February! What a month; it’s short, so everything seems stronger, more concentrated and condensed. It’s also historically a weird month for releases. January is over and done with so that “shine” of fresh and new wears off somewhat but the year hasn’t started really swinging like it will in late-March/April. Thus, it’s a great month to dig into less popular releases and look around for the real good stuff lying beneath the surface of PR campaigns and echo chambers. As a result, it usually yields some unexpected gems and releases which often stick with you will into the year itself.
You can see this in the list below; there are no huge names on our top picks and most of the bands listed are getting their first mention on the blog. The editors love these releases with a passion, and you can expect plenty of these releases to score high when the time comes to compile our end of year lists. Beyond that, it’s simply another month which nails home just how much great music is being released. Even in the slow months of the year, as people shake off their winter hibernation, plenty of amazing releases are reaching our ears via the glorious wonder that is the Internet. So roll up your sleeves and get ready for some new tunes; there’s something for everyone in the list below.
Apostle of Solitude – From Gold to Ash (doom metal)
Sporadically, throughout the many words I’ve written on doom metal in general and traditional metal in particular, I’ve constantly referred to the need of variance in repetition. Since these genres are often focused on repeating riffs, the mistake that many bands make is that the quality of that one riff is what makes a great doom band. In reality, it’s all about what happens in between, behind and around this riff. This is what elevates a doom band from simply being heavy or oppressive and being actually good.
Apostle of Solitude are a fantastic example of this. Sure, every single song on their latest From Gold to Ash has that riff, a lumbering beast of aggression and distortion. But what wins the listener over is instead the dual vocal melodies interspersed throughout the album, the unique and powerful solos (never overused or overstaying their welcome) and the little tricks the guitar, bass and drums play with the pacing and intonation of the track.All of these make the album something larger than just a mass of riffs and chords. It enables exploration and depth, allowing the listener to go back numerous to the release to discover new and exciting. It also doesn’t hurt that the production is extremely on point, fleshing out all of these details in the exact way they should be. For these reasons, From Gold to Ash does far more than just ape Pallbearer or repeat the styling of the traditional metal revival. It is its own beast and a ferocious one at that.
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GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star (jazz, minimalism)
Four albums in, jazz trio GoGo Penguin have firmly established themselves and the musical niche they sit in. Their previous album, Man Made Object, which also served as their major label debut on Blue Note, was a rather large step for the band and their sound. The grooves were bigger, their ideas were more momentous and adventurous, at times straight-up weirder (in all the right ways). It was a huge achievement, one that only expanded their renown and fanbase from modern jazz acolytes and well beyond from fans of indie rock, post-rock, electronic, and more.
So where to go from here? A Humdrum Star attempts to answer that question mostly by ignoring its premise. GoGo Penguin continue to do much of what they do best here while mining deeper into certain aspects of their sound. On the whole, it’s a warmer, more spacious album. Pianist Chris Illingworth is given even more space than usual to stretch out and fill up most of the sonic room with his reverb-washed chords, patterns, and plunking. First single “Bardo” is probably the most obvious example of this, his melodies and rhythms as serene as ever while bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner provide the more skittery and grounded foundation. Much of the first half of the album in general feels a bit smoother and, at times, a bit more business-as-usual for the group. “Raven” is another single that, while more than solid, also skirts close to feeling a bit like boilerplate GoGo. And “A Hundred Moons” is a cool and moody track that’s a pleasant listen if not exactly a rousing one.
Thankfully the album kicks it into another gear starting with the album centerpiece, “Strid,” marking the second album in a row a lengthy track in the middle with a weird name (“Smarra” off of Man Made Object) steals the show and exemplifies why this group are so special. ”Strid” is not quite the barn-burner straight out of the gate that “Smarra” was, but it’s a grower that only builds momentum straight through until the end. The weird polyrhythmic stuff and compound time signatures going on throughout bely the ease in which the three positively steamroll through on a deceptively smooth groove, all the while with Turner absolutely blasting his way about on drums. From there it’s off to the races, with “Transient State” providing the kind of technical chops from Illingworth he rarely flashes so obviously in the group’s work. “Reactor” is the one track that eschews the warmer, more positive glow of the album and goes in deep on the back of an incredibly deep and menacing groove that resists staying in one place too long. And closer “Window” is an appropriate comedown that neatly summarizes the exceedingly clockwork-like place the band sit in now.
Words like “precise” and “mechanical” are thrown around frequently about this group, oftentimes as a negative from critics who view jazz as defined more by spontaneity and a resistance to anything viewed as less than “soulful.” But it is truly a testament to the technical and compositional prowess of the band that they have defined themselves as such and continue to push themselves in this arena upon each release. A Humdrum Star is not a huge step up from Man Made Object and overall is probably at around the same overall quality as that album (if at times perhaps coming in at just under), but that quality and place was so high to begin with that simply continuing to meet it is a huge feat in itself. Far from spinning their wheels, GoGo Penguin are operating at a masterful level and continue to explore this place they’ve settled in for themselves in fascinating ways that demand frequent listens.
Horizon Ablaze – The Weight of a Thousand Suns (black metal)
Typically, the idea of a band like Horizon Ablaze is better than the actual execution. A black metal band, infusing their sound with death metal elements, working within the sonic landscape of extreme metal pioneers like Celtic Frost circa Monotheist, late-era Enslaved, and the recent iterations of blackened death acts such as Desolate Shrine… sounds too good to be true. Usually it is. Like going to see a movie where the plot, cast, and technical team check all your boxes, but you still leave the theater feeling hollow and underwhelmed, these records (in my estimation) rarely live up to the hype presented by the idea of them. Horizon Ablaze is that rare band that not only meets the expectations heaped on them by their various influences, but exceeds them to create something unique, fresh, and vital. Their third full-length release, The Weight of a Thousand Suns, is the culmination of all the essential elements that have defined their thus far fantastic career, and is their best record to date.
The band’s sonic trajectory has been an intriguing one. Their first record, 2011’s Spawn, peddled a heavy, chug-centric, groove-oriented sound reminiscent of acts like Gojira, coupled with hints of Dark Fortress in its emphasis on tempo and atmosphere. But these comparisons will only take you so far. While their weakest (and still quite good) outing, Horizon Ablaze’s debut record included clues of the jazziness to come, with plenty of guitar, synth, and drum passages that eclipsed the standard fare one might expect from this type of record. The band expanded their sound to an alarming degree in their second outing, 2014’s Dodsverk, which presented itself as another musical beast entirely. Opening with a frantic, atmosphere-laden mantra, the album from there descends into a progressive, wild, unmanageable monster of an extreme metal record, smacking of latter-day Emperor and the solo work of Ihsahn in its emphasis on progressive songwriting and willingness to experiment. The Weight of a Thousand Suns combines these elements into the band’s most focused effort yet, with a juxtaposition between exploration and consistency that is both rare and wonderful.
Opener “Sleep Is the Brother of Death” kicks off the album with a fantastic piece of riff-heavy extremity, vacillating between black metal blasts, death metal chugs, and progressive passages that cohere the band’s manic past to its destructive present. Album highlight “Delusions of Grandeur” expands this sonic palette even further, with a fantastic mix of tremolo groove and an earworm of a rhythmic theme that pops up throughout the track. It also displays the deft abilities of new vocalist Andre Kvebek (formerly of 1349), whose screams, shouts, snarls, and cleans create a vibrant melodic texture that catapults the album into transcendent realms, while simultaneously keeping the music grounded in the subgenre traditions in which it exists. It’s a uniformly fantastic performance. But the entire album doesn’t consist solely of these most dramatically violent sounds. “Ghost of a Previous Nightmare” opens with a soothing, melancholic guitar passage that sets the tone for an emotionally-charged musical journey. The same could be said of closing track “Insidious”, which combines an epic instrumental soundscape with clean singing that creates an exceptionally melodic finale to an incredible album.
This thing has pretty much everything fans of extreme metal could hope for. It’s brutal, violent, emotion-filled, diverse in songwriting and instrumentation, and focused in its overall mission. One of the very best releases of this very young 2018.
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Ought – Room Inside the World (art punk, post-punk)
Typically, a well-received follow-up album will either provide an improved iteration of the band’s established sound or a successful venture into new territory. Less common but all the more impactful are albums that manage to leverage both approaches, producing a statement full of well-played risks delivered with the artist’s distinct voice. No band has been more adept at progressing their career down this third path than Canadian post-punk quartet Ought. The band has quickly become a stalwart artist on the Constellation Records roster, churning out back to back hits with More Than Any Other Day (2014) and Sun Coming Down (2015) and quickly garnering attention for their quirky, off-kilter approach artsy post-punk that felt especially reminiscent of Talking Heads and Television. Naturally, a three-year release gap can foster significant artistic change, as can the infusion of a new voice into the conversation. The addition of veteran indie producer Nicolas Vernhes appears to be the more significant of these two forces; his production and engineering experience with bands like Silver Jews, Deerhunter, Spoon and The War on Drugs clearly helped Ought realize a new perspective that they’ve been fermenting for the past several years. Room Inside the World is not only a product of this refocused environment, but also Ought’s strongest effort to date and an incredible development of their already impressive sound.
As far as change goes, Room Inside the World is indeed a remarkable shift in Ought’s focus as a band. Fans need not worry about the band losing any of the eccentricities they exuded on their first two albums; what Room Inside the World lacks in David Byrne-inspired fever dreams it gains in subtle, experimental framework that defines every song. Shades of dream pop and jangle pop are present throughout the album, adding textured layers of melody and depth to Ought’s compositions throughout the album. “Disaffection” and “Take Everything” boast tasteful nods to The Smiths and their trademark verbosity, with the former track featuring a glistening main guitar melody straight from the Johnny Marr playbook and the latter song sounding the like one of the best snarky, verbose ballads Morrissey never wrote. Ought also hone in on their indie sensibilities throughout the album, brushing up against Okkervil River-style indie folk on “Desire” with some additional help from saxophonist James Goddard and clarinetist Eamon Quinn. The band is particularly adventurous on “These 3 Things,” an impressively fleshed out song featuring an electronic beat and underlying synth pads hoisting up deadpan-yet-danceable post-punk guitar work and bass lines. Oh, and there’s viola worked into the mix courtesy of drummer Tim Keen, a welcome addition that integrates into the song incredibly well.
Yet, what truly ties Room Inside the World together and defines Ought’s distinct sound are Tim Darcy’s unmistakably unique vocals (along with his excellent guitar writing, of course). Imagine if Scott Walker‘s deep, resonant croon took on the post-punk fundamentals of Ian Curtis and melodic sensibilities of Morrissey. That sounds amazing, right? Well, Darcy offers a distinct, malleable version of this formula on every track, adjusting his tone and mood accordingly to ensure track features an intrinsic link between music and vocals. It’s the mark of a true frontman in every sense of the word; whereas singers like Morrissey often demand the spotlight and any number of post-punk vocalists merely fill empty space with passible, monotone vocals, Darcy only allows his vocal talents to shine with the surrounding music and never attempts to stand out at the expense of the composition’s success.
It’s one of many aspects of Room Inside the World that make the album a frontrunner for rock album of the year. Some fans have lamented the band’s embrace of post-punk’s melodic side, but at its core, the album is still defined by the band’s distinct voice and tireless dedication to accepting even the most normal moments with a slight, delightfully bizarre edge. Diversity delivered with a defined voice is one of the most difficult formulas to execute, but when achieved, it produces truly rewarding results. Room Inside the World is a case study in this formula operating to perfection thanks to Ought’s capable, burgeoning hands.
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SeeYouSpaceCowboy / SecondGradeKnifeFight – Split (grindcore)
This release is barely over 10 minutes long, so I’m gonna keep this one really short and sweet. SeeYouSpaceCowboy is a fucking wild grindcore/sasscore band (to understand sasscore, think An Albatross and early Blood Brothers material) that’s rapidly rising to become one of the most prominent band in DIY heavy music circles. Hot off last year’s EP Fashion Statements For The Socially Aware and the single “Atrocities From A Storybook Perspective,” their side of this split sees the band continuing to develop their combination of incredibly heavy breakdowns and almost danceable panic-chord pop sections into an intoxicating combination that hits like a speeding truck filled with bricks. SecondGradeKnifeFight is a one-person noisegrind act that combines the best tendencies of Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Orchid, and The Sawtooth Grin with roiling, seething noise and movie samples that are both hilarious and terrifying to deliver some of the most in-your-face, aggressive, and over-the-top material I’ve heard in a long damn time. If you like grind in any capacity, you need to listen to this split. No ifs, ands, or buts.
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Vexes – Ancient Geometry (alt metal, post-hardcore)
Let’s make this quick, because I feel like I’ve said plenty in my review of the album in February; Ancient Geometry is the best Deftones record since Diamond Eyes, perhaps even White Pony depending on your preference. Vexes (featuring past members of A Life Once Lost, Vessl, and Downstage) manage to breathe new life and energy into the alt-metal sound established and popularized by the likes of Deftones, Helmet, and Thrice with a modern progressive post-hardcore approach on their debut album, and crafted a surprise hit to brighten 2018 early on, which was most definitely needed.
These 10 tracks push 50 minutes, but there’s no filler on this debut; Ancient Geometry has hooks for days and big fat riffs bolstered by a propulsive rhythm section and a knack for ambience and subtle keyboards. Vexes master the sound confidently and adeptly, which only makes Ancient Geometry that much more of an outstanding release, as they seem to just pick up as if they’ve been developing the sound for years. This is a strong start for Vexes, and an incredible rock album to start the year off with.
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Dead Empires – Designed to Disappear (progressive metal)
If you’re a fan of progressive metal, this is an album you owe yourself. It’s technical, experimental and fun, without sacrificing brevity and impact.
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Golgothan Remains – Perverse Offerings to the Void (death metal)
Savage, absolutely filthy death metal from Australia. If you aren’t already listening to this based on that description alone, I mean… why?
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Subtle Degrees – A Dance That Empties (avant-garde jazz, modern classical)
To quote myself from my most recent Jazz Club: Saxophonist Travis Laplante and percussionist Gerald Cleaver “leverage the most transcendent elements of avant-garde jazz, modern classical and experimental folk music, drawing on each other’s individual strengths and musical cohesion to further elevate the celestial, spiritual qualities of Laplante’s composition.”
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Miracle – The Strife of Love in a Dream (retrowave)
What if Depeche Mode got really dark, really hated you and made an album? They’d probably make something this weird, abrasive and chilling. This is darkwave for the deepest of nights, when you absolutely need to get lost in synths and freezing vocals.
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A Light Within – Epilogue EP (alt-metal, post-metal)
ADT – Insecurities (avant-garde jazz fusion)
Anenon – Tongue (ambient jazz)
Carpenter Brut – Leather Teeth (retrowave)
ELBE – Sudety (post-rock)
Ezra Feinberg – Pentimento and Others (minimal folk, new age)
Good Tiger – We Will All Be Gone (post-hardcore, prog metal)
Insect Ark – Marrow Hymns (instrumental doom, post-rock)
Jason Sharp – Stand Above the Streams (experimental, electro-acoustic)
Kaoteon – Damnatio Memoriae (progressive black metal)
Lea Bertucci – Metal Aether (electroacoustic, modern classical)
Lionlimb – Tape Recorder (indie rock, psych rock)
Oryx – Stolen Absolution (doom metal)
Palm – Rock Island (indie rock, math rock)
Poppy Ackroyd – Resolve (modern classical)
Snowpoet – Thought You Knew (indie rock, jazz rock)
Son Lux – Brighter Wounds (art rock)
Steve Reich – Pulse / Quartet (minimalism, modern classical)
yndi halda – A Sun-Coloured Shaker (post-rock)