Lo! Another edition of Editors' Picks dawn above our heads as the skies begin to sing of Summer. As always, this is one of the busiest periods of the year for music. We've asked the question of why many times before on the blog and I think the botom line is that no one has any idea! But between you and me, who cares? All we can do is buckle up and prepare for the blessed deluge of fantastic music that gets poured over our heads every single year, making sure our lists and our hearts are open.
To wit, this is the second time in a row where I've submitted more than one album to the column and gathering people's choices is easier than ever, since so much great music surrounds us. Hopefully, these posts encourage you to cast your nets wide and sample from the bounty without bias; you truly don't want to miss any of the albums picked for this month. OK, enjoy and, as always, thanks for reading. We love you.
A Constant Knowledge of Death - Dissecting a One-Winged Bird (progressive death metal)
I’ve written extensively about A Constant Knowledge of Death before and even plenty about this specific album, when we premiered it last week. And yet, when it came time to choose an album for this month’s Editors’ Picks, I couldn’t bring myself to choose another (although I did in fact, and ended up writing two entries this time around) because it is the album that has most impacted me from the past month. Listen, it’s no secret that I think that things are bad. It’s also no secret that I think that the world can be a better place. For years, I’ve struggled with finding the balance between my refusal to pretend that things are otherwise than what they are and my refusal to fall into despair. Some medium setting is needed, an anger, an insistence on change, a focus on the power that runs between us as people and the hope we have for the future that is not complacent but which believes that things can improve.
All of these things, and more, are channeled not just through the music and lyrics of Dissecting a One-Winged Bird itself but through the story of the growth and transformation of A Constant Knowledge of Death and the people who make it work. Back in 2015, the group was already making great music (I only cover music which I think is good or better) but it was clear they were still figuring things out. And it was also clear that this figuring out was personal as well as musical, especially as I became friends with some of them and got to learn about their lives. And now, we’re here in 2023, with everything we’ve all been through, and with all the excellent music that A Constant Knowledge of Death have made for us, and we encounter this angry, hopeful, insistent, complex album and it sings to us, to me, of all the broken parts inside of ourselves which we want to improve but which we also love.
I’m fully cognizant that I am not telling you anything about the music itself but, to be honest, do you really need me for that? There’s a reason the age of the review is over and it’s because you can simply scroll down (or Google) to find the entire album, right there for you. But what I’m trying to do is to make you listen not just with your ears but with your heart; I’m trying to give you context. I’m trying to convey not what this album sounds like to me but what it does to me because I feel like you need it to do that to you as well. You need to listen to how much A Constant Knowledge have grown, how much they’ve held on to and how much they’ve let go, and hear that you can do it as well. That you are enough. That being angry is more than OK, that it’s essential. You need to hear that to try to succeed is to embrace failure. You need to hear that no matter how much the world continues to shatter around us, we will break through it even stronger.
You need to hear this album.
billy woods & Kenny Segal - Maps (experimental hip-hop)
There are few artists in the rap world that have been on as extensive and consistent a heater as billy woods. It’s been a half-decade of consistent, even prodigious, output and the man simply does not miss. 2019’s Hiding Places (the first collaboration between woods and brilliant producer Kenny Segal) was a career-defining release that set the stage for a four-year run that has been nothing short of extraordinary. Last year’s Aethiopes, produced by The Alchemist, was my favorite non-metal release of the year, combining scathing social commentary with an interior malaise that was both jarring and tender in execution. All of this doesn’t include his output with Armand Hammer, a joint project with ELUCID that is adventurous and equally brilliant, nor his work as head of Backwoodz Studioz. Mr. woods is a busy man, but his prolific string of releases and increased responsibility as a label founder has in no way dampened the quality of his work. This is evidenced in his latest release Maps (his second collab with Segal), which might be his most complete and enjoyable release yet.
Picking a favorite billy woods record is like choosing your favorite child, but as is the case in both scenarios THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE. Maps is a complete, adventurous, borderline flawless record that may not have the political edge of Aethiopes or the thrill of the unexpected contained in Hiding Places, but is its own beast that feels fresh and focused while remaining a thoroughly woodsian aesthetic. Most of this is due to woods’ enigmatic, deeply poetic delivery of esoteric yet oddly accessible bars that are more often than not complete showstoppers. Kenny Segal has made a living producing for some of the most avant-garde projects in hip-hop, so listeners shouldn’t be surprised to hear something that feels unique and fresh sonically, but the unpredictability of the record’s music is always balanced by an ever-stable, ever-elusive woods. It may be both artists’ best sounding project to date.
While there is a solid amount of thematic substance to Maps, I won’t dive too deeply into that and encourage you to experience this record for yourself. The collaboration of woods and Segal is an absolute masterclass of odd hip-hop done right, and several listens deep I still feel like there are dozens of musical caverns yet to explore. It’s deep, poetic, unpredictable, and always engaging. Just like the rest of woods’ work. A very high recommendation.
Blindfolded and Led to the Woods - Rejecting Obliteration (prog tech deathcore)
It feels like just yesterday that New Zealand’s latest and greatest musical export Blindfolded and Led to the Woods absolutely blew us out of the water with their breakout third full-length Nightmare Withdrawals in 2021. That landmark LP catapulted the band from their roots in a specific style of irreverent tech deathcore that wouldn’t have been too terribly uncommon during the genre’s early MySpace days and into the world of dissodeath and prog influences. The stylistic evolution continues with a quick turnaround in the band’s first Prosthetic Records release, Rejecting Obliteration.
At its core, this record is built upon a foundation of death metal and hardcore propagated by the likes of The Red Chord and War From A Harlots Mouth. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that Rejecting Obliteration could serve as an approximation of where The Red Chord could have wound up after Fed Through The Teeth Machine if they never disbanded and Guy never became a cop. The wonky deathgrind riffing of “Methlehem'' and “Funeral Smiles” in particular evoke a specific era of deathcore before it was even called deathcore. The devastating breakdowns that litter the record certainly contribute to the vibe.
But what makes BALTTW so special is what it does beyond these deathgrind bones. It’s a bit presumptuous to assume the lads in BALTTW took overt cues from fellow kiwis Ulcerate, but given their career trajectory and geographic proximity, it’s a fairly safe bet, particularly on tracks like “Wraith” and “The Waves” when the cacophony stirs and the rocks start getting kicked up. We’ve long wasted space on these pages both praising and criticizing the dissonant death metal tag, which is increasingly complicated and tested on Rejecting Obliteration, which is not infrequently not just melodic, but downright gorgeous. Tracks like “Hallucinative Terror” are “Cicada” play with twinkling and dramatic chord progressions, which serve the record great in building contrasts to make the lows that much more devastating.
So let’s all rally around Blindfolded and Led to the Woods as they tap into this abandoned branch of metal evolution of proto-deathcore and force its adaptation within the context of the ever-evolving ideas and environments like dissodeath and post-metal. They’re continuously artful and inventive, and are up there with the likes of Canada’s Wake in the way they’re fleshing out extreme metal’s outer edges with forward-thinking ideas and genre-blurring execution.
Pronostic - Chaotic Upheaval (progressive tech death)
Reviewing this one is easy: Chaotic Upheaval is everything that technical death metal should be in 2023. The movement of the genre, or at least parts of it, away from cold technicality and into warmer, more chromatic progressive sounds has been an absolute joy for me and Pronostic showcase exactly how to do it with this release. They give up nothing in the areas of complexity; Chaotic Upheaval has many licks, leads, riffs, and solos that will make your jaw drop with the amount and variety of notes being utilized. But even at the heights of their technical expression, the band are always cognizant of one thing: the music needs to have impact and that impact is achieved via contrast.
Whether it’s the tension between the full, expressive bass tone and the jagged, electric tones of the lead guitars, or the stress between high-pitch, abrasive vocals and gang screams, Pronostic are all about keeping things interesting. All of these contrasts can be heard throughout the album but check out my personal favorite track, “Massive Disillusion”, for the best examples. Listen to the deeper gutturals which spot the track or the heart-breakingly beautiful quieter passages and its evocative guitars that sound more like a Wishbone Ash passage than anything else and, of course, the beautiful bass instrument that ushers in the track to its final passages.
Bottom line, this is one of my favorite releases of 2023 and even further, one of my favorite releases in the progressive/technical death metal spaces, ever. It’s energetic without being overbearing, technical without being clinical, and filled with momentum without falling apart at the seams, carefully constructed, executed, and produced. It’s a damn good album is what I’m trying to say; listen to it!
Sleep Token - Take Me Back to Eden (prog pop metal)
Like many people I’ve encountered over the past few months, you’re probably wondering why we’re covering this at all, let alone in Ed Picks, considering how divisive this album has become in the metal world at large. You’ve probably heard (if you don’t already hold this view) that it’s just Imagine Dragons but djent, pop metal (as if that’s a bad thing), megachurch metalcore, and all sorts of other derisive variations that are completely dismissive of the work. For what it’s worth, I don’t blame people for thinking that. It’s an easy comparison to make. It’s also base, low-hanging fruit used to discredit what is likely the next gateway band for a generation of metalheads. These people are also adept at completely missing Sleep Token’s whole deal and why they’re so popular, so I’m going to explain it very simply for you: Sleep Token is contemporary musical theater just like k-pop and, arguably, professional wrestling. The costumes, the lore, the music itself evolving into something that would win a modern Tony like Spring Awakening or The Last Five Years, the drama of it all – it’s theater.
I’ve been following Sleep Token since their inception because I genuinely love the music. I’ll hold for gasps, but it hits a real sweet spot for me. They’ve been writing dark, poppy, soulful, bombastic piano metal that borders on the theatrical for years now. Their formula hasn’t changed in the slightest; Take Me Back to Eden is simply the final progression of that formula taken to its furthest ends. In truth, this album is their best work to date, both compositionally and due to the fact that it’s the final in a saga that cleanly wraps up the story of Vessel and Sleep, putting a neat little bow on the entirety of their lore. Callbacks to prior albums and EPs litter this record, both musically and lyrically, and none of it feels cheap or self-referential to be self-referential; it’s masterfully written. Beyond that, the quality of the tracks are through the roof, with a staggering half of the album touting all-time-best songs among an ever-widening discography. This is the kind of album diehard fans cream over, and given the comments I’ve been reading and my own prolonged obsession with it, it’s working as intended.
I’m going to let you in on the real reason why people love Sleep Token though, and you’re not going to like it: it’s just fun to sing. That’s literally it. You can hate Vessel’s voice for its marble-voweled Britpop drawl all you want, but it’s fucking fun to sing and I do it all day and so does everyone else that’s had their brain chemistry altered by this album. The easiest way to get a massive, rabid following is simply to write catchy top lines people want to sing. This has been true since time immemorial. No amount of technical wizardry or heavy-handed brutality will ever touch a triumphant, cathartic chorus you can belt with a thousand other people. Nothing will ever come close to that feeling, and Sleep Token delivers it constantly.
With all that being said, Sleep Token now find themselves in the worst possible position at the height of their popularity. This album was it. They perfected their patented sound and delivered an hour-long progressive version of it that closes the book on their whole lore gimmick. What’s left after this? In my estimation, there are three likely outcomes. If they continue along the same path they’ve always tread, it’s officially old hat, and what do you even talk about if not the parasitic relationship between Vessel and Sleep that has been a very thinly veiled, decade long therapy session about Vessel’s (read: Leo Faulkner of Blacklit Canopy) toxic relationship with his former lover and musical partner? No, they have to turn heel at this point. They will either need to fully embrace the pop side of their sound and stop closing every single song with a big emotional breakdown, or finally give the metalheads what they want and go full heavy. The latter is far less likely to happen, so don’t hold your breath.
Between this sticky career predicament and the fact that Leo is a garden variety self-important dickhead that’s hard to work with and clearly an obsessive loser who’s now written three full EPs and albums about a woman he can’t get over, many will probably be happy to hear this is likely the highest they’ll climb. The band itself will implode and start running rotating guest musicians around Leo like ex-The Faceless members around Michael Keene before everyone just stops paying attention and fondly remembers when the band was the next big thing instead of the dumpster fire it’s sure to become.
Still, Take Me Back to Eden is one of the best albums of the year without my conjecture about their future. It has already (and will continue to) birth new baby metalheads who come for the catchy vocals but stay for the big fuck-you breakdowns and eventually find their way to the good stuff. Bands like Sleep Token are necessary for a diverse, evolving metal scene. How many of you found your way to death metal via liking Creed too much? That’s what I thought. Let the kids have their fun – they’ll be at your shows in a few years.
Mesarthim - Arrival (space black metal)
I have a full entry coming on this fantastic album for this month’s Kvlt Kolvmn but, for now, let me just say that if you’re a long time fan of this project but have felt (like I have) that the last few albums weren’t quite as good, give Arrival a chance. I firmly believe it is Mesarthim’s best and offers a unique, and even more electronic take, on their atmospheric, space black metal than ever before.
Nightmarer - Deformity Adrift (prog death groove, dissodeath)
I have been waiting for this since War From A Harlots Mouth’s 2012 swansong Voyeur, which foreshadowed what would become Nightmarer’s trademark sound via bandleader Simon Hawemann, who also runs their label Total Dissonance Worship. Sporting other household names in extreme metal like Keith Merrow and Brendan Sloan, Nightmarer are a (no pun intended) nightmarish force to be reckoned with. Deformity Adrift is the nastiest, grooviest, most brutal use of atonality you’ll hear all year. No skips, no notes; an instant dissodeath classic at the height of its prevalence. Simon also continued the WFAHM tradition of including at least one X-Files themed track on the album, and for that, he gets all my money.
Teeth - A Biblical Worship of Violence (metalcore/grindcore)
Yowza. I thought Full of Hell and Primitive Man’s collab was heavy. A Biblical Worship of Violence sets the bar for me regarding unrelenting sonic violence in 2023. Teeth are a menace. This release is straight up MEAN, but also contains a fair dose of catchiness within the maelstrom that begs for repeat listens. There’s no world where one can call this type of music “accessible”... but if you’re willing to sink deeply into its murky depths you will be amply rewarded by thoughtful, strategic, and utterly merciless audio insanity.
Victory Over The Sun - Dance You Monster To My Soft Song! (avant garde, progressive black metal)
The quick and easy pitch to sell Victory Over The Sun is to make the obvious comparisons to Liturgy. Avant garde post black metal fronted by an incredibly talented trans woman — what’s not to love? The pieces are there, but Dance You Monster doesn’t fit into the same sonic territory of recent Liturgy material. This pushes blackened boundaries in other ways, and it’s an incredible trip of a record. When the credits make mention of saxophone, violin, and accordion, you’ve gotta give it a spin.
LEGION OF THE DAMNED – THE POISON CHALICE (BLACKENED DEATH THRASH)
ANARCHŸ – RETCHING NECROPOLIS (PROG THRASH, TECH THRASH)
CLOAK – BLACK FLAME ETERNAL (RIFFY BLACK METAL)
ELEGANT WEAPONS – HORNS FOR A HALO (HEAVY METAL, THRASH)
KOSTNATĚNÍ – ÚPAL (BLACKEND DISSODEATH)
MOURNFUL CONGREGATION – THE EXUVIAE OF GODS – PART II (FUNERAL DOOM)
USNEA – BATHED IN LIGHT (SLUDGEY DEATH DOOM)
FROZEN SOUL – GLACIAL DOMINATION (DEATH METAL, DEATH DOOM)
HENGET – BEYOND NORTH STAR (WEIRD PROG METAL)
HERETOIR – WASTELANDS (POST BLACK METAL)
HORIZON’S END – THE GREAT DESTROYER (PROG METAL)
VHS – QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY RIFF (CROSSOVER DEATH THRASH)
YAKUZA – SUTRA (SLUDGY ALT PROG?)
CATTLE DECAPITATION – TERRASITE (PROGRESSIVE DEATHGRIND)
CHAINED TO THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN – OBSESSION DESTRUCTION (PROG SLUDGE)
ESOCTRILIHUM – ASTRAAL CONSTELLATIONS OF THE MAJICKAL ZODIAC (WEIRD BLACK METAL)
GONEMAGE – ASTRAL CORRIDORS (BLEEPY BLOOPY BLACK METAL)
UNEARTH – THE WRETCHED; THE RUINOUS (METALCORE, MELODEATH THRASH)
SOULKEEPER - HOLY DESIGN (METALCORE)