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

Sean’s Favorites: 2013

Okay, getting to this one relatively quick compared to the last few. So let’s see… In 2013 I was in my second year at my third college, still pursuing my engineering degree. As I was deep into it, keeping up with music and such understandably took a bit of a back seat. As such, this list is much shorter than the previous ones, and the next few will be as well. It’s actually a little strange. I like to highlight key historical events in these intros and it’s like the whole world took a little break in 2013. Yes, stuff still happened, but the biggest universal thing I could come up with was the resignation of Pope Benedict and subsequent election of Pope Francis. Movies were a little dry too. The biggest things there were Frozen and Man of Steel. One took pop culture by storm and the other was a feeble attempt at recreating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anyway, below are a handful of albums from the year that have stuck with me.

Daft Life/Columbia

DAFT PUNK – RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES–Anyone who knows me knew that this album was going to be on this list. Everyone’s favorite French robots took their sweet time releasing their 4th studio album. 8 years, to be exact (if you don’t count their soundtrack for Tron: Legacy). And after flirting with disco back on Discovery, they delivered pretty much a straight-up disco album with Random Access Memories. Never ones to do anything halfway, they recruit disco heavyweights Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers, as well as modern heavyweights like Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas, and Panda Bear. This album has everything from massive electro-disco bangers that are over 9 minutes long (“Giorgio by Moroder”) to perhaps one of the catchiest and best composed minimal pop songs ever (“Doin’ It Right”). I also feel like this album either predicted or kicked off the recent re-emerging of disco in pop music.

Mercury Nashville

KACEY MUSGRAVES – SAME TRAILER DIFFERENT PARK–I listened to this album on the recommendation of an acquaintance who was a big fan of country music. I had expressed my dissatisfaction with a lot of modern country and he pushed this one on me, assuring me that I would like it. And dammit, he was right. Musgraves’ more folk-leaning brand of country pop and her honest lyrics immediately endeared themselves to me. One could even argue that this album qualifies as outlaw country with it’s musical portraits of middle America. I often credit this album as the one that got me into modern country music and assured me that good stuff can be found in the genre. And Kacey Musgraves has continued to make great music and prove herself to be a formidable force in the world of modern country.

Universal/Lava/Republic

LORDE – PURE HEROINE–Yeah, it’s another one that had a single that blew up and maybe got a little overplayed. But it’s also another one where that overplayed single kind of deserved all the attention and the album is full of other songs that are just as good or better. Lorde released this album when she was only 17 years old, which makes the quality of it all the more impressive. The world of pop music needed something to shake it up, and Pure Heroine‘s dreamy and minimal synthpop with lyrics that critique celebrity culture was exactly the thing. This was further emphasized by the way Lorde delivered here lyrics in a dreary and apathetic way, paving the way for future stars like Billie Eilish. This was an album that I listened to repeatedly, to the point of making myself sick of it.

Century Media

TESSERACT – ALTERED STATE–This album was part of my introduction to the djent side of progressive metal. A roommate let me borrow it when I expressed some interest (a year or two after it came out) and I was impressed. This was the English band’s second album and the only one with vocalist Ashe O’Hara. The album’s 10 tracks are packaged in 4 suites, each named in a way that completes a phrase started by the albums title (Altered State… Of Matter, Of Mind, etc.). What really left an impression from this album was the band’s use of odd time signatures, but still maintaining a groove. There are passages where you want to move your head with the chugging guitars, but you find yourself missing the beat as they take an unexpected turn. I believe this still stands as one of the better albums that came out of the djent boom.

Fueled By Ramen

TWENTY ONE PILOTS – VESSEL–I’d like to say that I knew about Twenty One Pilots before they were cool, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. A more appropriate statement is that I knew about them before they were on a major label but they already had a massive hometown following. I loved their blending of indie pop with hip-hop and dark lyrics with upbeat music. I was thrilled when I heard that they were signed to Fueled By Ramen and given a larger platform. The re-done tracks from their indie release were only made better and the new tracks fit with them well. And they took the world by storm like everyone knew they would. Admittedly, this album in particular has not aged all that well, but it’s still listenable. And the band only went up from here.

XL

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY–I feel like I’ve been talking about this album a lot recently, but I don’t really mind because it’s a fantastic album and one of my top favorites from the past decade. Vampire Weekend impressed me with Contra and then blew me away with Modern Vampires. I like to describe this album as taking the band’s sound to its logical, and sometimes absurd conclusion, bringing the trilogy of albums to a nice close. Songs on this album like “Diane Young” and “Everlasting Arms” inspire repeat listens even today, 7 years later. This would be the last album with Rostam Batmanglij as a member of the band, and the band would go on a bit of a hiatus, waiting 6 years before delivering the follow-up. Needless to say, they ended this period of their career on a high note.

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in November 2019

It’s already been about a month since my last post like this, and yet again there was a lot of good music that I didn’t get to write a full review for. I was hoping to get one more out before this, but life got in the way like it does. So once again, here are some albums that I think might be worth your time. Like I said last time, as these are all “good,” their score would be 3.5 or higher if I gave them a full review. On to the musics.

Nuclear Blast

BLIND GUARDIAN TWILIGHT ORCHESTRA – LEGACY OF THE DARK LANDS–They’ve been hinting at it for years and now Blind Guardian have finally delivered on the promise of an orchestral album. Never ones to half-ass anything, this album is massive, sounds massive, has interludes with dialogue, and a second disc with instrumental versions of everything. It can be a slog and it’s hard to keep up with the story, but the companion novel (The Dark Lands by Markus Heitz) is available in English now, so I’ll probably be revisiting this one.

Dark Descent

BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE–Death metal is a pretty saturated genre right now, and a lot of it is competent but a bit bland as far as death metal goes. Blood Incantation are not bland. They actively push their sound and songs in interesting directions. I do personally wish the last track was broken up into two or more tracks, but this is a great example of what the genre is capable of.

aural music

BOTANIST – ECOSYSTEM–Like I said in my Liturgy review, black metal doesn’t really appeal to me unless there’s something that differentiates it from the “traditions” of the genre. Botanist plays black metal on hammered dulcimers. It doesn’t get much more non-traditional than that. More seriously, as the name implies, Botanist sounds organic and they have the talent to make this more than just a novelty.

Mass Appeal

DJ SHADOW – OUR PATHETIC AGE–This album is split into two halves with instrumentals on the first half and all-star guest rappers on the second. The first half is fine, but the second half is what you really want to hear. It has strong guest verses by people like Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Run The Jewels, and a mini Wu-Tang reunion. Shadow drops some sweet beats and brings out the best in his guests.

Young Turks Recordings

FKA TWIGS – MAGDALENE–I’m not convinced that this album deserves all the hype that it’s getting, but it’s still very good. Twigs is one of the artists on the leading edge of pop music, pushing it further into the future and exciting new places. It’s her first full length in 5 years, the production is great, and she sounds great.

Island

R.LUM.R – SURFACING–I normally don’t go for a lot of modern R&B music, but for some reason I’m just drawn to this guy. I don’t know if it’s his melodies, his falsetto, his unabashed love of indie and prog rock, or the fact that the songs aren’t exclusively about fucking. Either way, if I like an R&B record, there’s something special about it that makes it stand out. And this one does stand out to me.

Omnivore

HARRY NILSSON – LOSST AND FOUNND–Nilsson was working on a new album around the time that he died in 1994. Now, almost 40 years after his last studio album, we finally have a release from those sessions. The result is a time capsule of what singer-songwriter music was like in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s definitely a product of its time, but it shows that Nilsson still had his writing chops towards the end of his life.

I Built The Sky

I BUILT THE SKY – THE ZENITH RISE–One of the biggest challenges with instrumental guitar music is to keep it from sounding like self-indulgent wankery. It happens a lot with the shreddy metal stuff especially. Rohan Stevenson avoids this with his strong melodies. His songs are technically impressive, but they still have melodic soul that keeps you from tuning out.

20 Buck Spin

OBSEQUIAE – THE PALMS OF SORROWED KINGS–A little heavy on the metal this month, aren’t we? Anyway, Obsequiae plays black-ish medieval folk tinged metal and utilizes actual medieval instruments like harps, hammered dulcimers, hurdy gurdies, psalteries, and more. There are even instrumental tracks played exclusively on these instruments. It sounds like it could come across as a little pretentious, and in some ways it does. But overall, the band provides an interesting listening experience.

Warp/LuckyMe

TNGHT – II–Last, but certainly not least, Hudson Mohawke and Lunice finally give us a proper follow-up to the amazing trap EDM EP that was their 2012 debut as TNGHT. This one isn’t strictly trap music, but the relentless energy of the first release is still here. It’s loud, it’s a little strange sometimes, but it gets you moving, which is all I really ask from TNGHT.