Like the grand majority of modern metal fans, our tastes here at Heavy Blog 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 weekly column which covers noteworthy news, 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. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
John Carpenter Takes Us On An Interstellar Journey With “Distant Dream”
It’s only appropriate that we’re covering the famed film director and electronic composer John Carpenter in here given that our article on his first album of non-film score music, Lost Themes, was the subject of a post that became the progenitor to this very column. That album was an absolute gem and, frankly, didn’t get nearly enough love by people like myself and others on staff who are huge fans of his work. It looks like we’ll get another chance this year to rectify that mistake though, as Carpenter announced that he’ll be releasing an entire new album this year, aptly called Lost Themes II.
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The first single, “Distant Dream,” certainly gives me every reason to believe this album will be just as good, if not better, than the first. It’d be a bit redundant to call this track synth heavy retrowave given that Carpenter is pretty much the number 1 reason why the term “retrowave” can even exist, but this song is just a glorious piece of darkly triumphant sci-fi work that evokes the vast expanses of space at its most adventurous and exciting. It starts off on the mysterious side, then once that beat kicks in you’re blasting off and just absolutely crushing everything in your path. If this track doesn’t make you want to conquer worlds or save the galaxy from alien scum, I don’t know what will. It’s almost tragically short at just under 4 minutes, but if the goal was to get me excited as hell about a new John Carpenter album, this succeeded on every level.
Lost Themes II will be released via Sacred Bones on April 15th.
Climb the “Castrati Stack” to Tim Hecker’s Love Streams
As much as I absolutely adore ambient visionary Tim Hecker, when I read the following blurb about his upcoming album Love Streams, all I could think was “what the actual fuck does this mean?”
In a statement, Hecker said Love Streams was created while he mulled over ideas like “liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus” and the “transcendental voice in the age of Auto-Tune.”
On the one hand, I’m not particularly fond of either Kanye West or autotune, and I dreaded the prospect of Love Streams incorporating influence from either one. But then again, when has Hecker ever disappointed? His output in this decade alone is some of the best ambient music laid to tape, condensing the traditional consuming void of the genre into brilliant vignettes that compose an awe-inspiring whole. If you haven’t heard either Ravedeath, 1972 or Virgins, please stop reading this and do so immediately.
So…with all of this in mind, I cautiously pressed play on lead single “Castrati Stack,” with enough confidence in Hecker to expect something better than what was reported by the aforementioned press release.
Anyone familiar with ambient music knows that it’s impossible to judge an artist’s work on a track or excerpt basis; this track alone clearly hints that it’s nestled within a larger, more grandiose whole. But based on what these brief four-minutes have to offer, it’s clear that Love Streams will be among Hecker’s greatest works. Whats immediately noticeable is how overwhelmingly “Hecker” this track; it’s impressive that no matter what sample or manipulation he’s toying with, Hecker always manages to place his distinct signature on all of his soundscapes. But at the same time, Hecker’s expirementing with some new brushstrokes this time around, making for a fresh and invigorating canvas. Subtle but poignant bits of noise accent the track as delicately as is possible with its harsh hue, and the cornerstone of the track – and presumably the album – is the choral contributions of the Icelandic Choir Ensemble. Their blissful vocals waver between organic, human sounds and notes from an angelic realm, feeling simultaneously earthly and unattainable. Whenever I write about a piece of music, I typically leave it playing in the background to keep me in the mindset of what it has to offer. But with “Castrati Stack,” I can’t help but pause my typing to zone both in and out with the track’s pulsating beauty; every listen conjures newer and vaster feelings and makes me livid that I have to wait so much longer for my vinyl copy to arrive in the mail. But considering how phenemonenal this track is, it’ll certainly be able to tide me over until then.
Love Streams will be released via 4AD on April 8th.
Aesop Rock Releases New Single, “Rings”
It’s been a long four years (!?!?!) since the release of rap artist Aesop Rock‘s last album Skelethon. I mean, it’s not like there’s been dead silence in all that time; Aesop Rock has kept busy with a couple of short EPs and full lengths from side projects The Uncluded and Hail Mary Mallen. Regardless, nothing excites quite like a full-length Aesop solo endeavor. Last week, his new album The Impossible Kid was announced alongside a new video for single “Rings.”
The song carries on in the tradition of the sound we heard on Skelethon in tone and production. It makes sense because, like Skelethon, The Impossible Kid is produced entirely by Aesop Rock. Hip hop is rife with collaboration, but lately Aesop seems to have a lot to prove as a standalone artist. This will likely contribute to a more intimate album experience.
The Impossible Kid will be available April 29th on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Pre-orders available here.
*Rapnotes – Aesop Rock’s Skelethon (Part 1)
So *prognotes is to metal, *rapnotes is to rap, breaking down the concepts and stories behind your favorite hip-hop albums.
When the new single from Aesop Rock, one of my favorite rappers, dropped earlier this week, it prompted me to go back and listen to his most recent solo LP, Skelethon. It occurred to me, later that day, while reading Karlo’s excellent *prognotes on Crack the Skye, that a synthesis of these two actions was not only possible, but a great way to prepare both readers and myself for Aesop’s new album, The Impossible Kid. As such, here we stand, prepared to dissect the nigh-impenetrable and heady lyricism of Aesop Rock, to uncover the themes and cut apart the wordplay that makes up this album.
If there was one word that could sum up all of the deeply personal themes of Skelethon, it would be “isolation”: Aes is almost entirely alone on this record; the only guest vocal feature is by Kimya Dawson, the lo-fi anti-folk artist who has collaborated with Aesop Rock in the past as a duo called The Uncluded, and even her contribution is fairly minimal. He covers the topics of death, loneliness, depression, self-realization, and redemption. The album is split down the middle, with the bipartite centerpiece, “Crows 1” and “Crows 2” being the point where Skelethon swings from a negative to positive attitude, the parabola of Aesop’s journey.
Note: Of course, we can’t parse every phrase from each song for its meaning, so instead, we’re going to go track by track but only take a handful of the “most important” phrases from each and analyze how they relate to the album’s overall story.
From the very start of the first track, “Leisureforce”, Aes is entangling us with complex metaphors and phrasing that requires an intense unpacking:
Postcards from the pink bath paint leisure
As a cloaked horse through a stained-glass Saint Peter
Hack faith-healer, cheat death to the very end
A “pink bath” is an unclear term, but here, it’s easy to interpret it in context as a bubble bath, since pink is a color commonly associated with that particularly leisurely activity. This “paints” Aes’ life as a leisurely one, a life where he is, in fact, so lacking in vitality that he is as a war-horse (“cloaked horse”) crashing through a representation of Saint Peter, the saint that guards the gates of Heaven: he is so violently moribund in his current existence that he somehow defies even death. He is a “hack faith-healer”, a man who knows that he cannot actually wriggle out from death’s grasp but pretends to do so nonetheless, “cheating death to the very end” and somehow staying alive even as his own life collapses around him.
Final answer “not to be”, “not to be” is right!
Next question – to build winged shoes or autophagy
Silk screen band tees, take apart a VCR
Ringer off, canned peas,cabin fever mi amor
In the intro to the second verse, we get the logic of Aes: he gives his answer to Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be”, saying that the correct path for him is to not be, and all that it entails. The next question he has to ask himself is to destroy himself (“autophagy”) or to create himself an escape, a pair of “winged shoes”, most likely an artistic outlet. What follows is a description of his isolated life, where he wears the self-made band t-shirts he has lying around, is so bored and/or in the throes of mania that he takes apart his home appliances, turns his phone – “ringer” – off, and eats nothing but pre-prepared food. He describes something that all introverts are familiar with, the constant struggle between wanting to stay home 24/7 and going stir crazy, calling cabin fever his love (“mi amor” is french for “my love”); Aes is torn between wanting to leave his house and his all-encompassing love of isolation.
Poor lummox, unexplained ailments and doesn’t work well with others
Wet nose on the glass, Garibaldi half cookie dough
Lock jaw, Don 4 walls like a wooden coat
Showing us what other people see him to be, Aes calls himself pitifully dumb, unhealthy, and uncooperative, and then likens himself to a puppy whose “wet nose” is “on the glass” as he watches everyone go past from the inside a pet store: he is trapped in a glass cage, unable to do anything beyond look outside. He describes his food, every meal half-finished, 1 part Garibaldi cookie and 1 part just untouched cookie dough. He is entirely unable to be moved from his current position (immobility is the main symptom of lock jaw) and covers himself in the walls of domicile as if it’s clothes he needs to survive through the winter.
Behold the rotting fruit of excommunication
Aes lays it all on the table here: behold him, rotting and decaying, the result of his isolation, a punishment both self-inflicted and cursed upon him by others. Now that Aesop is entirely isolated from the rest of the world, the album’s story can play out for real. “Leisureforce” has set the album’s tone perfectly, describing his journey into depression and isolation, and from here the songs help unfold these themes, albeit rather cryptically.
2.) ZZZ Top
Up next is “ZZZ Top”, a high-octane, bouncy, energetic song that tracks three journeys of self-realization, all through various groups from different genres. The z’s in question are ZOSO, for Led Zeppelin, ZULU, for Afrika Bambaataa, and ZEROS, for The Zeros. Although the stories themselves paint vivid pictures, what’s really important in this song is the chorus and how it explains the rebellious acts of self-love and self-realization through ‘alternative’ music.
When they ask how you feeling you tell em you feeling like
Something important died screaming you tell em you feeling like
Something even more important arrived breathing, something you should probably try feeding
When they ask how you living you tell em you living like
Something important died hissing you tell em you living like
Something even more important arrived giving, something you should probably try willing
When they ask you how you’re feeling now, tell them that what constituted the old you has fallen away. Sure, it was important, but it’s dead and gone now and what’s in its place is something that is more real, more vivid, more important, something that needs to be nurtured and cared for. When they ask you how you’re living now, tell them that you’re living in the shadow of the knowledge that you’ve shed what you used to think made you yourself in favor of a more authentic, truthful you.
3.) Cycles to Gehenna
The third track, “Cycles to Gehenna”, is easily one of Skelethon’s most emotionally charged tracks: it covers a midnight motorcycle ride of Aesop’s, where he attempts to cope with the loss of fellow artist Camu Tao, a dear friend of his whose death was the impetus of the events surrounding the creation of Skelethon. The song moves along with his journey through the city, providing a snapshot of both Aes’ physical and emotional states at this point.
Face masking, hard-shelled ebony propeller hat
Clubmans, gloved rakes grappling the clutch span
Tuck go the steel toe, metal gate spreading
For the dead-alive that rented parking space 37
With his face hidden behind a mask and his head covered by an “ebony” helmet, referred to here as a propeller hat to symbolize the child-like wonder and visceral pleasure that are part and parcel with riding a motorcycle, Aesop puts his hands, which he calls “gloved rakes”, onto the clubman handlebars of his bike and “tucks” his bike into gear with his steel-toed boot. The metal gate of the parking lot in which he has a rented space – space 37, to be exact – opens and out he goes, the “dead-alive” man whose only diversion from an entirely isolated world of his own creation is his nightly motorcycle rides.
Knows no zen in the art of maintenance
Only as the orchestrated patron saint of changing lanes baby
Aes feels no pride or love in the upkeep of his vehicle, nor does he use this activity as any sort of catharsis; he only reaches a point of happiness with his motorcycle when he’s in the act of riding it and weaving through traffic at high speeds.
Here is how a great escape goes, when you can’t take your dead friends names out your phone
This is the song’s most important and impactful line, if not the whole album’s: here, he outlines the entire journey he takes, the “great escape” from the world after the cataclysmic loss of Camu Tao, and, then, the journey from there to knowing how to live his life without his fellow artist there. At this point, he’s barely able to even accept the reality of the situation, and his retreat from life is the natural consequence of this disassociation.
This is the product of a d.i.y. inadequate home
Grabbing a cabin in the-fuck-outta-dodge
Actin’ a savage in the shadows of Rome
Traffic amassed against insufferable odds
Fashioning gallows out of plastic and bone
In the song’s final verse, we get a description of his bike, which he likens to himself; both his poorly-maintained bike and his emotionally ill-equipped self are the products of environments where nobody knows how to do anything for themselves, and, thus, he ‘”grabs a cabin” and gets out of his current situation, a metaphor for how he moved from New York to San Francisco following Tao’s death. Aes also talks about how the traffic-choked streets he’s on now are making the ride difficult and interrupting his catharsis. He’s annoying the “civilized” drivers on the road by acting savage and careless in the shadow of their more advanced form of transportation, and is stressed by the traffic to the point of intentionally lashing back out on the road, which he knows will only make the ride more dangerous, but he’s fine with building the metaphorical machine of his death out of the organic, innate desire to strike back, and the synthetic vehicles around him. He’s reached a point where he’s entirely cut himself off from the rest of the world, and now, Aesop is ready to live a life entirely his own, isolated from the rest of humanity.
So, that’s the explanation for the first few tracks of Skelethon, three songs that all serve to set up the album’s basic themes and get a listener totally engrossed in the story of Aes’ journey to redemption across the fifteen tracks. Make sure to come back next week for a discussion of the next segment of the album.
Anneke van Gierbergen and Arstidir Dig Deep Into the Roots and Iterations of European Folk
The roots of Western music lie deep within the folks melodies of Europe. For thousands of years, humanity has becoming diverse sounds and composing lyrics to go with them, words which broached the distances between morality, dreams, myth and education. From these rich veins was mined the inspiration for classical music and, even more recently, for rock, blues and country. Simultaneously however, folk has endured. Think about it: if you know someone who strums the guitar now and then and hums rhymes they’ve known from childhood, you’ve heard folk music in its purest form. However, once in awhile a project comes along which knowingly and intentionally plays folk music, and in no modern iterations. It simply plays homage to these primordial and proverbial sounds, the building blocks of our musical palettes.
Árstíðir, an Icelandic folk band we’ve spoken about in the past, have recently recruited none other than Anneke van Giersbergen (ex The Gathering) to record just such a project. Their newest album, Verloren Verleden (translated to “Lost Past”, from Dutch) ranges the field from Russia to Iceland, resurrecting songs and words from all across the cultural divide and from all chronologies (“Het Dorp” for example is a Dutch pop song from the 70’s). The result is a touching and often melancholy collection of tracks, produced to an unnaturally perfect tee. Everything sounds so right, as if you’re sitting in the room itself and listening to these expert musicians play and sing.
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And sing they do. The degree to which Giersbergen’s timbre and the deeper vocals of Árstíðir is amazing: on “Heyr, Himna Smiður” (“Hear, Smith of Heavens”, an Icelandic hymn from the 13th century) the amount of emotional capacity in their delivery should send goosebumps down your skin. In general, this album swings light but hits heavy, delivering more power and vitality than most bands do with twice the instruments. It’s a true testament not only to the power of the performing artists but to the original creations, folk and popular songs that have stayed alive for a reason.
The project also knows how to hit along simpler lines. A rendition of the classic (and often besmirched) “Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)” is a gem, with Anneke treating this staple folk song to perfection. It’s a simple piece but one which evokes nostalgia in the best possible way. So too “A Simple Song”, a religiously bent ode to god and the simple way of worship so popular in so many northern European countries. In short, this album goes many places while still remaining within the very wide “confines” of European folk. The production, the performers at hand and the subject matter lift this album into the realms of masterpiece, giving these pieces of history, whether recent or ancient, the treatments they deserve.
Embrace Your Post Pop Depression with Iggy and Josh
We’ve already expressed our excitement over the upcoming Iggy Pop record here before, but the hype train cannot be stopped now! Now that the entire album has surfaced online, it can now be definitively stated that Post Pop Depression is one of the better rock albums to come out in the past year, and one of the strongest pieces of work that Iggy has attached his name to in years. Most music fans around the globe were more than intrigued by the fact that the album would be the punk icon’s first collaborative effort with Josh Homme, the mastermind behind Queens of the Stone Age and one of the most important figures in contemporary guitar-driven music.
The album’s first two tracks and singles, “Break Into Your Heart” and “Gardenia,” do an absolutely fantastic job at summarizing the album’s nine tracks. It’s dripping with dark humor, quirky melodies and a host of earworm choruses. While fans of Iggy’s work with proto-punk legends The Stooges might feel as though the record lacks a bit in raw energy, it more than makes up for it with excellent and organic production, tightly-interlocked instrumental work and a generally sarcastic demeanor. And while it may have been nice to hear more vocal interplay between the two, things ultimately pay off in an incredible way with the album’s closer, “Paraguay,” showcasing a barrage of stacked vocal harmonies that end things on an oddly triumphant note, given the album’s generally melancholy atmosphere. Post Pop Depression may take listeners a few plays to fully appreciate what’s going on here, but the payoff is certainly worth it.
Venetian Snares Plays Modular Synth Chess and Wins With Traditional Synthesizer Music
The musical career of Canadian breakcore ingenue Aaron Funk (aka Venetian Snares) has been almost the exact opposite of anything resembling a linear progression. Each album is a new sonic experiment and environment, with him rarely repeating himself except through certain samples and motifs. To say the bulk of his work is “challenging” would be an enormous understatement. To be perfectly honest, there are a very small selection of albums by him that I can sit through and legitimately enjoy front to back, though every one of those albums I consider to be musical masterpieces.
Just in the way that he constantly challenges listeners though with his music, he just as often challenges himself in how he composes and performs his music. Funk supposedly taught himself how to play string instruments over the course of producing the classically-inspired Rossz Csillag Alatt Született and My Downfall despite relying on orchestral recording samples. And on his latest album, Traditional Synthesizer Music, Funk took on the task of working solely with modular synths, essentially building a wall-sized rack of electronics with a seemingly infinite number of inputs and variables. Funk insisted on recording the entire thing live, meaning there are no overdubs or external elements in the music on the album, placing an immense amount of pressure on him to perform each complex track as perfectly as he could and simply picking which variation he preferred. Like jazz improv, no two performances can ever be the same or duplicated (to learn more about the process that went into creating the album, check out this great interview Funk did with Bandcamp).
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Though certainly constricted in what he could produce working through this model, the music of Traditional Synthesizer Music is at once undeniably Funk’s – a heavily streamlined and sample-free version of it – and also easily some of his most enjoyable work overall. The 12 tracks are skittery creatures, never staying in place for longer than a moment, but the unifying language of the modular synth and Funk’s own incredible and unique instincts cause it all to hold together remarkably well and feel far more than a creative exercise. This single language causes the tracks to feel more pieces of a greater whole and makes picking out particular moments difficult (though upon a couple of listens “Everything About You Is Special,” “Decembers,” and “Anxattack Boss Level19 v3” stood out for me), but it also makes listening to the album front to back a uniquely immersive and exhilarating experience.
The writer in the interview linked above likens Funk’s process of creating the music for the album to “a chess game between two equally-matched opponents.” That visceral tension is evident throughout the music, but it’s clear with the results that Funk ultimately is the one who came out on top. Fortunately for us, so do the listeners.