Editors’ Picks – May 2020

As I am writing to you today, the world burns. Melodramatic, right? But, if we’re being honest, I could open this post with these words every month. Hell, I could open every single post like this because every single day, the world burns. Amidst this burning, there are a lot of things which make me angry and confused, too many to enumerate here (or ever). But perhaps the one which stands in starkest contrast to the actual state of the world is the idea that the world is getting better. From proponents tightly embraced by the “””intellectual dark web”””, spewing their meaningless scientism, through accelerationists who promise that the cleansing fires around us will bring new growth (any day now, guys, please just wait a bit longer), through the liberal and their absolute insistence on the efficacy of our current institutions, the idea that things are fine is all around us.

And it’s not just that I disagree. Hell, I don’t need to disagree; reality disagrees for me. Thinking on Steven Pinker’s graphs for fives minutes causes them to completely fall apart. Having just a shred of empathy reveals the true callousness and privilege at the core of the accelerationist’s worldview. The problem is not that they’re wrong. The problem is that their points of view are inherently antithetical to any kind of progress. The problem is that they’re complacent. The thing that drives me the crazier about these ideas is that they often try to recruit history to their side. “If you just look at history” they say, “you’ll see that we’re much better off/that breakdown is necessary for progress/that violence is never the answer!” Each with their own brand of numbing, pseudo-historical perspective on things.

The thing all of these appeals to history have in common is that both the agency of human actors and the material conditions which make human action possible are completely erased from history. The reality is that, in order to get the good things we have today, the things which make us “better off”, people had to fight every inch of the way. And before they could, they needed strong material systems in place, not the loosening of society and breakdown. Finally, when it came time to fight for what they wanted and what they were able to demand, nine times out of ten they needed to use violence to get what they wanted. Labor laws. The abolition of monarchy. The civil rights movement. The Haiti revolution. All of these show us that being complacent and being complicit don’t just sound similar; they’re the same thing.

Why are we talking about this here? First of all, because the world is burning and the flames bleed over into things. But secondly because music is a great way to break up complacency. Music makes you feel things and it makes you feel them strongly. If you can sit and just feel nothing when your favorite albums are playing, then you don’t have any favorite albums. Of course, those emotions aren’t enough on their own: we need to figure out how to take our passion and weaponize it. But before we weaponize it, we need to feel it. So, scroll down below for some amazing albums that will make you passionate. Listen to them deeply and meditate on the power that pulses inside of you, the power to dream of a better world, the power to not make do with what we have, the power to demand the real utopia which we deserve. The power to rise radiant.

Eden Kupermintz

Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (prog metal)

I’d like to take this opportunity to correct a wrong not only prevalent in my review for this album but also in my history of talking about Caligula’s Horse – the lack of mention of the bass. Perhaps somewhat buried in the past under the presence and mass of the guitars, the bass has nonetheless always been a key part of what makes Caligula’s Horse so good. But on Rise Radiant it is much more prominent and the record only gains from this fact. Perhaps due to a change of personnel (Dale Prinsse took over bass duties from founding band member Dave Couper) or just because of the overall excellent mix on the album, the bass is just spectacular on this release, adding a lot of depth and shine to the music.

You really need not go further than “The Tempest”, the opening track on the album, to get a taste of that wonderful new sound. The track is undoubtedly one of the catchier and most straight-forward tracks on the album, which is a god thing to be when you’re the opening track. The bass plays a part in that, backing up the main riff of the track, working with the drums to amplify the guitars and the synths, to add more punch to their delivery of the big hooks that drive the track forward. Everything comes together, with the guitar and bass really sticking in unison, to create that big Caligula’s Horse, head-bang inducing sound in a satisfying, crunchy way.

But the bass also does a great job of introducing more variance and complexity not only to the track but to the album in general. The bass seems to always have this tendency to draw just outside the lines, taking foundational riffs on the album and modifying them in all sorts of small, inherently pleasing ways. That’s true on “The Tempest” but also on “Slow Violence” (where the bass does a bunch of stuff with the main riff while the verses are playing by skipping beats and amplifying the staccato vibe of the track) and elsewhere on the album.

At the end of the day, I’m not too mad at myself for not mentioning this in my review because there’s a lot going on on the album. But I am glad to have gotten the chance to tie a bow around my opinion of Rise Radiant by calling out another marked improvement in the catchier side of the band. The more prominent and audible nature of the bass is yet another facet of this improvement, inching the band closer to perfection.

Read More: Review

EK

Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus (technical thrash, dissonant death metal)

Death metal (IN SPAAAAACE) has become something of a theme over the past few years. Not that it’s never been a fascination in the genre up to this point (Timeghoul was rocking that shit before many of us were out of diapers), but there’s a particular predilection for all things tied to the infinite void above in recent years. Blood Incantation, Tomb Mold, Cosmic Putrefaction, Gorephilia, Wormed, Outer Heaven, Revocation, Nucleus, and a veritable host of other prominent and underground death metal bands have been exploring the outer reaches of the cosmos in their latest offerings, and Cryptic Shift could easily be relegated to the junk pile of “just another cosmic death metal band” if their debut full-length Visitations from Enceladus wasn’t so fucking brilliant. Yes, the thematic trope is getting overplayed as all hell, but as long as it’s producing music of this caliber I couldn’t care less. Space death forever. Cryptic Shift rules.

While Cryptic Shift, for me, rests firmly and comfortably in the death metal camp, there’s enough thrash here to keep the proceedings appropriately speedy and aggressive. Fans of Vektor (of which I formerly counted myself, but that’s a rant for another time) will most certainly find the gaping, technical thrash-shaped hole in their heart filled to the brim by Visitations from Enceladus, especially through opener “Moonbelt Immolator”. It takes some impressive levels of confidence to release a 25-minute thrash/death epic as your album opener, but those willing to dive into its intimidating waters will find more than their fair share of instrumental and compositional wizardry. God DANG is this track good. Spanning and shifting styles, tempo, and emphasis with absolute ease, this track is one of the most thrilling and thoroughly entertaining metal compositions I’ve heard all year.

With such a banger up front, I was a bit worried about the quality of the rest of the tracks, but thankfully the band don’t use up all of their creative juices in one titanic go. The record’s subsequent (and much shorter) tracks are no slouches, adding unique and fiery bursts of thrashy death at every turn, and even throwing in some hefty prog elements, most notably in “(Petrified in the) Hypogean Gaol”. The performances throughout are uniformly fantastic and the production adds just the right amount of clarity to the craziness, making the record a complete package of extreme metal mayhem.

If you like your death metal cosmic, Cryptic Shift have crafted a record that I have a hard time imagining being topped this year. Top-to-bottom this thing is nothing short of a miraculous and completely satisfying enterprise, and I could not be more excited to see where this band goes next. If you’re burned out on the space stuff, I’d strongly recommend you make an exception here. Well worth the time and investment it requires. One of the best death metal records of the year.

Read More: Death’s Door

Jonathan Adams

Natalia Lafourcade – Un canto por México Vol. 1 (ranchera, son jarocho)

The first half of 2020 has been rough, folks. That’s an extreme understatement, but frankly, I’m not sure sure how to adequately capture our present moment in this space. Instead I’ll focus on this: we all ought to, and deserve to, find something (many things, even) that makes us happy. Whatever that means for you, seek it out and allow yourself to enjoy it fully. I often find myself fixated on discovering obscure, challenging releases or remaining up to date on the genres I cover for the blog; this is especially relevant considering we just posted our latest installments of Kvlt Kolvmn and Death’s Door. Heeding my own advice, I’ve shifted my attention towards music that embraces the oncoming Summer warmth. Like many of you, I just need some joy to cling onto right now.

I’m fortunate and thankful that Natalia Lafourcade answered the call and released Un canto por México Vol. 1 when she did. Since finally watching Coco (2017) late last year, I’ve gained a newfound love of Mexican folk music. The power and beauty of Spanish combined with bright, jovial instrumentation offers a kind of genuine positivity unmatched by any other music I’ve encountered. As a composer, singer, and bandleader, Lafourcade embodies everything I’ve grown to love about traditional Mexican songwriting. Her stage presence alone is nearly as radiant as the music she’s created.

Un canto por México Vol. 1 is the studio version of a benefit concert Lafourcade performed to help restore Centro de documentación del Son Jarocho, a musical and cultural hub in her home city of Veracruz that was damaged by the earthquakes in 2017. Beyond my own enjoyment, the album helped me continue my exploration of cultural genres from around the world. Lafourcade and a diverse group of collaborators primarily perform songs from the ranchera, mariachi, and son jarocho traditions. These first two genres are what most people probably imagine when they think about Mexican folk music: Spanish guitar, trumpets, violin, and triumphant singing focused on romance and heritage. Son jarocho, native to Lafourcade’s own Veracruz, is a blend of Spanish and Indigenous music inspired by the culture and surroundings found along the Gulf of Mexico.

While all of this was fascinating context, Lafourcade’s singing and her collaborators’ performances would still be fantastic and emotionally stirring in a vacuum. My eyes and heart swelled from the moments I heard the plucked guitar and robust brass and violin on opener “El balajú / Serenata huasteca.” There are simply too many highlights to mention throughout the album, as Lafourcade and company flawlessly perform Mexican folk classics and original compositions.

“Mexicana hermosa” features gorgeous string arrangements and a phenomenal duet with Lafourcade and Carlos Rivera, and lyrics like “No te pongas triste, solo mira el cielo / Que la noche es buena para reconciliar los sueños” (“Don’t be sad, just look at the sky / This is a good night to reconcile your dreams”) are just what I needed to hear right now (and gave me an excuse to brush off the Spanish I learned in college). She has another excellent and technically challenging vocal duet with Leonel García on “Ya no vivo por vivir.” And while I’ve never been to Veracruz, songs like “Veracruz” (obviously) and “Mi tierra veracruzana” (obviously, pt. 2), transported me to a seaside village with gorgeous Mexican architecture and views. Finally, among all the album’s highlights, my heart still lies with “Hasta la raíz” (“Down to the Root”). Lafourcade’s eternally gorgeous vocals shine as bright as possible here, and I’ve yet to finish the song with fully dry eyes.

This isn’t the album I expected to feature for this column, but then again, this isn’t the kind of year any of us planned for. Lafourcade proves that creating music for enjoyment and musical admiration aren’t mutually exclusive goals. Un canto por México Vol. 1 is an earnest, emotionally rich collection of beautiful songs, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect to raise my spirits this month.

Scott Murphy

The 1975 – Notes On a Conditional Form (indie pop, indie rock) 

The 1975’s inclusion on this month’s editors’ picks column on this website may well be controversial. After all, why does a site that focuses on heavy music choose to concern itself with an album from a pop rock act whose latest album is getting mixed reviews? True, the melon himself gave the album a Light To Decent 5, and those that have given the album positive reviews say that Notes on a Conditional Form is self-indulgent and inconsistent if not a bit messy. 

Absolutely, there are few contemporary rock acts out there more self-indulgent than The 1975. Even on a metacontextual level, the band exudes rockstar vibes, particularly Matty Healy’s rise to fulfil the archetype of the rockstar hero’s journey, adapted for contemporary mainstream audiences. Matty’s grown from sex and self-obsessed to battling addiction and coming out on the other side with a a multifaceted self-awareness and near Bono-levels of pretention when it comes to world politics, even if he is on the absolute right side of history with respect to LGBT rights, race relations, and climate change. I mean, this record in particular starts off with a five-minute self-titled track with twinkly pianos and a monologue by climate activist Greta Thunberg. It’s a bold move, and one worthy of applause. From there, Greta’s calls of rebellion are met with The 1975’s take on post-hardcore and noise rock with the barnburner “People.” 

That’s where the heavy begins and ends, and there’s still 70+ minutes of music left. Notes on a Conditional Form claims 22 tracks that see the band hitting country, rnb, shoegaze, indie folk, new wave, classical, garage, and all manner of electronic genres hither and yon. So yeah, The 1975 are self-indulgent, and for many acts, that can be a hindrance, but the band manages to find lots to say in these different masks while exploring the breadth of possibilities at their disposal. 

Standouts include: “The Birthday Party,” which tells the story of a now-sober Healy relying on his friends to stay clean at a party, set to floaty indie folk; “Then Because She Goes,” a lovely but short exercise in heartbreaking shoegaze; the somber Sufjan Stevens style exploration of the conflicting struggles faced by gay christian youth in “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”’, which features local favorite indie folk artist Phoebe Bridgers; the satirical honky tonk “Roadkill”; “Me & You Together Song”, which could pass for Goo-Goo Dolls if it weren’t for the thick British accent; and the infectious “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”, the biggest jam on the whole record, pulling out the 80’s nostalgia that the band are known for on previous records, taken to explosive new heights with a saxophone solo and the catchiest chorus you’ll hear in 2020.

One could argue that Notes lacks vision for all its experimentation, but perhaps the mess is the vision. Notes is an ambitious record and takes a grand tour of the group’s various influences as it marks the end of the Music For Cars era of the band’s discography. It’s worth it alone for the novelty of hearing an indie pop rock group being so free to do as they please on such a large creative scale, and for me, the bands that disregard genre most often are the ones that find longevity in my listening habits, and Notes will undoubtedly be spinning for a while. 

Jimmy Rowe

Omniarch – Omniarch (progressive death metal, tech death)

There exists a perception that being a critic of something makes you unable to enjoy it – this even came up in our recent AMA. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true, and I think it can be reframed slightly differently. A lot of people who take a critical mindset to their listening oftentimes get inundated with the large majority of lower-quality material in any given genre (as per Sturgeon’s Law). In addition to wanting to optimize their time by really focusing on the genres they truly enjoy, critically-minded people also tend to creative self-narratives and in-group narratives. “I’m a crossover thrash guy” or “melodeath as a genre is stale”. Narratives like this are convenient, they let us save time, find like-minded people, and perhaps most importantly they allow us to create shorthand so that we can go into more specific topics. By acknowledging melodeath being stale (whether that’s true or not) and positioning oneself as a “post-death-metal guy”, a critic can direct their and the listener/reader’s attention to nuances of a particular subgenre. How is this relevant to Omniarch? I’ll explain more in a bit, but essentially when something doesn’t strongly conform to a particular genre, it can be hard for highly critical people to latch onto a particular aspect of it. The Albertan five-piece can ostensibly be called a progressive death metal band, but they have elements across the spectrum of death metal and even metalcore.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, critics are often rebutted with “why can’t you just enjoy this for what it is?” – that’s a large topic that’s better elaborated a different time, but it boils down to two things. First, tropes of a genre that are fine on their own can get tired for overly attentive listeners. Second, some elements, while fine on their own, can lack the cohesion that makes them more than the sum of their parts and makes the cream of the crop shine. As a result of self-narrativization, critics can also paint these types of elements with an overly broad brush and dismiss entire genres. Ok, back to Omniarch. Why are they in this post, and why did I talk so much about critics being unable to enjoy things? Well, because they’re so damned fun to listen to, in a way that is likely to get them dismissed by critics.

Why I think they’ll not get enough attention from a critical lens is primarily because they don’t fully commit to one particular thing and take it to an extreme. Instead, they focus on using the language of technical death metal to make really energetic and upbeat music. There’s almost a power metal-like energy to them, a joy that is generally not exuded by your average death metal act. The riffing is always fast, but not in a “shred your face off” tech death way. A more apt comparison would be After the Burial‘s happy energy from their earlier material. They expertly string together sections to create ups and downs in the flow of the song. Everything just moves at a butter-smooth pace. The vocals are reminiscent of The Black Dahlia Murder‘s Trevor Strnad on Ritual, which is the album I’d say is where they dared to have the most fun. In fact, “TBDM with ATB’s fun energy” is a good way to summarize the tone here.

I said “dare to have fun”, and that’s the key here. In a genre that takes itself comically seriously as metal, having fun is not a given. Conversely, there are a lot of bands out there who “just want to have fun”, which means the music prioritizes an in-the-moment recklessness over elaborately crafted songs. Omniarch are able to achieve both, and have a unique voice in a saturated genre. This is the catchiest death metal record one can get this side of Archspire‘s Relentless Mutation. If you want something fast, angry, happy and just so smooth in how good it is, check out Omniarch. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be in your 6th relisten before you even notice it.

Noyan

Postvorta – Siderael Pt. 1 (post-metal, darkwave)

For the most part this period of extended quarantine during the COVID pandemic has not been one of great creative/artistic expression and output. The limits of being physically separated and sequestered in our homes has made it difficult to do too much beyond some writing and remote recording, which at best has provided some novel and fun ideas but not a whole lot that can stand on its own outside of this current context. For Italian post-metal band Postvorta, however, it has provided them a unique opportunity to break out of the mold formed over the course of four albums modeled closely after post-/sludge pioneers like Neurosis and Isis. The result is Siderael Pt 1, an absolutely gorgeous, mesmerizing, and at times haunting meditation in grief and searching for meaning in a time of great unrest and uncertainty.

Aside from a few key moments, Siderael probably can’t even really be categorized as a post-metal release. It takes far more cues from the recent resurgence of emotional darkwave and synthwave releases mixed in with a heavy dose of post-inflected ambiance. Tracks like opener “Through 4K Lenses” lean much more heavily on the lighter, electronic side of things, making extensive use of piano, trombone that sounds alarmingly close to sampled synth arpeggio runs, and the beautifully ethereal vocals of guest Agnese Alteri. These various sounds swirl around each other and swell and fade gradually in waves until finally at the 5-minute mark drums come in, and it all snaps together into place, creating a wonderful patchwork of sounds building into one of the most affecting post- payoffs I’ve heard in a while. Elsewhere, “Spoon” and “Lunar” present themselves almost like musical vapor, wafting and fluidly moving through various electronics and menacing grooves.

When things do get heavy though, they’re still recontextualized in a much different emotional space. On “Viper,” the insistent drum and bass groove mixed with melodically-dense clean vocals scream darkwave until it suddenly switches into a pummeling wall of sound threatening to drown out Postvorta frontman Andrea Fioravanti’s vocals that plead into the void. “Fog and Concrete” comes out of the gate with the same fervent energy but then fizzles back into electronic and reverb-heavy soundscapes before returning to that original energy in the track’s climax. The overall effect of Siderael is one of deep emotional connection and really brilliant electronic/ambient production with the knowledge of employing heavier and rock-based elements to draw out the greatest level of contrast. It is likely not the album Postvorta’s most fervent fans were hoping for (though, to be fair, they did just put out their last proper studio album in February), but it is nonetheless an incredible piece of work and embodies a sound I would love to hear explored further.

Nick Cusworth

Further Listening

Aesthesys – Alignments (progressive post-rock, electronic rock)

Russia’s Aesthysys return with another futuristic look into post-rock that seamlessly blends electronic rock and classic cinematic scope.

Read More: Premiere

-NC

Almyrkvi / The Ruins of Beverast – Split (black metal, doom metal)

What happens when you take one of the metal world’s most ingenious and provocative black and doom metal artists and blend him with one of Iceland’s finest black metal outfits? You get an amazing split. All four tracks are stunning examples of widescreen black and doom metal with touches of industrial and folk on the side, and display The Ruins of Beverast and Almyrkvi at the top of their collective games. Fantastic release.

Read More: Kvlt Kolvmn

JA

An Autumn For Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet (post-black metal, blackgaze) 

This anonymous trio is eight albums deep into their strange blend of black metal, shoegaze, post-punk, and dream pop, and for their Prosthetic Records debut, they’re streamlined into an expressive wall of sound for a bizarre if not ornate approach to the genre.

Read More: Review

JR

Black Taffy – Opal Wand (instrumental hip-hop, vaporwave)

Bandcamp Daily delivers once again. Black Taffy crafts gorgeous lo-fi instrumental hip-hop with tinges of vaporwave, drawing from classical music samples to create hauntingly beautiful beats.

Read More: Review

SM

Esoctrilihum – Eternity of Shaog (avant-garde death metal, blackened death metal)

How does this man do it? Five full-length albums in three years, and not a single one of them is god awful. A minor miracle. Even more impressive? Esoctrilihum’s latest may be the project’s best yet. Diverse, experimental, thoroughly captivating blackened death metal. 

Read More: Death’s Door

JA

Owen Pallett – Island (art pop, chamber pop)

The normally grandiose composer/violin wizard Owen Pallett takes a far more subdued and nuanced route on his fifth album Island, one that strikes a much more somber and introspective tone for the usually cheeky and meta-dramatic Canadian, but one that is equally as rewarding in the long run.

-NC

Party Dozen – Pray for Party Dozen (avant-garde jazz, noise rock)

The best way to describe Party Dozen‘s music is “Lightning Bolt playing free jazz with sax instead of bass.” It’s an an electric, tremendous record that manages to be as intellectually stimulating as it is infectious and downright fun.

Read More: Jazz Club

SM

Protosequence – A Blunt Description of Something Obscene (tech death, brutal death metal)

If you want your music heavy and complex, you’ve come to the right place. A Blunt Description of Something Obscene is one of the most pummeling, aggressive, and brutal albums I’ve heard in a while. Turn it up and let the notes, riffs, and squeals blast you away into the nothingness you know you deserve.

Read More: Review

-EK

Umbra Vitae – Shadow of Life (death metal, metalcore)

We all miss The Red Chord, but Guy K went off to disappoint us all by being a cop. Fortunately, we now have Umbra Vitae, which is basically The Red Chord, but instead we get Converge’s Jacob Bannon doing all the barking. There’s a hot debate on whether this is deathcore or death metal, but whatever this is, it fucking rips. It’s stacked with Gunface riffs, and that’s all you need.

Read More: Review

-JR

…and Oceans – Cosmic World Mother (symphonic black metal)

ACxDC – Satan Is King (grindcore, powerviolence)

Árstíðir lífsins – Saga á tveim tungum II: Eigi fjǫll né firðir (atmospheric black metal, Icelandic black metal)

Astralborne – Eternity’s End (melodeath)

BlackLab – Abyss (stoner doom)

Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door More Open (indie rock)

Chouk Bwa & The Ångstromers – Vodou Alé (Latin electronic, digital cumbia)

Cosmic Putrefaction – The Horizons Towards Which Splendour Withers (avant-garde death metal)

Dope Body – Home Body (experimental rock)

Eishan Ensemble – Afternoon Tea at Six (Persian classical music, jazz fusion)

Flies Are Spies From Hell – Final Quiet (post-rock)

Greg Fox – Contact (progressive electronic, EAI)

Hot Nuns – Rude, Dumb & Anxious (garage rock, punk)

In the Company of Serpents – LUX (doom metal, drone metal)

Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM (indie rock, pop-punk)

Jim White & Marisa Anderson – The Quickening (American primitivism, free improv)

Josh Feinberg – Time Does Not Exist For Light (Indian classical music)

Kardashev – The Baring of Shadows (atmospheric deathcore, post-metal)

Killitorous – The Afterparty (tech death, deathcore)

Lesoir – Mosaic (art rock)

Lör – Edge of Eternity (power metal)

Matt Mayhall & Dan Rosenboom – Language (avant-garde jazz)

Nous – Nous III (krautrock, post-rock)

Odraza – Rzeczom (black metal)

Of the Vine – Left Alone (post-rock, doomgaze)

Okkyung Lee – Yeo-Neun (modern classical)

Pantayo – Pantayo (art pop, kulintang)

Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (art pop, chamber pop)

Shrapnel – Palace for the Insane (thrash, death metal)

Sinister – Deformation of the Holy Realm (death metal)

Sojourner – Premonitions (atmospheric black metal, melodic black metal)

Still Motions – Mirrors (post-rock)

The Necks – Three (avant-garde jazz, post-minimalism)

Thrawsunblat – Insula (blackened folk)

Tithe – Penance (sludge, deathgrind)

Vader – Solitude In Madness (death metal)

Vitskär Süden – Vitskär Süden (stoner rock, heavy psych)

Woods – Strange to Explain (psychedelic folk, indie folk)

Xibalba – Años en Infierno (beatdown hardcore, death-doom)

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