10. Charly Bliss – Guppy
This is the best pop-punk record this year, no doubt about it. I lend this appeal mostly to Eva Hendricks voice, a non-singing voice at times, disappearing when shrieking but ultimately beautifully emotive and relatable. Surely she follows in the lane of previously known female rock singers and the grunge of the 90´s, yet there is a huge amount of comedy, irony, and quirkiness in her delivery and lyrics that are supported by forward-thinking instrumentals that sound as polished as they appear raw and spur of the moment. Her outings range from “I pied the trampoline” to questioning her relation with “Am I the best / Or just the first person to say yes” and these forms of youthful energy and anxiety resonate even when the teenage years are pretty much over and done. Indie rock has to deliver on these fronts, the idiosyncrasies of being young while touching on the first questions and introspections of adulthood and generally being in touch with a world outside of what was known while growing up.
This album is the goliath fans have been waiting for a while now and shows the band – in a new set-up, with a refreshed edge in their songwriting and an airy knack for heaviness. With Joseph writing almost the whole album on his own, you´ll get the feeling of this record being very much a studio-brainchild. The guitars still sound bombastic, but now come off as more intricate and centered on a technical aspects. Especially considering that the sounds have mingled into a very specific wall of sound that is distinctly Junius but has grown to really encompass the ecclesial spirit of their morbid musing in sounds. You´ll get it immediately with “March of the Samsara” – the immediate tribal soundscape is broken by the heavily distorted and guitar, that after a first peak pretty much recedes back further into the mix, with a second line emerging on top of this wall that has merged with angelic voices. There isn´t just this one explosive riff or melody anymore, or at least not directly. But now, you´ll get a greater variety of sounds. The choir voices and something that sounds like a harpsichord become more striking at times. Surely there are some great riffs evoking amped up shoegaze played in a metal mindset you´d expect from Junius, but the more intricate moments occur through synths, effects and this harpsichord. Take “A Mass for Metaphysicians” for instance: The tortured group vocals in the explosive chorus carrying so much turmoil within them. But in the middle of the song you get this synth arpeggio, this aquatic melody that slides into a string section with some drumming that is so somber with Joseph´s vocals, taking away all tension from before and sounding like an incantation of sorts. Then there is this huge payoff in which this section crashes back into the chorus. The latter half of the album immediately marks a shift with “The Queen´s Constellation”. Right up front you get this synth melody that weaves into a much airy doomscape. Joseph harmonizes with himself here and his vocals are on point in this theatrical yearning. Yet again, the high point of this song lies in its musical interlude, when this synth melodies resurfaces again and the instrumental takes a turn towards a subtle build that never actually reaches its crescendo. It really feels like an endless flight and not giving us the usual satisfaction coupled with these angelic voices is a great way to end the song and change the mood from the previous tracks. Closer “Black Sarcophagus” is the best track here and a perfect ending to the album. This track is the perfect marriage of the two sides of this record. Staying in mid-tempo almost entirely, the lead out of this track beginning after four minutes has the doom and transcendence of the album colliding. The guitars being at their most electric and fizzy and the choir voices swelling with them. Like most of the album, it is a kind of negative explosion, not actually leading you anywhere but so dense and full of energy while retaining this uncanny airiness through the synths and voices. Eternal Rituals closes the album cycle that began with Martyrdom. A journey that can best be described as one from life to death, progressing into transcendence in Reports. Here the concepts centers on Elisabeth Haich and her biography. Haich introduced Yoga to the west and wrote on spirituality. While the focus on Velikovsky was more prevalent in Martyrdom, the connection here aren´t as apparent, at least not for me as I haven´t read her book. But either way, you´ll get the idea of spirituality and cleansing that is prevalent in this album. It is centered on the growth and metamorphosis of the spirit, into other lives or different life cycles. What I enjoy here especially is the marriage of Junius going full metal and their affinity for the more beautiful and sacral sounds. I always admired this different angle, what at the end sounded heavy and yet completely open and breathable and clear. Here they take this to perfection, even if the production isn´t always on par with it. Lastly, I highly recommend this album to you, especially if you´re tired of standard metal bands or bands that sound heavy. I hope they will push their sound into more experimental sounds in their next album, never losing their heaviness but maybe moving further away from what most would define as metal in general. As we have labels as doomgaze now, I think Junius fit this description as stargazers and will continue to do this melancholic image justice.
08. Heinali and Matt Finney – How We Lived
The collaboration of Heinali and Matt Finney always held a special place in my heart. With their first few releases in the early 2010´s one of the most intriguing instrumental artists hooked up with a singular poet of recent times to create dark epics of sound and word. After disappearing for a few years How We Lived marks the even darker return of the duo. These four tracks especially from Finney´s side, who always tinged his persona on these outing by his words alone contrasts years of silence with the unending experiences of personal drama and trauma. He might have stopped writing for a while, went down dark paths of drugs and alcohol and still might not be able to end this chapter, but this work is the retelling and breathing demon of these times. You can make heavy music by shrieking and shouting or by using everything the metal music repertoire has to offer, or you can bring the despair with Finney´s feeble voice and Heinali´s drone. How We Lived plays a little like exhibiting all the shit that has happened to you and being unapologetic about these experiences while still feeling shame. The shame of clearly understanding your own wish to die, trying to kill yourself or becoming entangled in negative emotions and letting them show in a parking lot for the world to see. One of my first thoughts when hearing the story behind the album and listening to “Wilderness” was about American Transcendentalism, guys like Whitman and Thoreau. I had a class on them a few years back and we went along the lines of them trying to build a life close to nature and building a new kind of humanity from these experiences. And most people like this idea about them very much. But what fascinated me the most, and what is an integral part in my opinion, is their motivation behind building all this in spite of a world they didn´t like and felt was off in its own way. It´s along the lines of them not going into nature to find something, but going there to actually get away from people and their foolish ways. And while I understand both ways and feel like there is this cynicism about humanity in one way or another, I also think a lot about the connection of humans and nature. And while it is something beautiful to be in nature, it can be a very scary place. And this leads me to think about you being in nature and sitting in a self-imposed isolation, as well as the question who you wanted to get away from. And I guess with people like Thoreau and this whole movement of being one with nature, the thing is, that you cannot get away from yourself and nature will reflect this wishful thinking right back at you, just like the abyss that is staring back at you. Maybe this makes Finney a kind of negative transcendentalist or gives the whole Man-Nature dynamic a much needed reality check. I can only imagine the state of mind one must be in after not having talked to anybody for very long time, carrying a shitload of heavy memories and experiences with them and knowing that there is nobody around to really talk to. And I guess at that point physical distance to people doesn´t matter that much anymore, whether you´re in a hut or in a major city, it all boils down to being distant from yourself while equally being caught up in everything that you feel is holding you down and haunting you. This all leads me to be startled by the second side, unsure if this isn´t the bleaker and more upsetting side. One the first two tracks Finney is alone, reminiscing, the dark thoughts creeping up and transporting you into a mind-numbing attack of negative emotions of uncertainty and shame. The second side is the morning after this, or even a reflection of the times these things happen. One is going through shit and the other is understanding, reflecting and coping with the sheer fact that you are going through some shit. And with this I had to think about one of my favorite lines from the new Aesop Rock album and the track “Get Out the Car”. At one point Aes says “Knowing ain´t half the battle / That´s a bullshit quip written by some asshole” and after I understood what he was talking about in the track and the section of the album, I could relate on many levels. Naturally admittance and reflection are part of the process of getting out and getting better, but I feel that this is only something that is true for some people. There are those who know what is going on with them, are self-aware for the worst parts of their life and from that perspective, the hole others fall in turns out to be a grave. If this is the morning after being pulled apart by your own thoughts and feeling, this is the morning of understanding your own defeat and inability to actually move on like many might suggest in a psychologically sound way. The second side turns out to be a sort of paralysis. The immediate heaviness and bleakness is gone, switched out for something that is more subtle and airy, but this might as well be the sensation of drowning in its essence – being surrounded by water, by transparency and life while still lacking air to actually survive. Heinali did a great job on this and I feel like "October´s Light" really carries a moment of respite before dropping everything into a different kind of darkness again. This frantic drum solo had me thinking of a complete freak-out while still being in control, something so jazzy and off the wall, that people don´t actually understand the insanity that is happening before their eyes. "Perfect Blue" has the cycle closing without recalling the same moves of the first side, we get this screeching and the heavy guitars, but now this shit isn´t pointing downwards but upwards, becoming a menace rather than the villain of the first side. In all its doom, How We Lived feels like a triumph of sort and fills me with the sensation of the collaboration of Finney and Heinali being their way of coping with negativity in life. Nothing is resolved and the issues at hand are very much in the presence of their own recounting, but by laying them bare, putting these words into these soundscapes, they become more than just figments of a darkened mind and something to devalue under the premise of just going through a rough time. This shit is real and maybe it is this reality that gives strength in the end, the sheer face of having to cope with the moloch that has created you and made you create in return.
07. Migos – C U L T U R E
The best rap record had to go to Migos and Culture since this was clearly their year on all fronts. "Bad and Boujee" was the trailer for what Culture was to become; a banger filled exploration on how the Migos flow can evolve beyond its early phases and those who rode the wave since “Versace”. Migos have grown as a group and now fully appear as an entity of three voices that support each other’s verses and create this harmonic machine filled with swag and ad-libs that are as catchy as they are meme-worthy. With a title as Culture, each track delivers on being a statement in being produced and written to perfection. Never in the sense of deep lyrics, but as catchy rap tracks that carry as much gangsta steez as well as providing the sense of their titles of fashion and luxury icons stemming from an existence in poverty and daily struggles. I dig these come up story to this day, even if they end in the stupidity of materialism and will most likely never lose their chauvinistic edge altogether. Apart from these systemic flaws, Culture stands as the impeccable voice of state of mind, the eternal grind of three young artists that, as the record shows, are ready to transgress into pop realms and collaborate with everyone who is willing to capitalize from each other. Maybe the title will come into full effect in years to come, with the record being the point of going from internet sensation to full-blown way of life. People already profess Hip Hop as the dominant culture, a statement which lets me think, when, since its inception and the death of grunge wasn´t it dominant in everything from fashion to the very way the internet works in all its post-modern intricacies. With Culture 2 about to drop in 2018, I´m sure that Migos will stand their ground for years to come and will continue to build their brand despite all those who still cry over the lack of lyricism or political consciousness. I do want a world in which Kendrick and Migos coexist and share the fame, one for keeping us educated and the other for pushing out style and delivering something to vibe to. Not to say, that Migos won´t be able to ever get deeper than their own come up story, just as Kendrick never was solely a conscious cat.
06. Jessie Ware – Glasshouse
After Glasshouse, 2014´s Tough Love feels like a small step and rehash of Ware´s debut Devotion. Glasshouse is maturity in every lyric and nuance laid done for Ware´s to sing over. Maybe Tough Love will become the album in-between with a lot of uncertainty that becomes clarity in Glasshouse. Here Ware feels like a new artist altogether, someone who switches styles from song to song, has a lot of sensibility for the sounds and methods that made her career in the first place (“Domino”) and yet pushing for more epic ballads and denser lyrical expressions like on “Alone” or “Stay Awake For Me”. Ware gave the explanation herself and maybe these leaps come with marriage and motherhood, a better understanding of relationship in all its wonder and especially all the hardships that come with it. It has made her a better performer and the lyrical side more appealing. Instrumentally there is a lot more variety that steps away from recent rnb sounds to Latin sounds on “Selfish Love” – a track that I found awful at first listen, but has since then grown on me for Ware´s hushed hypnotic vocals – or simple acoustic guitar and her most directly personal writing on “Sam”. Surely, there is some pop baggage on the record, especially “The Last of The True Believers” feel flat in all its pomp, lacking a personal touch as such and not connecting well with the rest of the album. But still, Glasshouse is deeply engaging at its best moments and something that all fans of her music will cherish. Hands down the best pop record and the promise of an even more expansive repertoire of Ware as a singer.
05. Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent
With their fourth LP, Protomartyr´s music finally or sadly seems to be reflective of the time it is written in. In contrast to the explicit political feel of Idles and their Brutalism, Joe Casey is a shaman, a man with a scatterbrain, at once filling in gaps with lines of pop culture references or personal stories while trying to address the disdain for his time, himself and his surroundings. Since hearing Under Color of Official Right, I had the feeling of a band that was creatively angry and yet, and Casey rambling style of lyricism plays a huge part here, apathetic enough to be truly angry. Their music never shout at you to change anything, there was never a finger pointed anywhere specifically, it largely feels like the observant gaze of caring in the most uncaring way, knowing that your being riled up will not lead anywhere and you won´t change anything anymore. While Brutalism felt like this year’s call to action, Relatives of Descent is the call for people to go home and take the L. Instrumentally the band sounds more energetic than on The Agent Intellect. Every guitar line sparkles and ever drum hit pops and Caseys lyrics, regardless if in their sluggish drool or at his most energetic like on “Don´t Go To Anacita” baffling. This album serves as a great reminder of 2015´s Under Color and why this was the best album of that year for me. In these times of political uncertainty and detachment from what was known to function as a living a life full of morals and good prospects, Relatives In Descent is this year’s mourning without death, the feeling of a world shifting in all the wrong directions.
04. Pallbearer – Heartless
Somehow the track list of Heartless, the cover art, and the whole feeling after seeing the band live for the first time made the huge promise of this album being their best work yet. All this while Heartless is a departure, at least for those who wanted Pallbearer to stay the same doom-troopers from their first outing and well into the most parts of their second record. While they painted their gloomiest moments in the know colors of grey and black on these records, Heartless take the palette of drawing these atmospheres in pastel colors and allowing the doom that was thought to be set in abysmal holes of down-tuned guitars and a lot of space come to the front by pairing them with a lot of pop/heavy metal and prog sensibilities. The singular guitar on “Lie of Survival” for instance, has the vibe of heavy metal´s greatest acts and grows from being something Metallica or Gun´n´Roses would have pulled off into the certainty of sadness and disillusionment that can only truly be Pallbearer by the change of a few chords and the full band taking over. For many, these changes, especially the eschewing of repetitive patterns or long gloomy patterns might appear too soft to be doom and too in love with glitz at glam at points, but Heartless as a whole album is a long journey that is an ever-changing encounter with humanity from the perspective of negativity. All this ends in the grand closer “A Plea For Understanding”, a track that is the first true prayer in the discography of Pallbearer, not a eulogy or a yearning statement. Here the band completely shaves off their doom-ridden wand for extreme tenderness, more then I´d come to expect from Campell heavenly voice, a tearful “plea” and reflection that has the glare of a tortured soul arriving at the peak of a mountain range to understand its own puny longings and shortcomings. With all their themes and references to cosmos and prog-rock always giving of the spacey feel, this is neither space nor doom and still the deepest feeling of connection to something transcendental there is.
03. PRURIENT – Rainbow Mirror
Conceived as the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Prurient and his label Hospital Productions, Rainbow Mirror stands as the most ambient/dark ambient work in the Prurient name. At first, the lack of voice, no screaming, no shouting, shrieking or even spoken word had me worried over how Fernow would let this 3 and a half hour epic play out, but the results are the most Silent Hill his music has ever been. As the celebration of a label that puts out dark electronic music in any shape or form, Rainbow Mirror comes closes to a manifesto of not only Prurient but Hospital Productions as a whole. After the release of this thing, I only listened to this for about a week, going to work with this playing, returning home with this playing and going about under these scapes. One thing that became striking apart from truly feeling drained was the way Rainbow Mirror made me transgress into moments of non-music or environmental sounds after having dwelled in these deathscapes. These tracks convey the experience of a sensory deprivation chamber while still pushing and pulling your senses in different directions. While the protagonists of Silent Hill experience a world of falling ashes as an reflection of their own rotten selves, Rainbow Mirror projects a world in which sound, noise and musicality collapse in your listening experience to form states of complete overlap with your surroundings on one hand and moments of thorough detachment and artificiality on the other – it all depends on the level of immersion and focus you put into listening. The banalest things like riding the bus on a sunny winter morning, the unbearable heat after the numbing cold mixed with the fresh air being discarded for the sinister smellscapes of food, tasteless heaps of perfume and cigarettes become textures inside these tracks. The bodily information becomes affected in these atmospheres that metaphorically go from ancient tombs to glacial rifts illuminated only by northern lights. This is the biggest trait of Rainbow Mirror and maybe why Prurient´s music will never just be dark music: These “deathscapes” in their lack of association and in their overboard length become devoid of pinning pictures to them and create space for your own encounters, your own environment to blend and metissage with them. Not to create a darkened outlook on these experience, but to make them visceral, textural, almost graspable and realistic. Over these clacks, silent synth rises and washes of sound, fiction never appears to take hold and the immersion creates a feeling of being in touch with your surroundings more than in their immediate aural presence altogether.
02. VA – Sounds of Sisso
This is 2017´s most impressive musical find and the best experimental work. Simply because this is a true stylistic hybrid in that it becomes a natural expression. A musical expression of a small group and music culture of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Called Singeli, this clash of techno, punk, gabba, rap and everything electronic is sure to melt your face at first listen. The speed of the beats and the rapping is impeccable and speech patterns and melodies match the stutter and uncompromising fluidity. Discovering Sounds of Sisso through Nyege Nyege Tapes and the shout out by Boomkat, the movement of cultural production leads me to once again realize how limited my own scope on music and the overall scope of musical writing is in the west. We praise those who take up a few elements of “foreign” music and equally those that let the roots of their expression show, but too often still push those of explicitly non-western context into the world-music category and by this exclude them from competing with mainstreamed and known music. All this while in Africa alone there exist so many new music genres and sound system culture that develop their styles taking everything in and fare way beyond binarities of own and foreign. This is true transculturalism and experimental electronic for it does not understand it as such anymore, it becomes the culture of a people and was developed with no market in mind. Over these 14 tracks, a handful of artists of the Sisso Record Label/collective use everything at their hands, Casio keyboard lines, samples or recordings of recordings of African and Indian drums, pitch-shifted comic voices (and Lil Wayne) and even go full aggro synth noise on you. All the while keeping up with stories that I and many won´t understand but by description speak on the hardship and idiosyncrasies of life in Dar Es Salaam that sounds pretty much like the Tanzanian equivalents of rap music. The energy these compositions deliver are meant to make you dance but in the same transport the feeling of their lives in a non-nightclub and cut off manner. This is best expressed through a statement by one of the Nyege founders Arlen Dilsizian:
"One of the first things international artists notice in East Africa, [Dilsizian said], is the natural integration of music and performance into everyday life. There is more fluidity between the performer and the audience, and between music and dancing," [he said.]. "In Africa dancing is much less determined by the nature of the space, while in Europe the nightclub became to dancing what White Cube became to art." (https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3107)
This all-encompassing nature of music is hard to grasp when understanding music as art meant for the cut-off appreciation or special places that usually carry an air of being distant from daily experience. It just boils down what people do, to express themselves and to put out their understanding of the world – the most hip-hop and postmodern thing to be found where only some care to pay attention. I´m listening now!
01. Drab Majesty – The Demonstration
Released in January of this year, I still can´t get away from this album. I´ve always been a sucker for synth-heavy music and something of the synth-pop and wave direction, but I also grew bored of many bands that are caught up in the past of this style and don´t really care about innovating much on their sound or songwriting with something fresh. That being said, I´m a huge fan of Depeche Mode and love their work, but still can´t shake the feeling of them being stuck in a certain idea of their sound. A thing you can hear in their new album Spirit especially, which is like a rendition of their previous work. Yet, I can´t really sell you Drab Majesty as taking this lane of music and flipping the script entirely. They wear their influence and stick to known formulas and sounds, but they never come off as dated. Every track here is variant in mood and feeling and even though you get a lot of this hollow drumming and piercing synth arpeggios that will always bear some semblance of the past, you never get the feeling of listing to a carbon copy of anything. And yet, this relationship to past-sounds and a retro feeling is what is remarkable in the music of Drab Majesty. It seems like Deb Demure is obsessed with time, feelings of longing, memories and the warping of these concepts in his lyrics and sounds. You´ll get their obsession with reverb and delay in their guitar work from the first track and the associations with old synth-pop and wave music aren´t the only thing that these sounds of guitars folding back on each other will evoke. There is always this unreachable notion these sounds create, with Demure´s singing his anthems over these scapes, most of the time distant and reverb-soaked himself. While this all carries this retro feeling, especially the lyrics and feelings of the songs have a kind of immediacy that will pull you in. There are no weird studio-tricks or a wide range of sounds on the record, but always a tune that is catchy and immediately recognizable. Going with the narrative Demure builds around this outfit, I can´t help but feel the pull of nostalgia, sci-fi, fantasy, and emotions of longing and yearning for the other. You get tracks like "39 by Design" that carries this heavy load of pathos with it. Something that might come off as cheesy for most, but I believe every word of it in their delivery and these driving drum beats and explosive chorus work well with these heavy emotions. On this song there is this strange questioning of time, wanting to freeze it by taking a Polaroid – which is a great expression even though it is a very used expression. “Cold Souls”, for instance, bears some warmth in its haze, with this obsession with memories and always being removed from them colliding with something that sounds like a farewell. All these tracks have a very formulaic verse-chorus pattern, but the dynamic between them, the restrained explosive quality is smoothed out here and everything fits in perfectly. It´s lush and inviting in a way. Overall, the whole album is sequenced in a very good flow, with small spacy interludes transitioning between some songs, even though that is mostly something for the vinyl edition.
I guess my liking this album goes deep into my own listening experiences. This isn´t harsh or deeply experimental, doesn´t push boundaries, but just a well-written album. There is a heaping amount of pathos in here for sure, but not everything here is standard hazy dream pop or synth-pop. A thing you´ll definitely understand listening to something like “Kissing The Ground”, a direction I´d like the band to develop further into. If you´re someone who can think himself into paralysis and yet bears the urge to be immediate and take action, this is for you. The past, memories and the breaking of relationships play a huge part here, as a theme, burden on the music and the narratives themselves. The Demonstration carried me over this year and it is a very personal choice that can´t be explained beyond my own biography by ways of a music critic. These are sounds that resonate with my bodiliness, my perception of self and world and thus carry with them my experience over these times. The epitome of long years of work, even further back the environments and influences that made me and with it, the disappointments and emotional hardship that come with coping and breaking away from the things that still hold me back. In these synth-scapes, Demure´s own definition of being merely a vessel for spiritual impressions, his guitar sounds, I find again these dynamics that seem to be very universal in the long-winded coming of age of many.