You know that feeling you get right before you’re sick? I’m talking the day or night before; you feel your bones start to ache, a sort of cloud descending upon you. It’s like standing in the first few seconds of rain; you can feel the water around you but you’re not quite wet yet. You put out a hand to confirm that yes, indeed, it is raining. That’s January for anyone in the business of music journalism. The deep frost of the Christian holidays and the New Year is starting to thaw; you can see rivulets of releases forming all around you and you put out hand to confirm that yes, indeed, music still exists. It’s not yet the flood; most bands/labels will wait until Spring to truly let loose the blood-dimmed tide but it’s certainly a sign of things to come.
What you do is what you do when the first rain hits. You take our all your old gear (in this case, our lists, social networks, inboxes, and other tools we use to keep up with music) and you check that it’s in order. You get back into the routine of coming Winter (refreshing your inbox, being on the look out for albums), hunch down, and wait for it to pass. But like someone who loves the Winter, we have a complicated relationship with music; it’s overwhelming yes, but we also love it, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this at all. Feeling the deluge of the year to come over the horizon is also a good feeling. For me, personally, it’s a relief since I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the never-ending font of amazing releases to dry up.
But it hasn’t; just look at this post. January 2020 is a powerful month and while the sheer quantity is quite here yet, the quality definitely is. With expected amazing releases living up to their hype (Caspian, Lotus Thief) and with surprises arriving out of nowhere, at least for us (Moon Hooch), January’s cup overfloweth. Thus, Editors’ Picks is here again (this time with long standing staff member Joshua on guest duties) and I don’t know if you’ve caught on yet but it’s also a crucial part of our music gathering mechanism. It’s a chance for the people who make the blog tick to take count of the past month and make some sense of things and, in January’s case, to dust off the ol’ hunter-seeker algorithms and set their will in motion (two Dune references in one sentence baby).
So, without further ado, once more into the breach! 2020’s flood is coming; let us partake of its precursors.
Caspian – On Circles (post-rock)
What does a band do to follow-up one of the previous decade’s seminal releases in their respective genre? For Massachusetts’s Caspian, it appears the answer is to simply release another genre-defining album seemingly effortlessly. When the band’s last record, 2015’s Dust and Disquiet, dropped much was made of the album’s genesis and central theme surrounding the sudden death of bassist Chris Friedrich. Grief and raw emotion rippled throughout the album as the band turned towards far heavier, grittier, and less-polished sounds, ranging from the gut-rumbling “Rioseco” to the knife to the heart that is “Run Dry,” the first Caspian track to feature vocals.
This time around though, the band seemed intent to put that chapter behind them and resist any calls for any particular narrative. In the initial press release for the album, guitarist/keyboardist Phil Jamieson stated bluntly, “”What if we just made an album for the simple sake of making music, with as few existential expectations as we are capable?” There would be no pretense of grand thematic statements with On Circles, no easy-to-digest (and write) stories about redemption, overcoming adversity, or tackling important issues of the day. Instead, On Circles would just exist for the sake of existing. It is a snapshot of a group of musicians who have spent over a decade writing and performing music together and clearly comfortable at continuing and push themselves to explore their musical journeys even further.
It just so happens that that snapshot also represents some of the most impressive and cathartic music under the grand umbrella of “post-” to hit in the long 5 years since Dust and Disquiet catapulted the band to elite status. While not all too different in musical DNA from that album, On Circles does still branch off and ripple in fascinating and deeply satisfying ways. Where lead single “Flowers of Light” stuck to a similar blueprint that tracks like “Arcs of Command” did previously – energetic guitar leads floating above a hopeful cinematic vista – the rest of the album takes a much more circuitous path. Opener “Wildblood” is a kaleidoscopic journey that balances the more subtle and heavier, crescendo-heavy sides of the band perfectly. “Nostalgist,” with its wobbly guitar tones reminiscent of D&D, is the first track that features guest vocals (courtesy of Kyle Durfey of Pianos Become the Teeth) and successfully leaves a gaping hole in your chest and a lump in your throat. “Division Blues,” anchored by some beautiful guest violin work, slowly unfurls itself into musical panorama without (blessedly) feeling the need to resolve in typical crescendo-core fashion. “Onsra” goes for a more layered and ambient-led path, which leads perfectly into the sledgehammer that is “Collapser,” possibly the band’s heaviest track to date.
The lasting impression of the album itself comes in the form of the final two tracks, however. “Ishmael,” the album’s longest song, is a meditative and measured piece centered around a simple melody (first performed by strings and later picked up by guitars) that proves the continued viability of the “cinematic” strain of post-rock. It swells to magnificent heights but never forces anything to happen. It just naturally builds like a cascading wave that crashes and fades into acoustic guitar. This continues into the album’s closer “Circles On Circles,” another gorgeous exploration of vocals and understated composition. When taken together, On Circles forms a complex quilt of warmth and welcoming tones. It’s a sound that feels lived-in from a band that has experienced some wear and tear over the years but are all the stronger for it. And we are all the better for the band continuing to produce this level of rich and emotional music.
Dragged Under – The World is in Your Way (melodic hardcore, pop punk)
Last time I was around these parts I was bemoaning the lack of quality music produced during early 2019. This year couldn’t be more different. Maybe it’s just a matter of my own personal taste (and/or mental state) but, between all the outstanding releases that have come out already and with plenty more on the horizon, 2020 is shaping up to be a phenomenal year for heavy music.
There’s already been plenty of great releases from bigger, reliable names, but mt favourite album of the year so far is still one of its most surprising. I had no idea that what was missing from my life was a supercharged shot of Evergreen Terrace-tinged, melodic pop punk but, after hearing Dragged Under’s debut, I have no idea how I ever did without it.
The songwriting on The World is in Your Way is deceptively varied, but it’s the sheer tightness of its compositions that is truly astounding. Although I think the album truly takes off on its second half, there isn’t a bad song among its nine tracks and each one is easily the equal (and often superior) of all but the best material from the many bands it draws comparisons to (Comeback Kid, Sum 41, Rise Against, even Everytime I Die and letlive.). If there’s a fault to be found with the album it’s that – at barely over half an hour – there’s simply not enough of it. I don’t think there’s been a single time I’ve listened to the record without immediately running through it again from front to back and I’m left yearning for more every single time.
The World is in Your Way is the surprise, feel-good hit of the summer I didn’t know I needed. Hopefully the rest of 2020 matches up.
Read More: Review
Garganjua – Toward the Sun (stoner doom, sludge metal)
I wouldn’t consider myself a big Garganjua fan. The principal reason behind this is, to my deep and overwhelming shame, I hadn’t heard any of their music before Toward the Sun entered my unsuspecting ear holes. I’ve made quick work of getting more intimately acquainted with this band’s music since those first powerful moments spent with their latest release, which might have been harder to do if it weren’t one of the most amazing and awe-inspiring records I’ve heard in, well, a long time.
Poetic, melodic, organically philosophic, and heavy as all hell, Toward the Sun has been in constant rotation for me since its first spin. In view of their discography, it feels to me their most balanced and titanic effort yet. There’s so much good going on here. Despite the general chagrin in the metal community regarding short atmospheric intro tracks, “Transcend” is about as perfect an opening as I can imagine for an album of this type, setting the textual tone for the stark beauty that is “The New Sun”, which is without question the best track I’ve heard this year. Mixing the abject heaviness of Cult of Luna with the ethereal menace of Rorcal and the melodic ascendancy of Lotus Thief, it’s an absolutely crushing whopper of a track. If you get through it and don’t find yourself enraptured, Toward the Sun just may not be the album for you. But those who are as entranced as myself will find the rest of the record nothing short of a veritable feast for the ears.
While the band’s (albeit for me newly discovered) back catalog is rife with absolute bangers, none of them are as perfectly balanced as Toward the Sun. Fans of doom and post-metal at large will find it a balm for the dour dregs of winter, and I’m fully confident that I’m not the only one who may find its legs long enough to reach to December 2020. A superb release from a spellbinding group of musicians and songwriters who have outdone themselves in every measurable metric.
The Hell – Doosh (metalcore, hardcore)
I listen to a lot of irreverent music. A specific subgenre of that is satirical music, which The Hell are obviously operating under. The thing is, satirical hardcore is probably one of the easiest categories of irreverent music to make. All you have to do is throw down some generic hardcore chugs, and then scream on top of it about some goofy nonsense. As such, the amount of trash in that space is also pretty high. The Hell have always risen above that with top notch production, having actually great music, a strong aesthetic, and just the right dose of humor. But clearly that can only last so long, the joke is going to run out at some point.
Enter Doosh. It’s clear that The Hell also recognize this, and have diversified their sound as such. They’ve found other jokes, if you will. The core conceit is still the same, but there’s funk, some trap elements, and more. Don’t get me wrong, this is still The Hell. In fact, I don’t know if this exploration would work out throughout an entire album’s length, but in the context of an EP it’s a breath of fresh air that’s very addictive. The Hell have done it again, and I look forward to how they’ll go forward from here.
Lotus Thief – Oresteia (prog metal, post-metal)
When I reviewed Oresteia, I focused on the historical context of the plays the album references and the way the majestic, timeless, and epic is invoked by the music. I took a note from the Greeks themselves, and from Lotus Thief, in approaching an issue from the sublime truth downwards, enshrined in the Greek way of thought (and handed down to us) as deduction (sullogismos). But this time around, I want to take a different path and go from the bottom up, highlighting a few smaller moments on the album and working from them to the grandeur of the overall piece. Mostly, I want to single out just how talented Bezaelith really is, mostly as a vocalist.
If you’re not familiar with the name, Bezaelith has worked with experimental black metal group Botanist, from which Lotus Thief sort of spawned when she started working with fellow collaborator Otrebor. On Lotus Thief, Bezaelith contributes anything that’s not the drums; synths, lyrics, bass, and vocals all fall under her domain. To be sure, she’s talented on all of these fields but I want to draw attention here to her vocals. Specifically, listen to the way she communicates the theme and ambience of the tale we’re about to hear on opening track “Agamemnon”. Where others would approach such an opening track with bluster and size, Bezaelith sets forth the eeriness and destined doom of the play’s heroes by taking a softer, more insidious tone. This tone builds throughout the track, starting from a coil set to spring at the beginning of it and exploding into full expression near the end of the track.
This energy is then carried over to what I consider to be the best track on the album, the dreamy “Libation Bearers”, with it’s almost Anathema like vibe. Here, her vocals are much more rounded and less “sneaky”, taking center stage from the start and adding to the majestic, sweeping feeling of the track. It’s simply marvellous; so much emotion is conveyed in her voice as the track unfolds, amplified by the backing tracks scattered throughout the track. By the time the track has gotten on its way, she adds energy and husk to her voice, first releasing it to fly true and then bringing it back into its more subdued mode before it blows up again as she sings the word “sister” in the background and a small solo arrives. These changing, shifting modes do much to create rich, emotional tapestries from which the rest of the music can draw.
These kind of little touches really elevate the album to its deserved places, embellishing the lyrics and the music with a deep, subtle, and inflected voice. Bezaelith doesn’t just sing well, she sings smart, able to take on moods, timbres, and themes to suit where her vocals should go. More than anything, Bezaelith vocals are what I keep coming back to on this album; nothing else quite matches how they work with the rest of the music and the themes that this album tackles.
Read More: Review
Moon Hooch – Life on Other Planets (nu-jazz fusion, alternative dance)
It’s usually an exaggeration to suggest an artist is beyond classification. As much as people hate genres, there’s rarely a case where a couple tags can’t be accurately applied to a band’s music. But from the moment I first discovered Moon Hooch via their Tiny Desk Concert, I knew I’d be hard-pressed to find a band that quite fit their specific stylistic niche. Sure, this was partially due to their unique dual-sax and drummer lineup, or the fact they employed a traffic cone as a sax mod. But the music itself was beyond anything I’d heard before or since; an addictive, energetic blend of jazz, funk, and dance music with enough avant-garde tendencies it remain interesting and plenty of grooves to keep your toe tapping constantly.
Naturally, it takes this kind of ingenuity to progress an already unique combination of styles, which is precisely what Moon Hooch have pulled off with Life on Other Planets. The core tenets of their sound have remained in-tact. Michael Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen man the reeds with an incredible amount of dexterity and broad knowledge of jazz subgenres, courtesy of a diverse arsenal of saxophones (tenor, bass, and baritone) and contrabass clarinet. Meanwhile, James Muschler operates as a sort of percussive wizard, somehow managing to keep his counterparts’ unrestrained playing in check with some inventive drum patterns and grooves. Collectively, they create wild, jazzy dance tunes that are as virtuosic as they are downright infectious.
Yet, while the expanded their blueprint on their previous full-length Red Sky (2016), the trio have burst out of nowhere with their most accomplished an eclectic album to date. The band fearlessly integrate more electronic elements than ever before, in some cases amplifying the danceability of these tracks and other times conjuring psychedelic, spacey atmospheres. Of course, everything that’s makes Moon Hooch great is still on full display. Muschler provides a twisted but strong backbone for Wilbur and McGowen to fearlessly explore with a broad array of ideas, ranging from funk sax lines to free jazz bleats and squeals.
But when the group wants to explore truly new territory, they dive into the abyss headfirst while screaming at the top of their lungs. Everything from dubstep to nu-disco pops up across Life on Other Planets, made weirder by the fact the trio pull it off so well. The wobbles on “They’re Already Here” make you wonder why dubstep and saxohpone haven’t crossed paths sooner, and the synth/vocoder combo on “Need Your Love” is especially choice. (Note: After writing this, I discovered that these dubstep wobbles are created acoustically.)
Moon Hooch’s compositions are comprised of a myriad of sometimes contradictory moods, which the band always seems to execute perfectly. Throughout Life on Other Planets, you’ll want to dance, mosh, and worship at the Church of John Coltrane, often simultaneously. This album is a certified lock to make my AOTY list at the end of the year, but until then, it will remain my go-to listen when I need an adrenaline shot of pure, unadulterated fun. Seriously, if you’re not tapping your foot or bouncing in your chair while listening to this, then I apologize to your soul on your behalf.
Odious Mortem – Synesthesia (tech death, progressive death metal)
Synesthesia is the album I needed and had absolutely no idea I wanted. At a time where my death metal listening consists almost entirely of demos with black and white SHOGGOTH KINETICS cover art and forgotten EPs from the ’90s, Odious Mortem‘s return offering after over a decade of gestation time is a gleeful, glorious, technicolor punch to the face. In all honesty, I’ve mostly fallen out of love with technical death metal: so much of it, especially at this moment in time, offers little of what draws me to extreme metal. That’s not to say it’s all bad – Vitriol‘s debut record last year was a blood-soaked gauntlet thrown down with aplomb, and 2018’s “what if Morbid Angel was also Rush” offering from Alkaloid is simply insane – but that by and large, it’s the rare exceptions to the rules that draw my attention.
Compared to the latter two bands and their extreme deviations in form, Synesthesia seems downright tame in comparison. It offers little that anyone moderately familiar with the technical death metal playbook would find novel or outside the typical stylistic confines, but it makes up for this in two incredibly important ways. First, there’s a crucial understanding of the reliance on sonic diversity that the best technical death metal has in its DNA. Synesthesia has melodies aplenty; there are riffs on this album I might even go so far as to call “catchy” when discussing the way they weave a recognizable repetition out of the amorphous, mutating tapestry of instrumentation. On the opposite side of this coin, though, Odious Mortem aren’t afraid to be heavy, and there are plenty of moments where the group stops putting forth any pretense that they have aspirations beyond the realm of death metal and just drop a mammoth riff. It leads to a record defined by a series of cascading moments where brutality and brightness come head-to-head, and the auditory sparks that fly in the collision are just perfect.
Second, it is perfectly produced. Harking back to the salad days of Decrepit Birth‘s Diminishing Between Worlds, Synesthesia is crisp and dry, a perfect attack on the senses that doesn’t see any reason to compromise clarity for the sake of self-aggrandizing largess; every piece of the puzzle is given its rightful place. The production – which comes across as based on a sense of trust and respect for the musicians to make everything come together in a way that sounds tight, compact, and fully realized on their own – pays off enormously by giving the whole end product a sheen of mastery. In bombast’s typical place, Odious Mortem have opted for a sense of quiet grandeur; unquestionably it was the right call to make.
Synesthia isn’t an album that is going to redefine tech death or even carve out new territories for the genre, but to be examining the album from this angle would be a fundamental flaw in viewing it. Odious Mortem aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re showing how, when you slow down and truly consider the wheel, anyone who wants to take a stab at reinventing it has far more work to do than it would seem. Synesthesia is what every genre strives for most: a powerful affirmation of merit, and a sign that the sound remains just as vital as it ever was if people are willing to put in the elbow grease.
Read More: Review
Poppy – I Disagree (pop metal, alt-metal)
If asked a year or so ago if there would be a chance of internet meme Poppy winding up on an Editor’s Picks, I would have thought the question silly and the idea outright implausible. And yet Poppy’s Sumerian Records debut I Disagree is a wild ride that carries on in the tradition of engaging alt and pop metal that acts like Babymetal, Bring Me The Horizon, and Devin Townsend have found some success in over the past decade.
As a whole, I Disagree carries an air of irreverence that often appears to flirt too comfortably with contrived randomness for the sake of being whacky, and opening track “Concrete” is the worst offender, bouncing between bubbly jpop, slapstick metalcore, and cloyingly sweet and nostalgic pop. It shouldn’t work, and honestly, for many it presents an immovable barrier to entry, which is a fair take to have.
However, there’s loads of genuine fun to be had on I Disagree, especially once the album gets moving. The record’s title track for instance feels like a cut from Devin Townsend Project’s Addicted! with its groovy chorus. “Fill The Crown” also has tell-tale Townsend influence that sometimes dips into Marilyn Manson’s territory. “BLOODMONEY” is an easy highlight that sports an infectious industrial swagger. “Bite Your Teeth” has machine-gun fire riffing and a hardcore punk sense of movement and an outrageous breakdown. Grand finale “Don’t Go Outside” also has a surprising Faith No More-like quality about it, particularly when the rock progressions break through, and offers a nice payoff when a series of reprisals shine through to its satisfying conclusion.
Yes, Poppy’s I Disagree can be boiled down to a gimmick: a series of seemingly earnest metal moments juxtaposed against various pop subgenres, fronted by an eccentric pop idol persona. It works more often than it doesn’t, and is a formula destined to fail had the songwriting and performances given by Poppy and her collaborators weren’t so thoroughly engaging. Sure, if you’re cynical, I Disagree can feel like a sophomorish attempt at appropriating several genres, not to mention the cultural considerations. Taken as a serious statement of intent, one could argue that I Disagree lives on in the shadow of Mr. Bungle’s breed of irreverent genre-bending, though that’s not necessarily a hill I’d die on. I Disagree is just a whole lot of fun and I’m here for it.
Algiers – There Is No Year (art-punk, post-punk)
The third album from Atlanta’s difficult to pin down quartet Algiers is bombastic, soulful, and all-in-all angry as hell. It is a dark look into the underbelly of American reality in 2020, and it pulls no punches in laying the blame squarely at everyone’s feet.
Annihilator – Ballistic, Sadistic (thrash metal)
I’ll have more to say about this one when Pete and I wrap up the year’s first quarter for Into the Pit, but it’s safe to say that Ballistic, Sadistic is the best Annihilator album in a long (long) time, maybe even since the early, glory days of Alice in Hell (1989) and Never, Neverland (1990). The Canadians’ seventeenth (!) studio record is at once one of the most melodic and dextrous outings of their career, with their revamped line-up operating as smoothly as any in the band’s extensive history. It’s early days yet, but the bar has already been set exceptionally high for thrash metal in 2020.
Bohren & der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue (dark jazz, dark ambient)
Honestly, I loved the TL;DR summary I came up with for my review, so I’m going to copy/paste it here: Patchouli Blue sounds like an alternate reality where David Lynch hired a supergroup comprised of Coil, Earth, Jan Garbarek, The Necks, and John Zorn‘s chamber ensembles to collaborate on a heavily jazz-themed soundtrack for Twin Peaks. Spoiler alert: it’s great.
Read More: Review
Elden – Nostrama (stoner rock)
Formerly known as Atlas, Swedes Elden play a kind of hooky, groovy, and heavy stoner rock that falls somewhere between Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age. On their sophomore LP Nostrama they swagger their way through an assortment of highly addictive burners that are sure to get blood pumping and juices flowing.
Fliege – The Invisible Seam (industrial black metal, heavy metal)
With The Invisible Seam, this “blackened hair metal” trio have produced one of the strongest albums to kick off a year for a genre in recent memory. Fliege offers an incredibly creative bricolage of styles that draws influence from industrial, heavy metal, post-punk, and beyond.
Thy Catafalque – Naiv (avant-garde metal, prog metal)
Are you tired of self-important avant-garde and progressive metal? You know, the kind of albums that always seem to need some grand concept or musical theory attached to them? Well thankfully there are bands like Thy Catafalque releasing albums like Naiv. These avant-garde metal veterans offer all the weird, genre-bending ideas that makes the genre so great while still managing to offer one hell of a wild, fun ride in the process.
Read More: Review
The Osedax – Meridians (post-metal, atmospheric sludge metal)
If you have the patience for this album, it will blow your mind. This is very much an album of contrasts, moving from ambience and oceanic slowness to blistering, heavy, energetic riffs. Just give it time; there’s plenty hiding beneath the surface of the water.
Read More: Review
Ryte – Ryte (stoner rock, heavy psych)
On its surface, Ryte seems to be just another stoner metal album. But hidden inside its many riffs and purple smoke are incredible solos, super rare/good vocals, and just an overall dedication to the craft that’s admirable. Light/pour something good and let this album wash over you.
Belore – Journey Through Mountains and Valleys (atmospheric black metal, epic black metal)
Glories – Distant After (post-rock)
Konvent – Puritan Masochism (death-doom)
Raphael Weinroth-Browne – Worlds Within (modern classical)
Blessed Black – Beyond the Crimson Throne (stoner-doom)
Brotthogg – Echoes of the Past (blackened thrash, melodic black metal)
Dance With The Dead – Blackout (synthwave)
Haunt – Mind Freeze (heavy metal)
Dukatalon – Involuntary Action (sludge)