A Dark Noel, Anarcho-Christian Black Metal, Portal-Opening Techno
We strung lights to Loretta Lynn, then watched the Christmas tree glow to A Dark Noël.
When Projekt Records released Excelsis: A Dark Noël in 1995, the compilation may have been billed as a dark alternative to saccharine and samey holiday music, but song for song, these velvet goths sculpted carols into obsidian yuletide beauties. This Ascension's "Carol of the Bells" layers aerial voices and cathedral synths, Lycia sends "We Three Kings" into the endless void, Thanatos gives what might be the most idiosyncratic take ever on "The First Noel," his booming bass voice just out of sync with the acoustic guitar and reverb-laden keyboards (not to mention his, um, inspired over-pronunciation: Born is the King of Is-RAHY-ell).
Oh, and after you've heard How the Grinch Who Stole Christmas classic "Welcome Christmas" rendered as a Cocteau Twins dream of a Whoville dressed in lace and gauze, you can never go back.
I found out about A Dark Noël like most things in the late '90s: Christian underground rock message boards. Believe it or not, there was a heavy contingent of darkwave, goth and dark ambient artists who were Doomy and Gloomy for Jesus. Punk was my lane, but I was drawn to my brethren in fishnet stockings and oversized pewter crosses. Lord help me, I can't remember any artists from that time save Saviour Machine and some industrial groups, but A Dark Noël — released by a secular label — was pretty popular among the gothic possessors of faith. Maybe it was because Eva O — former member of Christian Death and Shadow Project, one-time musical and romantic partner to Rozz Williams — had recently converted to Christianity; she gives a rather alarming, yet touching performance of "O Silent Night," replete with pipe organ and harp. But looking back, I think the message-board goths were moved by these surprisingly faithful interpretations. There's nothing cynical or arch about them — the Projekt artists seem genuinely moved by these carols.
When I ran Thor's Rubber Hammer, a psych/noise/free-jazz label, I wanted to capture the somber, reflective mood set by outsider holiday compilations like A Dark Noël. So in late 2008, I released Last Winter We Didn't Sing, featuring folks like Scott Tuma, Greg Davis, Fabio Orsi and Susan Alcorn. I gave them few parameters other than to offer their own impressions of the season: from an abstract guitar meditation on a Perry Como tune and a modular synth "Silent Night" to Twin Peaks-ian Christmas noir and sugar plum fairies dancing crookedly across a pedal steel. I still think "Last Holiday" by The Instruments (helmed by Elephant 6 cellist and now movie soundtrack composer Heather McIntosh) deserves more recognition as the perfect looking-wistfully-out-the-window-during-snowfall song.
Projekt has since released second volume that I’ve never heard, plus the Ornamental compilation and assorted single-artist holiday EPs, but 25 years later, Excelsis: A Dark Noël still seeks wonder in the darker corners of the season. — Lars Gotrich
A new sixer (almost) every week. Follow my collection on Bandcamp.
Bacon Grease, The Slow Burn (Popnihil): There was a moment a decade ago when noise kids got into techno, but (with some exceptions) did little except add a thumping beat to some harsh wall. Bacon Grease imagines those distortion-bled 4/4 club bangers as portals to other dimensions. Suicide-style synth minimalism segues into harsh riddims, hypnotic darkwave melodies and gonzo private-press bummer songs… this noise tape gives me chills, y'all!
Гланды, Прочь в тоску и холод (шгхрркхшс): What if Mayyors, Sacramento's short-lived shitstain on noise rock, had mutated into a primitive surf-punk band a la B-52s? Гланды gets a few assists from the St. Petersburg hardcore/punk scene (ЛОНО, Брасс, Паучий Череп) with four bludgeoning miscreant-pop songs.
Gelassenheit, They Will Beat Their Swords Into Ploughshares (self-released): How could I not love a trans anarchist black metal artist whose bio states, "There is neither male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus!"? The artist is not a believer, but finds inspiration in Christianity's long (and frequently forgotten) history of socialist action. Aesthetically, Gelassenheit shares a lot in common with Old Nick and the Grime Stone Records crew: this is raw blackmetalpunk blasted with dungeon synth melodies, tubular bells and church organs. (Hat tip to Stereogum's year-end metal list, which mentioned this artist in passing.)
Daydream, Mystic Operative (Dirt Cult): Swaggering, bruising and psychedelic punk that gives me some of that Hank Wood and the Hammerheads rave-up frenzy, like a motorcycle barreling down a one-lane mountain road without guardrails.
v/a, Glimpses of North Africa's Musical Past: 1930-1956 (Gharamophone): In an alternate timeline, I'm an ethnomusicologist, digging up old records or flying across the world with a field recorder. That's why the efforts of labels like Sahel Sounds, Sublime Frequencies and Canary Records have leveled the playing field, allowing hobbyists and professional researchers alike to share their treasures. Here's a new one to follow: Gharamophone, "dedicated to preserving North Africa's Jewish musical past, one record at a time." The first compilation, sourced from shellac records, is full of striking sounds from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
Gunn-Truscinski Duo, Soundkeeper (Three Lobed): Steve Gunn's sangin' songs have become so homey, intricate and lovely that I sometimes forget that the dude can shred the cosmic donut. His long-standing musical partnership with drummer John Truscinski has made for some righteously noisy chooglin, but this record skates satellites beaming transmissions across the universe. Truscinski is, as ever, a melodic drummer, expanding Gunn's trance guitar and wah-wah wizardry as pulsating webs of percussion; his synth work, too, pulls ghosts out of foghorn blues. There's some heady Bard Pond psych, SYR series improv skronk, woozy MV & EE blooze — total Three Lobed-core, from the label that made these outer sounds a worthwhile personality trait to claim.
33 tracks. New Eyehategod sounds like the same ol' strung-out and sludgy Eyehategod. Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou's supremely heavy Cranberries cover. Three killer remixes: Jayda G gold-slicks Romy's "Lifetime," George Clanton tosses in a Berserk sample (!) into Caroline Polachek's "Hey Big Eyes," DJ Shadow slows Deftones' "Digital Bath" to a creepily sensual crawl. I don't play video games, but the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack is STACKED with collabs; I've been jamming on The Armed's caustic party-punk anthem with Homeschool Dropouts. I desperately need to be on the metro past midnight bumpin' Park Hye Jin and Nosaj Thing's "CLOUDS." New emo that sounds like old emo: Brave Little Abacus, Ogbert the Nerd, Hospital Bracelet. Not-emo made by a veteran emo: Caithlin De Marrais. The snare on this Madlib + Four Tet collab is really tripping me out. Lisel and Daniel Wohl, known boundary neglecters, create little Auto-Tuned sugar blobs of ambient-pop sweetness. A sad song by Hayley Williams sung sadder. Select faves from Excelsis: A Dark Noël. Throwbacks to Opeth when Opeth was still a metal band + Harold Budd's Cocteau Twins album.
RIYL a damn fine cup of tea
What: August’s The Black Lodge (black tea)
Why: This tastes like a fried banana dipped in fancy dark chocolate, but has none of the chemical aftertaste that plagues so many blended black teas. It's only slightly smoky and darkly sweet, but surprisingly creamy and, to use a beer word, sessionable. I like mine with a splash of pea milk. (Also, now I drink pea milk; it's funny to me, too.) Thanks to my pal Steep and Destroy for the heads up!