A few years ago, Michał Łapaj, the keyboard player for the Polish band Riverside, announced that he was working on a solo album, much to the excitement of the fan base. Then followed an extended silence during which we heard almost nothing about it. Presumably the announcement was somewhat premature given the logistics of actually making an album; but finally, here it is.
While we waited, Łapaj offered us some teasers: a single, and some “jam sessions”, available on Bandcamp and his Youtube channel, showcasing his love of analogue synths and keys, and demonstrating his mastery of emotion and atmosphere. These are things that fans of Riverside already knew — Łapaj joined the band in time to appear on their second full-length album (Second Life Syndrome), and his presence provided the final element to the “Riverside sound”: the rich keyboard soundscapes and melodies that underpin all the albums. So I think it came as a bit of a surprise when the announcement of the album’s release included the information that there would be guest vocalists, and lyrics, and not just instrumental pieces.
Are You There features two guest vocalists: Mick Moss, of the UK project Antimatter, and Bela Komoszyńska, of the Polish art-rock band Sorry Boys. Artur Szolc (of the Polish collective Inspired) provides drums and percussion. There are also guitars here and there, but there is no information (that I have seen yet) about who provides them. So big question is: we know Michał Łapaj can compose great sweeping ambient mood pieces, because he has demonstrated this over the years. Can he write more conventional songs?
Mariusz Duda: pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, and all other sounds
Planets in a Milk Bowl
I Landed on Mars
Waves From a Flat Earth
Lemon Flavoured Stars
Numbers and Denials
Last summer, during the first phase of the pandemic and some version of some lockdown that we all hoped would end the problem, Mariusz Duda took a break from working on Lunatic Soul to create a brief album of jagged electronic sounds, that he called Lockdown Spaces. It is not clear whether the plan for a trilogy originated with the first album or if the idea came later, but here we are: Claustrophobic Universe is the second instalment of what will be a trilogy that explores Duda’s early musical love, electronica.
Lockdown Spaces was created in about two weeks, and it shows. Claustrophobic Universe took more time and, well, it shows. The album continues the minimalist trajectory started byLockdown Spaces: even though both rely heavily on programmed sounds and synths and electronic instrumentation, Claustrophobic Universe is a more nuanced album, more carefully considered, more textural, at times edging towards industrial. Along with the digital pulses and anxious rhythms there are analogue bits and pieces creeping in: piano, voice, small percussive sounds. The tracks are either constructions of jittery synth-beats, or leaning towards ambient (“Waves from a Flat Earth” versus “I Landed on Mars”, for example), but Duda cannot escape melody: even in the most spare, programmed tracks, little melodic themes trickle through, repeating and weaving in and out among the beats. Some of these tunes are on the edge of familiarity — it wouldn’t surprise me if he has reworked older ideas and I just haven’t identified them yet.
There is a lot of repetition in these songs; themes and rhythms bounce back and forth, and move from track to track, a fitting reflection of the overall idea of the album: confined as many of us are to four walls and a restricted physical space, we seek escape from the internet-filtered reality and distorted facts into universes of our own making, and yet this too can be constrained. We bounce between the two of them.
Notable songs include “2084”, which reflects the feel of the first track “Knock Lock”, both beginning with hollow programmed percussive rhythm, but then ”2084” develops into a bouncy little melody. The title track starts with a warbly hypnotic piano and synthesizer melody that weaves its way through the whole song, draggy and with deliberate drop-outs, imperfect, rising to choppy percussion and back again, some breathy sounds — there is a sense here of striving to escape but not quite making it. The last track (“Numbers and Denials”) is downright rock ’n’ roll. Okay, not really, but it starts out heavy, chugging nicely along, before it fades away into echoey keyboard plinks and white noise.
My favourite track so far is “Escape Pod”, a rather beautiful diversion after all the jittery distortion and processed noises of the previous songs. Starting with an actual piano melody it gathers momentum with drums (I’m sure they are programmed but they have a nice hefty feel), a throbbing repetitive bass rhythm, small percussive noises — a lovely, almost soothing song. It is reminiscent of material from Eye of the Soundscape.
With Claustrophobic Universe, Mariusz Duda has demonstrated that the breadth of his creativity goes well beyond what we have heard from him so far. This is nowhere near the heavy prog of Riverside, the lush, melodic sounds of Lunatic Soul, or even the electronic ambience of Eye of the Soundscape. Lockdown Spaces was a hint; Claustrophobic Universe takes it to the next level and proves that he can create and develop music that draws from a rather different source than his main projects, or at least draws from it differently. I don’t think it is quite as accomplished as Lunatic Soul or Riverside, but he’s been at those a lot longer. it certainly makes one look forward to what he will do with the third instalment.
As befits music based on digital noises and early musical influences, the releases are initially available as downloads, by streaming, or on cassette. Full physical releases will become available after the trilogy is complete.
It isn’t really fair to compare this year to 2020 — that year the world changed so fundamentally, affecting all aspects of our lives, that it is probably best left as an anomaly. There were so few albums that really caught my attention, it was almost musically a non-existent year. I know there were good albums, and a couple of them were even very good, but honestly I didn’t have the desire to explore.
However, I am pleased to announce that I’m ready to start digging in again, and 2021 is shaping up to be much more interesting. It is certainly a much heavier year — out of the 8 albums I’ve spent time with (7 of which are mentioned here; one will be reviewed shortly), four of them are flat-out headbangers, or at least in that territory. The others cover industrial, post-metal, electronica, and pop. Soon-to-released stuff is also going to be at the heavy end of the musical spectrum.
So let’s get started. The order is more-or-less by release date:
Frontline Assembly: Mechanical Soul
2021 marks 35 years of industrial/EBM legends Frontline Assembly, and January saw the release of Mechanical Soul. This is an album of dark synths, distortion and huge dense industrial noise, post-apocalyptic in theme, maybe heavier than 2017’s Wake Up the Coma, with Leeb’s heavily processed vocals emphasizing the cold, distant feel. There are ten original songs and one remix. The album starts well: the first three tracks charge along, featuring relentless beats and throbbing synth, pausing for the somewhat more contemplative “New World”, but by track 7 it is clear that Mechanical Soul has lost momentum and isn’t going to get it back. The tracks become somewhat conventional and not particularly interesting. However, “Barbarians” is a bit of an attention-getter, a slow drum-based buildup into a thick sweeping chorus, with a strange, highly-mannered vocal delivery. I like it. The album ends with a remix of “Hatevol” from Wake Up the Coma. The overall feel, unfortunately, is of an album that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.
Steven Wilson: The Future Bites
At this point the fact that Steven Wilson is a pop musician should come as a surprise to no-one save the most recalcitrant of old Porcupine Tree fans. His last few solo albums have been moving rather slowly away from his prog roots, throwing in pop songs amongst the more familiar proggy stuff, but with The Future Bites he has made almost a complete break. Wilson digs into 70s-era disco, funk, and pop to craft his purest evocation of these ideas yet. And frankly, he has done an excellent job of it — there is no denying his abilities as a deeply-experienced craftsman. The main release is a straightforward 9 songs and just over 40 minutes long, not an album with much room for epics or for showcasing guest-musician chops, but this is not an album that aims to do that anyway. Almost all the songs are on point, relatively short, with the exception of the overlong and self-indulgent “Personal Shopper”. Well, nothing’s perfect. The highlight of the album (for me) is the superb “12 Things I Forgot”; if Wilson was trying to create a great pop song, he nailed it.
However, as musically divergent as this album is from the past ones, I don’t find it has much changed in terms of the overall impression it leaves. He is still playing it very safe: there is nothing particularly adventurous here, nothing to grab the attention, nothing deeper than the catchy tunes and great production.
Thematically, the album was styled as an ironical (if not cynical) examination of modern online consumer culture and behaviour, and it was hyped with singles, B-sides, box sets and extras, some things being released over the weeks before the official album hit. The fan base did not disappoint, jumping all over it. I have never really been a fan of Steven Wilson the lyricist, not finding much challenge in anything he has written, but the songs here are even more simplistic than usual: the message of the album was demonstrated far more effectively by the fans themselves than anything Wilson wrote. Maybe that was the point.
Ronnie Atkins: One Shot
The Nordic veteran of melodic hard rock and charismatic front man for the venerable Danish hard-rock/metal band Pretty Maids has released his first solo album. It is everything one would expect with that musical legacy: solid heavy rock, polished and professional, showcasing his 35+ years songwriting and performing experience. Atkins is joined by old friend and current PM member Chris Laney as producer, and several guest musicians including former PM members Alan Sorensen on drums and Morten Sandager on keys.
Atkins blasts his way through 11 heavy-duty tracks, his voice sounding as dense and powerful as always, and as always the songs are stuffed with hooky melodies and riffs, and catchy lyric turns of phrase. It does cover most of the expected styles — from heavy rockers to more sedate ballads; my favourite tracks are probably “Scorpio”, and “Before the Rise of an Empire”, monster songs reminiscent of the thunderous hard-rock of Pretty Maids.
One does want to love this album. Ronnie Atkins has struggled with lung cancer, being diagnosed with it, treated for it, declared free of it, and then diagnosed again in Stage 4, all in less than two years. It is hard to imagine the kind of emotional and psychological toll that must have taken. It is also understandable that he would need to do something that may be his last chance for anything music-related. Between the pandemic and the cancer, Pretty Maids have been unable to tour their last album (released in late 2019), and as much as one hates to say it, it is unlikely they ever will.
It is a very good album. Alas, it is not a great album. It is hard to fault it: polished and accomplished, it achieves exactly what it aims to do, but I think it gets in its own way with its sheer earnestness and sincerity, and some of the tracks have a slightly rushed feel to them. However, given that this may well be the last chance Atkins gets to express these ideas and say what he needs to, it is a minor complaint.
The Horrors: Lout
A satisfyingly heavy industrial metal effort from some guys I’d never heard of before, who have released a short EP of three tracks. This is a departure from the rather smoother, shoegazey sound of the previous album, even though hints of this direction are in there. If you like the thundering machine metal of Author and Punisher, or the rougher end of 3Teeth, you’ll probably like this. At just over 11 minutes long it is more of a teaser than even an EP, but I’m definitely interested enough to watch for a full-length effort if one is forthcoming.
Rob Zombie: The Lunar Insertion Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy
Well, Rob Zombie. I suppose it was inevitable that at some point one of his solo albums and I would cross paths. I’ve managed to avoid his movies so far, not really being much of a horror fan, but I’ve not actively avoided his music — I just hadn’t come across any by accident. At least until Spotify, when a track from this album appeared in the Release Radar list, and I tried it, and found it interesting enough to flag for follow-up.
It is a good album. Heavy and well-written, pulling from all over the rock past from what I can hear — working in funky bits and jazzy bits and country bits and bluesy bits and plain old classic rock n roll bits, but it is not a pastiche. His band is guys who’ve been with him for ten to fifteen years, and you can hear the cohesion. The arrangements are tight, the tracks varied (and relatively short– some so short they better serve as intros to the song that comes after), and it is very musical and accomplished.
The vinyl comes with a densely-illustrated book that resembles the sort of thing you created when you were bored in high school: jam-packed with lyrics, odd photos, collages and bad pencil drawings, vaguely reminiscent of Robert Crumb with references to sex and horror, and about as 70s as can be without actually being from 1976. I have no idea what any of the songs are about, if they are about anything, and I probably won’t explore too deeply. It is a pleasantly surprising album, so I’ll enjoy it on its own merits.
Kauan: Ice Fleet
Kauan, a Russian outfit now based in Estonia, have released a lovely album of intensely atmospheric post-metal/doom metal. It acts as the soundtrack to a tale of Russian ships frozen in the ice of the Arctic, lost and rediscovered (is it based on a true story? It is hard to find out); a premise not new to the band, as apparently their 2015 album Sorni Nai evoked the ill-fated Dyatlov Expedition. It also forms the backdrop for a tabletop role playing game developed around what is essentially a horror story. The deluxe version of the release comes in iceberg-blue vinyl and includes the detailed storyline and instructions for the game.
The music is intensely atmospheric, sweeping and lush: tracks drift along, before erupting into heavy melodic metal, and then back into gentle soundscapes. Even though there are 7 listed tracks, they merge into each other — there aren’t really breaks between them, so the album feels like a single entity. It isn’t completely instrumental either — there are delicate soprano breaks and harsh growl vocals along the way, but they contribute to the overall instrumental-like atmosphere rather than detracting from it. I’ve been moving away from post-rock (or maybe I didn’t really embrace it as enthusiastically as I thought I had), but this is an album that does manage to keep one’s interest.
The Quill: Earthrise
The Quill are a heavy/stoner rock outfit from Sweden, established back in the early 1990s, and another of those bands who should have a bigger following than they do. They came to my attention when their last album Born From Fire turned up in Spotify and which I liked very much. That album showcased an uncanny ability to channel good-ol’-boy southern bluesy rock; while Born From Fire was pretty good, the new album ramps it up to a whole new level.
Earthrise is pure, exhilarating rock n roll, tinged with a bit of blues and stoner, channelling almost everything that was great about classic heavy rock. The album blasts through track after track of monster bass lines and relentless guitar riffage (compliments of Roger Nilsson and Christian Carlsson respectively), anchored by solid drumming (Jolle Atlagic), and fronted by singer Magnus Ekwall’s perfect rock n roll delivery. It is relentlessly headbanging — even the “slow” numbers are solid rockers. The album kicks into high gear right from the first word from Ekwall (“Hallucinate”), and it’s sheer pedal-to-the-metal after that, until the end of the 9-minute “Evil Omen”, after which the album does lose some momentum.
This album is crazy good. Earthrise sets the bar all other albums this year are going to have to get over. Incandescent hard-rock nods to Sabbath, Zep, just about everyone, and yet this sound is fully their own, fully embraced, as if it was the first time anyone had done it. It is upbeat, enthusiastic, and delivered with a huge dose of confidence and aplomb. At the moment it is the best album I’ve heard this year.
Mariusz Duda: Claustrophobic Universe (April 23) (2 singles released) — watch for a review next week
Gojira: Fortitude (April 30) (3 singles released)
Gary Numan: Intruder (May) (3 singles released)
Michał Łapaj: Are You There (June 18)
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster: summer (1 or 2 singles released)
I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
Back in June I lamented the evisceration of the year in terms of music, and since then not much has changed. I just did not have the emotional energy for really investigating new music. My album list is ridiculously thin — it won’t even reach a Top Ten. However, I continued to pay more attention to individual songs, in an effort to reduce the wastage (both of money and storage space) of buying albums I rarely play. Spotify Discovery and Release Radar lists provide a rich mine of suggestions, more than I can rightly get to, and it is possible to purchase individual tracks through Bandcamp and iTunes. Of course the downside is that I end up with fewer albums on the Year End list. If that really is a downside….
So this year I will start with an individual Songs of the Year list, essentially a short-list of songs that I heard and flagged for follow-up, and then decided that I liked them enough to buy them. I used to make playlists constantly on cassette way back in the day, and I recall having some excellent ones. I need to do that more often (not on cassette, of course).
The songs here are either standalone singles, or from albums or EPs that did not make my final Album list. They are sort of ranked…I mean, I like them all, but some I do play more than others. Continue reading The Music of 2020 — The Songs→
I remember the first movie soundtrack that had an impact on me, lingering long after I watched the movie. That soundtrack was Doctor Zhivago, and I was captivated by Maurice Jarre’s dark, orchestral take on old Slavic traditional music (and the pomp of Russian classical). The great choruses and rich folk melodies hit some deep spot in me that must have been there from the beginning. I was too young to understand it in terms of music appreciation, but it was the beginning, and eventually led to an abiding love of folk-rock.
Fast forward many decades….
I discovered Lunatic Soul. That music dug in more deeply than anything had before, finding a Lunatic Soul-shaped space inside me I didn’t even know was empty. The earlier albums (LS I, II, and Impressions) weren’t strictly folk-driven, but did have a rich, vaguely eastern feel that served much the same purpose. With the fourth album, the project shifted to something sparser, electronic, and song-driven rather than atmospheric, but even so, hints of that primal heart sneaked through.
The seventh Lunatic Soul album, Through Shaded Woods, heralds a return to the acoustic folk-themed feel of the first three albums, but it follows a different path. The early albums tended towards ambience with some heavy moments worked in; but this album is pure joyous folk-rock. The eastern Slavic influence gives a weightiness to the the tracks that the music of the early LS albums did not possess. And there is no hesitation — right from the first note the album kicks into high gear, plugging straight into that ancient part of the brain that is connected to rhythm, pulse, and heartbeat. It is impossible for me to sit still while this album plays, and I mean that quite literally.
Lyrically, the album falls in with the story arc of the first two LS albums: death and rebirth, facing the past or losing it, and Duda does dip deliberately into the lyrical past with clear references to LS I and II. However, while the words evoke a yearning search for resolution, the music is for the most part hard, bright, and upbeat, driving the album along. It is an interesting contrast. There are monstrously heavy, distorted bass riffs, chants and shouts, layered acoustic guitar, thudding drumbeats (Mariusz plays everything on this album, including the drums), and of course Duda’s soaring vocals throughout (words and wordless). Not every track is a folk-rock juggernaut, of course, but the overall feel is one of chugging forward motion, right to the end. Which comes rather quickly, the album being a brief 39 minutes long.
Duda aimed (apparently) to have less eastern/oriental influences in this album than the others; however he didn’t completely escape them, as can clearly be heard in the title track. This is a song of the steppes, evocative of both the east and of dark Slavic folk. One can imagine the music the ancient travellers on the Silk Road must have heard as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and the caravanserai hove into view. The vocals are juddering and thickly distorted; spooky music indeed.
The star of this musical show though is the brilliant and compelling “Summoning Dance” — the longest track, and one that at times reaches almost ecstatic heights of pure rhythm and melody. This track demonstrates Duda’s masterful command of the style, and may have the most apt title of any: whoever does not respond to its call probably needs medical attention.
A feature of the later LS (and Riverside) albums has been a “wind-up” song — usually short, simple, and optimistic, even if not necessarily upbeat. While the core of “The Fountain” is a beautiful guitar/vocal/keyboard melody, it is so overpowered by the relentlessly swelling electronic strings and effects that the song itself struggles to survive under the weight of it all. It is distracting at best, and a bit of a disappointing end.
My reaction to this album is on two levels. On one hand, the melodies and rhythms are absolutely compelling, and I love them. They do the heart of this old folky some real good, and I play the record a lot. On an individual basis, these tracks hit me right where it counts.
However, one of my tests for an album is the resonance, so to speak, it leaves behind when it is over. The best albums feel bigger than they are: their effect lingers in the soul, and one does not want to play anything else until those echoes subside. I have to say that Through Shaded Woods doesn’t have that effect. The album, as a whole, feels insubstantial: not as much depth or meat as my favourite Lunatic Soul albums, and I think this is because the songs do not really connect together. There is no song-to-song continuum that carries the story along. This is very different from the three albums TSW is meant to follow. As well, for the first time for any of Duda’s shorter albums, it feels short. When it is over, I have fragments of songs playing in my head, bits of rhythm, but the main reaction is a sense of incompleteness: there should have been something more.
There is a bonus disc, which consists of three tracks including a 27-minute-long epic. “Vyraj” and “Hylophobia” sound like instrumental folk-rock outtakes — not bad songs by any means, and nice and danceable on their own, but it is clear why they didn’t make the main release.
Then there is “Transition II” — and it is hard to find words to describe this one. The closest I can come in the Mariusz Duda canon is probably “Eye of the Soundscape” from the album of the same name, but this is in spirit, not in sound. “Transition II” is a long, contemplative wander through the history of LS, with lots of references to past songs, reworked and linked together in a brilliantly-conceived and executed compendium of ideas that swirl around, lush and atmospheric one moment, spare and almost electronic the next. Impressions of Impressions, fragments of familiar themes, ideas and snippets on the edge of memory… This is the kind of track you need when you need something that is more than just aural wallpaper; an atmospheric soundscape that forms both a sonic backdrop, and rewards close listening. As far as I’m concerned it is right up there with the best of the genre: Tangerine Dream, Fripp and Eno, Bass Communion, early Mike Oldfield.
Apparently, there is one more Lunatic Soul album to come, one that will take its place on the “Life” side of the Circle of Life and Death, and I am very curious about how this album will wind things up. I say that because Through Shaded Woods has an air of finality about it; it very well could work as the last episode. But the plans have been laid out well in advance, and when that eighth album comes, it will spell the end of a remarkable musical journey.
Chris Garth: guitars, effects, synths, piano, percussion, saw
James Bridges: bass, synths, effects
Dale Forster: drums and percussion
1. Power of Three
4. A Bundle of Limbs
6. A Conversation About Fire
7. Cold Harbour
Upcdownc is a U.K. band who has existed for close to 20 years, which gives them a rather impressive history and a lot of experience. Kudos, frankly, to any band who has slogged it out for nearly two decades in an increasingly unforgiving industry. They currently slot into the sludge/doom metal genre, with lots of post-metal crossover (especially in earlier days). Their latest album, Score, distills a lot of that sound and experience into a solidly atmospheric package.
Score is an album of mood pieces and often intense riffage, and unlike the last offering (I, Awake from 2017), itis entirely instrumental — or at least as close to it as makes no difference. The tracks are based on repeated themes that build slowly, dark and unsettling, charge ahead, and then drop back into slow contemplation. There are separate songs, but the album should be taken as a whole — the tracks slide seamlessly one into the next, and while each piece does evoke its own mood, they work better as part of an overall experience — and that experience is one of building unease, a vague anxiety that drifts through the whole album, and is finally softened by the last track, “Cold Harbour”.
This, of course, makes it more difficult to focus on a specific “best” track, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with “Arc” — the longest piece on the album, and one that reflects the structure of the album as a whole: a slow, guitar-based build into a heavy-duty headbanging chordfest, then back to moody contemplation. The single “Miar” takes a similar trajectory.
Overall, Score is a strong offering from these guys, with lots of atmosphere, slow and heavy by turns, and nicely succinct. And the title fits: the album could easily work as the backdrop to some unsettling Netflix drama. If you like your stoner rock doom-laden, or your psych rock sludgy and intense, Score may be for you.
A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
Back in July, I observed that the music of 2019 consisted largely of music I missed from 2018; and that continued through the rest of the year. However, new music also continued to appear, and most (but not all) of the expected releases finally materialized (exceptions: the new Body Count, and the oft-delayed new Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster, theoretically due early in 2020).
Overall, I find the musical year has been a bit lacking — almost all of the albums range from definitely listenable to very good, but none of them strayed into Great territory. Even the best album of the year has a handful of songs that could have been left off. Out of the 10 in the final list (and a shorter list this year than has been the case lately), I can listen to only 4 others in their entirety without my attention drifting; the rest are either solidly competent without being outstanding in any way, or have some excellent tracks among general indifference. This may be the first year where this has happened.
At any rate, on to the list, from 10 to 1.
10. Queensrÿche: The Verdict
My first Queensrÿche album; I have avoided them largely for the same reason I do not listen to Iron Maiden: I cannot stand operatic metal vocals. However, the tracks are solid, listenable, professional hard rock, the sort of album you can play when something is needed that isn’t quite aural wallpaper but also doesn’t demand a lot of attention. Satisfyingly heavy and melodic.
9. Torche: Admission
If you like it short, no pretensions, sludgy and heavy, these guys deliver. They can certainly settle into a groove when needed, but most of the songs here are brief and to the point.
8. Front Line Assembly: Wake Up the Coma
The return of the Canadian industrial stalwarts, first new material for a few years, and a few guests included. I still don’t think FLA is as good as Noise Unit (another Bill Leeb project) at its best, but they are legends.
7. 3Teeth: Metawar
The third album from the guys on the front lines of industrial metal, presenting their dark vision of the state of the world today. It is a hard, polished album, perhaps less gritty and fierce than their last one (<shutdown.exe>) and honestly I think it suffers for that.
6. Pelican: Nighttime Stories
It’s hard to believe these guys have been around for almost 20 years, but they are indisputably one of the best known instrumental post-metal outfits in the world, and this new album just reaffirms why.
5. The Tea Party: Black River EP
This year marks 30 years of existence (more or less — there was a hiatus for a few years) for this Canadian trio, although they have not been very active lately. A new album in 2014, few shows here and there, a Canadian tour in 2016, but little else. Late in 2018 they played a few gigs (I caught them in Toronto) in support of a new EP called Black River, and this was released at the end of November.
Generally I like songs here and there across their discography but nothing like an entire album, but this EP — six tracks over about 20 minutes — is surprisingly good. Very strong bluesy rock, rather less pretentious than is often the case with Jeff Martin; there really are no weak songs at all. I’m almost tempted to move this EP up a slot in the ratings, but for sentimentality’s sake I will leave it here.
4. Pretty Maids: Undress Your Madness
The fourth album of all new material since 2010, the year of their resurrection; it is safe to say that this past decade has been one of the strongest in their career, which says something considering that career spans damn near 40 years. I discovered them in 2016 with their album Kingmaker, (review here) and it was a revelation.
The Pretty Maids formula remains untouched: intersperse killer hard-rock stompers with monster metal face-melters, toss in the occasional hard rock ballad (which these guys do so well), keep melody to the forefront, and feature the work of Ken Hammer, probably one of the best and most entirely-overlooked guitarists in all of hard rock/metal. Overall, however, I think this album lacks some fundamental grittiness and drive that is present in Pandemonium (2010) and Motherland (2013), and to some extent Kingmaker. It seems a bit smoother, maybe looking back to an earlier era. It starts out with a huge bang, but it is hard for the rest of the album to live up to those three opening tracks. It is a very good album, but not the best they’ve done these past 10 years (that title track, though…!!). One does hope for the best of course, given that Ronnie Atkins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
3. Russian Circles: Blood Year
In the July post, I observed that I had only heard the new Russian Circles once, but it certainly held a lot of promise; I think it is safe to say (seeing where the album landed in the top 10) that it has lived up to that promise. Blood Year consolidates the band’s reputation as maybe the best out there at what they do, uncompromising instrumental post-metal, delivered with all the professionalism and passion the guys are capable of. I’m not about to argue whether it is their best album, but there is very little wrong with it. And the accompanying tour may well be one of the best I’ve seen from them.
2. Klone: Le Grand Voyage
The Frenchmen have surely delivered this year. Back in 2015 they released Here Comes the Sun, which marked a rather new prog-driven sound for them, and gained them a whole new following. Le Grand Voyage continues even farther down that road; they have left most traces of their metal past behind and have thoroughly embraced the lush, orchestral sound of the last album while completely avoiding the self-referential prog tropes that mar the presentations of so many current “prog” outfits. Le Grand Voyage is gloriously melodic, cinematic in scope, with some very immersive tracks (“Yonder”, and “Breach” particularly); alas it is not completely consistent in quality but definitely one of the best albums of the year in any genre.
1. New Model Army: From Here
NMA: another of those outfits that has existed for more than 3 decades, with a solid and dedicated following; this time however I wasn’t completely oblivious to their existence since a good friend happens to be a fan, and had recommended them before this, but somehow the appeal passed me by. But again, Spotify to the rescue: a song from their 2016 album appeared in my recommendations, and playing that led me to try the new album.
Which intrigued me enough to play it again, and then I noticed the lyrics.
At this point (due to space constraints) I’ll just observe that I tend to be fairly critical of lyrics and with few exceptions I don’t spend much time with them. But I am happy to be surprised by the exceptions.
Justin Sullivan is a master lyricist. I am extremely impressed, enormously captivated by his narrative power, his irony, his acute ability to grasp and illustrate relationships with a few well-placed words. The full review of this album will follow, and I could probably just write the whole thing with quotes from the songs. But of course, they are songs, and one cannot neglect the music: the album is almost entirely bass-and-drum driven, with acoustic guitar laid over that foundation. On this spare core are layered plenty of orchestral effects, heavy guitar, lots of density where needed … and entwined throughout are those words, telling us things about ourselves that we often don’t want to think about.
It is not a perfect album; there are a few tracks that could easily have been left off to the overall benefit of the album — they just are not up to the quality of the rest and end up as distractions.
I’ll leave you with “The Weather”. I’ll let you cogitate on it yourself, but if there is any song out there that is a song for our current times, this is it.