August! What a hellhole of a month; for those of us on the more tropical leaning parts of the world, the month demarcates an eerie center of the year where everything freezes in lurid heat. Or, if you’re in Manhattan like some of our Editors, your olfactory senses bloom into a cornucopia of new smells. If you’re in the music industry, however, August signifies one of the busiest and most exciting months of the year. Nestled nicely between the first half of the year and the ever-extending holiday season, August is ground zero for artists who wish to balance leaving an early mark with making an impact on end of year lists. Thus, August is always pregnant with the curse/blessing of too much music.
While September usually defeats it in terms of sheer volume, August has the element of surprise. Come September, you’re already in full listening mode since you know the torrent that is destined to descend upon you. But August springs on you, taking you unaware, and this year was no different; suddenly, premium releases were all over the place and it was all you could do to keep up. Continuing the trend of 2017, this deluge of fantastic music was also quite varied; unlike recent years, where a certain flavor was discernible on the charts (like 2015, which was the year of the Doom Revival or the absolutely incredible year for post-rock that was 2016), 2017 seems intent on hitting on all fronts. Just take a look at the list below; you’ll find atonal death metal, nu-prog, underground hip-hop and oh so much more.
So, August has ended and September rears its ugly/beautiful head. We’re expecting just as much variety this month than the last one. And, you know, that’s a really beautiful thing; it does one endless good to stop every once in a while to try and appreciate the sheer musical richness and variety to which we’re exposed on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly basis. Truly, like a conservative who still thinks that society can be forever frozen in time, the days of the mono-listener are over. If you choose to listen to one sub-genre of metal, or even only the genre of metal itself, you’re becoming increasingly stunted and disconnected from what’s going on in the scene today. In that regard, the music scene appears to be undergoing its own, seemingly endless August; a fetid, feverish rut of creation, a desperate rewriting of genome and lurid, obsessed procreation. All hail Eternal August! All hail mutation! All hail the internet!
Now go listen to some music.
Bodhi – Ineffable (nu-prog)
A short year ago, I was just about ready to condemn nu-prog as one of the absolute worst things to happen to metal/rock. The genre, while holding a few shining points of light, was just so oversaturated by pasty, flimsy music masquerading as intelligence and talent that I was ready to throw up my hands. This hurt me; I will always be a fan of progressive metal at heart and this new direction just seemed to completely miss why that sub-genre was/is so great. It was never about the technicality and flair and always about the compositional talent and ability to make emotions shine through overwise “detached” or “technical” music.
However, it seems as if the second half of 2016 and what we have of 2017 so far has brought forth the hope of nu-prog. Many artists are finally making music within the definition of the sub-genre that holds some weight; actual ideas instead of flashy leads and solos stringed together by pitiful attempts at songs. Such as Bodhi. While the man behind the one-man project is no stranger to the scene, Ineffable brings with it an air of ease and beguiling simplicity that is immediately infectious. Ineffable is one of the high notes out of nu-prog so far and it owes that greatness to a simple fact: it’s an actual album rather than just disjointed attempts at “impressive” music.
So, what can you expect on Ineffable? First off, don’t let my tirade above dissuade you; there is much of the sweet, melodic, bright and technically impressive guitar work you’ve grown to expect from the sub-genre. However, it’s married to so much feel for each note and interesting compositional ideas that Ineffable expertly flows from one passage to the other, picking up the listener into its own, rosy world. To sum up, you can expect to find incredible nu-prog which daftly dodges the pitfalls of the genre, instead doubling down on fundamentals which work wonderful contrast with its more complex moments. Happy listening.
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BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II (alternative hip-hop, pop rap)
I think I can safely say that nobody saw it coming that the first band to appear twice as main picks on our Editor’s Picks series would be an up-and-coming internet boy band from Los Angeles. But hey, BROCKHAMPTON is back roughly two and a half months after crushing it with SATURATION to once again lay waste to naysayers with SATURATION II (and, holy shit, there’s a third installment coming out before the year’s end).
So what’s their secret? What helps this collective stay unique even as they threaten to bring rap crashing down around them with their output? Simply put, it’s the thing that enables all of the best duets, trios, and larger groups in rap to maintain their charisma: the chemistry between members. Not since the glory days of Wu Tang Clan has another group of rappers meshed so cohesively as a unit. Although each member certainly maintains their own personality and style – Merlyn Wood, for instance, consistently lets his Texan side shine through with his triumphant yelling (and Whataburger references), while JOBA’s sing-song delivery feels as indebted to N’sync as it does to any rap influence – their self-characterizations all Voltron together into a pop-rap megalith that really does the “boy band” tag justice.
SATURATION II also doesn’t just feel like a rehash of its predecessor. The personality of the album is decidedly different from its predecessor, as tracks like “SUNNY” and “JESUS” show off a stronger preference for melody than the fairly straightforward West Coast beats of the first installment of this album series would belie. It’s this difference and evolution in sound across just a couple months that really earns SATURATION II a place up in the Main Picks this time around.
If you liked SATURATION, you’re gonna like SATURATION II. If you didn’t like it, you’re wrong, and you should go back and listen to it. Then go to SATURATION II, because you’re gonna like it. BROCKHAMPTON is undisputedly the next big thing.
Cormorant – Diaspora (melodic black metal, prog metal/REVIEW)
Few and far between are those moments when an album hits you in all its splendor immediately, and only grows more enjoyable with each subsequent listen. Cormorant’s fourth full-length record Diaspora is one of these endangered creatures, and what a beast it is. There are few if any albums that you will hear released this year that blend vision and execution so masterfully. It is a progressive, blackened death metal masterpiece.
For those unfamiliar with the band’s previous work, what on earth is wrong with you? For real. Don your headphones and get cracking on their absolutely stellar discography. The band’s first two records, Metazoa and Dwellings, brought with them a veritable firestorm of buzz and acclaim. Taking progressive metal leanings and mashing them together with death metal and black metal conventions, the band found a sound that few had touched with this level of dedication and craft, and none had mastered. Cormorant were an entity unto themselves. Then one of their principal visionaries, bassist and vocalist Arthur von Nagel, left the band to pursue other professional interests. The band’s next album, Earth Diver, felt like a transition of sorts. While technically astute and richly composed, it lacked a touch of the fire the band delivered on their previous material. Such reservations are completely absent from Diaspora, which cements the band’s status as legends of progressive metal of all stripes.
The thunderous drums that introduce the album’s opening track “Preserved in Ash” serve as a harbinger of the wonders to come. This song vacillates between black metal blasts, death metal rumbles, and a healthy dash of progressive composition that propels the track through passage after passage of unique, hard-hitting riffs. For those craving a bit less of the intensity, tracks “Sentinel” and “Migration” include some drop dead gorgeous acoustic, string, and/or hypnotically lush guitar passages that will satisfy all of your proggy cravings. The latter track especially is one of the most beautiful and powerful tracks the band have written in their career, and one of the year’s best songs in any genre. The band here have found a balance of technique and emotion that is unmatched by most all bands working today. It’s a glorious thing to behold.
As a precaution amidst all the joys this album has to offer, there are only four tracks on Diaspora, and it is an hour long. Prepare for an intense journey, but one well worth taking. The musicianship, songwriting, and artistic vision on this record are each beautifully realized and intensely enjoyable, and it is hard imagining the band topping this record. Though it certainly is a fun thing to imagine. One of the year’s very best releases.
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Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (art rock, neo-psychedelia)
Grizzly Bear could have been huge if they wanted. Similar to indie/folk contemporaries Fleet Foxes, they came to the forefront of the indie/mainstream bubble in the late aughts at a time when the capitalistic synergy of Big Indie was at its peak. For a brief moment in time the kind of brainy folk/pop-leaning music that the two bands specialized in was deemed cool and marketable enough to spawn a whole league of more generic and mass consumption-friendly bands. Though the band’s first album as the full band we know of them now – Ed Droste, Dan Rossen, Chris Taylor, and Chris Bear – Yellow House came out earlier in the decade, their follow-up to that, 2009’s Veckatimest, was the band’s formal coming-out party for most of their current fanbase. It was strange and beautiful in the way that all of Grizzly Bear’s music is, but it was anchored by enough pop-sensibility in singles like “Two Weeks,” “While You Wait For The Others,” and “Cheerleader” that it waded into the murky waters of a crossover hit, cracking the top 10 on the Billboard chart in its first week. Suddenly the band found themselves held up as the poster boys of this new wave of indie bands that could “go big.” Their music was suddenly everywhere – in commercials, in TV shows, in movies (including providing the soundtrack to an entire Ryan Gosling vehicle) – they were playing huge slots at festivals, and the sky seemed the limit for them if they wanted to grab it.
But that is not the path that Grizzly Bear had in mind. Also very similarly to Fleet Foxes and their frontman Robin Pecknold, rather than embrace the extroverted poptimism that was taking greater hold of the genre, they did the opposite and turned even more inward. Shields, though still brimming with energy, was far too moody and experimental to have the same broad impact of Veckatimest. The combination of that and an extended absence following the release of Shields and a year and a half of relentless touring put the band in a position no band wants to have to fight, which is a battle for “relevance.” As I alluded to in my other writeup of their latest album Painted Ruins, the deluge of thinkpieces from outlets that cover indie on whether there was still a place for time-consuming music like Grizzly Bear in our current Spotified world was hugely overwrought, but not without at least a little merit. More than ever, Grizzly Bear just doesn’t sound like anything else out there in the world of indie/art rock. Painted Ruins doubles down on the psychedelia and 70s rock that the band have always flirted with. It’s an album full of beguiling songforms, whiplash-inducing chord progressions, and kaleidoscopic production. And once again, it seems that GB and FF are following similar tracks, as Robin Pecknold finally returned from self-exile earlier this year to release Crack-Up, which also goes in deep on prog influences as an expression of a mind deep in conflict with itself and where it fits in a world that seems more chaotic than ever.
That sense of chaos and conflict also permeates through the choppy waters of Painted Ruins. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Grizzly Bear has always been the contrast in writing styles of the band’s two primary songwriters, Droste and Rossen. The former tends to be far more direct and personal in his writing, while the latter tends to go more abstract and impressionistic routes. But on this album, the lyrics and music all point to a general sense of unease. For Droste, though he never gets too specific, the events leading up to and the aftermath of his divorce fill the majority of the songs he takes the lead on. In “Three Rings,” the climatic chorus of “Don’t you be so easy/Don’t you know that I can make it better?/Don’t you ever leave me/Don’t you feel it all come together?” are the desperate cries of a relationship in its death-throes. Later on in the emotional high-point of the album, “Neighbors,” Droste remarks on how easily the memories of that relationship and the person he invested so much in have faded: “Could see you for an hour/Conversation stalls/And after so long/There’s nothing really there.”
Meanwhile, if the band get in any way “political” – the band are all on-record saying that there is nothing specifically political or in response to Trump in the album, though the emotional effect recent events have had on them is impossible to escape in their writing – it’s through Rossen’s cryptic and vaguely menacing lyrics. In “Mourning Sound,” it’s “the sound of distant shots and passing trucks.” In “Four Cypresses,” a song ostensibly about the view from a house he rented in LA while meeting to record with the rest of the band (Droste, Taylor, and Bear have all moved from NYC to LA since Shields, while Rossen has relocated to upstate NY), he still ponders about established and seemingly well-protected structures being compromised: “Some thousands of years built it up/Some crumbling form to be torn down.” And in “Glass Hillside,” a tale of frontier families waiting for relief in food and supplies can’t help but feel reflective of the current global migrant crisis and rising tide of xenophobia, of a “Pitiful mass crossing the ocean” and mention of “Our fears that make us cruel.”
Painted Ruins is not an easy album, though it certainly has its moments of immediacy, earworm melodies, and head-nodding goodness. If you’re already a fan of the band then there is very little here not to love, as the insane talents of all four members are as strong as ever here. If you haven’t given the band much of a chance though but are open to complex pop/rock that leans heavily on 70s psychedelic-tinged rock with a forward-thinking sensibility, Painted Ruins is an absolute must-listen and one that deserves a proper front-to-back listen multiple times.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard with Mild High Club – Sketches of Brunswick East (garage rock, jazz rock)
Another month, another delightfully bizarre record from King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, the undisputed torchbearers of garage rock’s recent revival movement. The genre has seen an unusual spike in popularity as of late, what with solid releases from prolific genre stalwarts (Thee) Oh Sees and Ty Segall joined by a wave of fresh talent and even a surprising foray into the style from Queens of the Stone Age. Yet, these efforts pale in comparison to the endless fountain of innovation that fuels King Gizzard, who seem poised to fulfill their promise of releasing five new albums before the end of the year. The first three installments boast bold, inventive concepts while remaining anchored by the band’s psychedelic garage rock roots. Flying Microtonal Banana fed the band’s formula through lenses tinted with hues of krautrock and microtonality, while Murder of the Universe offered an off-kilter concept album delivered with spoken word and noisy compositions of prog-fueled space rock. Now with their third offering of the year, Sketches of Brunswick East, the band have journeyed to a jazz lounge on the outer fringes of their garage rock territory, enlisting the help of psychedelic pop outfit Mild High Club for a tastefully eccentric journey through jazz-rock bliss.
Sketches of Brunswick East hits the palette like BADBADNOTGOOD‘s IV steeped in Aussie-sourced hallucinogens and seasoned to perfection with the finest Moroccan spices. The way King Gizzard capture the tempest of John Coltrane‘s Southern Spain/Northern Africa-tinged post-bop and modal jazz classics Africa/Brass and Olé Coltrane feels like lightning in a bottle, whic hthey then use to heat hot toddies for the listener as they bask in the warm glow of the band’s slick performance. The album proves that lounge jazz doesn’t have to be background music; it can just as easily breath life into even the most stuffy black tie affair. Yet, even the classiest of accents the band places on these compositions can’t fully mask their affinity for rock oddities. Whether it’s a slightly dissonant chord or an extra spicy desert rock vibe, King Gizzard constantly reminds the listener why they’ve managed to keep their music fresh (even when they’re averaging one new album every three months).
Records like Sketches of Brunswick East make it difficult for longtime fans to urge newcomers to finally consider hopping on the bandwagon. King Gizzard are just one of those bands that feel restless if they’re not boosting their prolific status and crossing another genre label off their bucket list. But in some ways, this is easily the most inviting of the band’s 2017 releases; instead of jarring microtonality and abrasive slam poetry, the band has offered a lighter affair that’s equal parts chill vibes and intellectual stimulation. It may feel daunting to catch up on all the records King Gizzard have dropped this year alone, so instead, sit back with your mind-altering substance of choice and enjoy a refreshing take on some established jazz formulas.
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Pyrrhon – What Passes For Survival (avant-garde tech death, mathcore/REVIEW)
This is a hard album to digest, let alone describe. I’ll do something basically unheard of for a tech death album here and talk about the lyrics. Doug Moore’s lyrics are ridiculous. Blending poetic and cerebral introspection with raw aggression, sarcasm and one-liners is no easy task, yet he manages to do it well. The writing on display here alone should qualify the album for some award alone, as it’s some of the best, most interesting work in the genre.
I said tech-death, but that’s not really accurate. It’s kind of a “what fits best” description and perhaps my own way to make sense of this beautiful mess, since I’m a “tech death guy”. But Pyrrhon‘s style employs the spirit of jazz, the execution of math metal, and throws it all into a framework of tech death. They’re not necessarily the only band that tries this, but they’re one of the best at it. The recent years have seen a resurgence of what I like to call “weird tech death”, with the likes of Gorguts, Artificial Brain, Mithras and more coming back or appearing. Pyrrhon up the weird to the max, and do it in a way that’s tonally consistent as well.
You see, the weirdness conveys emotions. The raw, pained anger of the lyrics are somehow matched perfectly by the bizarre, harsh, playing. It’s a very complete package. Simultaneously very chaotic and consistent. And it’s beautiful and grotesque. Just go listen to it right now.
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Other Notable Albums
Incantation – Profane Nexus (death metal, death doom/REVIEW)
While by no stretch of the imagination was Incantation an unknown band before the album cycle for Profane Nexus began, the group hasn’t really ever had the sizable death metal limelight they deserved until now, mostly due to a sort-of delayed-reaction explosion in terms of their influence on up-and-coming acts like Blood Incantation, Father Befouled, and, like, pretty much every other band on Dark Descent Records. Profane Nexus lives up to the band’s newly-earned reputation as death metal’s Velvet Underground: chunky OSDM riffs collide with glacial slow-and-low doom in a spectacularly heavy combination that threatens to burst at the seams and send gore flying everywhere. Holy shit, I can’t believe that was only 2 sentences.
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Leprous – Malina (prog rock/REVIEW)
It would be a laughable understatement to say Malina has been polarizing among the Heavy Blog community. From the comments on Eden’s less-than-glowing review to conversations among our contributors and emeriti, Leprous‘s most vanilla effort to-date has proved divisive among fans of the Norweigan prog titans. Yet, for newcomers like me (Scott), Malina is an addictive slab of prog rock that’s made me enamored with the band’s sound. The album reminds me of when I discovered Drama by Yes among my dad’s old records and first fell in love with prog’s penchant for epic, vibrant anthems. Though I may not have followed Leprous’ career and observed the context with which many fans are judging Malina as a progression of Leprous’s sound, my time with the album and their back catalog have solidified my avid fandom for the band, from whom I see no evidence of losing momentum anytime soon.
milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! (alternative hip-hop)
The most modest of underground rappers is back with an album of more chaotic and insightful music. Whether you like his chill side or his more aggressive bars, milo is back to blow your mind like no other rapper can.
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NYN – Entropy: Of Chaos and Salt (progressive tech death)
You want tech death? NYN’s Entropy: Of Chaos and Salt will give you tech death. All the tech death you will ever need. No joke. This is one of the most progressive, masterfully performed and impeccably constructed technical death metal records I have heard in years. This is music built for the brave. So be brave and dive in.
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Portico Quartet – Art In The Age of Automation (chamber music, nu-jazz)
Like fellow UK jazz group GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet have been bleeding the edges of nu-jazz for a while now, fusing it with ambient/house-like production and excelling far more in moods than any particular melodies or flashy technicality. On their newest album, their first in five years after a brief stint and one album as trio playing around with electronic pop, the quartet are as strong as ever and continue to push their experimentations in a multitude of directions.
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Steven Wilson – To the Bone (art rock, prog rock/REVIEW)
When someone says “a master of his craft,” what’s the first face/name pops into your head? For me, it’s always Steven Wilson, and To the Bone is one of his most impressive albums yet.
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (heartland rock, indie rock)
The 80s are alive and well in the hands of Adam Granduciel. His modern day Springsteen is as sharp and poignant as ever on the beautiful and invigorating A Deeper Understanding, proving yet again that it’s possible to look forward while keeping an eye firmly on the past.