Editors’ Picks – February 2019

February; or, as I like to call it (I literally just invented this), “The Bastard Month.” It’s not just the weird length which makes this month hard to pin down; it’s no longer “The First Month of the Year,” but nor is it close to its half. It’s not Midwinter but, in many places, it’s certainly not summer nor even spring. It’s just kind of…there. But music worries not with such things, and 2019 seems to continue to fire on all barrels, bedecking us with the kind of varied excellence that we’ve learned to expect after the astonishing year that was 2018.

This month, the further listening section is even more stacked than usual; the only reason I didn’t personally write up Saor as my main pick is only because of the full-length review we posted last week. Other exceptional items include the astonishing chair-dancing inducing beats of Nubiyan Twist as it effortlessly melds Latin, African, and jazz sensibilities into one infectious whole, and the dual heavy metal one-two punch of Gatekeeper and Traveller, sure to sate your appetite for old-school metal done incredibly well.

Of course, the main section is also incredibly stacked, opening with this month’s Staff guest entry, written by Jordan. A Novelist‘s release is one of those albums which I’m sure will walk with me throughout the year, as I try to parse it’s own beguiling sound and approach. Elsewhere, Violet Cold has returned to remind us why he’s one of the most accomplished and prolific artists working in blackgaze today, releasing a truly astonishing and effective album from out of nowhere (as usual). Meanwhile, blog favorites Astronoid are back again to dish out their own unique take on the shoegaze-y and the dreamy.

Alright, enough words from me, yes? Let us hope that the momentum exhibited on the lurching month that is February only extends and amplifies as we really get into the year and Spring comes upon us. Hold on tight; it’s going to get wild.

A Novelist – Folie (progressive metalcore, tech death)

To be perfectly honest, it’s not often I get excited about something with the polish and panache of a record like Folie. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say this, but that certain saturation (desensitization?) point that comes about when undertaking a prog-death eardrum riddling seems to come about quicker and quicker as I get older (shit gets rough 30, friends). Or, maybe this is just a byproduct of how quickly this scene has evolved over the past decade or so, maybe it has passed me by. Either way, I haven’t been able to hang with a lot of what’s happening as of late. Fortunately, A Novelist have become hip to the diminishing attention spans that plague us geriatric consumers of prog death. As if by request, Folie seems to consistently preempt my fatigue with a jazzy horn or woodwind break, a carpet-pull of blast beats, or a perfectly-timed sweeping melodic break. Their sense of timing jibes with me like most others haven’t recently, but it’s so much more than that.

I’m not trying to say that what’s here is merely tolerable, but rather that its presentation is completely besmirching. Folie takes me back to the days when I’d binge listen Between the Buried and Me’s Alaska or Protest the Hero’s Fortress, where the sudden changes in direction and mood weren’t square-pegged onto listeners. You know, the days before albums succumbed to the ludicrous weight of their lofty concepts, scatterbrained songwriting, and exhausting runtimes. This being said, it’s no secret that this Louisiana duo likely cut their teeth on busy classics like these, but they’ve also learned from the many missteps that followed. This is apparent in A Novelist’s strategic grip on how to thread their proficiency across the album without getting stale or resorting to silly experimentation for the sake of variety. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ben Nugent’s visceral screams are at times reminiscent of Dave Davidson’s range of monstrous barks, but they become all the more considerable when paired with his melodic vocals that deliver much of Folie’s emotion and persona and complement the ranginess of the instrumentation.

Further, every track develops a landmark moment and true character, regularly incorporating some additional instrumentation (the brass, woodwinds, keyboards, etc.) to round out their attack or lend a distinct feel. In a way, it reminds me a smidge of that Rivers of Nihil record from last year. More substantial, however, is the interaction between Nugent and drummer Alex Babineaux. They seem to push back on one another, everything seems really fleshed out and pushed to the logical (digestible) extreme. What really gets me though, is how their dynamic songwriting and spirited interplay makes everything so fucking tasteful and fun. It’s as though Spawn of Possession or Obscura’s near-tech progressive death got filtered through the lens of The Human Abstract’s melodicism (sans the neo-classical fixation). It’s intricately layered, and each breakneck turn can quickly unfold into a panorama of grandeur or a maniacally dizzying display of virtuosity. It’s a beautiful thing as it’s instantly gratifying yet still deep enough to warrant sticking around with it for the long haul.

Jordan Jerabek

Aenimus – Dreamcatcher (progressive deathcore)

You know what I appreciate more than a great band who makes good music? One that also puts in the work. Ever since Aenimus‘s Dreamcatcher released, they have been posting a constant stream of playthrough videos almost every day. This is a band on top of their game and proud of their material, as they should be. Dreamcatcher is what we all remember Sumeriancore was like with our rose tinted glasses. It’s the best version of that genre, the sweet memories of it.

While we all remember the classics, there were also a lot of duds, a lot of generic (or “djeneric”, if you have to go there) albums as well. Plus, the “tech” of guitar playing has evolved since. 10 years ago, we wouldn’t see Michael Keene play two handed tapping arpeggios as the main riff of a song. The sweep-tap-legato-sweep was a rare beast that only a select few employed. Aenimus use all of that and more quite liberally here. That’s what makes this album stand out.

It’s not just that it’s a great throwback to Sumeriancore, it also improves the genre while still being completely faithful. I’ve listened to, and even reviewed dozens of albums in this genre over the past decade, but very few of them were more than just doing the thing that was already done, but now with some more chugs or more “modern” (giant sarcasm air quotes) production. This is what I’ve always wanted the genre to be. And if you’re like me, if you spent countless hours listening to The New Reign, The Common Man’s Collapse, Planetary Duality, Creature, Exoplanet and more, you’ll enjoy this as well.

(Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Dreamcatcher.)

Noyan

Astronoid – Astronoid (post-metal, shoegaze)

Blood Music-backed ambient rock act Astronoid released their sophomore self-titled album this month to generally positive reaction among the band’s fanbase. But there lingers a bittersweetness within that reaction; the band have streamlined their sound, dialed back the shred, and the dreamy vocal hooks are the main flair. The band leaned more heavily into their shoegaze and post-rock influences, drawing some direct comparisons to acts like Mew. The “thrash” aspect of the once self-described “dream thrash” act is even more distant than it was to begin with, and for some, that’s been a hard pill to swallow.

For this editorial body, however, Astronoid’s new record appears to make all the right movements towards a more ideal trajectory for the band. The songs are slicker, with fewer redundancies and distractions. The melodies and anthemic nature of the songwriting speak for themselves. In his review, Eden praised the direction, noting that this record is more “immediate and bouncy” compared to Air, and I’m inclined to agree. Astronoid’s sound is quite niche, and the band were at risk coming off Air giving the impression that it would be incredibly easy to tap the well dry. That’s why these stylistic evolutions exist; a band sprouting in progressive metal circles can’t become too familiar with their own sound, and if that means Astronoid’s more focused sense of songwriting puts the band on the path of a “poppier” direction, then so be it, because this record is absolutely vital.

Speaking on the immediacy of the record, the very first song “A New Color” perhaps shines brightest, even in (or perhaps because of) its standard song structure. A haunting and massive chorus, and soaring and heart-wrenching guitar solo, and lush powerchords serve as the album’s archetype of anthemic rock songs served within the context of atmospheric rock and shoegaze. There’s nods to the prog scene here and there —  “Ideal World” hits some off-kilter quazi-djent rhythms, and “Breathe” is constantly in motion with its dual-harmony angular guitar leads — but there’s a beautiful simplification at play here. Everything is in vibrant colors and in a wash of reverb pedals, and it is delightful. Don’t worry about it too much; just listen to some major-key, hyper-melodic post-metal, and get lost in the romance.

(Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Astronoid.)

Jimmy Rowe

Cân Bardd – The Last Rain (atmospheric black metal, epic black metal)

Something I think a lot of people don’t really understand about metal – for good reason, mind you – is this genre’s strange and sometimes paradoxical association with originality. To many listeners curious but not yet steeped in metal’s sound, the genre doesn’t really seem to place much value in the idea of novelty within music. And with a lack of stylistic versatility, especially in the more extreme subgenres, it’s easy to see where this interpretation comes from. The differences between Immolation and Suffocation may seem obvious to those of us who have a trained ear for death metal – likewise for Darkthrone and Mayhem – but metal typically does not stray far from where it grew.

That is to say, the impression is that in metal, we don’t seem to value originality. I would disagree, to an extent – in my eyes, metalheads value creativity. As metal fans, we value bands that have the ability to take a known formula and iterate on it in ways that haven’t necessarily been heard before: mixing in elements from other genres, bringing in sounds from outside metal’s wheelhouse, developing a conceptual backing that strengthens the music through context, or something of this sort. Most of all, we value bands that are creative in their ability to pierce the genre to its essence, hone the sound to a knife’s point, and present nothing but its strongest content.

Can Bardd are an excellent example of what I’m saying. The Last Rain does not see the band making any sort of attempt to perambulate a court beyond black metal’s, seeking any sort of novelty or trying to do something no other band has done before. No, they operate pretty exclusively in the world of folk-indebted atmospheric black metal like their release-month peers Saor or the more recent outings of Wolves in the Throne Room. The most adventurous they get is throwing in some keyboards and martial drums reminiscent of the bellicose march of Summoning or Caladan Brood, which helps to strengthen the push-pull loud-soft dynamic of the atmospheric black metal by offering a change of pace. It’s ingeniously integrated and it gives a longevity of energy to a genre that often runs out of steam within a couple of tracks.

The Last Rain is also just really, really good. Everything is so perfectly fine-tuned and placed exactly where it should be, with no real missteps or bad ideas coming from the band. Every climax feels properly soaring and every moment of quietude feels genuine and reflective. The melodies are tried and true, swelling with energy and love, purposive and precise yet without losing that elusive organic quality black metal demands. To go any further would be both superfluous and overwrought, so I will end here: I simply cannot recommend this highly and loudly enough for fans of atmospheric black metal.

(Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for The Last Rain.)

Simon Handmaker

Fountainhead – I Do and I Will (prog fusion, instrumental prog metal)

Watching an artist grow is a beautiful thing. Getting to see that artist recognize their own growth is even better as it gives you a rare look into the process. This is exactly the kind of perspective which Fountainhead’s (otherwise known as Tom Geldschläger) I Do and I Will gives us. Originally released as a bonus to Fountainhead’s instructional works, the album was recently released as a stand-alone package. It features re-mastered, re-mixed and, at points, re-recorded works spanning Fountainhead’s entire career, showcasing the wide variety of styles, genres, and approaches that the talented guitarist has wielded in the past.

It must seem weird to you that I’m highlighting a collection of re-releases in our Editors’ Picks but the album is just that good. It’s also incredibly cohesive, spinning a daft narrative of an insanely varied career. From the jazz fusion intimations of tracks like “999”, through the prog metal delicacies of both parts of “Reverse Engineering” and “Ascension”, and all the way to the weird ambience of opening track “Hithèrto”, I Do and I Will is a collection which somehow manages to shine a light on all the disparate parts of this by-now substantial career but also tell a sort of story. This story focuses on self-exploration and challenge, of a musician who has constantly set boundaries for themselves and then broke those boundaries in the name of art.

It is also just a damn fine piece of music. While fans of Fountainhead already know that his technicality is hard to surpass, I Do and I Will also showcases the guitarist in his more emotive and moody spaces. This can be heard on the wonderfully dreamy “Electric Lullaby” or on “A Perfect Union”’s soaring outro, one of my favorite parts of the album. All in all, this is much more than “just” a collection of previous tracks; it is a fascinating and captivating retrospective of one of the more hard-working, introspective, and prolific guitarists in metal today. If you’d like to listen to what a career sounds like from the midst of it, looking back and forward at the same time, this album is for you.

Eden Kupermintz

HEALTH – Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear (industrial rock, electropop)

Los Angeles noise-mongers HEALTH could be called a lot of things, but “boring” isn’t one of them. From the outset of their career as noise junkies on the level of Fuck Buttons, A Place to Bury Strangers, and Lightning Bolt, the band’s self-titled debut and sophomore outing Get Color were harsh, grating slabs of frenetic aggression that garnered them a sizable underground indie following. This established sound would see significant disruption in 2015’s absolutely mesmerizing Death Magic, which pulled sounds from genres like metal and industrial rock and mixed them with vocalist Jake Duzsik’s languid drawl to scintillating effect. It was a statement that not only marked a sea change in the band’s sonic aesthetic, but also resulted in their best album to date. Four years later, their fourth full-length outing Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear continues to build upon the groundwork laid by Death Magic, but with an even further emphasis on the band’s most heavy sonic proclivities. It’s the HEALTH we’ve grown to know, cranked to 12.

While Vol. 4 does follow a similar trajectory to Death Magic, it is most certainly a record that stands on its own as another unique entry in the band’s discography. More than in perhaps any record they’ve produced thus far, HEALTH sink deep into the sonic disparities that have defined their music, juxtaposing extremely harsh sounds with a calm, almost soothing vocal presence that is simultaneously unsettling and engaging. Opener “Psychonaut” displays these varying styles perfectly, jumping from quiet acoustic reflection to manic percussion and exceedingly harsh blasts of noise, all galloping over Duzsik’s calm, direct vocal delivery. The rest of the album maintains this level of variety. “Black Static” brings the pain with an underlying guitar chug that’s as close to a full-on metal track as the band’s yet attempted, while “Loss Deluxe” conjures up a beat so danceable that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it make the club circuit. With these differing styles pummeling listeners, it would be easy for this record to fall into the category of utterly disorganized drivel. Thankfully, the variety of sound present here feels oddly organic and distinctly HEALTH, in the end creating a sonic palette that is as interesting as it is wild.

Is this HEALTH’s best record yet? That will take time to decipher. For now, I’ll posit that it’s an excellent and diverse record from a band completely unafraid to be themselves. It’s an impressive achievement, and one I will be coming back to many times as the year progresses.

Jonathan Adams

Violet Cold – kOsmik (post-black metal)

The realm of post-black metal and blackgaze has developed to the point over the past decade that it has long crossed over from “hot new trend” that large metal and rock publications write about and spotlight into whatever comes after the buzz dissipates. Once a genre or sub-genre reaches maturity and boasts a well-established roster of bands and set language, it becomes evident very quickly whether that sound is likely to stick around for a while or fall out of fashion precipitously (see: djent). To be more specific, the longevity of a new sub-genre or general sound’s cultural and artistic relevance is directly related to the ability of bands working within that area to take now-established tropes and either put new twists on them or subvert them in interesting ways. Frankly, it remains to be seen whether post-black as a whole will rise up to the task and warrant much in the way of continued discussion and coverage of it, but what is abundantly clear already is that one of the artists making the best case for it is Violet Cold.

As far as anyone can tell Violet Cold is a one-man project and moniker of a still anonymous individual hailing from Azerbaijan. Though he’s been putting out music since around 2015, it was his previous LP, 2017’s Anomie, that brought him to the attention of a bunch of blogs and bigger sites. That album succeeded both in its expert execution of the cavernous post-black sound and the touches of other influences brought in, not least of which included flairs of middle eastern flavor and a few touches of synth. If Anomie represented some light wading into unfamiliar waters for the genre though, his follow-up in kOsmik is a head-first dive into the sea.

Straight from the gate we’re presented with a much different mood for this kind of album, as “Contact” is drenched in ambient synth washes, light electronics, and bright post-rock energy. It also introduces a female voice and singing in a style traditional to the region, one that carries over into “Black Sun,” a ferocious and gorgeously bleak ripper of a track. More important to the album as a whole though, in the track’s climatic guitar leads it introduces the overall feel and theme to the album, a kind of warm, sci-fi-influenced spin on the post-black sound with a decidedly middle eastern bent. The bulk of the album hits upon this kind of cosmic-post-black hard, from the spacey synths that form the atmospheric backbone of the triumphant “Mamihlapinatapai,” to the intergalactic dirge of the appropriately-named “Space Funeral,” the sonic k-hole that is “Ultraviolet,” and, of course, the album’s title track that more than lives up to its name.

It’s not that this kind of synthwork is at all foreign to either black metal or post-metal, but when combined with the already brilliant compositional fortitude of Violet Cold, the result is a masterful work of post-metal space opera. Even the closing track, a simple and spacious piano interpretation of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” is a perfect coda befitting the likes of 2001 and other classic sci-fi works. kOsmik is the entire package when it comes to thrilling and immersive atmospheric post-black metal in 2019, and it might just be one of the best metal albums of any stripe to come out so far this year.

Nick Cusworth

Xiu Xiu – Girl with Basket of Fruit (avant-pop, post-industrial)

If you’re at all familiar with the avant-garde stylings of Xiu Xiu, you’re well aware of how eclectic their career has been. In the last decade alone, the group have explored both the pop sensibilities and experimental extremes of their sound; collaborated with artists ranging from Larsen to Merzbow; and released covers albums reinterpreting the music of Nina Simone and Twin Peaks. With their latest album, frontman Jamie Stewart and his bandmates have once again pushed their sound past the limit, delivering some of their most abrasive and challenging material to date.

Along with Stewart’s regular collaborator Angela Seo, Girl with Basket of Fruit features prominent contributions from experimental percussionist Thor Harris. His presence on the album clearly inspired a more rhythmic, pummeling pace on the album, matched by equally overbearing electronics and samples. This cohesion is heavily rooted in several industrial subgenres, namely power electronics. In many spots, the album has parallels to the glitch-hop of a band like Death Grips, particularly the first disc of The Powers That B. Throughout, Stewart is absolutely unhinged, elevating every track with his signature possessed delivery and surreal, graphic lyrics.

Following up a pop-oriented, deceptively catchy album like Forget with something like Girl With Basket of Fruit is exactly something Xiu Xiu would do, and the difference is both startling and alluring. Just listen to the albums’ lead singles “Wondering” and “Scisssssssors” back-to-back; it’s quite a stark contrast. The latter of these tracks is the perfect lead single for Girl With Basket of Fruit, with its ritualistic, driving percussion accented by unsettling electronics and Stewart’s typically off-kilter vocal performance.

You don’t have to wait until “Scisssssssors,” the penultimate track, to experience the band’s musical oddities. The opener/title track is really more of a statement of purpose, with a cacophonous blend of vocal samples, creepy electronics and muted percussion providing the perfect backdrop for some truly strange lyricism from Stewart. Later on, the group toys with a dark ambient tilt on “It Comes Out as a Joke” before bleeding into the dark, cello-driven track “Amargi ve Moo” and a slightly danceable, drumline-inspired affair throughout “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy.”

On album closer “Normal Love,” the band once again pulls the rug out from under the listener, with one of the most somber, heartwrenching ballads the band has ever penned. It’s the perfect foil for the preceding tracks, while also being an encapsulation for Xiu Xiu’s career. You may never know what to expect from the band’s latest material, except that it will be bold, inventive and wildly entertaining. Girl With Basket of Fruit is no exception to this trend, and it’s easily one of the best albums the band has produced in a long streak of excellent releases.

Scott Murphy

Further Listening

Saba Alizadeh – Scattered Memories (Persian classical music, electroacoustic)

Some albums end up surpassing the somewhat dubious potential they promise on paper. Somehow, Saba Alizadeh blends the traditions of classic Persian music with ambient music theories and electroacoustic techniques, making for one of the most surprising and exceptional albums I’ve heard this year.

SM

Astriferous – Raise High the Scepter of Indulgence (death metal)

Question: what do you get when you mix the filthy Finn-death stomp of Convulse with the technical know-how of Altars of Madness-era Morbid Angel? Answer:

SH

Theon Cross – Fyah (jazz-funk, Afro-jazz)

When you think of dance music, the tuba probably isn’t the first instrument that comes to mind. But with Fyah, you’d have to have no sense of rhythm in your soul not to bounce along to the latest funky jazz grooves from one of the UK jazz scene’s brightest rising stars.

SM

Gatekeeper – Grey Maiden (heavy metal, trad metal)

The best heavy metal albums just make you say “god damn,” and this is one which definitely achieves that. Grey Maiden is as chock full with riffs as it is clever, pushing Gatekeeper’s sound into higher, more interesting, and more evocative places. (Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Grey Maiden.)

EK

Labirinto – Divino Afflante Spiritu (post-metal)

After a sweepingly epic and emotional album rising to the level of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brazil’s Labirinto streamlined their sound on a leaner album that is no less fierce and cutting for it. (Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Divino Afflante Spiritu.)

NC

Mastiff – Plague (hardcore, sludge)

This wasn’t a great month of music for me. To be honest, I kind of just needed a record to rage to at the end of the shittiest month of the year. Boy howdy, did Mastiff give it to me. Fusing sludge, doom, and hardcore into one blistering package, Plague is vicious, violent, and oppressively heavy. If you need a record to just beat the wall bloody to, look no further.

JA

Nubiyan Twist – Jungle Run (Afrobeat, jazz-funk)

Frankly, to list all of the genres of music featured throughout the musical blender that is Jungle Run, the sophomore album from the UK’s Nubiyan Twist, would take up multiple lines on its own. Jungle Run is a kaleidoscopic trip through the worlds of modern soul, afrobeat, African hip-hop, latin jazz pop, dub, and so much more that I can’t possibly give justice to in this confined space. Just do yourself a favor and give this one a spin.

NC

Saor – Forgotten Paths (atmospheric black metal, pagan black metal)

There’s really not much more to be said about this album other than: this is folk black metal writ large and executed effortlessly. (Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Forgotten Paths.)

EK

Traveler – Traveler (heavy metal, trad metal)

Hey, you guys ever heard of Iron Maiden? (Editors’ Note: Be sure to check out our review for Traveler.)

SH

Wachenfeldt – The Interpreter (blackened death metal)

Good lord this album is good. If you like quality death metal, this may be the best album you’ll hear this month. The instrumental performances and songwriting are outstanding, but there’s a sense of atmosphere that pervades the whole record that makes it stand out from the death metal pack. More to come in our next installment of Death’s Door, but trust me, you need to hear this.

JA

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South of Reality (art rock, psych rock)

Mark de Clive-Lowe – Heritage (jazz fusion, nu-jazz)

Continuum – Designed Obsolescence (brutal tech death)

Downfall Of Gaia – Ethic of Radical Finitude (blackened sludge, crust)

Hexvessel – All Tree (neofolk, psychedelic folk)

KaleikrThe Descent (progressive black metal)

Lighteater – Autoscopy (post-metal)

Maurice Louca – Elephantine (avant-garde jazz, Arabic jazz)

Cass McCombs – Tip of the Sphere (indie folk, psychedelic folk)

The Moth Gatherer – Esoteric Oppression (post-metal)

Mountain Man – The Flower Moon (noise rock, post-rock)

Ossuarium – Living Tomb (death doom)

Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs (singer/songwriter, folk)

Sanhedrin – The Poisoner (heavy metal, trad metal)

SEED Ensemble – Driftglass (jazz fusion, contemporary jazz)

Seeress – The Dream Passes (post-metal)

Vanum – Ageless Fire (atmospheric black metal)

YeruselemThe Sublime (industrial metal, avant-garde metal)

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