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:
Armand Hammer – ROME
While the backpacker crowd might profess to understand what “true” hip-hop sounds like, it’s completely disingenuous to assert that lyricism is the only criterion that matters when judging a rap album. Though bars are important, what constitutes quality rapping doesn’t remain static across all subgenres and emcees, and more importantly, the production style is at least as important the verses flowing above the beats. In no sect of hip-hop is this more relevant than conscious and abstract rap; backpackers can quote Rap Genius annotations for days, but if the rapper’s beat selection is either subpar or doesn’t fit their style, then you mine as well as just print off the lyrics and rebrand it as a poetry collection. Unfortunately for abstract rappers, their dense subject matter and off-kilter deliveries make production choices a challenge. Heady lyricism almost always feels out of place on trunk-knocking trap bangers, but production that’s too sparse and avant-garde can detract from the lyricism or be difficult to rhyme over.
More mainstream rappers like Danny Brown have mastered the art of striking a balance between their lyrics and beats, and there’s perhaps no finer examples of this in the underground than Billy Woods and Elucid. Both accomplished underground emcees in their own rights, the duo have pooled their collective talents as Armand Hammer on three solid projects, the third and most recent of which, ROME, might be the strongest underground rap album of the year. Their juxtaposition of lyricism and avant-garde production truly fits their self-described label of “prog-hop,” a genre tag I’ll be using in earnest for every opportunity I have. Beats come courtesy of a slew of underground producers, including August Fanon, Messiah Musik, Kenny Segal, JPEGMAFIA, Fresh Kils and High Priest. They may not have Madlib-level name recognition, but they help elevate Billy and Elucid’s unique approaches to spitting.
No best better illustrates this than “It Was Written,” a disparate collection of sounds that August Fanon somehow made into a killer beat. Armed with just two piano notes, a single trump bleat and the sound of scraping, sliding metal, August crafts an unsettling atmosphere which Bill and Elucid rap over effortlessly. The remainder of the album’s beats retains this air of apprehension, fear and darkness. From the unsettling synth pads on “Tread Lightly” to the heavy percussion and vocal echoes on “Dry Ice” to the cavernous, noisy industrial blasts on “Microdose,” each track presents a unique but contextually consistent approach to presenting a sonic representation of Billy and Elucid’s morose lyricism.
As mentioned earlier, the duo have a particularly cerebral approach to rhyming, which makes pulling out specific lyrics difficult. Their references, multisyllabic rhyme schemes and drawn-out explorations of a single idea necessitate listening through each verse in its entirety. The duo also set themselves apart with their deliveries, particularly Billy. He strikes an intriguing balance between spoken word and rap, which is admittedly jarring at first but becomes increasingly enticing with repeat listens (check out his album Dour Candy with Blockhead if you need a gateway into his style). Elucid comes across a bit more traditional, but only in relation to abstract emcees like Aesop Rock whom he somewhat resembles, albeit with a much more raspy and deranged voice. This maelstrom of bizarre beats, lyrics and flows is certainly not for every hip-hop fan, but for adventurous listeners, Armand Hammer is a challenging and rewarding duo that has constantly pushed the limits of the genre, and ROME is certainly no exception to this trend.
Eluvium – Shuffle Drones
Matthew Cooper’s long-standing musical project Eluvium has long been one of my absolute favorites in ambient music. While the genre itself seems to be more of a hit-or-miss proposition for me, the Portland-based musician knows exactly how to push my emotional buttons. For those unfamiliar, Cooper’s music is both minimal and dense in composition, packing an enormous amount of emotional and melodic heft often with a minimum of instruments. Electronics, piano, strings, and occasionally vocals make their way through wistful, beautiful compositions that feel akin to the sparse and repetitious musings of Philip Glass, coupled with the most delicate sounds conjured by bands like Sigur Ros or Helios. Records like 2007’s Copia and 2013’s Nightmare Ending are among my favorite works in this elusive genre, and Eluvium has yet to drop an album I disliked. Thankfully, the streak continues with Shuffle Drones, which utilizes Cooper’s skill set in a fashion unique in his discography.
On the whole, Shuffle Drones is a concept album, but not in theme or lyrical content. Instead, it’s exactly what the album title suggests: A collection of songs that comprise one unending musical composition of orchestral drone/ambient music that is meant to be listened to on shuffle. You read that correctly. The order of this record is intended to be random while still remaining one singular piece. While there is a default order to the album (which is 23 individual tracks long and tells its story in each song title), Cooper does not intend for the listener to experience the music in a typically linear fashion. This is music intended to be actively participated in by the listener. Organized, re-organized, or randomized however we see fit. Which, to be fair, is all fine and good only if the music is worth listening to. Don’t worry, it is. While the album is only 13-minutes long, Cooper uses an unending orchestral drone that floats constantly in the background to create fundamental cohesion between each track. While the melodies that populate these individual tracks are each different, their common musical foundation allows them to be structured in a seemingly limitless amount of combinations, creating a new listening experience with each subsequent iteration. These melodies are deliberate, varied, and rich in the emotional weight Cooper infuses into every song he writes. It’s a fantastic Eluvium album musically, made all the more unique and exceptional by its participatory concept.
Music listening on the whole tends to be a fairly passive affair. Whether for a music journalist or casual listener, the majority of time spent with an album is in the fairly routine “sit still and listen” vein. Eluvium flips this concept on its head by imploring the listener to explore its riches on their own terms, creating, deconstructing, and streamlining the album however they see fit. This is hands-on music, and those who choose to take this journey will be amply rewarded.
FlybyNo – Endless Space 2 OST
If you’ve been following the blog in any capacity, you’ll know that I really like video games. Specifically, I’ve poured in hours into the Grand Strategy and 4X genre of games; huge, sprawling strategy affairs with countless details and micromanagement is what I usually go for. In that genre (and a few more besides), one of the best series if the “Endless” franchise. This series of games, made by Amplitude Studios, take a common resource mechanic and reimagine it across sci-fi, fantasy and more.
Their latest game, Endless Space 2, sees you in control of a growing galactic empire. It’s also extremely good, perfecting a lot of the elements which make 4X great to begin with. And it has an exceptional soundtrack. Written and recorded by French artist, FlybyNo, it runs the gamut of ambience, drone, modern classical music and synthwave. It features expansive tracks like the opening track, “Memories of the Lost”, but also cool experimentations like “The Edge of the Sky”, a solitary and string driven dirge. For those hungry for the synth-sounds of wondrous outer space, check out “Dyson Sphere” or the off-kilter “Calabi-Yau Spaces”.
The most impressive thing about this release is that it stands on its own. It was obviously designed to be listened to while playing but the composition and execution is just so damn good that it stands on its own. It’s an album replete with wonder and the color blue, as soft and melancholic melodies meld with the epicness that’s always associated with the next frontier, eternal space.
Saicobab – सब से पुराणी बाब (Sab se purani bab)
Self-labeled ragacore band Saicobab is an experimental quartet from Japan consisting of Yoshida Daikiti on sitar, Akita Goldman on double bass, Motoyuki Hamamoto on frame drum, and Yoshimi Yokota (YoshimiO) on vocals. The core concept of the band seems to merge Indian ragas with Japanese no wave, and to do that through a limited set of instruments more akin to a folk music group than anything else. At the forefront of the experience are the sitar and the vocals. The former seems to play along the lines of Indian classical music, although my knowledge on the matter is woefully limited, while YoshimiO’s voice ebbs and swells; here singing, there scatting, always exuberant. In accordance with many traditional Indian songs, those on Sab se purani bab display some very interesting time signatures and measure subdivisions. These odd times are well expressed despite – or rather thanks to – the minimalistic quartet, which leaves room for the music to breathe and to let it sink in. That last point is also supported by the repetitive, cyclic nature of the compositions, which seldom, if ever, take form of more than one raga. Saicobab’s debut album is strange but loveable, intertwining India’s rigid music system with Japan’s eccentricity and avant-gardism.
Superchunk – What a Time to be Alive
Powerpunk heroes Superchunk announced a new record last week, due out February 16 via their own Merge. Generally, any new music announcement from Superchunk is cause for celebration, particularly since their post-hiatus reemergence which has shown the band releasing arguably the best music of their career. But What a Time to be Alive seems especially exciting as the usually happy-go-lucky North Carolinians are fully reckoning the political urgency of the moment and are channeling all the anger, frustration, and fear of the past year into song. Fans who follow the band on social media are likely already familiar with frontman Mac McCaughan’s political awareness and ever-growing existential concern, but the band has largely shied away from political or social issues in their music to date. That changes with What a Time to be Alive.
Along the album announcement, the band released the title track and lead single. Musically, it fits perfectly into Superchunk’s well-established sound with tons of raging guitars over a lively, energetic rhythm section (grounded by drumming wunderkind Jon Wurster). Mac’s signature nasally vocals soar high over it all and his gut-punch delivery of lines like “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies – Oh, what a time to be alive!” straddle the perfect balance of vinegar and honey. Superchunk have always placed a premium on melodic earworms and driving tempos and that certainly doesn’t seem to have changed based on this leadoff track. It’s exciting to hear the band tackle more immediate and socially conscious themes while still retaining the trademark, irresistible sound they’ve carefully honed since the early 90s. Who knew Superchunk could be even more energized?
Taylor Swift – Reputation
Somehow Reputation didn’t turn out to be the huge garbage fire that nearly every single element of its faux-controversial promotion cycle suggested it would be. From its laughably ”graphicly designed” album art, to taking not-so-passive-aggressive shots at Kanye West, to revelations of a seemingly unrelated snake fetish and the severely out of touch decision to re-whitewash Ghost in the Shell in the face of growing pressure to denounce an uncomfortably vocal white supremacist/alt-right (to which the singer somehow thought this was the best response); it seemed like Taylor Swift’s reign as the untouchable princess of pop might be coming to a close. Yet, as off-putting and poorly-toned as its lead up may have been, what was finally delivered is a largely palatable, and perhaps tellingly-safe, release that offers up just enough redeeming material to keep those about ready to jump ship on board.
Reports of the Old Taylor’s™ death have been greatly exaggerated (apologies if that line’s been overdone by the time this is published, but variable google searches turned up nothing at the time of writing so I’m claiming it). Reputation is the first record in Swift’s career not to outdo the last, and easily the weakest of her catalogue with the possible exception of her long-forgotten debut, but it’s also not all bad. Outside of it’s largely atrocious singles, there really isn’t that much here that deviates from the regular Taylor template, and the undertones of ‘80s synth-pop that defined 1989 remained prevalent throughout the record. Even “Call It What You Want” and “Look What You Made Me Do” don’t seem that out of place within the album’s context and there’s a plausible reality where the latter number was relegated to the mere realms of unspoken album-only oddity, had the singer led with a more traditional—not to mention vastly superior—single like “I Did Something Bad”, which far more smoothly and convincingly communicates swift’s new “good girl gone bad” aesthetic (y’know, the one literally every other pop star ever has gone through).
This isn’t so say the album isn’t without some serious clunkers. The deceptively mean-spirited “Gorgeous” and the bizarre Annie/Jay Z knock-off “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” are utterly indefensible. Likewise, the lyrics for the most part go beyond cringe-inducing, and their more generalised nature leaves them largely devoid of the Taylor-speciffic POV that has (perhaps paradoxically) proved so relatable on previous outings. Oh, and the zeitgeist aping “End Game” featuring wannabe Drake (aka Future) and wannabe Justin Timberlake (aka Ed Sheeran) already sounds dated, while also managing to pass by unremarkably. …The rest of the album is actually pretty decent though, which is cool.