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 <a href="https://wehaveoldskin.bandcamp.com/album/beneath-the-trees"><strong>Old Skin</strong></a> 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.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/headsporn"><strong>Heads</strong></a> – S/T
Recorded by Jona Nido, Mixed and Mastered by Magnus Lindburg
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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, <strong>Heads</strong> 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 <strong>Heads</strong> intended.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/CultLeaderMusic"><strong>Cult Leader</strong></a> – Lightless Walk
Recorded and Mixed by Kurt Ballou, Mastered by Brad Boatright
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<strong>Cult Leader</strong> 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. <strong>Cult Leader</strong> use a beautiful Hex guitar cab (made by the guys from <strong>Eagle Twin</strong>) which have an 'absolute focus on volume and power'. I can't argue with that. The cab was used with a <strong>Gibson</strong> Titan amp and some boutique <strong>Hovercraft</strong> (Dwarvenaut) and <strong>Sparrows Sons</strong> (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.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Godspeed-You-Black-Emperor-8421198748/?fref=ts"><strong>Godspeed You! Black Emperor</strong></a> - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Recorded and Mixed by Greg Norman, Mastered by Harris Newman
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As this is probably my favourite album of the year I may be slightly biased, but I'm not changing my mind. <strong>GY!BE</strong> 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 <strong>Strymon</strong> pedals to join the arsenal at <strong>No Studio</strong> (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.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/cchelseawwolfe"><strong>Chelsea Wolfe</strong></a> – Abyss
Recorded and Mixed by John Congleton, Mastered by Alan Douches
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Abyss is the first <strong>Chelsea Wolfe</strong> record to feature an outside producer, and John Congleton, known for his work with <strong>Swans</strong>, <strong>Explosions In The Sky</strong> and <strong>St Vincent</strong> 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.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/kowloonwalledcity"><strong>Kowloon Walled City</strong></a> – Grievances
Recorded and Mixed by Scott Evans, Mastered by Carl Saff
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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.
<p style="text-align: left;">I don't really get to take holidays. As a freelance engineer I feel like if I take myself off to a beach to lie down for a week then not only will I forget how to mix anything, but also every band who has worked with me will be so appalled they will find someone else to work with who isn't so lazy.</p>
But it is good to get out of the studio, and so in my 'down time' I try to organise myself and my friends in <a href="https://www.facebook.com/greatpijn/" target="_blank"><strong>Pijn</strong></a> so that we can go on tour, travel around to fun places and see some cool stuff. In just the last couple of months we have toured the UK and Europe, hitting up places like Luxembourg, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Bristol, and sometimes even having more than half an hour to look around.
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I always feel incredibly privileged to get to do this, and it remains a goal of mine to help any bands that record with me to experience the same thing. Make a record, then go and play it to as many people as you possibly can. Go far and wide, you'll play to some folk who just won't get it, but the same night you could be stopped whilst loading out by someone who thinks you're the best, it is bizarre and awesome in equal measure. <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_in_the_Van" target="_blank"><strong>Henry Rollins</strong></a> moment over.
Here are some wonderful bands that I met or played with whilst we were away over the last few months.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/conjureruk/" target="_blank"><strong>Conjurer</strong></a> - you don't need me to tell you about them. Wonderful people, stunning band, fantastic tour mates. Their album '<a href="https://conjureruk.bandcamp.com/album/mire-2" target="_blank"><strong>Mire</strong></a>' is one of the greatest metal records I have ever heard, and as usual <a href="https://lewis-johns.squarespace.com/" target="_blank"><strong>Lewis Johns</strong></a>' production is amazing.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/slowcrushband/" target="_blank"><strong>Slow Crush</strong></a> - <a href="http://www.holyroarrecords.com/" target="_blank">Holy Roar Records</a> label mates and recent UK tour buds, not only are they amazing people, but they create soundscapes that make me seem like a toddler with a delay pedal. Plus they were incredibly gracious when Belgium somehow beat England in the World Cup. Their new album '<a href="https://slowcrush.bandcamp.com/" target="_blank"><strong>Aurora</strong></a>' is out in September and from what I have heard it is absolutely gorgeous. A <a href="http://neildkennedy.com/home/" target="_blank"><strong>Neil Kennedy</strong></a> production special.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/giverhc/" target="_blank"><strong>Giver</strong></a> - more label mates who helped us out with a show in Cologne. I wish they had been able to play the show as well, their album '<a href="https://giverhc.bandcamp.com/album/where-the-cycle-breaks" target="_blank"><strong>Where The Cycle Breaks</strong></a>' from earlier this year fills the gap left by bands such as <a href="https://www.facebook.com/Carpathian-224570721877/" target="_blank"><strong>Carpathian</strong></a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/morethanlifeuk/" target="_blank"><strong>More Than Life</strong></a>, and is incredibly satisfying punk and hardcore.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/modernritualsuk/" target="_blank"><strong>Modern Rituals</strong></a> - just some lovely fellas playing fantastic grungey bangers. Listen to '<a href="https://modernrituals.bandcamp.com/album/the-light-that-leaks-in" target="_blank"><strong>The Light That Leaks In</strong></a>' and then listen to it again and again.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Wacouk/" target="_blank"><strong>Waco</strong></a> - now, these guys are one of the most fun bands I have seen in years. We played with them a couple of years ago and make sure to catch up whenever possible, I cannot wait to hear the new album but until then it will be '<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g81uDoAuoCQ" target="_blank"><strong>Mother Mercy</strong></a>' on repeat.
<a href="https://www.facebook.com/wildernesshymnal/" target="_blank"><strong>Wilderness Hymnal</strong></a> - when I was organising the Manchester date for our latest tour, it was an easy choice for who we wanted to be part of it. Captivating live and with some amazing use of synths and a TC Helicon to create atmospheres both menacing and beautiful, I hope to see more of them soon.
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