June Quick Takes, Part 2: Heavy Stuff

Okay, just like last time, round 2 of quick takes will focus on heavy releases from the month. I’ve said it before, but heavy stuff makes up a hefty chunk of the music I listen to over the course of the year, and it feels unfair to limit myself to only general posts and try to squeeze as much heavy stuff as I can in while still giving the other genres their fair shake. Way too much stuff wouldn’t get the time it deserves. So, below are my thoughts, good and bad, on some metal releases from the month of June.

Profound Lore

BELL WITCH/AERIAL RUIN – STYGIAN BOUGH: VOLUME I–Fantastic funeral doomers (and so far, the only funeral doom band I really dig) Bell Witch have returned with a collaboration with dark acoustic artist Erik Moggridge, also known as Aerial Ruin. I’m starting to notice a bit of a trend towards more collaborative songs and albums in the metal world, and I’m here for it, personally. Especially if the pairings make as much sense as this one here. Bell Witch are masters of dark and moody atmospheres, and sometimes you wish you could get a break from all the oppressiveness. Stygian Bough provides just that with Aerial Ruin’s passages and clean vocals, giving you welcome respite before Bell Witch come back and plunge your head into the dark depths again. My only wish is that the mix was better and a little more dynamic. Things got a bit muddy here and the drums especially feel way too far away to make any meaningful impact. I hope the “Volume I” in the title hints at more from this collaboration in the future, and that they solve the production problems on any subsequent releases. 3.5/5.0

Mission Two Entertainment

CRO-MAGS – IN THE BEGINNING–Cro-Mags teased this release with a couple EPs last year, and now we have the first new full-length from them in 20 years! And… it sounds like Cro-Mags. They were one of the earliest crossover thrash bands, and there’s no real reason to reinvent the wheel (haha, early human joke). Much like the prehistoric men whose name they bear, this album stands tall and strong with blistering riffs and thundering drums. The band even recruited Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell to play lead on “From the Grave” to give them even more thrash cred. The real weakness of the album, however, is that there isn’t much variation, and when it does show up, it’s in the form of the overlong and not very impressive instrumental, “Between Wars.” Fortunately, the album isn’t terribly long, coming in just under 40 minutes. But with the current state of crossover thrash with bands like Power Trip and High Command, I’m not sure this is going to make a huge splash beyond name recognition. 3.0/5.0

BC Music

EMERY – WHITE LINE FEVER–I like to keep tabs on bands from my teenage years because they were so important to my development as a music fan. Emery is especially important to me as their second album was the first I ever purchased with harsh vocals. Their brand of post-hardcore and screamo that emphasized emotional storytelling and melody was a great gateway into heavier music. They’ve continued to consistently release new music, but their recent output hasn’t really measured up to albums from their early, or even middle career. White Line Fever is probably their best album in nearly a decade, but it still falls short. There are moments that are reminiscent of their earlier work, but it quickly loses momentum. I don’t dislike it when Emery makes lighter music, but these particular tracks don’t do much to excite me. The mix feels iffy to me as well, a lot of this album feels muddy and like it lacks definition. 2.5/5.0

Solid State

LIGHTWORKER – FURY BY FAILURE–Along with bands from my youth, I also like to keep tabs on some record labels. One in particular is Tooth and Nail records and its imprint, Solid State. The artists on these labels made up the majority of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Output from both of these labels has slowed down (though, they both appear to be picking back up this year) and their output hasn’t really done much for me with the occasional exception. Lightworker are one of the newest additions to the Solid State roster, and Fury by Failure is their debut album. And… it’s okay. Lightworker play a blend of alternative metal and metalcore with a pinch of djent sprinkled in the breakdowns. And yeah, it’s competent, some of the riffs hit pretty hard, and the choruses are catchy, but it ultimately comes across as pretty generic. Some of the riffs sound like they could have come from an As I Lay Dying album or some other band contemporary to them. I feel like there’s potential here, but Lightworker will have to work harder to stand out. 2.5/5.0

Napalm

MUSHROOMHEAD – A WONDERFUL LIFE–Yes, I know it’s the cool thing to hate on Mushroomhead, but I’m coming from a perspective of actually, kind of liking them. However, even to my more forgiving ears, this albums isn’t very good. A Wonderful Life is the band’s 8th studio album and the first without founding vocalist Jeffrey Nothing. This leaves only two founding members and one other long-time member in the band. Nothing’s vocals were such a key part of Mushroomhead’s sound, that they had to replace him with two new clean vocalists, male and female. The guy sounds like a rough facsimile of Nothing, and the mix usually has him somewhat buried, hoping you don’t notice. The female vocals are a nice change of pace, but the album overall just sounds like generic alternative metal. They also made the odd choice of including nearly 15 minutes of bonus tracks on the standard edition that have their own separate intro and outro tracks. They really play more like an EP that should have been released separately. And weirdly, they’re some of the most dynamic tracks on the album. 1.5/5.0

Heavy Psych Sounds

ORGÖNE – MOS/FET–When an album boasts an 80-minute run time, I go in cautiously, and usually come out the other side with my expectations of drawn-out and boring prog wankery met. ORGÖNE, on the other hand, have brought forth a rare album that is long and interesting. ORGÖNE are a French band that combine elements of proto-punk, krautrock, psych-rock, arabic folk music, and more. It sounds like a messy combination, but these avant-garde jammers find a way to mix it all in a way that keeps things compelling, even over the course of not one, but two 20-minute tracks. Their tracks also cover themes from the Soviet space program, to conspiracy theories about ancient Egypt, to ancient aliens. And their sound is sufficiently spacey to accompany such lyrics. There are a couple passages where things get a little boring, but they are minor in the scope of the whole album. 4.0/5.0

Protest The Hero

PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST–Yes, Protest The Hero. You either love it or you hate it. I, for one, happen to like them, and Palimpsest is a fine addition to their catalog. It’s also a very timely release given our current political climate and the lyrical content of this album. The band wanted to make an album about American history, but they wanted to present the stories truthfully, rather than through the distorted lens of American exceptionalism. This includes subject that range from the migrant mother in the iconic dust bowl photo to the Hindenburg disaster, Amelia Earhart to the Great Molasses Flood in Boston, and the creation of Mount Rushmore to the suicide of Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle. These stories are all delivered in Rody Walker’s signature soaring vocals, backed by proggy, yet undeniably catchy riffs. The instrumentals aren’t as frantic as previous Protest The Hero albums, but it’s still them through and through. 4.0/5.0

Willowtip

PYRRHON – ABSCESS TIME–So, this was the first time that I had ever listened to anything that Pyrrhon has released, and I didn’t really know what to expect going in. Tech death can take so many forms. What I didn’t expect was something more along the lines of noise-core with elements of death metal. And honestly, it was pretty refreshing. I often find brutal and tech death to be on the oppressive and claustrophobic side, and this noisier, more hardcore approach seemed to give the music (and the listener) a little room to breathe. I also felt like I was listening to something like The Chariot, but death metal. The chaotic, yet intricate collision of sounds is very reminiscent of that band, and if you’re familiar with The Chariot, you realize that that is high praise. The only real weakness is the album’s length. Even with a little breathing room, noise-core can be a bit exhausting. The Chariot knew to keep their albums in the neighborhood of half an hour. Abscess Time is nearly double that, and you feel it by the end. 3.5/5.0

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY album review

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY

Roadrunner, 2020

Heavy metal/Metalcore

This past week, metal was only a few albums away from being literally half of the new releases I listened to. Given that ratio, it seemed fitting to review a metal album. Choosing what to review was surprisingly difficult as there were more than a couple releases that stood out for different reasons. I finally landed on Trivium for a few reasons, and I’d be lying if I said one of them wasn’t the fact that you’re more likely to click on an article with Trivium in the title than you are one with Sölicitör or Warbringer.

Another thing that I will admit is that I went into this album without the highest expectations. I know that Matt Heafy and the other guys in the band are all solid dudes, but Trivium is a metalcore band that broke out and gained popularity while I was in high school. Most bands that fit that description aren’t making the best music this far along in their career, especially ones that got as big as Trivium. They’re usually making very safe but ultimately bland music that will satisfy longtime fans, but won’t do much beyond that. So that’s pretty much what I expected when I hit play on What the Dead Men Say, and boy was I wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things you notice is that this album just feels tight and lean, not just in size, but in sound and structure. Guitarist Corey Beaulieu told Loudwire that this album came out of “a highly-inspired and fast-paced writing and recording process…” and you can feel that urgency in these songs. There’s no real fluff here, no grand arrangements; just four guys making some badass metal music. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but that’s by design. Matt Heafy said in the same Loudwire article that this album “is everything that is Trivium.” To use an automotive metaphor, Trivium doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel because they’re like a company like Enkei or BBS; they’re just really damn good at making wheels.

This translates to every single song having at least one attention-grabbing moment. This is still metalcore music, but it doesn’t have the tropes and cliches of the genre that other bands fall prey to. They also pull off the very impressive feat of having not one, but two songs that are 6+ minutes long and not boring. “Catastrophist” in particular plays almost like a prog metal track, switching up its riff structures and rhythms to keep things interesting. Even slower songs come and go without overstaying their welcome. The albums is also lyrically relevant with one song coming across as anti-war and a few others being about marginalized people and standing up to those who take advantage of them. And going back to “Catastrophist,” while Heafy doesn’t really give any details, it’s not hard to see similarities between the catastrophist in the song and a certain public figure.

As much as this album surprised me and as much as I enjoyed it, there are things that I think could be better. Despite being very good metalcore, there was never really a “wow” moment for me. There was nothing that stopped me in my tracks while I was listening. Second, while there are songs that touch on heavy and relevant subjects, there are moments where the lyrical content can get a little light. And there’s even a track where the second verse is a repeat of the first. Finally, I have a little nitpick where I wish the guitar tone and mixing was a little beefier. It felt like it just lacked that lower end that gets you hooked into the riffs.

Overall though, this is a very impressive album. To have a metalcore band this far in their career release an album that can hold my attention with no fluff or filler is quite an accomplishment. Trivium have been honing their skills for nearly two decades and What the Dead Men Say is a good example of how that hard work can pay off. Trivium is good at what they do, but they don’t use that as an excuse to get lazy. There are aspects of the album that I think could have used a little more spice or something, but otherwise it’s a very solid release.

4.0/5.0

Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 2: Heavy Stuff

As is typical for me, the majority of what I end up listening to falls into the category of heavy music. So far this year, the ratios seem to be a bit more balanced, but heavy stuff is still the clear leader. As such, we can’t leave them out to dry so here are some quick reviews of heavy albums that came out in the month of March.

Century Media

BODY COUNT – CARNIVORE–Ice-T took a little break from the SVU and got his metal band back together to record an album. That’s right, Detective Tutuola fronts a thrash metal band, and has since the early ’90s. Early in his career, Ice-T noticed the similarities between the attitudes of gangsta rap and thrash metal and started his own band. And they’re not too bad, honestly. Some of the tracks on this album go straight back to old school thrash. There are features from Riley Gale of Power Trip, Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed, and Amy Lee of Evanescence. There’s also a pretty spot-on cover of “Ace of Spades.” It’s not perfect, some tracks fall into the tropes of modern alternative metal, and I could do without the spoken intros on a couple tracks. But the good stuff is pretty good. 3.5/5.0

Roadrunner

CODE ORANGE – UNDERNEATH–I’m just going to say it, these guys are the future of metalcore. There are very few bands out there being as creative and forward-thinking with the genre as Code Orange. Underneath takes what they started with their last album and takes it even further. They incorporate elements of industrial metal, alternative metal, glitch, and even a touch of harsh noise into these tracks. The result is a wild ride from start to finish. The textures and riffs and movements in these songs are so varied that they come and go before you realize it. Seriously, I never had a moment where I felt like a song spent too much time on a particular thing. This album is the fastest way to pass 47 minutes. It’s not perfect, there are some instances where the glitch elements are a little too jarring and sound more like a genuine flaw in the audio file rather than a musical glitch. But otherwise this thing is great. 4.0/5.0

Century Media

HEAVEN SHALL BURN – OF TRUTH AND SACRIFICE–I went into this one without any prior knowledge of Heaven Shall Burn, but I listened to quite a bit of metalcore back in my day. When I saw this was a double album that ran 97 minutes, I had my suspicions that it was going to be an overall “meh” experience. Turns out, I was right but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots. After the intro track, the first part of the first disc is made up of some of the best things about metalcore. They also manage to have a track over 8 minutes that isn’t a slog (however there is one on the second disc that is). And on the second disc the experiments with industrial metal are interesting and the Nuclear Assault cover is decent. Otherwise, the second half of the first disc falls into metalcore tropes and the second one feels like it’s full of B-sides. If they kept it to one disc, it might have been a lot better. 2.5/5.0

Season of Mist

HYBORIAN – VOLUME II–This! This is what I look for in my stoner and sludge metal! Just riffs, riffs, riffs, riffs, and more riffs that are dirty, sludgy, and greasy. Tempos that range from ponderous swagger to blistering thrash, and lyrics that tell stories of sci-fi and fantasy. (Seriously, the band’s lyricist wrote a companion novel telling the story of this album… I want it.) Another thing that makes this album great is that Hyborian avoids the pitfall of being over indulgent. The album is only 40 minutes long and the longest track is 8 minutes and change, and even then, the last 2 minutes are taken up with a weird, reversed dialogue and Morse code. The only thing keeping it from being exceptional is that the dynamics are pretty flat and if you’re not paying attention, a couple tracks kind of blend into each other. Otherwise, I like this one a lot. 4.0/5.0

Metal Blade

IGORRR – SPIRITUALITY AND DISTORTION–Where do I even start with this one? This is probably the most fun and wildest ride I’ve had all year with a metal album. Igorrr is primarily the project of French musician Gautier Serre. With this project he combines a couple different metal subgenres with breakcore, trip hop, classical baroque, and Romani folk music. This ain’t your dad’s industrial or symphonic metal; this is a different beast altogether, and boy is it fun. What’s really impressive is Serre doesn’t try to cram every one of his influences into every track. Some lean on certain influences more than others, and he knows how to spread these variations out over the course of a 55 minute album. And the juxtaposition of accordion and double bass and black metal on a couple tracks alone is worth the price of admission. This is easily one of the most interesting and best albums I’ve heard all year. 4.5/5.0

Atlantic

IN THIS MOMENT – MOTHER–Heavy bands with female singers usually go two ways. They’re either a fantastic example of their subgenre and they don’t have to use the singer as a selling point, or they play average symphonic or power metal and have to lean on their singer’s exceptional voice and affinity for costumes or gowns. This album from In This Moment feels like it’s trying to do the second and failing. Maria Brink’s vocals feel lazy and over-indulgent throughout this, and with the exception of one or two tracks, the instrumentals are pretty boring. Then it also has three covers that just don’t land at all, and the “Fly Like An Eagle” cover feels like it was just tacked onto the front of the album with it’s own intro track because it’s followed by another intro track for the first original song. I’m sorry, I just wasn’t feeling this one at all. 1.0/5.0

Century Media

LUCIFER – LUCIFER III–There’s something about old school hard rock and doom metal that the female voice just complements so well. If you don’t know what I mean, this album from Lucifer is a great example. This band got on my radar with a strong single from their last album, but the rest of it left a bit to be desired. Nothing else really stood out on it. This third album fixes those problems. It feels like the band got into a groove with each other this time and the songwriting improved greatly. Old school riffs abound on this album, and there’s at least one moment in each song that grabs your ear. Vocalist Johanna Sadonis has exactly the effortless kind of voice that you want with these kind of tunes, too. 3.5/5.0

Shadow Kingdom

TEMPLE OF VOID – THE WORLD THAT WAS–I suppose getting into death-doom metal is a logical move considering my obsession with stoner and doom. I’m still new to it and there have already been a couple good releases in the genre this year. This is one of them. Temple of Void bring a balanced mix of fast(ish) and slow riffs and make interesting use of atmospheric synths. They very effectively evoke the right mood for this kind of album. Some moments can be drawn out a little too much, but I’ve heard worse. Also, there appears to be two versions of this album out there. If you’re listening on Spotify, make sure it’s the one that says Shadow Kingdom Records at the bottom, the mix is way better. 3.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2010

Let’s see, where was I in 2010? I turned 20 years old, I finished my first year of college, and would start my second. I did that thing almost every guy does and stopped getting haircuts and I would continue to grow my hair out for the next couple years. A lot of good movies came out and a couple would become all-time favorites of mine (Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). My interest in music was at an all-time high. I was pretty well-informed on indie and alternative music with a little help from MTVU (or so I thought). I started taking hip-hop music more seriously. And I was pretty humbled when I started reading Pitchfork and for the first week, I didn’t recognize a single artist they reviewed. But I wasn’t deterred, I just went deeper. Below are not only some of my favorite albums from 2010, but some that were important to me and my musical growth.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS–This was the album that turned The Black Keys into a sensation. Not to be that guy, but I was into the Keys before they were cool. I was introduced to them in 2006 with the Chulahoma EP, and they quickly became one of my favorites. I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brothers when it first came out. At first I wasn’t thrilled about the band trading their sludgy delta blues sound for a more R&B inspired rock. But at the same time, Brothers was a huge improvement over their previous two records. In true hipster form, I also lamented the attention that the band was getting, fearing this would lead to a more mainstream sound from them. But again, I was also happy that more people knew about one of my favorite bands. It took 8 years of hard work, but The Black Keys finally made it, and it still holds up as one of their best albums.

Ferret

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – ZOMBIE EP–In 2009, The Devil Wears Prada released their third album, With Roots Above and Branches Below, and it was their best work yet. The production finally caught up with their style, and their songwriting was better than ever. Metalcore was at its peak popularity and Prada was among the best. How could they possibly do better? Then in 2010 they released the Zombie EP and completely blew Roots out of the water with five fucking tracks! The band ramped up the speed and brutality, and the theme was based on vocalist Mike Hranica’s interest in zombie books and movies. Weirdly enough, The Walking Dead would premiere two months after this EP released and everyone else in the world would hop on the bandwagon. The band was just firing on all cylinders with this one. It’s a bright spot in Prada’s discography and one of the few metalcore releases I can still listen to today.

Parlophone

GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH–Prior to 2010, I didn’t pay much attention to Gorillaz. All I really knew about them was “Feel Good Inc.” and it wasn’t my style of music when it was popular. I don’t remember what caused me to give the band another look but when I did, I became almost obsessed with them. This newfound appreciation coincided almost exactly with the release of “Stylo,” the first single from Plastic Beach. Their third album would have them moving further from hip-hop and refining their wonky alt-pop. The result would be some of Gorillaz’ best tracks and best collaborations, with contributions from artists like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Little Dragon, and Bobby Womack (who had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to this album). Unfortunately, it would end up being the last great Gorillaz album. But they’re still making music, so there’s always hope.

Bad Boy/Wondaland

JANELLE MONÁE – THE ARCHANDROID–The first time I knew anything about Janelle Monáe was when I saw a poster at Best Buy. I was instantly intrigued by this black woman wearing a tuxedo with a massive pompadour hairstyle. What on earth kind of music could this woman make? I don’t know what I expected, but I liked what I found. Her funk infused, alternative R&B and psychedelic soul were so much fun that it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which is weird considering I didn’t give pop and R&B music much attention at this time in my life. The genres were presented through a lens that helped me bridge the gap from my preferred music at the time, with rock and progressive influences coming through. And because I’m a nerd, the overarching sci-fi narrative of the album helped too.

Big Beat/Atlantic

SKRILLEX – SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES–This entry has probably awakened some dark memories for some readers. Memories of hard drops, wobble bass, and questionable fashion choices. But regardless of how immature some of those trends seem now, they were a key milestone on the trajectory of EDM in popular culture. And it all starts right here with this EP. Scary Monsters was the EP and the song that made brostep a phenomenon. Whether you loved him or hated him, you knew about Skrillex. And if you listen to this EP beyond the title track, it proved back then that he wasn’t just a one trick pony. He had some range, and his work since proves that he still does. He hasn’t really matched the quality of this EP since, but the mark it left has given him producer credits throughout the decade and likely well into the future.

Mom+Pop/NEET

SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS–The “Loudness war” is something that has plagued music production for the past 30 years, and it can be the difference between a good album and a bad one. But there’s something to be said for using that digital compression as an aesthetic choice. From the very first seconds of Treats, you are bombarded with guitars, synths, and drums that are bricked out so hard that everything clips. Apart from bass boost memes, this is perhaps the only time that these levels of compression 100% serve the songs. It’s just one piece of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face approach to noise pop (or their self-described “shred pop”). I had never heard anything like it before this album, and nothing has quite captured this level of noise and energy for me since.

Kemado

THE SWORD – WARP RIDERS–I know that within the spheres of stoner rock and doom metal, this album is not held in very high regard. But, I wouldn’t know that if it wasn’t for this album. I don’t even remember where I first saw the album artwork, but the retro typeface and Roger Dean-esque sci-fi watercolors compelled me to listen to this album. Through it I was introduced to retro styled traditional metal and left hungry for more. Finding other artists like this proved difficult at the time, but I just didn’t know where to look. I finally did learn a few years later, and even though I’ve found “better” examples of what The Sword were trying to do on this album, the riffs on Warp Riders still hold a special place for me a decade later.

XL Recordings

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – CONTRA–This album was my introduction to Vampire Weekend and contains perhaps my favorite song of theirs (“Giving Up The Gun” is the song by which all other Vampire Weekend tracks are judged, and it has one of the best music videos). The bright and clean sound was a perfect break in the winter clouds when the album came out. When compared to the band’s debut, Contra took the formula they set for themselves and refined it. Rough edges were polished and influences were mined even deeper, creating a major improvement stylistically and compositionally. This really was a great work of indie rock that was only topped by their third album that took this stylistic trajectory to its logical, almost absurd conclusion.