The Music of 2017 Part Three: Albums No. 7 to 1
It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect. The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube. A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal. It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.
This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts. In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap. Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.
2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off. Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different. The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest. In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.
After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out. Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience. That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up.
- Legend – Midnight Champion
This Iceland duo was an interesting find: Spotify (of all things) recommended their first album, Fearless, and it did intrigue me. But it wasn’t quite the thing for me, despite the enthusiasm of many listeners. But the band had something…enough to keep me interested in the fact that they had a new one coming. And Midnight Champion is very good. It takes their dark synth-driven sound to a more accessible level – strong enough to make its way into frequent rotation in my playlist, even if it lacks a certain consistency.
- Body Count – Bloodlust
Ice-T’s metal experiment has been around for a long time, but recent events in America and across the world have awakened the monster. Body Count turns its intense gangsta-metal stare on the routine and casual dismissal of the black, the poor, and the disadvantaged in society; maybe we won’t get the civil war Ice-T calls for but there is no doubt that things just ain’t getting better. Bloodlust is an epically heavy, relentless, take-no-prisoners exegesis on the state of the world today. Pair this with Ice Cube’s epically massive song “Dominate the Weak” – and we have a complete statement about what it is like to be black or brown and/or poor in America today.
I’d be looking over my shoulder.
- Lunatic Soul – Fractured
I guess I do not have to say how much I look forward to new Lunatic Soul albums. Those who know me are aware that this project is something very close to my soul — it is literally under my skin. So it is with a disappointment I can hardly recognize that I am forced to concede that Lunatic Soul V – Fractured – is not the album I was hoping for.
It is not a bad album at all—it is a very good one. And from what I can tell, it is certainly the breakthrough LS album, racking up love and accolades from folks who heretofore were not particular fans. But for me…there is something missing. For me…it is an album that has departed not only from the LS formula (and I must add that this, in and of itself, is not a deal-breaker and never will be) but has become … safe. I’m not sure if that is the word I am looking for but Fractured, unlike all the rest of the LS albums, seems to have taken a somewhat conventional path. The individual songs are … nice. They do have some very powerful and compelling moments. Duda’s songwriting and performing chops remain undiminished.
But here’s the thing: Fractured is a very good album in the same way that the other good albums on my list are good. For the first time, it is not fundamentally different. It does not demand attention, does not grab my soul, it does not make me close my eyes and lose myself in a kind of primal emotional drive…it does not saturate my being. It feels like losing love – an ache deep in the core.
- 3Teeth — <shutdown.exe>
Mighty industrial post-punk face-melting intensity from a California quartet. Another completely new band to me, from the roster of Storming the Base, a Toronto-based distributor of electronica and industrial and related sounds that is turning out to be a veritable gold mine of new music. 3Teeth have put out an impressive second album, incandescent and relentless and energetic, which seems to be the kind of music I am more and more drawn to. This is exactly the kind of sound I always imagined “industrial” should be. Anyway, I like them well enough to put them this high up.
- Heart Attack – The Resilience
Thrash metal from France. But really really good, intelligent, sophisticated thrash metal. Maybe because they are French, I dunno, but the songs here are not just head-bangingly heavy, but surprisingly melodic, and the album is wonderfully structured: it begins with an acoustic, almost delicate instrumental opener, and ends with another harder but beautifully-wrought instrumental; and in between a series of merciless face-melters. I listen to this album a whole lot.
The Top Two
- Gary Numan – Savage (Songs from a Broken World)
I almost ignored this album. Yes, it is true: his previous album (Splinter) certainly surprised me with its quality and the power in some of the songs, and gave me a deeper appreciation for his endless work ethic, but it did not stick with me, and I did not take part in the funding drive for the next album. And when Savage was finally released, I did not rush to listen to it.
When I gave it a shot, again I was surprised – another good one, with a lot of similarity to Splinter. But then something happened. As I kept listening it became obvious that Savage was an album on an entirely different level. Numan had upped his game far beyond the promise of Splinter: he demolished it. He blew it so far out of the park it left the planet.
Savage is an absolute monster of an album; dark and dense and thick with synth-driven angst and foreboding, words and music perfectly entwined, heavy and delicate all at once and at all the right moments. It may be a song too long (but which one, I cannot say); at any rate, it really does tower above most of the rest of this year’s pack.
- Seeming – Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual
The album of the year came out of nowhere. Almost literally. Yet another member of the Storming the Base/Artoffact Records stable, one of those “hm, pretty interesting reviews I should check it out” moments while scrolling through my FB newsfeed.
And Jesus…I’m still trying to figure out what I found here. On the surface it is sophisticated industrial post-pop, ambitious songs to be sure, but don’t be fooled: it doesn’t take long (oh — about 20 seconds into any given song) to realize that there is so much more going on. That Sol is not just a collection of songs, but an entire exegesis on the state of the world and our place in it, as well as an ongoing demonstration on how to write and perform music to convey and support the lofty ideas that Alex Reed has presented us throughout this album.
At any rate, the ambition and scope and sheer density of ideas (both musical and lyrical) on Sol is remarkable. Well beyond anything else on the list this year. Every single time I play this album, I encounter sounds, music, ideas that I never noticed before. It’s just a bottomless pit of exploration. The review is here.
Stream the whole album below: