Hello everyone and welcome to November’s music, the final month of the year! What’s that? I’m being told in my earphone here that November is in fact not the final month of the year? What do you know, I always figured that was the case, what with everyone posting their end of year lists. Anyway, it’s a good thing the year isn’t over because look at all this damn music! You sure wouldn’t want to miss it and there’s more yet to come; next month’s installment is going to be as loaded, so get ready well in advance.
Turning our eyes to this edition of Editors’ Picks though, what do we see? As has become the case for 2020 (and previous years but I feel like 2020 even more so) we first see a massive wealth in the types of music that was released. We’ve got releases from hip-op, through prog-fusion, and all the way to grindcore and blackened hardcore. The crazy thing is that all of these releases seem to hit just as hard; is it the pandemic making me (us) crazy emotional or are all of these albums feeling just incredibly personal, incisive and emotionally affective?
Whatever the answer, I think you’ll find this month’s crop just as good as any from this year. As we start winding it down (yes, OK, I’ll admit it is rather close to the year’s close) take a second to be thankful for the truly massive amount of great music that we have laid before us. Lord knows we need it.
Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide (abstract hip-hop, alternative hip-hop)
New York native turned Portland transplant Aesop Rock may have evaded broad mainstream success relative to others that have bubbled out from the underground hip hop scene in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but that hasn’t stopped him from being highly regarded by those in the know as an incredibly influential creative force in rap, critically hailed for his artful and cerebral approach to the genre and far-and-away holding the trophy for having the largest vocabulary among his peers. Over the years, Aes’s impenetrable lyricism has grown to be less enigmatic and more personal and whimsical; debatably his opus, 2016’s The Impossible Kid was a clear a narrative as he’s ever penned, offering a personal narrative of his mental health, with reflections on aging, family, losing passion for art, isolation, loss, therapy, and depression. Add onto that a discography with songs about mummifying his dead cat, refusing to eat his vegetables as a kid, and taking up for poor Pluto to become a planet once more, Aesop Rock is sort of like the Wes Anderson of hip-hop(?). Technically proficient, dialed-in with specific aesthetics that are quirky and whimsical, with a real potential for darkness.
This holds even more true for Aes’s eighth full-length solo LP Spirit World Field Guide, which, as its name might suggest, is a loose concept record wherein Aesop Rock waxes about his discoveries while navigating the Spirit World. That’s the lore of the album anyway, but it’s all really just a collection of musings about navigating life in general, from his experiences on traveling the world (Peru on “Pizza Alley” and Thailand on “Sleeper Car”) to finding comfort in isolation (“Kudokoshi”) and the discomfort and anxiety that comes with your dog barking at something unseen outside (“Dog At The Door”). It’s a clever and creative way to string the album together thematically, and provides some insight to the way Aes approaches his own character development and how he engages with and processes the world.
The thematic cohesion across the album is matched by Aesop’s incredible music production. Hazy drum loops, a variety of different organs, wicked basslines, and a menage of video game noises litter the soundscape and are detailed and engaging enough on their own to make Spirit World one of the slickest albums of the year. Lyrically and vocally, Aesop is dextrous as he ever was, with highlights “Gauze” and “Kudokushi” bringing some career-best performances out of Aes. “Side Quest” even sees Aesop playing around in a weird signature, and is truly a sound to behold. Amazing work from an album that dedicates one track of its 21-track and one-hour runtime on back pain (“1 to 10”).
The only thing holding Spirit World back is that aforementioned heft. The album is a bit unwieldy and could stand a culling, but it’s hard to make those kinds of decisions when Aesop delivers cover-to-cover quality across the breadth of the record. I’m a firm believer that any year with a new Aesop Rock project is worthy of celebration (well, 2020 notwithstanding), and it feels wrong to complain about additional content. Regardless of its density, Spirit World sees Aes at the top of his game and is a testament to his skills as a rapper, lyricist, and producer.
Arcing Wires – Prime (prog fusion, post-metal)
The last time I wrote about a heavy fusion album in this column was close to three years ago for the Israeli by way of Berklee ensemble Hago. It’s not that there aren’t any other bands out there currently playing around in the jazz-metal space. Most of the best examples are far more on the metal side than jazz though (or, like Monobody and Alarmist, simply phenomenal jazz fusion that occasionally touches upon heavier tones but clearly doesn’t come from a place of heavy metal influence), and few others have been able to compellingly make a case for heavy jazz fusion that either skimps on the jazz or the metal parts. But here comes bursting in Arcing Wires from, where else, freaking Australia, with their debut Prime that is about as fully-formed a concept and debut as you’re gonna get.
First off, can we just talk for a moment about Australia and Aussie label Art as Catharsis? Because I don’t know what’s going on over there, but the country seems to just be churning out one incredible and unique jazz/folk/rock/metal fusion group and album one after another. You’ve got silky fusion bands like COAST, worldly mindfucks like Hashashshin, experimental voyagers like Milton Man Gogh, and post-jazz virtuosos like SEIMS (and that’s not even counting other Aus bands not on AaC like the indomitable Tangled Thoughts of Leaving or the countless pioneers on the label outside of Australia). So at this point I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all that they would continue and build upon that streak. Arcing Wires and Prime fit in perfectly with this milieu, blending in a captivating mixture of classic 70s and 80s prog and funk influence, modern metal and heavy prog technique and atmosphere, and more than enough brilliant jazz technique and composition to keep the listener in constant awe.
Similar to Hago, Arcing Wires very smartly make sax the hero for most songs, pushing forward both indelible melodies, perfect contrast to the crunch of guitars and bass, and killer solos. On “Catacaustic,” sax and guitar trade complex riffs in an exceedingly satisfying way, at times running counter to one another and other times playing in unison – which, as I’ve long established, is one of the most sonically pleasing instrument combos out there. Also like Hago, Arcing Wires tend to write from a very futuristic space-prog perspective, favoring more open chords and going for very reverb-y atmosphere. Whereas many recent heavy fusion bands have leaned heavily on djent-y style rhythms and bass patterns to convey the metal side of things, Arcing Wires largely just play heavy through good use of dynamics and tone.
Like labelmates COAST and other contemporaries who have been successful in the jazz-rock/metal space like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so much of writing good fusion is intimately understanding what makes up the fundamental components of those styles and not simply trying to mimic them. And from the opening notes of “The Lizard” through the shredding of “Eniargim” and the incredible dark electro funk of “Serotonin,” Arcing Wires demonstrate mastery over the elements throughout. Prime is everything that the word implies, and you do a disservice to yourself in ignoring it.
Countless Skies – Glow (progressive melodeath)
Ah, the classic dilemma of writing about an album you love: do you keep covering it for the different columns and post types around (this will be my third time writing about this release in just as many weeks) or do you choose something you like less? The latter is the path to sanity and a less taxing writing experience, as you don’t have to (again) come up with a different take and angle on an album you’ve already written about. But sometimes, the heart just wants what the heart wants. It wants to gush a bit more about a truly outstanding piece of music, throwing all caution to the wind and demanding that the rest of your faculties recruit themselves to the effort of writing about an album again.
This is the case with Countless Skies’ Glow. I’ve premiered a track from the album. I’ve reviewed it. We’re going to have someone from the band on the podcast next week (spoilers!). And yet, I still chose to write about it for Editors’ Picks because it’s just that good. If the purpose of this column is to highlight our favorite releases from the past month, then there’s no other choice. Considered only on its merits, rather than my already extensive history with it, Glow is the album that I most enjoyed in November. And why is that? Is it the most complicated album I heard? Certainly not; we had some excellent avantgarde releases this month, like Alustrium’s release which you’ll find down below. Is it the heaviest album I heard in November? No, because bands like Völur and Glorious Depravity also released albums. Then what is it?
Simply put, Glow is the most metal album I’ve heard this month. That is, it’s the album that most awakened within me the emotions that I exclusively go to metal for. Other genres can give you heavy. Other genres can give you weird. But no other genre makes me feel as large, powerful, and self-confident as metal does. And no album in November and, indeed, in 2020, has made me feel those things as powerfully as Glow did. In many ways, it’s a simple album. But every note on it, every melodeath riff, every soaring vocal, every choir segment, every growl and guitar lick, is filled with so much power. I just feel like a giant when I listen to it, like someone who can do anything they set their minds to it. And that feeling is so addictive that I don’t even feel the wear and tear from writing about, and listening to, as many times as I did during this month.
I can’t wait to listen to it even more and write about it again. It’s just that good.
Déluge – Ægo Templo (blackened hardcore, post-metal)
Yes, post-black metal is at this point in time, quite a saturated space to be operating in. It’s harder and harder to stay sounding fresh and inventive. Further still, it seems difficult even to stand out amongst the current roster of bands gaining attention in the genre. Important distinction: a band can have a decent amount of notoriety and not be doing anything particularly creative. In 2020 alone there’s been a slew of releases worth paying attention to in the field: An Autumn For Crippled Children, Olhava, Oranssi Pazuzu, Odraza, Mamaleek, Unreqvited, Paysage d’Hiver, I could go on… So how does one even stay afloat on a raft that is already overflowing with amazing and eclectic artists?
Despite the saturation of the broad genre often leading me to dive into each new release with appropriate caution, it still ceases to astonish me the angles and lenses from and through which post-black can be approached and shed new light upon. Enter Déluge, the north-east French outfit who, at first glance, don’t exactly bring mind-blowing or game-changing aspects to the genre. Their second full-length Ægo Templo struts what one might call a micro-genre of post-metal with leanings into blackened hardcore and post-hardcore. Pick the opener “Soufre” translating to “sulfur” or “brimstone” in English. It hits hard and surprisingly earworm-y right off the bat with a trickling guitar line and harmonised soaring vocal to match, before a dank lull and a dash into a flurry of blast beats. It’s an instantaneous and traditional intro to a dense record, and it is definitely compelling. After this however, further into the wilderness of the record, the flavours of the peaks and troughs Déluge present become something so alive.
A recurrent and incredibly effective theme throughout Ægo Templo is delicacy and weariness. Weariness might sound like a negative, but when bound together with propulsion it becomes something powerful and purposeful. Delicacy too can sound like a negative, however when tied with bursts of vigour it is something entirely different. Déluge thrive on their exquisite ability to swing between sounding like valiant knights charging into battle, and an eroded shell of a man, pining to feel something again. It isn’t just this existential seesaw that makes Ægo Templo so moving, it’s the fact that it is achieved in a variety of layered techniques that the band pull off with such tact and grace. Maxime Febvet’s voice oscillates between a burly Joe Duplantier roar and a stricken cry that channels the same kind of frail despair that Numenorean channelled so well on their most recent work. This is best heard on “Gloire Au Silence”, where a number of effects come into play in the outro to create one of the highlights of the album. Not only is it Febvet’s desperate vocal performance, but even the guitars themselves feel like they’re faltering as they stammer their way to the end of the song amidst the urgency of Tetsuya Fukagawa of Envy’s spoken word.
It’s a triumph and a toll of a listen, and one which will no doubt grace my end-of-year list. Ægo Templo is a gem of a record bunched up with some of the greats from this year, but no doubt containing its own unique and identifiable shine, one which is maybe not as glimmering as others but has an age-old charm to it.
Jesu – Terminus (doomgaze)
When Justin Broadrick first picked up a guitar, I doubt he thought every major project in his career would end up being a genre defining act. Godflesh helped define industrial metal, Jesu essentially created doomgaze, and both contributed to the development of post-metal. Broadrick even helped shape the development of grindcore, if you count his contributions to Side A of Napalm Death’s Scum.
Of all these, Jesu is probably the most surprising, given how unique the project’s self-titled debut felt at the time. Sure, the closing track on Hymns (Godflesh’s swansong at the time) bears Jesu’s namesake, but the melodic segment is still in line with the post-metal side of Godflesh’s output up to that point. Three years later, Broadrick would use the industrial core of his sound as the structure for a new sound, blending shoegaze, doom, and burgeoning elements of post-metal under the Jesu name. Though the name was still years from mainstream use, doomgaze was effectively born.
A number of ripples have echoed out in the years since. Silver (2006) and Conqueror (2007) carried Jesu’s sound into a more melodic direction, and as the 2010s rolled in, so did a crop of bands testing the doomy shoegaze waters. Planning for Burial was my first experience with the subgenre coming into its own, and to a lesser extent Have a Nice Life. Since, bands like BleakHeart and Holy Fawn have tinkered with the formula, tipping the scales of doom and ’gaze to varying degrees. What started as a Broadrick stretching his creativity post-Godflesh has become an established style.
Yet, in the years since, Jesu’s output hasn’t impressed me in quite the same way. Infinity (2009), Ascension (2011), and Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came (2013) just didn’t hit the same highs as Conqueror or the self-titled, and Broadrick’s collaboration with Sun Kil Moon ended up sounding a lot better on paper. Suddenly, a band I considered one of my favorites started slipping down the ranks, and it was Broadrick’s comeback albums with Godflesh that commanded my attention in the 2010s.
Thankfully, this decade is off to a much better start for Jesu, as Terminus is easily my favorite Jesu project in years. From the opening melancholic chords of “When I Was Small,” I knew that Broadrick had hit the groove I appreciated so much about the project’s early work. All-encompassing without losing its momentum, dreamy without losing purpose, the song is exactly what I hope for from Jesu.
But it was “Alone” that truly stopped me in my tracks. The catchy, hook-oriented elements that made Conqueror so charming are in full swing, complete with a vocal sample “chorus“ and enormous, alluring guitar melodies. If I had to picture Broadrick writing a pop song under the Jesu banner, this is pretty close to what it would sound like. It’s easily one of the best songs he’s written for Jesu, and one of my favorites of the year.
The title track brings things in a drearier direction, but that only sets up the dynamic songwriting on display across Terminus. “Sleeping In” is the droning, ethereal dirge you’d expect it to be, yet the tone is still light and blissful thanks in large part to Broadrick’s signature echoing vocal effects. He flexes his ambient electronic muscles on “Consciousness” before exploring some more traditional dream pop and post-rock elements on the back end of the album, particularly the would-be ’90s college radio slow burner “Don’t Wake Me Up.”
It’s great when an artist you love releases a great album, but it feels even better when an artist finally returns with an album that clicks. Terminus is a late-career gem that arrived just in time for AOTY season, and it will definitely earn a spot on my list this year.
Of Feather and Bone – Sulphuric Disintegration (deathgrind)
The Denver death metal scene is absolutely overstuffed with talent. I’ve covered this topic many times in my writing here at HBIH, but it bears repeating. When you’re constantly lumped in with company like Blood Incantation, Vale of Pnath, Allegaeon, Necropanther, Black Curse, and Cephalic Carnage, best come prepared with quality material each outing. Thankfully, Of Feather of Bone have done that with each of their releases, with every new entry building upon the quality of the last in noticeable and exciting ways. Their latest LP, Sulphuric Disintegration, does nothing to alter the band’s stratospheric trajectory, and is one of the most thrilling and thoroughly punishing death metal records of 2020.
Those familiar with Of Feather and Bone should already know what to expect from them. Punishing, relentless riffs stacked atop a blistering percussive performance, then thoroughly drenched in some dark, wretched vocals. It’s a formula that the band don’t alter too drastically on Sulphuric Disintegration, but that isn’t to say that these tracks aren’t teeming with vitality and enough creativity to satisfy more adventurous listeners. Encased in the grinding violence of tracks like “Entropic Self Immolation” and “Noctemnania” are moments of subtle brilliance that are as compelling as anything released by more technically focused bands, just in a different capacity. Rather than dazzling right off the bat, Sulphuric Disintegration unleashes its charms deliberately and with patience, encouraging multiple listens to fully enjoy and understand the experience. It’s premium death metal that has found the secret formula to offering unyielding punishment without ever losing its sense of nuance and subtle unpredictability.
If you love old school death metal sprinkled with a moderate amount of doom and a whole lot of grind, Of Feather and Bone have created an opus built exclusively for your ears. With each new release, the band break further from the confines of an overcrowded scene and into the limelight that they so rightly deserve. Sulphuric Disintegration is a triumph in every respect, and a record that will most certainly be bludgeoning its way onto my death metal year-end list.
Alustrium – Insurmountable (melodeath, progressive death metal)
Man, death metal has just been kicking ass this month, huh? Alustrium have taken their craft to new levels on this one, using the EP format to condense their music and its energy. The result is an essential and intricate album, easily digestible but hiding much complexity beneath the first few layers. And it also fucking goes hard.
Beaten to Death – Laat maar, deel een: ik verhuis naar Mastbos (deathgrind)
Unless you bought this record on vinyl, you haven’t heard it yet. These Finish deathgrind weirdos recorded an album and then sequenced and mixed/mastered it differently for physical and digital releases. Why? Good question. The vinyl edition is out now, and no, you can’t stream it in full. However, you can piecemeal the record over the next few months as they release the album in a series of EPs, half of which are out now. But why wait?! Grab the vinyl.
Dark Tranquility – Moment (Melodeath)
There are some who would say that Dark Tranquility haven’t released a solid album since Fiction. Those people would be wrong, but in similar fashion to Opeth it’s difficult to fault them for the argument. Dark Tranquility isn’t the same band as they were a decade ago, and that’s just fine by me. Wielding two new guitarists, Moment feels like an injection of new life into one of the best bands that melodic death metal has to offer. If you still dig Insomnium and Be’lakor but also like a splash of Ors Principium Est power in your metal, Moment offers hours of pleasurable listening.
Disfiguring the Goddess – Sooth (slam, brutal death metal)
Cam Argon AKA Big Chocolate’s experimental slam project Disfiguring The Goddess dropped a new album this month, and we almost missed it. If you can get past the nearly impenetrable production, you’ll find some groovy death metal that is strangely cybernetic and, dare I say, atmospheric? It’s heavy as fuck and kind of weird, which is a combination we can always appreciate.
Glorious Depravity – Ageless Violence (death metal)
This death metal supergroup featuring members of Pyrrhon, Woe, and Mutilation Rites only wants to make death metal as it used to be: gross, riffy, and unburdened by complexity. Ageless Violence goes hard, and is an unreasonably and unapologetically fun 90’s-style death metal record.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – KG (psych rock, math rock)
With how utterly prolific the eclectic Australian enclave King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard is, it can be easy to overlook any one release or take their utter consistency for granted. Ignoring KG though would be a huge mistake. It takes much of the microtonal experimentations of Flying Microtonal Banana and takes them far further with some of their sharpest and knotty prog-math songwriting to date.
Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies (avant-garde black metal)
The band everyone loves to hate is back and better than ever. Yes, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is still as verbose as ever, and much of what turned the tried and trve off to begin with is still very much in play. But if you’re willing to put aside your metal cred and actually appreciate what Hunter accomplishes here, I’d challenge you to ignore the ambition and quality on display here. Hunter swung for the fences with a black metal opera, and she hit it clear out of the park. An excellent example of how to experiment with a genre so many people want to stay stagnant.
Mountain Caller – Chronicle I: The Truthseeker (post-metal, prog rock)
This month has been excellent for albums that make you dream and, as I’ve said before, this one is the dreamiest of them all. If you let them, Mountain Caller will take you on hell of a journey, to planets and places heretofore unseen. Spacey guitars, great grooves, and psychedelic vibes abound!
Plini – Impulse Voices (nu-prog)
Is it a hot take to say that Plini is easily the best artist in the current wave of instrumental prog rock? He’s been kicking around since the days of bedroom djent and has since been sampled by the likes of Lil Skies and Doja Cat thanks to the pop sensibilities of his melodic choices. It’s hard to believe that Impulse Voices is only Plini’s second full-length record (!?), but what’s not hard to believe is how absolutely stunning and gorgeous it is.
pg.lost – Oscillate (synth rock, post-metal)
I’ve been on a big heavy synth kick this year, and pg.lost’s latest Oscillate is feeding right into my addiction. Huge riffs, huge energy, huge gloomy, synthy atmosphere. Jump right in and let this one carry you along.
albinobeach – The Ladder (post-rock, prog rock)
Celestial Teapot – Perception (prog rock, post-rock)
Contrarian – Only Time Will Tell (progressive death metal)
DVNE – Omega Severer (post-metal, prog metal)
Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (heavy metal)
Fates Warning – Long Day Good Night (prog metal)
Hey Colossus – Dances / Curses (heavy psych, noise rock)
In Malice’s Wake – The Blindness of Faith (thrash, death metal)
Karkara – Nowhere Land (heavy psych, space rock)
Kepler Ten – A New Kind of Sideways (prog rock, hard rock)
Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero (groove metal, heavy metal)
Kyros – Four of Fear (synthpop, prog rock)
Light Field Reverie – Another World (prog metal, gothic doom)
Novarupta – Marine Snow (blackened sludge, post-metal)
Obsidian Mantra – Minds Led Astray (progressive death metal, groove metal)
Our Oceans – While Time Disappears (art rock, prog rock)
Precaria – Nigraluminiscencia (avant-garde black metal)
Reid Willis – Mother Of (IDM, experimental electronic)
Sainte Marie des Loups – Funérailles de feu (raw black metal)
Snooze – Still (math rock)
Tombs – Under Sullen Skies (blackened sludge, post-metal)
Völur – Death Cult (atmospheric doom, folk metal)