The State of the Music: Part One.
It’s halfway through 2016, so it is time for the semi-annual roundup of where we are.
It started out slowly, a couple of releases right off the bat from Shearwater and David Bowie, and then it seemed that there was little of interest in the immediate future. However I can’t say that I was paying a whole lot of attention to the music scene anyway: it’s been a tough year personally on a number of levels. But when I started to think about music again, a few surprising things had snuck into my consciousness – albums in styles and genres that I would not necessarily have sought out on my own, but here they are.
Every year I can count on at least one act to show up that I’d never heard of and that blows me away, but this year there are several. There are surprises, and there are disappointments. Obviously the current rankings are tentative and entirely subject to change, but it is unlikely that an album currently sitting near the bottom will suddenly rocket to the top. It is still a crapshoot though: there are a couple of powerful contenders to come, and at least one anticipated release from a trio with no name, and whose sound is a complete mystery at the moment. Who knows what this list will look like at the end of the year?
Before we get into the list and mini-reviews, a quick glance at the albums I know are in the pipeline:
- Russian Circles – Guidance (August)
- Seven Impale second album — September
- Riverside electronica – looks like October
- The as-yet unnamed Maciej Meller/Maciej Golyzniak/Mariusz Duda trio album (November)
Here we go: The contenders so far, in reverse order:
- Arcade Messiah – II
Complex and heavy instrumental progressive post-rock. There is no doubting the musical chops of these guys, and there are some fine moments, but the album is perhaps a bit too self-important for its own good.
- Iamthemorning – Lighthouse
I’d like to like this better than I do, it is quite lovely and atmospheric, but to be perfectly honest the slow baroque-pop tends to get a little samey after a while, and the breathy vocal style wears. The title track works so well because the male guest vocals effectively play off the soprano and provide density and interest. And the last track is outstanding.
- David Bowie – Blackstar
Another album I am supposed to like more than I do. It is not a bad album by any means, and the title track is a strange, compelling monster…but I feel that sentiment is not really a good reason to rank an album, and it is only sentiment that could boost this album higher than it is.
- The Vliets – I – IX
These guys generally do alternative psychedelic pop, but this album, digital only, is pure ambient electronica, composed as a sonic backdrop for some art installation. It does work perfectly in that context too – excellent background music. It would rank higher if it was longer.
- Votum — :KTONIK:
The first or second time I heard this I was kind of excited, because it sounded so much more interesting than the previous album. It is heavy prog metal but more metal than prog, and more than a few moments really caught me up…and then something happened. The third and subsequent times I played it…it just sat there. It lost its edge really quickly, and I find that except for a couple of tracks near the beginning, I so lose focus that I am surprised to discover that the album is over. I barely notice it.
- Inspired – Music Inspired by Alchemy
There are some great, atmospheric instrumental pieces on this album, the third in an occasional series, but not enough of them. And most of them are just too damned short. See my review here.
- Airbag – Disconnected
I was so hoping that this band would step outside its lush, sweeping Floyd-channelling boundaries this time around, and extend their efforts … but alas, apparently they decided to play it safe. So very very safe. Disconnected sounds so much like the previous two albums that in my mind I have trouble disentangling the songs one album from the other. It’s just more of the same. They can do better than this.
- Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
Another album that is not hitting me where it counts. I was hoping for a return to heaviness, and there is some of that, but mostly they have turned to progressive metal with emphasis on the progressive. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for an album that goes for atmosphere over kick-ass, and an album in which I cannot sustain interest over its considerable length.
Except for “Serein”. Which is jaw-droppingly amazing.
- Deftones – Gore
I bought this album on a whim. I knew of Deftones, I just hadn’t heard anything by them, and here was the vinyl sitting on the rack in front of me – white vinyl even – so at the urging of an online enabler –er, friend, I grabbed it.
And I like it. I like it a lot when I play it, but somehow it just doesn’t compel me to return to it.
And from this point, things get tricky. The positions of the rest of these guys could easily change, depending on more play time and my mood. Except for Number 1. It is going to take something truly extraordinary to dislodge that one. But there is time….
- Necro Deathmort – The Capsule
You just never know what you are going to get with these guys. Dark electronica, doom/drone whathaveyou metal, yes, but still, within that particular genre they manage to be all over the map from one release to the next. The Capsule provides us with pure ambient dark electronica, sweeping waves of synths with clear nods to classic 70s German electronica such as Tangerine Dream, but on this album pared back to the electronic bone.
- Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
I can’t believe this guy is still alive and kicking so hard. He’s gonna give Keith Richards and the cockroaches an apocalyptic run for their money, I swear. I’ve never really been an Iggy fan per se, but it’s hard to get away from his influence and longevity. This is a surprisingly good album, pissed-off rock with Iggy just telling it like it is, straightforwardly pure rancor. And great in-your-face production. Go Iggy!
- Gadi Caplan – Morning Sun
Well this sure as hell came out of nowhere. One of those let’s-check-out-what-my-friends-are-listening-to episodes…I was going to say “BOOM!” but actually it wasn’t boom. It was “Huh. Not sure about this, kind of soft and folky really, but definitely interesting. Let’s try again.” But yeah this is great stuff, it really sneaks up on you, deceptively straightforward ballady acoustic tracks until you realize that there is a whole lot going on, the directions the songs take are unexpected, complex, seriously intricate…and the guitar chops, omg the guitar. Think early Al Stewart meets Cat Stevens meets Porcupine Tree but more innovative. The guy is a subtle genius.
- Gojira – Magma
Oh baby, this album is goooood!! A few of these tracks are absolute face-stomping hair-whipping monsters, and the rest are heavy enough to keep the momentum going. Until that last track which at first was “eh?” but really does wind up the album in fine form.
3…or maybe 2. Cambrian Explosion – The Moon
This foursome from the American west coast have created an EP with the heart of an album. Here we are with pure stoner psych rock, a genre I pretty much have almost no interest in, but holy CRAP this album is something! Five tracks that run together smoothly for 35 minutes of unadulterated progressive stoner psych joy, lush and dense and thick and rocking, each track offers something slightly different but it all comes together so well. Sometimes EP-length is all you need to do the job properly.
2…or maybe 3. Bootblacks – Veins
Back to the 80s…which has become a thing lately. Bootblacks are an outfit from the Brooklyn area, and popular in Europe it seems. But these guys are not revisionist, or derivative in any way, they are the real deal, this is electronic-driven 80s post-punk darkwave that is as authentic as anything from back in the day. I can’t believe how much I love it. Hard and poppy and very very smart, and surprisingly diverse from track to track. They truly channel the energy and vibe – well, it is theirs, really. I don’t know where it will find itself at the end of the year, but if it is not in the Top 5 I will be surprised.
- Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow
And here we are. I am quite surprised at my number 1, and the fact that is has been number 1 from almost the first day I heard it. Shearwater are a band I find difficult to fully embrace – they have stuff that is all over the place, and generally I tend to love individual songs rather than entire albums — in fact they have albums I find completely unlistenable. Animal Joy came close to great, but not quite there…but this. This album has just gone beyond words. They are much more consistently heavy and rhythm-driven than before, and even their slower tracks don’t get bogged down in reflective atmospheric washes…they really have outdone themselves. This is an album of stunning accomplishment. Anything that shifts it out of first place is going to have to be mind-blowing.