There’s a lot happening in the music world, and we here at Heavy Blog try our very best to keep up with it! Like the vast majority of heavy music fans, our tastes are incredibly vast, with our 3X3s in each Playlist Update typically covering numerous genres and sometimes a different style in each square. While we have occasionally covered non-metal topics in past blog posts, we decided that a dedicated column was warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a bi-weekly column which covers noteworthy tracks and albums from outside the metal universe, and we encourage you all to share your favorite non-metal picks from the week in the comments. This week, we’ll be highlighting a few albums and tracks that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
The Soft Moon – Criminal
One-man project The Soft Moon has always tended toward a sparser, darker side of modern post-punk that never strays too far from its influences. Recalling the thematic bent of works from bands like Joy Division/New Order and Suicide, coupled with a musical aesthetic much closer to the manic electronics of HEALTH and the overarching industrial menace of Nine Inch Nails, Luis Vasquez has over his brief career created a sonic world that both calls back to subgenre legends yet is immediately recognizable as The Soft Moon. This mix of hero worship and distinct stylistic tropes is more present than ever in Criminal, the project’s fourth (and best) full-length release.
While most bands in the modern post-punk scene hold to a particular set of rules when it comes to songwriting (guitar-dominated instrumentation, personally and culturally aware lyrics, often coupled with a spoken-word/deadpan vocal delivery), The Soft Moon eschews these trends for a darker electronics-infused sonic landscape that feels cold, remote, and intimidating. While the invasive, deeply personal lyrical content is definitely there in a fashion similar to such subgenre staples like Ought, Protomartyr, and Preoccupations, Vasquez drives his music down much more sinister boulevards. The influence of industrial and electronic music on this album is clear from the very first notes of “Burn”, and only evolves from there. “Choke” feels ripped directly from the Broken-era Trent Reznor playbook, while “Give Something” is a creepy ballad that smacks of the soundtrack to an 80s urban stalker flick. “Like A Father” ramps up the electronic elements and gives off a sleezy, streets-of-Miami-at-midnight vibe, coupled with the murky edge of a Gesaffelstein track. This kaleidoscope of influences and sounds could feel both insanely derivative and sonically disorganized, but through the course of the album all of these different influences congeal to create something incredibly intense, melodically cohesive, and wholly worthwhile. Vasquez wears his influences on his sleeve, but pilfers the elements that make each of these influences great with such a clear eye for detail and obvious love for this music that by the end of the record one feels worn to the bone by a propulsive, heavy, and dark landscape that both adores and transcends its genesis.
For those who dislike any/all of the music listed above, Criminal is not for you. For those who, like myself, enjoy the deeper shadows in which post-punk can reside, this album is a treat to sink your teeth into with glee. Luis Vasquez has created something immensely enjoyable and special in Criminal, and those who love this music would do themselves a disservice by not checking this thing out. Well worth your time.
Son Lux – Brighter Wounds
“I had wanted a better world for you.” This is the line that sticks out immediately in the opening track, “Forty Screams,” on art rock/pop outfit Son Lux’s fifth album Brighter Wounds. Frontman Ryan Lott is no stranger to deep exploration of melancholy, fear, and regret in his work over three albums as a solo act and one, 2015’s excellent Bones, as an expanded trio featuring guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang. But there’s a certain spectre of doom hanging over the entirety of this latest LP. If the group’s acerbic EP released at the very beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency last year, Remedy, represented the immediate shock, anger, and resolve to resist that the band and many people across the country felt in the wake of the 2016 election, then Brighter Wounds feels like a harsh adjustment and resignation in the face of a new status quo.
Brighter Wounds is a far more personal album for Lott than before, as the writing heavily draws on the culmination of the aforementioned election, the birth of his first child, and the loss of a close friend to cancer all within a short period of time. “Forty Screams,” and that line, is directed to his (then) unborn son and the sheer terror he feels for himself as a father unsure about what the future holds for himself and his family contrasted with the screams of a newborn entering a new world, terrified but full of hope and promise. “Slowly” reveals lyrics of a man who can’t bear to hear the truth anymore and pleas for someone to feed him lies instead. “All Directions” and “Surrounded” trade in physical decay and total loss of self in the face of growing older and facing new identities and realities in the world – “You’re losing yourself / Slowly disappearing / Caught in your skin, surrounded” – all the while desperately trying to hold onto the remains of a past and better time that are fading away – “Weren’t we beautiful once?” and “History deletes itself / We’re holding on to something else.” And “Dream State” and closer “Resurrection” form near bookends that both strongly reference mirrored images of either being trapped in a fantasy or dream that doesn’t exist or a nightmare that we can’t wake from. Even in its glimmers of hope like on the stately piano ballad “Aquatic,” the message of leaving behind the past to build a legacy worth remembering has an inherent morbidity to it – “We may all begin aquatic / But we leave only dust from our bones.”
It’s all very heavy stuff, and the music absolutely follows suit, in perhaps ways that, while fitting the subject material and overall tenor of the lyrics, don’t play to all of the strengths and potential of this group. The addition of Bhatia and Chang into the musical DNA of Son Lux injected a kind of wildly propulsive, dynamic, and unpredictable energy that perfectly matched and amplified the kind of skittery electronic and synth-heavy pop that Lott had already crafted for years. Bones, the self-rearrangements of the Stranger Forms EP, and the aforementioned Remedy EP all represented a kind of experimental blend of the three musicians formidable talents as composers and performers in their own right that truly felt like something much greater than simply the sum of their parts and was truly exciting. It’s certainly not that Brighter Wounds isn’t a well-composed album. Quite to the contrary, it is absolutely filled to the brim with lush, gorgeous pieces crawling with the love and dread that drips from Lott’s typically-warbled voice. The indie chamber ensemble yMusic are employed heavily throughout to provide additional dramatic and emotional weight to the whole thing. But outside of the transcendent pulse and chorus of lead single “Dream State” – easily one of their best songs to date, to be fair – and the satisfyingly off-kilter rhythms and chunky synths of “The Fool You Need,” there are really no songs present that come close to matching the cathartic energy of their previous work.
This isn’t a failed attempt as much as it is a clear creative decision to not move in that direction for this album. Bhatia gets a few good moments to shine on “Dream State,” in a soulful lead on “Labor,” and in a brief interlude and acoustic outro in “The Fool You Need,” but he all but disappears entirely in the back half of the album. Chang is much more of a constant presence, and he gets some truly great moments to shine and demonstrate why he’s one of the most creative drummers in music today like throughout “All Directions” and “Surrounded,” but most of the compositions are simply not constructed to fit any of the sort of driving grooves and instrumental interplay between the three of them that made their other work together such a joy to listen to. All of this is quite likely to leave the listener feeling a bit cold and removed upon first listen, especially if they were expecting to hear a continuation of Bones. The album is beautiful and fascinating enough of a listen though to warrant moving past any initial misgivings and appreciate it on its own terms. For an album that deals so heavily with themes of death and rebirth in its wake, it’s only appropriate that the listener be forced to set aside their own notions and expectations of Son Lux and accept this for what it is. Like myself though, there are surely many Son Lux fans out there who ultimately hope that Brighter Wounds isn’t representative of a new status quo for the band moving forward.
Black Panther: The Album
For the first time in as long as I can remember, we finally have a movie soundtrack that matters! Black Panther director Ryan Coogler asked Kendrick Lamar to curate a mixtape for the movie. Lamar then combed through the catalog of his label Top Dawg Entertainment for the right artists while also asking some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B to contribute. Lamar, SZA, Vince Staples, ScHoolboy Q, Future, The Weeknd, James Blake, 2 Chainz, Anderson .Paak and a host of others litter the 14 tracks of the soundtrack, and not a single track disappoints.
The album is more than just the individual tracks. It comes at a unique time for a few reasons. First, Black Panther is Marvel’s first attempt to have a major superhero movie featuring an almost entirely black cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this particular juncture of history, having a major motion picture of an entirely black cast is a real political statement for 2018. An odd thing to think about really, but it seems true. Naturally, Marvel asked one of music’s top black artists to provide powerful voices to mark such a momentous undertaking.
The second reason has to do with the Grammys. Many people thought that hip hop, as a genre, was robbed due to insensitivity issues. Bruno Mars, while a talented songwriter, was seen as a safe pick as an Album of the Year winner. Putting aside the fact that the Grammys are easily the worst of the media awards shows, there is an obvious bias against hip hop and R&B as genres. Critics all over chose Lamar’s DAMN. as the best album of the year, yet it was snubbed. SZA was recognized as a breakout talent for her album CTRL, yet she, too, went home awardless. This album is as much as statement to the world as it is to the music industry: you can keep ignoring us if you want, but we’re not going quietly.
Having listened to this album multiple times since Friday, I can safely say it’s damn good. Asking Kendrick Lamar to curate a hip hop soundtrack is like searching for cat videos on YouTube. No matter what you find, you’re going to love it.
GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star
What if you could record a tone so warm, it would feel like a blanket wrapping around your shoulders? What if you could take that feeling of home and combine it with heavy hitting piano lines and a penchant for jazzy grooves? Why, you’d be king of the world if you could do that! Well, bring out the crown and scepter because GoGo Penguin, who wield all those tools and more, are back with A Humdrum Star. On it, they explore further the alternative jazz vibe that’s made them famous, doubling down on the depth and sense of exploration that made their previous works so endearing. Here, it seems as if the composition has no bottom, constantly unfolding with new tones and ideas to discover.
“Strid” is a great example of this; as Nick told me, once again a GoGo Penguin track with an obtuse name in the middle of the album is arguably the best one on it. It starts with the familiar formula; the duet between the piano and the bass is familiar in a good way, GoGo’s flickering rhythms playing hide and go seek in our hearts. But further down the line, an electronic hum that haunted the beginning of the track is suddenly the main sound playing while the bass charts strange cartographies in its sky. The “minimalism” in the band’s “jazz minimalism” takes over and we’re left with the bear bones of why they work. When the rest of the instruments return (the drums especially charged with a flittering dexterity) it is like a splash of cold water on your face, refreshing and welcome.
And the track isn’t done, as the bass takes over again to There’s so much more I could write about this album, honestly. Like “Strid” itself, it has many layers and places to go. Suffice it to say, here, in this format, that you owe yourself this album if you’re a fan of warm, subtle and deep jazz which, while still being technically proficient, is mainly focused on getting across emotions via rich textures. It’s expressive, convincing, honest and interesting. It’s everything I want from this band and more.