Five Notable Releases of the Week (10/28)
Happy Halloween weekend! Do you have any exciting plans? Maybe you're going to Voodoo Experience or The Fest. Maybe you're watching Rocky Horror Picture Show or digging up that Spotify playlist you made with "I Put A Spell On You" and "Halloween" and "Monster Mash," or maybe you want some new spooky music.
If you do, you're in luck. A bunch of great metal bands chose this week to release new albums (surprise!) and three of those are in my picks. For the non-evil music fans, there's also some funk-rap and some psych rock. Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
UK psych band TOY already have two albums that marry krautrock's hypnotic rhythms to shoegaze's wall of sound, and if those records didn't win you over, their very loud sensory-overload live show would have something to say about it. For LP #3, Clear Shot, TOY have calmed their sound down a bit, but they've also pushed it in a handful of new directions. TOY were already a talented, confident band with a cool record collection. On Clear Shot, their ambitions are higher and their songwriting is stronger. It's the sonic shift that had to happen, because Clear Shot may very well be their best album yet.
TOY haven't stopped being hypnotic or anything. The opening sorta-title track "A Clear Shot" ends in a mesmerizing jam. But that jam also came in after a gentle, vaguely Lennon-esque introduction led into briskly-paced downstrummed rock that's more '90s-indie than '60s-psych. If that description sounds a little like Deerhunter to you, the next song ("Another Dimension") sounds even more like Deerhunter, or at least Deerhunter with a strong British accent. The verses do at least. Those choruses explode into sparkling psych that kinda sounds like Damon Albarn covering a British Invasion obscurity. With the dark melodies and choppy organs of "Fast Silver," TOY sound like they've been listening to The Electric Prunes or other Nuggets. The closest TOY get to actually sounding like '60s revivalists, though, is "Clouds That Cover The Sun." But even that song has bright synths floating in the background that make it sound like '60s-psych via The Church or something. TOY clearly have their influences, but they're pulling from so many different eras and styles that they never sound quite like any one in particular.
Kirk Windstein, Crowbar's frontman and only constant member, has led one version of Crowbar or another for the past 25+ years, remaining prolific and consistently great the whole way. Crowbar hail from the early '90s New Orleans sludge boom, and they're making virtually the same type of music now that they were making then. Still, they manage to sound passionate and of-the-moment on just about every album. For this year's The Serpent Only Lies, Windstein is reunited with original bassist Todd Strange for their first Crowbar album together since 2000's Equilibrium. Having him back is "a breath of fresh air for the band and makes us stronger," Windstein said when the album was announced. He also said he revisited the early Crowbar records and a bunch of Crowbar's early influences (Trouble, Saint Vitus, Melvins, the first Type O Negative record) to get himself in the mindset of Crowbar's most classic period. I'd say it worked, as Serpent is just about as classic-Crowbar as it gets.
Everything you want from a Crowbar album is here: crisp hard-hitting sludge riffs, hardcore punk-inspired bellows, and a good sense of melody without ever getting too clean (like with the sung vocals on the title track). Crowbar were one of the metal bands who appealed to punks, and they were also one who weren't that different from the grunge stuff going on at the time. With currently popular bands like Baroness fitting a very similar description, it's no surprise that Crowbar can make a classic-sounding record and not sound dated. Serpent reminds you how strong Crowbar's influence is today, but it also competes with the newer bands. You didn't have to burn through Broken Glass and Time Heals Nothing a hundred times to appreciate what Crowbar are doing here. You could be brand new to the band and still be blown away.
Topaz Jones isn't the first rapper to also sing and he isn't the first rapper to incorporate '70s-funk into his music, but his debut album Arcade does it in a way that you don't hear everyday, especially in 2016. Dr. Dre and his pals may have used George Clinton's music as source material for head-knocking, hydraulics-ready beats, but Topaz Jones sort of imagines an alternate parallel history to G-Funk. His music is more like if Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth Wind & Fire sometimes had rapping. And really his rapping is just passably good. It's his singing that makes Arcade a standout debut. It opens with "Howlin' the Moon" which sounds like Michael Jackson via Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it's a pretty exciting thing to have a young up-and-comer from Montclair, NJ who can already croon like JT. On "Powerball," Topaz offers an idea of what a Kendrick Lamar/George Clinton collaboration may have sounded like if it wasn't all Flying Lotus-ified. A lot of today's big rapper/singers follow in Drake's footsteps, relying on delicate auto-tuned R&B for those sung parts. The closest modern-day comparison for Topaz Jones, though, might be Anderson Paak. Both seem to value the types of things that mattered more in the pre-hip hop days. Topaz might not put the same emphasis on live instrumentation that Anderson does (or at least not yet), but his live shows already prove that he's one hell of a dancer.
I'll say right off the bat, that unlike Crowbar, Testament are not a veteran metal band who still sound fresh and in the now. Save for some vocal and production techniques that didn't really exist in the late '80s, Brotherhood of the Snake has Testament sounding more or less like the same band who wrote The Legacy and The New Order. (Technically, they are only 3/5 of that band: singer Chuck Billy and guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick.) It's not really Testament's fault that they sound dated -- thrash just hasn't aged that well. Even the best modern thrash albums sound retro on arrival. That said, it can still be fun as hell, and Testament have given us quite a fun album. Maybe it's just that the stakes are lower for Testament, but in the past year, "The Big Four" have all given us new music and none of it sounds as spirited as Brotherhood of the Snake. When I saw Testament tear it up at Riot Fest Denver last year, I left thinking that what all rock-oriented music festivals need is more old-school thrash bands. The genre hasn't had much to say since about 1990, but it hasn't lost its thrill. I'd recommend Testament's current live show over a lot of modern bands. Brotherhood of the Snake proves that, if you do go see them, the new songs will be as furious and whiplash-inducing as the classics.
As of this week, a Google search for "psychedelic black metal" brings up over 24,000 results. I don't know what bands inspire some people to use that phrase, but I don't think I've ever heard a band that deserves it more than Greece's Hail Spirit Noir. They sound like Syd Barrett writing a black metal record. Seriously. This thing has like circus organs in the background, but also blastbeats and a harsh screamer. The title track is Eastern-tinged and meditative one minute, and blowing out your speakers the next. Sometimes they break out ultra-clean singing, and it's low and bellowy in a way that's a little too Disturbed-covering-Paul-Simon for me, but when these guys are screaming (or instrumental), they're making truly powerful, peerless music. "Riders to Utopia" and parts of "The Cannibal Tribe Came from the Sea" don't sound like they're from any later than 1968 until those gnarly screams suggest otherwise. There are a few sobering parts on the album, like the proggy timing and shiny guitar solo of "Lost In Satan's Charms," which sound too structured to be drug-induced. But by the murky ending of that same song, the acid definitely kicks in. Not all weird genre combos work out, but if Mayhem In Blue is any proof, we could use a little more '60s psychedelia in our black metal.