As the end of the year rolls around and everyone starts chiming in with their favourite albums of the past twelve months I tend to find myself in an awkward position- the records I will have spent the most time listening to are the ones I’ve worked on myself. Don’t worry, my ego hasn’t yet reached the point where I only talk about all the amazing bands I’ve been lucky enough to work with (aside from the Old Skin album obviously), but as a recording engineer I have listened to more than a few records that have blown me away with their production. So in no particular order, here are five records from 2015 that I think sound amazing.
Heads – S/T
Recorded by Jona Nido, Mixed and Mastered by Magnus Lindburg
THAT BASS. I’m tempted to say this release features my favourite sounding rhythm section on any record, let alone just from this year. Recorded live in a medium-sized venue in Switzerland, Heads came out of nowhere and were everything I wanted to listen to. It takes a great band to record live like this, and a great engineer to capture that performance. The drums sound like he is absolutely smashing the kit, with enough depth that you feel like you are right there in La Chaux-de-Fonds next to them… and then there is that bass. That is the bass tone I hear in my head, and whether they have used an ambient mic in the room or a gentle reverb that gives it that little tail, Jona and Magnus have broken all the rules and that is absolutely fine. As the record is driven by filthy low-end and pounding percussion it means that the vocals and guitars act as textures to lift and move the album as it goes on, and that does everything that Heads intended.
Cult Leader – Lightless Walk
Recorded and Mixed by Kurt Ballou, Mastered by Brad Boatright
Cult Leader and Kurt Ballou is a perfect match. I wasn’t a massive fan of 2014′s ‘Nothing For Us Here’ EP, not for any particular reason, it just didn’t leap out and grab me by the balls. Luckily, the same cannot be said for ‘Lightless Walk’. From the moment it starts I had to stop what I was doing and listen. The songs are savage and the production is probably the most in-your-face punishing thing Kurt Ballou has done; even after repeated listens I am amazed that something so densely filled can hit that hard. The guitar sound on this record is exactly what a band like this need, with raging feedback at every pause and sitting in perfect balance with the distorted lead vocals. Cult Leader use a beautiful Hex guitar cab (made by the guys from Eagle Twin) which have an ‘absolute focus on volume and power’. I can’t argue with that. The cab was used with a Gibson Titan amp and some boutique Hovercraft (Dwarvenaut) and Sparrows Sons (no idea what model) guitar heads to give the record such an attractive snarl- to my ears at least. Not sure my mum would agree.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Recorded and Mixed by Greg Norman, Mastered by Harris Newman
As this is probably my favourite album of the year I may be slightly biased, but I’m not changing my mind. GY!BE always create records that demand to be listened to properly, and the thunderous opening to this record is no different. A real ‘close my eyes and listen’ experience, everything sits so beautifully in the right place, and when the arrangement of a record is this well done it is a joy to listen to. Repeated listens revealed nuances in the production (the tremolo on the violins in particular) which sent me on a gear quest that brought home two Strymon pedals to join the arsenal at No Studio (El Capistan tape delay and Flint tremolo/reverb for those interested). I am a little lost for words on the sound of this album; suffice to say it inspires me constantly, and even after hundreds of listens I still find new layers to the recording. What else would you expect from an engineer working from Steve Albini’s legendary Electrical Audio studio.
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
Recorded and Mixed by John Congleton, Mastered by Alan Douches
Abyss is the first Chelsea Wolfe record to feature an outside producer, and John Congleton, known for his work with Swans, Explosions In The Sky and St Vincent was a pretty outstanding choice. I found myself paying most attention to the movement of the vocals throughout the record, from sections where they sound so delicate and close, building up to a distorted wail that adds an eerie layer to an already dominating sound. More than any other record on this list, I feel like the production was as important to the album as the instruments themselves, and when the concept of the record is something as dark as sleep paralysis and the deepest reaches of human minds, every sound must contribute to building a nightmarish environment. Be that with nasty industrial sounding bass, church bells, layers of feedback or the most delicate sounding voice, it feels to me like every sound was agonised over for maximum effect. Clearly, exploring the use of sound to reflect the dark and miserable side of life is something I’m super into, so if anyone wants to make a terrifying industrial record you know where I am.
Kowloon Walled City – Grievances
Recorded and Mixed by Scott Evans, Mastered by Carl Saff
This record is fantastic, and Scott Evans joins the likes of Kurt Ballou and Magnus Lindburg as someone who is able to wear the producer hat at the same time as being the artist, and create a magnificent piece of music. Recorded live, there is a steady growl from the bass throughout, dominating the low-mid range and allowing angular guitars to cut through beautifully. I love that I can hear the rattle of low notes hit really hard on some parts of the record; that sort of thing could be lost in a perfect clinical overdubbed record, but here it adds to the feeling that the band are right there in the room with you. Despite being crushingly heavy when it needs to be, this is an album that thrives off nuance and finesse. Themed around anxieties with the modern workplace, ‘Grievances’ creates an overarching feeling of maudlin unhappiness that needs room to brood and breathe. With most heavy albums featuring the usual themes of death and dying, engineers have to reflect that. EQ those guitars and think, “yeah, this sounds grim”, compress a kick drum and think “I’ve nailed the sound of morbid yearning in this one”. But on this record the subject is different, and so the guitars can’t be out-of-this-world distorted; instead, the listener deserves to hear each note ring out naturally, to hear the bass filling the room, and for every drum hit to drag you down with its weight. The sense of real emotion conveyed on this album is incredible.