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:
Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You for Today
Despite the departure of founding member Chris Walla, Death Cab for Cutie has returned for some more unique takes on modern indie rock. While Death Cab has always been one to try new things while creating their records, there’s a particular dream pop aspect to this one. Some songs sound straight out of the Depeche Mode discography. It’s almost like there’s a filter on the entire record, like it was recorded via a television broadcast. It makes it seem like it’s a little distant but also somehow makes the emotional impact of the songs that much heavier.
Ben Gibbard really has a good idea about how to add emotional weight to all of his songs. There’s something about clean guitars, simple rhythms, and shimmering synthesizers that makes you focus more on the lyrics. The emotional release of the words to “Summer Years” is the perfect example. There’s a fairly consistent drum beat, simple chords plucked string by string, and simple synthesizers that add to the song without becoming the focus. Gibbard’s heavily personal lyrics can become the focus instead. “And I wonder where you are tonight/If the one you’re with was a compromise/As we’re walking lines in parallel/That will never meet and it’s just as well.” There’s an impact there that both feels good and cathartic to the listener but can also be extremely thought provoking.
While most of the songs on the album reflect the emotional nature of “Summer Years,” the initial single “Gold Rush” is a surprisingly fun track from Death Cab. While the lyrics are still pretty personal to Gibbard about watching his hometown gentrify and change, the music is pretty upbeat and reminiscent of Americana. There’s a lot of hand percussion in the song along with a fun and lively drum beat. The multiple vocals section at the end further drives the song into positive territory. I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, maybe because I just happened to get a series of incredible records, but Thank You for Today is another contender for best of 2018.
Floex & Tom Hodge – A Portrait of John Doe (feat. Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra)
Floex is both the stage name of one Tomáš Dvořák and a name which deserves far, far more recognition. Somewhat pigeonholed by his association with video game soundtracks, Floex is nonetheless an electronic artist capable of depth and complexity of composition, marrying them with a deep understanding of the power of tone and exploration in music. His 2011 album, Zorya, remains one of my favorite electronic works to date, working on planes of hope, melancholy, curiosity and just intriguing, excellently crafted electronic music.
That’s why it should be no surprise that him teaming up with Tom Hodge, a celebrated pianist, clarinet player and composer, created nothing short of a wonderful and awe inspiring album in the form of A Portrait of John Doe. When you add the accompaniment of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, you finally begin to understand how powerful this album truly is. John Doe weaves between epic string sections like on “Wednesday (Is the New Friday)”, melding them with Jaga Jazzist-esque wind sections and electronic, winding in-roads to composition and more subtle, elegant tracks like “John Doe Arise”.
The main focus throughout both extravagant and more intimate tracks is a careful dedication to how things unfold. Take the aforementioned “John doe Arise”; it slowly builds on the main wind instrument line that informs its beginning, constructing the electronic-sounding drums around it and using strings to paint the tapestry of the background. It slowly generates more and more iterations and approaches on these sounds, bringing the track to an extremely rewarding middle passages, speckled with ethereal vocals that lift the listener as much as they do its titular protagonist, leading us onwards towards the end.
This kind of attention to structure is replete throughout the album and is its too strength. In other works, the sheer amount of influences, tones and ideas would have been overwhelming; John Doe holds no bars. But through clever composition and impeccable sound design, every detail is picked out in beautiful resolution and loving care, brought to our ears in their own place and time. This makes the album both an immediate joy to listen, as pleasing aesthetics wash over us, and an intricate creation which invites further listening and exploration. It thus has the attribute of all great art, making it emotional impactful while also enticing the intellect and crooning to use to come closer and sink into the myriad layers of meaning contained within.
Mitski – Be the Cowboy
I’ll be honest, I was way late to hop onto the Mitski train, well after her previous album, 2016’s Puberty 2, became a critical and indie-crossover hit. I did finally listen to Puberty 2 pretty recently and found I really enjoyed it and the Japanese-American songwriter’s approach to lean, guitar-driven indie rock. Her follow-up to that album, Be the Cowboy, though, is very much not the same album. Guitars rarely play a lead role on the album’s 14 tracks, more often favoring piano, synths, or more elaborate instrumental arrangements with strings and horns. Just as rare are tracks following any sort of conventional indie rock path, instead existing in a place sharing characteristics with St. Vincent’s more abstract and jagged art pop/rock, Bjork’s impressionistic strain of pop, and perhaps Deerhoof’s unclassifiable experimental flair for sugary pop hooks over jagged riffs and unexpected chord progressions and turns.
What is also immediately evident throughout Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s longing for connection and meaningful relationships, which only appears to have been exacerbated by the unrelenting lifestyle of a popular touring musician. This is most obvious on tracks like “Nobody” that are front-and-center about Mitski’s feelings of despair and loneliness: “And I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me; And I know no one will save me / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss / And I’ll be alright.” Though many of the songs are clearly not intended to be autobiographical, the characters and protagonists that fill the album represent aspects of the artist’s own insecurities, her hopes and dreams, and her fears. Beneath the gauzy, sometimes downright-upbeat and peppy exterior lies an album of heartbreak, regret, and the bitter nostalgia one feels as they can feel what should have been the “best years of their life” of their youth slip away, leaving behind a hollow, cold shell just trying to make it through the world.
What hasn’t changed in Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s seemingly unparalleled ability to write instantly-memorable songs in the most economic ways possible. Spanning at just over a half hour in length, only two tracks exceed the three-minute mark, with most somewhere between 2 and 2 ½ minutes. Most songs don’t follow a traditional verse/chorus structure exactly, instead flowing from one piece to another and either exploding into a burst of energy or simply wrapping themselves up neatly without further development. For someone like myself who struggles to write much of anything, be it music or text, without it turning into an odyssey of some sort, I can’t have anything but a ton of respect for someone who is able to do so much in so little time, especially when it results in easily one of the most addictive and affecting pieces of music this year.