Tag Archives: Pelican

The Albums of 2019

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, Halford’s voice here has dropped into tolerable registers, and 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.

The State of the Music 2019 — Mid-year Update.

When I wrote the March State of the Music, the first few months of 2019 seemed to consist mostly of albums from 2018 that I missed, with most of 2019’s offerings still to come.

 At this point, many of those albums have been released, and the discovery of the older stuff continues apace. I’d like to pretty much erase last year’s Albums of 2018 posts and start again, but oh well. It’s what I had at the time, and there are a few keepers in there.

 Back in March there were three albums that had early releases: While She Sleeps — SO WHAT?, Queensrÿche — The Verdict, and Front Line Assembly — Wake Up the Coma. You can read those reviews here. It will become clearer as the year moves on how they will stack up against the rest of the offerings, but so far they are managing to hang in.

 So: on to what has appeared this year since March, a look forward to the few remaining releases (barring any surprises), and a summary of the old stuff that you should check out if you haven’t already (in a separate post since this one got long). The albums are in no particular order as yet, but it is fairly obvious which ones I like more than others.

  Continue reading The State of the Music 2019 — Mid-year Update.

The Music of 2016 — Part One

The Music of 2016

2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant.  We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one.  There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.

At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time.  This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention.  This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult.  Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10.  You get the picture.

Things didn’t start off so well.  I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:

I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year.  Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong.  In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016.  But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list.  And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows.  At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.

Oh how things changed after that….

Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica.  Some psychedelia (but just a little).  And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding.  At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions.  But good music is good music, whatever the genre.

There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good.  So for the first time I have a separate list for those.

And this is where I will begin.

The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums

These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money.  It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists.  I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).

  1.  Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016

One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release.  Well worth checking out.

 

  1. Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)

One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.

 

  1. Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares

Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.

 

  1. Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica.  It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs.  It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.

 

  1. Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music

Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen.  One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things.  Who has that kind of time?

Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done.  A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity.  But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake.  And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six.  Outstanding examples:  the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.

http://artoffact.com/album/i-am-awesome-because-i-still-buy-music-compilation-volume-one

 

  1. Porcupine Tree — Nil Recurring on vinyl.

My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album.  It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there.  But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant.  Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.