I won’t lie to you. As the rebranding of Feedbuzz continues, I have been working to seize absolute control behind the scenes. My consolidation of power is not unlike the Starks on your favorite television show, Game of Thrones. I have been compared favorable to Ned or Robb in this regard. Based on the reactions of those who have said this, I presume it is a sign of my robust powers and great political skill. I do not own a television. All I possess is a gramophone (very retro), dozens of carrier pigeons (extremely retro), and a big spooky coffin (potentially retro?). My birds bring me dozens of print outs of BuzzFeed and Pitchfork and theneedledrop at all times for research purposes. I definitely am not prepping the intellectual property of this site to be sold wholesale to another website and I don’t write articles in a mixture of my own feces and piss that I stir with a deer bone I found hung up in a tree behind a 7-11. Here are five recent records I’ve been digging.
1. Kylesa – Ultraviolet
I’ve been a big fan of Kylesa’s since about Time Will Fuse Its Worth. They were grouped in with the rising sludge metal following the success of Mastodon in the mid-2000s and, for a while, that wasn’t too far off the mark. They were murky, punky, psychedelic and rockin’ the way that most of that Georgia sludge scene was. But, like the two other big bands of that scene (Mastodon and Baroness), they’ve undergone an evolution farther from metal and more towards psychedelia in general. But while Mastodon went for tight, technically precise psych/prog pop infusions to their metal and hard rock sound and Baroness went for indie rock and the ornate country rock of the Allman Brothers and other more technically ornate Americana for their sonic evolution, Kylesa turned to a Grateful Dead-esque double drummer setup and took sonic cues from groups like Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth and, honestly, some Cure and Bauhaus. Over the two records between this one and Time Will Fuse Its Worth, titled Static Tensions and Spiral Shadow, Kylesa pushed into this new gothed-out psychedelic metal territory. And by Ultraviolet, this evolution seems to have divorced them from the already-tenuous connection to sludge metal entirely. If you were handed this record on its own, from a band with no background, you might throw it on next to the new Savages record that dropped recently, or perhaps the Grave Babies record before that, or even Black Marble. It has a similar aesthetic; psychedelic and earthy, but in a gloomy, introspective way. The guitars and vocals have lost most of their jagged edge and Laura Pleasants’ singing has evolved from hoarse-throated punky howls to something closer to the crooning of say Grace Slick. The only downside to this record for me is that it feels transitional. They bring in these new sounds, and they work really well, but it’s so jarring as a fan of the band to see such a big leap that it almost feels like an experiment. However, when the historically minded portion of my brain shuts off and I lay back in bed with a good book and this record on, it’s hard to deny tasty grooves, it’s brooding atmosphere, and how vital they make something as potentially tired as lush gloomy psychedelia in the year of our lord 2013 can be.
2. AM & Shawn Lee – La Musique Numerique
Admittedly, I only checked this out at first because I saw it as a new release on Spotify and the album art was amazing. I’d never heard of these guys before, but after making it through this album of theirs, I quickly went through their debut and started sorting out some of their music into my playlists. I plan on talking about their debut at some point, because I prefer it in certain ways to this one, but I want to keep this focused on relatively new releases. This record strikes me as equally aided and wounded by fate: musically, it marries a very on-the-pulse aesthetic of modern electronic music spanning from Major Lazer to recent Daft Punk with a crate-digging aesthetic of some very left-field musical ideas. For example, the opener “Two Times” is a pretty standard moombahtone Major Lazer production. But then the Daft Punk-esque soft rock vocals kick in and in the final few minutes are joined by a David Gilmour-esque melodic space rock guitar solo. The record moves through disco, tropicalia, soft rock, and a kind of retro-futurist aesthetic. The big thing about this record to me, though, is that while it uses some very Phil Collins gated reverb drum sounds at times and is absolutely drenched in cheesy 80s synths, they never feel like they are being wielded in an ironic way, or even a lo-fi way. The blips and burps and chimes and robotic wheezes and retro synths all feel like… like this is how these songs were imagined. It’s not kitschy; they used their obvious knowledge of records to find the right sounds for these songs, even if they are being used as ironic retro kitsch by other artists right now. And I think that’s both wonderful and a shame. A record that is so sincere with its eclecticism and so on-point with its sonic palette doesn’t deserve to automatically get lumped in with ironic retro futurists and doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the eerily conceptually similar Daft Punk record (which was released after this one, but only by a matter of weeks; no cross-contamination, but maybe something in the water?). And all of this misses the best part about the record: The songwriting is fucking good.
3. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
I think by now we all know that Queens of the Stone Age is really two different bands. There is the band of their sterling debut, Rated R and the first few songs of Songs for the Deaf, the one that sounds as at home with psychedelics as the Rolling Stones, the one that played out Slayer cassettes and R&B records the same. Then, by the second half of Deaf and onto Lullabies to Paralyze, they revealed their spooky, sexy goth twin, like if the Cure were weaned on Jagger and the Cult. People tend to be split on which of these two bands to love; it’s rare to find someone who loves Rated R and Lullabies about equally, for example, but not to so hard to find someone complimenting the debut and Rated R back to back. Era Vulgeris upset this teleographic notion of the band by being less grim and more punked out, thrashing with industrial noises and dark soundscapes, but even that seemed to verify that the gothic post-punky spookiness was here to stay. …Like Clockwork does little to dispel this notion, but sonically, most of the advances from Vulgeris are removed, going back to the more obvious rock guitar sonics of Deaf. However, there’s an added focus on cinematics here and, like Vulgeris, the mastery of track placement goes unrivaled; the album plays less like a collection of songs and more like a single emotional arc. It’s cliche to say, yes, but the very post-Kanye cinematic ambitions of this album (just listen to the keyboard accents and try to imagine them in a Kanye-less world) combined with the darkness, suppleness and downright seductive evil of these tracks makes it feel about as sexy walking on the dark side as the first time you really clicked with the Velvet Underground. It’s punky in the way that it makes you daydream about punching a cop in the mouth and wearing leather jackets at midnight and flashing a snaggletoothed evil grin at your waiting motorcycle. And just wait till you get to the centerpiece, “Kalopsia.” It’s like time has frozen in absolute darkness, save for the light of stars and moon and city neon reflected against the edge of lake, before exploding out of its Radiohead-esque sonic atmosphere with the bitter laugh of an electric guitar, only to waver back and forth somewhere between this pained yearning and the self-assured swagger of a rock god. My fucking god, these songs and the mental images they conjure. There is a reason why Queens of the Stone Age is perhaps the Last Great Rock Band on the face of this earth. Satan bless and keep you, Josh Homme. Rock needs you now more than ever. Indie rockers, take note; this is how you rock in tune with your emotions without wimping out or turning into a greasy patriarchal cock rocker. Leather and metal are cool, and driving my car at midnight feels bad ass. Fuck off. Socialism now. Etc. Etc. Listen to this fucking album.
4. Baths – Obsidian
An album less out of tune with the past three than you’d imagine! Baths plays a kind of synth pop, in that it’s entirely synthesized and it’s pop music. But it has more in common with say if Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush were turned onto music of Yeasayer or Wild Beasts, mixing Balearic music, bouncy indie dance music, trap drum sounds if not their patterns, programmed synth patterns, and glitchy, fragile production with a heavenly falsetto. In certain ways, it’s not unlike James Blunt either. Granted, I always hesitate to label these electronica styles as “experimental”; as mentioned before, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush and, hell, later period Roxy Music, Japan and David Sylvian have been mixing almost these EXACT same sounds for the more heady adult contemporary crowd. But we’re living in an age where hipsters are finally recognizing the staggering achievements of Steely Dan, so this is nothing to scoff at. After all, in the post-hipster world (I could feel you cringing when I used the H-word from here), what matters is that we are sharing these musical inspirations and building off of them, not that we are digging deeper in our crates or one-upping anyone. It’s about sharing and synthesizing. And it’s on that point that Baths succeeds quite well; his first album Cerulean didn’t impress me when it came out (though I didn’t have a taste for most indie darling type music then anyway, being a teenage progger and metalhead at the time), it did have excellent control of sonic palette. This record takes that same inherent understanding of interesting musical sounds, which is way harder to cultivate and control than it may seem, and marries them to his much-improved songwriting chops. As a result, the album feels less like a producer’s compilation of cool sounds and rhythms but instead feels like a solid collection of songs from a similar place. Combine that with his much-improved singing and lyrics and you have a dark, emotionally vulnerable, and gorgeous record. Lyrically, there is a clear influence from emo, and the timbre of his voice can sometimes reflect that, but he’s a much stronger melodicist than most emo singers were and he never lets his voice slip off beat. This is a dance record, damn it, even if maybe you aren’t supposed to dance to it and maybe it’s better with headphones and maybe it should be raining and dusky when you put it on. It’s a great heartbreak record, great alienation record, great record of confusion and yearning. And when he’s singing the chorus to “No Eyes”? Honestly, I tear up and my body trembles a bit and I feel the emotional chokehold of breath and hiccup. It’s a damn emotional record, like the far more intimate and more baldly emotional partner to all the other records on this list.
5. Deafheaven – Sunbather
Deafheaven started life as a post-black metal and atmospheric black metal band not unlike Wolves in the Throne Room or their ilk. Their demo and Road to Judah were definitely good records, but they were pretty by-the-numbers in terms of approach to the genre and, by the time they came out, the genre itself had grown pretty tired. There were of course good record of the general style coming out: Krallice had become a more serious side-project and Woe has just put out Quietly, Undramatically, which is a killer black metal record. The band even got a track on the Metal Swim compilation through Adult Swim, which goes a ton of circulation in the metal world for having one of the very last ISIS tracks ever recorded (though it had shown up on a split with the Melvins too). I initially wasn’t expecting much from this record. I figured I’d like it, but that it might be like the last Wolves in the Throne Room record: Competent, well played and well conceived, but not really ground-breaking in any major way. Then I listened to the first single from this thing, “Dream House”. To describe myself as obsessed with that song would be fairly accurate. I played it about 5 or 6 times the first day it was out, and with the song being nearly 10 minutes long, that means I sunk roughly an hour into a single tune. I kept revisiting it, too, and when the second single dropped, and eventually a full-album stream on Pitchfork, I went through this record once every day or too. And it recently came out on Spotify, which I’d been waiting for, so I’ve finally listened through it a couple times in HD. I’ve gone this whole time without describing it, I just realized, primarily because I’ve been gushing. So, let me be brief on one point: This is not a standard blackgaze or atmospheric black metal album. It still shows its roots in that style, of course; they didn’t exactly toss out the playbook. But their sonic references outside of black metal are more along the lines of 80s U2, major key post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky, and the more melodic ends of recent indie rock. Deafheaven has also taken a remarkable leap forward in terms of songcraft; their first album was good, but it wasn’t the strongest in this respect, relying more on the kind of lazy “ambient section” excuse for when parts simply weren’t that interesting. This record is effectively entirely without that issue. Each section builds naturally into each other, each section has a very strong sense of melodicism, and they all follow a fairly powerful cathartic plan. Again, while the post-rock influence is notable (typical indie song craft in terms of progressions slowed down in delivery and played in a more long-running, progressive, crescendoing, and ornate style), the songs themselves play closer to long-form versions of what you might have heard from U2 on Achtung Baby or Joshua Tree. Their sense of melody and dramatic tension is right from the 80s U2 playbook, but delivered with INTENSE black metal playing. As a result, it sounds like almost nothing I’ve heard of the style. The songs are almost entirely major key and feel triumphant, while the playing is almost entirely tremolo-picked and blasted. The wretched vocals and intensity of the playing evokes very strongly the distant pain, sorrow, and rage of black metal, that very potent spiritual component to having a work come across as black metal, but the major key catharsis leaves it feeling sundappled at times. Without being cheesy, they have earned the album title Sunbather. It feels so naturally to call it Sunbather. It’s not exactly bright and sunny, but it’s black metal dragged out into the light, black metal that isn’t so cold but still no less intensely emotional. The palette is the same, but warmer. I really can’t get enough of this record. If you like black metal of ANY kind, or the kind of Enosified/Lanoisified rock of U2’s best records, or the kind of elliptical melodic ambiance of Cocteau Twins, you HAVE to listen to this. Serious contender for album of the year from me.
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