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….
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.
It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect. The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube. A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal. It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.
This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts. In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap. Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.
2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off. Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different. The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest. In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.
After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out. Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience. That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up. Continue reading Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2→
The Music of 2017, Part 2 — Honorable mention, and albums 17 to 8.
You can read the introduction to the Music of the Year posts here.
Tune – III
I did not receive this album until the second week of December, which is too late for it to be considered for a spot in the Album of the Year list. But I do want to comment on it.
Tune are a rather odd bunch, a quirky art rock quartet out of Poland; I liked their second album (Identity) from three years back, showcasing clever and accessible pop songs but with a bit of an edge, but still there was something a bit too fey about them.
III is a step in the right direction. It is a very short album, pretty much EP-length, but I have never really been concerned with that sort of thing. It is better to have an album on the short side than one that outstays its welcome. At any rate: the songs here are darker, heavier, much edgier, demonstrating maturity and experience, and less quirk. The production is rich and up-close, showcasing the nice chunky bass sound and guitar – suddenly it is obvious that these guys are pretty damned good musicians. Hopefully this album will bring them a bit more attention – it is worth the listen.
Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Steven Wilson continues down the road well-traveled as he heads closer and closer to pure pop. The last album had its pop moments, but this one Is pretty unapologetic: breakthrough is what he wants, and To the Bone gets him a lot nearer. It is not a bad album but it is a rather boring one, really; Wilson is sticking to the safe route. There are those who excoriate him for his apparent abandonment of the prog that made him so beloved in the first place, but he has always been an International Pop Star at heart. Album review is here.
Necro Deathmort – Overland
Another new album from one of the more prolific of the ambient electronic acts out there. Necro Deathmort never seem to be overt: they don’t promote themselves much, they don’t have a major social media presence, but they never quit and somehow I have amassed quite a collection of their stuff. Overland is smooth and chill and unsettling, as befits the best of their music. The duo appeared on Steven Wilson’s latest album and they have slyly made use of the same colour scheme on Overland.
Eclipse – Monumentum
Eclipse is a hard rock quartet from Sweden, been around for a few years now, and they make pretty decent no-frills rock songs: melodic and heavy and not too long, definitely worth a listen or two. I like the album, and I really like two or three tracks from it. Eclipse joined with Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins to make one of the better hard rock efforts from 2016, Nordic Union. Rumour has it they will do it again in 2018. Thumbs up for that one.
Glass Apple Bonzai – In the Dark
Upbeat synthpop from Toronto, cheerful retrowave about satanism and devil-worship. Well…why not? It is actually a pretty good album. And the guy does have a great voice.
Nathan Gray Collective – Until the Darkness Takes Us
In July, I said this: “At some point in his life, Nathan Gray lost his faith in God and it made him very very angry.” Well, he’s still pretty pissed off, but the album has grown on me a bit. Dark and dense and pretty heavy at times, and Gray certainly sounds like he means what he says.
These guys are a metalcore quartet from Sheffield, been around for a decade or so, and with You are We they have created a pleasingly melodic but face-meltingly heavy collection of tracks well worth checking out. Alternating between screams and clean singing, they have a bit of a Linkin Park vibe, but in a good way.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
An outfit that has been around for a while, but I can’t say I have paid them much notice. They do seem to shift styles and genres to a considerable degree, however, and this incarnation has managed to catch my attention. This version of Ulver seems very synth-driven, dense and musical, and they do some interesting things here. Definitely worth a listen.
The Quill – Born From Fire
Stoner blues rock from the southern US, an album about redemption, reclamation, conversion, finding God.
Oh wait – these guys are Swedes.
Well, they do this thing very well indeed. I’ve been putting a lot of mileage on this album, and if I’d started playing it a bit earlier, it might have risen higher than 10. It is certainly engaging, and I like it a lot better than I thought I would.
Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
Everyone needs a little pop in their lives, I think. But make it good pop. Real pop, heavy and fun – like Royal Blood, the British bass-and-drums power duo. These guys are pretentious, popular, and very good at what they do, and I have an unaccountable fondness for them. The album is short and to the point, and they put out so much wattage you would swear they have onstage help – but I have seen them. They don’t.
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
I never really paid much mind to Mastodon, and at this point in the year I don’t even remember why I listened to the new album. But I did, and I liked it a whole lot, and went to see them live and everything. In the meantime Emperor of Sand continued to grow on me. I don’t know if I will dig into the back catalogue, but I’m happy with this one.
It was difficult to know what to do with this album. Clearly it is the number one album of my year, but it didn’t take too many listens to realize that this was an album I could not in good conscience stick into the same list with the other, mere music offerings – it was hardly fair to them. At any rate, since it transcends just about everything else I’ve heard—not only this year but maybe for the last decade, I decided to put it into its own category. So yes, my list goes to eleven. 😀
The actual review for this album can be found here. Please read it if you want a detailed, somewhat rational take on it.
I have to admit, I was somewhat anxious about how this album was going to fit in with the other three Lunatic Soul albums. It is difficult to describe what this music means to me–hell I wouldn’t even call it “music”…whatever it is that is at the heart and soul of Lunatic Soul: the approach and sounds, the musical philosophy and vision…it absolutely enmeshes itself into me. It is essential like blood and bone and breath. I am astonished that something like this even exists out there, and abjectly grateful to whatever fates might be at work that I was able to find it (or that it found me…there is a case to be made for that).
But enough of that.
I needn’t have worried. WoaFB is different, but only in the details. The essence of Lunatic Soul has not changed, in fact maybe even more Lunatic Soul-ish…likely because its creator was more focused and it is a true solo album, with no dilution of vision through other people (yes, there is a drummer, but clearly Mariusz Duda and Wawrzyniec Dramowicz are on the same wavelength).
However…now I worry that if ever I am stranded on that Desert Island, forty percent of my album allocation is already accounted for. I wonder if I can pretend it is a single item….
Since this is more than an Album of the Year…it gets the full treatment.
Released October 2014 on Kscope and Mystic Productions (Poland)
Pages turn in a book…we hear the sea: slow waves rattling on the shingled beach, an echo-y one-note bass-line, deep in the background, begins….Walking on a Flashlight Beam, the new offering from Lunatic Soul, starts where “Impression IV” on the third album left off–with the rolling hiss of waves on the shore, a deep ominous pulse of electronics in the background. It is an album where books, the sea, impressions, imagination, dreams, and fears figure large; an album that its creator struggled to make and almost didn’t. But it is here, and what a gift it is.
Walking on a Flashlight Beam is the fourth Lunatic Soul album, the solo project and eponymous alter ego of Mariusz Duda, the leader of the Polish prog outfit Riverside. It works as a “prequel” to the lyric story arc of the first two Lunatic Soul albums, although that may not have been the initial intent when Duda went into the studio. He has been uncommonly forthcoming about the difficulties he experienced: The creative roadblocks and the subsequent withdrawal into personal reclusion eventually inspired the core idea of the album–the self-imposed isolation by individuals for creative or psychological reasons (such as hikikomori – young Japanese men who choose to seclude themselves and experience the outside world through a virtual filter). This phenomenon becomes the central motif of the album: Duda does not simply help us to imagine such isolation, he leads us straight into the agonized heart and soul of loneliness, solitude, the dark terror and desperate hope of someone who has chosen to cut himself off completely from the world. Despite that, it is a haunting, poignant, and heartbreakingly-beautiful journey we embark upon, with Mariusz Duda as our Ferryman.
It is difficult to convey how remarkably cohesive this album is. Each song fits exactly where it belongs, and there are very few wasted moments. Mood, music, lyrics are all perfectly intertwined and complementary, masterfully controlled; this consistency gives the album an organic ebb and flow that makes the 64 minutes seem like the shortest hour in the world. It is also truly a solo album: Duda has written every word and note, and played every instrument except the drums, which he has left to the almost preternatural skill of Wawrzyniec Dramowicz. This gives the album a sort of single-minded intensity not present in the other Lunatic Soul albums, and the result is almost cinematic in its vision and feel.
The album begins with “Shutting Out the Sun” and “Cold”, with their eerie ambient rhythms, winding synthesized bass lines and haunted vocals, slowly building up an unsettling sense of foreboding and unease. In “Cold” there seems a faint hope of redemption: the protagonist of the lyrics has shut himself away but still longs for human contact. Alas the soul-consuming terrors return in “Gutter”. This is a monster of a song. With its hypnotic eastern-flavoured themes, a dense, intricate bass line, and pounding, implacable rhythms, this astonishing track is perhaps the most primal and erotic music ever to come from the creative imagination of Mariusz Duda–it is damned near pornographic. No wonder it is a fan favourite.
At the end of “Gutter” our hero triple-locks his door. The largely instrumental middle part of the album carries us into an internal world of anxiety, isolation and imaginings. The briefly ambient “Stars Sellotaped” transitions into the jagged orthogonal rhythms and intersecting trancelike themes of the aptly-named “The Fear Within”–then a surprise: the gentle, upbeat and downright conventional “Treehouse”. This song is certainly an attention-grabber, a bright light against the dark, angst-driven mood of the rest of the album.
The last third of the album kicks off with “Pygmalion’s Ladder”, the longest and most complex track on the album, with echoes of “Gutter” in its structure: driving rhythms and oriental themes, and what may be some of Duda’s most delicate and moving singing yet. The moods in the song flit from acceptance to resignation to a final astonished terror—this is the climactic song for the protagonist, for whom a line is crossed, a fate sealed….
And with the last two tracks the mood lifts: no more fear and isolation, but the unnerving electronic buzz that cuts through the otherwise delicately beautiful “Sky Drawn in Crayon” reminds us of the darkness that lies beneath. The magnificent “Walking on a Flashlight Beam” winds up the album. This is arguably one of Mariusz Duda’s finest compositions–calming, reflective, with heartbreakingly-gorgeous singing, a ray of light to end the journey.
Walking on a Flashlight Beam is very much an electronic album, more than any of the previous Lunatic Soul offerings, and this gives it a very different feel. It is dark and downright disquieting at times, but somehow never bleak: There are very ambient trance-like moments, delicate acoustic passages, and drivingly heavy industrial moments. It is dense, textural, restless with percussion. As with all the Lunatic Soul albums, there is no electric guitar, but there are overdriven effects that mimic the sound. With Mariusz Duda at the helm we can count on two things: his silky distinctive vocals, and a focus on melody—and on this album Duda has surpassed himself. As fine as his vocals have been on all previous albums, both Lunatic Soul and Riverside—apparently that was all just practice. There are vocal and melodic moments on this album that beggar description.
In short, Walking on a Flashlight Beam is a magnificent work of art. Whatever demons drove its creation, the result is an emotional tour de force of utterly inspired songwriting and performance. It compels attention and grabs onto the soul: Duda has said that his solo project is “music for the Souls whether they be Lunatic or not”—and anyone with any kind of musical soul will be unable to escape its enormous relentless capacity to make you feel. It is definitely my album of the year, and it is likely to place very high on many year-end lists.