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.
“A book read by a thousand people is a thousand different books.”
Sometimes you hear an album and you like it right from the get-go, and you always like it but it never really gets under the skin. Sometimes you hear an album and you think it’s great, but after a while the urge to hear it disappears and never really returns. And sometimes you hear an album and you think … well, that’s okay. But something makes you return to it. And return to it. And then you realize — this is great, in that sneaky, deep-down long-lasting way, an album you know is not going to wear out its welcome. Such is 1000 Books.
I had been a huge fan of Shriekback back in the day, their Jam Science and Oil and Gold albums being among my very favourite things from the 80s. They had some hits, too: “My Spine is the Bassline”, “All Lined Up” – classic 80s club tracks, as good as anything from back then. But after a while I stopped paying attention even though they had (in one form or another) been sporadically releasing albums over the years. They reappeared on my radar around 2015 with the album Without Real String or Fish (reduced from a quartet to a trio) which I liked well enough to encourage me to continue watching them and buying the (mostly crowd-funded) albums since.
1000 Books is their 16th album, and it hits on all cylinders. More than any of the other albums over the past few years (for me, anyway), it evokes most strongly the Shrieks of the 80s, in their heyday: that dark new-wave funkiness, bass-heavy and smart as hell (with some of the tastiest drumming I’ve heard in years), updated to the new century with a deep maturity.
There is not a weak song on this album. Starting with the electronic smoothness of “Space in the Blues” with its eerie winding background guitar solo, through the funk of “Unholiness”, to the contemplative distorted lament of “Wild World” we are taken on an immersive, thought-provoking journey, and the production is absolutely outstanding, probably the best I’ve heard for years.
But more than this. One of the outstanding features of the band has always been the arcane, allusive, and hugely literate lyrics, words that can stand on their own but are actually there in service to the music. A band can count itself lucky if it has one decent lyricist — Shriekback, remarkably, have two: both Carl Marsh and Barry Andrews write lyrics, with equal facility, and the album retains a consistency of vision and feel even though the lyricists are different song to song. They are among the best in the business. (They also share the the vocal job between them).
1000 Books came along very late in the year, and in fact the actual release to the general public did not happen until January 2022 (although originally meant to happen before
the end of the year), which technically makes it the first new album of 2022 — but to hell with it. This album is SO good that it takes the top spot for 2021. Maybe it will do the same for 2022.
You can preview the album on the band’s music page:
This past year was an excellent year for music, much better than the travesty that was 2020. Right from the beginning with the early releases it promised to be a strong one, and quality-wise it never really let up. The music did come along in fits and starts: a bunch of late winter/spring releases, a bit of a lull through summer into the fall, and then a final surge very late in the year. It was this last bit that proved problematic, because the late releases were so strong they threw off all the calculations I had made up to that point. By mid December I had to completely rethink my top-tier albums.
In terms of genres, what attracted me is largely divided between various forms of instrumental ambient electronica or industrial, and good ol’ rock‘n’roll/metal. A bit of proggish and alternativey stuff is sprinkled throughout, but not too much. There were certainly surprises along the way. I ended up with an even dozen albums that stand out; I think this is the strongest year for music in a while.
Gary Numan released his crowd-funded album early in the year, and Shriekback did the same thing in December. Industrial legend Bill Leeb gave us two offerings: one from Front Line Assembly and another from the long-quiescent Noise Unit. Mariusz Duda, who has an inordinate fondness for trilogies, also released two albums to complete his latest, which was begun in 2020 with Lockdown Spaces. The Tea Party emerged almost out of nowhere to demonstrate that they are still very much alive and a force to be reckoned with. The long-awaited new album from post-metal masters Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster finally appeared.
It isn’t really fair to compare this year to 2020 — that year the world changed so fundamentally, affecting all aspects of our lives, that it is probably best left as an anomaly. There were so few albums that really caught my attention, it was almost musically a non-existent year. I know there were good albums, and a couple of them were even very good, but honestly I didn’t have the desire to explore.
However, I am pleased to announce that I’m ready to start digging in again, and 2021 is shaping up to be much more interesting. It is certainly a much heavier year — out of the 8 albums I’ve spent time with (7 of which are mentioned here; one will be reviewed shortly), four of them are flat-out headbangers, or at least in that territory. The others cover industrial, post-metal, electronica, and pop. Soon-to-released stuff is also going to be at the heavy end of the musical spectrum.
So let’s get started. The order is more-or-less by release date:
Frontline Assembly: Mechanical Soul
2021 marks 35 years of industrial/EBM legends Frontline Assembly, and January saw the release of Mechanical Soul. This is an album of dark synths, distortion and huge dense industrial noise, post-apocalyptic in theme, maybe heavier than 2017’s Wake Up the Coma, with Leeb’s heavily processed vocals emphasizing the cold, distant feel. There are ten original songs and one remix. The album starts well: the first three tracks charge along, featuring relentless beats and throbbing synth, pausing for the somewhat more contemplative “New World”, but by track 7 it is clear that Mechanical Soul has lost momentum and isn’t going to get it back. The tracks become somewhat conventional and not particularly interesting. However, “Barbarians” is a bit of an attention-getter, a slow drum-based buildup into a thick sweeping chorus, with a strange, highly-mannered vocal delivery. I like it. The album ends with a remix of “Hatevol” from Wake Up the Coma. The overall feel, unfortunately, is of an album that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.
Steven Wilson: The Future Bites
At this point the fact that Steven Wilson is a pop musician should come as a surprise to no-one save the most recalcitrant of old Porcupine Tree fans. His last few solo albums have been moving rather slowly away from his prog roots, throwing in pop songs amongst the more familiar proggy stuff, but with The Future Bites he has made almost a complete break. Wilson digs into 70s-era disco, funk, and pop to craft his purest evocation of these ideas yet. And frankly, he has done an excellent job of it — there is no denying his abilities as a deeply-experienced craftsman. The main release is a straightforward 9 songs and just over 40 minutes long, not an album with much room for epics or for showcasing guest-musician chops, but this is not an album that aims to do that anyway. Almost all the songs are on point, relatively short, with the exception of the overlong and self-indulgent “Personal Shopper”. Well, nothing’s perfect. The highlight of the album (for me) is the superb “12 Things I Forgot”; if Wilson was trying to create a great pop song, he nailed it.
However, as musically divergent as this album is from the past ones, I don’t find it has much changed in terms of the overall impression it leaves. He is still playing it very safe: there is nothing particularly adventurous here, nothing to grab the attention, nothing deeper than the catchy tunes and great production.
Thematically, the album was styled as an ironical (if not cynical) examination of modern online consumer culture and behaviour, and it was hyped with singles, B-sides, box sets and extras, some things being released over the weeks before the official album hit. The fan base did not disappoint, jumping all over it. I have never really been a fan of Steven Wilson the lyricist, not finding much challenge in anything he has written, but the songs here are even more simplistic than usual: the message of the album was demonstrated far more effectively by the fans themselves than anything Wilson wrote. Maybe that was the point.
Ronnie Atkins: One Shot
The Nordic veteran of melodic hard rock and charismatic front man for the venerable Danish hard-rock/metal band Pretty Maids has released his first solo album. It is everything one would expect with that musical legacy: solid heavy rock, polished and professional, showcasing his 35+ years songwriting and performing experience. Atkins is joined by old friend and current PM member Chris Laney as producer, and several guest musicians including former PM members Alan Sorensen on drums and Morten Sandager on keys.
Atkins blasts his way through 11 heavy-duty tracks, his voice sounding as dense and powerful as always, and as always the songs are stuffed with hooky melodies and riffs, and catchy lyric turns of phrase. It does cover most of the expected styles — from heavy rockers to more sedate ballads; my favourite tracks are probably “Scorpio”, and “Before the Rise of an Empire”, monster songs reminiscent of the thunderous hard-rock of Pretty Maids.
One does want to love this album. Ronnie Atkins has struggled with lung cancer, being diagnosed with it, treated for it, declared free of it, and then diagnosed again in Stage 4, all in less than two years. It is hard to imagine the kind of emotional and psychological toll that must have taken. It is also understandable that he would need to do something that may be his last chance for anything music-related. Between the pandemic and the cancer, Pretty Maids have been unable to tour their last album (released in late 2019), and as much as one hates to say it, it is unlikely they ever will.
It is a very good album. Alas, it is not a great album. It is hard to fault it: polished and accomplished, it achieves exactly what it aims to do, but I think it gets in its own way with its sheer earnestness and sincerity, and some of the tracks have a slightly rushed feel to them. However, given that this may well be the last chance Atkins gets to express these ideas and say what he needs to, it is a minor complaint.
The Horrors: Lout
A satisfyingly heavy industrial metal effort from some guys I’d never heard of before, who have released a short EP of three tracks. This is a departure from the rather smoother, shoegazey sound of the previous album, even though hints of this direction are in there. If you like the thundering machine metal of Author and Punisher, or the rougher end of 3Teeth, you’ll probably like this. At just over 11 minutes long it is more of a teaser than even an EP, but I’m definitely interested enough to watch for a full-length effort if one is forthcoming.
Rob Zombie: The Lunar Insertion Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy
Well, Rob Zombie. I suppose it was inevitable that at some point one of his solo albums and I would cross paths. I’ve managed to avoid his movies so far, not really being much of a horror fan, but I’ve not actively avoided his music — I just hadn’t come across any by accident. At least until Spotify, when a track from this album appeared in the Release Radar list, and I tried it, and found it interesting enough to flag for follow-up.
It is a good album. Heavy and well-written, pulling from all over the rock past from what I can hear — working in funky bits and jazzy bits and country bits and bluesy bits and plain old classic rock n roll bits, but it is not a pastiche. His band is guys who’ve been with him for ten to fifteen years, and you can hear the cohesion. The arrangements are tight, the tracks varied (and relatively short– some so short they better serve as intros to the song that comes after), and it is very musical and accomplished.
The vinyl comes with a densely-illustrated book that resembles the sort of thing you created when you were bored in high school: jam-packed with lyrics, odd photos, collages and bad pencil drawings, vaguely reminiscent of Robert Crumb with references to sex and horror, and about as 70s as can be without actually being from 1976. I have no idea what any of the songs are about, if they are about anything, and I probably won’t explore too deeply. It is a pleasantly surprising album, so I’ll enjoy it on its own merits.
Kauan: Ice Fleet
Kauan, a Russian outfit now based in Estonia, have released a lovely album of intensely atmospheric post-metal/doom metal. It acts as the soundtrack to a tale of Russian ships frozen in the ice of the Arctic, lost and rediscovered (is it based on a true story? It is hard to find out); a premise not new to the band, as apparently their 2015 album Sorni Nai evoked the ill-fated Dyatlov Expedition. It also forms the backdrop for a tabletop role playing game developed around what is essentially a horror story. The deluxe version of the release comes in iceberg-blue vinyl and includes the detailed storyline and instructions for the game.
The music is intensely atmospheric, sweeping and lush: tracks drift along, before erupting into heavy melodic metal, and then back into gentle soundscapes. Even though there are 7 listed tracks, they merge into each other — there aren’t really breaks between them, so the album feels like a single entity. It isn’t completely instrumental either — there are delicate soprano breaks and harsh growl vocals along the way, but they contribute to the overall instrumental-like atmosphere rather than detracting from it. I’ve been moving away from post-rock (or maybe I didn’t really embrace it as enthusiastically as I thought I had), but this is an album that does manage to keep one’s interest.
The Quill: Earthrise
The Quill are a heavy/stoner rock outfit from Sweden, established back in the early 1990s, and another of those bands who should have a bigger following than they do. They came to my attention when their last album Born From Fire turned up in Spotify and which I liked very much. That album showcased an uncanny ability to channel good-ol’-boy southern bluesy rock; while Born From Fire was pretty good, the new album ramps it up to a whole new level.
Earthrise is pure, exhilarating rock n roll, tinged with a bit of blues and stoner, channelling almost everything that was great about classic heavy rock. The album blasts through track after track of monster bass lines and relentless guitar riffage (compliments of Roger Nilsson and Christian Carlsson respectively), anchored by solid drumming (Jolle Atlagic), and fronted by singer Magnus Ekwall’s perfect rock n roll delivery. It is relentlessly headbanging — even the “slow” numbers are solid rockers. The album kicks into high gear right from the first word from Ekwall (“Hallucinate”), and it’s sheer pedal-to-the-metal after that, until the end of the 9-minute “Evil Omen”, after which the album does lose some momentum.
This album is crazy good. Earthrise sets the bar all other albums this year are going to have to get over. Incandescent hard-rock nods to Sabbath, Zep, just about everyone, and yet this sound is fully their own, fully embraced, as if it was the first time anyone had done it. It is upbeat, enthusiastic, and delivered with a huge dose of confidence and aplomb. At the moment it is the best album I’ve heard this year.
Mariusz Duda: Claustrophobic Universe (April 23) (2 singles released) — watch for a review next week
Gojira: Fortitude (April 30) (3 singles released)
Gary Numan: Intruder (May) (3 singles released)
Michał Łapaj: Are You There (June 18)
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster: summer (1 or 2 singles released)
I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
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→
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, 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 Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
I’ll start with the odds and ends of 2018. A few EPs were released that deserve mention but aren’t really long enough to be included in the album list. As well, some of the albums that didn’t make the list in the end did provide a great track or two, even if the rest of the album wasn’t up to snuff. And as always, I find stuff during the year that was released the year before, I just wasn’t paying attention at the time.
Gary Numan: The Fallen
An addendum to the spectacular Savage album from 2017, the ep provides 3 additional tracks.