The dog days of summer are not usually the time of year I see a lot of high profile releases, which is why I was so surprised that over ten good to great albums came out around August 5th. The albums from Blues Pills, Brimstone Coven, The Sea Kings, Spoon, John Garcia, Saturn, Spiral Shades and John Gallow probably weren’t highly anticipated by a lot of people, but they were some of the best 2014 has had to offer so far. This week we’re really rolling with even more releases. With over 15,000 albums released a year, of course there’s always a lot of crap coming out, but a batch of thirteen albums worth hearing in August is certainly worth noting. My excitement isn’t quite the same as with the last batch, but they’re significant releases that all have their fans, many well worth checking out.
Death Penalty – Death Penalty (Rise Above)
This is released only in Europe so far, which I don’t understand. Staggering release dates by country is a completely antiquated practice. It’s 2014, when an album is out, it’s out. Labels and bands would be better off making sure everyone can buy it at the same time. Despite being a debut album, this has a pretty high anticipation factor, considering it’s leader is Gaz Jennings, who played guitar in Cathedral for 25 years. He recruited a couple members of the excellent Belgian doom/sludge band SerpentCult, including vocalist Michelle Nocon, and a member of Belgian death metallers Tortureama. Given how great the results were when Leif Edling of Candlemass recruited Jennie-Ann Smith for Avatarium last year, I felt there might be some friendly competition from Death Penalty. For the most part, it delivers, but leaning more towards traditional metal than doom. The performances have a nicely loose and gritty feel, kind of like a slightly slower Christian Mistress or Castle. However after over a dozen listens, I can’t quite rave about it like I expected, as a few of the songs just don’t quite do it for me feeling a bit flat. There’s great standouts like ”Eyes of the Heretic” and “She is a Witch,” but overall it’s not consistent enough to quite measure up to the aforementioned bands, recent albums by The Oath or Satyress, or even SerpentCult’s Raised By Wolves (2011). Nevertheless, fans of Jennings’ career and his love for classic metal will find much to dig into.
Heat – Labyrinth (This Charming Man)
One of the many retro hard psych rock bands Germany has produced lately, Heat released their debut Old Sparky in 2012, a year that also saw great debuts from fellow Germans Kadavar and Orcus Chylde. They site heavy psych and proto-metal bands like Wishbone Ash, Atomic Rooster and Jerusalem, and they do a great job of invoking the spirit of heavy prog, psych and hard rock from that era. Before the Germans got a handle on these sounds, there are of course the Swedes like Graveyard, Witchcraft, Horisont, Dead Man and Troubled Horse. The album might sound deceptively simple on first glance, but they throw down the prog gauntlet early on with track 3, the 9+ minute “The Golden Age.” Not every composition is awe inspiring, but they swing as well as rock.
Opeth – Pale Communion (Roadrunner)
On their 11th album, Opeth’s days of surprising their fans are over. Though pissing off certain fans is a given. It’s interesting that Damnation (2003), which was pretty much full-on acoustic folk, was much more accepted than the full-on prog of Heritage (2011). Partly because the songs are better on the former. And of course they’re easier to get into than the complicated structures on the latter. The latest sounds pretty much like the sequel to Heritage, but with some major improvements in songwriting, such as the almost catchy “Cusp of Eternity.” The sound is a little more geared toward their 70s influences of King Crimson and Gentle Giant rather than the more slickly modern recent prog. However, by the last few tracks that average over 7:30, it can get a little boring. The sound is gorgeous, and those who are into it will find some rewarding headphone time. But as much as I like a lot of prog, I do miss the power and tension where their progtastic impulses fought it out with their savage death metal past, particularly on Ghost Reveries (2005) and Blackwater Park (2001).
The Wytches - Annabel Dream Reader (Heavenly)
A young British band that draws on twangy surf the psychedelic garage noir of The Cramps and early post-punkabilly of The Birthday Party complete with occult horror lyrics. This might as well be musical crack to people like me. And on songs like the devilishly tuneful “Wide at Midnight” and “Gravedweller,” they live up to their promise. They don’t uphold those standards through the whole album, though. By the second half it feels like they’re repeating themselves, and maybe needed a little more time to develop their songs. Kristian Bell’s tortured, screamy singing starts to sound more whiny in the end, like an exhausted and frightened Black Francis. But it’s a really promising debut, and I could totally see them developing their sound into something more muscular and assertive, and diversifying the vocals.
Merchandise – After The End (4AD)
After several cassette releases, Tampa Bay, FL’s Merchandise hit all the right post-punk buttons with the excellent Children Of Desire (2012), an alluring mix of Joy Division inspired darkwave and post-Jesus & the Mary Chain fuzz. After the transitional Totale Night EP (2013), the band has self-produced their all-out pop assault as promised. And like a lot of pop albums, it’s a mixed bag. When it nails a great tune, it’s transcendent, such as the earworm candy jangle pop that’s an unlikely union of Felt and Interpol, “Little Killer” and the gorgeously loping Lloyd Cole influenced “Enemy.” ”Telephone” is particularly interesting, a kind of stupidly simple lyrical hook adorned with a great guitar line that could have been a lost outtake from Television’s second album. It’s loaded with insouciant confidence. However, many other tracks are meandering dirges completely lacking in hooks. I mean, if you’re gonna go pop, go all in. I don’t know what they’re trying to get at, some sort of lost alternate reality 1985 recording where Scott Walker collaborates with Talk Talk? Actually that sounds pretty awesome. Too band the rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up.
Wolf – Devil Seed (Century Media)
Sweden’s strongest, most consistent advocates of the New Retro Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal. Their seventh album since 2000 is more of the same, but hella fun. It’s a tough call whether it’s any better than their last album, Legions of Bastards (2011). On first few listens I’m definitely enjoying it more than countrymen Portrait’s Crossroads. And in regards to somewhat purist traditional heavy metal, it measures up closer to the latest from Grand Magus, Dark Forest, Darkest Era and Vestal Claret.
Blackwolfgoat – Drone Maintenance (Small Stone)
Droney jams from Darryl Shepard, it tells a story through crackly announcements throughout the album. Otherwise it’s hypnotic guitar stylings, but very original and worth the effort.
Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
Ty Segall is an extremely prolific San Francisco based garage psych musician who is responsible for well over two dozen albums. I listened to nearly all of them and as suspected, he spreads his creativity a bit thin. His talent is undeniable though, and on his latest, he seemed to spend a little extra time honing the songs and recording them well. Possibly his best, definitely a good way to enter his often shambolic world.
New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Matador)
More of the same on Canadian indie power poppers’ sixth album, which if you’re a fan, is no bad thing.
The Bug – Angels & Devils (Ninja Tune)
Kevin Martin has done some amazing stuff, and based on his work with God, Ice, Techno Animal and King Midas Sound, he’s probably a genius. I rated The Bug’s first few albums highly too at the time. From 1998 to 2008, their proto-dubstep and rotating guests dipping into dub, grime and dancehall seemed edgy and futuristic. It hasn’t dated well though, and this album might some brilliant moments, but I keep getting bad flashbacks to the late 90s when people thought drum ‘n’ bass was going to take over. Fuckit, I just can’t get in the mood for this!
Royal Blood – Royal Blood (WB)
A slicker, more muscular British White Stripes with catchy choruses and decent riffs, this is the kind of polished version of garage rock that could get some huge mainstream love. It’s very immediate and likable on the first few listens, but I suspect the charm might wear off quickly.
The Haunted – Exit Wounds (Century Media)
Swedish death thrash! More of the same, but better than their last.
J. Mascis – Tied To A Star (Sub Pop)
This is his third solo album, and it’s well done acoustic based stuff. I like acoustic sometimes, but J bores me to tears when he’s not plugged in, sorry.