February! Last year, I called it “The Bastard Month” and I stand by that. This year though, this transitory month was chock full of amazing releases. It triggered my “oh my god there is so much music” mode many times, in part because we also started getting promos for the usually busy April but also because of February releases themselves. I mean, just scroll down and take a look; this month has goodies from all sorts of interesting directions.
I think that what jumps at me the most when I look through the list of albums this month is how arresting a lot of these releases are. They’re not easy listening, they demand your attention and keep a stranglehold on it. Beneath the Massacre is probably the most straight-forward example of this; that album (and entire band) just goes incredibly hard, incredibly well. The end result is a state of aural domination, where your attention and ears are glued to whatever audio interface the album happens to be blaring out of at the time.
Machine Girl does something similar but here it’s spiked with a cyberpunk-fever that would make William Gibson himself blush. It’s an album that goes everywhere at once and, like the proverbial train crash, is impossible to look away from. Caribou achieve this grasping of attention differently, grabbing you with subtlety and layers instead, offering a faintly seen and hinted at world to lose yourself in.
February seems to have been a good month for this kind of album, a total experience that envelopes you inside of it, whether as warmth or as a crushing weight. Scroll on down below and immerse yourself, why don’t you? See you next month.
Taylor Ashton – The Romantic (indie folk, singer/songwriter)
I’ve stumbled upon some of my favorite artists by accident. Granted, we stumble on all the new music we discover, to some degree. But I’m talking about moments where limited or neutral expectations evolve into genuine surprise at the genius unfolding before you. With a performance at Exeter town hall on the New Hampshire seacoast last year, Taylor Ashton introduced himself as one of my favorite contemporary singer/songwriters.
I’ve been a huge fan of Lake Street Dive for a while now and caught them live a couple times, which drew me to check out lead singer Rachael Price‘s solo tour with Vilray when they came to Exeter. Ashton opened the show and nearly stole it, thanks to a jack-of-all-trades performance complete with clever lyricism and stage banter, excellent banjo playing, and a hilarious self-duet rendition of “Dead to Me.” While there are plenty of singer/songwriters playing variations on modern indie folk trends, only a select few have a perfect trifecta of lyricism, singing, and musical chops. It was abundantly clear that Ashton had “it” from the moment he walked on stage.
That’s even more apparent on The Romantic, Ashton’s debut solo album and a lock to make my top ten at the end of the year. Again, what makes The Romantic such an excellent record boils down to the “it” factor laced on every lyric and every note. I’m reminded of the first time I heard Father John Misty, whom I also discovered by accident when I briefly subscribed to Vinyl Me, Please. People who don’t enjoy or follow folk don’t realize just how difficult it is to craft songs that stick out from the pack. It’s incredibly difficult to take sparse instrumentation and create something memorable and unique, especially when the tools at your disposable are just you and a guitar.
But as soon as I heard “F.L.Y.” with the album announcement for The Romantic, I knew Ashton has captured the magic I experienced on that town hall stage. Like many folk songs, the lyrics explore themes of love and loss, as Ashton croons, “And it feels like yesterday that you were here/And it feels like years that you’ve been gone/And it feels so far away and yet so near.” But it’s all the extra subtleties that make the song such a resounding, infectious success. The chord progressions and melodies evolving in complex patterns, the way Ashton explores the upper part of his registry on the chorus, the vivid portrait painted by the lyrics; everything clicks from the onset and remains locked in until the last note fades.
The music remains a highlight throughout, with Ashton switching between acoustic guitar and banjo alongside a cast of friends playing the spectrum of traditional folk instruments. But what truly elevates The Romantic are Ashton’s lyrics. He writes in a way that’s funny without being corny, personal but still relatable, clever while retaining immediacy and enjoyment on repeat listens.
On “Straight Back,” he plays with a metaphor of proper posture and trying to become the man an ex-lover hoped he had been during their relationship (“I’ve been thinking about how I hold my body since I can’t hold yours;” “Well I’ve been working on my posture/Oh baby, since I lost you/ As if a straight back could bring you straight back”). Ashton’s rhyme schemes are excellent throughout the album and particularly on “Fortnight,” a song about a former (or potential) couple grappling with unrequited love (“You still call me fourteen nights a fortnight/I still love you, but I can’t be forthright/If you want me to fall out of love, then don’t call”). An equal strength of Ashton’s lyricism is his penchant for developing compelling narratives. “The Curse” details a couple searching for a breakthrough in their struggling relationship with a sunrise dive into the ocean, only to have the sudden clarity of that experience prompt one of them to pack up and leave (“Did I only make it worse/When I tried to lift the curse”).
The meaning behind “The Curse” was revealed by Ashton himself at a headlining show I attended late last month, also in Exeter but at a small barn. Contextually, his two performances were in polar opposite settings: a packed town hall versus an intimate, rural venue. Yet, Ashton’s performances were equally excellent on both occasions and saw him present the same wit, talent, and stage presence that’s so rare in the indie folk scene. Sometimes you just know it when you see it, and from the first song I heard Ashton play, I knew he was going to have a spectacular career. The Romantic confirms that initial assessment; it’s a profound statement to propel Ashton into the spotlight he deserves to be featured in.
Beneath the Massacre – Fearmonger (brutal tech death)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a music fan who doesn’t love a good comeback. Last year, brutal death metal legends Devourment roared back to life after a six year absence with Obscene Majesty, cementing their back-from-the-dead status with one of the most gripping and utterly punishing brutal death metal records in recent memory. It was a shining moment both for fans of the band and metal at large, proving once again that large spans of time between output can bring its own set of rich rewards. It’s also an apt example of the type of comeback I’m referring to when I say a “good” one. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it is said, but there are few things more crushing than a comeback that only makes you pine for the good old days when the band in question didn’t suck. It’s in this position that Montréal’s technical deathcore darlings Beneath the Massacre find themselves in 2020, returning from a nearly decade-long hiatus with their fourth full-length offering, Fearmonger. So was it worth the wait?
You bet your ass it was.
Fearmonger absolutely slaps. It rips, tears, shreds, and bangs with all the fire and brimstone one might expect a band of their stature to be capable of conjuring. In similar fashion to the above mentioned Devourment, Fearmonger works so well in part because it is utterly and uniformly uncompromising. After a brief, ominous atmo-heavy introduction, opener “Rise of the Fearmonger” kicks in to the highest possible tech death gear and from that point on never ceases in its maximal, brutalist assault. Every track on this record is brimming with the most violent form of sonic aggression, creating a relentless listen that will either immediately alienate or completely enthrall depending on how much pleasure this form of audio insanity brings you.
But this refusal to compromise, while admirable, could have been the bane of Fearmonger’s existence if not for the maturity exhibited in the songwriting. “Hidden in Plain Sight” contains a middle section that creates a recognizable center in the midst of a sonic maelstrom, while “Of Gods and Machines”’s veritable smorgasbord of riffs evolves into an incredibly effective chug-fest of a finale that blends the band’s technical and more deathcore-oriented sides together seamlessly. The whole album contains such delicious nuggets throughout, making for a record that is just varied enough to stay wildly interesting from start to finish.
Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, Fearmonger is exactly the right length for optimal enjoyment of its contents. There isn’t a single second wasted here, as Beneath the Massacre condense their most noteworthy and commendable traits into a distilled bottle of sheer violence, culminating in one of the most intense and rewarding listens of the year thus far. It’s a record that almost definitely will find a spot high on my year-end list, and I can not recommend it highly enough. The band’s masterpiece.
Read More: Review
Caribou – Suddenly (deep house, indietronica)
One of the greatest joys of following the career and music of producer Dan Snaith and his moniker Caribou (as well as his more dance-focused project Daphni) is simply in the novelty of not knowing what you’re in store for. His work has ranged from the glitchy and jazzy work of debut Start Breaking My Heart, the more expansive electro-pop of Up In Flames, the krautrock-focused The Milk of Human Kindness, sun-drenched psych pop of Andorra, fluid and propulsive dance-floor grooves of Swim, and the more serene and introspective work of Our Love. Now over 2 decades deep into his career, Snaith has seemed to finally settle down into what he feels is the best place musically for him to be, creating lush, at times soulful, and often experimental electro-pop that perfectly compliments his talents for combining the warmth of retro sounds with modern sensibilities and the affective, if somewhat limited, range of his own voice.
As near-bulletproof as many of his Caribou albums are, Suddenly is quite possibly the most fully-realized version of what Snaith’s bag of musical tricks has to offer. Though more straightforward dance-floor jams like “Never Come Back” still exist, the increased use of Snaith’s Daphni project over the past decade as his primary vehicle for purely instrumental edm has allowed him to shift focus on Caribou into something much more beguiling. Standout singles “You & I” and “Home,” for instance, derive their strength from the contrast of Snaith’s wispy, earnest vocals and pop structures (the former sounding reminiscent of some of Julian Casablancas’s solo synth-pop work) with unexpected uses of cut-and-screwed samples, jazzy synth injections, and classic Motown-like horns. “Lime” is a straight-up jazz-dance jam until it suddenly isn’t and you’re left with a haunted psych-folk husk. “Like I Loved You” is head-turning in both its relatively stripped-down nature and its creative use of sampled guitar. “Magpie” sounds like a version of Andorra that would happen after the endorphins and high wear off and you settle into calmer serenity.
It may sound a bit scattershot on paper, and yet somehow in context of the album it comes off as incredibly unified. Much of that can be attributed to Snaith’s growing confidence as a vocalist and using his vocals as a linchpin holding everything together. Where his songwriting and arrangements can be wild and out there, his voice is never anything but understated and level, giving a certain grounding to it all. The music on Caribou albums may no longer provide an easy soundtrack to a party, but in embracing his natural inclination towards warmth and sentimentality without sacrificing any of his musical wanderlust, Snaith has hit a truly sweet spot of beautiful and introspective music that celebrates the many complexities of average life.
Dark Fortress – Spectres From the Old World (black metal, progressive death metal)
You may be wondering why I’m recommending this album, given that I generally represent technical and/or progressive music here. Well, if you look at the line-up, things might start to make more sense. Morean, the mastermind behind Alkaloid, was actually known for other bands before. In fact, his association with other projects was one of the reasons why there was so much excitement over the supergroup. Well, Dark Fortress is one of those. Another important name in Dark Fortress is Victor Santura, also known as Obscura‘s producer and frontman of Triptykon. As one can see, Dark Fortress are no slouches, and one might also notice that these musicians are more known for their progressive death metal prowess. Well, Dark Fortress is the perfect fusion of extreme black metal and the German progressive death metal sound. They’ve been quiet since 2014 (roughly the time frame Morean was working on Alkaloid), but now they’re back in full force, and as impressive as ever.
Let me set the stage. One problem that I tend to have with black metal is that while the energy exuded by the music is never in question, there is often not much for me to latch onto as a musician. Either in terms of fancy guitar work, or general experimentation in song structures. While there are progressive black metal bands that excel in the latter, they often sacrifice the ferocity that is so essential to the genre. Dark Fortress definitely fall more on the blackened side, but for fans of Alkaloid, there’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into, especially with Spectres From the Old World. The album starts off fairly traditionally, with a decidedly thrash-black bent. This sets the tone, showing off how heavy they can go.
As the album progresses, however, it starts to get weirder. Suddenly, you take a step back, and it’s almost like you’re listening to an Alkaloid album. Morean’s trademark clean vocals, weird guitar chords on top of odd drum patterns, song structures that dissolve into the ether, they simply engulf you. On the first few spins, this album will likely not click with the listener. It changes course throughout its runtime, and the journey it takes is not easily foreseeable from the get-go. However, once you embrace the sound, and start listening to the meta-layer of the music, it starts really clicking, with the creative threads furling around you like a dense tapestry. If you love black metal, but want some more meat on the bones both in terms of extremity and progressiveness, Dark Fortress are back and ready to enchant you.
InTechnicolour – Big Sleeper (desert rock, stoner rock)
There’s a sweet point between stoner, doom, grunge, and pop that’s occupied by a select group of bands. Think Torche, Floor, Clutch, Queens of the Stone Age, early Red Fang, early The Sword. Sure, these bands have a varying degree of heaviness to them and a different approach to this sound but you can find big, swinging, melodic choruses on all of these names. Alongside fuzzy guitars, the vocals are usually emotive and full-throated. The songs tend to be heavy but short, delivering a kind of “sweet” ferocity, almost like a saccharine smell scorching the inside of your nostrils.
InTechnicolour channel this tradition on their excellent debut release, Big Sleeper. If you’re keeping track of the UK scene, it probably won’t surprise you that they’re from Brighton; that city is full of glistening synth-pop and indie duos. Some of that energy is preserved on Big Sleeper. When opening track “Miami Funk” plays, that’s exactly the feeling you get: Miami funk. It’s that sort of heavy, fuzzy, psychedelic rock blended with local sensibilities about song structures and vocal styles. Come the second track, “Under the Sun”, and the QOTSA influences shine bright and clear on both instruments and vocals.
But Big Sleeper is way more than just a string of homages; InTechnicolour have their own take on this sound and it involves exploring the fuzzier elements of their desert rock influences. At some point in the middle of the album, right around “Gallon Man”, things get slower and dirtier, with the track’s massive opening riff announcing the tonal shift right out of the gate. There’s something incredibly satisfying in the balances which InTechnicolour have struck on this album; the sweet popiness works so well when the backing bass rumbles so low you can feel it in your bones even as the delightful chorus is sung out loud.
Anyway, this one’s definitely being slept on when it shouldn’t be. Big Sleeper is a worthy addition to a rarefied pantheon, one in which we should savor every entry. For those who love this specific meld of pop, desert, psych, and stoner, there’s nothing quite like it. Give InTechnicolour a spin if you’re that person; they’ve got the hit you’ve been craving.
Machine Girl – U-Void Synthesizer (digital hardcore, electro-industrial)
The cover art of U-Void Synthesizer, the latest drop from digi-hardcore freak Machine Girl, is a pretty apt symbolic descriptor of the album: like the genetically-, cybernetically-, electronically-enhanced dog visage that is your immediate visual register for the album, U-Void Synthesizer is a bizarre mutt only possible in the age of ubiquitous technology. While all of Machine Girl’s work pulls from this intersection of electronic music and hardcore, this new incarnation feels like its net of influences is uniquely wide. Pulling as much from the bulbous grotesqueries of Igorrr or the demonic industrial djent of Mick Gordon’s soundtrack to Doom (2016) as it does from the usual pool of inspirations – one can point with ease at Atari Teenage Riot or Death Grips or Venetian Snares – the end result is a sweltering protean mass of stuttering drums and caustic synthesizers.
It’s honestly hard to even write much about U-Void Synthesizer; it’s the kind of eclectic post-modern art that demands to be heard and taken in in all its righteous vitriol without any sort of introduction or hand-holding along the way. That’s never stopped me from trying before, though, so bear with me as I attempt to vocalize the sort of retro-apocalyptic vision that Machine Girl presents to me here. Across a half-hour of sound, Matt Stephenson and Sean Kelly conjure up a luminous hellscape drenched in neon that is constantly twisting; it’s a labyrinthine voyage through a psychedelic nightmare land filled with discarded CRT computer screens and half-melted VHS tapes. U-Void Synthesizer is standoffish, cocksure, and boisterous, and it’s hard to imagine something so alchemically formed and Frankensteinian in nature being anything but. Hats off to these bizarre sorcerers of sound.
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre (melodic black metal)
You like your black metal chock full of riffs? How about injected with a hefty dose of thrash? If the above describes you, might as well stop listening to new music that isn’t Kvaen’s monumental debut The Funeral Pyre. This shit’s for you.
Read More: Kvlt Kolvmn
Agnes Obel – Myopia (art pop, chamber pop)
Some music feels exclusively built for quiet nights, star-filled skies, and that feeling of being blissfully and completely alone with the whispers inside your own head. Agnes Obel’s Myopia is the soundtrack for such occasions, and is a must-listen for fans of her previous (and precious) work.
Read More: Unmetal Monday
Ritual King – Ritual King (heavy psych, stoner rock)
Like I’ve said about this album in the past, sometimes you just need kick-ass guitar solos, a fuzzy tone, and a killer groove section. Sometimes you just want rock n’roll and this is what Ritual King provide in droves.
Read More: Review
VASA – Heroics (post-math rock)
Glasgow’s post-math rock outfit are back with their first album in 5 years, and following in the footsteps of contemporaries in Town Portal and And So I Watch You From Afar, Heroics is massive, unpredictable, and exceedingly fun.
Read More: Review
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED (hardcore hip-hop, southern hip-hop)
Demons & Wizards – III (power metal)
Dzö-nga – Thunder In the Mountains (pagan black metal, atmospheric black metal)
Floral – This Year (math rock)
Fluisteraars – Bloem (atmospheric black metal)
Insect Ark – The Vanishing (psychedelic doom, drone doom)
Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (progressive sludge metal)
Izthmi – The Arrows of Our Ways (progressive black metal, post-black metal)
Kilter – Axiom (avant-garde metal, free jazz)
Kvelertak – Splid (black’n’roll, hardcore punk)
Lonker See – Hamza (psychedelic jazz-rock, space rock)
Neptunus – Planetary Annihilation (brutal tech death)
Peripheral Cortex – God Kaiser Hell (avant-garde tech death)
Plague – Portraits of Mind (death metal)
Polaris – The Death of Me (metalcore)
Sons of a Wanted Man – Kenoma (post-black metal)
Seven Planets – Explorer (stoner rock, space rock)
Skyforest – A New Dawn (atmospheric black metal, melodic black metal)
Stoned God – Incorporeal (progressive death metal, groove metal)
Their Dogs Were Astronauts – Dreamcatcher (prog metal)
Thoren – Gwarth II (dissonant tech death)
Tómarúm – Wounds Ever Expanding (progressive death metal)
Toundra – Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (post-rock, post-metal)
Xenobiotic – Mordrake (progressive tech death)