What a month! May had a lot to offer: the latest hip-hop opus from Kendrick Lamar, progressive black metal from Luminous Vault and Tómarúm, the core of Radiohead stepping out on their own as The Smile, an worthy homage to Finch from Static Dress, and much more. Without further ado, let’s dive in!
Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (conscious hip-hop, west coast hip-hop)
I’ve considered countless ways to open up this piece. I mean, what’s really left to say about Kendrick? Everyone recognized his potential when Section.80 (2011) dropped, but I’m not sure anyone could have predicted he would go on to drop consecutive classics and disrupt the course of modern hip-hop. I’ll admit that DAMN. (2017) left me feeling lukewarm, after the brilliant-yet-catchy gangsta rap on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and bold jazz-funk-inspired To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). Kendrick proved he could write “bangers with substance,” so it was tough to wrap my head around the fact that DAMN. felt so…conventional. Also, having a fucking U2 feature in 2017 was certainly a choice.
All that to say, I went into Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers with fairly neutral expectations. And I left wondering if this is his best album yet.
Again, there aren’t really many observations I can share that haven’t already been repeated ad nauseam, namely the fact that the album contains some uniquely personal moments from a rapper known for making broader societal critiques. However, in wake of the controversy some of these songs have generated, I want to take a moment to highlight the relative risk Kendrick took with being so honest. While he certainly isn’t known for playing it safe, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers has some truly bold musical and lyrical choices that pay off massively.
I’m not going to go track-by-track with an 18-song album, so I’ll try to whittle down my favorite moments. For starters, the tracks that revolve around Duval Timothy’s piano compositions are sensational, and they truly bolster the confessional, “one-man show” vibe of the album. “Father Time” benefits from an excellent Sampha hook, as Kendrick grapples with absent fathers and what responsibility their children have to overcome that troubled relationship. “We Cry Together” is perhaps the Kendrick’s best concept on the album as well as the record’s most difficult track to listen to, as he and actress Taylour Paige act out a toxic relationship in hyper realistic, extremely graphic detail.
Perhaps the most polarizing song on the album is “Auntie Diaries,” where Kendrick unpacks his own ignorance and mistakes as it relates to a trans relative. Outlets like NPR and Vox have covered how divisive Kendrick’s take on the issue has been. But to me, I think it’s a poignant portrait of most people’s genuine journey toward trans acceptance. As a white cis straight dude raised by people like me, I’ve seen firsthand the messy process family and friends have taken to accepting gay people, then marriage equality, then trans and nonbinary people. The fact Kendrick’s lyrics are set to a building orchestral swell is fitting in this regard, soundtracking a journey from bigotry to acceptance and love.
And yet, amid all of these experimentations, Kendrick still proves he can write a damn great song. “Purple Hearts” is a subdued banger featuring a sweet chorus from Summer Walker and great bars from Kendrick and Ghostface Killah. It could probably fit on any Kendrick album, and yet if feels very “now.” Even as Kendrick looks out from the mountain top, tracks like this showcase his uncanny ability to expand and refine the echo of his voice. DAMN. made me look back and appreciate everything Kendrick’s released to this point. Mr. Morale is making me look forward to the innovation he still has in store.
Note: I highly recommend this recent episode of Switched on Pop, which took a deep dive into some of the album’s samples and juxtaposed them with the lyrical content of their respective tracks.
Luminous Vault – Animate The Emptiness (progressive black metal)
It’ll be hard to find a musician more productive and prolific in 2022 than Samuel Smith. Three separate projects of his dropped this year: experimental black metal outfit Aeviterne (which we loved enough to include in Editors Picks when it dropped), progressive death metal mainstays Artificial Brain (I’d be shocked if it isn’t included in next month’s column), and Luminous Vault. Stylistically, Luminous Vault shares some sonic spaces with Aeviterne’s weirdo quasi-industrial post-punk-infused black metal, but Luminous Vault has their own novelties that place them high on the list of albums making waves in 2022.
Animate The Emptiness feels mechanical with its elastic drum machines and shimmering synthesizers, atop which Mario Diaz de Leon’s (Oneirogen, Bloodmist) guitars weave off-kilter melodies and shoegazey textures while Smith’s gritty basslines bounce, writhe, and coil around the beats. The duo share vocal duties, and the trade-off helps to establish more variety. The end result is a blend of the sensibilities that Godflesh and Blut Aus Nord have brought to the table on the cutting edge of extreme music and not at all what you may have come to expect from a band whose press materials include genre tags like black metal and post-punk. This record is psychedelic, weirdly melodic, and has an air of regal avant-garde about it that is absolutely endearing and thought-provoking.
The Smile – A Light for Attracting Attention (art rock)
Collaborative projects are almost always a mixed bag. Especially when superstar entities are involved. Even more particularly when those entities have established solo careers outside of the projects that made them famous. All this to say The Smile should not work as a group. But they do, and it’s glorious. While Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have been collaborating in Radiohead since the 90s, their solo careers outside of that monolithic rock entity have been their primary focus for over a decade now. Yorke’s glitchy, eery, electronically-infused solo records clash in a primordial way with Greenwood’s widely recognized classical prowess as a film composer, so to say I didn’t expect A Light for Attracting Attention to amount to much more than a career oddity would be an understatement. But the inclusion of longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich behind the boards and Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner on drums (not to mention a full brass ensemble) adds something insanely special to an already established artistic partnership that elevates this record into rarified air: A collaborative project that’s also one of the year’s best.
To be fair, Greenwood and Yorke’s collaborative work is among my favorite in rock music, so I shouldn’t really be surprised that a Radiohead-lite lineup would create something special. But the cohesion and magnitude of maturity in the songwriting and compositional structure of these tracks is excellent even by Radiohead’s lofty standards. Tracks like “You Will Never Work In Television Again” exemplify this success to a tee, balancing simplicity and flourish with a level of commanding clarity that only exists at this level of artistic symbiosis. Yorke and Greenwood were obviously made for one another artistically, but surprisingly they’re far from the stars of the show. Skinner’s drum work is absolutely phenomenal throughout, adding a creative and jazz-laden dimension to these compositions that is often sorely missing in standard Radiohead fare. It feels weird to see Greenwood taking what sounds like an intentional backseat to allow Skinner’s unique rhythmic sensibility to take center stage on multiple occasions. Kudos to Godrich for recognizing the secret sauce that makes The Smile special and giving it a slippery, obvious emphasis.
That’s not to undersell what Yorke and Greenwood bring to the record in their own unique ways. Yorke’s vocals haven’t sounded this energetic and elastic in years. Whether soft crooning his way through “Speech Bubbles” or generating repetitious psychobabble in tracks like “We Don’t What Tomorrow Brings”, he’s militantly on point throughout. Greenwood’s deep dive into classical structures is on full display as well, utilizing symphonic textures from the London Contemporary Orchestra to rousing effect in tracks like “Pana-vision” and the absolutely gorgeous “Free in the Knowledge”, which is hands down one of the best and most affecting tracks a Radiohead member has written in decades. These elements, blended seamlessly with a more vibrant percussion section, culminate in the best non-Radiohead work of contemporary rock that Yorke and Greenwood have yet produced.
A Light for Attracting Attention isn’t just good. It’s great. It’s the kind of collaborative record that makes me hope we get a dozen more. I’ve been listening to it regularly since its release and my appreciation has only grown with each subsequent spin. This is a profoundly good record that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Static Dress – Rouge Carpet Disaster (screamo, post-hardcore)
When I say I’ve been waiting for a respectable Finch follow-up since I was 12 years old, what I really mean is I’ve been in the Static Dress waiting room for two whole decades. Debut album Rouge Carpet Disaster from the Leeds-based quartet immediately tripped that dormant switch in my brain, and I watched in awe as my hair reassembled itself into swoopy bangs and my belts all turned white. Falling somewhere between What It Is To Burn and Underoath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, Static Dress transport you back to the summer of 2004 where your crush is tending to your first Warped Tour sunburn and all seems right with the world.
Metalcore revival has just about run its course, but acts like Static Dress remind you what can still be accomplished in the realm of revivalcore. While the sounds and trappings of the 2000s can be easy enough to replicate, it takes a studied hand to actually nail the approach and composition that makes it stick. Most bands in this field seem to be playing at it, producing soulless simulacrums of panic chords and ear-bleeding sass screeching with no real substance or direction. Static Dress nail the nuance, drawing in early alt-rock and pop punk flourishes to round out the compositions. They understand that delicate push and pull of impassioned crooning and just-barely-in-tune screamo breaks that seem likely to fly off the rails into chaotic feedback but never quite do. If this album dropped 20 years ago, they’d be prominently featured on a Hot Topic sampler and signed to Ferret in a heartbeat.
This brand of emotional post-hardcore was a lot of people’s segue from millennial radio rock to heavier metal and hardcore, and its influence cannot be overstated. What Static Dress have conjured on Rouge Carpet Disaster is a testament to the staying power of these bands as a bridge that transcends generations and connects seemingly disparate spheres of the heavy underground. There are a handful of acts this year who seem to have perfected this nostalgic approach to -core (Foreign Hands, A Dozen Black Roses, etc.) but Static Dress take the cake. Buckle in for a fresh take on seminal post-hardcore right here.
Tómarúm – Ash in Realms of Stone Icons (progressive black metal, death metal)
Over the past few years, there have been several bands that straddled the borders between progressive death metal, technical death metal, and black metal in all sorts of interesting ways. Think Stortregn or Stone Healer. All of these bands had different balances, different levels of each style blending into their sound and making them unique. But they all explored the fruitful and evocative elixir that is concocted when you take the blistering aggression of the more flamboyant styles of death metal and meld them with the morose violence of black metal. In this regard,Tómarúm is very much of the same “movement” or style, adding another iteration to the fruitful crossover between these genres.
When you first start listening to Ash in Realms of Stone, the first thing that will scream out at you is the agility and technical capacity of everyone involved. Every single riff on this album (even the acoustic one which opens it) feels weightless, effortlessly gliding off flexible fingers and mercurial instruments; this is the technical death metal side of things made manifest and its very much the “ordering” core of the album. As you keep on listening, many elements that conjure the “progressive” moniker will start to manifest. The track structure is way more intricate than what you usually find on technical death metal albums, for starters. But there are also plenty of synths, weird rhythm structures, and an overall sensation of the symphonic and grandiose that perhaps evokes the style of death metal First Fragment are best known for.
What’s more elusive, at least until you spend substantially more time with the album, are the black metal influences. But they’re there; they haunt the more abrasive vocals that are replete throughout the album, channeling their derisive timbre into each track. They are present on the many tremolo-picked riffs on the album and in the way folkier, quieter elements are baked into key points in the album. Most of all though they are present in that same grandiosity we pointed out above, calling up the trappings of atmospheric black metal to present the massive, wind-swept landscapes that that particular sub-genre is well known for.
We could probably spend many more words exploring these different influences and sounds and how they mix on Ash in Realms of Stone Icons because, unlike their very promising but short release from a few years ago, the album clocks in at over one hour and goes many places throughout its runtime. Keeping true to the spirit of all of the sub-genres that Tómarúm blend on this release, Ash in Realms of Stone Icons is, at the end of the day, a massively sprawling and ambitious release. It manages to keep the listener entertained exactly because of the intricacies we mentioned above; there is simply so much to take in on this release and every single bit, whether grandiose riff, explosive solo, harrowing vocal, or majestic synth, is executed with generous amounts of skill and creativity.
Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium – Undreamable Abysses (progressive black metal)
French masters of avant-garde black metal have approached perfection with their latest era with a record that plays like an hour of intense, ethereal wooshing, and I mean that in the best way possible. These guys are mainstays in the current weirdo black metal scene, so you should know what you’re getting into by now.
Cosmic Putrefaction – Crepuscular Dirge For The Blessed Ones (weird death metal)
The one-man band continues its astral sojourn through wormholes of dissodeath textures and meteoric drums performed this time by Guilio of Hideous Divinity. As off-putting and strangely groovy as the first two releases, Crepuscular Dirge enjoys a host of new instruments added into the fold, creating a truly unique brand of cosmic death metal as familiar as it is alien.
Encenathrakh – Ithate Thngth Oceate (brutal tech death)
I can’t tell you much about brutal tech death outfit Encenathrakh other than they’re a mysterious band that is allegedly from Columbus, Ohio. I’m told that their latest record is allegedly completely improvised, but it is certainly completely unlistenable. This is what free jazz sounds like coming from stoned neanderthals with sticks and rocks. If you ever wished Defeated Sanity was far more abstract and sounded like a forks being fed into a garbage disposal, this is the band for you.
Haunter – Discarnate Ails (progressive death metal)
It feels as though Texas’ Haunter came out of nowhere, but their new album is the kind of progressive death metal that fans of Blood Incantation and Ulcerate would appreciate. This isn’t necessarily in the vein of the recent disso-death movement, but it definitely sits well next to those acts on a shelf or in a playlist. With three tracks, ranging from seven to fourteen minutes in length, Discarnate Ails is certainly one of the coolest death metal records you’ll hear this year.
Kaleidobolt – This One Simple Trick (prog rock, psychedelic rock)
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from these merchants of muscular, psychedelic, King Crimson style progressive rock but it certainly wasn’t a trippier, even more psychedelic version of their sound. But to be honest, now that I have it, I love it and wouldn’t accept anything else. This One Simple Trick is a ride and a half, showcasing Kaleidobolt’s weirder, more expansive sound.
Mizmor and Thou – Myopia (progressive sludge/doom metal)
Uh… wow. After a less enthralling record from Mizmor and a slew of collaborative projects from Thou, I was hesitant in my expectations after Myopia’s surprise release. I needed not be trepidatious. This record is gorgeous and absolutely filthy in equal measure, heavy as fuck and representative of some of the best material either band has produced in years. Absolutely fantastic stuff.
Astodan – Évora (post-metal, post-rock)
Besvärjelsen – Atlas (doom metal, stoner rock)
Bog Body – Cryonic Crevasse Cult (sludge/death metal)
Cave In – Heavy Pendulum (progressive hardcore, alt rock)
Ibaraki – Rashomon (black metal, folk metal)
INANNA – Void of Unending Depths (progressive death metal)
Misery Index – Complete Control (death metal)
Moon Tooth – Phototroph (prog rock, alt-prog)
Nechochwen – Kanawha Black (black metal)
Nullingroots – Renditions of Past and Present (post-black metal)
RLYR – RLYR (post-metal, prog metal)
Sacred Son – The Foul Deth of Engelond (black metal)
Sisyphean – Colours of Faith (dissonant black metal)
Soft Ffog – Soft Ffog (jazz fusion, prog rock)
Steaksauce Mustache – All Juice, No Noise. (mathcore)
The Family Crest – The War: Act II (baroque pop, indie rock)
Tzompantli – Tlazcaltiliztli (death metal)Warpaint – Radiate Like This (dream pop, indie rock)