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:
Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests (chamber folk, ethereal wave)
It doesn’t happen often, but I relish in the opportunity to highlight two albums from an artist in the same year. Not only does it signify the strength of their material, but it also allows me multiple chances to turn our fine readers onto an artist I’m particularly fond of. My previous unfamiliarity with Marry Lattimore only makes this phenomenon that much more impressive. Her first outing of 2018, Hundreds of Days, has remained one of my favorite albums of the year since I wrote about it in May. Her lush harp arrangements infused strong chamber music principles into gorgeous, alluring ethereal wave atmospheres, creating some of the most purely beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in quite some time. With Ghost Forests, Lattimore and Meg Baird connect in a different way to leverage their talents to create a unique folk album defined by a distinct, expansive voice.
Along with Lattimore’s harp, the duo brings a simple but potent instrumental ensemble into the fold, rounded out by acoustic and electric guitars, synths and haunting vocals. This produces intriguing results right out of the gate with multifaceted opener “Between Two Worlds.” What starts as a typically pretty harp presentation from Lattimore is eventually joined by droning guitars in the vein of latter-career Earth. Though not out of the realm of musical understanding, it’s an admittedly unique pairing that works surprisingly well. The juxtaposition of traditional harp beauty with dusty, gritty guitar licks fosters the folk atmosphere that defines the album’s runtime. By infusing chamber elements into the mix, the track listing takes on a much more grounded approach that’s both all-encompassing yet littered with tangible detail.
From there, the duo pulls pages from the Grouper and Marissa Nadler playbooks while stripping away the reverb to only the bare necessity. The atmospheres feel organic, warm and inviting as if you visited your grandparents at their home on the prairie and fell asleep by the fire while listening to their musical yarns. There are more-folk-oriented cuts like “Damaged Sunset” where Baird shines more brightly, as well as heavily ambient cuts like stirring interlude “Blue Burning.” But the common thread throughout every track is a sense of comfort and relatability. When many people envision the harp in a musical setting, they likely conjure an antiquated or formal scene more often than not. What’s refreshing about Ghost Forests is how much Lattimore and her harp sound right at home. Thanks to adept performances from Baird, the duo are able to elevate each other to achieve a truly emotionally potent, impeccably executed collection of folk beauties.
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boygenius – boygenius (country pop, singer/songwriter)
Harmony is a beautiful thing. It can be understood in so many ways but also felt, the mind breaking away from links of understanding and sublimating itself completely in the sweet sensation of order. The brain loves patterns though and it loves breaking them apart and understanding them even more. Thus, we often need to resist the temptation to break apart that which is understood better as a whole. This is the case with boygenius; seeing as it’s made up of the incredible trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus, it is very tempting to pick it apart and understand which part was contributed by which one of those phenomenal artists. But the secret to fully enjoying this album is to bask in it and let it wash over you, without questions of providence and source.
What unveils to us when we do that is a great outflowing of harmony. Both musically and lyrically, boygenius is a kind of wondrous alchemy, a subtle metallurgy through which the different voices which made it up come together to create a new alloy. It’s an album steeped in sadness, something which shouldn’t surprise us when we consider its sources, but also holding lots of power and claim to agency. For example, “Bite the Hand”, the opening track, speaks of nixed love but approaches it from the point of the singer as the one doing the disappointing and, so it is implied, the leaving. More somber tracks, like “Souvenir”, touch upon the matters of death in life and self-deprecation that run rampant through the individual works of all three of the contributors to the album, somehow elevating those themes even further, pricking our hearts and tear ducts into action.
At the end of the day, there’s something deceiving about boygenius; the sweet vocals, the harmonies therein, the sing-song quality of it clashes with the themes and lyrical content. But, setting aside our advice for one second and looking closely at where this album came from, is that any surprise to anyone more than half familiar with the names associated with the group? Hardly. However, while not surprising, it is wholly pleasing; the work of the three woven into one is incredibly powerful, singing messages common to the original work of all while infusing it with a strong sense of harmony that makes sure the head hits the nail even more accurately than usual.
The Prodigy – No Tourists (breakbeat, industrial rock)
The Prodigy are essentially a legacy act at this point. It’s maybe odd to think that about a band who were so genuinely dangerous and innovative during the 1990s, and who staged such a triumphant, late-career comeback with 2009’s Invaders Must Die. Yet, almost a decade on from that last great release, the dance music pioneers appear satisfied enough to rest on their laurels, or even incapable of even prodding at those same boundaries they once so thoroughly demolished.
No Tourists is the electronic Essex outfit’s seventh full-length record overall, but only their second in the decade since Invaders Must Die. Its flaws could probably be more easily forgiven had it come hot on the heels of that record, or even supplied some quick course-correction following 2015’s ultimately lacklustre The Day is My Enemy. However, given just how much of an interim there’s been since the world was greeted with some genuinely great Prodigy material, it’s hard to get too excited about a record that—though intrinsically solid—comes of, at best, like a collection of leftover and under-developed ideas from the Invaders era.
The album is certainly a more consistent release than the essentially uneven Day is My Enemy, but it also never approaches the heights that record offered by way of its bombastic title-track and deeper cuts like “Rhythm Bomb” or “Get Your Fight On”, let alone the lofty, genre-defining heights of “Omen” or “Smack My Bitch Up”. It starts off punch enough with the back-to-back pairing of “Need Some1” and “Light Up the Sky”. Yet, for all these track’s inherent kinetic promise, they also never develop beyond their basic premise. “Need Some1” is fifteen seconds shy of three minutes, and “Light Up the Sky” only exceeds that time stamp by about as much—each track dissipating just as they truly get going, while offering little variation along the way to their abrupt anti-climax.
The rest of the songs on the record follows suit, with a sense of diminishing returns quickly setting in. Although No Tourists offers up little variation over the course of its thirty-seven-minute runtime, each of its ten tracks also feels like it pulls up just short of the one before it—leading to a general decline in enjoyment as it progresses. The possible exceptions to this rule are the more fully-realized “Timebomb Zone”, which is essentially just a remix of Alphonso Ribeiro’s 1986 dance-hall cut “Time Bomb”; and “Champions of London”, which marks the only time emblematic frontmen Maxim and Keith Flynt make any discernible appearance on the record. Unfortunately, any newly gained momentum garnered by these two mid-album offerings is immediately undone by “Boom Boom Tap”, whose incessant sampling of YouTube rapper and MTV comedian Andy Milonakis’s “2 Weeks Sober” video is as grating as it is ill-advised.
No Tourists is less an artistic statement than it is a reminder that The Prodigy are, indeed, still a thing, and an excuse for them to go on tour again. For all its shortcomings as a studio offering, the record provides more than enough short, punchy numbers with which to punctuate a new set, and are sure to go down well in the live setting. Nevertheless, the album’s offerings continually feel like scraps and outlines of compositions rather than finished products, and the album itself already feels long-forgotten, even if the Prodigy themselves remain a respectable force within the contemporary music landscape.
Vince Staples – FM! (hip-hop, trap rap)
With a reported four new albums awaiting release, it looks like 2019 (and the foreseeable future) belong to Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. And rightfully so, given the young artist’s fantastic track record thus far into his career. With two excellent full-lengths (2015’s Summertime ’06 and last year’s fantastic Big Fish Theory) under his belt, along with a slew of high quality EPs, Staple’s stock has risen dramatically in a fairly short amount of time, quickly catapulting him into the upper echelon of the modern rap game. But a lofty reputation comes with high expectations and plenty of opportunity to disappoint. Which, to date, is one of the few things Staples has failed to do. 2018 sees him subverting expectations once again with the surprise 2018 release FM!, his shortest, most direct and potent statement of intent yet. If you enjoyed Staples’ previous work but felt it was a bit overwrought for your taste, FM! is the perfect antidote.
At 22 minutes, FM! is a lean, mean, hit-making machine. It’s fairly ironic that one of the best summer albums of the year dropped in November. Which, honestly, seems very intentional. “Feels Like Summer!”, “Outside!”, “FUN!”, and “Tweakin'” all listen like certified radio bangers, and I wouldn’t be shocked if clubs rock some of these tracks on the regular for the next year. But a closer look at the lyrical content of these tracks reveals stories of dead serious violence, isolation, and emotional disconnect that feel consistent with Staples’ bleak back catalog. It’s almost uniformly dark stuff, wrapped in a sugary production aesthetic that sometimes runs in such stark contradiction to Staples’ lyrical pessimism that it’s (purposefully) hilarious. The man’s sense of humor is alive and well in FM!, and it’s a glorious thing to behold. The album also contains a veritable who’s-who of stars in its truncated runtime, with Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Rock, Tyga, Ty Dolla $ign, and Kehlani, and E-40 all making potent, notable appearances throughout the record, adding a unique flavor to the already slick proceedings.
If this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the flood of new content Staples has in store for us, we’re in for a groundbreaking year in rap in 2019. FM! is one of the most effective and welcome surprises of the year, and I can only imagine where Staples will go next. But we can put our speculation aside for the moment and enjoy this brilliant and playful (if brief) slice of the man’s mind, which makes up one of the best and most enjoyable rap records of the year.