Best of 2014 (Part 2)

A little later than anticipated, here are 12 of my metal picks for 2014, presented in no particular order. I’m probably not as tapped into the genre as I once was but I do try to keep my eye out for good new stuff. Metal still remains my main backdrop for writing, as some of my editorial comments will demonstrate. After editing this, I realized half my comments involve bitching about these albums’ failure to live up to past releases so I guess this was not the most mind-blowing year of metal for me. Or maybe I just need to find some new bands to get into.


Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden
Even better than their last one and critics have (rightly) been all over it. An almost lush and relaxing brand of doom metal.

Woods of Desolation: As the Stars
My best new metal discovery of the year. A distillation and progression of the whole Alcest/Deafheaven post-black metal schitck.

Alcest: Shelter
I really do miss the black metal vocals and the stark light and dark dichotomy of past works, but they do retain some of the emotional peaks of their earlier stuff (see Voix Serenes). And in a history tangent that may interest no one, I incidentally love listening to Alcest when I write about expositions and World’s Fairs. More than anything else, the band captures the sheer exuberance of these gatherings. Its an excellent soundtrack to a sun-kissed yet frozen winter day.


Horseback: Piedmont Apocrypha
Because of their experimentation and willingness to push the boundaries of what metal, folk and Americana can mean, every thing Horseback puts out is essential in my book. Piedmont Apocrypha tackles the dark past of my new home North Carolina. I prefer the hard-driving intensity of Half-Blood but I love the proliferation of acoustic and Americana interludes here. Wish I could track down the lyrics to this one, but the ominous drones and acoustic sections sure do bring to mind the tragic history of my state.

Agalloch: The Serpent & The Sphere
This one grew on me more and more as the year went by, probably because the tumultuous transition from fall to winter is prime Agalloch time. More meandering and folky than their last frost-bitten chunk of black metal, its still a great listen.

At the Gates: At War with Reality
The old masters briefly were able to rekindle my old (high-school era) love of the Gothenburg sound.


Panopticon: Roads to the North
Years after its release, Kentucky, a concept album based on the tortured history and exploitation in the Bluegrass State, remains one of my favorite black metal albums of all time. Roads to the North sacrifices the political edge of Kentucky for a more introspective journey tracing a cross-country move. Like Kentucky, this one contains a skillful blend of Appalachian-inspired folk elements with black and melodic death metal. Can’t get enough of the banjo sections!

Saor: Aura
We continue our tour of one-man black metal projects with this project from Scotland. Epic blasts of folk evoke the mysteries and majesty of northern Scotland. Living in the NC mountains, with a backdrop not unlike the Scottish Highlands, give this one even more relevance. A perfect fit for a foggy day.

Nux Vomica: Nux Vomica
As we age, sadly the youthful spirit of rebellion sometimes ebbs, replaced with the mundanity of the 9-5 existence. I guess as a college professor I shouldn’t complain about this, but if you ever suffer from this sad malady, blast this shit. Crust punk and black metal elements combine for a potent brew.


Thou: Heathen
Dense as fuck sludge from New Orleans. The DIY/radical political lyrics add icing to the hefty cake. Got into a serious groove writing about yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans over the summer and this record was perfect.

Inter Arma: The Cavern
A single 40-minute song from this Richmond band that also graced last year’s best list. Love the thematic continuities and the graceful transitions between chugging progressive metal and clean-vocal buildups.

J-Pop sadistically blended with death metal. I probably lost a lot of metal cred by putting this up here but this album works way better than it should. The minds behind this know their metal, and it certainly pushing the boundaries of the genre to new domains.

As an aside, I almost put the records from my old metal favorites, Mastodon and Opeth up here but while they are solid efforts, they just didn’t make the cut, and I figured I’d write more about new discoveries. As for next year, I am beyond stoked for new stuff from Baroness, perhaps my favorite metal outfit.

Best of 2014 (Part 1)

While 2013 was personally a year of transition, 2014 was all about attempting to find some stability in my professional and personal life. Sadly, that stability did not translate into regular updates of this blog, but perhaps the new year will provide more time for writing projects and my push to finish my manuscript (on railroad history) will stoke the fires of inspiration here as well. At any rate, I love reading 2014 year end music years mainly for the discoveries they can lead to, and figured I should share some of my own picks. As before, the caveat remains that I’m a historian and not a professional music critic. I’ve been throwing some of my favorite songs in a Spotify playlist as well so you can also check that out:

For the uninitiated my tastes reside mostly in metal, indie, punk, and a scattering of things. We’ll break this down to metal and non-metal categories and while I’m feeling too non-committal to name a champion, here are 12 albums that have stuck with me for quite some time this year:

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Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy
A group of hardened indie veterans decamped to a the small town of Millheim in my home county in central Pennsylvania and holed up in a church to record a record based on an obscure book of folk songs. Mountain Minstrelsy details the lives of the lumbermen, miners and various other hardy folk who carved a living out of the Pennsylvania mountains around the turn of the century. An album thoroughly haunted by the past, but enlivened by lively arrangements (including tuba players, a town-wide sing-a-long, and a prepubescent fiddle player). I realize this type of thing is catnip for me, but its a fun and surprisingly effective reinvention of these old myths and legends.

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires : Dereconstructed
Simultaneously a blistering takedown of the hypocrisies of the South, and a love letter to the beleaguered region. The Southern historian in me appreciates “Flags” for its take on 21st century Confederate flag wavers or “We Dare Defend our Rights” for its righteous juxtaposition of the Birmingham church bombings with Alabama’s state motto, while the angry metalhead in me appreciates how these guys just totally shred. But seriously, read the lyrics:

Water Liars: Water Liars
The third full-length from these Mississippi-based purveyors of southern-tinged melancholia cranks up the electric guitars and still retains the emotional edge of earlier efforts. My live music experiences are limited due to my extreme rural location, but I did catch these guys play a great set at the Music of the South Conference in Oxford, Mississippi this past spring.

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Rome: Passage to Rhodesia
An album of martial neo-folk so dark it almost belongs in the metal category, this is a concept album from the point of view of white Rhodesians during the Bush Wars of the 60s. On the surface seems like it would be impossible (and politically problematic) to pull off, but the dark acoustically driven music, evocative lyrical themes, and old news footage captures this dark era of African history, especially the white Rhodesians settlers loathed by the world, abandoned by Europe and defending a doomed state and colonial system.

Hurray For the Riff-Raff: Small Town Heroes
The train-hopping roots of these New Orleans folkies lend a certain sense of wanderlust to this, as the wandering spirit of the rails infects these tunes. Tapping into a vast history of Americana, the record takes the listener from the Blue Ridge Mountains to a German traffic jam to the intimate neighborhoods of New Orleans. Politically charged lyrics, such as the inverted murder ballad “Body Electric.” Spinning these tunes in the dead of winter brought a bit of Gulf Coast warmth to the cold mountains. Mostly this record just makes us wish our employer would open a branch campus in New Orleans…

Strand of Oaks: HEAL
This dude’s been favorite for a while – Pope Killdragon soundtracked a particularly glum period of my life back in grad school – but he really ups his game on HEAL, embracing big guitar arrangements and letting some light into the darkness. JM, a pitch-perfect tribute to Jason Molina, still gets me every time. Its been great to see the critics digging this stuff as well.

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Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
This one was another grower that stuck with me all year. Meditations on loneliness and isolation backed mostly by sparse acoustic guitar arrangements. I’m pretty sure “White Fire” is more intense than half the metal records I’ve heard this year. She gives utterly mesmerizing performances and it would be great to catch a live show of her’s in 2015. Given that she’s apparently (somewhat) local now after moving to Asheville this may actually happen.

iceage: Plowing into the Field of Love
Have to admit I’m not familiar with the earlier output from these Danes but this record is phenomenal. Angry ramshackle punk filtered through a cowpunk/country lens. I think this first clicked for me when the trumpet descends from the heavens in the bridge of “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled.” Who knows what sort of existential Danish angst inspired this stuff but I love the pure-out swagger behind the enterprise.

Parquet Courts – Content Nausea
The second record they put out this year and while its a close call, the laid-back vibe on this one gives it the edge over than Sunbathing Animal. They go all in on the Pavement/Silver Jews influences here – “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth” may be my favorite song of the year.

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First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
The Swedish folk duo has been covered here before for one of my favorite train songs (Ghost Town). Its more than just acoustic guitars on this elaborately produced step forward for them. Sweeping string arrangements give this an air of mystery and adventure – a great record for a drive out in the countryside.

Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds of Country Music
I know everyone has been all over this guy but this one really grew on me over the course of the year. These are just really good songs and its weird as hell, from the daguerreotype in space cover, to the lyrics, which blow old country tropes to smithereens.

Steve Gunn: Way Out Weather
A late entrant to this contest. This Brooklyn-based guitarist weaves an elaborate tapestry of jams here. Its both relaxing and intellectually stimulating thanks to the intricate guitar work. His labelmate and collaborator Nathan Bowles’s album of clawhammer banjo drones and reimagined Appalachian ballads also merits a mention in this last slot.

And thus concludes part 1 of this year-end retrospective. Stay tuned for a trip to the metal world…

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – The Dead Flag Blues

We’ve been on a bit of an apocalyptic post-rock kick as of late. Perhaps its the brutal cold weather, or a random rekindling of our youthful rage against the man, or maybe its the writing death march induced by a looming article deadline. Whatever the cause of this state of mind, a spin through the older works of the legendary Godspeed You! Black Emperor (don’t forget to add the exclamation point), which incidentally form an excellent writing soundtrack if one wants to induce a frenzy of paranoid productivity, unearthed a train song and inspired an update here.

“Dead Flag Blues” comes off of F#a#infinity, the debut record that launched the group into the public eye. The track starts with a chilling spoken word piece, about a corrupt society degenerating into chaos, complete with “buildings toppling in on themselves” and “mothers clutching babies” apparently written by a member of the group. Few bands channel fears of societal collapse better than Godspeed – its no surprise Danny Boyle used the second track off this record in the excellent zombie movie 28 Days Later. Swelling strings add to the drama and the narrator opens up his wallet, only to find it full of blood. And if that’s not an indictment of capitalism and greed in whatever horror has transpired here, we don’t know what is.

Then the beat falls away and there it is – the whistle of a train and the chugging of an engine as it speeds up and flies off into the distance. The train image below is from an insert in the LP (The Revered Gary Davis referenced on this train is a blues artist).


The symbolism of the railroad works on many levels here. As a historian writing about railroads as a symbol of capitalism’s advance, the link between the group’s prophetic vision of societal collapse, and the inherent chaos and instability built into the system, is all too apparent to us. The leaving train also fits the “western” atmosphere of the next part of the track. The train leaves behind ambient sounds in certainly wake, which certainly adds to the dreamlike atmosphere and as the song builds again, one can imagine a camera panning away from the train to reveal a wide-open landscape. Finally, the train works to reset the listener’s attention and leads us to wonder if we are waking up from a horrible dream. The train whistle often intrudes in literature and film as a device to jar the viewer back into consciousness, and in this case its a jarring and effective transition to the second half of the song, a link between a nightmare and the new dawn.

After a lengthy hiatus through the turbulent 00s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are back in action, releasing new music, trashing and pointing out the hypocrisy in prestigious awards they win, and going on tour. Here they are, posing by some train tracks:
Godspeed You Black Emperor

Its certainly a good time to have them back – F#a#infinity came out in 1997 and a look back reveals that these guys were indeed prophets. Considering the cataclysms and crises of the first decade of the 21st century – environmental catastrophes ravaging major cities, fears of global terror, and a financial crisis that brought the world to the brink of economic collapse – we’ve been closer to the apocalyptic vision of “Dead Flag Blues” than anyone could have guessed. Indeed, the apocalypse is hot stuff now – a zombie show is the highest rated show on cable, and few monsters prey on end-of-the-world anxieties like zombies.

Zombies aside, its an interesting use of a train song, and certainly an unconventional train song. Not to beat up on our own blog, but the many lonesome whistles and trains leaving behind lost loves and broken hearts were getting a little repetitive here…

Magnetic Fields – Born on a Train

This is second Magnetic Fields song to show up here, and like the last song we posted, its off of their travel-themed record Charm of the Highway Strip. “Fear of Trains” is a catalog of railroad-related historical horrors, but this is quite simply a song about living a restless life and being “born on a train.”

The illustrious minds over in the commenting section seem to think this is about vampires, and though the lines about never getting old and the walking dead may speak to this, we’d argue its more about travel than the life of the undead. The black and white music video, featuring a girl wandering a city and a small train set, is quite good at matching the mood of the song, but it does little to support the vampire thesis.

The song largely fits with the theme of the record – of drifting aimlessly and the traveling life. The narrator promises to leave a lover at some point, because he’ll “have to go when the whistle blows” because “the whistle knows my name.” As he explains, “Baby I was born on a train.” Just as we’ve seen in other train songs, trains most often symbolize travel and restlessness. The song’s story of a failing relationship, and imagery of grey mornings, neon signs and walking dead, all speak to the ambiguities of a life on the move.

On a personal level, this song had special relevance to us while in the thick of dissertation writing. At times, we reached a level of obsession that had us feeling like we were also “born on a train.” The song, like most of their stuff, is also catchy as hell – good luck getting it out of your head!

The Arcade Fire did a pretty nifty cover of the tune as well – here’s the video for that:

Black Twig Pickers – Cherry River Line

The Black Twig Pickers hail from Virginia and West Virginia and they specialize in resurrecting lost folk songs from the mountainous border region between these two states. A bit of an anomaly on the indie-oriented label Thrill Jockey, they boast a rich discography chock full of great arrangements of old-time music, and of course a veritable roundhouse worth of train songs. The music conjures up images of front porch jams and old country stores, and it drips with a level of authenticity that today’s suspender-clad hip new folk troubadours could only dream of matching. Indeed their record label’s site relates their reliance on first person sources, either actual songsmiths, or relatives, and even recordings dredged up from archives. To be sure, this is not the last time you will see this group here on this blog.

“Cherry River Line” is off their 2008 release, Hobo Handshake, and its a rather dark tune to say the least, and a reminder to this former metalhead that the old-time Appalachian ballads can often match metal when it comes to grimness. The vocals are in the back of the mix, allowing the minor-key instrumentation to shine through, and adding to the isolation of the narrator. Lyrically, its yet another train song about a failing relationship. The singer is “lonesome all the time” missing a girl on “yonder mountain” who took up with another man. He resolves to find another woman and the slow running train’s lonesome whistle matches his despair, He closes the tune by noting that while someday he may forget his former lover, he’ll never forget the Cherry River Line.


The tune itself comes from the mountains of West Virginia. Far as we can tell, the “Cherry River Line” refers to an old spur line off the Baltimore & Ohio, a spur line that has now undergone a conversion to a rail trail. Mountain regions were usually the latest to receive rail service – from the looks of this map of the B&O system above, it looks as if the railroad got to this area (near the town of Richwood) by 1901. When the rails did arrive, it was usually the leading edge of an exploitative or even colonial arrangement hauling away wealth and resources, with little benefit to the local communities. Though the grievance that inspires this track is more personal, it should not be surprising that a railroad song from this corner of the mountains is so dark.

Further hints about the origins of this tune come from this clip of old-time fiddler Lester McCumber who recalls a friend of his used to play “Cherry River Line” so it “made the hair raise up on your back” and who discusses a few variations on the tune. There’s a profile of McCumber in the New York Times rom 1999 if you’re curious on reading more on his career. The story is testament to the authenticity of the song, so kudos to the Black Twig Pickers for resurrecting this great piece of history.

2013 Albums of the Year (Part 3)

After a holiday-induced delay, here are the rest of our picks for albums we liked this year:

Lucero – Texas & Tennessee
Its a brief 4 song EP, but anything from Lucero is worth celebrating. This one even has a train song . In contrast to the more uptempo, horn-driven material on their latest 2 records, this is a stripped down acoustic affair. Its also worth mentioning we finally got a chance to see these fellows live in Asheville, and they did not disappoint.

Restorations – LP2
Whether due to the move away from Gainesville, or just growing boredom with the genre, this was one of the few punk albums that really stuck in our playing rotation this year. Its sad and introspective stuff, a soundtrack to the tumultuous transition to early adulthood. The tempo shifts – from the meandering “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe” to the rollicking “New Old” – add variety and diversity and helping it stand out from the pack.

Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
The ghost of Pavement haunts this album of this indie band from Massachusetts. Crunchy slacker anthems that were a good fit for the period of crushing uncertainty we experienced while awaiting the conclusion of a torturous job hunt.

Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Some irreverent garage punk from Texas. Veers wildly between boastful/cocky jams and biting social commentary – another good encapsulation of life in your mid-20s.

Water Liars – Wyoming
Everything this prolific group does hits us like a ton of bricks, and this was no exception. Their great tunes, crushing lyrics, and perfectly melancholic vocals sucked us in for a long time.

A 2013 recap list would also be remiss if it did not mention the sad passing of Jason Molina, mastermind behind Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. In case you missed it, one of our favorite posts we’ve done here was on the many trains that appear in his work. We’ll leave you all with this phenomenal bonus track off the 10th anniversary reissue of his classic album “Magnolia Electric Co.” We are hoping to catch one of the memorial shows feature members of his band and Hiss Golden Messenger when they swing through NC next month.

…And there you have it – a bunch of stuff we have been into this year. We are already eagerly anticipating new albums in 2014 from Titus Andronicus, Pallbearer, Agalloch, Alcest, The Drive-By Truckers, among others, so the new year should be a good one, at least musically speaking. On a personal level, its going to be hard to match the changes and transformations of 2013, but that’s probably a good thing.

And with the conclusion of this retrospective, we will back to our usually scheduled train song programming shortly.