Well. I must say that I have spent all of my “intro juice” (a horrible phrase which I shall never use again, I’m sorry) on writing this month’s Missive, the upcoming end of year Missive, and the Year in Review which will post when that Missive drops. So, no big introduction to Editors’ Picks this time, just fantastic music that you’d all do well to pay attention to even if December is an overlooked month. Let’s get to it!
Alpha Male Tea Party – Infinity Stare (post-math rock)
I’ll admit it. Even though Eden has been trying to get me to listen to Liverpool trio Alpha Male Tea Party ever since their previous album, 2017’s Health, came out, I just didn’t put in the effort. The UK already has such an unbelievable roster of hard-hitting and riff-heavy instrumental math/post-rock bands that I didn’t think I had the brainspace for yet another. After listening to the mammoth Infinity Stare though, I’m a full convert. In a year that was already unusually strong for instrumental math releases, AMTP more than deserve a seat at the table to be counted among the best of 2020.
In a genre that is full of twisty, labyrinthine compositions, Infinity Stare perhaps takes the prize for most turns per minute. Imagine the most aggressive side of And So I Watch You From Afar, especially circa their self-titled, and make it even more difficult to pin down. Tracks like “Leather Diamond” groove for sure, but in their own very specific way. Try to hold them down to any particular idea for too long and they’ll writhe right out from underneath your palm. The beauty of the music though is that there is a sense of purpose and thought behind all of it. It’s not complicated and manic just for sake of complexity, and it doesn’t leave you hanging without any particular ideas or riffs to hold onto. At times the angular and thick layers of guitars and riffs reminds me heavily of another heavy-hitting post- trio, Town Portal. And yet they can still pull back to something far more serene and pretty like the brief but anthemic “Year of Winter.”
Basically, Infinity Stare is the full package. It’s an album that can absolutely blast doors off of their hinges with powerful and heavy post-math aggression, and it can just as easily hypnotize and captivate with its effortless songwriting and memorable melodies. In an already plenty exciting and crowded field of Euro-math rock groups, Alpha Male Tea Party belong in the elite tier.
Dawnwalker – Ages (atmospheric black metal, post-metal)
I love when I genuinely can’t decide which genre tags to use for an album. Overtures of innovation can definitely be overblown. On several occasions I’ve discovered that a supposedly “undefinable” album fits neatly in a set number of boxes. In a way, Ages does too; the genres that Dawnwalker pull from have all been covered extensively on this blog and elsewhere. Yet, Ages is among the select offerings we see each year that splice adjacent sounds in a way that commands immediate and lasting attention.
So what are we working with here? Ages blends a collection of genres often presented in tandem with one another, but not all at once (or at least, not in this precise, airtight formation). Elements of metal, folk, post-, and prog come together seamlessly. Imagine the likes of Agalloch, Falloch, and Lantlôs, except all the best elements are enhanced and expanded. The vocals are more varied and complementary of eclectic compositions, which balance metallic elements and sweeping atmospheres perfectly.
For me, that’s what was most compelling about Ages on first listen. It felt familiar and fresh all at once. There were obvious parallels for any particular moment in each song, but hearing them woven together so effortlessly and effectively was. simply incredible. Dawnwalker have produced a bold, late-year highlight that I implore fans of these genres not to overlook.
Green Druid – At the Maw of Ruin (stoner doom)
It would be dishonest of me to claim to have listened to a significant number of releases in December. With end-of-year fatigue, holiday juggling, and an unusually intense workload for this time of year, my listening habits reverted back to the old records that give me life as opposed to my usual plunder of the promo pile. But this lack of listening in no way, shape, or form diminishes the magnitude of Green Druid’s sophomore full-length release At the Maw of Ruin. Pound for pound, there are few if any low-and-slow releases that packed so diverse and weighty a punch as these Denver doomers conjured. Regardless of your particular tastes in extreme music, you will find something to love here.
While I deeply enjoyed the band’s debut Ashen Blood, their follow-up dwarfs their earliest work in every measurable metric. The production is beefier and heavier, the instrumentation is sharper and more diverse, and the songwriting is simply sublime. Melding elements of psychedelic rock and sludge into their doom-laden musical palette gives the tracks here an unpredictable bent that keeps the album constantly engaging. Flitting between more progressive elements akin to the work of Dreadnought or Pallbearer and spacy, monolithic passages that could keep pace with Electric Wizard or Sleep, the band meld some of the best elements that modern doom metal has to offer into a cohesive and adventurous whole that’s every bit as engaging as the best works of their contemporaries. Just give opener “The Forest Dark” a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’re intimidated by the length of these compositions (five tracks clocking in at over an hour in total runtime), know that the diversity mentioned above more than adequately justifies the investment. At the Maw of Ruin is a titanic record filled with bold ideas and respectful and effective sound mining, culminating in one of the best and most consistently enjoyable listening experiences I’ve had this year. Don’t sleep on this one.
Lespecial – Ancient Homies (prog fusion)
“What”? That’s the first thing I said when I got past “Snells Fleet”, the opening track on Lespecial’s Ancient Homies, and unto “The Vessel”, the second track. I said that because the former is this djent-y, progressive affair; it ends with a guitar running through lots of notes and, in general, has a dark, metallic vibe. But then “The Vessel” takes that darker vibe and twists it, channeling lots of EDM and darkwave influences into its sound. Nor does the album slow down from there; Ancient Homies is an album that refuses to be pegged down. Ducking and diving between its more metallic sounds, it covers ground starting from the aforementioned EDM and into soundscapes based described as ambient, chillwave, darkwave, indie, math rock, prog-fusion, and more.
The core that keeps the entire thing from falling apart is that dark, spooky vibe which its cover so effortlessly (and humoristically) channels. Ancient Homies feels like an old, slightly campy horror film, like something you’d screen on Mystery Science Theater 3000 while having a good laugh. But, very interestingly, the album is dexterous enough to, from time to time, strip away that humor and get genuinely chilling. “Homie Numero Dos (Cryptic Triptych)” is one such example. The track perfectly channels the feeling of sneaking around on a dark night, checking behind corners for that sound that wasn’t there or wait, was it?
Put together, Ancient Homies is an ambitious release and one of the most irreverent we’ve gotten in 2020. The mix between self-deprecation, light-heartedness, and genuine horror is a companion or even a foil for the mix between heavier, technical music and the more electronic side of the album. That mirroring, between the mood and the style of the music, keeps the album cohesive, giving us a language to decode its supposedly unpredictable shifts and sways. Once you listen to it a few times and decode the atmosphere it’s trying to invoke, it all starts to make more sense. And that’s one of my favorite types of albums, works of art that first defy understanding and then decipher into something really special once you dig into them. That is definitely the case with Ancient Homies and I urge you to take the plunge.
Growth – The Smothering Arms of Mercy (dissonant death metal, progressive death metal)
I can guarantee, without a shadow of a doubt, that this album is the heaviest on this entire list and possibly one of the heaviest albums on Editors’ Picks, ever. It’s heaviness comes from a mix of monstrous tones and amazing vocals but also a heady, unrestrained, absolutely buck-wild approach to composition and song structure. Put simply: it’s one hell of a ride.
Moor Mother & billy woods – BRASS (abstract hip-hop, spoken word)
Sometimes, a collaboration feels like it should have happened already. Moor Mother and billy woods both approach rapping by way of spoken word, and the beats they rhyme over stretch the definition of abstract hip-hop. On BRASS, they bring out the best in each other for an essential, late year hip-hop gem.
Respire – Black Line (post-rock, screamo)
We’ve been looking forward to the next album from Toronto collective Respire ever since they dropped their 2018 stunner Denouement. Even with the weight of heightened expectations and attention (not to mention some unfortunate label drama with the now defunct Holy Roar Records), on Black Line they have come through with another record of hauntingly gorgeous and emotional string and horn-fueled post-.
Sumac – Two Beasts (atmospheric sludge metal, noise rock)
Sumac is simultaneously a known and enigmatic property at this point. Their steady evolution from progressive doom figureheads to improvisational oddity has solidified them as a predictably unpredictable group of insanely talented musicians. Two Beasts follows on the heels of their 2020 full-length May You Be Held, and is a worthy and oddly accessible companion to that records esotericism. Mammoth riffs, unpredictable songwriting, and emotionally satisfying passages galore.
Thraikill – Detach (prog metal, prog fusion)
This one will definitely be going into the “underrated releases” pile from 2020. Excellent, smart, ambitious progressive fusion that puts to shame most of the instrumental metal artists today. I think the adjective that best describes Detach is “wild”. Go listen to it, please.
TROMB – I/O (post-rock, jazz fusion)
Read this month’s Post Rock Post for an expanded writeup for this one, but chalk this one up as an incredibly late-breaking surprise for me that landed high up on my top albums list for the year. A wonderful blend of drum and sax-heavy improvisational jazz with a more than solid foot in the worlds of rock and instrumental post-.
Com Truise – In Decay, Too (synthpop, chillwave)
Cryptodira – The Angel of History (dissonant death metal, progressive mathcore)
Eos – The Great Ascension (atmospheric black metal)
Grayceon – Mothers Weavers Vultures (prog rock, sludge metal)
High Command – Everlasting Torment (crossover thrash, death metal)
Mendel – Neoblivion (tech death)
Pothamus – Raya (sludge, post-metal)
Release the Blackness – Tragedy (progressive death metal, groove metal)
Vandampire – The Last Good Thing Has Happened (sludge, post-metal)
Wombbath – Tales of Madness (death metal)
Yashira – Fail to Be (doom, post-metal)