With so much great music out there and so many albums our staff reviews (and plenty we don’t), it can be difficult to keep up with it all and determine which releases are the most worth your time. Harnessing the wide-ranging and diverse tastes of our editorial staff, our monthly Editors’ Picks column is our gift to you to guide you towards the music that’s impacting us the most. You can read our picks from previous months right here.
As summer comes to its annual, unfortunate end, it’s understandable if your attention span for new releases has slipped in favor of last-minute vacations and weekend escapades. Unfortunately, you picked one hell of a month to slack off, as August provided us with some of 2016’s most phenomenal releases yet. We don’t say that lightly – August has truly bestowed upon us an eclectic array of musical triumphs that had our staff scrambling for the time to digest it all. Our editors certainly share this sentiment and have compiled what may be our strongest group of Editors Picks to date. We’ve got recommendations ranging from post rock to trap-rap and doom metal to avant-jazz, so prepare to empty your wallets on your new favorite albums of the year.
The Album Leaf – Between Waves
We’ve already talked pretty at length about what a great year it’s been for the genre of post-rock, but more notably, it’s been a great year for the old guard of post-rock. Three bands who formed the pillars of the entire genre as we know it – Mogwai, Explosions In The Sky, and Tortoise – had already released solid to fantastic albums, and a titan of the second, post-millennial wave – yndi halda – released one of the most breathtaking albums of the year, period, after a decade’s absence. So it only makes sense that another pillar of the music, California’s The Album Leaf, would also return from a lengthy absence to release some of their most potent music in many years in the form of Between Waves.
Unlike many of the aforementioned bands, The Album Leaf has never really been about the common currency of post-rock, the peaks and valleys, the vast soundscapes always building to triumphant crescendos and climaxes. Steeped equally in the worlds of ambient electronics as anything resembling rock, TAL founder and writer Jimmy LaValle has often preferred to take a more textured and impressionistic approach to composition. At its best, his music will sneak up on you and gently encase you in radiance and vibrant layers of sound. Between Waves has this in spades, as tracks like opener “False Dawn,” “Glimmering Lights,” “Wandering Still,” and the title track are the musical equivalent of a warm sunrise, basking everything it touches in beauty and promise.
So much of this can be attributed to LaValle’s full incorporation of a live band into the writing and recording process. Though still plenty synth and glitch-heavy, Between Waves feels more organic and richer than their previous work. In particular, Brad Lee’s trumpet serves as a beautiful melodic counterpoint to the layers of synth and guitar, piercing through the haze to provide a perfect clarion call throughout. LaValle also lends his pipes to a few tracks, electing to provide a more calming, even presence among the instrumental swells around him. In many ways the music is emblematic of the album’s title, representing the calm space in between moments of disruption and upheaval. It’s not music that is meant to knock you off your feet, but it will make you happy to float around aimlessly in it time and again.
Battle Trance – Blade of Love
As fantastic as it is for an artist to consistently churn out new music, constantly peppering listeners with “fresh” material often calls its quality into question. Personally, I feel it’s important for artists to allow their releases to have at least a little room to breathe; it gives established fans to dig deep into what the album has to offer, and it makes it possible for new fans to do the same while also exploring their discography prior to a new installment being added. Of course, there are a few artists who define themselves as exceptions, namely artists like John Zorn. The multitude of musical projects he releases each year are all from different groups within unique genres, feeling more like a four course meal rather than musical leftovers. And though tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante is a relatively fresh face in the avant-jazz scene, albums like Blade of Love prove he’ll achieve Zorn-like status as his career progresses.
Rewinding all the way back to February, Laplante linked up with trumpeter Peter Evans to drop Secret Meeting, his first record of the year and an incredible, free-wheeling slab of experimental jazz. It’s an incredible release that could have easily satiated Laplante fans until he dropped a follow-up in a year or more, building up more anticipation than irritated impatience. But then he announced that 2016 would see the release of Battle Trance‘s sophomore album Blade of Love, a follow-up to the tenor sax quartet’s excellent 2014 debut Palace of Wind. You’ll find Battle Trance (rounded out by Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson and Jeremy Viner) at an intersection of jazz, post-minimalism and the avant-garde, and while you’re there, the quartet’s air-tight cohesion becomes immediately evident. And in terms of Laplante specifically, Blade of Love proves not that he should lay off the reed for a bit, but that he should continue using that slit of wood to produce as many incredible, versatile releases as he pleases.
A lack of percussion is where the similarities between Secret Meeting and Blade of Love start and end. Whereas Laplante and Evans pushed free jazz to the max, Blade of Love is an incredibly connected record, flirting with spiritual jazz as much as is possible without diving in head-on. The group blend arpeggios and extended reed blasts in a way that sounds like one player manning four saxophones simultaneously. These parts of the album are reminiscent of Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld‘s Never Were the Way She Was and Wacław Zimpel‘s excellent 2016 debut Lines, though the quartet differentiate themselves in what the remainder of the project contains. Laplante worked with the rest of the quartet to master a set of breathing techniques that utilize the reed to mimic various natural sounds, such as wind, running water and birds. Additionally, the group uses this technique to “sing” through the reed, which is both enthralling and makes the listener ponder what else the group can accomplish.
Not only does Laplante avoid the issue of over-saturation, his work leading Battle Trance has turned my anticipation into a rapid desire for new music. Of course, both Secret Meeting and Blade of Love will capably tide me over until then, but they’ll also act as continue reminders of how much potential Laplante has already realized and how much more he has for the remainder of his career.
Coma Cluster Void – Mind Cemeteries
Well, this was a sucker punch out of nowhere. Featuring an international crew, Coma Cluster Void blends influences from a variety of artists to create a unique and ridiculously abrasive soundscape. Using 10 string guitars, they take low end rhythmic chaos from the likes of Meshuggah and Ion Dissonance, and combine that with the sonic assault and upsetting melodies of the likes of Pyrrhon and Gorguts. Add to that some avant-garde elements, and we have a dark, brash album that defies definition. Perhaps the title Mind Cemeteries is more apt than it initially appears.
While I’m normally not a fan of this style of music (intentionally unstructured and abrasively chaotic), there’s something here that pulls me in. Reading the lyrics along with the music certainly helps, both in terms of grounding what’s going on and also adding an extra layer of atmosphere. But the extra curveball here is the occasional element that doesn’t belong, like spoken word sections or the semi-singing in one track. Catch 33 was another album that was obsessively singular in nature, which made the deviations count that much more. Here, the monotonicity is achieved not through repetition but by lack of any coherence to attach to, any rhythm to hook on to. That discombobulation leads to a certain mind-state that genuinely unsettles me and captivates me, which is why I love Mind Cemeteries.
I keep trying to unravel the logic of this album, which maybe is folly as maybe there isn’t any, or maybe its engineered lack is designed as a trap for the likes of me. Either way, I have never really gotten lost in an album like this one, and I really appreciate that Coma Cluster Void were the straw that broke my camel’s back. I’m normally big into “figuring out” music, which makes this niche rather unappealing to me. Perhaps another reason for the specific appeal here is the usage of the 10 string guitars. In something like Pyrrhon, there’s only a certain range of sounds to exploit, and it ends up devolving into an assault of midrange sounds for me. The extreme low end and high end offered by the instrument in this case keeps things fresh and creates much-needed contrast. It’s also offered in unpredictable juxtapositions, which keeps me on my toes.
In the end, I had a few more “grokkable” albums that I listened to this month, but Mind Cemeteries is the one that really stuck with me, perhaps due to its refusal of definitions. Regardless, Coma Cluster Void have created a unique, bizarre and ugly monstrosity that pulls you in and messes with your head. And that’s just what I needed this month.
Lesbian – Hallucinogenesis
I’ve already sung Lesbian’s praises as the lords of weird doom in my review earlier this month, and as August rolled past, it proved difficult for any other metal record to dethrone these Seattle stoners from rotation. Hallucinogenesis is difficult to properly describe with respect to the group’s craft, but image Mastodon’s Leviathan, with Moby Dick replaced by a cosmic dinosaur after Earth has been populated by psychedelic fungal blooms. Lesbian weave an eccentric tapestry featuring many different subgenres from psych prog to black metal, but somehow manage to rein themselves in with a cohesive sound. Expect massive riffs, surprisingly varied vocal performances, and loads of weird sci-fi effects in what is one of the most unique listening experiences metal has to offer this year.
Russian Circles – Guidance
At this point, it’s pretty fair to say that Russian Circles have nothing left to prove. They have been a mainstay in the post-rock and post-metal world for the better part of a decade, and their discography is phenomenal. Every record holds its place in the band’s evolution, and its sprawling musical explorations go from one end of the spectrum to another, with many of their albums constantly going back and forth between heavy and light music. Guidance is more of the same we’ve come to know, but while many might see this as a bad thing, it actually bodes well for the band.
Many acts go years and years with churning out great music, and at some point there’s a drop off, a noticeable change in quality that everyone is aware of. Russian Circles know this and have done a very good job of avoiding this issue, as the record shows. From the moment the first note chimes in to the last ringing chord, the album is chock full of fantastic post-whatever-you-like music that keeps your attention. The band’s incorporation of ambient and almost electronic elements is more clear than ever on this album, with the heaviness not coming from the bass and drums and guitar, but more coming from the moody and ambient moments.
While this record might not bring in new fans, it will definitely keep any fan, casual or die-hard, very happy. It’s everything and more that the band has been over the past decade, and it’s proof that the band is right where they want to be, and that they feel comfortable in their own skin. It’s an album that might not be their best overall, but has the band at their overall best.
SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
When you boil everything down to the wire, what’s doom metal actually made of? Discussions of tonality and timbre aside, the basic heart which pulses underneath the sub-genre is one made of harrowing emotions, the great tolls which life takes from us, power and persistence. Under these definitions, which bind doom metal from its occultic genesis to the rarified states it finds itself in today, SubRosa’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is a perfect example of excellent doom metal. It fills the heart with trepidation in the face of life’s magnificence and the fierce desires which characterize the human condition.
But, more than its emotional delivery, the album is also unafraid to experiment with what it means to be doom metal instrumentally. Thus, it’s not only satisfied with connecting to doom on a basic, primal level but also with tinkering around with what it finds there. SubRosa use many elements to make these adjustments possible: prominent violin roles, dynamic and evolving backing vocals and constantly engaging riffs. The first trio of tracks on the album is almost a creation unto themselves when all of these are taken into consideration, with closed, self contained leitmotifs and ideas which live and die within their runtime.
I’ve spoken about all of this in my review so today I’d like to end with a track that I had perhaps neglected: “Troubled Cells”. In a recent interview, Rebecca Vernon (who is one of the primary forces behind SubRosa) spoke of the harsh reality of LGBTQI people in the Mormon community which birthed this track. This connection to “real life”, this outwards umbilical cord to the artist’s world, shines another light on the genius of the album; it lives.
In its thematic obsessions with life, death, power, personal journeys and psychological hardships, it never once abandons something that a lot of doom has left behind, namely people and their very real concerns. The juxtaposition of this idea of “being in the world” with your music and excellence within the execution of the music is a trait not often seen and one that should, therefore, be given a special place in any review. This editorial pick is my chance to correct that omission and once again, wholeheartedly, recommend this album to anyone who appreciates metal in any form.
Young Thug – JEFFERY
Coming into JEFFERY as someone familiar with Young Thug’s brand more by association and who he’s directly inspired – Lil Yachty and Slug Christ, two of my favorite up-and-coming rap artists, are obvious disciples of the Gospel of Thug – than because of direct contact with his music outside of Slime Season 3 (his most recent tape before this), I had no real idea what to expect or the quality of the music. I figured it would adhere to his established standard of garbled, autotuned verses being transformed before my eyes (ears) into psychedelic hip-hop delirium through the way Thug’s various flows ride hazy, bass-blasting beats, as is par for his course, but what I didn’t see coming – really, what nobody saw coming with JEFFERY – was just how far Young Thug would go to experiment with his sound.
From the chilled-out reggae dub of opener “Wyclef Jean” and the ethereal mid-2000’s pop synthscapes of “Swiss Beatz” to the more club-friendly dance vibes of “Kanye West” and “Pick Up The Phone,” there’s a lot to digest here for both long-time fans of Young Thug and those just being introduced to him. Now, every track introducing a new twist doesn’t necessarily equate to good music, but thankfully, it seems that Thug has put in the time to really feel out all of these instrumentals before painting over them with his radiant, technicolor flows and almost-hilariously cryptic delivery. Seriously, it’s impossible to decipher about half of what the dude says, but at the end of the day, that’s not really what’s important here.
In fact, the reason why Young Thug is so interesting to me, as someone whose listening consists largely of extreme metal, is because he uses his vocal abilities the same way someone like Corpsegrinder or Nergal does: it’s an additional layer atop the music, providing a sense of texture and an almost percussive sense of immediacy to the track in a way that just the instrumentals could never achieve. I doubt Young Thug actually takes much inspiration from metal frontmen, but it’s an apt comparison, and this alone makes his music instantly worth a listen for anyone wanting the other side of the “cookie monster vocals” coin.
Bright, poppy, colorful, and a whole hell of a lot of fun, JEFFERY is a mixtape that explores the different atmospheres of what makes Young Thug’s vocals work. Of course, it emerges victorious through the process, because what makes Young Thug tapes good listens more than anything else is his presence on them, and here, the dude is at his absolute best.
Other Notable Releases
65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe (post rock)
Æthenor – Hazel (avant garde)
Cheena – Spend the Night With… (proto punk)
Equipoise – Birthing Homunculi (tech death)
Factory Floor – 25 25 (minimal techno)
Horseback – Dead Ringers (experimental rock/electronic)
Imperium Dekadenz – Dis Manibvs (black metal)
Inanimate Existence – Calling From A Dream (tech death)
KA – Honor Killed the Samurai (abstract hip-hop)
Myrkur – Mausoleum (chamber music)
Nosound – Scintilla (progressive rock)
Pill – Convenience (post punk)
Plini – Handmade Cities (progressive metal)
The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness (progressive rock)
Sianvar – Stay Lost (post hardcore)