Welcome to another edition of unmetal monthly! It’s been quite the month. Lots has happened since your last visit, not the least of which being one big ass election and a socially distanced holiday. We hope you’re staying healthy and well in the midst of madness.
While the world outside may be bleak and unbearable, it’s sometimes helpful for maintaining some semblance of sanity to have the music tunneling into your head be the opposite. October was a fantastic month for new music (including a few solo releases from some of indie music’s biggest stars), and we’re excited to share some of our favorite releases from that veritable treasure trove with you.
It’s late. I’m tired. I don’t have a lot more for you. But quality music persists, and for that we are grateful.
Records we loved in October
Adrianne Lenker – Songs/Instrumentals
As mentioned above, Adrianne Lenker’s other band, Big Thief, has become a pretty big deal over the past few years, with multiple albums (sometimes in the same year) populating industry end-of-year lists. Often, when an artist from a well known and acclaimed band branches out into the solo release world, their work is often met with indifference. Rightfully so, in some cases. It’s difficult not to view some of these records as unnecessary pet projects that do nothing more than allow a cog in a bigger wheel to piddle around with a guitar. Thankfully, such is not the case with the quasi-double album effort of Lenker. With one record containing gentle, rich and meaningful acoustic folk while the other focuses on more atmospheric, drone like instrumental soundscapes, there’s an absolute treasure trove of sounds to get completely lost in.
While both records in this sequence can and should be considered essential listening for indie music fans, Songs may be the most thoroughly consistent and beautiful release of her career in any configuration. The compositions that populate this record as simply enchanting. Her voice, always delicate and distinct, has never sounded more effective. Every track features moments that can only be described as transcendent earworms, sinking into listener brains with gentle immovability. The chorus of “anything” was stuck in my head for days after my first listen, so much so that it drove me to an hour long search for the song after I couldn’t recall where I’d heard that melody. Outside of Lenker’s beautiful voice, the songwriting here is just magical. “forwards beckon rebound” is a particular stunner with its woozy atmospherics and subtly layered guitar work, while the lyrical simplicity of “ingydar” matches the music absolutely perfectly. I could gush about this album for pages, but let’s just keep it to a paragraph. This is an album you need to hear in a world filled with absolute madness.
No less essential is the two-track instrumental collection Instrumentals, which feels in a way like the Amnesiac to Radiohead’s Kid A. While it works wonderfully as an accompaniment to Lenker’s more traditional album, it stands firmly on its own as an intricately constructed and expertly written and performed piece of work. Each of these track clocks in at over 15 minutes in length and covers a fairly wide range of sounds and textures, all of which are stunning. First half “music for indigo” blends Lenker’s traditional acoustic stylings with some gorgeous soundscapes that feel like audio versions of sitting on your back porch and watching the rain (which becomes a sonic reality about halfway through the track). It’s an utterly warm and inviting composition that more than earns its extensive runtime. The album’s latter half, “mostly chimes”, is definitely the more experimental of the two, living up to its name with entire multi-minute sections that feature nothing other than the sound of wind chimes and a gentle breeze. While that may sound incredibly dull (and in less capable hands it probably would be), Lenker pulls it off with enough variety and sincerity to warm a refrigerator. It’s the exact kind of “lesser” project that you always hope for but very rarely see.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this sequence of tracks will end up on my list come years end, and fairly high up too. There are few times in life where music like this is anything less than necessary, and Adrianne Lenker continues to prove that she is one of the most gifted songwriters in music today. I cannot recommend either of these albums highly enough. Transformative work.
Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
“Candlesticks in the dark / visions of bodies being burned”
Just try listening to “Say the Name” from Clipping.’s fourth full-length record Visions of Bodies Being Burned and not getting that repetitive refrain stuck in your head. I dare you. Following up their frantic, frenetic, and fantastic horrorcore-infused album There Existed An Addiction To Blood as the latter half of a musical diptych, Visions of Bodies Being Burned feels both like a familiar sonic successor and an even more focused effort at bringing the core elements of terror into a noisy, experimental hip-hop aesthetic. It may sound like a hodge podge of sounds and themes, and it is, but DAMN does it ever work wonders.
I haven’t heard a rap album in years (including Clipping.’s previous records) that has had such a visceral impact on me. Horror-influenced music is very rarely anything deeper than spooky/gory artifice, but Daveed Diggs and his gang of producer misfits have here created music that sounds genuinely unsettling. The production of William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes has never been more effective. Above mentioned “Say the Name” is a minimalist bass fest that eventually morphs into a noisy, melody infused cacophony that sets the unpredictable and measured sonic tone of the record. The sonics are incredible throughout, vacillating between lush club-ready bangers like “Enlacing” and harsh noise facemelters such as “Make Them Dead” in a way that never feels disjointed or out of sync with the overall tone of the album. Daveed Diggs is no slouch here either, churning out some of his most memorable lyrics and flows to date. “Body for the Pile” is a violent tale delivered with breakneck speed by Diggs, while “‘96 Neve Campbell” continues the groups penchant for highlighting female rappers and strong, deadly female characters and features some of the most intense and aggressive rhymes on the album. There isn’t a dud on the album, and each aspect of the band’s creative stew is firing on all cylinders.
Clipping most certainly isn’t for everyone, and those who are unwilling to dive headlong into its thoroughly gore-soaked world of horror may find themselves feeling a bit lost throughout. But if you’re open to letting the group take you where they will, there are few sonic journeys that you will be able to compare to it. Front to back Visions of Bodies Being Burned is one of my favorite records of the year.
Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
Literally everyone who knows me is fully aware that I’m that guy who loves The National. Few introductory conversations about music with me won’t center on the impact that this band has had on my life. There are few if any bands that have followed me with such steadfastness and ridiculously high quality music. When I heard that Matt Berninger, the band’s lead singer, would be writing his own solo album I was both incredibly excited and more than a little reserved in my enthusiasm. Indie music has a track record for solo releases getting relegated to the bargain bin relatively quickly, and while new music from an artist attached to one of my favorite bands is always a welcome site, one gets burned by crap music enough to earn a healthy level of skepticism. Thankfully, Serpentine Prison is everything it should be and then some.
One aspect of solo albums that, for me at least, serves as a measure of quality is its ability to highlight the parts of the artist that make them an integral part of their main project. Serpentine Prison does this in spades, highlighting Berninger’s songwriting ability and range. The tracks on this record range in sound from lounge rock to countrified tunes that feel reminiscent of some of The National’s earliest work without ever feeling derivative. There’s unique flavor here that heralds back to his greatest work as part of a collective without ever mimicking it. “Distant Axis” (complete rip off of the opening riff of The Decemberist’s “The Crane Wife 3” aside) is a moving and effective track that feels distinctly Berninger, with a lusher musical palette than is often attributed to The National’s work. As a more complete departure, “Oh Dearie” holds to a 70s folk aesthetic that could have been pulled directly from a Nick Drake or Simon & Garfunkel record, making it one of my favorite cuts on the record. Whether you are looking for another National record or something fresh and new, there’s something for you here.
It always feels good when one of your musical heroes comes through in the clutch with a solo record that deserves to be considered in its own right as a significant work. Serpentine Prison may not ever reach the heights of influence or potency of The National’s work, but that fact doesn’t make it any less enjoyable and worthwhile. An excellent outing from one of indie rock’s most distinct and important voices. Bravo.
BLACKPINK – The Album
WARNING: BLACKPINK IN YOUR AREA
I’m sorry, but someone has to do it, and I will gladly take up the stan banner for the blog if no one else will. If you’ve been living under a rock the past few years, as I imagine many of you have (being members of the global metal community tends to narrow one’s view in regards to some things, as much as you deny it), you may not realize that K-pop has taken over the entire planet. Many of you probably remember “Gangnam Style” and thought it was just a fun meme. Well, nowadays Psy is on track to be one of the richest entertainers on the planet, having just launched his own record label as part of South Korea’s unstoppable talent machine. And I do mean that almost literally. Record labels pour hundreds of millions of dollars into enormous rosters of “trainees” every year; housing, teaching, and developing scores of young artists to eventually slot into idol groups and rake in incomprehensible billions of revenue off manufacturing these cultural icons. South Korea’s economy is booming, and it’s all due to K-pop.
Regardless of your thoughts on the authenticity of mass producing hit music and the stars to perform it, it can’t be ignored that every party involved is the best in the industry. International superstars like BTS (who are currently topping US charts with “Dynamite”) are hands down some of the hardest working performers in the history of the business, and Korea’s next biggest exports are too; enter BLACKPINK, the biggest girl group to ever exist — and they’ve only just dropped their first album.
Debuting in 2016 and subsisting off EPs, hit singles, and their accompanying music videos that rack up billions of views on YouTube alone, BLACKPINK have been taking the world by storm without ever breaking a sweat. They had already completed a sold out world tour by 2018, having to perform their entire catalog and then some to fill the concert run time. Securing big time guest spots with renowned pop stars like Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa in 2019, BLACKPINK garnered enough international clout to pull Selena Gomez and Cardi B to feature on their LP, cheekily titled The Album in reference to the neverending question from fans (lovingly dubbed Blinks), “When are you going to drop the album?!” Supply has never been able to keep up with demand when it comes to the group, but 2020 finally allowed them time to sit down and hammer out the final details of their first true full length.
To be frank, it’s still barely as long as their prior releases, clocking in at a meager 8 songs and 24 minutes. While that was a bit of a disappointment to the starved masses who are used to groups like BTS releasing multiple full lengths a year, The Album substitutes quantity for quality in a major way. Every track could easily top the charts; in fact, lead single “How You Like That” and follow up “Ice Cream” have a cool billion YouTube views between them in the third quarter of 2020 alone. The real standout however, is “Pretty Savage”, a trap-inspired bass boomer bursting with the girlboss energy BLACKPINK is known for embodying. The whole album is a perfect distillation of the very appeal that has rocketed them to stardom — being idyllic incarnations of the modern Korean woman. The name BLACKPINK refers to walking that fine line between edgy, independent womanhood and demure, cutesy, traditional femininity. While this formula has been explored by girl groups before, none have nailed it quite like BLACKPINK, due in large part to the unrivaled talent and personalities of its members. Lisa and Jennie, the triple-threat leads who embody the “black” part of the quartet, are possibly some of the best all around performers the world has seen in a generation, and are well on their way to international symbol status. Rose and Jisoo, the “pinks”, are no slouches either, providing the perfect ethereal balance to their counterparts’ sexy, hyphy edge.
Whatever your recollection of cringy K-pop stars past is, or your attitude towards modern pop music as a whole may be, I can guarantee this new wave puts the rest in the dirt. I dare you not to be transfixed, if not wholly converted, by BLACKPINK.
Melanie C – Melanie C
Is there any doubt Melanie C is the best Spice Girl? Apart from essentially carrying the group, vocally, through their bright but brief original stint she’s never stopped making music. While Victoria Beckham, Melanie B and somehow even Geri Halliwell/Horner might have maintained a greater public presence since the group’s first split in 2000, Melanie C has far and above the most impressive and respectable solo career. Whether it’s belting out desperate heartfelt duets with Bryan Adams, homo-erotic chart hits with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes or celebrating her fortieth birthday with a sell-out concert, “Sporty” Spice has always seemed the most genuine and artistically driven of the Spice Girls.
Having said that, it’s been the better part of two decades since Mel C has produced anything new worth writing home-about, which only makes her new, eighth solo record Melanie C all the more impressive. The album might not be breaking any new ground or pushing any boundaries, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and entirely respectable pop record from an artist many will have written off as past her prime. The music itself is fairly standard, somet songs coming across like Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen rejects (see “Nowhere to run” and “Escape”/”In and Out of Love,” respectively). Still it’s a surprisingly solid, inoffensive, feel-good pop record, elevated by Melanie C’s distinctive and somewhat unconventional vocal tones, which fit perfectly with its updated, pride-inspired pallet. Melanie C might not be making any major waves but it’s a perfect record too punch-dance it out to.