Five Notable Releases of the Week (4/8/16)
April continues to be a good month, with a solid handful of new records out today. And if you were wondering, no, it's not a mistake that the new M83 album isn't here. (Maybe the most disappointing album of 2016 so far?) This week I picked a mixtape by one of the most promising newer rappers around, a collaboration from two very different voices in heavy music, a surprising left turn from a Brooklyn psych band, a return from one of the best bands to ever come out of nu metal, and a sad Scottish indie band continuing to prove their longevity.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Kendrick, Drake and Future dominated rap in 2015, but if there was a promising newer voice in rap last year that seemed just about ready to take over, it was Dej Loaf. "Back Up" (ft. Big Sean) off her AndSeeThatsTheThing EP was inescapable because it's the kind of great pop-rap song that has all the ingredients of a surefire hit. But it was the rest of that EP that suggested Dej had real lasting power. Songs like "Desire" and "Been On My Grind" had sharp lyrics and skillful flows over minimal production, and they only sounded better with more listens. Dej is supposed to be putting out her debut album later this year, but meanwhile she's tiding us over with the All Jokes Aside mixtape, and it's only more proof that Dej is one of the best new rappers around. Like a lot of good mixtapes, it's not immediately clear why this isn't considered an "album." It's got eleven tracks (but really only ten songs; the first track is a brief intro) with cohesive production, no filler, and just one guest (Master P's brother and associate Silkk The Shocker). If the idea is that the official album will be better than this, we now have even more reason to look out for it.
"Lately I've been on my rap shit, had to stop singing for a while," she begins on "Chase Mine" over nothing but some head-knocking drums, and it's to be taken literally. The R&B tint of #AndSeeThatsTheThing shows up less on All Jokes Aside, which is overall a harder, rawer project. And she's just as good at both. Dej is just as lyrically gripping here as she is on the EP, and like she was on "Been On My Grind" (and frequently on Twitter), she's often genuinely inspirational. Whether she's saying "Life is but a dream, I gotta chase mine," or "This is what I grind for / Are you willing to die for it?" or "I can't let 'em stop me, I can't let 'em hold me back now," Dej is always reveling in the glory of her hard work. She had a massive hit because she earned it. She's got a hell of a lot of ambition, she's always giving it 110% (excuse the cliche), and it shows in the music. A lot of people praise artists who "make it look effortless," but it's worth taking notice when someone makes it look like they're working as hard as fucking possible too. Dej does this again and again on the new mixtape, and I can't wait to see where she takes it next.
This album was a nice surprise because it's Cult of Luna's first full length since their vague 2013 statement that left the band's future uncertain, and also because it's a collaboration with the wild vocalist Julie Christmas of the sorely-missed Made Out of Babies. I don't think that's a collaboration that many of us could have predicted, but it's one hell of a thrilling one. This album has five songs, zero of which are under eight minutes and one of which is over fifteen, and it spans various styles of heavy music with ease. Cult of Luna's trademark sludgy post-metal is present, but you're not gonna confuse Mariner for Neurosis or Isis anytime soon. Julie brings her erratic style to the table and she's a seriously versatile singer. On "A Greater Call" she's ethereal and delicate. On "Chevron" she sounds creepy and evil one minute, and dishes out genuinely maniacal screams the next. Up against CoL's throaty growls, it's an exciting contrast that you don't hear every day. The album's best song is also its longest, the 15-minute, 25-second closer "Cygnus." It kicks off with a healthy dose of sludge and then transitions into ambient post-rock, but it really hits its stride around the 10:30 mark, where the interplay between CoL's riffs and Julie's vocals make for the most melodically satisfying moment of the record. Julie layers her own backing wails over it, Cult of Luna bring in the screams, a lazer synth shoots in the background, and the main melody just keeps building and building until the band rings out its final note. It's the kind of closing song that makes you want to hit play again on the album as soon as it ends.
As far as the BV team goes, I think I'm in the minority for never really caring about Woods. I usually check out each new album, think it's fine, and never return to it. But City Sun Eater In The River of Light has the band exploring some new ground, and it's the first one that's had me itching to play it again. It's not a major departure from their usual '60s-psych revival, but it definitely pushes Woods' sound past its usual comfort zone. The band brings in bold horns on "The Take" and album opener "Sun City Creeps," the former of which is backed by hand drums and a funky bassline, and the latter of which takes a guitar solo straight from the Summer of Love. The album's most distinct (and possibly) finest moment is "Can't See At All," which has the kind of reggae/funk that's usually saved for the jam band world these days, and a melody that feels nicked from Odessey and Oracle. Singer Jeremy Earl's falsetto is a main draw as always, and it's not crazy to suggest he sounds better than ever. He's also melodically sharp, as he shows off on the addictive chorus to the folky "Morning Light." They shine when he's not singing too. On "I See In The Dark," they've got extended jams that find the middle ground between hypnotic, driving krautrock and the free-form soloing of early psych. If you didn't think Woods had any growth left in them, this album crushes that belief.
You can probably count on one hand how many good bands came out of nu metal, and Deftones would absolutely be one of them. A lot of this is because they were never really that nu metal -- certainly not from 2000's White Pony onwards -- but also because they're maybe the only one who consistently showed artistic growth for 20 years. White Pony will probably always be the classic, but they've been on a particularly creative hot streak this current decade with 2010's Diamond Eyes, 2012's Koi No Yokan and now Gore. They were doing the shoegaze/metal thing and namedropping Hum as an influence before it was cool, and it's exciting to see that they still have new things to say with that sound. Gore is all over the place in the best way possible. On early single "Doomed User" alone, they have soaring atmosphere but beefed-up metal riffs, throat-shredding shouts but hushed croons, and that's not even all of it. "Hearts/Wires" is mostly a slow, quiet song until it resolves into a crushing chorus. "Xenon" borders on sludge, "(L)Mirl" borders on post-rock, and parts of "Geometric Headdress" and the title track hint at spastic DC post-hardcore. They're twenty years into their career and Deftones refuse to stop experimenting with their sound. In 2016, it's pretty tough to find another major label heavy rock band you can say that about.
Frightened Rabbit's 2008 masterpiece The Midnight Organ Fight hasn't become indie canon like other records from that year like Fleet Foxes or Microcastle, but it's become untouchable because it's the kind of album people connected too. It's a breakup album and it's the kind where you can hang on to and obsess over every word if it hits you at the right time in your life. It's probably the only reason Frightened Rabbit can play the massive Terminal 5 eight years later. When you write an album like that, the expectations for a followup are often tough to reach, and Frightened Rabbit missed the ball by a mile when they followed it with (what is still) their worst record, The Winter of Mixed Drinks. That album put a pretty major damper on their career, but more recently they've been quietly establishing themselves as a band with serious longevity. 2013's Pedestrian Verse was a lot better than expected and it's still kinda underrated, and the same can be said for singer Scott Hutchison's 2014 solo album as Owl John. Painting of a Panic Attack continues this trend. They may never capture the magic of The Midnight Organ Fight again, but Panic Attack has plenty of their best qualities in fine form: anthemic, atmospheric songs, depressing lyrics, and the unmistakable voice of Scott Hutchison. The album's bookended by two of its best songs, opener "Death Dream" with its repeated middle section of "you died in your sleep last night" (double meaning presumably intended), and acoustic closer "Die Like A Rich Boy" where Scott suggests "I want to die like a rich boy diving in a hydrocodone dream / You can die like a rich girl by me, oh how the magazines will read." And after revealing more of the fantasy ("I want to die like a rich boy drowning in a lake that bears my name"), he concludes, "I want to die like a rich boy, even if we're as poor as we are now." It's a Frightened Rabbit sentiment if there ever was one.