Tom’s Top 10 of 2017

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First off, a couple of these came out in late 2016, but I didn’t find them until sometime in 2017. I get to make up the rules for this and that is plenty good enough for me.

1. Battle Trance – Palace of Winds. I ran into this by total accident. Last spring I went to Obsidian in downtown Olympia to see Arrington de Dionyso do a set with his band This Saxophone Kills Fascists. They were opening for a band I had never heard or heard of, Battle Trance. Battle Trance is four guys playing tenor sax. Nothing else. And they sound like nothing else, partly because their dense tonal range – everyone in playing within the pitch possibility of what a tenor can do. Don’t go higher, don’t go lower. Secondly, this music has little or no improvisation that I could detect. At Obsidian, they played the 50-minute piece on this record and it sounded basically like it sounds on the disc. Which is fantastic. Glorious. Travis Laplante, the composer, uses non-traditional sax techniques as well as circular breathing to get everybody to the finish line. There are points in this when it reminds me of Philip Glass’s “Einstein” at its most furious while at other points it is simply pastoral. Masterful in its conception, masterful in its execution.

2. Tanya Tagaq – Retribution. Ms. Tagaq is a far north Canadian Inuk throat singer. I like a good throat singer as much as the next person, but as an artist she is somewhere far beyond that. This music is dense, complicated, sonically rich, thoughtful, painful and deeply satisfying. It took me a while to run into this (thanks, Kate) and I am still only beginning to absorb it. My words are insufficient to begin to describe what she does. She is going to play right here in Olympia February 1st and I am gonna be there.

3. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana: Explorations Into Microtonal Tuning. This is psychosomatic Australian playing at its finest (thanks Ben). A brief explanation from their bandcamp: “Flying Microtonal Banana is King Gizzard’s first-ever experience in microtonal tuning, which features intervals smaller than a semitone and not found in customary Western tuning octaves.” So what does that mean? Well some people will think this sounds out of tune – it ain’t. Harmonically speaking, this is Harry Partch on electric guitars. Rhythmically, this thing just goes bang like it was the relentless first Neu album even thought these guys sound nothing like Neu. Especially the first tune ”Rattlesnake.” Sweet jesus, it kills. This is the first of five microtonal albums they planned to release in 2017 (they have a week to get the last one out). I haven’t heard them all but this is a great start.

4. Sam Boshnack Quintet – Nelly Bly project. I sure do like this band and I quite love Sam’s work as a composer. This time out Sam has built a piece inspired by the story and the work of journalist Elizabeth Cochran (a.k.a. Nellie Bly) 100 plus years ago. The liner notes give you a good starting place to learn about Cochran. The music is as always sublime (you should know I am a sucker for Beth Fleener’s well-played bass clarinet). This music is varied and compositionally interesting; the band executes it magnificently. And hat’s off to Floyd Reitsma who recorded this. At 4:50 of “One Is In Trouble” there is a drum break with as well recorded tom drums as I’ve heard anywhere. Every time I get to that part, it snaps my ears around. Sam has a lot of really great recordings, which you want.

5. Amy Denio – The Big Embrace. Do you love and respect the prolific Ms. Denio? Of course you do! Let me count the ways! Well, to start with, there is sixteen more things to love and respect right here, on Amy’s 10th solo release and zillionth release overall. That’s plenty, ain’t it? Amy goes for a variety approach here as she often does, but for the most part this is songs with singing. Songs you could sing along with if you really wanted to. Not too tricky, not too normal, just right. She also makes fun of the president and I think that is just a fine thing to do. Very enjoyable, very Amy.

6. The Yes Masters The Yes Masters is one dude. Kurt Bloch. Mr. Bloch is a long time Seattle music boy, a Fastback, a Young Fresh Fellow plus a member of a couple million other bands. He has put out what you probably can call his first solo all Kurt album sort of. All songs by Kurt, all playing by Kurt. There are plenty of pleasing features here, catchy songs, plenty good enough singing, buckets of guitar notes – some of them quite thematic, but on the overall I would have to cite Mr. Bloch’s powerful aesthetic: nothing is prettied up, it is crudely direct and immediate while still well executed. It is music based on a 13 year-old’s punk rock appreciation of beauty and the BÖC. Kurt Bloch is The Pan, is all the best senses of J. M. Barrie’s hero. His heart remains pure.

7. Kelly Moran – bloodroot. Kelly Moran is a composer for and player of the prepared piano, which, as you know, got its start at Cornish College in Seattle with John Cage long ago. This, however, is not particularly Cagian. It is kinda melodic and employs something resembling songform. Off kilter, but rich. It makes you recall that the piano is actually a percussion instrument played by hitting the strings. This not some vain intellectual exercise, this is highly pleasurable to listen to.

8. David Scherer Water – Olympia. This is the first time I have ever put a book on my list – this is a damn music list after all. Hey – ya gotta be flexible. Olympia is a little skinny book, 111 pages. The title page says “Making Sense of Olympia For Newcomers, Tourists and Long-Time Residents” (I qualify as two of those). It organized by topic, with each topic getting a page or two. To the point. David is a fine writer, making this a pleasure to read, even for people who will never be anywhere near Olympia. Somewhat amusing, not too cute or anything like that. I think David did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of the place. Hell, I even name checked him in my “Christmas in Olympia” song. The book has really fine illustrations by Arrington de Dionyso.

9. Zelda Starfire – Womando. Ain’t nuthin’ pretty here. Just one woman pedal down. Zelda plays the guitar with a sliding tube, the harmonica, and the kick-drum-pedal-suitcase. Once in a while she does it with sensitivity but mostly she just goes and bangs the hell out it. With feeling of course. I like that. She is The One Womando Band for sure. Go buy her album today.

10a. Pere Ubu – 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo. You know I had kinda lost track of David Thomas and the Ubu’s. I loved them long ago, but the stuff I had heard in more recent times just didn’t grab my attention. This year I went and saw Pere Ubu at the Croc for the first time ever and quite enjoyed it. The cranky old guy delivered the goods pretty well. Several months later I got this album at the end of a long road trip with Howie and it took me a little while to unfold it. That is usually a good sign. In some ways this is not the most adventurous Ubu work of all time, but that is not necessarily a bad thing – it is an old friend turning the chaos knob up with a usually throbbing beat. Works for me.

10b.  Harriet Tubman – Araminta. I ran into the work of guitarist Brandon Ross a few years ago and he had a tendency to play the kind of wrongish notes that I like. Some of his work falls in the pretty nice acoustic category, the avant power trio Harriet Tubman not so much. This is bass, drums and Electric guitar with layers of harmonic uncertainty.  To spice things up they add kinda famous composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. All this adds up to something in the kind of Marc Ribot/Ceramic Dog ballpark, but a little more jazzy and even a little bit more funky. I say yes.,