When you read this month’s Editors’ Picks, you might notice that a lot of the entries are long. I mean, they’re usually long but this time they’re quite long. It brings to my mind a very interesting point regarding writing about music about how shitty the “economy” of it is. I don’t mean budgets or income (though those are also shitty) but rather the ratio between how many words you need to communicate the same things that music does effortlessly. Even when you spill all those words, you don’t really come close right? There’s no writer, no matter how good, that can make you hear the music with their words, not even close. Of course that’s not really the point; the point is to provide you with context when you listen, a broader foundation for your first listen.
But it’s still interesting; we write and write and write and then music comes in and achieves so much more than that with a few notes. It’s true for all art, if you think about it: poems often say a lot more than paragraphs can and “even” prose is more than the sum of the words counted. Not to mention things like painting or sculpting, which can channel the sublime and the dejected strongly enough to render you speechless. To go even further, perhaps that is the definition of art? That which gets across something more than the mechanical sum of its parts, that which transcends the barrier between people much better than language ever could?
At the end of the day, what I’m saying is: read the below post but also don’t forget to listen to the music. This is what this is all about (and you can understand “this” as broadly as you’d like here), the actual, irreplaceable, transcendental, supra-lingual listening to music. God, it’s the best thing ever, isn’t it?
black midi – Cavalcade (avant-prog, experimental rock)
Being a band that releases experimental music has to be a strange existence, particularly when it comes to expectations. Once established as a group of musical weirdos, the template has been set, and fans of whatever specific brand of crazy you conjured in your last release will be clamoring for more. Because, in my estimation, creative exploration by itself is typically not what people enjoy in principal, but the particular collection of sounds that were put together on that release they liked. This isn’t a bad thing at all, just reality from my estimation. Which makes the trajectory of bands like black midi so unique and perpetually, unavoidably controversial. As a band obviously sold into the idea of dynamic sonic exploration as a cornerstone of their existence, I would be very surprised if any two of their releases sounded alike. Given the wide and deeply divided opinions on the quality of the band’s sophomore full-length release Cavalcade, I feel that the above perspective is justified.
Which is a shame, really. Because this record is great, albeit significantly different (and in some instances considerably more tame) than their shock-to-the-system debut Schlagenheim. Where their debut felt like walking a knife’s edge throughout, Cavalcade proves itself a more lush, warm affair. “Marlene Dietrich” is such a whiplash inducing shot of calm and enjoyability after the traditionally bizarre and avant-garde opener “John L” that it’s difficult to come to grips with the fact that these tracks exist on the same record. But where the music itself served as the unpredictable juggernaut behind black midi’s rise to infamy on their debut, the stylistic divergences in Cavalcade serve a similar function, keeping the listener on their toes throughout as they try to determine what oddball style shifts will come next. It’s, perhaps, a different type of unpredictability, but effective nonetheless.
That effectiveness manifests itself far outside the style conversation, but primarily in execution and songwriting prowess, as each of these tracks is to a fault a sheer delight to listen to. “Chondromalacia Patella” is simply sensational, blending post-punk, Wild Beasts-esque frivolity, and jazz-infused progressive rock into a seamless whole that is somehow uniformly pleasant to listen to. Even the squeaks and squawks of the horns feel somehow warm and familial, rather than abrasive and off-putting. Strangely, Cavalcade feels like the kind of record that is as complex as the most oddball records in its chosen headspace while retaining a level of accessibility that even a noob could cut their teeth on. It’s a strange mixture that works brilliantly throughout without ever diminishing the obvious technical skill on display. This is black midi, dumbed down. This is black midi, matured.
I really don’t have enough good things to say about this masterclass of genre-blending, head-spinning, jaw-dropping musical goodness. It’s music to dance and lose your mind to. It’s music that can appease the most die hard of experimentation junkies while providing accessible motifs for the uninitiated. It’s a true feat of songwriting and performance that deserves to be listed among the year’s finest achievements so far. It’s batshit and amazing from minute one.
Darko – Darko (alt-metal, nu-deathcore)
Nu-metal’s touch on metalcore and deathcore has been creeping ever more present in recent years. Looking back over the last decade, it’s no surprise; acts like Despised Icon, Suicide Silence, Atilla, Emmure, and Whitechapel have openly displayed the genre’s various influences in some form or fashion, and in case that wasn’t obvious enough, Jonathan Davis appeared on Suicide Silence’s “Witness the Addiction” and Chino Moreno showed up on Whitechapel’s “Reprogrammed to Hate”. The genre’s entire vibe and love of extended range, low-end groove is rooted deeply in nu-metal. The blending of these genres is getting particularly pronounced lately, especially Loathe’s I Let It In And It Took Everything moving the needle a little further in the direction of nu-metal, albeit by overtly taking cues from late-era Deftones. The latest band to enter this nu-core sonic space is Darko (or Darko US, to differentiate between the previously established UK act), which features members of Emmure and Chelsea Grin, and has the potential to become to Korn what Loathe is to Deftones.
Korn’s touch on Darko isn’t as conspicuous as that of their aforementioned contemporaries, but are certainly felt and appreciated. Darko are hammering on percussive 9-string guitar riffs with layered guitar and synth atmospherics that are filtered through flangers and choruses in a way that vaguely references middle-era Korn (from Issues through Take A Look In The Mirror). In fact, the track “Daniel” (which also features an incredible guest appearance from Spiritbox’s Courtney LaPlante) takes a more direct nod, with a chorus that sees the vocals taking a very Jonathan Davis-like affectation.
Broadening the scope, “The Last Of Us” carries a cybernetic riff that feels natural now in the -core genres in the wake of Mick Gordon’s work on DOOM, and along with “Pale Tongue,” features pig squeals and blastbeats. As a baseline, the type of metalcore on display is certainly comparable to the likes of Loathe and Born of Osiris. Things don’t get super technical here, but the personnel involved in this project somehow come together to make Darko greater than the sum of its parts.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the single “Donna” (Darko’s version of “Two Way Mirror”, respectfully) utilizes different shades of clean singing from a dreamy pop vocal performance to pitched screams for its chorus, and offers a brief reprise to all the low end sandwiching the track. The penultimate track “If This Is Forever” is a somber instrumental that uses pianos and ambient pads to deliver on the ambient and lofi hip-hop influences hinted at throughout the album. If deathcore bands pulling these types of cues from cloud rap is the true lineage of nu-metal, I’m all for it.
Darko is a fun and groovy debut that treads the lines between alternative metal, metalcore, and deathcore with great deft, and offers a solid foundation for the band to grow and develop. Honestly, more of nu-metal’s grooving swagger and elaborations on the updated hip-hop references can only help Darko become that much more interesting moving forward. For now though, Darko is perfect for those moments when you want a breakdown that grooves beyond belief while the china stays consistently slapped.
The Flight of Sleipnir – Eventide (blackened doom, stoner-doom)
Oh man, I’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Ever since Skadi released in 2017, I’ve been absolutely obsessed with Denver’s The Flight of Sleipnir. Their type of warm, earthy doom, with just the right amount of black metal influences, is one of my favorite sounds and the band are experts at pulling it off. I listened to Skadi countless times since then and kept hoping for more music from the band, a hope that became more dire and desperate as more time passed from Skadi’s release. But, lo and behold, sometimes good things do happen and the band have released Eventide. Naturally, I was nervous: could this album actually stand up to my long and considerable expectations?
Gladly, the answer is “yes”. In fact, the answer is “hell yes” because the album not only meets my expectations, it exceeds them. First, there’s everything I loved from Skadi, the core The Flight of Sleipnir sound making a triumphant return on Eventide. The massive, earthen drums are bad, thumping away at the foundational rhythms that make the band go. The guitars are not only as present and moving as I remember but even more so, with heartbreaking, gentle passages beautifully interspersed among the chaos (check out the opening track, “Voland”, for my favorite such interlude). But, secondly and perhaps most importantly, The Flight of Sleipnir has also been pushing forward, making some incredible adjustments and additions to their sound.
First, the vocals are way more blackened. Their production and execution makes them more abrasive, more dire and wounded, lending an urgency to the music that is very welcome. They feel like they’re emerging from moments of distress, from a deep wound within the band’s core. Everything around them sounds more immediate, more intimate, and more necessary than it has in the past. Secondly, there are more special moments of guitar virtuosity interlaced with the doom metal trappings, like the amazing, heavy metal-esque guitar leads/solos that are sprinkled throughout the aforementioned “Voland”, the tremolo picking near the end of that same track or the lap/steel guitar intro of “Bathte the Stone In Blood”. At these moments, and elsewhere on the album, the variety and scope of the guitar has been upgraded and made more central, adding a lot of range to the band’s palette.
All in all, Eventide is both a successful iteration of what The Flight of Sleipnir are known for and a step forward towards what The Flight of Sleipnir can be. It’s an impressive and magnificent album, pulling from new soundscapes and bringing forth new musical ideas for the band while not for a second forgetting to put weight and time into the core of the band’s sound. It’s a master class in experimentation and forward momentum, showing other bands how to successfully move forward without leaving behind the ethos that brought you to this moment.
Fucked Up – Year of the Horse (progressive hardcore, art rock)
Canadian hardcore legends Fucked Up are no strangers to the rock opera. Two of their studio albums over the past decade, 2011’s David Comes to Life and 2018’s Dose Your Dreams, are sprawling concept albums that stretch far beyond the band’s hardcore origins into classic rock, prog, pop, and more. But never before has the band – or any band I can think of in recent memory – undertaken a project quite like Year of the Horse, which is the ninth installment of their long-running “Zodiac” series and is either the band’s sixth proper studio album or a weird addition to their side EPs depending on how you want to view it. Unlike those other two albums though, Horse basically is an opera that just happens to play out with predominantly rock instrumentation and heavier sounds.
The “Zodiac” series has long been the place where the band have tried out some of their most compositionally or sonically-ambitious work. Those EPs feature many of Fucked Up’s longest songs, and since 2015’s Year of the Hare, those songs have ballooned into 20+ minute epics. Horse marks the first time the band have used this conceptual template for long-form musical storytelling though. Unlike David and Dose, which were long albums comprised of very compartmentalized and more conventional “songs,” the four “Acts” of Horse that span 94 minutes are completely through-composed, guided entirely by their narrative “libretto” featuring a cast of characters in “scenes” that seamlessly stitch together. There are no conventional verse/chorus structures present, only lyrical and musical themes that pop up frequently to signify certain characters and events.
If this sounds overwhelming to the point of unlistenable, Horse somehow manages to be neither. Blending together elements of westerns and high fantasy, the music of the project deftly navigates hard-nosed prog-punk – with frontman Damian Abraham’s trademark snarl leading the charge among walls of riffs – Ennio Morricone-style westerns (complete with whistling, trumpets, and other sound effects), dreamy neo-folk and celestial overtures (aided in no small part by a rotating cast of superb guest vocalists, including Maegan Brooks Mills, Tuka Mohammed, Eidolon, Matt Berninger, and Julien Baker), and jazzy, psychedelic jams. Even without getting all the ins and outs of the story being told – in short, it’s about a magical/celestial horse trapped on Earth who tries to get home while pursued by a crooked band of violent western sheriffs/deputies and a wizard whose spell compels them towards violent chaos – the way that the story plays out musically makes it a magnificent and enthralling trip from start to finish. It features some of Fucked Up’s sharpest “heavy” writing in years, some of Abraham’s most vicious and versatile vocal work in many a moon, and stretches the creative impulses of guitarist and songwriter Mike Haliechuk into wide cinemascope.
It’s as fun as it is unbelievably nerdy and heady, a place the venerable group seems to find comfort in more and more these days. In many ways, Year of the Horse feels like the ultimate culmination of years of experimentation and internal friction on what the individuals of Fucked Up wanted Fucked Up to be. Everything locks into place and works in harmony here, and the results are a wonder to behold.
Epiphanic Truth – Dark Triad: Bitter Psalms to a Sordid Species (atmospheric black metal, avant-garde metal )
The members of Epiphanic Truth may be anonymous, but a quick look at their debut album’s title, the titles of its three songs, and their running time (10, 11, and 22 minutes, respectively) reveals all you need to know to get excited. We’re in for the extreme; with elements of black metal, death metal, and doom metal thrown into a vantablack melting pot. We’re also in for the pretentious; the progressive, the experimental and the avant garde. It’s quite the ride, so much so that this band out of left field has seriously rocketed into Album of the Year contention.
What’s so striking about this release is that, despite its nuance and complexity, it doesn’t sacrifice its immediacy. They immediately burst out from the gates with a monstrous sludgy riff that would’ve sounded at home on Leviathan or Blood Mountain, blast beats and double kick blasts not far behind as they grab your attention with an iron grip. This passage gives way to the tritone-filled, mid-paced crawl that forms the record’s spine à la The Satanist or Schammasch’s Triangle. The latter influence really comes to the fore in the record’s numerous drawn-out, trance-like atmospheric and ambient interludes with booming tribal toms and layered textures. Further, these passages see the band draw on styles as varied as noir jazz, classical guitar, and psychedelic to add new dimensions to their sound. But make no mistake, for all the experimentation and forays into new sonic territory, The Riff is far from neglected as time and again we return to the band’s dark, evil, and insidious backbone of death/black/doom.
The record’s sound and production is crisp, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the soundscape and hear every detail with clarity. It also means that if you’re on the hunt for the raw and abrasive you will need to look elsewhere, but nevertheless I’m sure But if you want immerse yourself in this 45min epic and hear every detail with clarity
Iceage – Seek Shelter (art punk, post-punk)
If we had a collective pet peeves list for the Blog, one of the top items would be the conflation of “extremity” with “immaturity.” This usually works something like this in the metal scene: a band debuts with an acclaimed record, they then follow it up with a markedly less heavy album (clean vocals, more melodic songwriting, etc.), and somehow that shift is defined as the band “maturing” by the metal media. See: The Contortionist post-Exoplanet. This is obviously a false narrative, considering the vast array of heavy and not-heavy bands that are and aren’t “mature,” which itself is an odd concept to clearly define. My sense is that “maturity” means better songwriting, and unsurprisingly, I don’t think becoming less extreme automatically means the quality of your compositions improves or declines.
Iceage obviously aren’t a metal band, nor have they ever been “heavy” in the conventional sense. New Brigade (2011) and You’re Nothing (2013) offered some of the most energetic, intense post-punk of the 2010s, basically the modern version of early Joy Division and Wire pulled through the meat grinder of the ’80s No Wave scene. Early photos of the band even showed members wearing Mayhem merch, which isn’t an obvious influence on paper but can be heard in the overall intensity and rawness of their early records. I became an instant fan of this unique take on the genre and was eager to hear how the band would progress their sound.
That trajectory ended up taking a sharp turn away from what initially loved about the band, though not in a way detrimental to the quality of their music. To the contrary, Plowing Into the Field of Love (2014) and Beyondless (2018) saw the band boldly and effectively incorporate an eclectic blend of styles into their core post-punk foundation, namely art rock, punk blues, and goth rock. Essentially, if PJ Harvey and Nick Cave made their own interpretation of Iceage’s early sound, it would probably sound something like the band’s last two albums. I’ll admit, it took a bit of a mental adjustment to appreciate how the band evolved, but Beyondless won me over completely and prompted me to revisit Field of Love.
So where have Iceage found themselves now on Seek Shelter? They’ve definitely settled into a groove over the course of these last three albums, certainly in comparison to the jump from their first two releases. Where Seek Shelter differs from its predecessors is the album’s more rootsy, “rock” feel. I’d even go so far as to place the warm, dusty vibe of tracks like “Shelter Song” under the Americana umbrella. It may seem weird for a Danish band to pull from the traditional American Songbook, but if The Tallest Man On Earth can channel Bob Dylan all the way from Sweden, then I think Iceage can pay tribute to the Heartland.
More importantly, Seek Shelter proves that Iceage can excel no matter what rock subgenres they choose to tackle. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt provides his distinct vocal delivery, Dan Kjær Nielsen’s drumming remains punchy and prominent, and the rest of the band maintain a punk spirit through every riff and groove they write. On Seek Shelter, that particular combo manifests in a sort of liberated traditionalism; a nod toward the past delivered in a way only Iceage could. Think of the diverse rock palette of The Clash mixed with the wild experimentation of The Velvet Underground. In other words, Iceage just keep improving while staying true to themselves in the process, a delicate balance that can be difficult to adjust to as a fan and even harder to strike as a musician. Thankfully, it just seems effortless for Iceage.
Yautja – The Lurch (math metal, sludge metal)
Yautja are catnip to a certain type of extreme music fan. The Nashville trio’s ability to walk a shockingly well-balanced tightrope between the tech-forward metalcore of the late ’90s/early 2000s – think Burnt by the Sun and early Cave In – and bone-crunching sludge metal, with flecks of death metal, grindcore, and powerviolence for good measure, makes them a group as fascinating as they are abrasive. Moreover, their releases are few and far between, with the gap between The Lurch and their last record sitting at more than half a decade, and it’s obvious where the time goes listening to how refined each track they release is. To those of us who prize a curatorial ear, an anything-goes approach to generating caustic noise, and a single-minded worship of The Riff, Yautja are one of the most important bands going today.
The Lurch continues the band’s record of excellence. Each track here has the requisite clangor and fury, bristling with riffs that would be the highlight of lesser bands’ careers, and the intense skill that already defined the group has only been refined in the six years since Songs of Lament. Poole, Vaziri and Coburn are locked in on a level groups with five times the number of years behind them should be jealous of, bringing their arsenal alive with an elasticity that betrays the incredible technical skill of the otherwise unassuming trio.
This nimble, tempestuous approach to songcraft is what really defines The Lurch. Songs like “The Spectacle” and “Clock Cleaner” fluctuate viciously between tempos, all but explicitly daring people to try and headbang along. But, crucially, the group also understand when it’s time to settle into one mode for a while – as much as they are characterized by their dexterity, Yautja also possess a preternatural ability to know exactly when you want to hear more of a riff, and good lord, do they deliver. Good metal songwriting is as much about obeying momentum as overturning it, and Yautja are exceptionally talented at choosing when and how to ride the waves they craft.
With the calculated chaos of The Lurch, Yautja have crafted their most refined and mature statement of intent to date. Surgical precision meets reckless charge, technique meets aggression, intelligence meets passion. If you’ve been wondering who the standard-bearers of math metal are, wonder no longer. Yautja are here to stay.
Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human (heavy metal, traditional metal)
Cirith Ungol baby! Need I say more? Furious, galloping riffs, soaring vocals, mighty solos, and all the epic doom/power metal vibes your little heart might desire! Storm the castle music. Slay the oppressor music. Sword wielding music.
Seeyouspacecowboy & If I Die First – A Sure Disaster (post-hardcore)
A Sure Disaster is a collaborative split EP between sasscore act Seeyouspacecowboy and post-hardcore act If I Die First, which includes two new songs from each band with a collaborative track as its centerpiece. This one goes out to those who found the -core genres way back in like 2005 when folks had swoopy haircuts and studded white belts. This is that entire MySpace aesthetic distilled into a single EP. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you’ll absolutely adore this. If not, you’ll hate it with a passion.
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future (afro-jazz, hip-hop)
Through his myriad projects over the past decade, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has sought to translate the essence of pan-African music, culture, and identity through the lens of current struggles and with an eye towards a brighter future for all. His most well-known group, Sons of Kemet, continues that mission in all the best ways on their fourth LP. As vivacious and energetic as it is bristling and confrontational, Black to the Future is yet another demonstration of the new London jazz scene’s muscle and further evidence that jazz is not only alive and well, but as integral as ever.
VOLA – Witness (progressive rock/metal)
There’s absolutely no reason why “These Black Claws” (featuring rapper SHAHMEN) should work. But it does, and how. Melding gargantuan, massively heavy riffs with clean and whispered vocals over a trap-ish beat only to slither into a rap verse that has ended up being one of my favorite of the year shouldn’t be this effective. But it is. Thus is VOLA. The whole record is a treat.
Vokonis – Odyssey (progressive sludge, stoner rock)
Damn, this thing is fun to listen to. If riffs are what you came for, Vokonis will leave you satisfied and smiling. But rather than just providing the riffy goods (which they do in spades), Odyssey offers listeners a rich tapestry of more progressive sounds that are fitting for both rocking out and moments of stare-at-the-ceiling contemplation. It’s a great record from a band that continues to impress.
Voronoi – The Last Three Seconds (heavy fusion, prog)
Listen, if I tell you that Art As Catharsis is releasing a heavy prog/jazz fusion album, I really shouldn’t need to sell you on it, right? The label simply doesn’t miss when it comes to these things, and the debut LP from UK trio Voronoi simply continues their impeccable track record. Eccentric enough to keep you on your toes and more than technically proficient enough to satisfy your noodly cravings, The Last Three Seconds is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of modern prog fusion groups in the UK and Australia who are simply blowing the rest of the world away.
Wreche – All My Dreams Came True (experimental black metal, solo piano)
I will take every last chance I get to tell you to listen to this album; its some of the rawest, most emotional, and innovative black metal you’ll hear this year. If you like your black metal to hurt you, this album is for you.
Alastor – Onwards and Downwards (stoner-doom)
An Autumn for Crippled Children – As The Morning Dawns We Close Our Eyes (blackgaze, post-black metal)
Baldocaster – Visions (synthwave, retrowave)
Bleeth – Harbinger (stoner-doom, post-metal)
Book of Wyrms – Occult New Age (psychedelic doom)
Dawn Ray’d – Wild Fire (atmospheric black metal)
Dödsrit – Mortal Coil (atmospheric black metal, blackened crust)
Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant (avant-garde black metal)
Kataan – Kataan (post-black metal)
Khirki – Κτηνωδία (stoner rock, hard rock)
Mega Drive – Neuroframe (darksynth, synthwave)
Noctule – Wretched Abyss (melodic black metal)
Sight Telma Club – The New Ancients (synthwave, post-rock)
65daysofstatic – Tomorrowd (experimental electronic, post-rock)
Violet Cold – Empire of Love (blackgaze, post-black metal)
White Moth Black Butterfly – The Cost of Dreaming (synthpop, prog rock)