Ah, May! What a heady month, as Spring makes itself known in most of our circles. It’s probably my favorite time of the year to listen to music; something about the combination between the weather, the symbology of the period, the days getting longer, and the fact that it’s just before the half-year mark makes May a great month to dive into new music. Often, this will involve the heavier genres for me, for some reason. Maybe it’s the contrast between the music blasting in my headphones and the jubilance of the outside world. Regardless, I find myself gravitating towards all things heavy.
The list below, however, shows you that just like any other month, May can be incredibly varied. The list kicks off with Coast, one of our favorite jazz projects in operation today. It then touches on as diverse points as progressive metal, black metal, indie rock, whatever the hell Warforged just released unto our ears, and much more. It’s yet another sign that 2019 is an incredibly strong year; as we near the halfway mark, the sheer variety of albums being released just doesn’t seem to slow down.
That’s it. No grand point this time around (I’m allowed a break, right?) It’s just been another terrific month for music, the birds are chirping outside my window (not right now, metaphorically speaking), the days are nice and the evenings even nicer. So let’s leave philosophizing for later and just enjoy some fantastic music.
COAST – Skim (jazz fusion)
Sydney’s COAST have perhaps one of the most appropriate names for the style and sound of music they perform. Their special brand of contemporary jazz fusion embodies a unique kind of fluidity across post-bop, funk, progressive rock, electronic and house, and more. Their music doesn’t simply shift across all of those genres and modes. It often combines several at once and organically flows into new territory. It glides. It, well, coasts. We noted their particular talent for this in their highly-touted eponymous debut (which, frankly, I was shocked to remember somehow only came out just over one year ago). The band’s follow-up to that excellent record, Skim, doesn’t do too much to mess with or potentially corrupt the winning formula they’ve hit on, but it most assuredly does continue to push their incredible artistic instincts outward like musical tendrils across the vast sea.
Similar to the opener from their previous record – the fantastic “Blackline” – Skim opens with a hard-edged banger in “Speckle.” From the mysterious opening motif through the heavy use of punctuated brass to the menacing synths lurking throughout, “Speckle” is a prog-jazz tour de force, easily calling to mind the work of masters like Darcy James Argue, or, even more recently, Graham Costello. “Speckle,” like “Blackline” was, also turns out to be a bit of an outlier in terms of heaviness, but Skim never ceases to move furiously towards some new and exciting idea. On “Tazzie” it’s a deeply funky boom-bap groove that suddenly gives way to frenetic double-time runs. With “Of the River” and “Broken” instead we get the slow burn treatment of blissfully serene and sultry beginnings that slowly transforms into an epic anthem and a burbling geyser of synth. “Another Again” flips the script with an intro riff that zigs towards middle-eastern pentatonics and then immediately zags into bouncy pop-funk.
Of course, all of that feels like a setup for the kaleidoscopic epic that is the title track. Centered around the delightfully busy multitasking of keyboardist Shannon Stitt, “Skim” is chock full of headbang-worthy moments all the way through the final jammy moments as drummer and composer Paul Derricott constantly shifts his playing between straight-ahead, off-kilter hip-hop inspiration, and beyond. A perfect microcosm of the album as a whole, “Skim” represents that fluid ethos of COAST to the highest degree, finding constant energy in ideas big and small, bouncing off of each other and cascading momentum into an undeniable force of jazz fusion brilliance. Skim is proof that the band’s electrifying debut was anything but a fluke, and that COAST continue to represent some of the most exciting modern jazz anywhere.
Dreadnought – Emergence (progressive doom)
Whenever a Dreadnought album releases, I know I’ll find myself in this position. I’ll review it as its own thing and then inevitably “have” to pick it for Editors’ Picks. This is a good thing; as with any complex albums, moods, context, and just distance traveled do much to deepen, augment and reconfigure your perspective on the music. Emergence is no different. I’ve found myself listening to it mostly while traveling, whether that be my daily commute or the insane amount of flying I’ve already done since the album was released. So, what’s new with how I listen to Emergence?
“New” is probably not the right word for it; after all, the music is the music and since I listened to it pretty closely for my review, I’ve more or less “heard all there is to hear”. However, as I pointed out in my review, the thing about Emergence is that it’s the most atmospheric release from the band yet. Whether in the more prominent and diffuse bass tones or the new place in which the vocals sit in the mix, Emergence is more effervescent and encompassing, a harder beast to pin down. With repeated listens, this sensation has only grown stronger; I’ve started hearing what an important part silences or the quieter parts on the album play.
On previous releases, more atmospheric passages were filled with instrumentation. On Bridging Realms it was mostly flute while on A Wake In Sacred Waves it might be drums or the bass. Here, silences are allowed to ring out more often, creating spaces in the music. They’re also far more condensed on the album, almost overwhelmingly taking over its middle passages. It’s funny: even though Bridging Realms is the album about space, Emergence has a lot more void.
The end result of that void is an even more powerful catharsis when the time for the full band’s return arrives. This is yet another reason that “The Waking Realm”, beyond the qualities of the track itself, is one of the best Dreadnought tracks ever written. It dives deep into the void left to it by the silences in the previous tracks, standing as it does at the end of the album, and brings them to the forefront. When it climaxes, it does so powerfully, like so much flame erupting from the build-up to its ignition. God, what an album.
Employed to Serve – Eternal Forward Motion (grindcore)
Employed to Serve’s Eternal Forward Motion is another in a slew of consistently great releases from UK label Holy Roar. With their follow up to 2017’s very well received Warmth of a Dying Sun, Employed to Serve are back with their ferocious blend of metallic hardcore and mathcore that’s groovier than ever. Eternal Forward Motion has this authentic youthful punk energy that I find lacking in a lot of hardcore these days. That punk influence is fused brilliantly with more technical guitar work, and abrasive and emotive harsh vocals that match the energy and drive of the instrumentation. The riffs are relentless as they are heavy, with a healthy range of driving, uptempo mosh-worthy sections to huge slowed down crushing breakdowns as in the ending of the “Dull Ache Behind My Eyes”.
More than just heavy, a lot of the guitar playing here is straight fun. Employed to Serve …employ some of my favourite parts of that ‘myspace revival’ scene that’s burgeoning in the US right now, like the screeching panic chords (or minor 2nds) and groovy, fun energy, though admittedly with a bit less of the sass that scene is often known for. That crunchy groove takes a lot from nu-metal as well. At the start of “Owed Zero” I was expecting Fred Durst to make an appearance or for Jonathan Davis to start beat-boxing. And there are hints of the relentless aggression of Slipknot, all over this album. But honestly, I’m all for nu-metal influence making a reappearance in heavy music when it’s done as well as it is here, and I think it’s a healthy evolution for this band while not dramatically changing their sound. The production is fantastic at bringing out that influence as well, and adds another layer of accessibility to this that some bands in this vein can lack.
Holy Roar records labelmates Rolo Tomassi have made a name for themselves on their last two albums writing powerful and earnest mathcore/metalcore that has a lot of weight to it, and I think some of that has rubbed off onto Employed to Serve here. More than just in the form of slowed down introspective sections, which are great, but in the less predictable songwriting and depth to these songs. Like their other UK label mates in Svalbard, vocalist Justine Jones tackles a lot of personal issues like mental health and relationships with a similar visceral honesty and anger and blackened hardcore tone. They recognize that the world is kind of shitty, disenfranchising and suffocating place for a lot of people they’re pissed off about it and here the tell the world, and really deserve to be heard. By pushing through with Eternal Forward Motion, they use that passionate anger as momentum and have punched themselves near the top of my album of the year list.
The National – I Am Easy to Find (indie rock)
There are few bands in the history of rock music that have a longer streak of quality releases than The National. Since the release of Alligator in 2005, the band have released classic after classic, adding nuance and finesse to a sound that has come to shape an entire generation of indie rock listeners. I count myself among those who have found significant comfort, release, and profundity in this band’s work, and any announcement of a new release stirs in me a substantial level of anticipation. 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, with its sweeping synthetic sonic vistas, highlighted a more expansive style of songwriting that took me a bit to warm up to. But warm to it I did, leaving me with a dark horse release that deserves as many accolades as the band’s other classic releases. This year’s I Am Easy to Find continues along the trajectory established by SWB but with even greater gusto, blowing the top off the band’s typically understated sound through a collaboration-heavy songwriting structure that is by far the band’s most expansive work to date. But is it any good?
The simple answer? Yes. The band’s eight full-length record is another winner in my book, though this will most likely go down as the band’s most divisive record to date. That division is mainly fomented by the inclusion of a multitude of guest vocalists and musicians, who color the album with an infinitely more diverse palette of sounds and textures. This is The National in CinemaScope, and your feelings regarding the album will hang largely on your enjoyment of these new contributors and songwriting emphasis. For this listener, the addition of these artists creates an album that is among the most interesting and dense the band have created. Opening tracks “You Had Your Soul With You” (accompanied by the utterly capable vocals of David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey) and “Quiet Light” present a nice primer for the sounds to come, preparing listeners for tracks like “So Far So Fast”, in which the typically bombastic frontman Matt Berninger takes a full-on backseat, allowing the voice of Lisa Hannigan to take these verses into uncharted waters for the band. It’s new, it’s jarring, but it’s also quite lovely.
In addition to the above changes, Aaron Dessner has brightened the band’s compositions to a noticeable extent, focusing primarily on highly melodic and electronic music elements to flesh out some of the most emotionally hopeful sounds of the band’s career thus far. Those who crave the band’s more melancholic tone need not fear, however. “Oblivions”, “The Pull of You”, and “Light Years” feature Berninger’s signature sad-man lyrics and vocal delivery, pulling the more expansive songwriting back to the basics that made the band a household name for indie rock fans.
In all, I Am Easy to Find is an even further turn into the more widescreen sound the band has been hinting at for years, but have only recently begun to explore. It’s an album that is certainly the band’s most controversial to date, but also their boldest and most hope-filled musical statement. A band that is able to include this many new partners while maintaining all of the key elements that make them special is rare indeed, and The National once again breathe the rarified air of a decade-plus of quality releases. May their wonders never cease.
Pound – •• (experimental mathgrind)
I’ve said before that I typically like to use this space to highlight one of my recent favorites that I haven’t covered before. There’s no shortage of releases battling for my top spot on any given month, which makes it easy to pick another worthwhile album. But occasionally, there are months where my top selection is such a clear step above anything else I spun during the past several weeks. That’s very much the case with Pound‘s sophomore album, an invigorating exercise in genre splicing that will likely remain one of the unique releases I listen to this year. Despite penning a lengthy review last month, there’s still few more words I can add about a truly essential listen for metal in 2019.
Mainly, I’d like to focus on the idea of “linear” songwriting in modern djent and groove-oriented genres, a stereotype which Pound…well, pounds out. A myriad of bands in this style—even genre legends like Meshuggah—are guilty of crafting albums that move along in the musical equivalent of a straight line. Especially with the increased use of breakdowns, modern djent often falls in a rut of syncopation, where the open chord or low-fret riffs and accompanying kick drum, snare and cymbal patterns plod along for the bulk or entirety of a track.
What’s so striking about Pound’s approach to the genre is how they’re able to keep the heaviness of this formula while simultaneously breaking out into a much more fast and loose performance style. Of course, this largely due to the extensive incorporation of other genres, namely mathcore, grind and noise rock. The band benefits from the pros of djent (earthshaking heaviness, catchy riffs and breakdowns, etc.) without being confined to narrow, limited song development. Essentially, this is the perfect djent album for listeners like me, who love the subgenre’s ideas much more than its standard execution.
None of this would be possible without the duo’s lockstep chemistry, all the more impressive given how chaotic and aggressive their music is during every moment on the album. From sporadic, rapidfire blast beats to downtuned guitar wizardry to unbridled, seemingly free improv freak outs, the duo synthesize so many distinct angles into a concentrated kill shot. It’s an overwhelming thrill ride throughout, and well worth a listen (and several subsequent listens) for any fan of extreme music.
Vale of Pnath – Accursed (blackened tech death)
Vale of Pnath have always felt to me like a band that were on the cusp of greatness. It’s been abundantly clear since day one that they’re really proficient players and can create some compelling tech death, but their writing gave the impression that they could be doing more. You could hear hints of something more a couple times each song, but it never really came together fully. With so many of their peers making comparably technical music, listening to Vale of Pnath instead of any other band didn’t provide a particularly unique experience
Conversely, as a big fan of middle-era Dimmu Borgir, I often find it hard to go back and listen to a full album of theirs because it doesn’t cut it for me anymore. Now that I’m inundated with a lot of top notch technical music, the simpler parts of the songs just drag. Well, enter Accursed. This EP has Vale of Pnath dipping their hands in the black metal pool and smearing that dark goo all over their faces. Blending the best of both worlds, they combine the grandiosity of symphonic black metal with the ferocity of tech death.
This EP actually highlights a very clever unison. Symphonic black metal is generally focused on a key melody that gets augmented with many layers of synths and gets expanded with chord progressions. Neoclassical tech death (which Vale are experienced in) focuses on an overabundance of melodies and elaborate chord arpeggiations. Combining the two is quite brilliant, as they have a very natural overlap. Accursed is just the right length to show that the idea has a lot of merit as a proof of concept, and leave us wanting more. I’m very excited to see where Vale of Pnath take us next.
Warforged – I: Voice (progressive death metal)
One may wonder what Opeth would have accomplished had they evolved with the progressive death metal scene, rather than against it. Once a leader in boundary-pushing death metal, they’ve since settled into band more interested in revisiting the 70’s era of psych and prog rock, which has left a void in the scene. The air of mystique that bridges the artful with the brutal, the grandiose sense of songwriting and album curation, and the conceptual worldbuilding of Opeth in their prime is certainly missed, and fortunately, Warforged have captured that spirit on their debut full-length I: Voice, which saw release this May through Artisan Era.
While not as absurdly technical as the rest of the Artisan Era roster and the metal scene they in which they operate, Warforged are certainly more progressive and intricate. Passages of blackened death metal give way to sweltering breakdowns; brutal crescendos collapse into piano solos with playful drum and bass backdrops. Yes, the gravitas of Opeth reigns, but shades of Between the Buried and Me, Behemoth, and Black Dahlia Murder creep through to create a powerhouse of modern progressive extreme metal that is truly captivating.
Other outlets have said as much, but it’s hard to think about I: Voice as a debut album, as it carries a proficiency and execution that bands don’t often see later on in their careers. Only time will tell whether or not I: Voice outlives its release-day hype, but the content and creativity is certainly there for it to sit with the likes of Colors and Blackwater Park. Superfluous? yes. Realistic? Also yes. Warforged is a band that ought to be on every radar for fans of death metal and progressive metal alike, and at the very least crafted an album that is among the best that we’ll get to hear in 2019.
Black Mountain – Destroyer (psych rock, stoner rock)
After a somewhat disappointing release in their previous album IV, the fuzzed-out Vancouver psych/stoner troubadours in Black Mountain have returned to form with Destroyer, an album filled to the brim with mammoth songs befitting the album’s title.
Clément Belio – Patience (prog rock, prog fusion)
Clement has long been a blog favorite and a friend. On Patience, he has taken his approach to chamber pop, progressive rock, and jazz to whole new levels, playing around with fascinating leitmotifs and truly outstanding production. This album is like the sun playing gently across your face; do not deprive yourself of it.
Com Truise – Persuasion System (chillwave, microhouse)
The master of tripped out, chilled out, far out synthwave is back and he’s tighter than ever.
Flying Lotus – Flamagra (hip-hop, jazz fusion)
The first album in 5 years from the eclectic LA producer (and now film composer AND director) hauls out all of the tricks in his bag and then some. Flamagra is over an hour long at 27 tracks and is predictably a bit overstuffed for it, but there are more than enough moments of brilliance throughout, especially in the ridiculous array of guest tracks featuring the likes of George Clinton, Anderson .Paak, Denzel Curry, Toro y Moi, Solange, and David Lynch to more than justify the listen.
Full of Hell – Weeping Choir (deathgrind)
Full of Hell follow up their opus Trumpeting Ecstasy (our 2017 album of the year!) with a Relapse Records debut that is every bit as vicious, chaotic, and disturbing in Weeping Choir. Massive grind riffs and unrelenting noise abound with yet another unparalleled album experience.
Idle Hands – Mana (heavy metal)
There are a lot of words I want to write about this album. Born from the ashes of Spellcaster, Idle Hands have here constructed a gripping, emotionally jarring heavy metal record that is possibly the most enjoyable debut album I’ve heard this year. Come for the goth-infused heavy metal riffage, stay for the lyrics. Haven’t been able to stop listening to it.
Petrol Girls – Cut & Stitch (riot grrrl, post-hardcore)
From a musical perspective, Cut & Stitch offers a youthful, energetic rendition of contemporary post-hardcore; imagine a blend of the female-fronted punk of Savages and the passionate melodic hardcore of Counterparts. Yet, what truly drives Petrol Girls is the band’s politically charged and extremely pissed off delivery, elevating a fresh take on the genre with an even bolder sense of urgency amid topical, terrifying concerns.
The Physics House Band – Death Sequence (math rock, prog rock)
Stone from the Sky – Break a Leg (stoner rock, post-rock)
Pillars – Cavum (post-rock, post-metal)
Destrage – The Chosen One (progressive metalcore)
Lisathe – Lisathe (jazz rock, post-rock)
Nocturnus AD – Paradox (progressive tech death)
Visigoth – Bells of Awakening (heavy metal)
Glassing – Spotted Horse (post-hardcore, blackgaze)
Lo-Pan – Subtle (stoner metal, hard rock)
BIG|BRAVE – A Gaze Among Them (drone metal, experimental rock)
Bright Curse – Time of the Healer (psychedelic prog rock, stoner rock)
Mireplaner – A Mountain of Saola Hooves (post-metal, chaotic hardcore)
Courtney Swain – Between Blood and Ocean (singer/songwriter)
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (art pop)
Hey Colossus – Four Bibles (heavy psych, experimental rock)
Seba Kaapstad – Thina (alternative r&b, neo-soul)
Esoctrilihum – The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods (progressive black metal, blackened death metal)