The Best Music We Heard In 2018

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, of Howie’s picks were released in 2018. Cory will explain his picks below.

Top 14 (in random order)

Honorable Mention:
Condor – Unstoppable Power (2017)
Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow (2017)
Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990)
Robyn – Honey
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard

Need to check out:
Low – Double Negative (which almost certainly would have made the main list if I had spent more time with it)

Below will be a sorta goofy list from your main man Cory, on account of we had a baby in late 2017 that was supposed to come out of my wife in February of 2018, so it was an “early surprise family baby.” (Howie was there when it all went down; ask him about the howls!)

That meant I was AWOL for the year-end list in 2017, for the first time… so now I have to be extra WOL this year.

Well anyway, this post is going well so far and it’s just the beginning. Here’s some stuff I got excited about this year (and maybe last year! ):

Last Weekend’s Soldering

Carried three projects across the finish line last weekend (and currently am working on some others):

From left to right:

  • Drew’s late-’90s black Russian EHX Big Muff (a version 7 per Kit Rae, if I recall).  This thing sounds amazing; medium gain for a Muff, not too scooped in the mids.  It wasn’t working at all; replacing the footswitch got it going, plus I modded it to accept external power (originals are battery-only), flipped the PCB around (originals are mounted backwards), and got the original knobs back on.  The pot shafts are all in various stages of bended-ness and the pots could fail any time, so this is a studio piece.  It’ll be sad when they do because the shafts are narrow, and the cool knobs only fit on those shafts, so when the time comes for replacing the pots it will probably need new knobs
  • Malekko Helium octave fuzz/distortion.  I modded the input cap, selectable via the toggle toward the lower left on the side, which makes it a lot more useable in live performance and tracking.  Sounds great for single-note riffs but has been limited to studio use; I think this mod might earn it a permanent place on my board!
  • Mr. Furious Audio Inverting JFET amplifier.  My Mars Lights bass sound (GK pickup > Boss OC-20 > EHX POG > Music Man Sixty-Five) is out of phase with my Orange amp, so I built a simple inverting near-unity-gain (slight boost) JFET stage pedal to run in the bass signal path to put it back in phase.  Sounds like almost nothing on its own, but the whole rig sounds better when the speakers push and pull at the same time

The Secondary Mix Reference Position

Before mixes make it to the car or the stereo or the clock radio, I test them on the washing machine.

With a newly rendered mix playing on my computer speakers, this position is off-axis and and above the near-mono sound source. It reveals imbalances and other problems that aren’t immediately apparent on my carefully placed stereo studio monitors. I’ll go back and forth between the monitors and this speaker/position combination several times when I’m working on a mix before it’s ready to test elsewhere.

I’ve spent a lot of time here in the past month, with more to go. The good news is that I have one song sounding great everywhere, and can apply some of what I’ve done there to the rest.


This is a fantastic paragraph of music journalism, emphases mine:

[System of a Down’s] second album, Toxicity, succeeded, improbably, in a radio environment that favored simplistic formulas. Max Martin had stamped popular music with his surefire songwriting brand, ushering in a cross-genre rush of structurally identical singles from the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears. System of a Down competed with the bros of Nickelback, Creed, and Staind on the alternative charts, bands that dressed up the Martin school of pop with power chords and ham-throated vocals. Most of their songs took the form of the confessional: Men apologized to women and to God for their sins, which tended to include substance abuse, emotional neglect, and general chauvinism. Post-grunge incubated a strain of sincerity so obsequious that no amount of nostalgia has yet to rehabilitate it. It lives on as a punchline that itself has grown passé.

Sasha Geffen

Reptoid (Oakland, CA)

Dark Satellites played with this dude, Reptoid, Friday night.

Opinions will vary on the music but if you can get through four minutes, I think you’ll respect what he’s doing creatively, physically, and technically.  I’ve never seen or heard anyone doing anything quite like it, and the man/machine collaboration/conflict is pretty compelling.

The key to it all is how the drums trigger the synths.  It’s live and not on a grid, which is what gives it that combination of super-tight (drums and synths hitting at the same time) and human feel (no grid).  There’s almost a jazz or tribal drumming undercurrent to the harsh industrial noise.  (Saying this out loud seems pretty weak but I want to give those of you who won’t like this something to listen for to understand what’s happening here and why it’s cool.)

Pedal Molarity

Poorly pictured below is my Sunn 4×10 cab, which I’ve re-wired for stereo in order to play both of my Mars Lights amps through it.  (This way I don’t have to haul the Music Man’s cabinet to gigs.  This may also work for h&s, Sneaky Sneaky Snakes, etc.; any situation where I’m using the GK pickup on my guitar.)

Not quite doing a full stack right…

I want the cab’s speakers to all be in phase (all pushing or all pulling simultaneously, not one side pushing while the other side pulls).  Sometimes pedals change the phase via latency, or flip its polarity* 180 degrees, so yesterday I tested all of my pedals to see what’s good to use when both amps are running through the Sunn cab.  “Good,” in this case, means the pedal does not flip polarity in either bypassed or engaged mode.

* Polarity is whether, starting from silence, the first half-cycle of the sound wave is positive (pushes the speaker) or negative (pulls)

It felt a bit like making molar solutions in chemistry class; for whatever reason, the straightforward task doesn’t mesh with the normally-strong intuitive area of my brain, and completing it is a real challenge.

The whole process was a bit of overkill.  There’s less of a phase relationship than I expected between the octave separation between the signals, the different distortion in each signal path, and the latency of the octave down signal.  Still, the whole rig sounds slightly better (again, less than I expected but noticeable) when the polarity matches.

Results are that for most pedals, 80-85%, input and output polarity match and I can use them indiscriminately.  (In retrospect, this is a good engineering practice generally.)  I didn’t find any that change polarity in bypass mode.  A handful change polarity when engaged; something like a one-transistor (MXR Micro Amp, Rangemasters, etc.) or three-transistor (Tone Bender family) is just going to do that in their normal configuration (each transistor gain stage flips the polarity of the signal) unless the engineer adds an amplifier stage to flip it back.

But because the rig as a whole needs one polarity flip to sound its best, I want to find an always-on polarity-flipping pedal for one of the signal paths.  I have a couple candidates – my Falcon Heavy prototype’s second channel, a Basic Audio Scarab Deluxe fuzz – or I could build a simple high-headroom unity-gain single-JFET pedal for this specific use case.  Probably would not have any controls or even a footswitch; just in and out jacks and power input.  I plug it in, it does its thing.

I will probably do this.  Maybe even today.  Ack, I guess I need to prep a box first.  Maybe I’ll do *that* today.

tl;dr – Bunch of pedal-geeky stuff, now I don’t have to haul a 2nd cab to Mars Lights and other gigs where I’m using my octave-down guitar thing, spent a few hours working on stuff only recording engineers will notice.

Bigger Sounds’ 4-Track

In the course of writing a yet-to-be-published post about sonic connections between V For Voice songs and older stuff, I got stuck listening to most of Bigger Sounds From Fewer Folks a weekend or two ago.

My memories of hunkering under my bunk in Frees Hall, recording those first songs to 4-track, are pretty clear.  (For my own parts, anyway; I have no memory of recording Scott’s!)  But it struck me; I didn’t own a 4-track at the time, so it must have been borrowed.  Cory helped me narrow the suspects down to Josh O, Wisecarver, and Lupo.

Pretty sure it wasn’t Lupo’s; that just doesn’t ring any bells at all.  I feel like it was Josh’s, but a passionate advocate could probably convince me it was Matt’s.

It doesn’t matter at all, it’s just a bit weird to think back to how for the first couple years I was working with borrowed gear (the 4-track for Bigger…, then Fred Ritter’s digital 8-track for Near and Far, etc.).  I could have afforded a system like either of those, and I wonder why it took two records plus a doing bunch of other less-official recording to go ahead and buy something.

No real point here; idle observation only.

You Will Be Surprised…

… with some of the sounds we used a bunch on the h&s record. I’ve noticed this week as I’ve been able to step back and listen to the whole thing, not focusing on crossing off the last to-do items for each individual song.

Some of these are:

  • Bass fuzz!  I don’t mean a little color or grind; I mean full-on fuzz to take song sections over the top
  • Hammond.  Unfortunately this had to be done with a plugin – for all our gear, we don’t have a six-thousand-dollar organ and rotary speaker cabinet lying around – but it’s a very good-sounding one and it shows up in a lot of tunes
  • Winds (beyond sax and flute); trumpet, clarinet, and bass clarinet add a lot to one song in particular.  Hearing what Scottie did with the clarinets whet my appetite for more of that
  • Guitar feedback, for transitions, live-in-the-studio leave-it-in vibes, and in one case as a massive, many-voiced choir of soft-ish feedback
  • Analog synthesizer including Korg MS-20, Akai AX-60, and Korg Volca Bass.  The polyphonic AX-60 was the workhorse here, for pads and arpeggios; the others make special guest appearances
  • Guitar modulation effects; phaser, flanger, and filter (with modulated cutoff frequency).  Sometimes these are used conventionally, sometimes… not

All in all we’re probably just short of pocket symphony / “lush” territory, but squarely in full-band, kitchen-sink mode.  In other words, remember the end of “Blues or Astroblue?”

Almost every song gets there :)