The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
I’ll start with the odds and ends of 2018. A few EPs were released that deserve mention but aren’t really long enough to be included in the album list. As well, some of the albums that didn’t make the list in the end did provide a great track or two, even if the rest of the album wasn’t up to snuff. And as always, I find stuff during the year that was released the year before, I just wasn’t paying attention at the time.
Gary Numan: The Fallen
An addendum to the spectacular Savage album from 2017, the ep provides 3 additional tracks.
I might not have had much luck finding interesting stuff this year, but that doesn’t mean other people had the same problem.
“Hm,” said one friend in a review. “I keep coming back to this album. Except I don’t like the singer much.”
Okay, thought I, let me check it out.
I keep coming back to the album again and again as well. And again. And I like the singer just fine.
I had been vaguely aware of the name “Osada Vida” for some time, but I had no idea who or what the entity was, or where they hailed from, let alone what they sounded like. Just one of the many references to musicians that pass through my newsfeed on a daily basis, too many to really be able to pursue. As it turns out Osada Vida is a Polish outfit who have been around for over 20 years, with a handful of albums and various changes of personnel; the current lineup includes a new singer/lyricist, Marcel Lisiak. I will confess to not yet having checked out the back catalogue, so I don’t know how he compares to the last guy — or how Variomatic compares to anything else they’ve done.
What I can say is this: whoever they are, they bring a ton of songwriting and musicianship chops to the table. The album is essentially keyboard-and guitar-heavy prog, but it also showcases a variety of other influences: a bit of folk, a bit of jazz-rock, a bit of classical — all intertwined with consummate skill. A showcase track for this is “The Line”, which over its 6 minutes moves from heavy to a smooth instrumental break, ramps it up again, and finally finishes with a little funky fusion. This is a marvellous piece, and essentially is a microcosm of the whole album. Lots of ideas swirl around but they are assembled and presented with confidence and care; melody is honoured. Lisiak’s light, accentless tenor (he sings in English) does fit well with the songs. I don’t know how it would come across live, but it works in the studio.
Variomatic is an album of immense sophistication and nuance, impeccably executed, as smooth as the smoothest single-malt, accomplished and as smart as hell, and a joy to listen to every time I put it on. It just makes me feel good to hear it. That being said, I suspect this album will not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It is an outstanding offering, and is likely to see a lot of future play from me. If I am going to listen to prog, this is what I want to hear: something that sounds fresh and new and doesn’t rehash the well-worn tropes that so many modern prog bands seem to think is necessary. I hope I can convince some other folks to give this album a try.
Erik Martensson: Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Magnus Ulfsted: drums
My Fear and My Faith
Because of Us
Walk Me Through the Fire
New Life Begins
The Final War
Rock’s Still Rolling
The Best Thing I Never Had
Back in 2016 two old pros of the nordic hard rock scene: Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark), and Erik Martensson of Eclipse (Sweden) joined up to make the first Nordic Union album. It turned out to be a decent, listenable amalgam of the two bands, with one or two great hard-rock stompers (notably the track “Hypocrisy”). It was good enough that news of a follow-up was welcome.
Three singles were released and two of them showed some serious promise; alas the third was a slow moving and unabashedly political take-down of Donald Trump. I didn’t much like it, and it remains my least favourite track on the album.
At any rate, the album also has a lot of slower, more ballady numbers, and while Atkins has a real talent for those kinds of songs they are not my favourites, I prefer the face-melters. So I was prepared to be disappointed again, for the most part. Two or three good rocking tracks and an okay batch for the rest of the album…but somehow, I kept listening. And somehow, the whole album started to dig its way in. I realized after about a week or so that I was listening to this album – all of it – pretty relentlessly. It was also supplying way more than its share of my daily dose of earworms.
Overall Second Coming is much more consistent than the first album; I find the songwriting to be more mature and confident, which I suppose is to be expected with the experience these guys bring to the table. Even the slower tracks have a satisfying heaviness. “It Burns” is still not great, but it is easier to overlook now. Lots of melody here, lots of thick guitar, and of course Atkins’ mighty sledgehammer vocals. The standout tracks for sure are “Walk Me Through the Fire”, and “Because of Us”, both relentless hard-as-granite headbangers, and I have an inexplicable fondness for “The Final War”. Ronnie Atkins’ Christianity is not a thing I have ever heard him say a single word about, but it is clearly evident given some of the songs that make their way onto Pretty Maids albums. This track is explicitly The Book of Revelation’s End of the World with a pounding beat, and to be quite honest if we are all to die in a conflagration of good versus evil (which these days does not seem so farfetched), it may as well be to a heavy metal soundtrack.
Mariusz Duda: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and hammond organ, theremin on “Wasteland”
Maciej Meller: guitar solo on “Acid Rain – Part 2: Dancing Ghosts”, “Guardian Angel”, “The Struggle for Survival Part II – Battle Royale’” and “River Down Below”
Michał Jelonek – violin on “The Day After”, “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Mateusz Owczarek – guitar solo on “Vale of Tears”
The Day After
Acid Rain: Part I – Where are we now?; Part II – Dancing Ghosts
Vale of Tears
Struggle for Survival: Part I – Dystopia; Part II – Battle Royale
River Down Below
The Night Before
If you have been reading reviews for Wasteland, you already know how they tend to start, so I will not repeat all that. In summary: Wasteland is probably the most fraught album in Riverside’s career, awaited with enormous anticipation, apprehension, trepidation…and so on. As fans, we all know why.
The big question is: Did the decision to continue as a trio, with no permanent replacement for the beloved Piotr Grudziński, actually work? Did they pull it off? The responses have ranged from enthusiastic “absolutely!”s to carefully worded versions of “nope”, and everything in between. The only thing we knew for sure about Wasteland was that it wasn’t going to be the same as the previous albums, but Mariusz Duda always says that. I did have a hint of the sound to come, hearing something early in the spring albeit in an unfinished form, and I liked it very much; but auditory memory being what it is (bad), I wasn’t willing to bet the farm on that few minutes of a demo heard once.
Three singles were released in the weeks before the album hit. Promotion, marketing – it is an understandable practice, but it is fair to say that for the most part, these songs caused more consternation than relief among the fanbase. I was certainly among those consternated. The first, “Vale of Tears”, despite some interesting moments, came across as a rather cliché poppy mashup of … well, everything. What on earth was that all about? There was a gradual improvement with the next two such that by the time “Lament” appeared, folks had gotten their hopes up again…but still, doubt had been sown.
Catherine Morgan, Chris Brierly, Mark Pharoah, Robert Woollard: strings
Mark Barratt: trumpet
Eden on the Air
Eat it Up Worms Hero
Fiery Gun Hand
Insect Hooves on Lassie
Fairy Mary Mag
A Horse’s Tail
Wireless/Peril on the Sea
Flap Off You Beak
Quiet as a Mouse
Red Fire Coming Out of His Gills
Nurses Whispering Verses
Once upon a time, I watched a YouTube video. It featured several middle-aged, somewhat grizzled gentlemen and a younger man with wild black hair, playing various instruments and videoed from rather odd angles. The bass player sat, substantial and impassive, wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear.
What I saw (and heard) is hard to describe – I barely understood it the first time through and had to immediately watch it about six more times. Whatever these guys were doing, it was like nothing I had ever heard (or seen) before. Imagine a slightly psychotic pop song, except with more rhythmic shifts and time-signature changes and sudden breaks and mad musical ideas packed into four minutes than most artists can fit on an entire album, pulled off by guys who looked like the sort of guys who get together to jam on amateur night at the local pub. And pulled off absolutely flawlessly, tighter-than-tight, with maniacal skill.
The band was, of course, the Cardiacs, and the video was “Jibber and Twitch Rehearsal”. This review isn’t about that video, but it illustrates the basic process I went through while listening to Sing to God. Which I believe (but honestly don’t remember) was my next real foray into the labyrinthine musical miracle that is Tim Smith and Cardiacs, after poking around on YouTube and ending up overwhelmed.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
Marcin Odyniec: saxophone
Sinfonietta Consonus Orchestra
Blood on the Tightrope
Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes
Red Light Escape
A Thousand Shards of Heaven
It is no secret by now (to anyone) that Fractured, the fifth Lunatic Soul album, was not the album of 2017 for me. I stuck it in at Number 5 but that was probably higher than it should have been. To say that I was disappointed and baffled would be an understatement. No matter how hard I tried, it just wouldn’t take. Fractured is anomalous, an outlier, straddling the border between Lunatic Soul and Riverside, not really one or the other: but perhaps closer in spirit to the last half of Love, Fear and the Time Machine than to any Lunatic Soul album.
It is hard to pin down exactly where the problem lies. I know this might sound a bit…self-serving, but the warning bells rang when so many people, heretofore not particular LS fans, embraced the album with enthusiasm. Lunatic Soul is a project with a fundamentally different feel than Riverside, darker and more ambient, less hard (but not “soft” by any means) dense and percussive, more adventurous and syncretic, perhaps even more nuanced. It is a project that has a rather more specialized audience, and perhaps a more dedicated one; certainly a much smaller following than Riverside. So it seemed distinctly odd that suddenly so many Riverside fans should profess to love the new album so much.
It is indeed an album of high accomplishment, with the trademark beautiful melodic passages that are a Mariusz Duda forté, and with some very powerful moments. But somehow, it doesn’t add up. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts. It is an album of fragments, a couple of very good songs (“Blood on the Tightrope”, “Fractured”) and exceptional bits from other tracks (“A Thousand Shards of Heaven”, “Battlefield”). But it has few of the attributes of Lunatic Soul. Duda has been moving away from lush analogue sounds towards more electronically-driven music, so the sound is sparser, more open, cooler. The rich density of small percussion is largely absent, replaced by a lot of guitar and electronic effects. This trend began with Walking on a Flashlight Beam, but that album retains the Lunatic Soul gestalt. Fractured has moved in a different direction.
Two reasons for this post: 1) to make a list of the stuff that is out/will be coming out/has been rumoured might appear at some point this year; and 2) to keep the blog alive. I really do need to actually write stuff for it…otherwise why am I dishing out $150 a year?
It might be a bit early to talk about new releases (for me; I do not accumulate new music at the pace of some others I know), but there does seem to be enough interesting stuff upcoming to make it worth taking a look to the future. There is a spate of albums coming out this spring, and then we wait for the fall season. If certain rumours/promises come true, it could be another epic year.
So far in 2018:
The Temperance Movement: A Deeper Cut : This album is seriously kicking my ass. Great blues rock from England. These guys are sharp and tight as hell, and clearly know what they are doing.
Dope Default: Ofrenda: Loose and dirty hard/stoner rock from Greece. Ofrenda is their debut album, and it sounds like a debut album, but it is certainly listenable and has some good moments. They are worth keeping an eye on.
Upcoming for sure/preordered (or will be):
Riverside: I have heard one track from this album, in demo form … and ohboy ohboy ohboy. If the album lives up to that promise…well, The Boys are Back. Fingers crossed.
Lunatic Soul: Under the Fragmented Sky (EP) – tracks that did not make it on to Fractured but are worth a release. As above – I heard one track from this, and it revives my hopes for a return to the LS of old—or more precisely the LS that sets hooks deep in my soul.
Solar Fields: Ourdom – time for some classic industrial electronica. I like some of his stuff more than others; I preordered the album on the basis of the youtube preview. I hope it is worth it.
Amorphis: Queen of Time. One track (“The Bee”) released so far. The Finnish folk-metallers sound much more symphonic and expansive, while retaining the heaviness and their signature growl/clean vocal tradeoff. Based on this track I’m not sure it will equal the last album.
Awooga: Conduit – nice heavy metal/hard rock, they had a great EP from 2016 which I would play more often if I didn’t have to switch to 45 rpm (details details…). A couple tracks already available to preview, they seem to have developed a more spacious sound.
The Fierce and the Dead: The Euphoric — I like them, but often what they do tends to get a bit too far into the technical/alt/art-rock region for me to love them. But when they are good they are great, and I think the new one holds some promise. Preordered based on the released track.
Toundra: Vortex – I have all the previous albums from these Spanish post-rockers, that I don’t play all that often…but once in a while they hit the spot. The single “Cobra” sounds pretty much like Toundra, dense and heavy.
Front Line Assembly: WarMech – new soundtrack for a new game. I find myself kind of up and down about these guys, I much prefer Leeb’s other project Noise Unit, but on the strength of the previous game OST (AirMech, which is pretty nice) I sprang for the preorder.
VNV Nation: Noire – Out in October, described as “dark and intense”, first studio album since Transnational in 2013.
Leech – The only Swiss band in my collection. It has been what – 5 years since their last one? Six? Anyway, it was a pretty nice post-metal album, and the only album I tried purely because of the cover. Be interesting to hear what the new one will sound like.
Nordic Union: wherein Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark) lends his iron pipes to the sound of the hard rock outfit Eclipse (Sweden). At this point it is just the promise of a new release, no other info. But that is enough for me: hopefully it will be the same kind of straight-up kick-ass hard rock as the first one, which I love.
Rumoured for 2018:
Au4: Last fall an American internet radio guy scheduled a playthrough of 2014’s …And Down Goes the Sky, and had the guys live on the air to talk about it. They said a new album should appear this year. I surely hope so…if it is anything like that last one, it will be a strong contender for album of the year.
Missed from 2017:
Hypergiant: Father Sky – interesting doom/psych rock. It has its moments, and the track “Colossi” is truly epic, but the album might be a bit too much all at once.
Believe: VII Widows – a band that has been around for a while, in various incarnations, guitarist Mirek Gil’s vehicle since the end of Collage. I am not a fan of long-winded modern prog, as many of you know, but VII Widows is surprisingly good, very nice arrangements and passages, and I must say beautiful guitar themes (Gil on here reminds me of Steve Hackett, and there is nothing wrong with that). I am not crazy about the somewhat overblown and mannered style of the vocalist, but there are few enough vocal sections that he ends up intruding less on the experience than would otherwise be the case. Nice and listenable.
Decapitated: Anticult – I confess that I checked this out mostly out of morbid curiosity; the band found itself in deep shit in late 2017 while on tour in America (i.e. they were tossed in jail in Seattle for three months; charges were all dropped). Not generally being a fan of thrash metal (or so I thought), I had not paid them any attention. Well, you just never know: when I listened to Anticult I found, inexplicably, that I liked it a whole lot: in fact, it would have been one of the stronger releases of last year had I found it sooner.