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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 Top Albums of 2015: Nos. 15 to 7

The Music of 2015

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.

 

  1. Ghost: Meliora

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

Continue reading The Top Albums of 2015: Nos. 15 to 7

The Gigs of 2015: Part 2 (Shows 8 – 1)

Continuing on with the Gigs of the Year…now we are into the good stuff.  I saw some great shows this year as well as some no-so-great.  The best concert of the year also turned out to be the last one I saw — I had high hopes for this gig, and the guys did not disappoint.

 

  1. Riverside (The Agora Ballroom, Cleveland)

This was the fourth of the four gigs in a row that I caught during the Love, Fear and the Time Machine tour in North America.  It was a difficult show; Duda was sick and exhausted, battling some kind of throat infection. Cleveland came the day after blowing the roof off in Chicago and Mariusz was essentially running on fumes, doing his best to not just phone it in but clearly struggling, short on energy and fighting his way through the songs.  However, towards the end he got a huge injection of energy when the crowd belted out Happy Birthday (and mangled his name; his expression was priceless).  That really seemed to make him happy and boosted the last few songs.

Cl_MD and PG

 

  1. Árstíðir (Church of St. Stephen’s-in-the-Field)

I can’t remember exactly how I came across this outfit, gentle folk rock/post-rock from Iceland; I tried a few tracks from youtube and they didn’t really grab me, far too sedate; but the idea of seeing a band like this in a church seemed like something worth checking out.  And they really were very good, very musical, personable and intimate, a beautiful setting, it was a special evening.

 

  1. Riverside (The Mod Club, Toronto)

Toronto audiences are a bit weird.  Really hipster alty and metal types, not really into prog, and I was a bit nervous about the turnout for Riverside given the size of the venue.  And the crowd was smaller than I had hoped for, a couple hundred people or so, but the show, being the first of four in a row I was to see, was a great introduction to the new material and new stage presence of Riverside.  They were much heavier on stage than the new album would have suggested, lots of energy; and it was the first time to experience the beauty of “Found” with the lights.

T_MD 5T_MD and PG 4

Continue reading The Gigs of 2015: Part 2 (Shows 8 – 1)

Albums of 2015: The Year So Far

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.

Continue reading Albums of 2015: The Year So Far