At this point, it must seem like we’re long past beating a dead horse when it comes to using this space atop our Editors’ Picks column to reiterate the mantra of “there’s just too much music!” But as we’re sure many of you have noticed, the amount of new music we face on a weekly basis far outpaces the time needed to digest it all, something we were reminded of yet again when it came to facing the onslaught that was September. Not only did the month have five Friday release days instead of the usual four, each of those official marker points for new music seemed to attract an enormous quantity and quality of releases from all corners of the music landscape. When we (The Editors) finally pared down our playlists and picked our personal recommendations for the month, we found ourselves with perhaps the longest list of album suggestions we’ve ever presented to our fine readers. Among these are albums from artists both old and new that hail from nearly every genre we all listen to on regular basis. This being the case, let’s not waste any more time and instead get to digging through the gold pile that was September.
Archspire – Relentless Mutation (Technical death metal)
At this point, it’s undeniable – Archspire are one of the leading voices of tech death. Their debut was solid, their sophomore release was great, and with Relentless Mutation they’ve finally come into their element. Arguably, some of their previous releases, while fantastic, were a bit one-note. I honestly was fearing that the follow-up to 2014’s The Lucid Collective would either be a TLC 2.0 and be mildly uninteresting, or be something that completely loses the thread. Never could I have expected them to completely surpass their previous release in basically every way, yet they’ve managed it anyway. This is a top notch band firing on all cylinders.
There were some issues one could take with the production of the band’s prior releases, but that no longer seems feasible, beyond a fundamental disagreement about style. The guitars are crushing, making every blazing fast flourish clear and every low note hit hard. The drumming is of course great. But the band isn’t just sheer speed. Previously, they could have been accused of that, but with Relentless Mutation they’ve shown that they can also write interesting and creative riffs within the framework. Their third release is familiar yet fresh, and it’s just so invigorating to listen to, a pleasant experience all the way.
The band’s ridiculous tightness is no joke, either. A lot of bands in this genre rely on production to clean up and polish their sound, which also takes the life out of it. While Archspire are already seemingly inhumanly fast, they’re also completely able to nail their material live – any amount of videos with pristine audio and live accounts will attest to that. This almost makes the album even more impressive retroactively, as it’s clear that everything here is something the band can just sit down and nail out. This retrained power, controlled anger, the calculated outbursts are all what make Archspire tick, and that ticking is real fast and hard. It’s relentless!
Caligula’s Horse – In Contact (prog metal)
I am constantly on the hunt for bands who get better with time. While this certainly has to do with the enjoyment better music gives me, it’s also a counter, a reply to those who say that the days of glory are in the past and that bands only get worse when time passes. These detractors are split into two groups; those who wish a band wouldn’t change as it did and those who wish it would change more. The former are more aggravating; often, they cite changes in the wrong direction (“wrong”, of course, being whatever they don’t like), yearning for some imagined golden age, not realizing it’s probably more a matter of their own tastes changing or not suiting the band anymore.
The other camp, on the contrary, decry a band’s inability to innovate their sound. Seeing as I more often belong to this camp, I find it less irksome. But it does, of course, have its own disadvantages, often leading people into a state of mind where they are no longer able to appreciate music for what it is but rather always comparing it to an idealized “direction” of progress and growth. Even though I often find myself in this group, I find its lack of appreciation for often great music disappointing.
What joy then to find albums that defy both camps? This is exactly what Caligula’s Horse’s In Contact does; it contains enough of their old sound to appeal to fans of their by-now classic The Tide, The Thief and the River’s End while injecting enough new ideas to lure listeners looking for growth and something new. The resulting album is one which stands on the strengths of the band and reaches forward (that’s a reference by the way, deal with it) into the band’s future, incorporating those new sounds and ideas right into the building blocks of the tracklist.
Take “Graves” for example; it features the signature leads and riffs that we have come to associate with Caligula’s Horse, a more tasteful and dynamic approach to progressive metalcore and, sometimes, djent. But it’s also their longest track ever, contains multiple callbacks as a result, features a saxophone solo by one Jorgen Munkeby (Shining) and in general, goes to musical which the band has yet explored in their previous releases. Nor does it stand on its own; it’s merely the natural ending point of a fascinating album, digging into the guts of what makes Caligula’s Horse work.
The Contortionist – Clairvoyant (prog rock)
In case you haven’t heard, The Contortionist have dropped all pretense of being a metal band and, at least for right now, are more interested at crafting moody alt/prog rock. Nary a scream in sight, Lessard’s crooning accompanies synth pads, power chords, and leads drenched in reverb. There’s some odd-metered grooves and angular riffing here and there to keep things rooted in progressive music, but with little exception, the group have toned down the technical showmanship and are writing songs with relatively straightforward structure. It’s a far cry from the earth-shattering breakdowns of Exoplanet, but given that literally half the band has left since then, it’s no wonder we’ve seen such an accelerated evolution. The Contortionist have strayed so far, it’s hard to imagine them going back to deathcore at this point in their careers.
Now that we’ve had a little bit of time to sit on Clairvoyant, does the major shift in the band’s sound hold up? Naturally, there are some long-time fans that are up in arms, but the general consensus online seems to be that this was a good move. If you observe Clairvoyant in a vacuum, it’s a brilliant album in its own right and holds its own against recent records from Deftones and Karnivool, while pulling further influence from Tool, Cynic, and post-rock at large. It’s a meditative, restrained, and understated record, but it still manages to sound huge and cut deep. Still, we can’t help but make contrasts against the band’s monolithic debut Exoplanet and deny Clairvoyant the praise as their best work yet. Maybe one day we’ll learn to let go of what could have been, but fortunately, Clairvoyant makes moving on easy.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers (post-rock/drone)
“the “luciferian towers” L.P. was informed by the following grand demands:
+ an end to foreign invasions
+ an end to borders
+ the total dismantling of the prison-industrial complex
+ healthcare, housing, food and water acknowledged as an inalienable human right
+ the expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again.”
Grand demands do not always make for grand music, but if there’s one band that can forever be counted on to marry both, it’s the inimitable monolith that is Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This third post-hiatus record now puts their output in this decade on par with their turn-of-the-millennium original discography (minus an EP), and while it’d be foolish to claim that any of their three contemporary releases can tangle with their classics, it would be equally foolish to let the enormous shadow of their past define the quality of their present.
Luciferian Towers continues the trend that began on 2015’s Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress of refining their sound to a knife point’s sharpness, largely by stripping away any elements that could be deemed extraneous. Gone are the days of meandering slide guitar and its accompanying Americana; nowhere here will you find the whirring found sound or thematically-relevant and wholly beautiful audio clips of interviews and speeches.
Instead, what’s here is a focused, surgical attack that utilizes Godspeed’s typical fare in a much more direct fashion: “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem for No State” are both beautiful suites in the style of their older work. These two long tracks, separated from one another by short ambient pieces (as has become the band’s modus operandi) sway to and fro as they build from bleak melancholy into frenetic, angry, charged energy before collapsing and burning under their own weight. It’s as transcendentally beautiful as they’ve ever been, but with less time between those album-defining moments.
Overall, there’s no claiming this is their best album, but Godspeed has always had such a high bar for themselves that saying something “isn’t their best” doesn’t really hold much water as a criticism. They’re still the benchmark for post-rock and the best in the genre by a long shot, and Luciferian Towers is a great demonstration that any pretenders to the throne still have a hell of a lot of work to do before they can even qualify for usurpation.
Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements (avant-garde jazz, jazz poetry)
You don’t need me to tell you political music has been in vogue since last November; if you’ve had a pulse and follow music in any capacity, you’re keenly aware that there’s been a protest anthem for nearly every genre and current social issue. The influx of topical commentary in the modern music landscape has reminded us all of the divisiveness of the the “political song,” and not just in terms of the standard debate of left and right. This is important, of course, seeing as not everyone jumps on board when their favorite artist reveals how they lean in the voting both, whether they take issue with the artist’s affiliation or merely the fact they’re discussing politics at all. But even when fans and musicians align on a particular issue or against a certain woefully incompetent president, it’s crucial for their musical solidarity to rise above surface-level burns that could have been delivered during a late night monologue. Whether it’s cringe-worthy jabs or lyricism that barely dives into the issue at hand, there’s been no shortage of recent political music that’s fallen short of adequately analyzing what’s ailing the nation and how to address it in a meaningful way. It’s commendable if these songs inspire people to action, as that’s their purpose after all. But in terms of true motivation, artists are more likely to get their killa beez on a swarm with a raw taste of the rotten vinegar that is our country’s current situation than by doling out saccharine lyrical honey that encourages prior held biases and avoids discomfort at all costs.
Through a unique and potent blend of free jazz and slam poetry, Irreversible Entanglements have presented a debut that acts a case study on how to produce politicized art in an age where marginalized groups grow more uncertain of their place in the country on a daily basis. The quintet describes themselves as a “liberation-oriented free jazz collective” and boasts a skilled and voracious lineup, including Keir Neuringer (alto saxophone), Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Luke Stewart (double bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums). Though the players’ urgent and often frenetic performances alludes to political themes in their own right, Camae Ayewa’s gritty poetry and delivery are what truly elevates the ensemble’s social consciousness. This isn’t Ayewa’s first foray into a marriage of words and sounds—she turned heads last year with Fetish Bones, her latest release of politically charged poetry atop abrasive soundscapes under the name Moor Mother. Of course, delivering stanzas over machines, field recordings and analog noisemakers is a starkly different undertaking than performing as part of jazz ensemble, a challenge which Ayewa maneuvers with a razor sharp tongue that lacerates oppression with every line while her bandmates coexist in perfect disharmony.
What makes Ayewa’s style so effective is her visceral honesty; whereas other politically minded artists remaine either too reserved in their critiques or deliver them in an shoddy manner, Ayewa is remarkably blunt while still paying close attention to every minute detail. Whether she recalls personal narratives, delivers commentary on modenr injustices or simply states the names of unarmed people of color killed by law enforcement, everything Ayewa says lands with an immense amount of emotional weight. Her words on not just poignant observations, however, as they carry a hardly subtle challenge to listeners to acknowledge their place within today’s chaos, particularly when it comes to those of us capable of contributing toward a resolution. I could quote any number of passages highlighting this, but perhaps the greatest example appears in opening track “Chicago to Texas.” After Ayewa takes shots at the prison industrial complex and institutionalized racism, she delivers a modern day Zen koan about the importance of action:
She said it took God 272 years to free the slaves, and she don’t mind waiting. I tell her that waiting is a privilege, and the hands of a clock are not your hands, but a system of hands choking you. Sometimes you can get lost in the rhythm of oppression.
The crux of these lines echos one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, when he responded to those who said civil rights leaders and protesters should simply wait for their rights to be granted to them. King retorted with a history lesson not often acknowledged by privileged individuals, arguing that “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” He concludes this argument with his famous observation that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” a sentiment echoed through Ayewa’s words. For in confronting legalized segregation decades ago or institutionalized racism today, “waiting for change” is the best way to ensure oppression remains intact. Ayewa brilliantly espouses the pain and ramifications of that oppression in the daily experiences of people of color, and unlike some of her politically minded musical peers, she has no qualms about outlining exactly why and how they should be confronted.
Though Ayewa’s poetry deserves a great deal of attention and praise, her bandmates should also be commended for their contributions as well. There’s a reason free jazz often forgoes vocals, as the genre’s framework of either structured improvisation or completely freed performances hardly provide the ideal backdrop for lyricism. This is precisely why the quartet of players dazzles with their collective performances, as they provide the perfect backdrop for the tone of Ayewa’s poetry while maintain the kinetic force of free jazz. Holmes and Stewart do a particularly noteworthy job of creating a rhythmic backbone filled with energetic ideas, and while Neuringer and Navarro often trade the spotlight with Ayewa, they spend an impressive portion of the album capably bending their sax and trumpet around her words so as to accent the overall performance. And when Ayewa pauses and allows the quartet to fully assume a track’s focus, they deliver some exceptional free jazz full of interplay and masterful spontaneity. Their playing on “Fireworks” recalls Ornette Coleman‘s ensemble on Science Fiction, and the intense duet from Neuringer and Navarro that opens “Enough” should make Peter Brötzmann proud.
Yet, it’s when Ayewa and the quartet synchronize that they float like a single wasp and sting like an armada of enraged hornets. And that’s exactly the point Ayewa is seeking to get across—injustice and oppression won’t fade quietly, nor will dissipate in any meaningful way unless it’s made to do so. Some doubt the power art can have on our collective consciousness and willingness to act, but I’d push back on that notion and argue that art—being the preeminent medium through which we manifest our emotion and experiences—is one of the most effective means of at the very least initiating a conversation, and perhaps much more. Irreversible Entanglements have channeled the current climate of marginalized individuals into an album replete with powerful musical and lyrical ideas, and regardless of the influence this collection of songs may have, its statements like these give members of the resistance hope that the will to fight back isn’t fading any time soon.
The National – Sleep Well Beast (indie rock)
It is a difficult task for a band to release two solid albums in a row, let alone build an entire discography of brilliant work. A few bands have done it, but it is not a common occurrence. Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, and Protomartyr could be considered in this group of active bands in the indie rock world, but only the first has released more than five albums up to this point. In this regard, The National breathe the rarified air (despite a debatable debut) of a band with the ability to boast a complete catalog of excellence. The band has yet to release a bad album, and when your career spans nearly two decades and seven full-length projects that’s a significant statement to make. Their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, could have simply tread water and still been a good release. But this isn’t how The National operates. Instead, the band created another thoughtful, meticulous, and brilliant addition to their already stellar career. It’s ambitious, musically diverse, lyrically poignant, and may eventually be classified as one of the band’s finest releases. But time will tell on that one. It’s not a true The National album if it isn’t a slow-burning grower.
The album kicks off in pure sad-face Matt Berninger fashion with “Nobody Else Will Be There”, and it’s hard to imagine a song more fitting to open the album. Piano lilts gently over a soft percussive foundation that mixes some simple cymbal work and unique guitar rhythm, while Berninger’s baritone lazily swims through this gorgeous pool of sound with sincerity and genuine sadness. Lyrically, the song sets the tone for the rest of the record, as Berninger holds a conversation with himself and a seemingly silent other (one of his most unique songwriting qualities). Themes that will make appearances repeatedly throughout the record, such as long-term relational tension, confusion, hurt, hope, and longing are all neatly encapsulated in one of the most deeply resonant four-and-a-half minutes of the band’s career. It’s a stunning and subdued opener that has quickly become one of my favorite songs the band has written.
That isn’t to say that the album goes downhill from there, because that would be very untrue. Rather, the album’s opening track serves as the seed from which the rest of this magnificent album blossoms. Subsequent tracks “Day I Die” and “Walk It Back” each contain their very own unique sonic signatures that add a much more propulsive bent to the album with the addition of Bryan Devendorf’s traditionally thunderous percussion and the more unusual inclusion of distinct electronic elements, which are a somewhat new element of the band’s music. Lyrically, these songs ruminate about the dynamics of committed long-term relationships in heartbreakingly honest (and, oddly, comical) ways, particularly highlighting Berninger’s relationship with his wife. This is an overwhelming theme throughout the album, with “Born to Beg”, “I’ll Still Destroy You”, “Empire Line”, and “Guilty Party” in particular dissecting similar thematic tropes. While the emphasis on the topics of relationship and marriage could come across as a bit samey for a great album, there is a definite sense of diversity here. Themes of politics, society, and culture rear their heads as well, particularly in “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “I’ll Still Destroy You”, and “Turtleneck”, the latter of which is the most unhinged song the band has written since Alligator’s “Mr. November”, or maybe even Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers’ “Available”. On the whole, these songs feel cohesive and part of a whole but never tired or repetitive, which makes the album as a whole both a uniform and adventurous listen.
While the lyrical themes in many ways serve as Sleep Well Beast’s backbone, the instrumental performances create an entirely separate and equally effective dynamic to the record that compliments these lyrics with sonic magnitude and lush texture. The Dessner brothers once again outdo themselves by weaving their guitar work around the more prominent electronic elements contained in Sleep Well Beast, neither overpowering them nor playing a secondary role. The Devendorf’s rhythm section is as powerful as ever, with Bryan delivering his best performance behind the kit since Boxer. As always, while the most powerful and obvious elements of the music are infinitely worthy of recognition, the true beauty of the album lies underneath the cacophony in all of the gorgeous and deep soundscapes lying just below the surface. Whether it be the gentle, hypnotizing kaleidoscope of sound just past the halfway mark of “Nobody Else Will Be There”, or the soft, subdued, and absolutely stunning ending to album finale “Sleep Well Beast”, the band once again show that their talent as composers and musicians is unparalleled in the musical world they inhabit. This is the band operating at the peak of their collective powers, and it’s a wonder to hear.
It’s hard to say where this album will land in the band’s catalog. As mentioned earlier, each of the band’s albums tends to be a grower. But after sitting with this beautiful record for nearly a month, I feel that it belongs in the conversation of their top three records. It’s subdued, focused, adventurous, and, as always, honest to an uncomfortable level. Sleep Well Beast is one of the best records in any genre released this year, and if you give this record the time and space it deserves you may also fall under its spell.
Balmorhea – Clear Language (ambient/post-rock)
Taking a route similar to Mono’s stunning, stripped down, and melodically-focused The Last Dawn, Balmorhea’s latest is post-rock at its most delicate and beautiful, largely eschewing layers of wailing guitars for piano, light electronics not far off from the work of The Album Leaf, and emotive strings that could have fallen out of a yndi halda album. Get ready to hold back some tears on this one, if you can.
End – From the Unforgiving Arms of God (hardcore/deathcore)
If you’re looking for music to pulverize your brain into a thick layer of hot goop, look no further. Hard/deathcore supergroup End are here to provide all the extremity you need. The songs on this EP are uniformly vicious, mixing elements of hardcore and deathcore into a sledgehammer of mayhem that may require physical therapy to recover from. Don’t believe me? Spin this shit and prepare for abject annihilation.
Five of the Eyes – The Venus Transit (post-hardcore/prog rock)
What would it sound like if the members of The Mars Volta grew up in New England and listened to a daily binge of The Dear Hunter‘s discography with plenty of modern post-hardcore and prog thrown into their rotation? Though this question almost certainly never occurred to you before now, you’ll be glad Five of the Eyes has the answer in the form of The Venus Transit, an infectious slaw of indie prog goodness.
Gigan – Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence (tech death)
Holy lord. This year in tech death, people. It’s unreal. Alongside incredible albums from Ingurgitating Oblivion, Pyrrhon, Artificial Brain, and bunches more, we now have Gigan melting minds as they transport us into the sonic beyond. In concept, structure, and execution, Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence is a truly fantastic addition to their already stellar discography. The songs here require multiple listens to fully grasp, but each new voyage into these jagged and foreboding sound galaxies brings about deeper and more fulfilling rewards. There is a definite method to the madness here, and this is an album well worth spending some serious time with. If you are a fan of technical death metal even slightly, this is an absolute must listen.
Mastodon – Cold Dark Place (stoner rock)
It may not be what we were expecting based on the cover art, but the four tracks that form this EP might just be the best and most exciting music Mastodon have put out in nearly a decade, and yes, that does include this year’s Emperor of Sand. Free from the confines of what a Mastodon album is “supposed” to be, Cold Dark Place at times sounds like an interesting meeting ground between the dense, progressive knottiness of Crack the Skye and the looser, hookier alt-rock and metal of The Hunter with greater emphasis on acoustic instruments. Our editor-in-chief Eden Kupermintz has already been lauding it as “pop sludge,” and even those of us who have been far less bullish on the band’s more recent output have been taken aback by this one. There’s clearly still plenty of cool ideas and musical ground for the band to cover. The question is whether this EP is truly just a one-off or indicative of where the group may want to go from here.
Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (conscious hip-hop)
After the fruitful detour from his usual production style with last year’s Hella Personal Film Festival, which was entirely produced by sample-smashing messiah Paul White, Open Mike Eagle returns to form with this great record. Here, we find the esoteric emcee using the twin frames of oversized superhero drama and the destruction of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes to examine the multifaceted way that gentrification wreaks havoc on body and mind alike on both a personal and societal level. The one-two punch of the disarmingly personal and the politically heated in Eagle’s rhymes makes BBKSD one of this year’s most immediately hardest-hitting rap records, even as the labyrinthine verse structures and layered metaphors demand repeat listens.
Ranges – The Ascensionist (post-rock)
Post-rock has had an incredible month, and Ranges are responsible for a large chunk of that. The Ascensionist is an album which moves past the crescendo and into the realms of ambient expression reserved for the best of the best of post-rock.
Rivener – Rivener (free improvisation/psychedelic rock)
Psychedelic rock is nos stranger to elongated jams and free-wheeling instrumentation, but it hardly reaches this level of intensity and inventive spontaneity. Equal parts Lightning Bolt and Brian Chippendale‘s work on Melt, Rivener‘s latest self-titled outing is an excellent experiment that marries two complimentary worlds for one hellish landscape.
Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun (gothic folk/post-metal)
Occupying some weird realm of industrial, doom, and apocalyptic folk, Chelsea Wolfe’s new record Hiss Spun is filled with weird, brooding, and hypnotic dirges that longtime fans will be sure to appreciate. With Kurt Ballou at the production helm, Hiss Spun is noisy and rough around the edges, but there’s a fair share of grooves and hooks to keep the package accessible to newcomers.
Wolves in Throne Room – Thrice Woven (atmospheric black metal)
In an age where black metal seems more obsessed with album covers and being trve, leave it to one of the progenitors of the modern iteration of the genre to show everyone else how it’s done. Wolves in the Throne Room’s Thrice Woven is an exercise in primal restraint, and elegant ferocity.
BIG|BRAVE – Ardor (art rock/experimental doom metal)
Botanist – Collective: The Shape of He to Come (atmospheric black metal/blackgaze)
Four Tet – New Energy (microhouse/minimal techno)
Ben Frost – The Centre Cannot Hold (dark ambient/post-industrial)
Instar – The Ex Nihilo Cycle (prog rock/post rock)
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (indie rock/dance punk)
LO’ There – Eden (hard rock)
METZ – Strange Peace (noise rock)
The Minerva Conduct – The Minerva Conduct (prog metal/djent)
Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun (post-rock)
Monarch – Never Forever (drone metal)
Motorpsycho – The Tower (prog rock)
Nosaj Thing – Parallels (ambient pop/glitch hop)
Primus – The Desaturating Seven (experimental rock/prog rock)
Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent (art punk/post-punk)
Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (alternative rock/garage rock)
This Patch of Sky – These Small Spaces (post-rock)
Usnea – Portals Into Futility (funeral doom)
Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference (spiritual jazz)
Zola Jesus – Okovi (art pop/darkwave)