Notable Releases of the Week (12/2)
Here we are in December, the last month of the year. End of the year lists keep pouring in, but that’s not stopping quality new music from coming out. Sometimes the best music of the year comes out around this time (like maybe the first album in 16 years from The LOX, which comes out in two weeks — and also more on them in a minute). And since you’re probably spending more time inside, trying to keep warm, you’ve got even more time to listen to it. Lucky for you, there’s a handful of good records out this week to bundle up and listen to.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Harlem’s Smoke DZA has been a staple of New York rap for over half a decade now, and he was surrounding himself with legends from the start. He put out multiple collaborations with Reasonable Doubt producer Ski Beatz in his early days, and more recently he struck up a relationship with Pete Rock. Pete Rock’s only been the sole producer on a select few albums (most of which were with his early ’90s pal CL Smooth), but Don’t Smoke Rock makes Smoke DZA one of the lucky ones to get that treatment. “To have the opportunity to have a full-length joint with him before fucking Nas — that made my life,” DZA joked to The FADER.
There’s a reason these veterans all like him. Smoke DZA has spent his career channeling the golden age rap of his home city, and he does it really fucking well. He’s less a throwback rapper and more a true believer though — a good comparison is someone like the late Sean Price, who both DZA and Pete Rock have worked with and who DZA shouts out on this album’s Rick Ross-featuring “Black Superhero Car” (“Take Eric Gardner’s killers, give me Sean Price back”). Ross (and Mac Miller, who’s on the closing track) is the closest DZA comes to grabbing guests with modern-day radio appeal. Mostly the guests on Don’t Smoke Rock are very within the album’s particular world. There’s more New York history from Cam’ron on “Moving Weight” and from The LOX’s Jadakiss and Styles P on “Milestone.” The first proper song “Limitless” has recent Harlem breakout Dave East, who pays tribute to the same type of stuff Smoke DZA does. “Dusk 2 Dusk” reunites DZA with Big K.R.I.T. and Dom Kennedy, who he’s worked with many times since his earliest records. And “Hold the Drums” has Royce da 5’9″, another true believer who very recently did his own collab LP with a New York boom bap legend, DJ Premier.
As things like the Kendrick Lamar-featuring Tribe Called Quest album proved, it’s been a good year for rap albums that find a middle ground between a veteran’s sound and a newcomer, and that’s just what Don’t Smoke Rock does. Take “Hold the Drums,” where DZA’s perma-stoned flow blends perfectly with Pete Rock’s turntable scratches. Not only are Pete Rock beats the beats that DZA probably hears in his head to begin with, but he breathes new life into them. Pete’s last album was last year’s PeteStrumentals 2. It’s a fine showcase of what he’s capable of, but with DZA on the mic things are just more downright fun.
Last year, Lady Lamb (aka Aly Spaltro) released the album After, her biggest-sounding album yet and one that brought her pretty close to Feist territory. She’s following it with the seven-song Tender Warriors Club EP, which is intentionally going back to an intimate sound. “It is meant to serve as an emblematic space for people to relate in the shared interest of emotional vulnerability,” she says. She plans to support the EP on a solo acoustic living room tour, and that sounds like a perfect way to see these songs live. Almost every sound you hear is just Aly’s voice and her guitar (or other stringed instrument). Sometimes those Feist-y sounds come back, like on “Salt,” but mostly this is such a personal-sounding record that you won’t really be thinking about comparisons. Also, just because it’s bare-bones doesn’t mean it’s simple. A highlight is “Tangles,” a constantly-gripping song that passes the seven-minute mark and remains dark and somber the whole time. It’s the kind of song where, if someone so much as fidgets on her upcoming living room tour, you’ll hear them. Aly says another reason she wrote these songs is to remind both herself and others “to find the courage to remain sensitive through emotional challenges.” With the type of year we’ve been having, that’s something a lot of us could use right now.
It wasn’t immediately obvious that Deafheaven would become the face of shoegazy, post-rocky black metal. The year they dropped their debut, Roads to Judah (2011), we also got crucial records from Woods of Desolation (Torn Beyond Reason), Wolves in the Throne Room (Celestial Lineage) and Ash Borer (s/t), which all left a major impact on that sound. (Not to mention the impact left by Alcest’s Écailles de lune the year before.) Of all those bands, Ash Borer were the rawest and the darkest. While sometimes this sound can be genuinely uplifting, Ash Borer like to leave you feeling bitter and miserable. They followed their s/t LP with Cold of Ages in 2012 (and a two-song EP in 2013), but they’re just finally releasing their first full length since this type of metal broke on a massive level. The Irrepassable Gate has them sounding as anti-social as ever (if you’re wondering just how anti-social Ash Borer are, consider that as far as we know, the members names are K, R, M, and A). They sound like they’re genuinely more interested in performing in a cave to no one than going on a tour with Slipknot. There’s exactly one moment on The Irrepassable Gate that could pass as bright and catchy: the guitar riff towards the very end of “Grey Marrow.” The way it’s presented is almost like, if you make it through the murk and the feral screaming, you get hit with the kind of satisfaction a less patient band would use for the song’s main hook. After that ends, it’s right into the 12 and a half minute “Rotten Firmament” for more pain and suffering… in a good way, musically speaking.
The same day that Profound Lore releases the raw and grueling Ash Borer record, they also release the third album from Oakland’s Worm Ouroboros, which is virtually the sonic opposite. It’s got the darkness of a metal album, and their drummer is metal extraordinaire Aesop Dekker (of the now-defunct Agalloch, the new post-Agalloch band Khorada, VHOL, and more), but they’re more Dead Can Dance/Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil than they are Agalloch. Singers Lorraine Rath and Jessica Way have huge, haunting voices that remind you that “gothic” was once used to describe a Medieval-period culture. (I personally would like to see Worm Ouroboros perform in one of these churches.) Sometimes they up the distortion just enough to make you think of sludge metal (but no more than Chelsea Wolfe or Emma Ruth Rundle do), though mostly the instrumentation on the album draws from dark-folk and post rock. It’s creepy, sinister, and it’s own way, kind of beautiful.
As mentioned in the intro of this post, it’s about that time of year where you might be bundled up inside listening to records. If you’re looking for music that sounds as cold as it feels outside, What Graceless Dawn is perfect winter listening.