It’s been awhile! We’re excited to bring back the Merry-Go-Round Music Roundup, kicking off with a massive list of those records we missed while we were away
6LACK – EAST ATLANTA LOVE LETTER
Genre: Alternative R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Nonchalant”
The cover of EAST ATLANTA LOVE LETTER features Georgia native 6LACK donning a babybjörn as he steps up to the mic. The imagery is almost too fitting. As the rapper tepidly sleepwalks his way through meek, often grotesquely inoffensive production, the soft edges and unbecoming R&B flourishes move beyond boring and into lullaby-esque. 6LACK’s latest is a far cry from the more conventional rap of his debut, FREE 6LACK. While the pivot should be novel in comparison, it instead feels so disappointingly teethless you wonder if the intent really was to make a record for rock-a-by’ing and late night feeding. Even the slowed down moments of his debut felt purposeful and more intense than what’s presented here. In a year wonderfully taken over by Swae Lee and his intoxicating blend of sweet nothings cloud rap and starry-eyed singing, 6LACK’s new project never gets off the ground. [CJ Simonson]
Alkaline Trio – IS THIS THING CURSED?
Genre: Pop-Punk, Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Is This Thing Cursed?,” “Demon and Division,” “Little Help?,” “Sweet Vampires,” “Worn So Thin”
I wasn’t sure this Chicago-based trio was ever going to release another album after Matt Skiba got dollar signs in his eyes and jumped ship to Blink-182 with CALIFORNIA, a sterile record scrubbed clean of anything intense or interesting in favor of juvenile vapidness that everyone involved was about 20 years too old for. I worried that some of that album’s worst aspects would carry over to Alkaline Trio’s ninth album. Even if they’ve had a penchant for buzzing guitar tones that blur together, and staccato-esque progressions that aren’t allowed to cut loose like they really should, Matt Skiba and Dan Andriano have the emotive power and story-telling chops to sell their relationship woes and pain-stricken love songs better than a lot of their pop-punk peers, and they definitely know their way around a catchy hook. Though IS THIS THING CURSED is not as tight and conceptually satisfying as its predecessor MY SHAME IS TRUE, it got lodged in my head in record time.
IS THIS THING CURSED follows in the footsteps of CRIMSON in its attempts to expand its textural and instrumental palette beyond the traditional pop-punk mold, to create something more akin to AFI over The Offspring: the gentle piano and humming feedback that opens the title track, the rapid-fire, galloping strumming underlying “I Can’t Believe” that sounds like the best Idlewild song never made, the sustained organ in the background of “Stay” and “Heart Attacks.” They’ve always had a mystic influence—their first album literally spelled out 666 on its cover—but their attempts at goth have suffered from an inability to focus their imagery, creating piles of metaphors that never quite come together. (“Blackbird” is the worst example of this.) However, the title track and “Sweet Vampires” are among the band’s best usages of supernatural influence, doing a great HIM impression on the latter and the former setting the balance between morose and ascendent to ground the album’s otherwise disparate emotions. Of course, there are more traditional pop-punk gems like “Little Help?” and “Pale Blue Ribbon” to round out the listening experience, and Skiba and Andriano still have plenty of chemistry. Those who pine for the days of MAYBE I’LL CATCH FIRE and a more stripped back, emo-ish Alkaline Trio will not be happy, but the Trio have succeeded in incorporating what would otherwise be dismissed as bells and whistles into their sound without compromising their anthemic hooks and emotional rawness. [Blake Michelle]
Aphex Twin – COLLAPSE EP
Favorite Tracks: “T69 Collapse,” “MT1 t29r2,” “Pthex”
COLLAPSE is an EP with more than enough ideas, both micro and macro, to spread across multiple full-lengths, but it never feels too busy or crowded. The standout of the five, “T69 Collapse,” serves as the project’s thesis. A sweet lullaby melody anchors the track—especially the latter portion—while a chaotic assortment of drum loops and percussive flourishes weave together. Signatures change at a moment’s notice, but the shifts don’t feel as sudden as those on some of Aphex Twin’s early releases. That’s not to say James has gotten predictable. If anything, getting from point A to point B on an Aphex track is more enthralling and mysterious than ever before. Each track has a bevy of tiny moments to sink your teeth into, and even the strongest moments pass in the blink of an eye.
His sounds capture and evoke feelings that are distinctly human yet unfamiliar, like discovering a new part of the body. Most of that is because the machines on this record were manipulated by the brain belonging to Richard James, a man who’s mystery we most certainly will never solve. It’s hard to describe in words the brilliance of Aphex Twin because nothing I write about his work will dazzle or innovate like he does. He’s a musical unicorn. And while you can describe in technical detail the appearance or attributes of a unicorn, words can’t capture the otherworldly feeling you’d experience if you were to come across one in real life. These words are too glowing for an EP that may not even rank within the year’s top 10 releases, but it’d be a disservice to ignore the context of James’s full body of work while discussing COLLAPSE. It’s another feather in the cap of one the greatest artists this world will ever know. [Ryan Moloney]
Basement – BESIDE MYSELF
Favorite Tracks: “Disconnect,” “Be Here Now”
Basement feel quintessentially unessential in today’s modern emo scene—they’re no one’s favorite band in a scene largely hinged on give-them-your-all fandom. Their proper return after four years with 2016’s PROMISE EVERYTHING had several decent highs (“Aquasun” in particular nailed the rising and falling action of Brand New that the band had been seemingly chasing for some time), but a higher profile and slicker production really didn’t do much compared to their scrappy beginnings. For the first several tracks of their latest, BESIDE MYSELF, it seems like the band has pivoted towards a different type of 2000s emo sound; “Disconnect,” in particular, feels like vintage Jimmy Eat World, a mix of sweetly layered vocals and shed-a-tear, fist-pumping peaks. The vocals on “Be Here Now” take a similar approach, and the builds into the choruses sound like they could’ve fit perfectly on CLARITY. Yet BESIDE MYSELF quickly fades into strained shouting or near-deadpanned intones over unmemorable mid-tempo rock songs that barely even seem to serve as honest emotional catharsis for lead singer Andrew Fisher. Like PROMISE EVERYTHING, BESIDE MYSELF fades into a bored sense of sameness, failing to mix pop-ready anthems with bedroom balladry and bleeding heart deep-cuts the way their influences did in the early 2000s. The attempt is certainly there, as the record certainly checks some standard emo boxes—a serviceable acoustic number (“Changing Lanes”), a thrashing, driving, big dicked guitar jam akin to AFI (“Reason For Breathing”)—yet it never delivers on the promise it shows early on. Basement’s quintessential unessentialism means that the stakes for this record even going in were fairly low, but for a group that’s been around for this long to continue without making anything distinctly memorable seems unsustainable, and BESIDE MYSELF hardly deserves your time in an era of great, reinventing emo records. [CJ Simonson]
Greta Van Fleet – ANTHEM OF THE PEACEFUL ARMY
Genre: “Classic” Rock
Favorite Songs: “Age Of Man,” “The Cold Wind,” “Lover, Leaver,” “Mountain of the Sun”
Greta Van Fleet get a lot of flack from Rock ‘N’ Roll purists and, dare I say, baby boomers. I’m positive that if you looked into their critics you’ll find them to be the same folks who believe Millennials are lazy, entitled Cable TV murderers. The overly romanticized good-ol’-days of Sex, Drugs, & Rock ‘N’ Roll are gone—so long gone that reckless behavior is unappealing and unaffordable for the upcoming generation. So do we mind that Greta Van Fleet isn’t about to bite into bats like Ozzy? No, because we aren’t expecting them to be the reincarnations of Jimmy Page or Keith Moon. Though the sound of vocalist Josh Kiszka is familiar, and his bandmates Jacob Kiszka, Kyle Hauck, Daniel Wagner, develop a similar classic rock style, they aren’t just influenced by Led Zeppelin, and show glimpses of more than Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, or the hint of Lynyrd Skynyrd. If anything, it’s a saving grace to have new bands release music akin to the greats that we can go see perform live. “When The Curtain Falls” is a perfect example of how they aren’t tied to the musicians who came before them. The powerhouse hit on the album, Greta Van Fleet bring up the fleeting rewards of fame through the story of a once-adored “valley babe” who is no longer in the spotlight. Similarly, “Watching Over” discusses how the next generation is doomed thanks to pollution and climate change, a problem inherited by our elders: “And it’s our demise / With the water rising.” Condescending baby boomers love to bash us for trying, but I’m done setting them straight; they can scream into the void all they want.
Ultimately proving that they are the beautiful, bastard sons of our great forefathers’ greedy loins, they kicked off ANTHEM OF THE PEACEFUL ARMY with “Age of Man,” a softer opener compared to FROM THE FIRES’ “Safari Song.” They’ve stylistically stuck to their sitar solos, Robert Plant-esque vocals, and fuzzy bass. “Mountain of the Sun” is the big love ballad that, while not lyrically very interesting, does add a nice kick to push through the last quarter of the album (especially after a mellower middle). Similarly, “You’re The One,” a simpler, slower ballad, channels Axl Rose in a track that makes you want to embrace your partner at a live show as much as Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.”
Considering how much these young lads from Michigan have to be mad about these days, it’s true they could afford to rebel more content-wise, especially with an album title like ANTHEM OF THE PEACEFUL ARMY, which is definitely in the Dumbledore Army misnomer category. Still, they hit some classic rock themes like hell and satan (“Lover Leaver”) and push out some great anthems like “Brave New World” and “Anthem” for you to sing along to. If you enjoy listening to classic rock and don’t have your panties in a bunch, you’ll enjoy Greta Van Fleet’s latest. [Liliane Neubecker]
Guerilla Toss – TWISTED CRYSTAL
Genre: Psych Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Magic Is Easy,” “Jesus Rabbit,” “Meteorological,” “Come Up With Me,” “Walls of the Universe,” “Green Apple”
Guerilla Toss has found its groove. For the second year in a row, the band have released a bona fide Album of the Year candidate. Those two records, last year’s GT ULTRA and this year’s TWISTED CRYSTAL, are striking in many ways, but the most notable is how Guerilla Toss channeled their chaotic ouvre into a pop adjacent sound that is distinctly their own. The shift is similar to that of Caribou’s renaissance kicked off by SWIM, and is particularly surprising considering the complete gamut of sounds and influences present on the preceding albums and EPs in Guerilla Toss’ discography. The hooks and synths are decidedly poppier, but the tracks sacrifice little in terms of left-field appeal. “Come Up With Me” saddles a hook that befits a go-to karaoke choice between wailing guitars and swelling walls of synths, while the hook on “Jesus Rabbit” pairs oddly well with the signature funhouse instrumental vibe. GT ULTRA’s hypnotic themes return on tracks like “Meteorological” when lead singer Kassie Carlson chants “One, two, three, four” as the instrumental builds in the latter half of the song. Like the rest of their LPs, TWISTED CRYSTAL clocks in at just half-an-hour, which appears to be the one thing the band isn’t interested in experimenting with. While the record does feel a bit too short, it’s hard to complain considering they will almost certainly be back with another phenomenal record next summer. [Ryan Moloney]
High on Fire – ELECTRIC MESSIAH
Genre: Stoner Metal, Sludge Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Sanctioned Annihilation,” “God of the Godless,” “The Witch and the Christ”
Is there a point to reviewing a new High on Fire album? Fans will continue praise them as one of the most dependable acts in modern metal, detractors will decry their refusal to evolve much beyond their Motörhead-on-steroids style, but even they would admit that ELECTRIC MESSIAH is a riskier album. Billed as a tribute to the late Lemmy, it applies the more developed songwriting of LUMINIFEROUS to longer songs and introduces more fuzzed-out guitar tones akin to pure stoner metal or proto-metal. Kurt Ballou sadly seems to have forgotten how to mix cymbals in the process, but there’s still plenty of HoF’s greatness here. Matt Pike cranks out tons of flashy solos and propulsive thrash riffs with satisfying transitions and interplay, the trio create sprawling, imposing soundscapes that bands twice as large would struggle to match, and yet their underlying melodicism ripped straight from Motörhead allows it to go down easier than a lot of other stoner metal. Given that following up DE VERMIS MYSTERIIS and LUMINIFEROUS was an impossible task, ELECTRIC MESSIAH deserves to be acknowledged outside their vast shadows as a synthesis of established metal prestige and enough new developments to keep things fresh. [Blake Michelle]
How To Dress Well – THE ANTEROOM
Genre: Experimental R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Body Fat,” “Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1,” “Vacant Boat” “Brutal | False Skull”
It is shocking and honestly kind of relieving that I’m reviewing a How To Dress Well album with no trace of angst, disappointment, or cynicism eight years after Tom Krell’s ethereal and spooky debut album, LOVE REMAINS. Though Krell rose to indie stardom at a time when people genuinely described Frank Ocean’s sound as “PBR&B,” Krell’s knack for capturing the haunting sounds of late night bedroom boredom outweighed his seemingly disposable moniker and outrageously stylish image. Shockingly, Krell’s latest record, THE ANTEROOM, may be his most innovative yet. Showcasing a sound that embraces trendy lo-fi house without eschewing the lowpass-filtered tenderness of his previous records, THE ANTEROOM fits more comfortably alongside 2014’s standout “WHAT IS THIS HEART” than it does How To Dress Well’s 2016 flop CARE.
Although its quality evokes How To Dress Well’s earliest forays into nocturnal ambience, there are inescapable hints at cutting-edge modernity on THE ANTEROOM. “Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1” sounds like a Ross From Friends-produced remake of The Antlers’ “Kettering.” “Body Fat” possesses lo-fi hip hop-indebted vocal work in the same vein as Joji or Rei Brown, but Krell manages not to come across as too au courant. Despite the familiarity of the aforementioned standout tracks, the album’s best moment is its most original. On “Brutal | False Skull 5,” Krell pairs a strutting funk instrumental (not dissimilar to “Redbone”) with a beautifully vulnerable falsetto that deliquesces into a hip hop symphony that sounds a little bit like what would happen if Yves Tumor were flat out sad instead of angry.
Though it seemed How To Dress Well fell off the bandwagon with CARE, THE ANTEROOM proves that eight years and an abysmal attempt at popstar relevance can’t strip an original formula of its quality. Like his peers Rhye and Blood Orange, Tom Krell’s experiments as How To Dress Well prove that, while PBR&B seemed like a fad at the start of the decade, it actually birthed a generation of genre-bending visionaries. [Ted Davis]
Justice – WOMAN WORLDWIDE
Favorite Tracks: “Safe and Sound (WWW),” “Genesis x Phantom (WWW),” “Stress (WWW),” “Alakazam x Fire (WWW),” “Waters of Nazareth x We Are your Friends x Phantom 2 (WWW),” “Chorus (WWW),” “Audio Video Disco (WWW),” “Randy (WWW)”
Xavier de Rosnay said listening to WOMAN, his and Gaspard Auge’s third studio album as Justice, was like driving in the car with your best friend, and your lover, and your kids. Listening to WOMAN WORLDWIDE is like barrelling down the highway evading the police. WOMAN WORLDWIDE is a much-needed steroid shot in the arm to WOMAN, replicating the shows they performed on their world tour, a show, that like Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 tour, melds their entire discography together with tons of remixes and mashups that turn some tracks from lackluster to showstopper. They even manage to make already incredible tracks like “Stress” magnitudes darker and dancier, an accomplishment that few, if any, other groups could achieve. The facelifts given to “Safe and Sound,” “Chorus,” and “Randy” skyrocket them into the territory of their best tracks, a development I would have thought unthinkable on WOMAN’s release day. WOMAN WORLDWIDE’s only shortcoming is that it doesn’t fully capture the experience of seeing the French duo live in concert, but then again, no recording could ever do the real thing justice. [Ryan Moloney]
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood – WITH ANIMALS
Genre: Blues, Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Feast to Famine,” “My Shadow Life” “Spaceman”
A pretty, grizzled singer will get you far with me; I’ll admit that I overlooked many of GARGOYLE’s flaws because of the former Screaming Trees frontman’s intoxicating voice, and every Trees album before his voice got deep and husky from doing enough drugs to knock out an elephant isn’t worthwhile in my book. Sadly, even he cannot salvage his second collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood, a man whose talents for cinematic, blackened blues with zero sense of build would be better used in film or video game soundtracks. His formula of distorted acoustic strumming, programmed drums, and looping, desaturated, analogue flutters a la Tobacco results in some haunting tones that, again, would make great soundtrack material, but few songs held my attention for more than 30 seconds because there’s nothing insistent about the sound. COLD MOLLY, their previous album, was a lot more stripped-back, but the additional layers of noise have only caused Garwood’s sound to become more homogeneous and not develop the dynamics that I always felt would improve his music. At least “Spaceman” has a pulse thanks to a tighter main guitar rhythm and energetic shakers that left me wishing for more organic percussion, and “Feast to Famine” has one of the few endings I found remotely satisfying.
WITH ANIMALS would be a lot more atmospherically engrossing if Lanegan bolstered it with effectively spectral lyrics and compelling performances, but that’s a mixed bag. “My Shadow Life” is an oddly sweet declaration of love even as his world crumbles around him, and “Feast to Famine” has enough evocative details to make its titular claim seem real. But then you get the pissiness of the title track that recalls Opeth’s “Sorceress” and the pushy inquisitiveness of “L.A. Blue,” both of which are made worse by Lanegan’s languid delivery. Sussing out the studio tinkery that went into WITH ANIMALS might be bountiful for some, and repeated listens made me appreciate Garwood’s work more, but Lanegan’s contributions do not reward repeated listens in the same way. At this point, I’ve heard Lanegan explore personal anguish with drugs, life, and women using mystical, religious imagery many times now; Screaming Tree’s DUST, one of my favorite albums of all time, tackled these same themes with rousing hooks and an evocative fusion of grunge, blues, and gospel, and Garwood’s synthetic blues and Lanegan’s underwordly poetry aren’t at that level here. [Blake Michelle]
Jay Som & Justus Proffit – NOTHING’S CHANGED EP
Genre: Indie Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Tunnel Vision,” “Grow”
For being titled NOTHING’S CHANGED, this EP marks a new side of Jay Som that we haven’t seen before—one that embraces multiple genres in the span of approximately 11 minutes. Title track, “Nothing’s Changed,” has just a lick of country (enough to justify the cowboy hats the two are donning on the cover), while moody, atmospheric “Tunnel Vision” bleeds into the realm of chamber pop. The entire EP is peppered with horns and wrapped in crunchy garage acoustics that emulate the feeling of a jam session. Closer “Grow” stands out as the most fully-realized song on the EP, all the while feeling natural and uninhibited. Not every moment works—the quick, two-minute “My World My Rules” plays up its dissonance a bit too much to fit in with the rest of the grooves they’ve established. But Jay Som and singer-songwriter Justus Proffit’s easy going chemistry and seemingly spur-of-the-moment riffs make for an EP that is worth your time, even if it doesn’t take up a lot of it. [Claire Epting]
Slothrust— THE PACT
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Peach,” “New Red Pants,” “Fever Doggs,” “Travel Bugs”
THE PACT alternates between sleek, polished, and shiny cans of premade garage rock, along with that contemporary Slothrust sound we have come to know and love. “Peach,” “Planetarium,” “New Red Pants,” “Fever Doggs,” and “Some Kind of Cowgirl” embrace the lilting modulations of a signature Slothrust chord progression, with quick bursts of metal-leaning interludes and whimsically playful lyrics that provide the minimal dosage for the Slothy fix we need. “Double Down,” “For Robin,” and “The Haunting,” however, provide nothing identifiable towards the band’s credit. They’re fine—good, even—but there is nothing distinct that differentiates these songs from the general melee of the current garage-rock scene. The middle ground of the album comes in the visage of songs like “Walk Away,” “Birthday Cake,” “On My Mind,” and “Travel Bug:” slowed-down, lacquered melodies that don’t sound distinctly like Slothrust, but hold their own enough to not get completely eclipsed in the dozen other songs that fall in a similar vein. “Walk Away” takes a stripped-down, slow build that pricks and peaks with lead vocalist Leah Wellbaum’s voice, drawing droplets of blood with each note she hits yet never really leaving the realm of general practitioner check-up for anything bigger. “For Robin” and “On My Mind” test the waters with brassy jazz riffs, harkening back to Wellbaum and Gorin’s early college roots, but remain restrained. Were the songs to really get weird with it, and “Double Down” (sorry, it was sitting right there) on the fusing of grunge and heavy jazz, we would be having a much different conversation, but as it stands it feels like Slothrust is playing it fairly safe.
THE PACT is the natural next step forward for the band, perfectly good and enjoyable with a few favorites I will “Walk Away” with (I mean, it’s not like they’re making this hard), but the album is nothing revolutionary or mind-blowing, rather just a solid next album for the Boston-based band. THE PACT can be visually summed up by the album cover itself: the velvet background drapery, the balloon, and the paint. The generic studio tracks provide the velvety, dark-colored backdrop, the purple balloon holds some intrigue in the mid-level tracks, but the only thing really making the cover is the thick dollop of paint, dousing the balloon in fun-funky garage rock and drawing us away from the backdrop in a way that requires you to go back and check because you hadn’t noticed the specific texture of the backing in the first place. In fact, it might have been satin the whole time. [Tapley Eaton]
Spiritualized— AND NOTHING HURT
Genre: Experimental Rock
Favorite Tracks: “A Perfect Miracle,” “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go,” “The Prize,” “Sail on Through”
Live each day as if it’s your last, and record each Spiritualized album like it’s your last as well. That’s the mentality behind the English experimental rock band’s first release in six years, AND NOTHING HURT, mixed on a laptop computer. Although more recent statements from the band insinuate more music releases in the future, there is a finality that permeates AND NOTHING HURT. You can feel it from the first bittersweet ukulele chords of “A Perfect Miracle,” with Jason Pierce’s gentle but weathered voice crooning, “I’d like to sit around and dream you up a perfect miracle / I’d part the clouds and have the sun proudly shining on you”. Its unabashed sentimentality feels well-earned. “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” sounds like an old tape recording in a time capsule discovered by astronauts of the future. It feels like a remnant of music that still had that analog touch, evoking The Velvet Underground and Phil Spector. Meanwhile, the “The Prize” gives off an Unknown Mortal Orchestra-esque vibe until it’s flooded with lush instrumentation akin to Sigur Rós.
Spiritualized built its space-rock empire on drawn-out, ruminating motifs, making an end-to-end listen require a good deal of patience. Even the shortest track, “I’m Your Man,” which clocks in at four-and-a-half minutes, slogs a bit. At times this can be grating—“Let’s Dance” starts out with promise, but drags itself out so long it starts to sound as if it could be a leftover from the LOVE ACTUALLY soundtrack.There are times when Pierce completely destroys the weightless, orchestral soundscape. The last three minutes of “The Morning After” careen into a sonic fever dream that sounds like Space Mountain if Space Mountain was amped up on methamphetamine. It’s difficult to get through, which will undoubtedly attract a certain kind of listener looking to dissociate in a wall of harsh noise. “Sail on Through” crashes and swells into a sweeping, epic conclusion, complete with gospel vocals. Morse code desperately fights against the last chord before eventually fading away into nothingness. There’s no denying that Pierce has emerged from his hiatus with something to say. AND NOTHING HURT is a statement, and much to Pierce’s merit, it feels like a complete one. [Claire Epting]
The Struts – YOUNG AND DANGEROUS
Genre: Glam Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Body Talk,” “Tatler Magazine,” “I Do It So Well”
YOUNG AND DANGEROUS’ best friend is Greta Van Fleet, because while both are emblematic of how the latest next-best-things in modern rock have become those that fetishize the past the most and develop their own style the least, at least the Struts have more classic rock, larger-than-life bravado, and can write actually write good hooks like “Black Swan” and “Put Your Money on Me” once in a while. It’s easier to overlook unoriginality if it’s packaged with energy, conviction, and a sense that the band is actually enjoying themselves, a feeling that oozed through EVERYBODY WANTS, their debut, and resulted in mindless, hedonistic fun. Sadly, a lot of that album’s flaws carry over to YOUNG AND DANGEROUS, namely a penchant for overproduction that applies unflattering, squawking filters to Luke Spiller’s voice and the rest of the mix, as well as boring mid-tempo melodies reminiscent of Buckcherry that don’t have the stomp to make up for their lack of groove.
The album certainly starts out with an absolute barnburner; with a sleazy low-end rhythm punctuated by bouncy handclaps and a distant bass drum that transitions seamlessly to an explosive, fuzzed-out chorus, “Body Talks” has been stuck in my head since I first heard it and stands as one of 2018’s best singles. Yet “Body Talks” sets a precedent that the next 12 tracks cannot hope to match: the drums never get as interesting again, and the tempo is never as fast and in-your-face. “Tatler Magazine” manages to capture a “We Are the Champions”-esque bravado and stomp quite well, and “I Do It So Well” has a funky, chill vibe out of a Gorillaz song in the verses before cranking up the distorted guitars and unhinged attitude for the hook. Outside of that, it treads a lot of the same water as their debut, and little happens that one cannot predict from the title. Of course there’s a song about solidarity with youthful misfits and their various quirks, of course there’s a song about being hated by the older generation that just doesn’t get it. Perhaps the Struts would come off a lot better in a live setting, because the music and Spiller’s theatrical personality would benefit from a rawer, stripped-back approach to the sound quality. Even though I’ll be playing “Body Talks” on repeat for the foreseeable future, that same ego that made their brazen Queen and Rolling Stones grave-robbing palatable the first time turns unpleasant when it doesn’t have the songs to back it up. [Blake Michelle]
Voivod – THE WAKE
Genre: Thrash Metal, Progressive Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Orb Confusion,” “Iconspiracy,” “Sonic Mycelium”
One of the only distinct thrash acts outside of the Big Four, Voivod have spent the last three decades releasing solid dissonant heavy metal with a sci-fi, political bent. They’ve never quite returned to the dynamic, immersive, classically-influenced heights of 1989’s NOTHINGFACE, but the twisted musical labyrinth of their latest, THE WAKE, comes damn close. Not only does it sound a lot crisper and less compressed than records like 2006’s KATORZ, the songs are more multi-faceted in their tempo and tone, and the dystopian imagery and eerie delivery make the narrative of a renegade from virtual imprisonment sound fresher than it probably should. Most impressively, the newer members perfectly lock themselves into the band’s established framework, dexterously cranking out tight crunch and liquid psychedelia like they’ve been practicing this sound for decades. It even culminates in “Sonic Mycelium,” a 12-minute song filled with musical and lyrical callbacks to the rest of the album that somehow doesn’t come across as self-indulgent wankery! Between this and Skeletonwitch’s DEVOURING RADIANT LIGHT, 2018 is a good year for metal bands to live up to their genre-crossing potential. [Blake Michelle]
Devon Welsh – DREAM SONGS
Genre: Ambient Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Summers End,” “Comedian,” “Over the Sky,”
It seemed odd, at the time, that Majical Cloudz would break up after such a strong creative surge—both IMPERSONATOR and ARE YOU ALONE were albums that developed their own gravitational fields, fluctuating between moments of freeing weightlessness and existentially dense, heavy air. The atmosphere created by the group never seemed fully explored, and yet the group called it quits in 2016; Welsh’s latest solo album, DREAM SONGS, certainly does an admirable job of picking up where he left off, although the name itself feels somewhat misleading. Certainly Welsh’s work as Majical Cloudz hinged on the dizzying moments recalling a dream, but this project is, at times, disappointingly straightforward. While Welsh’s vocals seem to have only one whispering/haunting/longing mode, the mix here pushes him straight to the forefront, leaving very little room to develop any mystery. Closer “Take It Easy,” for instance, builds a sparse hi-hat into biblical, musically powerful stingers, but the vocals are almost distractingly loud amidst the more nuanced moments of quiet. The same can be said for the lullaby “Dreams Have Pushed You Around,” where the hypnosis of a free-falling piano disappointingly never reaches a true apex. The highs are here, though, and Welsh’s talents and obvious creative leadership in Majical Cloudz are made more obvious here. “Comedian” nails the kind of devastatingly hopeless singular storytelling of a song like “Bugs Don’t Buzz,” and tracks like “Summer’s End” or “Over the Sky” are similarly stark in their cold and empty musicality—it’s a delight. DREAM SONGS does more to reinforce Welsh as the heavy in Majical Cloudz, but fans of that project will find enough to like here to feel like the spirit of those record will continue to live on. [CJ Simonson]
Cullen Omori – THE DIET
Genre: Indie Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Four Years,” “Natural Woman,”
In so many ways, the sticker “former member(s) of Smith Westerns” amounts to nothing in 2018. After all, what were Smith Westerns other than the last gasp of relevant indie guitar rock, only to be quickly swept under the rug by an onslaught of varied genres and sounds in the 2010s? Their buzzy evolution, Whitney, remain popular and not without a number of fairly decent singles, and yet their DNA could not be more different—quieter, prettier, and carrying an underlying sensitivity that was never present in the sleek, carefree rock of Smith Westerns. Former lead singer Cullen Omori, however, whose much less talked about solo career on Sub Pop has carried the torch for something much more stylistically similar, continues to reach for similar feel-good, cloud-bursting indie rock highs, and he mostly reaches them on his sophomore album THE DIET. The guitars are a bit more lush, and the feeling is more relaxed, but Omori’s shy pop vocals are like a siren’s song in the modern indie rock landscape. It also remains one of the few records to take on millennial heartache in ways that don’t feel cheeky or self-aware of its own place and time. Opener “Four Years” grins ear to ear with lush guitar solos, echoing ‘50s doo-wop by way of bygone indie rock while acknowledging our own hollowness and ease of indifference, and peak “Natural Woman” sways back forth as it promises to “not leave you on follow.” Omori is hardly the voice of his generation of indie rock, even if “Weekend” remains a Spotify playlist staple, but as a low-stakes indie rock record THE DIET is a feel good listen that delights with warming 2000s Silverlake guitars and simple songwriting in ways that Whitney are simply indifferent to. [CJ Simonson]
Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING
Genre: Pop Rap, Hardcore Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Godbody Pt. 2,” “Lebron James”
Joey Purp has always been an incredibly reflective rapper—his best verses are often the ones where he equates his past struggles with his current success. It only feels right that the projects opening track, “24K Gold/Sanctified,” feels an awful lot like a victory lap, and by all means take that lap Mr. Purp, because even with his modest fame, his raps feel like an overwhelming achievement. His latest project, QUARTERTHING, is probably referring to him turning 25, which he did earlier in 2018. 25 must be an important age for a lot of these young, up-and-coming Chicago artists who probably spent their youth listening and being motivated by “We Don’t Care” from Chi-town legend himself, Kanye West. Purp even exclaims, “We still alive y’all,” throughout the opening track. But afterwards he takes that perspective and applies it to many different styles and flows, experimenting throughout the album. It often feels like a tasting menu, giving a little bit of gospel, some dance and club songs, and even some angry trap music. Thanks to the malleability of Joey Purp’s flow, it never veers into something misguided, acting instead as a true showcase of all his talents. Listening to Joey rap is an easy exercise; you can fade in and out of the album and wherever you pick up, you’ll still find the same enjoyment, some of which should be credited to the impressive production throughout QUARTERTHING. The beats are often simplified versions of a specific sound—“Halleljueh” a stripped-down Just Blaze beat, “Karl Malone” a kind of Chief Keef joint. They all play really well with Purp’s free, loose style. In that, QUARTERING is comfortable while admirably showing off Purp’s exploratory mindset. [Mohammed Ashton Kader]