The Best of 2018

Where did the year go?  In my case, most of it seemingly went to work.  It was a busy year professionally, with a major work project consuming most of it and even keeping us from attending Iceland Airwaves, our first absence from that festival in a decade.  But the good news is that the product launch was pretty successful, so things should return to normal next year.  And to make sure we already bought our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2019, so hopefully we’ll see you in Reykjavik in November.

It wasn’t all work in 2018, even though sometimes it felt that way.  We took a great trip to Japan and Korea in the Spring and enjoyed long weekends in Portland, Denver, and New York City, all of which involved record shopping.  The blog suffered a bit, however.  This was my lightest year of posting since Life in the Vinyl Lane started back in 2012.  I’ll finish the year somewhere just north of 180 posts, which is a lot, though not even close to the 222 I wrote the year before (and that’s even less than the years before).  Trust me – the reason had nothing to do with not having enough great music to write about.  It was just a matter of time.

Whether you’re a regular reader of Life in the Vinyl Lane or just pop by from time to time, I’d like to thank you.  Feel free to drop me a note any time and let me know what you think, or what I need to listen to, because I love hearing from you.

So with all that being said, here’s Life in the Vinyl Lane’s Best of 2018!  Keep it punk.

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Top 5 New Releases In 2018

  1. Lies Are More Flexible – Gusgus (Iceland)
  2. Electrostatic – Individual Totem (Germany)
  3. Death Is A True Prophet – ERZH (Iceland)
  4. Bring Down The House Lights – Dirty Sidewalks (US)
  5. Digital Garbage – Mudhoney (US)

2018 was a truly outstanding year for music, both generally and for me personally – quite a few of my favorite artists put out releases.  In fact, of the 24 different performers who have graced my Top 5 New Releases lists since 2012, 10 of them put out new albums this year, including three who held down the #1 spot on a previous list.  To get to the Top 5 this year we started with about 60 albums, whittled that down to the final 20. and then listened to those again over the last few weeks.  Arriving at the final seven was easy, but trimming that down to five… man, it was tough.

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The top spot, however, was a pretty easy choice for me.  I’m a huge fan of Gusgus and have been through their various iterations and changing styles.  Their latest release, Lies Are More Flexible, found the group down to just two core members and moving in a more heavily musical direction with outstanding results.  I know not everyone is sold – most of my friends who are also Gusgus fans lean towards either the instrumental or the vocal tracks on the album, loving half of it and not caring as much for the other.  But to my ears it’s all outstanding.

The next two albums weren’t released on vinyl, but that wasn’t going to keep them off the list.  I was a latecomer to the world of Individual Totem, but their new CD creates a dark electro buzz in my brain that has me wanting to explore their back catalog. ERZH’s Death Is A True Prophet is the third heavily electronic album on the list, one physically released only via cassette from Iceland’s FALK label, which continues to pump out infatuating albums by little-known hyper-talented artists.  The Top 5 rounds out with a pair of Seattle-based bands, newcomer psych-stars Dirty Sidewalks and grunge/punk veterans Mudhoney.  Mudhoney edged out a few other challengers (most notably Fufanu) for the #5 spot primarily on the strength of Digital Garbage‘s lyrics, a combination of snark and venom aimed at the direction things are taking in American society these days, which I found to be poignant.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Rammstein (Germany)
  2. Executive Slacks (US)
  3. Chinas Comidas (US)
  4. GRÓA (Iceland)
  5. Holz (US)

Oddly enough the top artist on this list is one I’ve never written about, nor do I have any of their albums on vinyl, even though they’ve been around forever.  I decided to finally check out Rammstein after, believe it or not, seeing the opening scene to the original xXx movie which featured the Germans playing the song “Feuer Frei!” in a club.  Within a few weeks we had about half a dozen Rammstein CDs and were playing them constantly on our iPods.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. Medical Records Catalog
  2. Unholy Death – N.M.E.
  3. Ork Records: New York, New York
  4. Korean Metal
  5. Ravno Do Dna – Azra

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Over one of the holiday weekends earlier this year, Seattle’s Medical Records label posted on their Facebook page that everything on their Bandcamp page was something like 30% off.  I shot them a quick note asking if that included the package deal they offer whereby you can order one copy of every single release they still have in stock, figuring there was no way they’d say yes.  And they said yes.  I did the mental math, factoring in how many duplicates this would mean for me based on stuff I already had, and pulled the trigger.  In just a few days two massive boxes showed up on my front porch.  The final count was just over 50 assorted LPs and 12″ vinyl, plus a few 7″ records and even a cassette.  I still haven’t managed to get through all of this synthy goodness, but everything I’ve pulled off the shelf so far has been awesome.

Unholy Death has a local tie and led to Holly and I taking a field trip, which you can read about if you click the link above.  I got a screaming deal on a used copy of the Ork Records: New York, New York box set, and was excited to find that the unused download card were still inside.  Buying 1980s Korean metal in an (literally) underground market area that included a half dozen stores made for a fun afternoon in Seoul, and the copy of Ravno Do Dna had a surprise inside, three old postcards from Yugoslavia, which was kind of cool.

None of this stuff was particularly valuable or ultra-rare, but instead things that resonated with me.  The money is just a means to get more music!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Roseland Theater, Portland
  2. Henry Rollins – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  3. Dream Wife – Barboza, Seattle
  4. Mudhoney – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  5. Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Ampitheater, Colorado

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We only saw five shows in 2018.  Given that we didn’t make it to Airwaves, that’s probably about typical, though.  This year’s clear winner was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (right).  We first saw them a few years back at an outdoor show in Salt Lake City, which was fun, but BRMC are a band that feels like it belongs in a dark club somewhere.  And while the Rosalind isn’t a club, it’s pretty intimate and plenty dark inside, and the band sounded incredible.

I wasn’t sure if Henry Rollins qualified for the list, since we saw his spoken word travel photography show.  But he’s a musician, and it’s my blog, so I guess I can do what I want.  Henry talked at 100 mph for 2.5 hours straight, never once stopping for a break, sitting down, or even taking a single sip of water.  And I’m not exaggerating.  Henry has more energy than should be humanly possible.

It was exciting to see Dream Wife outside of Reykjavik, even more so since I’d just done a 30 minute phone interview with lead singer Rakel a few weeks prior for the newly released issue of Reykjavik On Stage.  For Mudhoney, this was our second time seeing them do a record release show, having gone to the one for Vanishing Point as well, and the mosh pit was off the charts.  The list rounds out with our second time seeing Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks.  They’re alway outstanding – this was either my 6th or 7th time experiencing them live and they never disappoint.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America (excluding the greater Seattle area)

  1. 1709 Records, Vancouver (WA)
  2. Green Noise Records, Portland
  3. Twist & Shout Records, Denver
  4. Academy Records Annex, Brooklyn
  5. Mississippi Records, Portland

The Rest of the World

  1. Time Bomb Records, Osaka
  2. Stereo Records, Hiroshima
  3. Seoul Record Mall, Seoul
  4. Compufunk Records, Osaka
  5. Jet Set Records, Kyoto

I decided to not include any Seattle-area shops this year.  After all, Easy Street Records, which just got named to Rolling Stone‘s top 10 record stores in the US, will probably be #1 on my North America list from now until forever, and there are a number of other local shops I love too.  Plus we traveled enough in the US this year to easily come up with a list of five stores that I want to get back to again someday.

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1709 Records was a very pleasant surprise when I found myself with a few hours to kill on a business trip to Vancouver, Washington, and I came away with some cool Green River and Scratch Acid vinyl.  Portland’s Green Noise has been around for a while, though this was the first time we’d ever stopped by.  It just moved to a location a few blocks from another perennial Top 5 favorite, Mississippi Records (#5 this year, and remember kids – always bring cash, because they don’t take plastic!), so I’m sure it’ll be a regular stop on future visits to Rip City.

timebombosaka1As for the rest of the world, this is the first time no stores in Reykjavik made the list, which gave me more space for other stuff.  Osaka’s Time Bomb was perfectly laid out and organized, and every single record accurately graded.  I could have spent hours there.  Stereo Records wasn’t even on our list of shops to visit in Hiroshima – we found it because it was across the street from a shop we were actually looking for, and it offered a deep selection of excellent condition titles.  I almost included the Osaka branch of Tower Records, and not just for nostalgia reasons – the CD selection was of course filled with Japanese releases, both artists as well as special editions, plus I got a cool old-school Tower t-shirt that always elicits comments when I wear it.  Bonus points to Compufunk for also being a club, a fully stocked bar, and an amazing view of the river in Osaka.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Beastie Boys Book, by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz
  2. Sticky Fingers:  The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan
  3. The Mudd Club, by Richard Boch
  4. Zounds Demystified, by Steve Lake
  5. Factory, by Mick Middles

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I should confess that I only managed to read six music-related books in 2018, so this wasn’t too tough to put together.  The Beastie Boys Book is a great journey through the lives of Mike and the two Adams, with tons of pictures and commentary from assorted friends and fellow artists.  I also enjoyed Sticky Fingers, an in depth biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner.  Wenner is extraordinarily driven, and while at times Hagan’s portrait of him is less than flattering there is no denying Wenner’s ambition and confidence (and the one-time magnitude of his cocaine habit). Richard Boch’s memoir of his time as the doorman of NYC’s infamous Mudd Club is a seemingly honest portrayal of the grittiness of the city in the late 1970s, a city populated by young people who were simply surviving day by day in a dystopian urban environment that offered little in the way of a future and plenty of drugs.  Zounds Demystified is a stream-of-consciousness  history of the post-punk band Zounds written by a former member, and Factory tells the story of the infamous and influential Factory Records label.

 

It’s hard to believe 2018 is already in the books.  Mind you, I think I say that every year – the older I get, the shorter the years seem to be.  I’m excited for a fresh start in 2019 and can’t wait to see what it has in store for us!

N.M.E. – “Unholy Death” (1986)

My friends over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records have been making my mouth water in recent months with the FB videos of them flipping through their New Arrivals section – they’ve been getting in a ton of great stuff, especially metal, punk, and indie.  Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I decided to head down there a few weeks back since it had been a while and there was a new burger joint down that way we wanted to check out, plus I was excited to get my hands on some of those new arrivals.

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One thing that caught my eye was this crazy looking record with a black-and-white cover that was clearly a drawing.  There was a post-it note attached to it indicating it was a 1986 self-release of a metal band from Federal Way, WA, which is right up the highway a few miles from Tacoma.  It checked off all my boxes – 80s metal, obscure, local.  It wasn’t cheap, but a quick check of Discogs indicated the price was spot-on, plus I was treating myself to some early birthday vinyl so into my stack it went.  When I got to the counter the guy working there smiled and showed it to the woman who was also working, and they were both stoked that I was picking this up.  They asked if I’d looked up the backstory of the band and I admitted I hadn’t.  A brief debate ensued about whether or not they should tell me the story, but ultimately they decided to let me learn it for myself and assured me it wouldn’t be hard to find online.

At this point my mind started doing that thing it does sometimes where I seem to manage to connect some seemingly unrelated data in a way that is both correct and sometimes freaky.  “Wait,” I said.  “Is this the guy who killed his mom and then drove his car off the bridge?”  Silence and stares, including from Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, though she has experienced this before.  Sheepishly they admitted that indeed yes it was, which then prompted me to start a fast-talking dissertation about violence and extreme metal, particularly the Norwegian scene and the whole Varg Vikernes / Mayhem / church burning thing.  I do this at work too (not about extreme metal (usually), but instead about data), so I’m used to the wide-eyed looks that sometimes result.  I just can’t help it when I’m excited about something.

Some (probably most) of you are still stuck on the quote above and wondering why I felt the need to blather on about my personal quirks instead of getting down to this whole murder thing.  All good things to those who wait, my friends.  I’m getting there.  Most of the info available online contains the same basic set of facts, though with a few discrepancies here and there.  I actually went to the local library last weekend and pulled a couple of Seattle Times articles from the days immediately following the crime, and I was considering trying to get my hands on the court records when I came across a three-page reference to the events in Pamela Des Barres and Paul Kemprecos’ Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (1996, p. 288-90).  Des Barres and Kemprecos quote the 911 calls and court records, so I’m putting a lot of stuck in the veracity of their account and that seemed to eliminate the need to track down those details.

The crime occurred in an apartment building on South 281st in Federal Way, Washington on April 7, 1986.  In the days and weeks prior to that fateful day, N.M.E. guitarist Kurt Struebing had been acting strange.  He cut off his long hair, a very un-metal thing to do in the 1980s, and drank an entire container of carpet cleaning fluid to “clean himself out”.  He began suffering from paranoia and delusions, thinking that people around him were robots and following him, going so far as to hit one of his friends in the chin with a bat.  We don’t know precisely what transpired that evening and into the early morning hours in the apartment Struebing shared with his 53-year-old mother Darlee Struebing (♠), though friends later indicated the pair had a great relationship and that she was very supportive of her son.  However, Kurt called 911 shortly after midnight and told the operator that he had killed his mother, describing it as a “God job”.  The police arrived at the apartment building and encountered a naked Kurt Struebing outside waiting for them.  When they made contact with him, Struebing is reported to have said, “I killed my mother and then I killed myself.”

The scene inside the apartment was gruesome.  Darlee had been stabbed in the chest with scissors and struck about the head with a hatchet. (♣)  She had also been raped.  Kurt was sent to a psychiatric hospital (Western State) for evaluation and a few days after the murder tried to kill himself.  He told the doctors that he thought he and his mother were robots sent to earth by aliens to somehow prepare the planet for the arrival of other forces.  His assault on her was an attempt to prove that she was indeed a robot.  She was not.

It was clear to everyone involved, including the prosecutor, that Kurt Struebing was mentally ill.  Ultimately he pled guilty to second degree murder and sentenced to 12 years in the mental health unit at the penitentiary in Monroe, Washington, which is only maybe 10 miles from Life in the Vinyl Lane World Headquarters.  He served eight, and was released in 1994.

By all accounts things went well for Struebing after his release.  N.M.E. re-formed and Kurt organized various benefit shows when those in the local metal community who needed help.  He got married, had a son, and worked at a printing company.

And then on March 9, 2005, he drove his car off a bridge.

Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge connects Harbor Island and West Seattle.  Some sources online have described it as a drawbridge, leading to speculation that Struebing may have been trying to jump the span.  However, it is in fact a swing bridge, with two sections supported on piers that can rotate to allow ship traffic to pass through.  We took a field trip to the bridge this weekend to see it for ourselves.  It’s the lower one on the right side of the photo.  The two cylindrical vertical supports you see on ether side of the waterway are the piers on which the two bridge sections spin.

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Whereas the motion of a drawbridge is vertical, a swing bridge moves horizontally, which can be quite strange looking if you’ve never seen it before, and could lead to confusion as to whether the bridge was open or shut.  Witnesses report that at roughly 1 PM Struebing passed a number of cars stopped for the bridge opening, crashing through a wooden arm and metal gate and falling into the gap left by the open bridge.  I’ve seen the height described as anywhere from 40 to 100 feet, and seeing it today I’m more inclined to believe the 40 foot figure.  Regardless, it’s a long fall and one that proved fatal.  Kurt was 39.

Many have asked if this was an accident or an intentional act.  Friends indicated nothing was amiss, but we’ll never know for sure.  We walked out onto the bridge from the Harbor Island side and took this photo of the spot where the stop gates are today.  There are two things that struck us about the view from here.  First is the area where the pivoting section of the bridge separates from the road isn’t that far from these gates – maybe about 30-40 feet away.  And second, the area where you’d stop is actually fairly close to the apex of the bridge, which would make the separation of the segments harder to see until you were right up on top of them.

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This was our first time at the Spokane Street Bridge.  I’m not sure if Kurt had ever used it prior to the incident, or if he had ever seen it open before.  If not it isn’t hard to imagine a car accidentally going off the open bridge, though of course that’s exactly what the gates are designed to prevent, providing a pretty clear warning that you shouldn’t continue forward.  We’ll just never know.

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Musically N.M.E. have a reputation for being an early and influential black metal band.  Ian Christie lists Unholy Death as an early inspirational band for the genre, putting it alongside releases by seminal bands like Bathory, Hellhammer, Morbid Angel, and Venom. (♥)  That’s some pretty high praise.  And in fact quite a few bands have covered songs from Unholy Death, the band’s only output prior to a compilation that came out in 2012. (♦)  Abigail, Skeleton Blood, Toxic Holocaust, Sacrificial Blood, Nunslaughter, Decayed, and Bunker 66  have all paid tribute by playing versions of N.M.E.’s songs.

The two sides of Unholy Death are labeled as “Eternal” and “Hate”, mirroring the message on the jacket reverse, “Praise the Eternal Hate”.  Lyrically the message is clearly aligned with black metal:

We are of hell, born to sin.
To us, none is sacred.
We rape your mind and torture your soul.
Bleed upon the altar of God.
Wait not for his son.

So it’s a bit dark.

Musically, however, this feels a lot more like early thrash.  Ignoring the words, songs like “Louder Than Hell” are some killer metal jams.  The sound is raw, lacking sonic density and range, though this kind of flatness is fairly common on OG (i.e. that haven’t received the modern re-mastering treatment) metal pressings from he 1980s.  It’s especially notable on the low end, which is not as low and rich as you’d expect to here from contemporary black metal.  “Speed Killz” has some solid guitar riffs, as does “Stormwarning / Blood & Souls”, though the latter presents itself as more hardcore in the vocal pacing.  There are a few weighty tracks here as well, most notably “Warrior” with it’s rasped singing and driving guitar.

Unholy Death definitely exceeded my expectations – this is something I can imagine getting some additional play on my turntable, and I’m tempted to buy the CD collection of the band’s complete works.  If you’re a fan of thrash and the heavier end of hard rock, this is definitely worth a listen… and you can check the whole thing out below for free.

(♠)  Darlee Struebing is described in some accounts as Kurt’s mother, in others as his adoptive mother, so I’m not entirely sure which is the most accurate description.  Also, sources vary in the spelling of her first name, citing her as either Darlee or Darlene.  The Seattle Times articles from the period, as well as those from the time of Kurt’s own death two decades later, refer to her as Darlee, so that’s what I’m going with.

(♣)  Some reports refer to a hatchet, others an ax.  

(♥)  Sound of the Beast:  The Complete Headbanging History History of Heavy Metal (2004), p. 109.

(♦)  Released on 2 CDs or 3 LPs, Unholy Death / Machine of War includes the entire Unholy Death album, the versions of four Unholy Death songs that comprised the band’s 1985 four-song cassette Machine of War, and a bunch of rehearsal recordings.