January is like a box of chocolates; you never know exactly what you’re going to get. That’s how the famous saying goes, right? In any case, the start of the year does tend to be an unexpected affair. December sees many of us going into relative hibernation, as PR and the release cycle in general slow down. January then is like the next turn on a twisting road, with snow blowing hard and your headlights off. With most of the tools we use to keep up with what’s coming out soon switched off, it’s hard to know what to expect: will the slowdown continue or will the year announce itself with fanfare and excellent releases?
For 2019, it definitely seems to be the latter, even more so when you narrow the field to specific genres. Look at post-rock for example; January saw the release of not one, nor two, nor even three amazing releases from the genre. A Swarm of the Sun, Black Flak and the Nightmare Fighters, Old Solar, and We Are Impala all released downright brilliant albums in the style (and there are probably a few more we could probably include here). Elsewhere too, brilliant releases have been spotted, like the excellent Born of Osiris record, probably their best release in a long time, or Mo’ynoq‘s powerful exploration of black metal.
Speaking of black metal, it has also had a fantastic first month of the year with Griefloss and many other bands releasing downright amazing explorations of what the genre and its many modifications can do (you can read more about that here). Put all of those facts together, alongside some other incredible, left of field releases, and you have yourself an incredibly strong start to a year that’s already promising to give 2018 a run for its money. Head on below for a choice cut from the first batch of bands to start the race; I think you’ll see that we have much to look forward to and to already enjoy in 2019.
Black Flak and the Nightmare Fighters – It’s Only Permanent (post-rock)
Good lord, what is even going on with post-rock so far this year? I’ll have plenty more to say in our next Post Rock Post column, but the start of 2019 has been absolutely bananas in terms of incredible and memorable releases. There are several albums I could have easily picked to write about here (one of which Eden extols further down), but I’m going with one that hits a specific musical itch I didn’t realize wanted to be scratched so badly. On their sophomore album It’s Only Permanent, Salt Lake City’s Black Flak and the Nightmare Fighters tackle the bleak depth of misery in depression, mental illness, and suicide with a taut epic musical scope befitting that of classic Red Sparowes. Using a plethora of found audio that provides a near-constant running commentary of clinical authority and distant concern, It’s Only Permanent paints a picture of a world teetering on the edge of seemingly inevitable destruction. All the while snarling guitars cut through with piercing riffs and grooves so dirty you can practically feel the rust crunching off of them.
More so than any of that though, what makes the album tick is a sense of urgency that is often so lost in the bulk of music from the genre. Even on a track like “Clustercuss” that’s a relative slow-burner (at just short of 6 minutes it is also the longest track of an album filled with songs around or under 4 minutes) or moments of light like in “On a Good Day” and “Sunny Day Anhedonia,” there is a persistent melancholy and nagging dread and tension that propels the album towards its ultimate endgame. It’s Only Permanent is not interested in wasting your time though even as it seeks to take you through an entire cycle of crisis and relief followed by more turmoil and pandemonium. And boy, when that pandemonium hits, hold onto your butts. The two title tracks that nearly bookend the album are the obvious standouts in this regard, though it’s the more wistful coda of “You’re Gonna Carry That Weight” that keeps the album from falling off a cliff towards a gaping void by the end. It’s an emotional tour de force that is worth holding onto every second for.
Born of Osiris – The Simulation (tech-metal, progressive deathcore)
I was pretty skeptical when I heard that Born of Osiris would be going down what seems to have become the standard path for Sumerian Records and releasing two EPs this year. I’m not a particular fan of the decision, as both parts of what is essentially one album tend to lose steam when released separately. However, in this case, the decision has paid off immensely, at least for the first part released; The Simulation benefits mightily from its shorter run time, putting everything that did make the cut into sharp focus.
When the breakdowns are relatively rare and quickly over, you appreciate every single moment of chug and aggression. This is also true for the somewhat divisive synth tones which the band have become famous for; as in the past, they’re loud and sound a very particular way which might not be to everyone’s liking. Unlike previous albums, however, their presence is like a well-measured pinch of salt, bringing out the flavors inherent in everything else without overwhelming the listener or over staying their welcome.
Couple this with a great album structure (placing the ultra-aggressive “Analogs in a Cell” right before the album’s final part, for example) and you have a sweeping, engaging, and accurate release from one of the stalwart veterans of that particular brand of progressive metalcore. The shorter runtime, the economy of tones and ideas used on it, and just how fun it is means that The Simulation can and should appeal to people who might not have been 100% on-board with Born of Osiris in the past.
Bring Me The Horizon – Amo (alt-rock, pop rock)
This is going to be a controversial entry to our first Editor’s Picks column of the year, and rightfully so. This is, after all, a blog with the word “heavy” in the name not once, but twice, and if this album is anything, it ain’t heavy. But January is a notoriously slow month in the release cycle, and Bring Me The Horizon are culturally significant in the genre even though they’ve been moving away from their extreme music roots for the last four records, flirting with nu-metal, alt rock, electronic, and pop music for years before gaining the courage to finally go all-in on their latest record amo.
Typically, when metal bands make a slow transition to a more radio-friendly sound, it’s met with strong critical derision. Linkin Park in particular comes to mind; such a massively influential band that left its mark on a generation of musicians, Bring Me The Horizon included, made moves out of the sound that made them a household name to less than stellar results. But miraculously, Bring Me The Horizon make the leap with an album that is honestly highly listenable, with a level of songwriting, production, experimentation, and sincerity that makes amo work where similar attempts by others floundered.
Some riffing and metallic instrumentation do find their way across amo to leave the act’s footing in the realm of rock music — lead singles “MANTRA” and “wonderful life” for example revolve around quazi-nu-metal riffing — but the main attraction is the surplus of EDM influences, samples, and synthetic soundscapes. Opening track “i apologize if you feel something” is a haunting and cinematic experience that, incidentally, is guaranteed to make you feel something. “fresh bruises” is a more loosely structured track with a revolving door of electronic set pieces with nary an organic instrument in sight (unless it’s buried deep in the mix under a pile of effects). “nihilist blues” features artpop mainstay Grimes and is heavily steeped in European electronic music. Highlight “medicine” sounds like something that The 1975 could have written, and is the biggest earworm I’ve heard since, well, The 1975 dropped A Brief Inquiry… late last year.
Honestly, Bring Me The Horizon are more often than not sounding closer to Disclosure and Chainsmokers these days, and believe it or not, they’re better off for it. amo is by no means a perfect record, and there’s some filler to be cut, but BMTH are sincerely more inspired and engaging as a pop act than they were shoveling breakdowns as a mediocre deathcore band on MySpace. Look no further of the band’s mission statement in 2019 than the track “heavy metal” (featuring former The Roots legend Rahzel performing guest vocals and beatboxing(!!!)): “So I keep picking petals. I’m afraid that you don’t love me anymore, ‘cause a kid on the ‘gram with a Black Dahlia tank says it ain’t heavy metal. And that’s alright.”
It’s not that they can’t perform extreme music anymore, it’s that they don’t want to, and making the most extreme transformation of any rock band in recollection without major lineup or label changes while self-producing is a bold move that has to be respected. Fortunately, amo just happens to be good.
Nicola Cruz – Siku (Latin electronic, Andean folk music)
At this point, I genuinely don’t understand how people have trouble finding great new music in their genre(s) of choice. It’s easier than ever to discover new artists, subgenres and movements, something I’ve done consistently over the past several years. The best part is how effortless – and frankly, accidental – this can be. Last year, I would have never believed you had told me that my album of the month for January would be a Latin electronic album rooted in Andean folk music.
But now, I’m more than happy I decided to spin Siku; it’s the kind of album with both intoxicating immediacy and textured substance. Each of the tracks Ecuadorian producer Nicola Cruz conjures on Siku demonstrates the versatility and universality of electronic music. This is the kind of record you show detractors to prove the genre has immeasurable depth, worth and possibilities.
Describing Siku is no easy task, given just how lush and intricate its compositions are. In some ways, Cruz’s style is reminiscent of Forest Swords, in the sense that their processes both involve bringing elements from the natural world into an electronic framework. Cruz employs more than 20 musicians on Siku to bring his vision to life, which includes instrumentation and sonic motifs from African, Andean and Hindu traditions. The resulting tracks take the sounds of sitar, siku, balafon and more and either splices them with electronic production techniques or places them within an electronic context.
Overall, Siku is incredibly unique in its sonic palette. There are moments that could potentially be compared to Dead Can Dance, but even then that comparison doesn’t quite fit the mark. There’s a mysterious, tropical, tribal vibe that permeates from the album, a theme that proves transportative on every track. Tracks like “Criançada” feel like a traditional, acoustic folk song from the Andes bolstered with warm, ambient atmospheres. “Siete” offers a bit more of an upbeat take on this, with a psychedelic, sitar-driven groove treated in a subtle enough way to preserve its roots while making something new and invigorating. Even more electronic-oriented songs like “Señor de las Piedras” still use melodies and instrumentation that create a specific, alluring mood.
It’s a rare moment to encounter an album unlike anything you’ve heard or will likely experience again. Every year, I assume it’ll take a couple months to find my first “wow” moment of the year, and that usually holds true. But Siku earned a spot in my top ten of the year on first listen, and each subsequent spin only deepens my adoration for what Cruz has brought together here. Again, it’s albums like this that prove why electronic music is a rich tapestry of concepts and execution capable of bringing any assortment of elements together to create something spellbinding.
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (art pop, indietronica)
Sharon Van Etten is no stranger to honesty. Across four full-length records and a veritable treasure trove of demo, live, and home recorded material, the gifted singer-songwriter has unfurled stories of relational abuse, personal anxiety, and deep yet guarded love in a style that mixes the manic oversharing of early Bright Eyes with the gentle acoustics and lyrical assuredness of Joni Mitchell and Angel Olsen. She’s a bona fide star in the indie rock world that has embraced her music for over a decade now, and with such a sterling reputation it would be relatively easy for her to coast on the popularity brought by her modernization of a style long loved in the music world.
But Van Etten’s fourth full-length, Remind Me Tomorrow, is as close to her previous material in sound and design as Low’s Double Negative last year was to their discography. It’s a richer, fuller, more musically diverse set of tracks that highlight Van Etten’s growth as a songwriter and musician. In short, it’s her best record yet.
The first (and most immediately noticeable) shift fans of Van Etten’s music can find in Remind Me Tomorrow is the preponderance of piano on the record. Eschewing her traditionally acoustic guitar-heavy sound for a more diverse sonic palette, album opener “I Told You Everything” is a swoony, languid tone-setter, replete with spacey piano and string plucking that cycles in perfect sync with Van Etten’s lyrical repetition, establishing a sound intensely more lush than we’ve come to expect from Van Etten. “Memorial Day” takes this tonal shift and cranks it to eleven, developing slowly into a bass/rhythm-heavy, effects-infused affair that serves as the album’s planted flag of differentiation.
“Comeback Kid” and “Jupiter 4” only further push the album into synthetic territory, surrounding Van Etten’s gorgeous, haunted voice in a sonic shroud that serves her lyrics well throughout. But the musical adjustments on Remind Me Tomorrow, while obvious and uniformly effective, are not what make this album great. That honor belongs, as always, to Van Etten’s wonderful voice and lyrical ability, which dissects her thoughts with the precision of a seasoned surgeon, laying bare with unsettling intimacy her new stage of life. Combine this stunning display of lyrical vulnerability with engaging and purposeful stylistic changes, and you have a career-defining/changing album on your hands.
Sharon Van Etten has yet to disappoint, allowing each album she creates to build on the next in both musical and narrative form. Remind Me Tomorrow is without question her greatest leap on both fronts yet, and will most assuredly show up on many lists when the year winds down. An excellent, thoroughly enjoyable release from one of America’s most authentic songwriters.
We Are Impala – Visions (progressive stoner rock, post-rock)
You know those albums that just scream what their albums are about? This is one of those; adorning Visions is a mountain range painted in psychedelic colors, the pink and teal palette of the New Wave of Science Fiction raised like a banner for all to see, crowned by sidereal bodies in ascendence. Front and center stands Man, but small as he should be in the face of the powerful, astral, and geographic forces arrayed behind him. This tells you everything you need to know about the album, a journey through stoner metal, progressive rock, and everything in between.
This album is also a prime example of the power of tone; everything is motivated by how top notch the production is, nailing not only the guitars (an important part of any release this fuzzy) but also the bass and the drums, every skin hit or string thurm lending with impeccable precision. Things are, of course, not clean but rather accurate, with just enough overdrive, feedback, and distortion to make sure everything scintillates correctly, timbres bouncing off of one another like so many asteroids in a Kuiper Belt of moving, progressive, heavy, stoner rock.
This allows We Are Impala to fully explore the range of ideas they’d like to express on the album. And this range is extensive running the line down from the more straightforward and massive “Alpha Centauri”, channeling bits and pieces of sleepmakeswaves via Elder, to the well named “Echoes of Blue”, drenched with synths and an old-school vibe which speak directly to the wandering hearts in us all. The production and consistency of sound allow the listener to hold on while the band are performing these moves, anchoring us in a world of theme and distinct sound, painting the album with colors that become more and more familiar the more we listen.
In short, Visions is one of the most impressively solid releases in progressive stoner metal that we’ve heard in a while. We Are Impala perfectly nail their sound on it and sing it for the whole world to here, coupled with a recording that does justice to their ideas. It’s simply a joy to listen to, rich, thick, redolent, encompassing. Just likes its artwork.
Altarage – The Approaching Roar (Dissonant Death Metal)
The influence of Portal and Ulcerate in shaping the modern dissonant/technical death metal world cannot be understated, and if there were any band that best personified this subgenre’s evolution by perfecting the work of their influences, Altarage are it. Their third record is a definitive statement of intent from a band that has fully come into its own, and is also the best record of their career. Get on it.
Better Oblivion Community Center – S/T (Indie Rock/Folk)
Phoebe Bridgers‘s debut has become a lifeline for me. A record that I return to on a regular basis, and that has dug itself into the recesses of my heart in a way that few albums have. One of those rare few is Bright Eyes‘ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. So the musical marriage of Bridgers and Conor Oberst could not have drifted into my musical orbit with more hype. Thankfully, Better Oblivion Community Center delivers the goods. An excellent release that highlights the strengths of both artists in the most complementary of ways.
Blockhead – Free Sweatpants (experimental hip-hop, trip-hop)
I’ve been a huge fan of producer Blockhead since his days as Aesop Rock‘s beatmaster and his own incredible early solo output (Music By Cavelight and Downtown Science are still stone-cold trip-hop classics). I have to admit that it’s been a while since an album of his seriously grabbed me and demanded repeat listens though. Free Sweatpants totally changes that, as its his most dynamic and bold work in possibly a decade. Not coincidentally it’s also one that features a ton of stacked MC guest artists (including Aesop) and is also his most blatantly political work to date.
Extirpation – A Damnation’s Stairway to the Altar of Failure (blackened thrash)
We use “blackened thrash” as our default genre tag because of how black metal acts as an influencer rather than the core sound. Plus, “thrashy black metal” doesn’t have the same ring to it. But if there was ever a band to buck this trend, then it’d easily be Extirpation and they’re scorching synthesis of both genres. Their latest album feels like a manic black metallers pretending to be a thrash band, and the results are ferocious and unbridled.
Old Solar – SEE (post-rock)
Honestly, almost every month there’s an album which doesn’t get to be my main pick simply because I’ve reviewed it before and gushed about it there. This is the case with Old Solar’s release; it’s some of the best post-rock I’ve heard in years but there’s only so many times I can write hundreds of words about it. Nick is a different story though, so expect to hear about this album again soon. Meanwhile, just listen to it, OK?
Wandering Monster – Wandering Monster (progressive jazz fusion)
Let me tell you, our first quarter roundup for Jazz Club is going to be stacked this year. Wandering Monster is among the many highlights I’ve cataloged from the last month, though it stands out for its balance of immediacy and depth. Grooves, melody, technical interplay, you name it – the quintet make infectious jazz fusion with captivating progressivet tendencies.
Aesop Rock & Tobacco – Malibu Ken (experimental hip-hop, indietronica)
Anchor Thought – Cosmonaut (atmospheric prog metal)
A Swarm of the Sun – The Woods (post-rock)
Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (indie rock, psych rock)
The Drowned God – I’ll Always Be the Same (melodic hardcore, post-hardcore)
Griefloss – Griefloss (blackgaze, post-black metal)
Haunt – Mosaic Vision (heavy metal)
Land Wars – Land Wars (math rock)
Little People – Landloper (downtempo, trip-hop)
Mo’ynoq – Dreaming in a Dead Language (black metal)
Sungazer – Sungazer, Vol. 2 (nu-jazz, progressive electronic)
Surachai – Come, Deathless (IDM, glitch)
William Tyler – Goes West (American primitivism, Americana)
Yvette Young – Piano (ambient, modern classical)