In 2019, I made the point that Autumn is a season where we prepare for the great dark of Winter. We start to prepare for the tough season, wherever we are, even in warmer parts of the world. This year, this seems to be truer than ever before. It is quite clear that no matter what we’ve seen COVID do this year (and where I am, it’s doing plenty), we ain’t seen nothing yet. So, as we turn towards our homes out of a deep instinct that burns in our bones and warns us of the turning away of the Sun, we are also following a much more recent and actual threat all around us.
Which is why, this year more than ever, we need fires burning bright outside of our windows and inside of our living rooms to remind us that warmth exists. For me, that warmth is the warmth of humans, of people, of those who I can’t really see right now and probably won’t be able to see for a while now. I, forget this easy “we” behind which I hide, need to be reminded that people who love me are out there, even if they can’t be seen. I need to remember their voices unfiltered by a conference call piece of software. I need to remember that they’re thinking of me.
And music is a damn good way to do that. For me, it reminds me of several things: first, that others out there are suffering to, that we share a common yearning for survival, for prosperity, for peace. Secondly, that others hear those voices as well and take comfort in them as well, that I am not alone in finding solace in music. That’s a kind of meta comfort, that what brings me comfort brings it to others as well, making it communal and thus, more powerful. And lastly, music reminds me that things outside of myself and outside of my predicaments exist, that they are powerful, that they can act upon me and upon the world and, as long as they exist, my own troubles are that much lessened.
Happy October everyone. September was a doozy. Enjoy.
Deftones – Ohms (alt-metal)
Ohms is the follow up to Diamond Eyes (2010) Deftones fans have been waiting for. Since finding their second wind at the start of the decade, Deftones have treated listeners to the often outstanding although ultimately uneven Koi No Yokan (2012) and the palpably uninspired Gore (2016). Although both albums contained some serious highlights (“Leathers,” “Goon Squad,” “Phantom Bride”), neither quite came together the way classic albums like Around the Fur (1997) and White Pony (2001) (and, I’d argue, 2003’s Deftones) did before them. Outside of Diamond Eyes, Deftones’ later albums have often felt like a band being pulled in too many or – in the case of Gore – too few different directions. Ohms is the antithesis of that unevenness, delivering Deftones’ most consistent collection of material in at least a decade, and arguably beyond.
Much was made of guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s unrest during the last album cycle. Yet, while the band and their defenders have often attempted to downplay his discomfort, Ohms immediately addresses the issue head-on – iconic frontman Chino Moreno screaming “here we go, / Just watch how wild it gets / I finally achieve / Balance, balance, balance, balance / Approaching a delayed /Rebirth, rebirth, rebirth, rebirth” atop one of the best and most Deftones-sounding Deftones songs in years, in ferocious opener “Genesis”. Again, the band might seek to downplay the lyrical relevance to their inner workings, but lyrics like that are too on-the-nose to be incidental or, at least, a knowing coincidence and, either way, they serve as a mission statement for the rest of the record.
Every single member of Deftones is at the top of their game on Ohms. Drummer Abe Cunningham and programmer Frank Delgado play a more prominent role than they have since White Pony, with Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega also playing his most essential role since joining the band in 2009. As with all great Deftones releases, however, it’s the synchronicity between Moreno and Carpenter that sets Ohms and the band themselves apart from the rest. Early highlight “Urantia”, for instance, begins with a blistering, almost-thrash sounding riff that quickly gives way to Moreno’s trademark spacy croon. Yet, rather than a simple bait and switch, the riff soon resurfaces, continuing to underpin what is at once one of the album’s lightest and heaviest offerings. The further contrast of harder tracks like “This Link is Dead” and “Error” with softer ones like “Pompeji” and the sublime “Spell of Mathematics” foregrounds the dynamism that was so sorely missing from Gore while revelling in a level of consistency that so frustratingly eluded Koi No Yokan.
Ohms is an album that instantly enters the pantheon of great Deftones releases. History dictates that Around the Fur and White Pony will forever be regarded as the band’s magnum opuses. Indeed, they are two of my own personal all-time favourite records of all time. Yet, while it falls just shy of being the band’s best, Ohms might just be the definitive Deftones record.
Fawn Limbs – Sleeper Vessels (blackened mathgrind)
I’m not sure what spawned the recent trend of “unhinged mathgrind,” but I’m sure as hell glad the trend has gone mainstream (relatively speaking). From Car Bomb to Frontierer to Xythlia, each year brings with it an excellent example from this recent trend. It’s all a world apart from the mathgrind I grew up listening to; even the comparative seriousness of See You Next Tuesday’s music carried a loose, jestful air, which grew to an extreme with bands like iwrestledabearonce and the like. By contrast, this new wave of mathgrind bands have an unquenchable bloodthirst, creating music that’s blistering and crushing in equal measure.
If I had to choose one band that best encapsulates this ethos, I’d point to Fawn Limbs in a heartbeat. The trio have spent the last several years producing some of the most sinister, abrasive music from any metal subgenre, all while striking a balance between mathgrind’s two distinct schools of thought. Some bands essentially try to be “whacky Meshuggah,” while others put forward a barely contained web of chaos. With their blend swirling maelstrom of atmospheric sludge and pummeling, mathy deathgrind, Fawn Limbs find a way to sound organic and intense while still remaining under control of the chaos they’re unleashing. It’s a potent blend of styles that works exceptionally well, which continues on Sleeper Vessels.
After a slow, brooding build up on “The Irrelevance of Exorcism,” all hell breaks loose for an incredible stretch of tracks from “Metrae” onward. As if the swirl of dissonant riffs and blast beats weren’t intense enough, the midway point of the track unleashes the first of many exceptional breakdowns. The band places them strategically so they don’t wear out their welcome, and when they hit, they bludgeon.
The atmosphere they throw on every aspect of their sound fleshes out this already dense compositional approach. This surfaces on every track and serves as a potent contrast to the rest of the proceedings. “Corruption Aperture” reaches a tense hush at the midpoint, only to break for a drum and bass interlude before erupting into a romp of sludge riffs over rapid fire blast beats.
It’s a testament to the band’s fearlessness to explore the dark, shadowy recesses of their sonic framework. Sleeper Vessels offers the best of everything you might be looking for in this style, and if you’re at all a fan of the heavier side of hardcore, or just controlled chaos in general, then this album needs to be on your radar.
Fleet Foxes – Shore (indie folk rock)
There is a commonly held notion that dark and troubling times inspire great art. 2020, and frankly the past few years at least, have not lacked in source material to inspire dark, troubling, and critically-minded art of all stripes, including music. When you look around and see the world burning (both literally and figuratively), it is natural to want to channel all of that anger, fear, and helplessness into words and songs that reflect back upon those charged emotions. If you regularly read this site then you are likely like me and tend to lean into that instinct to listen to dark things when things feel dark.
If you are like me though you also probably need a reminder occasionally that it is okay to allow ourselves to feel joy, love, and warmth during periods of broad tumult. If anything those are the times when we need all of that the most. In that sense the surprise fourth album from indie folk troubadour Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes is a true gift. Shore crashed upon the world with little warning a couple of weeks ago, presenting the first gift of a shared and simultaneous cultural experience that is rare to come by these days.
The music of Shore was the second and more lasting gift, however. Unlike Pecknold’s previous two albums – the identity crises of Helplessness Blues and the deeply complex and searching Crack-Up – Shore presents an uncomplicated and more straightforward version of FF’s upbeat folk rock. Gone are the extended stretches of progressive-leaning and experimental rock. There is very little here that could be described as especially “challenging,” certainly nothing like “The Shrine / An Argument,” “Third of May,” or “I Should See Memphis” that demands multiple listens to simply unpack. Instead there are 15 tracks of shimmering, immaculate, and constantly engaging music that floats along almost effortlessly. Listening to tracks like “Sunblind,” “Can I Believe You,” and “Maestranza,” it’s near impossible not to come away with a big grin on your face and warmth in your heart. Pecknold has always excelled at building little moments of tension and leveraging them for everything they’ve got in bursts of guitars and other instruments. Shore in particular is aided by brilliant use of trumpets and brass that often pop in with brief staccatos that swell at multiple points.
Shore is certainly not without its drama and conflicts. Pecknold continues to deal with issues of self-acceptance, toxic nostalgia, and larger socio-political events between the pandemic, BLM protests, and more. But at no point does the album feel like it is giving in to the darkness and letting it set the terms of the music. Instead, Shore feels like defiance. It is knowing that things are rough, that so many are suffering needlessly, but that the sun is still rising, and god damn it, doesn’t it just feel great to feel it on your face? Isn’t it wonderful knowing that we still have each other, that we can be capable of so much love and goodness? I still need those reminders. So I thank Robin Pecknold for this gift, because it is at our lowest when we need to see the light the most.
Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Death-grind)
In most musical circles, there is a definitive law of diminishing returns when it comes to quality output and longevity. It’s a fairly simple equation. The longer you’ve been around and the more music you create, the more likely that each new release will diminish in quality in a number of ways. Novelty for experimental groups wears off, lyrical and topical focuses change and become stale with constant repetition, or waves of hype dwindle to expose the shortcomings of a particular group. This list could continue ad infinitum, and such instances are far too numerous to name specifically. Much less difficult to determine is the amount of bands that have maintained relevance and quality with extended longevity. Metal sometimes has a hard time determining separating the wheat from the chaff here (especially death metal), but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Napalm Death are of that notable handful of bands whose quality has been at bare minimum quality throughout their career, and in most cases utterly exceptional. Their 16th full-length record Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism only bolsters that position.
With this record, Napalm Death absolutely nail every element that makes their most current sonic manifestation so compelling. The tracks here are a brilliant mixture of catchy, melodic, heavy, politically charged, and rarely short of uncompromisingly brutal. “Fuck the Factoid” kicks the record off in gloriously raucous fashion, churning out memorable riffs that helm toward distinct and memorable melody which sticks out for an album this heavy. The rest of the album follows this track’s lead, blending abject brutality with thoughtful and straightforward songwriting and performance. I write “straightforward” here completely outside of any pejorative context, as these tracks thrive on their directness. As I stated in my review of the record last month, Napalm Death here accomplish with resounding success what Pig Destroyer attempted with more mixed results in Head Cage. Maintaining their status as grind gods, Napalm Death also incorporate chug-a-licious groove and mid-tempo texture to their bludgeoning stew of sonic destruction, managing to strike a balance that feels oddly accessible without ever losing its bite. It’s not just a great album, but potentially their most varied and accomplished in a decade.
Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is a straight-up triumph. Full stop. There’s nothing about this record that most fans of Napalm Death, whether longtime or relatively new, won’t relish. It’s riffy, catchy, pummeling and oddly melodic without overstaying its welcome or dwelling on any one motif for too long. It’s a legendary band creating excellent music and reaching yet another creative peak. I’ve heard this record at least a dozen times and I’ve yet to experience a listen that was anything short of a thoroughly rewarding experience. Essential 2020 listening.
Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber (progressive death metal)
Honestly, this one nearly slipped away from me. I reviewed the album a while ago so I didn’t remember that it was releasing this month. And yes, even though I’ve already reviewed it I’m writing it up here for Editors’ Picks. Why? First of all because it really is just that damn good. Oceans of Slumber have really made one of the best progressive death metal albums with this one, perfectly balancing quiet build up, ambience, and heavy as all hell passages to great effect. But more than that, Oceans of Slumber, as I wrote in my review, represents this amazing journey of a band that has felt like it was trying to find its place for years now and, with this release, seems to have finally found it.
Many bands in the same situation would either give up or turn cynical, mistaking what they know to be what they should be doing. They’d turn weakness into an ideology, as a very smart man once told me I was doing. You take the stuff you’re not good at and place them on a pedestal, claiming that you’re not avoiding them because you can’t do them but because they are bad, actually. You know plenty of bands who’ve done this; I don’t even need to call them out, they’re probably popping into your head right now. Instead of exploring a direction, realizing they’re just not that good at doing it, and then either going back to the drawing board or trying harder, they try to coat it with “maturity” and “artistic direction”.
But Oceans of Slumber did neither and, instead, figured out new ways to re-configure their sound. They didn’t reinvent themselves; their self-titled release has much in common with The Banished Heart and Winter. Instead, they took those parts, namely the more melodic and evocative parts of their sound, and coupled it with massive riffs and decidedly evil sounding harsh vocals. These as well were present on earlier releases but here they’re much better utilized, adding a heft and penetration to the music that was sorely needed.
By keeping these elements around but thinking of new ways in which they can fit together, like a puzzle you suddenly rotate just so and the solution emerges before your eyes. Finally, the disparate elements of their sound fit in much the same way, resulting in a fantastically brave but also well executed album. Innovation is not sacrificed for cohesion and coherence is not sacrificed for experimentation. It all comes together, heavy, ambient, progressive, and just straight up metal.
Proscription – Conduit (blackened death metal)
Allow me to give you the elevator pitch for Proscription up top, because it’s really quite simple: a Colorado transplant relocates to Finland in the late 90’s and cuts his teeth over a few decades before founding a new group and releasing a cavernous blackened death metal album in 2020 from the same label that brought you Blood Incantation and Mitochondrion, among others. That’s Proscription’s debut album, Conduit.
If you’ve been paying attention to the extreme reaches of the metal genre in the last decade, you’d undoubtedly find that Dark Descent Records is one of the premier labels on the cutting edge. Dark Descent is an established tastemaker in and of themselves in the way they’ve curated their label, and Proscription is yet another incredible selection in a year that’s already seen solid contenders in Faceless Burial and Lantern. The aesthetic is there, as are the genre tropes one would expect: trem-picked tritone riffs and blastbeats with a production that emphasizes atmosphere, but the quality of the ideas and execution make the comfortable yet engaging experience on Conduit greater than the sum of its parts.
It helps that Terry “Christbutcher” Clark, the aforementioned Colorado transplant whom you may know from Excommunion and Maveth, knows how to craft a song. Earworms seep through, like the laughably off-kilter (in the best way) riff in “I, The Burning Son,” the swaying groove in “Thy Black Numbus Gate,” or the commanding leads of “To Reveal The Words Without Words” acting as anchors through the barrage of pummeling chaos. Often, that barrage is reason enough to stay tuned, particularly with the album’s title track pulling off an unrelenting and unapologetic exercise in command of the genre’s most eviscerating tactics, thanks to a lineup which also includes Lantern’s Cruciatus on drums.
Christbutcher’s reputation may precede itself for those in the know, but in case it doesn’t, Proscription crafted a powerful first impression on Conduit for those riding the OSDM resurgence and are looking to branch out into darker territory.
Dropdead – Dropdead 2020 (crossover/hardcore)
Can we just stop to appreciate that Drop-fucking-Dead dropped a new album in 2020? The Rhode Island legends were a seminal act in a bunch of hardcore-adjacent scenes, and on their first album in over 20 years, they haven’t missed a beat. Definitely spin this if you’re in the mood for punchy, crossover-inspired bangers.
The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (progressive/post metal)
After taking a year off following the release of Phanerozoic I, the post-prog legends of The Ocean are back with the second half of their latest conceptual epic. And though many of us here have not been as taken with this one as the first piece, grading on a curve for The Ocean means that even a mildly less appreciated album is still really damn good by most standards. Mesozoic | Cenozoic takes greater creative risks in playing with synths and electronic textures, and there’s plenty of great ideas and moments that could easily be further developed on future releases.
Spectaclist – Our Days Are Multiplied (post-math rock)
Got more to say about this one in this month’s Post Rock Post, but the debut from percussionist David Hobizal is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of post-rock inflected with jazz and minimalism and influenced by the likes of Tortoise.
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
I already wrote a LOT about this record in our Unmetal Monthly column, and The Ascension certainly is just that: A lot. Some will love it. Some will loathe it. But it’s undoubtedly Sufjan. Which, at least for me, is worthy of a full-on celebration. I’ve listened to it several times front-to-back, and each listen has felt entirely different. Which is wild. Just listen to it. It may end up being the most divisive album of 2020.
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (post-hardcore)
Svalbard is a post-hardcore act from Bristol, with emphasis on the post-. When I Die, Will I Get Better is as mournful as the title implies, but they’re not afraid to go big on the crescendos and fast on the tempos. This album will trigger The Big Sad, but you’ll be better off for it.
TWRP – Over the Top
It’s always a goddamn joy to write about TWRP, the best funk band in the world. Continuing their excellent streak that started on Together Through Time (not that the albums before that weren’t good), Over the Top accentuates the groovy, science fiction, wide-eyed themes in their music. It’s just a bunch of wholesome, danceable fun. So get to dancing!
Black Thought – Stream of Thought Vol. 3: Cain and Abel (conscious hip-hop)
Chrome Waves – Where We Live (post-black metal)
clown core – van (electronicore, avant-garde metal)
Dan Terminus – Last Call For All Passengers (darksynth, synthwave)
Horsewhip – Laid to Rest (blackened hardcore)
Idles – Ultra Mono (post-punk)
Madrost – Charring The Rotting Earth (death metal, technical thrash)
Obsidian Kingdom – Meat Machine (prog metal, experimental rock)
The Reticent – The Oubliette (progressive death metal)
Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind (death metal)
Dynfari – Myrkurs Er Þörf (atmospheric black metal, post-metal)
El Ten Eleven – Tautology III (post-rock)
Fires in the Distance – Echoes From Deep November (progressive melodeath)
Hidden Mothers – Hidden Mothers (post-black metal, screamo)
Iress – Flaw (doomgaze, post-metal)
Plague Years – Circle Of Darkness (crossover thrash, death metal)
Portal to the God Damn Blood Dimension – Rotten Fruit; Regular Orchard (post-rock, screamo)
Mammal Hands – Captured Spirits (nu-jazz, ambient)
Yardsss – ∅∀‡ | Cultus (dark ambient, post-rock)
Serpent Omega – II (doom metal, stoner metal)