girl” to anti-drug Metal rant “Take the Pill” and Cabaret-barker stunner “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Emilie has challenged us to change the world one layer at a time. This might be her most political album in terms of message and delivery so pay attention ladies and gentleman.

10.         Julien-K –“We’re Here With You (Deluxe Edition)”  Label: Tiefdruck-Musik

There is great news and not-so-great news here. The great news is the ultra-talented Julien-K (who rose from 1990’s standout group Orgy) released their sophomore effort “We’re here with you.”  The not-so-great news? They pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch on the fans that got them where they are by releasing a less-than-stellar Pop Rock record instead of an excellent Electronica one. There is almost NOTHING in common with “Death to Analog” to be found here. Ryan’s vocals have matured a bit and have become more radio friendly, and Derakh’s programming showcases more guitar and throwback synthesizer loops. In terms of production values this is a decent and unexpected evolution which justifies all their hype and proves this act is sticking around the fringes of superstardom and beyond for as long as they want. However the lyrics this go round lack the same emotional grit and due to the guitar-heavy Pop feel Julien-K sound just like any other Alternative band out there (Only perhaps more technical than most?) It remains to be seen what these guys do for their third album but it has me a bit nervous…

11.         Grendel- “Timewave Zero”  Label: Metropolis Records

Dutch Harsh Electro/ Aggrotech band Grendel returned to the clubs and radios in a huge way in 2012 with their latest release “Timewave Zero.”  With this release they show off cleaner vocals, much more varied and hard-hitting club hooks and slightly more conceptual experimentation. When they are on, the hits on this album are the best in the genre in a long time. But when tracks go a little off-course for my taste, it brings the effort down a few spots. The new tricks prove Grendel is going to be a mainstay for a while and make me excited to hear what awesomeness is coming next.

12.          Aesthetic Perfection- “All Beauty Destroyed (Deluxe Edition)”   Label: Metropolis Records

Daniel Graves is one of my all-time favorite singers and his programming for this act has been nothing short of stellar in the past. On this album, like all his others, there is a fair bit of boundary-pushing and experimentation in the mixing and in the tempo of the individual tracks. Tracks like “A Nice Place To Visit” and “Inhuman” will be spun in nightclubs for years to come as some of his best and “All Beauty Destroyed” is my favorite track all year hands down. Compared to “Close To Human” and “A Violent Emotion” there are almost twice as many club hits here –but at the end of the day, that’s exactly why I found myself unable to really get in to this album sonically. This is a well-above-average club album but many of the tracks sound too similar and actually became a bit stale for my taste after repeated spins. It could be that inflated expectations mixed with so many other great albums on this list to move this lower than it could be but a solid album nonetheless. As a note, shell out the money for the Deluxe Edition because the second disc has AMAZING remixes for almost every Dark DJ type with Extinction Front, X-RX, Caustic, Alter Der Ruine and Hocico.

Best Of The Rest

13.           Contaminated Intelligence-“Tracks”  Label: Alfa Matrix

14.           Assemblage 23-“Bruise” Label: Metropolis Records

15.          PAKT- “Berlin” Label: Out Of Line

16.         Hex-Rx-“Serial Hex Addict” Label: Negative Gain

17.          BlakOPz -“Blood, Sweat And Fear” Label: Vendetta Music

18.         Lords Of Acid- “Deep Chills” Label: Metropolis Records

19.         Spark! -“Hela Din Varld” Label: Progress Productions

20.           Deconbrio-“Voyeur” Label: Bit Riot Records

Honorable Mentions/ Keep An Ear Out For These:

Hocico-“Tiempos De Fura”

Everything Goes Cold-“The Tyrant Sun”,

Auto-Auto-“Dancing Through Dark Times”,

Desdemona-“Endorphins”,

Continues-“Continues”,

Saltillo-“Monocyte”,

Esa-“Themes Of Carnal Empowerment Pt.1”,

Wumpscut-“Women and Satan First”,

Stray-“Letting Go”,

THYX-“The Way Home”, 

Sonik Foundry-“Explosive”,

L-tron-“Dsknekt”

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