Notable Releases of the Week (5/10)
It’s a really great week for new music and it happens to especially be a great week for metal. It just so happened that four of my seven picks this week are metal albums, and I’ve got honorable mention shoutouts for two more: the first Possessed album in 33 years and Call of the Void. There’s also plenty of great music across other genres out today, and more honorable mentions include Queen Key, AA Bondy, Charly Bliss, Defeater, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Greys, Clinic, Mac DeMarco, NOTS, She Keeps Bees, Ciara, Dark Morph (aka Jonsi & CM Von Hausswolff), DOOMSQUAD, Wild Side, Guitar Wolf, Efrim Manuel Menuck & Kevin Doria, Big Nothing, Zombi’s Steve Moore, Tim Hecker, and the Knocked Loose 7″.
Read on for my seven picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Holly Herndon’s great 2015 album Platform was electronic art pop that was like Laurie Anderson meets Black Mirror meets ASMR (before ASMR had a big mainstream boom), and there still aren’t really any other albums like it. If Holly did the same thing all over again, it would still be startlingly original, but Holly is an artist who’s very concerned with moving forward, and PROTO feels just as out of left field today as Platform did in 2015. “If you want to be a radical today you have to be dealing with the current climate and the current conditions and pushing things forward with all of the information we have access to in 2019,” Holly recently told Stereogum. “You can’t LARP the past. That’s so bizarre to me. Music has a huge problem with that. That kind of regurgitation nostalgia.” It’s easy to just say that and not be able to back it up or do anything about it yourself, but PROTO does do something about it. There are references to very old music, like with the hymn-like chants of “Frontier,” but anytime something might sound old, Holly toys it with it in entirely new ways. It already feels safe to call this album ahead of its time.
The album was made with an A.I. entity named Spawn that Holly has been “raising” for about two years with programmer Jules LaPlace. Holly and her collaborators have been training Spawn to sing, to interpret or reinterpret music, and to improvise, and some of the sounds you hear on this album come from those training sessions. Spawn is as much a part of the album as Holly and her human collaborators, and PROTO is an album that shows how inhuman sounds and voices can come together with (a full choir of) human voices to create something new and exciting. There’s a common fear that robots will replace people, but with this album Holly wanted to prove how they could work together in harmony. “My view is, ‘How can computers free us up, give us more time to be more human?’ Not, ‘How can we become more machinelike?’ That’s kind of what we’re trying to do with this album,” Holly said in that same Stereogum interview. And you can hear that in the music. Advances in technology can do a lot of good but the human mind and soul aren’t replaceable. PROTO is an album that considers both of those things.
Holly has gone so far as to refer to her own albums as “research-oriented,” and if this all sounds more like a research project on A.I. than an album you would actually want to listen to, that would be understandable. But while the story behind this album is fascinating, you don’t need to know it to enjoy PROTO. Like Platform, it’s a collection of highly challenging yet highly enjoyable electronic pop music. Some songs are more abstract than others, but more often than not, the album is breathtaking in a very natural way. It’s music that’s fun to listen to, which kind of means Holly’s experiment was a success. It proves that humans and A.I. really can work together to create something that’s new, exciting, and worthwhile.
It feels like we’re living in a time where black art is thriving. From BlacKkKlansman to Insecure to Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, black art has taken on many forms and dominated the cultural conversation without being pushed off into the margins or watered down by and for white people. On her second album and Jagjaguwar debut, Jamila Woods has made her own piece of bold black art that celebrates generation after generation of black icons. Each song is named after a different black or brown icon, from Miles Davis to Muddy Waters to Sun Ra to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Frida Kahlo to Octavia E. Butler to Zora Neale Hurston to Betty Davis and still more, and the album works as both a primer for the work of these icons and as a stunning piece of work of its own. Sometimes Jamila’s homages are direct, like when she strays from the album’s modern, atmospheric tone for hard-edged, bluesy guitars on “MUDDY,” or when she raps a hook on “BASQUIAT” that references a 1985 interview where Basquiat shrugs off a question about what makes him mad, or when she sings a hook on “SONIA” that toys with the word “bad.” But for the most part, Jamila celebrates these artists without drawing too directly from their work. These songs are very much the work of Jamila Woods, who’s a powerful and unique enough songwriter to become an icon of her own one day. The album has some well-chosen collaborations — like the gorgeous production from oddCouple, Peter Cottontale, and Slot-A, and standout verses from Nitty Scott on “SONIA” and Saba on “BASQUIAT” — but Jamila is the star of the show. LEGACY! LEGACY! comes at the tail-end of what’s been a great decade for R&B, soul, and hip hop, and the album feels like the culmination of so many sounds that emerged over the past ten years, from Janelle Monae’s art pop-tinged R&B to Jessie Ware’s soulful alt-pop to Solange and Frank Ocean’s updates on ’70s soul to Noname’s lively jazz rap. LEGACY! LEGACY! should appeal to fans of any of those artists, and it doesn’t feel like it will be long before Jamila herself is being mentioned in the same breath as all of them. She really has her own vision and her own take on music like this. She’s not just celebrating the legacies of historical icons; she’s already leaving a legacy of her own.
Dreadnought’s great 2017 album A Wake In Sacred Waves was an album that could sound like anything from Deafheaven to Jethro Tull to Fairport Convention at any given moment, and it deservedly proved to be a breakthrough for the Denver band. It helped them ink a deal with Profound Lore, and their first album for the new label (and fourth overall) comes out today. A Wake In Sacred Waves was a genre hopping album, but Emergence doesn’t hop between different genres so much as it blurs them all into one new thing. When the band’s co-vocalists Kelly Schilling and Lauren Vieira sing clean, they can sound like anything from the ethereal goth of bands like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance to the traditional folk of the aforementioned Fairport Convention. When Kelly screams, Dreadnought sound like any of the best black metal bands around. And the music moves seamlessly from heavy to soft sounds. A Wake In Sacred Waves would see Dreadnought transitioning out of a folk part into a black metal part and so on, but Emergence moves more like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. Distorted riffs, clean arpeggios, flute, mandolin, strings, organ, horns, and more come together to create an album that’s constantly in motion. It can sound like jazz for a minute here, or psychedelic rock for a minute there, or progressive rock for another minute somewhere else, and it never stays in one place for long. Metal tends to be a dominant trait whenever a band uses it (especially with screamed vocals) in any capacity, so yes Dreadnought will still probably get referred to mostly as a metal band. But that word really only describes a small piece of Dreadnought’s sound. Emergence is nearly unclassifiable.
Sometimes the stars align and two very likeminded albums come out the same day, and today is one of those days. BIG|BRAVE’s new album combines heavy metallic music and soaring clean vocals like the Dreadnought album does, its artwork is very similar to the Dreadnought album’s artwork, and actually, these two bands are about to tour together. The albums pair very well together, but there’s a lot that’s different about them too. BIG|BRAVE are heavy but they pull more from industrial and post-rock than from metal. And BIG|BRAVE’s Robin Wattie is a powerhouse of a singer, closer to metal-affiliated singers like Chelsea Wolfe, Emma Ruth Rundle, and Marissa Nadler than to any actual metal bands. Her voice alone is reason enough to dive into BIG|BRAVE’s great new LP, and the instrumentation on this album is pretty impressive as well. Of its five songs, four pass the seven-minute mark and one passes the ten-minute mark. BIG|BRAVE rely more on hypnotic drone than on riffs or melodies, but the album never gets sleepy. Mostly because Robin’s voice is far too striking to ever fall asleep to. Turn this thing up and listen to her belt it. You won’t be disappointed.
Punk and emo aren’t easy genres to mature in, and I doubt having “kids” in your name makes it any easier, but damn if The Get Up Kids didn’t try. After having a major breakthrough with 1999’s Something To Write Home About — an album which took its cues from bands like Superchunk, but, much to The Get Up Kids’ dismay, ended up influencing bands like Fall Out Boy — The Get Up Kids reverted to a folkier rock sound on the less-well-received On A Wire and Guilt Show before throwing in the towel. Those albums were good, but as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that Something To Write Home About was the band’s magnum opus, even if the bands it influenced gave emo a bad name. The Get Up Kids were still reacting negatively to that album’s sound and success on their first reunion album, 2011’s There Are Rules, but eventually they learned how to stop worrying and love their 1999 classic as much as their fans do. They performed the album in full live, then they signed to Polyvinyl and released the Something To Write Home About-esque Kicker EP last year, and now they’re back with their first full-length in eight years, Problems, and it just might be the sequel that Something To Write Home About always deserved. The Get Up Kids have indeed matured, but they’ve realized maturing doesn’t mean abandoning the type of music you’re best at. Problems sounds sonically like the followup album to Something To Write Home About that fans always dreamed of. The Get Up Kids have figured out how to grow within the realm of that sound and point their lyrical concerns in wiser directions. TGUK are at their best when they’re writing punchy, driving, catchy punk songs, and on this album they’re doing that in a way that sounds nothing like the mainstream emo bands they’ve long resented. They sound closer to the recent Superchunk reunion albums, or to newer indie-punk bands like Cloud Nothing and Joyce Manor, and they’ve written some of their best songs in a very long time. It may have taken 20 years, but the wait was worth it — Problems is the sequel that Something to Write Home About always deserved, and it sounds as fresh today as it would’ve sounded if it came out in 2001.
Sweden’s Martyrdod exist in a long line of bands who blur the lines between metal and punk, from Motorhead to Discharge (who Martyrdod cover as a bonus track on this album) to Disfear, and they’ve now been masters of it themselves for quite some time. If you’ve been following along with Martryrdod’s recent string of killer releases, you have a general idea of what to expect from Hexhammaren, but as is usually the case with this band, you don’t know exactly what to expect. Martyrdod tend to approach each new album with a fresh new perspective and come out with something that’s not quite like anything they’ve done before, and Hexhammaren is no exception. They’re still right smack in the middle of punk and metal, clearly worshippers of both but not more loyal to one in particular, and that once again resulted in a breakneck-speed album that makes you wanna stop reading album reviews on the internet and get yourself to the nearest Martyrdod mosh pit stat. The rhythm section pummels along at a mind-numbing pace while Mikael Kjellman delivers scream-along bark after scream-along bark (whether or not you can actually understand what he’s screaming about), and the album offers up another heaping dose of the kind of bright, melodic riffs that Martyrdod have long excelled at. These are riffs that will have you instantly reaching for your air guitar, but also riffs that will have you humming along. This sentence is not the first time I’m mentioning Kvelertak and Tribulation in the same breath as Martyrdod (and it probably won’t be the last), but if you’re a fan of those bands and Martyrdod isn’t already on your radar, let Hexhammaren change that. (And then go listen to all the other Martyrdod albums.) These guys are masters of grin-inducing riffage, compelling melodicism, and giving their fans whiplash, and Hexhammaren is as good an example of that as any.
Spirit Adrift quickly picked up buzz for their first two albums, which were cut from a similar modern trad-doom cloth as bands like Pallbearer and Khemmis, but it’s clear from Divided By Darkness that Spirit Adrift are ready to shed the limiting doom label. They still have a few moments like that on this album, and they’re good ones, but Divided By Darkness stretches Spirit Adrift’s wings far beyond Sabbath worship. They have songs that aim to reach Metallica heights (“Hear Her”), songs that go in ambitious, proggy directions (“Angel & Abyss”), and more. Other than the comparatively rawer production, Divided reminds me of records like Mastodon’s Crack the Skye and Baroness’ Yellow & Green; records where “underground” metal bands really swung for the fences and tried to imitate the leap Metallica had made from Kill ‘Em All to Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets. Spirit Adrift probably aren’t gonna be the next Metallica or anything, but it’s always nice to see a band refusing to be pigeonholed into a specific subgenre and at least trying to make a metal album that could one day be played in arenas.