October! The gateway into winter. Is it actually? I have no idea, I live in the desert, and we have no concept of winter here, not really. But the narrative suits me and so I’ll stick with it. This month’s Editors’ Picks doesn’t feature any frost-bitten black metal, so I can’t really say that it suits the theme, but we are seeing the acceleration in releases that usually happens in September. This happens because enough time has passed from the previous window of releases, in the Spring, and before the end of year torpor starts to set in. This is the last call for many bands, the consumerism train is leaving the station, all onboard for Black Friday! So you see more albums, from big names as well as small, and this is only going to get more extreme (hint: October 29th is going to blow your mind).

And so, what do we find when we look upon our winter’s first crop? Well, we finally some excellent music, that’s what! From the epic Fierce Deity release, which spread through our staff like wildfire, through the oppressive supermassive weight of LLNN’s sludge, and all the way to Unto Others’ throwback excellence, we find fantastic music this month. There’s also Rivers of Nihil, an anticipated release which is proving very contentious in our circles (some, like myself, don’t really like it, others are going crazy for it) which is a good thing; disagreement breeds strength in cases like these. And so, as always, I entreat you to dive into this offering and make of it what you will. But, also as always, I am sure there is something down here for anyone, if you have the ears to hunt it down.

Your task awaits! Let’s get to it.

Eden Kupermintz

Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage (doom, power metal)

I’ll admit that the first time I heard Power Wisdom Courage, I wasn’t sold. I was expecting something a lot faster from an album that presented itself as power metal, faster and more cheesy. The doom metal elements were great but I didn’t really see where Fierce Deity was going with the sound. But then, more and more staff members started recommending them to myself and to each other so I decided (as I often do) to give them a second chance. And boy am I glad that I did as Power Wisdom Courage has fast become one of my favorite albums of the year. 

Power Wisdom Courage is power metal not in the instrumental sense but in the epic mode of its storytelling and through its vocals, tinged with the sense of, well, power that the genre is known for. That works incredibly well with the doom metal trappings that make up the album’s main compositional thrust. The main riffs are large, fuzzy, and slow, creating the sense of towering scale that the genre is known for. When you put these two things together, you get something closer to the proto-doom of Cirith Ungol, albeit with less of the heavy metal sheen that those greats still wield with great agility. Instead, things are more forceful and “modern”, introducing plenty of synths to add to the “weight” of the composition.

The last piece of the puzzle hides in the concept of the album. Drawing on video game lore for its inspiration (specifically the Zelda series on this one, if I’ve deciphered the lyrics correctly and perhaps some hints of Shadow of the Colossus), Fierce Deity are all about bolstering the themes of self-actualization, determination, duty, and perseverance that video games often revolve around. This is the perfect companion to something described as both power and doom metal, as both genres do best when they’re communicating themes of strife and achievement. That is certainly the case here and some of the lines on this album are fast becoming mainstays of my day to day life and my struggles.

Add in some killer guest spots from Nick Disalvo (Elder/Delving) and Joe Haley (Psycroptic) as well as some great synth and guitar solos (especially the synth solos, they rule), and there you have it. Put together, Power Wisdom Courage is as metal an album as an album can be, all grandiose style, massive riffs, and an unstoppable momentum running through it. It’s an album to be screamed to, an album to let out all your fears and ambitions to. Give it some time to grow on you, as the three parts of the album coalesce into something greater, into something truly moving.

Eden Kupermintz

Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix (experimental hip-hop)

By the Time I Get to Phoenix is a far, far cry from past Injury Reserve records. Although they’ve always had serious moments and expressed a profound experimental streak, previous releases have been colored by jubilance, beauty, passion, and wholehearted love. Live from the Dentist Office, Floss, and Injury Reserve, the group’s three full-lengths preceding this one, are fairly buoyant listens that seem happy to push boundaries and generally take pleasure in their own existence. 

By contrast, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is bleak. Musically speaking, the most apt comparisons to this record are the experimental dance sounds of Aphex Twin and Autechre mixed with Paul White at his most textural and sordid. Scores of chittering, insectile drums swarming underneath caustic samples taken from the likes of black country, new road and King Crimson and swirling, hypnotic vocal tracks weaving in and out of one another make this album an intensely claustrophobic and off-putting listen. Although not aggressive in the same way as an artist like Pyrrhon or Merzbow – that is to say, not as blown out and loud – By the Time I Get to Phoenix is no less abrasive or heavy on the audience’s attention. 

There’s ample reasons for this level of darkness: thematically, the record covers far more serious and systemic issues in depth than previous outings, and personally, founding member Stepa J. Groggs passed away on June 29th, 2020, some time after the group had already begun making and recording the album. Although the record’s themes do, on some level, precede this sadness, Grogg’s death is inextricable from the final product’s apocalyptic overtones and overwhelming mood of desperation. Ritchie with a T’s lyrics tie these themes together as well, particularly on “Top Picks For You,” an album highlight that mixes a personal eulogy for Groggs with a Mark Fisher-indebted soliloquy on the way that modern content delivery platforms immortalize us through our media consumption habits. 

By the Time I Get to Phoenix melds genuinely anxiety-inducing instrumentation with thematic content drawing stark lines connecting personal tragedy with the worst aspects of 21st century living. It’s a harrowing and eye-opening album, full of directionless rage and desperation, but the manner in which Injury Reserve communicate these emotions make it one of the truly must-listen albums of 2021. Do not, do not sleep on this record.

Simon Handmaker

LLNN – Unmaker (atmospheric sludge, post-metal)

Is post-metal “supposed” to be heavy? More specifically, is it supposed to be this heavy? I honestly don’t keep up with the genre as much as our postrockpost crew, but the bands I gravitated towards always honored the style’s “thinking man’s metal” ethos. Sure, the sludgy roots always added some heft to the equation, but mainly as a device for creating contrast with more melodic, atmospheric textures.

On Unmaker, LLNN completely flip the script, and the results are devastating. You still feel the presence of your father’s post-metal, primarily with dark, industrial rumblings that permeate the album’s anticipatory swells pre-climax. And there are tracks that fit comfortably in the post-metal mold, namely the bulk of “Interloper.” But the vast majority of the album feels like a post-metal band trying to make a sludgecore record…or maybe vice versa? The band’s core songwriting engine hits like Godflesh using Pound’s equipment to write Hexis riffs, with the industrial atmosphere of Altars of Plagues thrown in for good measure. It’s a mammoth of a record.

Honestly, that’s what threw me off at first. The reason these kinds of bone-crushing riff-downs (briffs? bricks?) is because they’re typically counterbalanced with some faster, dynamic songwriting. How could LLNN keep things interesting when the post-metal is such a notably slow genre? By proving that “slow” and “dynamic” aren’t mutually exclusive. Unmaker is an overwhelming bricolage from the broader post-metal playbook. Thundering riffs blend with memorable sludge passage from within a swirl of suffocating atmosphere, usually within the same song.

And best of all? There’s absolutely no filler. It feels like an unspoken mandate that post-metal albums have to aim for as close to an hour as possible, if not longer. At 40 minutes, Unmaker checks every box efficiently; no stone is left unturned, because they’ve all been pelted directly at your skull. And by the time it’s over, you’re ready to do it all again.

Scott Murphy

Rivers of Nihil – The Work (progressive death metal)

I feel like this one barely needs an introduction. The Work, the fourth studio album and follow-up to 2018’s acclaimed Where Owls Know My Name, is perhaps one of the most anticipated albums of the year by the metal community at large. Rivers of Nihil was last found near the top of everyone’s year-end lists riding the massive wave of praise and adoration for Owls, back during that distant memory of a time pre-pandemic. As always, with great expectations comes great responsibility, both from the artist and the listener. The hype for this album was not lost on the RoN boys, and it’s explicitly acknowledged in tracks like “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” and “MORE?”, where vocalist Jake Dieffenbach pokes at the struggle to create amidst the salivation of a hungry audience. Let’s back it up a bit though, because I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The Work is a really interesting record, both in how it operates and how it’s being received. The general consensus is that it’s not as good as Owls. That’s a fair assessment I’d agree with. However, that also feels like a gross oversimplification. Just about any band would be hard-pressed to immediately top an album as universally acclaimed as that was, and while we all remained hopeful they could do it, I think it’s imperative we lower the bar and curb our expectations just a bit. Because in that context, The Work is still a damn fine entry into the new progressive death metal canon – it’s just way too long.

There are still plenty of classic Rivers moments that make you sit back and go, “God, this is SO GOOD.” The central motif introduced in “The Tower” is a catchy riff on James Labrie’s vocal pattern in the penultimate section of Dream Theater’s “The Spirit Carries On”, creating an ominous, sing-songy lilt that feels familiar enough to suck you in. “Dreaming Black Clockwork” drips with venom, and the sultry, hazy sax sections (you know, the dreaming) remind you why Rivers of Nihil is to be commended and cherished for their compositions. We even get a 90s rock homage to smoking weed with “Wait”; then the wheels start to fall off a bit.

The following two tracks, “Focus” and “Clean”, were chosen as the singles to promote the album, and probably directly correlate to why people aren’t nearly as impressed with The Work. While they feature some moments of artistic clarity, they’re by and large… kinda boring? The very Godsmack central theme to “Focus” is great, but it never really progresses. “Clean” is an absolute deathcore-inspired banger that is twice as long as it should be. The way it starts to meander in the middle before deciding to repeat earlier sections feels very disjointed, like they realized they struck fire in the first half and had no idea how to wrap it up.

The back half of the record operates pretty similarly, with breakthrough moments of blissful death metal decadence scattered among tracks that feel more randomly structured than intentionally progressive. From “Clean” on, Rivers start to get a bit egregious with how much they let the tracks wander. I’m usually a fan of letting songs breathe like this, but when your album has a 64 minute runtime, it’s probably time to trim the fat. 

If you start to lose interest, just skip to the monumental last track that wraps up the running seasonal theme they’ve explored on all four albums, “Terrestria IV: Work”. This is Rivers of Nihil at their finest. A slow, sprawling, thorough epic that really sucks at the bone to savor the sound of the record. Among its 11-and-some-change minute runtime, Rivers deliver the most progressive and technical sections of the album and again remind you of their songwriting prowess, even if it had been tarnished by “Maybe One Day”. 

All in all, The Work is a legitimately good record that could have been great if it was 20 minutes shorter. The moments of genius and sections that lag are felt equally throughout, making it a bit unwieldy to process, if not still enjoyable. For a fun exercise, I highly recommend checking out Josh’s review for an alternative tracklist that flows a bit better. The Work may not be another Owls, but its best moments shine just as bright, and that keeps my hopes alive for future works from this talented bunch. 

Calder Dougherty

Unto Others – Strength (goth rock, heavy metal)

The artists formerly known as Idle Hands took my musical world by storm with their debut full-length, Mana. Multiple years on it’s still a regular listen in my rotation. It’s one of those albums that has accompanied me through late night existential crises as well as typical outdoor activities. Its versatility is one of its principal strengths and has helped it stay fresh and relevant as it’s aged like a fine red wine. Speaking of strengths… it takes a quality band with a lot of them to follow-up such a critically lauded work with an album that hits the notes that made its predecessor shine while building on that foundation. Strength does all of that and more. 

Those familiar with Mana can recall that record’s opening number being one of its strongest and most propulsive. Strength’s first track, “Heroin”, takes that motif and cranks it to 11. It’s the band’s most aggressive and wrathful track to date, showcasing a pissed off vocal performance and instrumentals that punish and bludgeon with a delightful amount of ferocity. It’s a stirring opening that sets the tone beautifully for the first half of the record. Tracks like “When Will Gods Work Be Done” and “No Children Laughing Now” maintain a level of spitting anger, and help the first half of the record stand out as the band’s most intense work to date. It’s a fantastic opening salvo that feels distinctly Unto Others with a hefty splash of Spellcaster thrown in. 

Those who fell in love with the more melancholic, contemplative side of Mana will find their bread and butter in the album’s latter half. While Strength focuses primarily on more angry, heavy tones, there are plenty of tracks here that soar with that classic goth rock energy. “Little Bird” and “Hell Is for Children” are two stand-outs here, bringing back the band’s gothic flair with just the right amount of heavy metal to keep the performative pyrotechnics alive. It’s here that the record will be particularly divisive for listeners, as the more propulsive aspects of the early stretches of the record are rounded out in tempo and tone. But those who enjoyed Mana will find even more fully realized manifestations in Strength of the sound that made the band’s name. If you’re able to accept Unto Others’ flitting between the old and new, Strength will floor you. 

I’ve given this record a fairly hefty amount of spins and each new listen deepens my appreciation for what Unto Others have been able to accomplish with Strength. It’s an angrier, nastier, even more emotive record than its predecessor, while respecting and further perfecting the sounds that set their foundation. It’s an excellent record that I can enthusiastically and strongly recommend.

Jonathan Adams

Further Listening

Grateful Dead – Fox Theatre, Saint Louis, 12-10-71 (jam band, psychedelic rock)

Three hours of Grateful Dead live material – a full night with one of their shortest-lived but most well-remembered lineups from their salad days. If you’re not a fan, this isn’t the one that’s going to change you, but those who already like the Dead’s sublime meanderings will find a lot to love here.

SH

Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (UK hip-hop, conscious hip-hop)

Little Simz continues to build herself up as one of the most fascinating voices in hip-hop. The new album experiments with the format of a concept album, stringing its tracks and messages along into one fast spinning whole, able to constantly take you by surprise. It’s a ride and a half!

EK

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind (indie folk)

It would be difficult to argue that Sufjan Stevens has released an unequivocally great record since Carrie and Lowell. His collaboration with Angelo de Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind, breaks that trend. Heralding back to the gentle, folk-inspired melodies that made the above record such a musical delight, A Beginner’s Mind takes the quirky film-based premise of the record and elevates it to something that feels rich, full, and worthwhile. Stevens and de Augustine work seamlessly together as songwriters and musicians, and I wouldn’t be opposed to more collaboration between them in the future. A great record.

JA

Lil Nas X – Montero (pop, hip-hop)

Despite being THE artist of 2019 with the country-rap banger “Old Town Road” and its various remixes, Lil Nas X faced the very real possibility of becoming a one-hit-wonder given the fast moving nature of pop culture and the very fact that his then-flamboyant cowboy persona and meme song were novelties. How often has an artist transcended such a novelty in the history of pop music? Against all odds, Lil Nas X managed to pivot, find his voice, and finally deliver his full-length debut album Montero two years later. Montero is packed with bangers and anthems, and his very specific style of glossy pop and hip-hop are endearing. Hopefully this quasi-self-titled artistic statement and continued growth cements Lil Nas X’s status as a mainstay in pop culture for years to come.

Jimmy Rowe

Spiritbox – Eternal Blue (progressive metalcore)

Massive, cathartic, beautiful, vicious, and haunting. This is as good as it gets. Eternal Blue lives up to the hype, setting the new standard for being accessibly heavy. Witness the future of alternative music and the rise of Courtney Laplante as its protagonist.

CD

TAUK – Chaos Companion (jazz fusion, psych rock)

I’ve already exalted this release when we premiered a track from it but I couldn’t not include one of my most listening to albums of the month in this post. Groovy, sci-fi, and incredibly inventive, Chaos Companion is TAUK’s greatest addition to jazz-fusion yet. Listen to this!

EK

Aborted – ManiaCult (death metal)

Black Mass – Feast at the Forbidden Tree (black thrash)

The Body and BIG|BRAVE – Leaving None But Small Birds (chamber folk, heavy psych)

Bogwife – A Passage Divine (heavy psych, stoner metal)

Carcass – Torn Arteries (melodeath)

Cognizance – Upheaval (tech death)

Driving Slow Motion – Adrift:Abyss (post-rock)

Eidola – The Architect (progressive post-hardcore)

Employed To Serve Conquering (metallic hardcore, crossover thrash)

Glasgow Coma Scale – Sirens (progressive post-rock)

Lehnen – Negative Space (electronic rock, post-rock)

Mastiff – Leave Me The Ashes of the Earth (sludgecore)

Michel Anoia – Nervures (avant-garde death metal)

MONO – Pilgrimage of the Soul (post-rock)

Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air (jazz poetry, avant-garde)

Replicant – Malignant Reality (dissonant death metal)

Sermon of Flames – I Have Seen The Light, And It Was Repulsive (dissonant death-doom, brutal tech death)

Skepticism – Companion (funeral doom)

Still – { } (post-metal, blackened post-hardcore)

Succumb – XXI (death metal)

Transmission Zero – Bridges (post-rock)

TRNA – Istok (blackgaze, post-metal)

We Were Promised Jetpacks – Enjoy the View (indie rock, math rock)

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