A Darker Shade of Pagan: Top Ten of 2012

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While I generally keep my music podcast, A Darker Shade of Pagan, from getting entangled in the daily workings of The Wild Hunt, every once in awhile I like to alert my readership of some great Pagan and Pagan-friendly music that I come across. Since I posted my ADSOP top ten of 2012 show on Sunday, I thought I would share what I thought were some of the best albums that speak to the Pagan soul from the past year. Consider it a gift-giving guide to the Pagan in your life looking for something different in the way of “Pagan music”.

ADSOP’s Top Ten Albums of 2012:

10. Hexvessel – “No Holier Temple” [Purchase]

PromoImage1Dubbing themselves “forest folk from Finland,” Hexvessel first gained attention with 2011’s “Dawnbearer,” but it is with “No Holier Temple” that the band take their psychedelic folk-rock sound to new heights. Sounding like an ahead-of-its-time lost treasure from the vaults, Hexvessel could have gotten caught in becoming a mere tribute to the bands that inspired them, but luckily the sounds here are fresh thanks to inventive compositions and a judicious use of modern elements. Further, the band’s lyrics are explicitly occult and Pagan in their subject matter, creating a heady vision of nature-worship, sorcery, and myth. I’m fascinated with how an increasing number of Metal musicians are exploring folk and psychedelia, and it may just be that the future of these genres are saved by the Metalheads who understood the dark spirit that underlays much of what’s best about them. Certainly worth checking out.

09. Mariee Sioux – “Gift For the End” [Purchase]

MARIEE SIOUX NewDigipack.inddI am very picky when it comes to singer-songwriters. It’s very easy to be OK, and very hard to excel, leaving far too many stranded in a sort of pleasant mediocrity. Luckily, Mariee Sioux was blessed with a voice and compositions that are compelling, and she puts them to good use on “Gift For the End” where her mythopoeic tendencies are given free reign on tracks like “Homeopathic” or “White Fanged Foreverness.” Sioux’s childlike singing is both pretty and feral, making parts of the album have a spooky charm that few share, edging her very close to Kate Bush/Tori Amos territory at times. This album is shows an artist who understands the strength of texture in a song, and after repeated listening, you start to sink into them, following her spectral voice through visions that both delight and disturb. This is mythic music, and Sioux deserves a far larger audience, I’m increasingly excited for where she’ll go next.

08. Sondra Sun-Odeon – “AEtherea” [Purchase]

sondraPart of the now-defunct dark-world-psych band Silver Summit, Sondra Sun-Odeon’s solo debut “AEtherea” takes the fairy-tale myth-making of her old band and digs deeper into more personal-sounding territory. Much is made of Sun-Odeon’s voice, and for good reason, it’s an instrument that reaches into you, that fully inhabits the otherworldly elements highlighted on this album. As the title suggests, this is an album about spirit, and spiritual things, but doesn’t forget that those things are always deeply personal and rooted in our personal experience. If Mariee Sioux’s album floated in clouds, or mist, much of Aetherea often seems deep in the woods, or perhaps submerged in the depths. This is an album of layers, of complexities that enchant. An excellent debut, one that I hopes augers many more in the years to come.

07. Monica Richards – “Naiades” [Purchase]

1331818245 j0zSNow that the band Faith and the Muse has ended, the “muse” of that partnership, Monica Richards, is defining herself as a solo artist, a process that begun on “Infrawarrior,” and continues now with “Naiades” released at the beginning of this year. Merging the spiritual with the political, and with the ecological, Richards places herself into the role of Wise Woman, of Goddess, inhabiting many masks as she travels through this heroine’s journey. Ranging from ambient soundscapes to pulsing post-punk “Naiades” showcases Richards range, while also reminding listeners that she’s lived through punk, and the darkwave boom of the 1990s, and that she’s still a vital force today. Richards is at her best when she turn imperious on tracks like “EndBegin,” which sound like declarations of sovereignty set to throbbing beats. If this is a proof of concept of a Monica Richards solo career, consider me sold. With the classic 1990s darkwave sound creeping back into the underground, I’m glad that pioneers like Monica Richards are around to remind everyone why it has persisted.

06. Unto Ashes – “Burials Foretold” [Purchase]

58634 500Unto Ashes’ last album, 2009’s “The Blood of My Lady” saw the band stripped down to founder Michael Laird, and as a result, that album veered far deeper into apocalyptic folk and dark ambient  terrain. While the final product was excellent, and made my “best of” list for that year, one could argue that this was almost a solo statement from Laird, and not the Unto Ashes we had grown to love. 2012’s “Burials Foretold” then is something of a return to the Unto Ashes of yesteryear, featuring the return of singer Natalia Lincoln, and a re-embracing of the tried-and-true Unto Ashes formula: spirited covers, instrumental tangents, esoteric songwriting, and a slight veer back towards the orchestral darkwave of, say, “Songs For A Widow” or “Empty Into White.” If you’ve been missing Unto Ashes, this is them back again, in prime form. If you’ve never experienced them, this is as good a time to jump on as any. Oh, and they’re just as doom-y and esoteric as they’ve ever been!

05. ERAAS – “ERAAS” [Purchase]

PO V1FZ 007 1k1 This is for the Coil fans out there, by that I mean fans of ritualistic and occult-drenched electronic music. The debut album by ERAAS is a dark initiatory trip through distorted voices, chanting, pounding drums, menacing soundscapes, and surprisingly pretty reveries in-between. Though dark, this is not a dirge-fest, with layers and textures that dip you in and out of a surprisingly complex and cohesive whole. ERAAS understands that the forward-looking post-punk era was also full of romantics who longed for the ritual and pageantry of (dark) ages gone by (which is to say, I think Goths will like it). Critics have name-dropped everyone from Dead Can Dance to Tangerine Dream when describing this record, which I think simply means that it has many layers of sound to it, and evokes a certain mood. This is music for the dark half of the year, in all its complexity, and a record that rewards repeated listens. Like many hot underground bands today, they are pulling from 80s and 90s underground sounds, but do so in a way that seems fresh, and which surprised me by how I kept coming back to listen. The bands says they have an “older world mentality,” and it shows on this debut.

04. Delerium – “Music Box Opera” [Purchase]

61aejJ8OuUL. SL500 AA280 Hey! Delerium’s back! Originally a side project of Front Line Assembly, Delerium has evolved into a place where Bill Leeb can explore electronic music from a number of different avenues, hitting big back in the 1990s with “Silence” featuring singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. Originally dark and clubby, as befitting its origins, Delerium has slowly allowed itself to brighten, and expand both into pop and tinker with new electronic sounds. Still, Delerium, thanks to Leeb, has kept a core sounds that mixes ethereal washes with tribal samples and club-friendly beats, and thus creates a trail back to the earliest singles. “Music Box Opera” is, as its title suggests, rather grand. The vocals are up-front and sweeping, and the sounds are obviously aiming at a wide audience, one that primarily knows them for “Silence” and not, say, “Flowers Become Screens.” This is going to be a divisive album for older fans, but I think this new “poptimistic” approach is interesting, and shows that Delerium isn’t in a closed feedback loop.

03. Niyaz – “Sumud” [Purchase]

niyaz 218423765If I were going to create a short-list of transcendent spiritual singers, the kind of singers who tap into something deep, holy, and awe-inspiring, Azam Ali would be there. First introduced to the word as part of the world-fusion ensemble Vas, Ali has since gone deeper into her Persian heritage as a solo artist, and as part of her new project, Niyaz. Niyaz’s latest album, “Sumud,” is as Ali explains it, an exploration of how “every human being should inherit the right to live with dignity and freedom upon the land on which they are born.” But even if you don’t understand the Sufi poetry, or songs that touch on the struggles of religious minorities, the music itself, and Ali’s voice, are enough to carry you through to a completely different landscape. I had the great privilege to see Niyaz live this past Summer, which only intensified my love for this band and the material presented on “Sumud.” This is powerful music, and I hope you’ll take chance on experiencing it for yourself.

02. School of Seven Bells – “Ghostory” [Purchase]

school of seven bells ghostoryWere it not for the dramatic return of my number one pick, this album would have handily won. I was slow coming to School of Seven Bells, but once I heard “Ghostory” I was completely hooked. The waves of sound, the nods to darker electronics, the dance-floor anthems for wallflowers, and especially, the vocals of Alejandra Deheza who delivers a performance that rings like a bell through machines and guitars, invoking and evoking the “ghosts” of this album. “Ghostory” is a series of conversations with ghosts, “those people and situations that you carry with you everywhere,” veering between the supernatural and the landscape of our own memories.  The album is a spell that exorcises, while acknowledging that we sometimes desire that which overtakes us. This is an amazing album, one that you know you’ll be listening to years from now. Also – as a bonus, check out their cover of Siouxsie and The Banshee’s “Kiss Them For Me,” also released this year.

01. Dead Can Dance – “Anastasis” [Purchase]

homepage large.bec77c89Was there any doubt? Truly? There would not be A Darker Shade of Pagan were it not for Dead Can Dance. So chances were good they’d end up on this list no matter what sort of album they released. Happily, they didn’t just phone it in, the perfectionism of Brendan Perry, and the otherworldly channel of Lisa Gerrard, would not allow it. “Anastasis” is yet another pivotal work from this band who’ve inspired so much, who’ve built whole genres from their discography. This is the sound of a band who knows where they stand, who know that any album they make will be picked apart, and in this atmosphere they deliver grand statement after grand statement. They reinforce what we all knew, what we all believed: that Dead Can Dance were above time, above the limits of genre and more than the sum of their (very talented) parts. It’s hard to not talk about Dead Can Dance in religious terms, because this is sacred music of the highest order. Any band that seeks to make “spiritual” music must always contend with the fact that this duo has laid the groundwork. Until the day comes when explicitly Pagan music actually rivals Dead Can Dance there will always be a need for questers like myself to scour the underground for snippets of the sacred and supernatural in our secular musics.

You can download my latest podcast, featuring songs from all these albums, here. I hope you’ll explore these releases, and perhaps find some new music to love. As always, apologies to all the other artists who released great albums this year, I only have room for ten.