Hello and welcome to September, where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Cultural references aside, September is indeed the month where the year usually goes: “Oh, you thought there was a lot of music so far? Well, get ready for this”. The holidays are already looming high in everyone’s head (and holidays mean selling products and albums, contrary to what some purists might tell you, are products) and the end of year lists beyond them. This is the prime real estate of the year, stretching out into the creeping cold of November; it’s not too early that you risk being forgotten, buried under a bunch of other music, but it’s not so late that everyone is already away.
Thus, bands like releasing albums in September and boy do they have some albums for you. Instead of drawing your attention to the (excellent) picks this month, I’d like to direct your attention to the “Further Listening” at the bottom. You should always read it by the way; it’s pretty rare for it not to have some gem which just missed inclusion as a main pick. This month, however, that is doubly true as the section is jam-packed with goodies. First and foremost, there’s Noname‘s new album, Room 25, one of the best hip-hop albums in years. The production on it is crazy, the flow is even better and the entire thing just screams cool and composure. And then there’s Clutch who are, in case you’ve forgotten, one of the most consistent hard rock bands in history.
The section goes on and on, opening with Bosse-de-Nage and their incredible Further Still, before alighting on acts like the miraculous Toby Driver and riff hoarders Conan. It’s a damn fine Further Listening section, is my point, so go check it out. Yes, I know there’s too much music. Yes, I know we’re already giving you so many albums to check out with the main list. But do me a personal favor and dig deeper this month, OK? There’s just too much great stuff in there to let it go to waste. Oh, and we also have Pete from our staff contributing this month; he wrote up Revocation, saving them from the Further Listening list and elevating them to the main pick section where they, admittedly, belong.
OK, enough words from me now. Let’s music some albums, shall we?
The Black Queen – Infinite Games (darkwave, synthpop)
Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to dedicating a whole lot of webspace to covering the new record from ex-Dillinger Escape Plan and Nine Inch Nails project The Black Queen. Those studious few of you who pore over our niche roundup articles like Unmetal Monday might have caught Eden’s brief review of sophomore album Infinite Games tucked away under the fold, but those of you who missed it, the verdict was quite positive.
Indeed, where their debut record Fever Daydream (while an incredible record in its own right) threw loads of retrowave tropes at the wall to see what stuck, the act have since further developed their sound on Infinite Games to a more consistent sound that is uniquely their own, which we all know is difficult to achieve in the genre. Infinite Games isn’t as broad or dancey, but it feels more stark, intimate, and passionate.
Holy Fawn – Death Spells (post-rock, shoegaze)
There are certain albums that come along every once in a while that create such a specific, pinpoint mood so perfectly that the experience of listening to that album is akin to being dropped into a fully immersive, tangible world. I cannot think of any better way to describe the experience of hearing the debut album from Arizona’s Holy Fawn. It is an immaculately-constructed and felt piece of work that somehow manages to pull off the trick of sounding fresh but also incredibly lived-in. Combining elements of shoegaze, post-rock, post-punk, doom, noise, and far more, Holy Fawn’s sound resembles a dark fog, where plenty of light enters but winds up swallowed whole. The majority of the album is spent in a gloomy dream world, a beautifully dreary place guided by the wispy melodies of Ryan Osterman. There is a cavernous void lurking around every corner though, simply waiting for the right moment to pounce and explode into a flurry of feedback, throat-punch heaviness, and screams. “Dark Stone,” “Arrows,” “Drag Me Into the Woods,” “Seer,” and others all exist in this liminal space that is so alluring at its most serene and prettiest and so unbelievably cutting when the band cut the lights and go in for the kill.
Death Spells is the sound of a band who is scarily mature and confident in their sound and vision, not of a group on their first full-length album. There are plenty of bands of late who have had success in the “heavy shoegaze” field like Nothing, and there are even more bands who have excelled in the soft/loud ambient post-rock sound best exemplified by This Will Destroy You. Holy Fawn certainly sound like those bands and others, but there is simply no one out there I can call to mind who sound like what Holy Fawn have managed to put together into one exceedingly cohesive and compelling package. All else I can say is listen for yourself, allow yourself to be lured in, and prepare to be utterly gutted emotionally.
Immortal Guardian – Age of Revolution (power metal, shred)
Power metal can be pretty hit or miss, but when it hits, it hits really hard. Especially for a fan of technical music like myself, finding a band that balances interesting playing with the core bravado and grandeur of power metal isn’t trivial. Many bands either go full shred and lose the larger picture of power metal, or drown in the cheese. Immortal Guardian are fully self-aware, yet also incredibly proficient. They have Carlos Zema on vocals, and Gabriel, their guitarist, can shred simultaneously on guitar and keys. Yes, that’s a gimmick, but it’s an awesome one that they don’t just abuse and turn into their whole thing. It’s just an extra on top to the incredible songwriting they have.
Blast beats? Screaming? Out-of-this-world falsetto? Double-guitar-and-keyboard unison solos? Catchy choruses and energetic verses? Immortal Guardian have it all! And it’s all well-integrated, clever and hits you in the right spot every time. It’s rare that every song on an album like this could be great, but Age of Revolution definitely hits that mark. It’s a surprisingly diverse album, highlighting different aspects of the band’s sound with each track. There’s a certain exuberance, an elegant excess to the writing. I can confidently say that Age of Revolution is my favorite power metal album in years, and one I can confidently induct into the hall of all-time greats.
Low – Double Negative (indie rock)
Eleven albums and two-and-a-half decades into an established, highly successful career, it would be understandable for a band to coast on its strengths. Wild experimentation and sea changes of sound are typically reserved for third or fourth releases in a band’s catalog, not their twilight years. Think Radiohead’s Kid A, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or The National’s Alligator. Such records tend to serve as a point of divergence in a band’s discography, so releasing them in its early or mid-career point makes sense from a multitude of perspectives. Minnesota’s Low aren’t out here to make sense, as their 12th record Double Negative is a sonic deviation of epic magnitude that not only works on every measurable metric, but is also one of the best releases of the band’s illustrious career. Seriously. It’s that good.
The album’s opening track “Quorum” opens with a glitzy, jittery wall of rhythmic distortion that immediately lets the listener know that this album will be nothing like the band’s previous work. The entire album is coated in a gyrating wave of distortion, giving each of these tracks an ethereal, haunted vibe. “Quorum” in particular helms closer to a Portishead track than anything in the band’s back catalog, and here that’s a decidedly good thing. Low deftly maneuver through noise, sad-boi/girl indie, electronic, and instrumental rock like they’ve been mixing these styles forever. And in some ways, they have, at least in part. Tracks like “Dancing and Fire” herald back to the sounds that made the band famous, providing and anchor within a sea of newness. But the brilliance of Double Negative is in Low’s ability to incorporate a great many new elements into their established sound while never feeling like anything other than themselves. This foundation of welcome familiarity can be attributed to the soulful melodies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, who through piles of fuzz provide some of their most beautiful and haunting vocal work to date. “Always Trying to Work It Out” is an especially potent mixture of everything that makes this duo so special, and is one of the sure highlights of the record.
But in the end, it’s Double Negative’s sonic trailblazers that make it so engaging. “Tempest”, “Always Up”, “The Son, The Sun”, “Rome (Always in the Dark)”, and “Disarray” are simply magnificent, soaked to the bone in an all-enveloping static that takes the more electronically inclined elements of Ones and Sixes and sets them on overdrive. It’s an incredibly bold statement of intent for a band this late into their career, and it pays off in nearly every way. Low aren’t going anywhere, and if Double Negative is any indication, the creative peak of their long and storied career has only just begun. A risky, uncompromising sonic journey that stands as tall as anything the band have yet released, and will most certainly be counted among the best releases of the year by many, myself included. A total triumph.
Revocation – The Outer Ones (tech thrash, tech death)
Even though it’s only been 2 years, it still feels like a lifetime since Revocation last grazed our ears with sick new tunes. With riffs like theirs, you can get addicted very quickly. Thankfully they’ve returned to feed our bad habit. The Outer Ones feels like a journey through technical thrash/death metal, as if you’re taking a master’s course in instrument technique and music theory. It’s a total blast to hear that completely satisfies your cravings. Some metal is like candy: all flavor with no depth or nutrition. The Outer Ones is more like a five-course meal where at the end you’ve completely engorged yourself and are totally satiated.
The interplay of the instruments is what’s so satisfying about The Outer Ones. A lot of times, you can hear the competing rhythms and melodies between all the instruments. You would expect it occasionally from the guitars and bass and sometimes between the guitarists in multi-guitar bands. But how often are the musicians playing full on orchestrations? On “Blood Atonement,” listen closely to hear the melodic play between Dave Davidson and Dan Gargiulo’s guitars. In the heavy sections, you hear the tremolo picking from one while a harmonic riff is coming from the other. It’s most noticeable in the melodic jazz bridge where Brett Bamberger’s bass gets to play around.
Of course, all of these tracks present such virtuosity. But Revocation is just as capable of dumbing it down for just the most brutal death/thrash you’ve ever heard. “Of Unworldly Origin” kicks things off just right. You have to ease everyone into your technicality, I would think, and that’s just what the boys do here. There’s still more flash to their stuff than your average bear but it’s also not quite the finger contorting scale climbing of “The Outer Ones”. Just a lightning speed riffs with totally pummeling drums that’s unmistakably the metal we’re looking for. Time to get wrecked everybody! Revocation has returned!
Skullcave – FEAR (progressive doom)
One of the most harmful preconceptions in making metal music is that doom is all about repetition. It’s an easy mistake to make as the genre clothes itself in adjectives like “pummeling”, “crushing” or “monolithic”. All of those imply something which slams into you again and again, unchanging as it crushes you. But the reality is that doom metal, great doom metal that is, is all about finding the beauty in the crushing, the delicate in the immensely powerful. It’s a human desire, as we are constantly faced with forces larger than us, forces which we must learn to admire.
Thus, great doom metal is all about change, about the subtle dynamics of something which seems monolithic but is actually an exploration of a theme, each time approaching said theme from a different approach. That’s what makes Skullcave’s brand of doom, exemplified so wonderfully on FEAR, work. By incorporating ambiance, post-rock and other, more acoustic touches to their work, Skullcave dip and dive around the more massive parts of their music. It’s almost like gilding on a giant pillar: yes, the foundation is unchanging as it towers around you but the frills and decorations are what gives the structure its beauty.
With FEAR, these decorations are always aimed at drawing out the emotional sting and, almost like a Trojan horse, delivering it to you without you noticing. The result is an album which runs a wide emotional gamut underneath the adjectives of “heavy” or “abrasive”. Coupled with those very moments of overwhelming dread, created by echoing guitar chords and huge drums, the more delicate moments on FEAR cut you to the bone. Don’t take my word for it though; just listen to the closing track, “Bleak”, and see for yourself.
Sumac – Love In Shadow (experimental post-metal)
In all honesty, Simon already captured my thoughts on Love In Shadow perfectly with their review of the album. Granted, I’ve always had a more positive view of Sumac‘s initial debut on the post-metal scene. The trio is one of those supergroups that sounded great on paper and continues to be incredible with their delivery on thse expectations. Comprised of Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom) on guitar/vocals, Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) on drums and Brian Cook (Botch, Russian Circles), Sumac leveraged their post-metal pedigree to craft an exceptional debut with The Deal. Sure, Simon might be technically correct that the album (as well as What One Becomes, in a similar way) was essentially a modern iteration of the sound Isis established on Celestial, with mild shades of Oceanic. Yet, I’d argue that from the beginning, Sumac always had a unique approach to these now eminent sounds. The haunted, cavernous style in which the trio executed their post-metal felt much more introspective and sublime, exuding a great deal more vast sonic darkness. Modern production assisted in these results, of course, but at their core, the tracks penned by Sumac in their formative years provided a great deal to be excited about.
I use the term “formative years” purposefully, because I truly believe Love In Shadow will be regarded as a significant turning point for the band’s career, and potentially their crowning achievement. The album shakes off any remaining shades of the Isis legacy and its looming shadow, finally presenting instead an album that feels as pure an iteration of the Sumac sound as we’ve heard up to this point. Supergroups of this nature often need some time to find their footing, and clearly, Turner and Co. have locked into their introspective tendencies more so than ever before. On top of some of the best atmospheric sludge the trio has ever laid to tape, the group experiments with improvisation and unbridled creative expression, informed by influences from free jazz and dark prog rock.
Love In Shadow is structured as a long, winding quartet of tracks ranging from 12 to 21.5 minutes. This is hardly the place to tackle each of these tracks individually, and more importantly, this is truly an album’s album; a record that necessitates an uninterrupted listen upon each visit. These extended runtimes allow the trio to explore complex ideas, moods and progressions within each half of post-metal’s dichotomy of builds and climaxes. Such an approach allows for pummeling riffs dripping with sludge to segue into truly disturbing passages of menacing atmosphere punctuated by perturbed vocals and some of the most experimental guitarwork Turner has ever attempted. To pull off this level of composition, the trio clearly focused on being just that: a trio. Through every subtle or blatant shift in mood, the group sounds like they’re improvising live together and know precisely where their bandmates are bringing their instruments next. Though it’s unclear how much of the album was composed and open for improvisation, the end result is a set of fluid but fully confident displays of post-metal performed at the highest level.
Not only is Love In Shadow a landmark moment in Sumac’s young discography, but it’s also a shining example of why the “post-” genre is thriving. Someone along the way infamously branded post-metal as “thinking man’s metal,” and as pretentious as that might be, there’s a grain of truth that explains why the style has persisted and remained innovative. When your singular goal is stretching sludge metal in as many intriguing directions as possible, the destinations are arguably endless. And yet again, Turner and Co. execute that ethos beautifully, only this time, their efforts are more impressive, invigorating and downright enjoyable than the quality of their last two albums combined. Given how great their career has been and how much of a triumph Love In Shadow is, I truly can’t put into words how excited I am to follow the trio’s career moving forward. Truly great supergroups make you forget about their star-studded status and instead focus on the accomplishments of the newly formed identity. As much as I miss Isis, I’m completely locked into what Sumac have to offer and feel almost thankful for the choices that led Turner to connect with Cook and Yacyshyn to form one of the greatest metal bands currently operating.
A Forest of Stars – Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes (avant-garde black metal)
British black metal psych-peddlers A Forest of Stars continue to be as bizarre and thought to provoke as ever with their new record Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes. Here’s the quick sell: Imagine the labyrinthine songwriting and folk leanings of Negura Bunget, the wild experimental air of Dodheimsgard, and the psychedelic nature of Oranssi Pazuzu, all sepia-filtered through Victorian-era aesthetic. The record is a wild one, and doesn’t succumb to the novelty.
Guerilla Toss – Twisted Crystal (art rock, dance punk)
The latest album from Guerilla Toss stays true to its name throughout. The band’s collection of artsy-yet-danceable synth-punk bangers is often perplexing but never uninteresting. And through all the songwriting oddities, you’ll be surprised at just how many earworm hooks and memorable moments the group were able to squeeze within the record’s maelstrom of sounds.
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Infernal Coil – Within a World Forgotten (deathgrind)
You like your death metal with a little bit of grind thrown in? Like it loud and nasty enough to beat your poor, innocent eardrums into a bloody, liquified pulp? Look no further. You’ve found your record of the year. Former members of Dead in the Dirt bring the pain in this vicious gem of a debut.
Krisiun – Scourge Of The Enthroned (death metal)
Being a veteran is not an easy job but Krisiun make it look simple. These guys have been churning out quality death metal for decades now and the latest one is no exception; expect riffs, solos and harsh vocals which will launch right into the cold embrace of the void.
Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses (dream pop, ethereal wave)
As I wrote in my review of the album, On Dark Horses touches on a myriad of strengths from seemingly disparate styles that somehow work even better as a cohesive unit. Aided by perfectly balanced reverb and a haunted, power-through-pain vocal delivery, Emma Ruth Rundle’s approach to songcraft leverages atmospheres indebted to shoegaze and ethereal wave with equal influence from the realm of post-black metal.
Voivod – The Wake (progressive thrash)
It’s always a treat when veterans of the scene churn out quality work. Incantation, Immolation, and Gorguts are recent examples of this, and we can now add Voivod to that list of sterling late-career releases. The Wake is everything that is good about Voivod, and their best record since The Outer Limits.
Windfaerer – Alma (progressive black metal, folk)
What is best in life? To hear bands that you almost loved but not quite rise above their own standards and make one hell of an album. That’s the case with Alma, a slab of intricate but immediately engaging folk/progressive black metal.