Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
Ali T – Electric Haze
Alison Turner is an artist out of time. She’s a singer-songwriter, but not with the folky connotations the phrase often takes on. Rather, something like “Electric Haze” sounds made for radio. Late-’90s radio, that is, when artist like Jewel and Meredith Brooks were racking up top-ten hits. It wouldn’t have a chance today, but “Electric Haze” ably walks to tricky line of engaging with nostalgia while creating something new.
Abby Sherman – Hand with the Devil
If the only Satan-themed violin song you’ve heard is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Abby Sherman’s “Hand with the Devil” might throw you for a loop. Rather than rollickin’ fiddlin’, Abby Sherman and violinist Katie Trautz create something truly spooky, like the sort of Gillian Welch track you don’t play in the dark.
Abby Sherman – Dreamcatcher
Abby Sherman released one of 2018’s best folk songs with “Wanting to Run,” and she’s returned with a catchy new single. Mandolin features prominently, joining her vocals to front a tight roots band on a song about looking back and accepting one’s own history.
The new compilation album Live from Robot Dog Volume Two serves as an excellent introduction to the best of Vermont’s independent musicians. But it also chronicles a deeper story, one of grief and healing for the man behind it.
Local Vermont music superfan Tim Lewis hosts a weekly show on WBKM, bringing a band into Robot Dog studios every week to record a short live set. The detailed notes he posts online tend to be as good as the music, and for this batch of shows (a song from almost every session he recorded in 2018), his notes revealed a story listeners wouldn’t hear on air.
“2018 was a tough year for me,” he begins the liner notes. His mother had gotten sick in the fall of 2017. Her health quickly declined. She moved into hospice care by February, and passed away two months later.
On a new album, Vermont metal trio Savage Hen deliver three Christmas carols you probably shouldn’t play at your office holiday party.
The band pulverizes three classic shopping-mall holiday tunes, thundering through “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” All have been covered thousands of times, but rarely with this much throat-shredding screaming. Bing Crosby this ain’t.
A Box of Stars – Cornfields
Never before have I Googled a mixing engineer’s name, but Josh Druckman’s work feels as vital to building such a pristine, delicate beauty of a record as the actual musicians (who, for the record, are Macaulay Lerman on guitar and vocals; Claire Londagin on vocals; Jens Hybertson on violin; Eben Schumacher on bass, piano, and guitar; and Tim Halteman on drums). Take “Cornfields.” Enigmatic lyrics swirl around minimalist instrumentation, subtle percussion delicately balancing with windy violin. It’s not flashy music, and folky slowcore of this sort often lands in the background-music category. But the band’s just-so playing, presented perfectly, demands attention.
What is an EP?
I don’t mean that as a philosophical question, but a practical one.
Back in the vinyl era, the EP had a clear reason for existing as a stand-alone format from the album. If you had enough songs to fill a 12-inch, 33RPM record, you made an album. If not, you put what you had on a 10-inch, 45RPM record and called it an EP. They looked different; they felt different; they cost different amounts.
In the digital era, free of physical limitations, the distinction has blurred. An artist’s latest collection of music can be two songs or two hundred. The idea that a 60-minute collection of music constitutes an “album” and a 15-minute one constitutes an “EP” is purely artificial.
Yet the EP hangs on, because musicians like the format. Nowhere more so than in Vermont, where the EP offers new bands a way to test the waters and experienced bands a way to toss out a few songs between “proper” albums. In a musical climate where local musicians rotate constantly around new bands and monikers, the EP offers a low-stakes way to try out a new sound or collaboration.
As a result, this list is no ugly stepchild to the Best Albums list we’ve got coming next week. There may be no more practical reason to keep the EP designation, but these ten EPs justify their own reasons for existing.
Ever since Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath first read Lord of the Rings, the road to Mordor has been paved with metal. The latest Tolkien-loving metal band comes from a Puerto Rican musician now based in Vermont, Etienne Tel’uial. His new droning symphonic metal project Skalnâ takes its name from a primitive form of Elvish that appears in Tolkien’s twelve-volume The History of Middle-earth. Safe to say, Tel’uial is not some Peter Jackson-come-lately Tolkien fan.
“The name ‘Skalnâ’ comes from primitive Elvish (Quendian), which means ‘veiled, hidden, shadowed, etc,'” Tel’uial tells us. “I chose a Tolkien name simply because they sound beautiful. I grew up with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so bringing up Tolkien is always like returning back in time. I wanted an ‘elvish’ tone to the name, because I am obsessed with the notion of Elves. They were the first conscious creations of the Valar (the forces of nature) under Eru (the one). While the whole idea of Elves may be seen as just a mythological notion, I still think they are symbols for something real in this earth. They are the good within us. They are remnants of a time when we lived free and within nature, and not separate from it.”
Like we said, Tel’uial knows his Tolkien. But you can enjoy Skalnâ’s debut album Returning to the Flame even if you’ve never cracked The Hobbit. A heavy and beautiful combination of black metal, post-rock, and symphonic chant, it recalls avant-garde artists like Scott Walker or Xiu Xiu. Tel’uial himself calls it “romantic raw post-metal” – as good a label as any for these shifting sounds.
We normally don’t do concert previews here. My goal with this young blog is to spread the gospel of Vermont music to an audience beyond the state’s sometimes-confining borders. And writing about regionally-specific events generally goes against that mandate.
This weekend’s Waking Windows festival is an exception.
Waking Windows is the Vermont music scene in microcosm. In some respects the Burlington equivalent of SXSW, Waking Windows surrounds a few bigger names (Real Estate and Dan Deacon this year) with dozens of the state’s best local bands. Naming the best Vermont artists playing the festival almost doubles as naming the best Vermont artists period. And that is exactly our mandate.