Fall is upon us. The leaves on the aspen trees in Colorado began to turn this week, filling the horizon with deep and rich hues of pink and red. I took a step out my front door, inhaled deeply, and coughed because of the smoke billowing through our neighborhood from fires pretty much everywhere. Thus is 2020.
Thank god for music. Seriously. For all of the absolute shit this year has rained on humanity, good vibrations have continued to permeate existence with a not insignificant level of rest, peace, catharsis, and hope. September was no exception, delivering both long-awaited epics and surprise gifts that have filled our ears with the musings and musical ecstasies of some of rock music’s most lauded and acclaimed artists. While 2020 burns, the soul of music has matched that intensity.
This month, we’re covering a few essential releases from the past few weeks, in addition to a few less well-known releases that we think are worthy of your time and attention. We’re also going to discuss the nature of surprise albums and their impact on the music world from both the production and consumption sectors. So dive in with us as we celebrate one of the unequivocally grand aspects of a dark year. It may permeate our lives in a plethora of ways, but it won’t take our soul. Peace, friends
On September 21st, an alert for a new Fleet Foxes album showed up in the ol’ inbox. Being a devoted fan of all of their previous releases, I opened it immediately to get all the juicy details of what was sure to be another exceptional release from the band (which it most certainly is, but more on that later). Skimming through the text of the email, one particular detail stuck out to me immediately: the release date. Where I expected a Christmas-time release, I found to my surprise and delight that Shore was slated for mass consumption on September 22nd. Which was… tomorrow? Hype levels through the roof, I spent most of my evening staring at my phone, waiting for a long-awaited release that I didn’t even know was being created to pop up on streaming services. It eventually did, and at the same moment, myself and tens of thousands of other listeners embarked on another delightful sonic journey courtesy of Robin Pecknold and friends.
One aspect of the release of Shore that makes it unique and exceptional, outside of the fact that the music itself is sublime, is the how and when of its release. In an internet-based news culture, where information is shared, digested, and disseminated across the planet in literal seconds, there are few surprises left for music fans to be delighted by. Released on the autumnal equinox, which fits this music perfectly, Shore’s timing lines up beautifully with motifs of nature found throughout not only this record but the entirety of Fleet Foxes’ back catalog. But perhaps even more importantly, the surprise of it all added an extra layer of joy that has stuck with me as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the listening experience. If anything, Shore is proof that the how, just as much as the what, can have an impact on listener perception of and experience with a record, and in a world of instantaneous information sharing is a vital strategy for keeping the full-length album experience fresh and invigorating. Beyond the scope of Shore, I believe firmly that surprise releases are a good thing for both artists and listeners, and are worthy of celebration by themselves as a viable medium of release and distribution.
Shore isn’t even the first or most high profile release to receive the surprise treatment this year. As Josh soliloquized eloquently in our column last month, Taylor Swift’s latest release folklore was announced very close to its release date. Hell, some of music’s biggest artists’ records are almost always a surprise due to delays, revisions, and god knows why else (here’s looking at you, Kanye). It’s not unfamiliar territory for 2020. Drake, Future, Childish Gambino, and to some extent even Run the Jewels released new records with some level of unexpected swiftness, making this year a more crowded one than usual in the surprise release department. Part of this, naturally, could be due to COVID-19 facilitating practical and political reasons for rushed or unannounced releases. But I don’t think that exclusively captures the essence behind decisions to release an album through guerrilla tactics or with little fanfare. Based on previous high profile examples, there are a multitude of reasons why such release strategies can be beneficial for both bands and listeners.
Let’s look at this release strategy from the band’s perspective. Off the top of my head, four relatively recent records stick out to me as integral examples of this strategy paying enormous dividends for artists. Radiohead’s In Rainbows back in 2007 is the most obvious example of an unorthodox release rollout generating additional critical acclaim, boosting sales, and cementing a band in the annals of music history. The band’s pay-what-you-want structure announced for In Rainbows was not only exceedingly novel for a band of the stature of Radiohead, it also became a financial boon for the band, turning their most unorthodox release yet into the most financially lucrative record of their career. Similar accolades could be garnered for Beyonce’s release strategy for Lemonade, which was perhaps the most pervasive and spellbinding release process of any surprise album. Her legendary Superbowl performance, followed closely by the release of an hour-long visual art piece accompanying the record (both released on the same day), generated a maelstrom of interest that gradually ballooned into a cultural obsession, eventually landing all 12 of the album’s tracks at number one and breaking multiple streaming and sales records. To a less extreme extent, the same could be said for Solange and Frank Ocean’s latest releases, which both dropped with little prior notification and received widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. There are obviously many more examples of surprise albums from notable artists populating the last few years, but from these examples alone a few things become clear:
- Surprise releases in no way diminish the financial capabilities of a record
- Critical accolades continue to pour in for quality work, regardless of release strategy
- Music consumer responses to these release strategies are typically overwhelmingly positive
I want to spend a little more time on that last point. It should come as no shock that release strategies that create closer ties between artists and their fans are generally very well received by listeners. One significant barrier to these more intimate interactions between artists and their fans are the labels that distribute these artists’ music. Throughout music history, major record labels in particular have received a deservedly bad reputation for manipulation, profit hogging, and the type of meddling that makes the creative lives of musicians generally miserable. This is obviously a brash and sweeping statement to make of record labels as a whole, and I certainly do believe that there are labels out there that provide opportunity and financial structure that bands may otherwise never achieve. But in general, the reputation of major record labels is NOT GOOD. The independent release of In Rainbows, much to the chagrin of the band’s former label EMI, was proof not only of the financial viability of independent surprise releases, but of something far more qualitative than simple digital download sales: a more direct relationship between audience and artist breeds success and longevity of recorded material. Radiohead specifically mentioned this as a key component of the rollout of In Rainbows, and their strategy not only facilitated more creative and financial freedom for the band, but created an avenue for their art to interact more directly with listeners. This has become a powerful trend in music, with artists eschewing the long game of marketing in order to create quicker and more communal access to their music with fans.
The communal component is one of those qualitative bits that has had an enormous impact on the reputation and stature of the surprise release as a strategy. Surprise releases provide a few distinct advantages over more long-gestating marketing strategies. One of those is a more communal listening experience for fans, who often only have a few hours for hype generation before jumping headlong into the unknown with tens of thousands of others. In the age of single dominance and sneak peaks of practically everything, ingesting an entire work in its intended format with no prior knowledge of a record’s sound or direction creates an even playing field not only among casual listeners, but with professional critics as well, facilitating deeper and more lively conversations around works as a whole in all sectors. Mystery is an aspect of music that seems in many ways antithetical to generating interest, but it shows no signs of diminishing the impact that music has on listeners or their ability to financially and practically invest in artists they love.
All of the above caterwauling boils down to this: surprise releases are a good thing, and they create a communal space for listeners and critics alike to participate in the experience of new music. On a monetary level, numbers indicate that artists aren’t losing significant amounts of revenue by releasing records without a typical (and sometimes expensive) marketing campaign. It supports artists and creates unique and enjoyable experiences for consumers. What’s not to love? I genuinely hope that established artists like Fleet Foxes continue to surprise us with music we didn’t know we needed, and defy our expectations with increasingly creative ways to release music that foster a greater sense of community among listeners and create a stronger sense of connectedness between artists and their fans. 2020 may continue to suck, but here’s hoping there are more than a few pleasant surprises left in the music world.
Records we loved in September
Fleet Foxes – Shore (Indie rock/folk)
If you read the above dissertation on surprise releases, it shouldn’t shock you that this album appears here as one of our highlighted records of the month of September. All of the hullabaloo surrounding its release strategy would be far less significant if the music were trash, and thankfully in regards to quality that couldn’t be further from the truth. With Shore, the band’s fourth full-length release, Fleet Foxes have found a harmony that stands in direct contrast to the roiling sea of doubt and uncertainty that permeated Crack-Up. In a time of marked uncertainty and existential dread, Fleet Foxes have created a record of soothing, deep, and richly intoxicating music that speaks directly to the heart of hopelessness with a calming certainty that has been sorely missing in indie rock this year. It is, to put it bluntly, potentially the most beautiful and transcendent album the band have yet created.
As the chief creative engine of Fleet Foxes, the band’s releases have always followed his creative and emotional whims. From the nearly medieval sounds of their debut record to the lush textures of Shore, it’s clear that Pecknold has come a long way over the past decade-plus. Shore feels more loose and expansive in sound and composition than anything the band has release previous to it. In similar fashion to The National’s latest release (whose Aaron Dessner studio space they also share), the prominent inclusion of female vocals in an often male-dominated scene is a welcome reprieve and fits the gentle tones of the album perfectly. Uwade Akhere simply shines during album opener “Wading in Waist-High Water”, which sets the tone for the rest of the record brilliantly. Pecknold himself doesn’t make his first vocal appearance until the album’s second and utterly spellbinding second track “Sunblind”, which expands Pecknold’s lyrical obsessions outward, cracking the insular and deeply personal musings of Crack-Up and replacing them with stories of weekend trips, borrowed guitars, Silver Jews references, and a topic of constant recurrence throughout the record: water. As a concept, water and the glory of nature seeps into nearly every track here. It’s a gloriously outdoorsy record that’s perfectly suited for long mountain drives and camping trips.
But that fact in no way diminishes the quality of the music or Fleet Foxes reputation as a band completely capable of creating deeply serious art. While the tones here are uniformly more bright and gorgeous than most of their previous work, tracks like “Young Man’s Game” show Pecknold’s introspective storytelling chops to be in fine form. The simplicity of “Thymia” recalls the band’s early work with reverence, while “Maestranza” further deepens the themes of nature present on the record while hemming closer to freak-out territory ala Crack-Up than the rest of the record. This diversity and reverence for their previous work helps Shore feel simultaneously familiar and fresh, inspiring repeat listens ad infinitum. But for all its diversity, it’s the band’s most gently euphoric moments that seal Shore as one of the band’s most accomplished releases. The middle section of “A Long Way Past the Past” exemplifies this perfectly with its delicious blend of electric guitar, horns, and twinkling acoustic picking. It’s potentially the most perfect moment on the record, shoehorned in by Pecknold’s utterly mesmerizing harmonies. It’s heavenly.
Which is probably the best description of Shore as a whole. In a year of abject hell for many across the globe, Fleet Foxes’ latest offering is a slice of the divine that feels both warmly immediate and eternal. I have listened to this record front-to-back more than a few times since its release, and with each new spin I find myself more deeply entrenched in its delightful, peace-filled charms. In the maelstrom of 2020, Shore is a balm to broken and harried hearts. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Mint Field – Sentimiento Mundial (psych rock, shoegaze, dream pop)
I am certain this is my ignorance showing, but I personally have not heard much in the way of indie rock or pop coming out of Mexico. Despite the US’s proximity it seems most of the musical exports we get from them are the rare spanish language pieces of mass audience pop and rap that have a chance of cracking Billboard’s charts. So when Scott shared the new album from Mexico City-based trio Mint Field I was very curious. Thankfully I was immediately rewarded with an absolutely gorgeous and beguiling set of tunes that blend the dreamy and woozy atmosphere of psych rock/pop and shoegaze.
Led by vocalist/guitarist Estrella del Sol Sánchez, Sentimiento Mundial in many ways sounds like a cross between the dream pop of Beach House, the cool and sincere indie rock of Big Thief, and the more angular and knotty sounds of Deerhoof’s more straightforward work. Pieces like “Natural” and “Delicadeza” largely float on by in a haze, with del Sol Sánchez’s soft-edged falsettos providing the light to see through. “Contingencia” and “Aterrizar” provide an amazing contrast with the addition of fuzz and more typical indie rock forms, and the album’s title track seamlessly blends their dreamy shoegaze with grounded and hard-edged psych rock.
The combination of these elements is not wholly unique to Mint Field, but it’s a sound and balance of sounds that I’ve rarely heard, let alone as excellently as they do. It’s dark and oftentimes noisy and raucous, but also somehow uplifting and comforting. Sentimiento Mundial could easily rise to become one of my favorite indie rock releases of the year, and they absolutely deserve a much broader audience in the US and elsewhere.
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension (Art pop/electronic)
There are few artists more beloved and completely unpredictable in the music world than Sufjan Stevens. From his failed (HA!) 50 States project to the religiously devout acoustics of Seven Swans, from the psych-infused freakout that is Age of Adz to the intensely personal and utterly heartbroken Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has never been a songwriter easily pinned down to a particular sound or style. This is not only a signature of his evolution as an artist, but also an indelible aspect of his continued relevance and charm. His 8th full-length record, The Ascension, unsurprisingly sounds nothing like its predecessors. Sure, there are themes and threads of similarity throughout. The almost exclusively electronic production on the record feels similar to Age of Adz and his early instrumental work. But one listen through the almost hour-and-a-half runtime of The Ascension displays a much more subdued, dark, and disheartened Sufjan than we are used to hearing. It’s both personal and distant, dense and monotone, unpredictable and uniform. It is, more than any release in his catalog, an enigma.
Those expecting or hoping for another introspective folk masterpiece along the lines of Carrie & Lowell should probably strap themselves in for a relatively surprising and potentially unpleasant trip. The Ascension is as far a cry from the intimacy of that record, instead facing outward both in lyrical themes and musical composition. There are love songs to God and others here, as well as deeply despairing declarations of loss of faith in America and potentially a higher power. It’s widescreen stuff, which will be either a welcome reprieve from the almost unbearably transparency of his last record, or an absolute disaster. This is without question Stevens’ most divisive record, and I don’t foresee the polar opinions of this record uniting anytime soon. But that, just like Stevens himself, increases the appeal. It’s bold, different, and singular in its idiosyncratic vision and purpose.
I have gotten through five listens of The Ascension so far, and feel like I’ve had five completely different listening experiences. This is, in part, due to the album’s instrumental bent and production. Focused heavily on electronic sounds that are much more accessible than those that peppered Adz but are no less dense and complex, there’s a lot to digest in every song. Utterly fantastic opener “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” displays this sonic direction perfectly, stacking Stevens’ traditionally gorgeous and delicate vocals over a jittering kaleidoscope of eerie vocal harmonies and electronic bleeps and bloops. It feels similar to Thom Yorke’s latest release Anima in more than a few ways, but particularly in its layering of uncomfortable electronics below a cracking falsetto that feels both resplendent and ready to crumble simultaneously. It’s an unequivocally gorgeous track that draws a line in the sand for his listeners. If this track holds nothing for you, there’s little within The Ascension that you will enjoy. But if that track piques your interest, prepare for sonic overload of epic proportions.
The electronic beauty continues with “Run Away With Me”, which feels both elegiac and hopeful on a lyrical level, while maintaining the lush and rich production elements that bolstered the album’s opening track. It’s not until “Video Game” that his chosen sonic direction causes some level of uniform controversy. Bouncing between radio friendly pop and a Kidz Bop cover, this track is the most straightforward pop Stevens has yet written. The lyrics are unusually dark for the musical context they are in, creating a musical disharmony that will either delight or revile. It has seemingly been the deciding moment of enjoyment or disdain for many listeners if the blogosphere is to be believed, though I think that may be a bit of an exaggerated assessment. Nevertheless, its proven to be a breaking point, for many listeners, and subsequent glitch-fest “Lamentations” certainly doesn’t make those reactions any more impermanent. The vibe here feels like a mix between early Nine Inch Nails and a breathy George Michael come-to-bed banger. It’s strange, beguiling, and as is the custom with The Ascension, divisive. It doesn’t get any less so from here.
The record jumps in fits and spurts between slow and rich paens of lost faith and love (“Tell Me You Love Me”), drone experimentalism (“Die Happy”), darkly hued LCD Soundsystem-esque compositions (“Ativan”), and Adz-style freakouts (“Death Star”). It’s a lot to take in on a single listen, and I still don’t feel like I have a full bead on the middle of the record. But what I do know, and have felt with certainty since my first listen, is that the record’s finale is the best of any album Stevens has yet written. The album’s title track is simply sublime, matching the sonic and lyrical heights of his best work. It’s an atmospheric and woozy ode to hopelessness that is as bleak and confessional as anything in Carrie & Lowell, and sets up the album’s epic final track brilliantly. The first taste that most listeners got of this record was the album’s finale, “America”, which in the context of the rest of the album is even more powerful than its single manifestation. Wrapping up many of the album’s lyrical and sonic themes in one 12-minute opus that will certainly go down among “Impossible Soul” as one of his most ambitious songs yet, it’s a fitting end to an uncompromising record.
All these words later, I still feel at a loss regarding how I feel about this record. Each new listen has expanded my perception of Stevens’ intentions, which in and of itself is worthy of deep commendation. It’s rare to find a record that creates this level of disorientation and immersion, and Sufjan Stevens should be lauded at bare minimum for continuing to create records that build sonic and lyrical worlds that are all-encompassing and inescapable. Whether this particular world is as worthy of praise as the others he has created is obviously still up for debate, and will be for some time. But in all fairness, that’s exactly how it should be. I’ve become far too accustomed to making snap judgments on an album’s worth, and a collection of songs that demand my continued dissection over time is nothing but welcome. Listeners the world over will continue coming wildly different conclusions on The Ascension, and I will be among them. Divisive, unexpected, and uncompromising, Sufjan Stevens’ latest is a mysterious journey that may just happen to be utterly brilliant. Time will tell.
Kairon; IRSE! – Polysomn (psychedelic rock/shoegaze)
Finnish experimental rock label, Svart Records, is a growing exporter and current vanguard for the loopiest, most hypnagogic music around. Although founded and based in Turku, Finland, the label takes on artists from much further afield in Europe and North America, most notably the considerably lauded Oranssi Pazuzu. While Svart certainly began with releasing mostly metal, the label’s roster has ballooned and now hosts artists spanning numerous genres and subgenres in rock, metal and electronic. The only factor that unites all of Svart’s artists is a penchant for the wandering, the exploratory and the psychedelic. As they put it themselves in an insightful Bandcamp Daily feature, ‘if you believe in that vision, then the universe will slowly bend to your will, and people will listen’.
Universe-bending would be an apt term of phrase to describe Svart mainstays, Kairon; IRSE!, and their amalgam of lush and expansive psychedelic sounds on newest LP, Polysomn. Featuring Oranssi Pazuzu and Waste of Space Orchestra guitarist Niko Lehdontie, the record radiates the same aura of purgatorial dreaminess as these two, albeit through a characteristically retro rock lens. Opener “Psionic Static” pulls you in with its radiant atmosphere and gorgeous pitch-shifted vocals, not to mention it actually kinda rocks pretty hard.
Continuing, Polysomn makes you hang on its every note like some wise elder, with evocative, ringing chords and Yes-esque iridescent synth excursions. Dmitry Melet and Niko Lehdontie’s vocal contributions are another focal point oscillating between Steven Wilson’s depressive drawl on “Mir Inoi” to Jónsi’s (of Sigur Rós fame) dreamy falsetto on “Altaïr Descends”. Layered and actually quite noisy and abrasive, Polysomn’s take on production could be compared to an indulgent dessert, with wildly varying textures in each layer, like a cheesecake with a rough biscuit base to represent the rumbling guitar, a velvety middle layer as the bright synths and a sweet caramel sauce that pierces through the whole lot to act as the angelic vocals. It’s the kind of dessert you can order every single time without it becoming dull, because the assemblage of tastes and textures delivers a slightly different experience every time.
Like former label mates Oranssi Pazuzu, Kairon will no doubt quench your appetite for a panoramic psychedelic experience that swallows you up and spits you out in its world, where you’ll have little choice but to simply exist in the spectral otherworldliness. If Oranssi conjure up an alternate reality where the sky is always a hazy crimson red and everything feels a bit “off”, then Kairon conjure up a plain where the sky is always a rich cyan and the land floats.
Aja and Shilow – Nail in the Coffin
When RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 (2017) and (burglarised) All Stars 3 (2018) album Aja first announced they were giving up drag to focus on the rap career, it seemed like a bit of a step down, to say the least. The obviously outstanding drag artist’s first forays into rap and hip-hop were both intriguing and promising in their unapologeticly aggressive displays of queer sexuality, yet – form the outside, at least, they hardly seemed worth giving-up a prosperous drag career for.
Two years on, Aja has really hit their stride with collaborator Shilow and their 2019 horrorcore EP Nail in the Coffin. Their rapping has improved substantially and their delivery, along with the EP’s hard-hitting production is surprising aggressive – more readily recalling the likes of alternative-favourite Denzel Curry than anything else that has come out of the modern drag scene so far.
There’s also a part where Shilow raps the plot of Jason X (2001): “Name another villain who went to space and fucked around / Shit I even froze this bitch’s face off and smashed it down”; what’s not to love (apart from the casual misogyny)? Having re-watched Jason X recently, that movie holds up surprisingly well, and stumbling across this EP soon after was a welcome surprise.