August sucks, OK? Even more than its slightly-less evil twin July, August is just a mess. Weather sucks all over and the oppressiveness of summer reaches its true heights. There are days where I almost feel like it’s always been summer and will always be summer, just sun and sun never-ending (and yes, I know that to some of you this sounds like a dream and I would like to ask “what the fuck?”). August is also characterized by a grinding down to a halt of many things; lots of people are on vacation (especially in Europe and the Mediterranean), it’s not time for the end of year lists yet but it’s also not the freshness of Spring and so on. Music releases also usually slow down to a crawl. There are still good albums released but less.
Except this is 2018 and nothing seems to be sane anymore or want to follow any of the old patterns. In continuation of how crazy this musical year has been, August has just been slugging left and right. Amazing releases have been noted in genres as diverse as traditional heavy metal, electronic jazz, progressive doom, indie rock, post-rock and the list just goes on and on. Even though I just said it’s too early to be thinking of the end of the year, those lists are starting to loom big on the horizon and if August is any indication, the size of the task of whittling things down is only going to get harder and harder.
In the face of that inexorable weight, we’ve decided to add a new feature to this list. Every month, we’ll be asking another, non-Editor member of the blog to contribute a selection to this list. This month, we have the wizard of cuss-words, the baron of swearing, the indomitable Matt MacLennan lending his voice to our mighty effort. So, before I start to freak myself with how much music there is left to be listened to during this year, let me turn you on to our list. It has a bit of everything and all pretty incredible; even the “further listening” section is especially stacked this month. Plus, I can’t speak for the other contributors, but I literally poured my sweat into this one. Pour yourself something cool, turn the A/C on as low as it goes, and read on for some fantastic summer scorches.
Ancestors – Suspended in Reflections (progressive doom metal)
What can I say about this album that I haven’t already said? Maybe this: Ancestors’s latest album seems bent on joining the rest of their discography as far as memory, emotional impact, recurring sessions and the relationships between those things. What has always been special to me about this band, beyond their incredible music, is how their honesty and depth of expression have always left an emotional mark on me. I keep coming back to snippets of their music, even when I haven’t heard an album in months, mulling over a passage and how it made me feel. Much of their music has become part of my emotional day to day, accompanying how I think about things and how I feel.
Suspended in Reflections, with its more intricate and interlaced structures, is starting to do that as well, to constantly creep at the edges of my hearing. More than any of their other albums, a lot of the trappings of doom and stoner have been shed here in favor of more sincere and cutting expression. It’s still plenty heavy, don’t get me wrong. It just feels like it dances to different tunes, not to the dedicates of what “crushes” but rather to the dedicates of who we feel when listening to it. It’s hard to explain; the album almost feels like a space I walk into or a mode of expression, something to be accessed, felt, lived in, something which doesn’t leave you once the album stops playing.
I say all of this out of the assumption that you’ve read my review. If you haven’t then it suffices for me to say that Suspended in Reflections is one of the best doom albums I’ve heard in years. But it’s much more than that and that’s what important for me to convey here; I can already feel it become a companion, a work of art that will live with me for a long while now. I think if you give it the chance, it might become the same for you. It’s built to do that. And, for music, what higher praise can there be than to stand the taste of time? This is an album that is sure to do that.
Floex & Tom Hodge – A Portrait of John Doe (electronic, contemporary classical)
Tackling the questions of the nature of existence through music is not new. Nor is finding meaning in life through its mundanity, its repetition, and the little ways in which each and every one of us breaks apart in subtle ways, like ripples pushing out from a single source. Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s timeless fusion of music and film, respectively, in Koyaanisqatsi set the standard for that in this medium, and it’s been carried out, again and again, many times since. Nor is musical exploration of human identity through a world of increased automation new. One of the most ubiquitous rock albums of all time, Radiohead’s OK Computer, is just that.
It’s difficult not to hear and think about all of these things when listening to A Portrait of John Doe, a collaboration between electronic artist Floex and composer Tom Hodge and featuring the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. But then again, the reason we are so attracted to these themes in the first place through art is because it provides a space to freely explore them, pick and prod at them, expand and extrapolate them, without the burden of having to provide any easy answers, or often any answers at all. A Portrait of John Doe isn’t anything new. But good gracious is it an amazing piece of art all the same. It is evocative and transportative in ways that all of the best pieces of art, music or otherwise, so often are. The balance between the “artifice” of Floex’s music – synths, electronic drums, clicks, blips, whirls, and all – and the utterly heart-rending “realness” of the strings and horns is staggeringly gorgeous and effective. Combining Floex’s knack for instantly-memorable dancefloor grooves and dense atmospheres with Hodge’s delicate and intricate compositions mixed with plenty of Wagner-ian muscle is a match made in heaven. As Eden alluded to in his write-up of the album earlier this week, it’s a similar combination that has made much of Jaga Jazzist’s best work so effective, in particular their often transcendent orchestral re-interpretive album Live with Britten Sinfonia.
One of the more fascinating aspects of John Doe that I have only really come to appreciate upon multiple listens though is simply how dark the entire track and narrative arc of the thing is. The first three tracks, “Inauguration of Nobody,” “Wednesday (Is the New Friday),” and “Machines Are Dancing” evoke a vibrant and exciting world of humans existing in this heavily robotic and automated world. Our nameless protagonist should be sad, feel empty, but the music depicts someone seemingly more than okay with his purely average existence. He goes to work, goes home, watches his programs, and goes to sleep, but he also gets to party in the middle of the week! With robots! It’s not until the more dissonant and menacing “I Dream of Ikaria” that we get a sense of a person with desires and dreams beyond this mundanity of life, and it’s in that moment that the music takes a dramatic turn towards the bleak depths. Knowledge and striving for something greater in life may provide “freedom,” but it always comes at a cost, and John Doe isn’t afraid to seemingly lay those costs out bare for all to see.
The back half of the album is strikingly gorgeous, in particular the sole vocal feature on “Prelude I,” and as the music prods deeper into uncharted territory for this character, we’re almost left wanting to return to the cheery and clockwork grooves of the first part of the album. That is the point though. As in much of life, pursuing answers for this character only leads to more questions, more introspection, and more conflict as he strays further from the neat path set out before him in the beginning. By the end, we’re left with “Requiem,” a place of pure darkness and unsettling existence, coming close to the kind of gut-wrenching dread that The Haxan Cloak is capable of. It’s anti-climatic in a way that is both a bit infuriating but also deeply fitting for the piece. One thing is for certain though. As soon as the album ends I want to return to the world of automation and John Doe’s neatly-arranged world again, only to start the cycle anew.
Mamaleek – Out of Time (avant-garde blackgaze, experimental post-punk)
When I highlighted Imperial Triumphant’s phenomenal album Vile Luxury for last month’s Editors’ Picks, I noted that my pick was a bit of an exception since I typically aim to spotlight an album that hasn’t received coverage from us or me before. This personal guideline has faded further this month, as I wrote more than a few words in August about how much I adore Mamaleek’s Out of Time. In both my review of the duo’s blackgaze masterpiece and our premiere of the album in full, I dissected the album’s unique and extraordinarily cohesive blend of influences in hopes that our readers would be inspired to check out what will undoubtedly be a future highlight of the genre. As ambitious as metal can be, I’ve never heard a band tackle an established style in quite the same way as Mamaleek, let alone with this level of success.
I’ve been quoting myself quite a bit with these string of Mamaleek posts, but I feel like my initial description succinctly captures the duo’s sonic approach. The duo experiments with the blackgaze formula by adding the groove and mood of post-punk and strong Arabic influences and rhythms, all of which is then tweaked with electronic and industrial elements. Along the way, this formula dabbles in everything from jazz to trip-hop to every corner of experimental rock, making for one of the most eclectic listening experiences you’ll encounter form any genre this year.
Mamaleek laid the foundation for an album like Out of Time with their back catalog, and they’ve reached a point where their approach is hard for any active black metal fan to justifiably ignore. While I’d point you to my review for a more in-depth analysis of the album’s innumerable strengths, I’d more strongly urge you to simply press play on the Bandcamp link below and explore what I believe to be among the strongest extreme releases of the decade. Out of Time is one of the most multifaceted albums I’ve heard in recent memory, and my sense is that the broader metal community will take note of that as well. Once they listeners strap in for the ride, it’ll be difficult to pull their attention away from the bounty of bold ideas their ears are eagerly feasting upon.
Stillbirth – Annihilation of Mankind (brutal death metal, grindcore)
This might be the first record appearing in Editors’ Picks that has nu-metal riffs, sub-bass drops AND inhale/exhale brees and squees. Well, it’s about damn time. Germany’s Stillbirth live somewhere between the worlds of brutal death, grind and tech-death so it makes perfect sense for their latest record to come out on Unique Leader Records. Annihilation of Mankind isn’t subtle in any way, shape, or manner and I am here to celebrate this. For a child of mid-2000s deathcore who has grown into a love for grind and a fondness for wiggnorant death metal, this is my Graceland.
I’m a sucker for the twisting, sudden shifts in a lot of high-quality tech-death but one of my biggest turn-offs (musically speaking, of course) is wanky, incessant sweeping and soloing. It’s come to the point where I’ve been actively scanning over anything with a Unique Leader stamp on it. The label recently put out the new Ingested record and their output has been slowly crossing over into a more “brutal” market, thus forcing me to stop and pay attention when a record like this comes across my inbox. Stillbirth are playing brutal death metal with all the help of studio precision, samples, and the previously mentioned sub bass drops that I still get off on. All of this sweetness and I’ve not even mentioned how playful and – dare I say it – progressive this record is.
Annihilation of Mankind is, at face-level, a stellar example of heavy, heavy metal. With a little bit of focus and attention the tempo changes, stuttering blasts of brutal death and grind, even the boorish deathcore simplicity in parts, all contribute to one of the smartest slam-filled records in some time. Katalepsy and Analepsy have put out some of my favourite records of the last few years playing devastatingly heavy death metal, now Stillbirth have done the same. It’s not clever, it’s not cute, it’s not meant to be. It is, however, hellishly addictive and given the chance will surprise even the most unconvinced that brutal death isn’t just for smelly reefer heads and hand tattooed layabouts.
Thou – Magus (doom metal)
Good bands might release one album in their career that will be difficult to emulate. Great bands release a record that is nigh untouchable. Thou are one of those latter bands, and Heathen their opus. As a huge fan of the band’s discography, it’s been difficult for me to imagine any future recording eclipsing the sheer magnitude of Heathen. But Magus, the Baton Rouge band’s fifth full-length record, comes awfully damn close.
The lead up to Magus has been well documented, including in Eden’s fantastic review of the record, so I’ll be brief. The three EPs leading up to this recording ascended in quality, starting off with oddball noise of The House Primordial, evolving into the acoustic splendor contained in Inconsolable, and eventually transcending into a grungy pinnacle with Rhea Sylvia. While each of these recordings is unique and enjoyable, none effectively prepared us for Magus. This is a titanic release in length, theme, and song that heralds back to the most enthralling bits of the band’s previous full-length work while incorporating enough of the new to present more baby steps in the band’s evolution. It’s everything I wanted from a Thou record and more.
If Magus is one thing, it’s a riff fest. Filled to the brim with some of the sludgiest, nastiest, most well-constructed riff packages of the band’s career, it’s front-to-back an overwhelmingly crushing affair. While the album isn’t completely devoid of atmospheric interlude (“My Brother Caliban”, “Divine Will”, and “The Law Which Compels” each serving this purpose) or “Feral Faun”-style guitar lead-ins (“Sovereign Self”), it’s heaviest elements reign supreme throughout. Those jonesing for the most relentless side of Thou will find it here in spades. But that isn’t to say that Magus is a one-note release. “The Kingdom of Meaning” is a spaced-out sonic deviation from the first half of the record that, coupled with the sonic strangeness of “Greater Invocation of Disgust”, adds a welcome slice of variety to the relentlessly brutal proceedings. The performances are all fantastic, Funck’s vicious vocal delivery and philosophically rich lyrics remain as sharp as ever, and the production is overwhelming throughout. In all, it’s the complete Thou package.
Where this album sits in Thou’s storied discography is up for debate, but what is not debatable is its quality. This is a well-constructed and expertly performed record through-and-through and sits comfortably on a qualitative level with the rest of the band’s unimpeachable catalog. One of the best releases of the year thus far, and one that certainly won’t be forgotten by many at year’s end.
Within The Ruins – “World Undone” / “Resurgence”
Look, I know this came out on the 27th of July. And it’s not even an album! It’s just a double single. So that should tell you that this is something really special. There wasn’t really enough time to cover this last month, and I wanted to give it time to breathe. Let me explain. I used to be a big fan of Within the Ruins, but everything after Invade has been all over the place. While most of their stuff wasn’t actively bad, it just felt like a different band. They used to be technically-focused yet knew how to use syncopation and metalcore tropes to keep things fresh and energetic. Yet, over time, they regressed into a basic version of the latter. Last year’s Halfway Human was a breaking point for me, where it felt like unrecognizable djenty metalcore with the occasional technical flourishes thrown in, but they mostly felt like studio tricks. Chopped up stuttered small licks that felt like an afterthought at best. I was out.
Then comes “World Undone”. When I first heard there was a new Within the Ruins single, I didn’t even bother. I didn’t want to be reminded of how good they used to be, and how far what they are now is from what that was (try to unpack that sentence). Yet curiosity got the better of me, and I listened to it. And well, I was immediately blown away. At first glance, this track can easily be mistaken for something from Invade, but it’s actually more than that. I’d say that it’s better than most of Invade, and the new added flourishes are a welcome addition. The lower string on the guitar, the occasional clean vocals, and the obviously-edited stutter leads actually enhance the core of what is a great song, instead of propping up what’s an otherwise hollow shell, Weekend at Bernie’s style. This is how a band grows and advances. This is how you start a recovery arc. “World Undone” is legitimately amazing, and it’s dominated my August, so it gets my pick. If Within the Ruins follow this trajectory, they can make their best album yet, and I say this as a die-hard fan of Creature. Sure, it’s different, but different can be good.
This isn’t to say “Resurgence” isn’t also great. Surprisingly, this isn’t a one-hit wonder. Their 2011 EP Omen had two new songs, “Controller” and “Infamy”. The latter was fantastic, whereas the former was just alright. Infamy carried that whole thing. Here, while “World Undone” is clearly the better track, “Resurgence” pulls its own weight as well. Even with “Resurgence” alone, I’d still qualify this as a big face-turn for Within the Ruins, but I’m not sure if I’d be gushing to the same extent and breaking all rules to include it here. That being said, “Resurgence” provides a more consistent path from their recent stuff into a future where they fuse old and new and grow. It encapsulates everything good they do and has a ridiculous groove section. Yet again, the edited leads sound great and enhance the overall song, and there’s a killer solo. I’m not inherently against studio magic in metal, but like everything else, it needs to be used in a clear, directed fashion with a holistic view of the music, and not just as a shortcut. It’s all about being creative and diligent instead of lazy.
Overall, this – EP? double single? whatever it is – is great. I was very much done with this band, and now I am back in just as deep as I was before. I’m very much looking forward to their new album, whenever that may be coming out, and I don’t even feel that nagging fear of disappointment that I’ve felt since Elite. I have faith that Within the Ruins have their game faces on now, and they will do something fantastic again.
Convulsing – Grievous (dissonant death metal, tech death)
Sometimes an album just gets it right. Atmosphere, production, songwriting, the whole gamut. Convulsing’s Grievous is one of those records. Top-to-bottom, this is virulent death metal of the highest order. Any fan of the genre would be remiss to skip it.
Ground Patrol – SEARCH (psychedelic math rock, krautrock)
If you didn’t check out the full album stream we hosted earlier this month, Here’s the gist: experimental math rock wizards Ground Patrol have returned with another four-track collection of dense, intricate instrumental rock that will surely leave those enamored with experimental rock clamoring for more as soon as the last track concludes.
Manes – Slow Motion Death Sequence (art rock, avant-garde rock)
There are plenty of ways to create “weird”; some bands go ham, embracing chaos, while other create a chilling vibe of otherworldliness. For Manes, the key lies in simply spilling their guts on to a record, no matter the technique being used. The result is an incredibly convincing and harrowing album, running the gamut of progressive rock, art rock and avant-garde with surprising agility.
Anna Meredith & Scottish Ensemble – Anno: Four Seasons by Anna Meredith & Antonio Vivaldi (electroacoustic, modern classical)
Classical purists might scoff at the notion of tweaking a piece as iconic as Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons. But with the help of an exceptionally skilled performance from the Scottish Ensemble, electronic composer Anna Meredith breathes new life into the piece while maintaining the elements that made it such a staple of the classical repertoire. Those familiar with the original piece should expect a mix of nostalgia and wonderment.
Mitski – Be The Cowboy (indie pop, art rock)
Being a touring musician of some renown and “success” is simply not it’s cracked up to be, as Mitski will tell you in her new album of earworm melodies and emotional freakouts. Be The Cowboy is filled to the brim with songs and moments that will get stuck in your head and then rip your heart out, along with a little bit of dancing along the way.
Piggy Black Cross – Always Just Out of R.E.A.C.H. (experimental IDM, progressive darkwave)
After the workhorse mentality, Toby Driver has had this year, the prolific composer deserves a few months of respite after the close of this year. Fresh off of his contributions to Stern‘s Missive: Sister Ships and before he drops his excellent new solo album They Are the Shield, Driver has teamed up with vocalist Bridget Bellavia to craft an excellent exercise in morbidly beautiful darkwave.
Pray For Sound – Waiting Room (post-rock)
The Boston-based purveyors of cinematic crescendo-core throw out their own book on their latest album and produce some of the most refreshing and warm instrumental post-rock in recent memory by stripping down and taking a different route to wring out similar levels of emotion.
Rebel Wizard – Voluptuous Worship of Rapture and Response (black metal, heavy metal)
You like riffs, you say? Guitar pyrotechnics set your heart aflutter? Rebel Wizard has your fix. Ten brilliant tracks of it. Australia’s resident sorcerer has struck black/heavy metal gold once again. Give yourself over to its riffy charms. You won’t regret it.
Spooky Cool – Every Thing Ever (indie rock, art rock)
Combining elements of classic and modern indie, math rock, alt-metal, and far more, the debut from Richmond, VA’s Spooky Cool is a startlingly confident and bold opening shot that more than lives up to the band’s name.
The Dark Third – Even as the Light Grows (dark progressive rock)
If a debut record makes it on to one of these lists, you know it’s good and this album deserves every word in this entry. Making accomplished, interesting and earnest progressive rock in 2018 is no small feat but The Dark Third have done that and more. Keep your eyes on these guys; they’re going to be making some great things and, in fact, already have.