Tag Archives: albums

Album Reviews: The Music of 2023

It is that time once again, when I gather together the music that I have liked over the past year, and give a brief explanation of why I like it.

This year feels like a good year, and that is because most of the albums I’ve included feel like they may just stick around longer than the time it took to get to know them well enough to talk about them. Other of my year-end lists do include entries that never made much impact beyond the listening and inclusion; as much as I thought I liked them at the time, they ultimately made no lasting impression, which is not what I hope for. This year, either the albums are better, or I have made more of an effort to exclude the ones that might be short-lived. Or both. Still, there are a handful at the bottom end of this year’s list that are unlikely to be long-term players, but that do have some good songs, so hopefully I will continue to sample them. 

There are fourteen albums here that represent a relatively narrow set of genres compared to other years. There is a fair amount of prog, or at least a fair amount of music from bands with a proggy reputation, which might be a bit of a surprise if you know me. I do not consider myself a fan of modern prog and do not seek it out, mostly because I find the vast majority of it tedious and entirely predictable. However, there are a handful of bands who fall under that (admittedly rather broad) umbrella who can manage to sound fresh, so I can’t write the genre off completely. A few of them released pretty good albums this year. There is some industrial/industrial-related, some post-rock, and straight-up rock. No metal or post-metal this year, and no oddball genres. 

In terms of the ranking… I’ve put numbers on them but except for the three or four at the bottom, those numbers don’t mean very much. It’s crowded at the top. There are some clear distinctions among some albums, but there are also places where making a choice is largely arbitrary. 

Let’s go.

Continue reading Album Reviews: The Music of 2023

Mariusz Duda – AFR AI D Album Review

Released November 17, 2023

  • Mariusz Duda: synths, keyboards, bass, vocals, all other instruments except
  • Mateusz Owczarek: electric guitar on tracks 1, 3, 4, and 8

Tracklist:

  1. Taming Nightmares
  2. Good Morning Fearmongering
  3. Fake Me Deep, Murf
  4. Bots’ Party
  5. I Love to Chat With You
  6. Why So Serious, Cassandra?
  7. Mid Jorney to Freedom
  8. Embracing the Unknown

 

Back in 2008, Mariusz Duda began Lunatic Soul, a project that was intended to be different from Riverside and showcase another side of his musical identity. Eventually though, these two “musical worlds” (as Duda likes to call them) turned out to be insufficient to contain his ever-evolving musical inventiveness. He created a third, under his own name, for ideas and projects that fit neither Lunatic Soul nor Riverside. At first the MD world was to contain one-off alt/pop songs (and a couple of those have been released), but Duda found himself driven to revisit his first childhood musical love, ambient electronica: and the minimalist, digital Lockdown Spaces project was born.

AFR AI D is the next installment in the Mariusz Duda world of electronica. On this album he addresses current cultural fears and angst (as he did with Riverside’s ID.Entity), but this time focused around the growing dominance of AI in many areas, and the suspicion that many people have of it. It is also the first album since 2018’s Under the Fragmented Sky to include a guest musician, in this case Mateusz Owczarek (Lion Shepherd and guest guitarist on Wasteland) who provides electric guitar solos on several tracks. 

As if to live up to its title, AFR AI D begins with “Taming Nightmares”: we hear hissing, the catching of breath, drones and wails and other unsettling electronic noises, until finally a repeating melody begins in the background. Synthetic percussion, distorted vocals, unintelligible words, and a jazzy, jittery guitar solo towards the end, all of which are clearly meant to evoke the unease and anxiety that the rest of the album will work to dispel.

And that’s the key — from this point on, the album begins to get brighter and more upbeat. Duda’s message is not one of fear and suspicion; this is not music that aims to unsettle. As the album progresses the tracks become less jagged, smoother and less anxious, there are more analogue sounds, small bits of percussion, real piano and bass, and more of Owczarek’s thoughtful, careful guitar.

“Bots’ Party” (the fourth track on the album) was the second single released; despite what the title implies, this is a gentle, cheerful track. It starts with a slow piano melody, gradually becoming more and more programmed and synth-heavy but never losing its serene rhythm, even when it segues into party-time and the rollicking guitar solo.

This is followed by “I Love to Chat With You”, the perfect reminder of the beauty of the human touch, with its gorgeous rolling piano theme and choral backdrop, featuring Mariusz Duda’s voice — heavily autotuned, but soaring and hauntingly delicate nevertheless. It links moments from Under the Fragmented Sky to moments in Eye of the Soundscape. It is a truly lovely song, my clear favourite on the album.

The last track, “Embracing the Unknown”, was the first single, and it was an interesting choice given that it is the longest track on the album, and stylistically it doesn’t really reflect the album as a whole. It is heavier and perhaps less obviously electronic than the rest. However, it is a powerful track and gave us the first chance to hear Owczarek’s guitar contributions.

As noted, the album is named for the fear and suspicion of the rapid proliferation of AI into our lives. And yet AFR AI D is a surprisingly upbeat and optimistic album: Duda seems to be reassuring us that our fears are misplaced. AI is a tool, and will be used, but we will not lose our humanity in the process, or our emotional connections to each other. Mateusz Owczarek provides us with much in the way of that human touch, and Duda’s choice of him as the guest guitarist was a stroke of genius. He certainly has the chops, but more importantly he seems to understand the intent of the album, and he adds a rich, organic reality to otherwise deliberately digitized, synthetic, unhuman sounds. The solos are brilliantly and instinctively right. This album would not be the album it is without him.

When I first got the files, I was a bit worried about the music’s longevity: I do not play Lockdown Spaces material very much any more, and the new album is another offering from that same musical world. I should not have been concerned: AFR AI D is richer, meatier, and more immersive than Lockdown Spaces, while extending the electronic identity of this third musical world. Duda sometimes talks of the “flow” of an album — a seamless weaving together of the songs and the sounds that give an album a satisfying sense of unity. AFR AI D flows wonderfully well: it is an album of clear vision and great confidence. Mariusz Duda, in all his musical worlds, continues to surprise and captivate with his endless creativity and the breadth of his vision.

The Music of 2023, July Update

July Update

It’s a few months and releases later from the March overview, so let’s see what is going on and how the new stuff stacks up. I’ll also take a look at some upcoming albums. You can see what I reviewed earlier in the year, here.

Continue reading The Music of 2023, July Update

The Music So Far: March 2023 Update

Generally I don’t have much to say about new music so early in the year, but there have been some interesting things out so far, and other interesting things are on the horizon. Several strong albums have already been released despite the risk of being forgotten by year’s end, and there are singles from what may be promising albums. I also want to comment on a couple things I missed from last year.

 In terms of those albums — it is a strangely proggy year for me so far. I spend a lot of time complaining about modern prog and here I am ready to talk about modern prog. Go figure. And two of those albums are (at the moment) head-to-head contenders for Album of the Year. Yes it is early, and there always do seem to be surprises, so we shall see how things play out.

Continue reading The Music So Far: March 2023 Update

Riverside: ID.Entity

Released: January 20, 2023

 Personnel

  •  Mariusz Duda: vocals, basses, electric and acoustic guitars
  • Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
  • Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, Rhodes piano and Hammond organ
  • Maciej Meller: electric guitars

 Tracklist

  1. Friend or Foe?
  2. Landmine Blast
  3. Big Tech Brother
  4. Post-Truth
  5. The Place Where I Belong
  6. I’m Done With You
  7. Self-Aware

 Bonus Tracks:

  1. Age of Anger
  2. Together Again
  3. Friend or Foe? (single edit)
  4. Self-Aware (single edit)

 Algorithms. Influencers and Curated Lives. How to Change Your Life in Ten Words or Less. Memes. Monetization. Tracking. Filters and Avatars. Targeted Ads. Conspiracies. Expectations versus reality. Who is real and who is not? How much control over our lives do we really have?

With ID.Entity, Riverside’s 8th album, Mariusz Duda and his bandmates explore these themes: negotiating virtual realities, hanging on to one’s identity and self, fighting the ubiquitous and implacable presence of the data collectors and algorithms that tell us what we should want, trying to deal with the polarization and angry echo chambers of the online world.

We get some hints from the outset that things are different: the cover is by Polish artist Jarek Kubicki and it thrums with life. This is not the dark, sombre palette of the covers of most of the previous albums. Bright, fragmented shards of colour fly out against a stark white background; we can glimpse shadowy figures in the background. Does this new vision reflect what is inside? Continue reading Riverside: ID.Entity

The Albums of 2022

It’s that time again, when, along with many other people, I maunder on about some music I heard in the past year. I’m not sure how many albums I did hear altogether, definitely more than the dozen I talk about, but I don’t make notes unless for some reason the album gets my attention long enough to play it more than once. A lot of albums don’t get that far. A lot of albums I don’t manage to get all the way through even once. I’m sure there is a lot of music that I have missed — there always is, mostly due to time constraints, and mood constraints, and the inability to listen to everything that gets recommended by various friends, musicians, and algorithms, but I do try.

 Anyway, what follows is the music that did catch my attention sufficiently for me to revisit it. I think there is less variety than usual: metal and post-metal dominate, but there is a surprising amount of prog considering my general disdain for the modern form of the genre, some ambient/electronica, and a bluegrass album. I’d heard of every band on the list except for one, and that one proved to be one of the best discoveries for a long time. I found a couple of albums simply because it struck me that the band had been awfully quiet lately and maybe I should check what they were up to.

In terms of ranking… I’m beginning to wonder whether I should bother: at least, for anything not in the Top 3. I did a little research, looking back on my previous lists to see what albums had actually stood the test of time. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared: for most years, a lot of my top picks have turned out to be albums that I still play. Not all years to be sure, and not all albums, but enough for me to continue to trust my own judgment. So take the top 3 as the top 3, and the rest in more or less rough order, as in — the ones near the bottom are less interesting than the ones near the top.

Continue reading The Albums of 2022

Blowing the Dust Off: Flying Doesn’t Help by Anthony More

I started this project near the time I started my blog, but … I didn’t get very far with it. The intention was to revisit albums I own that are old, or obscure, or need more exposure — or maybe just to remind myself how good they actually are. It is a fair assumption that any album that appears here is one that I think has some merit, and who knows? Maybe someone reading these will find a new favourite.

This is the fourth album in the series. The others are here, here, and here. I hope you will check them out.

Flying Doesn’t Help

Released 1979

Personnel:

  • Anthony Moore: Lyrics*, lead and backing vocals, keyboards, guitars and electronics
  • Bob Shilling, Chris Slade, Robert Vogel, Charles Hepworth: Drums
  • Festus, Sam Harley, Matt Irving: Bass
  • Laurie Latham: Sax and mouthharp, backing vocals
  • Edwin Cross: Backing vocals

*Lyrics to “War” by Peter Blegvad

 Tracklist:

  1. Judy Get Down
  2. Ready Ready
  3. Useless Moments
  4. Lucia
  5. Caught Being in Love
  6. Timeless Strange
  7. Girl It’s Your Time
  8. War
  9. Just Us
  10. Twilight (Uxbridge Rd)

 Anthony Moore (his surname sometimes appears as More) is a British experimental composer and producer, although he has spent most of his career based out of Germany. He along with his school friend Peter Blegvad were briefly members of the British experimental avant-garde collective Henry Cow, but they soon left and in 1971 formed the avant-pop trio Slapp Happy, along with Dagmar Krause. Slapp Happy released several albums, a couple in collaboration with Henry Cow, but their eccentric and minimalist style, along with the fact that they refused to play live, caused the record labels to largely avoid them.

 By 1977 Anthony Moore had returned to a solo career (he had recorded a couple of minimalist solo albums in the early 1970s); over the decades he has worked with Pink Floyd, Richard Wright, Kevin Ayers, Trevor Rabin, and Julian Lennon, and released a few more albums of his own.

Continue reading Blowing the Dust Off: Flying Doesn’t Help by Anthony More

Heart Attack: Negative Sun Review

Released: June 10, 2022

 Personnel:

  •  Chris Cesari: Lead guitar, keyboards
  • Kevin Geyer: Vocals, guitar
  • Christophe Icard: Drums
  • William Ribeiro: Bass, vocals

 Guest: Rafał “Rasta” Piotrowski (Vocals on Track 6)

 Tracklist

  1.  Rituals
  2. Septic Melody
  3. Wings of Judgement
  4. World Consumption
  5. The Messenger
  6. Twisted Sacrifice
  7. Bound to This Land
  8. Take Your Pride Back
  9. Negative Sun
  10. Jesus He Knows Me

 Heart Attack is a melodic thrash metal band from Cannes, France, who have been around since about 2007. I first heard them a few years ago and was struck by their combination of strong melody and brutal heaviness; I liked them well enough to get their 2017 album The Resilience. And while that album is very good, for this new one they have really stepped up their game.

Negative Sun is an album of crushing riffs and brutal drums, and maybe some of the best metal vocals I’ve heard. Compared to the previous album, the songwriting has become very tight and focused: enormous wall-of-metal is surrounded by a sophisticated handle on melody, almost orchestral at times, and head-bangingly heavy all the way.

 The album starts out with “Rituals”, an instrumental/folk-ish intro, and their instrumentals can be quite deceiving: slow and lush — but wait for it. With “Septic Melody” they kick into high gear and never let up for the rest of the album. There are ten tracks over 45 minutes, so the songs are short and to the point, but they still manage to fit a lot of killer songwriting into each track.

The best tracks for me are “The Messenger”, anthemic and dense, with choral growl vocals over powerhouse riffage, and “Take Your Pride Back” with its monster chorus. I find “Twisted Sacrifice” (featuring guest vocals from Decapitated’s “Rasta” Piotrowski) and “Bound to this Land” slightly less memorable — but that may be because the best tracks are so strong. The album ends with a cover of Genesis’ “Jesus He Loves Me”; the original is satirical enough, but turning it into a thrash metal song is just the icing on the cake <throws horns>.

This is my favourite album of the year so far. Heavy and unpretentious and full of massive riffs and earworms, I have not yet tired of playing it. These guys are hugely good, and while they seem to be getting attention in the European metal press, they deserve to be a lot better known on this side of the world. Hopefully they will make it over for some festival or another.

 

 

 

 

Porcupine Tree: Closure/Continuation

Released: June 24, 2022

 Personnel:

  •  Steven Wilson: Guitar, bass, vocals, piano
  • Gavin Harrison: drums
  • Richard Barbieri: keyboards, synths

 Tracklist:

  1. Harridan
  2. Of the New Day
  3. Rats Return
  4. Dignity
  5. Herd Culling
  6. Walk the Plank
  7. Chimera’s Wreck

 Bonus Tracks:

  • Population Three
  • Never Have
  • Love in the Past Tense

 It is fair to say that, amongst a certain fan base, the most highly anticipated album of 2022 has been the new one from a newly resurrected Porcupine Tree. It is a slightly revised PT, however: for … reasons (given in various interviews from both sides if you are interested), Colin Edwin is not part of this version of the band, so Steven Wilson takes care of the bass playing. In recent interviews Wilson has also insisted that he never explicitly claimed that PT had ceased operations, and while this may be technically true, he spent a lot of the intervening years avoiding and redirecting questions about the band’s potential future, so the claim comes across as somewhat disingenuous, at best.

 At any rate, huge excitement, hopeful caution, and downright cynicism accompanied the announcement of a new Porcupine Tree album and tour. Still, whatever one’s opinion about the reasons for the reunion, one thing was true — the singles that were released in the months preceding the album were not disappointing.

Continue reading Porcupine Tree: Closure/Continuation

The Music of 2022 So Far

Well, it’s already May, and I haven’t updated the blog for a while.

What is new and exciting so far? There are a few new things to be sure, but not very many have caught my attention. I haven’t really had the time to dig in and listen to stuff, let alone search out new things.

That being said, some singles have hit in anticipation of new albums:

 Porcupine Tree: “Of the New Day”

Steven Wilson and crew follow up the first single from 2021 with this one, much slower and more contemplative, but still managing to sound like a mash-up of earlier Wilson solo albums and Porcupine Tree — which is not to say that it is a bad or derivative song. It is not. Maybe not as instantly compelling as “Harridan”, and a bit more of a grower, but the two singles together suggest the upcoming album may be a pretty good one, whatever the reasons for its release.

 

Killing Joke: Lord of Chaos EP

There are two new tracks on this EP, and a couple of remixes of things from 2015’s Pylon. The new tracks are “Lord of Chaos” and “Total”, and these are worthy follow-ups to the angry melodic industrial post-punk of Pylon. It is, however, not clear whether a full-length album is to follow.

 

Decapitated: “Cancer Culture” and “Hello Death”

Technical death metal from Poland, beat-and-riff-heavy, relentlessly energetic, reminiscent of beloved early albums. “Hello Death” stands out because of guest vocalist Tatiana Shmayluk (Jinjer) who adds a whole level of richness with her soaring clean vocals, in opposition to Rafał Piotrowski’s angry growls.

 

Kellermensch: “6705”

The angst-ridden Danes are back after several years, with a new album in the works, due to be released on May 27th. The single is very much in the vein of songs from 2017’s Goliath: darkly melodic and orchestral, dealing with loneliness and broken relationships. Christian Sindermann’s plaintive voice may be an acquired taste, but it does fit the mood of the songs.

 

Shearwater: “Xenarthran” and “Aqaba”

Jonathan Meiburg has been busy: he released his first book last year (the very excellent A Most Remarkable Creature — a book that has nothing at all to do with music) and is still promoting it; and he also managed to finish the latest Shearwater album (The Great Awakening) which will be released in June. The album was released to crowdfunders early this year, so I have been listening to it for quite some time now.

 The singles give a taste of what the album is like. Slow, contemplative, rather more acoustic than the previous album, and it can sound deceptively sparse, but it isn’t really. It hearkens back to earlier albums: in fact, “Aqaba” has very much the feel of “The Snow Leopard” from Rook, and if you know that song, you know that is not a bad thing at all.

 

Mariusz Duda: “News From the World”

 This song does not presage a new album, but winds up the Lockdown trilogy of albums that Duda composed and released over the past two years. And it is an interesting song to end with; rather than being more of the sparse, jittery electronica of the Trilogy, it is dense and analog, with the three-part structure common to Duda’s best Riverside or Lunatic Soul tracks. It is certainly full of electronic washes and soundscapes, and it even begins in a deceptively Lockdown-ish way, but soon a slightly jazzy bass riff and actual drums take over. Piano dominates the middle third, before heavy rolling bass-and-drum riffs return. There are bits reminiscent of Lunatic Soul, and Eye of the Soundscape; it is by far the strongest track of the entire Trilogy, probably because this is where Duda’s strengths lie. I could stand a whole album like this.

Albums

At this point most of the albums I’m interested in are in the future. I’ve only picked up three new ones to date:

 Author and Punisher: Krüller

 Author and Punisher is the nom de plume of one Tristan Shone, industrial musician who takes the genre descriptor literally: he builds machines that make industrial music. No guitars or drums on his stage, just huge metal contraptions that he works with hands, feet, and voice, to produce enormous swathes of massive sound. He came to my attention a few years ago via the Spotify algorithm, back when it seemed to actually work — for some reason it suggested I might like this stuff.

It was not wrong. Author and Punisher makes brutal, dense, angry electronic noises, at least at his best. I’m not sure, alas, that Krüller is his best: this album sees his material somewhat more melodic, and less brutal, and somehow less effective. For me, only “Centurion” really stands out as indicative of what he can do, perhaps followed by the title track.

 

Amorphis: Halo

 The Finnish folk metal masters have released an album that is very reminiscent of Under the Red Sky, and that is fine with me, because I liked that album very much. These guys present deeply melodic and heavy folk metal, full of catchy riffs, and really the best part of these songs is how well Tomi Joutsen switches between growl vocals and a rich clean tenor voice throughout the songs. He’s one of the best in the business at that. This is a nice and easy album to listen to, head-banging all the way.

 

Marillion: An Hour Before It’s Dark

Marillion, the long-standing neo-prog outfit, is a band that never did much for me. The level of adoration from many of my friends does lead me to occasionally try out yet another Marillion track, just to see if something has changed — and since I tend to find Fish and Hogarth both annoyingly mannered vocalists, it shouldn’t really matter what album I pick. Pretty much every attempt has resulted in a bemused “meh”.

So yeah, I was rather surprised (as were most of the people I know when I mentioned it) when I actually took to the new album. I can’t remember why I listened to it — I think I just liked the cover — and somehow, despite Hogarth’s nasal whine, the album itself works. Now it is not one that is ever going to make my all-time best list by any means — it doesn’t have that kind of depth or thoughtfulness or originality — but it is certainly accomplished, smooth, with some pretty lush moments. It is a good album to put on and just play.

And no, I won’t be attending any Marillion weekends.