Which month is more cursed into awkwardness, December or January? As far as the music industry goes, the answer is really; they both are afflicted by the same proximity to the holidays, the same sort of sluggish aversion to releases, like a bear retreating to hibernate and listen to all of the music that it loved when it was a teenager (I seem to do that way more often in winter, at least). February is a bit better but it still has some left over lethargy; it’s not really until Spring that things really kick back up again, like so many flowers blooming from the cold ground. Now, that’s a nice image there, right?
Nevertheless, as with December, there are plenty of amazing releases that get released in the first two months of the year, ever year. Like December releases, they are cursed to be forgotten when end of the year lists coming rolling around. But, at least for me, at least one ground-shaking album is released during this time, an album that ends up coloring the rest of the year. This year, there’s two: ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL and Meer. You can read all about them below, so I won’t go into too much detail here but isn’t it interesting which albums we end up remembering, which fade away, and which last with us through the year and into the future? There doesn’t seem to be a fixed formula, right?
Sometimes those early albums stick with you, as I said above, and color the rest of the year, sometimes you can’t stop listening to them all through March and then they fade away, and sometimes you end up listening to them over and over again, years into the future. But here’s the thing: you won’t know which one is which unless you listen to them. Music is fickle like that, right? It really does defy preconceptions and the only way to really know is to listen. So, have a listen; here are some of our favorite releases from the last two months. I’m sure at least some of them will stick.
ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL – ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL (progressive doom)
One of the things that happens when you splice doom metal with other influences is that it becomes super expansive and exploratory. I’ll explain: doom metal, and I’m talking here about the old-school sound, wasn’t really about far-reaching journeys like we’ve gotten used to from the current generation of doom. That, of course, was completely fine and those records still channel important emotions; they’re more about a sense of damnation and redemption, of personal loss and overcoming challenges, about power and its allure, and many more things besides. But it was when doom was spliced with stoner, psychedelic music, progressive music, drone, post-rock, and a diverse group of instruments such as brass and wind instruments that we started getting our current brand of doom. Its emotional pallet is more about internal psychological states, journeys to distant worlds, the massiveness of space, the breaking down of barriers, the warping of consciousness, and, as before, many more topics besides.
Take ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL’s debut, self-titled release, a track of which we were proud to premiere on the blog a few weeks ago. This project, created in the forging fires of two other (French, by the way) groups, is all about exploring the outer boundaries and images that doom can deliver us to. To bring about this translation, our transportation in an outer realm, ÂGE ⱡ TOTAL splice their doom metal with drone, ambience, and extremely prominent, Hammond-like synths from the progressive rock milieu. The end result is a doom metal album that resonates just that much farther than its compatriots, channeling similar vibes to bands like Pallbearer (on their earlier releases) or Ancestors (on their latter releases) but going farther than them into the realms of ether-tinged journeys into the beyond.
Another aspect which creates this far-reaching, far-flung, far-seeing vision are the vocals. They are crafted to carefully complement the effervescent synths and to be, in turn, complemented by the rock-solid guitar chords and their forceful timbre. Add in the drums, which go as heavy on the cymbals as they do on the kick, and you’ve got the perfect storm: an album that sounds both immediate and distance, human but strangely alien at times (especially when the sound gets deconstructed by the band into noisy abstraction and improvisation). It’s a doom album that reminds us of the potentials of the genre when disparate ideas and sounds are introduced into it, the potential for dispersal, for a journey far away which, nonetheless, does not loose grip and punch right here at home. So, put on your best space-goggles, perhaps pour yourself a drink (ro two) and get to dreaming.
Black Country, New Road – For the first time (post-punk, experimental rock)
Sometime between the release of “Sunglasses” in July 2019 and when I listened to For the first time in early February 2021 (for the first time), the indie blogosphere lost their collective shit over Black Country, New Road. From The Quietus crowning them “the best [band] in the entire world” to outspoken interviews to COVID delaying the release of their debut, the London ensemble proved polarizing yet alluring in equal measure. Of course, as I mentioned, I wasn’t privy to any of this until now, and honestly, I couldn’t care less. Whatever runway preceded the belated release of For the first time, I’m just glad to have a clear frontrunner for my AOTY.
Whoa, that’s a bit premature, right? We’re not even through the first quarter of 2021! I’ll concede that February is too early to stop filling out your AOTY list, but I stand by my unconditional adoration of Black Country, New Road and whatever the hell they pulled together on For the first time. For all the apparent controversy surrounding the band and their anticipated debut, what I find most shocking is how the septet pulled together disparate genres into a sound that makes total sense.
I know that sentiment is a bit cliched at this point, but trust me, For the first time is a truly unique album. The best summation I can muster is “The National reinterpreting Slint tracks with a klezmer band.” I mean, what the actual fuck, right? The album doesn’t go full-on Masada, but it incorporates klezmer music more than any contemporary rock record I’ve heard. Opener “Instrumental” features a hypnotic keyboard melody and rolling percussion that prime the listener for a klezmer sax line, like John Zorn at his tamest moment. That is, until the band builds to a fever pitch by the song’s climax, with Lewis Evans delivering a rousing sax performance amid an intense, rhythmic display from his bandmates. And that’s all on track one.
“Athens, France” brings the band back down into the album’s post-punk foundations, with punchy percussion underscoring the aforementioned Slint-isms. Isaac Wood introduces his vocals for the first time, coming across like a younger, more assured Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu fame. His delivery verges on spoken word, weaving between post- and math rock explorations that might fit as a Spiderland outtake. Again, Evans shines on sax here, adding another dimension to an already multi-faceted composition.
The remainder of the album continues this trend of genre abstraction and exploration. “Science Fair” centres around some noisy interplay between Evans and the band’s guitarists, which breaks into a nocturnal soundtrack thanks to May Kershaw on keys and Georgia Ellery on violin. Wood continues his deranged delivery, with the ebb and flow of his intense delivery leading the emotional shifts among his bandmates. The album version of “Sunglasses” proves why it was the band’s earliest single, with a slow-burning guitar riff swelling into a Masada-lite freak out and back again over the nearly 10-minute track. Ellery and Evans deliver some of their best performances on the track, though my favorite song on the album is unquestionably “Track X.” Woods doing his best Matt Berninger impression over a sultry guitar line accented by staccato patterns from Ellery, Evans, and Kershaw. Finally, “Opus” is a fitting closer, marrying celebratory and funereal klezmer themes with raucous post-punk intensity.
Depending on the year, my AOTY will either take the full year to land on or be almost immediately obvious on first listen. After countless spins of For the first time, I remain as confident about its frontrunner status as I did when I originally pressed play (for the first time). I truly believe this will be one of the 2020’s most notable rock records, and it clearly positions Black Country, New Road for a promising, genre-bending career.
Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde (deathcore, djent)
A decade ago in 2011, we saw the release of debut albums from Vildhjarta, Uneven Structure, and Tesseract. The djent movement was in full swing, and classics were being dropped left and right. In the shadows of that movement were Sweden’s Humanity’s Last Breath, who dropped their slept-on self titled debut just two years later in 2013 on a little-known and now defunct independent label. The marriage of djent and deathcore wasn’t necessarily new, as sister-act Vildhjarta and The Contortionist began to normalize the blend in their own ways. But Humanity’s Last Breath offered something even more devastatingly heavy and sinister than anyone else in the scene, perhaps better suited, sonically, to the impending sludgewave and beatdown sound that bands like The Acacia Strain pioneered and popularized. They were often compared to Vildhjarta due to the dissonant and creeping nature of some of the guitar work (which checks out due to the two groups sharing key members), but they kept going darker. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on that sophomore Vildhjarta record. This year, perhaps?
I don’t believe it’s a hot take to say that — with obvious exceptions — a majority of the bands that arose out of the djent movement in those early years simply fizzled out or meandered about in inconsistent quality of output. But Humanity’s Last Breath continued to accumulate mass as one of the heaviest bands on the planet, thanks to the growing influence of blackened death metal and bandleader Buster Odeholm’s production and engineering prowess capable of making lower and lower tunings sound incredible. Their latest record Valde continues this growth, with creeping atmospheres and ridiculous earth-shattering breakdowns.
Valde undoubtedly includes some of the group’s strongest material. Even without the context and continuity of the album experience, tracks like “Earthless” demonstrate their penchant for pairing devastating brutality with horrific atmospheres while tracks like “Spectre” introduce the rare melody and sung hooks. “Descent” is downright maddening, with its use of choir pulling from late-era Behemoth to build to a massive apex before giving way to one of the most infectious grooves on the album. “Dehumanize” opens with over-the-top brutality for the sake of it, and as gratuitous as it is, the album is better for it.
It cannot be overstated how ridiculously heavy Valde can be, and the lengths that the band go to craft such a specifically intense and horrifying album is remarkable. Hooks come and go, buried beneath the chaos and ruin, begging for repeat spins with a production fine-tuned to lull you back into the journey. With Valde, Humanity’s Last Breath proves that where they were once one of the most underrated and overlooked bands of the genre, they are now among the masters.
MEER – Playing House (prog rock, symphonic pop)
It is a fact that there is an awful lot of music I enjoy. I think it’s fair to say that there’s still quite a lot of music I can claim to say I “love.” But there is a particular class of music and album that tends to ride above the rest and find itself in its own category. It’s music that I become obsessed with. I mean this literally. This is the music that finds a way into my head and simply doesn’t leave. I wake up thinking about it. I catch myself throughout the day noticing that it is the constant soundtrack playing inside of my brain. I eagerly look forward to “free” time I might have to listen to it, but I make sure to space out listens enough so I don’t burn myself out on it too quickly. It’s been quite a while since I stumbled upon an album that wended its way into this distinction. But in the early weeks of 2021, I’ve found myself with such an album that has me in its clutches. That album is Playing House by Norwegian power octet MEER.
Featuring two dedicated vocalists, guitar, violin, viola, piano, bass, and drums, MEER is about as lush as they come. Every ounce of their music is bursting with dramatic flourish. It is music that knows it is grandiose and simply tries to do so without going too far into sickly sweet or positively bloated territory. Thankfully for all that the band leverages its individual contributors to its fullest through their symphonic and knotty compositions, Playing House excels on all fronts by expertly knowing how to write for contrast and earned climax. It is the earnest theater kid peppiness and drama of fellow prog-pop bands like The Family Crest blended with some of the quirky and raw alchemy of Bent Knee, with a touch of dreamy, bright-eyed Scandinavian pop/rock sensibility found in bands as disparate as Mew and Jaga Jazzist.
Every single track on this album features a multitude of hooks, be they from the clarion calls of the gorgeous voices in Johanne and Knut Kippersund (as stunning solo as when twisting and flowing in harmony), majestic string melodies, sweeping piano riffs, or elsewhere. There are entire songs like “Beehive,” “Honey,” and “She Goes” that simply feel like one giant hook, gliding effortlessly from one huge melody or propulsive progression to another. Meanwhile, others like the dytpch of “All At Sea” and “Songs of Us,” “Child,” and especially the majestic closer “Lay It Down” bide their time in building foundations of mystery and energy before bursting into mammoth catharsis. Even the sole “ballad” of the album, the stripped down “Where Do We Go From Here,” is imbued with a soul and depth that offers an absolutely refreshing take on the band’s sound. It is all additive, with nothing feeling out of place or superfluous.
Playing House is the sound of a band with an exceedingly earned sense of confidence in their own strengths as composers and performers. It feels lived-in, at once cozy and familiar, but still daring and adventurous enough to be truly thrilling in a field that so often sounds like it’s simply going through the motions of “prog.” And given that it has yet to leave my head since first hearing it a month ago, it is very likely to remain one of my very favorite albums of 2021.
The Ruins of Beverast – The Thule Grimoires (blackened death-doom)
Outlandish progressive death-doom isn’t my usual thing, but I was instantly captivated by The Thule Grimoires, as soon as I heard it, and have been more or less obsessed with the record ever since. The album opens with a minute-and-a-half of just open, flanger feedback and, while that might not sound like everyone’s idea of a good time , I just absolutely love it. Add in a sample of David Attenborough going on about the complete blackness of the ocean depths and you’ve got yourself a formidable progressive doom metal stew going!
I’m probably going to flip-flop around on what genre this album is a number of times throughout even this short write-up, because I genuinely don’t know what to call it. Dark, death, doom, progressive, gothic and metal are all obviously applicable, but in what combination. Maybe my awe is simply born from ignorance. As I said, this isn’t my usual area of operations, (oh, at all). However, having been casually acquainted with The Ruins of Beverast’s previous material, and having delved back since, I can say, with some authority, that this is definitely breaking new ground for the band themselves. Add to that the sheer amount of hype this album has been receiving and you can mount a strong case that what we have here is truly something special.
The gothic elements are the most obvious addition to The Ruins of Beverast’s sound. Although they’ve always been luring amid the textures of the project’s previous records, they’ve never been as pronounced, nor as accentuated, as they are here. The album transitions from folk-infused avalanches of Ragnarök-invoking progressive black metal, à la mid-period Enslaved or Rotting Christ, through early-Pallbearer-esque epic doom and Peter Steel-aping Type O Negative worship, to Triptikon worthy annihilation riffs – often in the space of a single song – without ever losing one ounce of its momentum or intrigue.
The Thule Grimoires feels simultaneously disperate, yet wholly cohesive. It’s hour-and-ten-minute run-time – made up of songs that regularly breach the ten-minute mark themselves – might seem like a tall order. Yet, each and every time I’ve found myself wanting to feel that flanger wash over me once more, I’ve always wound up going through the entire experience again. It’s well worth the journey. The album is (somehow) never dull, but some of its best material awaits patient listeners at the end. The closing triptych of “Anchoress in Furs”, “Polar Hiss Hysteria” and “Deserts to Bind and Defeat” is both supurb and sublime and sets the benchmark incredibly high for everything else to come in 2021.
Out of the deepest, darkest and perhaps most unexpected depths has come an early Album of the Year contender. It’s a lofty, and extremely premature call to make, but – as bizzare and complex as The Thule Grimoires is – one listen should be all it takes to see why.
Suffering Hour – The Cyclic Reckoning (blackened death metal)
In musical fields as replete with talent as contemporary black and death metal, it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to stand out. As certain branches of sound ebb and flow in and out of popular perception, bands that stick out from the general pack of OSDM worshippers or technical wizards are few and far between. Minnesota/Colorado trio Suffering Hour, thankfully, doesn’t seem to have that problem. When their debut record In Passing Ascension dropped a few years back they presented themselves as a band full of promise. With their sophomore record The Cyclic Reckoning Suffering Hour have moved into entirely new territory, carving out a space more distinctly their own. In a sector overstuffed with trend followers, it’s a welcome relief.
While the principal core of Suffering Hour’s sound is relatively familiar (tremolo/chug interchanges with blackened blast beats and growled vocals), their execution of these tropes feels particularly fresh. Adding a hefty dose of woozy, psychedelic vibes to the proceedings, opening track “Strongholds of Awakening” feels like a drunken fist fight, with the band swinging hard and fast right out the gate in ways that feel both loose and oddly technical. This in part can be attributed to songwriting that is unafraid to throw in some psychedelic elements, and a guitar tone that is equal parts lethal and almost aquatic. It’s a near-perfect opening that sets the band apart sonically from their contemporaries while bracing the listener for the madness to come. And madness it most certainly is.
The band’s branching out into highly atmospheric, almost psychedelic territory continues with even greater verve in “Transcending Antecedent Visions”. Here, Suffering Hour build an undulating soundscape that’s disorienting, riff-heavy, and in some passages almost transcendent. This blending of sounds somehow never feels jarring or unnecessary, either. The songwriting on this record is simply superb throughout, balancing these elements with expert precision and never letting any one sector of sound overwhelm the others. It’s an incredibly balanced approach, with more methodical and measured moments like “The Abrasive Black Dust Part II” being followed immediately by the wild aggression of “Obscuration”, creating a structure that feels just the right kind of varied. Throw in an epic, twisty barnburner of a finale and you have yourself an AOTY candidate.
While records from The Ruins of Beverast and Ad Nauseam have outshined this record in the music press, Suffering Hour have conjured here a sophomore record of equal merit and enjoyability. If you’re a fan of blackened death metal that’s completely unafraid to spread its dark wings over patches of psychedelia, there’s little here you won’t adore. One of the best releases in any genre thus far this year, and I fully anticipate it standing the test of time to ride high on my year-end list come December.
Ad Nauseam – Imperative Imperceptible Impulse (dissonant death metal, avant-garde death metal)
Do you enjoy bands like Gorguts and Imperial Triumphant, but wouldn’t mind it if they were even weirder? Italy’s Ad Nauseam do exactly that on their sophomore LP Imperative Imperceptible Impulse. It’s maddening and challenging — exactly how we like it.
Black Sheep Wall – Songs for the Enamel Queen (sludge, hardcore)
It’s been almost six years since California sludgecore ne’er-do-wells Black Sheep Wall dropped their daunting third record I’m Going To Kill Myself. A lot’s happened in those six years if you haven’t noticed, and Black Sheep Wall are back and as distressing as they’ve ever been. Songs for the Enamel Queen is an hour of depressive catharsis with some psychedelic window-dressing that’s certainly welcome right now if you can stomach the anguish.
The Body – I’ve Seen All I Need To See (drone/doom metal)
The Body’s I Shall Die Here is one of the most disturbing albums I’ve ever heard, and since its release there have been few that have been able to rival its terrifying lurch. While I’ve Seen All I Need to See may not meet that record’s horrifying content, it certainly matches it in sonic intensity. This is The Body that I know and most love, and may just be their heaviest and most lethal release since then. An absolute doom-laden torch of a record containing some of their most disturbing collaborative work to date.
Cult of Luna – The Raging River (post-metal)
It doesn’t feel like two years since Sweden’s post-metal mainstays Cult of Luna dropped their last effort, A Dawn To Fear, but that’s what a pandemic can do to our perceptions of time. Their follow-up The Raging River steps the game up with a touch more dynamic with tempo. The Raging River is thoughtful and expressive, and an exciting addition to the early-year release cycle.
Dark Time Sunshine – Lore (abstract hip-hop)
It’s extremely refreshing to hear a lyrics-forward hip-hop album that also keeps the production on the instruments to a tight minimum, letting the words shine through. On Dark Time Sunshine’s Lore, the sometimes downright sparse instruments do just that, letting the flow and word-choices do most of the talking on the release. And boy, are they talking.
Divide and Dissolve – Gas Lit (drone metal, sludge)
On Gas Lit, Divide and Dissolve unleash crushing, sludgy drone metal (droning sludge metal?) with classical flourishes straight from a horror movie soundtrack. Oh, and the spirit of the project is dedicated to “destroying the white supremacist colonial framework.” Need I say more?
Glass Kites – Glass Kites II (prog rock)
There’s an entire thread of progressive rock, melded with a dark, alternative sort of sound, that was big in the mid-late 00’s and has been pretty much abandoned. But there are still artists out there holding the torch for it and Glass Kites’s latest release as a great example of why. There’s a lot of musical and emotional potential still hiding in there and this album does a great job of teasing it out.
Juan Bond – Womb (mathcore)
New York mathcore outfit Juan Bond dropped their debut Womb in January, and it offers violin-accompanied take on acts like The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and Exotic Animal Petting Zoo. Very weird and very cool.
Lizzard – Eroded (progressive stoner metal)
French prog stoner trio Lizzard have charged out the gates early in 2021 to release one of the slickest and catchiest records to come out of the heavy stoner canon in quite some time.
Madlib & Four Tet – Sound Ancestors (instrumental hip-hop)
Sound Ancestors is a rare case of unmet expectations that actually pans out. Like most people, I assumed the surprise project from Madlib and Four Tet would seamlessly blend their innovative takes on hip-hop and microhouse, respectively. It turns out the creative process was a bit less collaborative, as Madlib compiled bits and pieces from his vault and Four Tet ultimately served as the executive producer who connected the dots. But through that process, we essentially have an instrumental hip-hop album produced by Four Tet, complete with his warm, organic production style and strong overtones of spiritual jazz. The input might not have been what we thought it would be, but the results are still incredibly compelling.
Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone (blackened hardcore, screamo)
Austin, Texas’ Portrayal of Guilt conjurs a swirling blend of black metal and post-hardcore for a sound that is often frightening and intensely cathartic. They’ve experienced a good deal of hype in recent years, and We Are Always Alone capitalizes on that and exceeds expectations.
Trillionaire – Romulus (alt-rock, post-hardcore)
Trillionaire are another band whose sound I don’t quite know how to describe but also instantly fell in love with. Call it “post-hardcore”, call it “alt-rock”, call it “progressive metal”, call it “progressive-post-alternative-metalcore”. Whatever. All you need to know about Romulus is that, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything by Glassjaw, Baroness or anything in between, you need this album in your life – post haste!
Abiotic – Ikigai (progressive deathcore, tech death)
Apifera – Overstand (nu-jazz)
Athanatos – Biogenesis (tech death)
Beach Bunny – Blame Game (indie rock, power pop)
Black Dresses – Forever In Your Heart (electro-industrial, industrial rock)
Bloodkill – Throne of Control (thrash)
Cara Neir – Phase Out (blackened screamo, chiptune)
John Carpenter – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death (progressive electronic, horror synth)
Cry – 壱 [One] (death metal, grindcore)
Darker By Design – Necrolatry (orchestral melodeath, deathcore)
Eximperitus – Šahrartu (brutal tech death, death-doom)
Ferriterium – Calvaire (melodic black metal)
For Giants – There, There (djent, progressive post-rock)
Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality (hardcore, death-doom)
God Is An Astronaut – Ghost Tapes #10 (post-rock, electronic)
Gravesend – Methods of Human Disposal (deathgrind, war metal)
Heave Blood & Die – Post People (post-rock, post-metal)
Husmo HAV – Waves (jazz, Nordic post-rock)
Immortal Guardian – Psychosomatic (power metal, prog metal)
Infinity Shred – EP 002 (Recovery) (electronic, post-rock)
The Lylat Continuum – Ephemeral (progressive death metal, tech death)
Mekong Airlines – Gran Telescopio (post-rock)
Misotheist – For the Glory of Your Redeemer (black metal)
Mogwai – As the Love Continues (post-rock, shoegaze)
Nervosa – Perpetual Chaos (thrash, death metal)
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams (neo-soul)
Plagueborne – A Blueprint for Annihilation (death metal, brutal deathcore)
Robohands – Shapes (jazz)
Rostro Del Sol – Rostro Del Sol (jazz fusion, heavy psych)
Sarin – You Can’t Go Back (progressive sludge, post metal)
The Scalar Process – Coagulative Matter (tech death)
Sirenia – Riddles, Ruins & Revelations (gothic metal, symphonic metal)
Swampbeast – Seven Evils Spawned of Seven Heads (blackened death metal)
The Weather Station – Ignorance (indie rock/pop)
WOWOD – Yarost’ I Proshchenie (post-metal, death-doom)