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. As is tradition, 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:
Madlib + Freddie Gibbs – Bandana
It would be very difficult to find a producer more influential in the underground rap scene over the past two decades than Los Angeles’s Madlib. Outside of his high quality solo work as Quasimoto and otherwise, his noteworthy collaborations with rappers like J Dilla, Percee P, and Talib Kweli put him squarely on the hip hop map as one of the game’s most sought after producers. But his legacy was firmly entrenched in the annals of hip hop history with his collaborative record with MF Doom as the now iconic Madvillain. Madvillainy changed the rap landscape like few records before it, and its influence remains unmatched well over a decade later. The craziest part of this is that Madvillain may not even be Madlib’s best project. In 2014, Madlib and Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs dropped Piñata, an album so dense with quality beats and bars that I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around it five years later. Their latest record under the MadGibbs moniker, Bandana, picks up right where Piñata left off in the quality department, but is without question a singular experience that separates itself from its predecessor in understated, subtle, but consistently dazzling ways.
While Piñata came out the gate swinging with a verve and swagger that felt like the sonic equivalent of Freddie Gibbs quickly revitalizing career, Bandana opens up with the infinitely laid back “Freestyle Shit”, which unfolds with a smooth, moderated, well-earned confidence that shows Gibbs at his most vocally and melodically flexible. Madlib’s Looped horns, static vinyl crackling, and playful drums create a jazz club feel and add perfect accompaniment to Gibbs’ notably confident delivery. This last component is the element that may throw fans of this group’s last project off the most. Bandana, at least on first listen, feels without question the Freddie Gibbs show, focusing on the rapper’s bars with an intense focus throughout the record. “Half Manne Half Cocaine” brings this focus to the fore with stark clarity, as Gibbs raps over some of Madlib’s hardest and most straightforward beats to date. “Palmolive”, which features Killer Mike and Pusha T on excellent guest verses, is another example of Madlib’s production taking a back seat to the verses being spit by these incredibly talented rappers. It’s a distinct difference from most of Madlib’s other collaborations, where his production tends to take up a hefty chunk of the mix.
The above may sound like a negative for Madlib diehards, but I mentioned first listen vibes intentionally, because Bandana is under the surface layer of Gibbs’ intense verses just as dense and complex as anything he has yet produced. The sneaky beat switching in “Fake Names”, the unhinged electricity of “Flat Tummy Tea”, the busy orchestration of “Cataracts” and the fuzzy drama of “Education” (which features some amazing verses from Yasin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, and Black Thought) all have layers upon layers of dense production and effective samples that increase repeat listening value exponentially. Every listen of this record has allowed Madlib’s subtle and excellent production choices to unfold in a delightful slow burn that reveals Bandana as some of his best and most focused work yet. Front to back, there’s nary a dud in sight.
I’m hard pressed to think of arguments as to how or why Bandana shouldn’t be considered the best rap album of the year. As a stand-alone release, this record includes some of the most consistently engaging rapping and production I’ve heard in ages. But more improbable, as a follow-up to a modern classic, Bandana holds its own as both a logical extension and evolutionary next step in the work of two geniuses in their respective artforms operating at the peak of their collective powers. Fans of quality hip hop will find plenty to love in Bandana, and it comes with my highest recommendation.
Clairo – “Closer To You” & “Bags”
Claire Cottrill’s breakout hit “Pretty Girl” has the timbre of something thrown together in a matter of mere moments – in the best way possible. It has all the hallmarks of nonchalant bedroom pop. Keyboard that sounds like Windows 95 birthed it, deliberately perfunctory electronic drums and Cottrill’s youthful shower vocals. I realise I’m not exactly selling this well, but that’s because lo-fi media tends to appeal to our basest of senses. You know those early Minecraft naysayers who spouted the ‘this game has awful grafikzzz’ comments, well the same could be said about “Pretty Girl” if ‘grafikzzz’ were swapped out for general aesthetic. However, Clairo’s aesthetic is what makes her music so compelling.
Her newest single from her upcoming debut LP Immunity, due for release on August 2nd, is “Closer To You”, a gorgeous swell of tippity tappity trap-pop. The naysayers might actually warm to “Closer To You” as it features a trendy production job courtesy of Cottrill herself and former Vampire Weekender Rostam. The track hones in on tricky relationship qualms and the stifling presence of a lover. You can hear Cottrill’s alienation with the initial spark she and this person had with the glistening autotune, but simultaneously there are contradictions in her as the sun-kissed glow of the chorus comes in and Cottrill somewhat begrudgedly admits: ‘The things you do/Only make me want to get closer to you/And the things that you say/Only make me want to stay’. Cottrill is young, still only 20 years of age, and she translates coming-of-age indecision with wholesome pang.
“Bags” is the first single from Immunity and is almost the opposite of “Closer To You” musically with its stiff and plodding guitar. Like “Closer To You”, “Bags” focuses on the now, on presence and the strangeness of stasis with a romantic interest. It is so gut-punchingly concrete, like when you become acutely aware of time passing and your spatial dimensions, something akin to the Japanese Buddhist term ‘Kenshō’, roughly translating to “seeing one’s true nature”. One of my favourite films from last year, Luca Guadagnino’s emotionally kaleidoscopic Call Me by Your Name, which traces the impact of a fleeting summer fling between Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer with the quivering rawness of an open wound. Clairo taps into this wonderfully with piano notes that hit you like a monochromatic image suddenly colourised and even a reference to the film itself: ‘All these little games/You can call me the name I gave you yesterday, yeah’. It is certainly apt as Cottrill has alluded to herself as “not entirely straight” in an interview and described “Bags” in its Genius Verified video as “definitely about one of my first experiences with a girl”. Keep an eye on Clairo, she’s got something in the bag (heh).
Ché Aimee Dorval – Between the Walls & The Window
Honestly, this entry must as well have gone under our Heavy Delinquency series, seeing as this release has been out since 2018. In my defense, there’s a lot of music out there. I know that’s no defense but that’s the best I got, give me a break. Anyway, to the topic at hand; many readers of this blog will be familiar with Ché Aimee Dorval from her collaboration with one Devin Townsend, which took the form of Casualties of Cool, an outstanding project with an outstanding release, and one that I still hope will one day return. Even more importantly than its specific quality, that album should have sent anyone who listened a clear message: Dorval has far more to her than “just” a collaborator.
2018’s Between the Walls & The Window is further proof of that indelible fact. On it, Dorval utilizes her voice to brilliant results, melding it with a kind of soft-spoken, yet well composed, soft rock n’ roll that, funnily enough, reminds us of one Troy Baker and his excellent album from 2014, Sitting in the Fire. The comparisons don’t just stop at the instrumentation either; there’s something in how Dorval uses her voice, often modulating her higher pitched and more evocative cries (like on standout track “Buried”) that immediately reminds us of Baker’s own register.
However, Dorval also has the ability to produce deeper, more intimate vocal moments, like on the opening of “Erupt the Quietus” and, indeed, during many other moments on the album. This tool also served her well on Casualties of Cool and she brandishes it to equal efficacy on this release. These smaller moments coupled with the powerful, evocative, and explosive qualities of her register make this a memorable and moving album. Whether we get more material from Casualties of Cool or not, the contribution it has made to our lives far exceeds “just” the music on it, since it has introduced to this brilliant, ambitious, and accomplished artist in the form of Ché Aimee Dorval.