This is honestly one of the strongest Editors’ Picks I can remember. While there’s some discussion to be had about the quantity of releases in March 2021 (a slowdown in relation to Jan/Feb can definitely be observed, though April looks like it will be buck that trend), I think there’s zero argument to be had about the quality of releases. The top picks are, as always, very varied but they have all the distinguished honor of being fucking mind-blowing, pardon my French. But that’s really the only way to describe them, seeing as each is a unique, incredible entry to the genre.
I won’t write too much here about The Beast of Nod, since I spend four paragraphs doing so below, but you can bet that I’m going to be talking about the amazing three-way collaboration between Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra. Scott dives into this release more eloquently than I can here, but suffice it to say that Promises drove me to tears several times this month. Its leitmotif, the saxophone, the few but effective vocals passages, the mystical way in which it all unfolds, all make this album a masterpiece. Funnily enough, most of those adjectives also fit Mare Cognitum’s sprawling opus, Solar Paroxysm. It’s magnificent and massive in different ways but ends up channeling a lot of the same mystic and spiritual vibes that Promises also handles.
There’s so much more we could talk about: Pupil Slicer’s unbridled energies, Bríi’s experimentation with black metal and electronic music, Dvne, Malist, and Guedra Guedra infections groove. But the bottom line is that this month’s installment of our picks shows that music is still excellent. Surprise! While I don’t think any of us expected music to just suddenly suck, I think it is comforting that even after the year we’ve had, fantastic music is still being made and still getting released. That’s no small comfort; this time last year, we were genuinely worried about the collapse of the music industry. So, take the time to take in the smorgasbord of amazing releases we have for you this month; don’t take it for granted.
The Beast of Nod – Multiversal (progressive death metal)
There are many reasons to listen to metal but, and I think I’ve written about this on the blog before, one of the main ones is awe. Awe is about size, about being in the presence of something massive and craning your neck to try and see it. That’s how I feel when I listen to The Beast of Nod’s Multiversal. While the band have made very ambitious and elaborate albums in the past, something about Multiversal just screams “more”. Maybe it’s the clearer production or the added progressive flourishes that this album sports, more intricate and complex than past works. Perhaps it is the truly mind-boggling list of guest musicians (including, but not limited to, Joe Satriani, Michael Angelo Batio, Nick Padovani, and John Matos). Or perhaps it’s the conceptual canvas being drawn on the album’s lyrical level.
Whichever it is, Multiversal just feels massive and that feeling works extremely well with the album’s genre. There’s something about progressive death that responds to this type of execution in even more favorable terms than other genres, especially when it’s performed unapologetically. And there’s nothing apologetic about this album; just turn to the first track, already “massively” titled “Flight of the Quetzalcoatlus”, and turn specifically to the four minutes and sixteen seconds mark, where one of the best guitar parts of the track erupts after a period of quiet, moody piano. Listen to how “freely” the guitar is allowed to roam across its ideas and sounds before it returns to rejoin the fold of the track’s main tones, embodied here by the vocals and the synths.
The album is full of these albums, where an instrument or an idea, a series of notes or a drum lick, are allowed to explode into their own potential. Critically, The Beast of Nod appear to have spent a lot of time in between this release and their previous one thinking about how to connect these ideas together into a grander piece of work. Multiversal has this mercurial quality to it, where the explosive, individual passages feel even more grandiose than before and yet, somehow, also more communicative and cohesive with each other.
It’s a difficult balancing act to perform and one which has doomed many a progressive band into becoming a bloated mess. But with Multiversal, The Beast of Nod show they are masters of pulling this off, stitching their ambitious, individual ideas, into one gargantuan, flamboyant whole.
Bríi – Sem Propósito (progressive black metal, trance, ambient)
Caio Lemos is rapidly becoming the name to watch in forward-thinking black metal in a way that hasn’t really seemed to happen since Misþyrming and the rest of the Icelandic scene captivated the metal community five or six years ago now. After exploding out of nowhere in 2019 and early 2020 with a series of impeccable releases under the Kaatayra name – the most recent of which, Toda história pela frente, was an instant staple of my rotation last year – Lemos has thrown a couple curveballs under the Bríi moniker that have lived up to the same astronomical threshold.
It’s hard to explain Bríi without invoking comparisons to Kaatayra, so bear with me. First, both projects have the most important aspect of Lemos’ signature compositional style in common: a lead guitar that has a clear shared lineage with the bright and melodic style of Dimensional Bleedthrough– and Years Past Matter-era Krallice and the wandering, noodly melodies Spectral Lore employs in III and Wanderers, which forms the line pulling the audience through sprawling tracks that regularly blow past the 10- and even 20-minute marks. Helping keep songs dynamic through such length are long passages with nothing remotely metallic to be found, and it’s here where Bríi’s path diverges. Instead of invoking the música popular brasileira critical to Kaatayra’s sound, in Bríi Lemos employs a suite of dark, pulsing synthesizers with a decidedly spacier sound.
Comparisons to Mesarthim are obvious in this regard, but as with the MPB elements of Kaatayra, the song lengths here extending so much further out means Sem Propósito can really give these elements the breathing room they deserve. (For reference, it’s about eight minutes into “B” before a guitar appears.) The result is a heady, potent sound that manages to perfectly balance intensity and meditation, propulsion and relaxation, atmosphere and attentiveness. Whenever I sit down with a new record of Lemos’, it’s a brilliant rush that I haven’t felt since the first times I listened to Two Hunters or Dimensional Bleedthrough or even Colored Sands.
I may feel stupid in a year or two for saying this now in such gilded and laudatory tones, but Caio Lemos feels like a new torchbearer for atmospheric black metal in a way that I’m not sure the genre has seen in a long time. His approach is so unhurried, focused on making sure everything has room to stretch out and unfold fully that I can imagine the languor being a bit too much for some, but the end result is uniformly captivating and the brilliant melodic guitarwork offers such a clear focal point throughout most of it that it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of a full hour-plus listening to any of his albums, Sem Propósito absolutely included. If you have the time and energy to give 56 minutes to this album, I can’t recommend doing so enough. Sem Propósito is brilliant, indulgent, and gorgeous in all the best ways atmospheric black metal can be.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (modern classical, progressive electronic)
Some collaborations make almost too much sense on paper: St. Vincent’s obvious Talking Heads fandom manifested in her making Love This Giant (2012) with David Byrne. And then there are artists whose connection arrives from way out in left field. Initially, this is how I felt about Promises, a project involving a contemporary electronic producer, an eminent spiritual jazz pioneer, and one of the most well-known orchestras in the world. How could that possibly have come together?
Digging beneath the surface, it’s actually more logical than it might first appear. When Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) appeared on Amoeba’s What’s In My Bag series, his first pick was the Pharoah Sanders deep cut Love in Us All (1973). While his output as Floating Points has never reached FlyLo levels of jazz fusion, Shepherd has always had an obvious ear for the genre. Speaking of deep cuts, I’d bet most jazz fans aren’t aware of the Ornette Coleman record Skies of America (1972), composed by Coleman and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. I doubt any of the original members of that LSO ensemble performed on Promises, but it at least establishes some precedent that they might collaborate with musicians outside the modern classical realm.
Yet, what’s most striking for me is how the merging of these three voices on one record is not only seamless, but produces some of the best work I’ve heard from any of them (or at least Sanders and Shepherd). Across nine movements, the “trio” perform one of the most stunning pieces of modern classical I’ve heard…ever, in all honesty. The piece revolves around a repeating, minimalist motif, which anchors the track as Sanders, Shepherd, and the LSO take turns sharing the spotlight.
This might sound like a cop-out, but I truly believe that no words I could write in this space would do Promises justice. After spinning it multiple times on release day, I dedicated time the following Saturday to turn it up on my speakers and surround myself with sound as each movement unfolded. I could rattle off my usual qualifications here: this is for you if you enjoy spiritual jazz, modern classical, progressive electronic, etc. But in reality, if you have a pulse and enjoy music, you owe it to yourself to experience what Promises has to offer. I genuinely believe this is a landmark release we’ll be discussing for years to come.
Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm (atmospheric black metal)
It’s impossible to deny the talent of Jacob Buczarski. Since 2011, his project Mare Cognitum has been unleashing cosmic one-man black metal fury. But it wasn’t until 2020 that the project seemed to catapult itself from comparatively competent and thematically interesting black metal oddity into something dramatically more engrossing. Buczarski’s collaborative record with Spectral Lore was a revelation, landing on many critical top 10 lists and cementing Mare Cognitum as a force to be attended to and reckoned with. Hopes were high for the project’s fifth solo release, and I’m happy to report that Solar Paroxysm does not disappoint in the slightest. It’s not only one of the best black metal albums to be released in 2020, but is the project’s finest and most consistently mesmerizing record to date.
From the first moments of “Anaresian”, it’s evident that Buczarski is in full and masterful control of the proceedings. While he has always been an immensely talented musician, the songwriting on this record displays both a maturation and a creative explosion that wasn’t always evident in all of his previous recordings, focusing on big riffs, stirring emotional melodic pathways, and catchy passages that you’ll find yourself humming subconsciously. Buczarski has settled comfortably into a particular sonic identity, resulting in a record that, while consisting of a grand total of zero tracks that clock in under 10 minutes, feels purposeful and superbly paced while never falling short of epic. “Frozen Star Divinization” highlights Buczarski’s growth as a songwriter even further, centering on a winding riff that on its own could seem relatively stale. But as is the case throughout Solar Paroxysm, the melodic build-up, timely variation, and stellar musicianship contained within take the simple and accessible and transform them into something magnificent. The entire record is littered with such moments that transmogrify what feels somewhat rote at first into something far greater than the sum of its initial parts. Tack on some incredibly clear and robust production and each of these moments becomes all the more crystalline and powerful. It’s the most complete package Mare Cognitum has delivered yet.
It’s always a treat to watch a project make good on its sky high potential, and with Solar Paroxysm it genuinely feels like Mare Cognitum has launched itself into the stratosphere. It’s a superb record through and through that I have not been able to stop listening to. Look for this record to land on more than a few year-end lists. I fully expect it to hold a prominent place on mine. Exceptional work.
Pupil Slicer – Mirrors (mathcore / deathgrind)
London-based mathgrind act Pupil Slicer seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere with one of the strongest debut albums we’re likely to hear this year. Mirrors is a powerhouse of a record that pulls from the likes of Converge, Pig Destroyer and The Dillinger Escape Plan, with dream-team personnel for the type of sound that the band were going for at this level: produced by Frontierer’s Pedram Valiani, mastering by Brad Boatright, and drum engineering from Monuments drummer Mike Malyan, just to touch on a few recognizable names.
So yeah, Mirrors sounds good, but the real star of the show is Kate Davies’ ability to craft monstrous riffs and deliver an often unhinged vocal performance, matched and backed by her incredibly talented rhythm section in drummer Josh Andrews and bassist/backing vocalist Luke Fabian. Exhilarating as they can be, panic chords and stuttering riffs have been done to death over the years, and Pupil Slicer puts all the passion and angst behind the searing blasts of noise.
Dillinger’s Greg Puciato said it himself: “Be selfish, not pretentious. If you’re screaming, I wanna feel immediacy & emotion about YOU. [I would] rather hear a kid scream ‘fuck you, parents & teachers’ over sloppy grind than some 30yr old scream pseudo philosophy over guitar center wank.” Pupil Slicer align themselves closer to the former in terms of that visceral and cathartic spirit you tend to want out of this corner of extreme music. According to Davies, Mirrors tackles themes related to “transition, dysphoria, discrimination, depression, and anxiety,” which makes for a raw and compelling record beyond the riffs.
I’d be shocked if Mirrors doesn’t wind up on few year-end Best Of lists, but at any rate, Pupil Slicer is a band you NEED to be following, because with a debut this strong, it’ll be fun to see where they go next.
Abominable Putridity – Parasitic Metamorphosis Manifestation (brutal tech death)
Russia’s Abominable Putridity have struck a balance between the chromatic slamming riffs of brutal death metal and the cybernetic precision of tech death for their thick and groovy new full-length. It may just be their best yet.
Christian Cosentino – Lawn (progressive black metal)
I reviewed this album for this Missive and yet, I’m including it here again because I need as many people as possible to listen to it. It is one of the most individually unique, ambitious, and moving black metal albums I’ve heard, all the while shirking your expectations from the genre and what it can do. Just…just listen to this, OK?
Chevelle – NIRATIAS (post-grunge, hard rock)
You can probably count on one hand the number of bands in the world of 2000’s radio hard rock have maintained consistent quality and continued relevancy, and Chevelle are one of them. Remarkably, their new sci-fi concept album NIRATIAS is their best record in over a decade, and it broke a three-week curse where new releases simply could not chart on the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 albums list last month. Chevelle are just built different.
Dvne – Etemen Ænka (prog/post-metal)
I was really hoping this record would be good. It wasn’t. Instead, it was great. For a band as young as Dvne to be releasing records this ambitious and expertly constructed is by itself somewhat miraculous, but the fact that they’re a joy to listen to front-to-back is even more wonderful. Etemen Ænka is everything I wanted it to be and then some. Give it a listen if you’re a fan of progressive metal of any kind.
Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon (synth-rock, prog metal)
After a decade-long hiatus, Genghis Tron are back with a new lineup and a new(ish) sound. Long gone are the days of cybergrind; instead, expect off-time drum and synth grooves and psychedelic vibes.
Malist – Karst Relict (atmospheric black metal)
I wrote a lot about this record in my review, but in case you missed it here’s the tl;dr: It’s good. It’s really good. OvFrost has unleashed perhaps his best record yet under the Malist moniker, and if you enjoy atmospheric and thematically interesting black metal I would strongly urge you to give it your undivided attention. It’s fantastic.
Old Nick – A New Generation of Vampiric Conspiracies (lo-fi black metal)
Alongside the aforementioned Kaatayra/Bríi and Lamp of Murmuur, Old Nick exploded out of nowhere in 2020, with a productivity potentially bolstered by a pandemic where there isn’t really much to do other than make music. They’ve been honing in on a potent vein of raw Quorthonian black metal that majorly rips in its own right, but with an exploratory enthusiasm and overt sense of humor that makes their music instantly noteworthy among their dour peers. New Generation is their most refined release to date, and it’s a phenomenal springboard into the bizarre and cartoonish world that makes Old Nick unique.
Sanguisugabogg – Tortured Whole (death metal)
Columbus, Ohio’s Sanguisugabogg are here for a good time, dipping into the gore-obsessed era of 90’s death metal, imbued with contemporary brutal death metal influences. This is ignorant-ass caveman shit with snares that go PING and lyrics about cutting your own dick off. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ll love Tortured Whole.
Xiu Xiu – OH NO (avant-pop, post-industrial)
I already wrote up OH NO as my top pick for Release Day Roundup late last month, so I’ll let that blurb largely speak for itself. I just want to add that the band 100% delivered on everything I was hoping for from a duets album: trying new things and working to the strengths of their guests while still making a Xiu Xiu record through and through.
The Antlers – Green to Gold (dream pop, slowcore)
As Everything Unfolds – Within Each Lies The Other (alt-metal, melodic metalcore)
Autarkh – Form in Motion (dissonant black metal, progressive metal)
Aversed – Impermanent (progressive death metal)
Conqueror’s Mourn – No More For the Battletrance (dungeon synth)
Cryptosis – Bionic Swarm (thrash)
The Drowned God – Pale Home (post-hardcore, post-metal)
Dust Moth – Rising // Sailing (post-hardcore, shoegaze)
Enforced – Kill Grid (crossover thrash)
Kanga – You and I Will Never Die (synthwave)
Morke – We Are The River (black metal)
Necropanther – In Depths We Sleep (blackened thrash, melodic black metal)
Nubiyan Twist – Freedom Fables (jazz fusion, Afrobeat)
Nursing – Self Care (blackened mathcore)
Putrescine – The Fading Flame (death metal)
Shiva the Destructor – Find the Others (psychedelic prog rock)
STORTREGN – Impermanence (blackened melodic tech death)
Swamp Hawk – Monster in Color (doom metal)
White Void – Anti (heavy metal, prog rock)
Yawning Sons – Sky Island (desert rock, post-rock)