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:
Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
Imagine this: a band achieves massive critical and commercial successes over the better part of two decades (big surprise, eh?). Unsurprisingly, they lay some duds along the way, but somehow come around to successfully pull off that “going back to your roots” move with a positive response from just about anyone who cares. Then (this is where it gets weird), the band gets their own HBO documentary miniseries where the storied recording studios and music cities which serve as inspiration for an album. So, if there’s any band formed in the 90s that has “been there, done that,” and have still come out relatively unscathed (short of Dave Grohl getting glossed as our “rock dad”), it’s the Foo Fighters.
Concrete and Gold takes what the band has learned from their past two efforts and smartly revisits neither, opting for something fresh. On one hand, this record is an extension of their rock ‘n’ roll anthropology Sonic Highways. On the other, it takes so many hints from what made their early albums (and Wasting Light), the perfect blend of punk rock energy and saccharine arena rock. Album opener “T-Shirt” is a 2017 version of “Doll,” a short and sweet disarming opener to prime listeners for the good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll fury of the follow up track, “Run.” “Make It Right” brings together a kind of sass and ‘tude with a walk-and-talk riff that Jimmy Page is probably plotting to steal for the next Led Zepplin record. “La Dee Da” has a similar retro feel with cocksure, effects-laden riffing and drummer Taylor Hawkins both rocking the pocket and pushing the bombast of the chorus, bringing a stoner-y, almost Queens of the Stone Age kind of swagger, to busting the doors open on a chorus that’s sure to inspire some speeding tickets.
Tracks like “Dirty Water,” “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour),” “Sunday Rain,” and the title track closer continue to explore the heavily treaded ground of all that is “classic rock.” Given that, it might appear that this album sounds like a tired homage, but Grohl & Co. show they know how to uncover some gems and give them a signature Foo shine. “Sunday Rain” (featuring none other than Sir Paul McCartney on drums) feels like what we might’ve heard if the Fab Four had a chance to do their own “back to their roots” material. “Dirty Water” channels smooth and clean Eagles or Steely Dan Cali-rock, but doesn’t feel distant from early soft-loud tracks like “Floaty” or “February Stars.” “Happy Ever After” seems to be an acoustic response to 1997’s “Hero,” folding in a somber Eric Clapton vibe to proclaim “there ain’t no superheroes now.” Album closer “Concrete and Gold” is about as perfect as Pink Floyd tribute could be, even fleshed out with spacey theremin.
But, It’s not all gold. The sweetness of their sound sometimes ends up in the too-sugary zone, and they’re certain to bring themselves more criticism from those predisposed to hate this specific brand of yuck (myself included). It’s like they’re trying to re-Imagine Dragons on “The Sky is a Neighborhood”, indulging in an enormous chorus that’s certain to induce a few of eyerolls, feeling even too big and for these britches. “The Line” comes off as a wannabe Killers track, with Grohl taking it upon himself to inject some kind of emotion into this drier-than-dog-food tune by screaming his face off wherever possible. If you can stomach these groan-worthy tracks, Concrete and Gold is a worthwhile way to scratch a classic rock itch without listening to something you’ve heard thousands of times.
Isenordal – Lughsanadh MMXVII
Hailing from Washington State, Isenordal is an atmospheric black metal project with doom metal influences and the occasional folk touch. They released their debut full-length, Shores of Mourning, in March of this year, to a generally favourable audience. However, today I will write about a two-track acoustic demo they just released. Lughsanadh MMXVII is described as “the demo debut of Isenordal’s acoustic dark folk ensemble version”. This trio format includes two vocalists, acoustic guitar, viola, and cello. The music emanating from this reductionist version of the band could be categorized as dark folk, or neofolk, and the result is quite enjoyable. The two songs on this limited edition cassette tape release are slow and brooding, pensive, and obsequiously depressing. This demo seems to be an augur for upcoming releases of this shrunk down version of Isenordal; maybe an EP or a full-length can be expected in the intermediate future…
Mount Kimbie – Love What Survives
Mount Kimbie are a strong display of what grabs me about electronic music; the endless possibilities and creative freedom to push sonic boundaries, drumming up whatever unconventional instrumentation comes to your mind. Mount Kimbie reject the poppin’ trends in electronic music, cementing a name for themselves in the current electronica landscape for being outside-the-box thinkers. They’ve seamlessly fused the trademark elements of dub, wonky, folktronica, downtempo and beat-music, and if that’s not enough they centre these styles around jangling Indie/bedroom-pop songwriting.
This new album of theirs, Love What Survives, initially comes off as if the duo is starting over on a blank canvas in a way. But you can guarantee yourself that you’re getting a Mount Kimbie album nonetheless as they have not let go of that special spark to their identity. They knew they couldn’t build on the downtempo/indie genius that was their last album Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, so they dispose of their usual abstract proclivities and shift into a much tighter and smoother direction. Tracks ‘Audition’ and ‘Marylin’ are as lush as the band have sounded, both of which have warm bass and sparse drumming which characterise this album’s beautiful sonic landscape.
The lead singles ‘Blue Train Lines’ and ‘We Go Home Together’ which each feature monstrous vocal performances from King Krule and James Blake respectively, has the band’s wonkiness take a back seat and shows them working around enhancing the tracks through effective accompaniment. The aforementioned ‘Blue Train Lines’ as well as the driving, fast-paced ‘Delta’ have intensifying, blood-pumping builds which Mount Kimbie have never really showcased in before, but they pull it off in spades. They throw a curveball at you by delivering a cute and quirky indie-folk tune with ‘You Look Certain (I’m Not Too Sure)’, but keep their own spin on it by peppering it with eclectic twinkles It’s moments like these on the record that bring home how Mount Kimbie have evolved from experimental beatmakers to well-groomed songwriters.
As far as the sound of this record goes, the duo is sounding grander and more full than ever, with acoustic timbres and live instrumentation that hone in on their indie-rock band ambitions. Mount Kimbie have exceptionally transformed their bedroom beats into larger-than-life tracks that were meant for the live setting. The human agency behind their music can be felt on Love What Survives more than ever before. If you want electronic music but you’re more of an indie or alt-rock fan, this can definitely satisfy you. If you’re a Mount Kimbie fan, welcome to another great record to spin on the regular.
The National – Sleep Well Beast
It’s a rare and fiercely sought-after thing to possess a sound that listeners can immediately identify as yours and yours alone. Over the course of six albums, The National had achieved that in spades. The combination of Matt Berninger’s soothing baritone voice and upper middle class cosmopolitan anxiety, Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s lush compositions and deft (though generally restrained) guitars, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf’s rock-solid and pulsing rhythmic foundations on bass and drums are immediately and undeniably as singular to the band even as they gradually moved from more raucous and raw sounds towards stadium-worthy anthems of middle-aged melancholy.
However, their previous album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, albeit still more than solid and racking up the level of critical and fan praise that’s come to be expected, started to feel a little like stalled progress and wheel spinning. The anthems weren’t as huge and immediate as High Violet, and the anxious energy that propelled Alligator and Boxer also weren’t as present. In some ways it felt like the band were perhaps reaching the limits of what new facets they could wring out together from this sound and profile they had spent so long building. All of which is what makes Sleep Well Beast their most impressive album in at least a decade. It doesn’t reinvent The National’s sound entirely, but it tweaks with the formula just enough to breathe new life into the group and only further cements them as one of the greatest rock bands since the turn of the century.
Sleep Well Beast pulls off the feat of being both the darkest album for the band in possibly their entire career while possessing the most energy and rawness they’ve had in many years. There have already been multiple reviews praising this as the band’s first real capital-R “Rock” record since around Alligator, and there is certainly credence to that. “Day I Die” is an upbeat anthem that comes galloping right out of the gate. “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” is a constantly-swelling machine that utterly explodes into a glorious, honest-to-god guitar solo from Aaron Dessner (or Bryce; not actually certain which one) that makes you wonder why in the hell The National songs don’t have more guitar solos. And then there’s “Turtleneck,” a bluesy barn-burner featuring barely-contained yelps from Berninger verging on Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse territory that sounds the loosest the band have allowed themselves to be in seemingly forever.
But Sleep Well Beast should be less-defined as a return-to-basics rock record than as a brilliant fusion of everything that has worked for the band in the past with a greater emphasis on dark electronics and synths. These sounds are rarely given front-and-center treatment but instead have an almost constant presence in the background, a haunting and pulsing ghost that only ratchets up the anxiety and existential angst of Berninger. “Walk It Back,” “Born To Beg,” “Empire Line,” the utterly devastating “I’ll Still Destroy You,” “Guilty Party,” and the concluding title track are prime examples of this, as they don’t sound too far removed from the slower, less raucous songs that fill most of the band’s catalog the past few albums, but these extra elements offer their already dense compositions an additional layer that feels more kinetic and throws into starker relief the beauty of strings and horns that are awash throughout their music.
Sleep Well Beast is ultimately still an album by The National through and through, and if you weren’t already on board with the group’s brand of contemplative indie rock and Berninger’s vocal style and middle-aged white sadboi lyrics, then this album is unlikely to convert you. That doesn’t erase the fact that the band have pulled off a huge feat here, one that is rare for a band with as long and storied a history as them. It’s a fantastic sign for the overall longevity of The National that they can continue to expand and build off of what has made them such an institution in the crossover-indie world for the better part of two decades.
Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Queens of the Stone Age (QOTSA) are the Aunt Jemima of modern rock music, with grooves so syrupy, sugary, and sludgy that one wonders whether or not they are good for your health. Since their debut record in 1998, the band has been a staple part of this complete breakfast for many a hard rock and sludge fan, and rightfully so. Several of the band’s records are undisputed classics, garnering significant radio play while amassing a cult following of devotees who rock and sway with every hip gyration of band mastermind Josh Homme. However, while all of the band’s records are at least to some extent enjoyable, it’s fairly easy (at least for this listener) to separate their output into major (Songs for the Deaf, Rated R, …Like Clockwork) and minor (Era Vulgaris, Lullabies to Paralyze, and their self-titled debut) releases. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence with critically heralded bands, but seems especially stark regarding QOTSA. So how does the band’s seventh full-length record Villains stack up to the rest of the band’s output? Thankfully, not bad at all.
Villains starts off with a bang, keeping the band’s tradition of fantastic opening tracks to the best of their albums alive with “Feet Don’t Fail Me”. The track kicks into gear slowly, allowing a hollowed-out, stark atmosphere to mosey its way through the song’s opening minutes. But when that groove hits… oh, the sweet, sweet payoff. If your booty isn’t shaking its way across whatever room you occupy your booty is dysfunctional and you should request a new one. It’s an absolutely fantastic opening salvo to an album that is one of the more fun releases of the band’s career.
The remainder of the album is a fairly deft display of the band’s talents. Songs vacillate between uptempo dancehall ragers (“The Way You Used To”, “Head Like a Haunted House”, “The Evil Has Landed”) and more deliberate, groove-infused forays (“Domesticated Animals”, “Fortress”, “Un-reborn Again”, “Hideaway”) with the ease of a band who has been here and done this before, and knows exactly where it wants to go. While I personally find the album’s more upbeat tracks the principal strength of the record, there are few if any duds on this album.
While I wouldn’t place Villains as high on the band’s major albums list as the three I mentioned above, it is indeed a record that displays QOTSA’s strengths incredibly well, and is very far from a disappointment. So pull up a chair, grab a stack of gran’s famous pancakes, and spread some delicious, cavity-inducing goodness on your musical day.
Wartime Sweethearts – So Long Sparta
Mind-blowing Aussie math rock wizards, SEIMS, have a new album coming out soon called simply, 3. It is based on a the CMYK color scale because of course it is and when it comes out you should absolutely pick it up. However, this is about one of very interesting facet of this upcoming release which is that, on album closer “Imperfect Black”, they add the vocal talents of a the intriguing and absolutely enchanting Aussie avant pop act, Wartime Sweethearts. The “band” is really the nurtured child of Louise Nutting and what she does vocally manages to cloy its way onto your cerebellum.
So Long Sparta, the last Sweethearts album, actually came out a year ago and appears to have largely flown under the radar of indie pop music. And that’s a shame.because what Nutting creates shows flashes of Feist, St. Vincent, and other artists of these ilk but breaks away from it with shimmering post-Beach Boys effects (see “Figure It In, Figure It Out”) or songs layered with spacey elements that create percussion via some interesting samples (“Herculean Dream” and “Ms. Olympia”, for example). One of my favorite tracks is the fusion of a Siouxsie and Banshees playfulness run through Jenny Lewis’ pipes on “Mood Swings”.
“Phantoms Not Friends” evokes a ton of complimentary comparisons but it stands out in Nutting’s arresting performance here. Overall, this is a more than worthwhile album for fans of pop seen through a mirror darkly. Hopefully, there will be more to come from this project as well as her joining forces with SEIMS.
Zola Jesus – Okovi
It’s fitting that on the same day The New York Times unveiled the first look into Björk’s highly anticipated new album, another forward-thinking songstress released her latest ode to the lineage of the eminent Icelander’s approach to lushly composed ballads. Zola Jesus has her own distinct style, of course, even if her gorgeous vocals welcome comparison to a synthesis of Björk and Florence Welch. But as is the case with any Sacred Bones artist, what’s presented on paper is hardly ever the full story. Just like Destruction Unit hardly fits the psych rock mold and Pharmakon reinvents the nature of death industrial, Zola hardly fits the archetype of the pop-oriented female singer-songwriters with an oddball edge. Her last album Taiga was unfairly branded as her foray into straight-up synthpop; while certainly more accessible than her darker early days, it’s difficult to argue that the album feels as saccharine and wholesome as an act like CHVRCHES.
As if to dispel this narrative of her going “soft,” Zola is back with her own take on the Vulnicura formula, right down to the bizarre outfit and headpiece ensemble on the cover. On Okovi, Zola delivers beautifully woven tapestries of art pop, darkwave, post-industrial and neoclassical elements which she drapes over her pained vocals, which themselves are delivered with enough power to obliterate her voice’s somber veil. Perhaps her greatest means of accomplishing this is with carefully composed string arrangements, morphed to fit different moods throughout the album or channeled through synth landscapes that match the impact of a masterful chamber ensemble. The comparisons to Björk are again obvious and meant in a flattering manner, but it should be reiterated that Zola maintains her own unique approach. Her voice is more inviting but hardly indistinct or bland, and musically, she seems much more focused on performing with her compositions rather than making her singing the focal point of every track.
Okovi is admittedly a short listen, but it’s comprised solely of lean, succulent morsels without a single piece of fat. Even “Doma” proves to be more of a highlight than an intro needs to be, what with it’s gorgeous, Disintegration Loops-esque atmosphere that should make William Basinski proud. And if “Doma” captures the listener’s intrigue, “Exhumed” subsequently gallops with that interest through sharp, stuttering strings, which seem to accent the atmosphere like lightning flashes illuminate storm clouds. The peaks only continue to rise from there, whether Zola lets her voice soar in near isolation on “Ash to Bone”; crafts a harsh, industrial take on How to Dress Well’s minimal electropop stylings; or darkens Florence + The Machine’s arena pop appeal on “Remains,” an incredible penultimate track that leaves “Half Life” poised to neatly tie up the album. And as it closes out the record, one can’t help but reflect on Okovi as a truly exceptional collection of tracks that demonstrate Zola’s willingness to reposition herself in whatever direction will best capitalize on her current headspace and artistic vision.