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.

 

Blindead — Niewiosna

This was a band that always seemed to promise more than they managed to deliver. To my ears they reached their peak with the remarkable concept album Absence, the last album that featured the mighty vocals of Patryk Zwoliński.

 Then he left the band, and the bass player (Matteo Bassoli) moved on to other things, and the subsequent album (Ascension) had a new vocalist and was … well, frankly, it was unlistenable. If Blindead had ceased to exist after that one, it would have been understandable.

 But they hung on. Reduced from a six piece to a threesome — Mateusz Śmierzchalski, Konrad Ciesielski, and Bartosz Hervy — they announced that they were recording a new album.   As much as I wanted to support them, I just could not bring myself to preorder the album until I had heard some of it. I had bought Ascension unheard, and sorely regretted it. I wasn’t going to invest in the guys again until I knew what I was getting.

 Turns out that the guys recruited (or were recruited by, it is not entirely clear) Michał “Nihil” Kuzńiak, the vocalist for the band Furia. Which definitely made me perk up my ears, because I had just discovered Furia and liked their oblique, angsty take on doom metal. So when the album became available for a pre-release stream, I checked it out. And boy, it couldn’t be more different from Ascension. Or Absence, for that matter. Nihil is credited with some of the songwriting, and his fingerprints are all over this album. To be honest, it sounds like Furia meets Necro Deathmort in a dark alley where they mug Blindead and rifle through its pockets. Which, under the circumstances, is perfectly okay — the combination makes for a fascinating and compelling sludge/doom/psych metal effort and I had no hesitation in ordering the album. And I find it is growing on me. This is very very good stuff, dark and gloomy and sludgy, long atmospheric passages that build tension … and then the next passage stomps your head. There is a lot of industrial and drone in this effort, which works for me. This is not an album to play if you want some head-banging.

Blindead — Niewiosna

Octopussy — EP

Stoner/blues/psych from Gdańsk, with quite a few familiar names if you know Blindead. This is generally well-done, although it does tend to verge close to drone and the tracks really aren’t all that well-distinguished from each other, and after a while I find my attention drifts. However, drummer Konrad Ciesielski is an absolute standout and I need to pay way more attention to this guy.

 https://octopussyband.bandcamp.com/track/to-build-a-home

Jambinai — Onda

Jambinai are a folk metal/crossover outfit from South Korea, and their last album, A Hermitage, was one of the more remarkable musical confections I had heard in years. Combining dense and heavy metal sensibilites with traditional Korean instruments and influences, these guys sound like no-one else. Naturally I was looking forward to the new one.

 At the moment I am still cogitating on it. There is a bit more in the way of vocals, but not enough to get in the way of what is essentially an instrumental band, one that can move from slow, almost ambient eery folk themes to crashing metalesque in an instant; and this they do on the new album, but somehow Onda is not grabbing me as hard as I hoped it would. Overall it seems a bit too jagged and eccentric, with much more in the way of long, contemplative musings and less of the traditional folk-infused heaviness, but it has some excellent moments. They just aren’t hanging around in my memory.

Pelican — Nighttime Stories

This one is gonna be an Album of the Year contender. What we have here is unmistakably Pelican, all chugging riffs and monster chords, but harder and much more determined than ever before. This may well be the album I always knew they could put out — gone are the long meandering post-rock excursions that never accomplished anything for me but boredom, and in their place are songs that are tight, concise, carefully considered, tense with coiled energy, as relentless as hell, probably as close to true metal as it is possible for these guys to get.

Glass Apple Bonzai — The All-Night Starlight Electronic Cafe

I like Daniel Belascoe’s take on old-school synthwave, he really does have an intuitive feel for it, but this album comes off as rushed. The tracks are samey, formulaic; some good ideas but not enough song to fill them out. It’s too bad. He has a solid back catalogue and I know he can do better: I’ve heard it. There are a couple of decent tracks here, but you can’t build an album around two or three good songs. At least, you shouldn’t try.

 https://glassapplebonzai.bandcamp.com/track/stormy-weather

Motanka — Motanka

Another Spotify find, a band out of Ukraine, a folk-metal outfit with emphasis on the metal. This is their first album, after forming up in 2015 and some well-received live performances. They call their style “mystic metal” which is a bit of self-indulgent nonsense, but whatever — it doesn’t detract from the sound, which is a mix of regular and traditional instruments, growls, clean singing and throat-singing. The songs range from heavy face-melters to slow ballady folk sounds, but it is the heavy that is the best. It is clearly a debut album: a bit rough around the edges, a bit too long (a reluctance to edit out the extraneous bits, the parts that exceed their best-by date, the common beginner mistake of trying to include more than is strictly necessary), but there is a real grasp of how to meld the traditional with the metal and get the best out of both. It is a solid debut album with few really distracting issues, and once over the beginner humps these guys could be well worth following.

https://motanka.bandcamp.com/track/fire-burns

Beastwars — IV

I heard a huge powerhouse of a sludge/doom metal track a few months ago, it was called “Raise the Sword” by an outfit called Beastwars. I think about halfway through the song I pre-ordered the whole album.

 Beastwars are four guys from New Zealand (a country I can’t say has brought me a lot of music — I tried the band Jakob a couple years ago but they did not take). It seems that the singer, Matthew Hyde, had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and underwent 18 months of treatment. Almost as soon as that was done, they hit the studio.

 This is an immensely angry album. The rage is incandescent: it boils out of the speakers, radiates through the room in a massive wall of dense sludge riffage, intense and melodic doom metal, and really who can blame them? The core of the album is (not surprisingly) mortality: facing it, staring it in the face, staring it down. It is a short album, a shade over 30 minutes, which may be due to Hyde’s inability to sustain much more than 3 hours of recording a day, or it could be that those were the songs, saying what needed to be said (musically and lyrically) with no concession to frills or frippery, and really it makes perfect sense.

 There is no doubt the power and passion these guys bring to the table, and I want to like the album more than I do, but in the end I find that the tracks don’t really differentiate enough one from the next (the other massive standout track, “Omens”, sounds a lot like “Raise the Sword”), and the wailing, grungy vocals wear on me after a while.

raise-the-sword

 Rammstein — Rammstein

So I guess it has been some ten years between albums (of new stuff) for the German icons, and rather a few people were … enthusiastic, shall we say, for this release. I was never much of a Rammstein fan but that was more for lack of listening than any real judgment of their sound.

Anyway, what of the new Rammstein? Well, there are some foot-tapping moments to be sure, and it is no chore to listen to this album, but ultimately there is nothing particularly interesting about it. No adventure, no attention-getters, nothing to make you go “hmmmm….”, no particular reason to rush to play it again; it sounds exactly like the kind of album a bunch of old pros with a combined thousand years of experience would put out, and without working very hard to do it. It’s a pleasant time-waster but the only possible way this could be anywhere near “album of the year” is if no other artist or band on the planet had a release. And, well, sorry — but there is a container-ship-worth of music stacked up that just owns this effort.

It certainly isn’t the album to get a new fan into Rammstein, and strikes me that this can only be of real interest to old fans who simply are happy to have something — anything — by some former legends.

3teeth — Metawar

The third album from up-and-coming industrial metal stars 3teeth. In this one the California five-piece have shifted towards more industrial/electronica sounds and less obvious metal than on their previous releases; that being said the tracks are still hard and relentless headbangers, dark and goth-y, more refined than the past albums with a stronger sense of songcraft. I think Metawar lacks the raw edginess of 2017’s shutdown.exe, but it does have some tastily heavy moments. The cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” has got to be one of the better covers in a long time, by anyone, taking a rather slight pop song and turning it into the bleak, nihilistic statement on modern America it should have been in the first place.

Bokassa — Crimson Riders

The second album from a Norwegian stonerpunk three piece, actually sounding like a cross between While She Sleeps and Royal Blood. Not-quite-thirty minutes of cheery, upbeat power pop.

Torche — Admission

The sludgemeisters are back with their take-no-prisoners sludgemetal. Eleven tracks over 36 minutes, these pieces are short and to the point, dense and djenty and somewhat poppy, The songs start with no warning and then stop as abruptly, and so on to the next. Still, there is melody and thick bass-and-guitar riffs, a very satisfying weight to the album. The long tracks (5 minutes) wander a bit and are mostly just chugging riffage, but overall the album is worth the listen. I have noticed a trend (at least in what I have found) towards short albums, and I think it is better to go short than to go long.

Russian Circles — Blood Year

Just released (and on its way to me as of this writing), another album of hard-as-nails instrumental post-metal from the guys who, at this point, are the icons of that genre. On first pass, there is no doubt at all that this is Russian Circles; there aren’t too many other outfits who do this stuff as well and as distinctively. Guitar themes that coil and repeat, anchored by the massive weight of that bass (and pedals) and the solid rock-steady drums, the tracks on Blood Year seem heavier and denser than on previous albums, and that is saying something. Standout so far: “Kohokia”, which starts out as a simple snare/guitar intro, adds rumbling bass, and the track rolls on from there. One thing I will say about this band is that their sound engineers sure know how to produce that drum sound. The snare and kick drums have a huge presence, a satisfying snap and thump most bands don’t ever manage to achieve. I won’t draw a conclusion quite yet (having heard the album through once), but any fans of Russian Circles are bound to like this one.

 Upcoming: that I know for sure.

 Pretty Maids — Undress Your Madness

Due out November 8th.

Teaming up again with producer Jacob Hansen, who essentially reinvented the entire career of these old hard rock/metal pros from Denmark. If the new album continues in the vein of the last four, it could be an Album of the Year contender.

 

Klone — Le Grand Voyage

Due out September 20th.

These French post-metal guys had a killer album a few years back with Here Comes the Sun, and then wandered off into Unplugged Hell. In June they released their first single, and it sounds like Klone have truly returned. Generally the symphonic sweeping post-rock/metal style just ain’t for me, but Klone are an exception.

Rumoured but no actual dates:

 Body Count

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster

 

Working on stuff:

 Gadi Caplan

Sisters of.

 

Rumoured and even with a date, but….

 Tool — Fear Inoculum, slated for August 30th

At this point it is a “I’ll believe it when I see it” situation.

 

And Finally: Special Mention Must Be Made

 Shearwater — Shearwater Plays Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy (Complete)

 In October 2018 Shearwater did a remarkable thing: they set up in the atrium of a New York City shopping mall, and played the entirety of David Bowie’s Berlin-era trilogy — Low, Heroes, and Lodger — live over three days (one album per day). Back in 2016 the band had recorded Lodger live, and did a bang-up job of it, so tackling the entire trilogy must have seemed a logical next step. Anyway, the show was recorded and streamed live by a NYC radio station, and then was released as a Bandcamp download in January of 2019.

 To say that Shearwater nailed it would be an understatement. Lots of bands do covers, and lots of those covers are great — but it takes a special understanding to truly get the feel of the original — and this Shearwater managed to do in spades. And remember: the band wasn’t covering a track or two, or even one album — but what might be described as an entire Gestalt, from “Speed of Life” right through to “Red Money”. It can be (and probably has been) argued that the Berlin era marked the highlight of David Bowie’s remarkable career; at any rate, the three albums produced during those years in Berlin, with Brian Eno and contributions from Robert Fripp, are considered among his finest. Anyone going after these has a tough row to hoe: to not only capture the music but the entire essence that infused their making, and I think Shearwater did it. Somehow, they became those albums. They didn’t become Bowie — that is, they did not attempt to create a perfect reproduction — but they certainly honoured the sound.

 https://shearwater.bandcamp.com/album/shearwater-plays-bowies-berlin-trilogy-complete

 

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