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” (yeah, we know, today is Tuesday… holidays and what-not) 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:
Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
May of 2007 was the first time I can genuinely say that an album truly and fundamentally changed my life. That album was The National’s masterpiece of a rock record Boxer, which has been in my regular rotation during essentially every significant portion of my adult life. Since that first life-altering experience, several records have touched me in similar fashion, moving me to think deeply about life, relationships, myself and the meaning of this beautiful and odd existence. As music lovers, we all have those albums that set us alight and change the course of our lives. What beautiful experiences they are. Surprisingly, August provided me with another of these incredible pieces of art: Gang of Youths’ sophomore full-length record (and first double album) Go Farther In Lightness.
Never heard of them, you say? Up until last month neither had I. So, a little context: A quintet hailing from Australia, Gang of Youths play indie rock that pulls together elements from a wide variety of sources. Think Alligator-era The National (particularly in the lyrics and soothing Matt Berninger-esque baritone of vocalist and principal songwriter David Le’aupepe) coupled with a heavy dose of Bruce Springsteen, a smattering of the gleeful energy of Japandroids, the rye and hesitantly hopeful wisdom of LCD Soundsystem, the brazen confidence of Titus Andronicus, the reverb waves of The War on Drugs, and the bombast, effusive emotion and orchestral grandeur of Arcade Fire. Sound like a mess? It isn’t, as Go Farther In Lightness blends all of these elements into a gorgeous cornucopia of musical and lyrical wonders that culminate in one of the best and most life-affirming albums in any genre this year, hands down.
“Fear and Trembling” kicks the record off with a key arrangement that would feel at home in a musky barroom, as the truly miserable and addicted watch the posers exit as the night deepens. It rides this sparse and distinctly folky vibe into a raucous Springsteen-ian build that explodes with propulsive energy that remains relentless until the end of the track. It’s a wonderful opening that set the sonic palette of the record impeccably. “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?” adds a punchy, punky vibe to the proceedings, which all but melts away as the band unleash emotional devastation in tracks like “Keep Me In the Open”, “Achilles Come Down”, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”, and the ridiculously, unashamedly optimistic closer “Say Yes To Life”. Each of these tracks contain elements of truly remarkable and mature songwriting prowess from a band this young. In equal standing to the music on this record are the lyrics, penned with passion and skill by Le’aupepe. His fantastic and varied vocal delivery and lyrical dexterity are exceptional for a songwriter with this little experience. He sounds incredibly comfortable and confident, and his skill and enthusiasm bleed into every track. This is a record meant to overwhelm, to emotionally devastate, and to lift the listener with stupid, unreasonable, unimaginable hope. It is, dare I say it, an uplifting and gratifying musical experience that is very difficult to shake.
If any of the above sounds appealing, listen to this record. Give this band your time and attention. More music like this needs to exist. Let’s hope Gang of Youths remain unsung for a very short time, because they have created in Go Farther In Lightness an absolutely stellar record.
Action Bronson – Blue Chips 7000
Everybody’s favorite bearded rapper turned celebrity chef turned tv superstar is back with his third installment in the Blue Chips series. At this point, Bronson’s template is well established: cartoonishly outlandish rhymes about food, sex, food, drugs, swan diving, and food that puts a premium on fantasy, fun, not taking anything too seriously. 7000 doesn’t stray too far from the beaten path and provides plenty of goofy wordplay and bizarro fantasy wish-fulfilment for Bam Bam and listeners alike. Who among us hasn’t dreamed about driving an 18 wheeler through somebody’s living room while they’re watching Maury? Exactly.
Much has been written about Bronson’s ostensible neglecting of his rapping career in the past few years while he’s been travelling the world eating street food and hanging out with the likes of Mario Batali on his Vice show, F*ck That’s Delicious. And while it’s undeniable that Action doesn’t hit the mic with quite the same ferocity that was displayed on earlier, hungrier records like Dr. Lecter, there’s still plenty to love on Blue Chips 7000. The beats are funky, the Queens-centric comic book universe is richly detailed, and you’d be hard pressed to find another active rapper with a laugh-per-line ratio higher than Bam Bam Baklava.
Just as in Bronson’s last release, Mr. Wonderful, there are a few weaker moments that could likely have been cut from the album. The Rick Ross feature “9-24-7000,” in particular, feels like an unnecessary diversion into slow-jam, low energy territory that the project would likely be stronger without. But the highs provided by “The Chairman’s Intent” and “The Choreographer,” among others, are plenty enough to overcome the occasional slump. Overall, Blue Chips 700 is another breezy, hilariously fun glimpse into the life and (food coma-induced) dreams of rap’s most animated madman.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
I unabashedly love The War on Drugs. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. Their last two albums have a revered place on my list of all-time favorite rock albums, and when they are playing to their strengths they are borderline flawless. That said, expectations for the band’s latest record, A Deeper Understanding, were obviously sky high. This level of excitement is a two-edged sword, to be frank. Listening to the latest record from a band you love can result in either immeasurable happiness or absolute consternation. Very rarely is there middle ground. Thankfully, as a fan of the band A Deeper Understanding was everything I wanted and more, ending up being one of the band’s finest achievements.
I use the term “band” here with a grain of salt. Adam Granduciel is the true mastermind behind this project, spending countless weeks fine-tuning and obsessing over every detail of the band’s records in the studio, often to the point of illness. For the geeks among us, the Gear Club Podcast conducted an excellent interview with Adam regarding his recording process, and good lord is it harrowing. Granduciel’s obsessive attention to detail is evident throughout every inch of this record, as it sounds lush, thoughtful, and absolutely immaculate. We’ve come to expect nothing less from The War on Drugs, and the band delivers in spades. Opener “Up All Night” re-introduces listeners to the unique sonic world Granduciel has meticulously created for years with a lovely key passage, awash in reverb and atmospherics, until the song opens itself into a panoramic masterpiece that includes, shocker of shockers, a friggin’ guitar solo. It’s everything fans of the band could want, and that’s only the first track. “Pain” hypnotizes with its forlorn lyrics and gorgeous guitar work, “Holding On” pulls us in with its upbeat, synth-heavy composition, “Strangest Thing” includes one of the biggest, sad-sackiest refrains in the band’s career, and so it goes. Track after track of syrupy, reverb-soaked goodness. It’s sonic bliss.
If you even moderately like The War on Drugs, you will most certainly enjoy A Deeper Understanding. If you don’t like The War on Drugs, why? Also, listen to this record and slowly watch your mind begin to change. There is so little to criticize, and so much to love. Jump on it.
Elbow (Ft. John Grant) – Kindling (Fickle Flame)
Hopefully, The Czars’s John Grant doesn’t need an introduction. Grant is one of the most important singer-songwriters out of America in the 90’s, with his classic, deep-seated voice defining an entire generation of artists working with the folk milieu of the USA. Elbow, the incredible and veteran UK pop/rock band should also need no introduction; I count them as one of my all time favorite bands. Their lyrics, vocals and instruments are all marvellous additions to the world of music and on their latest album, Little Fictions, they were all used brilliantly.
However, not all songs on that album were made equally as is indeed the case with all albums. “Kindling” in particular, the closing track to the album, felt a bit weak in comparison to the rest, even when considering its beautiful closing refrain. In an effort to be even more amazing than they already are, Elbow have teamed up with John Grant (probably following/because of their current tour together) to re-work the track and bring with it the glory that an album closer should have.
And boy, did it work for them. Grant’s voice is the perfect companion to Guy Garvey’s singing and the lyrical additions don’t fail us either; the opening of the track has been added to and now features a lyrical back and forth between the two vocalists. Joining in harmony towards the end, singing in tandem that closing refrain I so love, the two vocalists do an absolutely incredible job of complimenting each other and working off of their unique styles. This elevates “Kindling” above its somewhat middling origins and finally gives Little Fictions the closing notes it deserves.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
James Murphy and his dance/electro-punk LCD Soundsystem can be pretty well encapsulated by watching this infamous Simpsons clip [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV0wTtiJygY] with a killer dance/synth groove underneath it. Murphy was old and was expressing all of the anxiety, confusion, frustrations, and wistfulness of someone who could no longer be considered a “fresh” face right out of the gate of LCD’s formation and early singles back in the early 2000s. It’s the same attitude he has carried through the band’s career and past it as the band broke up in 2013 following a massive sold-out show in Madison Square Garden. And it’s the same attitude he carries with him as he essentially called a head-fake and announced that the band actually really wasn’t broken up and were coming out with more music after all. Murphy has gotten older, has racked up even more experiences to be exasperated, exhausted, and occasionally optimistic about, and over that time he hasn’t done much to tweak or evolve the killer combination that makes his brainy, danceable beat poetry immediately enjoyable and deserving of repeat listens.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising then that LCD’s reunion album, American Dream, is yet another incredibly solid entry in the band’s catalog that still somehow rises above the vast majority of dance pop/rock out there. And perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it does so without really doing too much that one wouldn’t expect hearing on an LCD record. But given the palpable sense of trepidation surrounding this album, the somewhat mixed to lukewarm initial reaction to the first singles, and the lingering and ongoing background noise of fans still annoyed to downright angry about the band seemingly exploiting the prospect of an imminent breakup for their own gain with that final MSG show and resulting album/DVD, American Dream being a success felt like anything but a given. And yet it is.
American Dream is less immediately kinetic and “banger”-worthy than its predecessors. There are no instant classics like “Losing My Edge,” “All My Friends,” or “Dance Yrself Clean” here. There are moments that come close on “tonite” and “call the police,” and several moments that approach the infinite momentum of tracks like “Us v Them.” Murphy seems even less concerned than usual about producing a “hit” though, preferring slow burn, introspection, and complex noodling that comes incredibly close to Remain In Light-era Talking Heads and Brian Eno. The string of tracks from “other voices” through “how do you sleep at night?” in particular hit the kinds of rhythmically dense foundations with angular guitars that defined Talking Heads. It doesn’t necessarily make for the best music to dance to, but it’s nevertheless damned good music that fits into the “dance” category.
There will likely be some who are disappointed by the lack of immediate satisfaction present here. The good news is that there are three albums filled with bangers already for you to consume. American Dream is the sonic equivalent of what happens when the party finally dies down, and you’re left to pick up the mess and pieces of everything produced in its wake. James Murphy is old and only getting older like the rest of us, but unlike most it’s a suit that has fit him well since the beginning, and he seems to be intent on only growing and continuing to mature into it as time goes on. American Dream somehow pulls off the feat of sounding like it could be a definitively final LCD album and also being just the midway point for something more.
Mashrou’ Leila – Ibn El Leil (Deluxe Edition)
Unlike some of our staff, I thoroughly dislike pop music. When I think pop, I think sugar sweet melodies, shallow lyricism, rubbish instrumentation and mind-numbing repetition. It can be fun and care-free easy listening for many, but for the most part I simply cannot relate. So when Eden said he thought I’d “appreciate a band from Beirut doing amazing pop in Arabic”, it’s fair to say I was both skeptical and intrigued. Almost a month has passed since then, and Mashrou’ Leila’s 2017 Deluxe Edition reissue of 2015’s Ibn El Leil has found itself in heavy rotation. So take a moment and let me explain why I love this album so much, and why I’ll be aggressively lobbying to make it eligible for our 2017 end-of-year list.
Let’s begin with Mashrou’ Leila’s most obvious selling point: the vocal talents of frontman Hamed Sinno. Predominantly operating in his middle and higher ranges, his silky smooth vocals carry an effortless, comfortable power. Perfect pitch, tasteful use of vibrato and remarkable falsetto go without saying, but it is his tone and the range of emotions he conures with ease which truly help set him apart. He offers precisely what any passage demands of him, be it the promiscuous cheek of “Djin”, the pained reflections of “Kalaam (S/he)” or the sorrowful lament of “Marrikh”. Yet, his imprint upon the album doesn’t end with remarkable vocals, heartfelt emotion and touching melodies. The lyricism is first class, with brilliant word play, clever juxtaposition of imagery, and a variety of themes including religion, mythology, gender, sexuality and Sinno’s personal experiences. Many of their videos have accurately translated captions, with further translations available on the album’s website (https://www.ibnelleil.com/), and I strongly encourage you to look into them. That they can be this good when translated is a real testament to his writing abilities, and I can only imagine how good they are in Arabic.
However, Mashrou’ Leila is far from a one man band. The Lebanese five piece have created a diverse offering replete with ample electronics, sleek synths, groovy bass lines, flashes of guitar and, most notably, plenty of violin. Whilst each instrument has its time to shine, it is the keys/synths which set the scene, pushing a song forward whilst the violin swoops in and out with aplomb, the cherry on top of a delicious cake. You know you’ve created and crafted something beautiful when each part is brilliant, and yet the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts. That is what Mashrou’ Leila have achieved here, with catchy and emotional songs which will make you dance, cry, smile, think and reflect. Beneath the polished exterior are a host of intricately woven layers of lyrical and instrumental ideas, and I implore you all to dive deep into an album likely to make my top 5 of this year.