Hey, did you notice that music is an incredible thing? I know it must sound trivial but give the idea a second to permeate through you. Music is one of those things we grow up with; it’s all around us. Our parents, from a young age, either play us music from recordings or sing to us themselves. Music is an inherent part in how we learn to be social (nursery rhymes, moral ditties, and the such all play a role in our social education), and one of the first forms of art we learn to enjoy. Many of us dance as children. In fact, the lack of self-awareness which children have opens them up to music in intuitive and direct ways which other forms of art lack, in their complexity and cerebral nature.
It’s that attribute, its direct link with us, which makes music so powerful as we grow up as well. Just like smell can conjure memories like no other sense, music is an inherently emotive and effective craft. It has the ability to depress us, uplift us, send our hearts beating, and our memories reeling. For me, as someone who listens to a ton of music, it’s amazing how sharp and powerful this affect remains, even when you listen to hours and hours of it. To be sure, some of the edge gets burnt away; I don’t find myself gushing as often about music as I did. But once in a while, when that special something plays, all that murk gets sheared right off music’s edge, like one of those super cool laser cleaning tools was applied to it (seriously, that shit is so cool).
And suddenly, all its edge is back like it’s the first time I’m listening to it. I found that happening to me in March, a lot. The list below contains some of the albums which did that to me and some of them will appear in this column in the future, when they will be released. March was filled with music which cuts directly to the core of why music is great, whether it’s the smoke filled, woodland hikes of Green Lung, the powerful and overwhelming antics of Aoratos, the twisting elegance of Sermon or the flamboyant heights of Haunt. All of these acts have one thing in common: they remind us how direct, radical, and effective music can be. They do so through their excellence, their uniqueness of communication.
Spring is coming. The world spins on. Things are sometimes bad and sometimes good. But music is always excellent.
Aoratos – Gods Without Name (black metal)
Herein marks the third time I’ve written at length about this album in the past two weeks. I’m I sick of discussing it? Not in the slightest. Each time I write gives me another opportunity to deep-dive into this record’s riches once more, so how could I complain? For those who haven’t taken the plunge into Gods Without Name’s murky depths, Aoratos is the solo project of Nightbrinbrger, Bestia Arcana, and Akhlys mastermind Naas Alcameth. Similar to those projects, Aoratos thrusts listeners into a nightmarish hellscape of atmospheric black metal that is never lacking in aggression or melody. Feeling neither redundant nor too far outside the lines typically painted by Alcameth, Gods Without Name is a fresh amalgamation of the sounds that made the Colorado-based enigma a household name for black metal fans. It’s also one of the best metal records of the year, full-stop.
I’m aware those are hefty words to be spoken when the year is only a few months old, but I can close to guarantee you that this record will populate a great many year-end lists come December. This is due to Naas Alcameth’s incredible knack for writing songs that are memorable, ambitious, and grounded in an instrumental genius that allows a black metal fan to listen in awe due to multiple facets of any of the tracks contained here. Eschewing synths as the driving force of the album’s dark atmosphere, Naas Alcameth instead utilizes the guitar to create a sonic wall that incorporates both ethereal tones and a core foundation of riffs. “Of Harvest, Scythe and Sickle Moon” and the album’s title track put this songwriting strategy on full display, bartering listeners with a near overwhelming wall of sound while the album’s riff structures creep through the atmospherics and strike through with blunt force at will. It’s a songwriting trope that helps Gods Without Name stick out from the atmoblack crowd and forge a path more unique to itself. It’s the complete package, and one that I will be dissecting and absorbing for years to come.
Far and away my favorite black metal record released this year, Gods Without Name is a sterling example of how black metal artists can elevate their genre through focused songwriting and disciplined performance. Give this record the time it deserves and you won’t be disappointed.
Green Lung – Woodland Rites (stoner rock, heavy psych)
I’ve said several times before that there’s no direct correlation between how much I think an album is worthwhile and the amount of times I’ve listened to it. Some albums, difficult and extensive, can still be masterpieces even if they don’t grace my stereo frequently. However, sometimes this correlation exists and Green Lung’s Woodland Rites has scarcely left my ears this entire month. It probably has something to do with the fact that the band seem to be very much in tune with a fact that many other stoner metal/rock bands have forgotten: stoner music is supposed to be fun. Even in the days of yore, when Black Sabbath were doing their thing, humour was a staple of the genre.
But today, many bands are busier crafting an image for themselves than with making their music enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, if you can embrace your self importance and nail the execution, you should go right ahead and dive deep into your pretension (I am a metal journalist after; what’s more pretentious than that?) But most bands can’t really fulfill that promise and end up choking their music with stale imagery and even staler execution. Not Green Lung. The smoke runs free from their lungs and the oaken scent which their album exudes needs no tending or stoking; the flame and passion of their music does all of that for them. As I listen more and more to the album, the emotion which most comes through the music is a carefree abandon, a joy simply in picking up an instrument and making noise.
Which is not to say that I think that making this album was easy; on the contrary, it’s way too carefully crafted to be a fluke or just something which flowed from one hour to the next. But in the daftness of their craft, Green Lung have mentioned to make an album that’s both chock full of riffs, fuzz, and fun but which also just sounds natural and right. If you’re a fan of stoner metal in any capacity, this is a must have for you and one of the more exciting debuts we can remember in the genre. Get on this train quick because it’s going places and those places will probably be covered in evergreen forests, the faint smell of all sorts of herbs floating on the wind.
Hannes Grossmann – Apophenia (progressive tech death)
Hannes Grossmann‘s creds need no justification. Everything he touches turns to gold, and as such, his solo stuff is fantastic as well. Already on his third album in five years, along with being part of several prolific progressive/technical projects, the guy is clearly a fountain of inspiration. At this point, seeing him up the ante even further is no surprise, but it’s still quite impressive. While previously his solo material evoked mostly Obscura, Apophenia is basically a bonus Alkaloid album. I mean, looking at the line-up, it’s really not surprising. Basically the entirety of the German supergroup is on board here.
As such, Apophenia is a step in a more progressive direction, with quite a bit of clean vocals from Morean, a lot more whole-tone style guitar leads (which evokes another project Hannes is involved with, Blotted Science), and a lot more. If one thing could be leveled as criticism against Liquid Anatomy, it would be that the album is not very accessible, and one could worry that the same would be true here, considering the parallels. However, that’s not really the case. Hannes somehow manages to blend the catchiness of Obscura with the more cerebral elements of Alkaloid in a really expert fashion. As such, what we have here is an ideal gateway release that would satisfy fans of both and also allow crossover between the two for listeners looking for more of either.
It’s easy to dismiss Hannes’s solo material as “just a drummer” or “more of the same”, but his writing is brilliant, and it only goes further to show just how instrumental he’s been to every band he’s been a part of. He’s truly a force to be reckoned with, and perhaps the secret sauce behind the German tech death scene. Go listen to Apophenia.
Haunt – If Icarus Could Fly (traditional heavy metal)
Much ink has already been spilled, by much better writers than I, on the godlike prolificity of one Trevor William Church of Haunt and Beastmaker fame. At the time this post will go live, the dude has written somewhere in the ballpark of 14 releases for 2018 and 2019 alone already when you take both bands into account. Granted, most of those are four- or five-track EPs, and at least a couple are based off of older tunes Trevor’s been working into shape for quite some time, but still, the dude’s put out more music in 16 months than some celebrated bands put out across their entire careers, and it’s all been good. That isn’t to say they’ve all been instant classics, of course, but my god, nobody who puts out 12 EPs and 2 LPs in the time it takes a newborn infant to learn to walk has any right to be as consistently listenable and enjoyable as every Beastmaker and Haunt release has been.
Although an excess of writing has properly met this excess of music, I don’t really think anybody has exactly said why the Marvelous Mr. Church is able to keep batting exceptionally close to one thousand while maintaining such an accelerated, shoot-for-the-moon release schedule. So here’s my postulation: Trevor William Church writes pop songs with heavy metal window dressing. I know that sounds stupid, but hear me out. With Haunt, Trevor takes very, very traditional verse-chorus-verse song structures and essentially just draws over the same coloring book as Ariana Grande, Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, or any other pop star, but with a set of crayons that more closely resemble fiery Iron Maiden-meets-Thin Lizzy heavy metal/hard rock thunder than moody trap snare rolls or cloying bubblegum bass.
That’s not to say that the secret formula to Haunt’s success is simplicity. In truth, Haunt’s greatest strength as a band is something far less easily emulable: it’s the chest-pumping, war-brother-camaraderie fuzzy feeling it gives you right in your gut: when Trevor sings on the chorus of “Run and Hide,” the first song from If Icarus Could Fly, “we’re not afraid / we’ll take our chances / we’ve formed a line, / taking the advantage,” it hits with the most powerful sense of unabashed pride and energetic gusto metal has seen in quite a while. Every Haunt song has these moments. The mastery here is one of incredibly uplifting sentiment without ever venturing into the sort of disingenuous, intentionally cheesy territory a less-experienced musician might find too compelling to ignore. No, Haunt has never once given off that fatal air of ironic distance or haughty above-it-all pretension that sometimes infects “revival” groups. It’s strong heavy metal, for the sake of strong heavy metal, because what more could you possibly need?
That isn’t to say Icarus doesn’t see Church completely retreading the path laid by Luminous Eyes and Burst Into Flame. The Symphony X-style neoclassical keyboard shred on “Clarion” stands out as a key moment that wouldn’t have been possible without former releases establishing Haunt’s footing, but all told, Icarus shows a sort of maturity, an unwavering embrace of what exactly this project is and what it means. With If Icarus Could Fly, Trevor William Church reaches out and directly finds the essence of Haunt, and this world is so much better for it.
Sermon – Birth of the Marvellous (atmospheric prog metal, alt-metal)
Secular appreciation of religion is most difficult to execute in music. The vast majority of self-proclaimed religious artists, whether purposeful or not, infuse their compositions with a certain sense of piety that often manifests in an overly saccharine sheen. However, when spirituality is leveraged effectively, the unbridled strength of that belief can bolster an artist’s sonic vision; my personal favorite example is Chance the Rapper‘s phenomenal sophomore release Coloring Book.
The album, while clearly saturated with a religious theme, was more written as a cathartic response to my fathers terminal illness. During the illness, (my father nor I were religious, nor am I still), ultimately ends in a Hospice, a place that tends to be full of religious iconography. For a lot of the residents, I saw this gave them hope. Simply, the idea they will be looked after beyond this life gave them comfort. You tend to forget any prejudices at this point, and honestly I admire their hope, while also feeling slightly envious. A very sad experience, but if anything, it can make you feel more thoughtful to the views of others.
As a result, these themes shine through in subtle but omnipresent ways. The entire album is defined by an overarching sense of atmosphere and majesty. Lyrically and vocally, Sermon preach in a performative sense of the word, with a majority-singing approach punctuated by sparse but perfectly placed death growls and shrieks. This is all anthemic while still being deeply modest, exhuding true sincerity of emotion and message from clearly haunting experiences.
Underneath it all is an intriguing blend of styles, which fans of Katatonia and Soen will find particularly enticing. In essence, imagine splicing the sounds of Alcest, Opeth
Perhaps most difficult to put into words are the feelings Birth of the Marvellous evokes. After each listen, the album just beckons for another spin, due to the alluring and multifaceted songs. In a direct, immediate sense, Sermon
Devin Townsend – Empath (symphonic prog metal)
Devin Townsend released an album last month, so we kind of have to include it in our Editor’s Picks, right? We gotta stay on brand whenever necessary, and few things are more on-brand for Heavy Blog than laying heaps of praise and attention towards Heavy Devy. After all, he’s a cultural icon in our circles, and every new release is going to be received with eager anticipation. Reaction has been mostly positive thus far it seems, and a cursory glance at the hotter takes seem to suggest a common agreement: this is the best record Devin Townsend released under a project with his own name on it since he wrapped up the original four Devin Townsend Project records in 2011. Given that he’s released like four albums in those eight years, we’re having a pretty good time!
However, on a personal level, I still don’t know how I feel about Empath. Sure, initial listens have been enjoyable and a veritable adventure. But Empath is dense and defies quick analysis and understanding. It’s hard to pin down and appreciate for all of its complexities and grandiosity. Here’s what I do know: Empath has the musical qualities and eccentricities of Deconstruction — complete with choir and orchestrations lending an ethereal and epic nature to the record — with the positive philosophy and aura of Epicloud. If Deconstruction was a downward spiral of poor self-esteem, doubt, and existential crisis, Empath is unconditional love and self-regard.
It has its ups and downs; it may be because of how fresh the album is (as of writing this draft, I’ve had the album a total of five days), but Empath feels largely unstructured with little regard to song construction with flow. “Genesis” is fun and whacky, and “Evermore” is cute, but songs like these initially feel directionless without the context of the whole album to prop up the grandiosity of it all. “Spirits Will Collide” is almost cloyingly sweet and has more cheese than Wisconsin.
But Devin is an undeniable showman, and Empath is quite the ride. “Why” fulfils the promise of Devin’s Disney musical endeavors. “Sprite” is just lovely and is classic bright Devin. “Hear Me” is that heavy shit we’ve been dying for and has some riffs that evoke the Strapping Young Lad era. “Singularity” is a six-part suite that covers all the bases you’d expect from a record such as Empath, and serves up a glorious second half of the record.
When this post goes live, Empath will have been out for only one week, which is hardly enough time to really digest a record such as this. First impressions are good, but only time will tell how Empath holds up in the greater Devin Townsend narrative. Perhaps it will wind up on our year-end countdown? We’ll see! We’re gonna need the time to sit on this one and really figure it out.
Contrarian – Their Worm Never Dies (progressive tech death)
What the hell can I say about this album that I haven’t already said? It just keeps getting better the more I listen to it; if intelligent, progressive, passionate death metal is what you crave, then this is just what the doctor from beyond space and time ordered.
Equipoise – Demiurgus (progressive tech death)
Equipoise is the quintessential modern tech death group. A supergroup from an already incestuous tech and prog death scene featuring past and present members of Inferi, The Faceless, Beyond Creation, First Fragment, and more, Equipoise revels in the excesses of the genre to great success. Think Necrophagist’s heavy neoclassical-style technical guitar playing with Obscura’s songwriting and sense of melody, interwoven with acoustic guitars and over-the-top synthesizers to create a tech death album with epic scope.
Fallujah – Undying Light (atmospheric death metal, progressive death metal)
Bay Area atmospheric death metal trailblazers Fallujah have made a comeback after losing founding vocalist Alex Hofmann on Undying Light, which strips down the band’s sound from their hit record Dreamless and is often comparable to Misery Signals and Deftones. New vocalist Antonio Palermo (Underling) gives a stellar performance, but many longtime fans are distraught at the change. At any rate, these songs speak for themselves, and Undying Light is a trip worth taking.
La Dispute – Panorama (emo, post-hardcore)
The consistent purveyors of spoken-word, emotionally electric post-hardcore are back with one of their best records since their auspicious debut. La Dispute hold to everything they do best in Panorama, which is as diverse and memorable a record as you’ll be likely to find in the post-hardcore world this year. It’s an album worth investing your time and energy in, for both Jordan Dreyers poignant lyrical observations and the band’s ridiculously effective performances.
Malignant Altar – Retribution of Jealous Gods (death metal)
Downright filthy Tex-death in the style of Convulse or Abhorrence that sits comfortably between “getting beaten to death with a log” and “getting run over by a bulldozer, forever.” Also it’s got members of Insect Warfare. OUGH.
Matmos – Plastic Anniversary (experimental IDM, glitch)
On the 11th album of their nearly 25-year career, Matmos continue to solidify themselves as perhaps the most inventive groups in the history of electronic music. Plastic Anniversary is one of the most unique of their experimental album themes, as the record is comprised exclusively of samples of various types of plastic. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly seamless synthesis of sounds, coming off as a much more “normal” listen than it actually is.
Venom Prison – Samsara (death metal)
Holy hell. This record is filthy. Devotees of death metal will find plenty to love in Venom Prison’s sophomore full-length, not least of which being Larissa Stupar’s absolutely frantic vocal performance that sends each of these already instrumentally adept tracks into the stratosphere, culminating in a record that is as menacing as it is infinitely engaging. A fantastic effort from death metal’s new darlings.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall (jazz fusion, spiritual jazz)
William Basinski – On Time Out of Time (space ambient)
Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet (indie folk, singer/songwriter)
The Comet is Coming – Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (jazz fusion, nu-jazz)
Elder Ones – From Untruth (avant-garde vocal jazz)
Eternity’s End – Unyielding (prog metal, power metal)
FACS – Lifelike (experimental rock, post-punk)
Housewives – Twilight Splendour (no wave)
Ibibio Sound Machine – Doko Mien (Afrobeat, neo-soul)
Jayda G – Significant Changes (deep house, nu-disco)
Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan – New Rain Duets (ambient, ethereal wave)
Light Conductor – Sequence One (ambient electronic, minimal synth)
Little Simz – Grey Area (UK hip-hop, conscious hip-hop)
Dan Mayo – Big Brown Eyes (experimental rock, electronic rock)
Megason – Kupamanduka (progressive math rock, sludge rock)
Moon Tooth – Crux (alt-metal)
Paracelze – Ptérodactyle (avant-garde noise rock)
SEIMS – 3.1 (post-math rock, prog fusion)
Shabti – Trembling and Shorn (blackened tech death)
Sinmara – Hvísl Stjarnanna (Icelandic black metal)
Solange – When I Come Home (r&b, art-pop)
Standards – Friends (math rock)
Vimur – Triumphant Master of Fates (black metal)
Vulture Forest – Some Things Stay Broken (ambient jazz, avant-garde jazz)
White Denim – Side Effects (indie rock, psychedelic rock)