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)