Hello and welcome once again to “An Exercise In Which a Bunch of Music Addicts Try to Funnel Incredible Amounts of Music Into Readable Amounts of Text!” We should probably work on making the title a bit catchier, but the lengthy name does justice to how much getting these posts together is getting harder and harder for us. As we move deeper into 2019, the true scale of how much great music is being released keeps hitting; I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about it by now, but 2019 is truly an exceptional year for music, and that means that these exercises in pruning become both harder and feel a bit faker as a result.
I’ve often wondered about what it takes, exactly, for an album to make this list. We don’t provide our editors with any criteria; often, I don’t know myself which album I’m going to pick until I submit my list and have to choose one. To tell you the truth, if you asked me next week, or the week before now, I’d probably choose a different album. It’s certainly nothing like “my favorite album of the month.” It’s more like a combination of things I love and that I feel didn’t get enough love from others or that I have more to say about that or cases where my feelings about an album have grown since I reviewed. Or sometimes none of those.
But isn’t that the way it should be? In the face of so much good music, I find that the answer is often to just let go and let whatever comes to mind be the album you write about. That’s probably a frustrating answer for some of you, but that’s the answer I’m going to give because it’s the truth: no matter how much we try to ignore it, there’s an irreducible part to music which defies listing, categorization, and order. It’s part of what makes it great and it’s a good idea to let it run loose from time to time and dictate what you listen to and write about.
With that in mind, let’s get to the music shall we? It’s damn fine.
Abyssal – A Beacon In the Husk (dissonant death metal)
The UK’s Abyssal write and perform a kind of death metal that moves somewhere in-between the Portal-to-another-dimension and abject everything-is-fire-and-insanity strains. So in essence it’s absolutely my cup of tea. But, as with most excellent things, it’s not for everyone. The murky sonic waters traversed by bands like Ulcerate, Altarage, Impetuous Ritual, and Mitochondrion are primed by design to elicit strong reactions from both the general and metal-listening public, and Abyssal’s fourth full-length record is yet another formidable entry in the scream-with-complication-into-a-cave subgenre of death metal. Like it, hate it, can’t live without it, Abyssal and the sound they rode in on are here to stay, because A Beacon in the Husk is an absolute gem of a record.
If beautiful chaos is your bag, there’s little to A Beacon in the Husk that won’t excite you. From its opening moments, this is a record constructed to befuddle and delight in equal measure. Where “Dialogue” offers a steady stream of riff-heavy death metal intensity accentuated by some consistently haunted vocals, “Recollection: Shapes Upon the Retina” almost veers into the worlds of ambient and drone, serving up six minutes of undulating noise until bursting into a doom-laden finale that’s all atmosphere and dread.
That’s all, at least in some ways, par the course for this brand of death metal. But one would be remiss to talk about this album and not mention how utterly gorgeous it is in places. “Recollection: Awakening/Metamorphosis” unfurls a doom metal motif that is as towering as anything you’d hear on a Hooded Menace or Loss record, but is accentuated by tremolo-picked melodies that give the track a sense of the transcendent and the terrifying. “Discernment: Khyphotic Suzerains” is another example of the sense of grandeur that permeates this record, with its latter section including guitar lines that feel simultaneously mournful and downright triumphant before descending back into the sonic maelstrom.
While the record is held tightly together by a production job that unifies every instrument warring in the mix under a blanket of fiery, cavernous atmosphere, there’s enough variety here to fill more than a few listens with new discoveries, challenges, and rewards. Which is right where I like my death metal to reside. If you were worried that Abyssal would never be able to top their fantastic 2015 release Antikatastaseis, stand doubtful no more. A Beacon in the Husk makes good on every promise the band’s previous material hinted at, presenting a record that is as dense as it is arresting, drawing listeners into repeat listens with relative ease. It’s not only one of the best death metal albums to be released this year, but one of the best metal records of 2019. Give it a go if death metal has, in any capacity, tickled your fancy. I assure you it will be time well spent.
The Biology of Plants – Vol. 2 (nu-jazz, art rock)
Promos are a necessity for music critics, especially in the midst of streaming and the widespread availability of music. While our role as curators remains useful regardless of release dates, advanced copies still allow us to provide some preliminary context for our readers. Ironically, promos also have the side effect of removing context, especially when they’re sent out especially far ahead of time. I’ve been enamored with Vol. 2 since before my review hit in late May, yet it only just came out in mid-June.
All of this is to say that, as we mapped out this month’s Editors’ Picks column, it didn’t immediately occur to me that Vol. 2 should be one of our top selections for June. Frankly, I almost omitted it entirely since it’s been in my rotation for so long. However, that oversight has more to do with the fact that I view the album as one of the year’s top overall highlights, regardless of month, genre, or any other factors. We may be bidding farewell to June, but these will certainly not be my final thoughts on TBOP’s exceptional debut. It’s simply that fantastic.
While I touched on this in my review, it’s worth reiterating just how much of a fresh, unique perspective TBOP have. At this point, it’s extremely cliche to pull out the “defies classification” card. But seriously, no one artist comes to mind as a direct comparison. The quartet pull together elements of art rock and pop, chamber music, modern classical, jazz fusion, nu-jazz, prog rock, and more to craft an incredibly bold and dazzling musical display. The best description I can conjure is a “maximalist delivery of the jazziest and most classical-oriented moments of post-Kid A Radiohead.” Even then, it doesn’t quite capture what TBOP set out to do.
Yet, all that really matters is that TBOP surpassed their sonic goals on Vol. 2. From glitzy, punchy tracks like “George” to gorgeous, textured compositions like “Ezra,” the album is defined by a balance of variety and consistent quality. With such a diverse, signature sound, TBOP have endless possibilities to explore and nowhere to go but up. I suggest you tag along for the ride.
Flesh of the Stars – Mercy (doom metal)
On their fourth album, Mercy, Flesh of the Stars performed a weird kind of shift in gesture. While certainly still gloomy, slow, and heavy, Mercy presents a different kind of sadness, nihilism, and outlook than its excellent predecessor, Anhilla. Where that album, beloved by the blog’s staff, was all about the brutal meaningless of man in the face of an indifferent world and a bleak existence, Mercy, perhaps true to its name, displays a more hopeful kind of greyscale.
Make no mistake; the album is plenty emotional and the emotions on display definitely aren’t “sunny”. All you need to do is listen to the heartbreaking vocals on the lengthy opening, self-titled track; their ethereal modes conjure acts like Latitudes and the quieter Cult of Luna, cutting right to the bone. But, as these are accompanied by piano, drums, and light guitars (while the heavier chords are reserved for elsewhere on the album), a feeling of dejected awe, dogged resignation, and a beseeching tone, for mercy, for understanding, for clemency, runs through these vocals. All of these stand in stark contrast to the more abrasive and gloomy sensations from the last album.
The sounds at the end of the opening track, filled with the voices of nature and animal, should give us a hint as to what’s going on. Anhilla was very much a tale of man eroded by the elements, left to languish under the uncaring stars.It seems as if, on Mercy, nature still plays an important part but the part of the distant and longed for rather than the crushing and uncaring. In kind, the album itself feels more…removed, somehow floating in an inky blackness that’s not so much depression as it is indifference informed by its own hope, a kind of striving that is doomed to fail.
Other high points of this sensation include the brilliant couplet at the end of the album, the sweeter (and shorter) “Wisteria” laying up closer “Burial”, one of the band’s most effective tracks. They both utilize the more “echoey” production on the vocals and other instruments to incisive effect, leaving us raw and emotional at the end of the album. “Burial” goes one further by opening with an absolutely monstrous riff, not so much loud and crushing as it is immediately intimate and moving. This is what Flesh of the Stars do best, namely create emotionally devastating and convincing doom, on this release laced with plenty of post-rock and, genreless, a more cavernous, strangely lit, and stunningly adorned hope.
In a year already dominated by impressive release in this realm (two of which are referenced above), Flesh of the Stars prove they deserve to stand with the biggest and best names in the fields of slow, fuzzy, atmospheric, poignant, and sentimental music.
State Faults – Clairvoyant (post-hardcore, screamo)
Clairvoyant, emerging from State Faults’ six-year hiatus, is a masterful treatise on universal love and the many paradoxes surrounding (and within) it. Love, violence, and spiritual rebirth mix together as one, and the music mirrors the album’s themes brilliantly — a breathtaking reconciliation of viciousness (especially in the vocals) and celestial atmosphere, bringing together disparate elements of skramz, blackgaze, post-hardcore, and more.
Also binding together Clairvoyant is a narrative of reincarnation and the notion of killing for the veneration of life. The first song, “Dreamcatcher, Pt. II” is deceptive in the peace that it initially creates, before “Planetary” shatters the dreamscape and brings you back to life in a physical body; “Cemetary Lights” marks the end of the incarnation before sending you off to the beyond again. In order to love, violence and hatred must first be extinguished; but that extinguishing often takes the form of vengeance, of mercilessness. The duo of “Moon Sign Gemini” and “Sacrament” flies through in a fury, whilst the slow-burning, heavy-footed title track solemnly proclaims a fiery rebirth. “Olive Tree” and “Sleeplessness” offer respites of sorts — the former features swirling ambience until it suddenly erupts into being, the latter with a simple chant whose sparse accompaniment parallels its story of floating in another realm.
The second half of the album is particularly preoccupied with the rituals surrounding death, and the stretch from “Funeral Teeth” to “Cemetery Lights” runs the gamut from reactive anger and resentment to acceptance. “Contaminature” is curiously groovy, with a slightly swaying rhythm and dancing bassline; though it speaks of some sort of apocalyptic aftermath, it feels cool, reflective, unusually contained. “Cemetery Lights”, meanwhile, ends the album on a jubilant note, slowly building up into an explosive climax that settles into traces of feedback.
With Clairvoyant, State Faults have created a wonderfully nuanced, cohesive work that offers an intriguing message (I definitely recommend reading the lyrics carefully); the album was clearly a labour of love, its every element carefully crafted and accounted for, and it surely shows.
Thank You Scientist – Terraformer (prog rock/metal, jazz fusion)
Thank You Scientist have now turned me into a fool for two albums in a row. Perhaps I should really know better by now not to doubt them, and yet the fact remains that the kind of hyperactive, genre cross-pollinating, excessive, and, frankly, just straight-up indulgent music that the band produce would not work in the hands of almost any other band out there. With their previous album Stranger Heads Prevail, the biggest question was what the band could do with the backing of a label and whether they would grow beyond what they accomplished on their immensely-promising first act Maps of Non-Existent Places or succumb to both the curse of the sophomore slump and the pitfalls that befall so many other ambitious prog groups. Early singles stoked fear in me that the band had settled too neatly into a single niche and wouldn’t expand far beyond it. Well, I was wrong about that. Stranger Heads Prevail was a humongous step up for TYS in every aspect.
With the leadup to Terraformer, my concerns were similar. Would they be able to maintain the same level of excellence and exploration, or would they finally find themselves too content in just pumping out decent songs that sound like TYS but did little to challenge what that definition was? Or worse, in attempting to one-up themselves, would they finally fall to the classic prog excess bug and release an album full of songs that are far too long, filled with artificially-manufactured and contrived musical heel-turns, and so bloated as to make the listening experience an absolute slog? Somehow, some way, the band completely delivered and knocked it out of the park again in spite of the red flags that surely should have spelled out doom if TYS weren’t, well, TYS.
On that first concern, Terraformer is indeed not the same kind of quantum leap that SHP was, but that should be expected at this point in the band’s career. That hardly means that it doesn’t do anything new, however. Though there are several classic epics that fit neatly into the typical TYS canon – namely the three advance singles “FXMLDR,” “Swarm,” and the closing title track – elsewhere the band continue to stretch out in unexpected ways. Instrumental opener “Wrinkle” is the kind of bright, technically slick, and riff-filled track that sounds like it could come from any number of nu-prog bands like CHON and others, except (in all honesty) just better. “Birdwatching” is a huge standout for the band as they employ creepy and menacing art-rock a la Radiohead (portions of it sound like a close cousin to “Nude”), only to have it culminate into a cacophonous climax of synth, strings, and breakbeat production that appears indebted to Venetian Snares of all people. Serving as the epic instrumental for the album and following in the footsteps of “Suspicious Waveforms” and “Rube Goldberg Variations,” “Chromology” builds off of a “Giant Steps”-like chromatic chord sequence and manages to avoid having it sound purely like a technical exercise. Sprinkled throughout just about every track there’s something surprising and unexpected to be found. The most shocking thing about that though is that after all this time it still rarely feels like a gimmick.
Regarding the latter concern on the nature of prog and excess, things become a bit more complicated. Make no mistake, Terraformer is an excessive album. Spanning a head-spinning 84 minutes of music with three tracks topping out right around 10 minutes and three others flirting around the 8-minute mark, TYS are almost just asking for listener’s eyes to roll fully back into their head at the sheer gall of it all. There are so many musical detours that occasionally veer into genre pastiche (like the noir interlude “Shatner’s Lament”) that it constantly threatens to turn into a trite mess. A large part of me seriously wants to dislike this album and hold it up as a cautionary tale to all other prog bands about what happens when you sacrifice quality in the name of “epicness.”
But goddamnit, I can’t. I simply love Terraformer and its humongous songcraft too much. Every single chorus hits that perfect sweet spot of triumphant and cathartic emotion that reflexively just makes you want to shout at the top of your lungs. The instrumental compositions and arrangements are as dense and ingenious as ever, providing an incredible amount of depth as the songs carry you along on these long journeys. “Son of a Serpent,” “Everyday Ghosts,” “Life of Vermin,” and “Anchor” are all meticulously-written achievements that each cover so much ground that it would require several more paragraphs to adequately account for. Terraformer is a mammoth tower of bricks that sounds like it could simply topple over at any second but never does. For at least one more album Thank You Scientist have managed to hold this whole thing together, and I am more than happy to be the fool who doubted them and was proven wrong once again.
This Gift Is a Curse – A Throne of Ash (post-hardcore, blackened sludge metal)
Sometimes a band you’ve never heard of blindsides you and blows you away. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the band in question is obscure, or that their previous material is poor. It’s simply an oversight on your part. There are simply too many great bands out there to know about all of them (shout-outs to all the veteran metal musicians who frequently complain that metal is stale and there is nothing new going on). But this oversight is what makes an album hit even harder and for me, this month’s album is exactly that.
This Gift Is A Curse have been around since 2008, but A Throne of Ash was my first encounter with them, because some eldritch black magick divined I would enjoy it (it was the recommendation algorithm on a streaming service). And, well, it was right. The funny thing is, based on the specific genre of the artist on Metal Archives, I wouldn’t have listened to This Gift Is A Curse. I’m generally turned off by sludge and hardcore, and those are two of the three genres associated with this release (the other being black metal). Well, A Throne of Ash is abrasive, all-encompassing and genuine. It’s a good blend of familiar metal tropes with experimentation.
Given the recent renaissance of “weird abrasive metal” it’s easy for bands to go overboard and get lost in the noise. The ability to hold back and give listeners something to latch onto, then taking it away to cause greater despair is not something every band can manage. Well, This Gift Is A Curse surely can. They can also carry this throughout a whole album without causing fatigue. That’s about all one can ask for from a release like this! A Throne of Ash is great.
Other Notable Releases
Andavald – Undir skyggðarhaldi (Icelandic black metal)
Put simply, this is one of the most unsettling and genuinely arresting black metal records I’ve heard in years. Andavald shirk the Icelandic black metal template built by bands like Sinmara, Misþyrming, and Wormlust for something far slower, more meticulously measured, and somehow even darker. This is black metal at its emotionally psychotic peak, and you need to hear it immediately. [Read our review]
Baroness – Gold & Grey (alt-rock/metal, progressive stoner metal)
Some of the production choices may be leaving us scratching our heads again, but it’s hard to quibble with that too much when the songwriting on the veteran group’s 5th album (and reportedly last in the “color” family) represents some of the most intriguing and heartfelt work of their career. [Read our review]
Cave In – Final Transmission (post-hardcore, space rock)
A fitting farewell to Caleb and a great album in its own right. Longtime Cave In fans will find yet another quality release, while newcomers now have a perfect entry point into the band’s discography. [Read our review]
Howling Sycamore – Seven Pathways to Annihilation (avant-garde metal, prog metal)
There’s not a lot left to say about this band/release that I haven’t already in numerous places other than: will you please listen to this? I guarantee you that you will find nothing else quite like the twisting, labyrinth-like vocal mazes of this release. [Read our review]
Lavender Country – Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country (progressive country, contemporary folk)
When Patrick Haggerty and his band released Lavender Country in 1973, they quietly became the first known openly gay country group in the genre’s history. Over 45 years later, Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows sees the group return with the same passion for issues facing the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups. Haggerty and his band once again craft a collection of dusty, beautiful tracks pulling from traditional country and folk traditions, while rounding things out with subversive, impassioned lyrics containing both broad political commentary and personal struggles with identity, visibility, and more.
LITE – Multiple (math rock, post-rock)
The Japanese post-math rock quartet positively dazzle in their 6th album. Filled with enticing grooves and surprising forays into electronic music, hip-hop, prog, and more, Multiple is a surfeit of excellence for fans of instrumental math rock.
Lunar Shadow – The Smokeless Fires (traditional heavy metal)
Even though this release takes them in a different direction, more moody and goth, The Smokeless Fires further cements Lunar Shadow as one of the kings of traditional heavy metal. [Read our review]
Walkways – Bleed Out, Heal Out (alt-metal, nu-metal)
There are many bands who make great music in Israel but there aren’t many bands who make it fun. Walkways are one of those bands, making metal that irresistibly calls on you to mosh, move, and sing along.
Anup Sastry – Illuminate (math metal, djent)
Atlas Entity – Beneath the Cosmic Silence (progressive death metal)
Cavallo – Interstices (post-rock, progressive math rock)
City Girl – Chrome Velocity (chillwave, glitch)
Flub – Flub (progressive death metal)
Gygax – High Fantasy (hard rock, proto-metal)
Georgia Anne Muldrow – VWETO II (instrumental hip-hop, neo-soul)
Nucleus – Entity (death metal)
The Odious – Vesica Piscis (progressive death metal)
Skelator – Cyber Metal (speed metal, heavy metal)