I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of closing down the blog. It’s kind of a secret but not really; I’ve spoken about it in Facebook groups before but I don’t think I’ve ever written about it on the blog itself. The reasons are many: listening to so much new music can cause burnout. The day to day is tough to manage and worry about. The internet is an endless void that often feels cold and lonely. I have a full time job. The reasons go and on and on but they mostly come down to the fact that this is a labor of love and passion and, as such, it’s hard to do when you’re tired, depressed, under pressure, or just plain bored. Yeah. Sometimes it’s just fucking boring.
But then, at other times, I look around me, at my life, and I can’t imagine what it looks like without the blog. How would my day to day look without a list of new albums to listen to? Placid. Flat. Boring. What would my mental state be without the immensely powerful network of support that the blog staff, and even further that, you, the readers, provide me with? Sad. Depressing. Lonely. And, finally, what would the world look like without the sometime-intrusive, almost always welcome, massive presence of music in it? Hopeless. Weak. Fragile. Pointless. And so, especially during these times of crisis (a crisis which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, has been happening for decades and will continue to happen for decades, if it ever stops), I feel an enveloping sense of gratitude and comfort from the fact the blog exists.
This little intro of mine, that Editors’ Picks intro, has become a platform for me to voice some of my thoughts about our current moment, in music and out of it. It has also become a moment of introspection for me, a place to look not only inwards, but also backwards, on the history of the month, of the year, or of the blog itself. Or of my life as a whole, if I’m being honest. This introspection doesn’t always wind into the words themselves; sometimes I “just” write about the music. But it’s always here, a little piece of solitude that I work on alone, usually on Friday mornings. And it’s great. It gives me time to slow down and contemplate and to remind myself what a group of amazing individuals I get to work with.
So, I guess, here at the halfway mark of 2020 (our Top 25 of 2020 So Far post is coming, don’t worry) I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for reading the blog and giving it the life it has. Because without you, I wouldn’t have it and without it, my life would be so much poorer. And with that, let’s get to music.
Dessiderium – Shadow Burn (symphonic black metal, progressive death metal)
There are many paths towards achieving a weird vibe for your music. To understand them, or rather the fact that so many of them exist, we must first try to understand, even slightly, what we mean when we say weird music. By weird music, we don’t necessarily mean “random” or “unexpected”; this is a mistake made by many bands, who think that just stringing along many genre changes or non-standard time signatures makes something weird. In fact, it just makes something complicated, hectic, or scattered (when it’s done poorly) but not really weird. Rather, weird denotes something that is faintly off-putting, something that feels familiar and yet, is different or strange.
And that’s why it’s so hard to capture that feeling and why there are so many paths that lead to it. Weird music is, at the same time, both close to home and slightly off. It’s just to the left of what we were expecting and yet communicates with what we were expecting at the same time. You can create this feeling by taking something you know, say, for example, symphonic black metal and subtly twist the role of the synths. Now, instead of “just” providing a grandiose backdrop for your black metal, the synths create richer stories, urban and decidedly post-modern in flavor. They’re “to the side” of what you expected; they’re still large and present but their timbre is off-putting somehow, but in a good way, in a way which makes you want to keep coming back to them.
Now, just as an example you see, let’s say you took that slightly modified symphonic black metal and decided to bring the grandeur back by melding it with progressive death metal. That genre’s propensity for many, many notes, and intricate ones at that, would blend very well with those weird synths of yours, creating yet another level of something expected presented in unexpected ways. Instead of a torrent of notes, your progressive death metal becomes another layer in the story being told, almost but not quite a counterpoint to your odd black metal tinges you had just introduced.
And then, let’s say, to tie everything together, you also introduce unique clean vocals and abrasive harsh ones, that arrive in weird times. For example, you take your clean vocals and overlay them on some of the more technically complex and heavy passages on your album. Or you take the harsh vocals and meld them with the aforementioned synths in ways which highlight both the vocals and the synths, while the guitars and drums keep wailing in the background.
If you did all of that, you’d have a perfect example of how weird, and not just complex or unexpected music, arises. If you did all of that, you’d have Dessiderium’s Shadow Burn, a weird and marvellous and magnificent piece of music if there ever was one.
Read More: Review
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (indie rock, indie folk)
I recently finished my second watch through of Bojack Horseman. Even though it only wrapped its series run at the beginning of this year – which, to be fair, legitimately feels like a lifetime ago now – I hadn’t seen most of the series for multiple years now. What struck me the most upon rewatching the whole thing was not so much about my opinion or thoughts about the show changed, but how much I realized I had changed since watching it the first time. During its run Bojack served as my own personal education and therapy, an opportunity to fully understand for the first time what it meant to live with depression and the myriad ways it manifested itself. Combine that with a general feeling of existential angst and lack of direction as I felt like I was flopping around in place scrounging for freelance gigs in a city that was feeling less forgiving and more alienating than ever, and the trials and tribulations of Bojack, Diane, and Princess Carolyn felt more and more like a warped and exaggerated reflection of myself.
Since then a lot has changed in my life. I’ve been able to get a much better handle of my depression and anxiety, and instead of fighting with and along the masses from an apartment in Brooklyn I am now living in a house in a quiet residential neighborhood in suburban MA with a full-time job and hobbies/outlets that are giving me some more structure and meaning. So when I watched through these stories, character arcs, and dramatic beats again, I was surprised to find that the soul-crushing moments of characters suffering from and working through their depression and various mental ailments didn’t pack the same emotional punch as the first time. Rather, what stuck with me were the moments and parts that followed, where characters could reach some point of self-awareness and even self-improvement by making good choices but still be wracked with a lingering sense that the holes inside of themselves could be shielded and protected but never fully remediated. You can get most of the things you think you want and still realize that the wounds and scars you picked up along the way are right where you left them, always waiting to be recognized and dealt with in some new way.
I bring all of this up because my finishing up the series for the second time aligned perfectly with the release of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher, and the parallels between the two feel too apt not to mention. Bridgers, the young indie phenom who took much of the world by storm in 2017 with her first album of deeply affecting and equally sardonic stories Stranger In the Alps, has only strengthened her position as one of the leading voices of modern rock and folk since. Between forming the incredible supergroup boygenius with two other modern indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, releasing a very good collaboration album with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center, and even multiple features on the latest The 1975 album (as well as a support role on their album launch tour before Covid scuttled everything), Bridgers has seen her star rise precipitously in a short period of time. She has already accomplished in a few years most of what she dreamed of doing most of her life prior to that. In Punisher’s first proper track (and lead single) “Garden Song,” she admits as much at the end, stating “I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted.”
That doesn’t mean everything is fine. Immediately in “Kyoto” – probably the closest the album comes to a straight-up “bop” – Bridgers is back to doubting herself and what it is she really wants. She laments the grueling nature of touring and never feeling settled or comfortable – “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind.” She wrestles with both this and a reminder of her past from her father in the form of a phone call about him getting sober. She winds up in the end not knowing what she wants and feeling like a hypocrite all the same – “Guess I lied / I’m a liar / Who lies / ‘Cause I’m a liar.” In the title track, she muses about being a part of the same city and neighborhoods that one of her idols Elliott Smith lived in shortly before taking his own life and what she would do if she had the opportunity to meet him. Her sense of imposter syndrome runs rampant throughout this track and the album as a whole, assuring herself that it’s better that she never had a chance to meet him because she would just be his “punisher,” a term used to describe fans who demand the attention of their idols only to ultimately ramble on without saying much of substance and trapping them in the process.
And in “Chinese Satellite” – a personal favorite – she starts with more clever self-deprecation, singing “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself / Why would somebody do this on purpose / When they could do something else?” and winds up wishing to see a tractor beam to take her “home.” Even as she receives more accolades and more reason to feel she belongs, in the end she will never not feel like an outsider, someone different who doesn’t belong anywhere and needs to be rescued and brought to where she belongs. These moments are littered throughout Punisher, building a tapestry woven in trauma and pain but embroidered with pieces of growth, both personally and musically.
Speaking of the actual music, Jon already covered what makes Punisher stand out in Bridgers’ brilliant expansion of her own simple folksy blueprint she laid out in Stranger in the Alps. There is a ton of love given to the more baroque/lush side of indie rock in the mid-to-late aughts, with frequent use of trumpet and fiddle calling to mind the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Beirut, Andrew Bird, The National, and others. It’s a very tight record, but not one that feels overly snappy or produced. Rather, Bridgers has simply given herself a broader canvas to paint her vivid and poignant stories upon, and it pays off in every instance. Punisher is in every way a success, and very much like Fiona Apple’s brilliant Fetch the Bolt Cutters earlier this year, feels like it has arrived at the perfect time. Through Bridgers, we have a vehicle to reflect, absorb, and work through our own pain during this tumultuous period. And much like with my own recent experience with Bojack, I hope I can revisit this album years down the road and use it as another marker of how much I’ve changed, for better and worse.
Read More: Unmetal Monday
Jockstrap – Wicked City (art pop, experimental hip-hop)
London duo Jockstrap cover more ground in Wicked City’s 20-minute runtime than some artists manage to cover in an entire career. Their sound is so multivalent and pulls from such a variety of styles common to contemporary pop eclecticists that it’s genuinely hard to imagine where they’d even go from here: a warped, blown-out hip hop beat melts into serene chamber pop, which in turn gives way to lilting piano arrangements that become infused with thrumming synthesizers before exploding in glitchy electronic fireworks. It feels like Jockstrap is in a race against the clock to jam as much of what they want into the EP, with little consideration for audience members who happen to get caught up in the whirlwind of motion they create. I’m sure people will compare the chaotic weirdo pop of Wicked City to what 100 gecs and Body Meat are doing at the moment, but if there’s any group that Jockstrap remind me of, it’s honestly 1969/1970 King Crimson: the two groups share an extremely deliberate palette that speaks almost exclusively in huge tonal contrasts by way of an aesthetic that marries loud, brash contemporary techniques with reserved classical stylings.
Unlike King Crimson, though, where the unifying thread was Robert Fripp’s dizzying ability to be exactly where he needed at all times with his guitar, the ingredient doing most of the heavy lifting to keep Jockstrap’s extreme whiplash from completely destroying the project is the incredible vocal work that Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye both contribute to the project. Ellery in particular deserves credit for a series of practically flawless performances on each track that sharpen the instrumentation’s vibes into a razor-sharp vibe. Wicked City is a powerfully tangible piece of music, in large part due to Ellery’s exacting use of her voice and abstract lyricism that painstakingly make visceral each stroke of a piano key, each humming synthesizer, each skull-rattling bass drum hit. The sole guest feature on the EP, Injury Reserve’s Stepa J. Groggs (who tragically passed away on June 29th, may he rest in peace) verse on “Robert,” is also a feat of expert curation: no other rapper would be able to perfectly navigate the quasi-industrial blasts and creaks like he does here. Wicked City’s success lies in its knowledge of the power the human voice holds as a musical throughline, even as everything else is constantly exploding around it.
The first three tracks on Wicked City are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the ending diptych of “The City” and “City Hell” that really push the envelope here. “The City” starts off quiet and non-confrontational – just piano and Ellery – before smashing headlong into bombastic glitch electronics and bizarre, cut-up stream of consciousness lyrics. Everything is fire and chaos, furious strobes and aggressive psychedelia and implosive rage. “City Hell,” of course, takes these threads and recombines them, with a melange of instruments constantly accenting Ellery’s now-autotuned vocal work before gorgeous, humming, Black Moth Super Rainbow-esque smears of technicolor synthesizers and guitar come in to lead everything together into a gorgeous conclusion to the EP.
If I’ve made Wicked City sound like it’s a lot to take in over the course of 20 brief minutes, well, that’s because it is. It’s a rambunctious, messy, and constantly evolving ride that doesn’t mince any words or waste time. If you’ve ever wondered just how much mayhem a band can fit into a single EP, you may have found your answer.
Protest the Hero – Palimpsest (progressive metalcore)
I’ve always enjoyed Protest the Hero’s music, but have never truly fallen in love with any of their releases. Fortress is probably the closest I’ve come to fully giving in to the band’s uniquely progressive metalcore charms, but after my initial excitement regarding that record upon its release it never found its way into my regular rotation. I’ve always respected and enjoyed this collective as musicians and songwriters, but that never translated into a full-blown infatuation. That is, until this past month.
It’s hard to formulate the right combination of words to encapsulate how absolutely head over heels I am with Palimpsest, the band’s fifth and potentially most enthralling and sonically sprawling full-length record. From its opening frame in the gripping “The Migrant Mother”, the band’s dizzying musicianship and songwriting abilities are on clear display. It’s a stunning, politically charged shot across the bow that prepares listeners for the temper of the journey to come while simultaneously re-establishing the band’s penchant for awe-inspiring instrumental pyrotechnics. It’s about as good an introduction as I could have hoped for, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The opening stretch of the record, which features “The Canary”, “From the Sky”, the instrumental “Harborside”, and “All Hands”, is the best continuous stream of music the band have yet released. Period. This sequence of music is absolutely stunning, featuring passages of lush orchestral instrumentation, ear worm riffs, and uniformly fantastic percussive work. In particular, the sequence from about four minutes into “From the Sky” through the beginning of “All Hands” is an absolute chef’s kiss of emotive progressive metal that is as richly realized and beautiful as any music I’ve heard so far this year. It’s a mesmerizing musical sequence, elevated to utterly transcendent levels by the vocals of Rody Walker. His performance throughout the record is spellbinding, but in this section in particular his passionate delivery is flat-out amazing.
At this point, the story of his vocal struggles (which included necessary surgery and vocal re-training) has been beaten to death, but I’ve got to say that a newfound intensity in his performance adds a profound dimension to the band’s music. His passion bleeds through every note, every scream, and every whispered plea with an earnestness that feels renewed and reinvigorated. It’s a masterful performance from the heart and soul of the band, which makes every track feel all the more essential.
While the best work on the record sits in its front half, the fact that the album’s latter section maintains listener attention and captivates with such ferocity is a minor miracle. There are no duds on this record, with each track bringing to the table something invigorating in content (“Rivet”) or unique and effective in instrumentation (“Reverie”). It’s a straight banger all the way through, mixed and mastered to perfection to heighten the experience of every note and blast. It’s everything I could have wanted a new Protest the Hero record to be and then some.
It’s not much of a contest for me. This is the best, most balanced and impassioned Protest the Hero record to date. Perhaps that’s sacrilege to some more seasoned devotees of the band than I, and perhaps a few more trips ‘round their storied discography are warranted before such an assertion can be taken seriously, but there’s no debating that Palimpsest has impacted me more deeply and powerfully than any of the band’s previous releases. From a politically powerful message of protest to its meta-narrative of persistence and overcoming, this is a rousing record that checks all the boxes of a future classic. I’m thoroughly in love, and don’t plan on taking out of my regular rotation any time soon.
Read More: Review
Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (avant-garde metal, tech death)
In the umbrella of acts that could be considered technical death metal, Pyrrhon stick out like a sore thumb. No, they don’t necessarily follow in the lineage of noodly tech death a la Necrophagist and Origin. Nor do they revel in the excesses of modern progressive death like Obscura or the pretentious jazz fusion of those that followed in the footsteps of Cynic and Atheist. Modern tech death is often overly sterile and self-indulgent, if not pompous. Pyrrhon though are about as unpretentious and unrefined as it gets, despite being as technical and progressive as any of their contemporaries.
If Pyrrhon follows in the wake of any of death metal’s old guard, it would be Gorguts and their avant garde approach at texture and disregard of structure. But Pyrrhon bring more to the table than that on their fourth full-length album Abscess Time, often pulling from free jazz and noise rock alike. The snarling, twisting, and grinding mechanics on display are so disorienting and bewildering that they would feel at home in a Mike Patton and John Zorn collaboration. Abscess Time is an album that thrives on that free jazz style improvisation, and it’s evident that much of the album was written through jam sessions. I actually need this to be true, because the thought of anybody sitting down and writing this music intentionally is maddening. These jams lead to some interesting results, such as the very Daughters-esque title track to the more atmospheric and free-form “Solastalgia.”
The guitar and bass performances by Dylan DiLella and Erik Malave respectively are almost indescribably bizarre; they wail and screech in cacophony as if thrown down the stairs, best exemplified by the mid-album instrumental “Overwinding”. When riffs with structure do emerge, as on tracks like “Down At Liberty Ashes” and “Another Day In Paradise”, they are often devastating and enduring, and are some of the coolest riffs since whatever Scott Hull (Pig Destroyer, Agoraphobic Nosebleed) put out last. The strings are grounded by drummer Steve Schwegler, who never misses an opportunity to impress with intricate rhythms and fills. Vocalist Doug Moore is also a shapeshifter, proving himself as one of the most versatile frontmen in extreme metal.
Abscess Time isn’t just a record littered with skronk riffs and blastbeats, it’s rich with intricate detail and nuance. It’s artful, but unpretentious and incredibly challenging. This could be easily said about any entry to an Editor’s Picks column each month, but Abscess Time truly is one of the most remarkable metal records released in 2020 thus far, and is mandatory listening for fans of death metal and the weirder reaches of extreme music.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (hardcore hip-hop, conscious hip-hop)
It’s pretty wild that Run the Jewels even exists, let alone how much of a tour de force they’ve become outside the world of hip-hop. Classic rap duos like Clipse, Eric B & Rakim, and Outkast featured rappers and producers from similar locations and musical backgrounds. While that trend has changed with the decentralization of the creative process, few rap duos have a lineup quite as eclectic as RTJ.
Brooklyn-based rapper/producer El-P is a staple of the abstract hip-hop scene known for his work with Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and Company Flow. By contrast, Atlanta native Killer Mike launched his career with the help of Southern rap powerhouses, landing his first features on Outkast tracks and eventually signing to T.I.’s label. The duo were introduced by a mutual connection at Adult Swim (no, seriously), and El-P ended up producing Killer Mike’s excellent breakout album R.A.P. Music (2012). Who knew the network that spawned Rick and Morty would help form the greatest rap duo of the 2010s (and counting)?
Yet, there’s one thing El-P and Killer Mike have in common: they’re pissed off. Like, really pissed off. At times that anger has manifested in top tier braggadocio. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, the duo rap like they’ve been collaborating throughout their entire careers. Their interplay, lyrics, and flows have steadily improved since RTJ, alongside their penchant for writing more cohesive albums with broader guest lists. In this regard, RTJ4 is their finest statement yet. RTJ saw them finding their sea legs, RTJ2 was full of blockbusters, and RTJ3 saw them staying golden and establishing their status as a legendary group. Now, they’re looking down from the top of the game and pulling the pin.
But more importantly, El-P and Killer Mike have a specific reason to be angry, and they’re more than happy to tell you exactly how they feel. On “walking in the snow,” Killer Mike lays down some devastating bars aimed at both sides of White America:
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for freeSource: Genius
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I could spend several paragraphs writing a track-by-track breakdown of RTJ4 and why it’s the latest leg in the duo’s seemingly endless victory lap. There’s the genius, infectious Gang Starr sample on “ooh la la,” awesome guest spots from Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha on “JU$T,” and bold, creative songwriting on “pulling the pin” with the help of Mavis Staples and Josh Homme. But that’s not the point of RTJ4, which is truly what El-P raps on “JU$T”:
Beep beep, Richie, this is New York CitySource: Genius
The X on the map where the pain keep hitting
Just us ducks here sitting
Where murderous chokehold cops still earnin’ a livin’
Funny how some say money don’t matter
That’s rich now, isn’t it? Get it? Comedy
Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food
Get killed and it’s not an anomaly
But hey, it’s just money
Obviously it’s worth celebrating the music on RTJ4; it’s yet another fantastic release from one of hip-hop’s all-time great duos. But what’s more important is how they’ve leaned into that title and used it to call out injustice with their lyrics. They could have easily continued making hardcore hip-hop bangers with brash, cocky lyricism. Instead, they’re using their platform and popularity to become one of the most important voices in the hip-hop mainstream.
Read More: Unmetal Monday
Covet – technicolor (math rock)
Y’all don’t really need me to tell you to listen to Covet right? I’m mostly just using this space to make up for how quiet I’ve been about this album because it fucking rules OK? Just listen to it if you know what’s good for you.
Read More: Review
END – Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face (metalcore, grindcore)
If you weren’t familiar, END is a hardcore supergroup of sorts featuring members of Fit For An Autopsy, Counterparts, and The Dillinger Escape Plan. As you can expect from the pedigree alone, it’s fuckin MEAN.
Read More: Review
Gazelle(s) – True Meridian (post-math rock)
I don’t have enough cello-centric post-rock in my life so when this album dropped in my lap, I immediately realized how lucky I was. Lush melodies blended with ideas from doom metal, all backed up by some heart-singing strings. What else do you really need?
Read More: Premiere
Hail Spirit Noir – Eden In Reverse (prog rock, space rock)
Hail Spirit Noir combine the goth-tinged prog of bands like Katatonia and Sermon with the synth-heavy space themes of modern Kayo Dot, all while maintaining classic Floydian psych and vintage, Carpenter-themed horror synth. Or in other words, it’s fantastic.
Read More: Review
Them Moose Rush – Dancing Maze (alt-rock, prog rock)
The best summary I can muster for Them Moose Rush’s music is “At the Drive-In and Primus making a concept album about ’90s alt-rock.” At their core, the band’s music is driven by the energy and oddities of rock’s underbelly, with emotive vocals, prominent and boisterous bass, and a general restlessness driving each song into bold new places.
Read More: Review
Ulthar – Providence (blackened death metal)
Let me give you a hot insider tip if you aren’t privy: If 20 Buck Spin releases an album, you’ve got to hear it, as they are THE label for death metal right now. Oakland’s Ulthar certainly follows in the weird OSDM revival we’ve been seeing out of 20BS, but their blackened take provides opportunities for the band to develop their own idiosyncrasies and stand out from the pack.
Vampire – Rex (thrash metal)
Damn is Vampire a fun band. They’re also exceptionally good at what they do, and their latest full-length record Rex is one of the best explosions of thrashy goodness this year. Every track on this record is thoroughly entertaining, and if you’ve enjoyed any of the band’s previous work or the blackened stylings of Tribulation, gives Rex a listen. You won’t regret it.
Read More: Review
Voidceremony – Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel (progressive death metal, tech death)
Another hot new release from 20 Buck Spin, but this time it’s progressive and technical death metal! If we’re going to be in the throes of an OSDM revival, we might as well hear a fresh take on the sound that bands like Pestilence and Atheist left in the ’90s. Voidceremony stops just short of going for avant-garde, but the vibe is there. If you like drum solos and fretless bass that’s more prominent than the guitar, this album is for you.
Xazraug – Unsympathetic Empyrean (atmospheric black metal)
It’s top-notch atmospheric black metal. It’s a Colin Marston project. What more do you need? I’ve written this album to death at this point, but will use this section as one final (at least until our year-end wrap up) shameless plug to get this album into your ears. Xazraug is making exceptional music. Give it your attention.
Alarum – Circle’s End (progressive death metal, tech thrash)
Behold the Arctopus – Hapeleptic Overtrove (tech metal, avant-garde metal)
Creature – Ex Cathedra (avant-garde black metal)
Ebonivory – The Long Dream I (prog metal)
GoGo Penguin – GoGo Penguin (jazz)
Kyros – Celexa Dreams (prog rock, synth-pop)
Make Them Suffer – How to Survive a Funeral (melodic metalcore)
Neptunian Maximalism – Éons (psychedellic black metal, avant-garde metal)
Netherlands – Zombie Techno (progressive sludge metal, noise rock)
Waveshaper – The Disk Hunter (synthwave, retrowave)
We Were Promised Jetpacks – Out of Interest (post-punk, indie rock)
Zealand the North – Brightness of an Endless Light (post-rock)
Zilf – The Album (mathcore)