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→
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.
While I was jotting down notes and observations for my To the Bone review, I decided to revisit what I wrote about Steven Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. I was struck by how similar my thoughts about that album are to the new one. I could probably just copy/paste chunks of that review here and change the song titles. I won’t do that, of course, because they really are not the same, but clearly it shows that the albums are consistent in their effect, if nothing else. (See the review for Hand. Cannot. Erase.here)
It is needless to point out that when Steven Wilson announces a new album, the fanbase excitement level heads into overdrive. This time Wilson released four tracks before the album itself hit, and the overall reaction to them was mixed, to say the least – enthusiasm, puzzlement, and dismay all rolled up into one roiling ball of internet pandemonium, especially around the unapologetically pop “Permanating”. This was a direction that seemed new, or at least a substantial swerve away from what many people expected him to do. Steven Wilson apparently was releasing an album of pop songs.
2015 has been a wonderful year for new music, one of the best years in recent memory. Almost all the new releases I checked out were worthwhile, even the ones that eventually didn’t make the cut. What’s more, most of the albums I found that had come out in previous years were also exceptional. It is quite the opposite of last year when I had real trouble coming up with ten albums to talk about; this year the difficulty is deciding what to leave out. That is why I have gone with a Top 15 of 2015. Too much is just too good.
Some clear themes have emerged: this year’s music of preference seems to be either hard and heavy post-metal, post-punk, or sludge/doom metal; or beautifully sweeping songs, lush and melodic…there are few exceptions. But pretty much all of it features lots of great powerful riffage, and real honouring of the song. Instrumental music makes up a significant portion of the albums I chose. Established artists surprised by the shift in their direction, and new artists absolutely stomped into prominence.
This was also the year that the 1980s dominated: the influences from that decade are all over the damned place. Two bands active in the 80s that I hadn’t paid any attention to for years (or ever) blasted out of the past with monster releases. At least three other bands heavily reference 80s sounds (although technically one will not release their album until next year; at this point a single is available). Several decent live albums were released but only one snuck into the list. Live albums are generally not regarded as legitimate candidates for year-end lists, and the one that made it into mine was actually released in 2014, but fuck it, this is my list and I’ll include what I want.
So: onto the list, starting at Number 15 and working upward.
Ghost are a band with a clever, well-formulated gimmick, and they are not unskilled, and Meliora is an album of nice poppy metal, nothing too straining, pleasant to listen to, but I do not understand why everyone seems to think this is a great album. No, it is not “great”, it is well done but not exceptional by any means, and there could be other contenders for the bottom spot that didn’t quite make it. This is the kind of album I play when I do not want to pay too much attention to what I am listening to: it has to have some merits in terms of good song structure and decent melodies, but not too demanding of one’s attention. Meliora fits.
The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet
I do admire Matt Stevens; he is a dedicated guitarist and untiring in his self-promotion, which one must be in this day of DIY musicianship. However I tend to prefer his band project, The Fierce and the Dead, over his solo efforts. Magnet is a brief EP that came out this year showcasing their eclectic style, hard-rocking somewhat freeform math/post-rock.
Steven Wilson: Hand Cannot Erase
I write this as I am listening to Insurgentes, Wilson’s first solo album. The differences between these two albums, the first, and his fourth, could not be more stark. Insurgentes is superb; but I find that listening to H.C.E is an exercise in sheer determination to get through it; it must be done though because it is, you know, Steven Wilson and he is god (or something). Naturally, the album is superbly executed with exceptional performances by the musicians, beautiful melodies, and is at times almost poppy (a welcome shift away from the jazz influences of the last two albums) — and while it is clearly meant to grab at the heartstrings I find it so obviously manipulative that it just leaves me cold. But you can read my (rather generous) review here.
As the end of 2015 looms, it is time to start thinking about the Musical Year that Was. I will begin with a two – part post on the gigs I attended, starting at the bottom and working my way to the Show of the Year.
I took in a lot of gigs this year, more than I realized. A few of those were post-rock or related shows in the style that generally does not appeal to me; I went in large part because some notable bands in the genre passed through town. I was willing to give them a chance because more than once I have been pleasantly surprised by a band’s live performance when I was not a fan of their albums. The major news of course was the return of Riverside to North America; I managed to take in four of their shows via a massive roadtrip.
Swans, (Opera House)
I was actually excited to see Swans, a rather legendary band in some corners, and one that has been around for a long time. Their last two albums have been interesting. But…an hour and three long drony meandering musical excursions later I had had enough. Bored to tears, I left, the first time I had walked out of a gig in memory. Even a naked Thor Harris was not enough to keep me there.
Mono (Lee’s Palace)
Mono is a well-regarded Japanese post-rock outfit and would seem a shame to miss them, but that slow atmospheric going-nowhere-fast style of post rock is just not for me. I stuck it out for most of the gig but split early. I got the point, and I can say that I saw them.
Haken (The Hard Rock)
I wrote a brief and rather scathing review of their album The Mountain for Prog Archives, and I still do not understand what appeal these guys have. However, I decided to take a chance because sometimes a band whose studio stuff you don’t like can put on a decent live show (see: Anathema)…but nope. Their derivative style of prog is no better live and the frontman is exceedingly irritating with all his rock-star posturing.
Explosions in the Sky (Nathan Phillips Square)
Another iconic atmospheric post-rock outfit, this time from the US. It was a free gig around the PanAm games that were held in Toronto over the summer, and that was the main reason I went; I already knew I was not fond of them. They were energetic, and skilled, but all the songs ended up sounding the same.
We’re halfway through the year so I thought I would do a quick run-down of the music that has caught my attention up to this point. There are not a lot of albums on the list; for a variety of reasons I have not been knocking myself out seeking new music. But finding it is never a problem – there is far more great music out there than anyone could ever listen to, and many of my friends have reasonably decent taste. 🙂
It might be a short list, and not everything on there is going to make it across the finish line, but the quality of the releases has been outstanding. Let me put it this way: if this year’s no-hopers had appeared in 2014, my year-end tally would have looked quite different. Last year it was tough to come up with ten albums without padding the list; this year it is going to be hard to leave things off. If the quality of the upcoming releases is as high as what has already appeared, I may simply make a Top 15.
This is a year that demonstrates beyond all doubt that the best, most engaging, most sheerly awesome sounds are being made by people no-one has ever heard of, or who have been forgotten—folks who have nothing to lose and in the overall scheme of things (especially in the current musical economic reality) little to gain; when the icons seem to have become mired in hype and self-referential twaddle, and when genres have become meaningless (not that they ever were really meaningful, mind you).
So without further ado, here are the best (so far) of the maybe 16 albums I considered, in roughly reverse order. Needless to say this is subject to change at any time, and is pretty much bound to change as the new crop of upcoming releases hits.
Take a cut of the heavier, proggier end of Steven Wilson and season it with a judicious pinch of jazz fusion, simmer with a touch of Blackfield and Grace for Drowning, and serve over a bed of Porcupine Tree. Present on a silver platter of fan-hype and accolades and Voila! Hand. Cannot. Erase., the new Steven Wilson solo album.
I’ve been playing this more or less regularly since the iTunes download arrived (read: at least once a day) in order to get a feel for it. I’m not sure yet where it fits in the Wilson solo canon, but my overall impression is of an album of pleasant tedium interrupted by moments of sheer beauty. And alas I find that there are not nearly enough moments of sheer beauty, or any sort of other exceptional moments. It is all very competently done (as is ever the case with Wilson): well composed, well sung, well played, but overall it tastes rather…not so much bland, as restrained.
On the plus side: HCE is poppier, proggier, and more purely face-melting heavy than anything Steven Wilson has done solo for a long time, and this is not a bad thing. These are skills that are not lacking in the Wilson musical recipe book, and his prog-pop (pop-prog?) work is nicely concise and to the point. The long instrumental passages and jazzy solo stretches of the last two albums are (mostly) gone. There are instrumental breaks, of course, but they move the song along and one doesn’t get the feeling they were stuck in there as a showcase for somebody’s chops. This is a clear improvement. The introduction and careful use of the female vocalist has worked out better than a lot of people expected: Ninet Tayeb has a wonderful voice and her parts are perfectly placed.
Wilson does have a gift for the beautiful melody, and on an album as pop-flavoured as this one, he really shines. The title track is catchy, infectious, upbeat, and surprisingly heavy at times; I’ve heard people say that it might be a bit too Blackfield-ish, but you know, he does this sort of thing so well. The man has such a vast repertoire; I see no problem with his pulling influences from wherever he needs to get them. Likewise the intense heavy moments are reminiscent of the metal-ish days of Porcupine Tree – which suits me fine because those were my favourite PT albums. It’s nice to hear them again.
I wish there were more tracks as completely immersive as “Hand Cannot Erase” but unfortunately the other stunning moments are kind of scattershot, popping up in the midst of pleasant but otherwise unremarkable tracks: the last third of “Routine”, the first bit of “First Regret/3 Years Older” for example.
And on the downside: HCE has more heart and soul than The Raven that Refused to Sing possessed, and much less (thank god) sheer wankery than was on Grace for Drowning, but despite the beautifully heartbreaking moments and joyful metal heaviness, I find it lacks a fundamental sense of adventure or daring. It is just so polite and restrained. The most applicable description is “nice”, with all the innate blandness implied in the word, and the great moments are not enough to overcome that final sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the album. It could have been so much more.
I will wind up on a more positive note because the album does end well: “Ancestral” (at least the last two thirds of it) is a mighty, mighty song. It. Kicks. Ass. in the way Deadwing kicked ass, and there are sections that could have come directly from Deadwing.
And “Happy Returns/Ascendant Here on…” is my favourite song on the album by far, heartbreaking and transcendently beautiful.
Alas, there just are not enough of these moments on this album. It is a tasty stew, but it is not Cordon Bleu.