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:
Alvvays – Antisocialites
Canadian jangle poppers Alvvays are following up their 2014 self titled debut with a new LP, Antisocialites. Although the record doesn’t actually drop until early September, they’ve already released the first two songs on the album and the results are sure to please fans who’ve been waiting on new music for a few years now.
The first track on Antisocialites, “In Undertow” picks up directly where the band’s previous album left off: a playful up-tempo of layered, melodic fuzzy guitars that serve to highlight Molly Rankin’s detached yet intoxicating vocal delivery. Her sweetly-delivered voice often belies a cynical wit hiding underneath the veneer and it’s deceptively easy to enjoy the ride, even as Rankin hypnotically warns “there’s no turning back . . . .”
The next track, “Dreams Tonite” slows things down a bit, really letting Rankin’s voice shine over the hazy, dreamlike instrumental. The band has wisely decided to retain the slight distorted/layering effect on Rankin’s vocals that were present on the debut album and it’s easy to see why: she sounds nearly siren-like when asking “if I saw you in the street would I have you in my dreams tonight?” Shimmering keys and haunting, ephemeral background vocals keep the atmosphere hazy, dreamy, and, ultimately, gorgeous. Hopefully the rest of the album stays in the same lane.
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Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra – Vula
Vula is the latest release of German big band Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra (AMEO). This 65-minute full-length experiment is a shining beacon of light for the future of experimental music. Vula doesn’t sound unlike an acoustic, Classical music version of the most contemporary Zeuhl music, a favourite in progressive rock circles. The music of AMEO is expansive and exploratory; it goes everywhere and back. Their compositions are more often than not very energetic and hectic, and you just feel like you’re running out of breath and are unable to catch up to these insanely fast tempi. I have to mention, too, that the so-called orchestra boasts a whopping 18 musicians, which makes the whole thing that much more impressive. Vula is an experience of unrivalled ambition and execution. A wonder waiting to be beheld.
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Anomalie – Métropole
Montréal composer and keyboard player Nicolas Dupuis returned with his latest EP under the Anomalie moniker, Métropole. Funk, jazz, EDM, hip-hop, and classical music merge inside this brain, and the result is something not too different from a more electronic Snarky Puppy or, at times, Tigran Hamasyan. This EP is very eclectic, as it hops from vibe to vibe at every thirty seconds or so, giving us plenty of different rhythmic feels, often very swingy, and always corrosively funky. The one-man band of Anomalie is full of great musical ideas and executes them perfectly. From uplifting to nostalgic, Métropole is a modern chef-d’œuvre of EDM and future funk, with its heavy jazz and classical music influences. It’s sure to give you something to smile to.
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Arcade Fire – Everything Now
Arcade Fire get a lot of shit for being Arcade Fire. Whether or not you believe said shit has been largely deserved mostly depends on whether you are generally sympathetic to the idea of “Big Indie,” i.e. big music built around big choruses and hooks, big energy, and big industry. For over a decade the group have pretty much defined this space, becoming the poster children for “indie” in the 2000s and everything associated it, including indie rock’s increasingly friendly relationship with commercialization and symbiotic music/tech relationships like with Apple. Whether the music was any good ultimately became largely immaterial and an afterthought, as most formed their opinions of the band based on their ever-increasing mainstream exposure, fawning press coverage, and their close association with “hipster” culture and entertainment.
But it’s important to note that, regardless of whether the band have ultimately deserved all the attention it’s received, they have released a heck of a lot of good to great music. Funeral remains a classic that will almost certainly withstand the test of time. Neon Bible remains hugely underrated despite not hitting the same heights and cohesion of Funeral. The Suburbs, albeit being probably their most overrated album for being way too long and bloated, is still filled with terrific songs pretty much front to back. Then there’s the dance and synth-heavy Reflektor, which had its moments of greatness but also suffered from bloat, contrived album narrative/structure, and some ideas and experimentations that just didn’t work out (looking at you, “Psycho”).
Compared to the band’s fifth album, Everything Now, though, Reflektor sounds like an adventurous masterpiece. Everything Now is a soulless energy suck of an album that sounds like the worst criticisms levied against Reflektor but magnified. It is an album seemingly so concerned with its own self-image and concept that the band simply forgot to write music anyone would want to listen to. The songs mostly oscillate between half-hearted generic dance rock like the title track and “Signs of Life,” pointless interludes and filler tracks with underscores or “(continued)” tacked on the end, to just truly bad songs that never should have seen the light of day. It took me all of my willpower to not stop the album and set my computer on fire while listening to the one-two kick in the balls that’s “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry.”
Not helping matters at all is the album’s overarching themes and the band’s seeming obsession with topics that would have been trite years ago. Did you know, for instance, that people these days consume a lot of media and seem to be constantly in demand for more and more media and content to fill their everyday lives to the point that it’s “destroying” how we interact with each other, how we view ourselves, and society as a whole??? Well if you didn’t the band want you to know all about it through pointless diatribes and boringly repetitive songs that don’t even seem to pretend to display songwriting effort. Arcade Fire have pretty much always been better at delivering catchy hooks than any kind of meaningful or original social or media critiques, and Everything Now somehow manages to make the former nearly non-existent while ramping up the grating and pretentious qualities of the latter.
To say that the album is a disappointment doesn’t really capture how bad this album is. Everything Now feels like every single criticism and caricature of Arcade Fire made flesh, and the fact that it is currently the #1 album in the country will only confirm to many the utter hollowness and grossly questionable to hypocritical facade of the band once labeled as “the band to save indie.” If this is what it looks like to save indie, then let it sink into the ocean.
Cory Branan – Adios
Writing about the latest Cory Branan effort, Adios, has escaped me for some time but I’m here now, better late than never, in the truest of Branan-esque fashion. The singer-songwriter has been lauded by musicians all over the “Americana” landscape, reasonably so, as he is one of the best wordsmiths and craftsmen in his genre. Even still, you’re probably in the majority of folks who have never listened to him. That this has been the well-documented case of his career so far led to his tongue-not-so-in-cheek naming of previous album, No Hit Wonder, but we can change that right here and right now with Adios.
One of the more noticeable trends of Branan’s discography is that there are really only two major unifying factors: his voice and lyrics. The tracks on each of his albums span a variety of styles and sometimes that can be a little unsettling for most listeners. He operates on his latest album in slinky, subtle bar room blues with rapid fire lyrical delivery (“Walls, MS”), Elvis Costello-reminiscent pop (“Yeah, So What”), his own majestic spin on Springsteen replete with a sax solo (“Blacksburg”), and the resurrection of Buddy Holly even leads off the album (“I Only Know”). It’s clear to any fan of his that the man is as much a music fan and, arguably, historian as he is a musician and that’s the kind of thing we don’t get as much of these days, at least, not in such an unabashed fashion.
The thing about Branan is that he is a master of the musical masquerade and if he’s guilty of any one damning thing to the music industry it’s that they have no idea how to promote an artist who is a polyglot glutton for punishment by making wide-ranging, influences-on-the-sleeves kind of music. However, the most “Cory” of any of the tracks here, if you want a touchstone for where he is at this point in his career, would be the latter half of Adios where the raucous “Another Nightmare in America” (taking on rarefied air for Branan in current politics), the subtle picked masterpiece of “Equinox”, the sullen New Year’s tale on “Don’t Go”, and the honky tonk waltz of “My Father was An Accordion Player” all reside. All of these songs share a theme of leaving, hence the title, but let’s hope we haven’t heard the last of the “No Hit Wonder”.
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– Bill Fetty
CRASHprez – mind if i wyle out?
Michael Penn II, aka CRASHprez, is a hip-hop artist out of… well, a lot of places, but currently he calls the Twin Cities in Minnesota his homebase. For most of his fans, though, he will always be of the experiences that created a lot of his conscious verses during his time at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The city itself is known for a lot of things but for people of color the most notable thing is that it has the largest racial disparities in the country especially in terms of incarceration rates.
CRASHprez happens to write from a two-way dichotomy as a rapper often addressing police brutality even though his father is a police officer. That said, on a track he released back in January, “mind if I wyle out?”, we get treated to a frank piece that is reminiscent of Kendrick and others who have taken hip hop in new directions. A mellow groove underlies the fiery verses that have become a staple of his performances in recent years. He even hints at that on the line “I used to write raps for the world to love me/But now I pick a BPM to bleed to” and if this track is any indication, CRASHprez isn’t just an artist that we might want to listen to but his is a voice we need to listen to.
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– Bill Fetty
Il:lo – Vega
Chillwave is always hit and miss for me; I often don’t feel like I “get my monies worth” with the genre, since a lot of seems vapid and devoid of actual musical content. However, when the genre is done right there’s very little else I enjoy as much. Something about the smooth groove and expansive atmospheres just appeals to me on a very basic level. Ever since I’ve discovered il:lo, they’ve had that kind of appeal for me; their rich textures and interesting composition has hooked me in and I’ve been falling ever since.
And so, when they released Vega two months ago, I was so, so happy. The album is a further exploration of the deep kind of chillwave that il:lo make, filled with resplendent saxophones on the opening track, “0404”, many samples of percussion and resonating synths. The album maintains the simple core rhythm of its ilk but spices it up with plenty of instrumental experimentation and a wide-eyed approach to sampling. In short, it’s a joy to listen to, a wonderful musical space which unfurls below you in all its beauty. Best consumed when driving along open frees, at home with all the lights off or in a field awash with sunlight.
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The War on Drugs – “Pain”
In a career soon to span four full-length records, Adam Granduciel and The War on Drugs have yet to swing and miss. In fact, with each new album the band has become richer musically and arguably darker lyrically. 2014’s Lost In the Dream was a highlight in many year-end lists, including my own, and served as a watershed moment for the band’s burgeoning popular exposure and critical recognition. The band’s fourth record, A Deeper Understanding, arrives on a wave of extremely high expectations. If new single “Pain” is any indication, fans of the band can rest easy: The War on Drugs is alive and well.
The band has here maintained their beloved sound, peddling more of their signature nostalgia-filled, reverb-soaked compositions, in a similar vein to other modern acts like Tame Impala, Kurt Vile (formerly the band’s lead guitarist), and Real Estate. However, while the band may share some sonic similarities with the above mentioned groups, they have always maintained an originality that makes their music feel warm and familiar without feeling overtly derivative. This signature sound is readily apparent in the opening seconds of “Pain”, as electric guitar notes cascade around the listener in a veritable flood of reverb, soon accompanied by a relaxed beat and some excellent complimentary acoustic work. Most notably, the bass here rides high and boldly in the mix, allowing the percussive nature of the track to ebb and flow with fantastic clarity. Clarity is an appropriate term here, as the instruments in this track collectively and individually sound absolutely magnificent. While listening to The War on Drugs can often feel like being thrown into a sea of reverb, on “Pain” one never feels like they will drown. The clarity of the production is exquisite, allowing these instruments to breathe and ring out clearly in the midst of the ever-present and powerful atmosphere. “Pain” also sees Granduciel penning lyrics that maintain the darker edge of his previous work, while letting just a little bit of light in. This is a warm sounding track, that moves forward sonically and lyrically with just enough hope to remain inviting to both casual and devoted listeners. It’s the finest of their three released singles for the new record, and that’s saying something given the quality of the band’s output from the record thus far.
If you don’t like The War on Drugs, “Pain” won’t change your mind. If you are a fan of the band, prepare to be transported. This is a premium track from what will hopefully be an exceptional record. More, please.